Interview with Laurie D. Graham

Sarah Ens interviews Laurie D. Graham

Laurie D. Graham, MFA in Writing mentor, award-winning writer, and editor

Laurie D. Graham is a writer, an editor, and the publisher of Brick magazine. Her debut book, Rove (Hagios Press, 2013), was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and her second book, Settler Education (McClelland & Stewart, 2016), was nominated for Ontario’s Trillium Award for Poetry. A third book, a long poem tentatively titled The Larger Forgetting, will be published by McClelland & Stewart in 2022. Winner of the Thomas Morton Poetry Prize and shortlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize, Laurie currently lives and writes in Treaty 20 territory (Peterborough, Ontario).

Sarah Ens: What draws you to the long poem form? How do you find the process of writing a long poem different from writing a collection of poetry?

Laurie D. Graham: I tend to start out thinking I’m writing these manageable little poem-things that are about their own discrete subjects and have little to do with one another. But then those poem-things multiply, and I begin to see that the terrible titles I’ve put at the tops of all the pages are nothing but a ruse, and what I’m really doing is writing toward a larger concern. To see the pages acting together, to see them having an aim or a project that they’re moving toward by showing something in concert and at length, gives the work a different sort of momentum, one that I don’t know exactly how to describe, except to say that it breathes more slowly. I think this is part of what draws me to the form. The silence of the page break, followed by a continuation of thought not interrupted by a new title, is something that just works with the way I work. It might be that this has something to do with where I’m from—I am ever aware of writing in response to Robert Kroetsch when I write a long poem, for example—but I also just have an interest in what can be made with this kind of sustained attention. You can talk about the whole damn world in a long poem.

At other points though, and especially lately, I have words or lines appearing in small scraps, and they don’t seem to exist as part of any clean whole whatsoever: their order is interchangeable, they don’t hint at having anything more to show beyond what’s contained in them, and they seem rather like signposts on a long walk. So, I’ve just been loosely collecting those scraps, letting them be, and giving them lots of space to do their thing together.

SE: Your book Settler Education, nominated for Ontario’s Trillium Award for Poetry, challenges Canada’s master narrative by re-examining the stories that continue to impact contemporary settler-Indigenous relationships. Why do you reach to poetry to confront powerful systems of thought? What about poetry allows for reckoning?

LDG: I wondered at first if I ought to write prose, write essays, in order to write about what I was learning (much too late and largely on my own) about the Frog Lake “Massacre” and the Northwest Resistance, these events that are evoked any time anyone utters the words “coast to coast to coast.” But I could see how simply adding to the written record, which is already quite extensive, would render many of my aims impossible. I wanted to show what is profoundly not present in non-Indigenous understandings of what happened at Frog Lake and Batoche and elsewhere. I also wanted to connect seemingly disparate things that didn’t seem to me so disparate: to connect what happened in 1885 to the present moment, to reveal remnants of “prairie history” in southern Ontario, where the monuments to the soldiers who went West to “put down the Rebellion” still stand. Poetry felt like the medium that could best handle this long look at erasure and absence, to make these broad but crucial connections. I would argue though that the poems in that book are uncomfortable as poems. I was very careful about how they were situated, how they spoke, the tenor and cadence and rhythm of them.

SE: Can you speak further to the idea of the poems in Settler Education being “uncomfortable as poems”? What were the rhythms and cadences you were listening for, and how did they connect to the meanings you were trying to evoke?

LDG: I was cautious of their getting too concerned with their own language, their own sound. They needed to always be looking out at where they were writing, and to be aware of the written record that preceded, and aware of the monuments, which meant at times showing what I was reading and seeing—meaning the poems would sometimes fall into prose or telling or quoting or mapping. I find certain passages from the book tricky to read out loud because they don’t “sound” like what I understand poems ought to sound like. But it was important to make sure poetic cadence was doing justice, was cutting right to it, which meant at times eschewing what is understood as a successful poem.

SE: In his session at Writing North this past January, Tim Lilburn asked us to think about our preoccupations, our lasting puzzlements, suggesting that as writers, we must be faithful to these ideas. What are the preoccupations of your writing life? What are the ongoing pursuits of your poetry?

LDG: I love this question. It’s Tim who started me onto understanding and articulating my own preoccupations. And he read my rickety first attempts!

The concern that stretches over all my work is, to put it bluntly, how to not be a blight upon this continent, upon this place I think of as my home. I’m trying to better understand the obliterating nature of the colonial project, and how or whether innateness might be possible for the non-Indigenous North American.

SE: Describe your revision process. What guides you as you make editorial decisions, both for your own work and the work of others?

LDG: Revision is so hard to describe. When I write, I sometimes hear the rhythm of a line before the words arrive, or it’s the sound of a group of arrived words that moves me to write them down, so when I’m revising, I’m trying to be more widely attentive to what’s on the page: the sense of the words, their patterns and imagery, the way the poems are thinking, what they’re drawing on. Revision is a long, slow attempt to get the poem closer to the thing it’s after, and most frequently for me that involves stripping away anything that’s not serving that aim or is instead trying to report that aim to the reader.

When I’m editing the work of others, I am trying to be a very close reader and a very close listener, to try to help bring out what the piece seems to want to say or be. I am also trying to be an astute and helpful outside eye, asking as many questions as I can about a piece and the things it’s doing. The stakes are different, but no less important: they involve staying out of the way of the work, not imposing notions of “what’s good” that don’t come from the text itself, and always working from a place of respect for the writer’s intentions.

SE: As editor and publisher of Brick magazine, what do you look for in submissions? And, more broadly, what excites you about working in Canadian publishing?

When I’m reading for Brick—and Brick publishes mainly non-fiction—I’m looking for lively and well-construed writing, a compelling idea or subject, and/or an approach grounded in love and care. I have been doing stuff for literary journals pretty steadily since 2005, and by some miracle I now get a bit of money to do this work. It can sometimes be very hectic, and the plate often becomes way overfull because lit mags do such a great deal without adequate resources. But I have learned that I am happiest when the wage-earning I do doesn’t feel like work, and helping to make Brick, kind of like writing, doesn’t feel much like work to me. It feels more like vocation.  

Interview by Sarah Ens, co-editor of the RVRB. A poet and essayist, her work has appeared in Poetry Is Dead, Sad Mag, Room Magazine, and Arc Poetry Magazine. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky, is forthcoming with Turnstone Press this spring. 

Interview with Arthur Slade

Jaclyn Morken interviews Arthur Slade


Arthur Slade, mentor for the MFA in Writing program and prolific genre writer

Jaclyn Morken: Why do you choose to write YA books? What is it about the genre that attracts you?

Arthur Slade: Simplicity. And by that I don’t mean YA books are easy reads, with nice characters and a perfectly unfolding moral. YA is none of those things! YA novels can and should have a great depth to them and be just as challenging as “adult” books. But the simplicity comes in the whittling away of all the extras. In an adult novel you’re allowed to disappear into the prose and descriptions whereas in YA (at least the way I write) my goal is to streamline all of that and find the most effective way to tell the story without anything extraneous. It’s a challenge. Often the shorter something is the harder it can be to write. The same with the idea of writing a “simple” story that gets to its core parts without wandering.

JM: 2019 has been a busy year for you already! Your new novel Death by Airship, and the first two instalments of your monthly Dragon Assassins series have already been published, with the third to be released in March. How do you balance your projects?

AS: I put each project on a plate and then attach a pole to each plate and turn them into a magic show. Joking aside, there are several different contracts and projects on my desk and the only way I can balance them is by being very consistent with my writing time. I write in the mornings, so I never book appointments or look at Facebook in the morning (well, I try not to). I find I accomplish quite a bit more if stick to this pattern. My brain realizes that 6AM is writing time. And it also realizes that 1PM is the time to do less tiring work like checking which ads are working, clicking “like” on Facebook, and reading my research material. The monthly instalments project (where I release an 120-page “episode” of my Dragon Assassin series every month on Amazon) means that I really, really, really have to stick to those deadlines. I like the challenge of that. Though I may have double the grey hair by the time the year is up.

JM: Which of your works thus far have you found the most challenging, or the most enjoyable? Why?

AS: My most challenging novel was Flickers. Instead of my usual 8 or so drafts and a year of work, that book stretched out to at least two years work and far too many drafts (and a cavalcade of edit letters). It was an example to me of how you can get that “great” idea (a 1920s Hollywood director who makes such a perfect horror movie that it opens up a new dimension and something walks through) but not be able to find the right way to execute the idea. Even though I had plotted out the book (which I rarely do) it kept on sprouting different tangents and, generally, the tone of the book was off (tone is so important in horror novels because you’re attempting to get people to believe in the unbelievable and you don’t want the “scary” parts to be laughable). The fix was to rewrite it down to the bones, throw away the extras, and focus in on that original idea. It worked in the end. People who read it say it’s genuinely terrifying. It was terrifying for me, but in a different way. Compare that to my most enjoyable novel, in terms of creation: Dust. The idea of a rainmaker coming to a drought stricken town and bringing rain (but the children disappear) was perfect. And from the moment I wrote the first chapter (with no outline of the rest of the book) to when I reached the final chapter, everything fell into place. The tone. The prose. The story itself. It’s what I would call a moonshot. It only happens once in awhile that a work unfolds so easily. I wrote Dust in 2000 and Flickers in 2015. You’d think I’d get better at writing in those fifteen years. But sometimes your skill doesn’t matter. The book just needs work.

JM: During our mentorship, we discussed the changing writing industry, and the new platforms authors are now able to explore. What is one new development in the writing industry that you find particularly exciting?

AS: Self-publishing. It is both a horrible black hole that we writers can disappear into and manna from heaven. Or maybe ebooks are from heaven. What it allows us to do is explore our creativity in different ways (be it ebooks on Amazon or poems on Instagram or a YouTube channel about punctuation) and earn income from a variety of sources (and I’m all about being paid for work). The self-publishing world is especially lucrative for genre writers, but open to anyone who can find their niche. For me I make income from publishers, but also from my self-published ebooks, print on demand books, audiobooks and associate fees from Amazon. Having success in that part of the publishing sphere means you have a bit more leverage with traditional publishers. The dark side is how much time it takes to figure out how to self-publish (which involves learning advertising and trying to read the minds of the various algorithms).

Interview by Jaclyn Morken, a fantasy and speculative fiction writer from Outlook Saskatchewan. She has a BA Honours in English, and is currently in her second year of the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan. Her first published works can be found in the inaugural issue of The Anti-Languorous Project’s antilang, with which she currently serves as guest editor.

Interview with Sylvia Legris

Jaclyn Morken interviews Sylvia Legris

Sylvia Legris, mentor for the MFA in Writing program and award-winning poet.

Jaclyn Morken: How do you typically approach writing a poetry collection?

Sylvia Legris: I’m a big believer in trusting where your current preoccupations or obsessions want to take you. You have to write what you’re passionate or excited about, otherwise you run the risk of producing work that, though it might be competent and might even very likely be publishable, lacks spark and heart, and, sadly, is ultimately unmemorable. I’d much rather read work that’s perhaps less polished, rougher around the edges, but that feels distinctive—like nobody else could have written it—and that leaves you with the feeling that the person who wrote that piece really got a kick doing so. You have to love your writing; you also have to love it enough to ditch it or chop it up when it isn’t working. How does this relate to how I approach writing a poetry collection? Putting a collection together, trying to determine what shape it will be, what its poems, perhaps its sections will focus on…well, much of that happens after I’ve written enough poems that surprise and excite me, that make me think, ah ha, I nailed that! It’s part instinct, part believing that what excites me might excite a reader. The much bigger part of putting together a collection, of making any successful piece of writing, is sheer determination, hard work, revising and revising until your head and your gut and your ear tell you it’s right. I think it’s also crucial to allow for accidents, for the unexpected. If you feel obliged to stick too closely to a project description or thesis, you might paralyse yourself. Projects change as you go along, often for the better. Writers have to remind themselves (constantly) that everything has to serve the writing; no matter how much you love a particular line, image, paragraph, or whole section, if it isn’t benefiting the work, remove it. Doing so might initially be agonizing, but soon after you won’t even remember what you removed because you’ll have a stronger piece of writing.   

JM: What do you consider most challenging in writing poetry?

SL: I get the sense that your question assumes that “challenging” is equivalent to “painful” or “unpleasant,” something to be avoided. When the writing is at its most challenging, when I’m struggling to make something work on the page, is also when it’s the most enjoyable and, ultimately, the most rewarding. Why do it if it isn’t challenging? The whole point, for me, is to challenge myself, to push myself, to see what I’m capable of making out of language. When writing poetry ceases to be a challenge, I’ll quit. I’ve spent many years of my life working at mind-numbing, unchallenging jobs—the work of poetry (for both the reader and the writer) should be the extreme opposite of mind-numbing. Mind-electrifying? Mind-exhilarating?

JM: What do you consider most delightful in writing poetry?

SL: When I write something that both thrills and surprises me and I’m left thinking, “that came from me…how did that come from me?”

JM: Who are some of your influences/favourite poets?

SL: Though I have always been a voracious reader, I’d say that my poetry, certainly my development as a poet, was influenced as much by work in other disciplines as it was by literature. I had/have several visual artists in my family, and as a kid/adolescent/etc., I encountered many visual artists. From an early age I acquired the habit of looking at art, as reproductions in books and by visiting galleries and museums and even artists’ studios. Particularly in my earlier work, I viewed the page (despite its inherent limitations) as a space or room in which the borders were potentially more fluid, more expandable than is allowed by conventional margins. My key advice to beginning writers (other than read as if your life depends upon it) is “pay attention.” Developing the practice of looking at artwork (in its broadest definition: painting, sculpture, installation, performance, film, etc.) honed my ability to look at things closely, from different perspectives, to pay attention to minute detail and to how changeable one’s perceptions can be depending on elements like light, sightline, etc. Music and sound both clearly play a huge role in my poetry as well. While I can’t listen to music when I’m writing, the music I listen to in downtime has to jibe with what I’m working on. For example, during the several years that I was writing Pneumatic Antiphonal, I listened almost exclusively to recordings of 17th-century music for the viola da gamba—this sounds pretentious, but there was something about the deep, visceral pitch of that instrument that meshed with all those “lung” poems.
It’s hard to pin down which writers (poets as well as writers in other genres) have directly influenced my work—my reading has and continues to be all over the place. Standbys for me, writers whose work I return to, include: Emily Dickinson, Phyllis Webb, Rilke, Gwendolyn Brooks, Susan Howe, Thom Gunn, Geoffrey Hill, Will Alexander, H.D., Virgil, Christopher Dewdney, Rachel Zolf, Cormac McCarthy, Miroslav Holub, E.L. Doctorow, Camilla Gibb, Robert Walser, Joan Didion, Haruki Murikami, Dr. Seuss…

JM: Finally, at the Kloppenburg Award presentation, you mentioned that it was here in Saskatchewan that you started figuring out how to be a poet. What is it about Saskatchewan and/or its community that helped you come to poetry?

SL: I grew up in Winnipeg and moved to Saskatoon when I was already writing and just starting to publish poetry, so I’d say that whatever it was that informed the sort of poet I’d become had already happened before I arrived here. For me, figuring out how to be a poet meant finding a way to have enough money to survive and time to write—often the two don’t coincide. When I moved to Saskatoon it was, compared to other cities, fairly inexpensive to live in. When I realized I wanted to focus as much as possible on writing, I concluded that time and quiet and privacy were more important to me than owning stuff. I’ve often lived in one-room apartments, barely scraping by—I’ve never had a vehicle (it was a huge luxury when I reached the point that I could afford a monthly bus pass), I don’t own any property, I’ve tried to keep my belongings to a minimum. When I moved here, my entire life fit onto a 4-cubic foot shrink-wrapped pallet…since then I’ve really scaled back (at one point, I gave away nearly two thousand books).
One thing that Saskatchewan has is a history of supporting its artists. Thank goodness for the Saskatchewan Arts Board! I’ve been very fortunate in receiving grants over the years, which always buy you some time to breathe and to write. When necessary I’ve taken whatever work I’ve had to in order to survive (as I told one poet I know, I’ve never had any snobbery about jobs…a job’s a job.).  And then of course there’s the arts community, the friendships I’ve had with other writers and artists. Every artist, whether established or emerging, struggles at some point (many of us chronically) with doubt and lack of confidence. Often what keeps me going is having conversations with other writers and artists I know who, despite making really wonderful work, experience the same doubts. We all necessarily work in isolation, but in many ways we’re all in this together.

Interview by Jaclyn Morken, a fantasy / speculative fiction writer from Outlook, Saskatchewan. She has a BA Honours in English, and is completing her second year of the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan. Her first published works can be found in the inaugural issue of The Anti-Languorous Project’s antilang., with which she currently serves as guest editor.