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.
Allie McFarland is a bi, white settler originally from Calgary, AB on Treaty 7 territory. She holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of English, and is a co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project. Disappearing in Reverse is her full-length debut.
Erin Hiebert:What does your current literary practice look like? This could be day to day or how you conceive of and carry out larger projects.
Allie McFarland: It depends on the project, but typically I write short scenes to discover my characters, then figure out how those scenes work together, or what different orders of the scenes accomplish and what story(ies) they tell. For example, for my thesis, I knew the basic premise—a young, educated woman (older than a child) had an eating disorder—and I knew that I did not want to either appropriate the experience of an eating disorder or provide instructions on how to have one, but instead convey the severity of eating disorders and the impact they have beyond the afflicted person. For this, I knew I had to first establish the main character and her close relationships (so that readers would actually care). I wrote Part One more or less at the same time, but not chronologically—the first scene I actually wrote appears about half-way into Part One. Once I had a bunch of scenes written, I printed them out, moved them around, and looked for a flow that made sense for the progression of the story. I then had to edit out redundancies and fix references depending on where the scenes would now appear versus when I had written them. I basically followed this method for each subsequent ‘Part’ and then filled in narrative gaps at the end.
EH: What are the ongoing preoccupations that drive your work?
AM: Thematically, I always return to food and family/interpersonal relationships. Artistically, I have a drive toward merging form and content as closely as possible, which for me results in the collapsing of genre distinctions.
EH: While reading about your thesis work, I was particularly interested in this dismantling of genre and the hybrid nature of your novel(la). Can you speak towards this instinct? Is there a larger question or ethics at play, or is this what the project demanded?
As mentioned above, I strive for a merging of form and content, so that each demands the other (almost like a chicken/egg scenario). For me, poetry always feels closer to the character, like the barrier of narrative and the pretenses of sentences have been stripped away, so I find that characters experiencing emotional turmoil express themselves in poetic thought. This idea took form for me with a previous manuscript, an excerpt of which was published as a chapbook titled Marianne’s Daughters by Loft on Eighth. This manuscript follows three daughters as they each individually face personal crises and are brought together. Most is written in first person, but at the times where they are under the most stress, each daughter’s perspective shifts, so one daughter falls into second-person narration while her twin goes into third person and the youngest daughter falls into third-person verse. The changes in narration indicate the differences between the characters, while also pointing to their shared tendency to distance themselves from the established first-person narration. So, yes, my rejection of traditional form is a marker of my work generally, but also something that is required and dictated by the individual pieces I work on.
EH: Who are your literary parents, and how have they guided your work?
AM: Aritha van Herk is a mentor and friend whose work has guided my own. I love her books for their stories and attention to form and content. For example, her novel No Fixed Address begins as a traditional novel, but is then interrupted by “notes” that are written in second person and provide an outside perspective that engages with the thematic elements of the work while remaining inside the story—effectively creating a character for the reader to embody inside the text. She also writes outside of and in-between genres, with much of her work being considered ‘ficto-criticism’ or ‘geofictionaire’ (texts which collapse non-fiction into fiction and theory).
Barbara Langhorst is another mentor who helped in the first drafts of my thesis during the mentorship portion of the USask MFA, but she went above and beyond for me. After our official mentorship ended, Barbara agreed to keep reading drafts and giving me feedback right up to my defence. Not only is she a great editor, but she is also skilled in poetry and prose. It was amazing to work with someone who writes across genres. Her book of poetry, Restless White Fields, is beautiful and tragic, and the way the poems are displayed on the pages reflect the content inside them (i.e. a poem about grief is circular, repeating, progressing, but always looping back). And her fiction is funny! It deals with difficult family and social issues, but uses humour to do so. In Want, Delphine orders a new kitchen—the most beautiful kitchen she’s ever wanted—without telling her husband, and in the middle of agonising over her impulsiveness, her brother comes to town convinced that the world is ending and the only way to survive will be to live off the grid. The story shares a lot of the same themes that I work with, but Barbara Langhorst is funny, and that’s something I’m still working on.
Another literary parent, someone I’ve never met, is Robert Kroetsch. His words circle me—stories and poems ensnaring and teaching me. He was prolific, so he’s written something for every occasion. Want to learn how to incorporate different details to serve plot? Check out A Likely Story. Looking for hilarious magic realism? What the Crow Said. Or do you want something self-aware, somewhere between poetry and prose? The Hornbooks of Rita K. I love his books and essays because they are both enjoyable and informative—every book is a lesson on some aspect(s) of writing, but you don’t need to be a writer to delight in the stories or language.
EH: You are also the co-founder and editor of The Anti-Languorous Project which also has a hybrid nature with the various online, print, and sound editions. Can you talk a little bit about how these elements coalesce under the antilang banner? Are there distinct challenges for each or does it feel in service to the singular project?
AM: The ALP is at its heart a project, and so the hybrid nature makes sense. We want to engage with writing, reading, and publishing in as many diverse forms as we can, and, by using the technology available to us, share the Project with as many people as possible. Of course, each aspect has its own challenges, a main one for soundbite being that recorded works are more difficult to edit. More general challenges include time and financial restraints, but those are not specific to our project, except that our resources are spread across various mediums rather than being focused on a singular publication. However, now that we are more established, we are looking at ways to expand, so that The ALP becomes even more collaborative with different people involved in the different publications, broader types of writing being shared (such as our recent addition of Good. Short. Reviews), and with a reconfiguration of soundbite.
EH: Finally, any new projects you would like to tell us about?
AM: Not a new project, but an old one that I’ve been spending time with, is my novel(la) Disappearing in Reverse. This manuscript was published by the University of Calgary Press’s Brave and Brilliant series, and it is, in a lot of ways, the younger sister to PrettyDelicate—not that the characters or content are continuous, but stylistically. Written in short, first-person scenes, I compiled it in much the same way as I did my thesis: I wrote scenes and then figured out what order they went in and what needed to be added to flesh out the story. This process continued for a while, as I completely rearranged the scenes between drafts with the publisher and was guided in what needed to be added by my fabulous editor, Naomi Lewis. Disappearing in Reverse came out September 2020! [Editors’ note: You can find and buy Disappearing in Reverse here.]
Interview by Erin Hiebert, whose work has appeared online and in print. Her chapbook,Save Our Crowns, was published by Anstruther Press in 2018. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry. She lives in Saskatoon.
Nicole Haldoupis is the editor of Grain magazine and untethered, the co-founder of Applebeard Editions, the author of Tiny Ruins forthcoming with Radiant Press, and a University of Saskatchewan MFA in Writing alumnus.
Tea Gerbeza: Your forthcoming book, Tiny Ruins, is a novel comprised of linked flash fiction stories. What about the genre of flash fiction do you find delightful? What do you find most challenging?
Nicole Haldoupis: Flash fiction—which has many names, such as microfiction, sudden fiction, postcard fiction, and short-shorts, among others—allows you to zero in on brief moments. You can do so much in a really small space, and it’s fun to see how much you can pack into a micro story of, say, 200 to 500 words. I love how satisfying it is to go from writing a first draft—which may or may not be awful—to chipping away and polishing it up to make a shiny little story. At a certain point, you realize that you really don’t need as much as you think you do—which is true for any form, but is particularly important in flash fiction—and that you don’t need to spell everything out for the reader. Much of what you cut and erase remains between what’s left on the page and what can still be felt in the blank spaces, if you leave just enough.
Plot can be challenging in flash fiction, as you essentially have to fit a full story with a beginning, middle, and end in a page or two. I started working on Tiny Ruins in 2014 as my MFA in Writing thesis project, and my mentor for the project was the amazing Dave Margoshes, who would occasionally give me feedback such as, “Nicole, this story doesn’t have an ending.” Succeeding at creating a plot in this small space is a really good feeling. Not every single story in Tiny Ruins has a beginning, middle, and end, but I think most of them do. A micro story without a plot is sometimes referred to as a vignette, and these often work as literary portraits of a moment or image that don’t necessarily need to have much movement.
Some of the pieces in Tiny Ruins cross over into prose poetry territory, as the line between the two forms is blurred. Sometimes it’s obvious which is which—for example, visually, if a piece has dialogue and paragraph breaks, it’s probably a flash story—but sometimes if you’re looking at a block of text that kind of seems like a story but also reads like it could be a poem, how can you possibly tell if it’s a prose poem or a flash fiction story? I like to think I know the answer, but I’m not sure if anyone really does. I’ve had a lot of fun experimenting and pushing the boundaries and blending the forms and seeing what I could do with them.
TG:How does your job as an editor inspire your writing and impact your writing practice? Does the way you approach ordering the pieces for a magazine help you in structuring your own book? Or do you have a whole different approach?
NH: I think it’s really valuable to read what is being created and submitted to publications in CanLit today as a way of helping you see things you like and don’t like in your own work (and in the way you approach submitting to magazines and anthologies). My experience with ordering magazine pieces definitely helped with the initial ordering of pieces in Tiny Ruins. Trying to figure out what works together thematically, what creates a nice contrast when placed next to other pieces, what flows well and what doesn’t is a fun puzzle to solve. I usually do this in collaboration with others, but for Tiny Ruins it was just me, and I’m really bad at making decisions, so it was quite hard. I’ve since changed the order entirely and decided to structure the manuscript chronologically, as the story follows two sisters growing up, and I think it makes more sense this way. This is of course an entirely different process than ordering pieces in an issue of Grain, for example, as the pieces in a literary magazine aren’t part of the same story (but can, and often do, still link thematically to others in the issue).
TG:What part of the MFA in Writing program was the most beneficial for you? Is there something you learned while completing the program that still influences the way you approach your writing practice? Did talking about your work critically in the defence change the way you view your writing now?
NH: Defending my MFA thesis was an eye-opening experience for me. I’m an anxious person and going into the defence was terrifying. However, I am also one of those people who left their defence saying, “Actually, that was pretty fun”—because it was! I don’t know if I did a good job or anything like that, as defending a creative thesis is complicated in the first place, but talking about Tiny Ruins with my defence committee (a roomful of people who read my manuscript closely and came up with thoughtful comments and questions) helped me in many ways. It helped me realize that the defence and the whole MFA program itself was a rare and valuable experience that I was extremely privileged to have. It helped me acknowledge that I made this thing and it’s not “wrong” because I made it and it can be whatever I want it to be. I needed to learn to be able to talk about the manuscript from an academic perspective. People gave suggestions to help me improve it, but overall everyone involved was there to support me and was on my team. They wanted to help me to make my manuscript better and for it to succeed. I learned that I really didn’t have that much to be afraid of after all.
TG: From my understanding of the genre, flash fiction preoccupies itself with moments. Is there a specific place you draw inspiration from for your stories? Any obsessions that you just can’t shake? Where does the story start for you?
NH: A lot of my flash stories take place in a schoolyard, and for me it is a specific schoolyard—the one behind my elementary school in the east end of Toronto. I find if I sit down to write but don’t know where to start, that schoolyard is often a good place to go back to as it’s a setting rich in stories for me. Some specific spots that appear in Tiny Ruins are inspired by this place, such as the mulberry bush (which was the go-to schoolyard wedding venue), the dumpsters by the far end of the tracks, the grass hill/ice slide, the portables, the sandbox, etc.
There are several instances of poop in the book—kids pooping their pants, falling in poop, getting poop in their hair. I guess I’m also preoccupied with cats—there is a cat named Sean who appears throughout the collection—and weird and funny things kids do and say and how they experience life.
During the more recent phases of writing and editing Tiny Ruins, I’ve also been interested in queerness and bi/pansexuality, bi-erasure, suppressing queerness, heteronormativity, and queerphobia, the microaggressions that stem from them, and the effect all this has on young girls. As someone who didn’t take the opportunity to embrace my queerness for a big portion of my life, these ideas have been preoccupations for me lately!
Interview by Tea Gerbeza, current MFA in Writing candidate, poet, and paper quilling artist. Tea also holds an MA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Regina. You can find Tea’s work in The Society, Spring, and Poetry Is Dead, among others. Her poems won an Honourable Mention in the 2019 Short Grain Contest.
Beverley Brenna has previously published over a dozen titles for young people, including her “Wild Orchid” series that placed on the 2015 Governor General’s shortlist for children’s literature, won a Dolly Gray award, and earned a Printz Honor. She has two new titles coming out this spring with Red Deer Press—one creative non-fiction picture book called The Girl with the Cat and one middle-grade novel dealing with grief and loss called Because of That Crow. For more information, visit Beverley’s website.
Hope Houston: You’ve said that you began your writing journey as a poet and later transitioned to writing for children and younger readerships. What inspired this transition?
Beverley Brenna: I had been writing poetry since I was seven, and I enjoyed the process of creation. Finding an audience for my early poetry wasn’t easy, however, so when I was a child, and into my teens, writing for myself was my primary purpose. As I grew older, I published a few single poems for adults and received some audience opportunities through radio broadcasting, but the publications weren’t constant. As part of my B.Ed. program, I took a children’s literature class where I read some brilliant literary work for young people, and I began to wonder if perhaps I might try my hand in that direction. The books I admired most were presented for middle-years or young-adult age groups, and they inspired me to move towards this kind of narrative writing as a potential target.
HH: There is sometimes an assumption that writing for children is easy or at least easier than writing for adults. What is your response to this? Do you find parallels between writing for either readerships? Does either offer unique challenges?
BB: I suggest that writing for any audience involves a similar process and a similar kind of workmanship—with equal expectations for quality. Bad writing for children is easier than good writing… but then, bad writing for any age group is probably similarly breezy. One of the particular challenges in writing for younger readers is that we need to occupy a kind of split perspective: adult writers rendering children and the experience of childhood—we are not just looking back; we’re avoiding any kind of long-distance, sentimental, or didactic lens, and actually going into the authentic landscape of childhood through our characters.
HH: You are currently auditing Sheri Benning’s class on creative nonfiction, and you are in the midst of exploring an interesting history on a particular candy. Would you mind telling us more about that project?
BB: I’m so grateful to be experiencing this class! Writers learn so much from every course, workshop, presentation, and conversation we have about writing, as well as from additional reading and extended writing practice in any form and genres. My draft picture book emerging from this class is currently called A Chocolate Love Letter: The Story of the New Cuban Lunch ChocolateBar. When I drafted it for one of Sheri’s assignments, I’d been editing a creative non-fiction picture book by Kathy Stinson called The Girl Who Loved Giraffes, about the world’s first giraffologist (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2020). As part of editing Stinson’s work, I began thinking about how interesting these sorts of biographies can be, and wondering why we don’t have more child-friendly biographies of prairie people. My husband brought home some of the “revived” Cuban Lunch bars, and I began wondering about who’d bought the trademark… and then realizing that this could be an interesting project for someone. And then I thought that perhaps that someone could be me! So, I cold-called a phone number I found on a website and was suddenly on the line with Crystal Westergaard! She was very receptive to my questions and the idea of the picture book. And the story has evolved from there!
Here’s a quick synopsis: This is the true story of the Cuban Lunch chocolate bar and the contemporary Canadian entrepreneur who now owns the trademark. Becoming a chocolatier isn’t easy, but Crystal Westergaard thinks there’s no problem that can’t be solved. She’s faced almost insurmountable challenges with prairie strength, and she’s now delighted to be inspiring Western Canada with millions of chocolate bars and the memories that accompany them. Reminiscent of other narrative non-fiction picture books such as Kathy Stinson’s two picture books based on the life of Joshua Bell, Helaine Becker’s Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs (Kids Can Press) and Andrew Larsen’s The Man Who Loved Libraries: The Story of Andrew Carnegie (Owlkids Books), this 32-page picture book manuscript highlights Canadian history through a story contextualized in our food industry.
HH: You’ve mentioned you are interviewing individuals for this project. Sharing a story and working collaboratively to get that story can require a unique negotiation not always present in other genres. Can you describe your experience with this?
BB: I think it’s true that any writing based in reality involves some sort of negotiation with “the truth” in order to make a story reader-worthy. This results in the importance of research for telling any story not fully our own, and, even when delineating the context for rendering our own experiences, good research is key.
Research for biography involving real people adds another dimension when these people are available for conversations that heighten our understanding (where subjects say, for example, “That’s not the way it really happened”) alongside activating our critical consciousness of what makes a good story (“Too much detail will slow us down or bury the theme”). It seems to me that when I write fiction, I’m often writing my way in to a situation or scene—adding events and character traits in order to create a desired effect. It seems to me that when I write non-fiction, I’m actually doing the opposite—writing my way out of a cacophony of possibilities, carving away from a compilation of accumulated facts in order to see the actual story emerge.
HH: You’ve worked as a mentor and/or a supervisor on a variety of creative theses with the University of Saskatchewan’s MFA in Writing program. What has your experience been with the program? Has mentoring/supervising impacted your own writing?
BB: I’m delighted with the opportunities offered to graduate students through the MFA program and admire the way it assists developing writers through a wide-angle on a variety of genres, and then a close-up regarding a thesis choice.
I think that any kind of teaching expands creative possibilities through preparation and delivery. As graduate students in the MFA program bump up against challenges and related questions about craft, my own investigative work is catalysed to seek answers. As I suggest some of those ideas to students, I am constantly calibrating this learning with my own writing—how might a particular practice work for me? In a way, my writing is in the petri dish alongside my student’s—and I think both should see a reaction over the course of a mentorship or supervision.
HH: What does your typical writing routine look like? Do you have a particular writing space?
BB: When I’m involved in a new book-length project, I tend to spend a lot of time on it initially, until a complete first draft is done. This might mean four months of three- to four-hour daily entries for a children’s novel, during a term in which I’m not teaching. Once I have a finished draft, I’m able to step back, take it up in parts, and revise my way through on a less-obsessive schedule. Probably because I don’t have a great memory for details, I need to work fast at first, much like doing watercolour when the advice to a painter might be, “Plan like a tortoise, paint like a hare.” Except in my case, I’m essentially painting like a hare first, and then doing the planning (What’s the plot? What’s the theme?) and doing a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard through revision. I don’t generally plan the components of longer works in any great detail ahead of time—I need to write my way in, and I do that by becoming engaged in a key character and writing from their perspective.
I’ve been working lately on middle-grade novels, and my typical output on a new manuscript is five to eight good pages a day, conceptualized as short, individual chapters in a book where the end product could involve twenty-five to thirty-five chapters. Before I leave my desk, I write the first paragraph of the next chapter, so that it can sit in my subconscious until tomorrow and brew a little bit before I actually get to writing it.
HH: What other practices (artistic, culinary, athletic) feed your writing practice?
BB: Introductory painting classes have helped me begin to conceptualize the creative process through the lens of a different art form. They’ve also heightened my visual memory—although this is still one of my weakest skills. I don’t generally “see” any images when I read, and when I write, I need to locate the action on landscapes/in houses that I know well, because if it’s an invented setting, I won’t remember it by the next chapter. Walking, biking, Zumba classes are fabulous for clearing the mind but also for nourishing epiphanies. I can enter a Zumba class with a literary challenge in mind, and then—presto—a solution comes to me (sometimes in mid-air).
HH: What consideration are important when writing children’s literature?
BB: I think that stories really can change the world. It’s important to me that children’s authors take this seriously, and think about how books can become windows and mirrors where children see themselves and others… otherwise, why read? It’s also important to me that writers take seriously the challenge to “get it right.” This means, “Do the research.” This also means recognizing our individual limitations, as in, “Am I the best one to be telling this story?” And, finally, it means conducting some market research. “What’s out there? Am I re-inventing the wheel?”
My research into children’s literature shows some serious gaps in the kinds of offerings available, and I hope that the promise of what Eliza Dresang calls Radical Change in children’s literature evolves into even better opportunities in years to come for enriching children’s connections to self, the world, and other texts, through deep responses to great, dynamic characters and current, captivating themes.
I encourage anyone interested in writing picture books (or books for children in any other form) to go and read some—read a lot! And, in particular, read contemporary ones. There’s a cart of 135 picture books, all published in Canada in 2017, sitting just inside the Education Library, purchased, thanks to a SSHRC Insight Grant, as part of one of my ongoing research studies. Feel free to come by and enjoy! But as you read, make sure you’re “reading them like a writer!” Think about how the author and illustrator are achieving the effects they achieve!
HH: Writing can be a solitary practice. In what ways do you foster community in your own writing projects or process?
BB: As a University of Saskatchewan faculty member, I’m part of the U of S Speakers’ Bureau, and this assists me in doing school visits where I can share aspects of my work and see children’s responses. My husband is also a writer, and I share much of my work with him for his feedback (always incredibly wise). I’ve been fortunate in doing a couple of Canadian book tours, sponsored by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and the TD Bank, and in this way try to keep in touch with the sensibilities of my intended audiences. Every time I meet a new audience, I think to myself, “Oh! So that’s what they’re like!” and it totally changes the content of what I’m working on.
HH: What element of craft do you feel most challenged by in your work?
BB: Plot. If someone installed me into an office where the only way out was to create a feasible plot chart, in advance of any preliminary writing or character study, I would be lost forever.
HH: Which of your works to date has been the most challenging to write? Why?
BB: All of the rejected manuscripts that aren’t yet published. They sit in a big, green plastic bin and taunt me with memories of the number of hours I’ve spent on them. But I’m not finished with them! Not yet!
Interview by Hope Houston, co-editor of the RVRB and American transplant to the Canadian prairie. Hope writes short literary fiction, as well as speculative fiction for middle grade and young adult readers. You can find Hope on Twitter.
Novelist Alissa York teaches creative writing at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, and recently became Program Coordinator of the well-respected program. Alissa has been a long-time mentor, inspiring and guiding emerging writers at The Banff Centre, Sage Hill Writing Experience, and most recently at the University of Saskatchewan. In 2019, she was paired with MFA in Writing student Kate O’Gorman in a mentorship experience that Kate describes as “foundational and beyond expectation.”
Kate O’Gorman: How does being a mentor influence or impact your own writing?
Alissa York: It’s extremely helpful for my own writing. I’m constantly reading work that keeps me alive to the process. It reminds me how important process is. It also requires that I articulate what I know [about craft] much more clearly than I would otherwise. It’s all beneficial to my own writing and it has the built-in bonus of spending time, either virtually or actually, with people who are deeply engaged with writing and reading. They are my people. There’s a good symbiotic relationship between the two.
KO:In a nutshell, what is your advice to emerging writers?
AY: My nutshell advice:Don’t expect the apple pie when you’ve just planted the seed. I see so many people shut themselves down, looking for perfection, when it’s not yet time for perfection. Imagine an Olympic gymnast trying to do that final routine while she’s still developing. Writing well is as hard as Olympic gymnastics. Value every step of the learning. And read. Read, read, read.
KO:Who are some of your own mentors? Which authors inspire you?
AY: Toni Morrison. I love Sebastian Barry, an Irish novelist. Tim Winton—I love his work. Who else…? Oh, Flannery O’Connor. I think they show tremendous originality and boldness in their writing, as well as courage and liveliness.
KO:Who are you reading now?
AY: I recently read Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, which is an incredible novel. Marina Endicott’s new novel, The Difference, is so good. Rawi Hage’s most recent novel, Beirut Hellfire Society, is great too. They’re all very different. I also loved A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey.
KO: What is your writing practice?
AY: I usually write early in the morning for about three or four hours. I do my first draft writing in longhand—it’s how I started to write, and I’ve always preferred it. Then, in the afternoon, I might transfer the first draft onto the page. That’s when I’ll do my first edits.
KO:Why do you write? What keeps you writing?
AY: For the work itself. Early on I would have characterized it as story ideas, ideas that come to me that seem to want to be put on the page. Now, over many years of writing practice, I would stay it’s still that. Novels come in pieces. They present themselves and request to be shared. But it’s also become one of the main ways that I find, and make, meaning in life. Writing is more interesting that almost anything, and more difficult.
KO: Of all your characters, do you have a favourite? Why?
AY: Maybe Dorrie from Effigy. Probably because, in some ways, she’s the most mysterious to me. I love how completely consumed and sustained she is by her work.
Alissa York is the author of Any Given Power, Mercy, Effigy (shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller prize), Fauna, and The Naturalist. In 2018, she received the Rogers Trust Engel Findley Award in recognition of her contribution to Canadian literature.
Interview by Kate O’Gorman. Kate lives and writes on the Canadian prairies, where she is currently completing an MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. Her work has appeared in Qwerty, untethered, and Release Any Words Stuck Inside of You II.
Laurie D. Graham is a writer, an editor, and the publisher of Brickmagazine. 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.
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.
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.