Tuesday, December 12, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Meghan Fandrich

Meghan Fandrich lives with her young daughter on the edge of Lytton, BC, the village that was destroyed by wildfire in 2021. She spent her childhood and much of her adult life there, in Nlaka'pamux Territory, where two rivers meet and sagebrush-covered hills reach up into mountains. For the past decade, she ran Klowa Art Café, a beloved and vibrant part of the community; Klowa was lost to the flames. Burning Sage (Caitlin Press, 2023) is Meghan’s debut poetry collection.

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 is my most recent work and my previous and my all and my only. I had never written poetry before; I had filled journals, yes, volume after volume through childhood and adolescence and into adulthood, but those were never for any eyes but my own (except once, in the subway in Berlin, when I handed over a journal to the crush whose name appeared on almost every page and then blanched with horror at what I’d done.) I had never written anything that I needed to share.

The first book, Burning Sage, the only book, has changed my life. Writing it allowed me to finally step into the grief of losing our little town, and sharing it has helped me walk through that grief, and to feel the support and love around me, and to receive the gift of others’ vulnerability and emotion in response to my own.

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

A first answer:

When I was a child, the quotes that were woven into the books of LM Montgomery (“Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn”) led me to Keats and Tennyson and Longfellow.

When I was a teenager, there was a gift from my dad: his copy of Poems in English, an anthology, inscribed with “Lower Mall, UBC” and a date in the 1960s. I read it cover to cover, and then bought The Norton Anthology of Poetry and read its 2,000 pages too.

When I was a young woman, in a dark tiny shop in Cusco, Peru, a tattoo artist inked “on – on – and out of sight” onto the arch of my foot. I walked into adult life on that line of Siegfried Sassoon’s.

A second:

A year after the fire, I sat at the typewriter on the living room floor, thinking I would write a little vignette, a memory, for a friend. And the memory emerged as a poem, and it surprised me. And that poem led to another and another and another – they poured out of me – until the stack of poems became Burning Sage, and I still have no explanation for it, except that there was this intense need to write them, and they could only be written as poems.

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 took forty years to start the first project, but then there was no stopping it. Poem after poem, day after day at the typewriter, and my fingers typing wildly to keep up with the words as they poured out.

Most of my first drafts look and feel similar to how the poems appear in the book; I edited them heavily, but preserved that first rush of emotion. Night after night I sat with a pencil and pages in hand, while my daughter slept in the next room, indenting a line a fraction of an inch or replacing a single word a dozen times until it was perfect. Editing gave me control over the process, but also over the emotions, the grief, the experience.

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?

Each poem in Burning Sage began as something that needed to come out, just the flash of an image or the hint of a feeling. I would start typing with that emotion-memory in my mind, and often be surprised by where the poem would take me.

I think I knew almost immediately upon writing the first poem that it would turn into a book, though. I didn’t have a vision or a plan, just this feeling of story: how each poem was a piece of something greater, something I needed to tell.

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

Prior to the two months of the Burning Sage book tour, I had never been to a literary reading; I was in Lytton, in a different life and a different world. But the book tour was amazing, not so much for my creative process as for my healing. I shared from my book and from my story and felt the love and support – and saw the tears and the visible emotion – of the audience. I am full of gratitude for that experience.

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’ve always believed that there will be theoretical concerns behind a piece of writing, whether an author intentionally addressed them or not, and those concerns will be informed by time and place and experience.

I had no intentions when writing Burning Sage other than to get the memories out of me, but when I went through it afterward, poem by poem, I saw the different currents that run through it. Media sensationalism, disaster capitalism, the slow-moving cogs of bureaucracy, and how damaging they each are to survivors of trauma. Love and community and self, even, and how immensely healing they can be. And these currents flow together to ask what happens when the climate crisis no longer exists in the abstract distance – when it moves into the deepest, most personal nearness.

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?

My answer to this question is the same as the last, but in different words. The role of the writer now, as it has always been, is to bring us into others’ lives. At a deep level, all experience is shared experience, and the writer reminds us of that.

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

I love editing: it is my dearest geeky pleasure, and as I said above, it was the refining and polishing of my poems that let me turn my raw experience into art. In theory, I know that working with an outside editor is essential, but in practice I’ve found it difficult; I think it’s a matter of finding the right author-editor relationship.

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

This: When anxiety is surging, put a hand on your chest, breathe into the anxiety, and talk to it. “I see you there. What’s going on?” Sometimes the answer is profound, and identifying it helps. And sometimes the answer can be “I’m hungry.”

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 struggle with routines, even as a single parent. But on our perfect days, my daughter sleeps a little later than me and I sit in the quiet living room with morning light and coffee and my journal, until, inevitably, we’re suddenly running late and everything turns back into chaos.

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

Because I have never defined myself as a writer, nor felt any particular need to write (with the exception of those months of writing Burning Sage), there is no such thing as a stall; there is just gratitude for the moments when, unexpectedly, I am writing.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The sweet woody vanilla of ponderosa pine bark (with the sound of cicadas) and the potency of sagebrush just before a summer storm.

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?

Yes. There is a certain feeling in the heart, and it can come from anything. The memory of a laugh. The evening sky reflected in broken glass. The voice of a cello that folds around song (I think of Appendix C by Holy Hum / Andrew Yong Hoon Lee). A charcoal drawing. A crow. Pine trees swaying in summer wind. Blood-stained concrete. Love. And, always and forever, heartbreak.

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

-       Michael Ondaatje in general, and In the Skin of a Lion in particular, with the way that language and story wrap themselves around each other

-       On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, which showed me that prose, too, can hurt like poetry

-       Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar, in the original Spanish, which feels like dark red wine and low voices and the flash of a lit cigarette in the night

-       Where the Blood Mixes by Kevin Loring (someone from home), with its humour and love and heartbreaking truths

-       And, not to be overwhelmed by so many men, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot and By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, each with its own beauty and vulnerability and immense, honest sorrow

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

Why does this question feel more challenging than any of the others?

I think it’s because the fire taught me not to have expectations for the future, when the present can be gone in a moment. What I would like to do is what I’m doing now: staying present with my daughter. Making choices for our today, not our hypothetical tomorrow. Teaching her to value her own self more than any future goal. And showing her love.

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?

The fire brought intense trauma and life-altering grief, but it also brought gifts. A chance to look at my old life, to re-evaluate, to choose what to rebuild and what not to. Out of that choice came my burgeoning career as an editor: trauma-informed editing of poetry, prose, and community-focused communication. It’s such an honour to work with others’ words, their art.

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

That day at the typewriter on the living room floor, there was no choice. And maybe, even if I wasn’t a writer until now, writing has always been my medium, and language my love.

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

A few months ago I opened Exculpatory Lilies by Susan Musgrave, and my heart was submerged. I sat down at the water beside her and cried.  And when I closed the book after the last poem, truth felt even more necessary, and grief more sacred.

And, because the seven-year-old in the room chooses the movies, the answer to the second question has to be The Grinch, she says.

19 - What are you currently working on?

At this moment, my daughter and I are in New York City for three months. She has never lived anywhere but Lytton and already a third of her life has been spent on the edge of a burned-up town. So we’re here in Brooklyn, where there are playgrounds and restaurants and grocery stores – unfamiliar luxuries – and I can see her world expanding.

It will be hard to do any writing here, where there isn’t the break from parenting that school affords, but then the heart aches in a certain way and I think maybe, just maybe…

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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