Gunnar Ohberg:Have you always wanted to be a writer or was there something in particular that drew you to writing?
Kristyn Dunnion: Growing up watching a lot of bad TV in the 1970s, I was heavily influenced by tough chicas like Pinky and Leather Tuscadero (Happy Days), by the Lady Detectives of Charlie’s Angels, etcetera. I wanted to be like them. Writing is something I’ve come to, more and more, as other excitements have fallen away and as my attention span (and ability to sit still!) has grown. I appreciate the solitude of writing and the discipline of playing with language to get things ‘just right’ in a way that’s so different from collaborative theatre or activist/community projects, from other work I’ve done over the years.
GO:Your books cover a wide range of genre: dystopian, domestic drama, murder-mystery thriller, sci-fi fantasy. Does your experience as a writer change depending on the genre? Have you found some genres easier or harder to write than others?
KD: With each new project, I try to stay open, curious about exploring the world of the story. For me that includes style and genre — I’m more concerned with discovering the aesthetic and getting to know the characters, really inhabiting their bodies and dreams, than with categorizing how it will be told. For me, genre is more of an internal discovery than a conscious choice. One exception is short fiction, which I actively pursued with the misguided notion that it would take less time to write. Ha! I spent almost eight years revising some of the stories that ended up in Stoop City(Biblioasis, 2020). Each book is compelling and challenging (to write) in its own way. Each has been driven by an emotional landscape or unanswered question, by stark imagery and sometimes by an audacious character/voice that will not be dislodged from my head, otherwise.
GO: In addition to writing, you are a performance artist, a former cabaret performer, and have been the bassist for multiple rock bands. Have these creative performances influenced your writing in any way?
KD: Yes! Visual arts, too, are a deeply satisfying medium to balance the two-dimensional world of text. I am happiest in a studio, mucking about, experimenting. I urge writers to balance that part of their life with physicalized movement, with martial arts or dance or something like that. Making music, co-writing songs, working with other artists to stage something, these are all invaluable experiences that help flex creative muscles and teach us new vocabulary, new ways of thinking, communicating, being. I resist the convention of committing to a single modality within the vast artistic universe, or to a single genre in all of literature; categorization like this, which might serve to inspire expertise and deep understanding for some people, feels restrictive to me.
GO: You’ve also worked in a shelter system since the COVID pandemic began. How has COVID impacted your writing, if at all?
KD: At first, things weren’t too different, in that I was deep into final revisions for Stoop City, which gave me a framework for continuing to write. Launching a book during the pandemic was strange. One of my favourite parts about being an author is travelling and giving public readings, meeting readers and other writers, and that dynamic in-person element was missing. But it’s astounding to have access to online technology that facilitates connection, and those advantages have been pretty cool. The paid work I do outside of writing is so focused on pandemic response and active front line work, which brings its own stressors and challenges. There have been points during the pandemic when I was unable to read for any length of time (I’d switch to short essays and poetry), or felt too despondent to write (I completed two jigsaw puzzles, instead). People say, “Oh, are you going to write about the pandemic?” and I’m like, “No way, so redundant!” I’m working on a sequel to the dystopic Tarry This Night. Glean Among the Sheaves explores abundance, reciprocity, alternative concepts of the Divine. For a change, I want to conceive of a possible future which is not in itself terrorizing: the antidote to white supremacy, to patriarchal capitalism.
GO: It’s been noted that punk and heavy metal have some influence in your work. Can you tell us more about that relationship between music and literature for you? Are there particular songs or bands you listen to for inspiration?
KD: Oh, yes, music fuels me. Each book has its own playlist — what I played while writing, that (hopefully) seeps into the text, contaminating readers. I listened to a lot of doom/sludge metal for Tarry This Night, and wrote hymns in the stairwell of my building: creepy! As a bassist, I’m partial to Black Sabbath, the Melvins, Sleep and Bolt Thrower, to name a very few.
GO: What books were essential to your formation as a writer, and are there any books you’d recommend for any beginning writer?
KD: Books were a lifeline for me as a kid; the public library in town was a safe haven. It’s so subjective, what book (or band) will knock someone’s socks off, and I continue to be astonished by new or new-to-me writers. The stories I remember most vividly from childhood were emotionally devastating, so much so the books were sometimes confiscated until I’d ‘calm down.’ Books that told me about another person’s struggles in their differently-lived life nurtured deep empathy in me as a reader, as a human. This is probably why I write – primarily to express those intimate longings and, secondly, in hopes for some kind of connection, however anonymous it might be.
For a beginning writer, especially, read widely. Read outside your comfort zone: different genres, diverse writers. Listen to authors speak about their work (so much is accessible online now); this is how we learn to talk and think about our own work, and to place it in the context of what has come before, what’s current, whatever will come next.
Kristyn Dunnion was raised in the southern-most tip of rural Canada and now lives in Toronto. She has authored six books, most recently Stoop City (Biblioasis, 2020), winner of the 2021 ReLit Award for short fiction, and Tarry This Night (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017). Recent work appears in Best Canadian Stories 2020, Toronto 2033 and Orca. A queer performance artist and heavy metal bassist, Dunnion is also a community mental health support worker.
Gunnar Ohberg is a member of the University of Saskatchewan’s MFA in Writing program. His poems and short stories have recently been featured in The Racket, The Mark Literary Review, and in media res. He is currently working on a dystopian novel set in South Carolina. Sometimes he plays in rock bands.
Brandon Fick: With your first novel in a decade, August Into Winter, you’ve returned to historical fiction. What sparked your interest in learning and writing about history? Growing up, were you aware of major historical events as they were happening, or interested in your own family’s personal history?
Guy Vanderhaeghe: From a very early age, I was interested in the past. It began with the stories my grandparents told me about their lives, which I drank in. The things they had lived through: prairie fires, the Spanish influenza pandemic, the First World War, the Depression, The Second World War, always seemed richer, more momentous than my own stale existence. These anecdotes prompted me to read history in an attempt to learn more about the world as it existed then.
And yes, even as a child, I was aware of major historical events. Not to make myself sound too precocious, but I was a news nerd at quite a young age. I can recall the world teetering on the verge of nuclear war, sitting at my desk with my classmates listening to the radio as the Russian ships carrying missiles to Cuba approached the United States Navy’s blockade, which was determined to prevent the weapons from landing. Kennedy’s assassination made a huge impression on me. I watched and listened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech” on television. And so much more, the Hungarian uprising, the Berlin Wall going up, Gary Powers’s spy plane shot down over the U.S.S.R. and the embarrassment that debacle caused the United States. The Cold War and the dread of nuclear annihilation was very much part of my childhood psychology.
BF: What was the impetus to write August Into Winter and what did the research process look like? Having written multiple historical novels over many years, has your research process changed in any way?
GV: The initial impetus was one of those stories I mentioned earlier, which was told to me by my father. Immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War, my hometown experienced a string of house break-ins that turned out to have been committed by the son of one of the most prominent families. He killed the RCMP officer who arrested him and fled. A posse was formed by veterans of the First World War, and they went off in pursuit of him. Unlike the character in my novel, Ernie Sickert, the murderer killed himself when he was tracked down, brought to bay, and surrounded. But the actual incident was nothing more than a nudge that got the narrative moving forward, unfurling. The characters in my novel bear virtually no relation to the real-life murderer or to much else that has to do with what I know of the incident. They are pure invention.
I did a lot of research on the Spanish Civil War since one of my characters served there. Aside from conventional histories, I read a lot of first-hand accounts written by veterans of the International Brigade. I used the Winnipeg Tribune as a source for news about the early months of the Second World War because I wanted a sense of what people were thinking when the course of the war was still so uncertain. Unlike us, they didn’t know how it was going to end and capturing that mood of uncertainty was important for the book.
My research process has changed very little over the years, aside from the fact that the internet now supplies a wealth of easily accessed information, which wasn’t true when I wrote The Englishman’s Boy, my first historical novel. I always sift through far more material than ever makes its way into a novel. A fairly comprehensive knowledge gives me a measure of confidence as I write, because I feel I have a solid grip on the times and events that are part of the novel.
BF: Having reread The Englishman’s Boy earlier this year, I was struck by its themes – violence against Indigenous people, reckoning with the past, the dangers of fascism and propaganda – and how they’re even more relevant in 2021. And in an introduction to Timothy Findley’s The Wars, you said “serious historical novels are always as much about the present as about the past they claim to place before our eyes.” Keeping that in mind, what do you think August Into Winter says about today?
GV: For a long time, I’ve been concerned about the rise of the radical right in the United States and in Europe. Those men and women who went to fight for the Spanish Republic, to defend it against the military uprising of General Franco, believed by taking a stand there they could stop the worldwide spread of fascism. They failed, largely because democratic governments refused to aid the Republic, and Italian Fascists and German Nazis were only too eager to help Franco and the fascist Falange. The Second World War was a bloodier reprise of the struggle against totalitarian, anti-democratic movements. What both wars remind us is that human rights and human freedom are never completely assured.
In part, the book was written because I believe that the radical, populist right, as exemplified by men like Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi, Erdogan, Putin, Orban, Duda – the list goes on and on – are slowly eroding the hope for a world of international law and individual liberty. August Into Winter asks the question: What is the proper response to a crisis such as this? The storming of the United States Capitol by militiamen was a page out of a book written nearly ninety years ago by Nazi SA storm-troopers. Nevertheless, so-called “respectable” politicians attempt to minimize how dangerous such actions are and they are not being called to account for it by the electorate.
BF: One of the key characters in August Into Winter is Ernie Sickert, described as a “spoiled, narcissistic man-child.” Is he comparable to Addington Gaunt from The Last Crossing, or Michael Dunne from A Good Man, characters who do “bad” things for compelling reasons? Is it a challenge to get inside these deeply flawed characters?
GV: I’ve always been interested in what motivates people to do what they do. The presence of evil in the world reminds us that it has a source, and that source is human beings. Ernie Sickert is probably the character who has given me the greatest challenge to write. At one point, my editor remarked that she felt that he bore many similarities to Donald Trump. When I think about it, she might be right. Sickert is self-pitying, vain, arrogant, childish, dangerously impulsive – and above all, forever the “hero of his own story.” I think to write awful human beings, you need to turn off your self-censor, and not be afraid to go to places that are dark, disgusting, or even terrifying.
BF: Speaking of characters, August Into Winter has a huge cast, each with layered backstories. How do writers not only manage, but do justice to so many characters?
GV: That’s a very hard question to answer and the best advice I can offer is that when you write characters be those characters. Write them from the inside, not the outside. If you do that, they have a habit of occupying the spaces in a novel that belong to them.
BF: How has Canadian literature changed since you began writing? Is there less focus on “writing Canada into being” as there was in the 1970s and 1980s?
GV: I think that the cultural nationalism of those decades is largely a spent force. As far as I can see, younger writers have different preoccupations than writers of my generation. When I was a student, we were seldom taught Canadian books; in literature departments, there was a general assumption that Canadian was another adjective for “second rate.” Writers like Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, along with many others, put fiction, poetry, and plays written by Canadians firmly on the world stage.
BF: Do you think your writing style has changed over the years, or can you identify certain “phases” in your writing career?
GV: Looking back, I suppose my preoccupations as a writer have changed. My early work was much more “personal,” more “intimate,” and less concerned with presenting characters in a “social” or “political” context. Structurally, the novels have grown increasingly complex, and the prose is likely simpler than when I was beginning as a writer. When I was young, I was much more enamoured with fancy flourishes and rhetorical fireworks. I hope I’ve moderated and restrained some of that now.
BF: Is there a certain book or short story you’ve written that you’re particularly proud of? Or on the other hand, a work that you wish had turned out differently?
GV: I’m a harsh critic of my own work so I’m not particularly proud of anything I’ve written. I do wish that all my fiction had turned out differently. That is to say, better.
BF: Going back to history, is there a certain historical event or figure that you think is deserving of a new or updated fictional treatment?
GV: As far as I know, nobody has ever written a novel about Leon Trotsky. He is a fascinating character, multi-dimensional, a subject worthy of Shakespearean tragedy.
BF: And finally, if you could sit down with one or two writers in history, who would they be and what would you ask them?
GV: I would ask Chekhov whether he thought he was a better playwright than short story writer. I would ask Philip Roth how it was possible for him to write so well, for so long.
Guy Vanderhaeghe was born in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, in 1951. His previous fiction includes A Good Man, The Last Crossing, The Englishman’s Boy, Things as They Are (stories), Homesick, My Present Age, Man Descending (stories), and Daddy Lenin and Other Stories. Among the many awards he has received are the Governor General’s Awards (three times); and, for his body of work, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellowship, the Writers’ Trust Timothy Findley Award, and the Harbourfront Literary Prize. He has received many honours including the Order of Canada.
Brandon Fick grew up in Lanigan, Saskatchewan. He primarily writes fiction and has been published in Polar Expressions, in medias res, and The Society. He received a Writing Diploma from St. Peter’s College and a B.A. Honours in English from the University of Saskatchewan. Brandon is currently in the MFA in Writing program at the U of S, working on a short story collection exploring masculinity and small town life.
Karen Wood: Tell me a story about you being or becoming a writer.
Merilyn Simonds: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t telling stories. I made them up for my little sister. In Grade Ten, I started a weekly column of school news in the local newspaper. At the same time, I started writing little vignettes. I’d see two people talking and would write a story, adding my own dialogue. At university, I studied journalism, but that wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to do, so I switched to English literature. Ironically, that stopped me in my tracks. We studied novels from a thematic viewpoint and I thought ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t have a theme. I guess I’m not a writer.’ I stopped for a decade or more, then when my kids were little, I started writing magazine articles and how-to books. When my marriage ended, I moved to Kingston to work at Harrowsmith, a magazine that espoused the New Journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. Kingston had a thriving writing community, and so when I found a cache of letters in my attic, that gave me the confidence to write my first literary non-fiction book, The Convict Lover—the real beginning of my writing life.
KW: Tell me about that first literary book, how you wrote it.
MS:The Convict Lover was a wonderful first literary book because I was sure no one would want to read it. I was free to bring the story to light in the most authentic, honest, engaging way possible, because my contract was solely with the material. Out of that experience I developed an ethic for literary writing that has served me well.
KW: Your publications cross multiple genres. On your website you’ve been described as someone who refrains from categorization. Can you speak about that?
MS:The Convict Lover forced me to think through the notion of genre. What was this story? An epistolary novel? Narrative nonfiction? An exposé of Canadian prisons? A penal history? I decided that genre was not something that interested me as a writer. It is of great interest to publishers, to booksellers, and readers—it’s a shorthand way of finding the kind of books you like. But for a writer, genre brings baggage, and for me, the last thing I want when I have a body of material is to wrap chains around it and say, ‘It has to be written like this.’ The Lion In the Room Next Door, for example, was published first as a book of non-fiction stories because it was important to me to signal to the reader that these are stories, but they’re not made up. But it was also published as short stories, as auto-fiction, as memoir, and as a novel. I love the flexibility of the definition of story: a series of events; a fiction.
KW: With categorization there can be porous boundaries between, for example, fact and fiction. As a writer, have you had experiences where that provoked any ethical or moral dilemmas?
MS: Absolutely. To me fact and fiction are not two sides of a coin, but a continuum. The telephone book is extreme non-fiction. Conventional biography is closely tied to facts, but as you move into towards the centre of the continuum, through memoir, interpretive biography, personal essays, the prose becomes more subjective, more informed by the writer and their memory. At the centre is a grey area, where as one reviewer of The Convict Lover said, fact and fiction meet and fornicate. At the opposite end of the continuum is speculative fiction.
To me, it’s a question of readers’ expectations. I had to figure out how to write The Convict Lover, how to deal with the gaps in the story. I wanted to be frank with the reader about those decisions, so I wrote an Author’s Note. I think an Author’s Note is vital, especially for experimental work. And so with The Convict Lover, I said everything in italics in the letters was drawn directly from the letters, the letters had not been changed at all, no characters had been invented, all characters actually lived, etc. However, the dialogue between the characters was invented and the emotions and feelings of the characters were surmised from circumstances. I think readers are sophisticated. As long as they know what’s going on, they willingly fall into a book.
KW: Can you speak to what is delightful for you about writing?
MS: Writing is hard, but it never feels onerous. The moment when the words fall into place and they actually say what you want them to say—well, it is profoundly satisfying. There’s an ecstasy to writing that I don’t get anywhere else, which is probably what keeps me at it. The feeling has to do with story, and all the elements of story, but equally if not more so, it has to do with language. Sentence structure is heartrate, right? You’re designing sentences to control the reader’s heartrate. There’s nothing more elemental than that.
One of the things that keeps me in this work is that I’m pushed back to kindergarten with every new project. Every body of material is new, and every body of material requires its own form. Every book thrusts me right back into a position of not knowing, and I think not-knowing is about the most exciting place to be. A writer is, in some respects, always a newbie, even though you do become adept at revision and the deep mechanics of writing, of making sentences. You learn how to dismantle something knowing that you will make it better, without being afraid that by taking it apart you’re going to wreck it.
KW: Do you have a routine? And if so, what is it?
MS: I work well within a routine. I like to get up with the sun. I go right to my desk and work. Take a break, exercise and then go back to work. Have lunch. Normally I can manage about six hours of creative work. I write my first draft long-hand. I use a spiral-bound notebook. I only write on the right-hand side of the page. As I’m writing, I go back to the left side of the pages and make notes like, ‘Introduce George here.’ That first draft is really an exploration of the limits of the story. Some call it the ‘puke draft’. I call it the donné draft—the gift. From that, I write the first draft into the computer, print it, work it over in longhand, then go back to the computer, make those changes, and print it out, work it over.
In the afternoons I edit, make notes, take care of business, until about 3 or 4 pm. In the evenings I usually read. The last thing before bed, I review what I wrote that day. I always stop in the middle: I never end my writing day by finishing a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter. I always stop mid-thought. I read that little last bit over, and all through the night my brain is working on it so that when I get up in the morning, I have something to grab onto to get started again.
Born in Winnipeg, Canada, Merilyn Simonds grew up in Brasil, where she acquired a taste for the fabulous. She published her first book in 1979 at the age of 29. She is now the author of 19 published books, including the novel The Holding, a New York Times Book Review Editors’
Choice, and the creative nonfiction classic, The Convict Lover. In 2017, Project Bookmark Canada installed a plaque to honour the place of The Convict Lover in Canada’s literary landscape. Her 20th —Woman, Watching: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay—will be published in spring 2022.
With roots in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, Karen Wood is an MFA student whose writing is informed by years of research and community practice, and fueled by a commitment to address gendered violence. New to the world of creative writing, Karen continues to be delighted by the extraordinary capacity of artistic expression to create space for social and political engagement, activism, and change.
Aliza Prodaniuk: What drew you to the mystery genre? When did you begin to take your writing seriously?
Gail Bowen: I came to writing late. I was in my mid-forties when I got asked to write a lighthearted piece for Prairie Books. It was fun! The fellow who was the publisher liked it enough to suggest that Ron Marken and I write a book. We called the book The Love Letters of George and Adelaide, 1919. It ultimately became a play called Dancing in Poppies that Prince Edward came to see, which was very exciting. After that, I was bit by the writing bug.
In graduate school, my summer reading list was always mysteries. I thought to myself, “I’d like to write a mystery,” one that was set in Saskatchewan and captured the local flavour. That was very important to me. It was also important to create a main character that reflected myself: someone who lived in Saskatchewan, someone middle-aged and ageing, someone with a family, not a superwoman, but an academic like me. That’s really how things started.
AP: Do you pre-plan your writing? Or do you write by the seat of your pants?
GB: The first chapter is very important for me in setting up my story. It takes me forever to write the first chapter. My latest book, An Image in the Lake, took me three months to get through the first chapter. However, when I get the first chapter done, I know where I’m going. There are always surprises along the way, and that’s the joy of writing. But at that point, I have a good idea of what will happen in the book. That first chapter never gets easier for me. Twenty books in, and I still think, “What if I can’t pull the rabbit out of the hat this time?” Luckily, even though the writing hasn’t become easier, with experience, I can tell when I’m doing something that isn’t working.
AP: Congratulations on your recent publication. An Image in the Lake is the 20th novel in the Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series. How did you get here? How do you keep such a long series healthy and fresh?
GB: As I said before, I made several decisions early on that have helped keep things going and keep my readers and me interested. I get an awful lot of mail about the books — I’m grateful for it, and I answer everyone, even the cranky ones — and I think the biggest thing that people continue to care about is Joanne, the protagonist, and her family. Joanne is very approachable. She is not extraordinary in any way. She is every woman. Because she has aged throughout the series, many readers have gone through their middle ages with her and can identify with her experiences.
Joanne keeps me coming back to the series, too. People are like onions; the more time you spend peeling and peeling away their layers, the closer you get to what that person is. That’s the exciting part for me. Joanne constantly surprises me, even after all this time!
If it ever becomes a chore, then I’ll stop. I think we’ve all read series that have gone on too long, and you can tell that the writer hates the story and their protagonist. I’ve gotten so much out of these books. Six of them have been made into movies, and we got to go to Toronto and be part of that process. We have had so many travels and met so many people, and now they are being made into audiobooks. The series has been so good to me that I’m not going to let it go on too long and be terrible at the end. I’m noticing now that I’m starting to put proper endings on the novels that would be satisfying just in case it’s the last one. I don’t leave anyone hanging.
AP: What advice would you give to emerging writers?
GB: Take a great deal of time developing your protagonist and getting to know them. The time you put into pre-writing is well worth the effort. It will save you from making an awful lot of mistakes along the way or from simply running out of gas.
The other thing is, no matter what kind of book you are writing, get your money’s worth out of secondary characters. They can do so much for you. They can keep the interest up so that you’re not totally plot-driven in your narrative.
Learn about pacing novels. That’s really important, too. Periods of actions and reflection are equally important, and you will want to learn how to balance them.
Write every day and never leave your work in a bad place! That’s the most important thing I can say.
AP: What’s next for Gail Bowen?
GB: I just got through chapter one of my next book, and I’m feeling really happy with it. After Christmas, I will be participating in a program through the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild that provides writing advice to rural areas where it’s not readily available. In November, I will also be giving a lecture on Canadian Literature at Marburg University in Germany. So, I will be very busy in the coming months.
Gail Bowen is a prolific author, playwright and teacher. Her best-known works are the Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series of mystery novels, all of which are set in Saskatchewan. The twenty novels in the series have received national and international acclaim for their realistic, continually evolving heroine and examinations of contemporary social issues ranging from child prostitution to feminism, racism and domestic abuse. Six books in the series have been successfully adapted for an international television audience. Among her numerous writing awards are a lifetime achievement award from the Crime Writers of Canada and the Distinguished Canadian Award from the University of Regina and the Lifelong Learning Centre. Readers’ Digest has called her Canada’s best mystery novelist. She is also a playwright, specializing in children’s literature, and has adapted a number of classic works such as Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast for the stage and radio. In 2018, she was awarded the Grand Master Award of Crime Writers of Canada, and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.
Aliza Prodaniuk lives in Hamilton, Ontario and is a current graduate student in the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan. She has had recent work appear in East by Northeast Literary Magazine & The River Volta Review of Books.
Özten Shebahkeget:When did you begin to take writing seriously? And what motivated you to start?
Lenard Monkman: I didn’t take writing seriously until around March of 2015. I set it as one of my goals that year to become a better writer. That month, I started a personal blog just to get used to having a space for my writing, but also just to get into the habit of writing all of the time. Another thing that I started doing was putting out long Facebook statuses. I wanted to get into the habit of writing every day and getting used to having feedback from my online Facebook community. It was a good practice for me, and those long-winded Facebook statuses eventually became newspaper op-eds, which eventually became a job as a journalist. Truth is, I have always been a journalism nerd, I just needed to get used to writing every single day.
ÖS: What obstacles have you encountered as a writer?
LM: If you take it from 2015, I would say that there haven’t been too many obstacles. At the beginning of that year, I went from barely being able to write a properly formatted email and typing very slowly, to being able to write 500 words in 5 minutes by August. Although now, when I look at the things that I was writing five years ago, it is hard to read because I can see how much I have improved since then. The best advice that I ever got from anyone was: if you want to become a writer then you need to pen to paper every day. I always thought about that and recognized that every single time that I write, it’s an opportunity to improve with each story and each sentence.
ÖS: You are a co-founder of Red Rising Magazine. Why was creating a literary magazine for and by Indigenous people important to you?
LM: I wanted to get into producing media before we started Red Rising Magazine. It was definitely a collective effort to get it off the ground with a bunch of energetic, intelligent folks from Winnipeg. We went from not having a whole bunch of skills, to having all sorts of publishing related skills in just the first year. I think the main idea behind everything that we did was to give Indigenous writers and artists an unfiltered platform that existed outside of the traditional forms of media. The magazine became a place where many people that I know had their first opportunity to be published and it is something that I am proud of. Although I haven’t been with the collective for a couple of years now, I still believe there is a space for that type of work and would like to see it continue in one form or another.
ÖS: You have been a journalist with CBC since 2016. The Canadian media has always had such a profound impact in framing Indigenous stories, and storytelling is an integral aspect of Indigenous cultures. What do you feel are your responsibilities as an Indigenous journalist, and what have you learned from telling the stories of a vast array of Indigenous peoples in Canada?
LM: I think the biggest responsibility is to make sure that what I am doing is truthful and that people feel like they were accurately represented in the work that I have done. I haven’t done as much “accountability” type of journalism as much as I have done the “here are some Native people doing really cool things” type of journalism. I really want to use the mainstream media platform to try and boost our people’s presence and to highlight their successes. But I also strive to make sure that the reality of what our people go through is being heard in newsrooms like the CBC. What I have learned from talking to so many Indigenous peoples across the country over the years is that we are brilliant and that our cultures are diverse. I’ve also come to realize that so many of our struggles are similar from coast to coast. There are a lot of things that I continue to learn as the years go by, but getting a chance to talk to Indigenous people all over the country is easily the most enjoyable thing about my job.
ÖS: What are some of the books that have influenced you?
LM: I always give credit to Indians Wear Red. The book spoke to my reality of what it was like growing up in Winnipeg’s inner-city in the 90’s-00’s. It really was a “light bulb moment” for me to understand that what I was seeing in my life was happening not just in my life, but everyone else in my community as well. The last chapter “What Can Be Done?” was also a call to action for me. I think that the more we are able to try and create changes within our communities, the less healing the next generation will have to do. Another book that I really like is Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. There are a lot of really good psychological gems inside that book that are applicable to the Indigenous community.
ÖS: What do you write outside of journalism?
LM: I still love Facebook more than the other apps. It allows me to joke without feeling like I’m being judged. It allows me to write in long-form if I ever need to get a thought out. I also really just practiced everything that I could in terms of writing on that app. I also like to use Twitter, although it’s more of a professional space. Twitter has made me a better writer because I put a little bit of thought into trying to make those sentences a bit stronger.
ÖS: Where would you like your writing to go next?
LM: I feel like I have been thinking about this question for a couple years now. I try to improve with each story that I write. I also try to improve with each radio script, TV script and everything else that is journalism related. I have thought for a long time about whether or not I would like to write children’s books, graphic novels, fiction or nonfiction. I guess the biggest thing that stops me is feeling like I need to be an incredible writer before I actually start writing. Eventually I will settle on a subject, and hopefully I can dedicate enough time to sit down and hammer out something that is loosely based on some of the things that I have seen in my life.
Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. In 2021, he received the Manitowapow Award from the Manitoba Book Awards for his contributions to the Indigenous writing community.
Özten Shebahkeget is a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation and an MFA candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. She grew up in Winnipeg’s North End and holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg. Her poetry has appeared recently in CV2, Prairie Fire and The Winnipeg Free Press.
Özten Shebahkeget Interviews Louise Halfe – Sky Dancer
Özten Shebahkeget: What draws you to poetry as opposed to other forms? Who are some of the poets that have influenced you?
Louise Halfe: I’ve written poetry all my life and have explored other genres, but other than essay presentations the other forms have not captured my muse. So, I honor the gift I have been bestowed. I do not allow other poets to influence me, though I highly respected the late Patrick Lane and his raw honesty.
ÖS: Your latest poetry collection, awâsis – kinky and disheveled, contains a lot of shapeshifting. Did this affect the writing process for awasis at all? Does your writing process differ with each book?
LH: Yes, shapeshifter had me glued to its arrival and I had to pay attention to her/his shape as she/he settled on the page. Bear Bones and Burning In This Midnight Dream are similar in nature, The Crooked Good and Blue Marrow are both epic poems and follow a different thread. And naturally awâsis, as the character (him/herself) holds her own court.
ÖS: The use of humor is also an important facet of awâsis. Why is humor important to you and your writing?
LH: People discuss humor in their writing; however, there is a need to show rather than just talk about it. My previous work has been dark so to speak, though I myself am not at that place. Therapy is extremely useful, and I wanted to highlight the great humor people possess that is so essential to one’s survival.
ÖS: Do you consider writing a form of personal ceremony? Why or why not?
LH: Yes, it is. Spirit is very much in our bodies and it speaks through all of us. But most of the time people take it for granted that they are just human entities, and behave as such, not being mindful that we are all spiritual beings. Hence, spirit works through the body – fingers, heart- emotional intelligence, mind – the rational being.
ÖS: What would you like readers to take from your writing?
LH: I wish that people learn to dialogue with one another across cultures and their so-called class privileges. We’ve only one life and there isn’t time to waste it being racists – which is a form of low self-esteem. This low self-esteem is really a need to feel superior.
ÖS: Are there art forms outside of literature that influence you? What are they?
LH: I’m not influenced per se, but I can travel with their images as in painting and go on a wayward journey. I can watch a dance and create my own interpretation. I can listen to music, whatever it is: jazz, symphony, orchestra, country, and allow my emotions and have free flowing thoughts.
ÖS: Where do you want to go next, with writing and with life?
LH: Where-ever the spirit takes me, and it insists I will listen and discern.
Louise Bernice Halfe – Sky Dancer was raised on Saddle Lake Reserve and attended Blue Quills Residential School. Her first book, Bear Bones & Feathers (Coteau, 1994), received the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award and was a finalist for the Spirit of Saskatchewan Award, the Pat Lowther Award, and the Gerald Lampert Award. Blue Marrow (Coteau, 1998) was a finalist for the 1998 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and her fourth book, Burning in This Midnight Dream (Coteau, 2016), won the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award and the Raymond Souster Award, among numerous other awards. Her newest book is awâsis – kinky and dishevelled (Brick Books, 2021). Brick Books is publishing a new edition of Burning in This Midnight Dream in May 2021. Halfe was awarded the Latner Writers Trust Award for her body of work in 2017, and was awarded the 2020 Kloppenburg Award for Literary Excellence. She was granted a lifetime membership in the League of Canadian Poets, and currently works with Elders in the organization Opikinawasowin (“raising our children”) and lives near Saskatoon with her husband, Peter.
Özten Shebahkeget is a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation and an MFA candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. She grew up in Winnipeg’s North End and holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg. Her poetry has appeared recently in CV2, Prairie Fire and The Winnipeg Free Press.
Özten Shebahkeget: What are you currently reading, and what are some of the books that have influenced you?
Waubgeshig Rice: I recently started a podcast with my friend Jennifer David called “Storykeepers” that focuses on literature by Indigenous authors, so I’m doing a lot of reading and re-reading for that. Our next episode features Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq, so I’m giving that another look. Otherwise, I’m chipping away at a re-read of Stephen King’s The Stand just for fun. As for the books that have influenced me, there are so many, but if I was to highlight the books I read as a teenager that changed my life, I have to mention Keeper n’ Me by Richard Wagamese, Tracks by Louise Erdrich, Green Grass Running Water by Thomas King, The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp, and Ravensong by Lee Maracle. There are so many more, too!
ÖS: What does your writing routine look like?
WR: It’s been pretty varied due to the pandemic and how it’s affected our life at home. For most of the school year, our older son was in class physically. So I’d take him to school, and then write for the rest of the morning, take a break for lunch, and then write in the afternoon until he was home. But for our most recent lockdown in Ontario, schools here in Sudbury went online in March, so he’s been at home since and I’ve been helping him with his schooling. So I moved most of my writing to the evening when both of our kids (we have a one-year-old son as well) were in bed. I’ve always tried to be adaptable and flexible with my writing routine, and the pandemic has been a good test of that!
ÖS: You were a journalist for a number of years with CBC before moving on to fiction. What do you feel are your responsibilities as a writer? Do they change as you hop genres?
WR: I feel my responsibilities first and foremost are to the people who share stories with me, and to the cultures and communities they come from. When I worked as a journalist, I always saw myself simply as a conduit for the real-life experiences of others. I was there to help them share their stories with wider audiences. And now that I work primarily as an author of fiction, a lot of the stories are inspired, influenced, and informed by my Anishinaabe heritage and community. So my responsibility is to my people, if I’m going to write about Anishinaabe experience in fiction. That means respecting culture and history, and sharing stories in a respectful and meaningful way. I need to be aware of my limited perspective, and the permissions around sharing certain details, specifically about culture. For me, I don’t think those responsibilities change much as I move across genres and formats. I always have to be accountable to the communities I inhabit and participate in, because they’re what influence just about everything I write.
ÖS: You’re currently working on the sequel to your novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow. How has the writing process been compared to MCS?
WR: I wrote Moon of the Crusted Snow while I was working as a full-time TV reporter for CBC in Ottawa, so most of that writing happened in the early mornings, evenings and on weekends. It was basically a spring to get as much written as possible in those short windows! I was fortunately able to take a couple leaves of absence for a couple months at a time to really finish it up. But that process was entirely different from my current work on the sequel. My family and I now live in Sudbury, and I left my job at CBC here in May of last year to focus primarily on my career as an author. That’s really when the heavy lifting for the next part of the story began. I was able to spend my daytime hours developing and researching the story, and I’ve never really had that full-time opportunity before. It definitely hasn’t felt like a frantic or rushed process. It’s been nice to be able to take my time and let the story unfold naturally. After spending most of the rest of last year dreaming up and plotting out the story, I started writing out the manuscript. I just finished the first draft, and I’m excited to begin the revision process.
ÖS: What drew you to apocalyptic fiction?
WR: Initially it was reading classic books in the genre back when I was in high school. In Grade 12 English class we read Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and more. I was really drawn to the speculative imaginings of life after the end of our current world. I saw those stories as commentary on the flaws and detriments of our current society, and just how bad things can get if we don’t live in a good way. But also around the same time, I had a conversation with my grandmother on the rez about how Anishinaabeg (and all Indigenous people) have already survived the end of the world. She reminded me about our people’s history on the shores of Georgian Bay and how our ancestors were displaced from our homelands, which were then exploited for capitalism. It’s a perspective and knowledge of history that really reminded me of the resilience of Indigenous people, and how our modern stories are all basically post-apocalyptic. That really inspired me to try to capture that experience in literature, which a lot of other Indigenous authors like Louise Erdrich and Cherie Dimaline have done expertly.
ÖS: Do you pre-plan your writing? Or do you write by the seat of your pants?
WR: I pre-plan almost everything! I always write a story outline and character profiles before I write the actual manuscript. I also make pretty detailed notes of some of the elements I want to include in the story, no matter how minor or seemingly mundane. That all helps me build the world the characters inhabit before jumping in to explore it myself as the writer of the story. I write a lot of the imagery that I imagine in my head, so I sometimes create visual references too, whether that’s taking photos on my own, or finding images and representations of what I want to write about online. Even though I do a lot of meticulous planning, I still approach the actual writing process with a pretty open mind. I let the story do what it needs to, even if it deviates from some of that original planning. I think writers really have to be flexible and allow stories to unfold organically. In that sense, all that pre-planning can be a good foundation or guideline. All that to say, it’s important to remember to have fun!
ÖS: Who do you write for besides yourself? And what do you want readers to take from your work?
WR: I write for anyone who wants to read. I just want to create a compelling story that a reader can connect with. All I want them to take from my work is that it comes from a writer who is trying to do their best, who stays true to themselves and their background. It’s important for me to be as genuine and candid as possible in my writing, and I hope that comes through. I also hope they learn something, and that my writing potentially opens their eyes to new experiences or stories, regardless of their cultural background.
ÖS: Where would you like your writing to go next?
WR: Well, after spending so much time in recent years working on post-apocalyptic and dystopian settings, I would like to write something a little lighter! I have some ideas for funnier stories I’d like to explore. We’ll see how that goes once I’m done with all the revisions to the sequel of Moon of the Crusted Snow. I’d also like to gain more experience with screenwriting. It seems like a wide and exciting world with a lot of potential for interesting storytelling. But at the end of the day, I’m just really thankful for any writing opportunity that I have. I’m very fortunate to have ended up on this path. It’s a dream come true!
Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation. He has written three fiction titles, and his short stories and essays have been published in numerous anthologies. His most recent novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was published in 2018 and became a national bestseller. He graduated from Ryerson University’s journalism program in 2002, and spent most of his journalism career with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a video journalist and radio host. He left CBC in 2020 to focus on his literary career. He lives in Sudbury, Ontario with his wife and two sons.
Özten Shebahkeget is a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation and an MFA candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. She grew up in Winnipeg’s North End and holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg. Her poetry has appeared recently in CV2, Prairie Fire and The Winnipeg Free Press.
Carolyn Gray holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Saskatchewan and is the Editor of Prairie Fire magazine. She writes for true crime television, and is published in drama, fiction, and non-fiction. She won the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer and the Manitoba Day Award for Excellence in Archival Research. Other credits include adjunct professor of creative writing and the 2019-2020 Winnipeg Public Library Writer-in-Residence. She has a horror screenplay currently under consideration. Her golden muse Minnie is always at her side.
Özten Shebahkeget: Much of the writer’s job involves the ability to pay attention. How do you pay attention in these turbulent times?
Carolyn Gray: I actually don’t pay attention to the news or I might get worried. I find out everything I need to know at the dinner table from my quarantine pals. They pay attention to the news and they’re far more anxious than I am. My attention in the pandemic is selective. My housie and I have carved out a lot of time to watch a variety of series. I’ll typically be thinking about something a character said or did, and texting her about it throughout the day, raking out motivation. It’s a lot like actor’s prep. Which is nice, as there are no more plays.
ÖS: What draws you to playwriting opposed to other genres?
CG: When I went to university, I wanted to be a filmmaker, but there were no film classes so theatre was the next best thing. I was obsessed with film noir as a youth, and then Scorsese, that snappy, rhythmic dialogue. I need to hear words spoken. I love the theatrical process of getting scenes in draft up on their feet and the words spoken aloud, so the writer can see and hear her work.
ÖS: Has your role at Prairie Fire influenced your work?
CG: Yes—I am not touching short stories at the moment because there are so many brilliant short story writers.
ÖS: Since we are both Winnipeggers, I have to ask what you find distinguishing about this city as an artist?
CG: I’m in a long-term relationship with Winnipeg after all these years. We’ve been through a lot of drama. Right now, I’m enjoying how well we know each other and how she just lets me get on with my business and doesn’t bother me.
ÖS: What was your MFA experience at the University of Saskatchewan like? What tip would you give for incoming students?
CG: I loved my USask experience. Sheri Benning and Jeanette Lynes are both brilliant and supportive. I learned so much. And although they are extremely professional, they are also immensely fun people. My tip would have been, if it weren’t the pandemic, to see if you could get them out for drinks and nachos. Maybe next year?
ÖS: Finally, what have you been working on lately?
CG: I’ve been working on true crime television and screenplay. I’ve produced three screenplays during the pandemic, two of those with a wonderful writing partner. I thought I was a productive writer before my MFA, but I learned so much about my process in Saskatoon. I haven’t let that slide but consciously exercise those muscles daily.
Interview by 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.
Jennifer Still (she/her) explores intersections of language and material forms in her home town in Treaty 1 territory (now known as Winnipeg, MB, Canada). She is the author of three poetry collections, Girlwood (Brick Books, 2011), Comma (Book*hug 2017), Saltations (Thistledown, 2005) and a few handmade chapbooks. Her threaded poems appeared in the group exhibition Illuminations (Mentoring Artists for Women in the Arts, 2018) at Aceart Inc. and The Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. She has served as a mentor and editor and is currently completing her fourth collection, an illuminated long poem composition with pinholes, a light table, electric typewriter and carbon sheets.
Tea Gerbeza: What are you currently working on?
Jennifer Still: I’m up to my eyes in a manuscript of dots and holes. It all started when I pressed a pin through a page and erased a word with light. The page was a turn-of-the-century study of the honeybee by Belgian playwright and essayist Maurice Maeterlinck. The language was ecstatic and magical and the hundred-year-old paper yellowed and soft.
This piercing erasure, back when I discovered it in 2015, was more of a code than a poem. A series of perforations with a word saved here and there. A lacy structure that threatened to shatter.
I was fresh in the shock of losing my mother very quickly to lung cancer. I felt far from words, far from being able to read even. There was no text or tradition that could comfort my atheist heart, so I started making one up (a text that is—though also my heart). Flipping through Maeterlinck’s reverie of the bees felt gentle. As I grazed over his bee language, I circled words that shimmered and started to connect them into a lifted text. I came across an image of a honeycomb structure that looks like the zigzag stitch on my mother’s sewing machine. I ran a page through the feed dog, trying to puncture out a line, but the book was old, the pages too brittle, so it just tore. So instead, with the same forward motion of a stitch, I used a needle tool to punch out the words, point by point. It was mesmerizing. So detailed and final and clear. Something about the rhythmic labour. The tactile crack of fibres under my tip. The minute sound of rupture. The daily piercings became a monotonous, domestic on and on and on, that left a type of ellipses when I looked back. It wasn’t long before the physicality of the piercing was as important as the words I was saving. It was a kind of unwriting, anti-writing even. It was lovely to make a mark that didn’t sound, that didn’t need anything more from me. But yet it still communicated something. And then the magic happened. One day I held the page to the light and all the saved words floated into view, as if right off the page, surrounded by those tiny pinpricks. It was a beautiful encounter, words and light, and it felt dangerous too, like I was testing the page to see how much it could be devastated and still maintain structure. Physically and lyrically. How could a page hold absence and light? It was all very beautiful and spoke to me and I followed it. I can see now how that initial work was an acute document of separation which of course, is ultimately about connection. Kind of like the track a stitch leaves in fabric when a seam has been ripped. Every text I’ve made since has grown out of these tiny piercings. Every page I’ve composed has a transparency to it—a scratch in carbon paper, a letter cut from a powdered typewriter ribbon—a physical passage that streams light.
Right now, I’m combining all my dot and hole compositions—carbon sheets through electronic typewriter, letter cut-outs on a daisywheel ribbon, pierced pages—into a cohesive collection for traditional book form. The text has become a single unpunctuated line. It’s as if I’ve fallen through those first piercings to learn they’re not absences at all, but vowels. A long line of vowels calling out from the center of a voice that has a lot to say. The illuminated poems have taken the shape of a single hundred-page poetic line. It’s quite exasperating. And exciting. And a wallop to edit.
The fullest vision is a poem that can only be fully read when held to the light. So, I will hopefully share the physical manuscripts illuminated in a gallery, or shared digitally, for a three-dimensional experience of the work.
TG: What have you learned through working on your current project about the intersections of language and material forms?
JS: That I’m interested in the tiniest, intricate marks of language. And that a poem is not limited to existing on a page. It can be a performance, an animation, an installation and a book. I’m interested in the embodied experience of poetry and poem making—the implement one uses to compose, the possibilities of what might constitute “a page” and how a poem can be shared and read as a three-dimensional experience.
I’ve learned that using an analog method for composition—a method that can’t be saved in any permanent, stable way, nor neatly revised with a delete key—is a very productive way for me to work. Though slow, it is also wildly informative. There’s more at risk when I type a word into an antique sheet of carbon. I press myself into form before pressing the key in a different way. Using a typewriter allows me to move ahead and ahead with a rhythm, the words leave a physical imprint in the world, and at their moment of impact they make a very loud percussive sound that feels like music. Composing on a typewriter reminds me of the impact of the written word, that every character is a strike.
The physicality of my work guides my process and content. When I first shared my pierced poems on a light table at a University of Manitoba Archives poetry symposia, the light through my pages created a kind of starry effect, a glitter beside me as I read. Later, when I was Writer-in-Residence at the U of M’s Center for Creative Writing and Oral Culture, I collaborated with the U of M’s Star Factory planetarium to project my poems up into the dome and perform a reading in the dark.
I find lifting the poem into material forms allows for physical iterations that add and extend meaning, that can be translated into performance. This is just how my imagination works. In a very physical way. The page as constellation, the page as a sifter of light.
The ways to experience a text are greatly altered when one explores language with the physicality of the page in mind and I highly recommend it as a writing exercise. For instance, a poet could ask themselves what is the object version of my poem? and see where this takes them in language.
I guess for me, poetry has always been about creating openings and connection and pluralities. And making things up. That language exists because I can imagine it, because you and I here in our bodies can imagine it, makes me want to acknowledge the physical body that makes all this imagining possible. I just don’t want to forget the body, the hand, in my work.
TG: In your recent collaborated chapbook, Table for Four, there are fragments of lines on paper strips that you paper-weave into a visual poem. Could you talk about what the process of paper weaving is like? How do you approach creating a paper-woven poem? How do you “revise” it?
JS: I assembled that poem like latticing pastry on a pie! It was a joy. And my solution to the collaborative challenge: making a poem out of 16 lines chosen from 4 different poets. Somehow allowing the physical structure of the weave to guide the poem was a way to handle the words of others with playful respect. Or maybe it was cowardly. I deferred lyric responsibility to the form! All the lines remained whole while also being partially obscured and altered. I love how the words interact individually at all the little warp and weft cross-sections. And that the weaving is two-sided and can be read in different directions. The words land where they land in such structures and one can really only observe and listen to what is there.
Once the weave was done, the words were set and so the revision was more about listening for how best to arrange it within the manuscript and how to present it visually (white strips on a black background, black strips on a white background, front and back on a single page, front and back on two sides of the same page?). Still lots to consider. I enjoy pieces that are set by form like this, like your paper strip weave through the quill.
TG: What draws you to the long poem form? How is that work different than a more traditional collection of poetry?
JS: My experience as an artist has been one of adapting, self-study, making things up. Making everything up is so exciting to me. I do admire tradition and rules and forms, but they’re not where I come from. The short answer is that the long poem affords me the most room to make things up. It allows me to go as far as possible with a subject or an idea. It allows me to circle and extend and refract and repeat. It seems to be the form that is most open to movement, digression, polyphony, possibility, inventiveness, experimentation, visual shape. The long poem can really look like anything. Eventually it defines itself and I love this. I imagine its shape something that exists in the sensed unknown, but needs to be found. Like an ultrasound of an inner voice that says this is what my silence looks like.
I don’t hear poetry in discrete anecdotes, rather I hear it in waves and rushes, rhythms more akin to swimming than, say, diving. There’s no definite beginning or end to the long poem, in my experience. When I read a long poem, it feels more like I’ve stepped into a current that is just a point in a much longer force. It has endurance and sustained rhythm and can end and begin mid-stroke.
TG: During my mentorship with you this past summer, we had a conversation about how we both loved the ongoingness of a long work rather than the final end result. What is your favourite part of this continuing?
JS: The refusal of a definitive end.
TG: Describe your revision process. What is the charm that you hold close as you revise? What is the most challenging?
JS: This fall I adopted a methodical daily revision schedule that involved building a bonfire in my backyard at sunset, pouring a cup of tea, and sitting down with my full hardcopy manuscript and reading and pencilling-in notes, a few pages a day. The next morning, I would sit at my laptop and make my revisions and then use these old, marked-up pages to start my fire in the evening. I got through 100+ dense pages this way. It got to the point where I didn’t really have to refer to my pencilled-in notes because I would simply remember them as I scrolled through the word file. That might be an editing charm—when I make the same edits twice—once on hardcopy and later in a digital file without referring to the hard copy.
When I got to the end of those pages, I printed everything off again and am now in the read-aloud stage, where I start with the first page and edit to my voice. It’s really slow. And a great way to memorize an entire book. And I often just go back to the pencilling in minor edits and also the scratching out of a long section and the writing of a new. It’s all very dynamic and though my process is methodical and linear, the fluidity of the actual writing is not.
This current project, being an unpunctuated long line is the most challenging edit I’ve ever attempted because I’m punctuating an entire poem with cadence. The pacing is embodied, entirely held in the ear and the voice, without any punctuation to guide needs every syllable, and every clause structure to go just the right way. Every word tugs on another so it’s a tight weave to mess with. Kind of like untangling lace or something. It might be impossible to ever get it just right. I’ll let you know!
I love your phrasing “the charm you hold close.” For me, it’s how the poem exists in my imagination when the page is put away and the laptop closed. When I close my eyes, what impression does the poem hold? Can I see it? Does it have an atmosphere, a texture, a colour? And most important, what is the gravitational noun the entire poem pulls to? If I can see this, if I can hang the entire poem on a single word, a concrete image, then I’m pretty certain the poem has a center. If I can’t, then I keep printing and note-taking and reading and resting it and returning until it can be held in my imagination as a defined thing.
As I’m sure you suspect by now, the most challenging part of revision remains finishing. Because the nature of a long poem is, in a way, to refuse an end. I’m good at listening to possibility and pluralities, what a poem might also be. But to commit to finishing is always the hardest part. Usually, I work myself to a point of exhaustion where I just don’t have the energy to refuse an ending any longer. Or something else has caught my attention and the ending becomes a necessity so I can move on. Or there’s a deadline, like the one you’ve given me for this interview. I have another idea tugging on me now for a next work, so I do need to finish up this one. Not ending really is my specialty.
TG: My mentorship with you was marvellously life-altering for me in so many ways, particularly the introduction of paper quilling into my poetic process—a suggestion you made! During the mentorship, you mentioned once that our work together has helped you with your own process for your current project. Could you discuss what your process is like now and how it has changed? What was unlocked for you?
JS: Though I can’t think of a specific example I know this is true because of the way your interview questions have ignited that same feeling of reflective clarity in me this week as I jotted and responded. Our conversation, present tense, helps me reflect on where I am, what I’m doing, how I got here, and where I might be going. Your refined openness, Tea, got me right from the start. The generosity of your responses in words, quilling, photographic image—it just all makes me braver in my work too.
Right now, I’m recalling the afternoon we sat together (in our different provinces) with all your pages before us and we worked as if at the same table considering all the poems you had created and we saw that certain groupings could be opened up and woven throughout the manuscript and we shuffled pages and we listened and shuffled some more. This generous listening and gazing together is where magic happens. I’ve had the same experience with my mentors—Sylvia Legris, Daphne Marlatt, Liz Philips—and it’s exhilarating. This intense listening over a page with another poet is how I’ve made my way completely as an artist. It’s where growth and risk happen, and ideally, if both parties are invested and listening, it’s never just one way.
TG: Paper quilling has reminded me of the importance of the process of building, of using the small individual piece to help the whole. How has your work with textiles influenced your writing practice?
JS: That’s a really beautiful way to connect quilling and writing. My work with textile has been on the level of thread. That single unspooling line is definitely akin to the unravelling webbed motion of the long poem. Creating that word cord that goes on and on. The multivocal braiding or twining of lines and voices. Maybe its helpful to think of the long poem as a loom. A frame for the warp and weft of multiple narrative strands to fall through each other and hold.
But my working with thread is not traditional either (I installed my pierced poems with a veil of thread falling through each hole). I can’t read a sewing pattern, I’m just in love with what a thread does. Was it the long poem that brought me to this aesthetic or the aesthetic that brought me to the long poem? Which informs which, the thread or the poem?
Installation artist and visual poet Anne Hamilton says that all stitching is an act that joins the “close-at-hand” to the “underneath-we-can’t-see.” “Stitching,” says Anne, “is a kind of suturing of the visible to the invisible.” I love to think of words this way. My pinholes, too. That act of trying to connect what is felt and seen right before us to what we can’t quite get at.
Lately I’ve been thinking about organic fibres, textual fibres, the fibres of the human body (textn.from the Latin textus means tissue,body, that which is woven webbed textured). Skin as the largest organ, the body as a type of cloth we wear, reach through. The intimacy of clothing, cloth, has been especially acute for me as I deal with my mother’s wardrobe. The personal scent a fibre holds. I took a weaving course a year ago and was so delighted to learn that the “hand” of a fabric is a term for the drape of a cloth. The hand of a cloth. That image of a hand reaching through.
TG: You taught me the importance of asking myself the question “how much do I reveal?” while revising my poems. How do you approach this question? How do you decide what remains the secret of your book or what needs to be released?
JS: Will I ever be aware of the secret in my work the way my poem is aware? Probably not. The gauge for what to say and what to protect is so personal and evolving. To paraphrase Robert Kroetsch, I hope that by carefully acknowledging my own concealment I will make way for the story. Thinking back to Anne Hamilton—push the needle through to that underside, that unknown. That is where the secret lives for me. I go there delicately. I feel as long as I’m reaching into that unknown—through language, through material exploration, through subject—then I’m touching it, I’m entering the atmosphere of some learning, some tension. The language I access from this exciting place—I trust this is what I am ready to learn. I guess rather than think in terms of what not to reveal, I trust the draw. Make make make, I say. Just keep making and you are in the secret of it all.
TG: Creating is often a solitary practice and since the pandemic, even more so. How have you fostered community during the pandemic? Has the pandemic changed your writing practice?
JS: I’m very solitary and intimate in my work and life so for the most part I maintain the rhythms and community connections as before, with just a bit more silence around everything.
But there have been shifts and opportunities. The week before the pandemic was announced, video artist Chantel Mierau and I shot a sewing circle duet using our twin Brother sewing machines. The collaboration was a first for us both and absolutely thrilling–unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
Then, shortly after, just before lockdown, I made a stop-motion typewriter poem with musician/poet/collage artist Christine Fellows that felt like the pinnacle of what a collaboration could be. It was such a gift to have these expansive experiences at a time when the world was narrowing. It was like a window had been thrown open on my usual solitary practice and voila—the wind that swept through took my breath away! There are so many skills they offered that I can’t, and maybe I offered something to them too. And in this way, I saw how collaboration was both magical and efficient. One person can’t do it all always. So, I think collaboration will be a major way to continue to foster community and to evolve as an artist.
In terms of artistic practice, I’ve built a light table and taken a hand-drawn animation workshop and have created a series of stop motion poem gifs, which is a new development in my work—animating poems digitally. I’m surprised by my energy for online and digital dissemination and do feel the way I share my work is changing.
There were a few weeks in the fall when we were allowed a guest or two on our property. I hosted a series of informal one-on-one bonfires with poet and artist friends and hope to continue these intimate conversations when we’re out of the polar vortex here and can share a fireside again. I’m not sure I would have carved time and space for such focused conversations like this if we weren’t in a pandemic, to be honest. That caring for community, that creating of space for intimate conversation, feels more poignant and fragile than ever.
I just had a vision of us continuing this chat by fireside one day too. Bring poems!
Interview by Tea Gerbeza (she/her), a disabled queer poet, writer and multimedia artist creating in Treaty 6 territory (Saskatoon, SK) and on the Homeland of the Métis Nation. Tea’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Release All the Words Stuck Inside You III, Room Magazine, antilang., and spring, among others. Find out more on teagerbeza.com.
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.