Karen Clavelle [photo credit: Leif Norman] is the author of The Mother Goose Letters (At Bay, 2018), BiRDSONG, and IOLAIRE (Turnstone, 2018), for which she received the John Hirsch Award for most Promising Writer (2018). IOLAIRE was short-listed for the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Award (2018) and nominated for the Manitoba Writers’ Guild Mary Scorer Award and the Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry. IOLAIRE weaves a heart-rending story around the sinking of the HMY IOLAIRE. Her first novel, The Mother Goose Letters, focuses on migration from the vantage point of a runaway Mother Goose inveigling nursery rhyme cohorts to join her in the Canadian prairies. Karen’s play, “Crossword,” was a finalist in the “Sarasvati Bake Offs” (2015). She has been published in At Bay’s Fiction Annual (2018), Border Crossings, CVII, Prairie Fire, academic journals, and numerous chapbooks.
Through her work on the Long Poem, migration, and the Canadian North, Karen has given talks and readings in Scotland, Spain, and in Canada, most recently, The Winnipeg International Writer’s Festival (2018). Her current work includes BiRDSONG, poems (atelier78, 2018), “The Seasons” (At Bay, forthcoming, 2019), drama, and short fiction. A long-time champion of chapbook publishing in Winnipeg, Karen is the founder of atelier78 press, and a founding member of the enigmatic and somnambulant pachyderm press. She is a board member of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights, a former board member of the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg, an active member of a fledgling radio play troupe, and current Writer in Residence at St. Paul’s College, University of Manitoba.
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 book, IOLAIRE (Turnstone Press, 2017), was a gift that gave me the enormous lift of external validation that was underscored when the book was nominated for four awards, including the League of Canadian Poets’ ‘Gerald Lambert Memorial Award’ and the Manitoba Writer’s Guild ‘John Hirsh Award for Most Promising Writer’ (2017), which I won. The book developed in part over the latter half of my PhD program.
In researching my PhD dissertation on the garden in Canadian prairie writing, I had been looking for epistolary narratives on migration to the prairies from the UK (Scotland), one of the topics that would come to bear on the emerging long poem about the historic IOLAIRE Disaster of 1919, as well as on The Mother Goose Letters (At Bay Press, 2018).
IOLAIRE and The Mother Goose Letters are light years apart, one being a serious creative work of mourning in the form of a long poem, the other, a whimsical satire in a (hybrid) novel/long poem form. Gravitas governed IOLAIRE from the beginning of the writing, with fictional voices speaking as survivors of the shipwreck, twenty yards from home. I wanted to get at the mind-numbing sense of loss that continues to be felt by people affected by disaster.
For me, research is a stimulating and rewarding part of the writing process, and in the research and writing of the books, I was as constrained by one as I was freed by the other. Whereas homage and loss govern IOLAIRE, The Mother Goose Letters are a case of levity let loose with Mother Goose, who migrates into the 21st-century as a wisecracking, opinionated, small ‘a’ anarchist - she’s a ‘goose’ - and what might we expect of a goose?
As a writer, I would say I am driven by voice, not mine so much as the voices that speak in my work. Looking back to earlier work, I see that my interest speech, language, words, and word-play has been evident from the time I began writing. (Tentative attempts in early poems appear as evidence.) IOLAIRE and The Mother Goose Letters feel different from that earlier work in that a confidence in language has evolved as the writer has come increasingly into voice. Increasingly my work pays homage to contemporary and poetic works I’ve read, loved, and learned from, from the likes of James Joyce (Finnegan’s Wake, Ulysses, Dubliners) through to playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Brian Friel. Poets Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, and e.e. cummings come to mind as influences, as well, along with poets closer to home - bp nicol, Steven Ross Smith, Dennis Cooley, prairie writers. . ..
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I didn’t ‘come to poetry’ so much as I came down with it (as Eli Mandel once said). Three “exposures” it took for the infection to take hold on me. The first exposure was a dip into Canadian poetry in an intro 20thC Literature class where we studied Seed Catalogue; the second, in a creative writing class with George Amabile, who introduced me as a poet (!) Being introduced as poet had a bearing on my coming into poetry as well. That a poet saw me as a poet essentially freed me to ‘be’ one - such an important thing, naming. Finally, the coup de grâce came in Dennis Cooley’s class on the Canadian prairie long poem, the open and plastic form that embraces poetry, prose, creative non-fiction, documentary, history, found materials. The list goes on.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project?
That’s something I am discovering at present as I move further from IOLAIRE and my Mother Goose, both of which are very much still with me. I produced a lettered collection of poems (BiRDSONG, atelier78, 2018) after The Mother Goose Letters left my desk. I usually have to or three piece underway at the same time.
Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process?
I tend to write in series, poetry or prose, though I do write single poems sometimes. My writing usually comes quite quickly to begin with, and there’s usually a voice or several voices involved, and they usually have more to say than I can get into one poem.
Do first drafts appear close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I would have answered that question quite differently before doing a writing workshop with Steven Ross Smith some time ago. I took ‘finished’ poems to the workshop and they rose to new heights with rigorous revision. To their benefit, multiple additional drafts turned them into some of the best pieces I have written. It takes many drafts for a poem to find its final shape. For me, a first draft provides an armature, something to hold up a structure rather than define its shape. If there are notes, they would derive from digging into a thesaurus and testing alternative words, checking definitions, changing nouns into verbs, trimming articles and prepositions, moving and perhaps reversing lines &c.
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?
In both IOLAIRE and the Mother Goose Letters, I did a lot of writing before I figured out what I had. That said, the myriad voices in each piece, I think, still might evolve into oral performance pieces.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings, perhaps because they extend the creative process to some degree. I especially like letting my characters speak aloud and readings provide that opportunity.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing?
My theoretical concerns rest in the territory of the long poem as genre. I remember being absolutely drawn in by the first long poems I encountered when I was nine or ten years old. From the beginning, then, I loved the stories of “The Highwayman,” “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. My major theoretical concern is with story, and immediately following is concern with how best to tell it. I would most hope to engage readers to the point that my stories become theirs in emotional experience.
What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work?
In IOLAIRE, for example, I was trying to understand loss. Coincidentally I had begun to work on the poem in the months before 9/11. I was trying to understand what it might mean for literally everyone in a community, an island in this case, to either know or be related to someone lost in the IOLAIRE Disaster - and then came 9/11. It struck me that events were not all that different if we consider the individuals lost and their connections to the world. I suppose I was trying to understand hope, as well, and what is it to carry on. . .?
The question of loss would be one of the considerations in The Mother Goose Letters, too, but with respect to migration. And then there is the question of Home. We live in a time of unprecedented migration, and through the eyes of a rather ridiculous goose, I would hope to raise some small awareness of what it might mean to leave family friends, culture, language, “belonging”, and put down roots in another place (for whatever reason). In part, my Mother Goose explores questions of Home: she invites friends to join her in her new place (as is a pattern in relocation), and she and her cohorts ‘story’ the new place with their presence and their naïve efforts to get on with their lives.
What do you even think the current questions are?
It seems to me that the single big question we have to contend with is the question of belonging: this means not only where we belong, but how. As I see it, we are in a time of seismic social shift deriving, in part, from new understandings of right and wrong. When what we understand to be right or wrong shifts in some way, ‘belonging’ shifts with it.
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 think one of the roles of writers might be to assist with societal and cultural change, both in light of pointing it out and in processing it in some way - comedy, satire, drama, history come to mind. Irish theatre, for example, is one of places that highlights change as it both proposes and reveals ways to deal with the challenges of it. Forward thinkers write into the future and speculate what might be; others write the past for much the same reason. One important role of the writer is to encourage thought and invite people to participate in larger conversations.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
For me, it is pretty much essential: editors bring the hand of experience on many planes. Writing is very much a solitary activity, but paradoxically, it is also very much a communal activity. Producing a piece of work as a book or a play, for example, is a hugely collaborative undertaking that can only be to its benefit. But not only editors are essential. It has been possible for me to work directly with book designers whose vision has significantly enhanced my text.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“If you want to be successful at something, surround yourself with people who love what you love.” This was W.D. Valgardson answer to that question at a public reading. What great advice!
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to plays)? What do you see as the appeal?
I am still learning the conventions of writing for theater, but I think my experience as a poet has really trained me to write plays as it has trained me to be a much better writer than I would otherwise have been. That said, I don’t have a published play in hand yet. I write in voices for the most part, and theatre draws me because it is dependent on voices. I have long suspected there might be a playwright in me trying to get out - I just haven’t quite yet figured out how.
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’m a morning person, so I like to be at work from about 6:30, 7:00. a.m., With my little espresso at hand, I’m good to go till about 9:30 if I’m going to the gym, and about 11:30 otherwise. If I am working to a deadline, I will put in another three or four hours after that.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I love doing the research for writing, so if I am stalled I will go and do a little research. Sometimes the research means looking at the mechanics of someone else’s writing or just reading favourite writers. Other times it might mean researching a specific topic, such as the historic black houses in Scotland.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
What an interesting question that is. I think part of the answer resides in what home I’m thinking of. The smell of fresh floor wax would take me to being home as a kid. I was very much at home on the Isle of Lewis when I was researching IOLAIRE, and I will forever remember the unmistakable scent of the peat burning in the house. At home now, it would be the fragrance of a white pine Christmas tree from the days when we used to get real Christmas trees. I think the best fragrance would be sweet peas - they transport me to my grandmother’s garden on the farm, to a neighbour who cut hers for me when I was quite young, to my favourite aunt, and to my own garden.
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?
I have come to recognise that music influences my work through comments of people who have read it, and I love that my writing has sometimes been called lyrical and musical. I grew up singing in choirs, and what are songs, if not poetry? I expect that choral work probably has something to do with me being a poet, but it’s my prose writing that’s more often been called musical. I don’t consciously attempt to make my writing musical. I don’t know how I might do that.
Nature, particularly in the Canadian prairies, has a strong influence on my work. I draw on nature intentionally and knowingly after having spent a lot of time researching nature in Canadian prairie writing particularly considering the prairie of Sinclair Ross, W. O. Mitchell, Margaret Laurence, Robert Kroetsch, and Dennis Cooley.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The writers who are important to me have been named already. I attended a series of workshops two years ago, with Stephen Ross Smith and during that six-week period my writing changed dramatically. Dennis Cooley has been an invaluable teacher, colleague, mentor, and friend for many years. I’ve drawn on his writing for inspiration. His advice and continued support has kept me in the game. Increasingly, I look to writers whose works interest me not only for the piece at hand, but for the underpinnings - Thomas’s Under Milk Wood would be one example.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to get a play produced, for one. I’d like see part of IOLAIRE set to music. I’ve made some moves in that direction. And I’ve been taking ‘voice over’ classes. I’d like a hand in producing something I’ve written as a radio play or a podcast.
17 - 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 could pick another occupation, I would hard-pressed to choose between being a book artist and being a book conservator. I love the zen of hand book-binding, love the tools of the trade - handmade paper, a bone folder, needles and thread - no technology there. I love the challenge of thinking my way in and out of building a book, and I like doing something that I know others did hundreds of years ago, and that has changed little in the interim.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It could take years to answer this question, the answer would be changing with live. What else would I do? In short, I wrote because I liked to write. I wrote because I needed to speak, and writing brought me into voice. In short, I write because writing makes me happy.
19 - What was the last great book you read?
Just one? So many great books! I am currently fascinated with Lori Cayer’s long poem, Mrs. Romanov, for its richness and the release of history through the imagined voice of the doomed Czarina and her family. I keep reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, in which Edmund de Waal weaves himself in and out of Western history through the history of his family, and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, a fascinating novel exploring and exploiting the Baba Yaga folk tales of Eastern Europe. The book is all the more impressive for the lyricism that comes through translation from Serbian to English.
What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
I have a few things on the go, among them: a series of “shorts” deriving from the fictional setting of IOLAIRE; the second in a series of three chapbooks that began with BiRDSONG; and a play that tells a murder story through the monologues of four characters.
Thank you for your stimulating and interesting questions!