15 December 2010

Glossolalia Installation: Sarah Ann Whitney


(Again, I apologize for the picture quality. As you can see in the top one, this installation ended up with a lamp to lend warmth to it, but I didn't get a proper close-up of it. Oh well.)

The installation for Sarah Ann Whitney was the most abstract of the six (with Emily Dow Partridge a close second). I wanted to highlight her youth, but didn't want to be too overt about it either. I had a Jacob's Ladder toy (which in finding this link I have discovered is probably an anachronism!) which references the Jacob's Ladder in the Bible. I also made five fortune tellers out of old maps, with the fortunes varying greatly from schoolgirl silliness (one featured desserts to eat) to commands (such as "compliment the next person you see" and "write a letter to that friend--you know who" to something, I hope, more profound (such as "don't be afraid to show your love" or "do not underestimate the power of a shared pot of tea". (In addition, I had ordered two antique keys from Etsy that failed to arrive in time, which I had hoped would allude to Joseph's hiding, Sarah Ann's visits with him, and all the secrets.)

While I tried not to hover over the good people who went through the exhibit, I was able to watch a few of them and noticed that most did not interact with this exhibit. I had hoped people would have found their fortunes and read those of others, but it rarely happened, although the Jacob's Ladder was picked up fairly often. If I have the opportunity to do this again, in this form, I'll have to figure out a way to make it more inviting to people to interact with the pieces. If you have any thoughts on this, please share them!

9 December 2010

In Conversation: Ariel Gordon

Welcome to the inaugural of what I hope to be a long-running series of conversations with poets about single poems of theirs. If you have any thoughts on what or who you'd like to see in the series, please let me know. And I hope some of you will be inspired to continue the conversation in the comments.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg-based writer whose first book of poetry, Hump, was published in spring 2010 by Palimpsest Press. How to Prepare for Flooding, a collaboration with designer Julia Michaud, is forthcoming from JackPine Press in 2011. When not being bookish, Ariel likes tromping through the woods and taking macro photographs of mushrooms.

Now, grab a fresh cup of tea and listen to Ariel read "Toddle" which appears in Hump, a mash-up of pregnancy-and-mothering poems and urban / nature / love poems that functions as an anti-sentiment manifesto of sorts.


Thank you for reading “Toddle” from Hump and agreeing to chat about it with me. Can you tell me a bit about the inception for this poem?

Strangely, though I remember the moments the poem records, I don't remember much about the crafting of the poem. Which is strange on two counts. Because I usually have a mental inventory of the changes a poem goes through or at least a computerized version of said inventory.

But, as the mother of a four-year-old, I apparently have too many random daycare documents and poems/letters with the word 'toddler' in them to be able to find the first drafts of this poem.

So I'm forced to rely on my memory. And all I remember about the crafting of this poem is that it's conjoined, a Siamese twin of a poem. Which means that it's composed of several short bits that didn't work alone but seemed to work when placed in close proximity. To hum, like finished poems do.

I don't usually write this way. Usually poems come relatively fully formed. Then it's just a matter of pruning, with the ones that work, or discarding, if they don't.

What I can tell you is that, since the girl appears to be approximately a year and a half to two years old in the poem, it was written in bits and pieces sometime between early 2008 and...December 2009, when I submitted the manuscript to Palimpsest. Heh.

One of my favourite parts of the poem is the end, the honey, honey, honey. I loved hearing you read it too, because I was so curious to how you would. It was different from how I read it to myself. Repetition can be hard to pull off well, but so effective when it does. What does repetition of honey in "Toddle" signify to you?

It is one of the nicest things anyone's ever said to me and, also, seemed to be the perfect way to end the poem.

I'm curious. How did you read it to yourself?

That's hard to convey in print, but I'll try. I read them softer than the rest of the poem, and much closer together than you did, in a wistful, soothing tone, if that makes any sense.

Hm. I hadn't thought of that. I read them the way I read them, with pauses between each of them, because I want the audience to come away with at least one honey. Since I usually read “Toddle” last if at all, and since the honeys come at the very very end, I pause.

You said that “Toddle” is composed of many short bits that work together, and that this is not how you normally write poems. I'm wondering how you made them work together. Did you work on sounds, images, and rhythm after choosing the pieces, or did you choose the pieces because of certain aspects that worked together? And if so, what stood out to you?

Looking over the poem now, it feels very 'buggy' to me. And not dreamy-dragonfly-pastoral buggy but live-with-us-urban buggy. Also, the first part of the poem - with its syllables battering against the rearview - makes it seem as though there's a swarm in the car and not a distressed kid. My kid.

That's all after-the-fact guessing. Because I didn't make any of those linkages when I was writing all the bits or when I was grafting them together.

The best I can do is that they all seemed to sing in the same key. Now, of course, I regret how parts two and three end on the same note - "your hair / lifts" is too similar to "Your hair & skin / gleaming in the sun / a small sting."

Sometimes, when I'm being careful on time, I cut out part three. Plus, three's hard to read. Especially the first line. And I never know how to read the middle stanza, with its parenthetical aside. It works fine on the page, I think, but I stumble when reading it.

I like how you describe the first section as a swarm. When I read it, it feels dense and I think it's because of the heavy "b" sounds. It works well, and I know how it is being stuck in a car with a toddler who needs desperately to fall asleep and fights it with as much noise as possible. The denseness of sound that fills the car.

I love "your face goes china, goes bone". Can you talk about that line at all?

Also, you mention that you sometimes skip the third section when you read it. I feel sorry for your audience! It feels vital to the flow of the poem. But I understand how some poems just are too difficult to be read aloud, although I don't think this is the case with Toddle. How do you choose your poems for a reading? What's the process? And why do you often end with "Toddle"?

I hafta admit that I love that line. It's a darling I didn't have to kill.

The most mysterious thing about babies is that they turn into waxworks when they fall asleep, as opposed to adults, who sigh and fart and snore and look like they've been stepped on. Anna is very pale and so she'd go very nearly translucent, like bone china or marble.

And this line was the closest I could get to the feeling of watching her in the rearview, all hopped up but also fascinated.

I pick poems for all kinds of reasons. How long I have. Who will be in the audience. How nervous I am. How bored I am with reading the poems I read when I'm nervous.

I like ending with “Toddle” in particular because it's very recent and feels like the best I can do at this moment in time.

It's also a good representation, I think, of who I am as a writer and what I like to talk about: the city, nature, my breasts.

7 December 2010

Glossolalia Installation: Olive Grey Frost


First off, isn't Olive Grey Frost a great name? Say what you want about Joseph Smith, some of the women he married had fantastic names.

This was the most literal of the installations, but because the poem is so short, I think it worked. Plus I liked how the bed bug recipe ingredients looked laid out like that. Sometimes simple is the way to go. The recipe didn't call for handkerchief, but when I started compiling objects that I might use, I found it and knew I had to use it somewhere. I almost put it in a different one, but it seemed the right balance visually and I liked how it was a reminder of the woman behind it all.

30 November 2010

Glossolalia Installation: Martha McBride Knight

Back in September, I took my wives to Toronto. I should have written about the experience when I first came back, but you know how life is, it bulldozes good intentions.

My installation featured six poems from my manuscript Glossolalia, about the polygamous wives of Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church. Over the next few weeks (months, probably, but let me be hopeful!), I will feature them. Thanks to the gracious Book Madam (aka Julie Wilson), I figured out how to upload sound to this site. The sound files are what was used in the installation. The photos I took, unfortunately, aren't the best, but hopefully they will give you an idea.


23 November 2010

talking about talking about

Over the last month I've been in an email conversation with the lovely Kerry Clare of Pickle Me This fame about talking about talking about motherhood. She asked some difficult questions and I wrote and wrote my way through trying to sound intelligent in my answers. I wish we could have been able to have this conversation over tea and scones, but unfortunately we live provinces apart and consequently we wouldn't have been able to share it with you.

While participating in this email exchange, I realized that there are some topics a person can talk about forever, and for me this is one of them. Here's is the start of our conversation. If you'd like to read the rest, you can find it here.

Kerry: Marita, I think I’m beginning to change my mind. You see, I’ve been fascinated by narratives about motherhood since before I was a mother, and as I prepared to become one, I devoured the modern “ambivalent motherhood canon”.

But I’ve been reluctant to pursue such narratives myself. When I interview writers, I insist that their work is what’s important, and I avoid questions about writing and motherhood that would probably fascinate me as much. I worry that such questions would undermine the writers’ works, would undermine the individuals as artists, would undermine me as an interviewer and a reader. But I can’t shake a suspicion that these questions are important, that perhaps we just have to carve out a time and space for them. Or not. I’m not sure.

Did you feel any similar qualms as you embarked upon your Motherhood and Writing interviews?

Marita: When I first conceived of the Motherhood and Writing interviews, I had no qualms at all. I think that may have been because I really wasn’t aware of all the books written about motherhood and writing. I’m sure if I had dug a bit, I would have discovered them and not felt the need to start the interview series.

The interviews came from purely selfish place. I wanted content for my blog, but more importantly, I really needed to know how other writing mothers did it. My boys are twenty-two and a half months apart. When my second child was born, I panicked. I remember clearly breast feeding him while reading a biography of Margaret Laurence and having the terrifying flash that I would never write again. I knew I wasn’t as driven as Laurence was and couldn’t make the choices she had. My nascent career was over.

After my husband helped talk me down, I realized that of course my career wasn’t over. There were many, many writing mothers out there who were kind, loving, stable mothers. I wanted to talk to them simply to know how they did it. How does a mother balance all those things mothers do and make time to write. And I wanted to talk to women who were in various stages in their careers–from award winning to not yet published.

The project was supposed to be just for a year, but I’ve managed to draw it out longer, partly out of laziness and partly whenever I think it’s time to shut it down, I’ll get an email or a comment on the blog from some writing mother out there to thank me. It’s important, especially in those early difficult years, for those in the trenches to be reminded that they are not alone, that there are other women out there who are struggling, too. And, of course, that it will get better.

That said, recently I’ve begun to have qualms. Maybe it’s because I’m no longer in the trenches, or maybe because I’ve become sensitive that I might be contributing to the creation of a “motherhood ghetto”.

We would never ask a man how he manages to write while being a father, so why do we feel it’s relevant to ask a mother? Is it because there is an assumption that the woman is at home with the babies and that the man is not? And that if she isn’t, she should be? It’s insulting to both mothers and fathers. But I don’t know what I’d rather see–interviewers asking fathers what they ask mothers, or stop asking mothers what they don’t ask fathers.

So, yes, I am now quite conflicted. I hope that in the context of my interview series, the questions I ask aren’t insulting because that is the point of the interview. But I don’t think if I was interviewing a writer in another context, I would feel comfortable about asking about their relationship between writing and motherhood, unless the writer brought it up or it was clearly related to the writing.

17 November 2010

seeking comfort

Sometime in July I read somewhere on the interwebs (twitter? a blog post? a comment? I can no longer remember where) (also, that should show you why I never update my blog, it takes that long for me to finish a thought) that poets do not read poetry for comfort. I really wish I could remember where I read that, because I'd like to revisit the context. From what I remember, it's not only that they don't, but shouldn't.

I read for many reasons, and it usually is not just for one. When I read a novel, at the bare minimum, I want to be transported, entertained, inspired. When I read poetry, it's even more complex. One of the many things I love about poetry is its diversity. I can turn to it for inspiration, to be challenged, for humour, for complexity, and so many other reasons. But there are times when a person must seek solace, and when I must, I will search for it in poetry.

I am not alone in this. Culture after culture turn to religious texts and song, both forms of poetry, for solace. So why is it so wrong for poets to look for it in the work of their peers?

I won't go into details here, but last year tragedy struck the lives of close friends. Many, many have been mourning and trying to make sense of this new reality ever since. In the Spring, I borrowed Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets from the library and discovered a poem that I keep returning to. I have copied it in the front of my writing journal (and below), and when the anniversary of the tragedy loomed, I found I would reread this poem multiple times a day. I still read it at least once a week. It is a beautiful, brilliant poem by one of America's best poets. It also gives me solace. Is it less of a poem because of this? Am I less of a reader because this what I take from it? I hope not.

I am curious where you, dear reader, seek solace. I would love to know the texts or songs you turn to when need comfort.

by Louise Glück

Public sorrow, the acquired
gold of the leaf, the falling off,
the prefigured burning of the yield:
which is accomplished. At the lake's edge,
the metal pails are full vats of fire.
So waste is elevated
into beauty. And the scattered dead
unite in one consuming vision of order.
In the end, everything is bare.
Above the cold, receptive earth,
the trees bend. Beyond,
the lake shines, placid, giving back
the established blue of heaven.

.................................................................The word
is bear: you give and give, you empty yourself
into a child. And you survive
the automatic loss. Against inhuman landscape,
the tree remains a figure for grief; its form
is forced accommodation. At the grave,
it is the woman, isn't it, who bends,
the spear useless beside her.

9 November 2010

Unfurled Reading

I'm excited to be reading with my old partner-in-crime, Gillian Wigmore this weekend. We toured our first books together way back in 2007 and it will so much fun to share the stage with her again. If you're in Edmonton, please join us on Saturday, November 13, 3pm, at Audreys (aka, the best bookshop in town). We'll be reading from Unfurled a new anthology of poetry by women of BC's North.

And if you are in town and looking for something else to that weekend, may I suggest my husband's play Studies in Motion at the Citadel? It's simply amazing. Directed by Siminovitch Award winning director, Kim Collier, choreographed by the always brilliant Crystal Pite, and acted by an incredible company of actors.

10 October 2010

What She Said: Mary McNamara

"So here's the answer: It's very difficult. But so is losing 30 pounds or learning French or growing your own vegetables or training for a marathon or any of the many other things working parents often manage to pull off. While it's tempting to keep the idea of writing wrapped up in a glittery gauze of muse-directed creativity, it's just another sort of work, one that requires dedication, commitment, time and the necessary tools."

Found via bookninja, Mary McNamara's list to help literary mamas write that novel at the LA Times.

5 October 2010

What She Said: Kathleen Winter

"Women's timelines...they're different from men's timelines. Still."

On one of the reasons why she didn't write for ten years, from this interview on CBC's The Next Chapter.

15 September 2010

Taking the Wives to Toronto

As many of you know, I've been working on a poetry manuscript about the polygamous wives of Joseph Smith. I think I'm done. At least, as done as I can be before working with an editor. I've been writing it for almost the entire life of my eldest son and am pleased to be seeing the end of this phase of the project. I've had some of the poems published in literary magazines (thank you, Room, CV2, Wonk*, Event), a forthcoming anthology, and as a beautiful chapbook. None of the poems are online yet, otherwise I would share links.

But I'm not quite ready to say good-bye to my wives yet. This weekend, I'll be part of Lab Cab, a multi-dis festival in Toronto. I have created installations for six poems that include sound and interactive art/ifacts. I'm both thrilled and terrified. This is a new experience on so many levels and I hope it will speak to someone out there. I'm excited about taking my poetry beyond the page and hope this might be the beginning of something larger.

But before I fly to Toronto, I'll be taking in my husband's newest play, Tear the Curtain. If you are in Vancouver, I strongly urge you to check it out. I've been lucky enough to have seen some of the footage as well as having read an earlier draft. There is a strong buzz about this play and I really believe it is warranted. Check out the trailer below and wish me luck in Toronto!

*p.s. A few months ago, I did an interview with the fine folks at Wonk. You can check it out here.

25 July 2010

finding the path

The road out of the colony.

I'm writing this from the Wallace Stegner House. I had never been to Saskatchewan before, despite my husband's strong connection to the province, and I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity. I was supposed to have been here for just over three weeks, but we left as a family part-way through for a few days and returned. Then the boys left and I've been here alone for nine days. They will arrive tonight and then we leave on Saturday. Today was my last full writing day for a while.

It has been difficult being away from the boys. When I was in Banff last May, I was surrounded by peers, so if I was sad or feeling sorry for myself, I'd leave my room and force a hug on someone or share a pitcher while bemoaning the Canucks. In Banff I was lonely, but here I've been alone. For the first time I was given a glimpse of what old age might be like. Your spouse is gone, your children live far away, and you have no more friends left. It's terrible.

The people of Eastend have been lovely, especially Ethel, the amazing woman who runs the residency program (and who is also great a catching bats!). I know there are great people and experiences everywhere and that's one of the bonuses of doing a residency. But I've decided that I won't be doing one like this for some time, not when the boys are so young. All I need is a room with door and a desk. I don't need to be in another city or province, at least not right now. If I go anywhere for an extended time, it will be with my family.

The writing, however, has been great. I think I may have finally finished the final poem in my new manuscript of poetry and I have been working on a novel. It's a novel I started before I becoming a mother, but abandoned soon after I found out I was pregnant with my first child. After the foggy years in the trenches of early motherhood, I now feel like I can go back to it, but of course I'm a very different person now than I was then. It's changed completely. Some of the characters are the same, some of the themes and settings are the same, but everything else is different. Even since I've returned to it, I've had to strip it back and restart three times. Like I told my friend Laisha, I've written over 50,000 words in the last few months, but I still haven't got past 17,000 in a draft. I'm there now and I think (knock on wood) that I have finally found the story. It feels good to know that I'm on the right path.

8 February 2010

The Price of Me

I have a terrible habit of keeping FB open on my computer all day. I check it much too often when I have a down moment from the slog of trying to keep house and mother two young boys. I know I should turn the effing thing off and either spend those moments between laundry, cooking, dishes, diapers, refereeing and be with the boys. It's why I gave up my other "mommyblog" [gag]. And when I don't use that time with them, I should have my computer open to Word and use that time to write. Even if it's just a line, I really need to grab what time I can get.

That said, yesterday a friend posted on FB a link to an article which was based on this post which is a top ten list of things that aren’t as cheap as you think. If you don't have time to read it, scroll down to the number one item. It was both surprising to me and not. I think anyone who has spent anytime as a primary caregiver will pipe up with a 'hells ya'. It's hard, undervalued work and I find it interesting that in the statistics he used, if this work were paid, it would have been half of the world's output in 1995. Again, not that surprising. What did bristle me, however, was the label he used: women's work. The feminist in me raged telepathically to him. I'm not going to try to recreate it; I'm sure you can come up with your own. Here's a good place to start: women + work ≠ 'women's work'.


I go through waves of blog reading and my reading list has changed dramatically since I first discovered ye olde blogworlde. When my first son was a newborn I devoured many, many mommyblogs. I think they were my stories. Now, I only follow a few and none of them are just about parenting anymore. I grew bored of irony and cynicism or conversely the rainbows and unicorns of others' daily lives. Eventually I discovered lit blogs, specifically Canadian lit blogs. I try to keep up, but I don't. I'm always behind and gap out and consequently don't understand the private jabs and public politics. I've started reading them a little less, too. However, I recently followed links to find some new(ish)-to-me blogs that feel like home. Canadian writing mothers who aren't afraid to write about writing or babies or birthdays or books. I've mostly been lurking, but they are great. They feel like home. Have I finally found my online tribe?: Pickle Me This, Meli-Melo, and Obscure Can Lit Mama.

In my previous post, I wrote about the auction to which I had donated my poetry. The auction is now over and I'm thrilled to report that my four-pack went for a whopping $120! I still can't believe it. I had honestly thought that I'd have to get my husband to bid for it. And to top it off, it's going to someone I don't know.

3 February 2010

Poetry for Haiti

When I first heard about the earthquake in Haiti, I did what many of you did--donated money to a relief organization. (I actually donated to three because I couldn't choose: Doctors Without Borders, Unicef, and Care. They each do such important, yet different work. I really couldn't decide.) I wanted to give more, do more, but I didn't know how.

Then I heard from Kate of sweet|salty that she and René of fruity fantastica were gathering donations for To Haiti with Love, an auction whose proceeds would go to Broken Wings which runs homes for Haitian disabled youth. I jumped at the chance to be able to give a little bit more and put together a Poetry Four-Pack which includes my book, my chapbook and two limited edition broadsheets. You can see my listing here

There are a lot of very fine things up for grabs from things for babies to things to eat to theatre tickets in Vancouver to a ski getaway in Telluride. It's pretty phenomenal. The auction closes on Monday, February 8 at midnight EST. I know more goods are being added until Thursday afternoon, so do check back.

27 January 2010

Interview: Annabel Lyon

Your back of the book bio:

Annabel Lyon is the author of Oxygen (stories), The Best Thing For You (novellas), All-Season Edie (juvenile novel), and The Golden Mean (novel). She teaches fiction writing on-line through UBC's creative writing department.

Your playground bio:

Mother of Sophie, four, and Caleb, two. Sophie says Daddy is the king, she is the queen, Caleb is the prince, and Mummy is the cleaner.

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?

Mother. My kids are worth more to me than my work.

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

Both, I think. Both are harder than I ever thought they'd be.

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 really, really want the kids to turn out happy and kind. That hasn't changed since before I got pregnant; what I didn't realize was how hard it would be for me to stay happy and kind as a mother. That was a hugely distressing realization. I want each book to be a bit better than the last, and I don't want to repeat myself. I don't think that's changed.

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

My writing schedule is still pretty haphazard; I'm hoping it will settle down as the kids get older and start school. I write in the afternoons once my partner is up (he works nights), an hour or two, until he leaves for work. I usually have one day a week that's a bit longer than that. Into that time I also have to fit e-mail, showering, cooking, etc., so it's not a lot of creative time. I used to work completely alone, in absolute silence, six to eight hours a day. It's been an adjustment.

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

I think my teaching has changed as a result of becoming a mother, more than my writing has. I've become much more patient and generous with my students.

How aware are your children of your writing?

Not very; they're little, still. Sophie knows mummy works on the computer and writes books, but not the kind of books she likes, so her interest is pretty limited. She doesn't like it when my work takes me out of the house without her.

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?

I need to know the kids are happy and settled and not needing me. I need enough sleep. I need tea.

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

It'll be okay.

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

You need to start running again.

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

I yell too much, especially when work is frustrating me. Big, big guilt there. I hate myself for that.

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?

It was both, especially after my son was born, when I went through a pretty bad post-partum depression. Having the novel to turn to helped me through it; so did having fantastic family around me. Sleep deprivation was a major contributing factor, I think; there's a reason why it's used as a torture technique. It really does turn your brain to pudding. I think I'm just coming out of that time: novel finished, kids sleeping through the night, the sun breaking through most days.

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

Way off. There's just no coherent parallel for me.

I wanted to do this project because I found so few satisfying examples of the writing-mother. It was either the mythology of Alice Munro 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?

All the ones I know: Anne Michaels,Caroline Adderson, Zsuzsi Gartner, Marina Endicott, Anakana Schofield, Laisha Rosnau, Sara O'Leary, Anne Fleming, Linda Svendsen, yourself.... It's so tough to do both, and so hard to talk about why it's so tough. Both writing and motherhood come with the built-in potential for anxiety and depression, so when you do both it's a double-whammy, isn't it? I have the greatest respect and admiration for all writing mothers, published or unpublished. They're all hugely brave.

24 January 2010

What She Said: Mavis Gallant

For now, suffice to say that she's never wanted to remarry after a brief wartime union ended in divorce. “I didn't want that life. I wouldn't have been able to write.” Nor did she long for children. “You don't miss what you've never had. ... I would have made a good grandmother but I don't think I would have made a good mother.” She chuckles. “I might have run away!”

From an interview with the Globe and Mail, posted on their blog in April, 2009.

20 January 2010

Interview: Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang

Your back of the book bio:

I write under both Sarah Tsiang and Yi-Mei Tsiang, and I have two books forthcoming. A children’s picture book called “Flock of Shoes” with Annick Press, and a chapbook of poetry with Leaf Press called “The Mermaid and Other Fairy Tales”. I’ve been widely published in Canadian journals and I’m currently completing an MFA in the opt-res program of UBC. I’m currently working on several more picture books, a YA novel, a verse novel, a second manuscript of poetry, and the beginnings of a short story collection.

Your playground bio:

I’m Abby’s mom -- my little girl is the one over there, running wildly in a ketchup-stained dress, pretending to be a cheetah who eats people. She’s just turned four.

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 guess it depends on how it comes up. When someone asks me what I do, I’m really at a loss. Do they mean what I do with my time? What I do to make money? If it’s the first, I’d say I’m a stay-at-home mom (though I also teach part-time and I’m a full-time student). If it’s the second, well -- I haven’t figured that one out yet.

Did you always want to be a writer? A mother? How does the reality differ from the fantasy?
Actually I wanted to be a part-time truck driver and a part-time librarian when I was little. And yes, everyone says I should have done the bookmobile, but that’s really not the same as an 18 wheeler. But I have always had an interest in writing. I remember composing poems in the bathtub while my mom washed my hair. I didn’t really start taking writing seriously until after I had Abby.

I knew that I always wanted to be a mother -- there was never a question in my mind. I adore children, and did all the requisite stuff, babysitting, mooning over friend’s babies etc. I still swoon at the smell of baby-heads.

As for reality vs. fantasy, I’d say my fantasies of being a mother were more bang-on than my fantasies of being a writer. I’m just starting to come to grips with the idea of spending the rest of my life facing rejection. There are very few jobs that require you to keep auditioning. And since I write almost exclusively about motherhood I don’t really fit with any press. I’m not all that keen on the publishing process -- it’s much nicer to just write.

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?

The measurements of success as a mother? I’m trying to take this one day at a time. I want my girl to be strong and independent. To be confident and at ease with herself. I want her to be well-fed, warm, and reasonably attired. Basically clean.

As a writer? It changes every time I achieve something. It used to be “once I get a book contract” then I’ll be successful. Now it’s “once I get a book contract in YA fiction and poetry” then I’ll be successful. I’m sure that tomorrow it’ll be “once I get ______ award, or publish a novel, or get a bestseller ...” That’s how I’ll always feel at the heart of it, I’m sure.

Right now I’m really struggling with the idea of success as a writer, or with being a writer at all. I’m sure the right answer is that success as a writer depends on how much you love to write or how much you feel it expresses who you are. It’s hard to stop chasing the idea that success is a publisher who will give me a pat on the back and a cheque.

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

“Schedule” would be romantacizing it a bit. I write whenever Abby naps, and sometimes if I’m anxious to get writing I’ll write in the mornings before she wakes up. She’s going to be going to school this September, so I’ll have two and half days a week to write. The luxury!

When I had plenty of time to write I wrote a lot less. I write best under pressure. If I know that Abby might wake up any minute there is no (or little) procrastination. It used to take me days to write a poem -- now I write them in the moments that I can steal for myself. I also think that a lot of creative work is done while I’m with Abby. It’ s one thing to sit in front of a computer and try to conjure up ideas. It’s another thing to be out in the wide world, helping a child discover everything from caterpillars to larger life lessons. You need to be creative, intelligent, and engaged with the world to parent well. All of this will help feed into your creative work (or at least, I find it helps me). Going back to the question of how I self-identify -- before I felt comfortable defining myself as a writer it used to drive me crazy how people would tune out if I said I was a “stay-at-home-mom”. It was as though I said I was a person with no talent or ambition. More so, it was as if I said I was a backwards, anti-feminist moron who needed to be taught about the wider world of possibility that lay out there. If I say I’m a writer then people think that I must be an intelligent, engaged person (though there are plenty of writers who are neither). The vast majority of my writing focuses on my experiences as a mother. I think that the hard, wonderful, desirable work of motherhood is vastly underestimated and undervalued.

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

There is no doubt that my daughter is my muse. I did not start to write seriously until after I had Abby, and most of my writing revolves around her. I have a picture book, Flock of Shoes, about Abby that is forthcoming with Annick Press. I have a poetry manuscript, Sweet Devilry, that deals a lot with my relationship with Abby. In fact I started to despair to my husband that I’d never be able to write anything other than Abby poems and Abby books, and he said “So what? What’s more important to you that you’d rather be writing about?” And there’s the key -- motherhood is my writing desire right now. It may change in the future but for now I have this rich, rich material. It’s like abandoning a productive diamond mine because you feel like you should be looking for gold.

How aware is your child of your writing?

That’s hard to say. Abby will often play “work” which is where she frowns at a piece of paper and scribbles away at a poem, or types one out at the computer. In fact when Abby was two and a half she “wrote” (dictated) an amazing poem while she was in one of these play sessions -- it’s actually published in Vallum magazine (and she got paid more per poem in that magazine than I did!). Abby is very aware of what poems are, she has quoted Issa and Yeats, but I don’t know if she’s aware that most of my writing is about her. She’s more interested in my picture books, but she’s at the stage now where she’s starting to dispute the accuracy of the books (strangely enough she doesn’t dispute the magic in them, she disputes the main character’s emotional states).

A real concern of mine is how Abby is going to react to my work once she gets a bit older. I hope that she’ll see the love in it, but I worry that she won’t want the exposure. I guess it’s another thing that’s going to have be taken one day at a time.

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?

Oh god, a room of my own would be fantastic. Right now I’m more hoping for an hour of my own. I was talking to Helen Humphreys the other day about being a woman and a writer and she said that writers (women writers especially) need either (or hopefully both) a stable income and/or a stable relationship. I’d really like both, but I’m glad that for now I have the stable relationship. My husband is a rock and a fantastic editor. But if I could have an ideal world, I’d have a room, a steady monthly income, and a guaranteed two hours a day to write. What more could anyone want?

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

I tell myself to sleep in more. To read more. And I’d probably tell myself not to worry about the career -- being employed doesn’t suit me and that’s okay.

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

I don’t know. I don’t really have any regrets or unfulfilled ambitions. We’d probably just go out for a hotdog together.

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

No regrets. But I make up for it in spades with my guilt and envy. When we made the decision for me to pursue an MFA that meant that Abby had to go to daycare three mornings a week. It was excruciating. She did not take to it well for the first couple of months. She would wake up crying and I would physically pry her off me (while sobbing) at the daycare. Then I would go home and write two thousand words between 9:30am and 11:45am. I really felt like I was buying my writing time with the tears of my child and goddamn it, I was going to be productive.

And I’m jealous most of the time of other writers who can pursue what they do full time. But it’s a jealousy that’s more like a hobby -- I wouldn’t trade my situation.

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 I’m on the cusp of leaving “the early years of motherhood” since my baby is starting junior kindergarten this September. For the first year after I had Abby I couldn’t write at all. I was really just trying to catch up on my sleep. After that year, I started writing in earnest and it’s been fairly productive.

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

Hmmm. I’d say right on. The writing is the conception -- you’re all wrapped up in the exquisite pleasure of it, the guilty/naughty self-indulgence of it. Publishing is the delivery, it’s the hard work and you’re surrounded by experts/doctors (mostly men) who really just want you to put your legs in the stirrups and push. I guess the major difference is that a baby is someone you’ll love all your life, whereas a book can come back to shame you.

I wanted to do this project because I found so few satisfying examples of the writing-mother. It was either the mythology of Alice Munro 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?

Susan Musgrave has got to be at the top of my list. I just finished listening to her speak on a panel about writing and parenthood and I think she has it exactly. Your kids don’t really care about your writing -- they care about you being there, about dinner on the table, about having enough band aids for their unravelling knees. And that’s really wonderful. Writing can be so insular, so filled with politics, rejection, and deluded self-importance. My life as a mother balances my life as writer. It allows me the space away from writing and publishing that I need to keep sane.

13 January 2010

Interview: Susan Olding

Photo by Catherine Farquharson.

Your back of the book bio:

Susan Olding writes fiction, poetry and nonfiction. Her first book, the memoir-in-essays, Pathologies, was published by Freehand in 2008, and was long-listed for the BC Award for Canadian Nonfiction and nominated for the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award. She’s currently working on a novel.

Your playground bio:

“Is she neglectful or does she have nerves of steel? Look at that kid!” (Pointing to the nethermost branches of the tree where my daughter invariably perches.)

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?

Writer first, mother second. Maybe because that’s the order I came to them?

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

Wanted to be a writer from the age of eight. Wanted to be a mother when I was ready to be one.

My fantasies of the writing life included regular espresso dates with Mavis Gallant in a sun-dappled Parisian café. The reality has not included such outings, but she’s still alive and I haven’t given up yet.

My fantasies of mothering, in contrast, were more grounded. After all, before I became a mother, I’d already helped steer two of my partner’s kids though their teenage years. And even if I’d been inclined toward starry-eyed idealism about babies, the home study (for our adoption) would have brought me firmly to earth. We had to answer countless questions about how we’d handle conflict and discipline, what we’d do if we disagreed about parenting, and how we’d respond to our child’s questions about race and adoption.

Even so, the reality is different from what I’d anticipated.

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?

Success for me in either realm means being there, being fully present – at the desk or with the person. It’s harder than it seems.

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

Schedule? What’s that? I had one, before I became a parent. Maybe I’ll have one again when my daughter’s older.

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

I write in shorter bursts. I steal what time I can steal. I get to work quicker when the hours are available. And I’ve written about my daughter, which obviously wouldn’t have been possible if she didn’t exist.

How aware is you child of your writing?

My daughter’s a great publicist. Whenever we meet new people she tells them about my book.

She also likes to write, and I suspect my example plays a role in that. Someday I hope we might collaborate on a project.

A close-up from Susan's desk. Keats sharing space with stuffed cats Mary and Felicia.

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?

Space and quiet, yes – but also time. Books. And encouragement.

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

Enjoy the quiet!

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

You are so lucky. Your life never lacks for meaning.

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

Sometimes I wish I could have started one or the other earlier, wish I could have got a head start on my writing career before becoming a mother, or could have become a parent young, so my child was fairly independent before I started to write. But mostly, I’m just glad and grateful for the incredible privilege of being mother and writer. I almost missed out on both.

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?

For me, the early years of motherhood were a time of extraordinary focus and intensity. My daughter has some special needs and it has taken persistence to understand their nature and strength to advocate for her. It is hard to be creative when you are so driven. This dilemma became, to a large extent, my material.

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

Since I’m a mum by adoption, I wouldn’t know.

But bringing a book into the world does bear some resemblance to adopting a baby.

You plan and dream, maybe for years, and taste disappointment and even despair when your early efforts don’t work out. Often, you take some courses to learn what you need to learn. Your eyes go wonky from staring at the computer screen. Piles of paper litter your desk. You mail so many documents that nicer postal workers greet you by name, while the nastier ones roll their eyes and whisper to one another, “Her, again?”

The process demands patience. You do a lot of waiting. You’re completely dependent on the judgment of strangers with mysterious authority and apparently capricious tastes. Some of them don’t like you. This hurts your feelings or annoys you, and inevitably results in more paper work and more waiting.

Eventually – miracle of miracles – you get the nod of approval. And then you wait again. Sometimes you wait for very long time, so long that you almost forget what you’re waiting for. You ask your friends what it’s all about; you lean on them for assurances and praise. And finally, after months engaged in completely unrelated work, you get a call about the big day. Are you joyful? Of course. But you’re also in a panic because now you have to get ready! And there isn’t time! Despite those months and years of preparation, you feel completely unprepared.

At long last the book (or baby) appears – imperfect, no doubt, but more beautiful than you ever could have imagined. Somebody throws a modest party to help you celebrate. You show book (or baby) to old friends and new and talk about it as incessantly as you dare. Strangers admire it or think it peculiar and feel perfectly justified in expressing their opinions to anyone who will listen. Meanwhile, family members react in unexpected ways. Some become closer to you. Others issue dire warnings, or try to tell you how to handle the newest member of the family. Others barely speak to you at all.

And over time you discover that book (and baby) have lives of their own. They exist quite apart from you and your worries or your excitement or your pride, and they must follow the paths that are theirs to follow. You can’t control this. The most you can do is guide them.

I wanted to do this project because I found so few satisfying examples of the writing-mother. It was either the mythology of Alice Munro 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 cast my historical vote for George Eliot. She may never have given birth to a child, but she didn’t let biology or her restrictive Victorian upbringing interfere with the range of her love. To her partner George Henry Lewes’s children, she became a beloved “Mutter” – someone they depended on for her warm and sagacious counsel.

My contemporary vote goes to the writer-mothers I know and love--Fiona Tinwei Lam, Rachel Rose, Jane Silcott, Judy McFarlane--and many others, whose children are now older. The ones who are sharing this journey.

Photo by Susan Fisher.

6 January 2010

A New Beginning

Well, six months sure flies by. And here we are: 2010. A new year, fresh starts, a blank page. It feels good, doesn't it? Or does it? Truthfully I'm ambivalent about the new year. There are things that happened in 2009 that I'm not ready to let go of yet and some things I wish had never happened.

Here on ATSAD, 2009 was the Year of the Writing Mother, a project I had always envisioned to run its course over the year. Although we are now in a new year and I neglected to post a word in the second half of the year, I'm not quite ready to let it go yet. I've decided to go with the Chinese calendar and let the new year begin in February. I have interviews with four fantastic writing mothers in my possession and will be doling them out between now and the Year of the Tiger.

Except it won't be the Year of the Tiger in my sliver of Blogland. 2010 is the Year of the Wife.

Over the last few years I have been working on a new collection of poetry told from the points of view of the polygamous wives of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church. I'm very close to finishing my manuscript and have started to find the wives homes in literary journals and a beautiful chapbook. I'd like to share a bit of my work with you this year as well as the work of some other very talented friends who have also explored wives in their own writings or readings. This idea is still very much in its infancy, but I'm pretty excited to see where it will go.

I hope you'll drop in occasionally to check up on me and the wives. I can't offer my standard tea with warm blueberry scones, but I hope to have some engaging discussions and writing to make the visit worth it.