Here are the details about Linda K. Thompson: born and raised on a potato and cattle farm in the Pemberton Valley and now lives in Port Alberni, where she been for many years. She has a chapbook called “Four Small People in Sturdy Shoes” and many poems in literary journals across the country. “Black Bears in the Carrot Field”, published by Mother Tongue Press, is her first book.
But those are only details. What everyone needs to know is, as Lorna Crozier states, “Every character Thompson brings so brilliantly to life will stay with you forever”. “She is a gifted storyteller, chronicling small talk, gossip, and intimate secrets whispered over a Formica table. Deftly crafted, raucous, rhythmic, and filled with heart”, says Sandra Ridley. You will love this book—funny and tender and filled with memorable detail.
As a lucky fellow participant of many retreats with Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier, I and the others were on the edge of our chairs, anticipating Linda’s readings. Ready always for laughter, we were also astonished into tenderness and affection for the people she presented each morning. Edna and Bob and Margaret and Gloria and Pete and Trudy. The farms, the battlefields, the potato crops, the cattle, the wagons, the bears, the carrot fields—they will, as Lorna says, stay with you forever.
Interviewed by Barbara Pelman
Barbara Pelman (BP): I remember many of those poems, was privileged to be at ‘first reading’ at Glenairley, and after, Ocean Wilderness and Honeymoon Bay. I remember how pleased Patrick was to hear them. All of us just shaking our heads—where do those poems come from? So, my first question is: how much is history and how much is fiction in your poems? Do they start off as history and morph through your imagination? Are they all ‘real events’? Can you tell us how these people live in your head and evolve into your poems?
Linda K.Thompson (LKT): It’s really hard to say how much is history and how much is fiction. I would have to go through each poem and pull them apart and tell you which parts really happened and which words I wrote around the event.
It can go both ways, too. Sometimes I have a story or line or image of something from the past and I use it and fill all around it with other people and events that I float up from my imagination. Or sometimes I’m writing about a totally fictional event or person and I remember a tidbit from the past that fits in perfectly so I slide that into my fictional story.
I’m not sure how the people I write about live in my head but once I have a line or phrase or even a name that I come up with – they tend to burst out like a dam that’s been held back for too long. I seem to have multiple personalities that tend to stay well hidden – except when I write.
I remember distinctly wanting to write a poem about Windsor and doing a lot of research on the city. I was interested in Windsor because I felt, like Port Alberni, it got a bad rap, almost like an urban myth that people would talk about: “Oh, ya, that place – really bad, man!”
I talked with Mary Ann Moore about how to write the poem, about how confusing it was to have all this research and being not sure where to go with it. Mary Ann suggested I not worry about the research and just make everything up. I thought, “Well, hey! Now there’s an idea!” I went back to my room and wrote a full page prose poem that evening. Everything poured out. It’s how it works sometimes. If I’m lucky.
The people and events that I talk about in that poem were up there and I just had to find the right starting line and they all came trotting out. No – there isn’t a real Papa Francois, agriculturist and dedicated fruit farmer, but I wanted to get to apples and little children to convince the readers of the sweetness and wholesomeness of that city.
I have great respect for the American poet, Tony Hoagland. I was so excited to attend a workshop with him in LaConner, Washington a few years ago. I had read as much of Tony’s work as I could get my hands on and I felt a bit discouraged thinking “gee, if I had neighbours and friends (like Tony does) I could write great poems about them (like Tony does.)” In the workshop someone asked Tony about his neighbours and he said “Oh, the neighbours! I made them up!”
BP: Those of your characters who are based on real people, how do they feel, seeing themselves transformed on your pages?
LKT: Well, I don’t think Caravaggio, Matisse or Jesus will mind me using them in my poems. Most of my poems are written about characters I’ve compiled from real life and imagination and I think aren’t very identifiable. I’ve only written a few where I actually name real people. I usually try to change the names to protect the innocent. A couple people I’ve contacted and told them about a poem and read it to them or sent them a copy. I’ve found that people will be either very proud that someone has written a poem about them or they just think it is really weird because what is a poem anyway? I don’t remember anyone being offended. But maybe they just haven’t told me yet.
I wrote a poem (“Saying Goodbye”) about my dear friend, Kathryn, who passed away. When I read it at a reading in Pemberton a few of the listeners came up to me after and thanked me for remembering Kathryn and saying her name. In some ways in our culture we don’t get a chance to honour our friends and relatives who have gone before us, in an ongoing way.
It’s a great privilege to be a poet and to be able to write in this way. For me the naming of people and rivers and mountains and places is very important. It’s a way of remembering and witnessing – she was here. I know that this is also what Patrick did in his poems and I always felt a connection to him through this way of writing.
BP: Patrick Lane was of course a huge influence on all of us who had the chance to sit at his feet all those retreats ago. What have you absorbed of his teachings, his poems? What are the gifts he gave to you?
LKT: When Patrick died it was such a terrible loss for all of us. I remember when it happened I could recall every compliment he ever gave me, exactly which poem he was talking about, and where I was sitting in the group.
I felt a connection to Patrick through our love of place, the soil, the ground where we had grown up. For myself, I feel I can look down anytime and see my feet still standing in the silty soil of my valley. Everything that I am and everything that I’ve written can be traced back to that beautiful and unusual landscape.
I loved the shape and cadence of Patrick’s poems. I feel I’ve absorbed some of that into my work. I work a poem over and over to get the right rhythm, the right music and flow to the lines. Remember how he used to swing his hand in time to his reading? I loved that.
BP: I love that first poem, Home Ground. Margaret Atwood in a little known short story “Grunnugs” says: Geography is Destiny. Can you talk about how your homeground, the Pemberton Valley, has shaped your writing?
LKT: Oh, yes, Margaret Atwood is right. If not our destiny, certainly a very big influence on our lives. It must have something to do with our childhoods and how everything from that time makes such an impression to our whole life. I remember driving in New Mexico and coming upon a little town where everything was red and right in the middle of town was a huge red mountain. Everywhere you looked there it was. I was deeply curious about how the people in that town might be different from people raised in a green landscape.
I guess there were two huge influences on our growing up. One was the landscape. We were very isolated in the Pemberton Valley. I explain in the book what a big journey it was just to leave the valley and then get back to it. We never had TV when I was a child although the radio worked sometimes but other than that we read and listened to records and played the piano and sang and visited and talked. If we wanted to play with friends we walked a mile or so down the road or up the road. I don’t think we ever called and asked – we just arrived and that’s how things happened in those days. I remember what a thrill it was to sit around the kitchen table and listen to the adults talking and telling stories – laughing about funny things people did and said. Always in good humour though – always in a loving way it seemed to me. I remember my cousin Lex imitating people. But you couldn’t really be mean or cruel because there was no way to get away from people – we were all stuck in the same valley together. I guess those kitchen table talks were a really big influence on me and led to my own love of characters and story telling.
I would have to say that the second big influence on us as children was the loving household we came from. No one ever yelled at us or treated us badly. We would run in from the school bus, starving, eat everything we could find in sight and then run out the door to play and play and play. We built forts (or at least planned a lot of forts) and canoed on every speck of water we could find. I don’t remember Mom every telling us when to be home or what we couldn’t do. (Well, except for really dangerous things like Stay Away from the River!) We were free. And it was wonderful.
BP: Your titles are fabulous. How do you arrive at them?
LKT: Thank you, Barbara! I didn’t know my titles were fabulous but I’m very happy to know that you think so. How do I arrive at them? Titles are almost like last lines, I think. If you’ve got a title and you’ve got a last line – which doesn’t always happen at the beginning of the work but might come later on after you’ve worked on the poem for a while, it can kind of seal the whole deal. Almost give you a space where you now only have to fill in the middle part. I know that sounds flippant but it does really help in the writing and takes a lot of pressure off me if I can map out the length and shape and know where I want to go with it. Don’t you think every title should be as intriguing as possible – something that makes the reader say: “Hmmm, I wonder what this one is about?” Every title should have a little hint of mystery in it – if it can. I see that quite a few of my titles use people’s names in them. I never really thought about this before but it is another way of making a stamp on the page, a way of ‘saying the name.’
BP: This is the standard question to writers, but it always intrigues me, this creative process. How do these poems happen for you? Does the idea come first, or do you sit at your desk, waiting for inspiration?
LKT: Another process that isn’t really clear to me. I do both. Have an idea or a line I want to use and go ahead and just start writing to that line. One poem that I remember doing this with was “How Yuri Left Me” which isn’t in the book. That line just kept rolling around in my head for months. I used to think about it when I was going to sleep and wonder how I was going to use it. Until the day (at a retreat at Honeymoon Bay!) I put it down on the page and started writing words around it. Enough, already! And with the help of my friend, Dorothy Mahoney, late one night, got it into order. And, you know, weirdest thing of all, I kind of love Yuri and how can that be? Barbara – you understand this perfect man that arrives unannounced on the page.
Now, at other times, I can’t get anything worth anything for love nor money. I sit for days at my computer and write reams of crappola and get more nervous and more nervous as the deadline approaches. But I’ve never failed (touch wood) to produce something to take with me to a workshop. Now that can be a really nerve corroding event – having to bring something good enough to read to a room full of brilliant poets! I never thought I would say it but I miss those adrenaline surging moments when you are minutes from blacking out from fear! Ah, the writing life. A bit like climbing a rock face or jumping out of a plane I think. Although I’ve never done either of those death-defying sports.
BP: And following that, how much editing happens? I remember you sitting at the table late into the night. At what point do you know you are ‘done’?
LKT: I edit from the first line I write, over and over, all through the writing process. I read my poems out loud probably hundreds of times – always looking for a better word, going back again and again, trying to make every single word the absolute best it can be. Looking for the rhythm and the beat. (I use a Gage Canadian Thesaurus – I have them in every corner of the house.) I take a lot of time with people’s names. There is always, eventually, a perfect name for a character. And I cut, cut, cut. For me, editing is a most enjoyable part of writing.