Friday, August 27, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Susan Telfer

Susan Telfer lives in Gibsons, BC with her husband and three children and teaches high school English and Social Studies.  Her poems have been published in literary journals across Canada and she is the recipient of the Gillian Lowndes Award, by the Sunhsine Coast Arts Council.  House Beneath is her first book.

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

It changed my self-image.  Now I am an author and more confident of my role in life.  Perhaps I take my writing more seriously.  I think my recent work is more place-related than my earlier work, but I still write about family.  My newer writing may get deeper faster, I hope.

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

I read all genres but poetry sustains me.  It seemed the only medium for the depth of what I needed to write about.  It seemed the only genre with the safe boundaries I needed.

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?

Sometimes it comes quickly and sometimes not.  I write dozens and dozens of revisions on most poems, over many months or years.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I usually start a poem from a feeling; only sometimes from an image.  Often I start from something written in my dream journal.  It starts with single poems until I have enough that feel like they are part of a whole, then I will start adding to that whole.

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

For me, they are part of the marketing process, not the creative process.  I enjoy the excitement but I am nervous and happier when I’m writing.

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?

The questions which interest me now are about the borderlands between the conscious and unconscious, past and present, dead and alive, wilderness and civilization and other such nebulous borders.  I think the biggest and most important current question in poetry centers on Where is the border between wilderness and civilization?  See more below.

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 culture is to put a lens on the heart and the world, to make people see in a new way.  Poets are somehow connected to wilderness and need to keep writing about the wilderness so it can be seen. As the wilderness disappears, does poetry?

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

Both.  I need a new perspective after a while, but I can easily be swayed in conflicting directions by different editors.  The editor of my book was very sensitive and pushed my poems to better places, but in a few places, pushed me to make decisions with which I was uncomfortable.

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

I like Charles Simic’s line “He who cannot howl, will not find his pack,” but most of the best advice given to me directly was from Don McKay at Banff.  One of the things he said is to write like a bird, and like a dog.  A dog covers the ground, finding everything on the forest floor.  A bird hops from branch to branch or flies over large stretches on the forest, looking down.  Write both ways, and put together the best of what you find. This is probably a poor paraphrase.

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 need to write every day or I feel crazy.  I write in my journal at home and sometimes at school with my students.  I write anything that comes into my head and wait for something important to appear on the page.  Then I draft on the computer for months.  My day begins with me rushing to school but first I read what I was working on last night.

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

My bookshelf, my journal, my dream journal, meditation, walking.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?


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?

Yes:  nature, music and visual art, and my family.  I try to be inspired by science but my kids are too busy to explain it to me.

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

Emily Dickinson, Tomas Transtromer, Shelley, Keats, Shakespeare, Denise Levertov, Elizabeth Bishop.  Many Canadian and American current poets.  I am also lucky to live near very many writers:  John Pass and Theresa Kishkan, Joe Denham, Sarah Roberts and Rebecca Hendry are among the writers who live on the Sunshine Coast who influence me with their writing and their persons.

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

Write many more books; create a body of work.  Become a grandma some day not too soon.

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 already have other occupations:  I’m a teacher and a mother.  I loved literature from the start so much that there wasn’t much I’d be happy doing other than reading, writing, teaching English, and reading to and with my kids.

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

Writing is the only art form that uses language, which struggles toward meaning. That is why I am drawn to it over say, visual art, like my ancestors, or music, which obsessed me early in life.  Something other than art and teaching and parenthood?:  I’m not wired for anything else.

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

Macbeth with my grade 11 students.  A Village Life, though I know many don’t agree it is a great book.  The Golden MeanWax Boats:  a great first book.  And the last great film other than MacbethBright Star.

19 - What are you currently working on?

My second book of poetry.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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