Claire Caldwell is a poet from Toronto, where she also edits Harlequin romances and runs rap-poetry workshops for kids. Her first collection, Invasive Species, was one of the National Post's top five poetry books of 2014. Claire was the 2013 winner of the Malahat Review's long poem prize, and she is a graduate of the University of Guelph's MFA program.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Writing and publishing a book was a lifelong dream, so I've been savouring the achievement. Having a book has definitely made me busier with literary things, and I've been lucky enough to travel around Canada and to the States for readings. The opportunity to connect with other poets across the country has been wonderful.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
It's funny; fiction was definitely my first love, as a reader, and I wrote a lot of stories as a kid. I think I came to poetry through the music I listened to in high school—Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco. And then I read Eliot's "Prufrock" for the first time and was like, "how do I do that?" We had a Collected Poems lying around the house and I read it cover to cover, and after that there was no going back.
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?
If I'm in the right mood, I can write and shape a poem into its close-to-final form in one sitting. But the "right mood" comes out of a longer, looser process of jotting down notes, reading, taking long walks, letting things percolate.
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?
I like to gather images and scraps of lines and let them sit together for awhile. When they start rubbing off on each other, I can usually get going. I take this approach with larger projects, too. Though hopefully the poems I'm working on now will eventually be part of a book, they need some time to get to know each other before they build the house they're going to live in.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I used to get really nervous, but now I love doing readings. I like connecting so directly with an audience. And the more readings I do, the more I "hear" my poems as I write them. I think there's a literal component to voice in poetry--how do the words feel in your own mouth? Also, I often find that poetry readings, whether or not I'm on the bill, can spark creativity. You know when a poet just kills it and the room feels electric? That's contagious, I think.
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'm curious about how poetry can connect people to the world around them in ways other media can't. All these massive, scary things are happening to our planet and it can be hard to grapple with that, emotionally, without just shutting down. I'm trying to figure out how poetry can bridge that emotional gap.
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?
Writers can have lots of different roles, but I think ultimately writing and reading are acts of empathy. So as long as a drive for connection and understanding is at the heart of what a writer's trying to do, there are endless ways to occupy that space in society.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential! Paul Vermeersch edited Invasive Species, and his sharp eye, keen insights and experienced hand challenged me to make the book better. Maybe I'm biased, since I also work as an editor, but I believe getting an outside perspective from someone who can read your work on its own terms while offering constructive feedback is invaluable.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Kevin Connolly told me, "writing is action." It's both true and a good reminder to stop dicking around.
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've struggled to figure out a consistent routine with a full time job (and a long commute), but I try to carve out weekend mornings and early afternoons for writing. A typical workday usually begins with peanut butter toast and an hour or so of reading on public transit.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When I'm stuck, I'll listen to a podcast, start a sewing project, play guitar, work out, bake muffins, clean the bathroom.... Getting away from the blank screen/page for a bit and doing something with my hands usually helps take the pressure off and get thoughts flowing.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My dad's beef stew, a smell I love and miss, though neither my brother nor I eat meat anymore.
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?
Right now, nature and life sciences probably have the biggest influence on my work. As I mentioned above, music was my gateway drug into poetry. At various times, visual artists like William Kurelek, Georgia O'Keefe, David Blackwood, Joseph Cornell and Tom Thomson have also influenced me.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
One of my most beloved poems/performances is this recording of bpNichol reading "Friends as Footnotes," from The Martyrology.
There are too many writers to name, working in poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction, but here are a few: Dara Wier, Sue Goyette, Elizabeth Kolbert, Roxane Gay, Jenni Fagan, Claudia Rankine, Dorothea Lasky, Galway Kinnell, Karen Solie.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a book for kids.
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?
If I had more of a mind for hard data, I'd love to be some kind of scientist/biologist--maybe an animal behaviourist. I love the idea of working outside, and I spent many summers at a canoe tripping camp, so being a wilderness guide could also be appealing.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I did all kinds of arts as a kid, and by high school I had narrowed things down to fine art, music and writing. I was pretty good at drawing and playing guitar, and I still love both, but for whatever reason, when I tried to create original work in either medium I got stuck. Writing came naturally, so I stuck with it.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I'm in the middle of Kenneth Koch's Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? It's a really inspiring and insightful book about teaching poetry to kids. The last great film I saw was Timbuktu, a feature about the Islamist occupation of that city/region. One thing I loved about that film was the treatment of subtitles. So many different languages are spoken in the film, but not every character understands every language, and depending on the POV of each scene, certain lines aren't translated for the viewer, either.
19 - What are you currently working on?
A smattering of poems, just trying to gain steam after a hectic winter. Since it's poetry month, I'm following along, somewhat, with the daily NaPoWriMo 2015 prompts for inspiration/motivation.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;