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.
Betsy Warland has published 12 books of poetry, creative nonfiction, and lyric prose, including her best-selling 2010 book of essays on writing, Breathing the Page—Reading the Act of Writing. Nancy Pearson spoke with Betsy about her latest memoir, Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas.
NP: There are so many layers to Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas that could take our conversation in many directions. There are two elements I would like to focus on to give the readers of this blog a sense of what they might experience when they read your memoir.
The first is why you chose to write it in third person. This is unusual for a memoir, and it has the effect for me of bringing two voices into this very intimate narrative: Oscar’s, and yours, as the omniscient narrator. How did you arrive at your decision to write the memoir in this way?
BW: It chose me. I was in the later stages of writing Breathing the Page and it’s been my practice as a writer to begin a new manuscript while I’m in the later stages of finishing one. When flying to London to celebrate my 60th birthday and I decided that I wanted to return to the form I had used in my memoir Bloodroot. Bloodroot is a book-length narrative based on lived experience that’s written in entries that vary in length and sensibilities (storytelling, poetry, dialogue). As I began to sense this new manuscript out, I realized I wanted to introduce one fictive device to make it more challenging and surprising this time. I had no idea what that fictive devise would be.
In London, I was struck by an insight while viewing the Camouflage exhibit [at the Imperial War Museum]. I knew this was the spark for my new manuscript. In tandem, I kept running into the name Oscar months before London and while there, and felt increasingly drawn to it. It’s an old-fashioned name so it was surprising that I kept running into it and decided to accept it as a second given name.
Oscar/she gave voice to another side of me. I’m still gaining deeper understanding about Oscar sharing the narration with Betsy. I now know that I couldn’t have been as honest if I had written it as Betsy in first person. It was imperative that the narrator be transparent given her deep concern about the connection between the military camouflage and its morphing into endless forms of deception that are fuelling an ever increasing fear and violence in civilian life.
Oscar named a significant part of myself (the between) that hadn’t had a name, and allowed that part of myself to come forward and connect with a wide variety of other persons of between. Residing in this narrative position was challenging and remarkable. I’ve come to think it’s misleading to assume that our goal as writers is to master the craft. I’ve come to understand that it’s more about our being mastered by the craft. Trusting it will show us which methods suit each narrative.
[At this point, Betsy turned the tables momentarily to ask me a question and asked me to include my answer here:
BW: Tell me, what was your experience of reading Oscar and the two voices?
NP: I found it fascinating. My mind was on both Oscar’s and Betsy’s stories, and also on the narrative in between, where I tried to bring the two together.]
NP: In this memoir you bring together your internal and external worlds to peel away the camouflage to reveal meaning and understanding. One example that comes to mind is the missing person posters in your neighbourhood and the ways in which these people were described on them. Can you speak a bit about the techniques you use in Oscar?
BW: Again, this is an example of when the writing got hijacked by a strong experience. Part 19 was originally a performance piece. When I’m describing the context of the experience, those are my words. All the other language was taken directly from the MISSING PERSON posters.
Post-Christmas, those poster photos were in such stark contrast to the massive number of photos we take of dear ones during the holidays. All the missing people were young and three out of five were from different racial descent. Noticing these missing young people while my adolescent son was by my side intensified the experience. I was also struck by the vocabulary and the way in which a person’s life can be compressed into banal details. It’s a genre of its own that I found very poignant and very distressing.
I wanted to keep the physicality of the way in which these posters appeared on the poles so I gave each person their own column on the page. And instead of telling it all at once, it kind of happens to you incrementally. It sort of sinks into you gradually. I wanted it to also happen that way for the reader. It starts out kind of innocuous – age, height, etc. But as you read more of the poster, the accumulative impact becomes more powerful.
In a sense, these missing individuals are the double missing. They’re missing from their loved ones, and because we don’t know them and we don’t care about them in our society. It’s both an absence and a not being seen. I wanted to draw the reader close to see if they would take it in; care. From all indications, they have.
NP: The second element of Oscar that is so intriguing is that you developed an online salon as a second Oscar. What role did the Oscar salon – and technology – play in the writing of Oscar of Between?
BW: It’s an interesting question and I’m glad you asked this. (And I’m so glad you asked about the posters as no one in an interview has to date). Previously, I had a very demoralizing experience. It had taken me five years to find a publisher for Breathing the Page. I always had confidence in this manuscript and it did become a bestseller. This was partly to do with an increasing risk-adverse stance in the publishing industry. The editor or publisher would want the book and the marketing side would nix it. So, I decided not to make any assumptions about this manuscript: it may never become a book and that’s okay. Or, maybe I’d publish it myself. I did know I wasn’t going to shop it around. This approach liberated me! I ust wanted to write this narrative and be wide open about how it would or would not get out into the world. More than any other of my books, this one taught me a lot about how to extend my creative relationship.
The salon went up on my website (www.betsywarland.com/) in December 2012 when I was about half way through writing the manuscript. What prompted me to launch the salon was the fact that I was really missing giving readings. I love giving readings but they aren’t as well funded as they used to be. This [online salon] is a way of accessing that experience of being in real time to see how people respond. That appealed to me. It’s also a vital way in which I gain perspective and see where revisions are needed. The monthly salon also features readers’ comments.
There are limitations in both online and in book forms, and I liked gaining new understanding about what they are. I was inviting guest writers, visual artists and composers every month from different parts of the country. It’s been fascinating to see how they bounced off the excerpt I sent them and to get to know their work more. Embodying this broader environment I’m working in and honouring these writers and artists had been inspiring. Putting it up online intensified my revising process of Oscar. It didn’t impact what I was writing so much, but it really buoyed me.
The version of Oscar online is an abridged version of the book suited for online reading. Reading online doesn’t appeal to everyone and an increasing number of people were telling me they wanted it as a book. Once I had a complete draft of the manuscript I read it and realized it was leaning into book form so I posted this observation on Oscar’s Salon, noting that I wanted it to come out in a year (which was lunatic!) while Oscar’s Salon was still having monthly postings.
Caitlin Press’ publicist had been following the salon and mentioned this to Vici Johnstone, the publisher. It turned out that Oscar of Between was a perfect fit for Dagger Editions, a new imprint featuring LGBTQ women writers’ work that Caitlin wanted to launch in 2016. It has been so energizing and fascinating to find another way to go about all of this. So, if you are a writer reading this and something significant isn’t working for you, experiment!
NP: One reviewer stated that she hopes your work is returned to “the vital public conversations about poetry happening today” (Julie R. Enszer, Lambda Literary Review). What role do you see poetry fulfilling in our world today, one that is deeply challenged by conflict?
BW: I agree. As indicated in Oscar of Between, support for and reception of my work has been sparse. But more importantly, on the societal level, your reference to being “deeply challenged by conflict,” is key. Violence kept coming up in Oscar. Again, I did not plan that. It just keep arising and ambushing me at the most unexpected moment. It was hard to keep allowing that violence to bust in, but what I’m investigating in Oscar would have been completely erudite if I hadn’t let it seize that page as it does in real life. I’m very, very concerned about the type of civilian violence that’s happening. There were 374 mass shootings in the U.S. last year. This indicates a profound level of desperation and fear.
In Oscar, when Betsy is having a conversation with her good friend in Toronto about this, she comments that nothing is going to change if women don’t speak up. I really think it has to come from women.
Betsy Warland will participate in a panel discussion – Beyond Genre – on Saturday, September 24.
Kevin A. Couture grew up in a small B.C. mining town and has spent the last decade waking before dawn to write. The stories in his debut collection, Lost Animal Club, have appeared in various North American journals. Interviewed by Nancy Pearson.
N: It seems to me that the twelve stories in Lost Animal Club are about characters trying to find their place in their shifting, unsteady worlds. And yet, they are resilient in surprising ways.
K: I see it that way. It’s really accurate as to what I’m trying to do and to what I see the collection as. I like to put the characters into difficult situations and sometimes they rise to it and sometimes maybe not. I like to throw things at them.
N: One of the themes threaded through the stories is that of abandonment. Children are abandoned by parents, a dog by a former owner, dreams are let go of, a twin leaves his brother and parents for reasons they never know. What draws you to this theme?
K: In talking about putting characters into peril or an interesting situation – the theme of abandonment puts you on your own a little. That’s the most vulnerable place to be. That’s the most interesting character. It does sometimes make the story start off in a darker place, but that can add to the mystique, I think. I like to start with a character in a place that is tough to get out of, and just kind of see where they go. The theme of being lost runs throughout the stories. There’s no better way to be lost than to be on your own.
N: Several of the stories are set in small towns, and others in an urban environment. The rural characters navigate through complex relationships and experiences (for example, “In Whose Arms You’re Gonna Be”), whereas the city stories seem starker and the characters isolated within their relationships (“The Support Group” comes to mind). How did your years spent living in rural B.C. influence your writing and the characters you create?
K: I find with the stories that many of them are set in a similar town to where I grew up. I didn’t intend that, per se, but that’s a place I’m familiar and comfortable with. And I do like the stories that develop in a small town like that. I think you can mine a lot from where you’ve come from. I heard a quote where a person said that if you are 30 years old you have enough experience to write for the rest of your life. Those formative years have given me a lot that I want to talk about.
N: I marvel at how you create characters – both primary and secondary – with succinct, unique details, such as the man who lets his dog lick his teeth, or the boy who notices that his friend doesn’t wipe the counter before or after making a sandwich, or the woman who feels a would-be seducer’s moustache through her jeans. How do you pare your writing down to images and descriptions that are “smooth and taut as cherries”?
K: I do try really hard to be spare in the writing, but it certainly doesn’t start out that way. I write very slowly. So I may work on a paragraph for days and days until I get it to the way I want it. That’s the same for one detail. I think it’s just lots and lots of work and many pages that just get sort of tossed to the side. Then when it works, it feels great – you get a nice nugget detail that feels really good. For me, it’s a long process to find that nugget.
N: On a similar note, you write from a broad range of characters’ perspectives – a young boy’s, a woman’s, a teenager’s, a disaffected housewife’s, and more. How do you choose which character to take on as the lead to tell the story?
K: Many times I have that in mind when I start. But it doesn’t always work out that way. There are stories that I start with a different narrator and it doesn’t work, so I’ll either try to switch perspectives or abandon the story. I do try to have it penciled out in a brief way, but it doesn’t always work. I try to challenge myself every so often where I’ll write from a perspective that I’m unfamiliar with or a bit further removed from because I think that’s interesting and it is a challenge. But sometimes it doesn’t work and I get defeated by the challenge.
N: Despite the sometimes dire and often challenging situations your characters find themselves in, there is a lot of humour woven throughout the stories. “The Support Group,” in particular, made me laugh out loud at times. What do you see as the function of humour?
K: I think you need a bit of humour in a stark story to keep the reader going forward because some of the characters…they don’t come out well in the end. But in order to get there, I think there has to be some levity. Some of my favourite writers can do that – you cry and laugh in a single paragraph, and I think that’s brilliant. So that’s what I try to do – write a story that has dark and lighter sides for balance.
N: You’re known for being an early bird to your writing spot each day. What is it about the pre-dawn hours that help you get words on to the page?
K: Part of it is that my mind is freshest at that time. Part of it is necessity when working full-time. Plus, I was writing when raising two kids full-time; that was the only writing time available.
N: At the Victoria Festival of Authors you’ll be sharing some tips for writers in the audience on how to be successful with their own writing. What is one point you plan to tell them?
K: I think it’s persistence. I think the only difference between a writer that has published something and a writer who hasn’t published is that the published writer has written more words. And the persistence part also applies to submitting. Just keep sending stuff out there. That helps to inform how that particular piece is received. And then just have thick skin about it, because it can certainly wear you down. So, persistence.
Kevin will participate in a panel discussion, The Latest Bag of Tricks – Humour in the Written Word, on Saturday, September 24.