Sunday, December 24, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Emily Osborne

Emily Osborne is the author of Safety Razor (Gordon Hill Press, 2023) and Biometrical (Anstruther Press, 2018). Her poetry, short fiction and Old Norse-to-English verse translations have appeared in journals such as Vallum, CV2, Canthius, The Polyglot, The Literary Review of Canada and Barren Magazine. Emily’s poetry has been shortlisted for several prizes, and won The Malahat Review’s Far Horizons Award for Poetry 2018. Emily has a PhD in Old Norse Literature from the University of Cambridge. She lives on Bowen Island, BC, with her husband and two young sons.

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?

My first chapbook (Biometrical, Anstruther Press, 2019) and full-length collection (Safety Razor, Gordon Hill Press, 2023) definitely came as a fulfillment of a life-long goal. As a child I wrote copious amounts of poetry and stories and always dreamed of publishing a book. When I was focusing on my academic studies, that drive was directed into publishing articles and working on a critical book. After I decided to leave academia in 2016 and focus on my creative writing, one thing that was emotionally difficult was all the partial academic article manuscripts and book manuscripts I knew I would likely never publish. Holding my first chapbook and book took away a lot of that sting. And I am now working on a book that uses the knowledge I gained during my PhD studies in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature, which feels like another fulfillment and justification that the years in dusty libraries were not for nought. But more on that below!

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

I grew up in a house filled with books of poetry. My mother is a poet who did a PhD in Modern American poetry. The seeds were sown early. I love crafting prose as well, but poetry has always felt like the most natural habitat for me. After finishing a PhD and postdoctoral fellowship where I focused on poetry, it isn’t surprising that I was first inspired to write poetry once I turned my attention back to my creative writing.

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’m definitely a snail, picking up little bits of dirt and pine needles as I inch along. Often I will think through a draft for a long time, mulling over an idea, researching and taking notes, thinking up interesting vocabulary. I make copious notes. Then, when I sit down to actually write, the process can be very quick or very slow. Most poems I will edit a lot. I’m a perfectionist regarding vocabulary and rhythm and work with imagery, bending and shaping an image until I feel it’s doing all it can. Most poems I will workshop with a writing group or with my husband, and then re-edit.

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

I quite enjoy readings and find it very helpful to see how audiences respond to my poetry when read aloud. One of the things I miss about working in academia during my PhD and postdoctoral years at Cambridge and UBC is the opportunity to lecture. I absolutely loved sharing material with students and seeing what kinds of insights and questions they brought to the texts. For me, one of the benefits to hearing an author read their work is that you can (hopefully) hear some background about the piece and learn about what makes that author tick. In my experience, a minority of people find this annoying and prefer to hear the poem or prose alone; most, however, enjoy the chance learn about the author and context. And the opportunity afforded by readings to meet new writers and readers is always amazing. I only wish I had the chance to do more readings, but right now, living in a remote location with two little kids means I cannot do as many as I would like.

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

Essential and (at least so far), not at all difficult! To date, editors have only suggested minor changes to my poems, but all feedback and affirmation is incredibly helpful. On my chapbook I worked with Blair Trewartha and onboarded all of his suggestions. Same story with my full-length book where I worked with Shane Neilson. While a suggestion to change a poem can sometimes feel jarring, every time I have stepped back and thought about how I can use that suggestion to make the poem better, the result has been a better poem.

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

Curiosity is one of the most powerful tools a writer can possess.

This, to me, has been so much more valuable than the more often repeated advice, “Write what you know.” Sometimes I think people get stuck on this latter advice about writing what they know, and cannot move beyond it, essentially writing the same poem over and over. Or else, the poem does not contain enough meat in it because it fails to address other perspectives, circumstances, etc. I think the most effective writing occurs when you are curious enough about a subject that you will assess it from many angles; even if it’s something you already know about, there is so much more to learn!

12 – What fragrance reminds you of home?

Scents that remind me of my childhood home in Southern Ontario are: snow, hot tarmac in summer heat, freshly-baked bread, Ivory dish detergent.

Scents that remind me of my current home on Bowen Island are: damp pine needles, cedar wood, my husband’s light roasted coffees, various children’s breakfast cereals gone soggy.

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?

Scientific facts are constantly inspiring me with ideas for poems and stories – it’s a challenge to elegantly work these amazing facts about the universe or the body into art, to engage in this dialogue between the ways the world works on our perceptions and the ways language works on our perceptions. My debut Safety Razor has lots of science sprinkled throughout, touching on memory, weather, DNA, linguistics, and ultrasound waves. I’m the kind of person who loves learning new things and loves finding connections among things I hadn’t previously viewed as connected. Film and visual art often find their way into my poems as well, although in a general sense as opposed to directly ekphrastic works describing a painting or film scene. Perhaps ekphrasis will be a future project!

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

For writing, I would love to write both an adult fantasy novel and a children’s fantasy novel. I have ideas for both, but not enough time to write them at present! Also I would love to write and publish more criticism and reviews

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?

In an alternate life, I am a professor of Old English and Old Norse Literature. In a second alternate life, I am an art historian. In a third alternate life, I am a ballet dancer. In a fourth alternate life, I am a professional chocolate taster. About this last one, I’m only partly serious. I eat way too much chocolate and have been described many times as a “hound dog” because I have very sensitive faculties of smell and taste.

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

Most of my reading or tv-viewing time these days is with my kids, and I’m therefore obliged to select from kid-friendly material. My husband and I just finished reading the kids E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web at bedtime. I avoided reading this as a kid because I couldn’t get “into” animal stories. I grew up in a house where severe allergies prevented us from having pets and I didn’t develop relationships with animals until later in life. Wow, what a powerful story! I found myself smiling and teary throughout and impressed by the championing of humility, a virtue which seems largely forgotten these days.

The last great kids’ film I watched was The Song of the Sea (2014). Breathtaking visuals, spot-on narration, with a story that is both complex and simple to allow children to engage on many levels. My 4yo wanted to watch this over and over and, for once, I didn’t mind the repetition!

19 - What are you currently working on?

Finishing off a draft of an anthology of translations of skaldic poetry – a form of verse composed in Scandinavia between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. I’m so excited about sending this out to publishers and sharing this genre with the world. To date, there is no easily accessible and lyrical anthology of this genre, but it is incredibly fascinating and rewarding to read. These are the actual words of the Vikings and their descendants, and their poems give us a view of Viking Age and Medieval Scandinavia that is difficult or impossible to find elsewhere.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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