13 January 2011

In Conversation: Jenna Butler

Time to make another pot of tea, dear readers. I had an email conversation with friend and poet, Jenna Butler, after she so kindly recorded "Inter-Tribal" from Aphelion for me. It was one of those conversations that I didn't want to end. Please take a listen and enjoy!

Jenna Butler was born in Norwich, England in 1980. An educator, book reviewer, editor and poet, Butler has edited more than twenty-five collections of poetry in Canada and England. She is the author of four short collections, Forcing Bloom, weather, Winter Ballast, and Nyctogram: The Lewis Carroll Poems, in addition to a recently-released full-length collection from NeWest Press, Aphelion. A fifth short collection, Lepidopterists, is forthcoming in 2011. She teaches Creative Writing at MacEwan University in Edmonton during the school year; in the summer, she lives with her husband, three resident moose, and a den of coyotes on a small organic farm in the north country.


Jenna, thank-you for reading “Inter-Tribal”. It is such a rich poem and I have so much I want to ask you, but can you start by talking about why you chose this poem to read? Does it represent something of aphelion or do you simply like to read it?

I chose "Inter-Tribal" because it encapsulates, I think, what Aphelion is about: the notion of trying to find home amongst so many places, cultures, and people. That sense of walking between cultures is one I have been deeply aware of all my life, not just in my own history, but in the histories of many other friends here in Canada. The inter-tribal dance at the Songhees Pow-wow I wrote about invoked a number of things for me: my mother's lost history in Tanzania as a child, my father's home in rural England that he left behind when he came to Canada with my mother, and my own background split between Canada, rural England, and a history in Tanzania that I never knew. Through my father's work in Alberta and many First Nations friends through the years, I grew up around a number of First Nations stories and traditions, and those really resonate with me. So when the inter-tribal dance was called at that pow-wow, I found myself dancing all that varied history and all my senses of home, from the landscapes that draw me to the people who anchor my heart. Walking those margins between cultures, hearing so many different people's stories, is a place I am very honoured to be. It's a generative place.

You say it so clearly in the second to last stanza "we dance......what hold us/sustains us......sends us on". As the daughter of two immigrants who came from very different backgrounds, this really resonated with me.

But I want to go back to the beginning of the poem. “Inter-Tribal” starts and ends with ravens. What do they mean to you?

Raven is the trickster figure; for me, it is also the mediator between worlds, between cultures. The raven that danced over the pow-wow circle is the same one that dances over my north country organic farm. It is the one that appears, also, throughout Norse and Celtic legend. It connects all my homes. The raven embodies for me the liminal space of the bridge between cultures and ways of life.

It's interesting that you use the word 'liminal'. When I was at the Writing Studio in Banff, a fellow poet was working on a manuscript that explored the theme of liminal spaces and one poem of hers that I still remember focused on the magpie, another corvid, as a liminal creature. This reminds me of someone on FB asking a few months ago if we all have a corvid poem in us. I know that Ted Hughes did Crow, but do you think there is something inherently Canadian about corvids? Are we a liminal country? And what else is "part of the deeper dark," in the last stanza of your poem?

Gosh, that's a can of worms -- Canada as a liminal country. I'm going to respond to your questions backward:

I guess my response would be yes, I think there's definitely a sense of heightened awareness of borders in Canada (between cultures). We're not unique in being aware of that liminality, but I do believe we're in a more privileged state to acknowledge it and constructively learn from it. And it is so very necessary. If I can share a story with you, my parents chose to come to Canada because they thought it would be a safe place in which to raise the children of a multicultural marriage. I think it was a relief for them to live in a place where most people around them were also "from away," relative newcomers, trying to retain their own cultures while also trying to find some sort of community. We're always engaging with the touch-and-go nature of borders in this country. Some are more fluid; some kick back. There are times when we succeed in navigating those borders between cultures respectfully; there are times when we fail.

I suspect that there's an element of the go-between to corvids; they do appear in so many cultures already. I don't want to generalize and say that Canadian writers inherently reach for crows, magpies, & so forth because there's a "shiftiness" to them, a bridging nature. I can only speak for myself here -- I reach for ravens because they're go-betweens, but they have that underlying darkness, too. It's the "deeper dark" you picked out of the ending of "Inter-Tribal" -- that blackness outside the brightly lit dancing circle. For me, that dark is the danger of not knowing your stories, where you come from. Not having that very elemental grounding.

There are some lines in Inter-tribal that really struck me, particularly "the trucks racket in/like wagons", "bitter lengths of coffee farms", and "a gleaming rind of moon". Can you talk about how one or all of these lines came to be--careful crafting, happy accident, divine intervention?

Glad you liked them!

I'm really attuned to sound when I write. When I draft lines, everything is about playing an image off the sound it makes, the sounds it incorporates. I cut and cut and cut if the line isn't exact in the ear.

For example, the hard ts in "trucks racket" cause the sounds to jolt off one another like the trucks jouncing over rough ground. The double ts and fs of "bitter lengths of coffee farms" extend the line visually on the page, mimicking the stands of plants reaching off into the distance. And in "gleaming rind of moon," the sounds of the rounded gs play off the full os in "moon" -- I'm reaching for something full-bellied here, replete and glinting, implied by the sickle curve of the crescent moon. I get really focused on line breaks, too -- where to cut the sound, how to play with the resonances present within/between images. I have synaesthesia, so I'm hypersensitive to sound/colour anyway; I'm sure that has something to do with the aural quality of the lines being so important.

I didn't know you had synaesthesia! Fascinating. I was going to comment on all the colours in the poem, too, how very present they are--black, red, bronze, blue are all named, but even more are alluded, too. It's very visual. You mentioned the importance of getting the aural qualities right in the lines; I'm curious how synaesthesia plays into the crafting of your work, both in a general sense and specifically “Inter-Tribal”.

I think it underwrites all my poetry. I'm constantly reading word combinations and lines aloud as I write, trying to get the cadence right, probably because sound is such a focus in this type of synaesthesia. I see different volumes as shades of a colour; for instance, a bolded word on the page, read louder, evokes a more saturated hue than a word in regular type. I perceive music in the same way, with volumes and pitches at different hues.

Because there's this constant focus on colour, I think the various names of tones make their way into my writing, as you pointed out. I'm always striving to capture the exact sense of a hue. For instance, in Aphelion, there's a poem, "Wild Indigo," where the colour of the plant in the dry midsummer garden is described as being "dusty blue/like sky or midwinter stars." I find myself grasping at colours, sometimes flailing when the right words don't come. It's not just a blue -- it's a smoke blue or a wild flax blue or a delphinium blue. In the poem "Petroglyph Trail," the sunlight's not just amber, it's citrine. How best to describe it without overloading -- that's the catch. I'm writing the same colours into the poems that I'm seeing in my mind's eye as I go through the day, listening. I can get really hung up on colour -- probably because I walk around with it in my head all the time!

In "Inter-Tribal" specifically, I use a lot of os throughout. Aurally, I find them expansive, and the poem's trying to evoke the sense of a lighted place pinned against a vast, dark backdrop. There's the sound element. To reinforce, I use several colour tones -- "blue air/rigged with smoke" -- in the wording of the poem; the visual element.

This probably sounds really "out there," sorry -- I haven't explained synaesthesia in my writing to anyone before! It's a strange internalized process I go through.