Tuesday, May 25, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Susan Briscoe

Susan Briscoe’s first book of poetry, The Crow’s Vow, was published by Signal Editions in 2010. Her work has appeared in Maisonneuve, Event, The Antigonish Review, Matrix, CV2, Books in Canada, and The Danforth Review. She has an MA from Concordia and sometimes teaches creative writing. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards and she has won the Lina Chartrand Award for an emerging poet. She lives in Sutton, Quebec and in Montreal, where she was born.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book just came out, and I was asked by somebody who knows me too well if now I’d finally get over my imposter syndrome—I think I just may. So far I’m surprised and touched: I really didn’t expect so much positive attention, especially from friends and family, who seem so pleased for me. Most importantly, it’s encouraging. It’s taken me so long to get this book out (over thirty years if I count since first realising I might be compelled to write), and writing without regular, significant validation is miserably hard. But suddenly having my work out there –a few people have even read it!– is also a little disconcerting.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I tried poetry first because I was more afraid to fail at fiction. I grew up reading novels rather than poetry, so I’d never really imagined myself as a poet. But then poems seemed to require so much less of a commitment than novels, at least initially, and I lacked confidence. Now that I’m trying to write short stories, however, I’m not so sure I was meant to write fiction after all; I’m having an awful lot of trouble with plot, which I was allowed to neglect in verse.

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?
My stories usually start from what I call a germ, the seed of an idea, and those sprout up as readily as weeds. The long, hard part is figuring out how to cultivate them into some sort of acceptable form, like a tidy shrub rather than vines sprawling all over the place. For poetry I could switch metaphors and say my process is more sculptural. My first drafts are crude things, like small lumps of clay. Then I do lots of carving away, add a few little bits, carve away some more, and polish, polish. I let them sit, and then go at it again. This can go on for years. I just hope the final piece has a more elegant form and interesting texture than that initial lump.

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?
This first book began several years ago with an assignment. I was taking the late Rob Allen’s long poem workshop at Concordia, which terrified me because I’d only ever written short, discrete lyrics. Now I had to write something new, and it had to be long. I’d been keeping a morning journal for a few years, so I went back through that desperately looking for ideas. I pulled out a few observations that seemed possibly poem-worthy –so few in all those pages– and tried literally cutting and pasting those into ghazal-inspired pieces (we’d looked at John Thompson during that workshop). I managed to produce a short cycle of poems for the course. But then that cycle continued to evolve for me in form (something between ghazals and sonnets, perhaps) and subject, and after adding to it for a couple of years its true theme emerged, finally becoming something I could imagine as a book.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I couldn’t say that readings are a part of my creative process, though they can serve very well as a final editing step: all those flaws exposed in the most glaring light. Ultimately, I write poetry more for the page than for performance, even though I pay a lot of attention to sound. Partly this is because I’m more visually oriented, partly because I’ve never been comfortable performing. I sometimes even get stage fright, which is a horrible experience. I’m trying now to figure out how to enjoy reading in public. Or at least make it less painful.

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 not sure I’m really concerned with theory when I’m writing, though I absolutely loved studying literary theory when I was doing my MA. I still fantasise about doing a PhD in something obscure and theoretical.

With this book and with my thesis, I was exploring the narrative potential of the lyric sequence, so I was asking how I could tell a story with poetry. Probably wasn’t the best idea. The practical question I’m constantly asking myself is what words I can cut out while retaining meaning, though perhaps I should ask myself why I’m so concerned with concision. Then there are questions particular to each piece of writing. I think we’re all –writers and readers– looking to literature for answers to the questions that trouble us in life: how can I be loved; how can I love another; how do we negotiate power dynamics; how do we survive loss and cope with disappointment; how can we be understood; how do we really communicate; how can we change; what’s the point. Questions like 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, I suppose there are different possible roles: to entertain, to instruct, to preach; to reflect a culture (whether real, imaginary, or historical), to develop literary culture... But ultimately, I think the role of the writer has always been to tell stories, regardless of genre. This is sort of what I was getting at above. Human beings seem to have a very deep need for stories; we use them for imagining the things we hope for or fear, for imagining the experiences of others, for imagining the implications of our choices and values as individuals and as a society. We look for these stories everywhere, all the time: in the news, in movies, gossip, reality shows, YouTube, sports, status updates, history, and literature. In literature we have the greatest possible imaginative and expressive range for telling these stories, so we can go further and deeper in these explorations, which is very important, especially in a world of so many possibilities and such uncertain future.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve had mixed experiences working with editors. Difficult can be good: I’ve worked with both Pasha Malla and Carmine Starnino recently on different projects, and both pushed me to take my work further than I thought I could. I’m really grateful they did, and that they had faith I could go further, even though the lazy part of me was resentful. Also, it’s impossible for me to be objective about my work, so another perspective, preferably a professional one, is absolutely necessary. But not all editors are gifted, and I’ve had one unpleasant experience working with an editor who just didn’t have an affinity for the project. That can be an especially tricky situation for a writer who isn’t established enough to feel secure refusing inappropriate edits.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
To stop thinking about writing and just write.

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 started writing this book, I was getting up at about five a.m. to write most mornings, because I was too busy the rest of the day. But I hate not getting enough sleep. Now I have fewer outside commitments, so I try to get to a café right after dropping my kids off at school, where I write for 2-3 hours. I try to pretend that I can’t access the internet while I’m there. If I have more time later in the day, which isn’t likely, I’ll work on some other aspect of the job: correspondence, reading, research, preparing submissions, promotion, etc.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I get stuck, which just means I have a particularly tough problem to solve, I usually switch to another project, since I’m always working on several different things at various stages of development. Unfortunately, it can take a long time before I gather up the courage to get back to that tough problem, which is why I have so many unfinished projects. That’s when deadlines are useful.

For generating new ideas, forward movement –walking, running, cycling, driving in the country– often works for me. Knitting is good too.

12 - What do you really want?
I want us to stop destroying nature.

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?
Nature was my primary source of inspiration for this book. Many of the poems were written while I looked out the window at my garden and the mountains beyond as the sun rose. Each moment was so amazingly different. Also, during one period of my work on this book I was listening to a lot of Erik Satie, which convinced me of the beauty of a very spare –though somehow still complex– approach to art, and of the thrill of unexpected associations. Normally, though, I’m careful about music because it has such a powerful effect on my mood. I also love and need visual art, but it inspires me to make art rather than write, so I have to limit that too.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I have a particular passion for contemporary Canadian literature. For the past couple of years I’ve been reading mostly short fiction, and I so admire the density of that form at its best. I’ve almost given up on novels, though I read so many wonderful ones when I was young and had time. When my children were little I’d just get too frustrated at the interruptions, and now novels seem to contain so much filler compared to short stories. I guess I’ve lost patience. I’m especially ashamed to admit that I don’t read a lot of poetry. I take it only in very small bits, sometimes not even the whole poem.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a really good story.

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’ve studied fine arts as well as literature, and always feel torn between the studio and the writing desk. I also really regret not pursuing contemporary dance when I was younger. Actually, all fields of creative endeavour appeal to me. Probably film would be ideal, since it can combine writing, movement, visuals, and music—except that I’m terrible with technology and equipment, like cameras. I probably would have been happiest as a potter. Realistically, if I weren’t writing I would be teaching, which I actually do when I need income.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Well, it wasn’t the money. When I was still a kid and had just declared that I wanted to be a writer, somebody who had my best interests at heart told me that writers lead unhappy lives of hard work, poverty, and rejection—which is apparently true enough. I was broken-hearted, but being a reasonable child had to consider other career options. And there were all sorts of vocations that did attract to me. I really wanted to change the world, but I also liked the ideas of being a ballet dancer, a musician, a nun, a therapist, a soldier, an academic, the full-time mother of five children, a pagan pastor, a flower farmer—the list goes on, never in a very practical direction. My mother was especially disappointed when I decided not to go to law school. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to commit to any of those things, because secretly I never stopped wanting to write. I tricked myself into it by figuring that writing would at least allow me to imagine living all those alternate lives, doing all those fascinating things. Though for some reason, none of my characters ever have interesting or lucrative occupations –an awful lot of them are single moms– so that hasn’t quite panned out.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve been on an Alice Munro binge for a while, though I couldn’t name a favourite collection. They’re all so humbling. It’s hard for me to name the last great film; I don’t have time to watch very many, and I usually go for funny, quirky films that will hopefully surprise me, rather than impress me with greatness. Though last year I watched a bunch of Bergman films again. If I went by number of viewings rather than actual greatness (however that might be defined), I’d have to say The Princess Bride. It still makes me laugh.

19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a bunch of short stories. Very challenging for me, but exciting.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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