Wednesday, December 02, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Maleea Acker

Maleea Acker lives and works on Vancouver Island. He first book of poetry, The Reflecting Pool, appeared with Pedlar Press (Toronto) in Fall 2009. Her poetry and interviews have been published in journals across Canada and in Mexico and in the anthologies Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2008 and Rocksalt. She has an MFA from the University of Victoria and teaches writing at Camosun College.

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?

Pedlar Press took a sheaf of papers and turned it into a beautiful object (I had nothing to do with the design), and this process, along with the joy I felt the first time I held the book in my hands, has given a greater validity to my work and my life as a writer. I expect this is a pretty common experience, and no less true for me.

My most recent work is part of my second manuscript, so that’s a whole new kettle of fish. I think it reaches further—more experimental, more willing to risk voice and leap. I feel it’s closer to how my brain works. But there are also many pieces in the book that very much feel this way as well—they are the jumping off points for where I’ve come to now in my work. Specifically, perhaps, the Summer’s Variations poems.

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

I think it rather came to me or through me, through the idea of moment or image—as something that needed to be recorded in non-narrative form. I was ten when I first started writing poems (bad ones, I might add!) and I think it was the combination of sitting still, letting something come forward, and also the particularity that could be captured. Whenever I tried to write fiction, and I’ve tried many times, it comes like molasses, because I’m so focused on every word and every image and I’m so unconcerned with plot.

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 work very much as a response to a number of things—landscape, philosophy, other poems. When I have time and space to put full effort toward attendance of these things (these days, only when I’m at a residency) poems come, not easily, but they come. I’ve started giving myself permission to let this happen not only at the desk, but on a trail up a mountain, in a kayak or, most recently, in the boathouse at Blue Mountain Center, where I spent October at a residency. Many of the pieces from that month came out whole, like fur balls. I also write from notes and journals, but I think the strongest pieces usually have an immediate shape, in terms of content. Form comes later.

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?

A poem begins for me with a feeling of being let close to the edge of something. Usually this something is landscape or an idea in philosophy. The poem is the recording of the frustration and the joy that come from approaching that uncrossable edge.

My last book was very much a collection of shorter pieces with a variety of landscapes and thoughts. I think it holds together, but I think what I’m working on now has much more of an intrinsic shape, one that came about unconsciously, but that has much more of an arc of thought, a series of related philosophical ideas and ways of relating to the natural world.

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

I don’t feel like readings are involved very much in my creative process, but I do enjoy doing them. They appeal to the performer in me. I got the chance to read from a play at Blue Mountain, with the playwright, and found that performance of bringing a play to life very similar to doing a reading of poetry. Similar to poetry itself, as well, strangely, but that’s another story. But I love the feeling of an engaged audience, and the way that voice can bring authority and conviction to a piece. I recently relearned how to read—I knew unconsciously when I was first starting out professionally—and to rediscover my voice has been a true pleasure.

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?

Wow, how much time do you have? I think my work is largely based in philosophical concerns. How to live in the world. How to write adequately about it. What it means, as Rilke says, “to be opposite,” and the ways we have found for dealing with this threshold between ourselves and the world. I love Zwicky’s work on metaphor. I have been immersed in Merleau-Ponty for two years now—his work on the body and perception dogs me and keeps me thinking. And I want to explore more of Levina’s concept of ethics as first philosophy. As for questions, I think they are the same as they have always been. How can we best perceive the world? How translate the lyric/story? How recognize this beauty in front of us? What is adequate response (if any)? What is our responsibility as writers? How do we get past Tranströmer’s wall, or even just close to it?

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 believe we still have an integral role in society—to gather and serve as memory, to inspire, to console, to incite. Poetry has never been more necessary, and I see that in my students, who come to class hungry for something that modern culture is providing less and less of.

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

I worked extensively with Beth Follett of Pedlar on the book, and that was both difficult and essential. Difficult only in the small hurtles I had to get over to see where she was coming from (and mostly realize that she was right). Essential because she offered such rich commentary and such a precise eye, that the pieces were really able to improve. Most of the poems I publish in journals, however, haven’t seen anyone else’s eye. I’ve come to trust my own sense of things, certainly more than I did when in school.

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

Don McKay said to me that walking in the woods, reading field guides and hovering over a bracken pool for hours was called research, and that I should eschew any sense of guilt when doing these things rather than simply chaining myself to my desk. To fill up, to take in, he taught me, is an essential part of the process.

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 work three jobs, plus writing, when at home, so I have essentially no routine, except to keep things in the mail and complete more of the business end of the game (residencies, grants, etc). If I have small stretches of time, I tend to edit previous work. I also pull off the car and write by the side of the road, on occasion. When I’m at a residency, which is where most of my writing work gets done, I try to walk, get on the water, or sit somewhere outside every day. I journal, I take my books and computer out to the dock and sit. I work late into the night. I immerse myself completely. I look and listen a lot. I try to become small, in order to take things in. I want to disappear, even in personal pieces. All of this not necessarily in that order. Oh, and a good amount of wine and some dancing in the evenings with other artists is also essential.

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

When the difficulty comes, I go back to essential poets—Stevens, Ashbery, Bishop, McKay, Zwicky, Auden, Hejinian—and philosophers, and read. I read and read until the knot comes undone and something is triggered. Running also helps, though I’m a very lazy runner!

12 - What do you really want?

I want to work at poetry full time. By this I mean research, reading, being out in the world and writing. There is nowhere I feel more at the threshold of something and more myself, more alive. O, for the life of the Danish poet, who gets an annual government salary after publishing a certain amount. And I want to make a difference. I want to do justice to the sense of beauty and connection I’ve felt in the various landscapes I’ve fallen in love with.

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?

Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians comes to mind. Music is a big influence for me. Nature, of course. Science, especially the natural sciences—botany, geography, geology, etc. And visual art I drink up when I’m in cities. Not only exhibits in museums (Joseph Cornell, Rauschenberg, Rodin) but the architecture and feel of a city itself. New York, Seville, Paris. I love to walk, wherever I am, and that gives me a sense of happiness that then bleeds into the work.

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

Trevor Herriot’s Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds is by my bed right now. I inhale The New Yorker and other great non-fiction and journalism. Field guides—it’s mushroom season right now and I’m just beginning to learn about another layer of the forest I live in. All of this contributes in some way.

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

I’d like to start writing more environmental journalism. I’ve dabbled in this a bit, and it feels like a viable way to fight against the onslaught of multi-nationals and the insane, right wing environmental policies that have become the norm in BC in the last eight years. There’s so little time left to save any vestige of this planet; information, into the right hands, will be a prime tool in this battle.

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?

Environmental lawyer? Botanist? Actor? Bee keeper? Chocolate taster?

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

Compulsion, necessity, sanity. Like many of us, I think, I didn’t have much of a choice. I was ambushed out at sea and dragged away from the possibility of any sustainable sort of career, toward this vocation.

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

Can I be brash and admit I’d never read The Odyssey until last winter? Its beauty floored me. I’m also hooked on Dickens and Lyn Hejinian’s Language of Inquiry. As for films, I tend to loop Wes Anderson and Truffaut films, and I loved I’m Not There, the Bob Dylan tribute.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I'm working on a second book of poetry. At Blue Mountain, I put together a rough sense of the first draft. That was wonderful, as I hadn’t written in a serious way since I was in Spain at residencies in 2007. Now, the painstaking and elated editing process.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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