Tuesday, May 27, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Stephanie Bolster

Stephanie Bolster’s first book, White Stone: The Alice Poems (Signal/Vehicule), won the Governor General's Award and the Gerald Lampert Award in 1998 and recently appeared in French with Les Éditions du Noroît. She has published two other collections of poetry, Two Bowls of Milk and Pavilion (both with McClelland & Stewart), and edited The Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems (McGill-Queen's) by the late Ottawa poet Diana Brebner. She is guest editor of the inaugural The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 anthology (Tightrope) and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology, Penned: Animals in Zoos in Poems (Signal/Vehicule). She's currently completing a collection of zoo-inspired poems. Raised in Burnaby, B.C., she has lived in Quebec, Ottawa, and (since 2000) Montreal, where she teaches creative writing at Concordia University.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I don't think any moment marks a poet's "arrival" as prominently -- to that poet and to others -- as the publication of a first book. First, and most importantly, the publication of White Stone made tangible the work that I'd been doing over the years; I had something to show for myself. Because I began a cross-country reading tour with my friend, the poet Barbara Nickel [see her 12 or 20 questions here], a day after picking up the first box of copies of White Stone at the Ottawa bus station, the arrival was made more public than it would otherwise have been, and that was very gratifying; not only did I have a book out but I was reading from it and selling copies regularly for that first month. That the book went on to win the Governor General's Award and receive other recognition amplified the feelings of arrival that I experienced when I first held the book in my hands. I was a poet before I published that book, but I didn't really feel like I could claim the title until that point. (Not that I claim it regularly. I still think of "poet" as a term that's applied by others, not one that one claims oneself.) And, of course, in professional terms, the book was a prerequisite for teaching, an occupation that I knew from early on that I wanted to pursue.

2 - How long have you lived in Montreal, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I've lived here for nearly eight years now, since the summer of 2000. Before that, I spent four years in Ottawa, and before that, a year in Quebec City. Otherwise, my life took place in Vancouver -- well, Burnaby, to be more precise, and the difference does matter -- and that city and its surroundings will always remain home to me, even though I now feel at home in Montreal (and in Pointe-Claire, where I actually live) as well. The move from B.C. meant that displacement became an integral preoccupation in my writing, and it remains so, though more subtly; these days I'm as apt to write about missing Europe (where I've never spent more than six weeks at a time) as about missing Vancouver, though the displacement from that first home will always be at the core of the other longings. A friend pointed out to me a number of years ago that after I moved away from B.C., I began writing about art rather than nature, about indoors rather than outdoors. That is, though a simplification (as he knew it to be), true, and he was perceptive to point it out because he helped me to delineate one of the central tensions in my work. The landscape here feels more tamed, more benign, than that which I grew up within; not that it's been inhabited for longer, but its earlier inhabitants have left more obvious traces -- i.e. buildings, agricultural transformations -- than is the case around Vancouver. Okay: it's been inhabited by those of European origin for longer. Where I live and how I feel about that place matters enormously to my writing even if I'm writing about something apparently unrelated to landscape or notions of home.

As for race and gender, those are implicit in my writing -- I'm aware of the privileged position from which I write and aware that race, certainly, plays a role in that -- but not concerns I explore overtly at this point. Though I've written about Alice Liddell, and identified with her as a woman (and, certainly, wanted to draw attention to the limitations that she faced as a Victorian girl and woman), I also identified with Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll, the male writer who both transformed and objectified her. So, yes, there is an impact, but it's not a simple or an overt one.

3 - 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?

I do work on "projects" but although my projects tend to be subject-driven (Alice, Vermeer, zoos), individual poems begin with a line or an image or a mood rather than with an idea. I may think, "I need to write a poem about the zoo in St. Petersburg" but that poem may begin in the middle of my writing about something else -- a meal at a restaurant or a squirrel in the backyard or an armoire. When working on a book, I try (sometimes, struggle) to keep a balance between keeping the subject in my line of sight and allowing myself to roam freely. Richard Hugo writes, in one of his essays in The Triggering Town, about a poet needing to have the audacity (he may call it arrogance) to believe that the next thing in a poem belongs "because you put it there." So at times I need to remind myself that poems written concurrently with project-driven poems may nevertheless belong in that project even if their subject appears, initially, very different.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Attending readings can be part of my creative process; I know it's been a good reading if I want to rush home to write. Giving readings takes another part of my psyche and feels only loosely connected to the writing self. Though I'm sometimes prompted to revise (or ditch) a poem after reading it aloud (rarely because of someone's comments; more often because, reading it publicly, I recognize its failings), that process doesn't feel creative. They really are two worlds, the public and the private.

5 - 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?

The theoretical concerns come after the fact for me. Well, of course they're there when I'm writing, but they're not conscious; when they become so, or even threaten to, the poetry withers. I'm interested in framing -- in the ways that we frame the world through our perspective and, more obviously, through the frames that we place around objects: cages around animals, borders around plants, gold-leafed frames around paintings. What do we include and what do we exclude, and why? Like most poets, I'm preoccupied with the passage of time, with the attempt to preserve (or mourn the impossibility of preservation) through writing. Another kind of framing, of course. And with the simultaneous power and impotence of art. How do I, as a human being, allow myself to simply live the moment, when some part of me is already transforming an experience (by photographing it, taking notes, trying to commit it to memory) into "art"? Related to this is the relationship between word and thing -- my (and the human) desire to lay claim by naming. I don't know what "the current questions" are. I think that most writers are concerned with things that have always concerned writers. There are current questions in a political or moral sense -- certainly what we're doing to the environment preoccupies me -- but those are not the questions that I set out to explore in my writing. They arise, but they're not the motivation to write.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both. The manuscript for White Stone went through many "editors"; I use the quotes because although my book had a single editor, Michael Harris, I worked on those poems with George McWhirter at UBC, with Don Coles and Rhea Tregebov at Banff, with Diana Brebner in Ottawa, and with many workshop-mates and friends over a number of years. At that time, I relied heavily on outside critiques. Since then, increasingly, I keep the poems to myself until I feel they're "done" or close to it -- which means, of course, that when the few people to whom I show them tell me otherwise, it can be discouraging, frustrating, just generally painful, to go back in and revise. But ultimately it's exhilirating, as often the advice I receive echoes the assessment I'd been avoiding telling myself all along. I do need that feedback, those other voices, but it's always hard to be reminded of how difficult writing is and remains. As I tell my students, if you think that writing a poem has been too easy, you're probably right. Not always the case, happily, but often.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Each book is a new beginning. The public side of things is easier, in that, when I complete a manuscript, I feel fairly confident that I will find a publisher for it (though never utterly confident, and that's probably a healthy anxiety). But the writing of the poems -- the main struggle -- is as challenging as it ever was. I suppose the fact that I share my writing less early in the process makes elements of that process easier, as I'm free (and forced) to listen to myself rather than attempting to reconcile differing perspectives on a poem. Were I to workshop poems regularly as I once did, I suspect I'd find the process even more painful than it once was. I often marvel at the (apparent) resilience of my students.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

At least a month ago, which is unfortunate as I love pears. (Even though I tire of their associations with poetry.) But I have four Packhams ripening on the sill at the moment.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I'm fond of Goethe's "Do not hurry, do not rest"; I just wish that he weren't so right. And I suppose I still believe in Joseph Campbell's "Follow your bliss," if only because that advice convinced me to apply to UBC's creative writing program as an undergrad.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I'm often drawn to writing in other genres, and certainly I read a lot of work in other genres (probably more prose than poetry, to be honest), but each time I attempt to write fiction or non-fiction I realize that I approach these genres as a poet. Ondaatje's one of the few novelists who makes me feel that I could one day write a novel, as, for him, mood, language, setting, and concept precede character and plot. (At least, this is what I understand from accounts of his process.) I wrote a lot of short fiction as a student and have "been working on" a novel for several years but I haven't found that teaching (and, now, mothering) gives me the time that I'd require to fully dive into an extended prose project. I keep being drawn back into poetry. If at some point I feel the need to write a project that cannot be achieved in poetry, then I'll write it in prose. Until then, I see poetry as a capacious enough genre that I can, within it, do what I want. Though at times it distresses me that simply setting something as prose -- as, say, a collection of essays rather than musings in poetry or prose poetry -- has the potential to reach at least ten times as many readers as the same project written in poetry. I imagine that at some point I'll write a book of "creative non-fiction" but, again, the oblique and associative way I approach writing lends itself more readily to poetry. When I wrote an essay for Maisonneuve magazine a few years ago, I was frustrated at constantly being called back (by the editor, himself a poet!) to the subject at hand. It's the same frustration I experienced as a student, with thesis statements and topic sentences. I would rather draw together a group of apparently disparate ideas/images/memories and let their association speak for itself.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

For the past year or so, my writing time has been during the afternoons, while my daughter naps. Prior to that, I was a morning writer; if I could get a few hours of writing done on non-teaching days before checking e-mail and letting all the rest of my working life take over, I felt it had been a good day. And before that -- when I was a student or living on grants and had few other obligations -- I wrote all the time, though best, I think, at night.

It's been limiting to confine my writing to a brief period -- and incredibly frustrating when the nap doesn't happen -- but I'm also more focussed, better able to get to work immediately. I should add that at this point I'm still on sabbatical, after a year of maternity leave, so I've been fortunate, given that I have a young child who's not in daycare, to have been able to write at all. I'm not expecting this to be the case during the academic year, come September. Still, until then, a typical day begins when Madeleine wakes us up, at around 7. The morning's spent on household tasks, errands, visits to the park. After lunch and dishes, I read to her, put her in her crib, go to my desk, and hope for the best -- both in terms of her actually sleeping and in terms of my productivity. I usually put her down at around 2 and wake her up, if she's not already awake, at 5. In the evening, after she goes to bed, I return to the computer, but almost never for writing itself, more for the business side of things or personal correspondence.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Often I'll pick up a book of poetry, particularly one by Robert Hass, whose work is the most reliable inspiration for me. His work appears effortless, and that confidence, that ease, encourages me, opens my mind. On other occasions, a book about the subject I'm exploring -- zoos, Vermeer, Victorian collectibles -- will do the trick, giving me an idea that excites me into writing, or a quote with which I can begin a poem. These days, I have so little writing time that it's unlikely that I'd simply give up and leave the desk, but back when I had more extended writing periods, I'd often find that if I simply accepted, after an hour or so of effort, that this particular day was not going to be a good writing day, and I did something else -- washing dishes, pulling up dandelions -- the inspiration would come." A watched pot never boils," I guess.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

It's better, of course! If I didn't think so, I would be very frustrated. My current work is more open, associative, and disjunctive than my past work -- certainly than my first book -- and less narrative, though many elements in the poems allude to narratives outside the text. The poems are more likely to be centred on mood than imagery, and, technically, more on syntax and less on word choice. The usual suspects are still there (frames of various kinds, nostalgia) but the speakers are less explicit. I've avoided the first person as much as possible. Though the poems are connected, they are not as obviously part of a series as in much of my past work. That is, just as individual poems are associative and expansive, so, too, is my sense of the manuscript as a whole. I've always been interested in the leaving out of things -- my poems shrink, sometimes alarmingly, as I revise -- but here the omissions are more blatant. I suppose that the poems are less accessible to a mass audience although I've had people tell me that they found poems I imagined to be difficult very easy to enter. And of course there is no such thing as a mass audience when it comes to poetry.

I should add that I've interprested "most recent book" to refer to the manuscript I've nearly finished, not to my most recent published book; as that one came out in 2002, it feels, very much of the time, like old news to me.

14 - 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?

The visual arts are my most frequent inspiration in that respect, particularly painting. As I said earlier, my move away from Vancouver in 1995 coincided with a move towards drawing inspiration from art rather than nature. I still appreciate nature as much as I ever did -- which is, a great deal -- but at the moment there's not enough tension in my response to it for poems of any real interest to arise. Music, of the alternative pop and rather adolescent kind, has been important to me since my teen years but I've not yet found a satisfying way of writing about it. The novel-in-fragments draws on this material but, as I said, unsatisfyingly so far. And in poetry, even when I've attempted to use lyrics as epigraphs, they've ended up as cuts. I do use one line from an R.E.M. song in a poem in my new manuscript, and that felt like quite a coup.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

As I mentioned, Robert Hass. Don Coles. In prose, W.G. Sebald is my god. He's the writer I most wish I could be/could have been, as his allusive, elusive fashioning of his works, his play with genre -- he makes the question of genre moot, really -- and his concern with absence and loss excite and teach me. (And he's been very well translated, though I wish I could read his books in the original German.) I would say, these days, that otherwise I don't have any particular stars in my literary universe, thoughI am dependent on the existence of constellations and galaxies. I read a poem by Jorie Graham, or one by Cole Swensen [see her 12 or 20 questions here] (whose work I've been discovering over the past few years, and who is a bit of a dangerous muse for me as our pet subjects are alarmingly similar and our proclivity for research risks making our work cold), or one by Jeramy Dodds or Susan Gillis and I feel nurtured by a universe that includes me and will sustain me yet that also exists beyond me.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Visit Japan. Make a pilgrimage on foot. (I'm not sure where. It's the notion of the pilgrimage, the walking, the commitment to the destination, that appeals.) Live abroad for at least a year. Meet Nick Rhodes, of Duran Duran, my most beloved adolescent idol. Go to a chocolate buffet. Clearly, we're getting ridiculous here.

17 - 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 would love to have been a painter. I have no talent at it, so I write about images instead, but I admire painters more than I admire writers. Had I not been a writer, I would likely have become a counselling psychologist or a teacher or librarian; some inward-looking occupation involving books and/or individuals.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Writing is how I think. I disagree with Rilke's advice that one shouldn't be a poet unless one would die if not writing -- I've become increasingly aware during the past fifteen years of how endurable and even sustaining not writing can be -- but I've always written, always wanted to publish. When I was twelve, I wrote in my diary that I wanted to be an author. I made a distinction between author and writer, saying that I was already a writer. I wanted my works to become public, to be read and legitimized. But to come back to my first point, most of my insights into myself and the world come through writing. I don't tend to talk things out, I write them out.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

"Great" is a loaded word. I've seen some very good, and/or interesting films recently: I'm Not There (a poet's film, I think; I was willing to see everything as a metaphor until those who knew more about Dylan than I did told me that much of the material stuck quite close to biographical truth), Juno, No Country for Old Men. I wouldn't call any of them great, but what would I call great? Tarkovsky's The Mirror, I guess. Bergman's Wild Strawberries. Woody Allen's Manhattan. Actually, I think that David Lynch's Mulholland Drive is a great film, though I know that 99.9% of the population would beg to differ.

As for books, I've been dipping into various ones these days, mostly collections of essays (Don Coles' A Dropped Glove on Regent's Street; the recent Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood) and anthologies, and reading journals of course, but I've found it hard to find much reading time with a young child around. The last complete novel I read may have been Helen Humphreys' The Lost Garden, which I liked very much: beautifully conceived, sparingly written. Though "great"? I honestly don't know. Probably the last great book I read would be whichever of Sebald's books I read most recently, The Rings of Saturn I think.

And, come to think of it, I've been rediscovering a lot of wonderful children's lit. The Winnie the Pooh books truly are great, and I've been amazed at how compelling those characters are for Madeleine (who fell in love with them at the tender age of fourteen months) and how much there is in those stories for adults. Of course, Benjamin Hoff knew that long before I did.

20 - What are you currently working on?

This interview! Seriously, lately I've been feeling that the extra curricular stuff -- interviews, submissions, editorial work, juries, administrative tasks -- has taken over from writing. This was always the case, but the less time I have to write, the greater a percentage of my "writing time" is spent not writing. Or, writing, but not writing creatively. These other things are essential, but I do long for a week, even a day, in which there is nothing else to do. When I am writing, I'm fiddling with the new manuscript and writing new poems here and there, though not yet on any particular subject. I do have another project developing, barely on the page yet, and it's too early to know if it will sustain my interest or prove workable, so I won't say more here. This interview captures me at an in-between stage: between sabbatical and return to teaching, full-time and part-time mothering, one manuscript and another. No wonder that the little things are taking over. But I know from experience that this time is productive, too. At one point in my life, I wrote and revised poetry at least five hours a day, most days. I produced some poems that I still feel are among my best, but I was not especially happy generally at that time. I'm still trying to find the right balance -- how much do I need to write to keep sane; how little should I write to avoid perfectionism and utter self-absorption. A lifelong balancing act, I realize.

12 or 20 questions archive

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