Thursday, October 4, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Stan Dragland

Stan Dragland (photo: Champney's West, NL) was born and brought up in Alberta. He was educated at The University of Alberta and Queen's University. He has taught at the University of Alberta, at The Grammar School, Sudbury, Suffolk, England, in the English Department at the University of Western Ontario in London, and in the Banff Centre Writing Studio. He now lives in St. John's, Newfoundland. He was founding editor of Brick, a journal of reviews and founder of Brick Books, a poetry publishing house, which he still serves as publisher and editor. Between 1993 and 1996 he was poetry editor for McClelland and Stewart. He has published three previous books of fiction: Peckertracks, a Chronicle (shortlisted for the 1978 Books in Canada First Novel Prize), Journeys Through Bookland and Other Passages, and (for children) Simon Jesse's Journey. He has edited collections of essays on Duncan Campbell Scott and James Reaney. Wilson MacDonald's Western Tour, a 'critical collage,' has been followed by two other books of criticism, The Bees of the Invisible: Essays in Contemporary English Canadian Writing and Floating Voice: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Literature of Treaty 9, which won the 1995 Gabrielle Roy Prize for Canadian Literary Criticism. 12 Bars, a prose blues, was co-winner of the bpNichol Chapbook Award in 2003, the same year Apocrypha: Further Journeys appeared in NeWest Press's Writer-as-Critic series. Apocrypha was winner of the Rogers Cable Non-Fiction Award in 2005. In April 2004 the stage adaptation of Halldór Laxness's The Atom Station, co-written with Agnes Walsh, was performed at the LSPU Hall in St. John's. His most recent book is Stormy Weather: Foursomes, prose poetry from Pedlar Press, was shortlisted for the EJ Pratt Poetry Award in 2007. He is editor of the recently-released Hard-Headed and Big-Hearted: Writing Newfoundland, a collection of essays by Newfoundland historian Stuart Pierson.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Wilson MacDonald’s Western Tour, 1923-4 was published by Coach House. It didn’t change anything, but it was nice to have a book accepted that I hadn’t submitted.

While I was reading material on Duncan Campbell Scott in the Lorne Pierce Collection, Queen’s University Library—working on my Ph.D. thesis—I ran across some letters to Pierce from MacDonald. The distinctive hand caught my attention. A glance at the content suggested that I should return to those letters at a later time, and I did. For my own pleasure, with no thought of publication, I gathered material (letters, poems, etc) relating to a reading tour on which Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press sent MacDonald. I arranged all this material in a binder and showed it to various people, including Michael Ondaatje, who took it to Coach House Press and came back with an offer of publication from Victor Coleman.

The first book of my own—Wilson MacDonald’s Western Tour being an assemblage of materials by others—was Peckertracks. Coach House published that too, and once again nothing changed. Well, it was good to have a book out. It made me feel as though I had some credibility when the subject of writing came up in conversation. Back then there were no launches, no tours, not even for a book about a tour. I did make one appearance at the second Coach House Big Sonnet, where I felt like a small-timer, out of place in the company of Ed Dorn and others. So did August Kleinzahler, I think, himself a big-timer now, though he had the moxie to memorize his poem and recite it. Unfortunately, he strolled back and forth past the mike and the audience heard only bits.

2 - How long have you lived in St. John's, NL, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I first came to St. John’s in 1997, on sabbatical from The University of Western Ontario. The idea was just to take the work somewhere different. I knew pathetically little about Newfoundland. I was so astonished at the otherness of the place and the art being produced there (now my here) that I returned to Western for one more year then took early retirement and moved to St. John’s. I love the physical character of Newfoundland. Where the land is barest, on the barrens, I’m reminded of the bald prairie of my youth. Perhaps the openness of the landscape speaks to me in some deep way, though the differences between here and where I grew up (and the Ontario where I spent over thirty years) are also vast.

But I can’t connect your question about Newfoundland and geography with my writing. I have written work set in St. John’s. 12 Bars and Stormy Weather chart my own emotional temperature through the city, and in encounters with actual people carrying their own names. This is prose poetry, or non-fiction story, in which the I approaches but is not identical to myself. Writing about my own experience in the place, I feel I can avoid being presumptuous, appropriative. I’m sensitive to the fact of being an outsider within a culture too complex and distinctive to grasp easily. Newfoundland geography and history is as yet, and probably always will be, beyond my reach as a writer of fiction. It took me decades to feel as though I had absorbed eastern Ontario enough to be able to write a novel set there. Maybe there’s a pattern: writing about Alberta in Ontario, writing about Ontario in Newfoundland. Where will I go to write about Newfoundland? Trieste? Both Journeys Through Bookland and Apocrypha: Further Journeys touch on the subject of geographical and cultural displacement within my own country. Do I belong in many places or none? Betweenness is a powerful aspect of my experience and my sense of identity.

Eastern Ontario geography is very important to my just-finished novel, The Drowned Lands, which is set along Depot Creek/The Napanee River, and especially in The Long Swamp south of Bellrock.

Race and gender should be important issues for any thinking person, even one who hasn’t spent years in academia, where those issues have long been central but sometimes more fashionable than urgent, cerebral rather than visceral. I remember reading an article summarizing critical work on the writings of Frantz Fanon. Fanon is boiling hot and this was suavely cool: breezy, witty and ridiculously out of touch with the subject. In Apocrypha I probe questions of race and racism in a serious and personal way, especially in essays on the writing of Himani Bannerjee and Matt Cohen. Race is also crucial in Floating Voice: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Literature of Treaty 9. To First Nations people, D.C. Scott (1862 to 1947) was an assimilationist bureaucrat, a cultural villain operating all too effectively in The Department of Indian Affairs. He also wrote some wonderful poetry about “Indians.” Floating Voice was a wrestle with racism, Scott’s and mine. My racism took the passive form of thinking and writing about Scott for ages without independently finding out what I could about his subjects. I was stuck in a blind sense of my own non-native sufficiency. When I began to enter the vast subject of First Nations culture, I soon found myself out of my depth. The experience was not unlike moving to Newfoundland. “In the destructive element immerse,” says Stein to Marlowe in Lord Jim. Interesting to think that Conrad had a notion that touches on why D. C. Scott might occasionally write such good poetry about people he didn’t understand. Giving himself to poetry, he found himself transported into places dark to his conscious mind (the mind of his time). Good criticism short-circuits such impasses by melding intuition with reason.

How could anyone live through the feminist revolution, trying to face it fully, without being profoundly changed? It’s possible to stay ignorant of other races even while rubbing shoulders with them, but most heterosexual men like myself throw in with female partners. Whatever the women we love go through is our journey too. Not to roll with the gain in consciousness is to become history. Becoming (lower-case) history is a fine, painful, way to learn. One thing fish know nothing about, said Marshall McLuhan in a tiny parable, is water. Anything that bounces a person out of a mindset unconsciously held is to be embraced, however embarrassing and/or agonizing. Then hard-won consciousness in one sphere ought to stimulate questioning in others: I didn’t see that there, what am I missing over here? There is no end to the learning. I’m not much inclined to consider gender in the generalized abstract. I like to honour the individuality of particular people. The widely various experience and art of women overflows any neat containing term. All generalizations are probes, necessary gatherings, limited and limiting if not questioned. There’s one now. I have written about Daphne Marlatt’s touch to my tongue and Ana Historic (essays in The Bees of the Invisible) with my heart in my mouth. Feminism has had a far greater (positive) impact on my own life than the publication of any of my books.

3 - Where does a piece of fiction (or, "prose poem") usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

With the single exception of Floating Voice, I have never set out to make a book. I tend to work in short pieces that may or may not combine into something larger. Within Stormy Weather I explain how the book grew. The book is self-reflexive in that sense and others. The gist of it is that, for an anthology she was gathering, a friend asked me for a poem on the theme of unusual sorrow. I worked up something for her that had been a scribbled draft and it led to something else, and so on. 12 Bars was a commission of sorts as well. Jan Zwicky asked me to write a blues for an book of new compositions in that form. I found no inspiration and wrote to say I was giving up. No you’re not, Jan replied. Well, I thought, what the hell. You won’t let me out of this, I’m going to reach into the back of my mind and pull from there a perverse and perhaps subversive thought of writing, in the spirit of the blues, a prose sequence based on twelve St. John’s bars. Jan and her co-editor Brad Cran may have blanched when they saw the results, but they accepted it for Why I Sing the Blues. More space for Stan than for anyone else in their anthology. 12 Bars later came out as a chapbook from Running the Goat Books and Broadsides in St. John’s.

There is no usual beginning, though. Peckertracks began as a prose sequence in the voice of an asshole. It might have stayed that way if I hadn’t read it in Tom Marshall’s Kingston apartment to Tom, Wayne Clifford, Stuart McKinnon, and Michael Ondaatje. We got together just once for an evening of sharing original material. The others laughed their heads off at the tracks, and I knew I had something. From that core grew a fictional take on prairie high school life. The Drowned Lands began with a story told by my First Depot Lake cottage landlord. He said that persons unknown had blown up the Petworth dam in the early years of the last century and the blast was so loud it could be heard four miles north in Bellrock. That was the germ of a novel that took decades to write because of stopping and starting, of writing during summers and pausing the project during the academic term. I found out that this novel could not be successfully made out of short pieces combined. Well maybe it could, because that’s how I started, but the sad moment eventually arrived when I realized that I had 350 pages of decent writing and no novel. I had to start over, write my way through the whole works to give it forward thrust and memory. Maybe some day I’ll know what I’m doing from the start, but I doubt it. I expect to be floundering through the rest of my days. May the direction of floundering always be more or less forward.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
They are irrelevant to it, but listening to someone else read can be stimulating.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I try to make my writing, even the fiction, a species of thinking, but I don’t start with issues or questions. They arise in the writing. My mind is a jumble most of the time—not much lodges in it until I start to work with an intuition or an image or a situation. Thinking accrues in the writing. I value theoretical thinking but subscribe to no theory.

The current questions are what anybody is asking. Let us never all agree to ask the same questions. Let us determine never to stop asking our own. Driving from St. John’s to Ontario in the last few days, I’ve been newly smitten with the beauty of the country and awed by the privilege of having been bequeathed such space and freedom and peace. The gift enjoins commitment to being a good citizen of this place and the world. I’m always asking myself how to do that without losing myself. To give is to receive—any caring teacher knows that—but to work alone in silence and deepest privacy, and expect thereby to do some public good? The faith that I can is subject to wavering.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I needed an editor more when I was younger than I do now, but I need one still, or more than one. The larger the project, the more dire the need. I had five friends read The Drowned Lands and changed the novel significantly as a result of feedback from each. All that was part of the informal exchange of writing most writers I know engage in. (Does this activity fall under the term “gift economy”?) Then there is the essential fierce and rigorous editing and copy-editing of the publisher or her deputy. When no question is left unasked, no jot or tittle unquestioned, a writer may be confident that the text is all that collaborating humans can make of it. The right relationship between writer and editor is hors ego. Writer and editor meet halfway, in the text. Their only desire is to serve it. There are no silly power issues. As an editor myself, I’m very familiar with the productive back and forth. It’s exhausting but gratifying. It saves time, averts foolish mistakes, and serves a higher good than the self.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
It’s much harder now because I expect more of myself. Despite what I said in answer to question 6, I work hard to finish my work before I show it to anyone else. Word processing makes some things easier nowadays. I used to write longhand and then type drafts on an old Underwood typewriter. I still write first drafts longhand, but the word processor saves a lot of time in revising.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
You got me. Seen a few lately though.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Go deeper. (Dennis Lee.)

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction, and all points in-between)? What do you see as the appeal?

It has become easier over the years. In fact it has become necessary. My criticism has moved toward the creative, at least in voice. I’m not, for myself, in favour of free invention in response to someone else’s work, though I sometimes like real spread and obliquity of others. I endorse the whole huge range of the creative component in criticism, though I prefer the more conservative end of it for myself. The essay remains a viable and challenging form like the novel, stretchable in all sorts of ways without losing the character of trying to find one’s way inside a subject felt to be vital. I have worked to achieve a heartfelt personal voice in criticism, an unobtrusive reminder that a particular person is speaking. Much of the so-called “subject position” may be reflected in style.

In a complementary way, my fiction responds to the pull of criticism. Thinking might break out in it. There, however, I like to work with a narrator freer than myself, one who can think and say things I don’t fully understand or even believe. I love so extending my reach, but I resist doing it while writing about someone else’s text.

The appeal of moving between genres, or allowing genres to infiltrate each other, is the freedom to permit the writing its autonomy. What it is that wants to come has to be discovered. For me, finding takes many phases and goes hand in hand with shaping. I’m partial to form, but I like to discover the form appropriate to my material in the process of writing. I do often admire genre work. No genre is dead to a real writer. Real originality will always out. But my personal affiliation is with the liminal, the mixed, the penumbral, the hybrid. Here’s something from Ralph Waldo Emerson that I just read in a book on Frank Lloyd Wright: “Beauty is the moment of transition, as if the form were just ready to flow into other forms.” I don’t know the context of those words yet, nor where they come from, but I’m startled to think of Emerson and Michael Ondaatje in the same breath: “[T]hat is all this writing should be then. / The beautiful shaped things caught at the wrong moment/ so they are shapeless, awkward / moving to the clear.”

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

There is no such thing as a typical day except when I’m hard at the writing of something. Then I’ll putter around until mid-morning before sitting down to work for a couple of hours. I’ll take a break for lunch, then work until 4:00 or 5:00. I might work in the evening too, though usually at something more mechanical, like entering text or changes to a text. When I’m cooking, I like to keep at it as long as I can, but of course a companion in the house draws and deserves attention. My companion, being a writer and a publisher too, is often working just as hard as I am. We like to relax in a game of Scrabble.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don’t easily give in to a block. I’ll sit and doodle for quite a while, waiting for something to come. Turn the page, start in from a different angle. Accept whatever arrives. It can always be jettisoned or changed. I sometimes feel something stirring and sense that physical movement might agitate it out, so I get up and go for a walk. Or break to read something far removed from the project at hand. Which often goes to prove that nothing is irrelevant to anything else. Or that a deeply-inhabited project will draw absolutely anything else in to it. At the very least, stimulation of the reader may rouse the writer. If all else fails: sleep on it.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
To really answer your question I suppose I would have to compare each book to the next, through them all, because none is like any other. The novel was the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I think it was a hindrance to know a lot about the form, having read thousands of novels and taught hundreds, having even taught courses in The Novel. It was hard to work clear of all that, to find my own way while still obeying some fundamental requirements of storytelling. It was a struggle for me to find the simplest things, like ways of drawing a reader on, keeping up the narrative interest without explaining too much and becoming predictable. Also, a novel set in 1913, requires a great deal of research. It’s just as hard for an outsider to enter 1913 as Newfoundland or a First Nation. My first novel was a fictionalized version of my own experience, I was an expert of sorts in that; The Drowned Lands is not about me and required bursts of pure invention. I had to learn to trust my blind probing. Just making it up, I sometimes found myself thinking, how can that be authentic? It can, I came to see for myself, but it took pass after pass to enter the people and the situations, to make them happen word by word. The process must be like making a painting with thousands of brush strokes. It took many drafts, as I don’t seem to have the capacity to word anything definitively in one go. Not even this interview.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Sounds like David had been reading Northrop Frye. It’s an overstatement that books come from other books, one of those usefully provocative generalizations. Some of David’s books come from travel. In my own writing, though, I love to invoke my reading. I enjoy playing with the tradition, working in overt or covert homages to other writers. But even “literary” writers draw on their experience. Whatever affects them is raw material. Music comes into my writing a lot, because it’s important to me. I’m not the seeker after science that Don McKay is, but I read a good book on geology that he recommended, because geology was becoming more and more important in my novel and I needed to find out more about it. I saw and touched and reflected on the limestone and the granite in my setting, then I went to a book that could take me deeper, into the geological history of the earth.
As important to the novel as other books was primary research of two contrary sorts. One was heavy reading of pre-book documents relating to troubles along the Napanee River. The other was canoeing the river on two different occasions.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There have been a lot of these, for a lot of reasons. Too many to name and discuss, but Margaret Avison is a good representative. I met her when she was the first writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario. I watched her unfailingly extend her deepest attention to all who came to her. I admired her complete lack of egotism. Like many others, I was lost in admiration of her poetry, but I also came to see that her life was a poem. It was lived in the service of Poetry and God and other people. She became an exemplar for me. It was a lovely sort of belated coming of age to find myself, in later life, having so earned the confidence of this wonderful person and poet as to become her editor.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Travel to Chile with Beth Follett.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

To be a musician and play in a band I would have had to stay with my piano lessons. I would have had to supporess the distaste for practicing that made me set an alarm for one half hour and leap up as soon as it rang, even if I was in the middle of a piece. But alas, I gave up music lessons as soon as ever I could. Why was acquiring expertise in music not made interesting to me? After all, music was a need I felt in myself from a very early age. When in high school I did take up the guitar on my own, but in the wrong way, sans lessons. I didn’t even intend to start. One Christmas I bought my sister a $10.00 guitar with a moon and a palm tree painted on it out of Eaton’s catalogue. She didn’t take to it, so I picked it up, consulted the Five Minute Guitar Book that came with it, and began to play a few chords. That was the extent of my instruction until last year, when I began learning blues from John Clarke in St. John’s and he told me I’d get on much better if I knew what I was doing. Try learning theory at my age. Aptitude alone doesn’t cut it. So I missed out on becoming the musical kind of starving artist.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Reading. I have always liked reading better than anything else, except sports. And then teaching books made me want to join in.

19 - What was the last great book you read?

I’ve just finished Bernice Morgan’s Cloud of Bone. It made me wish I could write like her, instead of they way I do. I have to remind myself that I can’t see my work in the way I see that of others.

20 - What was the last great film?

Red Road.

21 - What are you currently working on?

I’m about to start researching for an essay on the painting of Gerald Squires and the poetry of Tom Dawe, for a book on these two iconic Newfoundland artists.


R said...

Stan's brilliant. Great teacher when he was at Western. Gave a lot of great advice I should have followed.

Bruce said...

Stan's voice is so clearly evident - I love that he champions here the personal voice in criticism; it had a profound effect on me when I first encountered it in his work. Interestingly, I believe I recognize the delicacy of Scott's subtle aesthetic yet within his writing and am fascinated by his comments on the - what? - bifurcated vision of the latter, which has come to light more recently with the Indian Affairs records (something I had wondered about immediately when I began to read about the revelations). Reading this has been a wonderful glimpse back at a golden time when the young dogs at Western - Stan, Alan, Les and Joe - fired my imagination. So satisfying to see that energy concatenate so intriguingly in his current diverse works.