12 or 20 questions: with Barbara Nickel
Barbara Nickel’s second collection of poetry, Domain (House of Anansi), was listed in Quill & Quire’s Best Books of 2007. Her previous collection of poetry, The Gladys Elegies, won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including Notre Dame Review, Prairie Schooner, The Malahat Review, and The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry. A previous winner of The Malahat Review Long Poem Prize, she was also a CBC Literary Award finalist in 2004. Also an award-winning author of books for children, she lives and writes in Yarrow, B.C.
How did your first book change your life?
My first book was an historical children’s novel, and its publication didn’t change my enthusiasm or my ambitions – my life had already changed drastically during the writing of that novel, in the MFA program in Creative Writing at UBC – but I suppose the book was a confidence boost, something I could hold in my hand and read to an audience of kids; it somehow allowed me to say, “I am a writer.”
How long have you lived in Yarrow, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I’ve only lived in Yarrow for about four years, and it hasn’t really impacted on my work, although it may play a large role in a “future” novel project (which has been simmering on the backburner for about 15 years). Interestingly, even though I lived in Vancouver for about ten years – worked there, seriously started writing there, etc. – the actual place has hardly affected my writing. Rural Saskatchewan, on the other hand, where I was born and raised and lived in for my first twenty years, has hugely impacted on my writing, poetry especially, but also the setting of one of my children’s novels. I lived in Newfoundland for two years as well, and that landscape had quite an influence on some of the poems in my latest book of poetry.
Gender definitely makes an impact on my work. The first book (and the first published poem) was from the POV of the prodigious wunderkind Nannerl Mozart, Wolfgang’s sister, whom I hadn’t heard about even through four years of an undergraduate degree in music. So I followed her around the 18th century courts of Europe, and then decided on J.S. Bach’s daughter Catharina Bach for my next kid’s novel. She’s less than a footnote in history – in all of the literature about J.S. Bach and his family, there’s this quote, from the great composer himself – “My eldest daughter sings not badly.” So I ran with it and turned her into a singer. Then there is the sonnet sequence about the New York society twins, Gladys and Marion, in my poetry book The Gladys Elegies, and the Catherine the Great series in Domain…I could go on and on!
Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a “book” from the very beginning?
It depends on the project, but usually it takes a long time for the “book” to make itself known. Once that “conception” has occurred, a long simmering time – sometimes years – happens where I’m “collecting” images and ideas toward the project. In fiction, there comes a time when I sit down with all of that material and “begin” pre-writing, then writing. In poetry, poems are written along the way, and almost always find their way into the project at hand. It’s hard to explain, but for example with Domain, I knew the titles of about twenty poems that needed to be written – I just had to find the time to get them down. The last third of it was written in about 5 months – but some of those poems had been simmering for about ten years.
Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
In poetry in particular, readings are an integral part of the completion process for me. Because I can sit at my desk for hours…days…years…saying the lines out loud and trying to get the music right, because the music of the words often leads the way and helps me to find what I want to say, a natural result is the reading of this “music” out loud to an audience.
But it doesn’t always happen that simply or easily. I find certain poems lend themselves to readings better than others, and the poems – usually longer ones – left behind are neglected on the oral/aural stage. Of course, hopefully these are out there being read somewhere, but I miss that “out loud” connection with an audience. Also – sometimes – I find I’m not connecting with an audience during a reading, and this thing I’ve laboured over for so long feels…somehow…useless. Hard to explain.
Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Theoretical concerns and questions are never front and centre in my work. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. But I think they emerge subtly and mysteriously and gradually and over a long period of time from the material as I work with it; they never generate the work. In much of my work, both in content and form, I might be examining the balance between the fluid and the fixed, between boundaries (a sonnet, a house, a family, a role, a town, a past, a religion) as both confining and freeing structures, and exploring how one can be both confined in and released from those structures. I don’t think of a set of “current questions,” but rather every writer’s work centering around his/her own unique questions.
Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Sometimes difficult. Always essential. One experience with an editor at Banff, working on The Gladys Elegies completely changed how I thought about and wrote poetry. What this editor said about my work wasn’t easy, at first, to hear. But that critique moved me forward invaluably, and has stayed with me to this day. I’ve had the good fortune to work with excellent editors. And of course there has always been the equally invaluable feedback from friends, colleagues, peers. It’s quite mind-blowing, when you stop to think about it – the kind of commitment this entails.
After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
Harder, maybe. Because I think my standards are higher. I expect more, and so agonize longer about getting started, and am more critical along the way, and expect more of the book once it’s done in terms of how well it sells and awards, etc. In other words, in the beginning it was enough just to have a book published. Now the bar is raised.
When was the last time you ate a pear?
It’s been such a long time, I really can’t recall!
What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
From my mother when I was thirteen and struggling over an editorial for the school newspaper – “Write as if no one is ever going to read it!”
How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s difficult in terms of focus on a project, and the time it takes. For example, when Domain was released, reviews, etc. commented on the fact that it took ten years between my first and second collections. But what they didn’t note was that I’d published two children’s books (a novel and a book of poetry) as well as a play in between. It’s hard to shift gears mid-day and have two or more book projects going simultaneously.
The appeal is that work in one genre can transfer to another -- i.e. I believe my fiction is strengthened because of my focus on image and metaphor and the rhythm of language transferred from my work in poetry.
What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have young children, so my regular writing routine is really determined by the childcare schedule, which is a sort of 8-2/three-four times/week schedule. What happens during this time is determined by the current project, so if I’m madly trying to complete my poetry book, as I was during the fall of 2006, the time is spent “warming up” by reading whatever’s on the go (various poems or essays, depends on project), and then getting down to the writing. In fiction, the whole block of time might be spent in research or just brainstorming. I have an “office” (librarian friend’s house) in Yarrow where I go to get away from phone/messy home office/e-mail/internet/my kids’ voices. It’s great, because it really forces me to spend the whole time writing (except to work on months-delayed interviews needing completion!); I bring my lunch and don’t budge from the writing room. I used to like writing late at night – still do sometimes, although with kids that seems to be happening less and less. But I like the late-night quiet and the solitude and the feeling that somehow you’re getting extra time for free. Sometimes I have to stay up all night just to keep a deadline; I set deadlines for myself (contests, readings, whatever) as a way of getting stuff done, and try to take them seriously.
When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Always other writers. There’s never any lack of inspiration in work that’s been done. And there’s always so much to read; it’s hard to know where to start sometimes. Whether the reading gets me unstalled or not, it’s still well worth my time.
How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
I assume you mean with my two adult books of poetry – between The Gladys Elegies and Domain? The Gladys Elegies feels more casual and accessible to me – includes prose poems, much more narrative work. It feels more specific, too, in terms of focus on the stories, the history of my family and background. Domain feels more cryptic to me – I didn’t try to make it that way – but possibly because most of the work is formal (built on the sonnet crown, etc) it feels that more of the poems, in fact the book as a whole is an emotional/musical puzzle to unlock over many readings rather than a collection of specific narrative expressions.
David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Nature is definitely a huge influence on my work. I’ve never quite thought about it like this before, but I think if I looked back over my poems, a large percentage would be built on images I’ve collected over the years while out in nature. This might be because when I’m out in it – i.e. on a hiking trip out in the mountains, etc. I’m in a state that’s outside of myself and it’s easier to make the connections I need to make poems. Perhaps this is what Robert Hass described in one essay as “listening and making.”
Music has also been a huge influence. As a violinist, when I first started to write sonnets, it felt like coming home. The metre and the rhyme gave me parameters to work within that felt familiar, like a variation on a discipline I’d been practicing for years. And as I’ve said many times, the music of the poem often leads the way, helps me to uncover what it is I want to say. Richard Hugo’s essay “The Triggering Town” from his book of the same name says it well, I think – in it he explores the question, “What comes first in a poem, the music or the truth?” For me it’s always the music. And then I’ve written poems after musical compositions, as in “The Rosary Sonatas” sequence from The Gladys Elegies, which I’d love to put out someday as a chapbook.
Visual art has also influenced my work – on occasion I’ve used various works as taking off points for poems, although I haven’t worked with this nearly as in depth as, say, someone like Stephanie Bolster; I’ve never written an entire sequence after visual works.
I have been inspired by science as well – it’s very important for me to connect up with these other realms – I think it might keep the work from becoming too inward looking, too obsessed with itself.
What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This is an almost impossible question to answer, because there are so many!
But to take a stab at it, recognizing that many will be left out…by genre…for poetry, Bishop, Heaney (poetry and prose), Auden, Lowell, Rilke, Eliot, Plath, Melissa Green (if only she would come out with another book!), Selima Hill, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Margaret Avison, Don Coles, Jan Zwicky, Donne, Dickinson, to name a few.
In children’s literature – L.M. Montgomery, Katherine Paterson, Maurice Sendak, E.L Konigsburg, Sarah Ellis, Julie Johnston, Madeleine L’Engle, Louis Sachar’s Holes, Jean Little…the list goes on and on!
In “adult” fiction – Flannery O’ Connor, Alice Munro, Iris Murdoch, Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Lisa Moore, Austen, Tolstoy…
Writings important to my life outside of my work? Hard to separate my life and my work – they’re pretty much all jumbled up together – but I should say The Bible and the writings of Mother Teresa, L’Engle’s non-fiction, and a book given to me years ago…Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write.
What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
I assume you mean in the realm of writing! An “adult” novel that’s been on the backburner and the front burner at various times during the last 15 years – that’s the main “not done” project that definitely has to find completion over the next few years. I’d like to do a lot more adult fiction. I have some ideas for more children’s/YA novels and picture books. More poetry books, of course. I’ve written a play, professionally produced, that I’d like to work on more somewhere down the road. And there’s a creative non-fiction project – a collection of travel essays that I’d like to see realized someday. Ah…never a shortage of would-be projects!
If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I always wanted to be a concert violinist. That’s of course unrealistic, but definitely I’d like to put more time into music – in terms of practicing, performing, playing with a professional orchestra, devoting more time to teaching (right now I only have a small teaching studio, I’m trying to put the focus of my time into writing). Or an actor – during my undergraduate degree – a Shakespeare overview course – we produced an adaptation of The Tempest; I was Ariel and it was a fabulously excellent experience.
What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think if I hadn’t sort of stumbled upon the MFA Program at UBC, things might have been different. Up to that point I’d done some writing; had even published some magazine features (I’d taken an undergraduate course) and produced a chapbook of stories and essays, etc. (still at that point hadn’t written much poetry). But I didn’t realize what was involved. And something about the environment at UBC – that immersion in the writing life – made me give myself over. I knew then that writing was something I had to do, that nothing would be right until I could realize my ideas by writing them.
What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I finished Atonement a few months ago and did think it was very fine. In so many war books, the war is the triggering event that changes people’s lives. In this book, this huge momentous private event occurred years before the war, but kept reverberating through the war and after – in this way the private and political became entwined – you kept seeing (hearing?) echoes of one in the other. I thought that was a brilliant strategy for a novel.
I keep going back to Match Point, that Woody Allen film set in London. I know of others who’ve hated it, but I love the pacing of it, how it starts off pretty much on the surface and then just delves deeper and deeper into the protagonist’s agony. And, despite what others say, I think his “living the lie” at the end is his hell – you know at the end he’ll be paying out his punishment every day that he wakes up as a “free man” beside his wife, every time he looks at his child. A wonderfully rendered paradox there at the end.
What are you currently working on?
I am very excited about a picture book project. I think the picture book is a very difficult form to get right – you have to have this perfect balance of the said and the unsaid, the said and the seen. You have to have just the right story, just the right voice. The project is a picture book in verse (loosely rhyming aaaa bbbb etc. quatrains) about the winds of the world. I’m very excited about how this book is crossing boundaries in more than one sense. And I’m writing poetry but not in a way that I’ve done it before.
And I’m working on a poem about lavender-pruning and slavery. Not quite sure where that one will end up!
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