Shawna Lemay is the author of All the God-Sized Fruit, Against Paradise, Still, and Blue Feast. Her MA thesis (poetry) is Red Velvet Forest. She recently finished a book of essays about living with still life titled, Calm Things. Inspired by rob mclennan and a few other bloggers, she has started her very own blog called, Capacious Hold-All. She lives in Edmonton with her husband, Rob Lemay (a visual artist) and their daughter, Chloe.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
I was pregnant when the book (All the God-Sized Fruit) was in the editing stage. The goal was to have it done before the baby came – but she came a week early. When the book came out the next spring everything had changed. Because of these two birthings, I felt like I had begun to ‘make something mythical of my life,’ which is a line from the title poem.
2 - How long have you lived in Edmonton, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
Indeed, I’ve lived in Edmonton my entire life. When I was a kid my family also had a weekend/summer cabin out near Lake Isle which is deeply embedded in my consciousness. I spent half my childhood walking in the trees, hanging out at the barn with the horses, just moseying around looking at nature, and collecting odd little bits of it, pieces of bark, berries, interesting rocks, feathers, birds’ nests, moss. A favourite pastime was lighting fires in the burning barrel by the barn so the horses could have a smudge to keep the mosquitoes away. So that’s all there somewhere. Writing poetry has something to do with lighting fires, I’ve found. As for gender, yes, it’s been a constant question, whether I’m writing about women and creativity or motherhood. My goal is to further explore what obstacles women face by interviewing women poets of my generation on my new blog with hope they might be collected into a book at some point.
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?
I’m definitely thinking ‘book’ from the beginning. What I’ve found interesting is how one book flows into the next. Themes recur, images, obsessions. At the end of a book, you think you’re all written out, you’ve said all you can about those themes which have obsessed you. I like then, what Margeurite Duras says, “To be without the slightest subject for a book, the slightest idea for a book, is to find yourself, once again, before a book. A vast emptiness. A possible book. Before nothing.”
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
I’m quite terrified of public readings. In the car on the way to a reading I begin swearing, uncontrollably, like a sailor. It’s ugly. When my essay ‘Shy’ was published in Prairie Fire, and then was nominated and became a finalist for the personal journalism category at the National Magazine Awards, I was insanely, ridiculously nervous. If I won would they want me to go and read it at the ceremony? (I didn’t win). The essay was about, of course, being shy and what that means, and there’s a description in it of a particular reading. (The launch of Against Paradise along with 3 other excellent books by Sonnet L’Abbe, George Murray and Lorna Goodison). This was one of the most terrifying moments of my life, reading with these poised, gifted people. For me it was a huge accomplishment that I didn’t faint. I do understand how ridiculous I am, and mainly I try to forget about the business that happens after a book comes out, while I’m writing.
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?
Here, for me, is the main question, cribbed from the desert fathers: why not be totally changed into fire?
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve been beyond blessed with editors. Nathalie Cooke was my editor for All the God-Sized Fruit and that was simply an incredible experience. Tim Lilburn edited Against Paradise. Brilliant, kind. And Doug Barbour was my editor for Blue Feast and it was so great working with someone I knew quite well. I knew what to expect with Doug as I’d had him as a poetry instructor in my undergrad. Sharp-eyed, passionate about the craft of poetry, and extremely supportive of the book.
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the past few years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
It’s difficult, always difficult. But there’s joy too. Writing is what makes the world magic. ( I think I’m stealing all that from Duras…)
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
We forget to eat the pears very often in this house. We’re too busy watching the drama of the pear – the way it turns from green, to yellow and then into a pale speckled ghost pear. There is the way the brown spots appear, the bruises., the gashes and in the summer flies will alight. We watch and watch, mesmerized, until it’s inedible. Rob, my husband, is a still life painter who has painted numerous pears.
I blame him entirely for my lack of pear eating.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Give. I’ve learned this from a few sources. During the editing of ATGSF, Nathalie Cooke recommended a book to me by Lewis Hyde called The Gift. But she also taught this by example. It’s also in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life: “the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give feely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
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 been a natural move to non-fiction. I can’t really say why, but I’ve lost heart for poetry. I hope it comes back. Perhaps I’m foolish to expect it to. There’s consolation in Roo Borson’s Upriver to Oishida. She talks about having ‘given up’ poetry twice, and then poetry replies: “Throw it Away, / it comes back. // Throw it away harder, / it still comes back.” So, I’ll see if it returns. It’s been quite a long while now…
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?
I’ve always had a writing routine and I’m always strict about it. The routine has changed so many times since we had our daughter 9 years ago. And then we got her a puppy (black lab) in June so that’s forced yet another change. A good one though. I walk the dog in the morning in Terwillegar park – which is very similar to my childhood forest. Every day, it’s a different forest. The light is different, the leaves change colour, drift to the forest floor, slowly, over weeks. And now the beginning of the winter forest which has its own beauty. I look and look, drinking in every tree branch. Then home to write until it’s time to collect my daughter from school.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I turn to books – always to The Stream of Life by Clarice Lispector. To the work of Kristjana Gunnars, Annie Dillard, Helene Cixous, Margeurite Duras, Hannah Green, Susan Griffin. And then to many poets, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Anne Marie Macari, Eavan Boland, Denise Levertov, Marina Tsvetaeva, Phyllis Webb and more of course.
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’m most influenced by visual art, especially since I live with a still life artist. We’re obsessed with objects, with still life, but we both love pouring over art books, all kinds of art. On the floor of my study right now I have books on Vermeer, Cy Twombly, Leonor Fini, and a couple of colour theory books. Also Reading Women – images of women reading, from Simone Martini’s Annunciation, to Eve Arnold’s photograph of Marilyn Munroe Reading Ulysses.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
(I think I sort of answered this in number 12?…)
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
The most important thing to do will be to drink more champagne. I don’t want to have regrets, as John Maynard Keynes did. (“My only regret in life is that I did not drink more champagne”)
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?
I would attempt to become a visual artist – though I’m not nearly talented enough to succeed. If I’d not become a writer I would have ended up as a librarian type – answering reference questions, digging and delving. Trying to find that next perfect book for someone.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ll quote Duras: “No matter what I say, I will never discover why one writes and how one doesn’t write.”
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
We watch a lot of cartoons in this house, sadly. But The Cat Returns was excellent.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a long piece about the possibility of a woman art forger. I’m attempting to push the boundaries of creative non-fiction (who isn’t these days?). I’ve really just begun so I’m at that fearful, elated, wild and somewhat incomprehensible stage when it comes to explaining anything about it.