Friday, June 19, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Anita Dolman

Anita Dolman is a writer and editor whose poetry and/or short short fiction has appeared in numerous journals, websites, chapbooks and magazines, and in the anthology Decalogue: ten Ottawa poets (Chaudiere Books, Ottawa, 2006).

1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first chapbook felt like it validated my efforts as a poet. I had long considered myself a writer, but that chapbook, and the spate of poems accepted for publication in journals around the same time, made me feel that my efforts were warranted, and encouraged me to continue. I would like to think that my work has become subtler, more nuanced since then. I came out of the gate wanting to clobber people with meaning, but now I'm much more interested in the poem as a layered work inviting conversation with the reader, the idea that a single poem, as a single work of art, can, if successful, mean many things to many people.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

In high school and the start of university, I was interested far more in both reading and writing fiction, which was a sort of choice by default. I had been taught by a number of teachers who believed that if their students did not interpret a poem the way the teacher's edition said was the only correct and justifiable interpretation, they had somehow managed to fundamentally get the poem "wrong." Poetry as a test of one's ability to see it through the exact same lens as someone with no doubt a very different perspective and background did not surpisingly completely fail to appeal to me, much as it completely fails to appeal to most other kids whose initial reaction of "Hey, that sounds cool" is almost immediately crushed into the resignation of "Okay, well, I guess I'm just never going to get it" by teaching that will likely keep them from approaching poetry again for most of their lives. I actually had a university English teacher start the poetry section of her curriculum with a warning to the effect that "I never understood poetry, and I imagine you don't either, so I promise to try to get through this section as quickly as possible."

In my third year at the University of Victoria I switched to a writing major. One third of the introductory class was dedicated to poetry, taught by Patrick Lane, and something just clicked for me in that class. I started to read Gwendolyn McEwen, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, to start, and many others after that, with an open approach, thinking more in terms of what the reader brings to a poem to make it the poem that they perceive, rather than dedicating myself to what I still believe to be the largely useless pursuit of trying to figure out what the poet meant to say based on their religion, family situation, house size and what they'd had for breakfast that day. Once I felt that liberation, I was hooked on poetry, on the possibility of it, the infinite opportunity a single poem can hold in a way that fiction, weighed down by its sheer size and need for consistency, can never have.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I usually don't know I've started a writing "project" until I'm well into it. I start dozens of projects that never lead anywhere and I tend to only realize I'm on the right track with one when I notice that I keep coming back to it over and over. Then, I can't leave it alone. I become addicted to it. I worry away at it, compulsively editing and re-editing and then taking that bit out anyway because it obviously wasn't any good in the first place, and then moving on to fight with another bit that isn't doing at all what I want it to. The problem for me is not the writing or the editing, it's knowing when it's done and walking away.

4 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I never start with the idea of "This is going to be a book." I set off down a path and when I look back and notice that it's now covered in poems I think "Huh, well if there are that many of them here, I suppose I ought to see if they want to come live together in a book."

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love readings. I love to go to them and I love to read at them, although I don't get to go to them nearly as much as I used to. For me, readings inspire and motivate me far more than actually reading poems in books, much as I love the words there, too. There's an energy that comes from a group of people together in one place just wanting so very much to communicate, to be heard, to connect with each other using this fascinating device, that I find it impossible to go home after that and not write, not want to keep that dialogue going.

I used to be immensely shy, both in general and specifically about sharing my work, but you just can't watch other people, especially the ones who don't necessarily have any background in it or the tools they really need, get up there and just give it their all and then allow yourself to not contribute, too.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I don't go into my writing setting out to tackle a certain issue or to approach the work from a particular theoretical perspective or with a certain style in mind. All of these tend to emerge based on what the poem wants to be, what it requires as it begins to take shape, either on the page or in my imagination. The result, though, is often narrative poetry that, for better or worse, has, for wont of a better word, a moral. And those stem from whatever is of concern to me, conciously or subconciously, at the time.

I can't speak to what the current questions are for everyone else, because that depends on individual perspective, the expression of which is the very thing that makes poetry so fascinating to me. My own work lately has been full of the idea of personal happiness and personal responsibility, how these things get lost along the way and how we can get back to them, for our own and for the greater good.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

A writer is an interpreter of reality and the voice of possibility. The role of the writer, like the role of any artist, should be, to my mind, to offer up one more perspective through which to view the world, and with this offering, provide one more way that we could move ahead. The artist is the articulator of human imagination, and we as a society can't go anywhere without him, since he's the one holding the map.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

As an editor, I'd say editors are absolutely essential to the writing process, to ensure that the writer doesn't, in knowing so fully the meaning or the sound they meant to articulate, become blind to whether they have actually effectively conveyed it. As a writer, I'd say editors are a scourge on society, the level of irritation they create matched only by an episode of Oprah's book club, classics edition, and their usefulness roughly on par with that of telephone cleaning crews.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Lighten up.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I normally have the approximate attention span of a rabid squirrel, so poetry and postcard-length fiction tend to be more satisfying for me, simply because they're bite-sized. I'm also a compulsive editor; I keep going back to and fiddling with my work, which makes longer fiction a challenge, because the first thing I want to do when I sit down to continue a story is go back to what I wrote last time and spend the whole day tinkering with it instead of moving ahead.

That said, fiction is very attractive to me, because it allows for a greater scope, the opportunity to delve more fully into a multiplicity of perspectives and ideas within one work. I'm starting to move towards fiction now because of that. Much of my poetry to date has been very short, and my fiction tends to be of the under-500-word variety, so I'm setting myself the challenge of just seeing what happens when I pan out a bit and tell the broader story around the story. There's an element in that of giving up my obsession with the perfection of individual lines and words, in exchange for the ability to convey a wider story. Of course, this means buckling my inner squirrel firmly into her seat, hiding all the shiny objects and giving her a good tallking to before I get started each time.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I used to be regimented, and then I got a day job, and then I had a baby, so now I grab writing time where and when I can. My son is just over a year old now, and I'm finally starting to come back to writing with more consistency (so far just a quick writing session at about 6 a.m. on the weekends, before everyone is up, and then again on a week night or two), but I find the return daunting. I feel much more obligated to have something significant to show for the time I've taken away from my family, my chores, my sleep, etc. I feel I need to be accountable for that time.

I've been asked before why there aren't as many publishing female poets, particularly older female poets, as there are male poets (although I'd be curious to know the actual percentages), but I believe it's because women are far quicker to be convinced that the world will end if they don't do the dishes, or the laundry, or the dusting, instead of writing (or painting or entering politics, for that matter) than most men could ever be. As compelling and addictive as writing is for me, I will always feel I'm cheating someone else out of something I should be doing for them (regardless of whether they tell me I'm an idiot for thinking this) by doing something that really isn't for anyone else. Writing is an immensely selfish act. And it takes a significant amount of ego to think that what's in your head is so bloody important that you should stop everything and write it down before the world is forever robbed of your singularly genius observation.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Music, poetry, galleries, readings. Anything that calls me out to play. I used to return to specific favourites (Michael Ondaatje and Anne Sexton, for example, or Nina Simone and Billie Holliday), but any type of art that gets a reaction from me will make me want to grab a pen or my computer and return the favour.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Freesias trigger the strongest childhood memories for me, although they remind me of my grandmother's house in Amersfoort, rather than of my own home. She seemed to have a vase full of them every time we stayed with her, and in my mind's eye they imbued her otherwise dark little house with light as well as fragrance.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Music has a deep and motivating effect on me, especially blues and jazz. A few minutes of listening to Nina Simone do her thing and I feel an overwhelming urge to go write something, anything, just to play along.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I've mentioned a few of the poets already, although the list could go on and on. I'm a sponge when it comes to writing and my influences would include everyone from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Michael Ondaatje to e.e.cummings to Atwood, Sexton, Plath, Woolf (now that would be a dinner party!) to Douglas Adams and all stops in between and beyond.

More directly, you, rob, have been endlessly influencial in your encouragement of my work, and inspiring in your constant encouragement of other writers. Stephen Brockwell has been enormously helpful and encouraging to me, as well, as was Patrick Lane when I took his poetry workshops at UVic. jwcurry, too, of course, as well as so many of the poets in Ottawa's writing scene. My husband, fiction writer James Moran, started out as my editor (and I as his) and his support is the main reason I'm still writing today. I have been enormously fortunate in the places and people to which poetry in particular has led me.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Learn to let go of things, including my writing. And travel more.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

My other job is as an editor, but if I hadn't become either of these things, I imagine I most likely would have become a real estate developer, or at least someone who refurbishes old buildings. I love building things. If it hadn't been poems and stories, I think it likely would have been actual buildings.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It was the first saleable skill I realized I had. Isn't that romantic? Why I kept doing it, though, is an absolute, fundamental need to express the thing that's just behind the thing we normally talk about.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I'm reading and very much enjoying Gore Vidal's Lincoln right now, and I recently read A Room of One's Own for the first time, which was a lot more fun than I would have thought. I've seen a lot of rather awful films recently, but I did like Revolutionary Road, and the new Star Trek. The last film I saw that really stuck with me for a long time after, though, was a Quebec film called C.R.A.Z.Y.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Fiction, which doesn't come as naturally to me but which I'm finding a lot of fun to explore nonetheless.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating interview!