Wednesday, February 20, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lisa Richter

Lisa Richter [photo credit: Matthew Burpee Photography] is the author of a full-length collection of poetry, Closer to Where We Began (Tightrope Books, 2017) and a chapbook, Intertextual (pooka press, 2010). Her poems have appeared in several journals, including The Malahat Review, CV2, Literary Review of Canada, Canthius, Crab Creek Review, and The Puritan, and in two anthologies, Voices for Diversity and Social Justice: A Literary Education Anthology (Routlege, 2015), and Jack Layton: Art in Action (Quattro Books, 2013). She was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2015, and won first place in CV2’s annual 2-Day Poem Contest in 2017. She lives, writes, and teaches English as a second language in Toronto.

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?

For many years, I dreamed of publishing a book of poetry. It was on my to-do list for years, but I couldn’t really conceive of where to begin. Although I started seriously writing and publishing poems at the age of 20, while I was a student at McGill in the 90s, it wasn’t until I reached the age of 40 (in 2017) that I published my first collection of poetry, Closer to Where We Began, with Tightrope Books. It was a life-changing experience for me: the process of writing of the book itself, collecting the poems I’d published over the years, writing new ones, and drastically editing/revising/rewriting. Then, to finally have a manuscript in my hands, which turned into a book (with cover art by my incredibly multi-talented artist mother, Janice Colman, I have to mention). It made me feel as though I had “arrived,” so to speak. Launching Closer was one of the proudest moments of my life, followed by a whirlwind of readings, both in Toronto and outside Toronto (Montreal, New York, Vancouver, Salt Spring Island, and Victoria). This gave me the chance to connect with fellow authors and readers in an entirely new and exciting way.

Another unintended, and much more personal consequence of publishing my book was that it connected me to my father before he died. It was the first book of poetry he’d ever read, and his main criticism was that it wasn’t long enough, and he wanted to read more. If there’s a higher compliment than that, I can’t think of one. It also speaks volumes about the kind of person that my father was, that he loved my poems, even the ones about our complicated relationship that must have been extremely hard for him to read. They prompted honest, heartfelt conversations about events that took place almost thirty years ago, for which I’ll be forever grateful. 

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

I started writing stories and poems as a child, but it was probably in my adolescence that I became serious about poetry. It was my love of The Doors, of all things, that I think really led me to poetry. The biopic with Val Kilmer came out around this time, which brought Jim Morrison’s writing into the public eye again. Somehow I got my hands on a copy of Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison, and I was hooked. I had never read writing like his before, wild and exuberant and sexual and psychedelic, and that in term led me to exploring other writers of his generation, and the generation before him. In school, we were reading Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake and Shakespeare, which inspired my imagination as well, but Morrison’s work opened a gateway for me in terms of writing in free verse, and the potential of modern poetry. I started writing more and more of my own poems and read other poets, Margaret Atwood, Allen Ginsberg, and e.e. cummings, who had major influences on me as well. By the age of eighteen, I had a fifty-page poetry manuscript that I wanted to publish (but thankfully, never did – I almost got sucked into publishing with a vanity press). It was at McGill in the mid-90s, where I majored in English, that I studied Canadian poetry with Robert Lecker and took a year-long, extra-curricular poetry workshop with Professor Brian Trehearne. Montreal in the 90s was a great place to live – my parents had grown up there, and I had a strong connection to the place from my childhood, as well as an adult. Living there inspired me, too. It was there that I finally met people who shared my passion, and had my first real introduction to contemporary Canadian poetry.

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 don’t really think in terms of projects, with one notable exception: my first book was preceded by a chapbook, Intertextual, sprung from a series of found poems based on text messages, which the editor of a journal (One Cool Word) heard me reading, and asked me to submit. I did, and they were published shortly afterwards. Within a few months, I had expanded that series of poems into a chapbook manuscript, which was published not long afterwards by Pooka Press. 

Closer to Where We Began was the culmination of two decades of writing. There are a few poems in it that are unusually close to their first drafts, but what I like about poetry as an art form is that the work is easily malleable, revisable, and can be rewritten from the ground up. It’s much harder to do this with a painting or a sculpture.

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?

Increasingly, my poems begin with writing prompts, either that I give myself, that I get in workshops that I take online at The Poetry Barn or in person (with great local poets such as Robin Richardson, Stuart Ross and Hoa Nguyen). Sometimes I find prompts in books like Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius. Still, poems generally begin for me with the act of reading poetry. A jaw-dropping poem can inspire me almost instantaneously, but what I’ve found is that you can’t rely on the Muse to always be there for you when you need her. Sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and get down to work, whether the Muse is there or not, to paraphrase Tom Robbins. That’s why I like giving myself constraints, experimenting with form, or trying new prompts, as a means of tricking myself into writing. Another important piece of my creative work is that I’ve been keeping a journal since I was eight years old. I write in it almost daily. Whereas a lot of my first drafts are written on my laptop these days, writing by hand in my hardcover journals is a meditative, centering practice from which, I’m convinced, all my creative work spring.

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

I don’t know if they’re part of my creative process, but I love doing readings. Poetry is meant to be read out loud, and I try to always remind myself of that, and improve my reading technique. I have a background in theatre, which I bring to my work as an ESL teacher, and I think has helped me a lot feeling comfortable onstage in front of an audience.

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 don’t necessarily think in terms of theoretical concerns, and I think, if I’m doing my job, after writing a poem, I’ll have more questions than answers. I don’t think writing a poem is about finding resolution, so much as exploring various ways to find it, and remaining in a state of mystery, of not-knowing. But if I had to pin down one overarching question that I’m trying to answer with my work, it would probably be: “How do I cope with, or begin to make sense of, whatever bizarre, beautiful, heartbreaking, or inscrutable thing has happened to me, or is currently happening to me/my loved ones/my community/the planet right now?”

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?

There’s been a lot of disagreement on this point, whether writers have a social responsibility or should be artists for art’s sake. As a poet, I think my role is to keep writing poems, even though it’s hardly the most lucrative job in the world, and causes a great deal more grief than it does satisfaction (if you’re doing it right). There’s a reason that poems are read at weddings and funerals, at presidential inaugurations and on other milestone life occasions: poems are both products and articulations of what we value most as a culture. They can be calls to action, or they can be assertions of the primacy of lived experience, which I believe is a political act in itself. As the poet Matthew Zapruder puts it so eloquently in his recent book, Why Poetry, poetry “trains us in a radical kind of empathy that is maybe what’s missing in our culture more than anything.” I believe poems are important, that by bringing them into existence, we can and do change the world. Poems do things with the language that the language wants to do, so the very least we as poets can do is to provide containers for language to shape-shift into.

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

It can be difficult at times, but I think for any writer, it’s absolutely essential. Nothing should be avoided because it’s difficult. I’ve been tremendously fortunate to work with some great editors, most notably, the editor of my book, Jacob Scheier. Jacob happens to be a good friend of mine as well, and we worked well together. I chose him as my editor because I was a longtime admirer of his work, and felt that we were really on the same page in terms of our aesthetics, and he really “got” what I was trying to do with poetry. He was a terrific editor, extremely insightful and thorough, and challenged me to rewrite several key poems in my collection, or scrap them entirely. I ended up doing a little of both, and I know I am a better poet for it.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
There was a self-help poster that I saw several years ago. Normally not my thing, but I liked this one. It said, “View your life with kindsight. Stop beating yourself up about things from your past. Instead of slapping your forehead and asking yourself, ‘What was I thinking?’, ask yourself the kinder question, ‘What was I learning’?” I know it’s hokey, but I like the idea of being kind and compassionate to oneself. It’s something I’m still working on. Another really valuable piece of advice that I got was from my mother, before I published my book. She was mainly speaking about herself, and from personal experience, but she said, “Don’t wait until you’re fucking sixty.” Do the work. Do it now. I think this applies to older as well as younger writers.

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 don’t really have a set routine, because my work schedule tends to fluctuate. For several years now, though, I’ve been more of a morning writer, first thing when I wake up and drink my coffee, though I sneak writing time in on my commute to work, if I can manage to get a seat on the bus or streetcar. At the end of my teaching day, I’m usually exhausted, mentally and physically, and find it hard to get creative work done, so that’s when I focus more on the practical side of writing – working on grant applications, revising poems, submitting poems, etc. Somewhere amidst all that, I find time to relax and eat dinner with my husband, play guitar together, or watch a show to relax. I always read before bed, and keep a dangerously high stack of books on my night table that will probably kill me if there’s ever an earthquake.

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

When my writing gets stalled, it’s usually an indication that I’ve become too engrossed in it, too close to it to be able to see it objectively, and I need to take a step back. What that usually means is that I need to get out of my head and back into my body, take a walk, go dancing, stretch, cook a meal, go to a museum or gallery, go to a reading and hear other poets. In short, I need to shake it off. A lot of times, getting stalled is about stubbornly trying to force something that can’t be forced. Your readers will know, you’re not fooling anyone. Putting something aside and working on something else, reading a chapter of a novel or listening to a podcast, can trigger new connections and pathways forward that you previously hadn’t thought of. Other times, when I get stuck, I think it’s because I’m not writing for the right reasons. Finishing a piece becomes a chore, something I’m doing because I said I was going to do it, not because it invigorates me. As hard as it is, sometimes you need to come to a piece of writing with fresh eyes and say, “This isn’t working. What do I really want to write about, that I’ve been avoiding, or afraid to?” That’s usually where the most powerful, potent work lies. That nagging sensation that the work won’t leave you alone until you write it is usually a good sign that you’re on the right track.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

My mother’s matzo ball soup (with lots of fresh dill). Lilacs (which my father loved). The smell of used bookstores and old library books. Sandalwood incense (I burned a lot of it in my teens and twenties).

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?

All of the above. The natural world and the landscapes I’ve travelled, mountains, deserts, oceans, as well as cityscapes and urban architecture, have a way of finding their way into my poems. In terms of visual art, I am most inspired by the work of Marc Chagall, Frida Kahlo, Gustav Klimt, Matisse, Van Gogh. I have been writing ekphrastic poetry (poetry inspired by, or responding to, visual art) since my teenage years, inspired by paintings in my bedroom. My most enduring love, in terms of music, is soul and Motown, with my favourite artist of all time being Nina Simone, whose aching vocals, passion and anger and fire I find both devastating and enriching every time I listen. There’s an emotional honesty and humility beneath her ferocity and bravado that I find deeply compelling. Other interests, obsessions and influences, off the top of my head, include evolution, anthropology, social justice, mythology, feminism, travel.

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

There have been many, too many to name, but if I had to limit it to ten, I would say: Milan Kundera, Anais Nin, Sharon Olds, Pablo Neruda, Haruki Murakami, e.e. cummings, Alice Munro, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Kingsolver, and Allen Ginsberg.

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

Learn how to drive. Write a novel (I know, everyone says that). Travel to places I’ve never seen before, but have always been fascinated by: Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal have a special fascination for me, but I’d love to go back to France and spend time in the south. Make my own clothes and raise vegetables (probably in a community garden). Learn how to live more sustainably. Become fully and completely, authentically, myself.

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’ve been teaching ESL at private language schools for most of my adult life, so long that it’s hard imagine doing anything else for a living. I meet a lot of people who tell me, “I taught ESL for a year in Korea after I graduated,” for a lot of people, it’s seen as a stepping stone or intermediary job to something else. I started teaching when I was living overseas in Israel, almost two decades ago, and I found that I liked it and good at it, so I got my TESL certificate when I eventually returned to Canada, and have been doing it ever since. I could have easily given up writing when I started working as a teacher full-time, because it’s hard to do both, when teaching takes up so much mental, physical, and emotional energy, but somehow I’ve managed to continue. Other than that, I can see myself being a good “character actor,” a vaudevillian burlesque performer, modern dancer, or art historian.

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

Probably a combination of reading too much, being “weird” and not fitting in with the other kids at school (see reading too much), and not having the Internet or social media as a distraction.

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

I just finished How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (shout out to fellow poet Sarah Pinder for passing it along to me). In his witty and poignant essays, Chee dispenses valuable advice on life and on writing, for instance: “I know untalented people who did become writers, and who write exceptionally well. You can have talent, but if you cannot endure, if you cannot learn to work, and learn to work against your own worst tendencies and prejudices, if you cannot take the criticism of strangers, or the uncertainty, then you will not become a writer.” As for film, I recently watched the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about the life and career of Fred Rogers, which I enjoyed so much (and cried over). On a completely different note, I also just finished watching the new Netflix series Russian Doll with Natasha Lyonne. It might be too dark for some, but I thought it was fascinating, ingenious and big-hearted; it felt like more a full-length film or a novel than a series to me. The show also felt close to home to me, with its New York Jewish sensibility.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I am hard at work on my next (as yet untitled) collection of poems, in which I’m exploring the themes of fortune and misfortune, and their potential to both inform/transform experiences of grief, loss, and love. I’ve been experimenting a lot with form, using dream sequences, elements of magical realism or surrealism, and inspired by lesser-known women in Greek mythology. The book picks up thematically, and in subject matter, where Closer to Where We Began leaves off, but this time, I’m trying to take more risks, be more thoughtful about blurring the lines between the lyric and narrative modes, and challenge myself to approach the poem in new, unconventional ways. I still have a long way to go, and am in the process of understanding how my new poems speak to each other and correlate. Where I’ll end up, of course, is a mystery to me, which when you think about it, is as it should be.

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