Thursday, January 17, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Natalie Simpson

Natalie Simpson was born in London, England and left at the age of six weeks. She lived in Holland until she was about two years old, and then moved to Calgary, Alberta. She’s half French Canadian, and half proficient in French. She has a BA in English (minor in Latin) and an MA in English, both from the University of Calgary. Her MA thesis dealt with sentences and their centrality in Gertrude Stein’s writing. She was poetry editor and then managing editor for filling Station magazine, between 1999 and 2004. She moved to Vancouver in 2004, completed her law degree at UBC, and then moved back to Calgary, where she worked most recently at a non-profit doing human rights research. Her poetry has been published in West Coast Line, The Capilano Review, Queen Street Quarterly, dANDelion, as well as the anthologies Shift & Switch and Post-Prairie. Her first book, accrete or crumble, was published by LINEbooks in 2006, and her chapbook Dirty Work is being re-issued by above/ground press ALBERTA SERIES.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It made me realize that publishing a book doesn’t change anything. I think I’ve relaxed a bit since then. I stopped writing for a while, and now I’m starting to realize that Creeley was right when he said only write if you find writing fun.

2 - How long have you lived in Calgary, 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 Calgary the majority of my life, except for three years I spent in Vancouver. I don’t think place really had much impact on my writing, until recently – being in Vancouver made me really notice details of place. Like the difference between the Alberta side of the Rockies and the mountains in BC. Or how as much as I love the ocean, the prairies have a grip on my psyche. So does the big sky. I’m not sure how those things affect my writing, but I’m sure they do.

Similarly, I think gender is starting to have more impact on my writing than it used to. I’ve noticed that more and more of the writers I admire are women, and I want to write poetry that the women I read would respect.

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?

All my writing begins with the blank page and resolving to fill it. It’s pretty much a crap shoot whether I write something I can shape into a poem or not. I’m definitely an author of short pieces, which don’t necessarily combine into a larger project. I’m most comfortable with poems or poem series of five to ten pages, and I have a hard time sustaining cohesion in anything longer than that. I’m pretty angsty about it, too – I’ve always admired writers who can pull off really tight, thematically centred books. Like Karen Mac Cormack’s Quirks and Quillets, Harryette Mullen’s S*PeRM **k*t, Lisa Robertson’s The Weather. I wish I could do that.

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

Reading in public is a huge part of my creative process. First, readings provide deadlines that force me to whip whatever I’m working on into decent enough shape to read. Second, my poetry is all about sound, so the words on the page start to fulfill their potential when I get the chance to read them out loud. And third, I like the sense of performance, of trying to captivate listeners, and the energy I get from the audience when I know they’re really into it.

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?

Oh, theory.

The questions I work with are: What makes a perfect sentence perfect? How much should I try to mean or not to mean? Is this pretentious? Who cares?

I think some of the current (perennial) questions have to do with who is reading and why. Also who is writing, and why.

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

I haven’t dealt with an outside editor in any substantive sense. I’ve always thought I would like to work with an editor, to get a really thorough perspective from someone else.

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

The process varies, depending on who’s involved. Overall, I think the book-making is generally easier than the book-writing.

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

A couple of months ago, probably. I bought some pears this morning, but they’re not ripe enough to eat yet.

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

Don’t be so hard on yourself.

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?

I fall into writing routines occasionally, but as soon as I congratulate myself on writing regularly, I tend to stop.

Days for me begin begrudgingly, I have a really hard time getting out of bed. I have to approach important tasks slowly, lots of meandering on the internet and fussing over coffee before I can work.

The days when I have a lot of time to devote to writing, and I’m excited about writing, and I’m optimistic enough not to be discouraged by flaws, or futility, or the perfectionistic tendencies in my approach to writing, are very good days.

11 - Where is your favourite place to write?

At home, with laptop, in bed or on the couch. I was writing in coffee shops in a notebook for a while last summer, but I was way too conscious of being a cliché, I couldn’t lose myself enough to write well.

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

Hard to say. It’s not something I can really force. But going to readings definitely helps.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

My most recent book is my previous work. I’d been shopping some of the poems in accrete or crumble around for several years. It was a huge relief to publish that book, because I wonder about the currency of poetry, whether certain poems have expiry dates.

My more recent writing is sometimes funnier, more self-deprecating, less deliberately obscure.

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?

Good question. I don’t think so. I’m influenced by more pedestrian things, the way people speak, turns of phrase, intonations. Rhythms of language everywhere, especially bad translations, wrong grammar, awkwardness. I’ve carried bits of things I hear people say in my head for months until they come out in poems.

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

Accept things as they are. Understand that my life has started, it’s not waiting for me somewhere.

Also travel more.

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?

Well, I’m currently attempting law, which is a form of writing. I’ve worked as an editor. I started to be an academic once. I don’t think I’ll ever get away from text, sadly.

If I could carry a tune, I’d be a singer. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a dancer, and I’ve always admired yoga instructors – maybe I’d try to stop camping out in my head and move into the rest of my body.

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

I don’t think writing is opposed to anything else. If all I did was write, I’d go insane. Or I’d be profoundly depressed. I try to let everything else I do (jobs, school) feed into my writing. Writing is my ulterior motive.

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

Dennis Lee’s yesno.

I saw Juno recently – not quite great, but definitely good. I watched Midnight Cowboy on Christmas Day, it was a great mood enhancer.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A short series of poems with the working title of Chump Redux. A slightly longer series about living on the West Coast. Some found poetry that comes from law sources. Thinking a lot about paper and design, plotting chapbooks that may or may not materialize.

1 comment:

Poet Hound said...

I found your blog via Ron Silliman, and I LOVE the idea! How did you come up with the idea to publish nothing but interviews? Also, are these people you already know personally, or do you seek them out?