Saturday, June 13, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Karen Houle

Karen Houle: "I am a professor of Philosophy. I specialize in Ethics and Social & Political Philosophy. I regularly teach courses in Environmental Philosophy at the 2nd, 4th, and graduate-level.

I have a background in Science and I’m also a fiction writer (poetry and short stories). I have two kids, twins, who are almost 20 now."

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

It allowed me to take myself seriously as a writer. Before that I used to like to think I could write but after that I also let it be true.

My recent work feels infinitely less cerebral to me (though not to all readers). The first book had as its central question how one undertakes to love, and to try, when, qua educated Western scientistic-type one knows all the Big Facts: mortality, geological time and extinction rates, that there is probably no God, etc. What can anchor faith? Hope? Grace? Can those possibilities come up through more and more intimate connection with the 'facts of nature', or do we need to leave off at some point and turn, blind, into love? I was working out that theoretical problem in that first book. The time between the first and the second was saturated with trauma. Those poems contain (even if they don't show) that trauma.

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

My story lines kept collapsing. The characters, the events, the plot. All these things ended up quickly wearing thin, and wearing out, compared with the sheer power of words, and words arranged for poetry, as poetry. It's like I washed my head too many times and what was left standing were poems.

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?

5-7 years.

Writing comes like Kakabeka Falls.

They come out of copious notes on the inside of my crammed skull.

It's like the kitchen drawer that just won't shut, it's so full of everything.

Eventually, you take everything out, match stuff up, sort, edit, reduce the volume.

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?

Likely the poems begin with the day I start composing or writing. And they contain that day. Then there are the rest of those days. Together, these are the short pieces that are the larger project. I'm no more working on a "book" from the very beginning than you are I are working on a "life" from the very beginning.

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

Only once the poems are safe. That is, they are whole, and they retain their wholeness even once they have been shared around, said aloud, offered. So, that clearly means that readings are not part of the writing-creative process. But I would say they are crucial to the receptive-creative process. People often say they can't 'hear' the layers and meanings in my poems until they hear me move, word by word, through them. One review that I didn't much enjoy said my poems needed to have more story or life in them. What is crazy is that it is not possible for them to contain any more than they do. That expression Life is Weirder than Fiction applies here. You would simply not be able to imagine the places that I've been that I've crawled out of via poetry. So then I thought that perhaps I hadn't done enough work, or didn't have the skill yet, of making that 'life' available to the reader. This is where I think my readings are critical. If you hear them, you will likely hear what is packed, quite tightly and yet neatly, into them.

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?

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?

The words 'role' and 'writer' don't go well together, in my opinion. What I think is hardest of all (next to writing) is to find something for which no clear use can be found, or imagined. I go to second hand shops in search of the kinds of things that will rebuke my utilitarian/pragmatic/consumerist self. It's terrifically hard to find something for which a role isn't immediately evident, or can easily be imagined. This is a symptom of the monster that is functionalism. I think writing should be anti-function and the writer should be an ambassador to the Anti-Use zones of possibility. Otherwise, we might turn into robots completely or be replaced, one by one, by them.

Poetry and writing can serve as temporary repositories of uncategorized emotions and overflows of intense affect. A through station between use and ab(use)?

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

Essential. I can only see my work from one side. They can see it from another. Between these is the beginning of a critical thickening.

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

About writing? About living?

Here's what I say to myself often: All will be well. And even if it isn't, it will be.

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 do not have a writing routine. If I did, I'm sure I would freeze in terror. The only sure way to make a poem 'come visit' my conscious brain is to go for a stroll.

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

Movement. Physical movement. Moving on the bike, swimming, walking, travelling by car or train. Planes don't work. The air is too poor, perhaps.

Also, I read other poets, all the time.

12 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

My kids. Then the dog. Pretty obvious. I don't own many things, and I don't own many that I couldn't live without.

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?

Motion. E-motion.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I read so much for work and pleasure it would be unfair to count in a few and leave the others out to roost.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Get truly fit. Learn French properly. Write a play. Learn how to relax. Be successful in an intimate relationship.

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'm a professor of philosophy. It pays the bills. I write in the small interstices of that job, and then once in a great big whooshy-gush about every 5 years. Had I not been a writer I would have ended up being a teacher of some kind. Which I did. Am.

I wish a living could be earned by parenting. I am skilled at it, and it's a chosen profession, and I enjoy it as much as writing or teaching. But as it is, to become an Executive Parent I would still need a Sugar Daddy.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Honestly, I think that I am the kind of person who lives in words even more than I live in actions and things. They found me. Words, and then writing was the thing you do to be able to stay inside them longer. I know that it is a kind of neurosis, a withdrawl or an escape from things and actions, and to an extent then, from people and lives. But I also know myself well enough to know that words are people, and living as a writer is how I live.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

19 - What are you currently working on?
A book on abortion and complexity theory.
A paper on shame and faciality and animal selves. Getting the garden started.

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