Charmaine Cadeau was born in Toronto. Placeholder, her latest book, was published by Brick Books in 2013. Her first collection of poetry, What You Used to Wear, was published with Goose Lane in 2004. She is an Assistant Professor of English at High Point University in North Carolina.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book afforded me a place in a community of poets and writers, and their friendships and camaraderie is unmatchable. My first book was the product of writing and revising over a very short period of time; there’s almost a decade between my first and second book, and I spent a lot of time honing similar preoccupations (like fidelity, etc.) I read a lot in that intervening decade, too, and came to what I read more deliberately than when I was greener. Also, I was thinking a lot about visual art when writing Placeholder, and realized that some poems in my latest book don’t translate as readily to aural performance as the poems in the first. Both books make me feel vulnerable.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to playwriting first, especially writing for children. I’m knacky with writing dialogue because I think it’s associative in a way that metaphor is, or can be. I’m not good at withholding, and that seems to me to be so important in longer narratives.
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 always have irons in the fire—scraps of writing here and there, so starting isn’t a challenge. I don’t begin with a book in mind so much, so I don’t plot out a framework. I just chase lines of inquiry, birddogging! I am generally a slow writer, or at least it takes me a while before any editorial stuff feels helpful. A very small percentage of my poems resemble early drafts. I wish I took copious notes because I’d remember my process more clearly; my notes are really fragmented, and that probably comes through in the final form.
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 is vague, but it’s the best I can do. A poem begins with a line that develops rhythmically in some way. Everything that I write that has integrity is probably all part of the same project, meaning at this point in life I think I have my figurative worry stones lined up and return to them in some way when I’m writing.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy readings. And I enjoy being alone. Writing is very solitary for me, so when I do readings, it’s always a bit of a jolt at first. I feel like a bear fresh out of hibernation. Man, that light is bright! I learn a lot from audiences, which helps me with projects down the road more so than in an immediate sense.
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?
My writing (I hope) is an extension of my theoretical concerns. I had fun playing with the long history of placeholders in my book, from math to philosophy to language. The overlap of absence and presence is uncanny. I hope my work raises questions because I write from a place of being unsettled myself about things, so I don’t deliver answers (or if I do, it’s like Zoltar in Big). Then there are questions that matter greatly to me that I want to see preliminary answers to because we need to make some changes in an immediate sense, even when those answers are tricky, like the recent debate surrounding the rights of pregnant inmates; what to do about carbon emissions; healthcare access in the US where I now live. I turn toward prose instead of poetry to address the latter kinds of things for a bunch of reasons, some of which are unpopular.
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 can somewhat answer this question in a personal way, ie: what is my role as a writer. For me, it’s important to nurture emerging writers (so I teach and edit a journal that includes some first-time publications, etc.); it’s important to plug into the writing community (so I attend readings, read a lot, have written reviews, etc.); it’s important to foster a broader culture of reading (so literacy and literary development programs occupy some of my time); and it’s important to use my own writing as a way of establishing some kind of ‘truth’ and putting it out there to bounce around with other things. So, broadly, the role of the writer is kind of kinetic like that—get the work out and see how it interacts with people, other books, other things. There’s a lot of responsibility in that, too (c.f. Frankenstein).
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Most of the experiences I’ve had with editors up to this point have been essential and humbling and gratifying. That kind of cocktail in various proportions depending on the editor. I fantasize about having an editor who becomes a lifelong friend—but then I think we’d both be too cloudy.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I like EM Forster’s sense that the writing process should be a way of arriving at what you think. I think social media necessitates a revision to his idea because there isn’t enough process, but Forster holds true for longer, contemplative writing projects.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I can’t change gears efficiently between the two, so I try to lump different kinds of writing into different times of the year when possible. The often-linear progression and development of critical prose requires different muscles for me, and I need some non-writing time to adjust back to poetry. But the intellectual and creative work of each is symbiotic. With criticism, I’m forced to evaluate and account for my reactions to things—to move from reaction to sustained thinking. It helps me keep my assumptions and preferences in check, and think metacritically about my own writing. I love criticism that reads as poetry and vice versa, but writing that way isn’t my forte.
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 wish I had one, but these days I take scraps of time when they come. In the summer, my typical day begins when my toddler wakes up, and just goes from there. My writing time usually begins with straightening up a room, making a hot drink, then lots of quiet. No internet, no phone. Just books and notes and time alone. I know it’s a good session when my drink gets cold because I’ve been caught up with something.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Lots of conversation and long walks without any conversation. And reading old textbooks about physics, geology, whatever.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Home is now like a series of knots on a cargo net. My son’s yellow blanket; rocky manmade beaches on Lake Ontario; forest floor.
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 want to write a note about all four (nature, music, science, and visual art), but I’ll just say that nonliterary influence is very important to me in these ways and others. I’m a pretty visual person, so systems, structures, patterns, and where they rupture influences how I see things and what I write about.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I always find questions about other books really tricky to answer because it is so contextual. I’m always excited by the work my Canadian contemporaries are doing. Also, there are ways of seeing things that writers like Alice Munro, Elizabeth Bishop, and others have that I turn to for my life outside of work.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Teachers Without Borders. And go on a honeymoon. Maybe do Teachers Without Borders as a honeymoon.
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?
Some of the most gratifying work I do is literacy development, so in my alternative life, that’s what I’d do. And bake. Birthday cakes.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The struggle I have with it.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just reread Manatee/Humanity by Anne Waldman. I screened Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. last fall at the university where I work. It still strikes me as an important and interesting film.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on some collaborative projects with nonwriters. We’ll see how it goes.
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