Monday, March 10, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Harold Rhenisch

Harold Rhenisch is the author of twenty-one books, including 14 collections of poetry, including Living Will, a translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets into contemporary erotic English. He has published four volumes of creative-nonfiction, including the George Ryga Award-winning The Wolves at Evelyn, and Cross-Country Checkup Book of the Year, Tom Thomson’s Shack. In addition, he is the editor of Robin Skelton’s posthumous poems, Facing the Light, and his new selected poems, In This Poem I Am. He has published one novel, Carnival, and is the English translator of the postmodernist German playwright Stefan Schuetz. He has won the ARC Poem of the Year Prize, the ARC Critic’s Desk Award, The Malahat Review Long Poem Prize for both 2005 and 2007, and is the second prize winner for the CBC Literary Prize in Poetry for 2008. A year’s work as editor and cowriter on Chris Harris’s photographic book about the earth’s last intact pristine grasslands, Spirit in the Grass: the Lost Landscape of the Cariboo-Chilcotin, has garnered two B.C. Book Prize nominations. Rhenisch’s Return to Open Water: Selected and New Poems selects from oral pieces spanning the last twenty-nine years, honed during his more than 300 readings during the last decade, across Canada and abroad. An active editor, reviewer, and mentor, he lives in Campbell River, British Columbia, after 15 years on the Cariboo Plateau, and a dozen years in the Similkameen Valley.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

The first book was in an edition of 1, which I made for myself on an old Olympia typewriter. I trimmed the paper with scissors and perfect bound them with some White Lepages Glue from the farm workshop. It took a few days to dry. John Howe did the cover. I showed it to my creative writing teacher, and he took it seriously, because of the effort that had gone not it. That validation changed my life. My first trade book, Winter, got me a toe-hold into the publishing game, which, given that I was in Victoria and far, far outside of the canlit horizon, even as it stood then, was a godsend. Still, the validation of that kind of sacred nature writing did change things. I was working on hyper-realist, trickster poems at the same time — something I put aside for a decade. It could all have started quite differently. Editors have an enormous influence.

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

I write out of place. Like the Secwepemc and Similkameen people themselves, I really am a child of the grassland. I have 4,000 years of grasslands culture behind me. Now, on Vancouver Island, I still have that earth under my feet – except that the stories of the dreamtime don’t take place along the rivers here but underwater and in the intertidal zone. Somehow, from deep knowledge of a small space I’ve found myself a citizen of the earth in the largest sense, across space as well as time. It humbles me. At the same time, it is liberating. When I left the Similkameen Valley in 1992, I was 36 years old. I knew every story for every stone and tree, and was living in a landscape much like the sacred ones of prehistory. When I got to 108 Mile Ranch later in the day, and looked out over the plateau lake in front of my new house, the lake was blue, the trees were brown, and the grass was green, although I knew that this was ridiculous. So I set about teaching myself to see by creating palettes of colour.

If race has made an impact on my work, it’s because when I started school, half the kids in class were from the reserve south of town. 1 of them graduated from high school 12 years later. In my late teens, I made the transference from European to Native conceptions of land and space. It was not deliberate. It happened. BC history is the result of a marriage between these two cultures. That we have, collectively, chosen to live within the European side of that equation means that we are stuck. We will move forward when we can speak about them both in the same breath.

Gender has had a huge impact on my work. When I graduated from university in 1980, talk was that the only people who’d be hired to teach at universities for the next 15 years would be women, so I decided not to waste $45,000 on grad school, and went farming. So, here I am now, an intellectual writer living in farms and small towns, and knowing the country from the ground up, rather than the top down. What’s more, I gave up that farming, my first passion, and raised my kids, which has been my life for 23 years now. I’ve lived much of my life in the society of women. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, feminism transformed me from a kind of dionysiac metaphysicist into a trickster and a social geographer. The result, most recently, has been my The Wolves at Evelyn, which gets into matriarchy in a big way, and tells the story of women and children, and how they have created this culture I live in in British Columbia. It’s an unusual kind of feminism, sure, but it is one nonetheless.

3 - Where does a poem or piece of prose 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?

It begins with play. Or it begins with a moment of silence. Or both. Time and space are suspended. It’s a fleeting thing. These days I’m writing a lot of poems based upon play, revisions of old stuff, some of it 20 years old or more. From that distance, I can play a lot, because I’m not the same person I was then. My Winging Home, a bird book, is all about play.

Poems can sometimes come out whole. Prose pieces, though, are always cobbled together over long stretches of time. To complete one, I need to reinvent myself. Once I started blogging, and goofing around with pictures, the process of cobbling and re-visioning intensified. It’s a pretty wild ride now. Images are often a better doorway for me than textual passages. But then I was interested in painting long before I became interested in language. Something must have sunk in from moving that paint around.

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

No work is done without being publicly performed. I don’t know what a piece is about or what it does until then. I write for the voice now. Performance has become a touchstone. It keeps me honest. Audiences don’t lie. Younger audiences lie even less.

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?

The accepted story of literature in the twentieth century needs to be re-envisioned. There is a British Columbia literature which is distinct from Canadian Literature. British Columbia contains numerous unique cultures and histories, without literatures; I have tried to plug a gap. Too much of literature does not integrate non-rational forms of logic; half of what we are as human is at stake. I have inherited certain threads of literature; I wish to pass them on. Poetry has a long nonfiction tradition; I have tried to reintegrate it with prose nonfiction. There are new genres being born in contemporary writing; they are our future. Writing is a vital, contemporary human activity, not an aesthetic diversion. At fifty years of age, I want to support young writers. I want to give them what I can to help them flourish in a post-civilized world. I want to write the successful long poem that Pound failed to write. I want to create long poems that combine criticism, photography, and prose poetry. I want the tradition to be made real and vital, so it doesn’t die.

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

I have worked with good editors, who have allowed me the freedom to follow my vision, while holding me to task, and bad editors, who have either been unable to see any solution to a manuscript’s problems, or who have otherwise channelled my work into dead ends. It seems to be the difference between responding to the work, as a work, and responding to the work as a commodity, to fit within preconceived conceptions. Editors who abuse commas and truncate arguments wind up butchering things. They’re editing literature, not writing. Most of my editors have been great.

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

Oh, it’s much easier to put together a manuscript and make it into a book. It is not easier to find a publisher. For some things, of course, reputation helps. For others, though, in markets that have to do with change or publicity, it’s easier to be new or unknown. In addition, there are more writers chasing down fewer publishers. I’m not convinced, however, the answer lies in books, unless our distribution radically changes. At the moment, our books are amazing manufactured commodities. They are industrial products. I don’t think this is going to last. I think we are going to have to re-imagine the book, completely. I think we need to start now.

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

A couple months ago. Right now they taste like cold storage. What’s more, packing houses are now mixing artificial aromatic esters in with artificial storage atmospheres, to counter blandness. They’re science fiction pears. It’s like eating an asthma puffer or something. It’s better to wait until the pears are in season. I came of age reading Virgil underneath a pear tree while a huge bullsnake rustled through the grass just feet away, hunting in the rising starlight as nighthawks hunted overhead. I can wait.

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

Always draw a knife towards yourself.

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

It’s not about appeal. Some of the genres we write in have not been defined. Good. This allows them to grow. The day will come when they replace the ones that are breaking at the seams today. Poetry is a non-fiction form. As Pound showed, the long poem is a lyric poem blown wide open. When non-fiction writing evolved out of the enlightenment, all the non-Descartian material of the Renaissance was left for the poets to deal with, and erroneously took on an aura of fancy — or fiction. Poetry, however, is a non-fiction form. By moving into non-fiction, a greater sense of language can be gained, a greater elasticity, and the ability to further escape the lyric mode and write in long forms.

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?

It begins with email, with conversations. These continue all day. Papers and books pile up around me. The phone rings. On it goes. Piles of papers and books collapse. I move them onto the printer when I need the scanner, and onto the scanner when I need the printer. I plow into things until my mind gets cloudy. Then I do something physical. Writing used to be physical. Now it’s electronic. It’s not the same thing at all anymore.

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

I will sidestep that question, thanks. Writing is a gift. I’m grateful. I keep a sense of play. I talk to people. There’s always something to work on. There’s always something new. I teach workshops. I edit manuscripts for people. I learn from them. I build community. Writing gets stalled when it no longer fits a box. I avoid the damn things. I keep breathing. There’s so much to write about. I find song lines. I wait for them. I work in time. Life is short.

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

My most recent book is a manuscript on clowns. It’s a surrealist game that Paul Celan played with his friends in Romania after WWII, which consists of rapid fire questions and answers. It’s fascinating. I love it because it’s poetry that doesn’t take the form of what is called poetry. It’s funny stuff, a combination of linguistic slapstick and trickster work. It’s different because of the formal departure. It’s the same, because I’ve been working with tricksters and clowns for years.

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?

Story–telling and visual art are huge influences. Nothing gets into a prose book that hasn’t been told as a story, usually many times. P.K. Page said that visual art and poetry come from the same place. I agree. Painters are light years ahead of writers. They inspire me continually, daily. When I talk with painters, we’re talking about the same thing. I’d say that as a poet I have as much in common with painters than with most writers. We’re doing the same thing.

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

Ryzsard Kapuscinski, Sven Lindqvist, Joan Didion, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Theresa Kishkan and Kristjana Gunnars [see her 12 or 20 questions here] inspire me for nonfiction. For fiction, I love the postwar short stories of Heinrich Böll and Siegfried Lenz for their amazing reveals, Raymond Carver for his dialogue, Jim Shepherd for the cinematic tour-de-force of his short story (but not his novel) Nosferatu, Marianne Wiggins and Mark Anthony Jarman for their language, and Birgit Vanderbeke for her absolute mastery of repetitive syntax. For poetry, Ezra Pound, always, as well as Robin Skelton, Charles Wright, and Olena Kalytiak Davis’s Shattered Sonnets Love Cards and Other Off and Back Handed Importunites.

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

I’d love to be a piano player.

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?

It would be cool to be a wine maker.

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

It was possible, as a single individual, to stand outside of a system of lies and tell the truth. Also: words contain the world and manipulate the stuff of the world. How could I pass up on that?

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

The last great book I read was Theresa Kishkan’s Phantom Limb. The last great film I saw was Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m currently seeking a publisher for a book of short stories. I am in love with the form. I am working on a play about the mysterious hanging of six Secwepemc girls as British Columbia became a province and restrictive Indian reserves were being established; a second play about the Goebbels family in Hell; a novel about Shakespeare, living on into the present through possession and repossession; a collection of long poems; two collections of short poems; a series of poems which rejig classical prose texts; my clown book; a book-length elegy for the lost province of British Columbia; a nonfiction book about fruit, and its history, as it has transformed from medicinal plant, to food stuff, to commodity, a nonfiction book about poetry, and another about nonfiction. Well, the last two might must be the same book. Time will tell. Why so many projects? I recently completed an MFA at UBC, online. To do so, I set my other writing aside for two years. The process of catching up is thrilling.

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