Monday, September 21, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Betsy Struthers

Winner of the 2004 Pat Lowther Memorial Award for the best book of poetry by a Canadian woman for Still (Black Moss Press), Betsy Struthers has published eight books of poetry and three novels as well as co-editing an anthology of essays about teaching poetry. She received the Silver Medal as runner-up for the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award in 1994 and was short-listed for the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award in 1993. A past president of the League of Canadian Poets, she has read her work from coast to coast in Canada, in Australia, and in North Carolina; her poems and fiction have been published in many anthologies (most recently, In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry and Going Top Shelf: An Anthology of Canadian Hockey Poetry) and literary journals; she has taught workshops in both poetry and fiction to students of all ages from kindergarten to adults. Resident in Peterborough since 1977, Struthers works as a freelance editor of academic texts.

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

Although I’d had poems published in literary magazines, I didn’t feel I could call myself a “real writer” until after the publication of my first book. I had the confidence then to join the League of Canadian Poets in order to meet other poets – living in a small town in central Ontario I felt very isolated from the larger writing community. First book publication also gave me the courage to keep writing and exploring the craft of poetry, the belief that I could do this work successfully. And made me anxious to create another book, to not be a one-book writer.

My most recent work is an extension of a form I’ve been experimenting with, a kind of prose poem/poetic short fiction – very short, very narrative, very poetic. My first book, Censored Letters, was a narrative sequence of poems told from the persona of a woman whose husband has gone to fight in the First World War, leaving her, like Penelope, to keep the home fires burning. This narrative streak has reappeared over and over in both my fiction and poetry, the telling of story.

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

I have always been entranced by the sound of words working together to create an emotional experience – from R.L. Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young through Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot to Margaret Atwood and Lorna Crozier. Fiction seemed too big and too plain to attract me. Non-fiction was boring. However, narrative has always been a strong part of my work, as well as lyric. What I love most about poetry is the sound intwined with and inseparable from the sense.

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?

I procrastinate, walk the dog, wash floors, walk the dog again – anything but sit down to work. Then a line will occur to me, seemingly out of the blue (often on those dog walks, the rhythm of movement translating into words) and a poem will spin itself out. I write in my head for a long time before committing to paper – well, to the screen. My handwriting is so illegible that from the beginning I typed my work to see the proper spacing of lines on the page. I don’t keep a journal or take notes, but first drafts go through many revisions – of line length and spacing as well as word choice – before I’m satisfied enough to show the poem to anyone else.

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?

Poems begin with a line, fiction with an idea and a voice. I often write in long sequences or serial poems and these do tend to come quickly as the voice inhabits me until I feel they’re done – or it’s finished with me. But I don’t usually think of having a “writing project” per se. I write until I think I have enough poems for a book and then structure them into what feels like a logical order, often dividing them into cohesive sections. Sometimes these sections are “unfinished” – they need something more and that alone will call forth a new poem (usually) to fill the gap. But I don’t think too much about “the book” until I have a substantial number of new poems accumulated.

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

I always get nervous before a reading, have dreams of standing at a podium before a crowd and opening a book to blank pages … but once I do begin, I trust the work will speak and I react to the reactions of the audience. A poem always sounds different when read aloud to others – I often make changes, sometimes in mid-stride because I can hear something not working well. So it’s a love/hate kind of thing.

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?
In my day job as an editor of academic texts, I wade through too much theory. So I refuse to put theoretical brackets around my work. I hope it speaks for itself.

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 role of the writer must be to articulate as best as s/he can the reality of living in this place at this time. Sometimes that means taking a public stance on a political issue affecting the arts – but that kind of rhetoric remains outside the art itself. The role of the writer is to translate the world as it is honestly and openly in the work.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Absolutely essential. It’s too easy for the eye and ear to relax when reading over one’s own work, too easy to assume that connections and/or images that are clear to you as the writer will be clear to the reader. I don’t always hear from those first readers of my work – fellow poets whose work I in turn critique – what I want to hear (that is, how brilliant every single word and line is!) but I take their criticisms and suggestions seriously. I may not agree with their suggested changes, but if they do suggest change – especially if, unknown to one another, more than one has a problem with a particular image or line -- then I know it’s not working, that I haven’t done my job yet and must go back to the work to make clear what it is that the poem is saying..

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

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

I began to write fiction because (1) I had an idea for a novel that begins with finding a body in the river beside my house and the voice of the finder came into my head; (2) I had a writer’s block in the middle of trying to finish a third book of poetry and was very frustrated and reading too many murder mysteries as an escape from worrying about not-writing; (3) some of those mysteries were so clumsily written that I thought “I could do better than that” – and had heard so many people say that about the books they could have written but did not, I thought I should either try it or shut up about it; and (4) I had bought my first computer and found it so easy to let the writing just flow, not worrying about having to retype errors or worry over dialogue. I ended up writing a trilogy of novels very quickly, but then I got tired of the voice and the genre, and found poems crowding my head instead. It was fun writing the novels and much easier work – every day I could sit down and review/revise scenes written the day before and that would suggest where the plot should go next (I never created a plot scheme or outline before I started writing, just began at page 1 and kept going to the end; this meant a lot of revision in the second and third (and fourth and fifth) drafts but felt most natural) whereas poetry depends so much on the intense involvement of the moment… I tried writing another novel, not a mystery, but my heart wasn’t in it and it wasn’t very good. Nonetheless, I’m now writing a kind of narrative fiction, very short stories loosely linked. I don’t think of them as either fiction or poetry, I just write.

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 pretend that I write every day … but truth is, the day job gets in the way as does real life (laundry, meetings, walking the dog). I’m a binge writer, days going by without anything and then a line will occur and then a poem and then another … could be why I tend to write in sequences or serials. When a poem does occur, I drop everything else and attend to it until it’s done, as too often I’ve thought out the “perfect” poem (in the middle of a cold winter’s night for instance) but not written anything down because I haven’t been in the right place or time for it – then when I do find the time to write it, it’s gone.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read new poems by poets unfamiliar to me in literary magazines, in books, on line to see what is happening now. I reread favourites. I revisit the work of friends … reading sparks the writing.

13 - What do you really want?

Peace on earth.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are thereany other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I’m heavily influenced by nature, the weather, the sky, the shape of the land, how the body interprets its surroundings. I’ve written some poems on my travels and many more (most) at the cottage. There’s something about the solitary contemplation that comes with being wholly in the natural world that starts the words connecting in my head.

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

I’m very eclectic in what kind of writing effects me. I read a lot of history; in my day job I edit a lot of political science, sociology, and anthropology and these concerns creep into my work. I read contemporary literature -- fiction (both “literary” and “genre” fiction) and poetry (both Canadian and other English-language) voraciously. There are too many writers whose work I like to name here.

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

Travel to the Galapagos. Travel to the Arctic. Travel…

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?

Is this a trick question? A writer has to be a writer or will go quietly (or not s quietly) crazy. Before I began to write seriously in my late 20s, I worked in promotion and advertising – a kind of writing if not a particularly interesting or challenging kind. And then I work as an editor, which is working with words as well. I can’t imagine doing anything else happily.

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

I worked in many other jobs – advertising, promotion, bookstore clerk, library clerk – before I began editing, which I could do part-time. I felt driven to write, was not (am not) happy doing anything else.

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

I read so many books and watch so many films that my "last great" list changes constantly. Last "great" book was the new translation of War and Peace; last great Canadian novel was Nino Ricci's Origin of Species; last great book of poetry was John Steffler's Helix. Last great indie movie I saw was Wendy and Lucy; last great musical (gotta love musicals) was Across the Universe.
20 - What are you currently working on?

Relay: A series of micro-fictions

1 comment:

Susan McMaster said...

Interesting. Rings a lot of bells.