Though I've never worked with Alice Major, I consider her to be a mentor of sorts.
In addition to writing more than a dozen books, Alice is a good example on how to be committed to a place—Edmonton, Alberta—and to a community—poetry.
She was the first poet laureate in Edmonton, for instance, and, during her term, founded the Edmonton Poetry Festival.
Another notable trait is that Alice is kind until she is forced not-to-be. I've seen her raise her voice when organizations veer into the stupidly-impractical or needlessly-complicated.
And so I was pleased to have the chance to interview her about her latest collection, published by the University of Alberta Press as part of their Robert Kroetsch Series. (Can I say again how much I miss Robert Kroetsch?)
What do you want people to know about Standard Candles? (What IS a “standard candle”?)
A standard candle is something you can use to measure distance. The principle is fairly straightforward—if you have two 100-W light bulbs and one looks fainter than the others, then you know the fainter one is further away. Astronomers look for things in the sky that they know have a defined brightness—certain kinds of stars and supernovae—and then measure that brightness to figure out how big all this is. So ideas that percolate through the book are about distances (including distance to the dead), and finding our place in the vastly expanded cosmos that astronomers are measuring.
I hope people will find the book both playful and serious. We've been making up stories about how all this came to be for the whole of human history, and those narratives have important consequences for how we view the world. Cosmology has been something that poets have been playing around with since the days of Homer, and I just wanted to be part of that tradition.
Tell me about working on this book with Peter Midgley at University of Alberta Press.
Peter is a lovely editor to work with. He didn't feel the manuscript needed any significant restructuring or alteration, but he is great at querying a word choice here or a bumpy line there. He is also really good at spotting punctuation inconsistencies. (Yes, poets do need to pay attention to punctuation.)
What did your experience working as a weekly newspaper reporter early in your career teach you about writing?
You can't get precious or constipated about writing when you work for a weekly paper and the editor is screaming, 'There's no copy on the hook!' I had always written in journals as the spirit sporadically moved me, but being the senior reporter for the Williams Lake Tribune didn't give you time to wait for inspiration. It was like one of those poetry loosening-up exercises where you just put pen on paper and fill it with any words that roll out. Only these words had to be organized in complete sentences and carry information. I think it was the best training I could have had—just bash something down and see what you can make out of it.
Now that you’ve published 11 collections of poetry as well as a book of essays on art and science, what have you learned about the writing-of-poetry?
I think poetry needs content as well as form! For me, a poem needs to say something interesting, make a connection that hasn't been made in the pages of countless litmags already. That's why I turn to science a lot—as Shelley said when asked why he went meetings of the Royal Society, "I go to replenish my store of metaphor."
By "something interesting" I don't mean "something completely original never thought in the history of humanity." Originality is a terrible burden to lay on poets. But our brains are designed to associate different things together; metaphor lies at the basis not only of language but perception. Certain associations tend to stick because they're very useful; they become habits of thought. It's much more interesting when you get out of the ruts. Which is why research helps me; it gives me new things to connect with my very ordinary life and living room.
What have you learned about your own process between the Williams Lake Tribune and Standard Candles?
I am fortunate—I really like writing. But I've accepted that I don't like writing all the time. I've realized over the years that there's a certain amount that comes out of me at a reasonably steady rate. I get cross if I'm not able to write at all. But if I give myself lots of time, I don't necessarily write any more, and in fact I end up wasting the time. So I might as well put board meetings or other commitments on my calendar and get out into the world.
What’s important for you now as a writer? As a member of Edmonton’s (and Canada’s) literary community?
For me personally? I think the most important thing is how to keep challenging myself. How do I avoid writing poems I've already written? Of course we go on exploring certain themes and ideas throughout our lives, and we tend to bring a certain attitude to the world and a particular 'voice' into our work. But often I find myself scribbling a stanza and think, "Oh, Alice, you've done this idea in pretty much this way before." So one of the things I have been doing more of is going back to traditional forms. In Standard Candles, there are Spenserian stanzas and terza rima, sonnets and ballads, and nonce forms that just seem to suit particular poems. It may seem strange to some people that you'd use sonnets to be 'new', but I find it stimulating. There's something strangely freeing about having to find a rhyme—it can lead you to images and ideas you just didn't expect to combine.
As for being part of literary community—well to me it's essential. We don't do this alone; as poets we have to be in a constant dialogue with the others who practice this art form, present and past. Also, I think poetry is essential to our health as a society, as is all art. Participating in art-making is good for our physical and emotional health as individuals and it's essential for social cohesion. I'm not an "art-for-art's sake" kind of gal. It's a false dichotomy to say that the arts should be kept apart from having a social function. That implies an unbridgeable gulf between the amateur and the "real" artist, that most of us should just sit back and read what the important poets write or listen to what the popular musicians play. We all exist along the spectrum, and all of us benefit from participating in this most human of activities. So I tend to focus on helping my own city's poetry community; it's one way to resist the hyper-commodification of art that comes streaming in at us on all channels. Live local!
Speaking of which, have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?
I was in Winnipeg just this past summer, for the League of Poets annual meeting. And so I heard poetry!
What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
I'm reading Gwynneth Lewis's Quantum Poetics, three lectures she gave at Newcastle University's public lecture series. She was the first poet laureate for Wales and a writer who also goes to science a great deal for inspiration. And I've just finished Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd.
And I'm writing a long didactic response to Alexander Pope's Essay on Man. The time seemed right.