Thursday, May 09, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Tia McLennan

Tia McLennan’s (she/her) poetry has appeared in various Canadian literary journals including Riddle Fence, Vallum, Arc, CV2, Room, and Prairie Fire. In 2022, she won the NLCU Fresh Fish Award for her unpublished poetry manuscript. Her first book of poetry, Familiar Monsters of the Flood is forthcoming in April 2024 with Riddle Fence Publishing. She holds an interdisciplinary MFA in creative writing and visual art from UBC Okanagan, and a BFA from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University. Originally from so-called Vancouver Island, B.C., (territory of the K’ómoks people), she gratefully resides in kalpilin (Pender Harbour), B.C. with her partner, their 6 year old son and a big cat named Basho.

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

As I write this, my first book has yet to be born (forthcoming in April 2024) so I can’t answer this question completely. Even so, having a soon-to-be book, there have already been some doors opened that weren’t before. I still haven’t fully adjusted to the idea that something I’ve been working on for so long in relative privacy will be out in the world and I’m curious to see how everything will unfold!

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

I was drawn to poetry early on…in Junior High and high school. I remember writing very young and wonderfully terrible poems. As a prize for getting a high mark in English Lit 12, my teacher gave me a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It was the first time I felt that deep magic of connecting with a poet through time and space and it kind of got me hooked. There’s a certain freedom in poetry—it can come in so many shapes and forms and is always evolving. I have a background as a visual artist and for me, visual art seems more closely related to poetry than other genres; I find the two speak to each other.  

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 don’t think I can properly answer this one yet, as I’ve only just started my second project. With my first project, it took me 2 or 3 years to realise I was writing a book, then another 12 years (including an MFA and much learning, starting, stopping, and revising) to finish it. There are a few poems that come out fully or almost fully-formed, but most come out of many notes, revisions, and edits.

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?

My first book was certainly a case of many shorter pieces coming together into various poems and a complete manuscript over a long period of time. I have notebooks filled with fragments and thoughts, and these are usually the seeds that I grow into something more substantial. My second project that I’m currently working on has been a book from the beginning with an overarching theme—a new way of working for me, and it’s outside my comfort zone, a bit counter-intuitive.

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

I do enjoy doing readings (even though I get pretty nervous). I like connecting with people and finding how the poem can subtly shift depending on how I read it and the tone of the room. During the creation phase, I don’t really think about readings. I do try to read my work out loud once in a while in order to properly hear the rhythm and sounds of a piece, but I don’t start thinking about sharing my work with an audience until it’s time for it to be published. So overall, I’d say it’s part of the process though not in an immediate or conscious way.  

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?

In my forthcoming book, there are quite a few questions and/or theoretical concerns that drive the poems. Certainly there is a mix of ecological grief, fear, and a touch of hope which I think is a common concern or question of our time. The human-ecological predicament that (at least for me) permeates the book is “can we come back from our current course toward ecological disaster?” I don’t know if anyone can really answer this. I think, increasingly, we’re realizing we live in a time of multiple crisis. I mean, our world has been watching a genocide be livestreamed and very little has been done to stop it. We’re also in a time when systems of oppression (such as colonialism) are being more openly questioned, resisted, or dismantled and I see this reflected through what many writers and artists are grappling with in various ways. On a more personal level, my book investigates my relationship with my father, his illness and passing, and ghosts of intergenerational trauma. The other concern that became central to the book was learning about maternal-fetal microchimera. This is the scientific term for the exchange of DNA through the placental barrier between the mother or birth parent and fetus. Essentially (as a birth parent) your unborn child’s cells take up residence in your body and are able to graft themselves into almost any organ and become physically part of you, giving you more than one set of DNA and essentially changing your body. The etymology comes from the Greek mythical monster known as the Chimera (a female hybrid monster with the head & body of a lion, a head of a goat and a tail that ended in a snake’s head). This exchange of cells happens even if there is no live birth. After I experienced six consecutive miscarriages, I became fascinated by the implications and unanswered questions in this scientific area, as well as in the medical language itself. I like how this phenomena undermines the idea of a singular, contained self. I also went down plenty of rabbit holes regarding the myth of the Chimera, and in our creation of modern-day “monsters”, and these concerns found their way into poems.

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 don’t see writers having a singular role, but some possible roles or things that writers can do that come to mind are: to notice, pay attention, listen, reflect, resist, bear witness, restore, give voice to, challenge, entertain, celebrate. I also think a lot about being a writer (and a teacher) in this epoch where misinformation abounds, while AI (which steals from original creators) and Chat GTP rapidly change the communication landscape—so I’m curious to see how the role of writer will shift and adapt.

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

So far, in my limited experience, it’s been essential and wonderful. The editors I’ve been lucky to work with have provided excellent insights and direction without being overbearing or insistent. Sometimes an editor will give feedback and it will totally ring true, but it means the poem has to fall apart and be rebuilt. This can be difficult, but has always resulted in a stronger piece of writing.

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

It was from a visual artist friend of mine and it was simply to continue. There’s usually plenty of rejection and can be a lot of interruption (especially as a parent) on the creative path. To find even small ways to continue and move forward is the advice I continue to give myself.

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 have no real routine and wish I could be more disciplined in this department. I currently work as a teacher on call three days a week and have a couple of days dedicated to writing. I’m also a parent of a very active & freedom-loving almost 6-year-old, so life is busy. On my writing days, I drop my son off at school and then do my best to get at least 3-5 hours of writing/reading/research done. I often get side-tracked by gardening, house work and/or life admin tasks. If I’m working full time, there’s virtually no time to write and I rely on sporadic moments or once in a while stay up late to get some words down.

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

I think it’s important when I do truly feel stuck, to give the writing and myself a break from each other and I usually just read until I can catch the spark or impetus again. I’ll return to some writers that continue to be a compass for me (whether it’s poetry or other genres) and will often seek out new (to me) writers. Also, being in nature, moving my body, or having a visit with a good friend can all help shift my frame of mind.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Cedar, seaweed, fried onions and garlic, coffee.

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 totally agree to a certain extent. As a writer, I think I’ve learned the most about craft and voice through reading others’ work. So books remain the biggest influence and I love the object of them, but influences come from endless sources. We (or most of us) live in this constant deluge of information, which is both miraculous and nightmarish—this aspect of our world certainly influences my writing. Being out in nature and our view of and relationship to “nature” absolutely is something I question through my poems. My forthcoming book relies on found text from medical records, and I am interested in scientific language—its etymology and sounds. My background and schooling is in visual art and I find writing and art making are very much connected for me, not in the ekphrastic sense, but in how the two creative processes play off each other.

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

There are many! To name a few and in no particular order: Liz Howard, Tomas Tranströmer, William Blake, Natalie Diaz, C.D. Wright, Joan Didion, Joshua Whitehead, Seamus Heaney, Karen Solie, Jordan Abel, Adrienne Rich, Mary Ruefle, Sue Goyette’s Ocean, Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, Brenda Shaughnessy, Ocean Vuong, Canisia Lubrin, Emily Dickinson, Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, Louise Glück, Leah Horlick.

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

There’s a long list that includes travel to distant lands. But my current daydream/obsession is to try and grow shiitake mushrooms on inoculated logs.

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?

Botanist, horticulturalist, gardener. I do currently have a job as a teacher, a profession I really love, but being paid to be outdoors with plants would be pretty dreamy.

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

First I did something else. That is, I went to art school (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) for my undergrad. I’d always written but never took it seriously. When my father was ill and after he passed, I had time to reflect and basically decided to turn my creative focus toward writing. My MFA from UBCO was interdisciplinary—in visual art and creative writing, though I ended up leaning more toward the creative writing. I still loosely keep up a visual art practice (drawing/painting/printmaking/collage), it’s still important to me, but writing became more essential, a more direct channel of expression.

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

Too hard to name just one! I read Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous in the past couple years and was incredibly moved. I’m currently immersed in (and in awe of) Canisia Lubrin’s Code Noir, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, and Danielle Vogel’s A Library of Light. I absolutely loved the film Everything Everywhere All at Once, directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheibert—it had me laughing so hard I was in tears.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a hybrid book rooted in non-fiction, and memoir. It’s based on and from the place myself and my family have recently returned to live—Garden Bay, kalpílin (Pender Harbour), B.C., unceded territory of the shíshalh nation. This is where my father retired to in 2003, and then sadly passed away from cancer in 2006. I’m interested in the history (recent, colonial and pre-colonial), and want to pay specific attention to the capture and subsequent sale of half a pod of northern resident orcas from Garden Bay in 1969. Writing from a time and place of ongoing drought, I’m questioning and thinking about my (and our) relationship with the land and waters and wondering how we will navigate climate crisis and move toward a sustainable and just future.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

No comments: