Monday, February 4, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Betsy Warland

BETSY WARLAND has never enjoyed writing her bio. It brings up an odd collision of feelings ranging from tedium, to anxieties about presentation, to flashes of accomplishment, blush of hidden failures. The form’s requirement to write about oneself in the third person – in order to continue the illusion that an objective someone else, other than ourselves, composes these – is also peculiar. Perhaps to rattle it off fast: ten books, two manuscripts, two plays, editor of 4 books, a number of vocal music compositions based on her poems including a recent CD by Elizabeth Raum, and lots of critical essays (mostly for artist’s show catalogues).

Writing is her dawn & dusk, her teacher.

Now, the “How do you support yourself as a writer?” side.

The list: Director and on faculty of The Writer’s Studio at SFU (love it but very part-time modest pay); runs own individual manuscript consulting service and the 5-month Vancouver Manuscript Intensive; teaches numerous creative writing courses; editing contracts; and able to travel recently (!) with teaching gigs in UK, France, maybe Mexico.

All this she also relishes. It’s just a struggle to get writing time. Where have you heard this before?

1 - How did your first book change your life?

In some surprising ways!

What one anticipates is that it initiates your membership into the literary community. I found this to be true and not true. In retrospect you realize, of course, it’s not that simple. For most of us, acceptance and acknowledgment can take years. As a good visual artist friend of mine says: “We just have to live long enough!”

Prior, most of the readings I gave were group readings, and after my book came out I learned to stand on the ground of solo readings. This was crucial as this is when you really know how well the writing is working: when it is just you, the writing, and the audience.

It certainly drew a line between the public and private in unanticipated ways. In A Gathering Instinct there was a suite of poems about the break-up of my marriage to which my parents reacted violently. My mother informed my brother that she was going to take a razor blade and cut out those first 20 pages – then she would give her sisters my book on the strict condition that they would never mention it to anyone (including their husbands!). When she mentioned her plan to my brother he pointed out that they would notice the book began on page 21. That they would likely imagine much worse things and she relented. After this, I did not mention my subsequent books to my folks: it was too much for them to handle.

Nearly 25 years later, while closing up her mother’s home, a cousin discovered my book hidden beneath the shelf lining of her mother’s underwear door. My cousin had only heard rumours about the book.

Even more contentious was that the book contained several poems that only a discerning reader would have recognized to be lesbian love poems. This was 1981. I was strongly advised as a first-time author to only publish a few non-explicit love poems. Reading those” safe” love poems – sans the context of the deleted, explicit poems – created an odd dynamic for me. After having written the absent erotic into being a present erotic, these poems in the book then became a vehicle for yet another erasure into the “universal.” This is when I began to see that universality is a historically specific concept: it arose out of a small, heterosexual, male-defined homogenous society and in contemporary time must be questioned.

In 1982 Phyllis Webb’s exquisite “Naked Poems” appeared in her book The Vision Tree. Again, these required a discerning reader. Three years later I had to make a different decision with open is broken. These poems were preoccupied with inventing a lesbian erotic language enabled by a greater use of experimental form. This was also true of my partner at the time, Daphne Marlatt’s book, Touch to My Tongue. Our books were the first books of their kind in English Canada. Now it seems astonishing, but we gave co-readings from these books across Canada.

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 moved to Vancouver in 1981 as a result of a broken heart! As children, all four of my grandparents immigrated to the USA from Norway. Thus, my genetic sensibilities immediately resonated with the landscape of Vancouver mountains and sea.

When I was on a G.G. jury for poetry over a decade ago, I was struck by how different West Coast authored books of poetry were. They were more ethereal, philosophical, meditative, formally experimental, notably less narrative and anecdotal; landscape figured in significantly but remained autonomous and mysterious. It was as if these collections were written in a different country! An on the edge “country” of writing: one with which I resonated.

Race and gender – yes. Phew! Big questions, rod! I am a composite of these, yet of many other things too. I wrote about them more earlier on, as I also interrogated and re-imaged language more early on: those were the years of laying down my foundation as a writer. What I am fascinated by now is consciousness: both what is conditioned and that which seems to exist beyond conditioning.

Recently I have found a name that finally fits: a person of between. Not surprisingly, it is writing of the between that I am most drawn to. Am inspired by. These are often writers of different racial, cultural, country of origin lineages; writers who are in various ways socially “aberrant;” writers who are public intellectuals.

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?

Occasionally a single poem “comes to me” but predominantly it is a territory of linked suites or an extended poetic narrative. These begin with a handful of narrative and formal elements that constellate with a certain surprising intensity. What their relationship is to one another is not evident – this is what drives the writing – this quest. With only this blue, the first suite began with a colour (green), the use of blank space as a resistant-state to printed language, nature as guidance, and the double en-dash.

Not coincidentally, other art forms I am deeply engaged in work in this manner: a visual artist’s series of portraits; a composer’s use of movements or series of related compositions. My preoccupation with betweeness, pattern, synchronicity also suit series and book-length forms.

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

Public readings are crucial for me. Like a composer-musician who must perform their music, poetry is an air-borne art form! I often read from work in progress to I find out what is working well; what is not. And to be totally honest, the reception of my work has been seldom “taken up” in any depth in critical writing, nor are my books (to date) on many course lists. So, readings are where this connection and reception occurs. It is also where the power of poetry is collectively shared. This is paramount. Our disengagement from religious institutions has created an isolating despair; a longing for collective moments of transformation. Poetry readings are needed more than ever.

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 a lot of theory in the 80s. It was pivotal to my development as a writer. In the 90s I began to read less: it became an area of expertise that I wasn’t inclined to devote myself to acquiring; I began to be more interested in sleuthing my own theories.

My writing is driven by philosophical and spiritual inquiry. For me, thinking involves the whole self – from the odd particularities of one’s lived experience to the proprioceptive and encoded nature of language to cultural patterns of behaviour to core questions such as “How does a life-threatening situation change our perceptions of the ordinary?” (only this blue)

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

Right off I want to say that the editing, revising process is as interesting as the first draft, inscription process. The composition stage (editing & revising) has its own intriguing and creative aspects. As I mentioned above, readings activate my third ear through which I hear the poems more objectively.

I show my work early on to “my first readers.” These are friends who are writers, editors, librarians, visual artists, acute readers – who know what I am after – who will tell me where I’m on & off the scent.

When I first began publishing, editing done by a press was more erratic and I learned to take responsibility for it myself. For my first book, I enlisted two friends with good editing skills (poet Gay Allison, and librarian, lover at the time, Janet Rogers). With open is broken, my partner writer Daphne Marlatt gave me excellent editorial input. I learned a lot from Daphne about editing; she’s a meticulous editor. My third book, serpent (w)rite, was edited by bpNichol and I learned important things about structural shaping from him.

Other editors that were particularly invaluable were Barbara Kuhne (Proper Definitions and InVersions), Beth McAuley (Bloodroot), poet and editor Rachel Zolf (only this blue).

My teaching and consulting sharpened my abilities and I became quite a good editor of my own work and do the most of it myself. It is not unusual for me to fine-tune edit a poem up to a hundred times. I am a “subtractive” writer. I must get it on paper without preconceptions, staying acutely on the scent, and set aside the editor. Once I have the first draft, I begin to take away (like a sculptor); refine; revise. I am an adept substantive and line editor but I would never want to rely on myself for skillful copy-editing!

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

Harder! No doubt about that. Particularly finding of a publisher. The enormous changes still happening in the publishing and bookselling industries are part of it. For example, Chapters-Indigo has recently announced it will no longer sell poetry books. When I did my own research via compiling National Library data in 2002, I found between 1985 and 2001 publication of fiction books increased by 300%; poetry books only increased by 65%. Prior to 1985, the proportion of poetry and fiction published was more similar.

The feminist literary scene also lost its momentum and migrated away from a fairly autonomous production base to an academic setting where only a few feminist writers can be focused on. Ageism also has entered in. Publishers’ central concern is bottom-line: their enthusiasm and respect for a manuscript appears to less and less the decisive factor (I have recently experienced this). And, if you are writer who remains faithful to your narrative quest, the likelihood of falling out of fashion is increased. I think there is also less reception for writing that takes intellectual risks. The unquenchable thirst for entertainment has over-taken us more than we realize..

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

This morning! I was not a pear fan until I lived on Salt Spring and experienced pears right off the tree in our garden. Since then: I’m hooked.

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

I came across it a couple of decades ago in Virginia Woolf A Writer’s Diary, “…when the pen gets on the scent.” This has been my guiding mantra ever since. We can only write incrementally – one word at a time – just as a dog sniffs the trail of a specific animal or person – we must recognize each narrative’s distinct scent. When we are on the scent of the narrative it is a visceral, elating and sometimes terrifying experience. Doubt and confusion drop away. We trust where the narrative’s momentum and trajectory will take us. It’s not that we have it all figured out, but rather that we are wholly inside each idiosyncratic step of how that narrative goes about building itself.

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

Scale. I am drawn to the mystery of how poetry can convey an idea in an astonishing image yet the investigation of ideas is more of a contract between writer and reader in creative non-fiction and I relish this too. The form of creative non-fiction I enjoy the most is lyric prose as it conflates poetic devices and sensibilities, creative non-fiction’s considered thinking, and some of the narrative elements used in fiction.

Many of my books are book-length narratives that shift in & out of poetry & lyric prose (open is broken, Double Negative, The Bat Had Blue Eyes, Two Women in a Birth, only this blue). These narratives required different proximities to convey their complexities of perception.

Because I am intrigued by process and phenomenology, I relish how creative non-fiction requires that the architecture of thought-making be made transparent. Lyric prose writing (memoir and critical essays) really works my brain hard. I can literally feel my left & right hemisphere arcing back & forth! In lyric prose, the discovery (the “subject”) is as much about finding each narrative’s inherent form as it is about finding its content.

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?

Ahh – the question that makes us squirm. It changed dramatically about ten years ago. Prior to that, I had periods of being able to maintain a routine of writing almost every day for a number of hours. Then a series of life circumstances left me with little to often no time to write. I had to learn to write in a different manner. I now write far less frequently, in short bits of time. I have learned how to concentrate quickly, write economically, and “hold” the writing in my mind between inscription times. Book-length manuscripts definitely help maintain the territory. Over time, I find that the way I teach creative writing and do manuscript consults becomes more & more similar to how I write! Also, I’ve learned to bring a similar attention to the composition of work-related writing (critical essays for art catalogues, emails and email interviews) as I do to my own writing. In some respects, this has all made me a better writer.

Typical day: awaken early, meditate, breakfast followed by at least a half an hour of musing with two cups of China Silver-Tipped green tea (in warm weather = outside on my patio/in cold weather = in front of my gas fireplace), and listen mostly to piano –– currently The Impromptus and The Complete Piano Trios by Schubert, and Handel’s Suites for Keyboard – then like an otter, slip into the writing as soon as I feel its force-field. On the majority of the days, however, it’s into my paid work that fortunately, I enjoy.

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

Happily, lots of “places.” Solitude, my Buddhist practice, Jazz and Classical music, my writing about writing (Breathing the Page), teaching creative writing, dance performances, galleries, immersion in nature, attentive interactions with my ten-year son, other authors’ book, film, theatre, and during manuscript consults – deeply engaging with another writer’s manuscript – are all sources. Typically, I am in need of contrast, defamiliarization, “making it new;” alternate “languages.”

When working with another writer’s manuscript, or teaching creative writing, it’s not that I get ideas from what they are writing but rather that it plunges me into that intuitive, perceptual, formal way of encountering the world: its like tuning in to a very particular frequency.

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

In only this blue, I give over to space more than ever before – the uninscribed left hand page shimmers throughout the long poem: the uninscribed what-can-not-be-said given equal presence as the inscribed. Maybe this is why I revise so much – I revise the scored space (“blank” areas) as much as the inscribed (print) areas! It is also a right & left brain book: a long poem and related essay, “Nose to Nose,” on the form of poetry.

This book manifested in a different manner. Due to very demanding life circumstances, I had been only writing creative non-fiction. I had not written poetry for a few years. This had never happened to me before. I feared that I had lost my way into the poem. Perhaps forever.

Then, when I had a rare two days of solitude, the poem returned. I hadn’t realized how deeply I had been grieving its absence until it resurfaced. The gratitude was overwhelming. This made the book unlike any of my previous ones. Also, the book’s design came to me as a whole: I had never experienced this before either. It’s exact dimensions; its uninscribed left hand pages; the photo-shoot idea for the cover image; the precise blue colour-field of the cover of the Montreal early evening November sky.

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?

Other than what I mentioned above, yes, some of my reading about science as well.

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

This is one of those questions in the same category as when someone asks “What do you write about?” My mind always stalls. With books, usually it’s days later when I can suddenly identify which ones are important to me.

Humourously speaking – the question that I’ve encountered is (Stranger) “So, what do you do?” (Betsy) “I’m a writer.” (Stranger) “Oh, how interesting – what kind of horses?”

There are so many writers I could name but I am only going to mention those that, over a long period of time and in a complete manner continue to be solar for me. Writers who persist(ed) in evolving as writers.

Nicole Brossard’s books continue to challenge and elate me. Her writing embraces the philosophical, the emotive, the erotic, an ongoing formal (structural) quests, an almost iconic relationship to language, the political (not abstract but embodied), and the meditative (quietly spiritual) inquiry.

Virginia Woolf is another, and the combination of her novels (still so innovative formally) and her thinking about the formal and political questions of writing in Virginia Woolf A Writer’s Diary are crucial for me. Too, she had the ear of a fine poet.

U.S. (originally from Antigua) author Jamaica Kincaid is another one for me. Kincaid also embodies stunning formal skills (on the level of language, the line, and the book’s structure); her narrators and characters are fiercely embodied; evoke the political implications of our lives in tell-tail details with gripping honesty; and she infuses her writing with unflinching intellectual inquiry.

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

Live in Venice for six months to a year! Anyone want to do a flat exchange?

Some years ago I wrote an operatic play on Vivaldi’s life as a composer and impresario for his operas and papal ban which essentially finished him off. I would love to see play produced. While writing the play l fell in love with Venice.

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?

Be a composer. Formally, I think like a composer and music is an absolutely essential part of my life. Recently, author Anne Stone [see her 12 or 20 here], wrote a “Featured Studio Visit” in Matrix on me, and for my accompanying bio I gleefully abandon the expected and wrote: “Betsy Warland is a could-have-been-composer with a visual artist’s sensibility working in a writer’s medium.”

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

I decided in my early twenties between being a visual artist (painting) and writing. I didn’t consider myself sufficiently endowed to excel in both forms. Also, I was in the U.S. then and had experienced how writing, particularly poetry, taproots the social well-being of a society. During the 50s, 60s, early 70s, feminist, African American, and Beat poetry were clearly shaping social and artistic consciousness: providing social vision. The fact that writing is also a more accessible art form was also a decisive factor: it only requires the “tools” of everyday life. Is very affordable. And one does not have to be prosperous to buy a book (compared to buying a painting).

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

Kincaid’s novel, The Autobiography of My Mother. How she works with the line in that novel is absolutely stunning; riveting. This is no exaggeration: when I read the first sentence of that novel I was nearly blown out of my chair.

Just last night: The Savages featuring two brilliant actors: Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as sister and brother (a relationship rarely focused on in film). It is a genius film of the small gestures that signal pivotal moments. Moments in which we can either be buoyed up out of our suffering (and do something different) or sink deeper down into our suffering (do the same old). Tamara Jenkins wrote and directed it. I find that films written and directed by the same person can rely far more on their own quirky, inherent coherence and vision.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Breathing the Page: The Writers & State of Consciousness is a manuscript of twenty-three essays on writing. Ten years in the writing: it’s my opus! It is an investigation into the question: Why do talented writer’s with well-crafted, promising narratives of prose or poetry flounder?” Half of the essays establish a language (via concepts) that I have developed to address concerns that underlie the more tangible ones of craft, process, and editing.

The other half of the essays are about our everyday writing materials – their histories and properties – about how it is necessary to invigorate them; not “take them for granted.” In sum, it is about the various states of consciousness we need to bring to writing so that our unexamined habits and assumptions neither stunt us as writers, nor the power of the narratives we write.

At a much earlier stage is a lyric prose manuscript, Oscar – A Story of Failures, that I started about a year ago. It begins with the narrator taking a second proper name (of the opposite gender) and experiencing a pivotal insight about her life while viewing a camouflage exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London. The invention of military camouflage (and subsequent application to our daily lives), Cubism, Relativity, the changes in consciousness in writers during the first half of the century, and the notion of failure and betweeness all figure in.

Signing off,

Thanks, rob, for your provocative and fun questions. One of the best one-sided x 2, one-sided conversations I have had!

February 3, 2008

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