Friday, November 13, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Kat Cameron

Kat Cameron is the author of two collections of poetry: Ghosts Still Linger (University of Alberta Press, 2020) and Strange Labyrinth (2015). Her short-story collection The Eater of Dreams (Thistledown Books, 2019) was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. She has published poetry and stories in numerous journals and anthologies, including Beyond Forgetting: Celebrating 100 Years of Al Purdy, CV2, Descant, Grain, New Forum, Room, and 40 Below: Volume 2. Her short story “Dancing the Requiem” won Prairie Fire’s 2018 fiction contest. She lives in Edmonton on Treaty 6 territory and teaches writing at Concordia University of Edmonton.

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

When my first book of poetry, Strange Labyrinth, was published in 2015, I finally felt validated as a writer. But it was also a learning experience. I realized how little I knew about the business of publishing: the launch, marketing, books reviews.

My second and third books appeared within seven months of each other: a collection of short stories, The Eater of Dreams, in the fall of 2019, and my second poetry collection, Ghosts Still Linger, in the spring of 2020. Both publishers, Thistledown and the University of Alberta Press, were extremely supportive, and The Eater of Dreams was nominated for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Despite having three published books, I still feel impostor syndrome every time I send out a new poem or story. Rob Taylor writes, The lot of poets is to feel like a perpetual neophyte.” This is true for me.

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

I started writing poetry quite young—I won a prize for a poem I wrote in grade 4. Then in high school and university, I took fiction classes and published stories in student journals.

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?

Some poems I can write in one or two drafts. I wrote a poem, “Trespass,” while my first-year English students were writing their final exam. Usually, the process takes a few weeks (or months) and multiple revisions before I feel a poem is done.

Writing fiction is a slow process. I’ve spent the past two years researching and writing a novel and I imagine it will be another three or four years before I finish. I have a binder of research for this novel, which is set in Tudor England.

4 - Where does a poem or work 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?

Many poems begin with an object or one line. One of the sections in Ghosts Still Linger examines the lives of women of the West, such as Annie Oakley. My husband and I took a trip to Wyoming in 2013. At the Cody Museum, I saw a pair of white shoes, which belonged to Arta Cody, Buffalo Bill’s daughter. A note in the case with the shoes said that Arta died two months after her wedding. I wanted to learn more about the life of this forgotten daughter of a famous father.

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

I’m not a natural performer, so I get nervous before a reading. I admire spoken word poets who can perform a piece. I have written a few dramatic monologues that are structured to be spoken. But at the same time, I think some poetry works best visually on the page. I read e. e. cummings in my twenties, and his experiments with line and punctuation influence my work.

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?

During my PhD at the University of New Brunswick, I researched female identity construction in post-colonial literature. My interest in identity construction and women’s voices influences my writing. One question I ask myself is “Who is remembered?” Or to put this question another way: “Whose voice is heard?”

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 know if poetry has a role. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself, because I think that culture is sometimes seen as peripheral, but I couldn’t live without books and music. As writers, if we’re very lucky, a poem or story will resonate with a reader. Last May, I was reading Martin Heidegger’s Poetry, Language, Thought at the Banff Centre and these lines stayed with me.

                        The thinker says being
                       The poet names the holy

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

Working with Jenna Butler on Ghosts Still Linger was a joy; she is both knowledgeable and supportive.

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

Be patient. Keep writing. Be persistent.

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

I write fiction and poetry at the same time. I might spend a week working on a short story or a chapter in my novel, but I’ll still jot down notes for poem ideas. Poetry is fun because I can write a first draft of a poem in an hour and then play with line breaks and language. Fiction is more time-consuming and structured. Virginia Woolf wrote that she spent a morning moving her characters from one room to another: the spatial aspect of fiction is a challenge but also interesting.

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 get up, have breakfast and my first cup of coffee, and then sit down at the computer. I listen to CBC or my own playlist. In the summer, I write for three hours most mornings. When I’m teaching, I can’t write every day, but I try to take one or two mornings a week for creative work.

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

If I’m stalled, I take my notebook, walk to a park, sit under the trees, and write. Before the pandemic, I would go to a coffee shop, buy a latte, and write for an hour. Typical writer stereotype—I need to have my coffee to write.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Cinnamon buns and coffee.

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?

All of the above. I’m a bit scattered. Ghosts Still Linger has examples of ekphrastic poetry, poems inspired by musicians (John Mann), poems inspired by the Alberta landscape, and poems about natural disasters such as the Fort McMurray fire. I’ve even published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

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

Early poetic influences were John Keats, William Butler Yeats, Earle Birney, e. e. cummings, Sylvia Plath, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I love the poetry of folk singers—Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Dar Williams, Simon and Garfunkel. Anne Simpson’s Light Falls Through You showed me what could be done with a long poem. “Usual Devices” uses punctuation to tell the story of the Trojan War and I was awed by her weaving of narrative poetry and form.

For fiction, I could list a hundred books, so I’ll just name a few on my bookcase: A. S. Byatt’s Possession, Margaret Atwood’s Robber Bride, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Marge Piercy’s He, She and It, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Michael Ondaatje Anil’s Ghost and Runningin the Family.

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

I hope to travel to Egypt to sail up the Nile and see the Valley of the Dead.

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?

I would love to be a composer, but I don’t have the ear. I can’t imagine not writing. Even if my work was never published, I would still write. 

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

I’ve always loved reading. When I was a teenager, my grandma said to me, “When you’re 80, they’ll find you on the couch with your nose in a book.” I’m not sure it was complimentary, but my reaction was “Wonderful!” I think I write because I want to be part of a community of people that gives so much joy to readers.

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

I’m reading Guillotine by Eduardo C. Corral, who was my mentor at the Banff Writing Studio in 2019. The book documents the experiences of people on the borderlands between the US and Mexico. His work is stunningly painful and haunting. I’ve quoted two lines from the book.

                        gently he hammers gold into a sentence           gently
                        the sentence enters me

The last movie I watched in a theatre was just before the pandemic began. My husband and I saw Parasite at a small theatre in Banff. Brilliant movie, but also terrifying in its depiction of class conflict.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I just finished my third poetry manuscript, With Her Eyes Wide Open, which examines the multiple selves contained within the female body in art, literature, and twenty-first century media. I’m also working on a novel set in Tudor England.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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