Arleen Paré is a Victoria poet and novelist with an MFA from the University of Victoria. Originally from Montreal, she lived in Vancouver for many years, where she worked as a social worker and administrator for Vancouver Coastal Health in community mental health housing. She has published poetry and prose in several Canadian literary journals and anthologies. Her first book, Paper Trail, was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay BC Book Award for Poetry and won the Victoria Butler Book Prize in 2008. Her second novel, Leaving Now, released in 2012 by Caitlin Press, has received positive attention. Her third book, a collection of poetry called Lake of Two Mountains, was released in April.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
When copies of my first book, Paper Trail, arrived at my house in their small cardboard box, it was as though a miracle had been visited upon me. It took my breath away. It changed me into a writer, one with substance. I had been a social worker and now I was a writer, a metamorphoses had occurred. I was a changeling. So you could say it made me believe in miracles, but that isn’t true. Every book is like another miracle.
My first book was mixed genre, no matter what it’s called. It was about working in bureaucracy and I wrote it in desperation, a way of transitioning out of bureaucracy. And – another miracle - it won the Victoria Butler Book Prize and had been short-listed for the Dorothy Livesay Award for Poetry. This recent book is a collection of poetry, plain and simple – no lyrical fragments, no narrative arc, no fairytale.
The difference is that I now after three books I believe in myself – a little more.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
It was the reverse for me: in fact I did not come to poetry first. At first I was interested in writing fiction; in fact, I was writing a novel. But later, after a few months, after I joined a writing group, poetry crept up on me – more from an time management requirement than anything else. I was working full-time and every month I had to bring some writing to the writing group; poetry was just less time-consuming. Before I knew it, I was writing more poetry than fiction. Finally I had to drop the fiction that I was writing fiction. My first two books are mixed genre books, and this shifty history is likely why.
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?
The length of time starting a project and the speed of inspiration and execution all vary. Paper Trail, my first book, a mixed genre collection, or novel, depending on your point of view, was just over three years from start to publication contract; Leaving Now, a novel of mixed genre, was a ten year process, and Lake of Two Mountains, a poetry collection just released by Brick Books, took two years.
I always edit and edit and edit, so my final versions are different than the originals. I take notes. I fuss and fuss some more.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose 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 have almost always started with an idea for a book. I find it more appealing and more productive to know which subject I am focussing on, which direction I am moving in. I have one poetry collection that will become a book, but that book is the exception.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy public readings. If I’m working on a project an open mike reading will help focus the edits of what I might be reading; the act of reading to a public audience helps me to listen to a poem differently. If I’m launching a book, the reading helps me to hear, and then read, the poems more acutely.
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?
If by theoretical concerns you mean themes, yes, I suppose I do. I seem to get caught up in concepts, emotions such as loss, loneliness, longing, like almost everyone else. And the big one: unconditional origin(s), which I’m told is impossible to ask, let alone answer. But still I want an answer, or several. Want, want, want, as Chase Twichell writes in the last line of one of her poems. And I am guilty. If this is not a current and perpetual question, I do not know what is.
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 would only answer this in clichés, I suspect, which might be the same as saying I really don’t know. Personally, I write for the love of it, for the pleasure it brings me; I hope it brings others pleasure, or at least some interest, maybe comfort, too. As for the writer’s role in the larger culture: I was once a social worker, which makes it hard for me to say much about the writer’s role. I realize a writer can press political agendas and make a difference in that way. This has been seen in history especially in periods of serious repression. I suppose, she can elicit emotional responses, which might be of use in the larger culture, softening it, humanizing it. Jane Hirshfield says that “in contemporary American culture, all the arts, and particularly poetry, have as a central task the work of paying attention to whatever the mainstream culture ignores or dismisses. Now a great deal of our current mainstream culture is asking us to deaden ourselves—to close heart, eyes, mouth, to thicken skin, to stay inside a perimeter of consuming and protecting. Art’s example reminds us that it is possible to develop an awakened and courageous and indecorous soul, in the face of a world that mostly asks us to be obedient sheep”.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find it essential, generally satisfying, very useful and rarely difficult – though, to be honest, there have been moments.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Patrick Lane once said: honour your own voice; don’t compare your voice to the voices of others; believe in that voice. I keep that close to my own comparative heart.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
In almost all of my projects, move between genres. It’s more or less natural for me. The hard thing is holding to one. If you read Paper Trail or Leaving Now, you will understand – they are pretty much entirely a mix. The appeal is the freedom, the continual surprise. I have a hard time writing a narrative in a straight and continuous line.
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 begin with oatmeal and aerobics most days. I have almost no writing regime. Even the word regime makes me shiver. I worked for too many years with alarm clocks and schedules to want to impose that on my writing life. That said, when I do have a deadline, I can work to it without even trying. I want to keep my writing in the zone of play which it is; writing is almost the most fun I can have. It’s a magnet; I seek it out always.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I might read. I might walk. I might go to a poetry reading. Listening to poetry often primes the pump for me – just the sound of words in their best order is inspiring.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Fresh mown grass. I grew up in Dorval, a suburb of Montreal and there were plenty of small lawns in our subdivision, and when the snow finally melted, all the small lawns needed mowing. Also, then, in the winter, which was long, the smell of snow.
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?
Visual art for sure. And science, biology, also astrophysics -- and always nature. I’m a lyric poet, I suppose, despite growing up in the suburbs, and a sucker for nature.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, Tim Lilburn, Melanie Siebert, Don Domanski, all the poets, eleven in all, in my two writing groups, and many of the writers in the Victoria writing community - it’s a big and friendly community and their support is pretty constant and always reassuring.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Visit Istanbul. Live beside a warm lake and swim every morning. Have an art show of my own.
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?
Well, I was, as I have mentioned, a social worker. I still identify as a social worker. Many of my friends are social workers. So in fact, when I wasn’t a writer, I was a social worker. Though now I think I might have wanted to be an architect. I would love to be a pilot. Or a famous painter. A painter, for sure, but especially a famous one who makes her living as a painter.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Words make me write, and the feelings that want to live and breathe as words.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m reading Curiosity by Joan Thomas, a Canadian novelist. It is great. And before that, The All of It by Jeanette Haien, an Irish writer. I recently saw Philomena, which I loved, and Muscle Shoals, which was exciting. And a film about the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, which I found useful for catching up, a little, with the wild current tide of Physics.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a poetry project which will be largely ekphrastic. More than that, I can’t say right now, but I am working. There are two other projects simmering on the back burner as well.
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