Wednesday, January 18, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Juliane Okot Bitek



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?
Both.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Sigh.

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?
Nope.

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)?
Absolutely essential.

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?
Bread baking.

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.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

On beauty



For each time you access a memory, it changes, moving further away from the original. As Niels Bohr suggested, even to silently witness is to alter what is observed. The smell of my mother: some combination of powder and perfume. It rose from her pores. The baby is asleep.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Stephen Collis, Once in Blockadia




Then we were all engines. Someone asked, how will you get to work or wherever? Like the possible was always equivalent to the available. We were not only saying no. Was it really so strange to decolonize on camera? Only if the Sun news reporter tells you to GET A JOB. Nobody likes it but what are you going to do about it. Machine says, no cross this line. It doesn’t happen all at once – it is between the frames and it is internal to the social process of collective individuation and it is a firefly lit in the dark and it is ongoing in the soil, perc and leach field, mushroom explosion at borehole number 1. We are engines of change, component parts, aqueducts. NGOs mansplaining at the police line, someone said they mounted a cavalcade of photo-op arrests. That’s harsh – we all wanted to delete certain processes – to say fuck this under or over our varied breaths, smile at bypass of yellow tape, sacred fire. What is Carboniferous after all? The engines behind the blockade were carved cedar, raven-winged, and reaching as militant flesh across the metabolic rifts we were – back in time and forward in time, lifting material from the forest to be a barrier to human stupidity.

Vancouver poet, editor, fiction writer and critic Stephen Collis’ Once in Blockadia (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2016) is one of the most striking examples of political poetry I’ve seen in a while. As the back cover informs:

Called by Eden Robinson “the most dangerous poet in Canada,” Stephen Collis was sued for 5.6 million dollars by U.S. energy giant Kinder Morgan for opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The lawyers accused his words of bearing instruction: “underneath the poetry is a description of how the barricade was constructed.”

Composed of “two long sequences evolving from found texts, and two long poems that engage with Wordsworth,” Once in Blockadia is Collis’ sixth full-length poetry collection (not including his collaborative Decomp with Jordan Scott) and, in what could easily be considered his strongest collection to date, solidifies his ongoing engagement of social critique through poetry. As he warns in the first section: “The future has never meant so much to us [.]”

talking to shut down

We were like
the people
meant some specific
though difficult group
rising meant that
fed up with
tally of harms
digital wealth in some
offshore pirate haven
armies moving everywhere
police shooting
imagined skin colour
planet in decline
the fierce precarity of
just giving a shit
the people are
having gathered
that we weren’t
going to go away
place of assembly
place we could organize
place we could plan (“The Port Transcript”)

Given that excerpts of his poetry, thanks to Kinder Morgan, were included in court documents against him, one might argue that the oil company in fact elevated the status of those words, and become a rarity in Canadian poetry – words that have had a tangible, concrete effect – and this collection is a result of both his actions and their reactions. As a contemporary poet, Collis’ aren’t simply words thrown into an empty space (as so much poetry is described as doing: “poetry makes nothing happen,” etcetera), but, through an ongoing activism, words that found their mark, and were seen by a powerful company as threatening, causing them to respond with a lawsuit. As he writes in the poem-section “Home at Gasmere”: “How often do we hear / That there is no other choice [.]” To open his notes and acknowledgments, Collis writes that this collection “has gone through many transformations before assuming its present form. It began as a book walking in the restricted spaces produced and/or threatened by resource extraction […].”

Composed as a blend of long poems, transcripts and essay, Collis’ Once in Blockadia is, as Fred Wah remarks on the back cover, one of “poetic resistance.” While the three volumes (to date) that have made up his ongoing “Barricades project” – Anarchive (New Star, 2005), The Commons (Talonbooks, 2008/2014) and To the Barricades (Talonbooks, 2013) – have cohered and articulated language as an element of social action, Once in Blockadia is denser and more focused, composed as much as a cudgel and a call-to-action as a communique on or consequence of the Trans Mountain pipeline. In his 2016 interview over at Touch the Donkey, he spoke briefly to the idea of what poetry can accomplish:

I’ve thought about this – spoken and written about it – quite a bit. The short answer to “what can poetry accomplish,” politically, is – not much. Poetry is something I do while doing other things – it’s a skill set (such as it is) I bring to the social movement activities I’m involved in, just as someone else might bring cooking skills or building skills. Politics is performed by being talking and doing things together, and poetry might find a small role in that. I like Lisa Robertson’s formulation from NILLING, where she focuses on the politics of the address. We could also approach this via the importance of the call (to action, to resistance, to assembly) that the Zapatistas placed at the centre of their project (Howard Caygill, in the book called ON RESISTANCE, is really good on this, though many others have written about it too). So while poetry is the vehicle through which I think, and the vessel of my daily life, its facility to propose imaginative addresses (in my work, to and from the commons) and calls (from all to any) are its significant political role. This is something akin to “inspiration” (so the poem might be called upon to introduce a meeting or event or an action), but I would prefer Caygill’s term “capacity building”: poetry can be one thing that builds social capacity. Other things do that too (feeding people, counselling them, etc.). So I think there are limits to what poetry can do politically, but I do take seriously the (however limited) contribution it can make.

I am fascinated, also, in the way that Collis writes in response to and around William and Dorothy Wordsworth, blending poems and journal entries by them both with current political advocacies and actions, as he writes:

Upper limit elegy
Lower limit pastoral
Fader glide between

Walking – we were seeing
Silvered shunts of sand lakes
Like salt flats wondering what
Winkles out in yonder mercury
Sheen? No ponds pretend to
Lighten belief – air cannon and
Scarecrow miners surround
These tailings are desolation’s
Dream of crumbling décor
Whoever it was saw boreal
Swept it clean in cold accounts
Before land wastes were
Fenced former forests of sand
Thick dark thoughts leaching
Heavy metal music machines

Or death metal bands screaming
Unfathomable ruination
Inside a sealed steel cube in space


Sunday, January 15, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Iain Reid

Iain Reid is the author of two critically acclaimed, award-winning books of nonfiction, One Bird's Choice and The Truth About Luck, which was one of Globe and Mail's best books of 2013. Reid’s work has appeared in a variety of publications throughout North America, including The New Yorker. In 2015, he received the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award. His debut novel, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, is a national best-seller and has sold in fourteen territories to date.

How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I didn't change my life much at all. This book feels very different than my first two. Both of those books were non-fiction, and about (mostly) pleasant experiences for me. This book is fiction and was much harder to write.

How did you come to memoir first, as opposed to, say, fiction or poetry?
I think because non-fiction felt a little easier for me. It was a better place to start. It's more reactive. With fiction everything is possible, and that's hard. That's also one of the reasons why it's interesting, and why I enjoy it. I'm sure it will always be a challenge for me.

How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It's a slow process. I don't feel like much comes quickly or easily. It can be a bit of a struggle, especially early on. But that's just part of the process, I think. My first drafts are always very rough. They require lots of work and revision.

Where does a work 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?

I'm not entirely sure. I think I know I'm working on a book from the beginning. But I also don't plan everything out. It's more about the ideas for me, and having questions. Then I start writing and see what happens.

Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
What I like most about public readings is the chance to meet readers and to thank them for their interest. I'm appreciative of the opportunities and invitations when I get them.

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 questions are always changing for me, but I always have a lot of questions. It's all about questions. Most go unanswered.

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

What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Go for a walk.

When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I like to read a lot. So that helps. But if I've set aside a chunk of time to write, I try to keep going, even if I feel like I've stalled, or it's not going well.

What fragrance reminds you of home?

Hay.

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?
Yes, for sure. All of those to varying degrees: music, science, film. There was a lot of biochemistry in this book that ended up being cut from the last draft. But it was fun and interesting to learn more about and write, even if it didn't make it in.

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?

Maybe a baker? Or some kind of cook. I like food and eating. Maybe a farmer.

What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I've just always enjoyed it. Maybe because I find it difficult. I like solitude. I'm not a very adventurous person, so writing actually feels exciting for me.

What are you currently working on?
A new novel.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Friday, January 13, 2017

WEDNESDAY! rob mclennan & Stephen Brockwell read in Vancouver at Lunch Poems at SFU

I can't believe that more than a decade has passed since I last read in Vancouver.

Going back through blog entries, I've discovered that yes, indeed, it was November 6, 2006 when I last read in Vancouver, as part of the Robson Reading Series with Stephen Brockwell. I seem to have posted a ridiculous array of tour notes on my month-long trek from Prince George, British Columbia all the way back home, as well as into the UK with Brockwell as well (posting reports on such here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). You are welcome to completely ignore any and all of these notes, by the by.

So there it is: my triumphant return to Vancouver after more than a decade! Thanks much to Wayde Compton and Renee Saklikar for all their efforts to bring us out, and to Stephen for getting us there. And: twenty years since I first read back in the city, with Clare Latremouille and Kathryn Payne. Can you believe it? Ah, me.

Oh Vancouver, might we see you on Wednesday?

rob mclennan & Stephen Brockwell read in Vancouver at Lunch Poems at SFU

Lunch Poems at SFU is a unique vibrant exchange of poetic ideas and cadence held the third Wednesday of every month, noon to 1 pm, in the Teck Gallery at Simon Fraser University's Harbour Centre Campus.