Michelle Elrick is an award-winning Canadian poet and artist. She is the author of two books and creator of a limited-edition topographic poem which maps the memories of her late grandfather across a text-generated landscape. Her work has been published in Geist, CV2, Poetry is Dead and other journals, and has been broadcast on CBC television. Her new book, then/again (Nightwood Editions, 2017), is a poetic inquiry into the occasion of “home,” tracking the borderline between unfamiliar spaces and intimate experiences of place. She will be touring Central Canada with then/again in November 2017. Find her at www.michelleelrick.ca .
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, To Speak, didn’t change my life in the ways I (naively) expected it would. I’d dreamt of influence, opportunities, membership in a elite literati and an audience of keen readers, but these quickly faded into the quiet reality of the struggling writer. There were a few glitzy moments and some really wonderful opportunities to read, tour and take on more ambitious projects, but there was no neatly packaged career on the other side of the publication. Looking back I can see that my life has changed quite dramatically, albeit in ways and through means I didn’t imagine. Publishing then/again has been a completely different experience. I am more realistic about the book’s potential and more relaxed about how it is received. I’m also more confident as a writer at this point and I know how the book is remarkable and how it is not. This time around, I find myself caring much less about what readers think the book says about me. What I care about now is that the poetry finds its readers, so that together, meaning can be made from my little text creations.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I wouldn’t say I came to poetry first. I wrote a lot of non-fiction essays and several drafts of a novel before publishing any poetry. I’ve published mostly in poetry, though, and I think that’s because I’m still experimenting with form and style. The freedom of contemporary verse allows my ideas to get past any real or imagined structures of correctness and propriety.
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?
It really varies. Often my first drafts already have the structure of the final product. Sometimes I will collage early drafts into long-form narrative lyrics and then refine from there. My poems tend to be either moments or ideas; as such, they usually arrive intact, though in need of a good polish.
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?
At some point I go through my recent notebooks and see what I’ve written, flag anything with a nugget of promise and move those pieces onto the computer, then I start editing with an eye for any thematic threads. When I get to this point I usually have a book in mind. I prefer to write poetry organically and responsively rather than to a particular theme or end.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love giving readings. I find them to be some of the most satisfying moments of my writing life. That being said, I wouldn’t consider it part of my creative process. Performance is part of my commitment to the public nature of my art—to art as communication. Not everyone reads. Few people read poetry. Performance is one way to surprise people with a poetic encounter under the guise of entertainment.
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?
I have so many theoretical concerns its sometimes difficult to get started! I recently reread What is Literature? by Jean-Paul Sartre. He articulates many of my concerns about the situatedness of literature, of its potential, its efficacy, also its ability to distract, oppress, and apathetize readers. But on a smaller and more personal level, the questions that have always driven my creative work are along the lines of how to be? what is real? what is this wondrous anomaly we call time? My most recent book, then/again, asks the question where does “home” occur? If I were to venture a guess as to what questions we are currently grappling with as a society, I’d probably say what do we do now? where do we go from here? how do we tell a human story in the anteroom of the apocalypse? or something like that.
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?
As Sartre says in that essay, all writing is an appeal to the freedom of the reader. I agree that writing relies on the free participation of readers in order to fully become an artwork. In light of that, one role that us writers have is to honour the readers’ freedom and seek to extend it rather than limit it. I worked for a few years in small magazine circulation departments where I had to write a lot of ads and marketing copy. That type of writing—which is found in doses and hues all over books and screen-based entertainment—limits freedom.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both. It can take me a bit of time to come around to recognizing the wisdom of my editor on certain critiques. I’m lucky to have had excellent editors so far in my career and each has helped make me a better writer.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Anne Carson chose this quote from Samuel Beckett as the inscription for Red Doc>, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I like that.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to visual art/installation)? What do you see as the appeal?
Moving between genres and forms has always come very naturally to me and has proven to be essential for my creative development. I don’t think one form fits all ideas. The appeal is toward efficacy.
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 ideal writing day begins with reading—usually some philosophy or critical theory, then often some poetry—followed by a walk. I sit down mid-morning and write for 3-5 hours. When deep in a manuscript, I’ve been known to write for 8-10 hours at a time, sleep in my studio, work through the night and through the weekend until I am exhausted. Lately, I work a fair bit in my other career as the owner of a small bookkeeping business, so my writing time is fixed more rigidly in the first half of the day. With the exception of a few blissful seasons, it’s always been a juggling act for me between time for paid work and time for creative work.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I turn to walking—slow walking in the forest or along the sea. Then I go back to the point in my writing where I started to feel lost and I look for wrong turns.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Rain, the wet forest floor.
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 try to be sensitive to my environment and allow myself to be influenced by nature, art and everyday human life. My creative mind is often jumpstarted by reading philosophy or by watching popular science and nature documentaries.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Whitman, Tranströmer, Zwicky, Carson, Calvino, Ondaatje, Sontag, Dillard, Rilke, Neruda, Buber, Garcia Marquez, Wittgenstein—these are some of the authors on my bookshelf. In my life, many writer-mentors have been remarkably generous, supportive and inspiring and have helped me find my way.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would say I’m quite satisfied with what I’ve done in my life. Now, I’d just like to do more of the same: live more, write more, love more and read more.
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 would love to be an architect.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Desperation. Writing was the only method of honest self-expression that I had as a young person. It showed me myself, but also helped me understand the world. I wrote to make sense of grief, loneliness and to articulate my curiosity.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve read a lot of good books lately! Labyrinths by Borges, The Place of Scraps by Jordan Abel, Genome by Matt Ridley. I have a terrible memory for films, but I love the Koker Trilogy by Abbas Kiarostami, which I watched in 2014.
20 - What are you currently working on?
It’s hard to say! I have a lot of work in progress right now and am writing to see what will come of it.