Tuesday, June 30, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Tim Conley

Tim Conley is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Brock University. His essays, fiction, poetry, and reviews have appeared in journals in six countries. He is the author of, most recently, Whatever Happens (Insomniac Press, 2006) and, with Stephen Cain, The Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages (Greenwood, 2006).

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?

Every book has felt like it’s the first book. Exhilarating, disappointing.

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

Everybody comes to poetry first. It’s the most primal form. It gets gradually beaten out of you by prosaic institutions and systems.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially 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?

The muse, she don’t sing when you threaten or cajole. The voices come in the middle of the night, sometimes first thing in the morning, in the shower, out for a long walk. Then it’s a matter of listening closely and trying to get to a notebook in time. I can’t generalize about the pacing of projects: some come bursting forth, others are staggered, coming in short spurts over weeks or months. For me, the trick is to be at work at a few projects at any one time, and they laterally feed into each other, somehow. It’s best if I don’t fully understand the process.

4 - 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’ve done and do both; it depends on the project.

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

My experience with readings is not wide enough for me to have settled opinions, but I suspect that such events have fairly little effect on my writing, at least so far. The act of reading aloud to an audience doesn’t allow for much meaningful dialogue. But if I’m asked to read, sure, I’ll try to give a decent show. I’m not at all against performance and recognize that it can provoke important interactions. The question is how you maximize those interactions. The lectern, the spotlight, the single microphone, the single reader – these arrangements don’t necessarily help.

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?

Do you know that great “questions” game in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? Have you ever played that?

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?

My views on the responsibilities of the intellectual class are lengthy and unoriginal. In a nutshell, though: tell the truth (even if you must tell it slant).

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

Not always essential, but when essential, usually both.

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

I wouldn’t, if I were you.

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?

Not getting bored.

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?

Usually I wake up. Then I write, when I can, without routine, though I’ve nothing against routines, some of my best friends have routines.

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

It depends on why it’s stalled. If I don’t know where it’s going, I’ll probably set it aside and turn to work on something else, or maybe read. If, on the other hand, it’s just despair settling in again, I might listen to a Spike Jones album and have my faith in humanity (partially) restored.

13 - If there was a fire, what’s the first thing you’d grab?

The fire extinguisher.

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?

Absolutely.

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

There’s no way I can answer this – there are just too many.

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

Live the rest of my life. And maybe other lives, too.

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?

In high school, the predictions were cartoonist or mathematician. Still fond of both occupations, I can yet picture doing either, but I also think I would have made a pretty good radio DJ (no call for such things now).

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

Neurosis, probably, and a total lack of musical talent.

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

Books: Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books. Film: various shorts by Buster Keaton. I also liked Bunny Lake Is Missing and want to rewatch David Lynch’s Inland Empire some day soon.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I finished a new manuscript a few weeks ago. But right now? Laundry. Honestly.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Sin is to Celebration, Amanda Ackerman and Harold Abramowitz

Pastoral

in the arm pulsate the heart forming
a triangle against his palm; blue,
and a paneless window vacant
waiting for a seagull above his body

Finally out as a full-sized chapbook is the poetry collaboration Sin is to Celebration (arrow as aarow #8, House Press, 2009) by Amanda Ackerman and Harold Abramowitz, part of which I first saw in the House Press anthology string of small machines (2007). What makes a good collaboration? What makes one good text come through out of another? Cited as a project of erasure of A.E.T.’s Sinestro and Celebration (1956), as Ackerman writes in her brief introduction:

Erasure is not a wrestling match. Nor is it a fight over the most green and promising – or abandoned – turf. And although a lead pencil is a wheelbarrow, and is circular and diamond-cut, an eraser is not a knife, surgical implement, shovel, or up-rooter of any kind. Here, no bodies are being cut or raked apart, up, or into, and no hand is being cupped over the vessel of anybody’s mouth. So is the state of erasure idealized. And so is the idealized state of erasure. An ideal itself being, of course, that which is made by a broad heart: wholly meant, imperfect, obtainable and breathable. Which is to say, erasure idealized, and idealized erasure, is the location where destruction is creation, but rightly timed, with accurate allowances made for rest and regeneration.
For their collaboration, produced as part of a series published by House Press, I like the way the poems open up across the range and the field, moving further and further out, yet keeping an anchor, a thread working through the poems that somehow hold the collection together as a single unit; contained through the flutter of further.

Train

the specific
is a railroad train
on three legs carrying
men
hither
at tremendous speed

somebody keeps shifting
the train
crosses
in circles
a blind gopher
a carrot
a turnip patch
the specific

I like the ease through which the poems move, but would have preferred more of a mix, instead of working, it seemed, poems from the same texts grouped, to make the book as a whole stronger, and more of a weave, as opposed to the near-sectioned. Repeatedly working over the same text and the same ground until it can’t help but be made, remade and reformed, new and originally theirs, the echoes only come through sitting further apart.

Train

the specific
is a train
hopping along
on three legs
carrying
business men
hither
and
thither
at tremendous speed
but,
somebody keeps shifting
the rails
around
while the train
criss crosses itself
in circles
like a blind
carrot
in a turnip patch
the specific
carries
business men.

But this might be but a minor quibble. This is a strong collection, and much of the writing is impossible to distinguish between authors, although each make a strong case here and there for who it might be. But a good collaboration, still, refuses the individual, writing instead the imaginary third that exists between two, and this one, certainly, achieves. But the collection makes me wonder, who are these two authors, and why don’t they have any biographical information included? Have either of them ever published anything else, or do they only publish together?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Oana Avasilichioaei

Oana Avasilichioaei is a poet and translator who, after exploring the territories of Eastern Europe in Abandon (Wolsak & Wynn, 2005), transformed the landscape of Vancouver’s Hastings Park into feria: a poempark (Wolsak & Wynn, 2008). She has translated Nichita Stănescu from Romanian, published as Occupational Sickness (BuschekBooks, 2006), Louise Cotnoir and Geneviève Desrosiers from French, and has performed her work in Canada, USA, Mexico and Europe. She was the founder and curator of the Atwater Poetry Project reading series from 2004 to 2009. A collaborative work with Erín Moure, involving authorial and translational impossibilities, will appear as Expeditions of a Chimæra fall 2009 (BookThug). She lives in Montreal.

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

The publishing of the first book had a tremendous impact. Firstly, the book as object is an absolute public form and so it was enormously gratifying (and intimidating) to hold this object which I had created but which now stood apart from me and which would have a path of its own independent of me. Also the act of publishing a first book gives a burgeoning writer public legitimacy, including of course among other writers, editors, publishers. It felt as though now I had now officially entered into a club. It lead to readings, talks and eventually to actually being invited to submit work or read at festivals or other kind of public activities that writers do.

Every book (two are in print, the third, which is a collaborative endevour with Erin Moure, will be published this fall, and the fourth is almost completed) has felt very different, for the projects were different and the forms being explored likewise very different. I have found that part of working on a book is discovering what the book wants to be, how it wants me to get there and how I need to adapt my working process to make it come into being. But to give you an example, Abandon (the first book) explored the territories of Eastern Europe and was concerned in part with various voices of people in those landscapes, whereas the second book, feria: a poempark, used a Canadian public space, a particular park in Vancouver, as a palimsest and was more architectural in nature, concerned with the physicality of a landscape that sustains much change over time, and less concerned with people or characters. There are no individual voices per say in feria, rather the echoes of collective voices.

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

Because the very first lines that came into my head when I begun writing around the age of sixteen were lines, were short, dense, focused islands of meaning and not whole imagined worlds or stories or characters. Though I am greatly interested in ideas of narrative and story, I love the density and brevity of poetry; using the barest minimum to say the most possible. Poetry creates avenues of thinking, like philosophy, whereas fiction creates small universes, and I am, at the moment, more interested in exploring those paths of thinking than constructing a universe.

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?

In terms of the project as a whole, I have so far found that my writing projects tend to overlap a bit. For example, though my focus at the moment is on this fourth book, I have the smattering possibilities for a future project, for which I have already written a number of poems. But in terms of the poems themselves, or the sequences, it really varies. Sometimes a beginning draft is quite close to a finished draft, but most often it is vastly different. Because I have recently been focusing more on the long poem form, the poem tends to evolve more and more with each draft. Not linearly, more like the ripples of a pebble thrown in water, each ripple growing bigger, distancing farther and farther from the beginning point.

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 definitely work more on “books,” because I find it enriching and worthwhile to explore certain concerns or thematics in depth, perhaps to construct some of that novelistic universe I mentioned earlier, but not in a linear, consistent form. This is not to say that I am immediately aware that the initial forays into a new territory will end up being something that could grow into book form. But if the foray continues and gets a hold of me and if it begins to generate ideas that are “larger” than an individual poem, then I begin to think in terms of a possible “book.”

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

Definitely part of my creative process, and I imagine that it is still growing and could become even crucial or inseparable from the process for a future project. I have always been interested in the orality of poetry, and this has become even more important in the project I am currently working on. And I am curious about how one transfers a performance on the page to a performance on the stage, for those are very different sort of territories which require very different kinds of attention. That transference is a kind of translation and I do approach “readings” as performances, where I feel I need to learn how to “perform” a poem and where I learn a great deal about the work from the feeling I get from the audience response.

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?

Oh sure. Questions and curiosity are what drives the writing always, though the questions vary a great deal with each project. Some of my fascinations (or obsessions) include considering how we compose histories, the roles of pronouns, and considering architectures, including the architecture of the page, and their affect on lives and on language. Some of the current questions include: How can I build some bridges between the written and the oral? How do we know/take in a landscape? How do we know figures in a landscape? How do we think of animals? What does it mean to be animal/body and producer of language/logos?

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?

Like I mentioned earlier, I do see poetry as provoking thought, like philosophy, so that is part of the writer’s role: to keep language vigorous and open up possibilities for thought. Living in a time when we are flooded by language, much of which is endlessly repeated (for example the language of advertising or the language of “the war on terror”) I do think writers, and other linguistic, artistic or cultural producers, have a responsibility to keep pushing the boundaries of language, of what is possible in language, so that we do not become stilted in our patterns of thinking and therefore in our ways of assimilating our environments and consequently reproducing those environments.

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

I don’t find it difficult, rather engaging and thought-provoking, and I do think it is quite important for it can help make a work stronger. Having no outside input before making a work public doesn’t make much sense to me. It is very easy for any one who does any kind of creative work to fall into patterns, develop certain habits, which are not necessarily equally beneficial for every type of project, but the person may rely on those habits unconsciously. I believe that some outside input can help spot some of those places where the writing is relying on habit rather than what the particular moment or line demands.

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

Go home and write some more.

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

Translating and writing are part of the same creative spectrum for me. And it’s not even a question of ease, rather a question of necessity. Writing is already a translational act, for to create a line I have to translate my environment, my thoughts, my senses into this thing we call language. So to then translate across languages seems to naturally follow. Also, we are now more than ever each living in spaces crisscrossed by many languages, cultures and products. To walk out on my front street means to hear many languages spoken, means to go to the Polish deli or the French bistro or the Italian café down the street. These spaces are not as separated as they used to be, even compared to a decade or two ago. So it seems to me that the act of translation has become part of our daily life. This change is tremendous and I believe has a tremendous impact on how we think and act and behave, so I am greatly curious to consider and explore this impact and to write/translate out of it.

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?

It varies, for my schedule is not very stable and depends also if I am traveling or not. But ideally, I try and spend a couple of hours working on writing (either reading, generating work or editing) in the morning, then do some translation work, then go for a swim or see a friend in the afternoon (get out of the house), then try and do some more work, either writing or translation if the evening is open. Sometimes, in the evenings I read and work in my partner’s studio (he’s a visual artist).

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

Typically, I read. I read something that relates to the writing I am trying to do in some lateral way (and this could be other poetry, fiction, essays, philosophy, etc., in English and in other languages). Sometimes visual art or sound recordings are inspiring. Also, going somewhere in “nature,” some place where there is soil and green life growing, can act as catalyst.

13 - What was your most recent Hallowe'en costume?

I must admit that sometimes, for one reason or another I miss Hallowe’en. But one of the most memorable costumes in recent years was when my boyfriend and I (and it was his idea) went to a party in the guise of being wrapped by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (visual artists who have done a great deal of large land art projects, including wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin).

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?

Certainly, particularly nature and visual art. And more recently perhaps, the performing arts: performance, theatre or dance.

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

This is vast and there are many and they evolve and change as the work evolves as well. But to list a few poets and philosophers who have been important to my writing and thinking in recent years, they would include: Paul Celan, César Vallejo (Peruvian poet), Lisa Robertson, Myung Mi Kim (American poet), Giorgio Agamben (Italian philosopher), Walter Benjamin. And some writers who are also friends and with whom I have many conversations and exchange writing include Mark Goldstein, Erín Moure, Angela Carr, Michael Turner.

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

Travel to every continent in the world, but hopefully I have many years left to try and do this.

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?

Perhaps a dancer.

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

It was not a choice I made over night; writing developed into a practice gradually. Initially I felt compelled to do it; I loved and felt challenged by language. And later, though I explored some of the other arts, I came to think that writing seemed the place in which, given whatever natural abilities I may have and whatever tools I would learn, I could explore ideas in greatest depth with the most craft.

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



20 - What are you currently working on?

I am writing a book about a wolfbat, a tyrant and a child. They are imagined and impossible tales, entangling the language of fairytales and folktales. For a sample, go to http://jacketmagazine.com/34/c-avasilichioaei.shtml

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen, Lean-To

Looking for an approach.



The road rutted, water standing, trees barely standing aside.

It sends, simple. The car stopped, for a long time.



For a long time, we just listen to wind whining a mile from ocean, listen to the little boys in the back seat sing—where we are, where are we, where are we, where are we. (“South Shore”)
A few months ago, I saw some poems by Halifax poet Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen that I hadn’t been expecting. Poems in the journal Riddle Fence that wrote out long lines in the most evocative way, moving through what I so rarely see in Canadian poetry; my own increasing envy, poems that are included in her third poetry collection, Lean-To (Wolfsville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2009). The author of two previous works, Clay Birds (1996) and Or (2004), she also won the CBC Literary Award in 2005 for the series “August: An Anniversary Suite,” later published as a chapbook by Gaspereau. But awards and previous works aside, it is through the poems in Lean-To that Klaassen has finally arrived, transcending her own previous writing.

A penny for your thoughts. The peripheral
blue conductors—turquoise, azure—of Waskesiu.

I have a hunch, squinting
out from the blue-lined sunder of lacy shade on clay

shadows—or are they shadows?—
not quite able

to make out what you’re looking for.
The lake a dead giveaway of dark glasses glancing off

to where swimmers with Frisbees shriek and laugh and
trendy yellow two-pieces

are all that’s left
of the tanned invisibles.

What I’m looking for is
electric and dangerous,

sinking past the glitter, out of reach. Our blues
separated by the hard-packed rut of beach

just beyond the concrete
breaker. (“August after August: 9. CLAY”)

When did her writing become so long, languid, lovely and so porous? What I admire about the poems in this collection, this collection, is how Klaassen makes the long line stretch, and stretch out; how she stretches out the poem and the poems and the collection as the spaces of a taffy-pulled-out long poem. This is a series of single moments stretched, and one of the few examples, as well (apart from someone like Sylvia Legris), of a Canadian poet really comprehending space on the written page, and using it properly, in interesting and evocative ways, and ways appropriate to the poem itself, as opposed to merely arbitrary. This is the extended lyric stretched out into the pace and singularity of breathing.

How to get up into the trees, that high up? Boots and bicycles underneath.

They want the ropes, the broken pole—

They drop the ropes and climb the trees and study the facts and actual and squirrels—articles pertaining to how do some things fall down and some things get lost. Let’s say a woodcutter travelled through thunder with an axe and a map. What might fall? Scratched and solemn, almost invisible. Open the camera: no film. First they need to find a pulley, a lasso, they already have the map. Then down to get the axe (no!) and back up again, notes stashed, and then everybody down again, off to find the Fundy, one tree mystery solved, happy, all in all. (“Five Islands”)

Friday, June 26, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Peter Norman

Peter Norman’s fiction, poetry and journalism have appeared in several periodicals, and he has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English and Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets. A native of Vancouver, Peter earned a Creative Writing degree at the University of British Columbia and now lives in Halifax. His first novel, Emberton, is forthcoming from Douglas & McIntyre.

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

My first chapbook gave me a single, consolidated selection of work to show people. Choosing poems for it, I developed a keener sense of the strengths and shortcomings of my work. And, of course, it made me extravagantly wealthy. (One of these answers is false.)

Hard to say whether my recent work feels different, but I hope it’s an improvement on what came before. I think writers tend to prefer their newer stuff; reportedly Milton went to the grave believing Paradise Regained to be his masterpiece. This may be a useful coping mechanism. It must be really tough accept that your best work is long behind you.

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

Actually, I wrote fiction first: it was the earliest stuff I read, and therefore the earliest stuff I aped. Poems, though, were what I first published in a chapbook. I had written many more poems than stories, so it was easier to assemble a handful of half-decent ones.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially 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?

Each project is its own creature. Some come fast and furious, requiring little preparation; others are painfully slow. Some change a great deal during rewrites; others pop out more or less intact.

4 - 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?

Anything can spark a piece, from the specific (a turn of phrase that sticks in the imagination) to the very general (a broad plot idea, or even a theme).

When it comes to collecting pieces into a book-length whole, that’s a problem for me. Each poem or story is written entirely on its own terms, with no regard for any kind of larger context. When I try assembling a bunch of these into a collection, I can’t seem to put together a coherent manuscript.

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

I love reading. At times, it is part of my process: I’ll read something new, and if I lose the audience I know where to cut.

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 probably do have theoretical concerns, but thanks to my wilful ignorance of literary theory I don’t know quite what they are. I say “ignorance,” but that’s a bit coy: in fact I read a ton about how and why poems and stories get built. But I’m averse to confessing any sort of “theoretical” bent because so much sterile work seems to be produced in the name of theory.
I don’t know what the current questions are, but I suspect they differ very little from the eternal ones.

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?

The writer’s first role, and first concern, should be to write well. To demonstrate and even expand the capabilities of language, narrative, verbal music. I’m sure there are “larger” roles, but they should arrive as by-products of mastering the work. Horse before the cart.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
If your editor’s capable, if you trust her, and if her priority is helping your work do what it needs to do, then you have an invaluable ally. If an editor’s incompetent and does not respect your work’s primary intentions, then you may have a problem.

I’m an editor myself, and I’ve observed a rough correlation between a writer’s talent and how receptive he is to editing. The worst writer (who, of course, needs the most help) resists every little suggestion; the best writer recognizes the value of a good edit, and is grateful.

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

“Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” I wish I could follow it.

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

The challenge isn’t moving between genres; it’s getting the motor started in either genre. Each, I find, requires its own rhythm and approach. If it’s been months since I wrote a fictional scene or a line of verse, it can be immensely difficult to start something new. Momentum is huge.

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?

My life is too unpredictable to allow an ongoing routine. I make my living as a freelance writer and editor (so a project can come out of nowhere and swamp me for weeks) and I move around a lot (just drove from Calgary to PEI, pending a temporary settling-down in Halifax). Now and then I can chisel out a few months, usually thanks to a grant, in which some kind of writing routine prevails.

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

Deadlines. If I don’t have any professional deadlines, I have to set up my own. Another person, some kind of boss figure, has to be involved or I won’t take it seriously. For example, the writer James Moran and I are in the midst of our second Story Swap: we exchange stories at set deadlines; the other guy is supposed to act like a boss, giving you grief if you miss the deadline. We instigated these swaps several years ago, with the express purpose of kicking our butts into gear.

13 - What do you really want?

I want the Vancouver Canucks to win the Stanley Cup.

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?

Nature and science do have some influence, particularly bugs and entomology. Other art forms have an enormous influence too; I pretty much live by art. I’d say film is tops, followed by music. However, a great artwork has already found its ideal genre and will not benefit from translation into another, least of all by me. Some very good poems exist that respond specifically to paintings, movies etc., but I’m not interested in writing those myself. (It’s particularly irksome when a writer seems to want to show off how cultured he is.) So I’m not talking about direct, ostentatious allusion. When you’re steeped in art, its influence will seep into everything you create.

But when you get down to the grit of the matter—the language we use to convey our material, the way we use that language—then McFadden is right: books come from books. They come from the lines and passages and scenes that echo in the writer’s memory.

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

Loads. I don’t even know where to begin. It’s kind of pointless (and feels kind of pretentious) just to list names, but that’s about all I can do...



Life outside of work: again, loads of writers. Above all, my wife Melanie Little, a brilliant writer and editor. Most of my friends write, so of course they’re tremendously important. Certain writers, beyond influencing my work at the sentence-and-stanza level, have helped me move along the path: Stephen Brockwell, jw curry, Wayne Clifford. People like Lynn Coady and Stephanie Bolster and Zachariah Wells who put me in anthologies. People like Christian Bök and derek beaulieu who generously shared their insights and aesthetics, answering a novice’s questions and meeting his rebuttals. Teachers and classmates at UBC. You, who first published me in chapbook form. On and on goes the list... (And now I realize I’ve gone off topic. Books and writers that affected me-as-a-person-beyond-writing? That’s a giant list of its own.)

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

Drive a police cruiser with lights & siren engaged.

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?

First question: probably a musician. I dearly envy them, performers and composers alike.

Second question: beyond editing or teaching, I have no idea. Words and sentences are the only things I know anything about. Sad state of affairs, but there it is.

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

In my earliest years, I imitated stuff I liked. Books were the things I liked best, so I made (wrote, illustrated and stapled together) my own. If I’d watched a lot of TV, I’d have wanted to make TV shows. If I’d played computer games I’d have wanted to create those.

In those toddling years, though, I did not aspire to be a professional writer. I was going to be a fireman, policeman or soldier (specifically a Grenadier Guard, bearskin cap and all). During a conversation with my mother, as we enumerated career options, she suggested Writer. I was flabbergasted. People got paid to do that? It was a job? From that point forward, the story goes, I was dedicated to becoming an author.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?


20 - What are you currently working on?

Finishing a rewrite of a novel, due out in Spring 2011. That’ll be my first proper “book.” Writing an extended sonnet sequence. Chipping away at bits and pieces of other things.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Capilano Review 3.8: Moodyville

Continuing a thread of years’ worth of theme issues comes The Capilano Review 3.8, “Moodyville,” produced as a co-publication with Presentation House Gallery, in an issue of poetry, fiction, essays, film stills, interviews and visual art on and around North Vancouver. As Helga Pakasaar writes in her piece, “Moodyville,”:

For the Moodyville exhibition, seven artists were invited to produce new works that respond to North Vancouver—the locale of Presentation House Galley and its home in a designated heritage building. The show’s title suggests an imaginary place, a state of mind, and a particular history, especially the city’s ties to resource extraction industries. Moodyville was the earliest non-indiginous and industrial settlement on Burrard Inlet. Founded in 1872 near today’s Saskatchewan Wheat Pool terminal, it was a prosperous, albeit short-lived, sawmill community that boasted the first library in the Burrard Inlet. Invoking the city’s beginnings through collective urban memory, the Moodyville project explores changes in civic identity as visions of the future relate to a barely-remembered past.
What the subsequent issue does, then, is take that idea and continue it, with some 200+ pages by Canadian and international poets, writers and artists alike, including Colin Browne, Aaron Peck, Pierre Coupey, Molly Bobak, Ingrid Baxter, Daphne Marlatt, N.E. Thing Co., Gary Geddes, Peter Culley, Jeremy Shaw, Lisa Robertson, Michael Turner and others. What I like about this issue is the physicality of it, writing Vancouver, the city and everything that comes with it, whatever physical, environmental, cultural, emotional and otherwise baggage, writing Malcolm Lowry, writing trees that sweep over garbage dumps, writing the narrows bridge and the entire city in small parcels, writing.

In sleep so thick
the panels of the trucks
pivot through the birds & bricks
that flap above the viaducts
on downs as soft as poplar fluff
revealing projects never needed,
zombie gardens never weeded
& a ragged couch’s burning fleece
prompts no visit from police—
a hermaphroditic order
in the standing water
a kind of turbid flux
flaps above the viaducts (Peter Culley, “Five North Vancouver Trees”)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Zachariah Wells

Bio: "After living in six different provinces and territories, Zachariah Wells no longer knows where he's from or where he's going. Old books include Unsettled (poems); Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets (anthology) and Anything But Hank! (children's picture book, co-written with Rachel Lebowitz, illustrated by Eric Orchard). New books will be Track & Trace (poems, 2009) and Career Limiting Moves (critical prose, 2010). Wells is reviews editor for Canadian Notes & Queries, passenger train attendant for Via Rail and blogger for his own self-indulgent person."

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?

Because I have an embarrassing predilection for the actuarial, I'm breaking your multi-part questions down to a, b and c. My answers will be further subdivided i, ii, iii, etc.

a) i) Before my first book was published, I was a semi-employed bum. After it was published, I was a semi-employed author. This has made all the difference. (Rich galas, etc.)

ii) I started using my ISBN as the basis for choosing lottery numbers.

iii) My grant applications stopped getting rejected.

iv) Other people with books started talking to me.

v) I began to have nightmares involving being pursued by an enormous fanged book that bore a vague resemblance to my mother. Make of it what you will.

b) i) My older work has a lot of coarse language in it. My new work ... oh fuck, never mind.

ii) I don't really keep track of what I wrote when. Several poems that are in my forthcoming collection are older than most of the poems in my previous book (one of the poems is, in fact, a revision of a poem from my first book, which appears there in two different versions). The third book, should it ever materialise, will be similarly shingled. How a writer's work changes over time is rarely of much interest to me. If the work's any good, it's a pretty trivial consideration. If it's bad, even more so.
c) More velvety.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

As opposed to being a rock 'n' roll star, actually. I'm completely tone deaf. So I went for a really lame second choice. Third actually. Pro baseball player would have been my first choice, but my athletic gifts are only marginally more impressive than my music skills. So basically, I'm kind of a loser and I'm pretty lazy. Isn't that how we all get here?
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially 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?
a) What's a writing project?
b) My writing sometimes has problems with premature ejaculation, but I got some killer pills online that are helping with that.
c) Because I'm a genius, brilliant poems pretty much emerge fully-formed from my brow, naked and gleaming.
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) Top of the page.
b) I write poems.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
a) Readings are more relevant to me than books.
b) Ibid.

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?
a) Maybe, but my poems are pretty quick, so I'm sure they can outrun them.
b) i) Where do babies come from?
ii) What's the frequency, Kenneth?
iii) Why do fools fall in love?
iv) What the fuck were you thinking?!
c) Same as they've ever been.
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?
a) Don't really care.
b) Not much of one.
c) To write.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Do you mean, like, a foreigner? I don't think foreign editors should be taking the jobs of Canadian editors.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
At a high school graduation party, my grade 11 English teacher Edward Zrudlo, by this point well in his cups, said to me: "Zach, you have the soul of a poet. You have to study classics."
Unfortunately, he was slurring so badly that I heard "plastics." Man, was that ever a dead end.

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

a) I don't really move between genres. I write poems when I feel like it and reviews and essays when someone asks me to. Occasionally, the opposite is true, but not often.
b) It's thoroughly unappealingly, but I'm a bit of a loser, like I said.
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?
a) Nope.
b) My son cries. I wake up. Then I close my eyes again. Then my son smacks me on the head. Etc.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Nowhere. I just wait. The physical act of writing is incredibly over-valued, I think.
13 - What fairy tale character do you resonate with most?
Jesus.
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?
If David said that, it's hardly an original observation. Quite banal, actually. Shame on you, David. Also, "nature, music, science [and] visual art" aren't forms, per se. In answer to your question, poetry that simply refers to other poetry--especially poetry that refers mostly to contemporary colleagues of the poet--bores the hell out of me, and is a sure sign that the poet has no sense of an audience greater than his or her circle of peers.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Too many to name, really. Which ones are most important changes with time and sometimes cycles. But a few key figures, who may or may not have influenced my writing: Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ted Hughes, John Clare, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Yukio Mishima, Irving Layton, Bruce Chatwin, Robert Browning.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Retire. Which is a bit of a lie. Tho I've been in the workforce every year since I was 14, I've yet to work an entire year. But working partial years is starting to get old, and I'd like to give it up sooner than later.
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?
These questions don't pertain to me, as I've never been a full-time writer. I'm neither wealthy nor irresponsible, so I've worked. Mostly in the transportation industry (seven years for an airline and five years and counting for Via Rail).
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Again, tone deafness.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
b) I've never read a film. I saw a Swedish film called Songs from the Second Floor that was pretty brilliant. One of the best lines ever: "You can't make money from a crucified loser."
20 - What are you currently working on?

Packing up my apartment in Vancouver to move back to my house in Halifax. I can pretty safely boast now that I'm one of the only tri-coastal writers in the country. Oughta be worth some beer.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Garneau Review: issue one (finally) on-line!

The first issue of The Garneau Review, a pdf Edmonton poetry journal, is now on-line at www.ottawater.com/garneaureview, featuring poetry by Douglas Barbour, Jenna Butler, Trisia Eddy, Lainna Lane, Alice Major, rob mclennan, Ben Murray, Catherine Owen, Paul Pearson and Christine Stewart, as well as an essay by Shawna Lemay, and an interview with Christine Stewart, conducted by rob mclennan.

Future issues will each be edited by different Edmonton-based writers, including the second issue, edited by Trisia Eddy and Lainna Lane El Jabi, due in fall 2009.

For comments, questions or queries, email rob mclennan at az421 (at) freenet (dot) carleton (dot) ca

Monday, June 22, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Asher Ghaffar

Asher Ghaffar's first book of poetry, Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music, is published with ECW Press. His work has been featured in LITERARY REVIEW OF CANADA, THE NEW QUARTERLY, CV2, LICHEN ARTS AND LETTERS PREVIEW, dANDelion, DOUBLE ROOM, and other journals. He is the recipient of recent grants from The Canada Council for the Arts and Ontario Arts Council. Currently Asher is working on an experimental novel, in addition to a doctoral degree in social and political thought at York University.

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 met some cool people. I felt more alienated. I realized that poetry has to be put on stage.
Seriously though, I felt that experimental poetry was the wrong move for a person of color in a scene that is predominantly white. That only a fool would be drawn to write poetry. A kind of hopeless despair that turned out to be generative in the end. It turned out be generative because I realized that reaching a dead end is probably a good thing.

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

It was the only thing I was good at. However, I really wanted to make a novel even as I was writing poetry. Since the story I was searching for continued to collapse, I decided what I was doing was probably closer to poetry, or prose poetry.

I'm suspicious of genres to some degree, but I do think they exist and it's important to work in a genre if only to try to alter it, or question it from within. That questioning isn’t really a conscious intent on my part. One has to feel sufficiently tormented to work between genres. Eventually that torment quiets down into what most people call poetry.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially 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?

Recently, I opened a document of 4 or 5 poems, and it was like entering a room. You know when you're writing a ms when it becomes a place, the only place where you can possibly exist. If I can’t find that sense of urgency, I search for it.

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 usually begins in a psychological space that I can't rationally grasp. I call these places in myself ‘traces,’ but I’m not really thinking of Derrida here, more about those spaces where absence speaks. I’m not certain if I’ll always begin work in places like this, or if there are rules. Recently, I found myself yelling at a television and this provided a starting point for a line that began:

We shout alone at a TV
and when come to our senses

we realize we might be mad.

After our name, blood thins
progressively and death is

a ferris wheel in a whirling brain
of no tomorrow.

Before Isreal started
bombing Lebanon

Before Isreal started
bombing Palestine.

In seamless dreams
Darwish and Celan

are read together.

I usually don’t write explicitly political poetry like this, but I felt the urge. Not sure if I’ll use any of this raw material.

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

I've only done one reading and it went well. I want to do readings with other people helping me to read my work, or with musicians. I'm working with the director, Vance Chow and the group Lal right now on a short film and I hope to do more work with them in the future. A lot of what I do deals involves many conflicting voices, voices converging, voices collapsing against one another, voices wrestling against one another. So it demands more than me present.

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?

Lots of theory is built into my work, but it is not usually theory I read in a book. It’s more like body theory. How does my body move in space, for example, and what sort of social content can I draw from this? Is there an aesthetics to walking and should this poem stagger?

I'm fascinated by social theory, but it usually sleeps the night before it works itself in a poem. Sometimes a framework can help conceptualize a poem. Right now I'm obsessed with revolving doors, stone archways, places between places. I'm not certain if one can theorize such a space, but the more I enter into it, the more it seems to be the place of poetry, a place of not knowing, a place of ontological uncertainty, dissonance and blending – perhaps love. Any way, I wanted to return to Bachelard, but I realized that he would probably direct my creative process too much. Sometimes I turn to theologians to help me conceptualize shit.

After a day: Now that I think of it, yes, I guess I do use theory. But I don’t use one theory. I try to bring theories beside one another so they are each questioned. So were the 7/7 tube bombing the result of alienation, fundamentalism, or racism? If I bring these paradigms together, there is a crisis of signification. That’s what interests me…I don’t care about theory for the sake of theory, or to make a cool sounding poem. I want to use theory to help represent multiple conflicting paradigms. I think Marx is overrated. Postcolonialism is overrated. Social psychology is overrated etc. That none of these helps me to understand the 7/7 bombings, since we’re using this as an example. What interests me a crisis of signification between critical thought.

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 was just talking the comedian Anand Rajaram about my experience of reading Nathalie Stephens. I don't usually return to books. I return to her books because they give me a key to a unconcious room. Her work make me feel what I'm always feeling, but have trouble articulating.

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

It helps, I think, when the editor has a sense of what you're doing. In my case, I was fortunate to have Michael Holmes, Stuart Ross and Stan Dragland as editors. They're all humble and know how to listen into texts.

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

Get a day job. Get out of the academy (I'm trying to do both). Don't do an MFA. Do an MFA. Stay in the academy. I don’t know…

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

The appeal probably is that in-between makes the head revolve, and in the process something interesting emerges from lost traces.

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 don't have a routine. Once I start a text and am into it, I can spend a couple of hours working on it day. Other times, I don’t write or read at all.

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

Watch a film.

13 - Have you have a lucky charm?

Not really.

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?

I generally don’t connect to categorical statements like this. I don’t know where books come from. Maybe they come from dreams. Life experience. Just feeling and being with the body in all possible states. Not trying to escape discomfort on any level of the body-mind.

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

I love a lot of the stuff coming out of US experimental scene. I've read John Keene's Annotations about thirty times. I generally like work that is both lyrical and experimental, so G.C. Waldrep’s work moves me. I’m reading more novels lately, but I’m not yet certain what I like…

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

Learn how to sing.

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 like teaching right now. It gets me out of my head.

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

In my last undergraduate year, I pestered Frank Davey enough that he took me on. Without his help, it probably would have taken me a couple of more years to work through a text. He encouraged me and didn't give a fuck what I sent him. He also helped give me insight into my own work. This sort of made me feel that I might have something to say. Later, G.C. Waldrep mentored me. We both designed a course, and it was one of the most intellectually stimulating courses I have ever taken. I’ve been lucky at finding mentors that allowed me to experiment.

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

Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression and Persepolis.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A short film, a novel, and what looks to be a book of poems.

12 or 20 questions archive (second series);

Saturday, June 20, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Jeanette Lynes

Jeanette Lynes is the author of five books of poetry, most recently, The New Blue Distance (Wolsak and Wynn), three chapbooks, and one novel. She is Co-editor of The Antigonish Review.

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?

My first chapbook – with above/ground press – was really important to me. I’ve always loved micropress publishing, and the chapbook opened up a space for me to be experimental and just play. My first book – with Wolsak and Wynn – was life-changing in that it sparked a hope within me that there might be a readership for my poems. I think my previous work is more ‘raw’ and rough-edged. The poems have ‘smoothed out’ some, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. It may not be.

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

I came to poetry first by virtue of falling in love with Canadian poets like Al Purdy and Bronwen Wallace. But I also fell in love with Canadian fiction around the same time; I just didn’t have the confidence to try my hand at fiction until much later.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially 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’m never sure if I have a ‘book’ until I’m well into a project. An example is my book about Dusty Springfield. I thought I would try to write one poem about her. Then another came. And another. And it seemed that I had much more to say about her life, so I just kept going. My basic rule is, if I feel a spark of life in a body of work or a concept, I keep going. I ‘projectify’ more than I used to – that is a piece of advice Fred Wah gave me at the Sage Hill Writing Experience. I revise a lot more than I used to – I think I grapple a lot with the negotiation between ‘raw writing’, as discussed above, on the one hand, and intensively worked-over poems, on the other. Sometimes I can revise the life out of a poem, but mostly my poems benefit from revision.

4 - 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?

Work often begins for me, these days, with something I’ve read. I’ll get interested in a subject, and chase it.

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

I love getting out and reading my work, and getting first-hand, immediate audience responses. I’ve never been that good at delayed gratification. I’ve met lots of amazing poets at readings, too, and these public events help keep me feeling plugged into a literary culture. It’s important to me to talk craft and process with writers, and readings provide some opportunity for this.

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?

Theoretical concerns? With fiction, my concern is syntax – how to write energized sentences. I’m not sure how to theorize syntax, but there must be a way. With poetry, I studied TISH poetics a lot as a university student, so I’m interested in language experiments, even though I don’t write in that tradition. I still really like the Russian formalist Scholvsky’s notion of ‘defamiliarization’, and I strive to apply that principle, to take my writing ‘outside the box’. I think there are many different ways to do this. Given the Purdy influence, I’m interested in vernacular speech and language, and my new novel has provided a fun forum in which to explore that.

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?

Well, you know what Shelley said – poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind – I’m paraphrasing, here. I think writers play a crucial role in our culture. Writers tell the truth. Given our governments, someone has to tell the truth.

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

I’ve loved my editors – Barry Dempster on my poetry and Sandra Birdsell on my fiction. They have taught me a lot, and helped me so much. They don’t let me get away with certain tendencies I have. I sometimes find the process difficult, but I mostly have agreed with the changes they suggest.

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

The best piece of advice I’ve heard? What a great question! An American novelist I worked with in my MFA, Michael C. White, told me to stop worrying about whether what I was writing, in fiction was ‘corny’ (I’d told him I’d worried that my novel premise was corny). He said all fiction is corny – even Moby Dick – think about it, he said – a great white whale. This permitted some sentimentality. Same as in poetry. Richard Hugo says, in The Triggering Town, you have to be willing to risk sentimentality – again, I paraphrase. Those pieces of advice were really valuable to me. I needed to hear them to help shake my brain out of the ‘academic think’ I’d spent years trying to learn during graduate school. Then I had to let all that go - ie. the literary critic part of my head.

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

I like moving between genres – the appeal is simply variety – also, challenge.

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 mainly write during the summers because I teach. I try not to look at email in the mornings. I try to write from about 10 am until about 3:00 pm – about five hours. Then, ideally, I like to go outside for a walk and meet a friend at the pub around 4:30. A five-hour writing day is about all I can manage. With fiction, I have a daily word quota.

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

When my writing gets stalled, I either read, sleep, or go to the pub.
13 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

In the event of a fire, I’d grab my cat and then my laptop computer.

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?

Music influences my work, but most of all, people influence my work – human beings and the strange things they/we do, and the difficult lives they/we live. I will never stop be fascinated with the miracle that human beings are.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

So many writers are important to me – so many I couldn’t begin to name them. But also writers who write factoid books, like books about plants, or weather, or land formations.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

What I would like to do is travel more. I’ve led a pretty circumscribed life. I love Canada but there are so many places I’d like to see, like South America, Italy. Hell, the Grand Canyon. Texas. San Francisco. I’d like to do an extensive road trip of the United States. I’d also like to write a biography of a Canadian musician.
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?

Floral designer or disk jockey! Or singer/rock star. Seriously. I could spend my life with flowers, and music. If I had not been a writer, I probably still would have gone into teaching, as I have. I like it, though it is exhausting.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

The desire for self-expression made me write, I think. The need for a challenge. Restlessness. Boredom. My fetish for beautiful sentences. My fetish for the book as a physical object. My conviction that writing makes me more fully human.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I’m going to interpret “great” as enjoyable. I really enjoyed Doing Nothing by Tom Lutz. I’m reading a lot of non-fiction these days. But I also just read Baltimore’s Mansion by Wayne Johnston; it’s a beautiful and moving book. A Complicated Kindness really moved me, as well as The Lion in the Room Next Door by Merilyn Simonds, and Hooked by Carolyn Smart.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Right now, I’m just re-grouping from the academic year, and the final edits on my novel and my most recent book of poetry. I want to start working on another novel this summer, and pursue a biography idea I have. And I have a funny feeling I’ll probably write a few poems, too. Thanks for the great questions, rob.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bob Page: August 8, 1949 – June 14, 2009

My mother’s youngest sibling, Robert (Bob) Ian Page, my Uncle Bob, died early Sunday morning in Ottawa from a massive coronary.

[photo of a Christmas at the house on Ridgemont, with Bob, myself, cousin Kim; photographer unknown] When I was growing up, he was always my favourite, over the days and sometimes weeks I seemed to be in Ottawa visiting my grandmother’s house on Ridgemont Avenue, just by the high school. I spent a lot of time in that house throughout the 1970s and into the 80s, whether singular or alongside my mother and eventual sister and even my father, sometimes. Of the seven siblings, Bob was the last of them. Who still lived at home when I was small, with widowed mother and divorced elder sister, along with her own two teenage daughters. Who spent parts of summers on the farm to help out, early on. He was, for my first ten years the erstwhile bachelor, with the new bedroom put in when the addition put on the house, Beefeater souvenir bottle on bookshelf, and Playboy calendar just inside his bedroom door all the male cousins knew about. During any Ottawa visit, slipping up creaky stairs behind grandmother’s back to his second-floor room, lifting thin cardboard cover. I remember Dorothy Stratten, 1980, full bodied and glossy in rich colour. I always associate him with my own early curiosities, to those questions I couldn’t yet form, or think to ask. What he already knew.

My mother’s youngest sibling, the one she felt most protective of. Driving back from Toronto and his own sister’s funeral a few years ago, complaining of how I’d been trying to get rid of “Robbie” since fifteen, and Bob reminding that he was fifty years old, and my mother still called him “Bobbie.” My Uncle Bob, who was always the baby, and the nicknames they’d all been trying to leave behind, but couldn’t. Each a cringle just to hear them. The one all the others worked so hard to keep safe.

He was the one his mother couldn’t let go of. The quiet exasperation in his voice whenever he would respond to something she’d said, pausing slow between syllables, saying “mo-ther.” When the two took me to my first drive-in features, watching Convoy and Moonraker; I might have been seven. How she insisted he chew every puff of popcorn one hundred times, so that he wouldn’t choke. The turn of his head and the roll of his eyes.

I didn’t spend much time with him for years after, once he married at one end of the 80s and I moved off the farm, at the other. Only over the past decade or so, at my sister’s annual August long weekend bbqs, or the dinners we’d have at their house in Orleans, were we were able to reacquaint as adults. As we talked about history, and just what else our children. Who perhaps more than anyone in the family, always made an effort to talk to my daughter when she was around.

We, who both took it upon ourselves the job of family historians. Working to plant his feet in family soil. The myriad of information he had in his head on two world wars, and his paternal Uncle Don and maternal grandfather’s war records. Bob still seen as the baby of their brood, but who slowly emerged as the rock around which everyone held. Who kept his own council, close to his chest. Around which everything else settled. A seemingly rare voice of reason in a family of otherwise eccentrics. The secrets that family keep.

Here’s a poem Bob featured in, composed around the time his mother died; more about her than he, but about that time in the early 1970s he still lived at home:

milk

the carcass of the old house after she moved
to the apartment. damp,
& rot. was the only one i knew who made
tomato soup w/

milk, the cloudy white stirrd in

slowly, continuous. uncle bob crushing premium plus
w/ his spoon. renovated the kitchen & the back after

husband died, his winter body brought in
after discovery in the snow, lay there cold
& stiff on the table

until the ambulance arrived, knowing
they neednt hurry. this much

is sure, is what

i know, how long

years can reach out thru, from
behind, & grab

at your neck like you were seven a second time,
scanning magazines in the wrong part

of another uncles house, black marks

over the parts of the female anatomy you knew,
even then, were interesting.

The obituary from The Ottawa Citizen, Tuesday, June 16, 2009:

PAGE, Robert “Bob” –
At the Montfort Hospital on Sunday June 14, 2009, at the age of 59. Beloved husband and best friend of Bette. Loving and devoted father of Lori Anne and Timothy. Brother of Patsy Fournier (Larry), Don (Lin), Pam Moore (Don), Joanne McLennan (Douglas) and the late Ralph (Shirley) and Carol Ann Phillips (Pat). Brother-in-law of Joey Makuch of Ottawa, Joanne Rowe (Bob),Marie Louise Bonhomme (John), Wanda Perreault (Gilles), Stan Makuch (Pierrette), Stefan Makuch (Sylvia), both of Richmond Hill. Beloved uncle to several nieces and nephews. He leaves to mourn his colleagues at Environment Canada (Accomodations). Heartfelt thank you to paramedics, fire fighters and the staff of Montfort ER for their care and kindness. Friends may pay respects at the Kelly Funeral Home, 2370 St. Joseph Blvd. (Orleans) Thursday June 18 from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. In lieu of flowers, donations to the Heart and Stroke Foundation or the University of Ottawa Heart Institute much appreciated. KELLY FUNERAL HOME, Orléans Chapel, 613 837 2370

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Susan Olding

Susan Olding’s first book, Pathologies: A Life in Essays, was published by Freehand Press in September, 2008. It was long-listed for the BC Award for Canadian Nonfiction and nominated for the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award. Susan lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario, where she works at the Queen’s University Writing Centre.

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

Pathologies is my first book. It took years to complete – and even longer to appear. It’s not easy for a new writer to get a collection of essays into print; it’s considerably tougher to publish essays (as an unknown) than it is to publish a first book of poetry or short stories. I’d had several rejections of the “love it but can’t market it” variety. Editors and agents wanted me to write something in a long narrative form to go along with it. But I work slowly, and I knew it might take me many years to write that long form book – and I wasn’t getting any younger. Melanie Little of Freehand took a huge chance on me, and I’m forever grateful to her.

I was ready to quit until I got Melanie’s call. At least I said I was going to quit, and I felt like quitting; whether I’d actually have been able to stop myself from writing is debatable. But I’d have written even more slowly, I suspect, without the validation that a book represents. Publication freed me emotionally and creatively to write my next book; it gave me the encouragement I needed to keep going. It also made me slightly more visible, particularly to other writers. As a wonderful bonus, I’ve made some new friends in the writing community.

So, even though it’s a small book with a small press, the changes have been enormous for me. Finally, in mid-life, I feel I can claim the space and time I need to do the work I want and need to do, and I feel supported in that work by other artists.

In terms of changes in the work itself – I’ve been obsessed with structure from the start, but the longer I write, the more my obsession grows. I like to play with fragments and to use juxtaposition and counterpoint, to put this up against that and to see what happens in the white space between. So my recent work is more layered and textured and possibly more demanding.

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

I didn’t.

I started out writing poetry, and then fiction. But so far, I’ve been less satisfied with what I’ve written in those genres, so I’ve published less of it, too. I hope that will change! I’ve got a poetry manuscript underway and also a novel. And I continue to write essays. I’ll probably do so forever. I love the flexibility and capaciousness of the form.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially 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 can take me a very long time to bring a project to fruition. All too long! It took twelve years, off and on, to write the essays in Pathologies, and the initial raw notes for the first essay began years earlier than that.

Having said that – I usually get the core idea in a terrific rush and see the overall shape of the thing quite clearly. Or at least I think I see it. Then, at some point during composition I get stuck. And I realize I need to change the structure somehow or add another layer.

I do make lots of notes and ask myself many questions as I write. But parts of the completed manuscript will look almost identical to sections of the early rough notes. And I don’t “outline” so much as figure out how to put the puzzle together or how to weave the tapestry. It’s a question of seeing where each fragment or thread belongs.

From time to time, I get really discouraged with my own process. I wish I were a faster writer. But part of the reason I’m slow is that I tend to have a number of different projects on the go at one time and I flip back and forth. Someday I may discover that I’ve completed several manuscripts almost simultaneously. Then people will marvel at how I manage to be so prolific. That will be a pleasant change.

4 - Where does a piece of writing 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 saw Pathologies as a book very early on. Not with the first essay, but by the time I wrote the third essay, I knew.

I also saw the novel I’m working on as a novel, right from the start.

With poetry it’s a bit different. One reason I haven’t attempted to publish a book of poems yet is that while I have enough individual poems for a book I don’t have a critical mass clustering around a common subject or theme. But there again – the book idea already exists. So I guess the simple answer is “book.”

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

Both. I love to attend readings and interviews, especially if the author is someone whose work deeply interests or puzzles me. I’m often inspired by these events. And I enjoy giving readings, especially the ones in more intimate setting where a genuine conversation can take place. I like meeting readers. But to get any work done, I need privacy, stretches of uninterrupted time, and quiet.

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’m trying to answer all kinds of questions in my work, but the questions are particular to each piece. In some ways, I write to clarify what they are, if that makes any sense.

I do have abiding interests in language and form. I’m impatient with traditional genre categories; I guess that’s a theoretical concern, of a kind.

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?

Nadine Gordimer has said: “The tension between standing apart and being fully involved; that is what makes a writer. That is where we begin.”

She also says, “All that the writer can do, as a writer, is to go on writing the truth as he sees it.”

That’s as good a summary as I’ve come across.

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

My experience with Melanie Little at Freehand was fantastic. She was an ideal reader for my work.

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

A friend and teacher of mine, Jim Paul, once told me that if you look closely enough at anything, it will reward your literary archetypes.

It’s great advice for a non-fiction writer or a poet, and probably for fiction writers, too.

I’m also partial this section of a letter from Keats. He’s writing to a poet friend: “…let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at: but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive – budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favours us with a visit – sap will be given us for Meat and dew for drink…”

Any late blooming flower like me will take comfort from Beckett: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

I also like what an unknown somebody told my friend, Robert Weston (author of the kids’ book, Zorgamazoo): If you’re going to be a writer, floss. There’s no dental plan!

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 get up and make breakfast for my daughter. I check my email. And then – how does this happen? – the day’s half over.

I wish I had a regular routine. I like routine. I need it. But lately, I don’t get it. Right now I just grab whatever time I can get, between paid jobs, home schooling, and ordinary household chores.

I don’t recommend this to anyone. In an ideal world I would set aside regular writing hours, as I managed to do for one blissful year when I was on a leave from full-time teaching and before I became a parent. It was my most productive year ever. Maybe I’ll find a way to recreate that schedule next year if my daughter goes back to school.

I used to make a practice of beginning every writing day by copying out, in longhand, a poem that I love. It was instructive. I memorized quite a few poems that way, though I’ve forgotten them since then. It might be fun to do the same thing with excerpts of prose.

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

The library stacks. A walk or a run. The kitchen, to cook something. And sometimes, to another piece of unfinished work – preferably in a different genre.

12 - Betty or Veronica or Archie or Reggie?

Blonde and “nice” equals Betty. Feh! Worse yet, I don’t have her skill with auto mechanics.

Change the paradigm. Make it Peanuts. Then I’m Schroeder. With a pen instead of a piano. Or a different kind of keyboard.

Drive or fly (or sail)?

Walk. Swim. Climb.

But I do get on a plane for longer distances. And use the subway in a city.

Laptop or desktop?

I like a laptop. But I have a desktop.

And a notebook, with a Pilot Techpoint pen. Right now the notebook is one I got as a gift at the Ottawa Writers’ Festival last fall. My cat, who enjoys eating paper – preferably important paper – has gnawed the corner off it.

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’m interested in weaving different kinds of texts together and playing with genre. So I can find inspiration from many kinds of extra-literary writing. Previous inspirations have included the dictionary, a medical text, pop and literary biography, recipes.

I love music and visual art as well and have occasionally found inspiration there, but it’s not as easy to trace directly in the work. It’s more a “feed the soul” kind of thing. Ditto for nature. And the city. I’m from Toronto but now I live in Kingston and I sometimes miss the swagger and clash of big-city life.

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

Oh – so many. I always hate this question because inevitably I leave too many out.

Different writers have been important at different times. In high school I had a wonderful English teacher who introduced us to the Russians – Tolstoy, Turgenev, Checkov. I got to Dostoevsky on my own. We also read Beckett and Albee and O’Neill. I’ve never forgotten them.

Later I read Virginia Woolf. I loved all her work, but especially To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, the diaries, and of course her essays. Reading her essays I began, in a halting way, to write my own, not really conscious that I was doing so at first.

Alice Munro. Have I said Alice Munro? She amazes. And Mavis Gallant, too. I love her sharp intelligence. Also Lorrie Moore. And Charles Baxter’s Saul and Patsy stories.

I’ve always loved and read poetry. Sometimes contemporary and sometimes not. I went through a long Rilke phase. And an even longer Keats phase. Some poets I fall back on in times of need. Others push me forward. For a while, recently, I was reading mainly Chinese poets in translation. In the last few weeks I’ve been reading Sina Queyras, Ronna Bloom, and Jacqueline Larson.

At various times, literary biographies or letters have been important. I especially like Richard Holmes’s life of Coleridge and Keats’s letters. And a book by Phyllis Rose called Parallel Lives.

I’m also a big reader of cookbooks. Everything from Brillat-Savarin to Mark Bittman.

Contemporary novelists who’ve moved, impressed, or influenced in some way or another include Gordimer, Doris Lessing (for the way the Golden Notebook is structured), Martin Amis (the style), Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, Zadie Smith (hmmm…I seem to have a thing for the Brits), Michael Cunningham.

In terms of influences for Pathologies, Richard Rodriguez’ Hunger of Memory made a huge impact on me when I first read it. Again, I had no idea why at the time, but in retrospect I see that it was partly because he was working against or around accepted definitions of genre. I loved Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments – that was the kind of memoir I wanted to write, if I wrote memoir. I read Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father shortly after I’d written a memoir-essay about my own father; reading it made me feel I was on the right track. It encouraged me to keep going.

I read The Woman Warrior late in the process and was thoroughly humbled and inspired. “Memoir” doesn’t do it justice. It’s a redefinition of creative nonfiction and an amazingly original piece of work. How did she do that?

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

Learn Mandarin and live in China for a year.

Finish all the books I still want to write!

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 might have been a chef. A singer. Or a neuropsychologist.

At one time I thought I’d be a lawyer. I even went to law school. Thank god, I escaped that fate.

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

It was the only thing I ever really wanted to do. I couldn’t not do it.

But of course I also do other things. I teach, and I enjoy teaching. And in the past, I’ve held so many kinds of jobs. Waitress. Book store clerk. Researcher on health law. Perfume seller. Chicken gutter.

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

I re-read Vanity Fair a few weeks ago. I enjoyed it more the first time through, but I still admired the characterization of Becky Sharp.

My film watching is sadly diminished since I became a parent. But I’m really impatient with most movies these days, anyway. They seem so formulaic. I tend to prefer documentaries.

19 - What are you currently working on?

A novel and a book of poems. Plus the occasional review.