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 chapbook, The Lunacy Commission (Cactus Press, 2012), came out in a rush, quite unexpectedly. I had stopped writing for a number of years. The chapbook gave me the confidence to keep going – and formed the kernel of my first full-length collection The Winter Count (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014).
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have vague memories of writing poetry while in high school – I don’t recall the specifics, just a fleeting sense of being in a trance-like state in my bedroom, scribbling away on paper. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I began exploring poetry – after taking a creative writing class led by Diana Brebner. I met Anita Lahey, Lesley Buxton and Una McDonnell in that class and we formed a writers group, “The Gang of Four.” I focused mostly on short fiction at the time, and then got side-tracked with writing a play – the hardest thing imaginable – I shredded it. A decade later, the research for that play morphed into “The Lunacy Commission.”
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?
It doesn’t take long to start, depending on what you consider the start position to be. I tend to be project-driven, which has meant a lot of reading and research (historical/ archival) before actually sitting down to write. But I’m now allowing myself not to be so obsessed with research, to stop worrying about where the narrative may or should be heading. That said, archival photographs are immensely powerful as writing prompts. So are borrowed lines of poetry. I stay away from the computer as long as I can possibly stand it – and write by hand – very free flow and chaotic. I try to keep things as open-ended as possible because my experience of writing that wretched play (during which time I followed a foolhardy prescribed method) taught me a difficult but useful lesson on how NOT to work. Chaos has its virtues. My first drafts rarely resemble their final shape. I would say that my work comes out of copious free-flow writing followed by extensive erasure. The notes come later, when I have a decent first or second draft.
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?
With The Winter Count, a poem typically began with a voice, a particular character, or with a scrap of found text such as an intriguing entry in a medical report (archival). I was working toward a book, and had a narrative in mind based on historical events and my family history – and so it was a back-and-forth process: writing bits of poems and doing more research, and going back to the bits and looking for connections within the historical record. My process is changing, I think. I’m open to the idea of writing short pieces that may or may not end up together in a larger project, which is wonderfully freeing mentally. The whole book project idea can be daunting when you’re back at the starting gate.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I actually love doing readings, though I haven’t done that many. I have a theatre background, and so the performance aspect of readings is something I enjoy.
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’m always asking myself, “Why am I doing this? The world is seemingly falling apart. What can poetry accomplish, and for whom?” I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I take heart from something that C.D. Wright once said: “In my book, poetry is a necessity of life. It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.” I do wish that poetry in Canada played a more dynamic role in public discourse. Imagine what it would be like if Canadians went around quoting poets because they recognized the relevance and power of their words … How do we ever make that happen?
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?
Writers perform different roles, depending on what they have to say and why. But I think we need at least some of them to provide relief from the incessant babble and distractions of life. To calm us down so we can think and feel more deeply than we typically allow ourselves to do. We’re so easily diverted from our true selves, and from others. It’s quite alarming.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I like working with an outside editor. It’s affirming. And it forces me to consider the writing choices I’ve made, and why I made them. And how to look at my work as a reader would, or could.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Years ago, when I was struggling to write a young adult novel (yes, add that to the list), YA novelist Janet Lunn said to me something like this. “There will always be someone more talented and accomplished than you, but no one can ever write your story. It is uniquely your own.” Back then, it was small comfort (I eventually trashed my YA novel, surprise, surprise!). Now, with the publication of The Winter Count, her words ring true. Sounds like the most obvious thing, but easy to forget…
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical/journalistic prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I write full-time for a living – mostly policy-related work on education and social issues. The experience of moving between, for example, an evidence-based report on early childhood learning in Bangladesh and a poem about a buried river, feels quite wrenching – like I’m operating on two different planets. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll get stuck in transit.
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 try to devote the first two hours of my day to poetry – reading, drafting, researching – when my mind is uncluttered. I work at the dining room table because I associate my desk with “real” work. Then I turn off the poetry switch and head into work-writing mode for the next eight or so hours.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Usually I sit with a book of poetry I love. Or with several. I choose books that are in the same “family” as what I’m working on, that occupy a similar world.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
Historical photography. Environmental science. Medical science. History. Drama.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I seek out works that relate to what I’m writing about. Right now, environmental and social histories of Toronto. Several Toronto poets are important in my life – as poets, friends, mentors. Anita Lahey, Catherine Graham, Sue MacLeod, Jim Johnstone, Maureen Hynes, to name a few. I am grateful for their encouragement.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Explore Viet Nam.
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 don’t know. Maybe something in the performing arts (acting, directing). The world of international development also pulls -- Doctors without Borders.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Initially, because it seemed like it was the only thing I could do relatively well and enjoy.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I loved Michael Redhill’s Consolation. I don’t know about the last great film. Maybe The Year of Living Dangerously.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I live in an apartment built over Taddle Creek, and am obsessed with the notion of buried rivers, and how we treat waterways as disposable waste sinks. Lately, I’ve been trolling Toronto’s beleaguered Don River for inspiration – writing linked poems that reference its social and environmental history.
[Dilys Leman reads in Ottawa at The TREE Reading Series with rob mclennan on January 27, 2015]
12 or 20 (second series) questions;