Jane Eaton Hamilton

"I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” – Lillian Hellman

Category: interview

An interview with poet Sandy Shreve

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Waiting for the Albatross, Sandy Shreve

An Interview with Sandy Shreve, by Jane Eaton Hamilton

J: Congratulations on your new poetry collection “Waiting for the Albatross.” The book consists of found poems from bits of your father’s diary while he was a deck hand on a freighter in 1936. What was your impetus for writing “Waiting for the Albatross?” What can you tell us about the process of bringing these poems to life and this book to print?

S: The first thing that comes to mind is that it was a very long process. I had this diary of my Dad’s and after I first read it in 1993 I knew I wanted to get it into print somehow. My first attempt was to approach a publisher with excerpts from the diary. They asked to see the whole thing, but for various personal reasons I had to set that project aside. By the time I was able to get back to it, nearly 20 years later, the publishing world had changed and interest in publishing diaries had waned. On the bright side though, by then I’d been given some photo albums of my Dad’s, and it turned out they included all his pictures from his 1936 trip.

I decided to see if I could create a dialogue between my father (who died when I was 14) and me by keeping a diary over the same five-month period as he kept his, but 75 years later. So on Feb. 11, 2011, I dove in. For a bunch of reasons the conversation I was hoping to create didn’t materialize, but I kept on with my diary anyway. Unlike my Dad, I’m not much of a diarist, but staying with it brought me closer to his stories and experiences. Each day I wrote, I also researched the references in his diary for that day in 1936: seafaring terms, shipping terms, geography, depression-era tidbits like the origins of paperbacks and stamp collecting, tourist attractions and restaurants and movies the crew went to while ashore in various ports, and so on. What I wound up with was an extensively annotated version of Dad’s diary, along with the photos from his trip. After getting feedback from a couple of friends who are also very good editors, I acknowledged that to interest a publisher in the work I would need to expand what I had into a history of the Canadian merchant marine. But much as I enjoy reading non-fiction, it isn’t a genre I want to write. Another editor and friend suggested using the material to develop a young adult novel about a teen stumbling across the diary and, in reading it, coming to terms with her father’s death. I love that idea and were I a novelist I would no doubt give it a go. In the end I decided that what I had done was something that would interest my family, so I added various anecdotes and photos from Dad’s life after 1936, printed it up and sent it out to them.

From the start of that prose project, I had the idea that it would be fun to open each chapter with a found poem I’d write using words and phrases from that section of Dad’s diary. At first my attempts were dire failures. When I told a friend I was abandoning the idea, her instant response was to urge me to keep at it. The next day I decided to give it one more try, came up with a new approach, and to my surprise the poems began to flow. In a few weeks I had 11 poems I could use as chapter headings so I included them in what I gave my family. I thought that was the end of it … but a few months later more poems came knocking at my door. By the time I finished writing those I had another 11. So I made a little chapbook for friends and family who’d supported me in various ways while I struggled with this project. I thought that was definitely the end of it… until some months later I found myself writing yet more poems. So I put those and the earlier ones together with my favourite photos from Dad’s trip, several prose vignettes taken word for word from his diary, and all the relevant annotations I’d done for the prose project – and sent the whole thing off to Randal Macnair at Oolichan. That was a stroke of luck, actually, as he’d told me when I met him at Word on the Street in Vancouver (now called Word Vancouver) that he was interested in publishing books combining poems and photographs and invited me to send him mine. He accepted the manuscript and a couple of years later – his press turned it into a beautiful book.

J: As a poet, you’ve been associated with the labour movement; you edited “Working for a Living”, a special double-issue of Room of One’s Own in 1988; can you tell us how this interest in labour is elucidated in your poetry?

S: In the early 1970s I closely followed what was then the new work-writing movement. Tom Wayman, Helen Potrebenko and others were big influences. A few years later when I decided to give my own writing some serious attention, the first-person world of work and union issues were the subject matter that got me started. Later on, I edited “Working for a Living” (the special issue of Room you mentioned) because I wanted to give more space to women’s work.

When my first book came out a couple of years later, about one-third of the poems had to do with clerical / secretarial work. That theme carried over to a number of poems in my next book, but after that I didn’t return to work-writing until “Waiting for the Albatross”. So in my own writing I’ve gone from contemporary & primarily female workplaces to a 1936 working environment that was entirely male. In both cases the jobs I’ve written about are at or near the bottom of the hierarchy they are part of. As such, the work and those who do it are usually underappreciated, even demeaned. I wanted to show what it’s like to be the people doing the work under those conditions.

J: You are the author of 4 previous collections. In them, we see a slow easing into form; what snagged your interest about form poetry?

S: In the late 1980s, when I was in the Vancouver Industrial Writers Union, Kirsten Emmott brought a pantoum she’d written to one of our meetings. That was my introduction to a whole new world of forms. Until then, I was aware of English and Italian sonnets, stanza poems, haiku… but not a lot else. (Like most people I was familiar with a few poems written in other forms but I’d never given a thought to what those forms were. I’m thinking, for example, of John McCrae’s rondeau, “In Flanders Fields” and Dylan Thomas’ villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”.) A couple of years later, I ran across a palindrome by Gudrun Wight in a chapbook published by some Pender Island poets. What hooked me in both these forms was their use of repetition – it became a fascinating and challenging device for my poetry toolbox. So I started looking for more forms featuring repetition. I found lots – triolets, sestinas, sonnet coronas, terzanelles…

This latest book is written almost entirely in forms that feature repetition. I did that intentionally, letting the various forms act as a kind of metaphor for the repetitive routines that dominate life on a freighter.

J: Your second book, Bewildered Rituals, with a Claire Kujundzic cover, was followed by Belonging and Suddenly, So Much. How did each title deepen your poetic experience?

S: I’m not entirely sure anything I might say about this could accurately track what happened, and when, in this regard. So much seems to percolate away somewhere in the subconscious. Certainly with each book I’ve learned more of the craft – discovering various poetic devices and how they work so I can better use them, tweak them, even ignore them. My early poems were often anecdotal and focused on stories whereas later on I became more interested in, as Emily Dickinson would say, writing things “slant”; not to be obscure, but to allow for more ambiguity – which I think is one way we can approach complexity. I talked a bit about this process with respect to my poem “Crows” in a guest blog [insert link: http://ooligan.pdx.edu/sandy-shreve-guest-poet-post/%5D a few years ago. When I wrote that poem (which is in Suddenly, So Much) and, earlier, my poem “Leaving” (in Belonging) I quite consciously made a shift away from direct story and toward suggestion. With both, I began to figure out how to move past anecdote and into something perhaps a bit deeper. Which is not to say I never wrote another anecdotal poem – just that I learned how to do more than that. I think – hope – this kind of learning must be an ongoing process. In large part it’s what keeps writing interesting and challenging for me.

What hasn’t changed a lot for me is subject matter. Whether I’m writing about the historical or the contemporary, I continue to be interested in the everyday, the lives led by so-called ordinary people. And small-p politics: matters of ethics and justice. And nature – always, nature.

J: You started BC’s Poetry in Transit program in the 90s, a program that has made many poets and transit riders very happy. It’s a wonderful legacy that’s been recognized recently with a location on Alan Twigg’s Literary Map of BC [insert link: http://www.literarymapofbc.ca/]. What can you tell us about this project?

S: First of all, I’m deeply honoured and pleased about being included on that map. And I am especially proud that – unlike most (maybe all) other similar programs, BC’s is province-wide, rather than limited to just one major urban area. I’m also proud that ours has continued for so long. Really there are two reasons for its longevity. First is its popularity. People still come up and thank me for it – and not just the poets. People who use transit love to have something of substance to read instead of ads. There are lots of stories people tell about finding and reading the poems. One of my all-time favourites is a comment from a woman who said she knows a poem she saw on the bus by heart because she “wrote it down and memorized every word of it.” Another is one about two people who met by discussing one of the poems on a bus… and wound up marrying.

Equally important is the role of the co-sponsors. From the beginning, Margaret Reynolds brought the Association of BC Book Publishers on board (pardon the pun…) as a co-sponsor. And after the first three years when I decided it was time to pass the torch, Margaret and the other staff at the association enthusiastically took over administration of the project and have kept it going all these years. And of course we wouldn’t have the program at all without the ongoing support from BC Transit and Translink. I’d love it if more people would take a moment to let them all know how much having the poems on transit means to them. I think that is key to ensuring the program keeps going.

Anyone who’d like more information about the origins of and responses to Poetry in Transit can check out Fiona Lam’s 2010 article on it in The Tyee – recently re-published on the Brick Books Celebration of Canadian Poetry page (scroll down to #65). [insert link: http://www.brickbooks.ca/category/news/celebrate-canadian-poetry/%5D

J: You are the editor, with poet Kate Braid, of In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry. When you started to explore form poetry for this book, were you surprised by what you found? Is form poetry alive and well in Canada?

S: I wasn’t at all surprised that we found a great many very good form poems from the 1800s and early- to mid-1900s. Or even that a lot of contemporary Canadian poets were still including some form poems in their books. But I was surprised by the large number we received in response to our very limited call for submissions for the first edition. And I was pleasantly surprised by how creatively all Canadian poets – historically and today – approach traditional forms. Most are playful and willing to experiment with the rules to come up with wonderful variations.

Kate and I have just finished a second edition under a slightly revised title: In Fine Form – A Contemporary Look at Canadian Form Poetry. It’s due out this fall with Caitlin Press [insert link: http://caitlin-press.com/]. We’d both been gathering form poems for the past decade and by the time we were ready to start work on this edition we had plenty. Enough that we didn’t put out a call for submissions this time around (though for some new sections, like spoken word, we did ask key people in the field to point us toward poets and poems we should consider). So I’d say form continues to be alive and well in this country.

We’re very excited about this new edition. As I said, it includes a section on spoken word, but there are other new sections, too – found poetry, prose poems, pas de deux and doublets… And this time around we even have a couple of children’s poems. We’ve also added poets and poems to bring the anthology up to date. But as always with anthologies, limited space meant we had to make a lot of painful decisions. We had to take out some of the poems that were in the first edition to make room for the new ones. And we had far more excellent new poems than we could possibly add in. Making these kinds of choices is always really hard.

J: I was thinking recently of Sex, Death and Madness, the group you and I founded with Kate Braid in the early 90s. We had a unique focus, in that instead of workshopping, we only discussed problems, issues and successes within our artistic communities, one month discussing, say, jealousy, and another our artistic legacies. Can you tell readers about this group? Who were the group members?

S: This seems like a question I should be putting to you, since, as I recall, you were the one with idea for the group. I remember we were at a Polestar Press party in the very early 90s. I think that’s where we first met, isn’t it? Anyway, we were talking about this and that, and then you said you wished there were someplace where women artists could talk about being artists. Not to workshop what they were doing, but to support each other in doing it. Kate joined our discussion at some point and said Claire Kujundzic knew a lot about co-counselling, that maybe it would be useful to look into that. So Kate got some information about it and the three of us went to a session run by a woman whose name I forget. But after, when we went for tea to debrief, it turned out it wasn’t quite what any of us wanted. Except it gave us some of the listening tools that we brought to the group we wound up forming. I wrote a brief history about us for ABC BookWorld [insert link: http://www.abcbookworld.com/view_essay.php?id=101%5D which talks about this in more detail.

At first there were just five members – we three along with Claire and Christine Hayvice. Together we decided to invite more women, so very soon Cynthia Flood, Joy Kogawa and Sheila Norgate joined us. Later on, Carmen Rodriguez, Margaret Hollingsworth, Bonnie Klein and Thuong Vuong-Riddick joined the group; then after that, Kath Curran and Tana Runyan.

Was it Joy who came up with our name? It seems to me she was the one who, at the end of one particularly free-wheeling discussion, commented that we’d covered it all: sex, death and madness. We’d been thinking for awhile that we wanted to give our group a name. After that comment, someone – I can’t recall who, can you? – suggested that’s what we should call ourselves. Everyone laughed; then we looked around at each other and I think we all thought, well, why not? So we did.

NB: I remember someone said it at Sheila Norgate’s studio on the corner of Abbott and Pender—and it may well have been Joy. I don’t remember who suggested taking it up, though. A photo collage that I made for Joy at that time is now hanging at Historic Kogawa House, so SDM lingers on with a photo on Kate’s back steps in Burnaby. –Jane Eaton Hamilton

 

Sandy Shreve

More of the Just

 

The mother who comforts the tearful child who bloodied her son’s nose.

The estranged friends who get over it.

The citizens of warring countries who refuse to take up arms.

 

The flash mob dancers.

The driver who screeches to a halt in the crosswalk and blanches.

The estranged friend who calls first and the one who gladly answers.

 

The teenager who shovels her elderly neighbour’s driveway, anonymously.

The publisher who chooses not to sell to the chains.

The driver who apologizes to the children he just missed.

 

The ham radio operator who keeps the Morse Code alive.

The husband who reads poetry to his ailing wife.

The publisher who sells, instead, to the staff and the staff, who form a co-op.

 

The sand artists.

The ones who walk down city streets smiling at strangers.

The husband who doesn’t get the poems, but reads them anyway, beautifully.

 

The father who teaches the winter sky to his neighbour’s kids.

The mother who comforts her bloodied son without laying blame.

The ones who stop and talk with street people.

The citizens of countries at war who march arm in arm for peace.

 

after Steven Heighton’s “Some Other Just Ones” and Jorge Luis Borge’s “The Just”

A note about “More of the Just”

 

Steven Heighton issued a challenge of sorts to poets at a Vancouver reading in February 2011. He was promoting his two latest books – Every Lost Country (a novel) and Patient Frame (poetry). Introducing “Some Other Just Ones”, he explained that it was his response to Jorge Luis Borges’ poem “The Just”, in which Borges portrays a few ordinary people doing ordinary things and ends with the line “These people, without knowing it, are saving the world” (Heighton’s translation). Heighton casually remarked that he assumed all poets would probably want to add to what Borges started. When I got home that night, I re-read both poems and began to think about how I might contribute to the conversation.

Both Borges and Heighton wrote list poems, so I wanted to do the same – but rather than use free verse as they did, I decided on a terzanelle. Using (and slightly tweaking) the line repetition feature of this form, I could introduce some characters in one stanza, then revisit them later. Other characters would be interspersed throughout, appearing just once in the unrepeated lines. My hope is that the form helps create a sense of movement, an ongoing goodness.

On Being Vulnerable: Maclean’s interview of Heather O’Neill

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blind contour continuous line sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2014

Heather O’Neill, up for the Giller Prize for the second year in a row, gave a wonderful interview on vulnerability (and the feeling of being naked in public) to Maclean’s Magazine. Her novel ‘Lullabies for Little Criminals’ is one of my beloved novels. She’s up this year for a collection of short fiction, ‘Daydreams of Angels.’ I wish her the best of luck.

Maclean’s

This interview seems like a very long time ago

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It seems like a very long time ago that I flew to Montreal for Blue Metropolis and spoke to Anne Malcolm. A lot of things have changed since that day, and I would have been frightened of some had I known about them in advance. To know that I wouldn’t have been well enough to work in my postage stamp garden all spring would have alarmed me. To know that I would abjure my rights in court would have terrified me (it still does terrify me). The prospect of more cardiac surgery (so many in the last 5 years) would have made me dizzy with aversion. But other things I would have celebrated–the simplicity and cheer of flowers and sunshine, new or deepening friendships, the end of lawyers, the arrival of “Love Will Burst into a Thousand Shapes,” winning Lit Pop 2015, my upcoming novel “Weekend” (spring 2016). But most especially, the arrival of my wee granddaughter and the celebration of my renewed relationship with my eldest. Yes, where there was no person, now there is a person. Hurrah!

Interview with Anne Malcom at Blue Metropolis 2014

Eileen Myles

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The irreduceable Eileen Myles interviewed in her East Village apartment by Ben Lerner:

Eileen Myles in Conversation

Eileen Myles by Rachel Munroe:

After 19 Books and a Presidential Bid, Eileen Myles Gets Her Due

New Republic interview

An interview with author Jordan Rosenfeld

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Jordan Rosenfeld

I was delighted when Jorden Rosenfeld, novelist and writing-guide author, agreed to be interviewed here.

Jordan, you’ve published two novels, ‘Forged in Grace’ and ‘Night Oracle.’ Can you tell us a little about each of them? How did you conceive them? What was your path to publishing? With whom did they come out? What was after-publication like for you?

Hi Jane. I’ve actually published three novels, the latest, Women in Red is published by Booktrope, a hybrid press I’ve really enjoyed working with—quality team, I was very happy with the people involved in making my book. The other two I published through a writer’s collective I co-founded several years ago called Indie-Visible, and I learned so much about publishing at the time and had immense support from this collective of fellow writers (though I have not much to do with its current, fabulous incarnation due to time constraints). Night Oracle was actually originally represented by the same literary agent who represents Gillian Flynn; she thought we had a similar tone and style, but ultimately the book didn’t sell in NY publishing despite some “wonderful” rejections. So I took Forged in Grace and Night Oracle into my own hands when I saw the magic and persistence happening in indie publishing. I think all of my novels are conceived out of the rich, bohemian, but also dark sensibility of growing up a child of the 70s to parents who grappled with addictions of one sort or another, drug dealing, multiple partners, etc, but were also passionately cultured and into books and art and film. Reading and writing were my escape. All my characters are fragments, I think, of my own fascination and horror with people and their secrets, their failings.

You’ve also published three guides to writing: ‘Make a Scene,’ ‘Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life,’ with Rebecca Lawton, and the recent ‘A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice.’ Which is your favourite form to write in, fiction or non-fiction?

And again, I’ve also added a fourth writing guide, my latest from Writer’s Digest Books, co-authored with Martha Alderson, called Writing Deep Scenes: Plotting Your Story Through Action, Emotion & Theme. My heart, when it comes to writing, is fiction. I like to analyze the craft of writing and digest it for other writers, but I’m not really wholly myself unless I’m storymaking and playing with language. I’ve found the essay form to share some similar satisfaction, and I love the how-to, and analytical aspects of the other non-fiction but I’ll die a novelist first and foremost.

Where do you think most new writers run into problems?

Ten years ago, I’d say writers ran into craft problems like not knowing how to write strong scenes or develop compelling characters. Today I feel like writers run into the problem of rushing their work out for publication and many don’t even consider the issues of craft, so you get sloppy storytelling or incomplete characters.

What advice would you give them to get started?

To me starting is the easy part, it’s staying with it, being persistent, and really loving the craft (and your eventual readers) enough to learn to write and rewrite stories so that you’re not just settling for mediocre. In my book on persistence I talk about how necessary it is to find what makes you passionate about your writing so that you will be likely to persist with it, to treat it as a writing practice. Also, one of my graduate teachers said that the only way a story works is if your characters are real to you, living, breathing people, not simulacra.

What about that tenacious bear, the writer’s block? Do you have schemes to keep it from the door?

I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe in fear, resistance, stubbornness, excuses, lies to avoid writing. The fact is, if you sit down and write something, anything every day, you’ll get through the block. The only real exception I’ve seen is if you’ve dealt with a huge loss; grief is a creativity killer sometimes.

What main problem do you think writers who’ve completed MFAs discover? 

I can’t speak for all writers and all MFA programs. I went through one—Bennington’s writing seminars—and on the one hand it expanded me in so many ways, gave me access to writers I needed to learn from, and forced me to work really hard, which every writer needs. In other ways, I think I so wanted to please my professors rather than write from my guts that I think I compressed some of my own voice out of my writing for a few years and honestly, I have rarely been able to write a short story again since I graduated in 2005.

Do you have any comments about the state of literature and publishing today? 

I refuse to be a pessimist. Publishing is about dollars and business, and it will always be at the whim of the masses and the corporate bigwhigs. But literature is always sneaking out the cracks, and I am so buoyed and thrilled by the writers that I feel are my contemporaries and what they are producing; it feels like a revolutionary time to be part of any literary scene.

My Years As A Kleptomaniac by Jordan Rosenfeld

Jordan Rosenfeld’s website.

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Proust Questionnaire: Open Book Toronto

 

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To celebrate ‘Love Will Burst into a Thousand Shapes,’ Open Book Toronto had me back to answer the Proust Questionnaire.

Interview with poet Méira Cook

Interview with Méira Cook

Adam Father

by Méira Cook

He wakes up naked and drunk as a bear
on sun-fermented garbage.
Hungover and queasy and riled up by bees.
Nothing going well today, he moans,
life being short and the craft, ah, long.
Still, might as well take a stab at it,
lording it over misrule and tending the shame
that transforms a garden into Genesis.

So there he goes, stalking through the world
on his back legs, pelting down half-eaten words
from a great height.
Whatever he touches shrieks and bellows or writhes
like the alphabet.
A is for Crocodile, he croaks,
dashing through the Everglades. See you later!
And B is for the Wasp that stings him and C —
C is for the wide blue Ocean
in which he nearly drowns.

But nothing can drown him, our Adam
whose resolution is steadfast
and breezy at last, and buoyant
as a stone boat.

As is so often the case in Canada, I was at The Banff Centre with Méira.  This was in the early 90s.  When I was given the opportunity to interview a poet for Brick Books, I knew one of the ones I wanted to talk to was this talented writer.

A Walker in the City is Méira Cook’s third book of poetry with Brick Books. The opening poem of this collection won first place in the 2006 CBC Literary Awards, and poems in this series were selected as part of the Poetry in Motion initiative. Her earlier books with Brick Books are Toward a Catalogue of Falling (1996) and Slovenly Love (2003).  Méira Cook lives, writes, and walks in Winnipeg.

The “Adam Father” Interview

1) I asked you if you’d mind choosing the poem you wanted to discuss because I think poets are sometimes asked to answer questions about poems they are finished with or don’t maintain interest in or have frequently spoken of. Why did you choose this poem, and what about it interests, or still interests you?

I wanted to choose a recent poem because the thought of going back to an earlier book chills my blood. Oh Lord, what was I thinking, I say to myself although frequently with more commotion. I chose “Adam Father” from my recent collection, A Walker in the City as it’s the poem with the least amount of edits in my reading copy.

My continued interest in it takes the form of the usual colossal jealously we poets harbour towards old Adam. Him being gifted with the power to name things just because he was born at exactly the right moment into a blank and nameless universe. I wondered what exactly my Adam-jealousy consisted of. Was it because he’s a man or riotous or originary? All of the above or equally well, none.

The solution was not to rename the world — “tiger” for “blue” might muck about with species and the colour wheel but it’s no way to escape the cage of language. Instead I thought I would tinker with the heroic stature of the protagonist. I liked the idea of rendering him comic rather than tragic, rowdy rather than serious; a stumbler, a stutterer, a failed artisan.

2) Do you remember writing this poem (rather than the poem as artifact)? Do you remember what specifically generated it, what your poetic interest was as you approached it?

“Adam Father” was one in a series of Father Poems collected under the sequence heading “The Book of Imaginary Fathers.” They were written by one of the characters in A Walker in the City, a cranky, grudgy old fellow, a curmudgeon (a poet!). Some of the other poems in the sequence include “Vowel Father,” “Electricity Father,” “Our Father,” “Writing Father,” and “Dear Father.” The last is a letter addressed to an absent, peripatetic, lost and wavering father.

The Father Poems in the collection are concerned with issues of authority and authorship, with what is inherited through language, and what is lost — always, forever — in the infinitely fragile yet gallant act of writing.

3) I wonder what mis-rule he is lording over?

I like to imagine him lording it over the misrule of the languages and stories and books to come. I’ve sneaked in an allusion to Chaucer in the first stanza, some alphabetical word play in the second stanza, and an idea of the “stone boat” that is both metaphoric and literal, to end off with.

You see it would be easy enough to represent old Adam as mishandling the language that he is in the process of creating but I perceived him as even more of a fumbler. I saw him flailing and stumbling and trampling amongst the promise of all the world’s stories to come: of the Tower of Babel and the Sermon on the Mount, the stories of The Brothers Grimm and the shenanigans of The Marx Brothers, the Library of Alexandria and the drowned books of Prospero, all the stories, the lost fragments, the dead languages, the poetic muse and the demotic impulse, not to mention that crazy, stuttering pig at the end of the cartoon who tells us “That’s all folks!”

 4) Adam is languaging the globe into existence, but his alphabet is skewed, his blundering violent. I had a picture, then, of Genesis as overlarge, clumsy, stormy, destructive. Is this accurate?

Well I certainly like that, Jane. I like your vision of Genesis as unruly, destructive, wayward.

In fact I’ve loved and cherished almost all the interpretations that readers, over the years, have been gracious enough to offer. I am beguiled by the over-ness of a poem and the way that it then becomes part of a different interpretive discourse.

I’ll confide one exception, though. I was invited, one June, to read some of the poems from my new book (A Walker in the City) on CBC Radio. I was awfully excited until I arrived and was told that it was a father’s day celebration and asked to read some of my decidedly uncelebratory Father Poems and then chat sentimentally about my own father with the host (my father, I’m relieved to say, bears scant relation to those fathers). Oh, it was a terrible hour of stuttering self-justification. I felt exactly like a real poet.

 

 

Interview with GG winner Arleen Paré

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I was delighted to be introduced to Arleen Paré this fall when we read together at Russelll Books in Victoria; we had been writing together for some time in what we call the Electronic Garrett, which is in its own way a call and response, only this time between some of Canada’s finest poets (and me), plus I had asked to interview her for Brick Books.  It was a very busy time in Arleen’s life, that day we read, because, that morning, she had just discovered that she was a finalist for the GG.  People will know by now that she won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry this year, and I was stoked that I was invited to the ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, where the kick-ass Kitty Lewis beautifully introduced Arleen and her book “Lake of Two Mountains.”

I interviewed Arleen for Brick Books, where we are both authors.

Arleen Paré is a poet and novelist, author of two previous books including ‘Leaving Now,’ 2012 from Caitlin Press.  Originally from Montreal, she lived for many years in Vancouver, where she worked as a social worker and administrator to provide community housing for people with mental illnesses. She now lives in Victoria with her partner, Chris Fox.

Her award-winning title is poems for a lake where she spent her childhood summers.

1. I asked you if you’d mind choosing the poem you wanted to discuss because I think poets sometimes answer questions about poems they are finished with or don’t maintain interest in.  Why did you choose this poem, and what about it interests, or still interests you?

‘Call and Response’ represents the heart of Lake of Two Mountains. In the same way that nature uses a loop system to maintain itself and in ways that humans can only guess at or research, nothing that’s always apparent, I wanted this collection of poems to speak to each other in order to build on itself.  I wanted to write about this system of interdependencies, how humans too are woven into the loops.  But I also wanted to evoke the rhetorical and religious methodologies of call and response, for instance, in the Catholic mass, so that the tone of the collection could take on some sense of the sacred, which then reflects the monastic life. It also is suggestive of the way memory operates, memories and our responses to them.

2.Your book is about the Lake of Two Mountains.  Do you remember composing Call and Response in particular?  What did you want to say about the topography of the area?   

I wanted to show this topography so that the reader could imagine the lake and its environments more easily, graphically, calling out the names of the trees, for instance, the lake`s fauna, geology, the geographic origins of the lake, to pull the lake into the whole of central Canada.

3. If geography can have a call and response, as you imagine here, does it have a sensate purpose?  Is it just a cellular celebration (as it were), or, perhaps, can it alter the globe?  

I can only imagine these answers. Does it have a sensate purpose?  It does allow the cycle of life to spin through and on, but what kind of sensate does a maple tree include?  I don’t know.  I know that the leaves of some trees curl up when rubbed, but that’s not what a maple tree does.  On the other hand, I think any alteration in a single natural loop system could possibly alter more than its own loop, so perhaps, it could escalate to alter the globe.  Perhaps.

4.  Does the call and response ever see beyond itself?  Does it ever include panic at environmental degradation, if not within its self-ascribed borders, but in a wider way?  If it talks to sturgeon and green frogs, does it converse, too, with humans?

In the way that butterflies, honey bees, frogs tell us that something is very wrong by the dwindling of their numbers over time, I suppose we can imagine the flora and fauna conversing with us, warning us in this case.  In Call and Response, the human/arboreal exchange is limited to the human act of tapping into bark producing maple syrup.

5.  Is there anything else you wanted to say about this particular poem, Arleen?

I wrote this poem using a governmental survey of the Lake of Two Mountains region.  It was dated and spare.  I craved more information; I couldn’t find sufficient geographical information about the lake. I felt hamstrung because I don’t speak French well enough to know whether more and/or better information is available about this area in French. I now know there is, though I’m not sure more information would have altered or improved the poem. In the end, the form of the poem, the call and response structure, determined its purpose and end.

Call and Response

by Arleen Paré

1.

The Canadian Shield calls to the

in Timiskaming Lake. The Shield shelters

 

more than half the land. The , tectonic,

replies with the Ottawa River, whose waters run east

 

and spread at the place of two mountains.

Becoming lake. In this way the lake is of lake,

 

song of song, Deux-Montagnes out of Timiskaming.

The lake there, at the two mountains, calls

 

to the trees near and around, riparian trees

on rocky shores and the terrestrials

 

within two miles of the shore. Perpetual loop.

One verse then the other. Connecting

 

trees to the sand, the orthic, melanic, soil,

tree canopies, consolations of climate.

 

The way birds in the morning define the new day,

call sunrise from night.

 

2.

The trees call to each other their own

names: sugar maple, hickory, eastern white pine.

Black willow chants the alphabets of green ash.

Yellow birch calls to red maple, chokecherry to beech.

They bear multiple names, formal, scientific,

common French and Mohawk.

 

And no names at all. Their calls

travel through air, water, through earth,

sedges and shrubs, algae

and cumulus clouds. All conversing.

 

Rocks and black leeches. Sturgeon, green frogs.

Limestone and vascular plants.

 

3.

How does the sky

reply when silver-backed leaves tug at the

 

blocking the passage to sea?

Clouds ring with rain

 

and the lake lifts small pewter washes

in rows of applause.

 

What listens to sugar maples’ clear amber flow?

Rays: yellow and cold.

 

Fine beads of drizzle

hiss the filigreed ice.

 

What answers flood cover drowning hickory knees?

Clay or silt. Till or clay loam. Sap in the spring.

4.

Sugar maple is always and in all places attentive,

alert for replies from the open terrain.

 

The soil, fine or sandy, alluvium,

measures the length of flood time in spring,

 

speaks a name to the climate,

the warmest in the whole province. Call

 

and response: a dominant tree,

sugar tree that humans can tap into.

 

Fat Ankles

Screen shot 2014-10-28 at 12.19.02 PM

 

I’m really pleased and proud to have this small story up on Compose today.  I wrote it a bajillion years ago and have always had a warm spot for it.   It’s about a young woman visiting back east whose cousin twists her arm to go to a funeral for someone she never met.

Fat Ankles

Interview with Jane Eaton Hamilton

 

 

 

A Few Questions About Writing

by Jane Eaton Hamilton on July 14, 2014

 

My colleague Julie Paul asked me to take part in a blog tour in the lit community across Canada; I was tagged by Aaron Shepard.  Recently, I was tagged by Cornelia Hoogland.

I am to answer these four questions and tag two other Canlit writers. I don’t know who I’m tagging yet because I dropped this ball, but when I do, I’ll come back here and add them.

What am I working on?

I stopped writing for 8 years, and came back to it just 3.5 years ago.

Most immediately, after an April month trying out NaPoMo for size (that is to say, write a poem a day for National Poetry Month, which I found exceedingly challenging), I decided to try a 31-day mini-novel. I set a goal of 1000 words a day, which brought me to a very concise romance novel by June’s end. Sometimes I battled to get out words until 3 in the morning, but infrequently they were done by 1 pm.

These occasional month-long exercises are what I am doing instead of what I’d call really writing. My capacity for real writing has been stretched very thin by illness for the past 3.5 years. I have little energy, and little ability to concentrate, so writing comes in fits and starts often with long long pauses. Ending points seem to help—I think I can I think I can I think I can for only 30 days before I can let myself drop (and drop the ball).

Have been pottering with a novel, but I don’t even have a second draft yet.

I haven’t challenged myself to write a full-length short story since I’ve been back, but I think it’s a reasonable next goal. Once I do that, I’ll conclude I’m back in the game.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Everyone’s writing is idiosyncratic, but beyond that, I don’t know the answer to this question. Once Linda Spalding called my stories “crisp and clean, tender and dangerous.” I’ve always loved her description and would love to write stories that fit it.

I write mostly queer literature—maybe that’s a difference, at least from the mainstream.

 Why do I write what I do?

I write what interests me. Age is a good thing; one of its many prizes is the freedom from caring so much what others think or the marketplace needs.

I am a very personal writer, but I am hardly a memoirist despite having published a memoir. In both poetry and fiction, I am writing fictively, assembling and connecting originally non-connecting materials. It works like those memory trays we used to pass at children’s birthday parties in the 1960s covered by linen napkins. The 30-second reveal: an egg, a lighter, a piece of chalk, an address book, a piece of toast, some white string, a bobby pin, three cat’s eye marbles, four jacks, a hockey logo, a candle stub, five buttons. Write down what you remember. Assembling stories or poems is a matter of taking materials that never before fitted together and building associations between them.

For instance, in writing “Smiley,” the CBC/Canada Writes winning story, I wanted to spend time with weaver birds in South Africa’s Namaqualand. I had spent time there with photographer Freeman Patterson photographing wildflowers, but as on most group travel ventures, I found my interests were elsewhere—in this case I sat under trees colonized by hundreds of weaver birds, where I could watch and photograph their antic lives up close. More recently, I read an article Jonathan Franzen wrote for the National Geographic about the plight of songbirds in the Mediterranean; the article has been collapsing the possibilities of my heart every day since. So without conscious thought—or at least without conscious censoring–I conflated those two very separate truths, songbird deaths and thriving weaver birds, though in reality they happen a continent apart. Beyond that, I started with an image of a mother that was loosely-drawn from Charles Schultz, the powerful voice in the background of Charlie Brown’s life. When our mothers disapprove of us, they do seem as huge and strong as wooly mammoths.

Did I tell a real story? Yes and no. When I was younger than this child, in the mid 1960s, before there were LGBT role models, I insisted I was a boy. When I was my character’s age, I bound my nascent breasts with strips from a torn bedsheet during overnights, believing the pressure at night would push the nasty things back in. I made promises to God to stop stealing sugar. Our bathroom didn’t have a lock, so I was always putting the binder on at bedtime, and taking it off in the morning, terrified I’d get caught. So that fragment of the story is more or less true, although my family never found out.

In the story, the little boy experiences a first love, and affixes pendulous bird nests to his genitals as testicles. This isn’t from personal experience, but interestingly, a couple days after I finished the piece, I remembered finding an oriole nest as a little girl, and hatching exactly this scheme for myself—but I hadn’t remembered this even during writing, and I didn’t go through with it.

Even though this story is about a little trans guy, to me it’s just as much a testament to human spirit because of how Jake manages to close the terrifying distance that keeps him from his mother (and therefore her power over him intact). It touched me when his mom finally saw he was a boy and set out to help, rather than hinder.

How does my writing process work?

My favourite of my stories to write are highly voice-driven, such as ‘Hunger’ in my collection Hunger or ‘Too Young Boys’ in my collection July Nights or ‘Cripples’ or ‘Easter’ in my fledgling story collection. They’re a hoot because as a writer I’m just chasing along as someone gregarious takes over my page. Inevitably, these are women I wouldn’t much care for in real life, but as characters they’re lively and flawed, very interesting to work with.

Process, though, depends very much on genre.

When I write novels, I set word limits per day and am very disciplined about reaching them.

If I’m writing a full-length story, and have a very compelling character who is unfolding the narrative well, I’ll try to write it through, full-length and weak, in one sitting (generally a 10-12-hour day). If I am writing a story that doesn’t arrive fully-fledged, I’ll write and tweak for a month or so. I often can’t figure out stories, though, can’t make them yield, in which case I might not come back to one for years.

If I’m writing poetry, my process is all over the place—sometimes it involves long days, but other times I’ll just quickly jot a line I want to come back to at some point.

Non-fiction is the hardest for me. I have no talent for it. I always strive to lift it out of the mundane, but this is for some reason nearly impossible for me.

My editing process is rigorous, but even there, process varies—some pieces go to an outside editor before initial submission, while others don’t. Periodical or anthology editors have their own two cents to add. The important thing for me is to be open to editing (which is easy for me). Editors in my lengthy experience don’t wreck mss. Editors fix them. Editors are artists with large marble boulders, chinking away until they find the statue—the statue I carved—inside.

 

.   Links in the Literary Procession   .

 

 

CBC North by Northwest

The March 30 2014 podcast at North by Northwest contains a small clip of me reading from “Smiley.”  Host Sheryl MacKay.

North by Northwest

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