Friday, June 21, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Dawn Macdonald

Dawn Macdonald lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, where she was raised off the grid. Her poetry appears in literary journals like Grain and Nat. Brut, and also in speculative publications like Asimov’s Science Fiction and Wizards in Space. She is the author of Northerny (2024, University of Alberta Press).

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 book came out in the midst of chaos. While I was in edits, our landlords decided to sell, and we decided to not get evicted, so we scrambled to buy our house at the highest possible interest rates; then a tree fell on it. Sewage lines were being redone, so we had water outages and boil water advisories, and our backyard was excavated into a giant pit (now a giant mud field). My father received a cancer diagnosis just before Christmas, and while the prognosis was initially positive, he died unexpectedly in the week after my first book signing. I cancelled my planned readings and went into grief. It’s been a couple of months and I’m still in grief. I don’t yet know how these paired events will have changed me.

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

1.     Short attention span.

2.     Obsessed with language itself: what it does, what it doesn’t.

3.     Really bad at thinking up plots.

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 always or never starting projects – always writing, never sure what is the start of something. Some poems have been pieced together out of fragments of other poems written over a span of years. Some were pretty much one and done. I feel affinity for the Beats with their “first thought, best thought” – but this is manifestly not always the case – so, it’s all over the place.

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?

I’m not generally trying to write on any predetermined topic. Writing happens, themes can then be deduced. Recurring obsessions over time may create the illusion of intention? There’s a convention at the moment that poetry collections have to be “about” something and I’m still getting my head around that – if I’ve got to write 40 poems about the same thing, isn’t that an admission of failure? Shouldn’t one good poem do the trick? It doesn’t, of course, so there’s value in coming at something from many angles, but this is a point of tension for me.

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

All my readings to date have been online. Covid created some opportunities that way, as I’d never be able to attend magazine launches held in Montréal or Calgary or Vancouver, but I can show up on Zoom. I also enjoy when an online journal asks you to record a reading for them to post as an MP3. But the kind where you go to some sort of party and get up at a microphone? Don’t know – maybe we’ll find out!

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?

How the heck do words work? Can they work other ways than they usually do? Why would we tend to believe something just because it’s framed as a sentence? What’s the connection with physical stuff? What’s stuff? Do stories just trick us into thinking things make sense? ... Not sure these are “current questions” as they’ve been around for a while, but also not sure they’ve been answered.

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?

Having a way with words doesn’t make you extra-good at life. Rhetorical flourish does not equate to any special insight, to wisdom. We shouldn’t take beauty for truth. I see writers and artists as shit-disturbers – throwing ideas out there, for good or for ill. My friend posted one of those lists of “25 Books That Will Change Your Life” and I was like, “I have read most of these and it has been a real rollercoaster.”

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

I worked with the wonderful Jannie Edwards on my book, Northerny. She was marvellously accommodating about my distaste for “Track Changes” – we worked over Zoom with verbal notes. My manuscript was rough. I hadn’t had a clear sense of how a poetry collection is typically structured. By no means did I agree with or implement all of her suggestions, but we found a productive dialogue, and the book is far more readable thanks to her eye. That said, at the end of that process, with all its hyperfixation on commas and consistency, I found myself badly blocked in any new writing. I had to set myself exercises in inconsistency and non-sense-making, to regain freedom, potentiality and flow.

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

“Whatever it is about your work that keeps getting negative feedback, you should try to do that more, because it’s your one hope of originality.” I mean, with some caveats, obviously, keeping in mind it isn’t especially original to be using too many adverbs, for example – but then, maybe you could construct a poem entirely out of adverbs and see what happens? Worth a shot.

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?

Poetry is wonderfully interstitial, fits into those little gaps in the day. I’ve always got a notebook and a pen somewhere nearby, can jot things down over breakfast, fiddle with a few words at the bus stop. I’ve tried “the morning pages” and “the afternoon pages” and “the evening pages” but never found a consistent time that worked for me. So long as it’s happening, I don’t think it matters when or where.

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

Periods of stasis are okay. Some weeks (months, years) are more about taking in. Eventually it will turn and start to flow out again, quite naturally, or if not, okay – if you don’t need to, you don’t. Not sure it’s necessary to be taking an aphrodisiac to reignite poetic desire. But, in practice, poems often pop out of snippets of conversation, or the big and small events of daily life, so I think just staying alive to the world and its inhabitants.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Woodsmoke and beer.

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?

Basically everything is an influence. Because my educational background is in science, that’s a thread, and because I live in the North, the wilderness is part of daily life. On a syntactical and metrical level, hip hop is an influence – the wordplay, intertextuality, the layering of rhythms. Conversation – and sometimes mishearing someone in conversation, “wouldn’t it be a neat phrasing if they had actually said this ....” Weird phrasings on signage or on products – Nivea sells a body wash with the line, “naturally caring me moments for touchably smooth skin,” which just has so much to unpack – time as an entity offering care, care as natural yet purchasable, the purpose of “me moments” being to induce the touch of another. Could I write something as smooth, evocative, dense, and defying of literal sense?

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

All of them? Haha I am on a bit of a mission to read all the books. Accordingly, have been obsessed with anthologies. I was very fortunate as a teenager to stumble across a second-hand copy of The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (edited by Donald Allen) which absolutely blew my mind – poetry can do this? The Beats, the New York School – I’d had no idea. Those guys (mostly guys) are still a big influence. Frank O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems, Kenneth Koch’s humour and play, Ginsberg’s long-line chattiness. Also a big fan of A.R. Ammons, who has a sciencey sort of eye and who wrote a book-length poem about garbage, which speaks to me as an inveterate scrounger and lover of organic messiness. Alice Notley, who goes big on the page and claims never to revise. In prose, I have so much respect for Percival Everett, whose most recent novel James is very clever about dialect. I could go on and on.

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

To (mis?)-quote P.G. Wodehouse, “It is my fervent hope that the remainder of my days shall be one round of unending monotony.”

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?

My day job is in Institutional Research, which is a bit like market research and/or data analysis. I do a fair bit of survey design, which trains you to write clear and concise questions that are not too susceptible to divergent interpretations. I’ve done manual transcription of focus group recordings, which is a revelation in terms of learning how people really speak (tip: not in sentences). I do a bit of coding in R and SQL, another kind of pithy and precise communication style. But my original career goal was physicist. I wanted to find the Grand Unified Theory. I did my undergraduate in applied mathematics with a theoretical physics concentration, but I’m a physics grad-school dropout, so that’s the road not taken.

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

Not sure I ever thought of it as being opposed to doing anything else! I have to have a day-job, and I definitely have hobbies (mostly knitting and running around in the woods, not at the same time because you should never run with knitting needles). A notebook is easy to carry around and writing fits in. Maybe that’s the answer – because writing is completely portable and fits into very small spaces and bits of time.

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

Book: Nature Poem by Tommy Pico.

Film: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is my favorite film to say is my favorite film, but, I will probably never watch it again – it’s a one-time experience. Still, pretty great.

19 - What are you currently working on?

Ugh. I am very much in a state of grief. I am writing around that but wouldn’t be able to say I’m working on anything there. It’s rough and raw and it’s dominating me in a way that’s outside of artistry. We’ll see.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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