Friday, September 14, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Catherine Kidd

Catherine Kidd is a Montreal-based writer/performer, and author of Missing the Ark [her first novel, formerly Bestial Rooms; conundrum press, 2007]. Her cd/book of performed stories Sea Peach [conundrum] was launched as a solo show in 2002, and won the MECCA for Best New Text 2003. Described as “an adult blend of Dr. Seuss and Aesop’s Fables.” Sea Peach travelled to storytelling festivals in Whitehorse, Yellowknife, New York, and Oslo. Kidd has performed at Festival Voix D’Ameriques and Festival Metropolis Bleu; from the Edinburgh Fringe to Toronto’s World Stage 2005 to the ARENA Fest in Bavaria. Her short-story Green-Eyed Bean, excerpted from her first novel, was nominated a Journey prize, while her voice can be heard narrating two documentaries on women’s pro sports, a cinematic lip-gloss rap, Cirque du Soleil promos, and Air Safety messages. Her dvd/book bipolar bear [conundrum press, 2006] includes live performance video in Singapore. She performed at Spier Arts Poetry Festival in Cape Town, South Africa, in Spring 2007.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I initially understood this question to refer to the first book I remember changing my life, so I’ll answer that first. I read The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, in grade three, and it blew my freakin little grade-three mind. I discovered an entire world into which I could disappear and inhabit completely for days. Images of the corridors and the gardens and the moors were so tangible, I even knew how they smelled. I was depressed to finish the book because I didn’t want to leave it so I read it again. I couldn’t believe what a cool and magical thing it was, that someone’s cyphers on a page plus my own imagination added up to a whole alternate universe, which really existed, yet was different for every person who went there.

My first published book was conundrum press’ first publication as well, I think because Andy Brown only wanted to publish his roommates. At various times, Corey Frost and Billy Mavreas lived at that same address, Andy published them too.

The chapbook everything I know about love I learned from taxidermy came out in 1996, with a cassette tape made by dj Jack Beets. The chapbook changed my life in various major ways, these being some:

· taxidermy lead me to undertake the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, which was writing Missing the Ark (the novel formerly known as Bestial Rooms).
· taxidermy was the prototype for what would become a series of conundrum press releases combining text with audio, and later video, in an attractive dual-purpose book-like object. ie.: Sea Peach; bipolar bear
· taxidermy made me want to do more stuff with performed text because it was uniquely fun, and because it made my unfortunate year in theatre school not completely useless.
The Montreal Love & Taxidermy launch of the chapbook was held in loft at 10 Ontario. Rob Lutes played a set and I think Martha Wainwright sang a few songs, Andy made posters with Edward Gorey clip-art of an insane person chasing a rabbit. I bleached my hair for the occasion – the concept was to look like a photograph in negative, but it just looked awful.

Terry Goldie, a prof at YorkU, picked up a copy of the chapbook and passed it along to his friend Patrick Crean, then publisher at Somerville house, who contacted me about writing a novel. At first I’d said no – I was still doing my Lit M.A. at Concordia, had a thesis to write and was trying to get something going with this performance poetry thing – this was even before YAWP. It didn’t seem that writing a novel was any more sensible than performance poetry, though several people advised me to reconsider in light of the opportunity presenting itself. I believe they were right.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into – specifically, the personal work which would be involved in the research stage. It turned out to be quite a trip, psychologically. Meanwhile my so-called child-bearing years were stacking up behind me, throughout the decade I spent writing maternal ambivalence, among other things, and I was still trying to figure out how to support even just myself as an artist. Still haven’t quite figured that out; I’m not a squatter anymore, at least.

But just as I wouldn’t have been doing that M.A. at ConU if I hadn’t been graciously offered a scholarship (I would have gone back to India as soon as I finished my B.A.), I would not have taken on writing a novel, at that time, if the opportunity hadn’t presented itself. I remain grateful to Patrick Crean for opening that door; in the end, it was not any disagreement with him, but the lack of editorial continuity and correspondence which made our connection become more and more remote. The contract changed houses more than once, as Patrick moved from Somerville House to Key Porter and finally to Thomas Allen, during the years following the initial signing. I think, frankly, all the moving around made a stable editorial relationship impossible.

I finally decided to publish the novel with Andy instead – I already knew him as an editor, we had no problem bitching at each other, all cards were visibly on the table. As soon as I made that decision, the novel dropped one character entirely, plus the hundred and fifty pages which went with her.

It now really is the book I wanted to write; perhaps the manuscript, like its protagonist, needed to divorce itself from the paternal frame of reference which pre-existed even its own creation; which frame of reference, however instrumental it had been at the conception of the process, had come not to fit.

For all the above reasons, the book which most feels like my first book is Missing the Ark.
There is nothing in my life which I’ve work on for longer and with more soul-searching, so the changes it has brought to my life have been profound. Just as Agnes needs to take responsibility for herself before she can be present as a mother to Rose, I could only become worthy of the task of the novel if I were willing to do the same work I was requiring my character to do, some of which was exquisitely painful. I’ve been gratified to hear that what I was attempting did come across to some.

The earliest draughts of Bestial Rooms which comprise my M.A. thesis even predate the performance work. Friends will recall that novel-writing was turning me into a crazy hermit, so I tried to find balance by performing stuff in public as well – for the social context, and maybe as a means of surviving the interiority and seclusion of long-term fiction commitment. Two relationships were born and died during the span of writing that novel. My father died just at the beginning of the process, and his absence had a huge effect on my life and on the book, for the gaping emotional space it opened up.

Yet I would not call the novel autobiographical, it really is not. Even ‘semi-autobiographical’ might imply that some parts are ‘true’ while others are not – whereas an essential theme of the book has been to call that type of truth into question. The father-character was written to honour the memory of my father, but that’s about it for significant parallels – there was never any Buffalo man, and my real mother is a modest retired nurse, a farmer’s daughter, who now devotes most of her time to working with homeless persons in the downtown East side of Vancouver – as opposed to being a drunken tart like Agnes’ mother.

But writing Missing the Ark did bring me personally to many of the same conclusions which Agnes reaches in the end – how the inclusion of empathy and imagination to one’s perception of others revitalizes the whole relationship, and how a regard for the natural world as a sacred text can offer keys to successful existence, if one approaches it as student rather than teacher.

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

Geography has an encompassing effect on my writing, so it’s hard to describe. In the past I’ve had a problem with the concept of home, so I have travelled around a lot, before I landed here in Montreal and appear to have got stuck. Okay, so I was born here, but that was a donkey’s age ago, and we left when I was a still a baby to go out west, then up to Whitehorse.

I suspect I never answer correctly when someone asks me how long I’ve been living in Montreal, because I feel compelled to smudge the hermetic and/or unhappy years together. But it must be about 15 years now, I reckon, if I arrived here from India around the same time my father died, which was 1992. I’d been living in Uttar Pradesh for a couple of years, and came to Montreal with the intention of just picking up the credits I needed to go back to Benares Hindu University as a student. My language requirement exam at Concordia, for instance, was written in Hindi, not French, because I didn’t plan to stay here. But you never know what might happen.
I do know that travel tends to have a self-dissolving effect on a person, as you try to lose any preconceptions you may have brought from your own culture in order to see as clearly as possible what is there. At the same time, you have to remember that no matter what level of intimacy you may develop with a place, you’ll never be from there unless you are. This is humbling, too. I think this is one of the reasons why travel is so good for writers – it accomplishes the paradox of consciously getting over yourself.

3 - Where does a piece of fiction 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?

Missing the Ark, or Bestial Rooms as previously entitled, was a novel from the moment I signed a contract saying it would be one – prior to that, it was fictional bits toward my M.A. thesis, which I reckoned would be a book of short stories. Rob Allen, who was my thesis adviser, encouraged the idea of writing a novel, when the opportunity came up, and was a supportive influence on my decision. He didn’t persuade me that writing a novel was sensible, only that perhaps I’d like to write one anyway. It was a unique element of his style, to be both laissez-faire and subtly directive. I wish I had seen more of him during his last few years with us.

It was about five years into the process of writing the book that I started adapting bits of the manuscript into poetic form, for performance. I was being consumed by the project [think Amadeus meets Lilo and Stitch] and very much wanted to get back into poetry. Those poems became Sea Peach; I had to follow up on what that set in motion. It was intense to embody the character of Agnes in performance, to go through her motions in some sense.

She was not meant to be me, though. Agnes is a woman with a baby, while I am consciously not one. Also, Agnes is not even aware of herself as a chooser, at the opening of the novel, she’s at the brink of truly apprehending the consequences of her own actions. It is a volatile state, full of latent but misdirected power, perhaps roughly analogous to our current stage in the evolution of the human species. Agnes has not properly prepared herself for motherhood, but voilĂ , she is a mother. From now on she is responsible not only for her own life, but at least one future life as well. How does she move differently, from that place?

Gotta say, it’s hella relief to have Agnes in book form, finally, I can let go of her and move on.

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

I would die of loneliness if I did not have the world of the performing arts – in which I would include readings – as a context and focal point of community. A large part of my personality could easily be out in the woods with maybe one or two other humans and lots of goats. Theatre was one of my first loves – but sadly, the theatre school for which I’d won a scholarship accused me of unhappiness and dumped me, so I went hitch-hiking to Central America instead, then came back to Vancouver as one of the founding members of the Frances Street Squats. Writing, on the other hand, has been soul-sustaining and utilitarian through thick and thin. All this to say, I had to invent my own way of performing – even if it meant writing the damn scripts myself.

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?

Absolutely. Theoretical concerns are the heftiest triggers, just as much as images are, in fact the two often join together to compel artistic grappling. Ethical-aesthetic moments where I feel my mind change about something – paired with an image which comes to represent a question. An image makes the question animate, and share-able. Writing is the activity of examining the question, though the answer to the question may often be the grappling itself.

In Missing the Ark, two engendering images were the swing set, as the framework in which a period of time might be suspended, and the image of the Stanley Park zoo as a labyrinth in which two people meet. The man is a minotaur, and the woman is Alice-like – suggestible to the strange compulsions of the world in which she finds herself. She is existing outside of free will and outside of time, as humans often do without even realizing it. Her life is especially vulnerable to derailment into the deeper grooves of whatever mythology and historical bias have already penned for her – and without much reflection, she mistakes her obsession with biology to be something she has in common with Buffalo man, and moves into his taxidermy studio with him. She conceives a child by him, though she does not particularly trust him. They build an ark together to survive the stormy destruction of their own relationship. It is a weird perversion of the original ark, in that the two humans loll about like gods inside it, while all the animals are dead and stuffed and left outside. Agnes puts up pictures of animals instead, as though to commemorate the lives of the creatures, knowing that this likewise prevents her fellow primate,
Mae West the chimpanzee, with whom she shares the greater kinship, from seeing inside.

Bluntly put, I think the human race, or at least large sectors of it, have missed the boat in terms of our own evolution. This might have occurred centuries or only decades ago, but since then, bad decisions have been stacked upon bad decisions, until the most creative elements of our psyches, whose gifts might more easily have been able prevent certain global crises, have become under-developed, vestigial, atrophied, flaccid. The human psyche needs a major overhaul, and quickly too. We, as a culture, perhaps as a species, I think, are depressed. It’s hard to make a statement like that without being willing to back it up, so I spend a lot of fishing around for examples to tell me I mean by that. Part of me knows this theory of mine is only half-right, because most of the people I meet appear to have their heads on straight, they are not depressed, they basically know right from wrong, they are not war-mongers.

It may be embedded in language, at least in large sectors of it, certain sets of values or more precisely modes of perception which appear, at this point in history, to have become outdated. As though the eyes of history have obvious but undiagnosed cataracts.

Most human cultures, and every artistic genre reaches outside itself to pick up bits and pieces of other genres, to be transformed by them, not to claim them. Each art form, like each artist, matures when it becomes aware of its own limitations – when it desires to collaborate with the wisdom and gifts of other art forms, other cultures, toward the end of mutual enrichment. It appears to me that the language of art is well designed to the highest forms of communication, and is much less embedded with amorphous prejudices and diseases which, perhaps, have resulted from the over-use of language to lie and torture and control. Art is less embedded with political deceit, and tends to be more conversant with nature, whom I regard as our only teacher.

I also believe changes in the human psyche are under way – changes both gentle and radical – there may be a greater possibility for response in the human race just now in history, because more and more people are noticing the shape of what has been missing from our lives.

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

Oh geez depends completely on the editor. But definitely essential. What I learned from Missing the Ark was that I have to feel connected with my editor, or the whole process feels too remote to trust – like scratchy speaker-phone directions for crossing a slippery suspension bridge blindfolded. There are people whom I would allow to guide me, and others I wouldn’t, but I have to at least meet the person. My first editor when I signed with Patrick, Katja Pantzar, was awesome – we met to discuss the first draft of the novel, and seemed to be on the same page with things, but then she moved to Finland. After Katja, there were a number of different editors, because my contract moved houses more than once, but Katja was the only one I actually got to meet and sit down with – I admit felt a bit adrift after that.

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

Everything feels a little bit easier these last few years because I’m a lot happier than I used to be, but then again I don’t aspire toward things being too easy, or what’s the point? Writing is easier, cerainly. I can type much faster than I used to be able to do. I love typing. It’s just like being captain of a submarine, I reckon.

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

I ate four pears last week. The only pears I feel I can truly rely upon are d’Anjou pears, as Barlett are frequenty mushy or woody and tasteless. D’Anjou pears, especially if allowed to ripen for a few days at room temperature, which they had been, are droolingly juicy and more sweet n’ delicious than guavas. I eat the entire pear, the core and everything except the stem, which is bitter.

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

This question is impossible because it’s too soon to tell which advice has ultimately been good.
or Fake it til you make it. I think this is AA advice or something, of which organization I’m not a member but I love the idea that, say, consciously smiling will eventually teach your face to smile more, which in turn will positively effect your mood. You might not believe you’re capable of doing something unless you try playing make-believe a bit, and the visualization actually helps the change to occur. I should make-believe I’m a famous novelist living in a wildlife reserve in South Africa.

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

It has been a blessing that the possibility is there, because I would not be particularly good at one without the other, in terms of the peaceful balance of sanity. In addition to this, I think artists are artists firstly, and might work in any one or several different media. I’d never want to limit myself to one. I love drawing and singing, too, and if I decide to record songs some day, it would be a continuation of, not a contradiction to, being a novelist or a voice actor.

In terms of the way the work is received, though, it’s always been hard to find the right niche for what I do. Yes. I don’t really like the phrase ‘spoken word artist’ which is too bad, because that’s what I’m known for, but it’s not all I do. It may be true, too, that being associated with performance poetry could project a different image than what some might project as a novelist. It may bias some readership that one is so cheeky as to get up on stage and spout rhymes to hip hop beats, if one considers writers to be more serious or introspective people. I really have no idea the reason, but this trans-genre purgatory exists and I didn’t invent it. But I can’t complain about it either, since a person has to prove herself in whatever new genre, if the work is to be accepted.

If someone asks me what I do, I get to say “I perform rhyming animal stories”. You must admit, it’s a pretty hard sell, unless I actually get to do it.

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?

I assume that I will write all day, every day. This is not bound to happen, but if I place it as a direction, then I just naturally sit down to write whenever I am not required to do anything else. I don’t get bored of it, working on a story or a poem is like a puzzle – doesn’t just exist in two dimensions, there are so many ways to turn it around, corners to work on, close-ups and far-angles.

A typical day, I get up, make coffee, and sit down to answer emails and poke about at the writing projects of the day, have a bath, make some kind of blended fruit concoction with toast, then sit down to write for real until I hit a wall, have to get out of the house, go to the yoga studio or buy groceries. In the evening my favourite things to do are write, read, draw, listen to rekkids and sing, all at once. Or have friends over for snacks and drinks, play with the cats, go hear a band, water the plants. I have a bad relationship with the phone, I mostly wish it didn’t exist.

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

Whatever is on hand. A bike ride, yoga, books about some interesting moss or snails. I have a prized collection of National Geographics which I peruse daily. If something I see or hear sends a shivers up the hair at the back of my neck, leaves me slack-jawed – something makes me go, wow – and from this statement of inarticulate wonder, a story issues. Most often, inspiration comes from seeing reflection of the human condition in the life of some other species – reminds me that my mind is just my mind, and that human experience is not the only measure of reality nor anywhere near it.

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

It is much much thicker and heavier. If you threw it at someone, it would actually hurt. My previous publications could not be used as weapons of personal defence, unless you smashed the cd into sharp pointy bits.

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?

When I am writing fiction, I do not read fiction, because the effect is like picking up two scratchy radio stations at once. I read poetry or National Geographic, political history, biology. The best thing, though, is getting myself near some trees and birds and water etc.

I think books come from the fissure between the known and the unknown.

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

These were all big when I discovered them:

Dostoyevsky. My friends. Beckett. Iris Murdoch. Joyce. Art & Illusion by E.H.Gombrich. Antjie Krog. Biologist Karl von Frisch. Jungle Capitalism by Peter Chapman. Alice in Wonderland. Edgar Allan Poe. Edward Gorey. Albert Camus. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Pearl S. Buck. Alice Munro. Grapes of Wrath. bpNichol. Beowulf. Roo Borson. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. Hamlet. Guy de Maupassant. Alligator Pie. Eileen Garrett. Dr.Seuss. The Existentialists. Erich Fromm. D.T.Suzuki. David Suzuki. Blake. Burns. The Romantics. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Daphne duMaurier. Joseph Campbell. Sigmund Freud. Upanisads. Kurt Vonnegut. Madame Bovary. Zora Neale Hurston. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Joseph Conrad. Zen poetry. Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson. The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Margaret Lawrence. Charlotte’s web. J.D Salinger.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

SCUBA, baby. Many of my dreams are subaquatic, and I love marine life – for sure I would love scuba diving. I’ve been snorkeling in Bermuda and Mozambique, which was enough to give me a taste of what’ll probably be a big obsession later on – as soon as I imagine myself into being a famous novelist living in South Africa.

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?

Wildlife photographer would be one I’d pick, or overseas relieft worker.

But as to what I might have ‘ended up’ doing if not writing, I feel like I wouldn’t be here at all. I travelled around a lot when I was younger, often by myself, and got myself into some treacherous messes sure enough. I hitch-hiked to Central America alone in 1985, to join the women demonstrating against the disappearance of their husbands and sons. I have to wonder whether, without the sedentary and reflective influence of writing, I wouldn’t have just got myself killed for being so reckless, before I grew up enough to know better. Likely I would have ended up travelling to some far away place like Kathmandu and getting stuck there without money or a passport, because that’s already happened.

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

A neurological condition. Either that, or a micro-chip implanted by extra-terrestrials. If I didn’t write I might resort to trepannation and I’m not convinced it works.

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

I hardly watch films, I don’t know why not. Maybe I’ll do it later in life, or if I’m laid up with a broken leg. Video imagery seems to take up a lot of space in the brain, which can be wonderful and intense, but other times can just supplant or dull any mental imagery I might’ve conjured up myself. Some film corporations do this deliberately; this strikes me as colonizing of the imagination, and is a position more dangerous than many people suspect, in my belief. Who knows what the imagination of children and adults might be capable of, if it were not being channelled so directly into animated avatars whose image may be purchased as dolls, lunch boxes, bed clothing, bathmats, school supplies, shoes, and watches…

A poet friend of mine in Scotland, Richard Medrington, used to do a puppet show about Winnie the Pooh, with hand-made puppets and himself playing the role of A.A.Milne. The show was very popular at the Edinburgh Fringe. After a few years, he received a cease and desist letter from Disney Corporation, reminding him that the image of Winnie the Pooh was now owned by them, and therefore he was not allowed to profit from the bear’s image via his locally-popular puppet show. This is the most insidious type of theft, since the collective imagination of Winnie the Pooh cannot be owned any more than the moon can be.

That said, I love King Kong and Last King of Scotland, Spellbound and Quadrophenia…heck, even Titanic is brilliant if you press the mute button.

The last great book I read was Jungle Capitalism, by Peter Chapman. Recommended to me by Edinburgh performance poet Jem Rolls, this book is about the political history of bananas in the United States and Central America – and the iron fist United Fruit.

I also just read, Country of my Skull by Antjie Krog, a well-known South African writer I was fortunate to meet at the festival she curates. Her book is a partly-journalistic partly-poetic account of her work as the senior reporter covering the Truth and Reconciliation commission hearings following the fall of Apartheid. It’s a heavy but mind-changing read.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Isn’t it supposed to be a jinx to talk about what you’re working on? Spidey senses tingle…but perhaps it depends on how deeply emersed in the artistic process one happens to be. If I know what remains to be done to complete a project, then it seems okay to talk about it, but if the creation is more formless, still in bits, then it’s less okay to talk about. Some of the impetus dissipates, maybe.

I started writing something wicked silly recently, but will resist calling it anything in particular until it shows itself to be. Just now it is something to play with. In addition to project X, I am semi-emersed in a new dvd/book project which I’m bound to finish at some point – I would envision using some of the wildlife footage Geoff and I gathered in South Africa last Spring. Hyenas and lions, and a dung beetle.

No comments: