Adrienne Gruber is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Buoyancy Control (BookThug) and This is the Nightmare (Thistledown Press), and three chapbooks, Mimic (Leaf Press), Everything Water (Cactus Press) and Intertidal Zones (Jack Pine Press). She has been a finalist for the CBC Literary Awards in poetry, Descant’s Winston Collins Best Canadian Poem Contest and twice for ARC’s Poem of the Year Contest. Her poem Gestational Trail was awarded first prize in The Antigonish Review’s Great Blue Heron Poetry Contest in 2015 and she won the bpNichol Chapbook Award for Mimic in 2012. Originally from Saskatoon, Adrienne lives in Vancouver with her partner Dennis and their daughters Quintana and Tamsin.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, This is the Nightmare (Thistledown Press), was published in 2008. It changed my life mainly because it helped me to get grants and some short-term writing-related work, which helped buy me some time to work on new poetry. This resulted in several chapbooks, one of which won the 2012 bpNichol Chapbook Award, which provided me with some money and recognition, etc. So, essentially my first book got the ball rolling. Having said that, it has always felt like a young first book. Much of the work was written in my early twenties. My most recent collection, Buoyancy Control (BookThug), spans a later and longer period of my life and the length of time I spent writing the book allowed me to mature as a poet. I spent several years revising Buoyancy Control with the help of some stellar poets who provided me with incredible feedback through written comments and conversations. Without those experiences Buoyancy Control would be a very different book.
I like to think my recent work is tighter and has less of a desire to prove itself. My biggest fear has always been that my poetry isn’t ‘smart enough’ and I think I’m finally able to see how that fear has been holding me back.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Let’s be real, I came to poetry because fiction and non-fiction scared the shit out of me and poetry seemed like the easiest and safest way to express myself. I’ve always had issues with intellectual confidence and for some reason I envisioned poetry as this shortcut to expressing myself – short-term pain for long term gain, kind of? Weird, I know. In a way, I’m grateful for the naivety I had in those early years of writing because it shielded me from psyching myself out. I wrote poetry prolifically all through high school and in my early twenties, thinking I was cheating my way into being a writer because I could sit down and whip off two or three poems in an afternoon and call it a day. By the time I fully realized that writing poetry – good poetry, that is – is hard work, excruciating at times, I had been writing for over a decade and had already written my way through a bazillion poems that sucked and managed to rework a small handful of pieces and get them published in literary magazines. So being a little smug about being prolific worked to my advantage in a way. It allowed me to write through about a decades worth of clichéd lines and suffocating imagery and build my revision skills.
At one point I discovered I had no real desire to write fiction (it started out with intimidation of the genre, but then I realized there was just no drive within me to write it) but I was interested in non-fiction. I took a non-fiction course at UBC while doing my MFA and bumbled my way through it but just working in the genre for a bit confirmed my desire to explore it further.
Finishing Buoyancy Control and working on the first draft of my third poetry collection has me completely in love with poetry. There is so much a person can do within the genre; it seems to have no bounds. I love how the language in a poem can be both rich and simple. There are poems I’ve read when I was a teenager that have stayed with me my entire life. Poetry will always be what I return to, but last year I began a project that needed to be written as non-fiction, so that’s another thing I’m working on currently. It’s been an incredible learning experience. Scary to not just be dipping my toes into this genre but actually running full force into the swell. Terrifying, but radically fun and rewarding.
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?
My weakness is that I tend to be a quantity over quality person. My revision process has me trying to move away from that and recognize that how much I produce does not equal writing success. I like to feel like I’m accomplishing something, that I’m being productive, so the number of poems written (or started – sometimes writing the first couple of lines for multiple poems makes me feel productive) or the amount of pages of non-fiction written in one sitting mean something to me. Starting projects is something I’m good at. I love starting a new writing project. It’s after I’ve written a dozen or so poems for the project that I start losing momentum. Then I usually start a different project with the hopes of coming back to the first one.
Though truthfully, my work habits completely changed after I had kids. For the first year after my first daughter was born I didn’t write a thing and I was half-convinced my writing career was over. I tried not to worry or obsess about it but I was panicked at the thought of having so little time and energy to write. When I began to work on poetry again, it turned out that first year of parenting was a much-needed reprieve and I suddenly had loads to say. I wrote the entire first draft of my third manuscript when my daughter was two-years-old, much of it during her (wonderfully predictable) afternoon naptime. I credit her for forcing me into a new phase of discipline, where I no longer mess around on social media or clean the house when I have an hour of time; I get shit done. My youngest is eleven months and I’m back in that anxious phase of feeling like I have little time and energy to work and it’s driving me a bit mad. I keep reminding myself that this is all par for the course when you have a baby under one.
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 usually have a vision for a book very early on, but that book’s vision might change dramatically from the early stages to the time it’s published. I always prefer working on a whole book because it helps motivate me. I write for the future love of the book in my hands.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love readings but still, after twenty years of doing them, I get very nervous. I simultaneously doubt the strength of my work and wonder why I’ve been asked to read alongside other poets who are clearly literary geniuses. I basically feel like a giant poser. After the reading is done I always feel high and excited and anxious to get back to writing and wish I did readings every night. It’s a really uncomfortable dichotomous state and hard on my stomach.
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?
My current questions are;
Why did birth move into the hospital?
What happens when we try to intervene in and control the physiological process of birth?
Why are we always trying to control women’s bodies?
Who is making dinner tonight?
Why does my youngest keep pulling on her ears?
Will my house ever stop being sticky?
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 this is a question for Google.
I don’t have a good answer, but I recently read This is Happy by Camilla Gibb and loved this:
We come to know ourselves only through stories. We listen to the stories of others, we inherit the stories of those who came before, and we make sense of our own experiences by constructing a narrative that holds them, and holds us, together. Stories are how we make sense of our lives. I have a job to do as a storyteller: we all do. To tell stories that make us knowable to others, most importantly our children. To give them the tools to help them know themselves. And perhaps we come to know ourselves differently as a consequence.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. I cringe to think of the version of Buoyancy Control that would have been published had I not worked with the editors I had. It wouldn’t have been a bad book, but it certainly wouldn’t have been as tight. I can justify every word choice, line break and stanza, and each form I chose for the poems. I like knowing that every poem is meant to be in the book and needs to be there. There is nothing I would cut from the book. I couldn’t say the same thing about the draft I had a year ago.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
You will never be less busy than you are right now. So get it done.
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?
My writing routine shifts depending on my parenting situation. Before kids I would write in bursts, working five or six hours at a coffee shop. In reality I would spend a lot of time on social media or stupid internet sites and get about an hour or two of actual work done. Lately it’s giving myself permission to not work on writing until my youngest turns one and then re-negotiating this hiatus. I’m trying to have faith in my ability to get back at it once the chaos calms down a bit. Or get back at it in spite of the chaos.
A typical day for me right now is spending 2-3 hours trying to get my kids dressed and out of the house so I can get my coffee.
At this point I pretty much spend every spare second I have that isn’t sleep-deprived revising the work that I wrote last year. I recently started a couple of new pieces but I have no idea where the work is headed.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
These days my writing only gets stalled by my kids. I’m sure if I didn’t have them there would be other things that would stall me, but right now they’re the big obstacle (I say this with fierce love). I’m not lacking inspiration, I’m lacking time, energy and brainpower.
I spend most of my days longing for time to work on writing projects and planning my next two-hour stint at a coffee shop. What I’m currently trying to do is get even twenty minutes of work done in the evenings after my kids are in bed so that I feel like I’m still producing (while also recognizing that I gave myself a full year to get back at it, so anything I produce right now is gravy). Along with that comes my attempt to recognize that this period of raising young children is finite, that there will come a day when I start to get some of my time back.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of a wetsuit.
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?
Science, definitely. Biology in particular. I spent a lot of time researching various sea creatures while writing the poems in Buoyancy Control. It was an exciting time. If I had known I could have that much fun learning about reproduction and mating I would have considering taking some biology courses. My current work focuses on pregnancy and birth, so I’ve spent time reading about and researching these topics – more biology. My mother, who’s a biochemist, always says that biology is akin to art and I get that now. There’s so much beauty and complexity in how our bodies function and how we mate and reproduce.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The work of my peers has been crucial. I read primarily poetry and creative non-fiction these days and am feeling really awakened by what I’m reading.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Travel to Italy as an adult. Do a food tour of India. Scuba dive in Thailand. Eat the inside of a loaf of French bread.
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 would be a midwife. I’m strongly considering this right now.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I can’t not write. The alternative is that I am chronically depressed and feel like I’ve hobbled myself. Of course, I’ve done and will continue to do a myriad of other things to make money/feed myself. But I can’t have a meaningful life without writing.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
So many great books to love. Again, I have kids so every time I finish a book it’s a huge victory. I recently read Soraya Peerbye’s Tell: poems for a girlhood and was completely captivated by it. Although I read it some time ago, Ongoingness: The end of a Diary by Sarah Manguso opened my eyes to what a poetic memoir could look like. It’s a stunning book.
The last great film I saw was Trainwreck with Amy Schumer. In the theatre. With all the popcorn.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a third collection of poems called Q & A about my first pregnancy and the birth of my third daughter. I’m also working on a book of creative non-fiction about the pregnancy and birth of my second daughter. I’m a little afraid that I’m going to have to have a third child just to have more material for future projects.