Saturday, June 20, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Jeanette Lynes

Jeanette Lynes is the author of five books of poetry, most recently, The New Blue Distance (Wolsak and Wynn), three chapbooks, and one novel. She is Co-editor of The Antigonish Review.

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 chapbook – with above/ground press – was really important to me. I’ve always loved micropress publishing, and the chapbook opened up a space for me to be experimental and just play. My first book – with Wolsak and Wynn – was life-changing in that it sparked a hope within me that there might be a readership for my poems. I think my previous work is more ‘raw’ and rough-edged. The poems have ‘smoothed out’ some, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. It may not be.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I came to poetry first by virtue of falling in love with Canadian poets like Al Purdy and Bronwen Wallace. But I also fell in love with Canadian fiction around the same time; I just didn’t have the confidence to try my hand at fiction until much later.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially 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’m never sure if I have a ‘book’ until I’m well into a project. An example is my book about Dusty Springfield. I thought I would try to write one poem about her. Then another came. And another. And it seemed that I had much more to say about her life, so I just kept going. My basic rule is, if I feel a spark of life in a body of work or a concept, I keep going. I ‘projectify’ more than I used to – that is a piece of advice Fred Wah gave me at the Sage Hill Writing Experience. I revise a lot more than I used to – I think I grapple a lot with the negotiation between ‘raw writing’, as discussed above, on the one hand, and intensively worked-over poems, on the other. Sometimes I can revise the life out of a poem, but mostly my poems benefit from revision.

4 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction 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?

Work often begins for me, these days, with something I’ve read. I’ll get interested in a subject, and chase it.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love getting out and reading my work, and getting first-hand, immediate audience responses. I’ve never been that good at delayed gratification. I’ve met lots of amazing poets at readings, too, and these public events help keep me feeling plugged into a literary culture. It’s important to me to talk craft and process with writers, and readings provide some opportunity for this.

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?

Theoretical concerns? With fiction, my concern is syntax – how to write energized sentences. I’m not sure how to theorize syntax, but there must be a way. With poetry, I studied TISH poetics a lot as a university student, so I’m interested in language experiments, even though I don’t write in that tradition. I still really like the Russian formalist Scholvsky’s notion of ‘defamiliarization’, and I strive to apply that principle, to take my writing ‘outside the box’. I think there are many different ways to do this. Given the Purdy influence, I’m interested in vernacular speech and language, and my new novel has provided a fun forum in which to explore 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?

Well, you know what Shelley said – poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind – I’m paraphrasing, here. I think writers play a crucial role in our culture. Writers tell the truth. Given our governments, someone has to tell the truth.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I’ve loved my editors – Barry Dempster on my poetry and Sandra Birdsell on my fiction. They have taught me a lot, and helped me so much. They don’t let me get away with certain tendencies I have. I sometimes find the process difficult, but I mostly have agreed with the changes they suggest.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

The best piece of advice I’ve heard? What a great question! An American novelist I worked with in my MFA, Michael C. White, told me to stop worrying about whether what I was writing, in fiction was ‘corny’ (I’d told him I’d worried that my novel premise was corny). He said all fiction is corny – even Moby Dick – think about it, he said – a great white whale. This permitted some sentimentality. Same as in poetry. Richard Hugo says, in The Triggering Town, you have to be willing to risk sentimentality – again, I paraphrase. Those pieces of advice were really valuable to me. I needed to hear them to help shake my brain out of the ‘academic think’ I’d spent years trying to learn during graduate school. Then I had to let all that go - ie. the literary critic part of my head.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I like moving between genres – the appeal is simply variety – also, challenge.

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 mainly write during the summers because I teach. I try not to look at email in the mornings. I try to write from about 10 am until about 3:00 pm – about five hours. Then, ideally, I like to go outside for a walk and meet a friend at the pub around 4:30. A five-hour writing day is about all I can manage. With fiction, I have a daily word quota.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

When my writing gets stalled, I either read, sleep, or go to the pub.
13 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

In the event of a fire, I’d grab my cat and then my laptop computer.

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?

Music influences my work, but most of all, people influence my work – human beings and the strange things they/we do, and the difficult lives they/we live. I will never stop be fascinated with the miracle that human beings are.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

So many writers are important to me – so many I couldn’t begin to name them. But also writers who write factoid books, like books about plants, or weather, or land formations.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

What I would like to do is travel more. I’ve led a pretty circumscribed life. I love Canada but there are so many places I’d like to see, like South America, Italy. Hell, the Grand Canyon. Texas. San Francisco. I’d like to do an extensive road trip of the United States. I’d also like to write a biography of a Canadian musician.
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?

Floral designer or disk jockey! Or singer/rock star. Seriously. I could spend my life with flowers, and music. If I had not been a writer, I probably still would have gone into teaching, as I have. I like it, though it is exhausting.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

The desire for self-expression made me write, I think. The need for a challenge. Restlessness. Boredom. My fetish for beautiful sentences. My fetish for the book as a physical object. My conviction that writing makes me more fully human.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I’m going to interpret “great” as enjoyable. I really enjoyed Doing Nothing by Tom Lutz. I’m reading a lot of non-fiction these days. But I also just read Baltimore’s Mansion by Wayne Johnston; it’s a beautiful and moving book. A Complicated Kindness really moved me, as well as The Lion in the Room Next Door by Merilyn Simonds, and Hooked by Carolyn Smart.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Right now, I’m just re-grouping from the academic year, and the final edits on my novel and my most recent book of poetry. I want to start working on another novel this summer, and pursue a biography idea I have. And I have a funny feeling I’ll probably write a few poems, too. Thanks for the great questions, rob.

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