Melissa Bull is a Montreal-based writer, editor and translator. Her writing has been featured in such publications as Event, Prism, Lemon Hound, The Montreal Review of Books and subTerrain. She edits Maisonneuve magazine's "Writing from Quebec" column. Her translation of Nelly Arcan's Burqa of Skin was published in 2014 and her first collection of poetry, Rue, was released in April of 2015.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I guess it remains to be seen. I’ve been writing and publishing for a long time, but my first book just came out in April. Some of the poems in Rue are several years old, and I’m excited to think about all the shiny new projects I want to focus on next.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I didn’t, really -- I like to do all kinds of writing, poetry and fiction and non-fiction. The trick is more identifying what genre to work a particular project in. But I when I started to write, when I was around five or six years old, poetry was my way in. It felt like a departure from the way we use language every day. There was something conscious and purposeful about it that I liked.
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’m not a copious note-taker -- I’d rather use that writing time for writing writing. Poems usually take me a lot of rewrites. And then I forget about them and find them and rewrite them again. But I’m a fan of deadlines. I’ve worked as a professional writer and editor for a number of years and I like to just get out of my own way and get stuff done.
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’ll get a line in my head that won’t go away and I’ll just write it down and see what the next lines are. Rue is very much a collection of poems written about my life over the course of almost a decade. My next poetry collection began as a book, as more of a realized project that I have to work towards. It’s also, thankfully, not at all about me.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like readings. I like them as a way of getting various branches of writing communities together, or of discovering new-to-me authors. When I’m giving a reading I try to keep it pretty brief so that no one gets bored or uncomfortable and we can get to the hanging out part faster.
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?
It depends on the project. Class and bodies almost always come into play. My next poetry collection has a more theoretical concern, but it too is about bodies and class.
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?
In some ways it’s no different from any person’s role I guess. To notice specifics. To be present. The books I’ve loved have shown me new ways of thinking. Not just new ways of thinking about a thing, but they’ve structurally shifted the way I think, the way I see. Which is exciting and cool. I love it when that happens.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I want to be edited. And I make sure I find a few key brains, in addition to my editors, to revise my work, always. I’m grateful to have friends who will take the time to think about my work and offer up some comments to help make it stronger.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I’m a late bloomer so for a while everyone was just telling me to publish -- and they were right! You should be publishing, when you’re a writer.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
When I was a teenager I learned the now-out-of-date and problematic term “woman of letters” in a literature class and it gave me a happy feeling, a kind of kick of “yes!” -- I felt that’s what I wanted to be -- a cross-genre writer. (All the letters, all alphabet, give it to me.)
Re: translation, I get super excited about good work and I am so happy to have a skill that helps me share good work from one community with another, particularly as Canada’s franco and anglo communities can be pretty ignorant of one another’s arts.
But I’m just a big, happy, excited fan of language and the many things it can do. I feel provoked and engaged and useful when I write or edit or translate.
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 have day jobs, so I usually write at night, and on weekends. What I do is I work at an office all day, then come home, have dinner, hang with my partner, then have a coffee and kickstart my brain and make myself work for several hours. It seems work-a-holic-y, I know, but the truth is I think having constraints really helps me be more efficient with my time, and it keeps me from dithering too much. So it works for me.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’m paranoid that I’ll wake up without another idea one day, so I stash lots of beginnings or ideas for stories around, so I can flip around from project to project if something stops working. I usually have a few things on the go so I just push one thing as far as I can then work on the next one until I can’t figure out where to go with that anymore, and so on.
Just being involved in a lot of projects and committing to deadlines takes care of most inspiration issues. I’m way less woo-woo about the mystery of it all and more trusting that things will come and will right themselves if I just sit down and work it out.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My partner’s cooking. I come home from work every evening to him cooking us dinner. He also bakes bread every week, which fills our whole apartment with amazing smells. (I’m a very lucky person.)
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?
Man, if I could do all the arts I would. My writing is definitely a response to other arts -- it’s just that I can’t respond to those arts with those arts. Otherwise, I don’t know. My writing just about the stuff I think about, obsess over, can’t avoid.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’m interested in writing that’s authentic, sharp, surprising, smart. I read journalism and non-fiction and poetry and fiction… I like to make sure I’m out of my comfort zone and keeping myself thinking and engaged. But I always feel badly, too -- there’s so much more I could be reading. The FOMO of literature.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
So many things! Learn to sail. (Though maybe I should learn to drive first.) Translate a bunch of novels. See more of Europe. Learn Danish. Improve my Spanish. Visit Mexico. Learn silversmithing and make my own jewellery. Be rippling with muscles.
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 have day jobs that allow me to lead an alternate life to that of a writer every day. I’ve worked a lot as an editor for various publications, and right now I’m a manager for an IT company. It’s important for me, for the way I learn about my limits and my capabilities, to participate in that “outside” world. I like it.
When I was in my early 20s I thought about becoming a minister for a while. I remember thinking that if I did that I couldn’t be as free in my writing, though, like I wouldn’t be able to say or publish dirty, judgy, sexy things. So I guess that worked out.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
When I was a teenager and getting ready to apply for colleges, I debated between studying music -- I played the flute -- and studying literature. Ultimately, for me, writing and literature seemed limitless -- you can write about anything. And I never auditioned for music school -- just went right for the books.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Naja Marie Aidt’s Baboon is my favourite book lately.
I just saw that movie While We're Young in the theatre, and I mostly liked it. I watched Boyhood on a plane recently; it was good. Mostly I’ve been streaming some fun Scandinavian crime shows, though. My favourite is Annika Bengtzon. A crime-solving, tough-broad reporter with great hair! The best.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A collection of poetry, a collection of essays, I’m translating two plays right now. I’d like to wrap up my collection of short stories soon… and get back to my novel. I’m finishing up my MFA soon and my thesis will be a novel translation. I’m looking forward to getting into that, too.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;