Friday, January 4, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Meredith Quartermain

Meredith Quartermain [Canada] 1950

Born in Toronto, Ontario, Meredith Quartermain spent her childhood in Ontario and the remote interior of British Columbia. At the University of BC she took degrees in English Literature, English Language and Law. After practicing law for three years and then teaching English for seven years at Capilano College, North Vancouver, she left the world of paid employment to write and to run, with husband Peter, Nomados Literary Publishers. Quartermain sat on the collective at the Kootenay School of Writing in 2000-2001, and her work has been loosely associated with the KSW.

Her first book Terms of Sale contains both innovative poetry exploring the non-referential music of language, and poems of place concerned with city life and neighborhoods. Abstract Relations and Spatial Relations continue her exploration of language and innovative form, these works being sections of a longer work in progress shaping itself around the six major sections of Roget's original Thesaurus. The Eye-Shift of Surface is also highly experimental in its form, being constructed in verse paragraphs from materials listed under entries for the letter I and the word eye in the Oxford English Dictionary. In Wanders, Quartermain translates or “transelates” (to use Erin MourĂ©'s term) 19 poems by Robin Blaser – replicating Blaser's syllable count and metrics in her answering poems.

With A Thousand Mornings, Quartermain combined innovative form and language play to explore the streetscape she could see from her window. Rachel Blau Duplessis describes the book as "a serious-playful and engaging work in which she weighs and sounds what presents itself outside a real window, inside language, and through verbal-emotional associations. Written in pointillist phrases, diaristic, notational, associative, punning, funning and just following any track, the work sits down to itself: to the world, and to the self in time."

Vancouver Walking continues her exploration of city life, using what she calls "historical surrealism" to explore the power struggles engraved on the city's face. The book has brought her national attention, with the Toronto Globe and Mail commenting: "Quartermain's poetic tour . . . reads the downtown's every street sign and historical plaque to invoke not vagaries of weather or a sensitive narrator's emotional landscape, but the lived epic of how specific native soil became appropriated to a condition of contemporary real estate."

books of poetry

Terms of Sale (Buffalo: Meow, 1996); Abstract Relations (Vancouver: Keefer Street, 1998); Spatial Relations (Boca Raton, Florida: Diaeresis, 2001); [with Robin Blaser] Wanders (Vancouver: Nomados, 2002); A Thousand Mornings (Vancouver: Nomados, 2002); The Eye-Shift of Surface (Victoria: Greenboathouse, 2003); Vancouver Walking (Edmonton: NeWest, 2005)

1 - How did your first book change your life?

If we think of our lives as just one book (as Friedrich Schlegel did; and as Robin Blaser does, gathering all his poems into one work The Holy Forest), then perhaps we can never answer this question. “Isn’t it unnecessary to write more than one novel, unless the artist has become a new [person]? It’s obvious that frequently all the novels of a particular author belong together and in a sense make up only one novel” (Schlegel, Crit. Frag. 89). One’s whole life an unfolding of a gestural impulse, one’s whole life writing the first and only book.

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 Vancouver since 1972 and the Vancouver landscape has been a particular focus of my writing in Vancouver Walking (NeWest 2005) and also in my new book Nightmarker, forthcoming from NeWest 2008. I think it was Creeley who said love, death, and place are three of the abiding themes of poetry from time immemorial. Documenting physical, cultural, poetic geography has absorbed a lot of my attention. It’s impossible not to reflect race, gender and class in one’s work. And can we add species too into that mix, to remind us of our limited view – these coordinates that are our latitude and longitude woven into and weaving the geography of thought and perception. My poems generally are aware of this political geography.

3 - Where does a poem or 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?

This gets back to the gestural impulse that informs one’s whole being. It’s actually best if you don’t try to control that too much and don’t assume you can master it through rational thought. I’d rather not know where poems come from. On the other hand I rather like Jack Spicer’s notion that they are dictated through me by some sort of energy: “It’s as if a Martian comes into a room with children’s blocks with A, B, C, D, E which are in English and he tries to convey a message. This is the way the source of energy goes. But the blocks, on the other hand, are always resisting it.” He said that in his 1965 Vancouver lectures.

Discovery has always been an important part of my work, writing into what I don’t know, so that the writing takes me to unanticipated places. I have written both collections of individual pieces and book projects but the boundaries of the book project are pretty sketchy at the outset. I generally find I have to write to find out what the project is.

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

I enjoy listening to and giving public readings. Sound patterns are an important part of my writing, and I consciously work to bring them out with a view to oral performance.

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 read philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze or Judith Butler, and I’m currently embarking on a Spinoza reading project. However, abstract knowledge often interferes with moving and interesting writing which emerges as a fusion of heart-felt experience, reflectiveness and wide-ranging awareness of the human condition. Fusion that takes leaps into the unknown, takes risks, gives up control. The workings of language, its possibilities and blind alleys, its illusions and dioramas, its other voicings from other times, the reverence or disgust we give to words – all these are my theoretical concern.

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

A good editor is a gift from heaven – someone who sees what’s emerging in the writing and can make useful suggestions for fine tuning or steer you away from disasters. I enjoy working with ones who see the main gesture, what the work set out to do, and then look at details within that context. In workshop settings, people often focus too much on details like word-choice before looking at the larger gesture in the work and considering how this stands in relation to other contemporary writing, or the goals of the writer.

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

Each book is its own journey.

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

A pair of what?

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

Advice in the abstract, let alone best advice is a nonsensical concept. When you are looking for advice, some will emerge that’s right for that situation.

Over the years, I’ve taped various things to my computer, could be best, could be worst. Here’s one of them:

“The poet is the only teller of news, for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Here’s another: “To write, therefore, is the way of someone who uses the word as bait: the word fishes for something that is not a word. When that non-word takes the bait, something has been written. Once the space between the lines has been fished, the word can be discarded with relief. But here the analogy ends: the non-word upon taking the bait, has assimilated it. Salvation, then, is to read ‘absent-mindedly.’” (Clarice Lispector).

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

Conventional fiction requires things like plot, unity of view-point, place and time, the building of intrigue or crisis. I don’t write conventional fiction. I’m generally inclined towards ironic juxtaposition rather than the ready-made heroic narrative. My intrigues involve unfolding patterns of words, ideas, characters or inventions in prose poetry. Some call them microfictions.

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’m a morning writer. I go straight from sleeping dreams to waking ones if possible and avoid telephone, email, etc, until mid afternoon. I try to work on creative projects every weekday at least. Later in the day I work on my publishing projects for Nomados.

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

I do research – look things up in dictionaries, encyclopedias, science books, histories. Try to connect to my curiosity which is a form of love. Or I might walk around outside, or do some tai chi. I often find that really good ideas come to me when I stop trying to hunt them down.

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

My most recent book Nightmarker, coming out in the fall from NeWest, is in some ways an extension of the “Vancouver Walking” poems in my last book, involving walks and researches around the city. But Nightmarker occurs in two voices, unlike the fairly consistent voicing of the last book. One voice continues the notebook approach to poems. The other voice comes from an imaginary earth-geist called Geo who writes letters back to the human race.

A second book called “Matter” is coming out from Bookthug and this is quite different from Vancouver Walking. Matter is shaped by the third major division of Roget’s Thesaurus, which is a taxonomy of all the words to do with matter. I have two chapbooks – Abstract Relations and Spatial Relations – which are based on the first two sections of the thesaurus. I was interested in the fact that Roget had created the same kind of taxonomy for words that as a zoologist he used for animals. I was curious about what this means for our sense of matter as distinct from mind. I used Darwin’s Origin of Species as a source book as well.

Poems from both of these books are available on line:

Golden Handcuffs Review 1:7 Winter/Spring 2005-6:

Green Integer Review 2:

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?

Biology, zoology, botany and ecology were part of my undergraduate education and are long-standing interests in my poems. Visual art has been important, too, most recently in West Coast Line 54 where my series “Apprehensions” appears with photographs by Rhoda Rosenfeld.

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

One of my all-time favorites is the Swiss writer Robert Walser The Assistant, Jakob von Gunten and The Robber are three of his novels available in English. His short pieces in Masquerade and Speaking to the Rose will knock your socks off. His hilarious and heart-rending irony is unbeatable.

I am also very fond of Gertrude Stein, Nicole Brossard, Daphne Marlatt, Gail Scott and Erin Mouré.

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

Go to the Acropolis.

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?

A painter.

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

The funny thing is I had no idea until I was in my mid-30s that I would write. Looking back, though, I recall writing poems when I was in highschool. My father constantly wrote letters, diatribes and Ginsbergish poems. Not for publication, though I think he may have wanted to be a novelist. Maybe that’s why I started writing. Or maybe it was the fact that I ended up studying the work of Creeley, Olson, and Duncan in my undergraduate years. I was very drawn to Robert Creeley’s work, and was lucky enough to meet him a few times.

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

The Shovel by Colin Browne, just out from Talonbooks.

It’s been so long since I saw a really really good film! The History Boys was pretty good.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I am currently just finishing another manuscript of prose-poems or microfictions called Recipes from the Red Planet. These pieces definitely enter new territory for me, working with narrative, and a lot of invention rather than factual material. I’ve had a lot of fun doing them, and had a good time working on them with Nicole Brossard at the Sage Hill Writing Experience.

12 or 20 questions archive

No comments: