Friday, March 02, 2012

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Barbara Langhorst

Barbara Langhorst was born and educated in Edmonton, Alberta. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Alberta and teaches at St. Peter’s College, SK, where she has had the pleasure of meeting many of Canada’s finest writers. Barbara has studied poetry for more than twenty years. Her love of the medium and her particular interest in experimental and avant-garde poetry led her to become a writer. In Restless White Fields, Barbara reflects unsentimentally upon a range of tragedies that might have been prevented; this poetic sequence rends even as it heals.

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

Restless White Fields is my first book (sounds like my first confession, no?).  I'm finding the attention a little startling.  What changed me was the process of trying to write.  What's different about this work is its focus and experimentation--I wanted to show that, when you've been through a loss, every time someone says something that you can connect to that, you do.  You need to weave something to contain it, something daring, so then it becomes art and you don't have to think of the pain every moment--the accusing ghosts travel with you.  They don't leave, but transform, become companions that share your experience of the world. 

I hope that what I've done will help others who have this response to trauma.  I know that reading kept me going.  

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

My father began writing poetry in his 40s, and I was born when he was 42, so we arrived together, more or less.  I remember him standing and quoting Alfred Noyes when he was leaving for work, and as a three-year old, I'd be sitting in the grocery cart with my poor mother (who was a saint) allowing me to chant, "Look for me by moonlight / Watch for me by moonlight / I'll come to thee by moonlight / Though HELL SHOULD BAR THE WAY!!!"  But he wasn't just a fan of the Victorians and the Romantics...he was the expert on the new math for the school board; loved chemistry, too; painted; and had far-ranging and eclectic tastes. 

The way I turned again to poetry is fairly amusing...I enrolled in university for the first time at 32.  In my second year, I  registered for a half-year class on the modernists, but the reading list had 15 novels, five plays, and assorted poetry.  I bought the whole old-fashioned grocery-style paper bag full of books. My husband saw them and said, "You're never going to read all that in one term, with four other classes!"...I laughed and returned the books--and switched into a course on Thomas Hardy's poetry.

Later, in a different class, someone brought in "Seed Catalogue"...I was amazed and astounded...and hooked. I took every poetry course I could, did my master's on Coleridge and my doctoral work on Susan Howe and Phyllis Webb (and Walter Benjamin; I'm with Hannah Arendt, who claims he "thought poetically"). 

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 don't take a lot of notes but collect things (articles, images, memorabilia)  like a crow (they're clever birds!).  I put off starting writing restless white fields for a very long time, but when I sat down and began to write, the whole thing came together fairly swiftly (less than a year).  It was a matter of clearing the deck, making time for writing, and, more importantly, for thinking and seeing.  If there's time for that, then pieces do come together quickly.

I used to think that if I could be like Ethel Wilson (who published her first book at 59), then I'd be happy, so I'm ahead of schedule.  However, there's nothing like a deadline to concentrate the energies. I also thought that Leonard Cohen was ancient at 50 (when I was in my 30s).  It would be nice to put this idea (that I'm not going to tell you about) onto the page soon, as I've been thinking about it for seven years.  I almost started it two years ago, but almost doesn't count.  The pieces I've gathered float to the top of my desk or cupboard every now and then, or a new one arrives...I'll need to put myself in the chair at some point soon.  Last night the perfect opening line came to me, so...  

4 - Where does poetry 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?

For me, poetry does seem to be a combination of holding oneself open, training the eye to look for pattern and resonance, sifting through prompts (that seem to arrive mystically) until time and energy coalesce around something. If I find small images I want to create puzzles around and store those, either in notes if I can, or in memory, then that gives me a starting place when time does open up (usually unexpectedly). 

So, did I think "book"?  No!...that arose out of writing courses with fabulous teachers Lorri Neilsen Glenn and Seán Virgo, and work done in a writing group.  However, after I'd done a set of poems and they all seemed to want to answer the same questions with different approaches, I did hope "book."  Now, I did have ideas around which things rattled, yet sometimes events or the approach to a poem or story would change the whole direction. 

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

The majority of my experience with readings is on the other side--I've been fortunate enough to host so many fine writers through our Canada Council for the Arts readings series at Muenster.  Now that I have to perform, I must admit to a certain amount of a teacher, I'm very comfortable presenting and reading other people's work with great gusto...but what that will mean when I'm out there reading is yet to be seen.  I do enjoy interviews!

What I do know is that teaching is a form of creativity that's not unlike poetry--the assemblage of apparently disparate ideas, encouraging the audience to make connections.  I find that when I'm teaching a lot, I don't need to write, which is unfortunate...I have all the feedback I want at that time, and am mentally played out.  Some people can do both...I admire those people enormously. 

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?

Years ago, in my graduate coursework, I wanted to explore the social function of poetry.  People laughed, and said that was a life's work, not a thesis.  They were right, yet even in meditating on this one problem, every book I read or hope to write has its own set of questions.  I am fascinated by Walter Benjamin's theory, particularly of the dialectical image.  The constellations of ideas that resonate (with one another, within the one book and with others, within this one time and at others, within history) are what interests me.  How can we write about events to wake ourselves up to see, or read, what is around us?

For instance, in restless white fields, the final poem is "apocrypha," which explores a moment when four out of ten horses broke through the ice on a dugout and drowned.  No one but the remaining six horses saw images and allusions are invented, based on the fact that someone found the drowned four afterwards...Thematically, it would seem an odd choice (a horse poem) for a book about suicide, murder suicide, international relations, the ill-fated Franklin expedition, and much more...but it seemed the perfect ending for a book that deals with a collection of disasters that no one saw...but perhaps could have foreseen.

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 wouldn't presume to tell anyone what she or he should write, though I might say, "look at how amazing these connections are!"  I love so many different styles, themes, forms of writing, especially in poetry, though so much "fiction" or "nonfiction" is poetic or hybrid...I do think that there is room for writers to awaken their readers to new worlds and ways of reading those worlds strategically.

That said, I'm always struggling to get my students to watch CBC or BBC, to learn history as well as innovation.  What's happening in the world needs to be examined and the danger brought forward (everything from the threat of environmental collapse to the threat of geoengineering; the repression of democracy abroad to the repression at home; abysmal poverty amidst heedless wealth; and on and on).

If my writing is centred on anything, it's that we are always witnesses--often after the fact, trying to catch up, prevent the next catastrophe--as Walter Benjamin put it, to "redeem the dead."  Everything that we think happens to us is so much part of the larger theatre...and it's all connected. However, this is not to say that irony and humour can't be a large part of parents taught to love mightily, to feel great joy, even in pain and utter helplessness.  "If you don't laugh, you'll go crazy."

And one thing all writers can do is hope to inspire people to read!! and to write. 

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

I've been fortunate; the people I've worked with have been inspiring and astute, in tune with what I was doing.  I do have a very clear vision of what I'm trying to achieve, so if a suggestion doesn't work for me, I'll say so, but hope to find a solution that's amenable to all parties. 

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

When I started painting, my first watercolour assignment was very well received.  The teacher liked it, as did the janitor and the other members of the class.  Inspired to be grand, I painted something about six times the size.  Again, the class was encouraging...but the instructor said, in front of everyone, "This is wrong, this is wrong , this is wrong..." going through about ten different elements of the piece.  I was crushed.  Later, he came over and told me something that I'll never forget:  "This is not about you; it's about the painting.  Change those things and it will be good."  Of course, in watercolour, you can never just paint over the last attempt--you have to start from the beginning--but suddenly I was able to detach myself and not take it (so) personally. 

Probably the best advice I've heard about writing was an idea of Hemmingway's: to always leave himself an idea to work on the next day...just notes towards something, to avoid that blank page.

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

I haven't had problems in moving between genres...I often start in prose and see something in it that work better in poetry; right now I'm writing in prose in my head, and hoping I can convince it to stay in prose!  But I'm not going to give up if it won't.  I love books like Kristjana Gunnars' The Rose Garden, that cross genres so artfully.

The appeal for me is in the surprise, the glorious experiment of working within certain constraints that might not be typical for the genre in which you are writing.

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?

I've given up trying to have a writing routine throughout the fall/winter session (always trying to stay afloat; my writing life is just a few notes when I can do that, or collecting things towards later work)...but when I do have a stretch of time, I find that if I can be at the computer by 9 a.m., and write until 1 p.m., then I read or garden or whatever in the afternoon, and maybe return to write a bit in the evening.  I'm quite an owl, so like to write from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. when I can, but then that means I need a nap instead of the gardening! 

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

I read, usually something in whatever genre I'm writing in...or I set formal constraints and experiment with those.  Or I get away from it and do something else, like clean house.  Enough of that and I'm ready to work again!

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Woodsmoke. We didn't have a fireplace, but spent every summer at the lake around the campfire, with my dad playing the harmonica. 

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'm very interested in science, though I no longer know much about it!  I originally wanted to be a vet or a biologist, but developed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at 17, which meant that I wasn't going to scale mountains and interpret the wildlife to park visitors.  Then I went through a period where I made visual art in a variety of mediums...but gave that up after a hand injury.  All of these things inform what I do, but especially the visual.  Although I hardly listen to music anymore, sound is also very important to my poetry, and the element of surprise.

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

I love experimental poetry from any era; this is an abridged, scrambled selection of favourite writers:

Sylvia Legris, Sina Queyras, Leonard Cohen, Derek Beaulieu, Jon Paul Fiorentino, John Donne, Dennis Cooley, Christian Bök, Anne Carson, Nicole Brossard, Erin Mouré, Charles Bernstein, Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Browning, Tennyson, Doug Barbour, Tim Lilburn, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Don McKay, Fred Wah, Kristjana Gunnars, Bert Almon, Simone Weil, Rumi, Teilhard de Chardin, Teresa of Avila (The Interior Castle), Shawna Lemay, Sue Goyette, Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen, D.H. Lawrence, Jan Zwicky, Allan Safarik, Sue Sinclair, Seán Virgo, Walter Benjamin, Phyllis Webb, Susan Howe, and Robert Kroetsch

Great anthologies?   Post-P R A I R I E (eds. R. Kroetsch and Jon Paul Fiorentino) and Open Field:  30 Contemporary Canadian Poets (ed. Sina Queyras)

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

Many things, and nothing.  Plant an orchard?  Live in the 19th C?  Become a long-distance runner?  Win LottoMax?  One thing I've been obsessing about lately is the desire to own a pair of alpacas.

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 would become an environmental scientist, or a doctor, as frustrating as that must be.

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

I DID do many things else...I write because I love to.

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

The last great book I read was Shawna Lemay's manuscript, HIVE--it's an experimental poetic novel about a woman art forger.  As for film, I'm sorry to say that the selection here isn't grand.  I did just see and enjoy BBC's North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell.  (Edwardian Farm on The Knowledge Channel, now showing for another 10 or so weeks, is great.)

20 - What are you currently working on?

I am working on a top-secret project that requires me to conduct a lot of self-serving research with almost no possibility of satisfaction--which should fuel the creative process, if it doesn't bankrupt me.  Stay tuned.

Thanks very much for this, rob.  It's been a pleasure.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Langhorst is a wonderful and engaging professor. I expect her book (from what little I've already read) to be as quietly brilliant as she is.