Sunday, July 05, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jónína Kirton

Jónína Kirton : A prairie born Métis/Icelandic poet and facilitator currently lives in the unceded territory of the Coast Salish people. She brings her experience as a graduate of the Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio, as a sacred circle facilitator, and a student of Continuum, to her writing and teaching. She remains curious about memory and the many ways one can access it. She regularly seeks to open herself to her body and to what the ancestors have to offer. Her work has been featured in a number of anthologies and literary journals including, Ricepaper’s Asian/Aboriginal Issue, V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out, Pagan Edge, First Nations Drum, Toronto Quarterly and Quills Canadian Poetry Magazine. Her first collection of poetry, page as bone ~ ink as blood, described as dark and delicate, was released in April 2015 with Talonbooks Visit her at

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, page as bone ~ ink as blood, was just released in March of this year. I have noticed that there is an empty space where the work of this book sat. I have a feeling of relief now that I am done with that challenging material (which was largely autobiographical). I wonder what is next but do not feel the need to rush this. I am currently living in the potent space of possibility as I wait for the next theme to present itself. 

With my more recent poetry I find that I am taking even more poetic licence and that I worry less about the elusive ‘truth’.  I trust where the pen takes me and that within my words is ‘a truth’, simply one of many versions. Losing the Fact Police and the You Can’t Say That Crowd left even more room for musings or imaginings that fall outside the dry details of any story I am trying to tell.    

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I sometimes say that poetry choose me. When I applied to the Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio in 2006 I was hoping for assistance with a memoir about a particular time in my life. Our applications were to include samples of poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing. At that point most of my poetry focused on unrequited love.  It is safe to say that it was often sappy and although it might have made good lyrics for a country music song it was certainly not good poetry.  I had not read much poetry either so imagine my surprise when I was selected for the poetry stream. But they were so right. I am extremely grateful that they saw the promise in my work and knew that I was a poet before I did.

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?
Writing can be a very long process for me. It took me seven years and many drafts to arrive at a completed manuscript for my book which in the end was a mere 80 pages. I recall first holding it in my hands and thinking “My god this is what seven years of work looks like. It is so small”. It was humbling to realize just how much writing is discarded as a manuscript takes shape.

I am not a prolific writer.  I tend to go through long periods of non-writing. There are the occasional gift poems. They come out intact but usually only after much contemplation of a particular theme. These are rare and often my favourites.  Most poems are hard-won works of diligent research on my chosen topic or theme. I will read books; spend time with my friend google, watch movies/videos, anything to spark thoughts on the subject. I am often contemplating more than one theme at a time and this sometimes brings poems that marry seemingly disparate things. Like many writers I always carry a small notebook and a tiny pen with me so that I can quickly jot down anything that floats across my mind as I grocery shop or attend meetings etc. When reading a book I always have post-it notes to flag things I want to return to and a larger notebook to write down quotes and various thoughts that arise. Sometimes as I make notes, lines for poems will come to me. So yes there is copious note taking. I am a little embarrassed to say that I have more than twenty journals full of notes and beginnings of poems sitting on my bookshelf that I have yet to fully transcribe. I do produce a lot of flotsam that needs to be ejected yet I cannot seem to part with those notebooks. Maybe I can still squeeze a poem or two out of them.

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 have only written one book and as I mentioned earlier it took me seven years to bring it into the world. There were many versions of that book before it found its way towards the theme of death, desire and divination. While writing it I simply thought of it as a collection. The theme did not reveal itself until year six. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I would not say I enjoy doing readings but I really like being around other writers. I do them because I know how much I love to hear others read and I want to be a part of the literary community. I find attending readings can expand my vocabulary. If I hear a word that feels good in the mouth I will write it down. I benefit from hearing what other writers are working on and am intrigued by the things that inspired their pieces. I also find encouragement through their brave telling of their stories. The more creative they are in this telling the more I get from listening to their story weaving.

As for doing readings I am a shy person, one who never wanted to stand in front of a crowd. I prefer circles. Whenever I teach or offer workshops I use the circle format. I am much more comfortable with this type of setting which is rarely used for readings. To overcome some of my shyness I do practice with my webcam (fully clothed of course) so I can see and hear myself. I find this very helpful. And of course the more you do it, the easier it gets. 

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?
As someone who writes a lot of autobiographical poems there is of course questions around “whose story is it?” Is it ethical for me to share details of my life which cannot be told without revealing some deeply personal things about other people? There are no simple answers to this one so I do my best to not censor myself as I write and later tackle the ethical piece. In my book I included one piece, Mystery Man, to offset some of the more negative things I shared about my dad and our life together. I felt more comfortable offering the less savoury moments once I had included the other sides of him. 

To a large extent my writing is about identity. Where do I belong as a mixed race woman whose father was no doubt wounded by racist attitudes to those with Aboriginal blood? Who are my ancestors and how does their story intersect with mine? I still want to know more about the lives of my ancestors (including my parents). I feel that they live on within my body hence the name of my book, page as bone ~ ink as blood, which is a telling of their stories as much as it is a telling of my story. There are also a few pieces about other young women that I could relate to. One such piece, Lucidity, is about a young First Nations woman that had a psychotic break in her early twenties.  She so reminded me of myself at that age and although I have never had a psychotic break I can certainly relate to the inner shattering that comes from having nowhere in life that is safe. I can also relate to how so many men want to rescue you only to get close enough to move in for a taste of your flesh. While she was in hospital I often thought she may have done better with culturally sensitive care. Was she having a psychotic break or a spiritual awakening that the hospital staff was not equipped to help her with? With this piece came the question “whose story is it?” In this case I did get her permission to share the poem and her story in my book. But I did not ask for permission from my father to tell our story. It is impossible to tell my story without including him and he would never have granted permission. This fact may disturb some people but one of the questions I explore throughout the book is how to break free of the oppressive nature of a harsh childhood, of a patriarchal world that values men more than women, and white more than non-white. We need many voices to overcome the powerful incentives to stay silent and to allow the status quo to continue. I am simply one mixed-race woman joining my voice with others who are speaking to issues of race, of gender and who gets to tell the stories in families and extended communities. 

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 don’t feel that there is any one way a writer “should be”. I love diversity. There is room for us all. Having said that, when I began writing I had hoped to be the female version of Rumi; that my writing would be inspirational but what kept coming was very dark. I soon realized that despite my many years of spiritual seeking I was to tell my story, to speak the truth of my experiences as the only daughter in a mixed-race patriarchal family where the curse of internalized racism was strong. I had to let go of the idea of being spiritual or inspirational and what followed was magical. I discovered a whole other way of being and writing. One that was more genuine and honest. I became increasingly comfortable with the dark and delicate words that kept coming.

I believe that there is no doubt that writing can be a vehicle for change. Storytelling has always been one of the most powerful ways to teach. It has saved my life; first as a child when I read Anne Frank. Reading of her challenges and resilience gave me hope that I could do the same. Reading Nancy Drew I dreamt of a better life, one in which I was the heroine. The ability to dream, which is essential to creating a life, can be fueled by storytelling.  

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have found it challenging at time. Just ask my husband who is always my first reader. I also feel it is essential to get feedback. I have been very fortunate to work closely with Betsy Warland. With each editing suggestion I learned more about writing poetry. That kind of one-on-one attention is invaluable but too many opinions can leave one feeling jostled. It is important to protect your voice, to know when to say this does not work for me. Our resistance may be warranted but how to know this is an ongoing question. 

While working on my manuscript I went through a number of editing sessions with a variety of editors. I did feel myself becoming unsteady at certain points. It was a little like having someone pick you up by your feet to empty the contents of your pockets. At times I was too attached to what I had written and once the shaking was done I would want to go back and pick up some of those pieces. But when I did, at times I was surprised to find that they no longer seemed to work and I often I had no idea how to fix it. What the changes needed was some breathing room. A little like a fine wine, when first opened it can taste bad but after having time to breath the released flavour is quite marvelous. My editor, Greg Gibson of Talon Books, was very patient with me around this.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Betsy Warland reminded me often to trust my readers. I had a tendency to want to explain things at times or wrap things up with neat and tidy endings that did the work for the reader. She encouraged me regularly to allow the reader to do this for themselves. ….. 

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to memoir)? What do you see as the appeal?
I find prose so much more difficult to write. It is as if poetry is my first language and prose is my second. There is so much more effort involved with prose. That is unless it is quirky lyric prose. Think Ikea commercials… must be the Icelander in me.

The appeal of poetry is the freedom from the restrictions of sentence structure, commas etc. I like to use white space, line breaks instead of commas and periods. I am quite visual so to have the opportunity to work with the look of the piece as well as the words is very satisfying. I enjoy the use of metaphor to offer visceral experiences, to say things that cannot be said any other way. The challenge of being concise excites me. Every word is important in any writing but somehow more important in poetry. With poetry I can feel the influence of call and response chants and ceremony/prayer in my words. When writing poetry something takes over. Call it the Muse, the Creator or the Great Mystery. I cannot limit it by labelling it or claiming to even understand it but I am sure that all who write know when they are in what might be called “the zone”. Ninety percent of the time when I am there what presents itself is 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?
My favorite way to wake up is with a cup of coffee or soy latte in bed with a good book.  Sometimes my husband who is an early riser will deliver my coffee or latte to me and on those days we have a morning chat which often involves talking about writing. He too is a poet. Too frequently Facebook and emails eat up time that should be spent writing. My best writing days are when I get my own coffee and I sit down at the computer, do not open emails or look at Facebook. On those days I do not eat or shower before 2 pm or so. No one can talk to me or I lose the thread I am following and I might as well shower then get out for a walk or run some errands.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Over the past five years I have taken Ingrid Rose’s writing from the body many times as I find her techniques for priming the pump to be exactly what I need most often. A good book can also get me moving towards writing.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Nag Champa and patchouli remind me of my home as an adult. As a child I would have to say the smell of sweaty socks, hockey equipment, cigarettes and beer. I had three brothers hence the smell of sweaty socks. My father played hockey and often had friends over. These two worlds could not be further apart.

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?
I do love the language of science. There are so many beautiful ways that they explain the many wonders in the universe. I also practice something called Continuum. Some have called it a moving meditation but that is not quite it. It must be experienced. Ingrid Rose introduced me to this practice through her writing from the body workshops. I believe our body holds not only our memories but the memories of our ancestors. I regularly ask my body to share what it can with me and then do my best to transcribe what I have felt/heard.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There are a number of books that I read while writing my book. Each one has greatly influenced my writing and my life. Some of my favourites were God is Red by Vine Deloria Jr, The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff, When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams and Singing Home the Bones plus Love Medicine and One Song by Gregory Scofield. Each one is a great writer so I spent a lot of time contemplating not only the teachings they offered but also what was it that made their writing so rich.   

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I dream of going to Iceland and L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Apparently, my Icelandic ancestors were among those that came to L’Anse aux Meadows around 1005. They had the first European born baby in North America but did not stay.  I want to do more research on my Icelandic ancestors and to feel the lands they inhabited. This may be my next writing project.

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 came to writing late in life and have done many things prior to becoming a writer. I have done much of what I desired to do. The one regret I have is not becoming a psychologist.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It was an inner urging that got louder and louder. It demands my attention. In fact it has begun to squeeze out many other things that I also like to do.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I know there has been some controversy re The Orenda but I found it to be a remarkable book. Joseph Boyden is an incredible writer. I rarely read fiction but I could not put that book down. No movies come to mind but a few TV shows do. I have so enjoyed series like Deadwood, Justified and Outlander. Great writing and brilliant actors have made these shows something I looked forward to as I watched them.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Not sure yet…

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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