Ruth Daniell is an award-winning writer whose poems have appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine, Grain, Room magazine, Qwerty, The Antigonish Review and Event. Her first full-length collection of poems, The Brightest Thing (Caitlin Press, 2019), explores fairy tales, sexual violence, love, and healing. The recipient of the 2013 Young Buck Poetry Prize with CV2 and the winner of the 2016 Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest with The New Quarterly, Daniell is also the editor of Boobs: Women Explore What it Means to Have Breasts (Caitlin Press, 2016). She holds a bachelor of arts degree (honours) in English literature and writing from the University of Victoria and a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. She lives with her growing family in Kelowna, BC, in a house with rose bushes out front, where she is at work on a second collection of poems about birds, climate change, parenthood, and joy.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’m still waiting to find out! The Brightest Thing was only released this year [ed. note: this interview was conducted in 2019] and it’s really my “first” book that I can call completely my own. I edited Boobs: Women Explore What it Means to Have Breasts (Caitlin Press, 2016), and also co-wrote and co-illustrated a chapbook called Four Portraits (JackPine Press, 2016) with Laura Ritland, but those projects were both collaborative. I’m guessing that The Brightest Thing will change my life with the simple fact that it exists in the world: even when I’m most frustrated now, doubting myself and my writing, I’ll have the consolation of being able to tell myself, “Well, at least you wrote an entire book once before.” That’s not a small thing!
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I feel a bit like a broken record, but my answer for any question along these lines is always the same: because poetry is where it all began for me when I was a child. Rhyme, metre, nonsense, truth—it’s all there in children’s poetry and I never lost my fascination with it, with the wonder and playfulness of language. And part of this is because I not only read poetry as a child but I also performed it. My lifelong study of speech arts—one of the many hats I wear now is that of speech arts teacher—has definitely influenced my appreciation for poetry and convinced me that there is still an enthusiastic audience for poetry. And, of course, it’s convinced me that poetry is not just meant to be shared on the page, but shared aloud, too. That aural awareness helped to shape the kind of poetry that I loved, and still love, and that I try to write.
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?
When I’m writing it happens quickly. I seem to feed off momentum. For me, right now, the biggest challenge is finding the time to write. In the last couple of years since my daughter (and now my son) was born, I’ve transitioned to becoming a stay-at-home parent full-time, and I have less time for myself and for my creative work than ever before. When I have (had?) the luxury of getting absorbed into a project then I often can produce things rather quickly. The first draft usually comes very fast. It’s the revising and the shaping of the pieces into a unified whole that takes me the longest.
First drafts of individual poems often appear close to their final shape, I think, at least these days. If I can’t attend to a poem idea immediately, then I write down the basic idea—usually just a phrase or an image or snippet of memory recalled suddenly—and then write a full draft later. I don’t have copious notes per poem. It’s usually just a sketch of an idea, something to build on.
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?
A poem usually begins for me with an image or phrase, something that surprises or saddens or delights me, visually or aurally or emotionally or otherwise makes me pay attention. The Brightest Thing began as a project right away; I was pretty deliberate about it being a book from the beginning. I knew I wanted to write dramatic monologues from the point of view of women characters from fairy tales and explore the voices of those “voiceless” characters alongside a more contemporary, autobiographical narrative that also challenged fairy tale ideals.
The manuscript I’m working on now began a little more accidentally; it grew out of my work on The Brightest Thing. As I was finishing the writing of The Brightest Thing, focusing on how we use stories to cope with the difficulties of finding and keeping love, I kept on encountering birds. This is because, of course, birds are significant recurring figures in fairy tales and in storytelling more generally. Think about the dove from Judeo-Christian biblical stories, the raven of Haida myth, the birds that help Cinderella get ready for the ball, The Ugly Duckling, the stories attributed to Mother Goose, even the pervasive folk belief that storks deliver babies to new parents. Birds often come up as metaphors or messengers, connected to human ideas about spiritual lives, marital happiness, fertility, and family life. It gradually became apparent to me that my bird poems were a part of a new project that needed my attention, and the interest in fairy tale and mythological birds expanded into a curiosity about the history and biology of birds, too. In addition to my usual reading of other writers’ marvelous books, my “research” for my new manuscript has involved quite a bit of time spent at my local bird sanctuaries (now with my double stroller in tow).
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy doing readings, yes—this is the speech arts performer in me, I think. I like attending readings by other writers, too; I almost always leave feeling re-energized, both by the work itself and by what it means to me and my own ideas and writing, and by the sense of writing happening within a community. Writing is a solitary activity, and while that is often to be desired, it can be lonely work, too, and I find it very, very good to be able to share my work with others but also to have their work shared with me.
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 want to know how to love well—how to love my family and friends, yes, but also strangers, And not just people, but how do I—how can we—the world in a larger sense, its creatures large and small, its flaws and its beauties, its tragedies and joys.
Much of my work resolves around questions about love. Not just romantic love (though yes that!), but other kinds of loves that aren’t idealized or celebrated as often in our contemporary society. It’s my hope that I can prove to myself, as well as my audience, that we’re not past hope, that love is a good thing, that we can heal each other, maybe save the world. I know, I know, it’s a bit hokey, right? This hope is hopelessly (ha) romantic of me. I can’t help it, maybe. This hope—or longing for hope, a desire for this one thing to be true—arises out of an exploration of the places where I see the idea of “love” perverted into unkindness or violence against ourselves, each other, or the planet. In The Brightest Thing I use fairy tales as a way to talk about our society’s expectations for love, and the way that those expectations could or should or are being met or subverted or transcended. In general, my work often comes back to fairy tales, body politics, gender issues, violence (against women), sex, feminism, silenced voices, other kinds of trauma, but also healing from that trauma, and the ways we form our own families, the ways we can find joy in our world. The manuscript I’m working on right now, as I’ve mentioned, deals more directly with climate change and the environment: it’s talking about birds and stories and the role of stories in how we cohabitate on this planet. Awhile ago someone else asked me about the new manuscript and I said it, like The Brightest Thing, is still ultimately concerned with the question: how do we love each other, and love each other well, in a world that's damaged? I think now I would also like to add: What makes us (me) joyful? Amongst such hurt, how can we be joyful? Do we deserve to be joyful? Can we be forgiven for being joyful when there is so much sadness? How can make our joy last longer, include more people, more of the world?
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?
To be honest, I think, and to tell stories that are both untrue and true, as needed or wanted.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I feel pretty comfortable working with editors at this point. I trust myself enough to know when I need to listen to someone’s feedback and when I need to discard it. I’m very grateful for the work that editors do.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I’m sure you mean advice to me about writing, specifically, but right now in the midst of parenting two under two the first piece of advice that comes to mind is “be gentle with yourself.” It was originally told to me with the context of being kind to my postpartum body, but of course it works for the creative self too. Be kind to yourself, and keep doing what you love, and believe that it’s worth it, because it is.
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?
A typical day for me begins with eating breakfast as soon as possible; I always wake up hungry. Beyond that, my days are rather unpredictable. I’m at home with my toddler and my baby. Writing happens during naptime or after bedtime. My newest baby is still young enough that I’m often having to choose to sleep over writing time, but that time will come back. I trust that. I count on it.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading other writers’ work, definitely. And spending time outside.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Lavender. Roses. Sawdust. Cedar. Baby shampoo. Lake water. Hot sun in long grass. A fire in a wood stove. The smell of a candle burning inside of a pumpkin. Frost. Clean sheets. That particular scent of freshly-fallen snow. Buttermilk pancakes cooking on a griddle. Chocolate cake baking in the oven. Popcorn.
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?
Definitely nature. And visual art. I love colour. The songs of birds. Perhaps colour most of all.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Fairy tales, in general, but specifically the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault, Mme d’Aulnoy, and Mme’ Leprince de Beaumont. Edna St. Vincent Millay, specifically her sonnets. Shakespeare’s sonnets too. The work of Sue Sinclair, Sue Goyette, Mary Oliver, Robert Hass, Louise Gluck, Ada Limon, Julie Bruck, Phyllis Webb… I could go on and on.
To my life outside of my work… I’m indebted to Rhea Tregebov, Natalie Morrill, Joelle Barron, and Sierra Skye Gemma. Their writing, but also their shining, generous selves.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to finish a children’s book manuscript. I have so many almost done—probably at least once that is ready to submit, if I would just be brave enough to do it—and I value children’s literature so much. I’d love to contribute to it.
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?
Probably schoolteacher. I love children and I love teaching.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve always written. I feel compelled to do so.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently read Adrienne Gruber’s third book, Q&A, a poetic memoir about a first pregnancy and the early postpartum period. And I really loved After Birth by Elizabeth Ross, too. Both treats I bought myself after my new son was born.
I can’t even remember when it was I last watched a great film. I haven’t been to a movie theatre in a very long time, and I don’t watch a lot of movies at home these days—mostly because I prioritize sleeping over watching TV—and when I do watch TV I haven’t been gravitating towards “great” film. More like “funny, emotionally-safe” movies. I’m not seeking out difficult material from my movies these days; I get enough of that in the books I read, and much more than I need through watching and readings the news.
19 - What are you currently working on?
Well, I’m still at work on my next collection of poems, about birds and climate change and parenthood and joy. I also have some children’s poetry I’m plugging away at. I’m excited to get that out into the world one day.
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