“writing as conversation”: an interview with Lorri Neilsen Glenn
BIOGRAPHICAL PREFACE TO THE INTERVIEW
Lorri Neilsen Glenn is the author of a chapbook, Saved String (Rubicon Press, 2007), and two books of poems, all the perfect disguises (Broken Jaw Press, 2003) and Combustion (Brick Books, 2007). The daughter of a CNR trainman, she was born in Winnipeg and lived in several railway towns in Western Canada including two extended periods in Saskatoon, a city she considers her home town. She once calculated she’d lived in twenty-one different houses by the time she was twenty-one years old. After graduating from the U of S, she moved to Calgary, then Hubbards, Nova Scotia in 1983. In 2005, she and her family moved into Halifax where she has been Professor of Literacy and Literary Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University since 1992.
Lorri and I met at the poetry launch of a mutual friend in Toronto about six years ago. She was new to poetry at that time, but not to writing. By then she’d taught business and professional writing for over thirty years in over fifty organizations: public schools, a penitentiary, the North, and at universities, to students, women, educators, business people, lawyers, police, firemen, and government employees. Lorri had been writing essays, reviews, and feature articles for magazines and newspapers such as the Shambhala Sun, The Globe and Mail, and The Calgary Herald for twenty years before she turned to life writing in the 1990s and poetry in 2001.
As a scholar, Lorri was educated at Minnesota, Harvard, and New Hampshire in ethnography and literacy and has written and edited six academic books on literacy, gender, and aesthetic approaches to inquiry as well as advising dozens of theses and dissertations. She has taught and done research in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, England, and Trinidad, as well as all across Canada. The graduate writing institutes she develops have been held everywhere from Inch Beach in Ireland to Magnetic Island in Australia to the downtown bars and landmarks of St. John’s, NL.
In 2005 she received her University’s Award for Research Excellence and in 2006 was shortlisted for its teaching innovations award. Lorri has been a scholar in residence at three universities in Australia and New Zealand, Author in Residence at St. Peter’s College in Saskatchewan in 2007 and, coming full circle, was the John Ranton McIntosh visiting scholar at the U of S in 2008.
Lorri’s literary writings (poems and creative non-fiction) have won awards from Grain, Arc, CV2, the National Magazine Awards, and Prairie Fire. Her essays on loss and grief received support from a Canada Council Grant, and in 2003 she was awarded a research creation grant from SSHRC to study the importance of place in the work of contemporary Canadian women poets. She was appointed Poet Laureate for the Halifax Regional Municipality for 2005-2009. Her poems, essays, and book reviews appear in anthologies such as White Ink, Dropped Threads 3, Slice me Some Truth, Common Magic, and others.
Lorri and I were both enrolled in In the Field, the program in poetics and contemplative philosophy taught by Tim Lilburn, Don McKay, and Jan Zwicky in 2005, and we’ve often been together at Saskatchewan Writers Guild Writers and Artists Colonies at St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, SK. E-mail and snail mail have kept the talk moving when we weren’t in the same place. In 2006/7, as production manager for Brick Books, I oversaw the production of Combustion, and at its launch in Winnipeg, Clarise’s request for an interview prompted us to push our conversations further. We’ve conducted our interview by e-mail, and then honed it through a couple of face-to-face meetings. I hope readers will enjoy overhearing our conversation as much as we’ve enjoyed having it.
Maureen Scott Harris
Hubbards, NS, June 2008
YOU’VE SAID TO ME THAT FOR YOU POETRY IS THINKING. I WAS BLOWN AWAY BY THAT COMMENT BECAUSE IT WOULD NEVER HAVE OCCURRED TO ME TO CALL POETRY THINKING. CAN YOU SAY MORE ABOUT THIS? I want to be careful with the word thinking—that may not be want I want to say. The poem itself is the trace of the process—some might call it thinking, or praying, or feeling, or celebrating, or being in a kind of flow state –a pupal state where a lot is going on. But the process of writing poetry goes so far beyond thinking that I don’t have a word for the realm. It’s a song the whole body sings, really, and it seems to come from the old brain, not from the busy, detail-frenzied and clock-hammered forebrain. And the so-called old brain is the instinctual one—the primal energy that moved our bodies before we had language. I have a gut sense that my old brain is closer to the earth, more rooted to the fundamentals of being than the so-called cognitive part of my brain. In any case, whether I’m writing or reading it, poetry will grab me by the scruff and drop me somewhere beyond thinking and feeling. We need a language beyond language to talk about this, I think, but then we’d still be trying to pin water to the wall.
I’m usually writing inside a question, it seems, even when I don’t know what the question is—it hovers, waiting for me to make it bristle, I suppose. Typically my questions turn out to be philosophical and epistemological ones and the more I write poetry, the more those questions demand a deeper well, closer attention. Don’t get me wrong; I love wordplay and admire both the spirit and the craft in all kinds of poetry—from the wit and the cheek in a limerick to the polka-like rhythms of doggerel—and I believe everything around us can be made more present, be illuminated, by apt language. In the broad spectrum of poetic possibilities there is room for everything somewhere. But the more I read and write, the more I return to work that has depth charges, resonance, has what –I think it was Jan Zwicky– called “radiant specificity.” And aiming for that radiant specificity in poetry means forcing myself to be very clear—it means parking ego, uncluttering my mind, pushing myself toward clarity, letting go. Allowing the water to become still. I recall visiting the redwoods in Northern California many years ago and picking up a few seeds that had fallen from one. The tree was so high, so quiet, so true. I sat leaning up against it holding the seeds—I had had two children by this point—and was dumbstruck. Everything was attuned; the shuddering recognition of the long view. Holding those seeds was holding the echoes of a continent before foot trails or roads or coffeehouses or commerce. Profoundly silent. Or I stand by the ocean—can any of us even begin to appreciate the memory, history, death, the odysseys, rebirths it holds, and held? What, on the planet, has never been touched directly or indirectly by the ocean?As writers we each have a particular set of preoccupations at any given time and poetry often serves a role there: it is friend, analyst, philosophy seminar, prayer, parent, child, stern supervisor. Sometimes those preoccupations last a lifetime.
For me, when the issues are difficult the poetry is usually both more difficult and necessary, and I come out of the writing and the reading stretched, at once fully immersed and yet more attuned to the world. Achieving that state is what drives me; I feel most human when the collection of knots and neuroses and busy-ness called ‘me’ is in the background. Less like a scribe or commentator or judge.All writing – poetry and prose – composes me, pun intended. It was E.M. Forster, wasn’t it, who said “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” So, to return to your question, writing and reading poetry are not merely thinking enterprises for me– increasingly, they need to be deeper, more primal, more sensory, more embodied. They need to get to the core of who I am, not just the material I might convey in a poem. And the irony is, the closer we get – or the closer I get – to the core (I don’t know if I dare call it the soul, but perhaps that’s what it is), the more I feel myself disappear.
MANY WRITERS WRITE FROM THE BASE OF A PLACE—THEY NEED A PARTICULAR LANDSCAPE OR CLIMATE IN ORDER TO WRITE. WHAT IS THE ROLE OF PLACE IN WRITING? That’s an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it, and it depends on what we think of when we think of place—is it a geographic landscape, or is it cultural ties, or something as complicated and simple as the quality of light? Is grief a place? Reaction to religious fundamentalism? We likely write out of who we are, where we are, and where and who we wish to be. I write out of the prairie and the Atlantic, out of middle age and motherhood, out of grief and loss. Hope. In-betweenness. Right now, I’m interviewing a number of Canadian women poets, including you, for a research creation project about the role of place in their work. A few have mentioned particular qualities of landscape that are necessary to their writing—not that they write about the place specifically or directly, but that the place allows or invites or urges them to write. One poet writes, in part, out of her Judaism, another her Northern Canadian Cree heritage, another out of her training as a science writer, another out of the urban diaspora. They are writing out of physical, psychological, spiritual places—this is no surprise, really, but neither is the fact that their stories are endlessly fascinating and various. Each of us has a ground we’re familiar with or that has nourished or provoked us as writers, and one season it will be the Bishop’s weed of our mind that takes over and wants attention; another season it will be that old rose bush. And we’re always moving, changing things up, even when we’re returning to old ground. In that way, I think place is always moving, shifting, as we are—Eliot’s lines –and we arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. To that extent, we’re always in limbo, always walking on shifting ground. Even when we think we’re rooted, we are always leaving and we’re always between one state or place and another—it’s that rascal Hermes who keeps us off-kilter half the time: you think you’re settled? Ha!
YOU TRAVELLED AROUND CANADA FOR SEVERAL YEARS TEACHING WRITING. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE? I’m still travelling to teach. I like the word peripatetic. Reminds me of the rhapsodes, those Greek performers of poetry and song who travelled around gathering everyone’s stories they then brought to the next community. Wouldn’t that have been a wonderful thing to do? But perhaps given how porous our media are nowadays, that’s what we’re all doing—that’s what blogs do.And funnily enough, there is an approach to research interviewing called the hermeneutic circle in which the researcher goes from one place to the other carrying the previous informants’ stories and retelling them to the next group trying, when all is said and done, to find common themes, see if where the consensus and differences lie.
I am fascinated—maybe it’s the ethnographer in me—with how exquisitely particular and yet frequently common our experiences with writing are. A colleague of mine at Mount Royal College in Calgary and I were tired of the sessional roller coaster and so we started a writing consulting business in 1983. I’ve lost track of the number of workshops I’ve done—it’s in the hundreds. Sometimes I find it a stretch to call it teaching—it always ends up becoming a gathering where people exchange ideas, and my role –as the one who has gathered others’ ideas over the years – is to learn, and to pass those on. I remember early on we were hired to work in Yellowknife for the former GNWT—how naïve we were. Sitting in a room with Dene leaders, bureaucrats, local business people, pointing to our little handouts, urging them to pay attention to audience and weed out the jargon in their report writing. As if any of that mattered in their lives. It embarrasses me to this day. But since then, I’ve worked with people in most walks of life—from lawyers to firefighters, convicted murderers in a penitentiary, nurses, engineers, oil industry executives, women in shelters, new Canadians, special needs adults and adolescents—a range of people and extraordinary worlds.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT WRITING FROM TEACHING IT?I’ve learned a lot: the crippling effects of a lot of writing instruction in the school system; the need for each of us to have someone who listens; that writing is not only an art and craft, but also a conversation. I enjoy doing workshops and sessions that don’t involve grading—grades distort teaching, I believe, and also learning. When the session can become a give and take, then that’s when things happen. I’m not sure we can teach writing—as writers we have to go off into the forest or desert and do the work on our own. But I do think that workshops and writing retreats and colonies push our thinking, expand our perspectives on what writing can be, as well as provide some support, even if it’s implicit only. Extended retreats in community, such as Banff for example, also provide critical editorial help and discussion we wouldn’t otherwise have. Writing is an intimate conversation. We’re all having conversations –with ourselves, with friends and fellow poets, with that reader on the bus from Sackville whom we’ve never met and who’s just re-read our poem about the hurricane and is thinking of sending it to her sister because they’d just talked about that very thing last week. And reading is a conversation as well — When I first read Nancy Mairs’s essays I could hear her voice like the voice of a friend, almost immediately. I wanted to say: you too? When it happened to me, I…. Some might say that writers indulge in a kind of Piagetian parallel play—that idea that when children are young they don’t actually interact with each other; they just play alongside each other—and that could be true. Most writers I know are reading addicts, and I don’t think we are ever lonely. And we exchange our gifts in the currency we love – words. When I work with other writers I not only learn a great deal about their lives and passions and about writing itself, but if they are new to writing, I often watch as they topple the wall of their own insularity, brick after brick. Typically, people are surprised to realize others have the same questions, or worries, or joys. When I teach memoir workshops we become awash in collective and individual memories that give shape to place and generation and family circumstances—it all feels like a town meeting. Few experiences give me as much pleasure. It’s as though, through writing, the group writes itself into being, into a sense of community, a microcosm that’s a work of its own. Plus, I’m not an extravert; I’m an introvert who needs a lot of solitude to recharge. I had to learn to be out there, which is true for a lot of writers, so the travelling to teach writing—and so frequently—has forced me to step over the fence of my own shyness.
WERE YOU WRITING AS YOU WERE TEACHING?I taught art, English, and beginning French in junior high, then began to do freelance articles and book reviews when I realized I had no right to teach writing when I wasn’t doing it myself. But I loved to write—I didn’t know how little I knew, and worse, how to go about learning it. Ironically—or perhaps not—as a teacher, I’d already realized the answer wasn’t in books on writing. I had to jump in, mess up, get it wrong, make pillow-biting mistakes. I love reading inspiring books about writing—Anne Lamott, or Kate Grenville, or Annie Dillard or Fred Stenson, or Eudora Welty—and the perspectives and guidance are rich with insights, but the reading doesn’t replace rolling up my sleeves and digging in the dirt. Well, some days, it’s more like trying to bathe a cat. But whether I am writing or teaching writing, I have always found it to be a way, as Alice Walker puts it, of stumbling forward in faith. Writing is a space—a third space in the threshold between being and doing—that is fundamentally full of grace and promise. We sit with the blank page and say, hey me, hey world—let’s talk about this. Maybe I’m thinking about my brother and the years we’ve traveled, the history that no one else shares. Or I just saw a Swainson’s hawk smashed on a windshield—oh, here we go, another loss. What do you think—have you ever felt this? And when I say hey world, I mean not only a potential reader but the tiny microcosm that is my own consciousness. Writing gives shape to time and feeling, even if I’m writing only for myself.Right now, I’m working on an essay in which I propose that poetry is a form of secular compunction: it’s a means of working through the awe and humility and grief and joy we feel—or I feel—just for the privilege of being here. It comes out of work I did in the low residency program called “In the Field” with McKay, Zwicky and Lilburn a couple of years ago.
DO YOU HAVE PREOCCUPATIONS THAT YOU EXPLORE IN PROSE AS WELL AS POETRY, OR ARE THE TWO SEPARATE? I do. It seems that grief and loss are woven throughout my work. The set of essays I’ve been working on these last few years really began as a result of realizing that some areas I wanted to explore needed exploring in prose. When I was in my early twenties my fiancé at the time committed suicide and around 2000 I spent quite a bit of time trying to tackle the aftermath of that event in poetry—it was the first topic I wanted to take on using poetry; I likely wanted to write about it so I could move on. With his inimitable wit and wisdom, Don McKay suggested I “take the prose sniffer dog out on that one,” and it worked. Some subjects don’t lend themselves to poetry, and I find that in itself intriguing—why is that? Complexity? I don’t think so. Too much narrative for a short and concentrated form to handle? I don’t know.That essay was followed by one about a native man I’d befriended when I lived by the railway tracks in The Pas. He had died as a result of being hit by the train on the tracks that lead to the reservation. I had no idea at that time that my great-grandmother was Cree, so in writing that essay, I saw that my parents’ response to that tragedy—a response I didn’t share—was complicated by learning about my heritage. I wanted to explore loss from a few different angles with that piece. That, in turn prompted other prose. So for about a decade, I suppose, I’ve moved back and forth between prose and poetry, yet both seem to deal with grief and loss in some way. It’s the sore tooth my tongue always goes to.Anyone reading this who has worked with beginning writers has been asked: why does it all have to be so dreary? I never know how to answer that except to say wait twenty years—each of us has, by middle age, dealt with loss. And fundamentally, I see grief and joy as intertwined concepts, shocking each other with their particular charges. The older I get the more sweetness I know in the grief, and the better I get at learning to let go what I need to let go of and move on. Buddhists will tell us that it’s all about letting go. Or as Elizabeth Bishop wrote, the art of losing; it’s damned hard to master. It doesn’t have to be a dreary enterprise, though—it can be deeply enriching, with its own grace and balance, like licking honey from a razor’s edge, as the Buddhist saying goes.You and I were involved in the program on poetics and contemplative philosophy I referred to earlier called In the Field. You took on the study of perception, and I explored grief and loss through faith, world religions, mythological and spiritual perspectives. Grief/joy, loss/abundance and all things related. It was a gift, really, that program. I’ve not been the same since. My preoccupations—grief, loss, memory, the ‘stubborn particulars,’ women’s experiences, child-raising, language itself—are commonplace and now, having decades of almost sedimented memory, I have some perspective—or perhaps preparation—for new losses. It also reinvents joy in my life. There are fewer shiny new things that occupy us as we get older—the big sparkling adventures, the unmarked pages, the open fields—which I miss. I miss that feeling. But it’s been replaced by something richer and more nuanced—not resignation or acceptance, at least I don’t think so. It’s an appreciation of the present inside the pleasure and the poignancy of the long view. The closer we get to the exit, I think, the more we wake up—at least I have— to how preciously insignificant we are. We have fewer dreams—aspirations—and more memory, or at least that balance shifts. Shuho wrote: cicada shell/little did I know/it was my life. And so many Japanese haiku poets write about our lives as drops of dew.
M: WHEN DID YOU START WRITING POETRY AND WHAT LED YOU TO IT? L: I was 12, and in Mr. Komenda’s Grade Nine English class in The Pas, Manitoba, when I wrote my first poem. It was about a storm, I think, and ended “and stillness reigned.” You could play god quite easily at that age. The poem appeared in the yearbook between the ads for Trager’s Fashions and the Cambrian Café. I remember standing by Mr. Komenda’s desk as he urged me to find a better word for what I finally wrote, which was silhouette. “You know the word,” I recall him urging me, waiting for the light bulb: “you know it. It’s in the title of that song by The Diamonds…”And then I didn’t write another poem for close to 40 years. (Well, a few late adolescent blurts that, I’m sure, read like Pollyanna in a gothic struggle with Janis Joplin.) I was at a writer’s retreat in Rogersville, New Brunswick just before I turned 50, and my friend Joan Clark read essays I had begun to write. “Some of these could be poems. Why aren’t you writing poetry?” she asked. I went away to the Fundy Shore that summer, looked at the tide going in and out twice a day, and pulled dozens of not-so-great poems out of memory and landscape. As cliché as it sounds, I felt as though I’d come home. About that time, I began to read Bronwen Wallace’s work, and Sharon Olds’, and Lucille Clifton’s, and a friend gave me the gift of an anthology of women’s poetry and I was, frankly, both relieved and inspired. I knew I had a huge amount to learn, but imagine—a poem like Clifton’s “Wishes for Sons” or Crozier’s garden sequence—the freedom. And because I was still reeling from the difficulties of raising two sons with extraordinary challenges, I was drawn to any poetry that wrote about women’s experiences. Someone once wrote that children take the space where a poem might grow. It’s a contradiction: our love for our children is fierce, but their care is, quite rightly, all-consuming, and often what it consumes are entire chunks of our own creative possibilities in other areas. It’s hard to wander around absent-mindedly working through a metaphor when the baby is still crying or your son’s teacher has just called you from the hospital.
WHAT DID POETRY OFFER YOU THAT OTHER FORMS OF WRITING DIDN’T? I had baggage I’d carried from the academy. I had learned so well by that time how to argue and explain that when I finally began writing poetry I had to learn restraint. I had to trust the reader. Trust myself, too, perhaps. I typically find myself tossing metaphor salads in my speech, and using several analogies for each concept in my ethnography and feminist theory classes—that instinct has helped my teaching. But now, rather than simply using them to make academic ideas more palatable, I was getting inside them—poetry for poetry’s sake. It was as though I could stretch my limbs—run full out. Working seriously on poetry provided a space to explore philosophical and spiritual ideas as well. I don’t mean deliberately or intentionally, it’s just that’s where the poetry went—the poetry pushed me to think and feel much more than the academic work had. And it was a revelation to read again many of the philosophers I’d read in my academic life, but this time to read them so they might stretch my thinking not about research, but about poetry and language: Wittgenstein, Husserl, Heidegger, Barthes, Langer, Berger, Merleau Ponty, Abram—many more. Language as flesh, debates about the relationship between language and thought, the necessary chasm between our experience and language as a tool and a trace—or is it an engine, a furnace, a window? At the same time I had began to read a number of writers on Buddhist thought, Taoism, Christianity, paganism, native North American spirituality—I was a desert wanting rain. I wasn’t looking for a religious place to land; I simply wanted to explore the territory where the most enduring questions are asked and learn something about the nuances in the questions.
And poetry is the place where I can explore those questions, be swept away by the unknown, feeling my way around in the dark. It’s body music, as Dennis Lee says, and I like that I disengage my cognitive side and let go.I recall years ago being woken by a tune on the radio—it was so crisp, alluring, sumptuous and compelling. I was pinned to it, I didn’t know where it was going, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I found out later it was Bill Frisell’s earlier, and very spare, version of “Shenandoah”—at the time I recall feeling: yes, this is it, this is exactly how poetry makes me feel—both the reading of it and the writing of it. It’s the listening, I suppose, the listening in the dark and the silence that stretches far beyond hearing.
YOU BEGAN WRITING POETRY WHEN YOU WERE FULLY IMMERSED IN YOUR ACADEMIC LIFE. HOW DID YOU FIND ROOM FOR IT?I had to find room—it sounds melodramatic, but I was parched for poetry and mystery. In the field of literacy research, and I suppose in other fields such as cultural studies, too, we can get caught up in multi-syllabic language games. Add in agonistic practices, a lot of ladder-striving, and the formation of theoretical collectives—some would call them cabals—that seem to close rather than open doors and you can find yourself in a climate that doesn’t make room for poetry. In ancient Greece, contests, debates, and ritualized conflict were serious business—an agon or fight was an integral part of a play, for example. Academic debates are much the same; it’s a way of doing business in the thinking world. But agonism can too often tip into antagonism so that the merits of debating issues—even the issues themselves—are lost. Some language theorists claim that it’s gendered: males in the academy are more likely to debate for debate’s sake. After a time, I realized these practices were blunting my responses to people and ideas. I won’t go into a left brain, right brain explanation here, because I don’t believe it’s as simple as that. But I do know I had been honing the sharpness of my argument rather than watering my imagination.Someone presents their paper at a conference, for example, and a number of questions follow. In many cases, the questions are performative, meant primarily to showcase how astute the questioner is; virtually all are about taking the presenter to task for perceived flaws in the paper or the argument. We learn to do that well in the academy. Yet that way of relating doesn’t engender conversation—it can harden, rather than soften our perspectives. As a scholar, I’d always thought in metaphor, was always fascinated with what Bronwen Wallace called the stubborn particulars. In fact, when I was doing my doctoral work, my instructors emphasized narrative understanding and literary expression over academic prose, or what was called ‘point driven’ scholarship. My work was in ethnography and literacy—more related to anthropology than English studies—so I loved the opportunity for what some would call ‘creative’ expression. (I still think the terms creative expression and creative writing are odd—isn’t it all creative?). I didn’t want to spend time shooting down someone else’s theory—I wanted to describe what was going on in a particular community. That was twenty years ago; I had been reading Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Tim O’Brien (his The Things They Carried is one of my all-time favourite pieces of writing), Richard Selzer, Vivian Gornick—and I was lucky to study with a kind, insecure, inspiring genius—Donald Murray—who gave me free rein to write my dissertation as a narrative, an episodic text that wove theory into story, a move that was considered ‘out there’ in those days. Then, after that short burst of freedom, I landed a job in the academy and wondered what hit me. Now, both as a poet and a scholar, I’ve come to a place where I believe all theory is a form of story anyway, but that’s a whole other conversation.
When I finished my dissertation, which became my first book, I entered university teaching and research and found that my doctoral program was anomalous, in that sense. Everywhere else, I was expected to write inside the academic jargon of the day. And that threw me into a state of anomie–that feeling of limbo that people often feel when norms and expectations are confused. One foot on the dock, one in the canoe. I think Durkheim coined the term, but it’s also used to describe how we feel when we’re dropped into a new culture and are changed in ways that prevent us both from being at home in the newer culture and returning to the one we’ve left. The term can also apply to class—people born into the working class, as I was, who for one reason or another find themselves in a profession rather than a job, often feel in limbo. Conventional academic prose strangled me. In one conference presentation, I cut my paper into strips, drew lots, and had the audience read it as a found poem. It worked exceptionally well, but what I tried to pass off as innovative academic work was really my own hedge against boredom. So in the late 1990s, turn of the century, I turned to poetry. I didn’t want to dabble—I felt I owed it to myself and to the practice to take it on fully.
Since I began writing it, I’ve used poetry in all the courses I teach, regardless of the topic. Just as a side note—a little soapboxing here—I wish schools—especially post-secondary schools—valued the full range of expression available to us as language users—in more circumstances and regularly. But we don’t. The linguist Roman Jakobson said we had several functions of language (the emotive, the poetic, the referential, and so on) and theorists and researchers, including me, have long argued that we must use them throughout our lives so that we stretch all those muscles. Trouble is, we don’t. Once most of us are through grade school there’s a shift to argument, persuasion and conventional discursive prose: What’s your main point? Master the five-paragraph theme. Marshall your argument with three examples. That’s what’s tested, and that’s what’s valued. Education is all about measuring what is measurable, and making measurable what is not; Galileo Galilei started us on that path.Thankfully poetry, and literary arts in general, resist evaluation in that way. And in our daily lives, poetry is only occasionally pulled onstage to sound metaphysical or emotional notes, but rarely do we read a good poem in the newspaper or hear one on the drive-home show. I use poetry in my university courses not as something to be tested or analyzed but as language in which to be immersed—both the reading and the writing of it. One student said, “I feel as though I just changed into my jeans and t-shirt and can be myself.” Often in the university setting, students feel like ventriloquists, the arm of grading up their back causing them to utter others’ words and others’ ideas to please people. Since I started bringing in poetry to ethnography and literacy courses, students have had their poetry published in national magazines, which pleases me no end.
LITERACY IS ONE OF YOUR SCHOLARLY INTERESTS. ARE YOU CONCERNED WITH GENERAL LITERACY, OR WITH LITERACY IN POETRY? That’s complicated. I’m interested in how we learn to read and write, period. We have a son who is intellectually challenged and, ironically, working with him has taught us (my husband is also a literacy educator) more about literacy than anything we learned in graduate school. The question central to literacy seems to me: How do people become functioning members of a community—whether it’s the small community of Nova Scotia tuna fishers, or a larger, English-speaking literary community? How do we induct people into communities so that they have enough fluency and skill not only to contribute to them, but to change them for the better? I don’t think we do it with worksheets. Literacy research has changed because the definition of literacy has changed in this generation. It once was the ability to read and write printed text; in fact, at one time, an individual’s being able to write his or her name was marker enough. Now we consider literacy to be a much roomier word—we have computer, media, emotional, health, and other literacies. We see the social, historical and personal aspects of literacy learning, not just the cognitive or psychometric aspects. Being able to read See Dick run can get you into words, sounding them out and predicting them, but throw in mention of Nixon and there is an entire quivering web of connection and association that one needs in order to make sense of the phrase. We are always learning new words and phrases—we just had a new woodstove installed, for example, and discovered the world of woodstoves has its own language, assumptions, and associations.Many people disagree with this perspective on literacy—how does it differ from plain old expertise or facility, they ask?—and I understand. But I also think regular and frequent inductions into new communities or processes—whether in person, in print, or hands-on—keeps a person limber and versatile. So it’s the processes of learning new lexicons or processes or practices that are as important as the knowledge itself. If I learn a new language—let’s say Italian, for example—I learn more than words; I learn how to learn. So that if I decide then to take up Spanish or Urdu, I have strategies about language learning I’ve gained from my earlier attempts. Another example that comes to mind is drawing. I’ve drawn or painted for most of my life—in fact I initially went to university because I wanted to study art. And as with writing, what’s important in it for me is the practice of it. I’m not expecting to produce; only to keep doing the thing. The more I draw, the more I find the processes common to other artistic activities—there’s much to say about drawing and writing poetry, for example, which is what I’ve been writing about lately in another essay. Each can be a metaphor for the other.My point is that the more we learn new things or new skills, the more we develop the capacity to learn new things and new skills—everything opens up. In part it’s because we lose our fear of failure, in part it’s because we bring in some knowledge from one process to the other, in part it breaks us out of fixed notions about how things work or how to learn them. So then being literate becomes a way of being in the world, not merely a set of skills. I have to paraphrase here, but I think it was Robert Heinlein who wrote that we all need to know how to change a diaper, compose a sonnet and set a bone. Let insects specialize, he said. One of my graduate students just returned from a nine-month backpacking trip around the world and is now writing about literacy and travel—one of the aspects she’s examining is the pre-packaged nature of much English and language arts curricula, which is similar to the guide book or tour group approach to seeing the world. She thinks travelling and discovering for herself taught her more than following someone else’s script.
IS THERE A CONNECTION TO BE MADE BETWEEN POETRY AND LITERACY?Yes, there are connections to be made between poetry and literacy, but any connection hinges on how we define each of them—I guess that’s the ghost of the academic haunting me: define your terms. We have experiences we can describe as poetic and they can be beyond words. We can look at—using my poetry education as an example—how someone learns the assumptions, the expectations, the language of the poetry community, and that’s even before we begin to discuss what she needs to learn about craft, or about other poets’ work, about historical roots and contemporary practices. When I began to write poetry, like many people, I thought I would complete a manuscript and submit it. I didn’t realize that, typically, poems should appear in journals before the poet submits a manuscript to a publisher. That kind of knowledge about a field is part of what counts as being literate in the community. We need more than a set of words—we need the social practices and the cultural expectations, to be literate in a given environment.Another connection—I suppose it’s obvious—is that writing poetry causes a person to draw on the entire literacy toolbox, and then some. You use all those muscle wrenches and pry bars and somehow you make a kite with a transparent tail.
WHAT HELPS YOU LEARN?Reading, reading, reading. When I began to write poetry seriously, I knew that I had decades of reading to catch up on. Reading helps me develop judgement, taste, and discernment, and it helps me expand the conversation beyond my own insular understandings. Reading is the largest town hall meeting of them all. Nothing excites me more than reading others’ work and being inspired to take off from it. I’ve only once written to emulate another poet—no, twice. One of my early poems—“The Dress, from Here”—was written in response to C.K. Williams’s “The Dress” because it triggered associations for me that were far different from those he held about women of that generation. And Tony Hoagland inspired me to write a poem called “When Puccini isn’t enough” because I admire how he handles nostalgia without having it tip over into treacle. Mostly, when I read other poets, their ideas or approaches set me off on my own path. I love Lilburn’s linguistic ferocity, Graham’s rush of association, Transtromer’s spare clarity, Wright’s and Dempster’s controlled weeping and startling shapes of loss, the wisdom and restraint in Zwicky’s work, Milosz, Amichai, Symborzska, just about every Canadian poet I’ve read so far—too many to name them all here. Others from the U.S., Shihab Nye, Clifton as I mentioned earlier, Kenyon, Kooser. Too many to count, and those are only the contemporary ones. I am reading and re-reading the poetry of the Canadian women poets I’m interviewing, including your work, and that is reminding me of the breadth of approach, the depth. When I first began to read poetry regularly, I was seeking range of expression and focus as well as likemindedness and familiarity. Now I am looking to read poets whose work is challenging or unfamiliar or even grating, work that doesn’t initially draw me in. So in many ways I am still learning to read. Learning to write is, in many respects, learning to read. If I’m not learning, I’m not really alive. I was lucky when I began writing poetry to have mentors such as Don McKay, Jan Zwicky, Daphne Marlatt, Stan Dragland, and more recently, Barry Dempster—who are not only astonishing poets, but have a generosity of spirit that pushed me, kept me reaching. I also have an extended family of poet friends who read each other’s work—that’s a gift. I’m always shocked when people bring me poetry for feedback and they seem reluctant to either read other poets or form a tribe of writers to support them. Their biggest concern seems to be copyright rather than their own poetic education.
YOU MENTION LEARNING A LOT FROM OTHER POETS AND MENTORS. WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT HOW TO HELP OTHER WRITERS?Harsh criticism usually says more about the criticizer than it does the work. Strong examples, emphasizing what is working, faith in the direction of the writing, tough questions, mutual trust—all those have helped me immeasurably as a writer. I’m a relatively new poet, but a relatively seasoned being, and it saddens me when I see self-aggrandizing knee-capping pass for critique or reviewing, inside or outside the classroom. It’s defended as courageous, defining standards, calling it like it is; but, in my experience, it seems motivated by neediness, insecurity, and fear. Most people want commentary or conversation—bracing, but constructive—that helps them learn. Drive-by cheap shots don’t.
This brings to mind some reading I’ve done recently about our perspectives on science and how we perceive nature. A scientist who was interviewed commented on the need for philosophical and spiritual thought in the scientific enterprise to balance the scrabbling, finger-pointing, and harsh critique in the name of ‘scientific’ growth. Rick Bass, an American writer, asks why we persist in using a model of ‘hammer and tong scrabbling competition’ when we think about nature. We could just as easily think about the elegance and grace in what might be considered a gentle co-operation among species. So whether it’s a perspective on life writ large, on the so-called ‘natural’ world, on physics, writing, or learning, we choose the perspectives that challenge us and teach us. At least I do. There is room for all perspectives and approaches but we don’t have to buy into them. We do, however, have to develop a respectful co-existence.I think of Rawi Hage’s novel, or any number of other works written out of conflict, tragic circumstances, horrific world events, and I think of the wisdom in his commentary about ‘tribal self-righteousness.’ You can see the seeds of that self-righteousness in classrooms, in professional conversations, on stages of conflict across the globe, in perspectives on how to teach and learn, or how to write poetry. Hage quotes the Iraqi poet Youssef who urges us to abandon doors and locks and seek the open square—that meeting space I’ve mentioned. After decades of teaching, I am more firmly convinced we need the open square. Yes, we need to disagree with each other, we need to challenge each other, we will hold different perspectives, but we need to develop the capacity for listening, as Saint Benedict said, with the ‘ear of the heart’ in order to achieve some measure of respectful co-existence. It’s not easy—I work on it every day.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR WRITING PRACTICE? DOES IT DIFFER FROM PROSE TO POETRY? Yes, and often within each piece as well. When I first began to write poetry seriously several years ago, I had to learn the basics—handling tone, remembering that less is more for example—really basic stuff. And I often had no clue why one poem was working for a reader and another one wasn’t; what was I doing wrong? I wanted to develop an ear and an eye so that I could sense—often it’s a feeling, a click—when something is working or not working. It’s like music in that way, I guess—you have to have developed a sense of what’s melodic and what’s in key in order to know when the pitch is off. Ironically, I used to joke when I taught teachers, that all we need in order to learn to write are reams of blank paper and a library. And now the lesson came home to me. Not having a degree in literature was both a disadvantage and a plus, since I was not aware of tropes and references familiar to many, but I was also free of what Bloom called, in another context, the anxiety of influence.It was daunting, really, and still is. I read widely, but if I’m working on something, I tend not to read, and just focus on the writing. Occasionally I read other poets when I’m dealing with a craft problem—how did McKay manage wit and wisdom in that poem? How does Wright jump from the everyday to conceptual struggles with language? Simic’s metaphors, Marlatt’s piercing delicacy and use of the page—what can I learn from the craft in their art? When I read first Wallace and Olds and Symborska, for example, I drew some reassurance and strength from their perspective as women—their range gave me courage.Poems come to me when they damned well please. Don Murray used to have a sign over his desk, Nulla dies sine line—never a day without a line—and he was both the draft horse and the thoroughbred racer of writing, in my mind. I try to write every day, but unless I am on a deadline, or set one for myself, I let the writing appear on its own schedule. Jan Zwicky reassured me when she told me to ease up—the poem isn’t ready yet. I’ve used a composting metaphor frequently–I tell students, and remind myself as well, that whatever goes in the bin may take some time before it sprouts green. And before that happens, it’s not always pleasant or fragrant, but we need patience. Because I started to write poetry late in life, I feel a complex tension there—age has taught me patience and a certain degree of tolerance and conviction, as age will often do, but now that I have found my vocation, I have to both make up for lost time, and yet give the poetry its own time. Any quiet moment will do for writing. Like most, I have a busy, overly complicated life, so sometimes I retreat to the cabin, or to Saskatchewan, where I’ve recently bought a little house—not necessarily to produce, but to unclutter the days—make them free from phone calls and appointments and family distractions. Find silence that comes when no one expects anything of you. A writing friend, Budge Wilson observed that I get over-stimulated, as she does. My mother always called me “high strung.” I think writers—all artists, really—are high strung generally—they’re on alert, intentionally or not, and their antennae—from writing and perhaps from a predisposition—are picking up nuance and dialogue and image. Sensory stimuli. What I wish I did better was keep a journal. Although I try to be faithful to recording daily events and impressions and details, my journal is often the loneliest thing on my desk or in my suitcase. I’ve had better success with keeping a commonplace book—a ragtag book with notes and addresses and ticket stubs and quotes and brochures, usually with an elastic band around it. I can refer to it later on—those images and details call up all sorts of associations. They’re memory hooks I can call forth a lot from—often a body reaction, as though I were transported back to the particular location. I’ve found using a commonplace book helpful in my teaching as well—students are able, then, to see the path of their ideas in them, what piqued their interests, and are better able to reflect on what they’ve learned, about writing or about themselves.
DOES YOUR OWN WRITING PRACTICE AFFECT HOW YOU WORK WITH WRITERS?Only insofar as it reminds me that there are as many different processes are there are writers, and there are no rules. Each of us has to find a way that works for us. Some people clean the house, some rise at 5 a.m. to put in a couple of hours’ writing before work, some write for three days non-stop in their pyjamas. Some compose while they’re breastfeeding. Whatever works. I need to be away from psychological clutter (house clutter doesn’t bother me—phones and delivery people set me off). I know that I need to become a stranger to my drafts in order to edit them. I know, as Murray used to say, that I need to write badly to write well—I’m reminded of the little boy who was found digging in the pile in the barn: “I know there’s a pony in here somewhere.” When my teachers out West used to assign compositions we were allowed one sheet of paper for a draft, and then we were required to ‘write it over in good.’ This meant being careful not to splotch the Scrip ink out of the nib—this was long after feather nibs, but shortly before white-out—to form the letters carefully, and to underline the title with your red pencil. Since most people of my generation suffered the expectation of the perfect unblemished page when they learned to write, no wonder we have trouble letting go and writing the dross we need to write to create the better. I want to make a pitch here for daydreaming. We’re always doing, doing, doing. It’s all right just to float—to let ideas wander in and out, to sit and watch what the crows are doing, to let the inner eye land where it wants to land. The grander word for it is reverie, but it’s critical to the imagination, I believe. How are you going to see what’s down there if the water is always roiling? Children are best at daydreaming, although it seems that their lives, too, have become so over-scheduled and their attentions so other-directed it’s hard for them. Dickinson wrote about making a prairie with clover, bees, and reverie. The reverie alone will do, /if bees are few. Bits and pieces of perception come to me out of the corner of my mind, almost like glimpsing a bird, or the presence of a vivid colour. Or a phrase will become stuck in my mind. When it begins to gather a sort of weather around it, accumulating and gaining substance, then I’m into it. That happens both with prose and poetry. I follow that image or sound or voice and see where it goes. I never start at the beginning because I don’t know what the beginning is until the piece is done. Again, it’s an issue of schooling—when I suggest to my students that they begin writing with an image, or an artifact, or a hunch, and not to worry about ‘the beginning’ in the usual sense, they’re often surprised. That advice runs counter to the usual linear way we’re taught to handle text. If we read a book from the beginning, we think, well surely that’s where we have to start writing it, no?Mary Catherine Bateson, the daughter of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, described in Composing a Life her tendency to assemble her life according to what was there. She compared it to searching in the refrigerator for what’s available and making the meal from those ingredients. Different days or years, different ingredients, and no recipe to follow other than your own instincts, your needs, and your limitations. She believed, because of our biology and our upbringing, women are more inclined to create our lives that way—we make do somehow between the exigencies of home, family, children, friends. Yet, that’s also how I see my writing coming together—whether it’s writing my life or a draft of a poem about the dugout on the farm. It’s piecemeal, sometimes erratic, usually recursive, looping around and back from a different angle. When I have the chance to write I try to make the best of it—go for several hours at a time. It’s finding the clearing that’s the challenge.
HOW MUCH DO YOU EDIT AND REVISE? That depends on how easily the first draft comes. Writing comes to me in many ways, from an excruciatingly slow trickle, like squeezing out blood from the end of your pen, to a gusher—a burst vein. Tsvetaeva wrote about the ‘gush of life, gush of verse’ (I’m paraphrasing) and it’s serendipity when writing comes that easily. Sometimes a poem takes on its own life and I don’t know where it’s going to lead. It arrives, already walking. It’s also a teaser because it makes us think it will come as easily next time, but it often doesn’t. That means revising, revising, and more revising. I usually move from one poem to another, revising not to finish, but to get it further along, then leave it. The more time, life, and emotional distance I put between the drafts, the better. I sometimes come back to drafts and wonder what the hell I was doing. It reads like a really bad date. Other times, it’s a lovely surprise, like greeting a friend. And the more poems I accumulate, even if they’re rocky, the better. For each of my first two collections of poems and the chapbook Saved String I had written about twice the number of poems as eventually made the final cut. So part of the editing and revision process was arranging the poems according to a theme or an approach. Or trying to. Even that’s a mysterious process.Like many people, I am still editing and revising after my work is published. A friend left her reading copy of her novel on a table at an event once and a woman rushed up to her later, brandishing the book, horrified: “Look at what someone has done to your book!” Well, as the author, she’d continued to revise, even when it was between covers. I will sometimes revise a poem as I read it, which can be risky business.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT CRAFT OR APPROACHES TO WRITING?For years I wrote columns and freelance book reviews for various newspapers and magazines across Canada and was given 300 words or 550, for example, as a word limit. I’d typically write twice that much then find great pleasure in condensing, distilling. Even now, writing prose, I will sometimes arbitrarily assign myself the task of cutting a certain number of words (say one or two hundred) if I feel a piece isn’t working well. Sounds odd, because it’s externally imposed, almost a party trick, rather than a considered decision that arises organically from the needs of the piece, but it works. Somehow that exercise has the effect of pointing to other loose or misaligned parts in the piece, so it works to shake things up throughout, sometimes the very core or structure of the piece. And when I began to write poetry that became one of the more pleasurable preoccupations—how can I say this in the most spare, fingertip-on-water kind of way? Or to use another comparison—a spiderweb. How can I drop a word on that web in such a way to make the word cause quivering across a web of associations?I am learning to see my work more objectively—whatever objective means. As some wag said, objectivity is only a word for someone else’s subjectivity. In the case of the arts, though, I think notions of what works and doesn’t work sit inside a rough consensus that shifts with culture and time. It’s almost as though—to again use that town square as a comparison—we collectively agree on what belongs in the square, yet the edges and boundaries continually blur, new works join the fray, new voices change the complexion of the centre. My sense is that writers—especially if they read a lot and are attuned to what’s around them—write to be heard in the square, yet participate in that conversation with something new, fresh, inventive. Reading allows us to absorb all those voices and then when we return to our own work—this happens to me increasingly—we can revise in ways that reflect a more finely-grained and nuanced understanding of the literary conversations in the field right now.Craft improves when we get out of our heads, too, I find. Painting a wall, chopping and stacking wood, doing charcoal sketches, or throwing pots, learning to sew—using our hands and bodies and developing new skills affects our writing, I’m sure of it. Yesterday I tore down an inside wall in my place in Saskatchewan to find the window I was sure was there–not only a great metaphor, but very therapeutic physically.
DOES THE TRAVEL FEED YOUR WORK? Travel helps me cultivate an understanding of difference and nuance, and to stretch my canvas, I suppose, so it can absorb more in the weave. Also reminds me how lucky most of us are. It’s true that you can see the whole world at home, if you’re willing to look closely; but when you travel, you see the various and the many; it’s a sensory feast, and you have to learn to see differently and more acutely. It’s a trade-off; travelling can be tiring, but that’s the price of seeing how goats navigate a Cretan hillside or how the sun sets outside of Humboldt. And, I guess, it can often help you see home better. And to get over yourself. Once I’m settled, once I can smell a place and feel it on my skin, I can write. Over the years I’ve taken graduate students to the Fundy Shore, Magnetic Island off Australia, and to Inch Beach in Ireland for courses in writing and culture. On those occasions, we’re trying to make the strange familiar and the act of writing triggers immersion into a place. We have to scratch our way past the images and reductive phrases in the brochures and see closely. Listen. Pay attention. My students interviewed local residents about fishing practices or political debates and the new economy, about changes in rituals and festivals and cultural habits. The writing allowed us to find our way from one spot to the next by hunches or fresh insights or even dislocation.The last six or seven years I’ve returned to the prairies regularly, often for a writers’ retreat at St. Peter’s Abbey, but lately to the little house I hope to turn into a retreat for writers. Saskatchewan is the landscape that was imprinted on me as a child—I was born in Winnipeg, but lived for brief periods in Prince Albert and Edson, Alberta before moving to Saskatoon for several years. After a couple of years in The Pas and Dauphin, Manitoba, I returned to Saskatoon to go to university. While I have loved Nova Scotia these last twenty-five years, and still do, some part of me needs several weeks or months a year on the prairies. It’s where I can breathe. Perhaps another way of expressing my need to be there is that my relationship with the prairies is a conversation I’ve not finished and perhaps never will. One way or another—as author in residence at St. Peter’s for a year, and as a visiting scholar at the U of S the next—I’ve been lucky to have work that takes me there.
THE LEGACY OF MEMORY IS CENTRAL TO YOUR MOST RECENT BOOK, COMBUSTION. CAN YOU SAY MORE ABOUT THAT PREOCCUPATION WITH MEMORY? Oh, sometimes I think we’re all somersaulting inside our memories, our current circumstances, our assumptions about how the world works, our knowledge, our emotions, and our actions, and then something new flashes its way into our consciousness and triggers new associations—perhaps I’m still talking about composting here –and we—or I, since I can’t speak for anyone else—find ideas realigning, sparking in a new way.
And I wonder if we are nothing but flesh that accumulates memory as we make a path through life. The body remembers even more than the mind, if we can even say the two are separate which they aren’t. Right now, I have more memory than open field, or to put it differently, the open field is now in sharper relief. Barry Lopez includes a note in his Winter Count, something to this effect: over the winter, each member of certain Northern tribes marks the passage of time pictographically or aloud. These winter counts are in progress all the time and every count differs according to its keeper. We each gather our written or spoken or artistically-rendered stories, and they are various. In our culture, we are lucky to be warm and fed, and so we can indulge ourselves in the telling. It’s a way of affirming we were here, which, whenever I think closely about it, is an astonishing fact. Astonishing that we’re here, astonishing that we leave. And, if we’re lucky, we recognize and cultivate that astonishment in between. Nabokov said that our existence is only “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Perhaps persons of faith might feel it’s the opposite—the light is before and after. But regardless, it’s all about light and dark. Memory remains in the dark until we pull it out, take a look at it. I draw on memory not because I think my life is more significant than others’, but because I think it’s significant, period. I was here. I am learning. The more I tell, the more I learn. And the more deeply I look at the stories, the more I see their reflections in others’ stories—an Indra’s Net sort of thing. That’s a Mahayana Buddhist notion – we are jewels spread across a net, the universe, and each jewel is reflected in all the others; it speaks to the infinite interconnections that make up the universe as we know it. Hofstadter used that idea in his Godel, Escher, Bach, I believe.I am interested in history, but more so the unofficial versions, not the official ones. The life of the woman who kept the king fed, or the shopkeeper who sold the bomb. That whole roiling sea of associations and connections that we don’t see under the surface. Those stories and perspectives fascinate me. Light/dark; unique/common; particular/universal; grief/joy—all those ideas we think of as opposite ends of a spectrum are all at play with each other all the time—there is joy in grief, dark in light. I’m preoccupied with that as well. I was re-reading Jane Hirshfield’s essay about Mnemosyne and Hermes—the dance of memory and the trickster—and I’m as fired up about the ideas in there as I was when I read it first a few years ago. Mid-life is a rich time for memory; it’s also when the trickster comes calling more insistently.
WHAT WAS YOUR INTENTION WITH THIS BOOK, WHAT DID YOU WANT IT TO ACHIEVE? What was I doing with Combustion? Nothing intentional at first. I was simply writing poems, trying to hone my craft. Then several things converged—I’d found a 1921 copy of Maclean’s magazine and began to imagine my grandmother reading it while she was pregnant with my mother—how the lives of women, the political issues, were described was compelling. I had had a series of visits with my mother and had taped some of her stories. She’d had a rough life—since then she has died, last Christmas, in fact, four days after my father, ironically, although they’d been divorced for twenty years—and as a mother of the 50s she made me acutely aware that ordinary women like her are largely ignored. I find that tragic. She was complicated and our relationship was very difficult; the poems brought us&