Monday, August 31, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Ariel Gordon

Ariel Gordon is the Winnipeg-based author of two recent small press poetry chapbooks. She is a regular contributor to the Winnipeg Free Press' books section and, each September, is Blogger-in-Chief of HOT AIR, the official blog of THIN AIR (i.e. the Winnipeg International Writers Festival). Her first full collection of poetry is slated for publication with Palimpsest Press in spring 2010.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

By the time my first chapbook came out – The navel gaze, 2008, Palimpsest Press – I was already a dozen years into the writing life, by which I mean attending retreats/workshops/conferences, doing readings at magazine launches, volunteering for local writing organizations, etc. etc.

So publishing the chapbook wasn’t a life-changing event, per se. But ask me again after the full collection comes out next year!

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I actually came to fiction first, spending long hours composing a fantasy novel in the basement on my father’s ‘work’ computer when I was a pre-teen. He never used it, so I was able to spread out over the rudimentary hard drive, though I must say that it was heaps better than our first computer, a Vic 20.

I don’t quite remember when I started writing poetry, but by the time I started university I had settled into the habit of carrying a notebook with me wherever I went and, most importantly, scribbling madly in it.

Though poetry has been my dominant mode for years and years now, I still think of myself as writer rather than a poet. I’m not sure what that means, precisely, but that’s my negotiation.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

It depends on the project. Right now, I’m working on two projects: what I’m calling the how-to poems, which are based on articles derived from the wikiHow widget and family poems for a manuscript focused on absent parents.

Some of the individual poems have jumped the fences, in that some of the how-to poems have revealed themselves as family poems and vice-versa, but it’s been sort of interesting to write both completely occasional poems (the occasion being that I want to write a poem) and completely focused, manuscript-driven poems. When it gets too emotionally difficult to continue working on the family poems, I can turn to the how-tos and when it gets boring writing one-offs, I can dive back into the manuscript.

Neither series relies on what I would call inspiration, when I’m driven to the notebook by an image/idea from out in the world. Writing how-to poems is, actually, a useful exercize in quite deliberately beckoning the imagination. It doesn’t always appear – twice now it’s made an appearance while I was driving to pick up my daughter from childcare after a day of trying and failing to come up with anything – but it’s nice to know that I can write okay poetry without the whiz-bang of inspiration behind it.

Another interesting aspect to writing the how-to poems is that when I first started using it as a device last spring, the poems that emerged were sort of funny (How to Effectively Water Your Lawn and How to Sew a Button). Then I did a bunch of work on the family project, and when I returned to the how-tos, they weren’t funny any more. I’m not sure how to force myself to ‘write funny’ when the mood has passed, but I’ve learned two things about this writing life. One, wait long enough and everything will cycle back again and two, you can’t re-create a moment.

Working on what appears to be a tightly themed project also works around inspiration in interesting ways. I find I can work on it in bursts – it takes time to read and think my way in and I only have a limited time inside the project before my concentration breaks or the world intrudes. I had a period this spring where I was inside the project for two full weeks. And part of me was mourning even while in the midst of it because I had other writing obligations (nevermind the rest: house, child, job) that were taking me away from the family poems and I knew I wouldn’t get to stay there for very long.

Besides the age-old complaint of not enough time, when I’m editing the pieces that emerge I find that they accrue a kind of energy together and in my thinking of them that closely resembles inspiration. That feeling doesn’t necessarily help me write new poems but it does help me with the confidence needed to keep going, to know that there will be a next time inside the project, if I read and write and stay still long enough.

4 - Where does a poem 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 think I blithered on about all of this in my last answer….

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I organize events at a bookstore for money, so I’m obviously pro-reading. I don’t love every reading that I go to, but I love enough of them to want to fit as many as I can into my schedule.

I’m sort of a wobbly reader in that sometimes I’m perfectly comfortable and even reasonably assured and other times my knees jiggle uncontrollably. But I like the idea that someone’s listening, that my voice can do things with the words that the page maybe can’t do, so I’m striving to be more consistent in my performance.

6 – 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?

Why are such different roles and different expectations assigned to men and women, especially around parenting? Why is being an absent parent so gendered? What does it mean that writing about absent parents means absenting myself, at least to some degree, from my daughter’s life?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I’m going to loosely paraphrase a section from Rutting Season, a recent poetry + conversation anthology from Montreal’s Buffalo Runs Press that I’m in by saying that I believe that poets and other writers present people with ways of being and feeling in the world, with choices, with conversation. And I’m all for conversation, even if it’s a limited and stuttering conversation, with many uncomfortable silences. I also believe that as writers we tell ourselves stories as much as we tell other people stories. That that comfort is there for us as writers, even if the material itself isn't comforting…

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

I’m just about to start editing my first full collection and have to say that working with an editor is the part of the process I’m most looking forward to…

Basically, I see the manuscript as a drum and I’m so looking forward to having someone pick it up and give it a good goddamn bang. I want to see what falls out, but most of all, I want to see how it sounds to someone whose ear I trust.

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

I hate advice, but my favourite northern mining-town gothic poet (i.e. Brenda Schmidt) keeps giving it. The most simple and direct and therefore the most effective so far has been: “Good grief! Get to work!”

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

I’ve been writing fiction reviews for the local daily for several years. A four-to-six-hundred word review is a cunning little puzzle, a chance to both stretch and to be ruthless with myself while writing.

I haven’t written fiction in a long time but have recently contemplated returning to the half-finished novel I wrote before Anna was born. Realistically, it’ll have to wait until after she’s in school, because I don’t currently have blocks of time in which to immerse myself in it.

I see the reviews as exercizes. The fiction and poetry are wildly different modes of communicating, but at the bottom, they both attempt to convey thinking and feeling, some record of human endeavour.

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?

I pay for one or two writing days a week and manage the odd evening, depending on what else is going on. I read constantly but miss the solid hour and a half I got every day when my daughter still napped…

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

For me, stalling isn’t a problem. It’s the stop and start of a day here, a day there and the odd evening that’s a problem. I often think wistfully forward to the day my daughter starts school…

13 - What fairy tale character do you resonate with most?

I’m the troll under the bridge.

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?

Most everything influences my work. Working in a used bookstore. Going for walks in the woods and peering at mushrooms. Writing reviews. Coming from frumpy, grumpy, faded-at-the-knees Winnipeg.

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

I’ve been fortunate to come away from the workshops/conferences/retreats I’ve been to with some great writer/friends: the aforementioned Brenda Schmidt at Sage Hill and through her, Regina’s Tracy Hamon. And at the Banff Centre I met BC poets Gillian Wigmore and Anna Swanson. Having them in my everyday writing life means that I’m not as reliant on the community in Winnipeg as I might otherwise be…

In terms of writings, I’ve been reading quite a bit of what Tanis MacDonald recently dubbed historiographic metafiction of late: Jeanette Lynes’ It's Hard Being Queen: The Dusty Springfield Poems, Rob Winger's Muybridge's Horse, and Steven Price's Anatomy of Keys. Next up is Linda Frank’s Kahlo: The World Split Open.

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

I’m at a loss as to how to answer this because there’s really nothing (I mean, I’d like to get a writer-in-residence gig at some point, but what working writer doesn’t?). Being bad at waiting has its benefits…

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?

If I hadn’t been so determined to be a writer, I would have probably followed my mother into science. The original compromise was to be a science journalist. But six months after finishing J-school, I discovered that if I spent my days writing stories I couldn’t go home and write stories. So I had to choose.

It strikes me, at a distance of ten years from that decision, that writing poetry and writing journalism and being a scientist are all about having a good long look at the underpinnings of things, so maybe I’m still on plan.

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

Arranging words is pretty thrilling.

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

I’m really quite bad at naming favourites, but I read Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down (Coach House, 2008) recently and quite liked that. (And, after seeing her perform a section of it at the last THIN AIR, I can I also still hear her…)

I also found the last couple of writer/mother anthologies – specifically, Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood (MQUP, 2008) and Great Expectations: Twenty-Four True Stories about Childbirth (Anansi, 2008) – quite useful.

I’m blanking on my last great film. Blankety-blank.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m about to start editing my first collection, which is mostly composed of pregnancy and mothering poems. Which will be a side-trip from the absent parents manuscript I’m writing right now. Which involves my parents and my parenting and the story of Thomas Edison and his eldest daughter Marion “Dot” Edison. Speaking of which, I got the best present the other day: a workable working title! Tracy Hamon, gave it to me: Our Boy.

I’m also thinking of putting together an anthology of work generated for/through the May Day Poetry Project, an on-line writing space that’s in its fifth year.

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