Saturday, November 05, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Michelle Poirier Brown

Michelle Poirier Brown is nêhiyaw-iskwêw and a citizen of the Métis Nation, currently living in Vernon, BC. Her debut book of poems You Might Be Sorry You Read This was published in 2022 by the University of Alberta Press, Robert Kroetsch Series and a chapbook, Intimacies, recently appeared with Jack Pine Press. Her poem “Wake” won PRISM international’s Earle Birney Prize in 2019. The song cycle, "The Length of a Day” (Jeffrey Ryan, composer), premiered in 2021. Michelle’s work has appeared in Arc, CV2, The Greensboro Review, Grain, Literary Review of Canada, Plenitude, Right Hand Pointing, untethered, Vallum, and several anthologies. A feminist activist, Michelle won a landmark human rights case establishing reasonable accommodation in the workplace for breastfeeding women. Retired from careers as a speech writer, conflict analyst, and federal treaty negotiator, she now writes full time and has taken up birdwatching.

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’m writing this answer only a few months after publication of my first book. I think it will be a while before I know how it will change my life. It’s a memoir that contains secrets. Hard to know the impact telling a secret will have.

At this moment, hard on the heels of weeks of launch events, I’m most curious about the impact of "coming out" as a performer. I’ve been a story performer for years, but a story performance is a feat of memorization, whereas a poetry reading is a more intimate act, less cerebral. I experience my embodied self as a kind of bridge from the page to the listener. It’s akin to delivering a homily, in that the eye contact and vocal techniques are similar. And a homily is very much an intimate experience. Sometimes uncomfortable. But so much more subdued. The poetry readings are much more dramatic, involving a range of performance styles. The book has enabled me to be who I am in the world in the way that feels a true representation of my self. Uncensored. Precise.

The book as a book has changed relationships. There are things friends now know that they didn’t before. Don’t know yet what that will be like.

There hasn’t been time since publication for there to be much “recent work.” I do have one assignment I’m working on. Writing appears to be as hard to do as it ever was. Producing a poem always feels like putting myself through a sieve.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have published both pieces of prose as well as poetry, and the memoir, although billed as a book of poetry, does contain some prose. The fact I had enough poetry to hold a narrative arc together came as a surprise to me. When I began the memoir in 2012, I began in prose. I was attending both prose and poetry workshops, but attending a three day retreat with Lorna Crozier taught me that poetry was something that could be produced on demand. To do so was so challenging, it made the writing of prose feel  easier. But then the encapsulating powers of poetry proved so satisfying, it took over as my focus during writing practice. A poem can create an intimate, vivid experience in a matter of lines.

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?
The start of a project is dictated by the deadline, and I will create deadlines (by, for example, choosing to enter a contest) in order to generate work. I have a visceral sense of how long something will take to squeeze out and have a strong sense of when to direct my mind to focus in order to meet a deadline. How much time I have to research and mull, then, varies. Once I’ve started, I can do little else. I need to have a sense I’ve cleared away everything else and can work uninterrupted, even if for days. First drafts comes slowly, word by word, line by line. It’s more often akin to sculpting in stone than sketching before painting.

Precision takes time but rather than write volumes and then edit down to essentials, I use square brackets. It’s a common practice in legal drafting, but I’ve been doing it in creative writing for as long as I’ve been writing. Accuracy, such a precise scientific term, brings muscle to a line. Square-bracketing allows me to move on quickly, then come back to research and refine. I think the fact I use this approach is one of the reasons Laura Apol calls my work poetic inquiry. It’s how I learn.

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 write short pieces. With prose, I like to work with a specific word count. A homily is about 2,700 words. With poetry, I write until the visceral sense I have of the topic has been addressed. This rarely takes more than a page. I struggle with longer narrative arcs. In prose, I work scene by scene, usually completing my sense of story in around 5,000 words. It’s highly unmarketable to work in these short spans of narrative. A book, then, relies on being a collection. And a collection coalescing comes as a surprise.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings are core to my creative process. I can’t separate creation from performance. When writing poetry, I will often pace, pausing to articulate a line, then writing it down. I’ve written a number of performance stories (the kind heard on The Moth, or in BC, The Flame). Without the desire to memorize and perform them, these stories would not have been written. Having a book of poetry in print that has the form of a memoir is a powerful experience; different, I think, from what a collection of poetry that is not a memoir might have. People who have read the entire book have read a “story,” and the feedback from readers really centres on the narrative. Having conveyed this narrative is satisfying. But giving breath and timbre to the poems is the aspect of writing that most enlivens me. I’d be sad, even frustrated, if performance could not be part of the process. The “Listen Now” page on my website is, for me, a very meaningful way to connect with my 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?
My writing practice is more of an exploration of sensibility than an intellectual undertaking. More of a “what is it like to be” than “this is what I’m thinking.”

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I experience writing, both as act and output, as the creation of intimacy. Reading is, for me, is the same, whether the intimacy is with a character in fiction or an intimacy with ideas (the latter being a skill I greatly envy). Writing brings us in close, leaves us different. I would be crazy lonely if other people didn’t write.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. I find it difficult to read my own writing. It is getting easier as I become more comfortable with my material and more confident in my skills. But often, I feel I have no perspective. I have a submissions editor who regularly gets work of mine from the “probably trash” folder into publication, sometimes with surprisingly warm reception. And I do love the challenges put before me by a line editor who might say something vague, like “this could be stronger.” It can take days to solve a challenge like that, and it is always so satisfying.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Robert Bly: Art requires a confrontation with grandiosity. You have to get comfortable with the audaciousness of feeling you have something to say, or have said something worth hearing. You have to come to terms with feeling worthy. That your art is worth your time. Bly taught that to write is an exercise of self-sovereignty—and that to rule effectively, one must put one's realm in order.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to prose to photography)? What do you see as the appeal?
Poetry, prose and photography are all just things I find myself doing. All three are rooted in an urge to express. I’ve tried to express myself in other ways (cooking, drawing) and don’t pursue them, or identify with them, because they don’t produce satisfying results. A finished homily or poem is very satisfying, as is a well-captured image. My food, on a good day, is edible, at its best nothing more than a decent execution of someone else’s recipe. My stick people can sometimes communicate effectively, but it’s not satisfying. Something poetry, prose and photography have in common is that they are all, for me, activities that require problem solving. In that way, I’d add negotiation to the list. It’s just not an art I practice publicly anymore.

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?
When in a poetry writing period, I follow the routine I established when I did Arleen Paré’s 2016 writing retreat “The Habit of Art,” which is to sit still and direct my attention to noticing for two hours every day, starting at 7 AM. I allow myself to get up to pour more tea, but that’s it. The rest of the time is noticing, and noting, or working with notes made during previous sessions of noticing. I use the same hours when writing prose, but the practice alters in that it is a matter of turning back to the last sentence written and sitting for at least two hours waiting for the next sentence to arrive.

The more I write, the more I write. If I’m not writing at all, writing every day from 7-9 AM whether I want to or not gets me going.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Research. I’ve done a lot of things as a writer, including several years writing advertising copy. I could write about anything from plow blades to banking services, but it took research. As an art director, the illustrators would often ask, “what is available for reference material?” I have a tiny poem called “Conception” that was only possible after reading for hours on the topic of egg fertilization. Right now, I’m researching the anthropocene.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Petrichor. It reminds me of the prairies, even the dust is rising elsewhere.

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’ve written ekphrastic poetry, but only when asked. Putting on music for the 7-9 AM practice can be quite helpful. I’m selective about the kind of music, though. Choral music works well for some reason. If I’m under a deadline for a poem, I go outdoors. Note, I don’t say “nature.” Outdoors. I used to sit on my porch in Victoria. Before Covid, I could get started on a walk to the Cook Street Village. If I can’t go outdoors, I like a window. I need something to stare at. In Vernon, I live in a house on a hill with a big view of the sky. Not sure yet what will come of that.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The writers most important for my work are ones who have taught me. I’m not formally educated as a writer, and so am not, as some say, “well read.” My breakthrough came when I stopped taking poetry classes through university extension courses and started attending poetry workshops and retreats where the only commentary came from the artist leading them. Arleen Paré, Lorna Crozier, Laura Apol, Jan Zwicky, Patrick Lane, Jen Hadfield—all have trained me in lasting ways. Writers whose work makes the top of my head come off: Anne Michaels, Jeanette Winterson, Jane Urquhart. Poetry icons: Ellen Bass, Billy Collins. Writing that has shaped me: dharma, sacred texts, philosophy, history of religion.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Wake up tomorrow.

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?

My “occupation” days are behind me—I went into medical retirement in 2010. And although writing—advertising copy, speeches, legal drafting, briefing notes—has been how I’ve contributed to the family budget all my life, writing artistically was never my occupation. It’s hard to know what I would have done if I had had access to a different education at a younger age, but I think I would have studied art history. It is a field with politics, religion and visual magic—several favourites rolled into one. Had I known it was an option, and had had the financial support to pursue it, I likely would have become an academic. It involves writing.

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

In my early 20s, I was keen to get an inexpensive education that would lead to a job. I took the only program at Red River Community College, Winnipeg, for which I felt I had any aptitude: Applied Communications. My first job was producing the afternoon talk show on CKNW in Regina. It might help to know context. My last year of high school, I had a mental health crisis that put me in psychiatric care mid-year, so my confidence in looking at university options was shaken. In those days, I made my career choices based on help wanted ads in the newspaper, which had only recently dispensed with separate headings for Jobs for Men and Jobs for Women. Writing came easily. I only furthered my education when, after 17 years as a staff writer doing advertising, public relations, and speechwriting, I became tired of making other people’s ideas and products sound good. I drained my life savings and went to law school. I was in my 40s. I trained as a negotiator. But in the end, it was still writing.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m always working vaguely on a theatre project about what I do to live with PTSD. It’s never really out of my mind. In the end, it may just be that being alive feels theatrical and that there is nothing concrete that can come to the stage. However, I have a set, costumes, roles, lines and music all imagined with various levels of detail. These days, I’m advancing it by meeting bi-weekly with a dramaturge. I have, however, been doing this for some years, so maybe it’s just psychotherapy in its latest form. My goal for 2022 is to push a few small prose pieces to completion, just to get them off the side of the desk. If I’m lucky, they will also get published.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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