Alexis O'Hara Photo by Annie-Eve Dumontier
Alexis O’Hara tends to an interdisciplinary practice that exploits allegories of the human voice via vocal & electronic improvisation, sound installation and text-based performance. She has released one book of poetry, two music CDs and a number of experimental mini-CDs. With Subject to Change and The Sorrow Sponge - two projects involving wearable electronics, direct audience interaction live performance using field recordings - she flirted with interactive documentary performance. Her sound installation, SQUEEEEQUE, an igloo built of recycled speakerboxes, has toured many exhibits and festivals including Club Transmediale in Berlin and Elektra in Montreal. She has shared the stage with amazing artists including Diamanda Galàs, Ursula Rucker, Henri Chopin and TV on the Radio. Her eclectic performances have been presented in diverse contexts in Slovenia, Austria, Mexico, Germany, Spain, The United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Belgium and across Canada and the US. Alexis and her drag king alter-ego, Guizo LaNuit are mainstays of the Montreal cabaret scene. Photo by Nikol Mikus
RUSTY TALK WITH ALEXIS O'HARA
Sara Jane Strickland: What is your first memory of being creative (writing, art making, etc.)?
Alexis O'Hara: When I was four years old, my family lived in a small town outside of Geneva in a one room apartment. My parents' bed was surrounded by a curtain that my little sister and I would use as a stage. We tucked the corners of kleenexes into our tights to make "tutus" and danced on our tippy toes for Mom & Dad. Later, every Easter/Christmas/Thanksgiving, I would boss around cousins and force them to do nativity plays/fashion shows/skits for our parents.
SJS: When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist?
AO: After I realized that Charlie's Angel was not a real job, I wanted to be an actress. Around age 20, I got really disheartened by the business of show business, possibly having a crisis of confidence that I was not thin/pretty enough to be an actress. I've written poetry since I was a kid, and made things too, but I always considered my collages, jewelry, sculptures...to be "arts & crafts". I can't say I felt comfortable calling myself an artist until I was about 30. But I've never actually "wanted" to be anything else than someone who is involved in artistic projects.
SJS: How would you describe your own personal process of making art?
AO: I'm terribly undisciplined so I tend to seek out external deadlines to motivate myself. Sometimes an idea just shows up and nags and yanks at my subconscious until I make it real. But usually I create in preparation for public presentation. This past summer, I made a lot of work just for the sake of making it. I was so unaccustomed to this idea of failure, making something that is just an experiment. But of course, I've had a lot of failures and experiments when it comes to live performance. A good ten years worth of my public performances were entirely improvised and therefore very subject to the whims of circumstance – some soaring successes and some horrible failures. I have to thank all the known and unknown audience members who witnessed this very public "personal process of making art".
SJS: What influences your art the most?
AO: Stuff that makes me angry, stuff that makes me swoon, heartbreak, my niece, Olivia, the desire to make a mark, the desire to make people laugh and talk to each other.
SJS: What artists/writers/poets would you recommended to someone aspiring to be an artist or writer?
AO: Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and be a better pupil. For years I closed my eyes and ears, thinking that everything I created had to come from deep inside an innocent, almost ignorant place. And then you make something that you think came just from you and someone says: "Oh that's just like *name of someone you've never heard of*". Ah, and who am I to say what ended up being good for me would be good for anyone else? I can list my favorite artists and writers, but will they be helpful to aspiring artists? Who knows? What I recommend to aspiring artists and writers is just that they do it! Work on it! Ignore what is trendy or cool. Believe in your own voice, even if you don't see it reflected out there.
I know I will forget some but off the top of my head, here are some artists who have resonated with me: Lynda Barry, Pipilotti Rist, Ai Wei Wei, Gerhardt Richter, Katherine Dunn, Laurie Anderson, e.e. cummings, Takashi Murakami, the Mad Magazine artists, Dr. Seuss, Janet Cardiff & George Bures, Beat Takeshi Kitano, Lydia Lunch, Rebecca Horn, Buckminster Fuller, Marcus Aurelius, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Andy Warhol, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Miranda July (the recordings), Theo Jansen, Frida Kahlo, Ivor Cutler.
SJS: What is it about audio installations/performance art that appeals to you as a medium for expression?
AO: It's cheaper than making movies but can provide the same sort of multi-sensorial, immersive experience.
SJS: Your piece Squeeeeque – The Improbable Igloo is a particularly interesting audio installation/sculpture. What inspired you to build an igloo made of speakers?
AO: It came from a dream I had. My head was a microphone and I lived in a house made of speakers. Every time I went by the walls, a wailing screech erupted. When I woke up, I thought about this idea of a house made of speakers. Since the speakers are blocks, it seemed like an igloo was a perfect structure. At first I thought the project was about feedback and recycling rejected technology, but then it turned out that it was really about collective vocal improvisation.
SJS: What are you working on now?
AO: As usual, I'm juggling a bunch of projects at once. I just got back from Serbia where I built a speakerbox igloo and premiered a performance where I use helium balloons to get my dress caught in a chandelier. I'm working with my friends 2boys.tv on their new performance work, Tesseract. I'm getting ready for a residency at Recto-Verso in Quebec City where I'll continue work on an installation called La Couvée, that simulates the experience of being in a giant egg sac. I have two new musical projects. One is very tender, with a lot of sad songs. The other one involves my alter-ego Guizo LaNuit and Stephen Lawson's alter-ego, Gigi Lamour. I believe I can claim that it's the world's only drag king / drag queen party medley duo. We're called GuiGi and we're going to be huge. We're playing a retirement party in December and I'm hoping we can book a bunch of gay weddings in 2014.
Alexis O'Hara's sound installation, SQUEEEEQUE, an igloo built of recycled speakerboxes, has toured many exhibits and festivals including Club Transmediale in Berlin and Elektra in Montreal.
Photo by Nancy Lee
Marita Dachsel is the author of Glossolalia, Eliza Roxcy Snow, and All Things Said & Done. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and the ReLit Prize and has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, including Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2011. Her play Initiation Trilogy was produced by Electric Company Theatre, was featured at the 2012 Vancouver International Writers Fest, and was nominated for the Jessie Richardson Award for Outstanding New Script. She is the 2013/2014 Artist in Residence at UVic’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society.
RUSTY TALK WITH MARITA DACHSEL
Kathryn Mockler: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
Marita Dachsel: My mother was an elementary school teacher, and grade one was her favourite to teach partially because she got to teach kids to read and write creatively. She did a great job instilling the importance of both in me, and I know I was writing creatively thanks to her long before my first true memory. When I was around five I wrote and illustrated a collection of stories about horses called…wait for it…Horse Stories. I remember spending longer on the illustrations than the stories, and I think the illustrations came first.
My parents’ living room is very gothic—red carpet, red velvet curtains, dark beams, huge heavy-glassed lights that look medieval in inspiration, a fireplace, and a menagerie of taxidermied animals and birds along one wall. But it’s the room that gets the most natural light. I remember writing one of the stories on the carpet, the sun warming my body, crayons beside me, the television on as it always was (I can’t remember the show, but Dukes of Hazard is my default childhood memory show). I was so proud of my work. I still have it.
KM: How did you become a writer?
MD: I always wrote. When I was in elementary school one of my goals was to be a writer when I grew up (along with fire fighter and architect, so take that for what it’s worth), and while I continued to write as I got older, it didn’t really seem like something that could be real.
Then I went to college with a vague idea that I might become and English professor. There I took my first creative writing class, amazed that this was possible. I loved it. My first published poem I wrote in that class. Then I learned you could do a degree in it at UBC, so I transferred and ended up doing both my BFA and MFA there. Despite this, being a writer feels both like something that I just happened to become and something that I’ve always been.
KM: What writers did you read you when you first started out? Who are you reading now?
MD: Just before I took that very first creative writing class, I was in a John Steinbeck and John Irving phase. Then I discovered Canadian writers and women writers. Reading Canlit felt revolutionary. Margaret Atwood, Barbara Gowdy, Carol Shields. Anything and everything in my Canlit anthology seemed to be a springboard.
Now, I don’t have enough time to read everything I want to read. So many novels, poetry collections, essays, short stories, memoirs I want to read. Right now, I’m reading Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda, Steven Price’s Omens in the Year of the Ox, Amanda Leduc’s The Miracles of Ordinary Men, Ann the Word: The Story of Ann Lee, and what feels like a million various poems and anthologies for the poetry class I’m teaching on poetic forms this fall. I’ve been itching to start Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, but I’m going to wait for the right weekend to devour it.
KM: Can you describe your writing process? How does revision figure into the process?
MD: My process for poetry varies a lot depending on the poem, what was its initial impulse, where it came from. I scribble lines in a notebook, return days, months later and build off a line or an image. Then cut, slash, and rebuild.
With the poems in Glossolalia, so much was dependant on finding the right voice and shape. I’d research, make notes, write a draft. If the voice wasn’t right, I’d move on to the next wife. But if I felt like it was close, I’d start shaping the poem, writing more and more, then hack it to pieces, rewrite, hack, rewrite until it all sounded and looked right. Then I’d come back to it in a year or two. If it still felt right, great. If not, back to the beginning of the processes.
KM: What is your funniest or favourite literary moment, if you have one?
MD: When my eldest was a baby, I read him Oliver Jeffer’s Lost and Found many times a day. It was a family favourite and when I got to the part where [spoiler!] the penguin and the boy are reunited, I would hug my son and say “A big hug for the penguin, a big hug for the boy, a big hug for you.” One day when he was about 18 months, he was “reading” the book by himself on the floor of our living room. I spied him from the kitchen. He turned to the hugging page and he hugged the book. It still makes me a little misty remembering that moment.
KM: Your second poetry collection Glossolalia, is a series of monologues spoken by the 34 polygamous wives of Joseph Smith. How did you come to the premise of this book and what drew you to the subject matter?
MD: I’ve always been interested in fringe religions, and a few years ago the FLDS in Bountiful, BC was in the news. I was curious about their tenet of polygamy and discovered that it was first introduced into the Mormon Church (of which the FLDS are a breakaway sect) by their founder Joseph Smith way back in the 1840s. I wondered about the women, how they must have reacted when faced with a concept so alien to the society in which they lived, to the culture in which they were raised. I wondered how I would have reacted.
I love research and can get obsessed about a subject quite easily. I found two great biographies on Smith’s wives: In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton and Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery. I started reading them, responding with poems. The material is very rich—sex, religion, power, gossip, motherhood, sisterhood, jealousy. Juicy stuff.
KM: You’ve managed to give each wife her own voice and an impression of her character sometimes with just a few words or a detail. An example of this are the final lines of Emma Hale Smith’s monologue: “What I know: not all eggshells are fragile. / Not all twigs snap.” This tells us so much about her and cycles back to the first line which I understand is an actual quote from Emma Hale Smith: “I did not ask for this life but accept it as my calling.” While this is a fictionalized account of Joseph Smith’s wives, how did your research come into play in terms of how you developed the voice of each wife and how you shaped the narrative of the collection?
MD: I devoured the biographies and once I realized that I wanted to write a poem for each wife, that this was going to be a book-length project instead of just a few poems, I knew that I needed to get them right. They needed to be distinct, and that would be hard as they were all had similar backgrounds, lived at the same time, in the same town, shared the same faith and husband. But of course, they were all very different from each other, and I hoped to capture that. For some polygamy was something they embraced, others railed against it, and for others it was barely mentioned. The narrative was organic; I never plotted out what moments I wanted to write about. At one point I read a book about Joseph Smith’s death mask. The mask never made it into the collection, but his death was there, from a few angles.
I’d read about the woman, make notes, try to hear her voice, write a draft, repeat as necessary. The first draft of the first poem I wrote for Glossolalia was Emma’s, but it took six years of rewriting her to get it right.
KM: Each poem in Glossolalia takes on a different shape and form. What informed your choices about typography, line breaks, stanza breaks, etc.?
MD: I believe form and content are intertwined, that they inform each other. Ultimately, it was simply a lot of rewriting, lots of playing on the page, reading aloud, and rewriting some more until it sounded and looked right.
KM: In many ways, the book is more about the diverse and complicated relationships that exist between women than about the Mormon religion, but has there been any response from the Mormon community to your book and/or did you have any concerns around this?
MD: There hasn’t been any direct response from the Mormon community, but I also haven’t searched it out yet, partly because I am a little scared to. I’m not Mormon, I did write about women in a community I don’t belong to, have no ties to. I am a little concerned at being called out for appropriation or being insensitive. Many of the wives have hundreds of progeny. What if there is an irate great-great-granddaughter? I shouldn’t be afraid (it’s poetry!), but part of me is nervous. I’d hate to have that kind of conflict.
That said, I spoke with two ex-Mormons who came to my readings, one in Edmonton, one in Victoria. The man in Edmonton told me that I “got it right.” The woman in Victoria said that she was thankful for how respectful I treated the subject and that she’s planning on passing my book along to some in her family, many of whom are still Mormon. Those conversations buoyed me.
KM: What are you working on next?
MD: I’ve been working on some essays and poems that may or may not become a collection, but my big new project is a series of monologues from the points of view of self-appointed messiahs, some real, some fabricated. I’m a slow writer, but thanks to the good folks at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at UVic who made me this year’s Artist-in-Residence, I have space and time to create throughout this academic year. I’m very excited to see where they take me.
MARITA DACHSEL'S MOST RECENT POETRY BOOK
Glossolalia, Anvil Press, 2013
Description from PublisherGlossolalia is an unflinching exploration of sisterhood, motherhood, and sexuality as told in a series of poetic monologues spoken by the thirty-four polygamous wives of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In Marita Dachsel’s second full-length collection, the self-avowed agnostic feminist uses mid-nineteenth century Mormon America as a microcosm for the universal emotions of love, jealousy, loneliness, pride, despair, and passion.
Glossolalia is an extraordinary, often funny, and deeply human examination of what it means to be a wife and a woman through the lens of religion and history.
A Canadian filmmaker and artist, CHELSEA MCMULLAN’S films have premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and have been screened on the international festival circuit. Effortlessly moving between documentary and fiction, her work has been described as ‘keenly observed, elegant, and profound,’ solidifying her reputation as ‘talent to watch.’ Chelsea’s award-winning shorts have been featured on NOWNESS, DAZED DIGITIAL, VICE and in VOGUE ITALIA. In 2010, her series of live portraits, Chaine, created in collaboration with Russian photographer Margo Ovcheranko, premiered at the New York Photography Festival. Chelsea has been an artist in residency at the prominent Italian creative think tank, FABRICA, where she made the Genie award nominated film Derailments. She's recently completed her first feature length film, a documentary-musical about transgendered musician Rae Spoon entitled My Prairie Home, marking her third collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada. McMullan is a member of the artist co-operative What Matters Most, a group of culture-makers with representation based out of Los Angeles.
RUSTY TALK WITH CHELSEA MCMULLAN
Sarah Galea-Davis: How did you first get into filmmaking?
Chelsea McMullan: I don't think I've found a way to say this yet that doesn't set off my precocious detector, but I wanted to make films from a young age. There's no great story or anything, just a progression from my parents' camcorder to studying film at York University in Toronto straight out of high school. Part of me wishes I'd came to film later because I think it would have been great to study something like philosophy or psychology first. At the same time though, I still work with the same people I met in my undergrad.
SGD: Was there a writer or filmmaker that had a big impact on you?
CM: On a personal level Jennifer Baichwal has been hugely influential. I interned with her and her husband Nick de Pencier right out of film school and despite being a thoroughly wretched production coordinator/researcher, they've both been so patient and generous with me over the years. I was occupying a corner of their office rent-free for like four years. I used to sleep on their couch, in the editing suite, when I was up late writing a grant. Also they are fucking awesome filmmakers, and over the years I've been able to watch their process and learn from them, while deeply engaging with pragmatic, ethical, and philosophical issues around the films I'm making. My absolute favourite filmmaker is Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Hands down, end of discussion, to a very obsessive extent. A few years back in Berlin, I bought a book, which is comprised of a still image of every frame in Berlin Alexander Platz. It's like 50 lbs, and my baggage was obscenely overweight, but it was totally worth it. I would say it's one of my most cherished possessions. Actually, the mayor of the town I grew up in was his cousin. I asked him about it once, and he told me a wild story about spending time with Rainer. I think it was supposed to be a cautionary tale.
SGD: What is your favourite part of the filmmaking process?
CM: I find that I'm sort of anxiety ridden through the whole process. Though if I have to choose my favorite part, it is probably watching rushes. There is still so much promise and nothing has gone wrong yet, but you’re past the soul-destroying production hump. It's a nice purgatorial state before you have to pull your baby apart and sacrifice it to keep the gods happy.
SGD: What is the best filmmaking advice you've received?
CM: Once something really bad had happened to the main subject of one of my films. His wife had a horrible brain aneurism and was in the hospital. I was young, so I thought the film was over and was ready to throw in the towel. I phoned Jennifer and told her about the situation, and she was like "Chelsea, this is your job. This is what being a documentary filmmaker is." I've never forgotten that. The times it feels most difficult and awkward to shoot are the times when usually it is most important because those are the moments of people's lives that we don't really share enough. Also more often than not people want their tragedies documented. They want to feel like people are experiencing with them, that there's value in their loss.
SGD: Your work spans the genres of documentary and experimental filmmaking. Do you approach the writing/creation process differently when it comes to your non-fiction work?
CM: I never set out to make documentary, fiction, or experimental films. A subject just crosses my path, and I follow it down the rabbit hole. I also feel like my work usually sits in some space of hybridity. I've never sought out a subject for a film, it always comes to me, and then I just try to tell the story in the best way I know how. The genre, the length, the style for me are all dictated by the subject matter.
SGD: Tell us about your current documentary that is being released in November?
CM: The NFB hired an actual writer to explain it in a concise and inviting fashion. Know that it is a passion project that Rae and I have been working on for the past four years or so together. Rae is a good friend and this was an important project for me.
SYNOPSIS: MY PRAIRIE HOME
In Chelsea McMullan’s documentary-musical, My Prairie Home, indie singer Rae Spoon takes us on a playful, meditative, and at times melancholic journey. Set against majestic images of the infinite expanses of the Canadian prairies, Spoon sweetly croons us through their queer and musical coming of age. Interviews, performances, and music sequences reveal Spoon’s inspiring process of building a life of their own, as a trans person and as a musician.
Andrew F. Sullivan
Andrew F. Sullivan is the author of All We Want is Everything (ARP Books, 2013). His short fiction has been published in places like Grain, EVENT, The New Quarterly and Joyland. Sullivan no longer works in a warehouse.Andrew Sullivan will be visiting Western University as part of the 2013-14 Creative Writers Series. Everyone is welcome to this free public reading in UC 224A on October 8th, 2013 at 2:30-4pm.Andrew's short story "Hatchetman" was published in Issue 2 of The Rusty Toque, and it appears in his new collection. RUSTY TALK WITH ANDREW F. SULLIVAN
Alex Carey: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
Andrew F. Sullivan: When I was nine or so, I started rewriting The Lost World starring my friends while I was supposed to be doing work at school. I would read it out loud at lunch or recess before we went to go and play soccer, or whatever. Usually, I would try to kill off one friend a day—by lion, spike pit, alien invaders or velociraptor. Maybe a grizzly bear. They seemed to get a kick out of it—who would I kill off next and how? Everyone’s time would come. It was like some volatile mixture of The Chronicles of Narnia, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, The Hardy Boys and The Neverending Story. Kill your darlings, or at least the people closest to you.
AC: Why or how did you decide to become a writer?
AS: I wanted to do something that made me feel good. I had a compulsion. A selfish compulsion to do what made me feel best. Even on the worst days, writing is what makes sense. I don’t need a studio or a massive budget or other people. I just need me. And that’s what can make it scary, too. You have no one else to blame. I decided to write because I had to write. Because if I didn’t, I’d end up doing something else selfish, with nothing to show for it but a long list of mistakes, debts and hospital visits.
AC: Can you describe your writing process?
AS: Find a library. Sit down with the laptop, headphones, and a bottle of water. Try to parse out the terrible things in my head, the lovely things we want to be true and the place where they meet in between. Take a number of breaks. Listen to the Russians yelling at each other in the newspaper section. Read about a toxic spill, a fallen idol, a country torn around the edges. Avoid getting run over by children. Clip and collage the pieces, the fragments that sound right. Force them into new shapes, uncomfortable shapes. Let it all sit for a couple weeks, let it simmer and grow old. Take a look at the mess a few weeks later and try to pick out the pieces that are still usable, that still make sense. This can take a while.
For something like a novel, it’s pretty much the same deal, but I have to crank up production.
AC: What is the best piece of writing advice you've been given that you use?
AS: “Don’t talk about it, be about it.” – Usher, musical sensation. That is not a joke. I truly believe it. It’s very easy to talk about writing, to make lists and tips and line them up like they are tools and not suggestions. You need to actually write to write. That’s basically what it comes down to in the end. I can tell you to avoid using certain words, to establish conflict, to line edit every piece, to read aloud, to remove your adverbs, to roll the chicken knuckles, read the tea leaves, swallow the right pill or sacrifice your idols at the altar of taste, but it’s all equally ridiculous. Talking about it goes nowhere. Be about your work. Finish it. Believe in it. Send it out into the world.
AC: You recently published a short story collection—twenty snapshots of decay, loss, violence and beauty—called All We Want is Everything. Your publisher, ARP Books, is based in Winnipeg and co-founded by songwriter John K Samson. How did you get involved with ARP and what was that experience like?
AS: I got involved with ARP when I sent John K. my work just to see what he thought of it. I had a novel and a short story collection, and I wanted to get an outsider’s perspective on them. I knew ARP did not really publish a lot of fiction at the time, but they had in the past. I am grateful John found something in my work and decided to pick up the short story collection. Working with a small press is a really great experience in a lot of ways. I was involved in a lot of the decision-making and the process of taking my document and turning it into an actual book. The cover image I had since 2007 ended up working out. Overall, it was just an extremely collaborative and generous process. The fact that it exists at all is a positive for me.
AC: You're also the fiction editor at The Puritan. What it is like be on the other side of the publishing process? As an editor, what do you look for in the work that you publish?
AS: It’s extremely illuminating to work on the other side, to see how the sausage gets made. You learn just how many other people are out there, writing, struggling to get published, just asking for someone to read their work, to recognize their attempt to touch the world outside. You also see how so many people somehow fail to follow directions, to refuse to read the magazines they submit to or ask whether or not the story would suit the publication. You learn to take rejection with a bit more grace. You learn it is not always about you—sometimes there’s just too much good stuff out there. And sometimes there is a drought.
I look for work that will grab me on the first page, work that will make me second guess my assumptions, make me uncomfortable with the world. Clear lines, well-oiled machines with well-drawn characters. I want to be led down a path I would not take on my own. What I don’t need are more narratives that start in bars, that chronicle addiction, that remind us cancer is bad, child abuse is bad, divorce is bad. Stories about discovering oneself, about degrading women, about the one time you went to Europe or Africa and realized you had privilege, stories about manic pixie dream girls, about the one night we all got wasted and one of our friends made a terrible decision, about grad school or the glory of being an atheist—I don’t really have much patience for that anymore. None of this is a decree though—there is always an exception. Every rule needs someone to break it, to expose the maker as a fraud.
AC: Traditionally, short story protagonists experience an epiphany, a sudden realization of their circumstance. You’ve said in other interviews that you prefer ‘reckonings’—an evaluation or judgment of self and place. In “Crows Eat Well” the narrator says, “there is something to salvage. Even now, the crows eat well” (23). Is that a reckoning rather than an epiphany?
AS: What follows in the story is pretty much the definition of a reckoning, but the moment you cite is much more reflective and contemplative, I suppose. If I have to name that moment in one way or another, I guess it still falls under the guise of a reckoning, a return to spoiled land, acknowledging what is left and what can be used. I’m definitely not against epiphanies in all their wonderful shapes and forms, just wary of them. It’s very nice to pretend fiction teaches us something, to assume we have participated in some grand revelation. Usually though, our stories reinforce the values we already hold, the expectations we already have established in the dominant culture. Subverting those values isn’t much better—you still end up acknowledging their power in the process. My idea of reckoning I guess comes down to consequences—those still teach us something, but they are rarely entirely internal. Something has to happen.
AC: Most of your stories are set in real—and pretty bleak—settings: factories, fast-food restaurants, motels, low-income housing. Other stories in your collection like “Towers” and “Cloud” involve menacing natural forces that seem more metaphoric. Was that an intentional deviation? Do you see your work heading in a more absurdist or supernatural direction?
AS: Not so much intentional, more like happenstance. Even in these terrible, surreal environments, I still want my characters to respond and act like people. If the characters and the narrative are strong, the setting will be accepted. To me, there is no difference between a world plagued with sinkholes and our own world. A world where the sky is filled with birds shitting on everything is not too absurd to me; it’s just a deviation from the mean. I really don’t need any more stories about writing professors or failed relationships couched in current comforts. I can just read people bitching about that stuff online.
I welcome realism colliding with something that might be read as surreal or absurd. Our whole existence and the protective nature of our current climate wants things to make sense, for there to be reasons, to fully elaborate on all the mysteries out there in the universe. But sometimes there is just a hole. Sometimes we don’t know. And that’s terrifying and awesome—awe filled with a sense of dread, of being overwhelmed by the world. We control so little. We want a fence to tell us which side is real, but we’re the ones who end up building it. And it isn’t sturdy. And it isn’t stable. And some people are stranded on the other side.
AC: What is your funniest or favourite literary moment, if you have one?
AS: Whenever somebody thinks it’s a good idea to write a book.
And if we are talking in literature, it’s a bit from Harry Crews’ A Childhood: A Biography of a Place when he writes about the Sears/Roebuck catalogue and growing up as a sharecropper:
“Nearly everybody I knew had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an ear half-chewed away, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple. And if they didn’t have something missing, they were carrying scars from barbed wire, or knives, or fishhooks. But the people in the catalogue had no such hurts. They were not only whole, had all their arms and legs and eyes on their unscarred bodies, but they were also beautiful.”
ANDREW F. SULLIVAN'S MOST RECENT BOOKAll We Want is Everything
, ARP Books
Description from publisher:
All We Want is Everything, Andrew F. Sullivan’s exceptional debut collection of short stories, finds the misused and forgotten, the places in between, the borderlands on the edge of town where dead fields alternate with empty warehouses—places where men and women clutch tightly at whatever fragments remain. Motels are packed with human cargo, while parole is just another state of being. Christmas dinners become battlegrounds; truck cabs and bathroom stalls transform into warped confessionals; and stories are told and retold, held out by people stumbling towards one another in the dark.
Frightening, hilarious, filled with raging impotence and moments of embattled grace, All We Want is Everything is the advent of a tremendous new literary voice.
M. NourbeSe Philip
M. NourbeSe Philip will join us at Western University as the 2013-14 Writer-in-Residence in the Fall term.
Click here for information on M. NourbeSe Philip's September 27, 2013 reading at Western.Guggenheim fellow, winner of a Toronto Arts Award, poet, fiction writer, essayist, dramatist and lawyer, M. NourbeSe Philip was born in Tobago and moved to Canada to attend Western University, where she graduated with a law degree in 1973. After seven years in practice, first at Parkdale Community Services and then in the partnership Jemmott and Philip, Philip left law in 1983 to devote her time to writing.
Philip’s most recent book, Zong! (2008) is a book-length poem based on an eighteenth-century court case, Gregson vs. Gilbert, the only public document related to the lives and deaths of 150 Africans murdered for insurance money aboard the slave ship Zong. Fugal, fragmented, and deeply moving, Zong! has been adapted through multimedia performance, including a dramatized reading at Toronto Harbourfront as part of "rock.paper.sistahz" in April 2006. In 2012, Philip held a seven-hour interactive reading of the complete poem at b current studio space in Toronto while simultaneously, in Blomfontaine, South Africa, another audience held a collective reading.
Philip’s other major works include the young adult novel Harriet’s Daughter (1988), her second novel Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence (1991) and the groundbreaking and award-winning poetry collection She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (1989), winner of the Casa de las Americas Prize in poetry. Author of four collections of essays, three additional collections of poetry, and two plays, Philip’s work spans and interweaves genres, attending to language in particular—her work is often noted for its deconstruction of grammar, while her newest poem engages legal language. Philip takes up themes of colonialism, race, memory, identity, and place, modeling the intersections of politics and poetics with her innovations on form. In her non-fiction work, Philip is a committed social critic, bringing her years of study in economics, political science and law to bear on Canadian social policy. Her poetry is included in the new collection, The Great Black North: Contemporary African-Canadian Poetry (Frontenac House, 2013)
. Biography by Nina Budabin McQuown
RUSTY TALK WITH M. NORBESE PHILIP
Scott Beckett: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
M. NourbeSe Philip: My first memory of writing creatively was actually writing a piece about my fear of flying which was sparked by being on a plane with my very young son for the first time. I remember taking him to the washroom and him being so fascinated by the loud sucking noise of the toilet while all I could think of was what was on the other side of the toilet—space, nothingness. It was actually published in a traveller’s magazine whose name I now don’t remember.
SB: How did you decide to become a writer?
NP: The process was very gradual. I come from an island nation that was once a colony of the British Empire and, as a young child, lived through a very exciting time as the island moved towards independence. Part of the change was that for the first time there was universal secondary education and parents wanted what all parents want for their children—the best. This did not include becoming writers. There is an essay I wrote about this process of coming to writing, “The Absence of Writing or How I Almost Became a Spy,” in which I talk about reading a lot as a child, and I write something to this effect: “Books for so.” (The Caribbean vernacular for saying there were lots of books.) Other people were writing them, we were reading them. The mindset was that you wanted your child to be a lawyer or a doctor, failing that then a teacher or, perhaps, nurse, and if all else failed then a civil servant. Writing was not an option.
It’s important to understand that for me writing wasn’t on my radar. I began writing poetry while I practised law, and even though I knew I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life in law (I think I did law because my father wanted to be a lawyer and never did become one), I still didn’t think I would become a writer. But at some point I remember thinking maybe, just maybe, I’ve got something to say that someone might listen to. It was that tentative, for all those historical and cultural reasons. It certainly wasn’t a sort of Saul-on-the-way-to-Damascus type of epiphanic event.
SB: What is your writing process like? Do you write in a certain place or time? Is it an everyday activity, or is it when the ideas come to you?
NP: I like writing in the mornings and I try to do it—emphasis on the “try”—on a daily basis. I don’t always succeed. Having said that, however, I find myself “scribbling” every day. It might not necessarily be something that I’m thinking will be my next poem or my next novel or next play, but I am always aware that these scribbles could be useful. Periods of time will get more intense, of course, if there’s a project that is formed, or there is a piece of writing I feel I have to do—then it all becomes a lot more conscious and focused. But those “scribbles” are really important because they are scribbles. Often you may think that they’re not important but later on, you realize that they can be very helpful. It is the fact that they are scribbles and “not important” that makes them valuable—the untethered mind in free fall.
SB: Has anything important come from these sessions of “scribbling?”
NP: Yes, I have a sense that I have one more book of poetry and what I have in mind actually is based on those “scribbles.”
SB: So that is what you’re working on right now?
NP: Yes, or not working on, or un-working on.
SB: Is there a piece that you’ve written that you are particularly fond of that you would consider to be your favourite?
NP: It is like asking which of your children you like best. Different pieces for different reasons, but I’ll say Zong! right now, maybe because it is my most recent child, my youngest child. I’m saying that also because it is moving into areas that I have never ever ventured in to. My work has tended to be primarily page bound, as much poetry is, but this work is moving into performance or what I call unperformance or de-performance, and I’m really interested in that.
SB: What is your advice to young writers?
NP: At any point in time, there are at least two poems, two stories, two novels that are there: the one you think you want to write, the other, the one you have to get out of the way of to let it write itself through you. What I’m talking about is getting your ego out of the way to let what has to be written write itself through you. So writing then becomes an act of surrender and revelation to yourself. And ultimately to the reader.
M. NORBESE PHILIP'S MOST RECENT BOOK
Zong!, Weslyan University Press and by The Mercury Press in Canada, 2008
Description from the Publisher:
In November, 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that some 150 Africans be murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance monies. Relying entirely on the words of the legal decision Gregson vs Gilbert--the only extant public document related to the massacre of these African slaves--Zong! tells the story that cannot be told yet must be told. Equal parts song, moan, shout, oath, ululation, curse, and chant, Zong! excavates the legal text. Memory, history, and law collide and metamorphose into the poetics of the fragment. Through the innovative use of fugal and counterpointed repetition, Zong! becomes an anti-narrative lament that stretches the boundaries of the poetic form, haunting the spaces of forgetting and mourning the forgotten.
Information on how to meet with NourbeSe Philip for London and Western folks:
NourbeSe Philip will hold weekly office hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, to offer feedback to, and consultation with, both experienced and novice creative writers from the university and the London community. She will accept works of poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and drama.
Please note: Ms. Philip will begin her office hours on Wednesday, September 4th and Thursday, September 5 from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm, in UC 184. To schedule an appointment please contact Vivian Foglton (Secretary, Department of English), at 519-661-3403, or email her at email@example.com.
Scott Beckett is Western University's 2013-14 Student Writer-in Residence.
Photo by Katrina Afonso
Ania Szado's acclaimed second novel, Studio Saint-Ex (Viking Canada/Knopf USA) has been sold to five countries. Her debut novel Beginning of Was (Penguin Canada) was regionally shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, Best First Book. Her short fiction has been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologized in All Sleek and Skimming (Orca, ed. Lisa Heggum). Ania's nonfiction has appeared in the Globe & Mail and Flare Magazine. She lives in Toronto and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of British Columbia and an AOCA from Ontario College of Art. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter: @AniaSzado.
RUSTY TALK WITH ANIA SZADO Kathryn Mockler: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
Ania Szado: I remember writing the copy for a "Best of the West" newspaper that covered the goings-on of the cowboy action figures that my brother and I played with when we were little... but my strongest early memory is less pleasant. I wrote a poem in the style of Dr. Seuss. It must have been pretty good. My teacher insisted that I had to have plagiarized it, though I hadn't. That soured me on writing for a while.
KM: Why did you decide to become a writer?
AS: I had been doing visual art, but I'd always wanted to write. It took me a while to get up the courage—I was a voracious reader and was pretty much in awe of writers; I didn't dare imagine I could be capable of being one myself. When I finally made the decision to swallow my insecurities and hone my writing skills, I found that I was more creative and committed as a writer than I was with paint. I found my direction and voice slowly, but right from the start, the work I was producing seemed to have more potential than anything I'd produced as a visual artist, and the act of writing was intensely satisfying.
KM: What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given that you use?
AS: It wasn't advice so much as a description of a way of working. I took a novel class with Catherine Bush when I was doing my MFA, and she mentioned that she sometimes leaves the manuscript, and just sits on the sofa with a notebook, asking and answering questions about the work-in-progress. That opened the door for me to adjust my own process along similar lines, and I think it has helped my writing immensely.
KM: Can you describe your writing process?
AS: The one thing that is consistent in my writing process is that I have to get away, now and then, to completely immerse myself in my work. I do writing retreats of between a week and a month. I'll write for minimum 15 hours a day; my longest stretch was 22 hours. Most days I don't step outside. I eat simple foods, the same thing every day. No radio or TV or music or news. I think of nothing but the story world; I don't even leave it when I'm asleep. I've done this for first drafts and I've done it for rewrites. I'm always anxious before I begin, but I set up immediately and start working right away, and then it's just the bliss of intense, satisfying work and creative intellectual challenge. When I'm not on retreat, I might write several hours a day or not at all—it depends on the stage I'm at in a novel and whether there are other pressing demands on my time. When I'm working, I shift between writing on the laptop and working things out in a notebook.
KM: What is your favourite or funniest literary moment, if you have one?
AS: What springs to mind is one of the coincidences that came up during the writing of Studio Saint-Ex. A character in the novel, Saint-Exupéry's real-life friend Bernard Lamotte, had his painting studio on East 52nd Street in NYC in the 1040s; there's a plaque on the building to commemorate Saint-Ex's working on The Little Prince there. I created a social club for the city's French expats, called it the Alliance Française, and placed it across the street from Lamotte's studio—in what is actually the Cartier building. Some time later, I queried a contact at today's Alliance Française about the history of the organization. She told me that the organization was itinerant in the early '40s; they borrowed space as they needed it. When she went into the files, she discovered that one of the buildings they used in the early '40s was actually the Cartier building. What's more, the modern-day Alliance had, until recently, owned a Lamotte mural. The woman told me she herself had been responsible for auctioning it off. She'd had no idea Lamotte and Saint-Exupéry had been friends.
KM: Tell us about your new novel Studio Saint-Ex?
AS: Studio Saint-Ex tells the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writing The Little Prince in early 1940s Manhattan, through the eyes of two women vying to win his heart and save him from his inevitable fate while also grappling to achieve status and success of their own. One is a young fashion designer; the other is his fiery estranged wife. The Little Prince runs throughout the book as a symbol of passion, love and destruction.
KM: How did you approach the research for this project?
AS: I began by researching Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, first by reading one after another of his many biographies. I read or reread his novels and other writing, including his letters. I was most interested in his NYC years, when he was writing The Little Prince, and eventually I pieced together the other elements of the story I wanted to tell. That led to research on WWII New York, the beginnings of American haute couture, the French expat community in Manhattan, and numerous other side roads. I had a great resource in a Saint-Exupéry scholar who took me on tireless walking tours of Saint-Ex's NYC locales and sent me packages of useful material. I had the insights of my seamstress mother and designer sister to draw on to supplement my research into sewing, fabrics, and the fashion industry. All the while, I was writing, working out the story—and revising it as the research revealed new possibilities or roadblocks.
KM: What are you working on now?
AS: I'm in the early stages of exploring two very different ideas for the next novel. One involves two artists. The other has to do with a lost—and found—child.
ANIA SZADO'S RECENT NOVEL
Studio Saint-Ex, Penguin Canada, 2013
Description from the Publisher:
In the glittering world of Manhattan's French expats and 1942 Quebec, a twenty-two-year-old fashion designer on the cusp of launching her career is swept away by the charms of French writer and war pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry ... and enmeshed in the schemes of his beautiful, estranged Salvadoran wife, who is determined to win back her husband—at all costs and seductions.
With Paris under occupation by Hitler's troops, New York's Mayor LaGuardia vows to turn his city into the new fashion capital of the world—and Mig Lachapelle leaves Montreal for New York to make her name. She finds herself pulled into a fiery romantic triangle in which ambitions, creativity, and passions catch a literary giant between two talented, mesmerizing women and imperil the fate of his work-in-progress, The Little Prince—a poignant tale of a young boy's loneliness and love among the stars, one of the best selling and most beloved novels of all time.Read an excerpt here.
Jonathan Goldstein’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Nerve. He is a columnist for the National Post and a frequent contributor to the PRI’s This American Life. He’s the author of the short story collection Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! and the novel Lenny Bruce is Dead. His CBC Radio show, WireTap, is now it its ninth season. In his most recent book, I’ll Seize the Day Tomorrow, Goldstein recounts the highs and lows of the last year in his thirties.
RUSTY TALK WITH JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN
Melanie Chambers: What is your writing process like?
Jonathan Goldstein: I’m fortunate to have the radio producing aspect of the job to toggle between, so when writing isn’t coming as easily, there’s always other things to do such as cutting tape, hopping in and out of the studio—sometimes they’re welcome. And sometimes they can be distractions. It’s hard to tell when you should just push through or give up and do something else.
Lately, in terms of process, I’m in the middle of writing a monologue to be spoken by a train conductor. The premise is kind of absurd: as the train is pulling into Penn Station, he announces that all the toilets of New York City and the five Burroughs have been shut down by authority of the New York Toilet Authority. The NYTA. It’s a ridiculous premise, but more often than not, the most satisfying part of writing is actually hearing the work performed by the people that we’re getting to do it. For example, this week’s show I wrote a part for a 14-year-old and found this talented boy named Ezra to perform this piece about falling in love and negotiating your friends during that time when you’re a teenager. I just heard the final mix of it yesterday and that was really gratifying because it turned out really nicely; sometimes they don’t turn out as well as when you hear them in your head, but this time it really matched the way I heard it in my head which is really satisfying.
MC: You’re prolific in print and radio. Which do you prefer?
JG: It really depends. Having the opportunity to write for different venues can really help access different parts of your brain and inspire different ideas. Last summer I was given a chance to go to Bali for a travel website, and I had never done anything for them before, and the editor was great in the sense that he liked my writing and pretty much had given me carte blanche to write about whatever I wanted to.
And having that kind of opportunity you want to step up to it. One of the difficult things about writing for WireTap for so many years—and it creeps up on you—is the persona begins to take over. You become very good at writing in a particular kind of voice. I think of that line of Kurt Vonnegut’s about being careful about the things you pretend to be because you become that thing. I know how to write a particular kind of thing well enough to get the job done in a certain context. It’s a great thing, and it’s the benefit of age, but it can also sort of trap you so having the opportunity of writing for another venue and step outside of the persona can really be exciting. It’s sort of like going away on a vacation and then coming home; I always think of the radio show as a kind of coming home.
And I like writing for This American Life too because I love writing for my friends who work there—imagining them reading it and trying to make them laugh and thinking about the things that will make them laugh. It’s kind of like a performance and that can really be fun too.
Writing for print, you can be more digressive, and you can try to do things that maybe on the radio you’d fear. On the radio you’re taking people by the hand and you constantly want to be sensitive to the fact that quite possibly they are multi-tasking: sitting in traffic, doing dishes. You want to keep them on board whereas writing for the page you have someone’s undivided attention. I guess you can attempt different kinds of things because of that.
MC: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
JG: I started writing at a very young age. And I think I was lucky enough to know that was what I liked to do. My first memory is of writing a poem in grade five and having the teacher have me read it out loud in class. What connected me [to that moment], was the actual act of reading it out loud; hand-in-hand with my first experience with writing was performing the writing, if you want to call it that. I think it was the first time I ever felt that kind of specialness. I wasn’t a great student, and I felt like it was the first time that everyone in the class was looking at me but in a positive way and the teacher was singling me out. I remember that feeling of being looked at in that particular kind of way.
That was a new feeling and I think I liked it.
I think it’s also connected to how my mind works: I’m not very good in the moment, and I’m the kind of person who thinks constantly, regretful about the things I should have said. Writing is a way of slowing down time and getting it right in a way—revisiting the past and having the time to pour over a particular moment. And, do it justice in retrospect. As far as being an introvert, when I think about my truest self, which always takes us back to childhood, I think about a kid by himself in his room. Coming into my 40s, I think I enjoy people. I think now I feel freer with people. I feel more comfortable expressing my enjoyment of people. That’s all there is. There is a great quote I remember Tom Wolfe speaking on 60 Minutes. He said: “our soul is our relationship to other people.” I think it’s true. That’s kind of why it’s worth going out into the world.
MC: What do you think about the Internet print medium, and what will it do to print journalism?
JG: The first book I ever published was from Coach House in Toronto; they do small experimental titles. This was back in the 90s, maybe even the mid 90s, and I remember the guy who ran the press, now in retrospect I realize he was quite forward looking, but the Internet was something quite new, and he was discussing the possibility of maybe publishing my book as an e-book. I never even heard of such a thing, and I didn’t know the commerce of it all. They had an authors’ tip jar you could put your credit card in, and I remember thinking, this doesn’t appeal to me. I wanted to get published. I wanted to have a book. It was so synonymous with being out in the world and being published. And I remember he referred to the book as the fetish object known as the book, and it just seemed so far thrown to me and now it doesn’t seem as crazy. And, in fact, I love reading on my iPhone. I don’t have an iPad and I don’t have an e-reader. It’s [iPhone] in my pocket, and I’m obsessed with reading, so this way when I’m on the subway or eating, I can always be reading something.
The last thing I read on my iPhone was The Onion AV Club.
MC: Where did you come up with the idea and why did you decide to write about turning 40?
JG: I guess that was the next thing that was happening and that was an easy pitchable single sentence kind of thing. Had I been turning 30, I don’t think it would have had the same type of gravity. But, the truth is, not much changes. The book starts on that note or sort of how most of the time we’re not thinking about how old we are and we kind of are all ages at once. I think the irony in writing about turning 40, the conclusion that I came to, is that I guess you’re never going to feel as though you’ve arrived. I mean 40 when you’re 20 means a different thing then when you’re at 40. So which definition do you adhere to?
I’m thinking of a particular episode of Taxi, a great show from the 80s. Bobby [a taxi driver] had given himself five years in New York to become an actor and this was the week that the five-year limit was up. So, he goes on a binge of auditions in the hopes of giving it a big push, and at the end of the week, he gets no callbacks and nothing happens. It’s kind of a sad moment, then he picks up his head, and says, “you know what? I’m going to give myself another five years.” You might think, my life isn’t where I thought it would be at the end of my 30s, but life isn’t over and you can give yourself more time—it’s a gift to yourself. No one can count you out as long as you don’t count yourself out. There is a lot of unhappiness brought about thinking you have to be at a certain place.
Look at Michelangelo’s early sculptures verses the later stuff. If you look at an early pieta, like when he’s in his early 20s, it’s like showcasing every single thing that he could do, and it’s incredible. The later stuff is simpler; it’s like he has less to prove. There depth that comes out of that, too.
MC: What is your advice for young writers?
JG: The 20s are a good time for living, and you’re going to be drawing from that later on. You might as well be pursuing your passions and figuring what the hell you want to do so that maybe in your 30s you can get going in some real way, but maybe that’s my experience because I didn’t have a job in the field I wanted to work in until my 30s. Sometimes it’s easy to be dismissive of the things that you’re naturally good at or to undervalue them. And I’m thinking of Edgar Allen Poe. He always wanted to be a poet. He looked at his short stories, a genre that he kind of invented, as just a means to paying the bills. I don’t think he took it as seriously. But, in the final analysis, it doesn’t matter.
And, I also think what separates the pros from the amateurs is being able to write in spite of inspiration—when it doesn’t feel like a hot time and you’re struggling through something. And again, there’s a nice democracy there because I’ve written things that were like pulling teeth that ended up being as okay as say something that I wrote in a moment of inspiration. Sometimes those things that you write in the moment of inspiration are really fun, in and of themselves, to have written them. The experience was great, but it doesn’t really mean they were great. That is a thought that keeps me going because on some days I think, how can I possibly be writing anything of worth when I’m feeling as poorly as I do or just not feeling good about what I am writing? But just knowing that if you put it aside and then look at it some time afterwards, you might be surprised.
JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN'S MOST RECENT BOOK
I'll Seize the Day Tomorrow, Penguin Canada, 2012
Description from the publisher:I'll Seize the Day Tomorrow is the story of Jonathan Goldstein's journey to find some great truth on his road to forty.In a series of wonderfully funny stories, the host of CBC's WireTap recounts the highs and lows of his last year in his thirties. Throughout the year, Goldstein asks weighty questions that would stump a person less seasoned. For example: What is it about a McRib that drives people crazy? Can we replace extending an olive leaf with extending an olive jar? How much wisdom can we glean from episodes of Welcome Back, Kotter? His friends and family, many of them known through their appearances on WireTap, weigh in with hilarious results as Goldstein eats, sleeps, and watches bad TV all the way to his date with destiny.
Melanie Chambers is a travel, food, and nonfiction writer and teaches at Western University.
Photo by Hennie Aikman
Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011) is CORNELIA HOOGLAND'S 6th book of poetry, and is based on the fairy tale, Red Riding Hood. Fountainhead Theatre in London Ontario is producing Red’s Canadian premiere in May 2013. Hoogland’s poetry, as well as her nonfiction, fiction and plays have been published and performed internationally. Cornelia has received writing awards from the Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council and selections from her 6 books of poetry, two chapbooks and nonfiction have won numerous literary competitions and have been shortlisted for various CBC literary competitions, the Relit awards, and the National Magazine Awards. Cornelia has taught writing and literature at the University of Western Ontario, UBC Okanagan, Simon Fraser University, and has led seminars, workshops and tutorials at festivals and school districts. She lives on Hornby Island with her visual artist husband Ted Goodden and dog Drummer. Visit Cornelia online at her website, at her Woods Wolf Girl site, and on Facebook.
RUSTY TALK WITH CORNELIA HOOGLAND
Kathryn Mockler: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
Cornelia Hoogland: I remember tracing the colour blue from its starting point above the clouds, to the mountains, the ocean, the Douglas-fir trees, grains of sand, the beach towel and then the colour splintering into my child’s blue eyes. Speaking of one thing in terms of another – what a miracle is metaphor. The blue poem took place at Rathtrevor Beach on Vancouver Island 35 years ago. I lost that poem and yet—have lived it all these years. Following where the line, idea, colour, word takes me.
KM: Why did you decide to become a poet/writer?
CH: I received my first diary—one inch by two inches—when I was six. I wrote “Dad bought me a comic.” I am a journal keeper still. Every morning I get up and try to scratch out a few fresh lines. At the Banff Centre for the Arts, Adele Wiseman told my group: “You are all professionals; you’ve all sacrificed to be here in this program. You can call yourself a poet.” Okay, I thought.
KM: Who are you reading now?
CH: Dean Young, Tony Hoagland, Elizabeth Bishop and many other American poets both living and dead. Canadians Nancy Holmes, Julie Berry, Matt Radar. Alice Oswald, Jack Gilbert, David Harsent writers I admire. My daily literary experiences are often online, however. I read Poetry Daily and follow up the poems onto the Amazon or Google sites where I can read (often) more poems.
KM: What do you feel influences your writing the most?
CH: My antenna for lines, images, verbs, rhythm, dynamics, juxtaposition. Always on the look-out for the next poetic bread crumb. Reading and hearing other poets, and listening to children. Children say the best things, but I have a long ways to go to hear them properly. I also attend to wolves, dogs, crows. Learning how to write nature poetry, or use natural images, is one of our biggest literary challenge today.
KM: Can you describe your writing process? How does revision figure into the process?
CH: In writing and editing Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011), I realized more deeply than I did before the complex relationship between experience and form. Although the poems were written as monologues (Red, Mother, and the Woodsman), finding their voices was by way of delving more deeply into my own.
KM: What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given that you use?
CH: Understanding that poetry is a set of strategies (such as pattern, affect, density). Poetry doesn’t exist to teach us how to live (although it might) or even to show us the world we inhabit (though it might). Poetry is the dynamics of released energies, a dramatization of shaped energies.
KM: What is your favourite or funniest literary moment, if you have one?
CH: As the director of Poetry London in London, Ontario, I experienced many hilarious moments. Despite detailed emails to visiting poets outlining the program, the expectations, the times, directions and so forth, actually getting the writers from their cities to the London podium could involve tens of emails, an intricate cell phone game the days before and of the reading, great poetic anxiety about directions and schedule, food sensitivities revealed once seated at the restaurant, amazing requests to be driven to antique shops or delicatessens, and so forth. What I loved was the moment said famous authors walked on stage, they were immediately professional, engaging, charming, mannered and poised. The audience loved each of them; in fact, the more troublesome ones were the most sensational! Amazingly, hosts across Canada do similar work on any given night of the week and all for free.
KM:Tell us about your play, Red.
CH: Red is having its Canadian premiere on May 10–18, 2013, in London Ontario. Fountainhead Theatre is producing the play (John Gerry, director). Tickets available at onstagedirect.com
I started writing the play using scenes from Woods Wolf Girl, but the play quickly took on a life of its own and bears little resemblance to the book.
Red Riding Hood’s multiple identities throughout the ages, and the plethora of attitudes toward her inform this play. Innocent, sexual, chaste, (chased), unchaste, the girl to blame, fearless, the girl who ‘asked-for-it’, Red (the girl) is also the wolf, the wilderness is inside her. The character Red is not limited in costume, posture, attitude, or age. Arguably the world’s most popular, and most retold, fairy tale, interpreted into countless versions in over 40 different countries over the past nearly 400 years, it transcends cultural barriers. Red takes up complex human concerns, such as how good girls grow up, relationships between mothers and daughters, and the ongoing tensions between agent/victim, eating and/or being eaten. Who is caged, who is protected? (This play is suitable for high school audiences and adults.) For more information please see http://www.facebook.com/cornelia.hoogland.
KM: What are you working on now?
CH: Once again I am turning to the fairy tale for my inspiration. My multimedia project titled Woods Wolf You: A SoundWalk, is an audiowalk through the woods. Aimed to help create ecological awareness in young people as well as feelings of connectedness—ironically using the very technology (personal stereos) often blamed in alienating people from the physical world—the audio walk conjoins the technologies of sound, the power of the fairy tale Red Riding Hood, and site-specific performance.
I’m delighted that London’s own Baseline Press will be publishing my chapbook, Sea Level, in 2013. Sea Level was shortlisted for the CBC literary nonfiction awards in 2012. Karen Schindler is creating one of the most exciting chapbook presses in Canada, and I’m delighted.
CORNELIA HOOGLAND'S RECENT POERTY BOOKWoods Wolf Girl, Wolsak and Wynn, 2011
From the Publisher:
Cornelia Hoogland takes the story of Little Red Riding Hood and turns it inside out in this sensuous Canadian retelling. The woods and wolves are vivid and real, while Red herself is anything but a one dimensional girl-child. A meditation on innocence and its loss, and on the power of the green wilderness, Woods Wolf Girl uses striking lyric poetry to expose the heart of the original fairy tale.
About Woods Wolf Girl:
“Red Riding Hood like you’ve never encountered her before. Hoogland has nailed it in this chilling contemporary retelling of the age-old tale. Layered and smart as hell.” (Jeanette Lynes). Woods Wolf Girl is an arresting new book of poems from Cornelia Hoogland. The plot that threads through the poems draws from Red Riding Hood, but the story is ultimately Canadian. It is a lyrical work that exposes the wilderness of the Canadian landscape to a new immigrant, and shows the equally dangerous transition from girlhood to womanhood.
Woods Wolf Girl retells the journey from mother’s house to grandmother’s house through the woods from the points of view of the girl and her immigrant mother. These poems occur on the path of experience: experience that may lurk in the form of wolf/men
--who are especially dangerous to good girls. While the wolf is ultimately bad news (and then simply tired news, as in the scene in the grocery store), he initiates the girl into experience, the good with the bad.
Photo by Brancolia
JACOB WREN is a writer and maker of eccentric performances. His books include: Unrehearsed Beauty, Families Are Formed Through Copulation and Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed. As co-artistic director of Montreal-based interdisciplinary group PME-ART he has co-created the performances: En français comme en anglais, it's easy to criticize (1998), the HOSPITALITÉ / HOSPITALITY series including Individualism Was A Mistake (2008) and The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information (2011) and Every Song I’ve Ever Written (2012). He travels internationally with alarming frequency and frequently writes about contemporary art.
RUSTY TALK WITH JACOB WREN Kathryn Mockler: What is your first memory of writing creatively or being creative?
Jacob Wren: I don’t know if I have a first memory. But I do know around age thirteen I started suffering from terrible insomnia. Some nights I didn’t sleep at all, while most nights I slept very little. And basically I just filled the endless, sleepless nights with reading and writing, for more or less ten years, until I realized that the simple cure for my insomnia was rigorous physical exercise. Still, to this day, I associate writing with the strange, hallucinatory state that comes from having barely slept for weeks on end, as a kind of unreal trance, almost like a dream. It was during those nights, lying awake, almost too tired to move, that I first trained myself to write.
KM: Why did you become an artist/writer and what keeps you going?
JW: To be honest, the only thing that has ever really interested me was art (in all its many forms.) I wish I could become interested in something else, since I feel, as a human being, at times this overemphasis on artistic interests makes me a bit narrow, as well as making my interactions with other people often rather difficult. (I mean, I do my best.)
At the same time, I find it very hard to maintain any interest in art and often don’t know exactly what keeps me going (except that I have no idea what else I could possibly do). Sometimes I remind myself a bit of this apocryphal story of a Russian who moved to New York but never learned English. Gradually, over the course of his life, he forgot how to speak Russian, yet still never learned English, so in the end he spoke no language at all. Gradually I am becoming less and less interested in art, while not really becoming interested in anything else, so in the end I’m kind of nowhere. Like a priest who has lost faith. But that makes it all sound more dire than it actually is. Still, I think it’s important that we talk about these things, since hardly anyone ever does.
I have often said that I don’t particularly relate to people who make performance, or write, or make art, but I do relate to people who make performance / writing / art who think about quitting every fifteen seconds. Those are really my people. I call us the ‘boy who cried wolf set’. Because, for me, if you really look at art today, at what it means, at who it reaches, at what is considered successful or important, it often seems like a complete waste of time. If I had any talent for it, or drive towards it, I would definitely quit art and become an activist, since the world’s problems are now so overwhelming, immediate and tragic. But, for better or worse, I can’t seem to get myself to do anything else: all I can really do is write. (Well, I also make performances, but that becomes harder and harder as the years roll on.)
KM: How would you describe your writing process? How does your blog A Radical Cut in the Texture of Reality fit into this process?
JW: I mainly feel like I don’t really have a process. I just have ideas and write them down to the best of my ability. Often I try to write every morning, but then, at other times, I am stuck for months on end and write very little. I usually do a first draft in a notebook, and then type it up as I go. Sometimes there is a little bit of re-writing as I type it into the computer, but mainly the second draft just allows me to think more about what I’m doing.
I definitely started my blog, in 2005, because I had almost completely stopped writing and was looking for a way to start again. It’s always been difficult for me to get published—I suppose what I write doesn’t quite fit anywhere (maybe it’s a little bit easier now, I’m not sure)—but at the time being able to just post what I was writing on my blog, as I went along, gave me more of a feeling that I was actually doing something. I would tell myself: just write one paragraph and post it, then at least you will have written one paragraph. It kind of made me feel like writing was possible again, after having felt it was basically impossible for many years. (Mainly due to too many rejection letters, or more precisely to the fact that I’m a little bit too sensitive to such things.) Now my blog gets about 2,000 hits a month, so that must mean someone is reading it, but I don’t really have any sense of who is reading it, why, or what they think. There are hardly any comments.
I spend so much time on the internet (mainly on Facebook and listening to music), and I know this has deeply affected how I think about art, about writing, and also how I practice it. It is difficult for me to really analyze what this change might be, it has all been so natural and intuitive, but I know there is something about the shuffle feature on iTunes, and about the seeming randomness as one clicks from one link to the next, that has been completely folded into my aesthetic.
KM: What or who influences your writing?
JW: I keep an ongoing list of favourite books: Some Favourite Books
And recently I have added a list of visual artists: List of Artists
But mainly I just want to devour everything. I want to have an overview. I want to know what is happening in art today, and everything that has ever happened in art before, and I want to use all of it while at the same time making it my own. I want to speak about the world, about the world today and about history, about ideas, thinking, philosophy, theory, and about my own subjective experiences. I want to struggle with it, admit to failure, be upset that I am not as good as the artists and authors I love but keep trying. I wish the mainstream was more open and more interesting.
KM: Can you discuss the relationship between writer and reader or audience? Who would be your ideal reader? I’m interested also in terms of your blog and its readership. Does that audience inform your work in any way?
JW: I have a sort of double life, half writing, the other half performing. When you perform the audience is right there in front of you, and all of my performance work is about trying to honestly deal with the fact that the audience is right there in front of me, about the paradox of trying to be yourself in the deeply unnatural situation of a room full of strangers watching you.
I’ve always like the Gertrude Stein quote: “I write for myself and strangers.”
When I was revising my last book, I showed it to a bunch of friends for comments, and I listened to all of their comments, and later, when the book came out, realized I had completely ignored basically all of their suggestions. I had asked for their help, and then completely ignored everything they said. (Well, I’ve always been stubborn.) And I feel this is so often the way between me and readers, I listen to every comment I get, think about it, try to take it in, fully absorb it, but never directly respond to anything anyone says. Nonetheless, I very much hope it is all in there anyway, somewhere in my head, affecting what I think, how I see what I’m doing, in some completely indirect way making the work better.
KM: What is the best piece of literary advice you’ve gotten that you actually use?
JW: As I’ve already suggested, I’m so bad with taking advice. But I really liked reading what Alain Badiou once said in an interview. He said the only rule for activism is: keep going. And I guess that’s mainly what I try to do now, keep going, which also means not making too many compromises, trying to offer up something different enough from everything else out there, trying to see the world a different way and put it into words. But, then again, I also constantly want to quit. Which is maybe why the advice is so important. Keep going.
KM: What is your favourite or funniest literary moment, if you have one?
JW: I actually can’t think of anything at the moment. Hopefully that means there are many favourite, hilarious literary moments to come. Maybe the future will be full of them.
KM: What are you reading at the moment?
JW: I just started reading The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties Montreal by Sean Mills. I believe I must be reading it because I live in Montreal. So far it’s fascinating.
KM: What projects are you working on in 2013?
JW: I am writing a new book entitled Polyamorous Love Song. Here is a short synopsis: It is a book of many different narrative through-lines. For example: 1) A mysterious group, known as The Mascot Front, who wear furry mascot costumes at all times and are fighting a revolutionary war for their right to wear furry mascot costumes at all times. 2) A movement known as the ‘New Filmmaking’ in which, instead of shooting and editing a film, one simply does all of the things that would have been in the film, but in real life. This movement has many adherents. Its founder is known only as Filmmaker A. 3) A group of ‘New Filmmakers’, calling themselves The Centre for Productive Compromise, who devise increasingly strange sexual scenarios with complete strangers. They invent a drug that allows them to intuit the cell phone number of anyone they see, allowing phone calls to be the first stage of their spontaneous, yet somehow carefully scripted, seductions. 4) A secret society that concocts a sexually transmitted virus that infects only those on the political right. They stage large-scale orgies, creating unexpected intimacies and connections between individuals who are otherwise savagely opposed to one another. 5) A radical leftist who catches this virus, forcing her to question the depth of her considerable leftist credentials. 6) A German barber in New York who, out of scorn for the stupidity of his American clients, gives them avant-garde haircuts, unintentionally achieving acclaim among the bohemian set who consider his haircuts to be strange works of art. And yet each of these stories is only the beginning.
And we are also beginning a new, ongoing internet/performance project entitled Every Song I’ve Ever Written. Here is a description:
From 1985 to 2004 Jacob Wren wrote songs. Lots and lots of songs. At the time not very many people heard them. Every Song I’ve Ever Written is a project about memory, history, things that may or may not exist, songwriting, the internet and pop culture. On the website everysongiveeverwritten.com you can listen to, and download, these songs.
In a way, because hardly anyone heard them, these songs don’t yet exist. If you are reading this, we would like you to consider recording your own version of one of these songs, changing it, making it your own, then sending it to us. We will post every version we receive.
There will also be performances and events. Solo performances will feature Jacob performing all of the songs in chronological order (it takes about five hours.) Band Nights will feature a series of local bands in different cities performing one of Jacob’s songs each. After each version, Jacob will interview the band about what it was like to cover the song, and the band will interview Jacob about what it was like to write it.
We are not doing this because we think these are the best songs ever (we hope at least a few of them are good.) We are doing this because hardly anyone heard them at the time, and we are wondering if there is some new, strange way to bring them out into the world. In doing so we hope to raise a few questions about what songs mean on the internet, about what songwriting is actually like today, and also take a sidelong glance back at the recent past.LINKS
Radical Cut in the Texture of Reality
Every Song I've Ever Written
REVENGE FANTASIES OF THE POLITICALLY DISPOSSESSED
Pedlar Press, 2010
Description from Pedlar Press:
Set in a dystopian near-future, Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed is a novel - a kind of post-capitalist soap opera - about a group of people who regularly attend ''the meetings.'' At the meetings they have agreed to talk, and only talk, about how to re-ignite the left, for fear if they were to do more, if they were to actually engage in real acts of resistance or activism, they would be arrested, imprisoned, or worse. Revenge Fantasies is a book about community. It is also a book about fear. Characters leave the meetings and we follow them out into their lives. The characters we see most frequently are the Doctor, the Writer and the Third Wheel. As the book progresses we see these characters, and others, disengage and re-engage with questions the meetings have brought into their lives. The Doctor ends up running a reality television show about political activism. The Third Wheel ends up in an unnamed Latin American country, trying to make things better but possibly making them worse. The Writer ends up in jail for writing a book that suggests it is politically emancipatory for teachers to sleep with their students. And throughout all of this the meetings continue: aimless, thoughtful, disturbing, trying to keep a feeling of hope and potential alive in what begin to look like increasingly dark times. Revenge Fantasies asks us to think about why so many of us today, even those with a genuine interest in political questions, feel so deeply powerless to change and affect the world that surrounds us, suggesting that, even within such feelings of relative powerlessness, there can still be energizing surges of emancipation and action
Photo by Mark Nixon
Roddy Doyle was born in 1958. His work includes The Commitments, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Booker Prize, 1993), The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, A Star Called Henry, and Bullfighting. His latest book is Two Pints (2012). A new novel, The Guts, will be published in August, in Ireland and the UK, and early 2014 in the USA. He divides his time between Dublin and confusion.
RUSTY TALK WITH RODDY DOYLE
Kathryn Mockler: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
Roddy Doyle: I was about ten, I think, and my teacher, Mr. Kennedy, told the class to write something about a rainy day. This was Ireland, remember, so deep research wasn’t necessary. There were fifty-four boys in the class, and it was the first time we’d been told to write, or compose, anything—to make it up. I wrote about boredom. Mr. Kennedy looked over my shoulder, then read it to the class.
KM: Why did you become a writer?
RD: I loved reading. I loved football—soccer—but was a hopeless player. I loved music but hadn’t the patience or ability to learn an instrument. But I was literate, so writing seemed like an easy option. I forced myself into the habit, the routine.
KM: What is the best writing advice that you’ve gotten that you actually use?
RD: Treat it as a job; don’t expect magic.
KM: How do you approach revision?
RD: If by ‘revision’ you mean editing, I love it. So I approach it with a full heart and a red ballpoint. I tend to, deliberately, write too much. Editing is often a case of paring back. I’m fascinated, and sometimes worried, about how the deletion or addition of a word can alter meaning, tone, everything. When I’m editing, I put all other work aside and concentrate only on the pages I’m editing. I don’t play music, and I often lose track of time.
KM: Your books often come out within a few years of each other. Do you work on multiple projects at the same time or stick to one project until it’s complete? Do you have difficultly switching from one genre to the next—particularly from adult fiction to children’s literature?
RD: I work on different projects at the same time; I divide my working day, about 9am to 6pm, into chunks. As long as the projects are very different, they don’t tend to infect each other. I play a different type of music for each project. I could, I suppose, change shirts too, but that might be going too far. So, I can work for several hours on a novel, save it, hang out the washing, make a cup of coffee, change the Rolling Stones for Steve Reich, and get working on a treatment for a possible TV series or a book for children.
KM: What writers were influential when you first started writing? Who are you reading now?
RD: I think Flann O’Brien was important, particularly the Dublin dialogue in At Swim-Two-Birds. E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime was important—the simplicity of the language. I’ve just finished George Saunders’ collection, Tenth of December; I think it’s magnificent. I’m reading a collection of J.G. Ballard interviews, called Extreme Metaphors. It’s great.
KM: Given the amount of books that you’ve written, it seems impossible to imagine, but do you ever get writer’s block? And if you do, how do you overcome it?
KM: Do you ever abandon projects? If so, how do you know when it’s time to move on?
RD: I’ve never abandoned, but I’ve parked projects for a while, stayed away from them until I was ready to look at them with that mixture of calm and excitement that I need if I’m going to work. Because I work on several things during the day, if one project isn’t going well, I can focus on another.
KM: We often talk about the difficulty of rejection for writers but what about the problems that success can bring? After you won the Booker Prize in 1993 for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, for instance, what was it like sitting back down at the writing desk?
RD: Success, however we measure it, is much nicer than rejection. But rejection can be like fuel to an almost empty engine. Rejection is a cousin of determination, and it’s part of the job. Success is too, if you’re lucky. The trick is, I think, to ignore it when you’re at your desk. I never let myself think that, just because I’ve won a prize, I’m not capable of writing shit. After winning the Booker, I couldn’t wait to get back to work. I love the work.
KM: You posted your latest work Two Pints, which was just published in its entirety in November, as a serial on Facebook over the last year and half. Why did you decide to do this and what was the process like for you? Did the process have any affect on the end product? In other words, did the reader comments influence revisions? Would you do it again with another project?
RD: I wrote the Two Pints pieces for fun. Someone suggested they’d make a good book, so—grand. It’s an accidental book, and still fun. I still write the Two Pints pieces, when the mood hits me and I have time. I often compose them as I’m walking, say, from the city centre, home. I type them up, make sure they’re less than 200 words, then post them on Facebook. I like the near-spontaneity of it—very different from how I normally work. It’s a little madness. I didn’t revise them, so reader comments, while nice, had no influence on them. I’d never be tempted to put work-in-progress up on Facebook. I don’t want to know what readers think until I know the work is finished.
KM: What are you working on now?
RD: I’ve just finished a novel, called The Guts. It’ll be out here and the UK in August, and the USA early in 2014. I’m writing a short story, about a man who’s injured when another man, in Lycra, cycles into him. I’m also working on a treatment for a possible TV series. ‘Possible’ is code for ‘It’ll never be made.’ I’m enjoying the job. Later this year, a musical based on my book, The Commitments, will go into rehearsal. I wrote the script, the ‘book’, so that will take up a lot of my time. I’m very excited about it. I’m tempted to say ‘I can’t wait’ but, actually, I can—just.
RODDY DOYLE'S LATEST BOOK
Two Pints, published by Jonathan Cape, Vintage Publishing, 2012
Description from the publisher:
Two men meet for a pint in a Dublin pub. They chew the fat, set the world to rights, take the piss… They talk about their wives, their kids, their kids’ pets, their football teams and
--this being Ireland in 2011–12
--about the euro, the crash, the presidential election, the Queen’s visit. But these men are not parochial or small-minded; one of them knows where to find the missing Colonel Gaddafi (he’s working as a cleaner at Dublin Airport); they worry about Greek debt, the IMF and the bondholders (whatever they might be); in their fashion, they mourn the deaths of Whitney Houston, Donna Summer, Davy Jones and Robin Gibb; and they ask each other the really important questions like ‘Would you ever let yourself be digitally enhanced?’
Inspired by a year’s worth of news, Two Pints distils the essence of Roddy Doyle’s comic genius. This book shares the concision of a collection of poems, and the timing of a virtuoso comedian.