Monday, June 07, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Beth Kope

Beth Kope grew up in Alberta and is honoured to live, work, and play in Victoria, BC, Coast Salish territory of Lekwungen and WSÁNEĆ nations. Kope has taught in Alberta, Adelaide, Australia and Quebec and currently works at Camosun College. She has published two poetry collections and has been included in the anthologies Refugium: Poems for the Pacific (Caitlin Press, 2017) and Sweet Water: Poems for the Watersheds (Caitlin Press, 2020). Kope’s first book, Falling Season (Leaf Press, 2010) detailed her mother’s decline due to an aggressive form of dementia called Lewy Body, which BC BookWorld described as “poems of honest dismay and almost unbearable sadness”. Her second book, Average Height of Flight (Caitlin Press, 2015), was a meditation on West Coast landscape and grief and a poem from the collection was featured in Poetry in Transit. Kope has read at Word on the Street Vancouver, been a featured reader at Planet Earth Poetry, The Writer’s Studio Reading Series, and The Victoria Festival of Authors. She is the co-host, along with Yvonne Blomer, of the annual Forest Poet-Tree event which is part of the Victoria Festival of Authors.

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?

OH, my, when Falling Season was accepted for publication I was flying!  How amazing it is when you find a publisher who loves your work!  That first book was satisfying on so many levels, and extremely personal, from the cover design and use of my mother’s photo, to the whole narrative thread of the poems. I can still feel it in my hands, the copy, the lustre.

The thrill when a manuscript finds a home is still there; it will always be there, for me.  It was there when Caitlin published Average Height of Flight, and my third, Atlas of Roots.

I know how rare it is to be published, and that there are so many amazing poets out there.

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

Only poems, only ever poems.  I’m not sure why…….she shrugs.

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 am very slow, I think.

My first two poetry collections sprang from the writer’s studio intensive with Betsy Warland.  When she read the poems on dementia and my mother she immediately saw a separate and distinct manuscript.

Most poems were written parallel to the experience, along day to day crisis’ with my mom, and step by step along with her decline.   I tried to ask the deeper questions such as who are you with no memory of self? And then came the editing. I worked on the book for years.

Then I turned to those “leftover” poems that had been waiting patiently!  I could see a real thread pulling the poems along; grief, and the healing in the natural world.  Average Height of Flight was truly a call response collection.  But again, it needed more answers and a framework as well. 

Atlas of Roots, my third book, explores adoption and how it informs my identity. There have been pivotal times in my life when I’ve longed for more information about my origins. As a teen, my questions were different from when I was pregnant, or a new mom, or when I found my sister’s birth mother.

I didn’t know my birth story.  I had no details about my parents, but the first poem I ever wrote on adoption came from a prompt in a workshop with Patrick Lane, around 1998 if you can imagine! He asked us to write a poem on the night of our conception.  My poem was a poem of rape.  And how very strange: that turned out to be a Truth.

Slowly, my core of poems on adoption grew.  I wanted to move from instinct to understanding, to look relentlessly, overturn stones to find something, anything, knowing many would be bare beneath. To ask questions of other people who had a connection to adoption;  the book has a section called Could one of these stories be mine? which reframes some of the adoption stories I’ve been told.

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?

I’ve worked in both ways, first from short pieces that grow into a full book, and I’ve also worked from a vision for a book.  The essential piece for either a full manuscript or a beginning poem is that I feel that a voice is required, my voice is required. I have something crucial to share, and it’s imperative to find the path

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

Here is something that I love;  an amazing performance of slam poetry with the musicality and rhythm front and centre. And damn, how do they memorize them all?!

I love listening to others read or recite their work.  I miss live events, the energy and commitment of every listener in the room to hold that moment, to be present.

And then for myself, I enjoy giving readings, even though I get extremely nervous beforehand.  When the energy is palpable, I feel so lucky, and it brings a whole new twist to my work.  Again, I find what rings true.

However, I have a long way to go to match the poets as bard, the poets that gather us around the campfire and awe us with their recitation and eloquence.

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?

Ah, to the universal macro level, now! How can I not respond to the injustices around us, my own pre-judging, my struggles with my footprints on this earth?

I love the idea of call and response, how my best work is a response to a call from within and without. I’ve written very political poems and very personal poems.  I try to scoop from the common themes we all face; relationships that inform us, on death and dying and uncomfortable challenges we all face, of love and loss…. of identity.

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 would hope that my work resonates, for what a reader may be personally tackling, or viewing in our society.

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

Any writer wants and needs readers and an editor leads me in to that world, separates my work from me, and all my pre-judgings, to what the work holds when out there in the world.

I love that an editor is really my very own reader, a  critical reader,  who will share their questions, confusions, delights with me about my work

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

Patrick Lane said a fine poem will have the best words in the best order.  That’s intimidating, and makes for a true struggle to match that demand to the best of my ability!

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


I am just a poet

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?

No routine, no typical writing day, I write between the spaces I am given or carve out that place.

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

An honest question will open the poem, take my writing to another level.

A new poetic form will challenge me to turn the poem inside out, pare it to its essentials

A switch in the point of view will turn over a stone

A hike will open my heart to rhythm and pacing and details of the world around

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Clean flannel shirts hanging on a clothes line in the sun

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’m deeply influenced by the natural world.  It is shorthand for wonder.  I am blessed to have landscapes within spitting distance that lift me up and challenge me.  Forest hikes, mushroom foraging, swimming. Quite a few of my poems were born on a hike, the rhythm of my feet setting the metre. I’ve arrived back at the trailhead with a poem brewing inside me full of the details and tempo I’ve absorbed.

And because I am also a curious researcher, give me the magical mechanisms of this world, the intricacies and workings that surprise and delight, something true to carry into a poem.

And then, there is something about old myths and fairy tales that I return to again and again, the motifs of the lost daughter, the three tasks, the journey. 

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

I am so so blessed to have a long-time writing group.  They are my first readers, they are honest, supportive and dear to me.  And they share their incredible expertise as writers abundantly.

When we went into Covid lock down in March, 2020, I turned to “comfort-food” reading.  These are the books I will always turn to, read and re-read: anything by Annie Dillard, essays by Ellen Meloy, Braiding Sweetgrass (Robin Wall Kimmerer) ;  all of those yield to my curiousity of the natural world. And then The Summer Book (Tove Jansson) and all the children’s books I’ve ever loved.

So many poets.   Think Don Domanski, Don McKay, Maggie Nelson, Tim Lilburn, Jan Zwicky, Lorna Crozier, Alice Oswald, Ruth Stone, Eavan Boland, Gwendolyn MacEwan, PK Page, Ocean Vuong, Claudia Rankine, Carolyn Forche, anyone in the New Yorker, and the small mags that introduce us to new and daring poets in the Canadian writing scene, Indigenous voices like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Billy Ray Belcourt, ….always, always, I’m open to hear new voices.

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

I would like to write a completely, totally, hilarious poem!

I so admire poets who can stretch to include the witty, the wry, the tongue in cheek, the absurd.

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 am many things, not just a writer.  And permission to call myself a writer didn’t come until much later in my life. I do wish I had conquered my fear of heights and learned how to pilot a small plane.

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

Humans are called to express, to give voice, to create; we find our métier be it wood, stone, sand, rock, gardens, or music.  It inches out of us or pours from us, a blurt at a time or a torrent. I happen to love words, and the struggle to match the world with words is my calling.

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

The Innocents, by Michael Crummey and Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Last great film is tough; I miss going to movies.  But I watched Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon at Christmas and I will always love that story.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I am teasing together another manuscript, and the working title is Ordinary.

And long long time ago, a playwright friend suggested we co-write a play on dementia using poems from my first book, Falling Season.  Perhaps when I retire.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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