Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Re:Generations Ottawa Style

In Re:Generations: Canadian Women Poets in Conversation (Black Moss Press, 2005), Canadian female poets discuss how or whether they’ve been influenced by their poetic foremothers. Ottawa poet Susan McMaster is in the book and a few former or dead Ottawans are mentioned also.

Re:Generations will be launched on Sunday, June 11 at Mother Tongue Books at 3:00 pm. Readers will include Carolyn Zonailo, Betty Page, Sharon H. Nelson, Susan McMaster, Penn Kemp, Cornelia Hoogland, and Barbara Godard.

I thought it might be interesting to cover similar territory by interviewing other Ottawa poets. Initially I planned to focus exclusively on women; however, I hope to post a series of interviews with both male and female Ottawa poets, emerging and established. My questions will center primarily on the legacy of our poetic ancestors and their influence on Ottawa poets today.

When I read Re:Generations, I mused on the source(s) of poetic voice. How does one go about establishing one’s own voice? Re:Generations showed the influence of others quite specifically by allowing contemporaries to pay homage to their foremothers. It includes poems that directly reference or include the work of modernist women’s writing in the post modernist poets’ work.

In a series of interviews, I would like to explore how poets today have found or are attempting to find their voice, see how they’re influenced and by whom. I’m hoping this understanding of poetic lineage and influence will inspire and (re)generate poetry and poetic discussion.

Ronnie R. Brown has been a published poet in Ottawa for over twenty years. Her first book Re Creation (Balmuir Book Publishing) was published in 1987 and she has a book coming out this autumn called Night Echoes by Black Moss Press.

Her poems are small stories, vignettes, complete with character, setting, plot, dialogue, wry humour. When you melt down each of Ronnie’s poems, you get a central image and themes that thread consistently through the entire body of her work. From the onset of her poetic career, Brown has never been afraid to talk about issues such as miscarriage, desire and death.

Here’s an excerpt from PROLOGUE (Re Creation, Balmuir Book Publishing, 1987)

That first time
before we knew
that what we had tried
to start had,
indeed, begun, telling my husband,
me, it was all
done; we could go.

I stand
a thin trickle of blood moves
down my thigh, past
my knee, down
into my brand new pair of shoes.
“Are you sure?” my husband asks,
“Maybe she should
stay for a day
or two?”

A few weeks later,
the check-up—
my own doctor says
the whole thing should be seen
as a good sign. “Shows you’re both
fertile, shows things work
down there; you know,
kick the Coke machine just once
and the cans keep rolling out!”

Earl: The poems in your first two books were mostly written in the first person. In Re Creation, the first section is a series of poems based on pregnancy, miscarriage and the birth of a child. I found these poems very poignant, and one of the reasons for this is because the use of the first person helped me to identify with the speaker. Then in Photographic Evidence and States of Matter, the first person is used sparingly.

Do you have any comments about why you use the first person less now?

Brown: In Re Creation, my first book, I consciously chose the first person voice to "tell" the story. I perceived this series as one person's story, a story with which I hoped others would feel some resonance, but still, just focused on one person. At the time I felt it would be pretentious to try and be "every woman." Each woman's pregnancy is different, in fact, even the same woman may have a different experience during subsequent pregnancies. As I wrote these sections it seemed natural to use the "I" voice, particularly so, since this series was more autobiographical in nature than much of the work that has followed.

With other pieces, however, it often "feels" awkward when I use a first person narrator. For one thing, I like to intimate past and future in some pieces--this requires an omniscient narrator--and once you've begun using this kind of distanced, third-person voice it's hard to switch back into the first person. Some of my pieces begin, as drafts, in the first person, and some even see are published in a magazine that way but, when compiling a book (or book section), I find it confusing when the poet goes back and forth from first to third person narrators. As well, some poems have less of a connection to me, they are based more on fictions than facts, and so the use of "I" doesn't seem to be as good a fit (for me, anyway.)

As well, I usually call on friends/fellow writers to serve as my initial editors and they have, almost universally, advised against mixing voices in this way, so I often end up using all third person pieces. I love giving the reader hints at a past and future about which the subject of the poem is clueless--details that are known only to the creator (who, in the case of creative writing, is the writer--and, no, I don't have a "God thing," but I do like showing glimpses of a larger picture.) When you are "inside" the skin of a person/persona and speaking through them using a first person voice you can know only what they know and see only what they. To me this is limiting.

Earl: There's been much debate over the years about the use of "I" in poetry. It was labeled "confessional poetry" for the writers of the 60s, later writers decided to reclaim “I” and now there's a kind of a mish mosh opinion about using it/not using it.

What do you feel about the use of "I" in poetry? What does "I" represent in your own poetry when you use it?

Brown: I don't think that the use of "I" should have been/should be made political. "Confessional" poetry is not really "true confessions" now, is it? Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" wasn't really the brute she described (or so the biographers tell us); so regardless of how the poet prefers to present the piece it is still, to a greater or lesser degree, a creative piece. When I was first starting to write seriously (I began as a teenager, but didn't really pursue writing and publication till my mid- twenties), Seymour Mayne's mother-in-law, the poet Gertie Katz, who mentored me, advised me to focus on the poem and not "the truth." She used to question me about my need to include specific details in pieces "just because that's what really happened." To quote Gertie, "It's much more important to include details that matter to the poem than those that matter to you!" And, of course, she was right.

To get back to the first question (too late to say "and make a long story short!"), I use whatever voice feels comfortable in the context of the poem I'm writing at the time. In my new book, NIGHT ECHOES (Black Moss), which will be launched this fall, I open with a first person poem as a prologue, then move into the minds and lives of various people's dreams. The first poem offers the reason why I/we should look into the dreams of others, but to have even a few of these pieces in the first person would make for confusing reading since I have already identified that first person voice with one character. On the other hand, in the series I'm working on now, I'm considering having a number of poems using the first person voice of a girl at various stages of her life, starting at around 4, and have only these (semi-connected) poems spoken in the first person. The reason for this is, not only that these poems are more closely autobiographical than most of the others in the series, but the voice of a child is both a challenge to write and "speaks" more innocently and directly. Also, I want the reader to see all of these "I" poems as coming from one child/persona. At least that's what I'm thinking now, these pieces, also expose the "me" behind the "I" and if that becomes too uncomfortable they just might get shifted to third person! That said, I guess the short answer is that often ascribing the "I" to a poem makes me feel a little un- comfortable, and limited, so I back away.

Earl: Your books have come out in 1987, 1988, 2000 and 2005. Can you talk about the various poets you were reading at these times? Do you think these writers influenced your writing? Are there poets you've been reading throughout and have changes in their work affected your own?

Brown: Until about 1977 my writing was kind of a sporadic and haphazard thing. We moved to Canada in the late sixties and, at first, there was little time for anything but finding and keeping a job. I started writing again after starting to take night courses at Concordia University to finish a degree I'd started in the US. I was further encouraged (as well as surprised and shocked) when I submitted a sample of my work for the Board of Governors's Award at Con. U. and won! While I was slogging through the requirements for an Honours BA in English (and studying Robert Browning, etc.), I began to take advantage of the reading series Con. U had to offer (a real treat back then, since food and drink were always in abundance!) I was able to hear and meet poets like Irving Layton, bill bissett, as well as talking to faculty poet/profs., like Henry Beissel and Richard Sommer. Till then poets, were for me, usually dead and always distant. But among those I heard and read, I think the first poets who really impacted my own style were Layton (I loved his fearlessness) and Atwood (her clever turns of phrase and sarcasm really struck a chord with me!)

Still, until I enroled in the MA Programme in Creative Writing at Concordia, I was pretty much trying to do my own thing. In the required creative writing workshops and especially, by working one-on-one with Gary Geddes (my thesis advisor) and by hearing what other students at the time were doing (and my "peers" included Michael Harris, Steve Luxton, Laurence Hutchman, Jim Smith, Ross Leckie, and many others), I tried to find/refine the voice that was mine and mine alone. I see finding your voice by sampling how others write as sort of like taking a recipe for a really great chili, and then adding a little more of this and a little less of that and, finally, coming up with something that you think is better, and you know is yours alone. Of course, just as you cook to suit your own taste, the way a poet writes is the way they like poetry to be. Every poet hopes that other folks will like their way too; that maybe their recipe might even win a poetry "cook off" some day, but, even if it doesn't it's your recipe by then and once you find one you love, that's pretty much the way you keep on making your chili from then on.

Earl: I've noticed that most of your poems are written from a women's point of view. I was interested to read some of your poems on where you were a featured poet. In one of the poems, "Riding" from the Little Red Riding Hood poems, you use the male point of view to talk about a man's confused sexual feelings about his daughter. The poem itself is a very effective piece and I think it is so because of this perspective. When you were drafting this poem, did you try to write it from a female point of view? Why did you decide to write from the male perspective? Is this something you would like to do more of?

Brown: As for assuming the male point of view (vs. always speaking from a female perspective), I'd like to use a male voice/persona more often but I have had it drilled into me so often that one should always "write what you know" that I often back down. In NIGHT ECHOES, there are a number of male personae. I even have a piece about a gay man. This is another place where using the third person omniscient comes in handy (or, if you prefer, puts me at ease), since, writing in the third person allows me to say what the man thinks, without having to totally assume his personality.

The poem you mention is from the series Free Associations on Fairy Tales, and it steps into the mind of a man who unconsciously dreams his adolescent, horse-back riding daughter as a sexual being (thus exposing his own inner thoughts/ fantasies) is one I was a bit leery of taking on. I was sure I would be ridden out of town (pun intended) over that one, but Sue McMaster, who is often the first person with whom I share my work and who also is both a rider and the mother of a girl who rode, gave me a green light on the piece. Like the poem I've done as part of the "dream" series using a gay man, this poem felt like risky territory. Would I like to do more of these? Well, yes, I do like the challenge, but I will only take it on if I have something I need to say which I feel can only be said by a male. That is, I don't want to explore the other gender just for the sake of doing it.

Earl: Your poems are very much mini stories with characters and dialogue. This isn't easy to pull off and you do it so well, which I admire. Have there been times when you've wanted to expand poems into something longer? Do you write fiction? How do you see fiction and poetry as different or the same?

Brown: For some reason most of the things I write start with a word or image. I just wrote a poem entitled "Lost," for example, after seeing a number of surveillance photos in the CITIZEN. But, until that image (or maybe I should call it an idea) fleshes out in my mind and becomes a story, well, it tends to stay unwritten. I think in stories, so making them the core of the poem is, for me, completely natural.

I have, indeed, written fiction (short stories) and would like to write more, but I find the necessity to pare down the story to a kind of micro-story more fun and challenging. Even the non-story poems I write come complete with an (unwritten) back story in my head. But sometimes the poems "just grow" (as did the title poem in RE CREATION) where the story, grew longer until it evolved into a long (story-like) narrative. That was also the case with the poem "DRIVING INSTINCTS" (in STATES OF MATTER, Black Moss, 2005), which originally grew into a long narrative and then, because of editorial demands (and Sue McMaster's genius), became smaller fragments again which woven into the second section with other poems coming between the elements of the narrative in the same way that other things interrupt us during even the most tense moments of our life.

Excerpt from Driving Instincts I: Opening Shots (STATES OF MATTER, Black Moss, 2005)

Her hands white-
knuckled on the steering wheel,
or perhaps her foot, sensible shoe
firm on the accelerator. If this
were a movie these would be
the opening shots. Following
the title, overlaid on a panoramic view,
cars speeding down a highway, zeroing
in to a compact,
grey paint even greyer
under layers
of dust and muck.
She imagines the camera moving
up her leg to focus
on her face. If she could just deliver
the feelings, convey the pain, if she
could only find the right expression,
the director might call it a take,
a wrap, send everyone home.

Eventually, I tell myself, I'd like to really go with a story and write a novel--don't know if that will happen, but I'd like to try. Nothing literary, mind you, I'd like to do something in the manner of Koontz or King--not for the cash (although that would be nice) but because I find reading horror fiction calming (honest). I like the way a good horror book makes even the most awful turn of (real) life events seem inconsequential and, if you get too freaked out, unlike life, you can always close the book--it's a great escape to read horror books. What I'd like to find out is what it's like to write something like that.

As for the differences between fiction and poetry, well poetry needs a tight turn of phrase, good images and a great deal of self control to keep things small so what's presented comes across as large. Fiction requires so much more detail--who's wearing what, eating what, sleeping with whom, etc.-- it's like the difference between painting a perfectly detailed miniature and a huge mural. You need talent and certain skills to do either one-but not everyone can be good at both. Some writers, like Margaret Atwood are, but I guess I'll just have to wait and see if I can pull it off.


He only notices her
when, retracing his steps,
he retrieves his hastily flung coat
from the couch where she sleeps.
Wrapped in an old quilt
she looks about the size of his youngest son.
Gingerly he lifts the coat, jumps back
as her eyes snap open
like a kewpie doll's. For a moment
he thinks of going back, adding a twenty
to the cash placed on the woman's
nightstand but, in the end,
he leaves, tries to forget, tries
to focus on his wife and kids six cities
and fourteen sales stops away.

For the rest of his trip
he will work hard
at forgetting those eyes, but
for years to come, they
will appear to him in dreams
just as his startled stare
will etch its way
into the nightmares
she will have
for the rest of her life.

by Ronnie R. Brown
from NIGHT ECHOES (Black Moss, 2006)

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