Joanne Arnott is a Métis/mixed-blood writer, born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and based in Coast Salish territories on the West Coast. A publishing and performing poet since the 80s, and a blogger in more recent years, Joanne is mother to six young people, all born at home. An active participant in many online and in-world collaborating groups of writers, she is a mentor and piecework editor, an essayist, as well as a poet and activist.
Arnott is a founding member of the Aboriginal Writers Collective West Coast, The Aunties Collective and Transcultural Academy (an international writers’ collective centered in Africa). She has served on The Writers Union of Canada National Council (2009), The Writers Trust of Canada Authors Committee, and as jury member for the Governor General's Awards/Poetry (2011). Halfling Spring: an internet romance (Kegedonce Press) is Joanne’s ninth book, and her sixth book of poetry.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book changed my life quite a bit: I dreamt of it! I was paralyzingly shy and deeply opinionated, so, having a book in the world meant that the world might ask me for my presence or opinion, which smoothed the path dramatically. I received the offer to publish as a result of showing my manuscript to a teacher on the other side of the country, so, it was miraculous, too, having a publisher phone up and say, “please?” This same publishing deity asked for my next book (before I’d conceived of one), and the next… that was a very solid footing that arrived as manna from heaven. (Thank you, Barb Kuhne!)
My most recent work is far less fussy. I do not spend three years moving commas around, I publish sooner. I am of course twenty years older, but, there is a strengthening loop that happens between poet and world. Two decades in the biz has done a great deal for both my self-confidence, and my ability to hold a pen lightly.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started with fiction and poetry. My eldest sister studied at University of Windsor, when I was in high school, and she invited me in to many circles of poets, both the undergrads who soon became dependent on sherry and the professionals who spent hours debating what to name a gathering of poets, over many diverse cups, which thenceforth failed to gather (naming is all). I came away with the indelible impression that poetry is cool, far cooler than all other genres, and conducted myself accordingly.
Just before high school I lived in rural Manitoba, in a house with few books, and so the books we did have loomed large in impact. One of these was a hefty compendium of best-loved English language poems, so that formed an excellent tutorial base, a wide gathering of voices all with distinct landscapes and rhythms.
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?
Sometimes very long incubation, avoidance, endless raw writing that veers this way and that before I find the straightforward path: this is generally true of essays. Sometimes fruits dropping fully formed from my pen, all I need is to keep a basket nearby, and gather the harvest: this is generally true of poetry. Some poems become herculean wrestling matches, some poems want to be essays, and so, long processes of reconciling the bits until we have something that is polished and coherent. Going through the basket of poems to decide what to send to a magazine, or what to put where in a manuscript, is a pleasure and work too. Often it reveals patchy bits that require another polish, or new revelations that might be explored more fully.
Working with an editor is good, it helps a poet to recognize one’s own secret codes, as opposed to metaphors that speak to the beyond-me audience. This was most important in the early days, but even now each new manuscript reveals a few such items, and so I spell it out or say it different, or I teach my editor how to see things the way I do.
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 am definitely a piecework operator, creating many unique pieces that I then combine into larger scrolls. I do intend to write a book that has been pre-sold, at some point, and do the whole query and pitch route: this chapter will cover that territory, etc. Sometimes a poem will arise with its title, and proclaim to be a book, in which case I do my best to accommodate.
Halfling spring is such a poem. It is based on a specific Anishnabe story, and rose out of a yearlong exploration of mermaid tales. Once written, it had the feeling of putting its finger precisely on the pulse of the whole flock of poems that I was writing. So that became the title of the book of love poems.
A Night for the Lady arose out of a similar stream—the poem articulating researches of the frame story from Arabian nights, on the one hand, and mermaid tales (a shorter poem with the same name) on the other. The former worked as a gathering-in poem, but not for the same collection as Halfling spring, so, the conversations with the world poems were gathered under this title, a kaleidoscopic gathering.
Halfling spring is much more focussed, strictly I and Thou.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings are essential to my process. I come out of an oral tradition, the Metis and the Irish as they came together in southern Manitoba, the French and the Scots. This may sound very important, but it is in fact very casual: sing! Talk! Around the time I started to move into book form, I read an interview with Maria Campbell, she admonished writers not to leave our work in the drawer. The work is not complete until it has been given to—or given back to-- the world.
I am very much an energy sort of person, so, I need to test my work aloud with an embodied audience, and read the energy exchange that happens, before putting the final burnish to the work. There is no way of substituting the idea of a poem for a real poem in action. Without experiencing my poem within a human gathering, without that palpable sense and visceral call and response, it is incomplete for me.
I do love to perform. There is a reciprocity different in the experience of textual exchange, though I have to admit, I do love textual swap formats too.
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?
Yes. I am receiving, synthesizing, and returning energy to the world, as part of a collective living-breathing-balancing. I combine a syncretic approach and deep motivation. Ethics and aspirations are a part of it: Neal McLeod’s anthology, Indigenous Poetics, includes my essay, “small birds: songs out of silence,” and I delve the specifics there more deeply.
For myself, when I gaze across the wide range of poetries in Canada specifically, and poetry streams globally, I think the most pressing questions and challenges are around wholeness, a sense of collective integrity. Can we make space for all communities and poetics, all traditions of oratory and literary values of elegance, or will hell-bent for fragmentation flavours be a final chapter, privileging the urban over the traditional, secular over sacred, text and thought over voice and embodiment, etc.?
For me, whatever the genre, song is the most important value in the written word. It is a joy to listen to embodied oratory, and a pleasure to follow the lead of an excellent authorial voice through hundreds of pages.
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?
The world is unfolding every moment. We are a part of that. There is the whole production of capital, ‘the people have a write to make a living.’ Those of us with the freedom of speech may feel an obligation to put it to good use, to pick up the pen for purposes of ‘witnessing.’
What I find most exciting is the work being done in the interface between oral and text, and between one language and literature and another, these cross-fertilizations. Canada has a huge volume of work that has not been fully integrated into our collective sense of CanPo, so, these are exciting times to be alive and at work.
Like it or not, the writer in Canada today is a public intellectual. Others will look to you for leadership and guidance. Wherever I am, whatever I am doing, I try to remain aware of the way that the world relies upon me, to make sense, as best I can.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I enjoy working with a good editor, and I have worked with many: only rarely did I find it quite baffling/unhelpful, a small handful of challenges. At the same time, I have met writers whose work was sidelined for decades, because a teacher or editor was indelicate and inappropriately matched: so, it’s a good question. For me it isn’t essential, my work is essentially completed before the editing begins, but, nonetheless clarifications en route to text publication is a normal part of the business.
I think the core revelation about editors is that the author has the final word: you are expected to negotiate, this is a great opportunity to learn and to teach, and the process isn’t something to be afraid of. If you feel the editor is not leading you where you want to go, and you feel you cannot communicate in a reciprocal way, you may be well advised to find a new placement for your work.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Don’t worry about me. Worry about your own self”
One of my pre-schoolers attempting to derail my editorial interventions: an awareness of roles and boundaries is always fruitful. I try not to obsess about things beyond my control, and to do well by everything that crosses my desk.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Well, I am inherently a culture critic, it is simply how I was raised: I have listened to long monologues on the inappropriateness of cars, extreme excavations on religions and how they might be organized better, deep analyses on how the world works and how it “shouldn’t.” Polemics were part and parcel of surviving to adulthood. It is a family gift. Likewise, whatever I start off to write, becomes memoir/autobiography to some degree, that is somewhat reflexive, an inner bent or proclivity.
I love writing essays, I always have. What has been a challenge for me internally is, defining authorities—who has the right to make comment on what aspect of reality? I have published a book of talks and essays (Breasting the Waves, 1995), and have enough work to publish another: I went into hiatus after the first collection was published, ten years passed before I started writing essays again.
In recent years I have tended toward writing more about literature, still with a memoir or colloquial flavour, and less poetic perhaps so the thoughts will register as thoughts, ideas, and not simply as music. I became curious about the whole realm of secondary literature, and began to create that, too, as a less onerous form of literary production. The transit from wallflower to raconteur is an ongoing thing.
I have a strong interest in structures, and while that is expressed more in political or volunteer realms, it is certainly a part of my mind that is engaged in writing nonfiction and poetry, how to identify and bridge gaps, how to point out and smooth impediments, etc.
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 write every day, generally beginning in the email box and moving into deadline work, unless I am in a certain mood, at which time I will avoid the responsive-writing and focus inward, often starting in my journal and moving into word processing as the work progresses.
I love to sleep, to dream, and to wake. If I wake with a dream, I move first to the journal, before anything else.
If I don’t bounce awake, I may hit the alarm many times, to squeeze as much sleep and half-sleep as possible out of my day. Then I put on the kettle (a whistling kettle), call the kids for school, and commence.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I am uncomfortable, needing to communicate with no words coming, I turn to images, doodling in my journal or running image searches online. I do a lot of my processing laterally, so, making and sending illustrated letters, or adding a pictorial element to an essay or an interview, or a flock of poems I have found online. Researching friends and sending them pdf versions of themselves.
Another way to answer this question: sometimes I think of body tension and an inability to focus or settle into things as an accumulation of stories, a muscular glut of some sort. The process becomes one of identifying which stories I need to tell to which audience— may be a co-worker, may be a loved one, may be the world. I can tell what I need to say only by locating the correct alignment, and I feel myself substantially relaxing as the stories spill.
For deepest refreshment, I have to spend hours out of doors, along the rivers, the sea, among the grasses or trees.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sage is a scent that goes right through me, setting me at ease. Dried grass, snow, old pipe or cigarette tobacco scents, fragrance of coffee, slow cooking meats. The scents of snow and of rain, a rain-fresh street.
[Related disclosure: I am allergic to many perfumes and chemical scents, so I find myself moving away from people wearing scented products, however much I may want to stay and converse.]
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?
McFadden is not wholly correct: scrolls, inscriptions, architecture, oratory and song have all transformed into and inspired many books, more than we can count.
I have some impatience with books that reference only books, and thoughts that reference only other thoughts and thinkers: the nexus of embodied realms and the ancients with the breaking wave of the new, that’s a beautiful playground. Nature, music, fabric, visual art, people: science too. Excellent seascapes and geographies and cosmos/mologies.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Some of that I’ve touched upon already in recent interviews, long lists of influencers, teachers, fellow travellers; rafts of neo-pen pal correspondents, cascades of conversation of a textual nature.
I have a raft of indigenous writers with whom I keep in touch, AWCWC, old lady hunting and Storytellersplayspace, the conversational groups are a bit quiet these days, but the co-nourishing and the real world mutual supports carry on. Whether the e-group developed after real world gatherings or as an independent manifestation, it is essential for me to keep an inner balance, by keeping the roots watered and feeling (noticing) the sun through the trees.
I have been learning about Persian poetry through correspondence with poets, particularly Mahmud Kianush (UK), and about African literature more generally through collaboration and conversation with many different writers in a group headed by Ugandan poet-activist Beverley Nambozo and Zimbabwean novelist-filmmaker Tsitsi Darembenga (Transcultural Academy). A few other mixed writer e-groups, Canadian poets, and I’ve just met many new-to-me west coast writers via the Cascadia Poetry Festival, expanding the real world roster, following up with blog visits, research, reading, further conversations.
I have been taking part in a Reconciliation Through Poetry project via SFU/Centre for Dialogue, in honour of Chief Robert Joseph. One of the poets is also in the TA group, and another in AWCWC, so in some respects this is the current balance point.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Celebrate my birthday (in December) with a beach party (on a hot summer day)
Pursue scholarly research in an academic (as opposed to a freestyle poetic) manner
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?
My favourite jobs have been in print shops, there is something that I love about towering stacks of paper, different qualities and kinds of paper and print communications. Also, I love fabrics, making fabric would be a fine explorative alternative to what I do now, and selling these in the marketplace.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
In a family of artists, there is a certain amount of jockeying for space, for finding one’s own form within a spillingly creative productive environment. As fifth-born of nine, the best singers, visual artists, scientists, writers, performers had all been identified, the smartest, the most beautiful, the most charming, etc.
In the end, it comes down to what I can do quietly, without telegraphing to the world the insubordination of what I am producing. Of course, that only covers the moments of production, so, I have had to toughen up, to speak for myself (albeit clutching pieces of paper), and to learn to stand my ground. Letting the nascent orator out into light of day.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last two films I’ve most enjoyed are Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame, and The Way: each has a greatness in depth and richness of associations, cultural resonances.
The question of greatness among books is sending me down endless corridors of contemplation, touching on the functions of memory, the management of time, the years when I lay in my bed with banks of books around me, the more recent ages of work-dominated readings, books in manuscript print-out form and books in the process of creation. Amongst all of this wealth, can I bring one bright title into focus, and offer up its name?
20 - What are you currently working on?
Just diving into reading some three-hundred poems by writers of Africa, of which I may shortlist just fifteen. Then I will read thirty poems shortlisted by other judges, Richard Ali and Kgafela Magogodi, and they will read my fifteen, and we will engage in a process of choosing among the forty-five poem shortlist the winning poems of this year’s BN Poetry Award. BNPA has been for five years an award for emerging woman poets of Uganda, and this is the first year when the contest is open to men as well as to women, and to African writers internationally.
My blog: http://joannearnott.blogspot.ca/
Researching and writing about my family’s religious roots and routes, and about to receive some further skills development in relation to editing, with a specific focus on indigenous authors.
Tonight: AWCWC collective supper at Native Ed College to celebrate Jordan Abel’s BC Book Prize (Poetry), for The Place of Scraps