Friday, November 2, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Kim Goldberg

Kim Goldberg is a poet, journalist and author who has supported herself from her writing since 1978. Her articles on politics, environment and social justice have appeared in Macleans, Canadian Geographic, This Magazine, Vancouver Sun, Georgia Straight, The Progressive, New Internationalist, and numerous other magazines and newspapers for many years. In 1997, after joining a T’ai Chi club, she lapsed into a writerly silence that lasted eight years. When the words returned in 2005, they came as poems. Since waking from her T’ai Chi coma, her poetic output has appeared in PRISM International, The Dalhousie Review, Tesseracts Eleven, Rampike, filling Station, Front, The New Quarterly, The Arabesques Review, and other literary magazines in North American and abroad. In October 2007, she participated in Random Acts of Poetry along with 36 other poets in Canada, reading poetry to strangers in public places and giving away free books. She is a frequent performer at Wordstorm (Nanaimo) and other spoken word events. Her latest book, Ride Backwards On Dragon: a poet’s journey through Liuhebafa (Leaf Press, 2007), charts her own journey into and out of silence with a series of poems structured around the 1,000-year-old martial art she has been studying for ten years. She is also the author of four nonfiction books – two from New Star Books (on community access cable television), and two from Harbour Publishing (on the Nanoose submarine testing base, and on Vancouver Island wildlife, respectively). In early 2007, she launched her own imprint, Pig Squash Press, to house her structural poemage (poetry+image+physicality). She holds a degree in biology from University of Oregon and lives in Nanaimo’s Historic Old Quarter.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

My first book (The Barefoot Channel, 1990, New Star Books) clarified for me that I was going to spend my life as a writer, even though I had supported myself as a freelance journalist for a number of years prior. It also enabled me to join The Writers’ Union of Canada, which was my first real connection with a community of fellow writers.

2 - How long have you lived on Vancouver Island, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

My family moved from Oregon to Nanaimo in the 1970s so my brother would not be sent to Vietnam. I have supported myself from my writing since 1978, and have lived in Nanaimo the entire time. I have lived within spitting distance of the Pacific Ocean most of my life and cannot conceive of living inland. I am not sure what correlation this has to my writing except that I feel extraordinarily aware of boundaries and edges and am a sucker for pushing, testing, or transgressing boundaries. Would I have this same level of edge awareness if I were living on the prairies? Race and gender are so integral to one’s identity that they will inevitably be embedded in one’s creative output, whether the writer is aware of it or not.

3 - Where does a 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?

Since awaking from my T’ai Chi coma (see #10), I have been awash in a stream of linguistic and visual experiments that later arrange themselves into larger projects. Once a larger configuration reveals itself, that triggers further relevant material. As for where individual poems come from, it starts with the language itself – an instigating line/word/text that becomes a seed crystal around which other lines/words/texts want to aggregate.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

I love reading/performing my work to an audience. But only work that feels complete. I never read/perform unfinished work because I don’t want to contaminate it with external energies, thereby foreclosing on what it (and I) might otherwise become. My creative process is completely solitary. Throughout the 30 years I have been writing, I have deliberately never taken writing classes or workshops or participated in informal writing groups. I believe that exposing my work to others before it is fully formed would inevitably pull me back from the boundaries and edges I seek to explore, no matter how open-minded or progressive the group may (claim to) be. A group by definition is bounded.

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?

What is poetry? Is it limited to text? If the voices of homeless people are transcribed onto roofing felt that is then folded into the shape of a house (voices outside), is that a poem? Does our subconscious mind process the anagrammatic content of words and phrases? Will a poem constructed entirely from the component letters of “Combat is the only option” reveal to our conscious mind something that our unconscious mind already knew and was acting on? Do genres actually exist? Or is genre merely an arbitrary and self-limiting construct we cling to to prop up hierarchy and forestall our surrender to the unknown? Is it possible that the distinction between so-called nonfiction and so-called poetry is also the distinction between Newtonian reality and quantum reality? A language of answers vs. a language of questions? Certainty vs. infinite potentiality? Is it possible to write a poem that has no paradigm? And why is there such a paucity of lit mags probing the boundaries while a whole herd paws the dirt in the overgrazed centre? The security of the known? Safety/validation in numbers? The juggernaut of PoBiz?

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Nobody expects a visual artist to let someone else come in and slap some more paint on the canvas before the work is hung. Nor is a musician expected to turn over her score to a music buff to re-jig a few bars before cutting the CD. A potter doesn’t hand off the bowl to someone else for those final turns on the wheel. Yet if a writer speaks out against this ludicrous intrusion into creative process and artistic self-expression, she’s an amateur, a prima donna, a cranky piece of shit.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Easier, but mainly because I have redefined my terms of existence since awaking from my T’ai Chi coma (see #10). My creative goals no longer require the cooperation of others. I am just letting my own creative energies chart the course these days. When it comes time to get it out there, self-publishing is always an option, and every bit as practical as going with a small press for poetry. Ironically, this independence of attitude seems to attract publisher interest. I was in the process of laying out the cover and pages for my latest book (Ride Backwards On Dragon, 2007, Leaf Press) when a publisher approached me, so I went that route instead. Autonomy, it would seem, creates its own power and magnetism.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

A couple of months ago, and sadly not from my own tree as the weather was wet and rainy throughout the blossoming period back in spring, thus grounding the usual cast of pollinators. My attempt to trick nature with hand-pollination via sable brush was equally unsuccessful. The wet pollen just clumped.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

“People are sheep” – given to me by my former T’ai Chi teacher. (Okay, it’s more of an observation than advice. But many things become remarkably clear when viewed through this lens.)

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to journalism)? What do you see as the appeal?

If we would call a 10-year T’ai Chi-induced coma with no income and no written output easy while I tumbled down a metaphysical mineshaft straight into a cauldron of internal alchemy, then my shift from nonfiction to poetry has been a piece of cake. Since it didn’t kill me, I am now immortal. That must be the appeal.

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?

My mind is freshest upon waking. But that doesn’t help me much with poetry since poems generally arise from an instigating line or phrase or sound-concept. And those usually require some contact with the world (although occasionally an instigating line will awaken me at 3:00 or 4:00 am). A poem is most likely to start locking into place while I am out walking around. My day begins with a cup of black tea and a spoonful each of bee pollen and lecithin to kick-start the neurotransmitters. When the library opens at 10:00, I walk downtown and check my email.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

The act of constructing and hanging weathergrams in city parks is enormously clearing, perhaps because it drags me into the moment and won’t let me go. A trip to the estuary also resets me. The estuary with its slick, salty, matted, fibrous surfaces and torn membranes and black canals of slack water is like the inside of a body turned outside. I feel like I am physically exploring an internal landscape when I wander across the estuary dikes (if duck hunters don’t pick me off). Roaming around back alleys and underpasses with my digital camera also seems to spark ideas and new projects. I spend a lot of time every day just walking around. Eventually something happens.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

My latest book (Ride Backwards On Dragon) is a series of 66 linked poems recreating my personal journey through a landscape of outer silence and inner alchemy, using the 66-move structure of an ancient Chinese martial art I have been studying (Liuhebafa). On the surface, this book would appear to have no connection whatsoever to my prior life and work as an issue-oriented investigative journalist and nonfiction author. But lately I have begun seeing this book as a piece of investigative writing as well. Retracing a journey is certainly some kind of investigation. And the book includes 28 pages of endnotes decoding the Taoist symbolism (anatomical and metaphysical) of the ancient titles of the 66 movements/poems – information never before published in any systematic way. So perhaps I am still doing the same old thing but with different tools and a different focus. Getting back to the estuary experience of question #12, I cannot help but feel that inner landscape and outer landscape are merely different configurations of the same substrate – enfolded and unfurled.

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?

Nature, science, philosophy, visual art, architecture, newspapers, film – each of these has as much influence (if not more) on my work than do books.

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

Nine Gates (Jane Hirshfield), The Tao of Physics (Fritjof Capra), Tao Te Ching (Lao Tzu), The Holographic Universe (Michael Talbot), Going Out of Our Minds (Sonia Johnson), The Crying of Lot 49 (Thomas Pynchon), Hopscotch (Julio Cortázar), Walden (Henry David Thoreau), Native Son (Richard Wright), The Man in the High Castle (Philip Dick), The Reason for the Pelican (John Ciardi), The Eye of the Heart: Short Stories from Latin America (Ed. Barbara Howes). Lots more, of course – Brecht, Kafka, Lem, Strugatsky brothers, Mrozek, Borges, Calvino… But each of these books in particular has transformed my life or writing in some way.

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

See the aurora borealis. Build a house with my own hands entirely from scrounged and salvaged materials.

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?

I would like to find some governmental agency that would fund me to collect definitive proof that sasquatches exist. Authorities with PhDs have stated there are 200 sasquatches on Vancouver Island alone. I find it mind-boggling that, for all the many testimonials of sasquatch/big foot encounters in Canada and the U.S., there is not a morsel of hard evidence. Obviously the creatures exist. I mean, what are the odds that all these witnesses are hallucinating or lying? This is a vocation I could get excited about.

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

Apart from loving language and its assembly, I also require maximum autonomy, minimal possessions, and minimal expenditure of money in my life. These are the reasons I live alone, never had kids, and quit my last wage-slave job in 1985. With these requirements, what else am I good for besides writing? It may sound flip. But anytime I considered any other path, it mandated a level of enslavement (to a schedule, person, bank, company, institution, equipment) that made my stomach knot. The act of writing just takes a brain, a heart, and a pen. I could do it in a tent if I had to.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I’m drawing a blank here, rob. Apparently greatness eludes me.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A poetic research dossier documenting the guerrilla insurgency of the quantum universe as it chews away at the rotted underpinnings of Newtonian reality. I also continue to produce structural poemage (poetry+image+physicality) under my imprint of Pig Squash Press.

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