On Writing, with E. Alex Pierce
E. Alex Pierce talks to Open Book about setting up a writing colony, how living in Sable River, Nova Scotia affects her writing and her new poetry collection, Vox Humana (Brick Books).
Alex is participating in the Tree Reading Series event in Ottawa on March 27, 2012.
Tell us about your new poetry collection, Vox Humana.
E. Alex Pierce:
The poems in Vox Humana are a distillation of lived experience, rooted in my Sable River landscape, but informed by my life as a theatre and performance artist. The voices are lyric, dramatic and sometimes narrative, always complex and rich, often not my own. Even the voice of the girl I was is no longer mine, but this young voice appears in the poems, sometimes through characters such as Ophelia, Cassandra, or Cio-Cio San (Madame Butterfly). This is a chameleon voice capable of taking on the colour of whatever it touches.
Your book’s title, Vox Humana, and the tenor of these poems suggest that human voice is significant (to say the least). What is the relationship between voice and poetry for you?
Poetry is voice in that what I write is always something that can be spoken rather than something that is read and understood only in the mind. The words take up physical space and have substance and sound. You could say that these poems are closer to theatre because there is always a voice speaking to you when you read them. They are crafted as poetry, but there is always the sense of a human voice breaking through the form.
Tell us about Sable River, Nova Scotia and how living there shapes your writing.
Salt marsh, tidal river, the water a mix of salt and fresh, sand hills, clay road (a misery in March), houses along the road, a small church: my grandparents lived there (all four of them) and I grew up in the nearby town of Liverpool.
I left at sixteen – and had a chance to buy my grandmother’s house decades later. I live there much of the time now and recognize that this landscape formed a great part of my inner life. I have photos of me at seven weeks in my mother’s arms outside the house where I live now.
Which writers have had the greatest influence on your work?
Writers as mentors, especially Don McKay and later Barry Dempster (at Banff) and Eleanor Wilner (in the MFA Program at Warren Wilson) influenced the way I write, though not so much the content or even the style. I met many poets who made a difference at various points along the way, among them Heather McHugh, Robyn Sarah and Jan Zwicky. It is so important to be read and taken seriously, and to be asked the pertinent questions: this attention to detail when I was beginning as a writer had a tremendous influence on me. The reverse is also true: I learned my craft by close reading –making observations and writing annotations on other poets’ work.
Seamus Heaney is at the bottom of my well: his essays, what he has to say about writing, its sources within us, influenced me as much as the actual work, though his work satisfies me at every level. I read Joseph Brodsky in my formative time – again, the essays as much as the poems – and Shakespeare was in my blood from the theatre. I have spent hours lying on floors, ‘dropping in’ Shakespeare text in voice classes and scene study. I spent hours in rehearsal halls poring over play scripts, preparing notes for actors in productions of Shaw, Chekhov, Pinter, marking down any deviation from the written text so the actors would be word perfect. That kind of attention to text happened early – and in a dynamic, rather than an academic way – long before I ever imagined I would write.
What are the ideal circumstances under which to write a poem?
There aren’t any: poems come when they come, and not always in ways that are convenient. The circumstances are internal rather than external. Something coalesces and a line or phrase arrives. The trick is to write it when it comes and not wait. Writing poetry is a state of being – and this is not a mystical thing, rather a state of paying attention.
You have attended the Banff Writing Studio and other writing colonies, and are working on setting one up in Sable River. What do you enjoy about writing in this sort of environment?
Having a regular life going on under everything, a sense of security that allows me to work how I will, when I will and know that breakfast, lunch, and dinner will be there whether I show up or not. There is a sense of community, an understanding that artists’ work is valued and just plain old joy from being in the presence of other writers, feeling the industry of the hive going on around me. This isn’t a place one can stay in forever, but a number of weeks in this kind of environment can reset the compass, stabilize the bearings, steady the personal relationship to gravity. It works for me.
At both Banff and Sage Hill editors are available for consultation and intense collaborative thinking: I was fortunate to return to Banff a number of times and to work with Don McKay, Barry Dempster, Stephanie Bolster, John Glenday, and at Sage Hill, Daphne Marlatt who is at Banff now. I met Dionne Brand there, Elizabeth Phillips, Larry Hill, Greg Hollingshead. Conversations with writers are an important part of the experience. We can become isolated, lost in our own cosmologies: doing readings, listening to new work by other writers, meeting musicians and visual artists –not to mention the shock of mountains or prairie – all contribute to the impetus for new work. This combination of newness and stability was perfect for me.
What are you working on now?
Two long poems that make up my second book: the first of these, “To float, to drown, to close up, to open – a throat” started as just that first line, something I recognized as intrinsic to who I am and how I speak. The poem calls up the Sable River as a source for language – as all environments are, urban or wild – but this poem arrived at a time when I could see back far enough to recognize the origins of sound for me. Poetry was not my first medium, but the sources for poetry came early: the voices of old people, uncultured voices, rough sounds, a litany of existence; voices in the church – hymns, of course, sung with a kind of passion and a need; sermons that shook us, Old Testament certainties; the storytelling voice of my father; river sounds, bird sounds, farm sounds, a sense of wildness, not Romantic, but rough and untamed and close, something that was ours. This was a circumscribed world, small enough for a child to inhabit, large enough to contain mystery, but always accessible.
The other side of that life was a passion for music that sustained me all through adolescence and early college years. Not surprisingly, though it startled me when I found it, the second long poem explores a connection between Keats and Schubert – through their work (they never met). The original poem (“To float, to drown…”) also draws from anatomy and focuses on the path of the aorta and its relation to the lungs. I read Stanley Plumly’s study of Keats’ last years (Posthumous Keats) and knew that the lungs, Keats’ tuberculosis, had a resonance with the material I was working on. Eventually the disparate bodies of material split apart and became two linked but separate poems. My narrative begins with the arrival of Keats and his friend, Joseph Severn, in Italy as they travel from Naples to Rome.
I take a long time over new work, although I write in spurts. I am mid-way now.
E. Alex Pierce lives in East Sable River, Nova Scotia where she is developing a centre for writers and artists. Her work has been anthologized in Words Out There: Women Writers in Atlantic Canada (Roseway), The Best Canadian Poetry 2008 (Tightrope) and in Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry (Cormorant).
For more information about Vox Humana, please visit here