Eleni Zisimatos writes and edits in her hometown of Montreal, QC. She was short-listed for the National Magazine Awards, The Robert Kroetsch Award, The Santa Fe Writer's Project and the Irving Layton Awards for poetry and fiction. She is Co-editor-in-Chief of the poetry magazine, Vallum: New International Poetics. www.vallummag.com.
1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I published my first chapbook when I was doing my MA in poetry at Concordia. It was an exciting time and my will to write was strong. It was a good chapbook, a long narrative poem, "Artemis and Return." I read it now and wonder where some of the energy it holds has gone. My writing now is not as intense. I seem to have a more Zen-like, relaxed approach now.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have always been torn between poetry and fiction. I write both but I think I am a better poet. I'm not that good at long, descriptive passages. I was mostly sucked into poetry whilst doing a Modern poetry course at St. Francis Xavier University, with Doug Smith. I went to an amazing reading there by David Donnell and was hooked for life. But I also went to a reading by Timothy Findley around the same time, and languished over great fiction-writing abilities. I still have a signed copy of The Wars, by Findley. So...
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 was never a journal-writing, note-taking kind of poet. My writing is all fuelled by past experiences locked in my mind/body that spill out quickly almost like an alchemical process. I won't say I go into a 'trance' or anything, but it is kind of different from day-to-day experience. I do revise but not extensively.
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 have honestly tried to have a beginning and an end in sight before I start on the first poem, but, alas, I can't ever see the end beforehand. Maybe this is another reason I am less good at fiction. I can't seem to be able to make an outline of a complete story. I just kind of write, with no set particular direction, and progress with short pieces towards a whole. Interestingly, I write about 5-6 poems in one sitting and, when I read them after, I find there is amazing unity and cohesion between the poems. Not only in style and tone, but also in imagery and thought. I haven't written too many books yet, but the one that was short-listed for the Robert Kroetsch Award, Signs, was made up of a conglomeration of short pieces. They cohered nicely into a pretty good manuscript. I have tried writing single, 'independent' poems, to be collected eventually into a book, but I like this less than the more perpetual, organic flow of parts and sections, words and images.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like readings, but I find I get nervous and don't have a great flair for chit-chat and anecdote while on stage. I get all serious and this is sometimes a downer for an audience. Although people like good poetry, and I think my poetry is good, they also like some levity and breaks between poems. But I still read at the Yellow Door and the Visual Arts Centre in Montreal and have read at Mother Tongue in Ottawa. It is fun. I plan to get out a lot more and loosen up a bit.
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?
It's funny because a lot of my education (after I switched out of Organic chemistry in my 3rd year of my BA) has been in Classical and Medieval poetry and writing. Although I love this kind of work, ironically my writing often tends to be more avant-garde, more in the style of Anne Carson and John Ashbery. But I am a lover of poetry and can appreciate most styles. I even still appreciate science, egads. I love philosophy too. The old questions about love, death, the meaning of life, etc..are still relevant today and I think people still want to delve into deeper things like that, even in an age of surfaces. I am trying to be less pessimistic and more mystical in my writing. I love Rumi, for instance, but can't seem to be able to get rid of the 'edge.'
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?
Writing is always political, so writers ought to reflect on such things. The personal, mystical experience is my main 'like', but in a way, I prefer the Modernists of the 20th C and their style of writing. Even if a poet is not being directly, openly political, political concerns can be embedded within the fabric of their writing. Even writing about mystical love infers the absence of love and charity in the world and its leaders. So the work becomes political anyway on a deeper level. Does this make sense? Hope so.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I haven't worked with a lot of editors, so I can't say. Some poems of mine that have been accepted by magazines, a few times were revised by editors. I didn't mind the edits. I am flexible about my writing. It can morph into different things, kind of like the passage of time and life. It's an organic process, not fixed by ego.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best piece of advice I've heard is to read a lot, and I do. It's good to know about other people's work etc.. But also life experience is very important. It's not all about the mind, but the body too.
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 just write randomly at different times. Maybe I should be more structured. This is probably why I don't have a lot of books published yet!
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When I get stalled, I just leave my writing for a while. Completely forget about it. Then after a while, I'm back! And it's usually better writing.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Well, do you mean my childhood home or my home now? My childhood home was 100% Greek, so I guess stuffed green peppers and tomatoes baking in the oven covers it. My current home, well, I guess Tibetan incense.
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?
Every little thing that one has experienced in their life is locked in the body and there is memory of it. Experiences you have forgotten inform your work. Experiences one is experiencing now are also useful, but I think that deeper influences from the past create works of art. Personally, I am not really influenced by specific things like music or nature. I don't like looking at an art object and writing a poem about it, for instance. But I do often use inter-textuality when I write, particularly with older poets like Dante etc..
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
As I mentioned before, classical, medieval, philosophical and religious writings are central to my work, even though the finished product of my work has no resemblance at all to these writers and writings.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I don't know.
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 guess I would be an artist. I love painting and drawing. I am pretty good at cartoon-like stuff. I would have liked to create animated children's films too.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
That hidden 'manic' spirit! It chose me, not the other way around.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Scivias, by Hildegard of Bingen was very interesting. I've been on a movie strike for the past 5 years (not to worry, I'm coming out of it--) so I'm not up to date.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I am 'planning' my next move. I will promise to complete a new manuscript this year if it kills me. So, right now, I'm just busy editing other people's work for Vallum Magazine, my other occupation, which I love.
Thanks for the interview rob; it was fun!