Tuesday, September 18, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Diane Tucker

Diane Tucker was born and raised in Vancouver. She earned a B.F.A. in Creative Writing from U.B.C. in 1987. She got married the same year and began working as a library clerk. Her daughter Beth was born in 1990 and her son Joe in 1993, the same year she got her first journal publication. Her first book, God on His Haunches, was published in by Nightwood Editions in 1996 and was shortlisted for the 1997 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her poems have appeared in several anthologies and more than fifty journals, including The Antigonish Review, Canadian Literature, Descant, The Absinthe Literary Review and Harvard Review. Her latest book is Bright Scarves of Hours (Palimpsest Press, 2007). She lives in Burnaby, BC.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Suddenly I was a “writer” as opposed to “someone who writes stuff”. That was good. That’s kept me going. I’ve made some good friends through being a book-published poet and had the opportunity to go places I would never otherwise have gone. I’m immensely grateful for that.

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

I’ve lived in or next to Vancouver my whole life, 42 years. I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else until last year, when I visited London. I could live in London. But other than that, I feel like Vancouver and I are all wound together like two amorous octopi. Sometimes I feel almost physically compelled to spend time in certain Vancouver places: the beach (any beach), or a certain spot I love on Granville Island, or a little park right near my childhood home. Certainly these places have found their way into my writing, both in obvious ways and in ways others will have to notice.

Race? No thanks, I’m a lousy runner. I have asthma and I’m lazy…

Okay, okay. I’m a WASP. I love things English and Celtic (even the food!). And I thrill to the Western cosmologies: the ancient classical visions, the Judeo-Christian worldview. Certainly then my race finds its way into my work, but I have never set out to write about it, as a subject.

Gender: I’m a girl married to a boy and we have kids. I’ve written a lot about being a mother; my latest book is built around the routine my days fell into when my kids were in elementary school. Surely any worldview that claims to value women will value all the work women do: vacuuming and cooking dinner and walking kids to school as much as anything else. So while I loathe the idea of being a “gender” writer, I am of a gender, and I write, so there’s no getting way from it to some degree.

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?

There’s usually an image or phrase in my head that won’t go away after a few days; it becomes pretty clear that it means enough to me to make a poem. And I have to have some alone time. I don’t drive, so I do a lot walking. Walking has become a necessary trigger for my writing mind after all these years.

There have been a few times when a traumatic event (my mother’s death, for example) has prompted several poems in a sort of ecstatic blur. I wish this would happen more often (the blur, not the trauma), but then I’d probably be way more medicated than I already am.

I’ve never set out to write a poetry book. I write poems, one at a time. When I have enough I look at them and cobble them together into a manuscript. Bright Scarves of Hours had its form imposed on it when I saw I had enough new work for a full-length manuscript. I do believe what Madeleine L’Engle wrote years ago: serve the work. I try to have faith that if I serve the poems that come my way, whatever books are in me to write will get written.

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

They’re not a part of the creative process of writing poems, but they’re certainly part of the job of being a poet, and not at all counter to creativity. I have some long-ago acting training and have sung a lot in public, so I don’t balk at readings per se; I’m not afraid of speaking in public or using a microphone. I’m nervous beforehand, but once I’m up there and the reading has begun, I like it. It feeds the little performing beast that still lives in me.
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?

By theoretical concerns I assume you mean do I write consciously to serve one literary theory or another? No, I don’t. Though obviously I write in a certain style and have studied certain poetry and not other poetry; I know no one writes in a vacuum. I value clarity, precision, accuracy, honesty. I value these things fanatically, rabidly. Whatever theoretical concerns those represent I leave to the theoreticians.

Questions? Each poem probably does try to ask the right question and/or to answer it, I guess. But honestly I think worrying about the effect of my body of work would be too distracting. Thomas Merton said we have to be detached from the results of our work. I believe this. It’s my job to write the best poems I can and disseminate them as best I can. “The rest,” as Eliot says, “is not our business”.

Frankly I’m not interested in any questions that are merely current (except maybe “Is my bus going to be on time?” and “Do I need another cup of coffee?”, to which the answer is nearly always “Yes!”). The eternal questions are pressing enough, aren’t they?

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

I don’t work with an outside editor until the book-publishing level except to pass some work before the eyes of some folks at Burnaby Writers’ Society workshops, which I have in the past found helpful. And I’ve never had a really unpleasant experience with an editor or a workshop. I recognize the need for objective eyes to evaluate the work.

When my poems have been edited for publication I’ve changed everything an editor wanted that I didn’t feel incredibly strongly about and didn’t offend me aesthetically. After all, I’d be a fool to think my every word is gospel. However, during editing for my first book, I had to stand up for a whole longish poem the editor wanted to cut, a desire I thought came from a personal literary preference rather than a genuine concern about quality. I put my foot down and I’m glad I did.

The thing is, I do edit books (fiction, not poetry) for publication, and I don’t want authors getting all uppity on me. Editors good! Editors important! Editors love people to buy them coffee!

7 - After having published two titles over the past decade, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Well, eleven years elapsed between my two books (so not even two books over the past decade!). What the process is, is different. My life, my fate, my worth, no longer hang on getting a book published, as I more often felt in the first couple of years after God on His Haunches came out in ’96. I had a lot of illusions about a literary “career”.

The process of making a book manuscript out of a pile of poems is not easier. It’s a big pain in the butt and for me a grumbling concession I make to reality.
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

I don’t remember, and I love pears. Now I have to go get some, and it’s all your fault.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I have this passage by Rilke posted at my writing desk:

“In this there is no measuring with time. A year doesn’t matter; ten years are nothing. To be an artist means not to compute or count; it means to ripen as the tree, which does not force its sap, but stands unshaken in the storms of spring with no fear that summer might not follow. It will come regardless. But it comes only to those who live as though eternity stretched before them, carefree, silent and endless. I learn it daily, learn it with many pains, for which I am grateful: Patience is all!”
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
In 2002 or so I fell into this routine: get up and take kids to school/walk dog. Come home and write until noon. Other stuff until it’s time to go get kids from school. Read, do housework, make dinner, and in the evening go out or hang out, sometimes fitting in some late-night writing, then sleep. It was quite consistent and productive for three or four years. I see it as a sort of Golden Age. Ah, the good old days!

But life changes and now all bets are off. Kids go to high school. Mum needs to get a part-time job that pays actual money. Grandparents age and suddenly you’re part of the sandwich generation. I’m currently in this season of incredible upheaval and change. Ideally I get up and drink coffee and go to the gym and come home and edit for a couple of hours, then go to my other paying job for a few hours. My own writing is still struggling to find its place in my new normal. Ask me this question again in a year.

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

Once I picked up a book called The Practice of Poetry, a great book of poetry exercises that I intended to us for some students but ended up using myself, and it came at the right time to rework some very flaccid poetry muscles. But I don’t stress too much anymore about “stalls”. They come, they go. I’m a writer and I can’t get out of it and I’ll write something else eventually.
12 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

Well, after eleven years I certainly hope it’s better! It feels more confident, more assured. I hope it attempts more, reaches for more. I hope it sells more.

I think the poems are more varied in tone and form, and of course there’s the structure I gave the entire manuscript. Surely fitting poems into certain hours of the day will change how people read them and what each means in the context of the whole book. I have no idea how or what. I’m looking forward to the furrowed brows.
13 - 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?

I have a background full of music and singing. I’ve sung in choirs on and off since I was eleven, and then I went and married a musician. I love the lyrics of Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn; I’ve actually had a few lyrics of mine used by real musicians. Now that’s a rush: your first music royalty cheque.

So rhythm is important to me, and musicality. The last few years I’ve been singing plainchant and Anglican chant, which has given me a whole new appreciation of verbal stress and vocal emphasis – phrasing.

Maybe writing poems is the closest I can come to writing music.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

When I’m sad and insecure I read C.S. Lewis, whose intelligence, compassion and good sense nearly always put me right. Besides reading the Bible itself, nothing clears out my spiritual cobwebs as well as Lewis.

Herbert and Donne spruce me up when I feel mentally sharp enough for them. Christina Rossetti feeds my overly romantic, melancholic side, and I admire her brave writing life. Gerard Manley Hopkins was my poetry sparkplug and I sometimes need a new spark.

John Fowles’ prose is glorious in every way: strong, economical, lyrical. His best is his novella The Ebony Tower. Early on I was baptized in Orwell’sPolitics and the English Language” and I’m still dripping, hopefully on other people.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Record a CD of my poems. Write more song lyrics. Write a play. See my unpublished YA novel get picked up. Somehow be involved in poetry/visual art/music/dance collaboration thingies. Those sound cool. Become a more patient, focused, centred, prayerful person. I have such modest goals…

16 - 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 love to be a Shakespearean actor. Love love love. And there was a chance once that I might have been a teacher, I mean a real, certified, full time teacher. I do it now part time and I like it a lot. But it’s very draining.

There! My mind just said “It would be too draining to teach full time and write as well,” even when the question was about not writing. It’s a chronic disease, this writing thing.

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

After high school I chickened out of trying to be an actor; there’s no other way to put it. And writing was something I’d done for so long, since I was little, and the more I read great writing, the more I wanted to do it. In college I read an Alice Munro story called “Thanks for the Ride” and I quite clearly remember thinking “If I could write like that, I’d love to be a writer.” Still trying to write like that.

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

By great I assume you mean in the big sense: important and lasting, so:

Film: Children of Men: what a wonderful, harrowing, brilliant movie!

Book: Reread John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman recently, after not looking at it for several years. It’s been one of the seminal novels of my life, for good or ill. Every few years my reaction to the two endings changes as life changes. It’s kind of a barometer for me. Right now I’m rooting for reconciliation.
19 - What are you currently working on?
The last year has been full of personal and family turmoil, so I haven’t had my eye on my own work much. I have illusions at the moment about writing a series (ack!) of poems about my childhood home in southeast Vancouver. And I’m starting to feel it’s time to wrestle another stack of poems into a manuscript. Please, don’t make me think about it anymore. I need another coffee…

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