Juliane Okot Bitek [photo credit: Colleen Butler] writes poetry in Vancouver. She is writing her dissertation on forgetting and citizenship. Juliane is the author of 100 Days (University of Alberta Press 2016). She lives and loves in Vancouver.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
First book. What a relative term. First professionally published book being 100 Days allows me to watch work taking on its own personality, making new friends and sometimes inviting me to come along.
How does your most recent work compare to your previous?
Like kids. Each one is different. Idk. 100 Days is very, very headstrong. Not much else to add to that except to say also that my other pieces have done well in their distribution by finding homes in anthologies, on youtube, once on stage, and various places.
How does it feel different?
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I never came to poetry. Poetry came to me but not even first, but just most definitively. It has been the practice that is kindest and most accessible to me but I've always enjoyed getting lost in fiction or any good prose. But fiction and creative non-fiction are more demanding masters and don't come so naturally.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project?
It doesn't. It just appears.
Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process?
Sometimes instantaneous but sometimes painfully slow. One of the projects I'm working on comes in bits and spurts but it has taken longer than a year and is still working itself out. The other one is playful and joyful and looks good in everything.
Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Most work appears close to final shape but there is this one that is an unwieldy thing. It moves like an enormous mass and I've recently taken to polishing it from various corners that I can reach instead of moulding it all at the same time. That seems to work.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you?
Usually from a phrase, a photo, a line that shows up and won't relent until I've worked on it.
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?
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy doing readings and attending readings. I don't know if I've ever connected it tot the writing process but often as I read I'll edit at the microphone, knowing that the published piece could've still used one more bit of editing, but I don't angst over that.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing?
What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work?
Oh, dear. Different life stages, different things/ideas, right? For a long time I've thought about exile, diaspora and identity. Now I mostly think about how we're the stories we belong to.
What do you even think the current questions are?
Oh, god. Who even knows? Not me.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture?
I was just reading about a pediatrician surgeon turned politician and was thinking about the role of politicians in society. I'm sure there's a grand role somewhere but I don't know that the writer's work is different from the artist's work which is the most likely entry point into that question.
Does s/he even have one?
Or two? Or a bunch? Idk. But as part of the artistic community as one who uses writing as a medium, most definitely, yes.
What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The work of the artist is to keep society attuned to the sensitivities that remind us of who we are. In recent days, the fallout from #Canlit reminds me that there's too much expectation placed on the writer to be a better/brighter/more sensitive human. Maybe not.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best piece of writing is the one that's already written.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I enjoy reading all those genres but some of it is much harder to come by. I'm my best self as a reader.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one?
Nope. No writing routine. A schedule, yes. Does it work? No.
How does a typical day (for you) begin?
No such day as a typical day.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I wait. I read or do something else and remind myself that the energy spent on worrying about it is probably wasted energy.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
Everything. I'd deeply inspired by the work of visual and performance artists. I wish I could write with the power of abstract art. I'm working on it.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Toni Morrison, Dionne Brand. Nourbese Philip, Claudia Rankine, Mahmoud Darwish and a bunch of other writers but these are my go-to folks when I need reminding of why I do what I do.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Visit Petra in Jordan.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be?
I'd have loved to be a visual artist or a fashion designer but I can't paint to save my life and I'm lucky to be appropriately dressed at any given time.
Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I'm good. I love teaching. I think my perfect life is teaching and writing.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I sucked/suck at everything else.
19 - What was the last great book you read?
What was the last great film?
Great is a word I avoid studiously but I did answer the last question quite easily so it must mean something. Let me see. I watch a lot of movies but the word great scares me. Movies that I'll not forget in a long while, maybe? I loved the idea of Inception. I loved Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Redux. Beloved for sure is unforgettable. Fruitvale Station blew my mind.
Beasts of the Southern Wild. Now that's a fantastic movie. Left me quiet inside.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A doctoral dissertation, a creative non-fiction book and almost done a collection of poetry.