Thursday, February 14, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Jenna Butler

Jenna Butler was born in Norwich, England in 1980, but has spent most of her life on the prairies of Western Canada. The varied landscapes of the prairies and mountains – their intense harshness and incredible richness – feature prominently in her poetry and fiction. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including the James Patrick Folinsbee Prize, and has been produced by the CBC. Her poetry has appeared in Jones Av., Nthposition, Leaf Press, Pandora’s Collective, The T.S. Review, Persephone’s Sisters (Rowan Books, 2000), In the Laughter of Stones (Rubicon Press, 2005), Otherwheres (Pen & Inc. Press, 2005), The Moosehead Anthology X: Future Welcome (DC Books, 2005), String to Bow (Leaf Press, 2005), Grain, CV2, and Writing the Land: Alberta Through Its Poets (House of Blue Skies, 2007), among others. Butler is the author of three short collections of poetry, Forcing Bloom, weather, and Winter Ballast, in addition to an upcoming full-length collection from NeWest Press, aphelion.

Butler is a member of the League of Canadian Poets, and has participated in several League events, including a number of readings, Random Acts of Poetry, and mentorship programs for young poets. She was the League’s inaugural Online Poet in Residence in January of 2007, and sat on the board for the first Edmonton Poetry Festival in 2006. In addition to this, she has performed her work widely, both on the air and onstage, for audiences in Canada and Europe. She sits on the editorial committee for Edmonton’s Olive Reading Series, where she also serves as Treasurer, and is the Founding Editor of Rubicon Press.

Butler holds Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Education degrees (distinction) from the University of Alberta, in addition to a Master’s degree in Creative Writing: Poetry (distinction) from Europe’s most renowned creative writing school, the University of East Anglia (UEA). She is currently immersed in her Doctorate of Philosophy from UEA under the supervision of contemporary British poet Denise Riley.

Jenna Butler makes her home in Edmonton, Alberta, where she is a teacher, editor, and book reviewer. She divides her time between Canada and England in order to remain active in both literary communities, to teach, and to promote the international work of Rubicon Press.

1 - How did your first chapbook change your life?

I think of the chaps coming out now (through The Olive Reading Series, through above/ground press & Red Nettle Press) as firsts in their own way. Different trains of thought, more reading behind them. I go through these phases of dropping everything, clearing the slate, and starting over...these three chaps feel like that kind of beginning for me. Change of direction, more than anything else.

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?

I’ve lived here for 24 years, give or take, & not all in one stint; cripes, it does seem a long time when you see it written down!

Geography has a huge impact on my writing; psychogeography, more specifically – the way we carry our early landscapes with us and find/do not find home in other places because of the places we are already shouldering. Mind you, all my latest writing has been about place (prairies and mountains, in particular), engaging with the idea that the generation I am a part of is the one that, thus far, has walked the lightest on the earth in terms of tangible remnants left behind (buildings and so on). Yet it has had a very profound impact upon the global climate; bit of a paradox there. & I guess I always write from a feeling of displacement, having been born elsewhere, and having a very divided sense of “home.” I love Sharon Butala’s Wild Stone Heart & the sense of walking a land in all seasons across the years to come to some sense of grounding in it.
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?

Wow, that’s a tough one. I tend to dip into a poem as a show of good faith, I guess, & then get yanked all over the map as the poem proliferates madly & becomes a collection.

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

They are (now) very much a part of my creative process. I’ve written and published for years, but have always been young enough to be slightly edgy of reading with an older and much more experienced crowd. Not sure when that changed; perhaps with The Olive Reading Series – wonderful venue in Edmonton, very supportive and innovative group of people. Reading’s become a joy since then; a chance to test out new work, offer more polished pieces, & just interact with others who read/write/consume poetry.

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 write to investigate, to inhabit a space. Concerns? Crosscultural identity, displacement; I’m after finding Canadian prairie poetry that isn’t just about prairie, & that isn’t just about fighting against landscape & all the baggage that comes with it (Romanticism, etc.). Slipping inside a liminal space and inhabiting it for a while.

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

Hmm; I’d have to agree with Amy King [see her 12 or 20 questions here] and say that editors don’t necessarily edit anymore. There does seem to be a move away from working with authors to fine-tune a body of work to a simple acceptance/rejection mentality. I’ll admit that does make me feel a little undone – it’s uncomfortable to have someone challenge and poke about in your work, but it’s lively, it’s engaging. I’ve been fortunate lately to work with some fantastic folk on upcoming chapbooks. And I’m really looking forward to working with Doug Barbour [see his 12 or 20 questions here] on my upcoming collection from NeWest Press. He is a darn fine poet and editor & I know he’ll give me a run for my money; he won’t let me justify my way into keeping bits that need reworking. It’s the most fantastic thing to find an editor who is on your wavelength & knows just when something’s good & when it’s crud and has to go.

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

My head’s always going in about ten different directions at once, so starting new work is never the issue. Finding the time to finish it often is. At the same time, having several different projects on the go at any one time allows me to shift to whatever I feel most drawn by. Mind you, there are some collections I’ve begun that have sat on the backburner for years, & I feel rather like a neglectful spouse; continuing to promise company somewhere down the road, but never showing up...

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

Cripes. It’s Edmonton, we’re five months through a winter that’s hanging on by its teeth. And I refuse to eat those green, chemically softballs that pass for pears in most of the chain stores. I’m holding out ‘til summer – Okanagan and pick-you-owns!

Answer: It’s been way, waaay too long.

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

Denise Riley: “Speak softly as is needed to stare down beauty. That calms it.”

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical work)? What do you see as the appeal?
I like the change of scenery, & at the same time, much of the critical writing I’m currently doing is tied to collections already underway. I’m halfway through a PhD at the moment on Creative and Critical Writing – a thesis plus a full-length collection of work – so the jump between the two fields is a fairly friendly one, and manageable.

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?

Oh wow, I wish I could have a writing routine. I teach high school English full-time, so my days at school begin at 7:00 am and often end around 6:00 pm. Then there’s the PhD clamouring for attention, like some bereft puppy, when I get home. Add to that Rubicon Press, which I run from home...Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays between midnight and three are my writing moments right now. Otherwise my students suffer when I come in in the morning after having stayed up all night to write. It’s not remotely ideal, but it’s where I’m at at this point in time. Otherwise, I carry my notebook everywhere I go. I write on napkins. I am keenly attuned to whatever spare seconds the day might drop, & that I can snatch up for writing.

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

I read a lot of poetry, poetry criticism. Right now, I’m enjoying chewing through Chaudiere Books’ A Long Continual Argument (John Newlove’s selected). Also reading Diana Brebner, Tim Bowling, & a huge whack of a book, Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings. Took me ages to get my hands on a copy, & will probably, with work & all, take me ages to read the darn thing...but so very satisfying to sink into for a few moments here & there. Fantasy is a guilty and very enthusiastic pleasure (Steven Erikson, Jo Walton, etc). & when not reading, I turn to work out at the acreage (we’re putting in a road and are doing the clearing by hand ourselves). I love the rote, physical work. A different kind of mindfulness.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
Hmm...three small chapbooks just out, almost one on top of the other, so most recent is somewhat of a difficult term...I’m taking a stint away from anti ghazals, which I feel very at home with (conversely, completely used by; that’s the wonder of the form). Current work still focuses on the breath, & the manipulation of the breath through the structure of the words on the page, but the lines are lengthier, more narrative. & I’m thoroughly immersed in prairie now.

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?

Music, definitely. Photos, artwork, psychology. I devour exhibits, especially arcane & out-of-the-way ones at small museums off the beaten track.

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

Sharon Butala, for her vision of how to inhabit a space/how to come to know the land. Anything by Phyllis Webb. I spent the summer reading Dostoevsky, Lawrence, Camus, Swift – partly for teaching in the fall, & partly because some of them were starting to slip out of mind. I like George Szirtes’ stuff; very different from my own, very lyrical; I read him in counterpoint to poets like Denise Riley, Lisa Robertson. & I’ve been reading more of Newlove, as I mentioned; I can connect with his attitude toward writing, I envy in some ways his ability to lay everything on the line to be able to have the time to write. I wish I was that brave.

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

Hike through Alaska; I’d love to walk the Chilkoot Trail.

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?

Probably something completely counter to expectations – I’ve always wanted to be a park warden or man a lookout tower & keep watch for forest fires. Eep, is that Dharma Bums, or what? Something where I wasn’t tied to the clock, or, in my case, the school bell.

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

There was a choice? I must have missed that one. It’s concurrent with breathing.

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

Hey, how is that fair? I read like I write – lots, simultaneously. Barbour’s Lyric/Anti-Lyric is one always under perusal; it’s good stuff. Also Alice Notley’s Coming After: Essays on Poetry. Just finished Diana Brebner’s The Ishtar Gate. &, for something completely off that tack, Jo Walton’s Farthing is some fine, fine dystopic fantasy. GREAT film has been something sorely lacking lately...I always come back to faves like the original Metropolis & Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God).

20 - What are you currently working on?
The PhD. Plus a collection based on Nabokov’s writing and his lepidoptery, called Blues for Nabokov. Also a collaborative collection featuring poetry and photography of little-known or forgotten incidents from Canadian history. & a collection of prairie poetry. Working on a few papers for presentation at conferences in Britain in the fall/winter of this coming year. And, of course, the ubiquitous marking for my English classes.

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