Sunday, November 25, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jenny Haysom

Jenny Haysom was born in England and raised in Nova Scotia. She completed a Master's degree in English Literature at the University of Ottawa in the 90s, and has since worked for independent booksellers and the Ottawa Public Library. Her writing has appeared in a variety of magazines—most recently in The Walrus, The New Quarterly, and The Fiddlehead. A chapbook of poems, Blinding Afternoons, was published by Anstruther Press in 2017, and her debut collection, Dividing the Wayside, came out this fall (2018) with Palimpsest Press. Jenny was on the board of directors for Arc Poetry Magazine for several years, guest-edited a special issue of children's poetry (2012) and was prose editor from 2014-16. She lives with her family in Ottawa.

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

My first chapbook (Blinding Afternoons, Anstruther Press) and my first book (Dividing the Wayside, Palimpsest Press) have made me feel legitimate, helped me to come out––in my forties!––as a writer and a poet. Until now, writing felt like a secret pastime, as something I did to avoid housework. Elizabeth Bishop once said “there’s nothing more embarrassing than being a poet.” Occasionally, I’ve felt embarrassed––or even ashamed. Many of my friends and family members don’t read poetry––don’t value it the way I do––and that’s okay. But now I acknowledge my vocation.

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

I do write prose, but poetry certainly came first to me. It’s easier to write a bad poem than a bad novel. All my life, I’ve had ‘great’ ideas––but seen few of them through to the finish line. I’m also a perfectionist. A poem is the best place for brief, compressed and refined expression.

As well as loving the musical qualities of language, I like its visual possibilities. Arranging words into lines and stanzas––using the space on the page––adds a wonderful dimension to the art. Also, what’s more exciting than a fresh and vivid metaphor?

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?

It takes me a long time to do anything. It’s a slow process with copious, painful drafts (that I find––perversely––somewhat pleasurable).

Very occasionally, something comes to me almost fully formed––and I experience a joyful rush of energy that feels a bit like the first warm and sunny day after a long winter. 

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?
Ideas for poems really do strike me like lightning––often in the shower. Then I spend hours and hours refining that first flash of insight. In between poems, I try to write some prose and do the laundry.

I don’t often think about the larger project or the book.

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

Do you want me to be honest? Readings are terrifying and draining for me.

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 always have theoretical concerns and try to write about ideas and problems––but I seldom provide answers and prefer to pose questions. It may not be a popular or fashionable position to take, but I believe that poetry––like all writing––should try to communicate with the reader (rather than obfuscate and confuse). A poem can be––should be––complicated, or even difficult. But clarity and meaning are important to me.

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 don’t think that there’s one role to be played by any writer or artist. Today, being a poet seems to mean being a good or ethical person––or at least being seen to be good or ethical. In my view, artists––like all people––are flawed and complicated.

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

I’ve found it to be both: difficult and unhelpful/ essential and productive. It all depends on the editor––and the chemistry between the two writers.

I should mention that I’ve played both roles.

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

Go for a walk. 

Don’t judge.

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?

On a perfect day, I wake up early, drink lots of coffee and write all morning until one or two in the afternoon. Then I go for a long walk and solve a problem on that walk.

Those days are few and far between.

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

I like the word ‘inspiration’––it suggests breathing in.

I find inspiration everywhere. The last poem I wrote was inspired by my mother-in-law being upset that her son––my husband––had holes in his socks.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

A tangy smell in the woods. The sad, sulphurous stench at the beach. Ivory soap. Toast and coffee––my favourite foods.

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?

I must admit––other people’s books have been essential to my own creativity. In past work, I’ve been influenced by or made reference to Chaucer, Donne, Bishop, Dickinson, Auden, Larkin, Stevie Smith, Roethke, Plath… not to mention living poets. I also like natural history and visual art, and enjoy reading books on these subjects.

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

As well as those oldies mentioned above, I’ll list a few contemporary writers who are inspiring me these days. Some Canadian poets––Julie Bruck, Kerry Lee Powell, Bruce Taylor, Robyn Sarah, Ben Ladouceur, James Arthur. For fiction, I’ll go abroad––Lorrie Moore, Rachel Cusk.

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

Live in another province or country (which I did in my youth). Master the French language (still working on it––though it’s probably too late).

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 could have been a visual artist of some kind––maybe an illustrator. I haven’t yet given up on the possibility, but maybe I should.

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

Writing requires fewer tools, demands less space than other creative pursuits.

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

A great book that I recently read was Lorrie Moore’s novella Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? My daughter and I went to see Ladybird at the Mayfair Cinema last winter and we both cried at the end. Both are coming of age stories.

19 - What are you currently working on?

It’s a secret.

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