“Vivid, hilarious, enormously entertaining” was one reviewer’s response (Andreas Schroeder) to Carla Funk’s first, and marvelous, memoir of her Mennonite childhood in Vanderhoof BC: Every Little Scrap and Wonder. She is the author of five books of poetry, the most recent, Gloryland. She was the first Poet Laureate of the City of Victoria, has taught at the University of Victoria Faculty of Fine Arts and in her living room, and is working on her second memoir. One of the chapters in this memoir, Butchering Day, won the Constance Rooke Nonfiction Prize. She lives in Victoria BC, for which we are all grateful.
Carla is interviewd by Barbara Pelman, author of 3 books of poetry, the latest: Narrow Bridge published by Ronsdale Press 2017.
Barbara Pelman: First, I want to tell you how much I loved the book. I laughed, I underlined, I made notes, I couldn’t put it down. You made the people come alive so clearly I could have walked into that hog butchering backyard. Ok, so let’s start. While reading, I notice that you avoid any reference to dates or ages. I assume this is deliberate. What effect does it have on the memoir, to keep it timeless?
Carla Funk :Yes, I chose to leave out specific references ages, primarily as a way of replicating my own childhood experience of time, which was less tuned to dates and more rooted in the passage of seasons and potent sensory impressions. It strikes me that dates and numbers and etchings on a calendar are the way our grown-up brains are trained to chart time, but as kids, our days rise and fall with the sun and moon, are marked by stars and snow and a birch tree’s leaves going to fire.
BP: I love the metaphors you use to thread the memoir together: the patchwork quilt and fabric fragments, the seasons and how they spill into each other, the bonfire, the family members who weave in and out of the story. At what point did the metaphors come to you as a structure?
CF: I remember Jack Hodgins offering me a piece of wisdom when I asked about how to turn my poem-thinking into prose. He suggested that I find a structural metaphor, one that would allow me to see the shape of the narrative and could act as a guide in the writing process. Early on in the drafting stage, I realized that I had several images of sewing, and more than reference to home-stitched blankets and quilts. Because memory is such a patchwork of bits and pieces, it struck me that this was the truest structural metaphor I might find for this collection.
BP: Knowing you today, it’s hard, and wonderful, to see what a rapscrapper you were as a kid! I especially loved the chapter about your brother, how hard you fought, how you regret it now (well, a little). And the ways you unrepentantly disobeyed your parents: the fall from the roof, the ice cream story. I’m really looking forward to the next memoir to see how (and if) these characteristics changed!
CF: You know how folks say that sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better? Count on that for the follow-up memoir!
BP: The chapter “Rules of War” contain a great deal about the war between the sexes, and your youthful attempts to bring an end to that war. Your mother seems also to be caught up in that war, more a hostage than a full member of a regiment. How did you view your mother in her role? And the other mothers? How do you view them now? Did it seem to you that your future was headed in that direction, to the world of Barbies and not hand-made guns?
CF: As a kid, I don’t think I thought very objectively about my mother as a full human. She was “Mom,” and yes, a woman in a realm ruled by the men, but being born in that environment made it ordinary, the way things were. I knew my mother was competent, hard-working, feisty and full of pluck, but the final word rested with my father, as it did in most households in that time and town. Other mothers were sometimes stricter, sometimes softer, sometimes were fancier than mine and wore lipstick and nail polish, and sometimes they cussed and smoked like my dad’s trucker friends. Only in adolescence did I start to sense that my script had been written for me—that I might be expected to echo the domestic pattern set by my mother, and her mother before her. That pattern wasn’t one I ever wanted to repeat, until, of course, I fell in love with a young man. (See the second memoir for more dirt on that.)
BP: It’s always interesting to me how a poet turns to memoir (though of course there is lots of memoir within the poems) and what happens in that process. What did you find in writing a memoir that freed you, different from poetry? What was sacrificed in the change of genre? What did it feel like, to continue beyond the right hand margin? What insights are possible in the different genres? Can you talk a bit about this?
CF: It took quite a long while before the full width of the page felt natural to me. Not thinking about line breaks, about the same density of expression in language, about trochees and alliteration—all those poetic techniques—felt disorienting, as if I were speaking a new dialect. But what I’ve loved is the room to breathe inside the story—and to let the story breathe. I truly believe poetry has taught me all I know about building sentences. In places throughout this memoir, I found myself slipping into a steady iambic cadence, because music inside the writing is vital to me. But prose is training me in literary stamina and long-form attention, two areas in which I absolutely need growth.
BP: Similarly, it’s always such a pleasure to read a poet writing prose. How vivid the verbs, how rhythmic the phrasing. I loved ‘scooching’ and “brisked” and other happy verbs. I’m not sure what it is, but a memoir from a poet is always more alive, I think. You are in the company of “Small Beneath the Sky” and “There is a Season” and “What You Heard is True”, the way that memoir gives us new lives to try on, to see through the eyeholes. What does it feel like to have ‘bared your soul’ so deliciously? Is anyone you wrote about concerned at your characterizations?
CF: Only a few times during the actual writing of this book did I experience a brief jolt of “uh-oh”—a sort of inner questioning about whether or not it was okay for me to put in that bit about so-and-so, or share that particular detail. Writing out of my own life doesn’t feel odd, perhaps because I tend toward transparency, but I have definitely wrestled with how to make sure I don’t shame or dishonour anyone else in the telling. This is why some names and identifying details have been swapped for others. (Unfortunately for my mother, though, I couldn’t find a substitute for the name “Mom.”)
BP: We talked about your tiptoeing and then fantastically shining into memoir, with your first winning essay, Returning. Can you say more about the journey into memoir, why it seemed a necessary and inevitable step, and what is coming next? (Can’t wait!)
CF: I think many writers who begin in poetry wonder at the expansive realm of prose, partly because poems seem to find their way to such a small tribe of readers. But mostly, I had stories thrumming around inside me that didn’t seem to fit inside the tiny house of a poem. Each essay, chapter, and story I write feels like its own poem, but simply with larger square footage. Currently, I’m working on a follow-up memoir collection about coming of age as a female in a male-dominated, blue-collar world.
Thanks so much for talking with me, Carla, and happy memoiring into the second one!