Elena Johnson’s poetry has been nominated for the CBC Literary Awards and shortlisted for the Alfred G. Bailey Prize. Her work is featured in Lemon Hound’s New Vancouver Poets folio and has appeared in literary journals across Canada, as well as in four anthologies. Her first book of poetry, Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra, was published by Gaspereau Press in 2015. Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra was written and researched during her time as writer-in-residence at a remote ecology research station in the Yukon’s Ruby Range mountains. Originally from New Brunswick, she has lived in many places and currently resides in Vancouver. [photo credit: Ayelet Tsabari]
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book has been a long time coming – the first drafts of the poems in Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra were written in 2008. So I’m pretty happy, and it feels like a great relief, to see them in book form, as a collected whole. What I love, at this point, is that people have taken the book home, and are reading it – not just a few poems here and there, but the whole book, as a collection. And a few of those people are writing to me to tell me how much they enjoyed it, and why. I hadn’t expected these reports on the book from all corners of the country, and they are buoying my spirits as I come down from the excitement of the book launches.
I’ve been lucky, for my first book, to work with a publisher whose work I really respect and admire. When I received the news that Gaspereau had accepted this book for publication, I didn’t stop grinning for days. During the editing and publication process, I felt the book was in good hands – the hands of people who understood what was at the heart of this particular series of poems.
Compared to my older work, the poems in Field Notes feel clearer, sharper and more concise. I’ve been writing haiku and tanka for many years, as well as free verse, and I think perhaps some of that practice in form (and attention) came through in these tundra poems. And it seems to me that I’m paying more attention to sound and diction over time, as well as to form.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I write in all three genres, but poetry has always come most easily and naturally to me. I find poems satisfying to work on, partly because I always write a first draft of a poem in one sitting (and I can’t do that with fiction or non-fiction). I enjoy the compact nature of poems; so much can be compressed into a few stanzas. And I appreciate the absolute freedom of possibility and experimentation in this genre.
I’ve dabbled in other arts, as well, and I can attest that an advantage to writing, as opposed to, say, painting or photography, is that the tools are easy to carry around. I keep a notebook and pen or pencil in my pocket or bag most of the time; I wouldn’t do the same with paint or a camera.
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?
For my current book, the poems started out as drafts written in pencil in a notebook during the several weeks I spent in the mountains of the Yukon’s Ruby Range. Poems come fairly quickly for me, interspersed with pages of things that aren’t poems – notes, or sketches, or writing that isn’t poetry. The poems do change over time – my editing process often involves reshaping the poems and removing lines/words/passages. But the basic elements of each poem remain the same.
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?
While I wish I could work on a “book” from the beginning, I find that approach too restrictive. I write poems as they come to me, and then hope there will be threads running through them that will link them into a book-like collection. I was lucky with Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra: because I was writing about the landscape I was living in, and the experience of being at the research station, I ended up with a long series of poems on the same topic. When I submitted my manuscript to publishers, I hadn’t realized I had enough alpine tundra poems for a book. I was submitting a collection twice this long, with two other sections. Those sections were fairly random collections in themselves. It was my editor at Gaspereau who suggested giving the alpine tundra poems their own book, and I’ve been pleased with that decision.
I’m working on two other series right now that focus on one theme or geographic location; I’m challenging myself to try to stick to a theme and work toward a book. But as I think about and push myself to consider these themes, I’ve been writing a very random assortment of other poems. I hope I’ll find some kind of thread that will tie them to one of these themes; if not, I could be working on three separate books right now.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love to do readings, but I don’t consider them part of the creative process of writing.
Deciding whether a poem can be presented out loud to a crowd is a sort of test for poems in progress, though.
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?
What are the limits of language – any language? Especially when faced with seemingly indescribable things, like the deep silence felt/heard/experienced in the Ruby Range? That’s an ongoing concern for me, and something I do try to answer /work around. I can see that coming through a bit in Field Notes, but moreso in one of my newer projects.
My other theoretical concerns are social and environmental, and they are often at the base of whatever I’m working on, even if I don’t realize it at the time. As I put collections of poems together, the thread that runs through them often has to do with these concerns.
I also think a lot about the overlap between art and science. I’m interested in the places where scientific inquiry and poetic/artistic inquiry overlap.
What I see as the current questions in poetry have a lot to do with how to use language differently, and the power of language as a catalyst for change. I’m interested in these questions, and their possible outcomes/answers, but these are not questions/themes I attempt to address in my own work. I’ve also seen a focus on ecopoetry emerging over the last ten years or so, and I’m excited about this. I’m hoping/assuming that my own work falls within this vein of observation and questioning.
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 role of the writer is to listen deeply. I think this would be true in any era/culture.
I also think about the role of the artist in general, and that we need to remember, as a society, that art is essential – to cities, cultures, rural areas, to each human life. Sometimes I find myself in the position of asking someone if they can imagine the world without art – no paintings, photography, films, performances, literature.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love it and find it challenging. While doing my MFA in creative writing at UBC, I was enrolled in four workshops with four different groups of writers. Giving and receiving editorial feedback in this context sharpened my own editorial skills, and also helped me get used to receiving editorial comments on my work. I also learned fairly quickly that not everyone’s comments are useful or helpful; it’s important to work with an editor who is on side, who can see what you’re aiming for. Again, I was lucky, with my first book, to have an editor who was such a good match.
I find it takes time to think about suggestions and make sure that I’m putting my ego aside and doing what’s best for the book/poems. I was glad to have quite a bit of time to think about the edits for Field Notes.
I also work as a freelance editor, and enjoy being on either side of the editing process.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
An established fiction writer visited an undergrad English class I was taking at the University of Waterloo many years ago. He told us that an older writer had once advised him to make sure to take care of his teeth, and that he had followed this advice. He advised those of us who were writers to make sure not to neglect our physical health over time. I thought this was very practical and sound advice from one writer to another.
10 - 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 I could maintain my ideal routine – writing first thing in the morning, with no interruptions – on a regular basis. But life and other work and noisy environments interfere with this routine quite often. I’m going to try to be more strict about this in the coming months. In the past, I’ve also found it helpful to block off an entire day, once a week, that is just for writing. That sounds luxurious right now, but I know it’s possible.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I find I’m stalled, I take a break and think about something totally different. And sometimes I remember to ask myself what I’ve been doing with my time: Have I been reading, and what sorts of things? Have I been spending time in nature? Have I taken in any other kinds of art lately? These are all things that rejuvenate me, and if I’ve neglected them or haven’t had time for them, I start to feel poorly and run out of steam for writing.
Sometimes a solution to a problem (i.e. a problematic line or passage) will come to me just as I’m falling asleep or waking up; even if I think I’ve put the problem aside, my subconscious continues to work on it.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
A meadow in the Maritimes in summer – I think it’s the sweet-clover, or apple blossoms, in the breeze. Also a forest in eastern Canada, especially Boreal or Acadian forest – the fir and pine needles, and the smell of the soil… Something about these forests smell like blueberries to me, even when there are no blueberry patches in sight.
13 - 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?
There’s a significant science and ecology influence in my first book, as I have a background in environmental studies and ecology, and wrote the poems at a remote research station. And I’ve written a suite of poems about dance. I’m interested in all the arts, and science… it’s hard to say what influences me most. But I enjoy looking at paintings and photographs or taking in a performance – I find these things revivifying, if not directly influential.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Charles Simic, Tomas Tranströmer, Roo Borson, Han Shan, Wisława Szymborska, Jen Currin, Erín Moure, John Glenday, Issa, Basho, Niels Hav and Federico García Lorca, for starters.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to head further north, up into the Arctic.
16 - 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 many interests, and have been lucky to find interesting employment – or create my own – while slowly writing poems in between and during these jobs. I think if I wasn’t a writer, I would have focussed more seriously on one of these other interests; probably, I would have done more academic work in ecology, or branched out into community arts or human rights/environmental advocacy. If I could start life over with a whole new body, I’d think about becoming a trapeze artist. Currently, I’m freelancing as an editor, which allows me, on a good week, to make time for my own writing.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve always enjoyed writing, and have often felt compelled to do it – the answer may be as simple as that. My parents are both good editors, so I learned a lot from them as I was growing up. And our house was overflowing with books. My whole family was pretty quiet – there were many nights or afternoons I can recall each of us being in a different room, quietly reading.
I have done several other kinds of work, and have a degree in environmental studies. But I’ve been writing while I did all of these other things, and eventually I decided to take the writing more seriously and spend more of my time doing it. It’s been a really good choice.
Also, if I don’t write, or do some kind of creative work, I become really grouchy. It’s better for everyone around me if I keep at it.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The book of poetry that’s affected and impressed me the most recently is Iraqi poet Duniya Mikhail’s The War Works Hard, translated by Elizabeth Winslow. The best novel I’ve read within the last year is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Right now I’m partway into Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, as well as Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, both of which I’m finding really well written and highly interesting. I loved an NFB documentary I watched a while ago called Carts of Darkness, about the lives of binners in North Vancouver. Oh, and I just sped through Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend, which a lot of Vancouver writers have been raving about, and for good reason.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m taking a look at the poems that I thought would be the second half of my first book – the non-alpine-tundra poems. And I’ve got two new series of poems underway, one of which I’m thinking more intensively about at the moment. I’m curious to see if these three disparate projects are going to fit into one book, or if each can be a book-length project of its own.