Basma Kavanagh is a poet, visual artist and letterpress printer originally from Nova Scotia who now lives in Brandon, Manitoba. She produces artist's books under the imprint Rabbit Square Books. In addition to her latest collection, Niche (Frontenac House, 2015), she is the author of the chapbook A Rattle of Leaves and Distillō (Gaspereau Press, 2012).
I'm as pleased as punch to be helping Basma launch her Niche at McNally Robinson Booksellers on Saturday, October 10 at 7 pm, as part of the Winnipeg International Writers' Festival fall literary series.
After the readings, Basma and I will be interviewed by WIWF Artistic Director (and poet) Charlene Diehl.
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?
Readings make me really anxious, but just about everything makes me anxious! I actually enjoy readings, despite my nerves. I see readings as my chance to share my work as I hear it, and to personally connect with readers. I put a lot of thought into each reading. A fellow artist recently told me that she sees the book of poetry as the musical score, and the voiced poems as the music performed; I think this is a great analogy. I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to how best to voice the poems, to make this live, shared aspect of poetry writing more interesting.
In Niche, you mark the passing of species, their extirpation in Nova Scotia and broader extinction in North America. Which should be enough, in and of itself, but you take it a step beyond that and try to show what it means for humans to live in an emptied-out, "car-ad" wild. It takes the lightest of touches not to be righteous or preachy in these situations. Can you tell me how you managed to write ecopoems that are both hopeful and catastrophic?
Catastrophe has a vital role in nature—it opens the way for the new. I think that understanding that is the beginning of finding hope in our current situation. I'm sure some of the poems or drafts that I cut were preachy or righteous. I often have to write my way through my own anger and indignation to arrive at something gentler. Using humour helps, and also writing from a place of compassion towards our mistakes and limitations.
You suggest in these poems that metaphors and myths come from the natural world, are fed by the natural world, the same way flora/fauna are. Can you expand on that idea?
Everything comes from the natural world, which is really just "the world." Language, religion, poetry, science, technology: everything we have thought or made has come to us from the world, from observing and interacting with what's out there. I think when we interact frequently and closely with the living world it is very easy to find the patterns and powerful places and creatures that give birth to our myths, to experience (and intuit) the connections among things that give us metaphor. Myth and metaphor are nurtured by the continued complexity of the living world, even if that is as interpreted by or through us (the eyes and ears of the world). They are similarly threatened by a reduction in complexity, in much the same way that plants and animals are threatened.
What was it like working with Frontenac House and editor Micheline Maylor?
It was delightful to work with Frontenac House and Micheline Maylor. Most of my contact was with Micheline, who is an excellent editor (as well as an excellent poet). Working with her on my manuscript was a real learning opportunity. Now that the Quartet is complete, I look at the four books together with an even greater respect for Micheline's vision and abilities. Frontenac was very agreeable about letting me have input into the appearance of the book-something that is quite important to me—and working with their designer was a great experience as well.
That’s right—you’re a visual artist as well as a poet. Tell me what an artist's book does that a trade collection can't. Tell me how you discern the impulses to write/draw/paint.
The essential definition of an artist's book is that it integrates form and content. Sadly, there are few publishers out there able to invest in that kind of work, so as an artist (book artist) and micro-publisher, I have the freedom to make book objects that reflect or express their content, which is thrilling for someone who writes, draws, prints, works with paper sculpture, and binding. This is the place where many of my primary interests intersect.
Regarding the final part of your question, I'm not sure I'm very discerning. I feel like I muddle along, I do one kind of thing, and then I do another. It might depend on the impulse, or on the energy I have available to meet a particular impulse, or the materials at hand.
You’ve spent the bulk of your life in Nova Scotia—with stops on Vancouver Island and in the Arabian Gulf—what was the impetus for the move to Brandon?
We’re part of the steady stream of easterners who come west looking for work opportunities. In Nova Scotia, many of us are faced with the unfortunate dilemma of choosing between having a career or living at home. For the time being, we’ve chosen "having careers".