Jessica Hiemstra is a visual artist and writer living in Toronto. She's is the winner of two Malahat Review Open Season Awards (2011) and the Room Magazine Annual Poetry Contest (2009). She's published two full-length collections, Apologetic for Joy (Goose Lane Editions, 2011) and Self-Portrait Without a Bicycle (Biblioasis, 2012). Like many writers, she's writing a novel she can't see the end of. Like many poets, she goes for long walks. Like many artists, she believes art gives us the courage to live. She has a virtual address: jessicahiemstra.ca.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Someone told me once that you don’t actually ever have to answer interview questions. That you use them as segues to talk about anything you want to. So, you’re in for it. I spent the months leading up to the release of my first book staring at a water stain on the ceiling realizing I had no choice but to leave my husband and claim my life. I flew back to Canada (where I hadn’t been for nearly 4 years) to read my poems. There I was, launching at Poetry London (Apologetic for Joy, Goose Lane Editions), and I read the first poem in my book and nearly keeled over, which is a bit ironic, given the title:
(Anatomy for the Artist (Standing Posture, Study I)
This book, a cupboard of bones, frames
standing absurdly at attention. Pressed
between the pages of the First Hungarian Edition
I found two wings and antennae. Unanimated
it’s not a moth.
When was the first time I ate an artichoke?
The neck, the mouth, -- A and B, say nothing
about the jaw going slack, an orange
rolling across the floor, the way you peeled
that artichoke, me, starting with my mouth.
Afterward, the friction of your feet,
a small cough, fragments of artichoke
like prawn tailings,
what’s left when the body’s consumed.)
And I saw who I was, how I got there, how to be there. I got my life back. I was what was left after I’d been consumed. And there I was, with proof of what I wanted, who I was and even some tips on how to be her – all bound neatly into a book. It was like I finally got the memo: Hey Hiemstra – you’re here, you silly moth.
I’m terrified that every poem I write is exactly the same as the last. The book that’s just been released with Biblioasis (Self Portrait Without a Bicycle) circles around my regular questions. You know, love, death, the universe, bees. The usual suspects.
I have now gotten terribly personal. So I have to answer b and c at an emotional distance. Both books have white covers, but one has a snail on the cover.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I took a class in university with a wonderful instructor. It was a Canadian poetry survey class. I wrote a few little poems and slipped them to my teacher to find out if they were any good. The next day she made an announcement to the class. She told us to look around, said that one of Canada’s new poets was in the room, but that that person was too shy to be singled out. Of course, she could have been talking about someone else. But I decided to run with 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?
When I was a kid we had horses. My sister had long blond hair, rode bareback through the forest, full tilt. I, on the other hand, was always nervous that if I didn’t steer, the horse would walk into a tree. As a result, when the horse ran and I felt uncertain, I simply bailed. Yes, I jumped right off a horse that was running full tilt. That’s what I do with a bad poem. If it’s not working, I leap. If it is working, I hang on, galloping, until the end of the poem.
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 brings me back to my terror. I’ve been writing the same poem over and over again for ten years. It goes like this: My God, the universe is beautiful and complicated. Look! And then I make a book out of it. Or a painting. Or, as it turns out right now, a cookbook with my cousin who is a pastry chef called Comfort Food for the Nearly Broken Hearted. It’s going to be poetry and pastry and drawings and, of course, will have a cheeky list of substitutions at the back. Like what do you substitute for hope when you’re all out? Stay tuned.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I just got home from watching Django. Tonight Jamie Foxx was full tilt on a horse saving Broom Hilde. It refreshed for me what I’m looking for in an ideal mate, or date: a guy that will burn buildings, slay bad guys, wear shining blue suits and, obviously, attend my readings for me. I want full throttle passion and ultimate sacrifice. Is that too much to ask? So in short, I like doing readings sometimes, but I’d like them more if Jamie Foxx came and rescued me from them with pistols and dynamite, pretention be damned.
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 think the current questions are the same as the old ones. How do we do this thing called life? For some of us we take apart language and put it back together. Some of us take apart the heart and then are stuck in it up to the elbows and write to get out. We ask what we must in our best vocabulary, and with line breaks if we’re poets. With paint if we’re painters. With horses and red spatter and a killer soundtrack if we’re Tarantino. I think my cousin is asking the same questions when she makes apple pie. We just ask in our own language, whatever language or languages we speak best.
When I write a poem I think a lot of my concerns coalesce. In a poem I feel like I can have a conversation with other artists, with my geography, with languages I’ve attempted and I keep it all grounded in the personal. I think poems are my way of journaling. It just turns out I’m an exhibitionist.
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?
Artists look hard. And then say something. For example, because I have him on the brain, Tarantino gave us a female hero who we all (whatever our gender) could identify with in Kill Bill. He just made a western love story with a German hero and Jamie Foxx in the lead role. Artists offer catharsis and insight. You know what, I’m going to say it: without art, we’re just surviving. Art lets us do more than that – it teaches us how to live. Art changes us, converts us, transforms us. In the end art saves us, hopefully (and ultimately), from ourselves.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Editors fix your work and then you get credit for it. It kind of feels like essential cheating. Most good things are not made by one person.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Hang on.” And “Let go.” If only I could figure out when to use which one.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to visual art)? What do you see as the appeal?
They’re different mediums. I’m avoiding this question.
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 get up around 7. I make tea. I check my email. I realize I didn’t pour my tea. I reheat it in the microwave. I paint or write or draw depending on the project I am busy with. I realize I left my tea in the microwave and heat it up again. I call my sister. Yesterday I realized I was eating out of containers and swigging apple cider from the jug over the sink. Sometimes I print what I’m writing and read it to myself in the bath. Sometimes I get my computer to read it to me. I might watch a Ted talk on my phone and just drink my tea cold. I quit working around 11. Then I read. Sometimes I go to a show. I usually fall asleep with the light on. Then I get up at 7 and start making stuff again. I make tea. I reheat it.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my writing gets stalled, I just let it stall and do the dishes. It usually stalls because I should leave it alone and go to the gallery or go for a walk or weed the garden or call my Mom. Or watch a film. It stalls because I need to.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Chainsaw oil. Though I’ve never thought of it as a “fragrance.”
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?
Yes. All of it, though I don’t claim to understand any of it.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Susan Sontag. I really admire Yann Martel. I’m re-reading Margaret Atwood’s Survival. Stories are important too – stories I grew up with like Bearskin and Ivan Tortik (my mother is a storyteller). And there’s also the art that tells me what I need to know that doesn’t have words, like Miro or the light and music in an amazing film. I planted a cashew tree last year and it sprouted upside-down and consequently died. That’s not an easy metaphor to untangle. Life’s not supposed to make that kind of mistake. I have friends who I correspond with regularly and they are very much part of my process. I’ve realized that I just get to feel exuberantly, to let in as much art and light as I can without going blind, and then I can work exuberantly. I really do work out of an unbridled, confused sort of joy. Maybe I have learned how to ride after all?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Learn to ride a horse really well. Barring that, learn to fly. If that fails, I’d like to try my hand at stained glass. There’s a place down the street that gives 6 weeks of lessons for 200 bucks.
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 like to be Zorro. If I hadn’t become an artist, I probably would have been a masked hero. When I was a little girl I pretended I was a warrior on a trusty steed in the forest (my pretend horse was much easier to ride than my real one). My enemies never slayed me though because, just as they had their knives to my throat, I revealed that I was a beautiful woman. Oh, well, they’d say, in that case.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t know. It wasn’t a choice. I’m not sure how much we really do choose. I would really like to meet someone who feels like they write because they chose to.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently bought myself Jack Gilbert’s Collected Works. I loved The Sisters Brothers (Patrick deWitt). The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) was pretty great. I was at a reading last week for the launch of Rhea Tregebov’s All Souls (which is exquisite) and discovered Shannon Bramer and her Refrigerator Memory. Film: oh my, watch Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard). And Amour (Michael Haneke) without your armour. And, obviously, go see Django. My new year’s resolution was to have more music in my life. As a result, my friends are sending me songs. And I’m joining a choir, even though I’m a lousy singer. Because damn it, I want to sing with other people. Is there anything better?
20 - What are you currently working on?
(Ok, here’s two and a half things:
I just wrapped up editing a collection of extraordinary essays about parenthood and loss with my wonderful friend Lisa Martin-DeMoor called How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood and Loss (Touchwood Editions, coming out Fall 2013). There are 19 essays in it written by writers and artists and musicians. And they are so wise. And I am so proud to have been a part of making it. All of the writers exercised their courage in writing it. And it is a book of real consolation.
In a monumental gesture of hubris and stupidity, I’m planning to get across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for a visual art/poetry/film project called For the Albatross. I’m not kidding. I’m not the first to want to draw attention to this floating pile of nurdles, but I want to do it with my own panache. At first I thought I’d swim, though I might kayak for logistical reasons (I know how to kayak and I’m not a strong swimmer and I get ear infections when I have my head under water for too long. So imagine what happens if my head’s in the dirtiest part of the ocean for a long period of time. My head will get infected). And I might not end up going all the way across. It may even be impossible. I may fail splendidly. I’m looking for funding. I hope I’m not 80 when I get all my ducks in a row. And I hope all the ducks aren’t dead by then. Do you want to fund it? Or should we organize a car wash?
And I’m writing a novel. But I’m not writing more about that here.)