Tuesday, October 05, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Rhonda Douglas

Rhonda Douglas' first book of poetry, Some Days I Think I Know Things: The Cassandra Poems, was published by Signature Editions in 2008. Her writing has won prizes in The Newfoundland and Labrador Arts & Letters Competition, and the Gregory J. Power Poetry Competition. Her poetry has also won the Far Horizons Award from The Malahat Review, Arc Poetry Magazine’s Diana Brebner award, and been short-listed for the John Newlove Award and This Magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt. Her poetry and short fiction has been published in literary journals in Canada and overseas. She is pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.

Rhonda is originally from Grand Bank, Newfoundland and now lives in Ottawa, Ontario with her daughter Emma.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’m not sure it did, all that much. When my first book came out I was two weeks into a divorce, so it’s all a bit of a blur. I think that it probably gave me some greater sense of confidence, in terms of my ability to stay with a longer project. My current work is very different. The first book (Some Days I Think I Know Things: The Cassandra Poems) was character-based, and so the voice was not my own – acknowledging the limits within that frame. My current poetry manuscript is a book of dedicated lyric poems – poems written primarily as a gift or offering to someone, or referencing a personal and particular situation. It feels more harrowing – there’s nowhere to hide.

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

I wrote some short stories when I was young (as in 10 or 12) but poetry is the genre that has stayed with me most consistently over time. Even when I find most writing difficult, I can usually find my way back to poetry. I’m not entirely sure how that happened – probably through some great English teachers. In my late teens and early 20s I read an astonishing amount of poetry; I was ravenous for it.

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?
The work doesn’t really start for me as a “project” – that comes later, after enough individual poems have been written so they begin to resonate with one another, a kind of call and response. Then the project begins to show its possible future shape, though it also changes as I go. The process is quite mixed. Some poems come quickly, others from notes and months of thinking, but all of them go through multiple drafts. For my first book, I deleted a lot of poems – this was necessary and good. I still set some poems aside but fewer now. I suppose I feel slightly more confident about the process. (Oh God, I’ve probably just cursed myself!)
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?
Fiction begins with a fascinating character for me, someone I just can’t resist. That person is facing some serious dilemma or just caught in a ridiculously human moment and then things take off from there. Only when I started working on my novel did I begin to think “book-book” from the start, otherwise I prefer to deal with one dilemma at a time.

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

Readings sometimes help, with poetry at least, in that hearing myself speak the work will sometimes reveal a secret I hadn’t seen before and often I will make line corrections after reading a poem aloud. I enjoy some readings, depending on the state of the work. When I bring work out into the open too soon, I sometimes regret it. I mostly enjoy readings for seeing some writing friends – Ottawa has a very supportive literary community and so I like just hanging around and connecting, sometimes hearing a new voice or two. Those moments can be very exciting.

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?
What does it mean to be human? How do we stay grounded and sane in this crazy world? Can poetry (and short fiction) matter anymore? If so, how?
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?
Tell the truth, and tell it well. Name everything that’s wrong and draw large screaming arrows in the direction of all the rightness you can find.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I LOVE working with a well-read editor. John Barton edited my first book and that was a fabulous experience. I don’t find it difficult at all – I find it stimulating and I enjoy the nature of the conversation. Let’s face it, for most poetry books in this country, that could be the last time anyone other than yourself plays such close attention to your work! What’s not to like?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I spent some time a few years ago now obsessed with the “business” or the publishing industry – how it worked, who was involved, how you could be successful within it. The best advice in that regard was from several writer friends I respect. They were subtle about it but it basically amounts to: fuck that shit, just write.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
It doesn’t feel like a move between for me, though arguably it should. The content sometimes dictates the form, or perhaps at times it is the voice that dictates the form. I like working in multiple genres. I feel like the cross-pollination is healthy.
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?
Ha. Right now I am working full time and then some in the international development world, so my writing routine is suffering a little. I’m trying to get it back. My typical day begins with coffee and email, saying good-bye to my daughter as she heads off to high school, trying to figure out if I have time to shower before the first conference call or Skype meeting...somehow I think that’s not what you mean. I often write on the weekends when I can, or sometimes try to fit some writing into the travelling I do. I am also a big fan of the weekend writing retreat, and grabbing an hour in a coffee shop. Right now the writing time exists in shards, I’m afraid...but it tends to be cyclical so I suspect that will soon expand.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read poetry, always. Sometimes I will disconnect from everything, so that might look like a visit to the art gallery or a hike in the woods. I go hear other really great writers read their work, or will read interviews with writers that focus on the art itself. Stalling is just fear – it goes away.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Yum. I went vegetarian almost a year ago but still love the smell of meat cooking. So blood pudding and eggs frying on the stove, or turkey in the oven. My mother’s an amazing cook so any of her classics would get me....mmmm, macaroni and cheese...toudens and molasses... (Sorry, that may not translate well! Fried bread dough, basically. See? Tastes better as toudens.)
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I find that visual art and choral music, or jazz, open up the space inside me and prepare me to write. Otherwise I just read like the printed word was going out of style. (Should I get an e-reader, what do you think?)
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Writers are important to me for different reasons, and at different times. I read a fair number of American poets and short fiction writers. I seem to keep coming back to a number of Canadian poets: several books by Steven Heighton and Don McKay are in the piles by my bed right now. I like the marriage of the open heart to strong form. I tend to read in great fits so one month it will be all the work I have of one writer, and then another month the piles have changed. Amy Hempel and Wells Tower are in the short fiction pile. I won’t mention the novel pile because they’re new and I’ve had trouble getting into them – I’m going through a non-fiction phase so Philip Gourevitch and Lisa J. Shannon are there at the moment.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Complete the novel I’ve been working on for a couple of years now. Write a short story that is absolutely necessary. Hike Macchu Pichu. Live in France. Find and be capable of a crazy lifetime love.
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 am doing it. My “day job” has always been working in the non-profit sector, mainly international development. I’m very blessed that way. Right now in particular I am working with membership-based organizations of urban informal workers (street vendors, home-based workers and wastepickers) and they are amazing people. I get up every day inspired to be working with them. No doubt I would get more writing work done if I had boring paid work, but it seems like a poor trade-off to me. I’m trying to write more about the issues behind my paid work. This is new (non-fiction) so we’ll see how it goes. I’ve been doing this work now for more than 20 years and never written about it.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t honestly know. Poetry saved me, in some sense, and I just wanted to be part of that. I love language and so spending time swimming around in it feels intrinsic to who I am. Beyond that, making stuff up is just a tonne of fun.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel. I don’t know why it got such mixed reviews – I thought it was a masterpiece. I think there’s a tendency towards impatience now with anything that isn’t as immediately accessible as a YouTube video.

Last great film is harder...I don’t go as often as I’d like to. I saw the Italian film Mid-August Lunch at the Bytowne and really enjoyed it. I don’t know if it was “great” but it was a lovely way to spend a couple of hours.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A second poetry manuscript of dedicated lyric poems, and a series of non-fiction articles on the “inclusive city.”

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