18 January 2009

Interview: Shawna Lemay

Your back of the book bio:

Shawna Lemay is the author of five books of poetry: All the God-Sized Fruit(McGill-Queen’s University Press), Against Paradise (McClelland & Stewart), Still (self-published), Blue Feast (NeWest Press), and the forthcoming The Red Velvet Forest (The Muses’ Company). She has also published a collection of essays about living with still life, Calm Things (Palimpsest Press). She has a B.A. in Honors English and and M.A. in English from the University of Alberta. All the God-Sized Fruit won both the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Stephan G. Stephannson Award. She two blogs: Capacious Hold-All and Calm Things. She lives in Edmonton with Robert Lemay, a visual artist, and their daughter Chloe.

Your playground bio:

There are a couple different levels. At first, I usually reveal that I’m the mom of Chloe, 10 years old, that she’s an only child. And that Chloe has a dog, a big black lab named Ace.

If the conversation proceeds it usually goes like this:

Do you work? Well, I write. Interesting, what do you write? Mostly poetry. Oh. Silence. But I’ve recently published a book of essays about what it’s like to live with still life – my husband is an artist. It must be easier to sell a book of essays than poetry? No, well, ummm, sadly, not really. But are you writing a novel next? I’m writing a book of experimental prose right now. And you can sell that? Probably not. Blank stare. Perplexed look. Bright smile. You must really love what you do, it’s all a labour of love for you. Indeed.

Do you identify yourself as first a writer and then a mother, the other way around, or something else? Why do you think this is?

I fly back and forth between mother and writer, never quite settling down on either branch. Within each I wait for the other self. Helene Cixous talks about the double birth, how mothers are also born out of the birth of a child. I was working with an editor on my first book when Chloe arrived a week early. My departure into writing, calling myself writer, the deep calling when I knew there was no turning back, arrived alongside this birthing, alongside waiting, early, unexpected, and somehow also late, also perfectly on time. Cixous says, “The first gesture that linked us was to have cut the umbilical cord. Each one for herself: you can go, I’ll wait for you. I’m not waiting for you: you can come. I’m not (like) you. You’re not like me, I don’t mistake you for me. I don’t think I know you. Leave, my love, you who’s just left (me).” I was expecting a blonde haired babe, fair skinned. She arrived, a black shock of hair, red skin, dark. I recognized that I didn’t recognize her, that I loved not knowing her, that she was not like me, that she would always be leaving me, that I would always wait for her, that we were separate and that I could never separate myself from her. From Cixous again, “Faithfully from the first minute I haven’t ceased not understanding you with amazement.” I want this, too, in my writing, this faithfulness to what I don’t understand with amazement.

Did you always want to be a writer? A mother? How does the reality differ from the fantasy?

Always a writer, yes. Though I had no idea how one could do this and be a mother as well. That was a constant question for me, until I came across the essay by Alice Walker, “One Child of One’s Own” in Everyday Use. I long ago loaned the book out to someone who maybe also loaned it out, so I haven’t read it since. Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker’s daughter, wrote a book called Baby Love that talks, in part, about being that only child, and I sometimes wonder how my daughter will see her childhood when she’s an adult. Will she know how beautiful the world is, will she feel that her childhood was art, a dream, was it profound and lovely, did it have a deep within, a wild and tangled magnificent and mysterious depth?

I don’t think I ever bought into any motherhood fantasy – in fact, I imagined it would be all-consuming, that it would be incredibly difficult and complicated, that I could lose myself in it, find myself. But just as I couldn’t really imagine exactly how complicated it would be, neither did I quite understand the pleasures, the joys, the realm of motherlove.

What are your measurements of success as a mother? As a writer? Have these evolved and, if so, can you talk about in what way and why do you think this is?

I’ve realized slowly that perhaps it’s best to have this goal, to be kinder, to be a better person, to “go forward with curiosity.” (Pema Chodron). Rilke says, “Parents should never want to teach us life; for they teach us their life.” I don’t want her to be me. I want to guide her toward her own life. Since becoming a mother I have learned that the relationship constantly evolves, that I constantly evolve as a mother, as a person, that my not-understanding grows. This is my method – to go forward with curiosity, to live, and to write from this place, honestly, failingly, erringly, attentively. There is a line from Annie Dillard’s book For The Time Being that has stuck with me since reading it: “At all times use whatever means expedient to preserve the power of concentration, as if you were taking care of a baby.” This also is a way to write, to live.

What a constant evolution this is! To balance it all, to concentrate, to be kind, to be curious, and also to take heart, banishing fear and frustration and pettiness. I become better at one thing, only to let something else slip away. I worry less about success all the time though, and try to concentrate on going forward with curiosity, and to guide her to do the same.

What's your writing schedule like? What was its journey to get to where it is now?

This too has been a steady evolution, though it still involves fitting my writing into Chloe’s schedule. Because my partner is also an artist, he has always understood that he had a role to play in this as well. Before she went to school he would take her out visiting various grandparents once a week so I could be alone in the house for an extended period. And even now we trade nights – so that I’m in my office twice a week in the evenings for a couple of hours and he’s in his studio twice a week. This is our plan, though very often things don’t go according to plan. We are constantly jigging and fiddling and coddling and massaging the schedule. If Rob has a deadline he’ll work more in the evening and sometimes I’ll take extra time. Sometimes we’re just too tired to work at night, exhaustion overtakes us and we relinquish our unseized selves to the faithful extravagance of dreams.

Has becoming a mother changed how you write? What you write? If so, in what ways?

Profoundly in so many ways, but most apparently in the subject matter. Blue Feast contains many poems about motherhood, and then the book that flowed directly out of that one, Red Velvet Forest (forthcoming) is in many ways about looking at childhood, those child dreams we harbour, that we live for a while and that surge up in us throughout our life. Rilke, again, “To have a childhood means to live a thousand lives before the one.” In RVF I concentrated on the phrase taken from Amichai – whoever remembers childhood best, wins. In becoming a mother, I found that I was drawn back into those thousand childhood lives in all sorts of different ways, that I knew my own mother differently, that I knew myself as a child differently, and I had the thought that in remembering my own childhood I could better not-understand my own child, embrace her amazement, engagement with the world, all its joys and sorrows.

When we talked about this a bit in person, you had mentioned that you are moving away from writing poetry now that you have more time to write because your daughter is older. Could you talk about that a little?

For a very long time, I've had it in my mind to write a poetic novella about an art forger, though I'm no longer sure exactly what this means - 'poetic novella.' I've attempted it and abandoned it several times over the years. I've found the proper cadence at last, and somehow, the way in. Or so I think. Perhaps this attempt will also be abandoned. Part of the reason I'm able to work on this now (with whatever degree of success) is that I have the time to sit at my computer for hours on end. I also write in notebooks, but far more time is spent staring at the screen, pounding on the keyboard. When I wrote poetry most of the work was done in notebooks. I only sat at the computer for the last drafts. I'd write in a notebook and then scrawl on the paper for a week or more, adding, scratching out before ever heading to the computer. I'd walk in and out of the room, between those interruptions, I'd take my notebook to the kitchen. I could carry the poem around in my head, travel with it, take it in the car, to the grocery store. So this is part of it. But maybe another reason I'm able to see my way into a longer piece now is that I have more experience, have read more, and have become fearless at intervals, unselfconscious, strangely confident - at least when it comes to writing this particular odd and quirky piece.

How aware is your child of your writing?

She’s very aware. I know she’s pleased that I occupy myself in this way, but she’s not otherwise interested. Asked whether she would like to come to my recent book launch she said, I hope you won’t be offended, but I think I’d find it boring. And you know, I wasn’t at all offended. She’s also glad that I’m sequestered in my office a couple of nights a week so that she can construct strange sculptures out of cardboard, toothpicks, plasticene or sometimes sticky notes with her dad.

There's nothing better than a sleeping kid (and her dog). This is when I've always gotten a lot of writing done - when she's asleep!

Virginia Woolf famously wrote, "…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write…." She never had children. Is a room to yourself enough for a writing-mama? What do you need?

It’s still the money and the room, isn’t it? And knowing that those I love are content and well when I’ve barricaded myself in here. I’ve also found it useful to have someone that will stand guard over my solitude. Once more, from Rilke: “I consider the following to be the highest task in the relation between two people: for one to stand guard over the other’s solitude.”

If you could go back, what would you tell your pre-child self?

I wouldn’t say a thing. Maybe I’d give a wink and a nod.

What do you think your pre-child self would tell you?

I think I still have conversations with her some days. We’re on good terms.

In terms of this topic (motherhood and writing), do you have any regrets? Guilt? Envy?

I used to feel both guilt and envy to various degrees, but seldom now. I’ve worked hard not to feel envy, in particular. It’s much easier to not feel envy though when your kid is ten. There’s no longer that constant comparison that seems inevitable with little ones. I can’t say that I don’t succumb to mother guilt from time to time, or writer-envy, but when I do, I get out No Time to Lose by Pema Chodron, and she sorts it all out for me.

The early years of motherhood have been described by various writers as a haze or as an incredibly creative time. How would you describe it? Are you still in it? When did you leave?

I think it was both a haze and an incredibly creative time. I am now on the outside edges of the haze. It’s funny really how there’s so much you can’t remember. Looking back it seems my emotions were incredibly heightened, though I’m sure I wouldn’t have thought they were all that intense at the time. I am always leaving, still in it, haze-intimate, haze-forgetful, it abandons me, I call it back, I dream haze and banish it, leave into awake. I take care of the haze as if it were a baby, lavish my concentration on it, hide it in my desk drawer.

Birthing a book is like birthing a baby. Way off or right on?

Both are true.

I wanted to do this project because I found so few satisfying examples of the writing-mother. It was either the mythology of Alice Munroe writing while her children played at her feet, the writer who resented and neglected her children because she was so consumed with her art, or someone like Sylvia Plath who ended up with her head in the oven. Which writing-mothers do you admire and why?

I needed very desperately to know that there were mother writers and mother artists. I collected names, made lists. I needed to know that it had been done, how it had been done, who had managed, however imperfectly, amid the interruptions, and also, who had not managed so well and why. Equally important were those women who chose not to become mothers.

Some of the list, ongoing: Margaret Atwood,Kristjana Gunnars, Margaret Laurence, Helene Cixious, Annie Dillard, Alice Walker, Eavan Boland, Kathe Kollwitz, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Smart, Linda Spalding, Alice Munro, Carol Shields.

What I was looking for was the possibility. After that it’s a matter of setting out on your own path. Each child is so different, the experience of motherhood so diverse, there are so many unique configurations. Maybe this is what I needed to know too. That my experience was not going to precisely mirror anyone else’s, that it would be an experiment of sorts - an experiment of give and take, trial and error. That I would have to constantly balance things, work that balance out on my own, concentrate, embrace, enter the path into the fragrant and bejewelled forest of motherhood alone, not-alone.

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