Shannon Webb-Campbell [photo credit: Meghan Tansey Whitton] is an award-winning poet, writer, and journalist of mixed Aboriginal ancestry. She is the inaugural winner of Egale Canada’s Out in Print Award and was the Canadian Women in Literary Arts 2014 critic-in-residence. Still No Word (Breakwater Books) is her first collection of poems. She lives in Halifax.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Still No Word just came out yesterday, so it’s hard to say how it’s changed my life. It feels like encountering something extraordinary and peculiar, like swimming backwards inside of a whale.
These past few weeks leading up to the release, I was met with an unexpected storm of anxiety. I oscillated from wanting to throw up, to collecting rocks to fill my pockets for my farewell walk into the cold sea. I searched for escape routes, faraway places where I could reinvent, change name, become another. I wanted to crawl out of my skin, drink myself blind.
Apparently, this is all normal behavior of first timers, typical of vulnerability even. The book has been unleashed into the world, and I am still here. Now I’m more worried about the whale.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I began as a poet. I’ll die as a poet.
Though, I’ve previously published several creative non-fiction pieces, letters, poems and fictions in anthologies, including: Where The Nights Are Twice As Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets (Goose Lane 2015), Out Proud: Stories of Courage, Pride, and Social Justice (Breakwater Books 2014), MESS: The Hospital Anthology (Tightrope Books 2014), She’s Shameless Women Write About Growing Up, Rocking Out and Fighting Back (Tightrope Books 2009) and GULCH: An Assemblage of Poetry and Prose (Tightrope Books 2009).
My next piece is a non-fiction story of rape and isolation set in Malta published in This Place A Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone (Caitlin Press 2015).
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 start by circling myself. I stare out the window. I question my fate. I discourage myself before I even begin. And these are good days.
Often words and lines come when I’m not thinking about writing. This morning, shuffling around like an out of shape ballerina on Halifax’s iced-laced sidewalks, a stanza came. I can be at yoga, making lunch, or driving down the highway. Poetry has its own time clock; it never punches in or out.
Many lines come after crawling into bed, the time we’re most adrift, somewhere between worlds. Rarely do I cough up a poem. They all start unexpectedly. Most go through several drafts, weather systems, moods, and typically begin or end around the first libation of the day.
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?
Poems happen. My job is to keep the channel open, to listen, witness, and document. I didn’t know the poems in Still No Word would ever become a book; they were orphans who needed a home.
I’m thankful Breakwater Books gave my poems a roof over their heads, and food in their bellies. These poems belong to Newfoundland. I suspect the next book will be written with a different intention, from another vantage point.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Astrologically, I embody Gemini, so duplicity is a constant state. I crave solitude and wildness. Poetry befits this calling. I enjoy the tucked-in nature of my work, spending hours, days, seasons playing with words, but I struggle with the solitary aspect. Many days, it goes against my nature.
Readings are a wonderful excuse for poets to gather, honour craft and community. We need to hear one another’s voices in order to find our own. We need an excuse to get outside ourselves, and witness one another’s tragedies and belly laughs. We need our tribe.
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 live my life close to the bone, sucking on its marrow. Sometimes I’m on the brink, other times looking over. All I know, I’m a seeker. Poetry is both call and answer. It saves my life over and over.
Many of my questions reel around identity, ancestry, belonging, that constant nagging notion of home, rivers of grief, fragments of abuse, sexuality, and longing. I think we’re all poems.
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 offer cardinal direction, we are the compass of a culture. Some of us are mythmakers, mapmakers, others schemers. Call us documentarians, or even translators, but we’re all witnesses here in the universe’s grand symphony.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love the editorial process. Susan Musgrave catcalled me, created a safe space both dangerous enough for poetry and an incubator for a closeted poet. My editor James Langer at Breakwater was rough, yet insightful. He wanted more of a fight, but we both got our way in the end.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it,” Martha Graham to Agnes De Mille.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
All forms inform another.
Last year, as Canadian Women In Literary Arts critic-in-residence 2014, I was given a platform to examine how poetry informs criticism, and how criticism informs poetry.
I wrote several book reviews, examining works from Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir (Arsenal Pulp) to Sylvia D. Hamilton’s I Alone Escaped To Tell You (Gaspereau Press). I labored over critical essays, which led to attending the Scotiabank Giller Prize Gala in Toronto, and published An Incomplete Manifesto for CWILA. Criticism relies on analysis, close reading, and creative nerve. So does poetry.
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 there were hours allotted, strict routines, and diligent follow through. But I’m more of a wildcard. Mostly, I write when I force myself to. Most days begin with coffee, a notebook, and eventually, I open my computer.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I let go, and stop forcing myself. In stepping away from the words, I return to the living. Eventually, I exhaust myself with life’s carousel, and wash ashore, find myself back on land, looking out to sea, ready to write.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cigarette smoke on fresh laundry (the smell of my grandmother).
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?
Atlantic Canada is instrumental in my work, whether it’s the harsh, rugged coastlines, or the vast, merciless ocean. Everything is hardship and endurance, the essentials. It’s my ancestral lands. I often threaten to move away due to weather extremes, yet never stray long enough to lose my place.
Though, to keep with McFadden’s insight, several poems in my book have kinfolk poems, including “Last View of Bell Island,” a sister to a suite of poems by Sue Sinclair and her various views of Bell Island. “Wintering,” gives nod to Rainer Maria Rilke, and my poem “Doubles,” is a sibling poem to a stanza in Sue Goyette’s “Psychic,” from her stunning book, Undone (Brick Books).
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Sylvia Plath’s work, especially her poems and journals, though The Bell Jar has a forever place in my being. Winter after winter, I return to Mary Oliver, especially when the living doesn’t go so easy. Writers like Simone de Beauvoir, Leonard Cohen, Zoe Whittall, Brian Brett, Lisa Moore, all the Susan’s (Musgrave, Goyette, Sinclair), Elizabeth Bishop, Shalan Joudry, Joseph Boyden, Anne Carson, Ivan Coyote, Anna Camilleri, Amber Dawn and Jeanette Winterson all call out.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to go for a hot air balloon ride. Visit Greece. Learn another language, especially Mi’kmaq. Live in a foreign country. Write a novel. Swim with mermaids. Sing a duet. Sail around the world. Maybe visit the moon.
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’ve worn many hats. I’ve been a photographer, a bookseller, shopkeeper, camera sales person, barista, art teacher, and nanny. Some days, I think I’d like to be a synchronized swimmer, own a dress shop, become a chef, or a milliner. My deepest aspirations are to teach creative writing at a college or university, so perhaps, in my own way, I can become all these things.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The writing made me write. I blame the words.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve just finished reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water: A Memoir (Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts), where she writes, “ In water, like in books – you can leave your life.” Words to live by.
Sarah Mian’s debut novel, When The Saints (Harper Collins), could be my favourite book out of Atlantic Canada this year.
As for the last great film, I’m still basking in the glow of Bruno Barreto’s Reaching For The Moon, the love story of Elizabeth Bishop and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. I can’t even admit here how many times I’ve re-watched it.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Currently, I am working on a collection of linked stories, and attempting to write my first play for Queer Acts Theatre Festival. The odd poem, letter or fragment seems to intervene.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;