Rite of Passage in the Narratives of Dante and Joyce. Fraser taught as a sessional at University of Toronto and is quite likely the first and only person to convince the Literary Studies Department at Victoria College that a course for third year students on the Divina Commedia and Finnegans Wake was a must. She also taught for Humber College and Branksome, an all girls independent school. After fourteen years in Toronto, Fraser’s husband took a position in Victoria, BC and so she moved with her husband, including her two sons, one three and one eight, back to the West Coast. In Victoria, Fraser worked for St Michaels University School and just recently has taken a position at an International Baccalaureate School, Glenlyon Norfolk. Directing plays, teaching literature, and lucky enough to work with fabulous creative writers greatly influenced Fraser who has written three plays which are available through the Playwrights Guild of Canada as well as another literary study, published in 2011 by University of Toronto Press, Be A Good Soldier: Children's Grief in Modern English Novels, and an assortment of novels the first one, Crush, published in 2013; the second one, Royal Dispatch being published this summer, two others completed but presently in a holding pattern and more in process. Fraser is a compulsive writer who cannot stop analyzing, dramatizing, and spinning tales.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I found it liberating to write fiction as opposed to scholarly work. It was a difficult transition to make because I did not have a sense of how to construct a character or develop a plot or use dialogue. I discovered that a whole other part of the self is drawn upon when writing fiction and it made me feel more alive. Rather than the intellect being the dominant force, as in academic work whereby one seeks patterns or theoretical structures or cultural implications, the whole self comes into play when writing fiction. It made my heart beat and my senses become more finely tuned. Moreover, writing fiction allows for humour which I cannot resist regardless of how serious my focus is. I love funny people and situations and am quick to laugh myself at absurdity or folly and to allow this part of myself free reign in creative writing was an immense pleasure.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
When I first started creative writing, I tried short-stories and poems, but they were not a good fit. I am not a miniaturist or a perfectionist and thus could not do my best work in these highly demanding genres. I’m very character driven in my work and found that I needed more space and time to unpack my people. I wanted to throw them into a plot that challenged them and brought out their best and worst. This takes pages and pages. I am privileged to have very talented poets and short-story authors in my writing group, but I seem to need a vast literary canvas to fully shade and colour my stories.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process?
My writing comes fast and furious. My characters are relentless and they badger me. If I am caught up in teaching or attending to my children or any of the other demands of life, my characters become disgruntled and sometimes even belligerent. Then I succumb and develop a vacant stare as I cope with real life because fictional life is hounding me. It is a relief for me to carve out time and sit at the computer. It’s the only activity for me where I don’t notice time passing. I forget to eat and drink. Worse, I am shocked when I pull out of story world and need to return to reality.
Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I am a note taker and my training in academic work greatly assists me in this regard. When I wrote Crush, I was not at all a wine expert and even now am an absolute novice. However, I recorded the “stories” on Okanagan Estate Wineries’ labels. I read books. I took notes. I spent hours looking at the internet. Even then, I had a sommelier read the novel and she got completely amused in places where I had made glaring errors. Likewise, I had a RCMP officer read Royal Dispatch and he corrected quite a number of errors. To draw on experts in the final drafts process is wonderful and I’ve found people are generous with their time. I write a lot of drafts as my first ones are often rough as I am to just let the story hit the page with the sense that I can always go back and refine. I think this process comes to me through my theatre work as rehearsal is the key to depth-filled performances. Rehearsals greatly impact the nuances of timing and make an enormous difference to the interactive nature of drama that compares to the inter-related aspect of character dynamics in fiction.
4 - Where does a work 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?
Ever since Crush, I’ve learned that I can only write books. This was true in academic work as well. I tried to write articles, but it was ironically enough harder for me than writing book length studies. My thirteen year old will get utterly fed up with me as I try to advise or explain something and I think he’s nailed my character. He simply says: “You don’t have to go on and on.” In real life, he’s right and I try to hold back, but in fiction it would appear I do have to go on and on.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
My initial sense of doing a reading is utter dread. As an introvert, any kind of suggestion that I need to leave the computer and worse, interact, fills me with resistance and causes me to whine and complain. However, the second I am in the classroom or lecture hall or at a reading, I delight in the interactions and dialogue, the discussion that stories spark and the sharing that happens. So although I go to readings kicking and screaming, I finish them off feeling a great deal of gratitude for the people who attend such events and who love to talk about books.
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 am fascinated by whatever it is in a person that makes them refuse to bow down before master narratives. What caught my attention in the Okanagan and inspired Crush was the aboriginal winery Nk’mip. I loved the story of Chief Clarence Louis who is a highly talented businessman and economic instigator in this area of the world. He is a leader and that absolutely caught my attention and made me want to know more. There is a metal sculpture at the entrance to Nk’mip winery and it’s a larger than life horse with a rider upon it and they face the lake and wind with cliffs rising up behind them. It is the oppression of those cliffs that represents to me all the forces in life that tell you “no” and say “you can’t,” but this rider turns his back on the wall of rocky cliffs and sets off in a new direction which is the driving force behind all of the characters in my fiction.
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?
I think it depends on the writer and there are many different kinds of reasons behind writing and different roles one might play in as a writer. For me, I feel like my role is as a story-teller. I feel like the most intriguing aspect of where I live is that it is paradoxically globally local. British Columbia today is a province of people from all over the world. The original settlements stretching back at least ten thousand years with the First Nations then the arrival of Europeans and Chinese and Japanese and then all of a sudden in the late eighties the whole world descended upon this wild diverse landscape forever rendering the community complex and dynamic. I find stories beckoning from all over when I’m here. What I find particularly powerful is that British Columbia is a place where people refuse to give up their stories. No matter what has been thrown at the First Nations people or the Chinese people who came here, no matter what cruelty was dished out to European immigrants or the Japanese during World War II, no one will relinquish the story of their suffering and of their triumphs. People in this community create cultures within cultures by adhering to their stories and I want to be a part of this.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find an outside editor invaluable. Coming from the scholarly community, I like an editor who does not pull punches. I am not wedded to my every word or even character and find it easy to cut or erase or reinvent if needed. I like the dialogue that occurs when an editor examines in detail one’s work. I am particularly lucky at present because my publisher, Ben Coles of Promontory Press, is also a novelist and thus I find his editing exceptional in terms of his sense of story.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My brother is a screenwriter and he told me that when I got stuck writing, I should stop and go for a long walk. It works wonders. My best ideas come to me or the solutions to my literary problems inevitably emerge when I’m walking.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (plays to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
The move from academic writing to creative writing was very hard, but I had an excellent writing group who encouraged me. I began by writing little “essays” as I literally felt baffled by the concept of fictional presentation. However, once I committed to creative writing, I find that shifting genres is quite seamless. I think because I have worked as a teacher of literature for a long time and also as a director of plays, I feel as comfortable in the world of Beowulf as I do on the stage of the Laramie Project.
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 try to keep early morning open for writing before I have to go to work. If I’m being hounded by unsympathetic characters, I’ll write when I have spares from teaching or during lunch or just before dinner or while my son is at an activity just to quiet them. Any long weekend or extended holiday is writing time. I try to carve out as much time as possible and resent interruptions!
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I get stuck and my long walk fails to help, then I simply leave the section of the novel I’m working on and turn my attention to something else. I have an extremely poor memory and always have; however, I am able to keep clear in my mind long intertwining narratives with all the characters and their different detailed issues. My husband finds this quality in me quite annoying as I struggle to remember a person’s name or a book I’ve read or something I really need to purchase, while I can go on and on about my plots’ twists and turns or describe my characters’ outfits or speech patterns.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Home smells to me like my kids: boys’ sports equipment, boys’ empty orange juice glasses, boys’ quilts that are rumpled, boys’ shampooed hair as they lay their heads down on our dog’s musty coat, boys’ running shoes and the warmed fabric of their school uniforms.
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?
My books are definitely shaped by books as I truly believe in seeing the world through the lens of literature, but when I’m writing, I tend to engross myself in the world of winemakers or the world of Chinese mythology or the RCMP. I love the detail and vocabulary and ideology that define groups of people who are utterly foreign to me. I’m the opposite of the writer that writes what he or she knows. I tend to write what I don’t know.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I have studied in depth, over the course of years and years, particular writers, and a day does not go by when I’m not under their influence. I could not have written with such intense sympathy the Irish terrorists of Royal Dispatch without James Joyce at my shoulder. I could not have written with such humorous grief the story of Gwen in Third Culture Kid without having taught Holden Caulfield’s story year after year. The torturous journey of Dante as he descends into hell in order to spiritually raise himself back up most definitely has shaped the tragic losses that occur in the cursed tale Gemini Cycle. That said, I do not think for a moment that my own fiction is anywhere near these great writers in terms of achievement. I merely hear them as I try to tell my own stories. Thus, I greatly admire the way in which Virginia Woolf obliquely delineates a character’s psychology and I strive to marshal her approach as I putter away at my laptop. I loved the movie Midnight In Paris as it told in such a sweet way the yearning we have to spend time with our favorite writers and the way in which we cannot help but dialogue with them across the ages.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Much as I find working with young people inspiring and interesting, I would like to write for a living and not have to always divide my time between teaching and writing. My dream would be to live in different countries for stretches of time and write novels.
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?
I would love to act and sing. What holds me back is being highly introverted and self-conscious; hence, writing allows me to be creative and interactive yet also protects my need for quiet and alone time. I get along extremely well with my computer.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
See above answer
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently watched Cloud Atlas and I found its exploration of time and eternal recurrence fascinating. I especially found captivating the weight moments carry when one has the opportunity to do a kindness or a cruelty. I am in the midst of The Imperfectionists and am very caught up in the characters and premise. The writing is original and the descriptions quirky which has set my imagination singing.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Besides the arduous and painful task of editing, I am two chapters into the sequel to Crush which is the next Paige Munroe wine mystery called Celsius and it’s set on the Big Island of Hawaii at Volcano Winery. Celsius is all about what happens when literal and figurative heat is added to the mix of wine, relationships, food and so on. I wasn’t planning to write a sequel, but readers keep asking for it. I have a novel that needs minor edits and I’m hoping to have published in the fall entitled Gemini Cycle; it’s about the working out of an ancient Chinese curse in contemporary Vancouver’s China Town. I have another novel called Third Culture Kid which is set at an international private school and is narrated by a fourteen year old girl who has major social issues because her dad is the Headmaster and her new step-mom is the new school counselor. Needless to say, no one wants to be her friend. Not sure when my publisher will bring that one out, perhaps in the new year. I am actually working on more, but I really find that this is one of my worst instances of going “on and on” and with that, I will hush.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;
Monday, September 22, 2014
Sunday, September 21, 2014
We might think of description as the suppression of distance, since it brings that which is not present near.
Language, meanwhile, counterfeits presence. (One thinks of Gide’s Les faux-monnayeurs.)
Thus: it matters which language you use, whether it is “washed,” how prepared. The extent and location of your vocabulary. The eye remains fixed within the face and yet certain entities entice it, the anticipation of skin, something sinks in cloudy liquid. Temperature is so important in description, or that one object may hide another, at least in part.
It is possible we mortals feel solidarity with literary “objects,” in that these carry in themselves their own negation. Nothing participates in literature in permanence. (“On Description”)
In her third trade collection, The Worldkillers (Ann Arbor MI: SplitLevel Texts, 2014), New York City poet Lucy Ivespresents a work in three sections—poem, novel and essays—each of which bleed structurally across the boundaries of form. Ives, the author of Orange Roses (Ahsahta, 2013) [see my review of such here] and nineties (Tea Party Republications, 2013), is quickly developing into a poet of sentences on par with the poem-essays of Lisa Roberston and Phil Hall for their sharp blend of lyric, thought and wit. Her collection is structured in three parts: a section of poems, “My Thousand Novel”; a novel written over the course of a day, “The Worldkilllers”; and an essay, “On Description.” Still, the form between each of these sections remains rather fluid. It remains unclear if the declarations of form (the second section is declared a novel, as the third is declared “[an essay]”) are included as red herrings, distractions or as each section’s suggested focus. As the combined press release for The Worldkillers and Maged Zahir’s If Reality Doesn’t Work Out reads:
Why “Texts”: why “SplitLevel Texts,” that is, not that we are not interested in genre, but we are not interested in saying strictly, this one, this one we love MOST (id est, poetry) cannot contain others: are we children of the theory wars: yes and we were born on the side that loved capacity and textuality even in the earth: and what about hybridity: yes, but more important more to our essence: do we look to darwin and raise a glass to hybrid vigor: yes, very much more than probably yes : so why “Level”: do we see things as balanced: of course and also of course not: oh, so is that what the “Split” is about then: do we see the balance out of balance: yes: so what about “SplitLevel”: have we ever lived in one: have you?
The poems in the first section (including the poem “Poem”) are constructed as a sequence of accumulations; lines and phrases compiled in a kind of breathless rush, much in the way of some of the pieces from Orange Roses. The first section of “Poem” opens:
She does not like that very nice man
She does not like that very nice man on wheels with the face of salt
She does not like to live for three thousand years dripping and falling over her own whisper
She does not live for a week like a dromedary, stupid fringe of crystal sticking out from her eye
If it’s what she wants
If it’s lips and teeth and tiny white hair
Why not end every adjective with an “e”
Ives appears to favour repetition and the accumulation throughout her work, and the subsequent sections share this sense of accumulation. Where the poems in the first section might be accumulations of lines and phrases, the second section is one of prose-sections, sentences and plot-movements, and the third one of phrases, quotes and logical turns. The eighth section of her essay, “On Description,” titled “Speculation:” reads:
In the foreground there are reeds—long blades that shake; closed blossoms; and now a shelf of cloud, under which pale orange.
I write in a notebook, “I was just whistling.”
As much as anything else, The Worldkillers is a work that explores the boundaries and blurrings between the arbitrary lines drawn around particular forms, just as much as she plays with the naming of those same forms. Is the poem “Poem” a poem and nothing more? Is the essay “On Description” truly an essay and not, say, a poem-essay, or even simply a poem?
Saturday, September 20, 2014
My piece on fall 2014 Ottawa lit, in which I took recommendations from and for Frances Boyle, Jesslyn Delia Smith, Cameron Anstee, Deanna Young, Sandra Ridley, Phil Hall, Chris Johnson, Anita Dolman, James K. Moran, Kate Heartfield, Monty Reid, Amanda Earl, Roland Prevost and a bunch of others, is now posted over at Open Book: Ontario.
Friday, September 19, 2014
Thursday, September 18, 2014
Sarah Campbell's recent books include We Used to Be Generals (2014) and Everything We Could Ask For (2010). Her literary criticism has appeared in Jacket 2, Arizona Quarterly, and The Golden Handcuffs Review. Radio pieces have aired on WNYC and as podcasts for the Poetry Foundation.
10 questions, answered
1. The work
Seven years ago, the proportions of my poetry began changing: almost overnight, everything got shorter. As this minimalism set in, I increasingly confined myself to a limited vocabulary. We Used to Be Generals continues in the confines of this particular "condensary" (to borrow from Niedecker).
Until I feel I'm not learning from it anymore, I’ll continue to work with this mode. It's still generative and challenging, even as it becomes increasingly familiar. It feels a bit like a relationship, living this long with a form and focus.
In the past year, I've also been playing around with different methods, using more direct collage and appropriation methods for longer series poems--and having fun being more playful and grabby.
In this book, I'm interested in how the individual proceeds with the inheritance of the “generals” that used to be. The "used to be" registers in oblique snapshots in the poems: the friendship that rescues and then ebbs, expeditions to far-flung places, the “back to back” grind of one person and their relation to the company they keep/work for. Also, it’s a bit about aging and the deaths that come before dying.
What else? A person’s relation to him/herself, which is, if not epic, then at least the longest relationship from which there’s no “breaking up.” By rotating the cast of personal pronouns, I want to unfix the “I” so that it doesn't anchor the speeches, no matter how specific they sound. I understand self-expression as composite, uncertain, stolen, and shared.
7. The writer and culture
Use the poem as a kind of tool or machine for zooming in and out, for measuring and focusing on things we otherwise can't or don't see. As a goal, poems nudge, poke, or elsewise elbow the reader to figure something out, using that poem-machine. At best, the experience of reading (working over/with) the poem helps the audience see or think something the writer herself didn't imagine. The poem becomes more a part of the world (of culture) when it changes someone or something--even if just for a moment.
My friend Samina went to a swimming camp last summer. They told her, "Focus on the next stroke and make it a good one." That's advice I can use every day.
Walks, trips, a change of scenery.
Reading, even without aim or conclusion.
Great writing inspires, of course. For instance, recently was reading Pattie McCarthy's book, marybones-- just a few pages in, McCarthy's poetry made me want to pick a pen, got me thinking about returning to a history-based project I'd thought about ages ago, but never got off the ground.
Listening to writers, artists, and historians talk about their own fixations and research almost always makes me want to get to work.
Encountering un-great or ill-conceived or almost-there-but-not-quite works can inspire me too, in a different way. When I can see the gaps or bulks in other work, I feel driven to go make something tighter (even if totally different). Deconstructing things makes me then want to go build something.
15. Important writer
Henry James is like home. I go to him, go back to him, and keep on calling. For his acrobatic writing, his playfulness, his wonderful convolutions, his elaborate architectures, fussy fastidiousness, and sly humor--and a well-sustained curiosity about people's minds related to but also marvelously different from his brother William's. For all our differences in space and time and culture, I feel he really gets people in a way I want to too, and sometimes do. He was a watcher--and what an eye he has for what is idiosyncratic and shared, disguised and also gleaming in people's behavior.
16. What I would like to do
Take a really long walk-- several weeks long.
17. Other occupation
19. Last great book
20. Current work
A conceptual series poem called "Space from Space, or: How to See" lifting language from the color keys for NASA's satellite images of Earth. While thinking about the Nazca Lines carved ~ 400 AD into the Peruvian desert, biomorphs and geoglphys arguably best seen from high above, still visible today.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
I’m slowly sifting through my stack of elegantly designed chapbooks from Little Red Leaves Textile Editions, designed and sewn by Dawn Pendergast, including three wildly different yet incredibly playful works: The Windows Hallucinate (2013) by Mary Kasimor, Sheep Dip Excerpts (2013) by Doug MacPherson, and Arcanagrams: A Reckoning (2014) by Amanda Davidson. There is the most interesting cadence present in the work of Minnesota poet Mary Kasimor, staggered and staccato through a series of spacings and capitalizations:
multipl e s of wine
Sin ersshining s in bla c k e
ye black s in in multipl e s of
los t cha nces overt hehil l
& char co al out lin e s cert
aintyp e s o f belief s i n sin
hl e fil e o n a flat ho riz o n
sta r s s pea k i n for e
ngba l lso f ten wine
The author of three trade poetry collections—& cruel red (Otoliths, 2010), silk string arias (BlazeVox Books, 2008) and The Landfill Dancers (BlazeVox Books, 2014)—Kasimor nearly speaks in a coded language, hidden within such familiar English. Her poems manage to explore and challenge sound and meaning while moving quickly across the page, revealing an unusual (and even refreshing) cadence that I would be interested to hear her perform, such as in the opening of her poem “a starry night,” that reads:
Plants speak in CODE tongue
WALKERS in desert
Dope IS for THOS
Who EXHale A
STARRY night WHEN the painter
DRoppeD over for
WHEN we GathERED
Around WAITing for Kool Aid
IS an ALLUSION To the PAST
in the JUNGLE the plants
HABITAT was involved IN
A Sting OPERation
As the colophon of San Francisco/Tahoe poet Doug MacPherson’s Sheep Dip Excerpts reads: “This collection of poems is an excerpt from a larger work called sheep dip, a creative translation of O Guardador de Rebnhos by Fernando Pessoa, who wrote it under the persona of Alberto Caeiro, a shepherd. It is also in conversation with two English translations of Pessoa’s book—The Keeper of Sheep by Edwin Honig and Susan Brown and Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person by Erin Mouré.”
who would publish me minha living life as an office boy?
squeaking early morning down the road with my cart
returning with my cart at dusk down the same road
i have no tinge of hope i have these wheels
i am getting old without wrinkles or gray hair
i am no longer of service take off my wheels
i am left upside down and broken at the bottom of a drain
While I’m unaware of the Honig and Brown title he speaks of, MacPherson’s translations are certainly far straighter than the work in Mouré’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person [see the piece I wrote on such here], without the vibrancy she worked through her own transelation of the same text. Still, this is certainly a compelling collection, and I’m intrigued to see what the full text looks like, once its published in trade form. MacPherson manages, through his sequence of numbered translations, to respond to Pessoa’s original text in intriguing ways.
i go inside fetch a channel tracy with candle says night
minha voice content says night minha life sighs to day check
of sun saved rain afternoons pass on channel O last hello
friend soggy trees deposit Os i fetch another channel light a
candle night of withouts course like a river bed and four big
silences like days that sleep
The most compelling of these three works has to be Amanda Davidson’s wonderfully playful Arcanagrams: A Reckoning, which responds, in part, to the works of Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), best known for his book on the afterlife, Heaven and Hell (1758). Davidson’s bio includes the fact that she is “currently at work on a performance novel about the mystic Swedenborg,” and she includes this intriguing fact in the colophon of the short collection: “‘Dromböken,’ on page twelve, is a cut-up poem using text from Swedenborg’s Journal of Dreams. This English-language edition was translated from the Swedish by my great-great-grandfather, Carl Theophilus Odhner (Bryn Athen, Pennsylvania: The Academy Book Room, 1918). This book is now in the public domain.” I’m fascinated by her interest in the work of Swedenborg, especially given her personal connection to him and his work, and wonder (in the “chicken-and-egg” way) which may have come first, her interest in his work, or her knowledge of such a connection?
I was neither in a state of sleep nor wakefulness.
Throughout the whole night I seemed to be
going deep down, by ladders and other spaces.
This signified moving from celestial to natural
I slept deeply for eleven hours
I dreamt I was being punished
I dreamt of a woman
I dreamt of cages
I was arrested
This signifies inmost affection from the Lord
This signifies the grand man
This signifies natural truths
This signifies the highest heaven
This signifies I had not washed my feet
I spoke long and familiarly with our Successor
who changed into a woman.
What it may signify is best known to our Lord.
In the morning my eyesight was so improved that I
could read the Bible without glasses.
What this signifies I do not know.
Something will happen to me after I finish the first
chapter on the sense of touch.
Whether I am to take one road in my work or am
being prepared for another, I know not; it is dark
I was not able to have the strong faith I ought to
have. I believed and yet did not believe.
Once again I was thrown onto my face.
I do not know what this means.