author biography ; extended biography ; author page

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Peter F. Yacht Club: lucky thirteen

Issue #13, July 2009
edited by rob mclennan
“lucky thirteen – the white album.”

Contributors:

Cameron Anstee
Stephanie Bolster
Amanda Earl
Lea Graham
Gwendolyn Guth

Lainna Lane El Jabi
Marcus McCann
rob mclennan
Sean Moreland
Pearl Pirie
Roland Prevost
Monty Reid
Sandra Ridley
and Janice Tokar

published by above/ground press

for a copy, send $5 (+ $1 for shipping) to rob mclennan; above/ground press subscribers rec' a complimentary copy; payable to rob mclennan c/o 858 Somerset Street West, main floor, Ottawa ON K1R 6R7;

Some back issues still aBoldvailable: if anyone interested, until the end of August, send $12/3 issues (otherwise $5 per issue). Still have stacks around of Issue #8 (October 2007, “Edmonton issue,” produced at the University of Alberta, edited by rob mclennan), Issue #9 (January 2008, edited by Jesse Patrick Ferguson in “The Poets’ Corner,” Fredericton, New Brunswick), Issue #11 (May 2008, “Edmonton issue the second,” produced at the University of Alberta, edited by rob mclennan) and Issue #12 (September 2009, edited by Amanda Earl, “Fifth anniversary issue: Anarchy, Apocalypse, & Madness). Other issues are around, but much more random.

don't forget the above/ground press sweet sixteen on August 13 at the Ottawa Art Gallery!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Ronna Bloom

Ronna Bloom has published four books of poetry, most recently, Permiso, published by Pedlar Press in 2009. Her first book, Fear of the Ride (Carleton University Press, 1996) was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry. The second, Personal Effects (Pedlar Press, 2000) was recorded by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Public Works (Pedlar Press, 2004) was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award. Ronna works as a teacher of poetry and prose writing and as a psychotherapist. Her poetry has been translated into Spanish and Bangla, and broadcast on CBC Radio. She has led writing workshops across Canada and abroad, and is currently Poet in Community at the University of Toronto.

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 first book was hard to believe. A year or so after it came out, I went to read in another city and saw the host, who I’d never met, with a copy of it. I wanted to say, ‘how did you get that?’ It still felt very much an extension of me and not yet on its own.

The most recent book, Permiso, in some ways has more in common with the first than the others. I think it is quite direct and plainspoken. Yet it seems to speak more widely than the first. I listened for poems with the widest ear possible. Perhaps, that sounds flaky, but what I mean is that it was both absolutely personal and also absolutely not.

The process of revision changed a lot. I did almost no editing with the first one, mostly because I didn’t know how. Also the editor was very hands-off, which felt like a blessing to me at the time. With the next two books I began to learn how to revise. I described the editing of Public Works as “scouring.”

But with Permiso there was a different thing. A gentleness I didn’t know before. The manuscript lay on the other side of the bed for two years and I edited it by leafing through until the poem that fit what I was feeling came up. Or I’d read them out loud to whatever music I was listening to and go from there.

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

I have a hard time reading fiction. I stop after a paragraph and go off in a dream about it. I am suited to poetry: the direct hit.

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 write poems in journals in among the lists and complaints and notes of the day. Sometimes I know it’s a poem immediately and sometimes, only later when I comb through the notebook I realize there’s a poem buried in there. Often I don’t know what the book is until well into it. There’s a hint, a theme, but it’s only after about three years and with the attuned ear and eye of my editor, Beth Follett, that I begin to see where it’s going and work with that.

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?

Poems begin with a phrase or feeling. Often if I get the first line the rest just comes. In terms of the larger project, I usually write short pieces that begin to go together and talk to each other.

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

I love doing readings. I’m a big ham. The reading isn’t really part of the process. It’s another process. The reading is a performance, a chance to enter the language and feelings of the poem, fresh. I do it for myself and especially for those present. With Permiso, many of the poems had never been read before publication. So there’s a discovery of how the thing works in a room with people. A surprise.

(The first time I read in public I had these tiny poems and read them shyly. It was like there was some rule I wasn’t aware of that said ‘Don’t be too enthusiastic. Be cool.’ Someone from the back of the room yelled ‘louder.’ So I leaned into the microphone and said ‘hello?’ When I heard my voice in the microphone, I thought, ‘Oh. I like this!’ Then I thought to myself: ‘No one is ever going to read your poems the way you know how to read them.’ So I let it rip.)

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I don’t think of theoretical concerns. At least not consciously. I suppose there are sometimes questions idling below the surface as in the ideas of private and public space that emerged in Public Works. But I’m very concrete, physical, image-making. I want to know ‘what is this that I’m seeing/feeling/hearing?’ Also, I’m beginning to trust that if I’m sensing it, maybe someone else is too. Is that a theory?

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 think writers have different roles depending on who they are and what they’re drawn to. One day when I was wondering (perhaps worrying) about what I was doing in my writing a friend said to me: “Your job is to show people what insides look like.” I think, at the moment anyway, that’s what I do.

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

Essential. And good. But not just any editor. I have been lucky to work with Beth Follett, who is also the publisher of Pedlar Press. The process with her is almost collaborative. I lean on her mind and heart. We got drunk one night looking at Permiso and she told a joke that ended up in a poem. She is profoundly on the mark. I don’t know if I could do it without her.

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

Go where the energy is.

Also, don’t worry about what it’s called. That is, never mind about questions like “do you think this is a poem?” Write the thing and let someone else worry about what to call it.

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 wake up early -- too early -- 5am if I’m lucky. Eat a big breakfast: masses of tea, toast, and a million kinds of jam. That’s about the only routine of the day.

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

I write about not writing, or I read poetry that I love, or I watch television. And I try to stop trying.

12 - What did your favourite teacher teach you?

I’m a bit embarrassed because it’s so cliche but I’ve been a Natalie Goldberg fan of the ‘keep your hand moving and write about your obsessions’ variety. But others have said the same thing. We circle back to our themes. No avoiding them.

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?

Permiso has a lot of music in it. The book began after the end of my marriage and music was more important then than I’d ever known. I especially wanted to listen to people singing to me in foreign languages. Their voices were the thing. But Neil Young and Leonard Cohen also broke and healed my heart over and over.

Having worked as a photographer, I rely on images alot. While I know sound naturally did come into my life more recently, I was also consciously wanting to bring in more than just the one sense.

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

Allen Ginsberg was huge for me a few years ago -- his declarative nature. I was so relieved by his use of people’s names! Recently I’ve been reading C.D Wright and Charles Wright. There’s something earthy and elliptical I love. I want.

Rhea Tregebov was my first mentor. Reading her work was the permission I needed. I remember reading The Proving Grounds, sitting in the Future Bakery, bawling my eyes out and thinking “You can write this?” You’re allowed?”

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


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?

A baker. Or A film critic. Which, I guess, is also a writer.

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

It was portable, cheaper than photography, and seemed the most direct way to connect to myself and the world.

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

Last great book: Cooling Time C.D Wright

Last great film: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly directed by Julian Schnabel.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a memoir. I have no idea how to do it. But it seems to have started.

12 or 20 questions archive (second series);

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Annabel Lyon

Annabel Lyon is the author of Oxygen (stories), The Best Thing for You (novellas), and All-Season Edie (juvenile novel). Her first novel for adults, The Golden Mean, about the relationship between Aristotle and the teenaged Alexander the Great, will be published by Random House in August 2009. She lives in New Westminster with her husband and two children.


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


After Oxygen was published I got teaching gigs, reviewing gigs, etc. So I was able (barely) to make a living as a writer, whereas before I had to have other jobs. The Golden Mean doesn’t quite have the stylised prose that Oxygen has—I’m not sure I could have sustained that for a novel. But it definitely has more story, more range and depth. My joke about Oxygen was always that it had just one story: a girl and her dad watching TV. The Golden Mean has Aristotle and Alexander the Great.

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


I do write non-fiction too (journalism), but really it wasn’t something I ever thought much about. It’s just the way I process the world. I think in terms of fiction.

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 tend to have just one idea at a time, and work very slowly. With stories, I usually write a super-slow first draft that comes out pretty close to the finished thing; with longer works and definitely with the novel it was much more a process of multiple revisions.

4 - Where does a 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?

Short stories start in tiny moments: a bit of overheard dialogue, a perfect description, an interesting piece of clothing…. Longer stories usually start with a character facing some kind of problem. The Golden Mean started with me reading a thumbnail bio of Aristotle and thinking, that’s interesting, how would you structure a novel around that? Then sketching an outline, almost for fun, and then realizing when I turned to other things that the idea kept nagging me, and I had to work on it some more. And then some more. And then for a few years more.

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


They’re kind of like doing the laundry. I don’t enjoy them or not enjoy them; they’re part of the job, so I do them. I’m not a natural performer but I don’t get too nervous either.

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 subscribe to Martha Nussbaum’s view of literature as essentially an exercise in ethics: you’re putting out an ethical world-view, challenging your own and your readers’ ethical preconceptions. That doesn’t mean you’re resolving things necessarily, but you’re opening people’s minds to all the shades of grey. It’s not so much “is abortion wrong?” as “what does it mean to live a good life?”.

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


I don’t know how to answer this one. I write what I’m able to, to the best of my abilities. I never really feel like I choose my subject matter; it’s just what I’m capable of at that time. So I’m not consciously forging a role for myself in the larger culture. I can’t speak for anyone else.

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


Both. When I’m in the middle of working on something, everyone is an idiot but me. Then, when I’ve had a chance to get a bit of distance from the thing, I almost always take suggestions from my editors really well, and work to incorporate them. I decided early on to keep my inner diva in.

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

Write each book as though it will be your last; don’t try to keep anything back for the next book. Someone I know once got advice to this effect from Richard Ford.

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 used to love to write in the morning, but I have two kids now and they usually have other plans for me. These days my writing time tends to be in the afternoons when my husband’s off work and can keep the kids out of my hair. And I can work while they’re napping, after they’re in bed, etc. I’ve got to the point where I can focus pretty quickly and get small but substantive things done in small amounts of time.

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


If something gets stuck I put it away for a while, and come back to it when I’m feeling less frustrated. That’s about it.

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

I was a kid! I don’t remember! Ask me another quirky one! I can be quirky!

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?


No, I think McFadden has it right (for me, anyway).

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


The writers I read and reread are Joy Williams, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, William Trevor, John Updike…. I read the New Yorker religiously and get really upset when someone takes it in the bathroom and gets it damp.

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


Run a marathon in less than four hours.

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?


Sometimes I fantasize about taking a PhD in law and having an academic career. I wouldn’t have made a good lawyer but I like thinking and reading and writing about ethics. I’ve done a fair bit of teaching of one sort or another and I think I could have done that.

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


I don’t know. It’s just something that’s always been there. Before I could read, I dictated stories to my mom and then drew pictures around what she’d written. I always knew writing stories was going to be my thing.

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


I sat on the Rogers Writers’ Trust jury last year and got to read pretty much everything published in Canada in 2007/8. So I read lots of good stuff. Memorably, Miriam Toews The Flying Troutmans, Lee Henderson The Man Game, Stan Dragland The Drowned Lands, Rivka Galchen Atmospheric Disturbances, Ahmad Saidullah Happiness and Other Disorders, Craig Boyko Blackouts.

Last great movie would be The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I rented it a few months ago.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a sequel to my kids book, All-Season Edie, tentatively entitled Encore Edie. I’m also thinking about a sequel to The Golden Mean, but haven’t started writing it yet.


12 or 20 questions archive (second series);

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Tess Fragoulis

Tess Fragoulis is the author of Stories to Hide from Your Mother (Arsenal Pulp), which was nominated for the QWF First Book Prize; Ariadne’s Dream (Thistledown), which was long-listed for the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award; and is the editor of Musings, an anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature. Her latest novel, The Goodtime Girl, will be published in 2010 by Cormorant. She lives in Montreal and teaches writing part-time at Concordia 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?

First of all, you should know that I’m listening to hurtin’ country songs while answering these questions, which might affect my tone.

It goes without saying that getting a first book published is a good shot in the arm. I gained a public voice and met a lot of people I otherwise would not have met, and good and bad things were printed about me, whereas before only people I actually crossed paths with had the nerve to criticize what I did. It gave me the momentum to write my second book, which was not a given. I was able to get grants and to travel to writer’s residencies. Professionally there were definite changes, personally, not that much.

I think every book is almost like a first book in that you start from scratch and have no idea if it will be finished, published, well-received. Writing is obviously a very insecure business. But there is a freedom and joy to that first book that is hard to repeat with the later ones. It’s like first love—you love others, but it just doesn’t have that all-encompassing hope and romanticism. Your first book in some way spoils you for the all the rest. At least that’s how it felt for me.

My most recent completed work, a historical novel, felt a lot more serious and constrained than my first book in that there were so many things I was trying to say and explore and devise within the limitations of the time my characters inhabited. They say that novels are like marriages, stories like affairs, and this novel was definitely a long and complicated marriage that needed a lot of attention and work. It is a book that is less fanciful and unfettered than either of my first two books, but it has other complexities that I think are worthwhile and interesting. Of course, in reaction to all those years of hard labour, I am now back to stories, which are light and airy and wistful and absurd. My obsession with the darkness of life seems to have shifted for the time being. I am after a different type of experience, both for myself and for my readers. Perhaps part of it is an attempt to recapture the verve of the first book, or its freedom at least.

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


The truth is that I actually began as a poet. My first published pieces were poems, and I was prouder of them than anything I had ever accomplished before. I recently had the experience of teaching a poetry workshop and I see how little I knew about technique, about meter, let alone form, but somehow I managed to intuit some of it, and to produce a few good poems. But poems were not large enough for what I wanted to do, I needed a bigger field to play in. So I moved onto the short story, and then onto the novel, that really has ruined me for the shorter forms. Even my stories expand to about 30 pages these days. So room, it was all about room. I did gain a new appreciation for poetry teaching that workshop, the slowness that it demands in order for the reader to fully appreciate its mysteries. But ideas don’t come to me as poems anymore, though they once did. I’m still most attracted to short stories.

As for non-fiction—I like the veil that fiction provides. I’m not that into the naked truth of things. Whenever I write non-fiction, I feel too exposed. I like to do whatever I want with the facts, turn them into something else—rewrite them to please myself. I enjoy my imagination more than I enjoy real life.

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’m the type of writer that needs a long fermentation period. An idea might appear to be a good one, but I won’t do anything right away, I need to let it sit in my brain and gather, I don’t know, strength, momentum, willpower. I have to not be able to avoid it, it has to start nagging at me, otherwise it’s hard for me to start. As for how quickly it all comes once I start writing, that’s different all the time. Depends on the project: some of the stories I’m writing now come in bursts, and then there’s nothing for a while (I guess they are going through their own probationary period). And though there may be a lot of adjusting and tweaking, stories especially tend to come to me in their proper form. Things may be added and subtracted, of course, but if you looked at the first draft and the last, they are not all that different. I’ve never been able to tear the thing apart and rework it in an entirely different manner. If a story needs that much work, I probably just put it in a file and move onto something else.

4 - Where does 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?

When I was starting out writing stories, I realized that having a larger plan was a good idea, something substantial I was working towards. It keeps me motivated when a story is finished to move on to the next one. It also helps to have a flexible theme, as that in itself will produce ideas for further stories. With Stories to Hide from Your Mother, the theme was sex and secrets, so my brain was actively coming up with ideas that might in some way fit into that theme. The current collection also has a theme (which I am not at liberty to divulge at the moment), and of course, the novels were conceived as novels.

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

Before my work was published in magazines, and then in book form, I really counted on readings to give me energy and feedback, to keep me from the dreadful isolation that writing can sometimes be. It was necessary for me to go out and find an audience for what I was doing because there was no book going out on its own, finding its audience without me. I think that is the beauty of writing—you send it out there and you no longer have to be its chaperone or emissary, in the way a dancer or an actor must. I really like that someone can have a private experience with my work, can hear it, see it without my physical participation. But in the beginning I had to accompany it wherever it went, and it was good to feel that it was getting out there and that people liked it, and that did keep me going.

I have to say that in recent years I am less interested in giving readings and going to them—I no longer actively pursue them. I’d rather someone read my book and I’d also rather read someone’s book. But I don’t hate readings—I’m a decent reader, and it’s still good to get that immediate response, to meet people, to talk to them and hear what they have to say.

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 never, ever, ever think in this way about writing fiction. I’m interested in characters and their experiences, not in theories or questions that I may or may not be able to answer through them. Isn’t writing a good story hard enough? I’d rather leave the theories to academics. That’s their job, not mine.

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?

Oh, I don’t know. I think writers and artists in general are becoming increasingly marginalized. We produce beautiful objects in some small corner which we all inhabit, and on occasion these objects make some sort of blip in the world at large, then we go back to our little corner and do it some more. I think this is as good a role as any, and I feel I live a privileged life. I sometimes wonder if there is any real point to writing more books, and then I give up the notion of art having/needing a point. I’m not trying to cure cancer or facilitate world peace. In a sense, literature is a luxury object, like haute couture—created lovingly, with the best materials, and enjoyed by a select few who appreciate it and can afford it and are not interested in knock offs. I’m happy to be part of that little margin. Perhaps like haute couture literature trickles into the culture and keeps it from being entirely mundane and pedestrian.

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

A good editor is a wonderful thing. He/she can provide an overview, a perspective that gets lost on the writer after too many months/years staring at the same material. It’s so easy to become inured to your own work, to miss things or to just accept something as it is because you just can’t bear to work on it any more. So I think an outside editor is essential to the final part of the creative process, both his/her discernment and demands. The rub is that you have to have an editor you trust and thesuggestions need to make sense. It becomes really difficult if they don’t, or if there is an agenda different than your own at work. I had this experience before publishing my first book of stories, and often I just withdrew the submission rather than accept changes that I didn’t agree with from people I didn’t know.

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

Be kind and generous to all your characters—even the despicable ones. Richard Ford said something like this in a lecture at Humber College. I heard something similar in a Jane Rule documentary the other day.

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?

When I am working on a project that is really underway (meaning I’ve moved out of the avoidance phase and actually working like something is going to come of it), I like to begin around 1pm and work until 4 or 5. I don’t really have the stamina for more than that. I like to think that 3 hours of writing is like 6 hours of any other job. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but a lot can be achieved in 3 focused hours, and I’m pleased with myself if I’ve put that much time in on consecutive days.. I must say, I need the entire day free in order to have those 3 productive hours, which is becoming more and more difficult. (This has already taken 90 minutes with a few breaks, for instance, and I think I need another one now.)

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

Lately, I’ve really counted on a stack of old creative journals I’ve kept pretty diligently. After so many years on the last novel, my brain is not firing off as many new ideas at the moment as usual, but because I so diligently wrote down spurious ideas as they came out of nowhere, kept articles that intrigued me, did freewrites on a regular basis, I have plenty of things to draw from. In fact, there is enough in there that I might never have to come up with another new idea ever again!

Other times it’s just good to just stay stalled for a while until some kind of pick-up truck comes and drags you out of the mud. What’s the point of just spinning your wheels? Just try to be patient. No one has died from not writing for a little while (at least that’s what I like to tell myself.)

12 - What did your favourite teacher teach you?

To go all the way, to not hold anything back, to go further than I thought I wanted to.

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?

Music is a big influence on my work. My historical novel was written because of a certain type of Greek music from the 20s and 30s (rembetika), which got me interested in the period and in the people who produced the music. My first novel, Ariadne’s Dream, also had many musical references, which helped me capture the mood of the characters and the energy of their lives and emotions. I love music at least as much as I love books—they’re really neck in neck. Certain images in films have also spurred creation. And at least one story in the collection I’m working on now was inspired by a portrait I saw in Scotland. It is less common for me to be inspired by a book, though I did try my own version of Jane Austen last summer as an exercise.

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

There are writers I return to on a regular basis because they get me back on track. The usual suspects are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Richard Ford, Diane Schoemperlen, and as of late, Amy Hempel. There is something that each of them does that I need to remember for my own work. Other than that, I’ve read quite a few Buddhist books in the past few years, which get me back on track in another way.

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

Despite what I said earlier about non-fiction, I’d really like to write book-length non-fiction for a change of pace. My non-fiction voice is quite different than my fiction voice, and there are a number of subjects I’m interested in exploring, but haven’t quite found the right angle yet. So they are fermenting for the moment. It would be good to write a book that was directly helpful to someone, and to get over the fear of being too exposed. Some of my favourite books in recent years have been memoir/travelogues. It would be great to do something like that someday.

I’d also like to be able to jog 5k without dying.

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 always thought I would be a psychologist—it was always my second choice. I took some tentative steps towards this a few years ago, then turned around and came home. I heard someone say that you need to put 10,000 hours of work into something before you are considered a professional or an expert—something other than an amateur. I’ve now put those hours into writing, and I can’t imagine putting that much time and effort into something else. So I don’t think there will be any other attempts to become something else at this stage. Maybe just a different kind of writer.

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

I began writing when I was very young because I loved books and no one told me that it was some kind of special thing that only certain people did. I had no notion of being a writer until my early 20s. Then again, there was nothing else I really wanted to be--I didn’t have any grand goals or ambitions towards anything in particular. So I guess I leaned into something that I was already doing for myself anyway. Nothing made me write. I just liked it and kept doing it and then it became something.

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

My mind went blank with this question. Great depends on so many things.

I can say that some of my all time favourite films are In the Mood for Love, La Dolce Vita, Crumb, and Gigi (how’s that for a range?). Recently I’ve enjoyed Vicki Christina Barcelona, Adam’s Rib, and YiYi. I also really liked the new Star Trek, which I didn’t expect, and a weird documentary called The Complete History of My Sexual Failures.

As for books, the all time faves and greats include 100 Years of Solitude (Garcia Marquez), Skating to Antarctica (Jenny Diski), The Collected Stories of Truman Capote, Middlesex (Eugenides), and The Final Confession of Mabel Stark (Robert Hough). I would say Mabel Stark is the last great book I read. Couldn’t put it down. I was so happy to be inside its world.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a series of short stories that are sort of adult fairytales—somewhat fantastical and good-natured. It was my sideline while I was writing my historical novel, and without realizing it, the stories and the pages piled up. So the collection is close to complete. I hope to be done by the end of the year, if the final edits to the novel do not interfere.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Open Letter: Beyond Stasis: Poetics and Feminism Today

This is less a statement of feminist poetics than a statement of anxiety about feminism and poetics.

First, I wonder: what is a feminist poetics?

Writing difference, asserting versions, multiplicity, complication?

What’s a useful question to answer here? How do I, as a writer, experience writing, as a woman? The question is so qualified.

The question is about writing but after writing.

The question is how is the writing received? (Natalie Simpson, “Never quite arriving, or: a poetics of anxiety”)One of the most impressive issues of the critical journal Open Letter that I’ve seen in some time has to be “Beyond Stasis: Poetics and Feminism Today” (Thirteenth Series, Number 9, Summer 2009), guest-edited by Kate Eichhorn and Barbara Godard. This issue covers more than two hundred pages on and by some of the most provocative of Canadian women innovative writers over the past twenty years, including Rachel Zolf, Natalie Simpson, Oana Avasilichioaei, Rita Wong, Trish Salah, A. Rawlings, Angela Carr, Suzanne Zelazo, Sylvia Legris, Sina Queyras, Margaret Christakos, Nathalie Stephens, Joanne Arnott and Lola Lemire Tostevin. Produced out of the result of a conference that never got off the ground, I almost wish there were fewer conferences in the world, just so more issues like this could come to fruition; most conferences that actually happen don’t have half the energy and verve of what’s happening here. As Eichhorn writes in her introduction:

This issue’s title, “Beyond Stasis,” is both a statement of fact and a call to action. It also references the intentionally sardonic title of a conference on feminist poetics that four of the issue’s contributors attempted but ironically failed to realize five years ago. As Elena Basile explains, our failure to move “beyond stasis” at the time, however, may hold valuable insights into why a younger generation (or two) of Canadian women writers and critics have struggled to establish and sustain dialogues on poetics, politics, feminism and (post)nationalism since the mid 1990s: “A few insistent questions kept haunting our meetings, which today I am tempted to read as symptomatic both of a deep-seated anxiety for cultural/political recognition, and of an ambivalent desire to engage with the legacy of second wave innovative poetics in ways capable of addressing present issues and concerns without falling prey to
generational nostalgia or generational resentment.”
One of the questions that comes up throughout is the sheer amount of critical lack for a whole generation or two of Canadian women writers; I would suggest that the problem is even broader than that, that this isn’t simply a gender issue, or even one of generation. As Christakos writes in her piece, “Assignment of the Cleft”:

Over the past two decades, apart from the crucial support of the small literary presses who have published my work and the grants I have received through peer-juried recommendation processes, there has been very little in the way of my work being offered any critical attention, or sustained exegesis. I don’t think my experience of paltry reception is unusual though. Every innovative writer colleague of my own generation has been woefully overlooked. The question I suppose remains: who would or should do that looking, that receiving? In the 1980s one hoped for response from one’s mentor generation. In this era of antic overwork and exhaustion, most senior writers, unless they are located within academia, do not participate in the production of poetry criticism. It is almost expected now that emerging writers should ‘pay their dues’ by expending a great deal of artistic energy on writing barely remunerated or unpaid ‘reviews’ generally for any of the small-circulation Canadian journals or for online magazines, and for doing the slog work as assistant editors, interns, program coordinators and event organizers for their seniors.

It is rare to find a critical essay on any of the writers of my generation or the two next generations composed by any of the writers whose influence most powerfully
shaped my/our work.
I’ve wondered the same for many years about the same critical lack, but would cast the net far wider, from anyone beginning to write in the 1970s to the present, overshadowed, perhaps, by the long shadows of the first wave of 1960s innovators. Overshadowed, and too, caught up in the overwhelming amount of work that hasn’t been done, against those few left who seem willing to do any of it, and even fewer publishing options for critical writing. Does anyone remember the days when journals such as Contemporary Verse 2, Paragraph, Brick: A Journal of Reviews, Essays on Canadian Writing and others existed for the sake of continuing conversation through reviews, interviews and essays? And why is it that writers such as Lisa Robertson, Natalie Stephens and Anne Carson seem to get more attention and critical response in the United States than by those in their own home country? In her piece, “Nothing Simply This Way Comes,” Sina Queyras gets more specific, continuing (nearly) the same thought, writing:

In fact, Canada is in the very odd position of having some of its most innovative poets both in the mainstream spotlight and reviled by it. The more successful women such as Anne Carson, Margaret Atwood and Moure become, the more they are attacked, portrayed as terrifying creatures, and here at home, often much maligned – described as national embarrassments and worse. There is something perplexing about poetry – more specifically, feminist poetry – and its unwillingness to con/form that seems to evoke very personal, direct, and often anatomical or body-related attacks. “I have developed an allergy to Erin Moure, and so should you,” Shane Nielson suggests. What exactly is he allergic to? Is this aversion to the terms of the conversation offered by Moure, in his inability to engage in it? Should we develop an allergy to all things in a poem that tear and demand attention? Should we develop an allergy to thinking texts? Complexity? Discomfort? Innovation? Anything we don’t understand or like? Poems themselves? Language?
Another point that Rachel Zolf brings up is in the resistance that most seem to have to so called “difficult work,” including resistance by those who profess to want to engage with such, whether reviews, critics or other writers, as Zolf asks exactly what poetry can, is and should be doing. What exactly is the problem?

Leaving aside any latent (or not-so-latent) interpersonal issues underlying these responses, the exchanges bring up some important questions. Do we have to like, enjoy, feel uplifted by everything we read? What is it about a text that makes it likeable – or not? What do readers hope to ‘get’ out of texts? Should poetry enact a transparent transmission of meaning? Is its task to provide comfort and certainty in complex and different times? What can and does poetry do?
Part of what makes this issue like a conference itself is how the issue is organized into sections, beginning with “Positions” and “Dialogues” into “Histories” and “Analyses,” ending finally with Tostevin’s “Afterword,” where she begins by acknowledging the sixteen years between this current issue and the “Redrawing The Lines: The Next Generation” issue of Open Letter she edited. Where has the time gone, and what has it done? It’s compilations such as these that keep me optimistic for the future of critical inquiry and discourse through and about Canadian writing generally, and poetry specifically. As Tostevin writes in her endpiece:

So what does feminist poetics mean today? Is it, as Natalie Simpson asks, writing with a difference? is it an assertion of versions, multiplicity, complication? It is certainly all those, but does this apply exclusively to feminist writing? As Holly Dupej points out “third-wave feminists are rightfully weary of such ‘essentialist’ notions of gender and cultural categories, and the falsely universal definitions that they imply.” Doesn’t this also apply to the creative imagination, I would like to add? Or as Heather Milne asks, has the time come “to push beyond the stasis that has come to characterize our generation’s orientation to feminist poetics?”

Sunday, July 26, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with G.C. Waldrep

G.C. Waldrep is the author of three full-length collections of poems--Goldbeater's Skin (Colorado Prize, 2003); Disclamor (BOA Editions, 2007); and Archicembalo (Tupelo Press, 2009: winner of the Dorset Prize, judged by C.D. Wright)--as well as two chapbooks, The Batteries (New Michigan Press, 2004) and One Way No Exit (Tarpaulin Sky, 2008). His work has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and the Campbell Corner Foundation, as well as a Pushcart Prize, a Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative Poetry, and residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. He was a 2007 fellow in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. He currently lives in Lewisburg, Pa., and teaches at Bucknell University.

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?

Goldbeater’s Skin brought with it a strange sense of the public that I had not experienced—not in terms of my work—over the course of the eight preceding years, since I’d been writing poems and even since I’d begun to publish in journals. The book was a made thing, both an object in its own right and a collection of texts that were familiar to me, that were in their small ways like children. For the first several weeks I kept moving the book around my apartment, taking it with me in my bag to work, etc., thinking about the sheer physicality of it—and also about the fact that other people were experiencing it in this same, physical way, whether or not they had any prior acquaintance with the poems. What I am saying, I guess, is that in its physicality the book created a site, a public space for the work that had not existed before.

Newer work: for me, each project or lyric impulse is different. Sometimes the result is a full- or chapbook-length manuscript, sometimes not even that. Some impulses are cul-de-sacs, and some are ghosts—or are inhabited by ghosts, that is to say other voices. In practice it amounts to the same thing.

I began work on Archicembalo (my most recent book, released by Tupelo Press in April 2009) in December 2002, just as I was finishing Goldbeater’s Skin (which at the time hadn’t yet found a publisher). I was reading Stein and Berssenbrugge and Geoffrey Hill and thinking a lot about music—my original arts training was all in music, rather than literature—and wondering what a poetics grounded in music theory would constitute. The poems are essentially prose poems, but they exist in a kind of musical space—if not a rhymed or metered space, then at least a space with duration and (im)pulse, with assonance and alliteration, a music of the mind. I wanted to write poems about music on music’s terms. Much later, when Tupelo asked me to summarize Archicembalo, the only thing I could come up with was a question: “What does it mean to listen to poems the way poems listen to paintings?” This isn’t quite right, but it’s close.

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

I’m not sure. As a young person, in high school and college, I wanted nothing but to be a fiction writer, in the mold of my heroes: Faulkner, Welty, Warren, O’Connor. I wrote some poetry on the side—bad poetry. And very bad fiction too, as it turned out.

I started writing seriously in the spring of 1995 as I was making the decision to leave academia—I had earned a Ph.D. in U.S. history—for life in a small Amish community. It was a surprise to me then, and it’s a surprise to me now. I do subscribe to the practice of poetry in vocational terms—Flannery O’Connor’s sense of writing as a spiritual vocation—but each poem remains for me an act of intuition. I’m never more than a line or two ahead of myself in the compositional moment. If I know ahead of time what I want to say, it comes out as prose.

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

It varies. In general my poems come quickly, when they come at all. With one exception—the “Batteries” sequence from my second book, Disclamor, which was designed to accrue in duration, to take place compositionally over a longer time span—I’ve never spent more than one hour drafting a lyric poem, or a few hours on a long poem. I have to find my way into and then out of the lyric space of the poem in a single sitting. If I’m interrupted, that’s usually it. It’s easier for me to start a new poem than it is to re-enter that generative compositional space.

All but a handful of my lyric poems have been through-composed at one sitting. I revise obsessively, but revision is usually more a matter of re-visioning, of trying to see the poem in fresh light and then make small changes (line breaks, quick tucks or additions) accordingly. I rarely make major structural changes to poems after the first few hours or days, though I do linger over the finer points of each gesture and music for months, years even.

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?

Never with an idea. Sometimes with an image (ekphrasis), but more often—most often—with a shred of language, something I overhear in public or something I pull from my own unconscious. More than a few poems have originated in creative misreadings: I have keratoconus in both eyes, and the distortion sometimes catches me off guard. Felix culpa.
I usually have at least two manuscripts-in-progress on my desk at any given time. One is a “project” book—a sequence or series that is governed by some sort of rubric, some explicit, overarching subject matter or compositional strategy. Archicembalo was a project book. The other manuscript is composed of discrete poems that either do or don’t convoke some sort of constellating energy as they accumulate.

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

I wouldn’t say readings have anything to do with my “creative process,” though I don’t mind them. Sometimes I even enjoy them. Since my original arts training was in music—as a singer—I do believe the poem is in part a text that demands vocal expression: that wants to live in or on the tongue. On the other hand, the poem is also and simultaneously a meditative object, something on the page that works in the intimate, even private space between writer and reader. Some poems are more one than the other. The poems in Archicembalo, for instance, feel very intimate, at least to me. I’ve only read from this manuscript once in public up to now.

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?

No, or not in terms of what we usually mean by “theoretical.” The terms of my concern are affective and theological, which is to say, formal. Part of the writing process is discovering what the questions are in the act of intuiting the answers.

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 role of the writer in any culture, past or present, is to write. For me, this implies both a sustained engagement with the writer’s world and a position from which that engagement can take place. Different writers claim or acquire different positions, different engagements.

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

It depends on the editor. Confronting an Other on the grounds of one’s own, intimate work is necessarily bracing. When we were finalizing my second book, for instance, I argued that the manuscript was too long—that it needed to be trimmed. My editor agreed. But when we sat down together with our lists of poems we each thought were good candidates for cutting, we discovered the lists were mutually exclusive, almost to the poem. We had the same manuscript before us, but we were perceiving, through that manuscript, wildly different cores.

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

Doesn’t that change over the course of a writer’s life? I circle back to so many bits, some from living poets and friends, others from our inheritance, the literature. For instance, this exchange, translated and paraphrased from Jose Saramago’s Blindness:

—Do you mean that we have more words than we need.

—I mean, we have too few feelings.

Or this, from the painter Mark Rothko: “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token.”

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

I can’t do it. Either I am writing prose or I am writing poetry. There is a switch in the mind.

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 difficult question. I returned to full-time teaching (after more than a decade away) in mid-2005 and have not yet recovered a rhythm of regular writing. Generally, though, I write at night, between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.—when I write at all. (An exception: in transit. I write on buses, on trains and planes and in airports and stations, any hour of the day.)

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

There are writers I can return to with pleasure, at any moment, and read seriatim. Some of these also perform in this generative office. For instance, I can read any five consecutive pages of Stein or Jabes and find myself writing again, toward or away from what I’ve just read. Often, the results sound nothing like Stein or Jabes—but somehow the chemistry is always there.

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

It would depend on what sort of fire. (There is always some sort of fire.)

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?

Often visual art. I haunt MoMA and the Museum of American Folk Art when I am in New York City. But music even more so. The terms of my critical training, including my reading, remain grounded in music. You might say that for me poetry is essentially synaesthetic.

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

For the work: Faulkner, O’Connor, Warren, Welty. Always Stein, always Hopkins, always Milosz. Christopher Smart. Edmond Jabes. Raul Zurita. Jack Spicer. Geoffrey Hill. John Taggart seems important to me right now, and Anne Carson. Rosmarie Waldrop. George Oppen comes and goes, as a sort of prick to the lyric conscience.

The Christian Bible is, for me, an ambient, living text. By which I mean it forms a sort of substratum of affect and reference. I belong to a conservative Anabaptist denomination, meaning there is a daily sense in which both my life and my work are in dialogue with that language, that narrative, that particular tradition of making and discipleship. I don’t think a reader has to share in that tradition in order to enter or appreciate the poems, but it is essential to my own reading, my own writing.

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

In spite of my Southern roots I have never written explicitly from or towards that past. I was the last generation to remember de jure racial segregation in the South—to see the last of the signs go down, to witness school integration in southside Virginia during the early 1970s (following the campaigns of so-called “massive resistance” and “freedom of choice”). The world I grew up in—where the descendants of slaves still lived in cabins without plumbing or electricity on lands held by descendants of slaveowners; where poor whites lived in company towns—is completely gone now. I mean the infrastructure (grounded in tobacco monoculture and the textile and furniture industries), the economic and legal underpinnings of class and race. Even the landscape has changed, as tobacco fields grow up in pine or get plowed under for new forms of economic development and the old mills and villages are razed. It’s not that there is no there there, as Stein said of Oakland; it’s as if the there in question never existed. It has all become a sort of dark fairytale, and it has taken both the good and the bad of my childhood with it.

As a historian I once wrote a monograph about the transformation of life in and around the Southern textile mills, but I’ve never found the language or form to address these transformations on a more personal level.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

If I had it all to do over again, I would retrain as a plumber. No, I am not joking.

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

See #2 above. When in 1995 I made my decision to leave academia—after eight years of preparing for nothing but that—in order to join the Amish, something happened. As decisions go this one was joyful: the freedom of choice it represented to me, both spiritual and practical, seemed large. And yet it did mark a major break. I’ve theorized often, and elsewhere, that poetry emerged at precisely that moment in a subconscious response to that decision, that change: “This is my letter to the world / That never wrote to me,” Emily Dickinson says.

I prefer to see a theological element in the writing. For me, as a believer, it is not the same thing as prayer, but it emanates from a space adjacent to where prayer resides. It’s as if the two shared apartments on the same floor of a building, with no discernible door or other connection between them, but such that each occasionally hears, in its muffled and fragmentary way, sounds from adjacent rooms, other apartments, halls and corridors to which it has no physical access.

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

Great book: probably Alice Notley’s In the Pines, though others might not find it so. New encounters with divers old friends, including Spicer, Cesaire, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Saramago, Kadare, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, et al. Some Tzara and Char. One measure of “greatness” in literature is that as we grow and change—and as cultures evolve—the works grow and change with us. They are larger than we are, in our momentary capacities.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I just finished a collaborative manuscript with the poet John Gallaher, tentatively entitled Your Father on the Train of Ghosts. It is very different from anything I have worked on or published before. What comes next: I have never really brought together my prior academic training as a historian and my work as a poet. I want to try to write around the life of my great-grandmother, which is filled with lacunae: pregnant as a young girl, thrown out of her family, living on her own in various jobs across the northeast and Midwest, eventually settling down to become, of all things, a Christian Science doyenne. Her life was extensive and improbable, and she made up great chunks of it as she went along. Can flesh be made word, rest, jib, answer.

12 or 20 questions archive (second series);

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Maple Tree Literary Supplement

Please kindly distribute the attached call for submissions.

Maple Tree Literary Supplement, MTLS Issue # 4: Call for Submissions – New Deadline August 15th (for Issue #4) and Ongoing.

Prospective contributors should browse our site at http://www.mtls.ca/ and target their submissions to specific sections of the journal – Poetry, Essays, Creative Non-Fiction, Reviews, Roundtable, Impressions, Festival of Life, and Drama. We hardly consider unsolicited Artworks. All contributions and enquiries should be sent to submissions@mtls.ca. While some materials will be solicited directly, unsolicited submissions are welcome.

Since MTLS is a triannual journal, response time will fall within the four months preceding an upcoming issue. Essays of a broad range of subjects should be in a relaxed non-academic, free-flowing style, without footnotes or superscripts. Reviews should be between 500-800 words in length. Fiction includes short stories and excerpts from longer prose work in progress; creative non-fiction comprises travelogues and other kinds of literary non-fiction. Poetry should be of high quality and not more than 60 lines of between 4 and 6 poems or one long poem of not more than 120 lines. Excerpts of drama – between 3 and 4 pages – are encouraged. The Roundtable section is in the interview or dialogue format between two or more Canadian writers.

Contributors can propose a topic of discussion to us and find a respondent writer or writers to take part in that conversation. Publishers – especially small presses are welcome to take part in the Impressions section, discussing the history of the making of a particular book, its reception, fate and challenges, with pictures of the book cover; and the histories of their own presses. This is apart from a general discussion of the history of the Canadian book and printing industry up to such recent developments like online publishing technologies.

regards

Ama

Friday, July 24, 2009

above/ground press: sweet sixteen

On August 13, 2009 at the Ottawa Art Gallery, Ottawa’s above/ground press celebrates sixteen whole years, with launches and readings by Roland Prevost, launching his Our / Are Carried Invisibles, and Phil Hall, launching Verulam, with other forthcoming publications by Ken Norris, rob mclennan and Emily Carr, as well as the “lucky thirteenth” issue of The Peter F. Yacht Club.

Sweet sixteen. Where is MTV when you really need them? It seems strange to me just how long I’ve been producing chapbooks, broadsides and other material through above/ground press over the past nearly two decades. Focusing on poetry chapbooks that, for aesthetic reasons, might never win a design award or a bpNichol Chap-book Award, but have produced some of the finest writing by some of the finest writers in Canada and beyond, favouring availability and distribution over limited-runs and a particular hand-made precious beauty. But what exactly is beauty?

Since making the first little publications in 1992, months before the press name, I’ve told myself that I would continue making these odd little publications as long as I could still, still wanted, could still afford and enjoy. I told myself I’d keep making until it was no longer fun. And here I am, working my way up to some six hundred individual publications.

The doors open at 7pm, with the reading beginning at 7:30pm. Lovingly hosted by above/ground press publisher/editor rob mclennan.

Roland Prevost recieved the 2006 John Newlove Poetry Award (judge: Erin Mouré). His poetry has been published in two previous chapbooks: Metafizz, Bywords, 2007; Dragon Verses, Dusty Owl , 2009. He has also appeared in Ottawater 3.0, and Ottawater 5.0, above/ground press, Variations Art Zine, Bywords Quarterly Journal, Peter F. Yacht Club, Angel House Press, among others. He was the managing editor of poetics.ca for two years, and currently acts as the managing editor for 17 seconds, an online journal of poetry & poetics. Late at night, he loves to look at the deep sky through his various telescopes.

Phil Hall was born in 1953 & raised on farms in the Kawarthas region of Ontario. He attended the University of Windsor in the 70s, where he received an MA in English & Creative Writing. His first book, Eighteen Poems, was published in Mexico City in 1973. Since then he has published 13 other books of poems, 4 chapbooks, & a cassette of labour songs. He is also a publisher of broadsides & chapbooks under his Flat Singles Press imprint. In the early 80s he was a member of The Vancouver Industrial Writers’ Union. In the early 90s he was Literary Editor at This Magazine, & also edited a shortlived literary journal called Don’t Quit Yr Day-Job. Among his titles are: Homes (1979), Old Enemy Juice (1988), The Unsaid (1992), & Hearthedral—A Folk-Hermetic (1996). Trouble Sleeping (2000) was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for poetry. In 2005, Brick Books (celebrating 20 years as Hall’s publisher) brought out An Oak Hunch, which was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2006. Hall has taught writing & literature at the Kootenay School of Writing, York University, Ryerson Polytechnical University, & many colleges.He has been poet-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario, the Sage Hill Writing Experience (Sask.), The Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, & elsewhere. In 2007, Book Thug published Hall’s new long poem, White Porcupine, & also a revised second edition of his essay/poem, The Bad Sequence. Over the years, Hall has collected two full decks of random playing cards from the streets, numerous albums of found photographs, & too many boxes of paper ephemera. He calls all this junk “The Pedestrian Archives.” He is learning to play clawhammer banjo.

Related links: the above/ground press homepage; a bibliography of above/ground press “poem” broadsides; 2009 (still available) subscriptions; Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003;

Thursday, July 23, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Arielle Greenberg

Arielle Greenberg is the author of My Kafka Century (Action Books, 2005), Given (Verse, 2002) and the chapbooks Shake Her (Dusie Kollektiv, 2009) and Farther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials (New Michigan, 2003). She is co-editor of two anthologies: with Rachel Zucker, Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections, personal essays by young women poets on their living female mentors (Iowa, 2008); and with Lara Glenum, Gurlesque, a theory-driven collection (Saturnalia, 2010). She is the founder-moderator of the poet-moms listserv and is an Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, though she is currently on leave in Maine, working on non-fiction projects, one about midwifery and one about the new back-to-the-land movement.

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 book was accepted just as I was graduating from my MFA program, and I was (and am) enormously grateful and lucky for that. I felt like I'd achieved what I set out to achieve, which is to be a poet with a book that I was proud of and might get read by others, and I was really thrilled with the press (Verse) that took it, and felt at home amongst its authors. When I got the news, I danced around my house to Joni Mitchell's song "Carey," which has Joni acknowledging her own success: it was my rock star moment! And the next year I went on the job market, since I had a book, and ended up getting a job in Chicago, and all of THAT changed my life, but honestly in most ways publishing a book of poetry does not change one's life in the way one might imagine: financially, or in terms of guaranteeing any kinds of future success or ease. Some things certainly are helped along by having a book, but not all.

My first book was the product of my casting around, aesthetically, in grad school, exploring and experimenting. It's therefore a playful, somewhat diffuse book--I wouldn't say it has one tone or voice, and it feels young and wild to me, in good ways. My second book is much more purposeful, focused: I went into that project with the aim of writing about my Jewish identity, and by that time I think I'd figured out some things about what worked and did not work for me about my own writing, so even though the poems are often dense and difficult and in some cases quite weird, the book feels settled to me, more adult, in that sense.

Since then I've written two more poetry manuscripts--plus a hybrid, collaborative manuscript about homebirth with my friend Rachel Zucker--and each of these feel like continuations of that same trajectory: I think in some ways my work is settling down, getting more focused, even as it decides to be even weirder and more personally investigative as I get older and my life gets more complicated. I try to make myself always write about whatever feels hardest and scariest, in some ways, and that changes as my life changes. Certainly since becoming a mother, mothering has become a central theme of my work, though gender and womanhood were always central themes.

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

I have to say that I just don't think I have much of a narrative urge. I'm not good at plot. I can write essays (and enjoy writing non-fiction, and always have written non-fiction) but I can't sort of move characters around in a scene or have them scoot linearly toward a goal. When I was younger I wrote more narrative poems that I thought were clear and readers would struggle with them and how non-linear they were: I finally made the conscious choice to not try to be so linear in my work! So I think I am just better cut out for poems...although when I write non-fiction, that is a totally different process for me, much less about inspiration and more about revision. I think fiction would require equal parts muse and hard work and that is very intimidating to me!

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 am usually speedy once I start something, but it can take me a long time to come up with an idea, and once I have an idea I mull it over for awhile in my head before writing anything down. And I can go months, sometimes even years, without ideas for poems, and during those periods I have no disciplined practice--I just wait. But I kind of think of those times as letting the fields lie fallow to recuperate, and trust that when I get an idea I'll write again. I don't call it "block" or flog myself about it. It's a long life. I trust that another idea, another poem, will eventually come.
In terms of individual poems, the first draft better look pretty close to the final draft, or it's just not happening. Meaning that my best work comes pretty spontaneously--I am not one to tinker with a poem forever once it's down. It has to come in a burst or not at all. Which is not to say I don't do some revision: I always write longhand, and I revise as I go, and then I usually let the poem sit a bit, then type it into the computer, at which point I revise again, and sometimes ask others to look at it, and revise again, etc. Often the form of the poem will change dramatically during this process, and sometimes I go back in and try to work on sound, meter, etc. But the basic germ and energy has to be there from the get-go, and that part happens in a sort of trance-state.

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?

Some of both, usually. I often have a conceptual project in my head, a "book" or series or chapbook or overall arc or idea, and then also "random" poems will come to me at the same time and get jotted down and collected.

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

I love giving readings, though I wouldn't say they are part of my writing process--I am not someone who generally uses readings to think about revision, etc. Readings are like the cherry on top, the prize for having written anything at all. I try to mostly read new work at readings, and don't pursue readings if I don't have new work. They are a reward in that way. I love hearing from people, being with people, with my work. Connecting. Such a rare treat.

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 do have theoretical concerns behind my writing, but I try to keep them pretty far behind, because if they sneak up to the forefront, they usually impede more than improve the poetry. I would say the things I am often thinking about include: gender; taboo and "risk"; honesty and authenticity; class; privilege; "making it new;" and slang and dialect and regionalism.

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?

Right now I am living in a small town where poetry seems to actually have a big impact, and it's so encouraging. In Chicago, where I normally live, poetry has a pretty big presence as well, in a lovely way, but it sort of gets muted in the bigness of the city. Here it's so tangible: the local paper's arts section this week featured a whole page worth of poetry-related news and events! So I think writers have a similar role to other artists, which is to reflect the culture back to its citizens, provoke thought and emotion, challenge, make strange, make beautiful--all of that. And it's happening! It happens!

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

A good editor is a godsend. If an editor seems to really hear my work the way I want it to be heard, I love nothing more than to get some suggestions. I will say that Joyelle and Johannes at Action Books were this way for me with my second book, and Rob Caspar at jubilat, a magazine I adore, has done this for me. It's enormously satisfying to be well-edited. But it's rare to find editors like this, or those who take the time to perform this function, and so I don't count on it happening. I'm just thrilled when it does.

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

In graduate school, I was worrying over poetry contests or recognition or some such thing, and the poet Malena Morling, a professor there at the time, basically said that she tries to just keep her head down and write a good poem. In response to any flare-up of insecurity, ego, po-biz nonsense, etc.: just go home and try to write a good poem. I have thought of this so many times, and it keeps me grounded. Malena was too humble to have offered it as advice per se, but I am a less pure soul than she is, and I have passed it on as advice to many students.

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

I do a fair amount of genre-shifting between poetry and criticism and non-fiction, and I find that helpful. The processes are so different for me, and each taps into a different kind of work ethic and vein. It's also nice that in the lulls where I have no poems coming to me, I can try to work on essays, because, again, I don't rely on inpiration to strike in the same way for those. Though I think the times when I am flush with poems coming to me right and left are the most exciting to me.

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?

See above. No routine for poetry. Relatively workwoman-like for non-fiction, so those pieces are shoved into little blocks of work time when I can catch them, in between teaching and mothering and activism and domestic duties and friendships and the other things I do.

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

Again, I am somewhat relaxed about stalled phases and try to just let them be, but if I want a kick-start, I read. New poetry, poets I adore and who are my touchstones (C.D. Wright, Michael Burkard, Jean Valentine, Frank O'Hara, Dickinson), novels. The truth is, though, that since I've had kids it is rarely the situation that I have the time but not the impetus to write. I rarely have the time at all. If I do, it's probably because an idea feels so urgent that it has to break through my schedule and get written down. Which happens far too seldomly right now. But again, I feel like it's a long life, children are only young once, and at some point in my life I will have the luxury of time again.

13 - Betty or Veronica or Archie or Reggie? Drive or fly (or sail)? Laptop or desktop?

Jughead. Walk (or run, slowly, when not pregnant). Desktop--Mac, all the way.

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?

Oh yes! One of my chapbooks is from bluegrass music and a court trial. Another is from Shaker artifacts and religion. One of my books is from Judaic lore and culture and dogma. Another is from fashion and consumerism. And I have many poems that come from watching movies or listening to "Science Friday" on NPR or looking at visual art or thinking about the earth, all of it. I desperately need and love all the other mediums, museums, history, all of that.

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

Important to my work, in addition to the ones I've mentioned above: James Joyce. Nabakov. Lydia Davis. Anne Carson. Whitman. Kathy Acker. Lorrie Moore. Any writer who reminds me that one can be playful and innovative and profound and subversive and entertaining and difficult all at once.

Important to my life (of which my work is a part, not outside): Ina May Gaskin, Marsden Wagner and others who write about birth and maternity care in America.

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

So much! I would like to learn various crafts, like rug-hooking. I'd like to learn how to bake bread, how to raise chickens. I would like to work with my hands more in general. I would like to see all of the United States, and more of the world. I'd like to improve my French, go back to Latin, learn American sign language.

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 wish I could be a graphic designer, since that's something I'm really interested in, but I honestly don't know if I'd be very good at it. Same with other kinds of design: clothing, product. I think I'd be a good real estate agent. My dream profession right now is to be a homebirth midwife, but I'm not sure I'm cut out for it, because the life-and-death responsibility of it is intimidating to me and because I value being able to unplug from any job, which you can't really do as a homebirth midwife. But in any of these situations, I'd also write poems. I don't think of writing poems as my occupation: I don't make a living at it. I teach for my occupation, and I feel well-suited to that as a job.

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

It was what I was told I was good at early on, and I tend to stick with things about which I feel confident...perhaps to my own detriment. And I love language probably as much or more than anything else. I started reading at four, voraciously. So I think it just follows that I became a writer.

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

I am almost done with a novel my husband loves and recommended: Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell. It's pretty great, though it hasn't shattered my world. The last book that shattered my world is probably Michael Burkard's collected.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A number of things: a nonfiction book that's a guide for women thinking of working with a midwife for their pregnancies and births; an oral history of the new back-to-the-land movement in Maine; trying to publish the three unpublished poetry manuscripts I have so that I can start writing something new. I've also got three anthology projects going: a book version of the poems from Obama's first 100 days blog that I've done with Rachel Zucker (it will be called Starting Today and is almost surely forthcoming from Iowa); a collection of Gurlesque work with Lara Glenum (forthcoming from Saturnalia); and a book of contemporary women's poetry aimed at teenage girls with Becca Klaver. And I'm supervising some graduate theses, writing some blurbs. Mostly I am working on gestating my third kid and bringing it into our family and the world happy, healthy and at home. That's a lot of creative work in and of itself!

12 or 20 questions archive (second series);