Laura Broadbent was born in Stratford Ontario and has lived in Montreal for the past seven years. She won the most recent Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, and her poetry collection OH THERE YOU ARE, I CAN'T SEE YOU, IS IT RAINING? is out momentarily from Snare Books.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book is forthcoming with Snare Books in the Fall of 2012. The story is this: I had just completed my [creative writing] master’s thesis and knew about the Kroetsch Award, so I thought: Why Not. I’ve been notoriously reticent about showing my work until I believe I have written something approaching my impossible standards. The manuscript I sent for the Kroetsch award was the first poetry I have ever sent out in the world. By some miracle the world took care of it. Being shortlisted alone was enough. It meant, simply and profoundly: Laura you have permission to write. Or, in less sentimental terms, it meant: It Isn’t Total Shit. Which was the best gift possible. The resulting kindness, congratulations and encouragement from my peers is overwhelming. Further permission. I realize pretty much everyone believed in me except me. That’s the story.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry last. In fact I hated poetry for a long time – I thought I didn’t understand it. I thought it was phony, pretentious, and intentionally obfuscatory. Like becoming best friends with someone you initially thought was an impossible jerk. I was taking fiction classes, and the comments were always the same: the language is rich, the images are precise, the ideas are good, but there is no narrative. I don’t believe that fiction needs narrative, but whatever. That’s when I realized I was a poet. I wrote my first poem in 2008. My first poetry professor was the Canadian Poet Laureate at the time, John Steffler. All at once it dawned on me that not only was I a poet, but I have always been a poet. I’m pretty sure one is born that way. I think and observe and live like a poet. I’ve always had an immense staring problem.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially 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 make a mess and then see what I can do with it. Same goes for ‘life in general.’ Ideas for any of my better poems always come as a direct flash of inspiration. Some call it the voice of the Muse. Sometimes, very rarely, they come out fully formed and all I have to do is make minor adjustments. But usually I psychically projectile-vomit way too much onto the page, and then strategically take away, lug away, take away. I suffer from excess in general. Too intense. Too passionate. Enormous emotions. I’m always too much, and my initial writing is no different. So, with this excess, after I’ve taken most of it out, I then take a break from the page, clear my mind. Then I take out my editorial surgical instruments and refine it to the most crystalline form I can. I have to be ruthless and trust the intelligence of my readers. I haven’t mastered this whatsoever. It’s arduous and I love it. It hurts so good. I wish I could refine my person the way I do my writing. However, and this is important, I craft the fuck out of my poems but I don’t want them to seem too cool and ‘crafted,’ I still want them to contain human mess, monstrosity, and warmth. A fine line.
4 - Where does a poem 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 don’t begin with images, I begin with abstract ideas or theoretical concepts. The image is created to flesh the central conceit. Sometimes there are no images. Sometimes someone just says something outrageous and that’s it. Thinking of a book is far too overwhelming. I work in suites and series, and usually there is a conceptual or narrative thread that makes these individual suites work together, and they create a dialogue. This aleatory coherence makes the world feel magic.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I hate readings. I attend for moral support for friends or colleagues, but I hate to read my work. I never wanted a public persona, I’m exceedingly private, I always wanted my work to stand on its own. A tall order. I am this utterly confusing and confused mix of extrovert and introvert. When I speak to people I think it seems effortless, at least confident, yet I hate being looked at and I crave long stretches of deep solitude. I need to drink a lot around crowds. My nervous system is shot. I can’t lie very well and performance is basically the joy of lying, and I don’t mean that in the pejorative whatsoever. It is acting. In my classes I was always the only one who was against reading, so I’m led to believe there is something wrong with me about this. I just have such a romance with the idea of the intimacy of reading in solitude, how my words can change every time, with every reader. I’m an awkward lonely person and I write, in a way, for awkward lonely people. I don’t want the fact that I am a reasonable looking young woman be why anybody would be interested in my poetry. Or me for that matter.
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?
Yes absolutely. Poetry is thinking made visible. Not only thinking made visible, but organizing and presenting thought in such a way that the reader takes on the flavour and momentum of thought and wants to go off and write for his or herself because of it. The intersection between poetry and philosophy is not talked about enough. Jan Zwicky does a good job of it. Anne Carson too. Majorly so. I’m constantly taking on philosophical ideas and thinking them through lyrically, conceptually, or straight-up solipsistically. I love to think excessively and heavily and poetry allows me to think through things in my own weird way. And nerdy too, since I derive such pleasure out of it. The current questions are far too heavy and too many to write here. You’ll have to read my subsequent books. The world breaks my heart in the best and worst ways. I’m worried.
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?
This sounds dramatic, yet it is a fact: the writing of others has saved my life. On a less dramatic level, the writing of others enriches my life every single day. Writing has frightening exciting power. Basically you either are a writer or you aren’t, and you either do something about it, or you don’t. Writers certainly aren’t respected like they used to be. The currency of the soul used to be far more important. But I like that writers, poets in particular, aren’t obliged to be writing about the soul all the time either. This business about the soul is still a general misconception about poetry though [like my father thinks all poets are prophets]. Not everyone is Rumi or Mary Oliver. The creative possibilities available to a poet are truly exciting. You can be a prophet, a mystic, a humorist, a [post]modernist, a romantic, a dada-ist, an intellectual, a conceptualist, a minimalist, a sentimentalist [but please don’t be], [etc], or a combination of all of them. Yet the lack of a coherent poetic ‘norm,’ or big ‘movement,’ also means a diffused audience. I’m more or less happy for that. Unfortunately, in larger culture, ‘being a writer’ means being a journalist, a script writer, or one of the 0.001 percent of novelists and 0.000000000001 percent of poets who can live off their work. However I’m glad to see how much great poetry is constantly being made – when you’re a poet you simply can’t help it. Because we’re a minority, we support each other. I bet 96% of poetry books bought are bought by poets. I really want our culture to care more about poetry. It’s why I want to teach. Yet. And yet. Really good journalism is poetry to me. A well written script is poetry. A masterful sandwich is pure poetry. The poets are at work, just with different job titles, really. My dad’s a poet/prophet disguised as a postman.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. Writers write in the dark. I have very low self confidence and I simply need someone I respect to tell me what I’ve done. I fear the day, actually, when I just assume what I’ve done is good. I become blind to my work, I’m not sure what it is, I just know I did it. A good editor’s suggestions are always pretty simple but seem revolutionary, because they solve this problem you’ve been obsessed with and unable to solve, with a single stroke. It’s one of my favourite things, like, ‘Laura cut this last line,’ and I’m staggered by the genius of the suggestion. ‘Kill your babies’ is an old writing maxim, and it is true. Kill your babies, otherwise your editor will. When somebody offers you good editing feedback, you want to kiss their feet. So if there are any foot fetishist editors out there...
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
‘Chill Out, Broadbent’ – Everyone
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to visual art)? What do you see as the appeal?
There is an enormous appeal for me. Genres are borders meant to be moved, as far as I am concerned. I am interested in illustration and design, and I want to oversee the creation of my future books so that the form is absolutely part of the content. My aesthetic sensibilities are somewhat appeased by poetry as I have to pay attention to the actual physicality and space of the page more, that is, the space is part of the poem, or the form the words take on the page can perform themselves, like Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hazard. I am crazy about Kenneth Patchen’s painting poems. Derek Beaulieu is a different story altogether. Robert Bringhurst is nuts about typography and layout. William Blake. Illuminated manuscripts. It’s been going on since forever and current artists/writers are doing really neat stuff constantly. These intermedial artists have been deemed the ‘blur generation.’ Gets me really excited. Beautiful books, or deconstructed books, or book boxes, odd or well-crafted signs, or paintings with text, such things make me drool. I should care more about the internet, and the great/terrible things it has provided for writers. But I'm old school and I love the tactility of objects, the smell of paper. The smell of paper for me is like the smell of women's panties for a dirty old man.
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 need to write daily. I don’t. It is my biggest frustration. I can’t figure out how to do it, this thing they call ‘discipline.’ Morning writing is productive, night writing is slowly poured. I can’t even choose a time of day. Honestly, if I spent the time writing that I do dying over my love life, I’d have 40 books of poetry written by now. I also work three jobs. People advise me to marry rich because then I could sit around, look pretty, and write all I want. Or write on our yacht. No idea disgusts me more, unfortunately.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Anne Carson is my version of an anti-anxiety pill. She orders things for me. She makes my brain burn to write. I return to her most frequently. Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay’ is something I’ve read forty times at least. People call her the philosopher of heartbreak. Fernando Pessoa and Clarice Lispector are close seconds. I like to read haiku or Vera Pavlova for example to remember economy. Lydia Davis always inspires and cheers me up – obviously, she’s good for economy too. I like to read a lot of mystical stuff too – along the lines of Taoism and Buddhism and Jewish Mysticism, and then follow them with these great Western Canon Curmudgeons like Schopenhauer or Seneca. Theorists like Deleuze, Bataille, Bergson, Cixous, really get me going. Simon Weil ignites me and makes me feel guilt for not being hardcore enough. There’s a too-wide spectrum.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Garlic bread. We were poor and ate spaghetti maybe four days a week. Or maybe Christmas trees.
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?
That’s nuts. I know what he’s saying, but it just obviously sounds insane. Everything influences my work. And everyone. You have to watch life, indeed, stare at it, have a really big staring problem, to write. You’ve got to dive in, which is why I make a bad Buddhist – suffering is really good for writing. I willingly take on pain, I'm not that scared of it, I find it interesting and rewarding. Destruction and rebirth. I’m way too curious. It’s impossible to figure people out, and so fun. It’s hard to figure a bird out, and so fun. It’s hard to figure a memory out, and so fun. What is wine all about? A whole lot.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’ll spare you. I am a true book-slut, I work in a bookstore, and my list is unreasonably long. Reading is my life. My apartment is stuffed with books.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Have enough cash to buy my beautiful mother a house [my ability to hope borders on insanity]. Also, I’d like to calm down and be nicer to myself. I haven’t done that yet. Maybe I'd like to be a mother be the state of the world terrifies me.
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?
A drummer. [Obviously not concerned with being rich.] I would also like to be a dolphin or a sloth. I’d like to be a body of water, like Lake Huron.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I started dictating stories to my mother before I could write. So I began around 2-3 years old. Or I would draw a picture, and tell her the story of it. I just couldn’t not. I still can’t not. I was homeschooled for a bit, but when I started ‘real school’ I was socially inept but made my way by being the default ‘class artist’ or ‘class writer.’ Like, ‘ask Laura to write/draw that for you.’
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Ariana Reines has been blowing my mind. She is this power-mix of magic [something poetry doesn’t have enough of these days] and intellect [something poetry has too much of these days], grit and grace, craft and mess, courage and vulnerability….read her. She’s got compelling audacity and really big brains.
The Turin Horse is the last movie that really did a number on me for weeks. It was so unbearable, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how great it was after. The understanding came after. Absolutely haunting. Barely any words in it. Less than ten words, I bet. A film that felt like 40 hours. Don’t know how long it was in actuality. Brutal art.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Three things four the next four months: 1. Finish my degree. 2. I’m having an art show in the fall so I need to get painting. 3. Begin writing my next collection of poems [also: 4. Read voraciously. 5. Better myself. 6. Be more social. Oh and 7. Make money.]
12 or 20 (second series) questions;