Arleen Paré is a Victoria writer. She has published five collections of poetry, two of which are cross-genre. She has been short-listed for the BC Book Prizes Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award and has won a Golden Crown Award for Lesbian Poetry, the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize, and a Governor General’s Literary Award.
A lyrical collection focussing on a specific street and on a particular tree growing there, Earle Street, takes the concept of street and urban living, the houses on the street, the neighbours, the boulevard trees and wildlife, and the street’s history as a poetic focal point. Here is the macrocosm reflected, examined, and refracted through the microcosm of a single, quiet neighbourhood street.
Interviewed by Christine Smart
Christine Smart (CS): In the poem “This Street is / is not a River,’ you write that “maybe the street chose us”. Did Earle Street choose you?
Arleen Paré (AP): This book came about while I was thinking about my immediate ecology, my environment, which is this street where I live. What is my surrounding beyond me, beyond my body? It’s this street, of course, my everyday. We chose each other. From there, I began thinking about streets in general, about living in an urban environment. I expanded from this street, Earle Street, to the consideration of other streets.
CS: How has the writing of Earle Street helped you feel more connected to your environment and your community?
AP: Well, first, I fell in love with the Katsura tree outside my window. Also, I told my neighbours that I was writing about the street. They said: “Are we in the book?” I examined the length of the street, its details, paid more attention to it and to the park next door. I noticed the number of Katsura trees, the various people, and houses on the street. The more attention I paid, the more connected I felt to the whole street.
CS: You write that Earle Street is “an island inside an island”. Would you expand on this?
AP: That was one of the first poems I wrote for the book, a seven-page poem. The first island is Vancouver Island, of course. The second is this street, whose borders seem to fall off at its edges. It feels like its own island with Hollywood Park at the centre and the ocean close by. As a poet, I am looking for a precise container, the ideal way to delineate a poem. Although I often write in free verse, I want clear boundaries for my words: poems that are succinct and have depth, not so much breadth exactly, but an allusion to containment. In this collection, each poem is its own island, and yet part of an archipelago.
CS: At the beginning you quote Don Domanski “All night the house felt like it was under water/ red gills beneath each shingle opening and closing/ to receive the air.” You write “the house is a boat”. Can you talk about this?
AP: I admire Don Domanski so much; that quote is one of my favourites, and it’s about houses. Regarding the boat reference, this street sits on volatile land, close to the ocean. In the past a waterway, a river, ran under the house. It sits on fill. The house experiences considerable, very slow geographical movement throughout the year. The house shifts. We know this by the small cracks in the plaster, and sometimes in the spring our front door sticks. Ever so slightly the house rocks, like a boat.
CS: In the first section “This Street is a River” and in the poem “Street Life” you say “the street at the right distance far enough off/ and almost safe”.
AP: I think it’s the way I live my life. I have this notion that human beings often live in an ‘almost safe’ state, which is not overly dangerous, but not completely safe. This street provides that kind of environment. I never want to become overconfident about how safe life is.
CS: Then in the poem “Key-Shaped, the Shadow,” on page four, you say “whatever is unspeakable: start there”.
AP: When we are starting out [a book or a project] we often end up looking below the surface, what’s underneath. We don’t necessarily write about what’s underneath at first. But much begins in awkward, unspeakable places. Sometimes there are important structural, and/or emotional items/states we prefer not to acknowledge, for example, in a street: catch basins, storm drains, detritus. Where things really start.
CS: Did the section breaks come first or did you find the form after you were writing?
The section breaks came later; I divided it into four parts, the street is a river, an arboretum, a window, a world for writerly and readerly ease.
CS: The Katsura tree first appears in the first section on page five “exiled [like many other species] named harmless, named friend” and flows through the collection like a river.
AP: As poets we are expected to write about nature, of course, but I chose this urban, cemented environment for this book. My immediate environment is concrete, human-made and I wanted to acknowledge that this is where I live, begin my days, but almost immediately I was drawn to the trees. Even in this urban spot, the tree makes its presence known to me and I am drawn to that beyond everything else. Despite wanting to privilege the urban environment, the tree prevailed. Its dominance suggested titles like “The Katsura on Earle Street” or “Window on Earle Street,” but in the end, it was simpler to go with Earle Street. Not everyone is familiar with the Katsura.
CS: However, you say, “the Katsura was the hook that drew me in to the collection, its beauty and changes during the seasons.” You say “I have let you root in my heart.” Would you say more about this?
AP: It is romantic to put it that way, but it’s true, I became enamoured with that tree, all the details of it. I noticed what was going on with it first thing in the morning and in each season; it captured me. Even now when the book is already completed, I still look out at that tree to see if the finches have arrived. I love the bark, the deep contours and curves, the color, like a barred owl.
CS: How did you get into writing the haibun form?
AP: Terry Ann Carter, a fine poet here in Victoria, is known as the Canadian queen of Japanese poetry. She has just written a new book about Haiku poetry. Luckily for me, she and I share a writing group. She had written a number of haibun, which I admired, and through her I learned about the form. When I started writing about the Katsura tree, I thought the haibun would be the ideal form, the tree being a Japanese tree, and the form being Japanese as well. The haibun and the Katsura came together for me. It was fortuitous.
CS: Can you speak about this haiku phrase? “two women together/ yet alone”.
AP: When you move into a community and you’re a lesbian, you wonder about how much the neighbours will accept you. Is it okay to be lesbian in this community? The alone part refers to how acceptable we might be, and to the fact that we don’t have a man in the house. We’ve been here seventeen years and we are accepted. We are now part of the street, part of the community. At first, though, when one of our neighbours asked if we were sisters, it made me realize that we didn’t fit the expected norm.
Homelessness is one theme in the book and right next door in the park we have a tent city. A new City bylaw allows tenting in parks. Some tenters may have been evicted from their apartments during the pandemic. I think it’s reasonable to allow tenting at this difficult time as long as the City provides adequate camping facilities.
CS: Would you comment on your process and your approach to revision?
AP: I often write out a poem by hand, sometimes just notes but more often now I write directly onto the computer. I sometimes write without any punctuation, just spacing. If the poem seems formal in tone or if it needs more reading direction, then I will insert punctuation, to make it easier to read. Sometimes the flow of an unpunctuated poem is more pleasing for certain content. I make the decision after I write the poem asking myself: how would this poem be better served? All my revisions are on the computer.
I am often inspired at night if I have a current project. I prefer to write with a project or theme. In the night, my mind is generally tuned to that project, and perhaps a line will come into my head. I write it briefly with a pen that lights up, my night pen.
I do use varying line lengths. A long line is supposed to make you read faster, a short line to slow down the reading.
CS: How has sharing your creative process with others in a writing group shaped your poetic practice?
AP: Often, group feedback has to do with understanding content. Someone might say, I don’t know what you mean when you say that. But also perhaps, a line needs more work. The group helps me with the editing process, not the initial writing process. In both my groups, we bring fairly complete poems and read them aloud. With a cold reading, I get the immediate thoughts of the group.
CS: Have you managed to meet during the pandemic?
AP: The pandemic has stopped one group. The other group meets now outside with four or five people, keeping a distance. We don’t know how we will continue in the winter. I really don’t care for Zoom, but . . . .
CS: The book came out just before the lockdown. How are you feeling about this and the inability to have in-person readings and book launches?
AP: Deeply disappointed. For the other five books, there have been festive launches, tours across Canada, meetings with other poets and gatherings with friends. The Earle Street tour, all its launches and readings were cancelled. A Zoom launch is not quite the same. I delight in in-person readings and dialogue. I have another book, First, coming out next spring, and sadly, due to COVID, it may experience the same virtual launch trajectory as Earle Street.
Last words: I loved the cover of the book so much that I had T-shirts made with the cover design. At a physically distanced summer reading in the park, we sold t-shirts and books. If I’d done more readings, I would have ordered more t-shirts. I’ve never had a cover so sweetly whimsical and fun.