Kristen Wittman is a lawyer and writer living most of the time in Winnipeg and sometimes in Minneapolis (because it’s hillier there). She has previously published one volume of poetry – Stone Boat with Turnstone Press. She was runner-up in the Air Canada En Route magazine poetry award in 1993 (though it may have been 1992 – her memory is unreliable), and her writing has appeared in literary journals. Turnstone Press recently published her second volume of poetry, Death Becomes Us. She enjoys cycling in the hills in Minneapolis, cross-country skiing on the flats in Winnipeg and reorganizing her spice rack on Friday evenings.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I published Stone Boat (Turnstone Press) in 2004. When I look back to that time in my life, I don’t believe that publishing a book of poetry did anything to change my life, but of course having a book published gave me the acknowledgement, the validation, that every writer needs to keep writing. I have always written poetry, but after that book came out, I started to see in my poems something that might be of value to other readers, and stopped thinking of myself as the only reader. That has definitely influenced the way I write.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I am an impatient person. It was worse when I was young. I wrote poetry because I could get my thoughts down on one page. Fiction seemed to require far too much effort. And non-fiction, well, that’s my “other” life – I write non-fiction every day as a commercial lawyer, in the form of letters, memorandums, opinions. I need to get away from that!
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?
Death Becomes Us is a collection of poems that were written over the course of my adult life (so, three years 😉); I tend to write each poem in a quick spurt, an idea that turns itself into a poem over the course of a few minutes; at most an hour. Then it molders in a file folder until I return to it, sometimes a few days later, sometimes many years later. Some of the poems (particularly in the early part of the book) date back to my early twenties. The project itself, a collection of poems to act as a guide through the grieving process, came to me about a year after my husband passed away. I recall looking through a stack of papers (trying to clean up) and wondering at some of them, at the love I expressed in them, and that got me thinking about where I was, trying to grieve, learning how to deal with his absence, and the “aha” moment came at that point – I should put them all together, and see where they take me.
Some of the poems in this book are the first drafts; some are unidentifiable to the first draft – I’ll leave the reader to ponder which might be which.
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?
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m a bit of an attention-seeker, so I love a good audience. The problem with readings is that you don’t always get a good audience, and I hate trying to deliver a meaningful bit of entertainment in a coffee house to people who are busy chatting and visiting. Worse still is our current state of affairs – reading into the eye of my computer camera, and wondering if anyone will ever hear me. Hello? Is anyone out there?
I do think poetry is the toughest of all of the written arts – a good poem (in my humble) must be able to be read on its own, silently, in your head; but it must also be able to be read aloud. If it can’t accomplish those two activities, it’s not a good poem. So much of poetry these days seems to lack the former, in an effort to focus on the latter – probably competing from the shadow Bob Dylan (et al) cast, or bumping up against rap and the spoken word. In my view, these are not the same as poetry and (obviously, given what I’m doing) I fins greater satisfaction from a good poem than a good song or rap.
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 hope it is now trite to say that there is really only one current question for humankind, and that is whether we will survive climate change. And how brutal will the survival process be? (That’s two questions…) I think my concerns for the environment, for our seeming inability to rein in our desires in order to create sustainability, come through in Death Becomes Us. At this point, I think the worrying is over, and we have to start to prepare ourselves for the losses we’re starting now to face. I’m not trying to answer any questions with my work. If anything, I’m asking this question: can we learn to grieve, because we’ve passed the point of being able to prevent the loss, and will that help?
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?
Thinking is hard. We don’t particularly like doing it. It’s much easier to not think, to react, to remain blind. Something I heard once: the more you know, the worse you sleep – the writer’s role is to encourage us to think. If we read, and think, we might change. Change is even harder than thinking. I’m not here to entertain – we have TV for that. I’m here to invite you to think with me, because two minds thinking are exponentially better than one.
8 – Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have now experienced two very different editing styles, one encouraging but quite hands-off, the other a bit of a task master. I appreciated both, and believe my work is stronger through the editing process. Editing is not the same as criticism, and a good editor (I’m lucky enough to have had two) will help the writer find the elbow grease required to polish the prose. It is essential. Of course it’s difficult – who said writing was easy?
9 – What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Reading non-fiction is good, as it supplies answers to our questions. Reading fiction (poetry) is essential, as it asks the questions. That was the best advice I’ve ever heard. Keep reading. Always.
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 find this question amusing. I dream of the day when I will be able to keep a writing routine. Here’s the routine I like to imagine: rise with the sun (that’s pretty late in December!), do a bit of yoga, drink a cup of coffee and have a bite to eat, and then write for a few hours. I find writing, the active creative part of writing, exhausting – two hours tends to be my limit. Then spend the afternoon reading, researching, contemplating. Sometime in there, get some exercise, fresh air, and have a good bottle of wine with supper. I sometimes achieve this routine: when on holidays, for instance.
I think consistency is key – I try to find time to write, whenever I can, throughout the week, so that I don’t lose the practice. But it’s hard – there are so many intervening obligations.
11 – When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’m not a big believer in inspiration, and I must confess I don’t ever feel “stalled” with my writing. Not unlike a crossword, you sometimes have to put a word in, in order to get another word. Is it Atwood who says ‘a word after a word after a word is power’? I never took that to mean what I think a lot of people do: a word after a word is powerful – writing a word lets you come up with another word, and another, and then you’re on your way, and that is powerful.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Um. If by home you mean my childhood, I’d probably say manure. I grew up around horses. If by Winnipeg, by Wildwood, by my home, it’s not a fragrance, exactly, but petrichor always makes me feel like I’m home, no matter where in the world I happen to be after a fresh rain.
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’m not familiar with that statement, but if he was intending to mean you can’t find inspiration in one art form for another, in my view that’s limited thinking. Or limiting. All art comes from ideas, and ideas in one art form are triggered, generated, encouraged, stimulated by other art forms. There’s a poem in DBU entitled Round Lake, Mud Bay – that’s a Tom Thomson painting at the McMaster Gallery – my partner took my there in 2017, a beautiful space, and that poem is a direct response to that painting. If I ever were to get stalled, or writer’s block or whatever you want to call it, I know exactly how to break it – hop on my bike, ride to the WAG, and wander. I can’t wait to get inside Quamajuq. The first thing we did in 2020 when the pandemic restrictions were relaxed was to visit the WAG – there was a terrific exhibit last spring called “Into the Light” – there were two other people there. I think it was the first Saturday after restrictions were eased. It saddened me that no one was there, but it was (selfishly) an amazing treat to wander around. (The second thing we did after the lock down was go to McNally’s –ordering books and picking them up curbside is a necessary evil. Emphasis on both words…)
14 – What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
15 – What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
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 assume you mean occupation other than a writer. I am a lawyer. That was a conscious decision I made in my early twenties. (“Poet” as occupation tends to put less food on the table…) I have always believed two things, and they have remained true for me during my career(s): 1) that being a lawyer will complement being a writer and 2) I can help people in both vocations. I will admit that I am sure I have helped a lot more people through my legal career than through poetry, but maybe that will change over time… I am not the sort of person who looks back and wonders, so I find this question very difficult – I am a writer and a lawyer. I always wanted to be those things, and cannot imagine a life otherwise. I guess I have a limited imagination!
17 – What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
You would not ask that question if you heard me sing 😊. I actually don’t see it that way, though: I do many things that are creative – I love cooking and I love feeding people my cooking (and apparently, they love eating it!); I love gardening, I love riding my bike and cross-country skiing and getting dirt under my nails. I love dancing. I’m fascinated by photography. However, all of those activities are pleasurable; they do not drive me. I don’t want to run a restaurant or work at a garden centre, or try to turn my holiday pics into artwork. Writing drives me. Honestly, I can’t tell you why. I do know that when I was young, I read (a lot) and I believe that reading formed me, shaped me into who I am. I can recall many books, many bits of books, many experiences I derived from reading. If I could touch one person with my writing in that way, if one other little girl out there read something I wrote and believed in herself, I would be thrilled. I guess that’s what drives me to write.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Well, I just watched Casablanca. That was a pretty great film. Who knew? And I really enjoyed the gritty honesty of Hillbilly Elegy. As for books, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro leaps out as the best book I have read in a while. I read a fair bit, and try to expand my scope, but there’s a lot out there, and not all of it is great. That’s ok, you never know when you’re going to turn something up. I sometimes wonder if the timing of when you read something is as important as what you’re reading. I also very much enjoyed David Bergen’s The Stranger when it came out.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I am working on a novel – that may come as a surprise since I mentioned earlier I’m an impatient person. I’m getting better at that... I wrote a novel a few years ago, but I haven’t done anything with it – it’s not good enough. But it was a good exercise: it taught me a lot about how to write a novel (does that sound silly? I mean it – writing a novel teaches you a lot about what’s involved with writing a novel) and it taught me a lot about how to write poetry too. I’m a better poet for writing prose, and vice versa. I have a better idea this time round, a better story, with a better “story arc” as they say, and it’s been a ton of fun. It evolved out of that first month of quarantine/lock-down in March 2020, when it occurred to me that my dreams were far more exciting than my waking hours. Here’s to getting this pandemic over with!