Saturday, February 06, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Sonnet L’Abbé

Sonnet L’Abbé is an award-winning author of two collections of poetry, A Strange Relief and Killarnoe, both published by McClelland and Stewart. She is a regular reviewer for the Globe and Mail and has taught writing at the University of Toronto. She is currently writing a dissertation in English Literature at the University of British Columbia.

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

My first book, A Strange Relief, changed my life most by legitimating me as a writer. I didn't know how many doors its publication would open onto writerly discussion and community in Canada. Makes me think of that Starbucks wisdom-commodity that says be careful what you're successful at! I only have two books so far; the second, Killarnoe, is different from the first in that in the first I strove to meet an aesthetic that was in the tradition I felt I'd inherited, and in the second, I was actively trying to write 'back' to that tradition and find a poetics that was my own.

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

I wrote fiction first. Poetry worked first.

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?

In the past I have generated a lot of material from random interests then work to find the unifying thread. I'm more interested in working toward a full book concept now. Poems themselves often emerge close to their final form, but many of those poems won't make it into a collection if, even though they are 'finished', they aren't saying something I find interesting in the long term.

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?

See above.

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

I enjoy doing readings a lot. Appeals to the attention-seeker in me, even if I always get the nervous sweats leading up to a talk. The real-time performance of a poem allows at least two more dimensions - sound, and gesture - to be given to the text, while removing the paper-based experience of the text. I prefer work that does well both on the page and as a performance text, but am also equally content to write pieces that are meant mainly as a book-reading experience.

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?

I've always been interested with tones of authority, and performances of authorship and authoritativeness. In literary forms a writer can expose, play with and question the textual and tonal conventions of authority in non-literary discourses like the news, or the business report, or the scientific report. I'm fascinated by rhetoric and am always interested in what counts as persuasive in which genre or field of writing. Right now I'm very interested in modes of description and figures of speech that might have a different kind of authority, or expose something of the mechanics of authority, if set in an unconventional context (like babytalk in a scientific treatise ;) ).

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?

I like writing that tries to say what can't be said anywhere else. I want a perspective on the struggle to live ethically, and on unconventional ways to live well. I also want to laugh. Literary writing, as opposed to writing for screen, is a rare opportunity to go for depth and complexity. I think a writer meets her potential to contribute to larger culture when her work offers both a fun read and a thoughtful, risk-taking, ethically committed vision.

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

I love working with a good outside editor. It's a real treat to be read so closely and generously. It's not essential, but a privilege.

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

Only you know what is best for you. Works for both life and writing choices.

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

Pretty easy. Writing poetry and writing about poetry have developed simultaneously for me. I love helping readers of poetry to get 'into' a poem or new book and to do my little bit to engender a taste for poetry in the wider reading public.

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?

No real routine right now. I'm finding my way into a rhythm for my dissertation.

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

Sometimes I need to just read a bit of what other people are writing to get plugged back into the current scene. Sometimes I need to dig out my absolute favorite writers to remind myself of what I'm aiming for. Otherwise the Colbert Report.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Freshly pugged clay and curry.

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?

Scientific images these days. Spiritual texts. Business leadership books about emotional intelligence and organizational behaviour.

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

Books about meditation and managing thoughts have been my light reading for years. When all one's work is about organizing one's thoughts onto a page, books that talk about how thoughts relate to both mood and action are fascinating.

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

Run a small organization or big faculty. Finish a half marathon. Write a novel.

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?

I'm drawn to the idea of writing about financial regulators, markets and organizations. I almost stayed on the medicine track, to become a doctor. Still like hospitals. Already tried comedian.

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

Control, control, control.

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

Last great book:
To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. Last awesome movie: I've Loved You So Long, with Kristen Scott Thomas acting in French.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A dissertation about the debate on plant sentience in the late 1700s - early 1800s and the nature-loving aesthetic of the romantics. And lots of poems of my own.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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