Tuesday, August 28, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Eve Joseph

Eve Joseph’s two books of poetry, The Startled Heart (Oolichan, 2004) and The Secret Signature of Things (Brick, 2010) were both nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Award. Her nonfiction book, In the Slender Margin was published by HarperCollins in 2014 and won the Hubert Evans award for nonfiction. The book was named one of the top 100 picks of the year by the Globe and Mail. Her latest book of poetry is Quarrels, new from Anvil Press.
1.     How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I was 51 when my first book of poetry came out. There’s something about seeing that number in print that is shocking! I don’t know what the impact would have been if I’d written my first book in my twenties. Perhaps it would have changed everything, perhaps nothing. To say it changed my life is too big a claim but it let me imagine another life. Similarities? Both my first and my most recent books move by a kind of illogical logic. They are both associative in nature and rely on leaps rather than narrative. I find myself reaching towards the surreal recently, interested in how, when we scratch the surface of our lives and stories, the foundation is often strange and marvelous.

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

I wrote my mother a ten-page poem for her 80th birthday and got hooked again. Worst poem imaginable. She loved it. I knew nothing about poetry other than I’d loved it when I was young and had written and then stopped for 30 years. I think poetry was dormant in me all that time. When it woke up it was hungry and consumed everything without discrimination.

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 write painstakingly slowly. Emphasis on “pain.” My initial drafts, both in poetry and nonfiction bear no resemblance to the final manuscript. I edit as I go along and rewrite numerous, numerous times.

4.     Where does a poem or work of prose 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?

Very much the former. I don’t know I’m working on a book until I’m deep into it. Writing nonfiction, for me, is akin to combing tangles out of one’s hair. I write until I’m snagged and then have to go back and work out the knots. My nonfiction book came out of an essay that I went back into and “blew up” - the way one blows up a balloon - until it was a book. I had to follow a line-of-thought as far as I could and then follow another. There is a point when I become aware that I am working on an actual book and that’s exciting.

5.     Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I dread readings beforehand and then, most often, enjoy them when I’m doing them. I’m always tense the day of a reading. It’s helped to separate myself from the work. My husband, Patrick Friesen, is an amazing reader. He’s taught me to give the words their due. When I’m reading, it’s about the work and not about me. That helps.

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?

It’s feels politically incorrect to say I do not have theoretical concerns behind my writing. But I don’t. At least not in the sense that I have a cause to champion or elucidate. I think all writers probably have a very few “themes” they return to, or circle, in their writing. My themes are probably grief and wonder.

7.     What do you see the current role of the writer being in the larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think the role of the writer is to be true to the work. Whatever happens after that is out of his/her hands.

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

Absolutely essential. In some ways I trust myself more when I’m editing, and working with an editor, than when I’m writing. Writing is tentative, an exploration. When I’m editing I’m working with a known, trying to make it better. Reaching for what it is I actually want to say.

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

Years ago I read “Instructions to a Writer” by Jane Kenyon in which she said “ask yourself if the work passes the ‘so what’ test.” I apply this test to all of my writing. Funnily enough, when I looked up Kenyon’s instructions just now I couldn’t find the ‘so what’ test anywhere. I may have imagined it but it’s stood me in good stead nonetheless.

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

I love moving between genres. Each genre contains the other…my nonfiction is guided by poetic thinking and my poetry contains the “seeds” of something larger. I have to say I am more and more drawn to prose. I love the room to range that prose provides. I am also really enjoying the containment of prose poetry. Charles Simic describes prose poetry as the place where the impulse for prose and the impulse for poetry collide. I like the collision that takes place…a little of each destroyed and something new created.

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 don’t keep any kind of routine. I’d like to and I’ve tried but it never lasts long. I need to be alone to write so I go away three or four times a year for a few weeks at a time. I like the anonymity of being in a hotel in a city. A rhythm starts to build  when I’m on my own. A sort of a dance will begin between procrastination and finally falling into the work. I get up, go out for coffee, go for long walks, I don’t talk to anyone and over the period of a few days I begin to feel the “pull” towards working and will often end up writing 10-12 hours a day. I have to find my way towards that every time. Once I have found my way into something then I can work at home.

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

When writing eludes me I am convinced it will never return. I go through long periods of circling writing, trying to find my way in. Kenyon (again) has a six line poem called “Not Writing”

A wasp rises to its papery
nest under the eaves
where it daubs

at the gray shape,
but seems unable
to enter its own house.

I often feel like that wasp. Probably the hardest thing about writing is being locked out of one’s house.  My late brother-in-law, Jamie Reid, wrote that poetry came to him in short bursts, punctuated by long dry spells during which he ardently prepared for the moments when poetry was given to him again. That rings deeply true for me as well. The way back in often involves writing really bad poetry or prose in order to feel the point at which the writing takes over and brings me with it.

13.  What fragrance reminds you of home?

Hops. There was a brewery not far from our house in North Vancouver. Certain mornings, the air smelled like popcorn only a bit sweeter and sicklier.

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?
The question makes me think of oral vs. written history. In the west, it makes sense that books come from books. There is a long history of influence and there’s an ongoing conversation that flows out of literature. In this way, books can and do come out of books. But they also come out of stories – the stories we grew up with, the stories we tell ourselves, the stories the world tells us. The oral tradition is the oldest form of storytelling that we have and I am deeply influenced by it.

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

There are just so many wonderful writers. I go back to the classics I loved as a young woman at the same time I find new, and exciting, writers all the time. I’m often guided by the genre I’m working in. Most recently, working on prose poetry, I kept Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Tranströmer, Bly, Follain, Carsten René Nielsen, Rafferty, Simic and others close to me whenever I sat down to write.

16.  What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?

I’d like to go deeper into what I’m already doing.

17.  If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternatively, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Patrick believes that many artists are engaged in their second closest art form because their first is too close. He would have loved to have been a musician. I would have loved to have been an actress even though I have zero talent and was kicked out of acting class when I was 15. Still, it’s another life that I dream of.

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

Without wanting to sound pretentious, I’d say that writing chose me. I didn’t choose it. Writing invites me into the world in ways that nothing else does. I’m enormously grateful for it.

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

20.  What are you currently working on?

I am intrigued by short fiction and am playing around a little with that.

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