Sunday, September 27, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen

Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen is originally from Saskatchewan. Her first collection of poetry, Clay Birds, was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, and won a Saskatchewan Book Award in 1996. Ör, published by Brick Books in 2003, won a John V. Hicks prize and was shortlisted for a Pat Lowther Award. In 2005, her poems received a CBC literary Award. Her third collection of poems, Lean-To, is new from Gaspereau Press. She lives in Halifax with her husband James and their three boys.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I’ve always liked the hunch and brainstorm of beginning, I like to be open to various styles, and that hasn’t changed, but maybe the transitions from the way of thinking in one poem to the next are more open or fluid, the poems themselves less self-contained than when I started writing.

While I was working on my first poems, I met other poets – Sylvia Legris at Sage Hill, Hilary Clark and Elizabeth Philips in Saskatoon – conversations with them have been an important part of thinking my way through the inner works of poems and life in general.

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

My uncle Victor is a great story-teller with an infectious laugh; my uncle Peter had a deep voice and a Norwegian accent, he and my grandpa spoke several languages and talked about Kafka; my grandmothers worried and whispered about religion and what trouble somebody’d got themselves in – as a kid I loved to listen to it all, much of it misunderstood or unheard – around the corner, picking at the weave of cloth on the arm of a chair or mentally tracing the lines of the doorway.

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?

I don’t know how long it takes, a long time I guess. All the stages feel good – aimless, wondering, reading, note-taking, composing – sometimes they overlap, sometimes a single word feels urgent. Most of the poems or sequences in Lean-to are several pages long – it was a pleasure to be inside the pieces for a long time, I felt completely engrossed.

I like to open a new book of poems in a bookshop to see how the poet’s thoughts are shaped, where that might take me. I don’t think about form too much when I get started, but try to be alive to shapes suggested by the raw thoughts. Drafts of “South Shore” came out of journal entries, so the final shape is similar to early notes. The “August” poems are more crafted – they needed a taut line, but my notes were all over the place. While writing “Sidhe of the city”, I was concerned about how the world is affected underneath by what happens at the surface, and I was more deliberate in thinking from page bottom (as bedrock) up.

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?

Bits and pieces at the beginning; there might be a glimmer of “book” which I have to let go…

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

Sometimes the transition from private writing space to a public venue is difficult – I feel grateful to other poets who go about the business of publishing their work so people can read it. I heard Don Domanski read like it was an intimate conversation in a room full of acquaintances – and Phil Hall alters me every time I hear him.

Reading aloud in public is a good way to re-enter the writing. I worked with the cellist Norman Adams on a performance of the “August” suite of poems, and it was fantastic to develop a kind of ‘conversation’ between two – instruments? disciplines? – two people with sometimes similar responses to the poems, sometimes in argument or discord about what had happened or what was ‘said’.

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?

I don’t have a design. I try to go where I feel afraid to go. I had been thinking of “wife” for example, since I am one – it’s an old word, it’s dirty and eschewed, it has a long history of implications: domestic and sexy. It’s a charged kind of word that makes people angry, so I guess it’s current, dangerous territory; the required bond demands an internal turbulence, a wilderness, and I wanted to go further in there.

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?

‘Verse’ comes from Latin versus a furrow, and vertere to turn: a digging in, and preparing for new growth. I think we’re all starting to wake to a damaged earth, the world is alive with mistakes.

Everyone has a part in this. Observing and recording the natural world is a vital undertaking, as is a poetry which speaks directly to environmental and social concerns. And there are subtle ways the larger culture is fundamentally shaped or expressed by verse too: in song, howl, patterns. The return to traditional forms (sonnets, haiku, ghazals, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf) and revival of dying languages (Robert Bringhurst’s translations of Skaay and Ghandl for example) shows a respect for an earlier way of life, forms that once fit our mental paths, and it’s a thrill to find that they still do. There is also a need for innovation, to experiment, to follow strange routes of thought, or thought-paths we tread every day but seldom pay attention when we’re there. Socially and scientifically, the language itself is changed, charged, deconstructed, reconstructed. Culture is endlessly generative, by its nature a process of growth which includes the origin of our relationships with one another, with language, with the earth and air, and in ongoing variations.

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

I try not to be too bull-headed…

Lean-to is full of repetitions and returns, can (I think) be read as one long poem, and when I was close to the end, I needed someone who hadn’t read it in bits and pieces, who could give me a fresh sense of the whole. Hearing Kate Kennedy’s response at Gaspereau Press was an extremely helpful gauge – a well-placed hmm from her made all the difference (Oh, I said)...

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

“Gainsay who dare” is the battle cry of the McDonalds and Curries.

10 - 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 don’t have much time – my kids are small, it’s been about 12 years of no time to read or write or think or sleep. Our youngest is three, so still a couple years left in this routine. I work on weekends and when James takes holidays – we throw our tenting gear in the car and set up camp in a different place each time, James takes the boys out on explores. I used to work at the picnic table or in the tent, but now I have a card table so I don’t have to pack papers and dictionary away when the beans come out.

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

I like reading English written as a second language, and translations. I'm reading some Ted Hughes translations – his commentary and letters to poets are wonderful, as are the poems which he altered less and less from original 'inter-linear cribs' – the “oddities”, the strange arrangements of thought in foreign grammar left increasingly intact. He hurts and buoys me with this in equal measure.

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

13 - 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?

I was invited to participate in a ‘continuum’ of artists whose work was shown at the Anna Leonowens Gallery in Halifax, and it was good to think of the poem as visual art; the result (“Hurtling”) was influenced by almost all of the above. One of the pieces I was shown was a weaving by Kaija Harris – an abstract ‘map’ of Saskatchewan. I’m from Saskatchewan and had returned from a fraught visit home, was charged by the recent trip and again by the gorgeous weaving. I was thinking of the twist of Harris’s weave, I was thinking of family bonds and the structure of DNA, I was thinking of the bonds in the chemical skeleton for common herbicides; I had a broken storm window with six panes – these considerations suggested a larger ‘form’. The ‘double-helix’ lines had to follow or overlap cracks in the panes. For the first time I moved my work off the page and on to a larger space of wall – it felt strange and great. The poem was printed on overhead transparencies on the glass windows; hung and lit, the couplets were repeated in shadow on the wall behind – the shadow was one of those exhilarating strokes of luck.

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

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

This is a dangerous game – I’ve played it before. A prairie kid who thought it would be good to live by the ocean, and before I knew it I was finding my way in Halifax. I should be – am – terrified, but I don’t think I’ve finished with it yet – want to live closer to ocean still.

16 - 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 love to cook, love to read recipes, never follow recipes. I’d be a chef. But I’m no good in someone else’s kitchen, not an entrepreneur, would be irritated with customers and whoever hired me…

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

I might have been a painter, but something invisible turned me away.

I read “Counterparts” by James Joyce in Grade 9 and understood something about my grandfather that had scared and puzzled me – it was electrifying to find that someone could articulate it.

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

Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip; Anne Simpson’s The Marram Grass; Roast Chicken by Simon Hopkinson; Hold Everything Dear by John Berger – all good.

Last year’s Man on Wire, and Seraphine; The Hairdresser’s Husband and Northfork are favourites I keep watching.

19 - What are you currently working on?

Reading... in the midst of Pound’s Pisan Cantos, not very methodical about it, not trying to piece together every historical or political reference. The leaps thrill me – I landed at “forthwith” and have been suspended there since.

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