12 or 20 questions: with Jan Conn
Jan Conn has written six books of poetry, most recently Jaguar Rain: the Margaret Mee poems, Brick Books, 2006. Born in Asbestos, Quebec, she received her Ph.D. in Genetics from the University of Toronto. She has lived in Guatemala, Venezuela, Florida, Vermont and Massachusetts, conducting research on insects that transmit pathogens. Currently she is a Research Scientist at the Wadsworth Center, Division of Infectious Diseases, New York State Department of Health in Albany NY. Jan was the recipient of a travel grant from the University of Vermont (2000) and a Canada Council Senior Writing Grant (2001), both in conjunction with the Margaret Mee Project. Her book South of the Tudo Bem Cafe, 1990, was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award. A suite of her poems, Amazonia, won 2nd prize in the CBC literary awards for 2003. She was recently awarded the inaugural (2006) P.K. Page Founders' Award for Poetry from The Malahat Review. Her seventh poetry manuscript, Botero's Beautiful Horses is forthcoming from Brick Books in the spring of 2009. Her poetry has been featured in many anthologies and literary journals. She was invited to read at the Ecological Society of America meeting in August, 2005, in Montreal and was the subject of Bentley College's Literary Portraits project, a 22-minute video titled, "Surviving the Darker Blue Inside," a reference to one of her poems. Her long poem “Belém” is one of the Vehicule Press Virtual Chapbook online series (since 2005). Her poems have been broadcast on CBC Radio One’s Between the Covers, The Arts Today, All in a Week-End, Art Talks, and on Richardson’s Round-up in 2004, on CFRC Radio at Queens’ University, Kingston, Ontario in 2004, on WAMC in Albany, New York in 2006, and on CHSR, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and on CKDU-Dalhousie, Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 2007. An extensive interview about biology, poetry and Jaguar Rain, was published in Contemporary Verse 2, Vol. 30, issue 3, 2008.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
Red Shoes in the Rain, by Fiddlehead Press, (poetry) was published in 1984 (http://www.magazine.utoronto.ca/05autumn/campus_stories.asp). It was a major personal creative event in my adult life. It demonstrated to me what might be possible, some concrete aspect of a writing life that I needed, and I was at the mid-point in my doctoral research at the University of Toronto (in cytogenetics on black flies that transmit a nematode parasite that causes river blindness in parts of Africa and Latin America), where many people get quite depressed, including me. The publication of an entire book helped me to refocus and remember that knowledge and mystery are both parts of poetry and biology.
2 - How long have you lived in Great Barrington, and how does geography, if at ll, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
My husband, Carl Schlichting (http://www.eeb.uconn.edu/people/schlichting/), the Evolutionary Biologist, and I moved to Great Barrington, in western Massachusetts, in an area called the Berkshires, in May of 2002. I took a job in Albany, at the Wadsworth Center (http://www.wadsworth.org/resnres/bios/conn.htm) New York State Department of Health, and Carl has one at the University of Connecticut-Storres. Geography and topography exert a profound influence on my poetry. But, quite often, it’s not the geography of where I am living that works its way into the bones of my poems, but the geography of places I travel to, particularly in Latin America, and, more recently, Spain. They fire my imagination more. I suspect this is related to having grown-up in a mining town, Asbestos, that was bleak and ugly and diminished in many ways, so the lure of “away” was ever-present. My father’s frequent international travel, augmented by his wonderfully descriptive postcards and small evocative gifts, also contributed.
Being a woman I have had some kinds of violent experiences that I might not have had as a man. Poems about these experiences are difficult to consider. Are they too confessional, too raw? Sometimes, some of them, but they can also be amazingly powerful witness poems. Certainly my poems that have their inception in sexual abuse, even as they are creating a persona (because all memory is creative), have been difficult to write, to publish and to read aloud. But I think they are important in that they contribute to a particular body of literature, and they can sometimes help other women who have been similarly traumatized to find and recognize their voice(s).
The focus of my book Jaguar Rain (Brick Books, 2006)(http://www.brickbooks.ca/BL-Conn.htm) as the brilliant naturalist, explorer and botanical illustrator Margaret Mee (http://huntbot.andrew.cmu.edu/HIBD/Departments/Art/Mee.shtml) She was inspirational in every way—scientifically, artistically—she was courageous, a leader in her artistic field, she spend long days, weeks, months living with the people, flora and fauna of the Amazon. Also, she was a fine writer. She fed nearly all the hungers I had at the time (roughly 2000-2004, while I worked on the manuscript).
Some of the poems in Botero’s Beautiful Horses (Brick Books, forthcoming 2009) have as their inception the lives, paintings and writings of the striking Mexican surrealist painters Remedios Varo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remedios_Varo) and Leonora Carrington (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonora_Carrington) They both endured very difficult times getting from Spain to Mexico in the 1940’s. Their work led me to explore a wide array of surrealist painters, photographers and writers who arrived in Mexico during this time period.
3 - 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 carry a notebook (while traveling, visiting museums, at concerts, hiking), and anything that catches my eye or ear or antennae, can begin a poem.
I do both short pieces and longer projects. I am generally working on a project or two that I have envisioned as a series of linked, or connected poems. But I always leave a door open for the odd encounter, or association that might spring up, unrelated to the current project, insisting on being heard and written down.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
I find it very stimulating to listen to poetry read aloud and I love to read aloud. So it can very much influence the poems that I am writing and re-writing or my subconscious is subtlety turning over, like earth. There is nothing quite like reading in front of an audience to help fine-tune a poem for me. If I find both my and the audience’s attention waning I recognize that the poem isn’t yet as good as it can become. It forces me to work harder, pruning and reconsidering.
5 - 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 learned poetry by reading poets much better than I, and by writing, rather than by taking creative writing classes or reading poetic theory. I don’t have an especially theoretical kind of brain—my strengths are more associative, psychic, intuitive, sensory, as well as logical and intellectual. I’m not especially drawn to theory, either in poetry or in science.
I don’t feel that I’m trying to answer questions by writing poetry. I’m interested in communicating feelings and imagery, my poetry is not cerebral or intellectual, at least not to me. I’m fascinated by some aspects of language theory, but I‘m not especially drawn to try to write them or to find or make a place for them in my own body of writing.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s an essential step for me. My husband, Carl Schlichting, is an excellent editor for me, one of those amazing pieces of luck in our marriage that was completely unexpected. I have only had two manuscript editors, Michael Harris (http://quebecbooks.qwf.org/authors/view/118) (Vehicule Press http://www.vehiculepress.com/), and currently Stan Dragland http://12or20questions.blogspot.com/2007/10/12-or-20-questions-with-stan-dragland.html (Brick Books). I learned a tremendous amount about craft from both Michael and Stan and feel lucky to have them in my creative life. I feel that an outside editor – a good one, who recognizes what I am striving for—can really enhance a manuscript.
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
I think that quite often my subconscious links poems on my behalf. I like longer projects. When I was younger I wasn’t capable of sustaining longer pieces, linked and connected. I don’t think it’s easier but it’s always outstandingly pleasurable. It may be harder in the sense that I throw many more poems out now that I used to—a normal evolutionary process—because I am intent on becoming a better and better poet.
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
In a Henri Cole poem, Jealousy, I ate the image, “Where is the comfort of pears on a window ledge?” in January, 2008.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Write and read poetry (outstanding poetry, better than your own) daily. Edit, re-edit, put a poem away for a few weeks, often longer, to proved the emotional distance to “see” it differently, from other angles.
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?
I usually write and read poetry in the evenings during the week, and try to spend all of Saturday or Sunday writing. Sometimes both. Most week-days days I drive to Albany, and work intensely on mosquito genetics with the postdocs, visiting scientists, graduate students and research technicians in my lab. I am really an academic, because the science I do is more basic than immediately applicable. When I travel (mostly related to science, but not always) I write a lot, on planes, in cars, on trains, that’s a special transition time when I feel looser and often associative ideas, fragments, phrases come more readily.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I rarely get stalled, which may in part be because I write poems, as opposed to fiction. But if I’m casting about (it is like fishing sometimes, I especially like the white water bits) I read my notebooks, I read or reread authors who I anticipate will inspire me, including books of art; I buy a new book of poetry; I walk in the woods; I go to an art gallery; I listen to Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and other singer-songwriters whose lyrics astound me. I find it more acceptable to feel that I am feeding my creativity by doing these activities than I used to. I am able to sense when my subconscious is storing and associating things even though they are not yet available to my writing mind.
12 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
Each one is unique, and it’s hard to compare each to each, but I’ll just say that Botero’s Beautiful Horses has a wider range and scope than Jaguar Rain (Brick Books, 2006), which was focused on the life and art of the Amazonian naturalist and explorer Margaret Mee. Botero’s Beautiful Horses encompasses the archaeology and mythology of Mexico, surrealist artists in Mexico, and a different aspect of the Amazon (my experiences rather than through the filter of Margaret Mee). There are also a few poems written from a scientific perspective, one re-imagining the language of mathematics, another partly about Darwin versus Lamarck, one written on Mars, another in Montreal in winter.
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?
All of the above influence my writing, to different degrees, and of course, this has varied over time. I imagine each of the four, one colour each, as waves on a graph over time (my life as the x-axis). Each of the four fluctuates, and often they cross-over each other and in the process, sometimes make new colours. At the moment, nature and visual art are currently the most influencial. Science – biology in particular—is so much a piece of my daily life that it’s harder for me to determine the exact influences it has on my writing. Occasionally, my poetic interest drives an aspect of my science. For example, I have often used frogs as my persona’s spirit animal (e.g., The Fifth Inhabitant of Mexico [http://www.janconn.com/]), and have read a fair amount about their natural history and biology. I was recently asked to write a News and Comments article (1000 words) for the British journal Heredity on a review of global frog phylogeography. I doubt that I would have considered undertaking the article if I didn’t have this personal interest in frogs, connected to my poetry since The Fabulous Disguise of Ourselves (Vehicule Press, 1986).
There are some singer-songwriters whose work has been as important to my creative process as many poets. Some examples include Tori Amos, Javier Bergia, Ruben Blades, Bruce Cockburn, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Richard Summerbell, and Neil Young, to name a few.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
It’s a very long list, and has changed a lot over time. These are some of the poets who’ve had the most influence on my writing (as opposed to others whom I love to read because they are very different from my voice): Elizabeth Bishop, Ken Babstock, Roo Borson, George Bowering [see his 12 or 20 questions here], Anne Carson, Marilyn Chin, Henri Cole, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass, Zbigniew Herbert, Selima Hill, Jim Harrison, Frederico García Lorca, Robert Lowell, Don McKay, W.S. Merwin, Jane Miller, Susan Mitchell, Frank O’Hara, Michael Ondaatje, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Robin Robertson, Sharon Thesen [see her 12 or 20 questions here], John Thompson, Tomas Tranströmer, C.D. Wright, Charles Wright, and Adam Zagajewski.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Travel to Turkey and eastern Europe. I travel often, but I tend to go south more than anywhere else. I feel that certain personal horizons would be expanded by experiencing more diverse architecture, art, people, and their customs.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be?
When I was an undergraduate at Concordia I wavered between chemistry and biology for a few years. I now think I’m not quite analytical enough for chemistry to have been the correct choice, and I’m so addicted to biology that it’s hard for me to imagine a more satisfying combination than poetry and biology. I might have liked to have been a singer-songwriter, but, alas, as Bron Wallace bemoans in some of her fine poems, I am not much of a tune-carrier, as my early piano teachers in Asbestos were more than willing to point out. And I didn’t like to practice much; it bored me.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’m a ferocious, voracious reader; it also could be related to character, as Mavis Gallant astutely observed in a recent interview with Stéphan Bureau (mine is especially suited to poetry, perhaps); my father sending home evocative postcards from his travels to India, Australia, the Philippines, South Africa, Colombia, Argentina, and elswhere always filled with observations of local sights and sounds; and living in Vancouver with my brother, David Conn, who is also a writer, at a crucial age, after I graduated from Concordia, my mother died, and I began graduate studies in entomology at Simon Fraser University. I felt compelled to communicate creatively from an early age, and poetry is very portable.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
This has to be answered in the plural. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, an outstanding novel; David Raeburn’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (I had also recently seen the French painter Poussin’s Landscape show at the Met in New York and the combination is very stimulating); Robert Bringhurst’s brilliant Tree of Meaning; and Will Grohmann’s magnificently scholarly and detailed Paul Klee.
I have become extremely sensitive to either overt violence or even hints of it in films so my range of films these days is pretty limited. With this as a caveat, I found Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose heartbreaking.
19 - What are you currently working on?
A new poetry manuscript comprised of several poems that have been inspired by Paul Klee, and several poems about Mexico, Spain and Los Angeles, where I have traveled during 2007-2008. It’s still sort of in the embryonic stage.
Also, I am one of a renga group (there are four of us, following Japanese tradition), which we mostly do by e-mail. It’s challenging and immensely fun.
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