Özten Shebahkeget interviews Catherine Hunter
Catherine Hunter is a writer who teaches at the University of Winnipeg. Her books include the poetry collection St. Boniface Elegies (Signature, 2019, winner of the Lansdowne Prize for Poetry; also short-listed for the Governor General’s award for poetry and the High Plains Book Award for poetry); the poetry collection Latent Heat (Signature, 1997, winner of the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award); the historical novel After Light (Signature, 2015, shortlisted for the High Plains Book Award for Fiction and four Manitoba Books Awards); and several literary mysteries with the Ravenstone line of Turnstone Press. Her most recent publication is the short story “Calling You” in Prairie Fire (Spring 2020).
Özten Shebahkeget: What advice would you give to yourself as an emerging writer?
Catherine Hunter: Leave that guy. Leave him right now.
ÖS: Has the pandemic had an effect on your writing practice? If yes, how so?
CH: Because teaching online is so time consuming, the pandemic effectively eliminated my writing practice for the first year. I hope to be able to resume it soon.
ÖS: You have served in the past as the acting chair of the Sociology department at the University of Winnipeg. I’m curious about your thoughts on the relationship between sociology and creative writing.
CH: I don’t really see much of a relationship there. My role in Sociology was completely administrative. I worked with the UW sociologists for two years, and learned a lot from them in conversations and by occasionally observing their classes or reading their articles. I learned a little bit about many different topics: the history of medicine, attitudes toward mental health, patterns of immigration, labour and museums, the evolving role of the family, the impact of public policy on health and safety (very interesting to think about during these pandemic days), and a bit of theory. Sociologists at the UW are vitally concerned with human rights and achieving equality in terms of economic security, health, and well being. It’s an honourable intellectual field. But it’s not my field. I was raised by radical activists who were deeply engaged in social justice issues, so those themes have always been present in my thinking and therefore in my writing. But what I’m doing isn’t sociology, or philosophy, or politics, or cultural studies, or theory. It’s art.
ÖS: You have been teaching creative writing at the University of Winnipeg since 1991. What has brought you joy during your time at UW? Do you find teaching aids your own practice?
CH: I don’t think teaching aids my own writing practice at all. In fact, it is a huge impediment because it eats up all my time. But teaching is not about me. It is about the students.
I had the great good fortune of an excellent education, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to spend years sharing seminar rooms with some of the best literary minds in the country. I’ve spent most of my life reading and writing and have studied a phenomenal amount of fascinating poetry and fiction, as well as literary theory and criticism in English. So, it’s only right that I should share what I’ve learned with others. As a teacher I try to encourage those who appreciate language and poems and story-telling, and to show them new avenues of exploration. It’s not just a job. It’s a service, passing along knowledge and skills from one human being to another, through the centuries. (That’s what you want to defund, Conservatives?) Mainly, I encourage all students to read more. If you had asked what advice would I give to an emerging writer other than myself, I would have said, first, read. But to be more specific, read deeply in the genres you’re writing in and read widely in other genres. Study the sentences. How are they made? What do they do? Read nonfiction to learn about different landscapes and climates, different types of sport and religion and science, different modes of travel. Learn the vocabulary of sailing and surgery and sorcery and silver mining.
For those talented students who respect the power of language and read deeply and are working hard to make poems and stories, I provide a space where they can experiment and meet other artists, a space where it’s not only okay to make art, it’s actually required. And for those students who don’t appreciate language very much, or for those who stumble into creative writing class by accident, with the mistaken notion that it’s easy, I provide examples of beautiful, intelligent, moving literature, often tailored to their particular interests. I point out the skills the writers used and encourage the students to make poems or stories of their own. I enjoy working with those inexperienced students just as much as I like working with the literary stars. To see somebody learn something new, to try a new skill and get results, is a source of joy. It could be a student figuring out that revising a sentence can make it stronger, discovering a new author they love, or realizing the artistic value of the legends their grandparents told them, or it could be a student winning a scholarship, getting published, or moving on to graduate school. All of those moments are occasions for joy.
I remember when I first applied to work here many years ago, I said in my letter that I strongly believe that all people, regardless of talent, can learn to express themselves more effectively, and I still believe that. Everyone can learn to think more creatively too. You don’t have to be a published author to benefit from becoming more articulate and leading a more creative life.
ÖS: What does your revision process look like when it comes to poetry? How do you know when a poem is finished?
CH: I keep a lot of notes. Mostly they are just jottings—sentences, jokes, descriptions of things I see, phrases that come to mind. These are scattered throughout a few different notebooks. I guess this is the pre-composition stage, rather than the revision stage, but it all seems like one long process to me. Once in a while a note will strike something in me, and I’ll start to expand on it. If it begins to spark new ideas or to draw other fragments toward it—there are usually connections to be made among the seemingly random fragments—I start to see the shape of the thing. Then I suppose the remaining work could be called revision. In revision, I try to define that shape more carefully. I’ll find a movement that makes sense (maybe from image to image or from question to question or through certain shifts in attitude or perspective, or just changing the subject). I’ll also try to find the form—for example, if it seems to be falling into couplets, I’ll try to turn it all into couplets just to see if that works or not. (I have one fairly long poem that began as a sestina and then I turned it into a series of sonnets. Eventually it became a free verse poem in five stanzas, but I can still see the traces of the sestina and the sonnets in there.) Maybe that kind of formal experimentation is revision. Maybe it’s just getting to know the poem. I’ll also try to get rid of redundancies, clarify vagueness, find more accurate words, read the thing out loud to listen to the rhythms and the sounds of the vowels and consonants, play with the line breaks, delete parts that seem out of place or irrelevant. I don’t think I ever consider a poem finished until someone gives me a deadline, and then, on the deadline date, it’s finished. I realize this is probably useless as writing advice. My revision process when it comes to fiction is much more intentional.
ÖS: Finally, what have you been working on lately?
CH: I’ve been working on some short stories, playing with structure and perspective, trying to braid or splice different story lines together. One of these stories, “Calling You,” was published in Prairie Fire last year (Spring 2020). The themes I’m working with are mainly illness, death, and grief. My husband suffered a long, debilitating illness and died about two years ago (that was when you were in my creative research class, Özten). In the wake of those experiences, I’m trying to look at the ways they affect our consciousness. The eerie gaps in time, the forgetting and misplacing of things, the mistakes, the hauntingly strange effects on the imagination (which I can’t yet describe)—all those human reactions to shock and loss. I want to try to recreate these effects in the narrative structure somehow. Since we’re approaching the end of the teaching year, I hope to resume those attempts again soon.
Interview by Özten Shebahkeget. Özten Shebahkeget is a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation. She holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg, and joined the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan last fall. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire and CV2 Magazine.