Thursday, May 1, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Carolyn Marie Souaid

Carolyn Marie Souaid (Montreal, 1959- ) is an editor, teacher, book reviewer, and the author of four collections of poetry, including Satie's Sad Piano, which was shortlisted for the 2006 Pat Lowther Memorial Award and the Mary Scorer Award (Manitoba Book of the Year Awards). Her latest work, Flight, was released as a limited edition chapbook by Rubicon Press in 2007. Her work has been produced for CBC-Radio, and has been published nationally and internationally. She has appeared at many literary festivals across the country, and was recently sent to Paris as part of a Canadian delegation of authors invited to participate in the 4th Symposium Against Isolation, an international forum on the inhumane treatment of prisoners of conscience in Turkey and other prisons worldwide. In response to this event and as an act of solidarity, she co-edited Freedom: An Anthology of Canadian Poets for Turkish Resistance, featuring works by nine prominent Canadian poets uniting in defense of activists serving jail time for the translation and dissemination of information about abuses in Turkish “F” type isolation cells. Recently, she has become involved in projects aimed at moving poetry off the page and into public spaces. She is the co-producer (with Endre Farkas) of two of Montreal’s major literary events: Poésie en mouvement / Poetry in Motion (the poetry-on-the-buses project, 2004) and the annual Circus of Words / Cirque des mots, a multidisciplinary, multilingual cabaret celebrating the “theatre” of poetry. October (Signature Editions, 1999), shortlisted for the A.M. Klein Award and set against the backdrop of the events of the 1970 FLQ crisis, represented Montreal in a showcase of the city as “World Book Capital” in 2005-2006. In 2007, she edited Quotidian Fever, the new and selected poems of Endre Farkas [see his 12 or 20 questions here], published by The Muses’ Company. Carolyn holds a Masters degree in Creative Writing from Concordia University in Montreal.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Overnight, I became rich and famous.

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

I moved from St-Hyacinthe to St-Lambert, a suburb on the south shore of Montreal when I was six. In fact, I’ve spent most of my life there, except for about three years when I lived and worked in Inuit settlements along the Hudson-Ungava coast of Northern Québec. Being a stone’s throw from Montreal and, yet, being separated from it by the St-Lawrence River makes me, in some ways, an outsider looking in. I’m very conscious of its smells, its colours, its noise as compared to the more middle-class, homogenous, white-bread place I inhabit. I love the diverse dance of cultures and languages, and the volatility of the two solitudes living side by each in the same city. I have tried on numerous occasions to capture that in my writing.

Geograhy—physical, human, political – usually finds its way into my poetry, especially into the collections that aim to be a faithful witness to time and place. Some specifics: Montreal figures prominently in Satie’s Sad Piano, set during the aftermath of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s death. The book features a cast of eclectic characters or “voices” (including one called Mount Royal) who bear witness to Trudeau and his time. October, an earlier book focusing on the October Crisis of 1970, is set primarily in the suburb where I grew up and where Quebec’s Minister of Labour, Pierre Laporte, was kidnapped. But other geographies, such as the one of Lebanon with its enormous cedars and mountain relief, has also flavoured what and how I write. Snow Formations, an exploration of the intersecting worlds of natives and non-natives, pits the dense, peopled south against the vast, spacious north. Because each of these collections depicts a particular sociocultural moment, place looms so large it almost becomes a character in my poetry.

All that I am – white, middle-class, female, Quebecker, Canadian of Lebanese ancestry, Earthling – impacts my work in ways that I am probably not even aware of.

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?

It begins when some idea I have manifests itself as an abstract painting in my mind. Sometimes it comes as a result of reading; sometimes, in response to an ordinary (or extraordinary) life experience. I don’t mean that I literally see colours and swirls. It’s more like a vague feeling that washes over me, a feeling that I’m onto something worthwhile and that if I want the epiphany, I’ll have to roll up my sleeves and find a gateway in. Then comes the hard work of shaping it into something that the public can “see” as well.

These days, I am working on a number of short pieces, none of which seem to be connected thematically. What they share, instead, is a common mood. Earlier books, by contrast, tended to be born out of a desire to re-visit particular events in my life— the adoption of my son from war-torn Lebanon, for instance.

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

Sometimes, I feel it necessary to get audience feedback on poems I’m not certain about. In those cases, I use the reading opportunity as a testing ground. Public reaction (and hearing my own voice read it aloud) is a reliable indicator of whether a piece needs to be tweaked or trashed altogether.

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 spend more time honing my craft than theorizing, but I do have a theme that keeps cropping up in each of my books. And that theme has to do with the difficulty of truly connecting with an “other” despite the great lengths we go to to avoid being alone on this planet. A “cup half-full” kind of person, I believe that all human relationships are riddled with roadblocks. So many, in fact, that it sometimes feels as though we are ultimately alone on this earth, regardless of our efforts to bridge that chasm with partners, friends, and children. To be honest, I’d rather believe something pretty, something comforting and reassuring. But at times the gap feels huge, frighteningly unbridgeable. And each new book feels like another attempt to address the same issue, only with different players. In Swimming into the Light, for example, I wondered how an adoptive mother could possibly bond with her child the same way a biological mother could. October, an exploration of the physical and emotional distance between an anglophone Québécoise and her francophone partner, was a rather naive attempt at reconciling the two solitudes in Quebec (and Canada). Snow Formations revisited this same theme of “impossible connections” by examining the intersecting (and contradictory) worlds of natives and non-natives in Northern Quebec. In all three cases, I wondered whether it was possible to have true connection, compassion, and understanding for another, even between the closest of people. If so, how? I don’t think those books ever adequately resolved the issue for me. So, I’ll probably keep coming at it in future books, even if obliquely.

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

Sometimes difficult, but always essential. I have had great experiences working with Endre Farkas, George Amabile, Rob Allen, and Karen Haughian, my publisher. I remember the invaluable education I got going through the editing process on my first book when Michael Harris asked me the infamous “If you could save only one page of your manuscript from a blazing fire, which would it be?” I learned a great deal trying to answer that one question.

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 time, it’s like starting all over again. Not harder, not easier. Just exciting because of the not-knowing, because of the potential for surprise. I like the idea that I am embarking on an adventure, clueless, in some ways, of where it will take me emotionally, creatively.

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

Pass. That’s too personal a question.

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

B-R-E-A-T-H-E. This advice comes from my best editor who knows exactly when the thing I’m working on has me all tangled up in knots. Also, that necessary cliché: Carpe Diem.

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

I write book reviews and other non-fiction pieces not as a counterpoint to my poetry, but primarily to keep me abreast of what’s going on out there in different pockets of the country. It is a constant source of frustration to me that despite efforts to reach out and connect with other poets by attending readings and festivals, we continue to remain isolated from one another, regionalized. (This is possibly the case for fiction writers as well, though I’m not certain of it since poets are still the most marginalized of writers). Bookshops – usually independent ones – make some effort to stock their tried and true locals, but it’s rare to find a west coast work in a maritime store. The exception is Toronto, capital of book galas and glitzy awards ceremonies, which some years ago declared itself the literary hub of Canada. Although it’s gradually changing now that talent is being recognized in other parts of the country, literary Canada still seems to be Toronto-centric, and, as a result, many of its poets get to see the light of day both at home and elsewhere, while others don’t get that same luxury. This, too, has to do with the Chapters/Indigo monstrosity, but that’s another story.

This is a long-winded way of saying I need to know what else is out there in order to feed my own work. It has nothing to do with engaging a different genre to “nourish” my poetic craft.

Twenty years ago, I wrote a few stories that got published, but I always found fiction a little like connecting the dots, something I get bored with very quickly. I once took a fiction writing workshop and the professor told me that my stories were “too poetic.” As though it were a bad thing. Whereas I believe poetry is the highest form of literary Art. It always surprises me that poetry is seen as the “poor cousin” to fiction (witness the buildup to the fiction prize at the GG Awards, with everything else getting lumped together, paling by comparison). In my view, fiction writers, have more of a God complex – which is to say they need to exert more control. I am much more interested in giving a reader the opportunity to engage with the text and make meaning for himself. I honestly can’t see myself returning to fiction any time soon. But I’ll keep at the book reviews and non-fiction, for all the reasons outlined above.

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?

There are no typical days. When I wake up in the morning, I have no idea where the day is headed. If the early morning call to substitute-teach comes (my bread & butter), then my day is essentially mapped out by 7:15 AM. If the call doesn’t come, then I know I am free to write if I want to write. But, there is never any obligation to do so. I might spend an entire (free) day wanting to write, intending to write, but finding a million other things to do, instead. On the other hand, sometimes while I’m “teaching,” I allow myself to drift off into space and sometimes an idea for a poem comes. As long as students are busy with the work assigned to them by their regular teacher, I take advantage of the lull, scribbling a few lines or jotting down an idea for later. On those days, I might hit the computer as soon as I get home, and then write straight through until three o’clock in the morning without even realizing how long I’ve been at it.

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

I tend to return to my very eclectic library of poetry titles and pull out the authors whom I find to be the most daring with language and form – even if I don’t always “understand” what they’re doing. I feel that my writing really got stalled after my third book, when I began to feel I had tapped into just about everything in my own personal life that I could. The well had seemingly run dry. And then, as luck would have it, I got a provincial arts grant, which bought me the time I needed to read and think. The result was my fourth collection, Satie’s Sad Piano, a more conscious attempt to step outside my small personal ghetto and experiment with voice and form. Written in the spirit of George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls (with an entire cast of characters), it was my own version of what the music industry used to call a “concept” album. Then, in the fall of 2007, I decided to sign up for a master poetry class being given by Erin Moure [see her 12 or 20 questions here] (even though I myself teach similar courses for the Quebec Writers’ Federation) partly to renew my own battery and partly to get a better handle on some of Erin’s own creative process. Erin represented for me the more experimental side of poetry, the dinner party I wanted to join, but could never get an invitation to. The course opened me up in ways I hadn’t anticipated: I now feel as though there is an endless reserve of material out there, and the only time my writing gets stalled is when my bank account is low and the rent is due, and I have to spend most of my energy hustling for freelance work either teaching or writing.

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

My most recent book (Paper Oranges, forthcoming in 2009) was written as a mood piece. The poems in it are less accessible, more playful. At the time of writing it, the structures in my personal life were crumbling, and this definitely impacted on my process. Generally, I was more interested in rhythm and the musicality of words, less driven by the need to concoct an underlying narrative arc to sew the poems together.

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?

I don’t consciously rely on outside influences for writing in the sense that I wouldn’t slide a CD of Maria Callas into the machine, sharpen my pencil, and wait for inspiration. Nor would I open up an art book and use a painting as a trigger for a poem. That said, I do believe that everything crawling close to the skin and even things peripherally in our lives inform and influence our work – how can they not? The source of my obsessive relationship with imagery is probably my love of concrete sensual detail: the pleasure of good food, the drama of leaves, colour and the visual arts—painting and photography, in particular. Somehow, this all finds its way into my work.

As for structural influences, the novel as a form has influenced much of my past work in the sense that each of my early books has the feel of a novel: if you read those early books in order (even though each poem can stand on its own), there is something of a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are characters. There is setting, conflict, resolution. But my poem-novel comes closer to abstract art than representational art. Poem, poem, poem, poem. One after the other, but not as a connect-the-dots work. The reader’s responsibility is to fill in the gaps himself. I won’t do it.

Finally, I am a woman, and I write through that lens. It is not a form, it is my social reality.

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

It depends on who I’m reading at the time – not only poets, but philosophers, too. Living or dead. Most recently, it has been Frank O’Hara and Louise Gluck. And Thoreau, for instruction on how to live.

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

I’d love to work with members of the theatre community to produce a stage version of one of my poetry books. I had a taste of what such a collaboration could yield at the first annual Circus of Words (the multidisciplinary multilingual cabaret show that I co-produce with Endre Farkas) when Jennifer Boire hired a director and two actors to stage a 15-minute piece focused on the Sedna myth which appears in my book Snow Formations. It was awesome.

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?

No question, I would have studied interior design – I love the idea of playing with paint colours and lighting, fabrics, textures and furniture arrangement to create a particular mood and to tell the story of who inhabits that space. I guess in some ways, it’s another way to write.

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

From a very young age, I’d always felt it vital to record my every footprint, as though if I didn’t, the experience would be forever lost. I suppose I could have just as easily painted or photographed the world around me but as it happened, I was given a diary for Christmas when I was six-years-old, a lovely little red book that came with a lock and key, and from that day on, I kind of fell into writing. I wrote in it faithfully every night, even if only to note what TV shows I watched, what friends I played with, what I’d eaten for dinner that night. I’m not sure where this sense of urgency came from, but much later, in my late 30s, I stumbled upon a statement made by Philip Larkin in 1955, which explained why he wrote poetry. What appealed to him, he said, was the idea of rescuing an experience from oblivion. Voilà— there it was in black and white, and far more articulately. This drive to freeze-frame snippets of existence definitely jibed with my own motives for writing.

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

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel; The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.

I’m a film junkie – it’s hard to pick the last GREAT one. So, I will give you a list of my all-time favourites, oldies, because I watch & re-watch them regularly. I’m a huge Woody Allen fan (Annie Hall, Hannah & Her Sisters, Crimes & Misdemeanors, Manhattan, Interiors). Also: Amadeus, Il Postino, Life is Beautiful, Godfather II, My Dinner With André, Casablanca, Damage, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Dead Man Walking, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ve surely forgotten some. I think the films coming out of Quebec are among the best in Canada: CRAZY, Jesus de Montréal, Le Déclin de l'Empire Américain, Being at Home with Claude, to name a few.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Playing. Not taking myself so seriously. A few new poems I’d rather keep under wraps for now.


Jon said...

Hi Rob,
What good fortune to stumble through here. I remember reading your chapbooks (Above Ground Press I think) when I was apprenticing with Mary Dalton at Memorial in St. John's. One piece that sticks out in my mind was called Full Reverse Trigger, I think. I'm on my way to Brock in September to begin a grad program and am hoping to have Greg Betts as a supervisor (you featured him in March on this blog). I notice that there's no comments up so I'm guessing that you're not into posting them but I thought I'd leave a note all the same. Hopefully you'll take a quick look-see at my site and maybe drop me a line. I'd love to pick your brain about YOUR views on the craft and have lots more than 20 questions. This admirer of your work hopes these words find you well.


Creative Soulful Woman said...

Hi Rob
this is a wonderful interview with Carolyn, and some great questions, except for the pear one of course, which is really too intimate for publication.
glad I found it while stumbling through referrals to my blog,
aka musemother

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