Hooked, (Brick, 2009) by Carolyn Smart, intricately explores the worlds of seven women and the journeys their addictive personalities take them on. These seven long poems plumb the intimate lives of Myra Hindley, Unity Mitford, Zelda Fitzgerald, Dora Carrington, Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles, and Elizabeth Smart. Although the outcome of their life decisions is often disheartening, and perhaps disenchanting, Smart’s colloquial and engaging voices are compelling to read. Hooked is addictive, seven times over!
1. In Hooked, you bring to life the characters of seven women who were all born before or during the Second World War. How important was the time to your choice of subject? How did you choose which women you were going to write about?
I didn’t choose a specific time from which to draw these characters, frankly – it just seems to have worked out that way by chance. The period of time between the wars has always been one of my favourites as I have been passionate about the work of Virginia Woolf (and by extension all of the Bloomsbury Group) as well as the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and many of the poets of that period. I suppose my fascination with that time period is what led to the discovery of some of these women, but certainly not all.
2. Most recently as my MA thesis, I have been writing poetry about the Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele and his mistress/model Valerie Neuzil. Part of the attraction of writing the narrative in poetry, and not in a novel or other non-fiction prose, was that poetry allowed me to move deeper into the complex emotional relationship that existed between the characters. What enticed you to write poetry about these women?
I had been working with prose for nearly 10 years by the time I got around to this project. First, my memoir At the End of the Day (Penumbra Press, 2001) was a transitional point; I was at first writing what appear to be prose poems but then the book becomes more journalistic in tone and style as it continues. After that I started work on a novel which I still tinker with from time to time. The novel is set in the 1920s in Europe, and I wrote it to explore the lives of my maternal grandparents who I know next to nothing about. I invented them for my own amusement, I suppose. After ten years working in prose it was narrative that brought me back to poems. I wanted to tell the stories of these women as I’d told stories in fiction.
3. Which of the long poems (and consequently characters) did you begin writing first and why did you feel it was important to give her (or any of them) a voice? (I have my suspicions that you started with Myra Hindley.)
I did indeed start with Myra Hindley. The book is actually chronological in that the poems are placed in the order in which I wrote them. Myra had been a figure of fascination for me since I was a young girl. My father used to read articles about her aloud from the Times of London. He found her compelling, especially the fact that even after she was found guilty and imprisoned she managed to charm and seduce several of her warders. I had always pictured her the way she is most often presented: platinum blonde, heavily made -up, brutally flat expression. But her obituary in the Manchester Guardian showed a very different, very plain woman, and I was intrigued to explore that range, and to imagine what went on inside her head and how she came to do what she did.
4. How did you engage the colloquial aspects of each character in the long poem? Did biographical research provide you with an insight into personality and did your research lead you to writing poetry differently?
It wasn’t just the written research that gave me entry to these women, it was the photographs (and in the case of Jane Bowles, a film) that really offered insights. Photographs can show so much character. And yes, research wasn’t something I was familiar with for previous poems, and it did lead to a new procedure for me. I’ve written long poems before (I’m thinking of “The Sound of the Birds” in my previous book The Way to Come Home) but I’d never told whole life stories before and I didn’t want the poems to appear too much like “this is your life”. I wanted a sense of imaginative leaping as well as a sense of the women’s individual voices, formed by class as well as geography.
5. Do you believe that each of these women took risks with their own lives in the quest to be different from society’s expectations of women’s lives? Do you think risk taking is a part of their addictive personalities? If so, how important were/are these risks to the women?
This is a very intriguing question: I think it is precisely the risk-taking that drew me to these women in the first place. I used to think that I chose them because they were not victims, and that is certainly part of it, but it’s the courage (in some cases) as well as the utterly irrational risk-taking that appealed to me. In some cases these women didn’t define themselves through gender but purely through action and art.
6. Did you perceive these women, especially the artists, as becoming so addicted to living the life they had created for themselves, however harmful to their existence, that they were never able to fully escape their own creations?
Yes! And that’s why I rejoice as well as mourn.
7. Do you see your book as a celebration of their strengths? If yes, how so, if not, why?
I didn’t consciously write the poems with that in mind, although as I suggested earlier I didn’t want to dwell on a subject who I perceived as a victim. The closest I got to that was “Rickety Rackety”, as Zelda Fitzgerald was, I believe, creatively and personally destroyed.
8. I’m curious to know that if by taking risks on a new style of writing, pulling out of the addictive comfort of the confessional, you’re able to creatively evolve your craft in a new and challenging way? Do you feel change is essential to your growth as an artist? Do you see creative risk as another form of addiction?
I was weary of my own story and wanted to tell other stories, to involve myself in other lives. I was also drawn to a more performance-oriented style as that really intrigues me these days. And yes, change is essential to me as an artist. I suppose creative risk is just part of the life I’ve led in the last several decades. I’m never one to shy away from risk, personally or professionally. I got married for the second time after knowing my husband for six weeks. We’re still married after 25 years. That pretty well sums up my life story.
9. Who would you consider your influences in poetry? Which poets do you read on a regular basis?
I fell in love with the poetry of Leonard Cohen and ee cummings when I was a teenager. In my 20s I was heavily influenced by Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton, Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin, Michael Ondaatje, Anna Akhmatova, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Carolyn Forché, Cesar Vallejo and Pablo Neruda. Since then I’ve also gone through obsessions with Carol Ann Duffy, Jane Kenyon, Marie Howe, Selima Hill, Laurie Sheck, Lynn Crosbie, Lynda Hull and Elizabeth Bishop.
10. How did you begin to write poetry? Did you have any mentors that helped you or that continue to provide you with ongoing support in your writing?
I began writing poetry when I started copying the style of Leonard Cohen. I was 16 and it was a perfect fit. My family had always been a very verbal, highly literary group. My mother read aloud to me from ee cummings’ poems when I was young. My father studied with Robert Frost at Harvard and wrote his own formal lyrics, mostly occasional poems. He and my mother strongly encouraged my writing.
My mentors have been wonderful, especially Bronwen Wallace, who was my close friend for many years until her fatal illness at the age of 44. My sister-in-law, the South African poet Ingrid de Kok, is someone I show my new work to whenever I can. In my 20s I was part of a writing group that included Mary di Michele, Pier Giorgio di Cicco, Roo Borson, Kim Maltman, Barry Dempster and Al Moritz. All of these people had a huge influence on my first published poems.
11. Could you describe a bit of your writing process? Do you seclude yourself to write, or do your words thrive in a noisy cafe?
I require complete silence and separateness – I cannot write with music or the sound of someone moving around in the house. I live in the country, and the only sound I hear most days when I’m writing is the sound of birds outside and the wind in the trees.
12. What are your future writing plans? Do you have any projects/manuscripts on the go?
I have a few minor things on the go: some strange biographical prose pieces as well as the novel that rears its head from time to time. But there’s no big project that has grabbed my full attention yet. I’m looking forward to the end of the academic year when I can spend my time writing, when I have a break from the teaching that I love and the marking that I loathe.
So I know this a month away, but set your spring calendars now. I won’t take no for an answer, and carry your best bling around your neck, on your fingers, your body, your head. This is one event that’s bound to take the sting outta dat long winter ting!
…or a few newsy type items. I’ll be doing a seminar on the Google Books Settlement on March 29 1-4 pm, (location tba). Contact the SWG office in Regina if you’re interested. I believe there will be another one in Saskatoon that will be run by Access Board Member James Romanow. And in case you were wondering about Access Copyright here is a blog article about it from an outgoing board member and fellow blog writer, Doreen Pendgracs.
So, this is what one does when you’re in Hamilton with writing friends who have book or events that need author photos. One gathers as many cameras as one can, heads down to the waterfront, and clicks away. Personally, as a bit of a diva, I’m never really satisfied with many of my pictures; however, on the waterfront, there appear to be many divas that are only too happy to pose.
I was using my little portable camera, my friend Linda Frank’s camera, which was better yet and had great lenses, but the people on the waterfront gave rise to much camera envy, some sporting cameras with foot long lenses.
There’s no snow here in Hamilton, the weather has been agreeable, and there’s not been much wind, but standing on the waterfront, I realized that by looking out onto the horizon of the water and sky, there isn’t much difference between that and a prairie view (well, minus the smog/haze that hangs low here); the water spans for miles, like a flat prairie only less solid underneath; it stretches beyond your immediate sightline and out into the lands you can almost see, almost fly off into, if you’re a swan.
Isa Milman’s Prairie Kaddish (Coteau 2008) is a creative documentation and voyage into the historical lives of Jewish settlers. What began at a graveyard near Lipton, Saskatchewan, unfolds as a narrative exploration of identity and the human condition. The confluence of immigrants alongside residing First Nations Peoples resonates through the lens of the contemporary visitor. The montage of various traditions overlaps into a book that works as a house to contain the memories, and as prayer to honour those that built and rebuilt their lives while struggling to survive before and after the prairies.
In the year I said Kaddish for my father, my mother asked me to design his tombstone. It would be simple, modest in decoration, but would record these essential facts: Eliyahu, his Hebrew name; the names of his parents, Yisroel, the Cohen, and Esther Leah Lewin; the place and dates that he entered and left his world
1. In the introduction to the poems, you suggest that you were a different person before you wrote Prairie Kaddish. In what ways did writing this book change you?
The most significant change was my appreciation of continuity in Jewish experience, and where I fit in the collective story. History came alive for me in an indescribable way. What was remote and inert became vibrant, present, and connected. Like a giant quilt that unfolded, I could see the whole thing for the first time, whereas before, I only saw one scrap of it. Beyond Jewish history, I learned about the history of Canada, developed an appreciation of the Native people and their experience, and had truly healing moments, through my relationship with Father Martin, in the realm of Jewish-Christian relations. My love of Yiddish came alive, along with the desire to speak it, read it, and write it. And I got especially close to my mother, as the book was an enormous gift to her and her beloveds—in a sense I spoke for her, in the language she didn’t have, and told her truths, which needed to be told. One of my biggest regrets is that she didn’t live to hold the book in her hands, and get the nakhes (a wonderful Jewish word, more than satisfaction, usually related to pride) of its acclaim.
2. Poet Carl Phillips believes that “the truest poetry speaks to us not as documentation—which is the business of prose—but as confirmation—echo.” Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
I’m not sure that documentation is solely the business of prose. What is story telling? Does it not echo as well? I’ve developed a far more elastic approach to language, through the writing of Prairie Kaddish, and I credit Don McKay for this. Early on, he asked me why I chose poetry as the form to tell this story, and he gave me permission to use prose too. He gave me a graphic appreciation—drawing a cross of X and Y axes. The long horizontal he called prose, the vertical drop, poetry. It was really a graphic of time, in the form of narrative. Sentences traveled along the X, poetry was tighter, more of the moment. I took it all, the long and narrow, and played on the page. It was liberating, and served me very well for what I was trying to accomplish—
3. Our instinct as humans is to try to rationalize experience. How did you begin to makes sense of the varying experiences in the book? Do you see your poetry as continuing shared traditions of human experience (such as the grave house as a book of poems)?
Your question here is so pertinent, in my mind, to the work of poetry—it’s expressing the universal human experience that’s the territory of the best, most effective poetry. Even though the story is particular and specific, it’s the recognition that we find, and relate to in the deepest sense, that makes poetry work. It was a great challenge to speak, often in a foreign language, and yet convey some universal truths. In a sense, finding the relationship between the Cree grave houses and the Jewish ones was a redemptive experience. It spoke to those huge forces at work, forces that most often we don’t recognize, even when they’re right in front of our faces. As an immigrant, transplanted from one foreign-ness, and another, and another; from a tribe of oppressed and near annihilated people, I found connections, and began to understand the necessity of forgiveness, and loving kindness as the fundamental work of repair.
4. How important was the montage of poetic form, combining subliterary text with differing traditions, to tell this story?
If you’re referring to the historical materials I incorporated into the work—fragments of letters, ledger pages, pamphlets, etc. I’d say they were as important as bones are important. The ‘frequently asked questions’ section worked so well because we gained the original premise of the immigration, and it was like scaffolding to flesh out the stories, and have fun with them. That the original Yiddish was there to use was also extremely important, and being able to reproduce it just thrills me.
5. The immigrant experience is very much a human one, of suffering and alienation. Do you see the poetry as mediation, or as witness to this experience?
I like to think that my poetry moved beyond witnessing to mediation of the suffering and alienation of the immigrant experience. I was very moved by the memoirs and accounts that I read, particularly in the joy of liberation from oppression, and survival by the work of one’s own hands, and in community. It was revelatory.
6. In your book, you address a specific point in history and the poems resonate with many people’s history. Did the research appear daunting, or as an integral part of the writing process? Did you find that writing the language of prayer/poetry/identity provided you with a spiritual journey of your own?
I absolutely loved the research, both on the ground– seeking out the sites, the geography, and the witnesses who shared their memories, as well as the time I spent in the archives, digging up these treasures I had no idea existed. Hurray for all those who save the relics, papers, photos, ephemera. I think I would have been happy as an historian, if I had chosen that profession. I’ve always had a reverence for what’s left behind—most likely because I was born into a family that had virtually nothing that survived.
7. Who would you consider your influences in poetry? Which poets do you read on a regular basis?
A tough question to answer. So many poets have influenced me, and certain poems have had tremendous resonance for me. Allen Ginsberg, Yehuda Amichai, Paul Celan, Sharon Olds, Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, Don McKay, Jane Kenyon have all caused me to shiver in appreciation and awe, and I’m leaving many others out.
8. How did you begin to write poetry? Did you have any mentors that helped you or that continue to provide you with ongoing support in your writing?
I began writing at university, but never took it seriously, nor developed a craft. Years later, after my marriage broke up, and my children were young, I began to write to console myself, escape into a place where I could create, stretch, and play with language. I found a similar release and excitement with visual language, and worked to create images, through painting and works on paper. I had very little time to work in a sustained way. My move to Victoria liberated me from a full-time job, so for the first time since I was a young woman, I was able to apply myself. I didn’t know the wealth of the writing community I’d landed in—in a sense I hit the jackpot as far as mentoring goes. My most significant mentors are Patrick Lane, one of Canada’s most brilliant and generous teachers; Don McKay, equally gifted, and Anne Simpson, a gorgeous poet who is also an excellent mentor. I’m also part of a great poetry group—we give each other lots of support and ideas.
9. Could you describe a bit of your writing process? Do you seclude yourself to write, or do your words thrive in a noisy cafe?
I have a beautiful study where I sit myself down to write, from time to time. I compose on my laptop—there’s something very clean and easy about it— I’m very messy when writing on paper—I’m not a fluent writer, but start, wipe out, start again.
10. What are your future writing plans? Do you have any projects/manuscripts on the go?
Lately I haven’t been writing much at all, and don’t know what my next project will be. It’s the fallow period. I’m also spending much time on promotion—which publishers don’t have time nor means to do. I’m thinking of trying my hand at prose—a memoir perhaps, something non-fiction. I’m opening myself to the next project—after 5 years on Prairie Kaddish, I’m ready to find the next thing. Maybe it’s staring me in the face.
–have a really hot bath, so hot that you have to stay up an extra hour to read and cool down before you go to bed, you’ll be good and tired then.
–read a really good book of poetry (yes, there are lots out there) that will inspire you to take notes, and those notes will eat away at the soft fleshy material of your brain until you begin to write for yourself, thus keeping yourself awake for hours, which will then help you sleep the next night, when you’re really tired.
–work on a grant application right before bedtime, that will close your eyes pronto
–begin to comtemplate your next book cover by searching for relevant images on the internet while listening to random itunes– you’ll awake in the morning to the soothing tones of jazz with the imprint of the keyboard on your face
–make yourself a nightcap, enjoy it, then maybe make one more, and then perhaps another one, until you begin to randomly email your friends at 3 am. you’ll be still hungover the next night, but you’ll sleep better after emailing your friends apologies
–think of a few writing rituals that will help you sleep while lying in bed choking, coughing, wondering which nostril will eventually unplug first so that you can stop breathing through your mouth, then get up and write them down