Saturday, November 21, 2015

Out-of-Town-Authors: Elizabeth Ross

I met Elizabeth Ross at Palimpsest Press Night at Toronto's Another Story Bookshop in 2014. It was a full night of reading: Patricia Young and I performed alongside Palimpsest editors Jim Johnstone and Dawn Kresan.

After the reading, Elizabeth—Liz—came up to me and said that she'd read Hump, which was unusual enough in and of itself to be memorable, and that Palimpsest would be publishing her first book soon.

Liz wasn't able to go for the traditional after-reading drink that night, as her small children were waiting for her at home. I remained curious about her and her book-to-be, so I'm really glad, now, to have the chance to chat with her...

So, Liz, what do you want people to know about Kingdom?

It’s part coming-of-age story, part map. It deals with many kingdoms—of course, the heart and the head, but also pathologies, geographies, and histories.

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?

(Hopefully I’m interpreting this question’s framework properly.) Reading my own work doesn’t make me nervous. Maybe I’m not a capital “R” Romantic; maybe as a teacher I’m used to speaking in front of large rooms of people; maybe I feel safe speaking out of the poem’s container. Generally I see readings as a part of the job. I like them. There’s the oral history and traditional practice of poetry (Purdy’s “Say the Names” leaps immediately to mind), and there’s also the buzz I get hearing another poet read. And it’s nice to be in a room with like-minded people, poets and poetry appreciators. I wish I could get out to more readings.

Tell me about that strange object/phenomena called ‘the first book.’

As a creative writing student, I had the impression that many writers see the first book as being synonymous with regret, or as exposing some great wound or embarrassment, or as something to get over with, like bungee jumping naked. Critically, the books seem to be received as the next and greatest thing, or largely ignored.

Now that I have published a first book, I don’t really think of it as “the first book”—it’s just a book. I worked hard on it. I don’t think I’ll be embarrassed by it. But I also, at age eighteen, thought similar thoughts about my dragon ying yang tattoo, so who knows. Like my tattoo, perhaps there’s a lot of scrambled lore.

Kingdom explores the idea of “a life of your own,” that thing you’re supposed to acquire as you move from your teenage years onto jobs and houses, pets and spouses. Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to explore this stage, all of us “deer skittish in the bushes”?

I think I’m trying to reconcile an existence built in counterfactuality. I’ve always lived in hypotheticals. And since I can remember I’ve been obsessed with the idea of home, or what exactly makes a home, and wanting to make my own. Even as a kid, I would rearrange my room constantly; I’d play “nest” in the dogwood tree, wedging rock “eggs” into the crotch and sitting on them. Somehow being an adult happened, with no delineation, or stones.

What did you learn about your writing and your process while studying for your MFA at UBC and poetry-editing PRISM International?

There are my pre-kid and post-kid processes. Overall I’ve learned that my process is resilient and flexible, and that writing will happen if I want it to, albeit in less-than expected, or, for some, ideal, circumstances. Since finishing my MFA, I’ve had two kids. So instead of walking and writing and designating think time, I make lunch/drink coffee/bounce/sing/change diapers – and also write. Sometimes I write on the go—sitting on the carpet while my daughters play, or at the table while they eat their breakfasts. When I am able to designate time, more often than not it’s late at night when everyone’s asleep. My walk is pushing the stroller. Really, I have no consistent routine or process. The only thing that has crossed over from my pre-kid days is that at some point, I have to show my work to someone for feedback. And as unpredictable as my writing process is, when I do have uninterrupted time—even ten minutes—I’m super productive; in my MFA days, I would have never taken on anything writing related in such a short time frame.

Editing PRISM was good—not only for my writing, but for my ego. It helped me, as an unpublished grad student, understand that rejections are certainly not personal, or even necessarily a comment on the quality of the work—although they certainly can be. They’re part of a feedback loop that’s cultural, aesthetic, critical, and one I came to realize helps develop good writing. At PRISM, I would reject poems that didn’t fit with the issue’s aesthetic, or because I’d run out of space, or because I’d eaten bacon. Heaven knows. I read carefully and sometimes painfully—editing was a huge responsibility and the framework often unruly. There’s no rubric, that’s for sure. Editing also prepared me to work with an editor on my own work.

Speaking of which, tell me about working with Dawn Kresan at Palimpsest...

Dawn was simultaneously tough and respectful. Working with her showed me that a manuscript truly isn’t a book until it’s been edited by someone who cares about your work, and about poetry overall. In the production process, there’s nothing greater than seeing your editor get excited about a revision— start to finish, she was invested in the manuscript. I’m sure it’s been said before: editor names should appear right next to authors’.

Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?

I probably have been to Winnipeg, likely in the early 90s as a teenager slumped in the back of my family’s minivan (see above re. counterfactuals). That was roughly the same year I claimed the thickest and scratchiest wool sweater in existence from my father’s closet, and he told me it was warm enough for Winnipeg winters, which leant the sweater a kind of mythic resonance. As an adult I’ve also heard the classic stories, trees splitting in two from the cold, ice cracking in the river. It sounds like a place I should revisit.

What are you reading right now?

Many poetry collections. Off the top of my head, Floating Is Everything by Sheryda Warrener, Dear Leader by Damian Rogers, Joy Is So Exhausting by Susan Holbrook. Unless they’re long poems, I kind of start and stop with poetry books, taking in a little bit at a time, hitting a point where I need to stop and let poems or ideas do what they need to do, stick my head into another book, repeat, shuffle. I’ve been reading Karen Solie’s The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out for months. The only exception is Michael Dickman, whose books I’ve been pretty much binging on.

What are you writing right now?

I’m writing a collection of poems that examines the ways middle-class motherhood is constructed. I’m also writing a series of loosely-linked personal essays. And many, many grocery lists.

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