Sunday, February 28, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Eleonore Schönmaier

Eleonore Schönmaier's writing has won numerous awards including the Alfred G. Bailey Prize, the Earle Birney Prize, and her story "Sidereal Time" was a Sheldon Currie Fiction Award winner. She's the author of the short story collection Passion Fruit Tea (Roseway Publishing) and the poetry collection Treading Fast Rivers (McGill-Queen's University Press) which was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for best first book of poetry by a Canadian. Recently she performed her poetry at the Music Room in Halifax, and as part of the Footnote Series in Rotterdam. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in many magazines internationally including Canadian Literature, Descant, Event, Grain, Prism international, The New Quarterly, Vallum, Border Crossing Berlin, De Tweede Ronde (Amsterdam), Dreamcatcher (UK), Stand (UK) and has been translated into Dutch. She has undergraduate degrees from Queen's University, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and has taught advanced fiction writing at St. Mary's University and creative writing at Mount St. Vincent University.

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 was great to have a beautiful object as tactile evidence of my work. My first book added joy to my life, and the book launch was great fun. Though I was already teaching at universities prior to my first book, it was important to be able to list a book publication on my resume.

My recent work has two distinct and contrasting branches which are both different from my earlier work. I'm writing short poems of supreme minimalism, and I'm writing longer poems with many complex interconnected images. My short fiction has also become increasingly intricate.

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

I've been writing both poetry and fiction simultaneously all my life though they are not necessarily published simultaneously.

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 always have multiple writing projects on the go with no clearly delineated beginning.

Overall I feel I write extremely slowly. However, I'll often enter my office and come out thirty minutes later with a fully formed poem. A lot of my writing takes place in my mind and when a collection of thoughts and images reach peak intensity I have to be ready and prepared to write it down. Even when a poem transfers rapidly from my mind to the page I still rewrite/fine tune extensively.

Each day I write thoughts and quotes in notebooks and once I've written something down it stays in my mind. The notebooks are my tool-box but I don't necessarily refer to them in the actual first written draft of a poem or story.

In my daily life I remain intensely alert to the world around me and it is this receptiveness and perceptiveness which for me is essential to the writing of poetry or fiction.

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?

It is only after the fact that I can attempt to retrace a poem or story to its origins. With the increased complexity of my work I actually find it harder and harder to locate the exact first step. For instance, I could say a poem depicting a night baker began the evening I cycled past a window where a man was rolling out bread, but in the same poem there are many other images that also could qualify as the beginning of a thought.

I don't have a book in mind as I work though I do follow themes which form into books.

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

Public readings are part of my creative process. As I prepare for a reading I memorize my poems. If a poem is tedious for me to memorize it is also going to be dull for the audience, and therefore in the process of memorizing I rewrite extensively. Through this preparation I push my writing to new levels of excellence.

I also enjoy the post-reading interaction with the audience, and I love attending readings by other authors in multiple genres and multiple languages.

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?

Writing allows me to push my thoughts to their farthest limits in an attempt to seek questions that have not yet been asked with the full knowledge that there are no answers.

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?

A writer provides a forum that allows readers to explore their own thoughts, perceptions and interactions with the world.

Wittgenstein said, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

I think that what we cannot speak about we can attempt to translate into poetry, and perhaps this is the role of a poet in society.

A writer can also move our thoughts away from the noise of the world to a form of stillness that is not unlike a beating heart at rest. To hear, feel and listen to this beating is I think vital in an overly clamorous world. I think it also works the other way around: to bring necessary sound into the world out of the blank stillness.

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

A good editor is invaluable to the writing process.

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

Know the rulebook. And then torching it. Facing doubt. And then eliminating it. Feeling pain. And then beating it. Recognizing limits. And never ever accepting them.

This is advice from a dance brochure, but I think it also applies to the writing life.

One can also apply Daniel Barenboim's words (from his book Everything is Connected):

What is, ultimately, perhaps the most difficult lesson for the human being--learning to live with discipline yet with passion, with freedom yet with order--is evident in any single phrase of music.

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

I love both poetry and short fiction. I like the web of imagery inherent to poetry, and I like characterization and dialogue in fiction. Of course good fiction also has strong imagery, and I do have a habit of including dialogue in my poems. The interchange between the two genres is often porous for me.

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 write each day of my life, always, even if it's just a single phrase. Writing is like breathing.

The first thing I do each day is play the piano. This invigorates my brain so that the writing may flow freely. I try to avoid checking my email first thing in the morning though I often fail.

I rewrite in the morning, but rarely write a new first draft early in the day. New work evolves in the afternoon (in the winter) and in the evening (in the summer). I rewrite more in the winter and create more new work in the summer.

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

I can't remember the last time I felt stalled in my writing. To add additional energy to my writing mind I hike, kayak, cycle, take photographs, read, look at art or play the piano.

A good conversation with a friend can also be wonderfully inspirational.

When I have a superb conversation I write not to find a poem or story but to understand the conversation in the unspoken layers.

13 - What do you really want?

What I want most in life is to find my way into interesting thoughts, and to meet fascinating people. The resultant inspiration I then attempt to turn into new forms of literature. It is the actual creative process that provides the greatest personal reward and satisfaction.

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?

I read extensively in three languages, but my influences are from the lived-in world.

Nature is intrinsic to all my writing. I've spent the vast majority of my life living directly within two forests (in the vast northern Boreal forest, and in the coastal Nova Scotia forest). In Nova Scotia roofers have said to me, "Wow. You have a lot of trees." Roofers for practical reasons don't like trees, but I refuse to remove any part of the forest. Trees are of course essential both for human sanity and for the preservation of the earth. The forest is vital to my writing life. Currently I live part of each year across from an urban forest that in turn borders on a large seaside nature reserve.

Music, science and the visual arts are all important for my work and my life is rich in all of these. Many of my closest friends are musicians, scientists or visual artists. I regularly frequent art galleries, science lectures, and concert halls. I work together with musicians in performances where I recite my poetry; our recent concert theme has been the migration of both birds and people. I work with a cellist who is a bird migration scientist and part of our programming includes music by the composer Emily Doolittle. Emily composes music based on bird and animal sounds, and has herself studied animal acoustics.

Three of my music themed poems, along with photographs of my work with musicians have recently been published in The New Quarterly (Winter 2010). Three of my visual art poems were published in a special art issue from Prism international (Spring 2009). I also have a series of science and/or math related poems that I'm working on.

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

There are so many, many books that are important.

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

I'd like to have dinner with Doris Lessing, Stephen Hawking, Pierre Boulez, and Daniel Barenboim. I'd also love to be able to fly around the world in a hot air balloon. If Lessing, Boulez, Hawking and Barenboim want to join the balloon ride that would be fine too.

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?

Neurologist, composer or hot air balloon pilot.

I have no talent in these areas, but I would love to be able to understand the brain, to be able to write music and to be my own pilot.

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

My sister says I was writing before I was doing anything else. I've had other careers, but writing comes most naturally to me. Writing gives me the opportunity to weave all my wide ranging interests into my work. I can be curious about anything and everything. I can research in many different areas.

Daniel Barenboim in his February 13, 2010 lecture said, "Specialization, knowing more and more about less and less, results in disconnection between ideas and facts that are organically related." In my writing I try to bring together seemingly disconnected ideas into what I hope is an organic whole. It's a difficult way to make a living, but a great way to make a life.

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

Primo Levi's The Periodic Table.

Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalgia.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Poetry, short fiction and a series of black and white photographs of writer's hands. I've also been attempting to translate Gerrit Achterberg's poems from Dutch into English.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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