Rachel Lebowitz (Photo credit Trevor Cole) is the author of Hannus (Pedlar Press, 2006) which was shortlisted for the 2007 Roderick Haig-Brown Regional BC Book Prize and the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction. She is also the co-author, with Zachariah Wells, of the children's picture book Anything But Hank! (Biblioasis, 2008, illustrated by Eric Orchard). She lives in Halifax.
Cottonopolis is a sequence of prose and found poems about the Industrial Revolution, in particular the links between the cotton industry in Lancashire, slavery in the Americas and the colonization of India. From the Irish slums of Manchester to the forts of the Slave Coast to the ruins of Dacca, India; from Civil War battlefields to Lancashire factory floors, from slave ship sailors to machine-breakers to child labourers, these poems tell the stories of the industrial age.
Upcoming tour dates:
Monday, March 11: Kingston, The Grad Club (upstairs, 162 Barrie Street), 8 pm. Reading with Michael e. Casteels and Elizabeth Greene.
Tuesday, March 12: Toronto, Art Bar, Q Space, (382 College St West). 8 pm. Reading with Robert Colman and Clea Roberts.
Wednesday March 13: Toronto, Pivot Reading (The Press Club, 850 Dundas Street W), 8 pm. Reading with Dave Cameron and Cary Fagan.
Thursday, March 14: Ottawa, Raw Sugar Cafe (692 Somerset St W), 5:30 pm. Reading with Sandra Ridley.
Friday, March 15: Montreal, Argo Books (1915 rue Sainte-Catherine ouest) 8 pm (doors open at 7:30 pm). Reading with Stephanie Bolster and Sarah Burgoyne.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Did it change my life? Doing the research changed mine and my family's understanding and knowledge about my great-grandmother. Before doing the research for Hannus, no one in my family knew her maiden name or the numbers of children she'd had that had died in infancy. Also, through the publication of the book, we came into contact with relatives we didn't know existed, who live in Finland. You could also argue that if I didn't have this huge idea in my head that I didn't quite know what to do with, I might not have gone on to get my master's in creative writing at Concordia (which I mainly did so I could have the support and kick-in-the-butt to finish my thesis/first book) in which case I wouldn't have met my husband or had our kid.
Cottonopolis is quite different from Hannus, which was written in a variety of forms (prose poem, lineated poem, emails) and had lots of archival documents (death certificates, photographs, etc). Cottonopolis is written exclusively in prose poems (except for the found poems which are lineated) and is a lot less bulky (no documents). Also, it encompasses a variety of stories/characters -- it doesn't follow the trajectory of one person's life. But both books are historical, both have some dramatic monologues and both involved a great deal of research.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I didn't really. I used to write stories, though that was ages ago. And am I even a poet? Are my books poetry? Non-fiction? Or some kind of weird in between thing? I tend to be more comfortable with writing prose poems than I do with writing lineated ones -- and I read lots more fiction than I do poetry.
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?
A very long time. I'm a slow writer. Not unusual to just write a piece a year. In the case of Cottonopolis, I wrote extremely sporadically for 3 years and then changed my mind about the direction it was going in and scrapped all of it (though I recycled a couple sentences here and there) and then I slowly started again. I do lots of research and take lots of notes and that takes time (hard to muster the energy to do all that research sometimes!). That said, my first drafts are pretty much done. I edit as a I go along, tinker with the pieces for another few days, maybe, if that, and then it's done. The writing itself comes quickly -- but the research that I need to do to get to that stage does not.
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?
A piece begins in some interest that I have, something historical that won't leave my brain -- and then I delve into it more, do some research, and find some great images that I want to work with. I definitely work on a book from the very beginning. In my early 20s, I used to write short lyric poems about my life. I got bored of that. I'll take details from my life and give them to characters, but my main interest is in discovering hidden historical stories and bringing them into another genre.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like doing public readings, though I don't do many of them. Are they part of the creative process? I don't think so. I'd write regardless. But it's fun and a nice boost at times and it's great to feel that I'm not writing in a vacuum.
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?
Nothing that specific. I'm interested in finding stuff out and making art -- or attempting to make art -- from it. I enjoy the challenge. I don't know what is meant by current questions. I just do what I do because it's what grabs me and I hope it grabs others. I want people to be moved by my work.
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?
To write. And to write well.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think I'm a pretty good editor of my own work so I don't rely on someone else to make massive changes and I trust my gut. But I'm not totally pigheaded about it and other people's perspectives have often helped.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don't eat yellow snow.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I don't really move between genres so much as I stay in this no-man's-land of mixed genre. I am going to try to write essays for my next book. We'll see how that goes. It might fail. But that's OK. I like to push myself in different directions, to challenge myself in different ways.
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?
My kid comes into the bedroom. I say it's not 7 a.m. yet. He says it is taking a long time to be 7. I tell him to go. He goes. He comes back 5 minutes later. Etc.
I don't have a writing routine. But my general process, for Cottonopolis, was to read lots of history books, write notes on post-it notes, eventually transcribe the notes onto a computer file, do some more research online, look through the notes, write something, tinker with it, doubt it, love it, etc.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading, reading, reading.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Nutmeg = Christmas
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?
Actual events -- whether contemporary or historical. Someone playing with their child. My child. Life.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Any writers who write well-crafted rhythmic wonderful sentences. Who have I loved recently? Willa Cather.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I'd like to try living in another country for a year or so. Finland and Iceland both appeal to me.
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'm also an educator -- I am trained as an elementary teacher and have worked for years in adult literacy. So there's already that. As far as art goes, if I didn't write, I'd probably be interested in some other kind of art: maybe photography -- maybe sculpture. Who knows.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Was there a choice?
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson. I can't remember the last time I watched a movie. Pretty addicted to The Wire, though. Talk about great sentences!
20 - What are you currently working on?
It's very early stages so who knows if it'll go anywhere -- and if my previous pattern is anything to go by, it may well take years. But I'm hoping to write a collection of essay-type-things about various historical events. How vague is that?
12 or 20 (second series) questions;