“Vivid, hilarious, enormously entertaining” was one reviewer’s response (Andreas Schroeder) to Carla Funk’sfirst, 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!KEEP READING
Julie Paul is the author of four books, the latest of which Meteorites has just been released. The Pull of the Moon received both an IPPY award and her hometown Victoria Book Prize, and was a Top 100 Book in The Globe and Mail. The Rules of the Kingdom was a finalist for both the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award.
Here Julie is interviewed by Yaana Dancer
Yaana Dancer: Did you have a conceptual structure for the short story collection, Meteorites, before you began?
Julie Paul: No, not at all. I don’t work that way. I wait until I have a number of stories or poems and then look at them and say okay well, what’s going on as far as themes and structure go. I’ve tried to write to a theme before and failed, for example, with my first collection of stories, The Jealousy Bone, I didn’t know I was writing about jealousy until I looked at all my stories, and then I thought I might write a couple more with that theme in mind. They were terrible.
YD: At what point did you realize that you had something with this collection?
JP: I had built up a number of stories by the time I approached my publisher. I felt the title story ‘Meteorites’ lent itself to a collection about what a meteorite is. A bomb-like projectile from elsewhere. Completely out of the blue. Potentially dangerous. There’s also a religious overtone or theme to ‘Meteorites’ that speaks to the other stories too; its original title was ‘Sanctify.’ To sanctify. To bless. Make it okay. Make it holy.
YD: There’s also something edgy, some stories more than others, like the story ‘The Expansion.’ That was wickedly edgy.
JP: There’s darkness in there for sure. I like to play with that. In all my story collections, I have one or more stories that are speculative fiction. I like to push those boundaries a little bit. I’d call ‘The Expansion’ speculative fiction, where there’s one element a little off. Sometimes you need to take something in the real world, take it to extremes, to comment on what’s happening now.
YD: What prompted you to write the story, ‘The Expansion’?
JP: Every time I drive through Mt. Doug Park, I think: there’s going to be a GIANT DEER LEAPING IN FRONT OF MY CAR. I took that notion and let my imagination run free.
YD: What’s your favourite story?
JP: It’s hard to choose a favourite, but I gave myself permission to go big with the title story, ‘Meteorites.’ Sometimes you’re concerned about word count for publication in journals. I appreciate this story for needing the time, needing the unraveling. But then ‘Spilling the Bees’ started out as a novel that didn’t work but I was very attached to the characters, so I took one of the plot threads of that novel and turned it into ‘Spilling the Bees.’ Do you have a favourite?
YD: Mine is the story, ‘The Hangman.’ It must be the shortest. I love how it reads as flash fiction. It’s packed. Concise. A jewel of a story.
JP: Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it! That’s a very old story from the mid 2000’s. It’s undergone a lot of revision. This version is the shortest it’s ever been. I was breaking the rules with this one, about how writers are supposed to stay with the same point of view, keep the same tense, within one story. I move from past to present to future within a few pages.
YD: Are there others that have been transformed like that? That started out as something else?
JP: “Trajectory” was also an old story that’s undergone a number of revisions. And “Sleeping With Kittens.” The main character’s a young woman, a Psychology Major. She’s very superior. Fun story to write. It did not start as a letter — a one-sided conversation, really.
YD: What would you advise a writer regarding how to gather together a collection of stories?
JP: I would suggest starting with figuring out which story works best for them as readers. What resonates? Who do you identify with the most? And then, in particular, why? Is it the point of view? The subject matter? Humour? When you have lot of material. Circle images. Focus in. For me, in writing stories, in developing character and plot, I often use ‘what if.’ ‘What if’ this character did this? What is the meteorite that’s going to affect them? With short stories, that’s often the moto: everything seems to be going well and then…KEEP READING
Eve Joseph is the author of Quarrels which won the prestigious 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize and shortlisted for Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize 2019, beautifully show her poetic play in tension with truths unravelling in unlikely images and re-forming insight and being. She also won the Huber Evans Non-Fiction Prize, BC Book Prizes for In The Slender Margin, 2015 and Nine Bouquets for Nine Sailors was shortlisted for Prism International Nonfiction prize, in 2013.
Here is Eve interviewed by Victoria poet Wendy Donawa, author of Thin Air of the Knowable (Brick, 2017) and The Gorge: A Cartography of Sorrows (JackPine, 2015).
Wendy Donawa: Quarrels’ prose poems seem a marked departure from the lyricism of The Secret Signature of Things, of a liminal world and its tensions “casting a net around the dead, pulling them closer”. And yet it seems that moving into a new form, your prose poems also reach back to those creative tensions. Would you say how this shift has informed your process and practice? What is new; what remains?
Eve Joseph: Different forms allow for different kinds of play. I love how “form” can dictate content. One of the biggest challenges of writing prose poetry, for me, is how to create tension without the traditional poetic tools of enjambment, end-rhyme, metrical structure and rhythm. Form opens the door to new thinking, to new ways of working with language. I’m reading James Tate’s last book right now – a collection of prose poetry. On the back cover Matthew Zapruder theorizes that, in these late poems, Tate was stripping away the accepted signifiers of free verse in order to see what remains “when all the things that usually tell us we are reading poetry are gone.” When one writes prose poetry, one must engage with this question. In answer to “what remains?” I would say “everything.” I am still the same writer wrestling with poetry – whether it’s traditional verse or prose.
WD: You are not a traditional “nature poet”, yet many of your poems evoke some aspect of our salty West Coast, its smoke, light, wind, rain, gulls “magi of the rooftops”. How does your openness to the natural world inform your poems’ sense of the life cycle, its variability, its mortality?
EJ: It’s funny, we don’t see what is in our own work. I am not aware of consciously or intentionally writing about the natural world. I try to pay close attention to things, to name the world as best I can and, in this way, the natural world is a part of my work. If by “the life cycle” you mean life and death, beginnings and endings, then I would say these themes occupy me as a writer.
WD: Part One’s narrative “I” implies autobiography, but the reader is delighted and astonished by the poet’s mosaic of brief, intense, mysterious, illogically-linkedperceptions which somehow hang together as a dream does. Not without its moments of hilarity, the exploding pressure cooker propels a capon through the ceiling, frogs rain on the Citroën. Ghosts and angels appear; a magician fills the narrator’s yard with owls. A gentler sense of Yeats’ “quarrel with ourselves” pervades, yet a Holocaust survivor haunts, and “darkness arrives without drawing attention to itself”.
My question is both technical and metaphysical: how on earth did you structure such an eclectic group of poems into such a luminous and satisfying whole?
EJ: I was intentionally looking for the surreal in everyday experience. Many of the poems come out of real events in my life. The washing machine in my childhood home did bark like a baby seal and when a woman showed up with a fish, wrapped in newspaper, for the seal, my mother accepted it. This went on for weeks. The poem started with the strange event and I followed where it wanted to go. It happened to end up with Gandhi swimming in Burrard Inlet. There are “levels” of sense…sometimes things that seem nonsensical are true in other ways. The more I “entered” the poems, the more I wanted to write toward the edge of things.
WD: Part Two’s ekphrastic poems contemplate Diane Arbus’ stark photo-portraits of flawed humanity with tenderness and compassion.
Would you tell us what drew you to Arbus’ work?
EJ: Her deep humanity. Her compassion toward the marginalized. And, I would probably say I was drawn to her gaze in the world. To seeing the world through her eyes.
WD: Although mortality is a given throughout the book, Part Three’s grave and lovely elegies focus on life’s inevitable end; they chart the very specific grief and perceptions of the poet keeping watch over her dying father. In a most perfect final poem, she tells her grief to old horses whose “long heads bow in consolation”.
Your many years in hospice work have given you a more-than-usual familiarity with and knowledge of death in its many guises. Is that knowledge in any way a matrix or consolation in the deep grief for loss of a particular loved one, or the way you would write about that loss?
EJ: I’m not sure I know the full impact working with death for so many years had on me. It has probably allowed me to enter death in a more intimate way than I might have otherwise been able to. Whatever knowledge I may have of death, and the dying process, doesn’t give me any kind of “pass” in regard to feelings of deep grief. When Denise Levertov referred to “the poet being brought to speech” I would probably say that sorrow is one of the things that moves me to write.KEEP READING
Steven Heighton’s latest collection of poems “the Waking Comes late” is highly evolved work from a writer who “in the early evening of a life”, is a master of form and sound. The poems integrate with other texts, some anonymous or obscure, others more well known, Celan or Akhmatova for example. Heighton engages with and pays homage to these voices to create a new level of work “beyond gravity, grave, ego”. From one of Canada’s finest lyrists, here are beautiful, wise poems glittering with music, echoes and subtle rhyme.
by Miranda Pearson
MP: How did you arrive at the title of your latest book of poems, “The Waking Comes Late”?
SH: It’s a phrase in the book, and also the title of the poem in which the phrase appears. Sleep and waking–on both literal and metaphorical levels–have been preoccupying me for a long time. I could see that preoccupation arising often in the manuscript, so the title seemed right. (It only now occurs to me that the title of my next book, a novel–“The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep”–is closely related.)
MP: Could you speak to the notion of “approximations”? My understanding is that they are not translations as much as responses, or homages.
SH: Some are traditional translations and some are much freer, looser, to the point where, yes, you might call them responses or homages. I see “approximation” as a rubric that’s roomy enough to comprise a wide range of approaches, from more or less faithful to extremely free.
MH: How did you arrive at the particular poems you worked with in your “approximations”?
SH: Some are poems that I love. Some are poems that I don’t love but that engross and intrigue me and make me want to dig into them farther. Some are poems that I invented, though no one ever seems to notice.
MP: You have been travelling lately, for instance to Scotland. How was that?
SH: Terrific. I love both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Great walking & pubbing cities. And such welcoming people.
MP: Lastly could you talk about your teaching style and any plan or hope that you have for the workshop in Victoria?
SH: I guess you’d have to ask someone else about my teaching style. As for plans and hopes, that’s easy: I want to get writers thinking about poetry and prose in a slightly different way and I want to get them writing in the workshop. Above all, I want them to enjoy it, in the sense of an enjoyable and exhilarating challenge.
Steven Heighton will read Friday, September 23 in Pure Poetry. His Masterclass is now full.KEEP READING
On Fire, the Afterlife, and Breaking the Line: an Interview with Poet Carla Funk
By Leah Callen
I talked to Carla Funk, former Poet Laureate of Victoria, about her latest collection, Gloryland. When I finished reading these poems, I felt like I had been in church: humbled, weirdly emotional, and longing to do something more with my life.
LC: There is so much music in your poems. There’s the literal music in the lines (and I did feel compelled to read Gloryland aloud to enjoy it properly). But there was also this recurring motif of music, from the homeless dogs who are an “opera in tooth and fur” to your mother’s voice “like a low radio.” And just the general idea of the verb “tuning” – tuning our darkness “to brighter thought,” the soul or life being a song and tuning ourselves to be closer to God. Is music is a big part of your life or worship as a poet?
CF: Absolutely. I feel like before I found the language of poetry, the music was being taught to me, partially because our house was filled with music. My mum had her collection of folk records and Elvis Sings the Hymns and my dad had his Country Crooner collection, and there was a schmaltzy lounge room jazz album my mum had, and every once in a while the mood would strike her and she’d put that on. And of course, sitting in church from infancy, you’re always singing. And then at about five years old, my mum started us in piano lessons. So there’s just always been music and that felt more foundational to me even than literature. I can’t help but gravitate to music as its own entity but then the music inside language. I’m just a sucker for a turn of phrase that carries assonance or grooves along with the iambic pentameter mode. And for about the same reason, I still love the Shakespeare sonnets and Robert Frost and those poets who are unabashed in their musicality.
LC: There’s also a lot fire imagery.
CF: Yeah, my editor was like can you get rid of some of the flames?
LC: No, no. It’s great. Would you say fire is your element or The Element?
CF: I think for me… light and darkness, always that motif is coming up. Whether you’re looking at Greek mythology, whether you’re looking at Biblical narrative, whether you’re looking at the seasons. And to me somehow fire occupies both of those realms because it is light, but it is also a destructive force. It’s both illuminating and obscuring. And if I think about fire, you can be burned, but you can also be called to safety. There’s that element of danger and also of illumination. And then also, of course, the Book of Revelations and every mention of Hell that happened during my childhood, sitting in church service.
LC: Well, you read my mind because my next question was going to be: the interplay between dark and light and that chiaroscuro you mention in one of your poems seems to be the overarching theme or effect throughout, and I wondered what you are most trying to convey about the dark and light in life.
CF: I don’t feel like I have any sort of proclamation about dark and light except that I love this idea, it’s sort of the ancient Biblical narrative. For the Jewish culture, all their traditions have day starting in darkness. And I think in our Western minds we often think of it as beginning in light and heading toward darkness. Day begins in darkness and moves into light and it may sound like a simple, almost a semantic shift, but for me that’s the sort of trajectory that I was trying to explore. What if things begin in darkness and move toward light instead of we begin in light and move toward darkness? And I’m thinking of, on a personal narrative level like family and dysfunction and turmoil of home life as a child – but what if it moves toward redemption? And, you know, looking at the dying world around us and instead of just seeing it winding down, what if it’s actually moving toward redemption? That’s, I guess, what the big question is: what if everything is moving toward redemption?
There’s a giant question mark inhabiting light and dark and for me that question mark tugs me in to think about how do these two interact and could darkness come before the light. I feel like it’s probably the resurrection motif, I mean… my father had just died and I kept having all these dreams about him and in all these dreams there was so much light or fire that kept happening and they weren’t dark dreams, they were actually light dreams. And, ah, interesting. What if at the end, it’s just light. And what if at the end, there’s actually beauty. What if light is actually on the other side of the darkness?
LC: The afterlife is always present in here, the idea of the “two realms, the green and the gold” and what’s to come next. Listening to you talk about this, it can be a metaphor for redemption in life as well as a literal afterlife. Do you think that believing in a Heaven is, in a way, a sweet kind of death wish or homesickness? Not in a bad way, but a yearning almost?
CF: Yeah. Homesickness is a really interesting way of putting it. I hadn’t thought about that, but I think there is in humanity this desire for something beyond what we have and, you know, one person might name it aspiration. One person might name it drive. And I would probably name it eternal homesickness. I think back again to childhood and how formative all the hymns we’d sing about in the sweet by and by and Beulah Land and all of these strange names for the afterlife which I didn’t really understand what they meant, but there was so much longing, a sort of pilgrim mentality that was ingrained into everybody standing in the congregation singing about well, things are bad, but one day… and I think that’s just been in humanity regardless of the culture, regardless of the religion. It’s just eternal homesickness. And it can’t help but come out in my writing, I think.
LC: Reading your poems, I felt you have a mystical incarnate god who’s not afraid to get His hands dirty. Even though there is the afterlife and this beautiful return home, He also seems to be in the people and places around you. I have a bit of a heavy question, but do you think the Kingdom of God is more within us or without? Because there’s this far away land, but it’s also like you’ve cast the people in your life as Biblical characters in here as well.
CF: That’s a good question. I need to go to seminary for a couple of years and then come back. I would just love to study theology. I guess if I think about when I sit down and I’m writing a poem, and what I’m believing to be true, I’m seeing the Kingdom of God everywhere. I’m seeing it in that snail. I think that the universe is like a book open for us to read and everywhere there are signs and symbols and messages, whether it’s a fly traveling around the cabin of an airplane or a snail crawling up a fencepost, I think we can read all of that. And if the Kingdom of God is within a person, then a person has eyes to see the Kingdom of God that’s all around.
LC: Do you think that’s the true role of a poet: to be a mystic and basically “crack the code of Heaven” in life?
CF: I can’t speak for all poets and I think every person walks around in the world with something inscribed in the very depths of them that is their purpose in the world, and I’m guessing every poet has a little inscription too. I feel like one of the parts of my inscription is to listen and to pay attention. And I would hope writers would do that no matter what they believe or what kind of writing they are producing: listening, paying attention like a kid who is full of wonder at the universe and not jaded and not cynical. I feel like one of the things I want to do is point at the kind of wonder of what’s true and what is beautiful.
LC: This book is dedicated to your father and Elegy is a very powerful poem. I cried after that one specifically. Just beautiful. Is writing the way a poet works through mourning?
CF: One thing I’ve found to be true about writing poems is that they force emotion into objectivity – especially in the revision process. And just like the language goes through the furnace of revision, emotion and memory and family relationships go through a revision process. And time can be the great reviser and death can be a catalyst for that revision. And I found that through writing these poems after my dad died, that it was this redemptive act where I began to remember him differently, see him differently. You know, I wouldn’t have dedicated the book to my dad five years ago. But leading up to his death, that sort of slow drain of negative emotion or hurt, it happened. And what was left initially was sort of this vacant space of not feeling hurt, of not feeling anger, just feeling nothing. And then, gradually, it was flooded in with some love which shocked me. And these poems came out of a completely different emotional space where I could actually say that I loved my father. Though he might not have read these poems had he been alive, in writing them I felt like that darkness was moving toward light in the end in my response to him and memories of childhood, which was miraculous for me.
LC: In one poem, What Flowers Few and Bright, you talk about a bumblebee and its “methodology as exquisite a jeweller’s tooling at the gem,” and it made me remember you telling us in class that that’s what a poet does. It’s like a jeweller working on a tiny gem and getting it just right. How much do you obsess or do you obsess over perfecting the small things in a poem like enjambment or punctuation or diction? Do you feel that a poem can be perfect and how do you know when you’ve gotten it there?
CF: I can only speak to what my process is like. But, yes, I do obsess in the final stages of revising. That’s when the obsession with minutia takes over and I labour over the comma or the em dash, the line break here or a line break there. Not at the start, I don’t. I let it just go and sometimes it’s just messy, muddy writing at the start. But as the poem finds its shape, then the minutia comes into play.
I always picture this ideal, true, whole poem existing already. I just read a headline about some famous Vancouver magician’s house burning down. And I was like, oh, I have to write a poem about this. So, in my head the poem about the magician’s house burning down is already there. It’s already perfected somewhere. My job is just to get as close as possible to what that poem, that ideal, true poem is. And so I feel like I’m getting closer when I start to obsess over the minutia, over the punctuation and line breaks, the syllable shifts… that tells me I’m getting closer. And is it ever perfect? No. But I’ll get as close as I can.KEEP READING