Thursday, July 26, 2012

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith’s first book, dear Hermes, was published by the University of Alberta Press in Feb. 2012.  She is currently at work on her second poetry book.  Her poems have appeared in a wide range of literary journals, and she is a previous editor of the journal Other Voices.  Originally from Canada, Scotland is now her adopted home.

1 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I thought writing a poem would be easier than writing a novel!  I’m joking - sort of.  I was attracted to the way in which a poem can fit into such a small space, while communicating a great deal.  I liked that intensity, and the precision with language that poetry requires.  The poems in dear Hermes … are inter-linked through imagery, sound, underlying themes, yet each poem is an individual entity.  I like the challenge of striking a balance between that individuality and the process of discovering coherence across several poems that comes with putting together a book manuscript.  Another answer is that I came to poetry first because I was a reader of poetry.  I suppose that’s unusual in a world that seems to be ruled by fiction – and of course I love fiction – but poetry is different, because it’s half music, half words.  That musical quality was irresistible to me as a reader and writer; when I began to write poetry a decade ago, it was very much a natural extension of my reading.

2 - 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’m good at jumping into a project, and less good at finishing it.  I think, now that I’ve written a book, that finishing a project is a learned skill.  I was profoundly lucky in that I had both a writing mentor, the fabulous Alice Major, and an editor, the excellent Peter Midgley, to keep me going and to tell me when to stop.  For a fledging writer, that kind of insight is priceless, as is the knowledge that other people have faith in you!  As for my actual writing process, it’s pretty idiosyncratic.  I usually begin with a set of words that have a particular rhythm, and I just sit down and write with a pen and paper.  I write pretty quickly to start with, and the words that will become a poem take on a life of their own.  That initial inspiration stops of its own accord, too, and then I usually need to go back and start revising.  For me, every poem is written differently.  Some poems take months, even years, to find their form – “Archangel whose name is waves and sand” was like that.  I did a lot of background reading, because I was writing about a real place with a long history, and I shared the work-in-progress with trusted poet-friends.  Some poems need that kind of time.  Other poems just seem to write themselves, and I feel as though any revision would be nothing but a distortion – “The Bear’s Dance” was like that; I wrote it, and the only thing I changed, after a few years of living with it, was the title.  I’d say that part of the excitement of writing poetry is the not knowing – not knowing where the writing is taking you, or what the final work is going to be.

3 - 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?
Almost always, a new poem begins because I’ve been reading poetry.  There is something about the rhythm and wording of someone else’s poetry that gets into my head, the way you can get a line of music snuck in your head, and that leads to writing.

My whole writing process has changed a lot since I started writing a decade ago.  I started out writing individual poems, and I would start a poem and try and finish it in a very concentrated fashion.  I think I was trying to prove to myself that I could do it, and worried that if I took a break from a poem that it would die from lack of attention. That fear is gone now, and I’ve learned that sometimes I need to shelve poems, give them time to breathe, and then come back to them.

The poems I’m working on now have to be crafted individually, of course, but they’re part of a broader idea, and I can already see how they fit together because of a cross-over of imagery, emotion, and phrasing.  They’re taking shape as a book right from the start.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like doing readings.  I’ve always envied musicians and theatre actors because what they do is shared effort; it’s innately sociable.  Writers, in order to write, necessarily have to spend a lot of time on their own.  I enjoy that part of the process, but I don’t enjoy being alone in and of itself, so sharing my work makes for a welcome change.  That said, I don’t tend to share things that are a work-in-progress, except with a handful of people I know I can trust to give me constructive but honest feedback.  Once a poem is finished, sharing it at a reading is a lot of fun, especially now that I can hold my first book in my hands, and read from that.

5 - 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’m definitely not driven by theory.  I spent six years in graduate school studying English literature, so inevitably I was immersed in theory.  Poetry was my escape.  It’s funny, actually, that critical and creative writing can fit together quite well, but for me, they’re polar opposites.

6 – 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?
Absolutely, writers have a role in larger culture.  The written word is a defining feature of modern society.  The question of what role writers have is harder to answer.  There are so many kinds of writers, and the role of a writer is highly individual to me.  It’s down to what a particular writer wants to achieve, what he or she believes in, and what path he or she follows.  The most common response to news that I’ve published a poetry book is “I don’t understand poetry.”  That saddens me, not least because some poetry is (or should be) incomprehensible, but more importantly, verse is embedded deep in our psyche.  I have a small child who’s learning to speak – I sing to him, and it seems to be a big part of how he’s learning language.  It seems universally agreed amongst the “experts” that rhythm and rhyme, the marriage of words and music, is incredibly important to the human mind and its development.  How do we lose that as we age?  That loss saddens me, because it’s the loss of a little bit of joy, mystery, wonder that’s so readily available.  And we need those things, we need as much joy, mystery, wonder as we can find.

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

It’s essential.  I think if you have the right editor, it’s not difficult.  That’s not to say that it isn’t hard work!  Good editing is essentially a form of collaboration, one that I find rewarding.

8 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When I was starting out, I took a writing class in which the teacher argued that no two writers will write the same thing, even if they begin writing from the same place.  To prove the point, she gave us all the same three-line opening and fifteen minutes to write.  The differences between the pieces that people wrote in those fifteen minutes were astonishing.  It’s a message that I hope will always stay with me; being able to trust in your own vision and voice, and simply believing that you have something worth saying, is crucial.

9 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Critical prose is a curious anomaly for me – I came to it as a young adult in university, and carried on with it throughout graduate school, but I wouldn’t say it’s ever come naturally to me.  It’s hard graft, whereas my creative writing has this wonderful feeling of coming home … I once got in trouble for being too creative in an essay, and I think that says it all!  I’ll read a great line in a book, and feel inspired by it, and I’ll want to go off in my own direction.  I’d like to write and publish fiction one day, in addition to poetry, but it’s a matter of one-thing-at-a-time for me these days.

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?
While I was working on dear Hermes… I’d get up in the morning and write first thing.  I’d free-write, which was how I generated new material; it was a process that seemed to work best early in the day.  Then I’d turn my attention to revising something I’d already drafted, or seeing how different pieces worked together.  It was a luxury, having the freedom to structure my time like that.  I was lucky enough to have funding to give me that time to write.

My routine has changed since my little boy was born, and I’ve gone back to working full-time in the conventional sense.  So, at the moment, my writing gets done in the evenings, and I try to write something even when I’m exhausted (which is most evenings!).

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Other poems.  Sometimes it helps to go on a walk.  Other times it helps to whine, just a little.  But it’s always reading that gets me writing again.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sunshine … the warm, slightly dusty smell of a house in summer, or the fragrance of garden flowers (lavender, sunflowers) on a hot day.

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?
Travel, painting, sculpture.  The two always seem to go together, too – I go to a new city, and the first place I visit is the art gallery.  Both things sharpen my attention.  I guess I’m slightly on edge when I travel, because I’m in an unfamiliar place, and that makes me nervous.  So I take everything in, notice details, overhear bits of conversation.  Even if the conversation is in another language, you can always pick up on emotion and tone … and then there are the moments when I stumble on beauty – a ruin, a vista, a fresco – and inspiration strikes.  Maybe that’s a cliché, but if it is, it’s a cliché for a reason.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Right now, I’m reading Alice Oswald’s Memorial; it’s amazing.  So is Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture and The Bees.  I like both poets because they’re so accessible; the imagery and musicality of their writing is stunning, yet there’s a transparency to it – although Oswald uses the word translucence to describe Memorial.  I never feel confused or left behind when I read their poems.  Maybe that’s important to me about their work, and what I’m aiming for with my own writing.  I’m sure if you ask me this question again in six months, I’ll give you a totally different answer … I’m always reading new things, and that newness, the constant discovery of others’ writing, is really important to me.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Oh, so many things.  Travel more extensively.  Finish my new poetry collection, and write a third one that I already have in the back of my mind.  Practice yoga daily.  Help my son grow up to be confident and well-adjusted.   That’s the short list …

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 don’t think I could be anything else.  Writing is my obsession and my peace of mind, all rolled into one.  Purely hypothetically, though, I think I’d choose something really grounded and practical – maybe a yoga teacher.  Or a baker – my great-grandmother and my grandmother owned and ran a bakery together, so perhaps it runs in the family!

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Seriously, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing.  As soon as I could hold a pen, I started scribbling, and as soon as I could read, the scribbling became story-telling.  When I was growing up, there was a lot of pressure on me to choose a wordy career that wasn’t writing – law, namely – and I remember trying to picture myself wearing a suit and sitting behind a big desk in an airless office, telling other people what to do (because that was my impression of what lawyers did).  Whenever I thought of that, I always imagined myself going home in the evening and writing novels and poems – on the side, you see.  So the writing was always there, no matter what else I tried to imagine myself into being.

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

I’ve already mentioned Memorial and Rapture and The Bees.  For novels, I loved Andrew Miller’s Pure.  Set in Paris just a few years before the Revolution, it follows the progress/plight of a young engineer charged with removing the deceased from the Parisian cemetery Les Innocents.

For films – you know, I love many films, but I always go back to this one film called Sleep Furiously.  It’s the most beautiful film.

19 - What are you currently working on?
I started writing a new poetry book in December.  I’ve written around 15 new poems, all in varying states of revision right now, and I’m very excited.  I’m not going to say more than that at the moment … for me, new writing is like film that hasn’t been developed yet – you expose it to the light too soon, and you lose everything.  So it’s under wraps – for now …

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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