Yvonne Blomer and I both published collections with Palimpsest Press this spring.
And while I'd heard about Yvonne before this experience, it was such a pleasure getting to know her– and her work– we edited our respective manuscripts, gave feedback on our covers to Palimpsest's designer, solicited blurbs, and compared notes on touring venues.
Our back-and-forths contained lots of "Yay!" and "Oh no!" and "What do you think of THIS?" and, somewhere along the way, Yvonne became a solid part of my literary community.
But I wanted to feature Yvonne here not because she's a friend but because she's one of the most thoughtful and interesting writers I know.
And I think As if a Raven, her third collection, is a good reflection of what she's capable of now and what she might be capable of, a couple of books down the proverbial line...
What do you want people to know about As if a Raven?
One of the things that most excited me while I was writing these poems was the research. Poems can come from a fast fleeting image and they can come from many hours in the hallowed halls of libraries like Cambridge, which was awe-inspiring. A single poem may come from both of these things – the research swims in the back of the mind and an image floats in.
Also, as I read them publicly, I think they seem very serious, which they are, but they are also playful in the language and the license I take with some biblical stories. They are almost a honing of my internal poetic manifesto, which seems to be of play. Its sounds so hoity-toity to use the word manifesto for my own thoughts, but at grad school we were encouraged to read a lot of them, and to explore our own.
That said, I want there also to be a deep and meaningful engagement in the poems. Through language and through research, my hope is that the poems engage with religious texts in an almost literal way. I read all the parts of the bible that related to birds, primarily, and examined how we think of animals, birds specifically, because of the biblical allusions to them. Biblical references are everywhere, they are a part of our idiom and outlook. I started out angry or visceral in my reactions to how birds were used so God could get his point across, so that was a very literal reading, then began to move outward from that perhaps to exploring belief and questioning from human, imagining, ethical and ecological stances. That reading and those questions brought me to other research, broadened the themes, I guess, from biblical to biblical allusions in art and other texts, to science, and to my own engagement with the world around me. Hopefully all of those processes are coming through in the poems.
As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?
For my own readings, I get very nervous, so I approach with mint tea, and breathing (I did momentarily feel like I’d stopped breathing at my launch in Victoria in April.) More importantly, though, readings provide me an opportunity to engage with an audience through the poems. So that when reading, I try to be “in” the poems deeply and through the poems (ideally) engage with the audience. Readings are an opportunity to really try to dazzle, to perform. To put on an outfit, dress up a little, and entertain. I tried to BE that raven on the book’s cover at my launch. One thing I like is for a reader to have my voice in their head when they are in the private act of reading. I really like that as an audience member, that later I can hear the poems read by the author, even poems they didn’t read at the reading end up being in my head in the poet’s voice. That is one of the huge benefits of going to readings and reading my own work publicly.
As an audience member, one of the most important things writers and audience members get, through attending, is a sense of community, a coming together through poems. At the end of the evening, we all have shared images in our heads. People who come to listen to poetry but who are not poets themselves are not only rare, but are also incredibly passionate about poetry and add a lot to that audience. Without the ego, often, just the joy.
For the past several years, you’ve been the Artistic Director of the Planet Earth Poetry reading series in Victoria. Tell me a bit about your role welcoming poet after poet, year after year, to Victoria’s literary community?
Well, it is a many-faceted role. From February each year I begin with the Canada Council grant that is due March 1, so my role involves inviting and scheduling poets, applying for funding, and hosting or organizing other hosts. PEP also holds workshops, advertises for other readings in Victoria via our list serve, I update on FB and contact poets in the weeks before their readings to see what they need and send all the details of each month’s readings to my Web designer, Rhonda Ganz, who is also an awesome poet. My main goal for PEP is to pay writers, bring as many as I can from across Canada, from diverse backgrounds, approaches and styles, both established and new poets. I believe one of the most important things we can do as readers of poetry, is to buy books by new poets. I pair visiting poets with locals, as often as I can, to draw an audience and we always have an open mic. I don’t really tolerate people reading and then leaving, though it does happen. I think the feeling at PEP is that this is your Friday night thing, you come, sign up for the open mic, read your one poem, chat with friends, show poems, edit, drink coffee or wine, look at books in our library or that poets are selling, and then stay to listen to the featured readers. One of my favourite things are the dinners with poets, though it stretches PEP’s budget. Often we have a big group who wants to eat with a visiting poet, sometimes it’s just me and the poet and that is my favourite thing. Last year a highlight was dinner with John Reibetanz where we chatted about our poetry, our kids, the world. I am shy in larger groups, so PEP is great because I’m too busy to talk in detail with a lot of people, but I have a job to do and so it preoccupies the shy part of me. A solo dinner with a poet allows for a quiet conversation, which suits me. Though a few weeks ago when Jan Conn, Kevin Spenst and Russell Thornton were all in town to read together we had a fun-filled dinner. It’s better to just have two featured readers, but what a blast that night was!
The book description for As if a Raven includes the phrase: “She touches on mythology, biblical texts, and science to ask if poetry comes as close to damaging the wild things of the world as Audubon did in his collecting of birds to create the paintings.” I’m intrigued by this idea. Can you talk a bit about what is meant by this?
The idea that is at heart here is that through any act, such as collecting a species to learn about it, or writing about one to explore the metaphors inherent in it, there is the potential to damage that species. I’m speaking here of the notion set about by Cultural Anthropologists, that one must observe without altering. I’m also touching on Cultural Relativism, coined by Franz Boas in the eighteen hundreds. It is the notion that counters ethnocentrism, which I might liken to observing a raven on a fence post and seeing in its posture, its tone of voice when it calls, how it directs its eye, something of a god, a trickster, the devil. Through seeing the raven in this way, which is what metaphor does, is to place that wild animal within the cage of human understanding. If you follow Star Trek, I’m speaking of the Prime Directive, which I paraphrase as to ‘not interfere with the normal development of a species’ (though I’m unconcerned with the second part of the Prime Directive which has to do with warp drives). I think I come to explore these ideas most directly in the book’s final poem, “The Lord God Bird”, where every question I’ve asked or explored in the book, up to that final poem, feels like it is taking some wild bird and making it other; then taking how birds are used in the bible and either explaining behaviors that are mocked by God or allowing for that wildness to creep in again. But, no matter what, the birds are filtered through my human sensibility. How then am I able to see a raven on the fence post and note colour, eyes, beak shape and not place my expectations on it?
This is your third collection of poetry in ten years. What are your goals for your poetry now, as compared to the first poems you published?
My first book came out in 2006, and three books in that time seems both incredibly fast, and slow. It’s interesting because often people say that a first book is less thematically tied than the second. In the first, we are writing individual poems and come at some point to a book. With a second, thematic ties may be there from the start. My first book was incredibly thematically tied, all based on my experiences living in Japan. My second too seems to be travel-based, but is less thematically tied. It is comprised of poems that I was perhaps writing with my right hand while my left was working on the Japan poems and then on the Raven/bird poems. After my son was born, poems that linked into a theme were, not easier but more accessible to get into in the short periods I had to write, so I think I’m drawn to that thematic link, for now. My goals…I want to stay or continue in the direction that my work has gone with As if a Raven. I am less interested in writing poems about myself, and more interested in exploring things outside of my personal experiences. Also, I like what has happened in my language in the Raven poems, which I started at Grad School in the UK. I want to keep pushing the language, the leaps, the lyric and slant narrative. I’m interested in exploring through forms as well. I’m reading more Eastern European poets these days, both contemporary and dead and am interested in how the lyric and the line works in poetry that I’m reading and in the poems I’m writing as well. It is so easy to slip into the kind of poem I always write, and I want to keep my attention on that, on play in the lines and language.
Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?
Yes, my husband, son and I drove to Montreal four summers ago and camped just outside Winnipeg for a few days. The Winnipeg Ballet comes to Victoria often and we saw the Ballet in the Park event while there. We also went to the history museum, though I didn’t know there was a kid’s museum then. One of my memoir students here was responsible for creating that museum, so we’ll have to go back and visit it while my son is still young enough to love it. I also took the train across Canada in my early 20s, in the middle of winter, and stayed in Winnipeg. I arrived in the early afternoon, in the dead of winter, the Youth Hostel was closed but the area around the frozen river was open. I walked, with my pack, to a statue of Louis Riel and even though there was snow everywhere, and it was freezing, the ice on his face automatically made me think it was seagull shit. I always use that as an example to memoir and poetry students of how we take the place we live with us wherever we go. I still laugh at myself. Anyway, not much was open but finally the hostel opened and I could warm up. I met an Australian and we went to a movie. I thought then and on our more recent trip, that it is a very diverse and interesting city. I liked it in the summer more. One of my favourite poets lives there, Meira Cook. Her A Walker in the City is what I think when I hear Winnipeg (and more!).
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Through the Second Skin by Derek Shefield, an American poet I heard speak at the Cascadia Poetry Festival in Seattle in May. He was on a panel and in the few poems he read, I heard moments around birds, biology and biblical literature being explored that I too had explored in my poems. He has a poem titled “Darwin’s Eyes” and as he read it I realized I’d read the same letters and notes on Darwin for my poem “Added Beauty” so nearly fell out of my chair. I’m also reading Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino and delving back into Yeats in honour of a short class I just taught on master poets. My bedtime book is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I’m also flipping through the pages of the Lonely Planet Southeast Asia guidebook…for one of my writing projects. Also, I find I’m still carrying Ilya Kaminsky’s book Dancing in Odessa. I worked with him in Lithuania in 2012, and the way his poems work startles and astounds me.
What are you writing right now?
I’m working on two projects right now, one is a travel story/ memoir set in Southeast Asia on bicycles and titled Sugar Ride, and the other a mystery in poems called Death of Persephone. I’ve been working on the travel memoir on and off for years and am fixed and determined to finish it. Death of Persephone is a newer project I started in 2009. I have a third project brewing in the back of my head, but am not beginning it as I’m fixedly writing that travel memoir. The Invisible Cities book helps the new project brew like long-steeped tea. I must not, shall not flinch from the memoir though.