Thursday, October 12, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Cathy Stonehouse

Cathy Stonehouse (she/they) is a poet, writer, teacher and visual artist in Vancouver, BC. The author of a novel, The Causes, a collection of short fiction, Something About the Animal, and two previous collections of poetry—Grace Shiver and The Words I Know. Stonehouse co-edited the ground-breaking anthology Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood and is a former editor of EVENT magazine. They teach creative writing and interdisciplinary expressive arts at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

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

My first book didn't change my life in the ways I naively expected it might (i.e. entirely positively!). It was amazing, but also emotionally complicated. In fact, being published freaked me out so much I went silent for 15 years, and I've been trying to reduce this effect with each book since. I'm getting there. My most recent work, as a whole, is very different from my previous work, in that I'm moving toward a more comfortably capacious and interdisciplinary voice. I'm finally getting into my stride. A bit late, but hey ho.

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

Poetry has always been my first love. Sound, rhythm and musicality are everything to me, even in prose. As a child I liked to read poems aloud even if I didn't understand what they meant. Writing poems can feel like how I imagine being able to sing really well might feel (an experience I only have in dreams, then wake up). Whenever I write prose I look forward to the stage when I can relate to the words and sentences as music again, i.e. when editing. I also start prose like this, but in the middle it's a heck of a lot of other work.

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?

It can take a very long time for me to finish a project, although I have new ideas constantly. Work is often in my brain and/or notebooks for years before I have the space & time to manifest it, and sometimes revisions come after decades. This new book's main spine, the section called Dream House, came very fast one summer (2018) after returning home from the UK having rapidly emptied my mother's house. The rest of the book took a lot longer.

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 work more and more in a long form--the sequence, the book-length work--even with poetry and short stories. I get a kind of "feeling" of the work as a whole, then figure out the components.

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

I love giving readings and would love to do more of them. As a neurodivergent introvert I get very nervous but once I read and listen to others read it's quite exhilarating.

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?

It changes from book to book. With the new book (Dream House) I'm trying to use metaphor and other figurative language to render experiences of embodiment. How to address the trickiness of language which supposedly mediates isolation, yet so rapidly becomes cliché, and which, shortly after naming something, often begins to mean something else? The interiority and exteriority of language, of structure, and of the poem. The difference between a home and a house. Are these questions current? I don't know.

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 believe that consciously making language new, or using it in new and precise ways, is critically important right now, as is tracking and recording the experience of human consciousness--because these are all practices which cannot be carried out by AI. Humans may be on the verge of losing or downloading their capacity to think and imagine, both in pictures and in language, if we are not careful (and we generally aren't). For these ancient practices to continue to emerge from the individual and collective human body we need artists, poets, musicians, dancers and thinkers. We also need arts funding, education and mentoring.

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

Both. Essential, if I had to choose--being well edited is a deeply affirming if chastening experience.

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

Don't get too attached to how the work is received, positively, negatively or not at all. Just keep doing the work and delivering it up, even if it's just to yourself.

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

Too easy, perhaps. It's very bad for building a career because you dodge the branding process and can appear to be starting over each time, even if the work is all very connected. But for me each genre provides a particular challenge and opportunity, and they feed each other. Also, I'm a Gemini.

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 have no real routine when I'm working (teaching) and even just living (parenting, dog-parenting, being a person in the world) but when I can I work best first thing in the morning. That's the magical time.

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

I've been doing a lot of painting and drawing in the past few years and I find this tremendously helpful as a way to keep my creative practice alive when language and the literary feel too hard to enter. Painting is incredibly hard but in a completely different way so it's very refreshing. Life drawing is also great because there's no time to think, just do.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Warm toast, fresh ink and wet, slightly mildewy clothing.

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?

Lately science has been inspirational to me. When I say science I really mean nature, humility, looking, and in particular the work of Indigenous and other scholars and artists whose worldview is based on reciprocity and relationship.  Madhur Anand, Leanne Simpson, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Suzanne Simard, Timothy Morton ...

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

Leslie Marmon Silko--especially the novels, Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead. All kinds of poets especially those working in longer forms. Lately, any amount of Will Alexander. Trans writing, writing about neurodivergence--anything that troubles the edges and binaries, undoes the commodification of art or identity. Tove Jansson's Moominvalley in November. I reread it once every year.

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

I'm working on writing and illustrating a graphic memoir, so that would be one thing.

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 may have begun in visual art and drifted into writing instead of vice versa. Once upon a time I wanted to cross the Atlantic single-handed but I have terrible motion sickness; I also wanted to be an activist but I'm no good on committees.

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

Being silenced as a child.

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

Film: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, about photographer Nan Goldin. Book: Was It for This by Hannah Sullivan.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Aforementioned graphic memoir; a collection of linked short stories I've been working on for a decade; some very "challenging" essays; a speculative novel set in the English Civil War; another poetry-ish book about the nervous system and the ecosystem. A painting of elephants.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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