Q&A with Clea Roberts

August 9, 2017 | Victoria Festival of Authors | Q&A

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.