Robert Wiersema is the author of three novels, a novella, a memoir and, most recently, a short story collection. “It’s not that Wiersema wants to tell a good story, it’s that he’s driven to tell a good story” [The Province]. Wiersema is a constant book reviewer for the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, National Post, Vancouver Sun and other newspapers and magazines. His weekly books column, Beyond the Bestseller, airs on CBC Radio’s All Points West. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at Vancouver Island University and also teaches at Camosun College.
Interview by Andrew Templeton
Andrew Templeton: I’ve just finished reading Seven Crow Stories and have so, so many questions, none of which I can ask here because of the nature of the stories. Each takes the form of a mystery – the reader is not quite sure what is going on until the final resolution. So any direct questions about content would lead to spoilers, so let’s save those questions for the pub.
What I think I can safely say is that each story centres on an encounter between two worlds – what we might call the seen and the unseen – and how these encounters resolve themselves provides both the underlying tension that propels the stories forward but also imbues them with a sense of wonder – if I can use that word – at the power of hidden worlds can hold.
Robert Wiersema: Thanks for using the word wonder. The idea of wonder is important to me on several levels. The first is that very emotional response: I want to elicit wonder. Well, perhaps not elicit. Perhaps remind readers – and myself – of the wonders not only lurking in the shadows but around us, all the time. We lose that, that sense of wonder, I think. We grow out of being amazed, and I find that heartbreaking. Fiction, in whatever form, can remind us of that state of awe, of amazement, and remind us of its loss.
The second level of wonder is the idea of the unanswered question. Questioning is at the heart of the experience of wonder and with these stories I wanted there to be unanswered questions, mysteries that will take root in the mind and keep that experience of wonder alive…
AT: So, I’m curious, how would you categorize these stories? Where should they be shelved?
RW: I’m often asked how I would define my work, what category it would fit into. And it’s not an easy question. It’s sort of fantasy, but not really. It’s kind of magic realism, but only kind of. It’s got elements of horror, but it’s not horror. There’s some weirdness, but it’s not really weird fiction.
In my mind, I write wonder stories, which is a term I’ve nicked from the Germans. In Germany, their version of fairy tales is sometimes referred to as marchen, or wonder tales. I heard that and I was like, yeah, that’s it. That’s what I do. Stories of wonders, just to the side of fairy tales.
There’s something else – something I probably shouldn’t talk about, but what the heck. I’m currently at work on the early stages of a novel that I realized, a few weeks back, was the third book in a trilogy. Not a trilogy with shared plots or shared characters – there’s none of that – but a thematic trilogy. I’ll quote from my workbook here: “WONDER. There it is – that’s the key, right there, the link between the three books: wonder. I’ll likely never refer to them this way in public – or likely ever refer to them as a trilogy at all – but this is how I’m going to refer to them in my mind – The Wonder Trilogy.”
AT: Does that mean that two of your previous novels are part of “The Wonder Trilogy?”
RW: No, these are all works in progress. I’m deep in revisions on a novel called The Fallow Heart, I’ve got a handwritten manuscript for a novel called Cold Roses, and the third one, which I’m actively writing now, the subject of that realization, is called Strayed.
AT: Intriguing. Something to look forward to. I wonder if we can unpack a little about your approach to writing the stories in this collection. They are set in very recognizable realities – worlds that we all know well or are at least familiar with – yet there is another layer, another world at work that is also impacting on the characters.
RW: I start either with a very loose concept (I want to write a ghost story, or, rituals around childbirth, or, running away to join the circus) or with a character (a country singer on the road, or a young man whose brother disappeared when they were children), and whichever one comes first, the other comes almost immediately after, just a fractional delay. Almost simultaneous, but slightly out of phase, which I think works really well.
Premise comes next. “Okay, I want to write a ghost story, I’ve got this character, so where are they?”
Once I’ve got that established, then I start to write, with no real idea where I’m going. Certainly no outline. The story goes, built on that dynamic – as you say, the layering – of the overall thing (the concept, the premise, the type of story) and the characters. It’s crucial to me that the characters are real. Everything comes out of the characters — they decide what to do, they determine what happens next and they’re where the readers’ attention lies. If the main character doesn’t ring true, it doesn’t matter what happens in the story, it’s not going to have any significant effect on the reader.
So, basically, ideally, I make you love a character, then I let terrible things happen to them.
Or fantastic, wonderful things. You never know.
Frankly, I never know, until I hit the end. That’s the joy of it, for me.
AT: For a collection that covers twenty-five years of writing – what changes have you noticed in your craft or approach?
RW: You know, that’s a good question, and it really cuts to the heart of the book itself.
Despite the changes, I think I’m the same writer, and I think that’s what the collection shows. I still approach stories the same way. Typically, if I have an idea for a story, the clock starts ticking. I’ve got about 72 hours to write a first draft, or the flame sputters… So, the expiration date on how long I have with an idea has remained the same.
I like to think that my craft has improved — I’m a better writer now than I was in the early 90s.
I want to say that I’m a lot less… self-involved… now, but the most recent story, “The Last Circus” is one of the most autobiographical things I’ve ever written, and I wrote that last summer… I say autobiographical, but that’s not quite right.
AT: Indeed, anyone whose read “The Last Circus” might be curious to think of it as autobiographical but there really is a sense of lived reality to the piece. And this is true of all the stories. They maybe tales of wonder but the characters are rich in detail. There’s also a great deal of specificity to place.
RW: I think it’s more place than life.
But that’s not entirely true… I always tell my students that one of the worst pieces of advice for writers is to “write what you know” – it’s so limiting, and tends to mire writers in the swamps of thinly disguised memoir. I tend to go more with “write what you fear” and “write FROM what you know”. For me, that’s Victoria and Agassiz (where I grew up and which I have revisioned as a place called Henderson). Not the physical spaces so much, though I like to be as accurate as I can be, but rather the psychic geography of those places. What they mean, to me as a writer, and in those stories.
As for autobiographical content, well, the collection is bookended by two pieces, “Grateful” and “The Last Circus”, one of the oldest stories and definitely the most recent. Both are autobiographical, despite the fact that they bear no resemblance to any actual events in my life whatsoever. Yes, the circus came to Agassiz when I was a kid, but what happens to the main character in that story, when he visits the circus, didn’t happen to me.
Or did it?
That’s always the thing.
Robert Wiersema will be appearing Saturday, September 30th at Close-Up Magic, 3:30 at Intrepid Theatre.
Andrew is a playwright who has had worked produced in Vancouver, Toronto and London, UK. Now based in Victoria he runs the workshop studio space, GOOD with his partner Jill Margo.KEEP READING
by Nancy Pearson
Nancy Pearson: Where I Live Now portrays how the unique solitude of your life on the ranch offered you the opportunity to become a writer. Following Peter’s death and your move to Calgary, I wonder if you are writing from within a different kind of solitude, despite being closer to family and friends and in a large city?
Sharon Butala: Yes, it is a different kind of solitude. It has a purpose that is more in trying to block out the city. And writing Where I Live Now was pretty painful and difficult because I had to go back through things that I didn’t want to think about, and was so glad when it was done. I was so happy to be writing material that didn’t take me through that misery.
NP: Your memoir navigates through the complexities of loss, grief, understanding and “rebuilding.” Of the many elements I admire about Where I Live Now, one stands out in particular — your use of complex sentence structures to reflect movement between your external and internal realms. I wonder if you could elaborate on this technique. An example from page 147:
I believe that once you find yourself – your real self – still there inside that old-woman exterior, and you begin to see yourself as alive and, indeed, as worthy of a life, a real life (instead of living in a steady state only as a person nearing death), that drabness will slowly disappear as the spirit flares up again.
SB: I am so lucky to have an editor that lets me do that. As soon as I began to feel myself to be really a writer, I knew that I loved nothing so much as long sentences. And most editors just don’t let you do it. I think that’s my natural mode, so it’s not as if I spend a lot of time thinking I’m going to write a long sentence; it’s just how my brain works.
NP: In looking at the lengthy list of the fiction and non-fiction books you’ve published, there’s almost an equal number of each, and it appears that you were probably working on more than one at a time. What do you see as being the key differences and similarities between the genres?
SB: More than once I have said and believe that there really isn’t a difference between the two. In nonfiction you use all the fiction writing techniques. When you’re writing in fiction, you are often drawing on real life. The difference for me is in intent and in the contract, the unspoken contract, that you make with your reader when you say: I am writing nonfiction. Your reader has the right to believe that what you write is factually true. The reader of fiction, on the other hand, recognizes when something is true. As Farley Mowat said, “I never let facts get in the way of a good story.”
NP: When writing memoir there can sometimes be a fine balance to maintain in order to preserve and respect another individual’s privacy. Peter was very present for me when I read Where I Live Now through depictions of his actions (such as his kindness towards neighbours in need), his world and his support of your writing – this allowed me to develop my own sense of his character and individuality. What would you recommend to writers who want to tell a very personal story but aren’t certain how much detail to include about others involved?
SB: The more personal you are in what you have to say, the more impersonal your writing needs to be. And then the opposite is true – the more factual, cut and dried, the more you should write in an intimate and personal way.
Sharon Butala will be appearing Saturday, September 30th at What the Journey Brings, 1:30 at Intrepid Theatre and Saturday, September 30th at the Voices Lifted | Where Art Begets Art | Evening Gala, 7:30 at the Metro Theatre and Sunday, October 1st at Writing the Memoir | Workshop with Sharon Butala, 10:00am at GOOD.
by Emily Olsen
Leanne Dunic is a musician, artist, and author of the book To Love the Coming End published by Bookthug/Chin Music Press 2017. Dunic is the singer/guitarist in the band The Deep Cove. Their debut album To Love the Coming End of the World is a companion to the lyric-prose book.
“We’re called The Deep Cove. On the Mainland, people think we’re named after the Deep Cove on the North Shore, and on the Island, people think we’re referencing the Deep Cove in North Saanich, but really, we chose the name as we felt it best represented our sound. I grew up on the Island and have a special connection with its Deep Cove. With the purchase of TLTCE, three songs from the companion album are available for free download. We’re performing on September 28 with an ‘unplugged’ set especially chosen for VFA. We’ll have our official launch of our album TLTCEOTW at The Fox Theatre November 4th, but should have some pre-release copies for VFA.”
Dunic is recognized internationally for her work in the visual arts, she is published in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, has three chapbooks and holds a certificate in Creative Writing from Simon Fraser University. Dunic is the Artistic Director of the Powell Street Festival, winner of the 2015 Alice Munro Short Story Contest, and is an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia.
I had the privilege of asking Leanne a few questions prior to the Festival.
Emily Olsen: In your book, To Love the Coming End, how was your writing process influenced by the songwriting and music from your companion album(or vice versa)?
Leanne Dunic: I finished the book just before starting to record the album. It was during that session that I wrote the title track (To Love the Coming End of the World). At the time, my book had a different title, but I saw the subconscious cohesion of the themes and eventually changed the title of my book to To Love the Coming End.
EO: What has the completion of this book taught you about your identity as an author?
LD: I’m still learning how to articulate/describe what it is that I do, and feel more comfortable with the more general label of “artist” since I’m a master of none. This book was a discovery of my literary voice, the style intuitive and genre-fluid. I can’t help but think that this is related to my mixed-race identity.
EO: What inspires you, what gets your creative blood pumping?
LD: The unexpected excites me. Music and musicians: Peter Green, Rick Nielsen, Paul McCartney, Adrian Belew (of whom my current writing project is centered on).
EO: Do you have a favorite writing genre, do you naturally slip into one over another?
LD: Music is my favorite genre to write in, and not necessarily the lyric component, but the music itself.
EO: Tell me about superstition.
LD: Growing up half-Chinese and half-Croatian, there was no escaping it! I think everyone has a degree of superstition. Many of my readers identify with the themes around the number 11 featured in TLTCE.
Leanne Dunic will be appearing Thursday, September 28th at The Literary Twist, 7:30 at the Vancouver Island School of Arts.
Emily Olsen is a Victoria writer who’s passion for people and the environment inspires her. She is currently working on her first book of Poetry.
Rose Morris: Your novel Little Sister is about a woman who can leave her body behind and inhabit the body of another person. Is writing a form of leaving your own body for other peoples’?
Barbara Gowdy: I don’t enter other bodies, no. I have to imagine them, of course, especially as most of my characters are physically different from me. But where I tend to go is either into a character’s mind or into the next word.
RM: Little Sister‘s protagonist, Rose, manages a cinema. Do you consider the novel (or Rose herself) to be cinematic in any way?
BG: I do, definitely. When Rose enters the body and mind of Harriet, she is experiencing what we all experience when we watch a good movie: she is being granted intimate access to another person’s emotions and circumstances without that other person’s knowledge or consent. She is closed off from Harriet’s thoughts, however. But that’s also like our connection to a character in a movie, because unless there’s a voice-over, we can’t know what is really going on in the character’s head.
RM: Your work has been described as falling into the genre of ‘Canadian Gothic.’ What does Canadian Gothic mean to you? What differentiates it from American Gothic or the Gothic genre?
BG: It was the critic Philip Marchand who slotted me into the gothic genre. I’ve never understood why. In fact, to answer your question, I Googled ‘Gothic Fiction’ and here’s what came up: The term ‘gothic fiction’ refers to a style of writing that is characterized by elements of fear, horror, death, and gloom, as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion. Does that describe my work? I don’t see it. I don’t consider myself to be a purveyor of gloom, death and horror. When I hear the word ‘gothic,’ I think of castles and vampires. And castle and vampires interest me not at all.
RM: How much has magic realism influenced you? Do you consider your work to be magic realism?
BG: I suppose magic realism has influenced me to a degree, but, again, I don’t think of myself as fitting into any particular category. I would say that my subject matter is influenced more by non-fiction than it is by fiction.
RM: What sort of non-fiction?
BG: For the past decade or so I’ve been reading articles and books about consciousness: what consciousness is, what makes us conscious. The essential question I was wrestling with throughout the writing of Little Sister was, how can you know that you’re you and not me? And then, carrying on from that, I wondered, how you would experience yourself if there weren’t any me, if you were the only person, the only creature, the only thing within your sensory field? Would your sense of self disappear? Or do you harbor a true, absolute self—a singular consciousness—independent of sensory experience?
RM: Did you come up with any answers?
BG: Not even scientists can agree on the answers, but I was operating under the assumption that there is an absolute self, a self so durable that it can steal into another mind and return undamaged. I’m not sure whether or not I believe it, though. It’s a novelist thing, the idea of a true self that the protagonist will get a glimpse of after being pitted against various obstacles, the idea that he or she will “grow” a little, by which we mean become self-aware, despite how, in our own lives, self-awareness is so elusive. We can list our preferences, dislikes, ambitions, regrets, memories—we certainly recognize facets of ourselves—but do we ever know who we are?
RM: Your novel The White Bone is written from the consciousness of elephants. How is writing the voice of an animal different from a human character?
BG: The big difference for me was the amount of research required. I began researching The White Bone in 1995, before you could get much information online. I read physical books, anything I could get my hands on, anything having to do with elephants and Africa, the flora and fauna, the topography, the sounds and smells, the weather. I went to Kenya and did some touristy field research there. Only once I’d really immersed myself in the biology and life of an African elephant did I start writing. At that point it was a matter of keeping my imagination nailed to the facts, to what is known. Everything that the elephants do physically in The White Bone they do in real life. My job was to invest their behavior with motivation. That’s the job of any writer with any character: invest the character with motivation—credible, persuasive motivation. Whether or not you get it right is another matter. I’m sure if African elephants read Canadian fiction, they’d hurl my book across the savannah.
Barbara Gowdy will appear Saturday, September 30 at 7:30 at the Voices Lifted Evening Gala with Gurjinder Basran, Sharon Butala, and Zoey Leigh Peterson at The Metro Theatre and Sunday, October 1 at 2:00 in conversation with Zsuzsi Gartner at the Greater Victoria Pubic Library.
Rose Morris is a writer and editor living in Victoria, BC. She has an MA in literature from the University of Victoria and she does editorial work for Room Magazine and The Malahat Review.
Clea Roberts lives just outside of Whitehorse in the Yukon. Her second collection of poetry, Auguries, was published this spring by Brick Books. Her debut collection, Here is Where We Disembark (Freehand Books) was a finalist for the 2010 League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Award and was translated into German. When not writing, Roberts facilitates a workshop on grief through Hospice Yukon and is the Artistic Director of the Kicksled Reading Series.
by Ariel Gordon
Ariel Gordon: What do you want people to know about Auguries?
Clea Roberts: It might be good to start with an explanation of the title, which I’ll admit is kind of obscure.
Auguries is the ancient Roman practice of drawing an imaginary field in the sky, observing the types and behaviours of birds that fly through that field, and then using that information to provide advice to decision makers.
I’m also told that auguries can involve the reading of animal entrails, but that would have required a completely different book cover.
I guess I see the poems in this collection as auguries in their own right—my notes and observations regarding the wild and domestic spheres, based on who or what I encounter and what happens during those encounters. I don’t see myself as a purveyor of advice, but I do believe that, poetry, even if it doesn’t result in the reader making a decision, does prepare us for a decision. As Muriel Rukeyser would say, “a poem invites a total response”. In other words, poetry isn’t action, but it prepares us for action.
AG: Tell me about the difference between a first book and a second book.
CR: The poems in both books came together in much the same way. I have my routines and every poem germinates based on the ecosystem of my lived experience. Perhaps I had a better understanding of my subject and my creative process going into the second book, so it took me a little less time to bring the manuscript to the point where I could see it as a whole.
I’ve recently finished collaborating on a Japanese translation of Here Is Where We Disembark. During the process, the translator often asked me questions regarding my intent in certain poems. I became acutely aware in re-reading the poems that I could answer his questions in one of two ways: as my past self (trying to disengage hindsight), or as my current self (using the years since I’d written the poems as a lens of interpretation). I could answer his questions by trying to return to the headspace I was in 7 years ago when I wrote the poems, or I could answer the question based on what I now see in the poems according to what I know and understand of the world and myself.
So, to answer your question, the difference between the first book and the second book is, fundamentally and surprisingly, me.
AG: Tell me about writing after becoming a parent. Has your writing process changed very much?
CR: My daughter was 2 years-old when my first book, Here Is Where We Disembark, came out with Freehand Books in 2010. Now I have a 6 year-old and a 9 year-old, and another poetry book, Auguries. How did that happen? I feel very fortunate.
I’ve heard a lot of women writers (most recently, Laura Trunkey) say that with motherhood, it becomes easier to be less precious about the time of day and the environment in which writing takes place. On the whole, I think this versatility is a good thing, because it points to our commitment to writing—that it endures despite a lack of personal time and space. And perhaps as time and space shrink around one’s writing practice, it allows the practice to stand out and to be more defined by the life that brings it meaning—like a landscape under snow.
AG: We turn to poetry at our highest and lowest points—ecstasy and mourning are the ends of its continuum. How do you write about the death of a parent and the birth of a child but also daily life?
CR: When my daughter was born, I remember a nurse telling me that it was normal to feel some grief over the loss of my past self. How strange, I thought—what she was saying didn’t align with the rest of what I’d heard about motherhood (that it was All So Wonderful). But sometimes misalignments like these create the crack that lets the light in, so to speak. Becoming a mother is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. But it altered my identity in a really fundamental way and, particularly at first, that shift didn’t always feel good.
During my mother’s illness and death, despite the sad and frightening circumstances, we laughed a lot and felt a lot of joy together. Knowing I was going to lose her, and that we would no longer be able to communicate, provided a foundation for some very ecstatic and tender moments together. Like when I walked her into the ocean for one last swim, or when I, despite my lack of talent in coiffure, learned how to do her hair and make-up because that was important to her.
My experiences in becoming a parent and losing a parent taught me that our deepest sorrows are often seeded with our greatest joys. And what would our greatest joys be if we couldn’t see the faint, backward letters of our deepest sorrows when we hold up our joy in celebration?
The fact that day-to-day life happens in between and within the moments of ecstasy and mourning is what continues to amaze me. I think those things are worth trying to capture in poetry. I think the poets main job in that sense, is to be present in the small moments—which usually turn out to be much more significant than we think.
AG: What has teaching writing about grief taught you?
CR: First and foremost, I have learned that whether you are a “teacher” or a “student”, it is a great comfort to gather and talk about grief and loss with other people. Perhaps the commonality of suffering makes it more bearable, but I think seeing vulnerability in others leaves me with an incredible sense of awe. Expressing vulnerability requires so much bravery and strength, that I’m completely humbled by the people who sign up for the workshops.
I’ve taught two kinds of workshops for Hospice Yukon on writing and grief—the first focuses on using poetry as a tool to heal from grief, while the second uses journaling for the same purpose. I decided to teach both because I often use journaling as a way to get to poetry. In my writing practice, I often start by getting the details down with journaling and then winnow the poem from there.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that the journaling workshop tends to attract people who are experiencing grief over a very recent loss, and that the poetry workshop tends to attract people who have had some time to process and consider what they are thinking and feeling about a particular loss. It’s my impression that the journaling workshop participants are dealing with grief in a very raw state—they come to unleash the unsayable and to weather the storm just by finding an anchor in words.
Conversely, the poetry workshop participants come to learn the tools that will help them craft a fully-fledged response to their grief. They might have, at least temporarily, entered a clearing in the dark forest of mourning and they are looking to draw a map using words.
At first, this struck me as interesting because poetry is often considered a form of expression that we turn to in times of high, unreserved emotion (political strife or triumph, celebrations of life, life transitions). But then I realized, I don’t write a poem from a chaotic state of mind–the waters have to be calm before I can plumb their depths. Wordsworth said “poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility”. If this is true, then it makes sense to say that journaling is emotion in the midst of the chaos. Both are really important points of practice for me.
What makes poetry so powerful (and what we reach for at our highest and lowest points) is that it refines vulnerability to its essence and makes universal, abstract emotions very personal and accessible. There is nothing impulsive about poetry and the extreme compression afforded by poetic devices (metaphor, onomatopoeia, caesura, alliteration, metre etc) makes every word count.
AG: How does grief write differently than other emotional states?
CR: I like the idea your question suggests very much–that grief may write differently than other emotional states. Grief can have many nuances and is often a lot more complex than just being really, really sad that someone has died. Sometimes grief is shadowed by our own fears of mortality. Sometimes a death of a loved one can bring us unexpected relief and/or guilt. Sometimes we are not grieving the person we lost at all, but the person we wish they had been or the love they never got. Sometimes grief contains another, older grief that must be processed, and once that older grief is opened up we discover yet another grief—like a set of nesting dolls.
The different stages of grief, as articulated by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, encompass so many different emotional states—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I’m not sure that we have mapped out other emotional landscapes as clearly as we have mapped out grief. It makes sense, therefore, that the state of grief—whatever the source—should be a wellspring for the most profound writing from our deepest selves.
Clea Roberts will be appearing Friday, September 29 at 3:30-5:00 at the Greater Victoria Pubic Library with Gregory Scofield and Julie Paul.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.KEEP READING
Steven Heighton’s latest collection of poems “the Waking Comes late” is highly evolved work from a writer who “in the early evening of a life”, is a master of form and sound. The poems integrate with other texts, some anonymous or obscure, others more well known, Celan or Akhmatova for example. Heighton engages with and pays homage to these voices to create a new level of work “beyond gravity, grave, ego”. From one of Canada’s finest lyrists, here are beautiful, wise poems glittering with music, echoes and subtle rhyme.
by Miranda Pearson
MP: How did you arrive at the title of your latest book of poems, “The Waking Comes Late”?
SH: It’s a phrase in the book, and also the title of the poem in which the phrase appears. Sleep and waking–on both literal and metaphorical levels–have been preoccupying me for a long time. I could see that preoccupation arising often in the manuscript, so the title seemed right. (It only now occurs to me that the title of my next book, a novel–“The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep”–is closely related.)
MP: Could you speak to the notion of “approximations”? My understanding is that they are not translations as much as responses, or homages.
SH: Some are traditional translations and some are much freer, looser, to the point where, yes, you might call them responses or homages. I see “approximation” as a rubric that’s roomy enough to comprise a wide range of approaches, from more or less faithful to extremely free.
MH: How did you arrive at the particular poems you worked with in your “approximations”?
SH: Some are poems that I love. Some are poems that I don’t love but that engross and intrigue me and make me want to dig into them farther. Some are poems that I invented, though no one ever seems to notice.
MP: You have been travelling lately, for instance to Scotland. How was that?
SH: Terrific. I love both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Great walking & pubbing cities. And such welcoming people.
MP: Lastly could you talk about your teaching style and any plan or hope that you have for the workshop in Victoria?
SH: I guess you’d have to ask someone else about my teaching style. As for plans and hopes, that’s easy: I want to get writers thinking about poetry and prose in a slightly different way and I want to get them writing in the workshop. Above all, I want them to enjoy it, in the sense of an enjoyable and exhilarating challenge.
Steven Heighton will read Friday, September 23 in Pure Poetry. His Masterclass is now full.KEEP READING
On Fire, the Afterlife, and Breaking the Line: an Interview with Poet Carla Funk
By Leah Callen
I talked to Carla Funk, former Poet Laureate of Victoria, about her latest collection, Gloryland. When I finished reading these poems, I felt like I had been in church: humbled, weirdly emotional, and longing to do something more with my life.
LC: There is so much music in your poems. There’s the literal music in the lines (and I did feel compelled to read Gloryland aloud to enjoy it properly). But there was also this recurring motif of music, from the homeless dogs who are an “opera in tooth and fur” to your mother’s voice “like a low radio.” And just the general idea of the verb “tuning” – tuning our darkness “to brighter thought,” the soul or life being a song and tuning ourselves to be closer to God. Is music is a big part of your life or worship as a poet?
CF: Absolutely. I feel like before I found the language of poetry, the music was being taught to me, partially because our house was filled with music. My mum had her collection of folk records and Elvis Sings the Hymns and my dad had his Country Crooner collection, and there was a schmaltzy lounge room jazz album my mum had, and every once in a while the mood would strike her and she’d put that on. And of course, sitting in church from infancy, you’re always singing. And then at about five years old, my mum started us in piano lessons. So there’s just always been music and that felt more foundational to me even than literature. I can’t help but gravitate to music as its own entity but then the music inside language. I’m just a sucker for a turn of phrase that carries assonance or grooves along with the iambic pentameter mode. And for about the same reason, I still love the Shakespeare sonnets and Robert Frost and those poets who are unabashed in their musicality.
LC: There’s also a lot fire imagery.
CF: Yeah, my editor was like can you get rid of some of the flames?
LC: No, no. It’s great. Would you say fire is your element or The Element?
CF: I think for me… light and darkness, always that motif is coming up. Whether you’re looking at Greek mythology, whether you’re looking at Biblical narrative, whether you’re looking at the seasons. And to me somehow fire occupies both of those realms because it is light, but it is also a destructive force. It’s both illuminating and obscuring. And if I think about fire, you can be burned, but you can also be called to safety. There’s that element of danger and also of illumination. And then also, of course, the Book of Revelations and every mention of Hell that happened during my childhood, sitting in church service.
LC: Well, you read my mind because my next question was going to be: the interplay between dark and light and that chiaroscuro you mention in one of your poems seems to be the overarching theme or effect throughout, and I wondered what you are most trying to convey about the dark and light in life.
CF: I don’t feel like I have any sort of proclamation about dark and light except that I love this idea, it’s sort of the ancient Biblical narrative. For the Jewish culture, all their traditions have day starting in darkness. And I think in our Western minds we often think of it as beginning in light and heading toward darkness. Day begins in darkness and moves into light and it may sound like a simple, almost a semantic shift, but for me that’s the sort of trajectory that I was trying to explore. What if things begin in darkness and move toward light instead of we begin in light and move toward darkness? And I’m thinking of, on a personal narrative level like family and dysfunction and turmoil of home life as a child – but what if it moves toward redemption? And, you know, looking at the dying world around us and instead of just seeing it winding down, what if it’s actually moving toward redemption? That’s, I guess, what the big question is: what if everything is moving toward redemption?
There’s a giant question mark inhabiting light and dark and for me that question mark tugs me in to think about how do these two interact and could darkness come before the light. I feel like it’s probably the resurrection motif, I mean… my father had just died and I kept having all these dreams about him and in all these dreams there was so much light or fire that kept happening and they weren’t dark dreams, they were actually light dreams. And, ah, interesting. What if at the end, it’s just light. And what if at the end, there’s actually beauty. What if light is actually on the other side of the darkness?
LC: The afterlife is always present in here, the idea of the “two realms, the green and the gold” and what’s to come next. Listening to you talk about this, it can be a metaphor for redemption in life as well as a literal afterlife. Do you think that believing in a Heaven is, in a way, a sweet kind of death wish or homesickness? Not in a bad way, but a yearning almost?
CF: Yeah. Homesickness is a really interesting way of putting it. I hadn’t thought about that, but I think there is in humanity this desire for something beyond what we have and, you know, one person might name it aspiration. One person might name it drive. And I would probably name it eternal homesickness. I think back again to childhood and how formative all the hymns we’d sing about in the sweet by and by and Beulah Land and all of these strange names for the afterlife which I didn’t really understand what they meant, but there was so much longing, a sort of pilgrim mentality that was ingrained into everybody standing in the congregation singing about well, things are bad, but one day… and I think that’s just been in humanity regardless of the culture, regardless of the religion. It’s just eternal homesickness. And it can’t help but come out in my writing, I think.
LC: Reading your poems, I felt you have a mystical incarnate god who’s not afraid to get His hands dirty. Even though there is the afterlife and this beautiful return home, He also seems to be in the people and places around you. I have a bit of a heavy question, but do you think the Kingdom of God is more within us or without? Because there’s this far away land, but it’s also like you’ve cast the people in your life as Biblical characters in here as well.
CF: That’s a good question. I need to go to seminary for a couple of years and then come back. I would just love to study theology. I guess if I think about when I sit down and I’m writing a poem, and what I’m believing to be true, I’m seeing the Kingdom of God everywhere. I’m seeing it in that snail. I think that the universe is like a book open for us to read and everywhere there are signs and symbols and messages, whether it’s a fly traveling around the cabin of an airplane or a snail crawling up a fencepost, I think we can read all of that. And if the Kingdom of God is within a person, then a person has eyes to see the Kingdom of God that’s all around.
LC: Do you think that’s the true role of a poet: to be a mystic and basically “crack the code of Heaven” in life?
CF: I can’t speak for all poets and I think every person walks around in the world with something inscribed in the very depths of them that is their purpose in the world, and I’m guessing every poet has a little inscription too. I feel like one of the parts of my inscription is to listen and to pay attention. And I would hope writers would do that no matter what they believe or what kind of writing they are producing: listening, paying attention like a kid who is full of wonder at the universe and not jaded and not cynical. I feel like one of the things I want to do is point at the kind of wonder of what’s true and what is beautiful.
LC: This book is dedicated to your father and Elegy is a very powerful poem. I cried after that one specifically. Just beautiful. Is writing the way a poet works through mourning?
CF: One thing I’ve found to be true about writing poems is that they force emotion into objectivity – especially in the revision process. And just like the language goes through the furnace of revision, emotion and memory and family relationships go through a revision process. And time can be the great reviser and death can be a catalyst for that revision. And I found that through writing these poems after my dad died, that it was this redemptive act where I began to remember him differently, see him differently. You know, I wouldn’t have dedicated the book to my dad five years ago. But leading up to his death, that sort of slow drain of negative emotion or hurt, it happened. And what was left initially was sort of this vacant space of not feeling hurt, of not feeling anger, just feeling nothing. And then, gradually, it was flooded in with some love which shocked me. And these poems came out of a completely different emotional space where I could actually say that I loved my father. Though he might not have read these poems had he been alive, in writing them I felt like that darkness was moving toward light in the end in my response to him and memories of childhood, which was miraculous for me.
LC: In one poem, What Flowers Few and Bright, you talk about a bumblebee and its “methodology as exquisite a jeweller’s tooling at the gem,” and it made me remember you telling us in class that that’s what a poet does. It’s like a jeweller working on a tiny gem and getting it just right. How much do you obsess or do you obsess over perfecting the small things in a poem like enjambment or punctuation or diction? Do you feel that a poem can be perfect and how do you know when you’ve gotten it there?
CF: I can only speak to what my process is like. But, yes, I do obsess in the final stages of revising. That’s when the obsession with minutia takes over and I labour over the comma or the em dash, the line break here or a line break there. Not at the start, I don’t. I let it just go and sometimes it’s just messy, muddy writing at the start. But as the poem finds its shape, then the minutia comes into play.
I always picture this ideal, true, whole poem existing already. I just read a headline about some famous Vancouver magician’s house burning down. And I was like, oh, I have to write a poem about this. So, in my head the poem about the magician’s house burning down is already there. It’s already perfected somewhere. My job is just to get as close as possible to what that poem, that ideal, true poem is. And so I feel like I’m getting closer when I start to obsess over the minutia, over the punctuation and line breaks, the syllable shifts… that tells me I’m getting closer. And is it ever perfect? No. But I’ll get as close as I can.KEEP READING
Unabashedly Human: a conversation with poet, Adrienne Gruber
Interviewed by Emily McIvor
Buoyancy Control (Book Thug) is Adrienne Gruber’s second full length book of poems. This work is raw, sharp and visceral. The poems explore the strange confluence of physical and emotional being with urgent language but also with humour and kindness. I chatted with Gruber recently via email. This is what we both said.
EM: Buoyancy Control is divided into two parts: land and sea, but whether or not they are explicitly about the sea, the poems are juicy, full of liquids and melting and dripping and of the all too human experience of permeability. Were the poems written as a body or did you look up one day and realize that they were related?
AG: The poems in Buoyancy Control have gone through so many revisions and have moved around in the book so much that it’s hard for me to say when exactly the book found its cohesive structure. I was definitely writing poems with the intention of having them in a book together but at least half of the poems that were in earlier drafts of the book were cut and newer pieces found their way in. Every poem was related in some way thematically but I didn’t quite have the narrative structure of the book figured out until years after I had written most of the poems.
EM: What is your favourite revision strategy (or several of your favourites)?
AG: I don’t have any strategies. What I tend to do is workshop poems with some very trusted poets who know my work and are able to tease out the crucial lines and point out the weak sections or redundancies. While this sometimes happens over email, I get a lot out of in-person workshops or conversations over the phone. Those conversations are lifelines for the work. The rest of my revision process involves coffee, line/stanza Tetris, printing out the manuscript and laying it out on the living room floor so I can move pieces around and get a feel for the book in its entirety, tinkering with line breaks and form and punctuation, getting irritated, putting it away for three or six months to work on something else, more coffee and probably cookies, the realization that my work is garbage and then the hopeful optimism that comes with just needing to finish the thing.
EM: Both sections begin with a prologue but the prologues are poems. Why?
AG: These poems had different titles originally. As I was restructuring the book later on, I realized I wanted an introductory poem for each section. The book is divided into two sections, the first focuses on land and the second focuses on water. The first prologue poem takes place in the small community of El Llano in Northern Mexico and examines how landscapes, while beautiful, confines us. The second prologue poem takes place at Lake Superior in Northern Ontario, where water is introduced as a source of fluidity and letting go.
EM: The title, Buoyancy Control, refers to a piece of equipment used in scuba diving; it allows the diver to control her own buoyancy and thus the rate at which she ascends or descends in the water. Writing poetry is also very controlled, even while drawing upon wild imaginative leaps and peripheral associations as well as the sloshiness of human experience. Is that what you meant?
AG: I was making reference to the device that helps a diver control his/her buoyancy in the water, but I was also going for something a little tongue and cheek. Diving is meant to be a very serene and gentle activity, but in order to achieve that calm, one must be very controlled in the water. The idea of control within a body or an identity is fascinating to me, as impulses and desires tend to be fluid. It seems as though we need to let go of our need for control in order to truly explore and experiment with identity and sexuality, yet there is a false sense of security in that control, a feeling that we are safer staying within the confines of the status quo.
EM: In the interview you gave for Book Thug, you say that at the time of writing, you were engaged in an exploration of personal and sexual identity. Can I say that things don’t feel unresolved? The poems feel confident; like you’re comfortable in your own skin.
AG: That’s interesting. It never occurred to me that this book would feel resolved to the reader. It might feel less that way to me because this book represents a time when I didn’t feel remotely resolved within myself. I don’t want the compelling theme of the book to be a sense of shame or discomfort with my own sexual identity, however the poems explore experiences that leave me in some vulnerable places. I’m glad the poems come across as confident. To me they are dichotomous; filled with anxiety and doubt, but also self-love and acceptance.
Emily McIvor is a Victoria writer of poetry and creative nonfiction. She is excited by connections and ideas and by the world.KEEP READING
Jan Zwicky has published nine collections of poetry, including Songs for Relinquishing the Earth and Forge. Her latest collection The Long Walk forthcoming from University of Regina Press will be pre-released specially for her reading Friday September 23. Yvonne Blomer interviewed her this August about her new collection.
YB: Can you speak to where or what drives or pushes or pulls you into a poem – does the poem begin in an image or question, in a musical note or musical phrase, and from that start, where does it go or how does it unfold?
JZ: For me, poems often begin as a lit presence in the world — a this, a physical thing or a melody, that stands out luminously in its surround; or sometimes it’s the whole surround, a wordless configuration, that lights up. Then I want to try to do justice to that thing or configuration. (Why I want to try to do this in words remains a mystery to me; for the most part, words seem entirely inadequate to what-is.) The poem, as a linguistic composition, then starts with a few words, a phrase, it might even be nonsense, that has the right tone and rhythmic shape. The task becomes one of trying to sense how the gravitational field of the thing or configuration bends language to its own non-verbal form.
Other times, less frequently, I’ll get a line or two out of nowhere — usually near what ends up being the end or the beginning of the poem. But after that the process is the same: trying to stay under long enough to sense accurately the larger shape that the lines belong to.
YB: Can you talk about how these poems engage with witnessing the environment and its destruction?
JZ: This book, more perhaps than any other I’ve written, contains passages of deep and explicit anger. Anger is a difficult emotion to deal with in a lyric context: it has to rush and leap like a forest fire, to flame with horror and grief. If you don’t let it have its head, you get something narrowly personal — sardonic. A sardonic tone is not appropriate to what’s happening. Humans, bent on their own overpopulated comfort (I include myself), are destroying the beauty and integrity of the existing biosphere. The blood is on our hands. How do we face the enormity of that fact?
YB: How do you manage that enormity and these facts? I attended the Kinder Morgan panel in Victoria on August 23 and so many people are afraid of the future and oil, and though trying to make changes, aware of the attachment of cars and other things we are hooked into. How can writers, poets, merely write or perhaps what can that writing do?
JZ: This is an old and deep question: what are the social and political responsibilities of artists? Let me start with what I don’t believe. I don’t believe that morally concerned artists ought to devote themselves exclusively to making overtly ‘political’ art. That would actually be a very bad idea. Politics, I believe, are necessary; but in the form of positive programs and agendas, they are an attempt to systematize relations among humans (and, occasionally, among humans and other-than-human beings). In that systematizing, the particularities of reality — individual beings and places — are obscured. It’s those individuals that we love, and our love for them is one of the reasons we want them to do well, to thrive. How then do we learn to see past the systematizing and the stereotypes? Many things can shake us up and point the way; but lyric art is one of the most important teachers. The attempt to lead an environmentally responsible life flows from, it is an unconstrained desire that arises from, deep attention to the natural world. That’s where the poetry that I write comes from, too: it is, as it were, a side-effect of paying attention to the world. The art of others has direct political consequences in my own life in that it teaches me to see and to listen more acutely. That art can also strengthen my resolve when it protests injustice without trying to roll out a positive program. But the great political power of lyric art lies in its ability to hone our capacity to attend. That capacity is the foundation of our desire to respond to the world with care and respect.
YB: In your poems I sense a great chasm open in me in lines that use parallelism, repetition and also seem to move to a great relentless opening in the end. This occurs especially in poems that insist that we’re on the brink of calamitous ecological and cultural change. Can you talk for a moment on poetry and music and the interstices between the two for you?
JZ: How does poetry integrate emotion with thought? It uses the rhythmic, tonal, and sonorous dimensions of language. I’m intrigued by the view that humans or prehumans sang before they talked; certainly music means in a profound way that logic and grammar don’t seem to be able to get at. And when a free verse poet wants to shift into emotional first gear, their language often becomes overtly musical — it deploys intense rhythm, the repetitions you mention, alliteration, and partial, sometimes even full, rhyme; it ghosts cadences we’re familiar with from great oratory. We don’t hear such language frequently these days because it’s deeply uncool. Ours is an ironic age, and when you’re being ironic, the last thing you want is to give people the impression you care. I do care, however; I care passionately about what is happening to the earth, to wilderness, to natural beauty. And I intend to go down singing.KEEP READING
Louise Halfe has published 4 books of poetry with Coteau Press. Miranda Pearson spoke with Louise about her latest collection Burning in this Midnight Dream.
MP: In your book Burning in the Midnight Dream you very bravely “go into the darkness” behind the exterior of truth and reconciliation. I thought it was an incredibly generous and beautiful work, despite much of the tragic content. In the end I was left with a feeling of love but much of it must have been extremely hard to write, especially when it came to the family violence. Can you tell me about the title?
LH: The title is taken from one of the poems, and the words contain a lot of metaphor. Yes, writing it was one of the most difficult tasks I’ve ever taken on. It took its toll. At times I had to walk away from it and having finished it I feel exhausted.
MP: The photos in the book are beautiful, I’m wondering if you felt the spirits of any of these people while you were writing about them. What role do dreams play in your work? Also can you speak to any use of ceremony or ritual that you use in writing?
LH: No, I didn’t really hear their spirits, I think mainly because the book is my story, not theirs. In previous works “the Crooked Good” and “Blue Marrow”, I have, but not in this one. Dreams play a big part, they often work their way into my poetry. I also listen to the way others talk; we don’t realize how often we talk in poetry. I start the day with blessing myself with sage and sweet grass. I usually work in long hand and then put it onto the computer.
MP: You mention in the workshop description that you encourage students to “write without fear”, can you say a bit more about that?
LH: Fear is mental bock. I try and help students recognize their fears and what might be preventing them from writing from a deeper context. I ask them to get to know each other before hand so as to develop some trust. We work in a circle, and I help them problem solve and brainstorm. I want them to feel safe and ask them how we can do this. I think coming from a social worker background helps in this regard.
MP: I see you worked with Tim Lilburn as an editor for the new book. Can you talk about the editing process?
LH: I shared the work with a few people I trust. In Cree the past and present tenses sit more comfortably together so I did need help with editing as English is not my first language. Sometimes they’re literally translations.
MP: That’s so interesting, reminding me of the lines in your poems “I don’t like walking backwards…let me try that backward walk”. Do you practice any other art forms? Do you ever work in the prose form?
LH: I do some carving, sewing, gardening, and of course reading. No, I have tried writing prose but it’s not my calling, it doesn’t call out to me as poetry does.
MP – thank you Louise, and we look forward very much to your visit to Victoria.KEEP READING