Sunday, March 06, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Talya Rubin

Talya Rubin is a poet and performance maker, her poetry won the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. In 2011, she was short-listed for the Winston Collins/Descant prize for Best Canadian poem and was a finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. She won the Battle of the Bards at Harbourfront and was invited to attend IFOA in 2015. Talya holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and currently lives in Montreal with her husband and son. Her first book of poetry, Leaving the Island, was published with Véhicule Press in April 2015. She also runs an interdisciplinary performance company, Too Close to the Sun.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Poetry is a quiet art. It has a small readership and is a very niche market. And unlike theatre, which is where I have put a good deal of my focus up until now, there is not that immediacy of audience feedback. So it has been a bit of an adjustment, in all honesty. That this book exists in the world and quietly ticks along, with some really nice things happening, like recently going to IFOA in Toronto, is absolutely fantastic.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
There was a lot of language in my upbringing. My mom is an actor and translator and she had us reading Shakespeare and cueing her on lines from an incredibly young age. I do remember loving the language in Shakespeare, its authority and power. And the King James Bible, that was around too. The Golden Bough was another text being referred to a lot. I remember playing a game with the Oxford English Dictionary where we would pick a very obscure word, make up two definitions as well as read the real one and have to guess what the word meant. Total nerds! I wrote a novella when I was 15, so I thought I would be a novelist at some point. And wrote plays very young, too. But poetry did come first.

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 tend to harbour something for a while, maybe a year before I set out to seriously start writing. The idea ripens until it is ready to break open. It seems like nothing, but there is this background way of working that seems to me to be almost unconscious, the way the mind processes what happens to you through dreams. But then there comes a point where serious research and time at a desk begin.

I do lots of drafts of poems. It is rare something comes out the first time fully formed. It has happened, but I am always skeptical when it does because you want to reach further, push deeper into language and ideas and if it comes out in one rush of inspiration I will often leave something for a while and see how it holds up in the light of day. I write in notebooks by hand. And I do keep notebooks with lots of words, ideas, jottings, title names, research passages, that I dive into when I am creating something new.

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 seem to be someone who is working on a book from the beginning as I like to work thematically and have an overarching structure or drive behind what I am writing. A poem will often begin from a piece of research, something I have read, a news story. But a poem can also come from an observation, something that strikes me during the day, or a sudden flash of memory that I know is the beginning of an entire poem. There are usually threads that weave everything together. I know I am about to write a long series when one of those threads appears to me. I used to get a lot of inspiration from walking and from silence. If I spend time at a residency in some kind of isolation that is how I work best. With so much silence that I can hear what I really need to put on the page. I have a three year old at home now, so silence is a rarity.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings and do find them very creative. I am not sure if they are part of my creative process though, but once I have gone through that process they are a total source of enjoyment for me. And testing out work before it in print is an amazing thing in front of an audience. There is nothing quite like it. Poetry is meant to be read aloud. I am very much an aural poet - listening with an inner ear. And that translates well to the voice, to hearing things out loud. I am also a theatre performer, so I never find reading daunting, more of an exercise in performing the words and engaging an audience.

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?
The theoretical concerns I address are usually things that I feel plagued or driven by, that gnaw away at me. I don't tend to start with what the society at large needs from the work, but with the personal. I need to be very compelled by an idea for it to get transformed into poetry, starting from the inside out.

With this first book a lot of the drive had to do with place and displacement, exile and home. I stumbled upon the history of the island of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides. The fact that the St Kildans tried to live off of sea birds and in such incredible isolation, finally petitioning the Scottish government to move them to the mainland. I felt like I could relate to their plight in some roundabout way. Montreal is my home, but at times I felt so alienated from it and it felt so inhospitable that I needed to go as far away as possible and ended up in Australia for 12 years. I also lived on a Greek island for a year when I was 19, so that is in the book, too, these places real or imagined that were homes for a time for my own displacement or self-imposed exile.

When you ask what the current questions are, that is an intriguing thing to consider. I am working on something right now that feels like it has come out of the most pressing issue of our times - climate change. Extinction and ice melting seems to be on the brain. I can't turn away from it. I am obsessed with this idea that we are living in the Sixth Extinction. That we are conscious enough to know it, but not necessarily to do anything about it.

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 think the role of a writer is to find his or her voice and be true to it. That through that kind of integrity and articulation of experience a writer is able to hold a mirror up to what someone else may be experiencing but cannot find the words for. That there is great comfort in knowing you share this human experience of being alive and being mortal. There are so many ways to write poetry that sometimes the most abstract language poetry can move you and sometimes a confessional poem can rip you open, and sometimes the lyrical can just bowl you over. I find returning to reading Seamus Heaney and Louise Gluck remind me why I write. They distill the human experience down to something so beautiful it is almost painful to read and that is no mean feat.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it is totally essential. A writer has to brush up against something different to herself to know who she is and what she stands for and to deepen the work. An outside eye, an objective reader. It is nearly impossible to create a thing of worth in total isolation. It can be challenging, sure, because so much is subjective in creative work. But when it comes down to it the work has to hold up to scrutiny, to being pushed and poked and prodded at. I prefer that kind of scrutiny. After I have given something a good working over, of course.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary." - Andrew Motion

Seems pretty spot on to me if you want to go about writing poetry.

As well, advice about writing being a process rather than a goal is a good one. So you may have a goal to write a book, but how you get there is step by tiny step. That daily rhythm of going to a desk and sitting with something. Staying with it until it yields. That is really what makes a writer a writer. The work itself.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to plays/performance)? What do you see as the appeal?
I think I have tended to focus on one or the other (making theatre or writing poetry) at different times in my life and that right now I am uniquely doing both, which has its challenges as they are very different modes. But they are are both demanding my attention right now. So I am working on completing a new work of theatre and heading to Banff in the spring to do that and then touring with it to Australia and also juggling writing a new book and getting the first book out into the world, doing readings.

The appeal is more a deep need to do these things. If I could shake them off, I would. Does anyone find being an artist appealing, exactly, or working across genres sexy? Sure, it sounds good, but it is exhausting and all consuming. And incredibly rewarding when you have no choice in the matter. I guess one of the appeals is that I am not singular in my vision and if one world gets too overwhelming, I have a whole other artistic community to lean on and an entirely different way of working to turn to. I think it makes my scope broader. I love working physically and creating text through a devising process, dreaming space in a room. If I always had to sit at a desk to create I would go crazy.

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 am a disaster at keeping routines even though I know it is the work of a writer. If only I could follow the advice I value! In all honesty, I am a writer who writes in intensive spurts. When I am in one of those spurts I will get up, make coffee, get out my notebook and start pouring stuff on the page. Depending on where I am at in a process I will either spend the morning editing, or reading, or dive into notes and start writing something new. Then I usually take a lunch break, go for a walk, and start all over again and can do that until early evening. I work all day when I am immersed in something. I have images, notes, quotes tacked up all over the wall, chalk boards with lists, books and papers spread out all over the desk. And ideally a window to look out of and no Internet connection.

At less intensive writing times I tend to do a lot of reading - other people's work, books in preparation for the writing, articles, gathering. Until I am just about ready to burst if I don't set myself up in some kind of isolation and immersion.

It's a bit manic. I would prefer a writer's studio in a forest where I retreat to every morning. But real life seems to get in the way of that right now.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Research really does it for me. Non-fiction books about ice melting are a great resource at the moment. Or reading articles about animals being wiped off the face of the earth. Cheery stuff. Images are important to my process, as well. I have a huge book of photography on ice on my desk. Mystical blue stuff floating around off the coast of Iceland and Greenland. Haunting.

And reading the poets I mentioned earlier. Oh, and Charles Simic, too, they get me back to the essential.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cigarette smoke and snow melting. In Montreal.

Wattle and tea tree. For Australia.

I have two homes.

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?
It depends on what I am up to, but I really respond to visual work - photography, paintings. When I was writing about St Kilda, Scotland a lot of my information came through historical images and accounts -  imagery and non-fiction material.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Rilke. I feel like he was the poet that made me truly want to write poetry. The way his work drives at something invisible and he makes emotion live in a way that is unusually palpable on the page. Especially in the Duino Elegies.

"It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again 'invisibly,' inside us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”

I could go with that as an edict for writing.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a novel. Learn Russian.

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 wanted to be a marine biologist when I was a kid. I was obsessed with whales. But I really don't think I am scientific enough to attempt it.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Necessity. Insanity. Naivety.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Richard Flanagan's The Long Road to the Deep North.

Films I would say Curling by Denis Cote and Inland Empire by David Lynch.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm finishing a new theatre piece called The Bluebird Mechanicals, a spectacle about the end of the world involving the Hindenburg, characters from the aftermath of Chekhov's The Seagull and prophetic birds. I have another performance work brewing called At the End of the Land about a group of Victorian Schoolgirls, spirit photography and transcendental meditation with David Lynch as one of the characters. Yeah, I know, when I make theatre things get pretty insane.

And a new book of poetry about all things melting, ice and the interior of a person. Grief and loss. Extinction. Mortality. Little things like that.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

1 comment:

Eip said...

Great interview, Talya is clearly so accomplished and imaginative!