Theresa Kishkan [photo credit: John Pass]: I was born in Victoria, B.C. in 1955 and have lived on both coasts of Canada as well as in Greece, Ireland, and England. I was educated at the Universities of Victoria and British Columbia. I make my home on the Sechelt Peninsula with my husband John Pass in the home we built in the early 1980s and where we raised our three children.
I’ve published ten books, including poetry, two collections of personal essays (Red Laredo Boots and Phantom Limb), three novels (Sisters of Grass, A Man in a Distant Fields, and The Age of Water Lilies), and most recently a memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. Works-in-progress include a second memoir, Blue Portugal, and two novellas, Winter Wren and Patrin.
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 came out when I was 21. I’d sent a mss. to Fred Cogswell who edited Fiddlehead Poetry Books (now Goose Lane Editions) and within two weeks, he responded to say he would publish the book a little later that year. I remember feeling very excited – and validated, somehow. Did it change my life? Well, no. But I remember I felt less self-conscious about defining myself as a poet. I felt brave, bold. And now – well, it’s much harder to place my work with publishers. No one responds within two weeks! (To be honest, some never respond at all!) But that initial experience is still available to me; it’s still at the core of what I am and do.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was young and finding my voice as a writer, poetry was the best vessel for the material I was exploring. It was shapely, capacious, and it felt so right. The way it fit the line, held the language with such intense attention. But I read voraciously (still do) and I wanted to try other genres too. It didn’t seem to be necessary that there be such a separation between poetry and fiction. I suspected that lyric and narrative were at the heart of the writing I loved to read and could also be the guiding muses of what I wanted to write myself.
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?
This is difficult to talk about with clarity but I always know when I’m about to begin something new. It’s as though I’m accumulating – not just material but sensory experience, an apprehension of how things fit together. The air shimmers, objects are more beautiful, and I know somehow that everything I’m seeing is part of the ecology of what I’m hoping to explore in a new work. Sometimes this lasts for some weeks, months even, and then I’m able to begin. I don’t make outlines or schemas. I don’t write quickly but I do work steadily. A novel takes about three years. A novella, about a year. And much of that will have been re-written (re-visioned) many times as I work so the final first full draft is in fact a composite of several drafts.
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?
Because I can’t write poems any more, I’ll have to comment on how a work of prose begins. And novels, essays – it’s pretty much the same. A thread, a note, a phrase beckons and I follow. I don’t always know where I’m going. Usually I have the sense that it’s a fairly large terrain, though, which will almost certainly be a book-length work. Even an essay has a relationship to another so that I keep writing them until I know that work is done.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do like to give readings. When audiences respond, when I sense engagement (on both sides), when I “hear” my own work as I read it and find myself listening and responding to it myself, well, then I love the process. And reading aloud, to an audience, is a test of how lucid the work is, how accessible.
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’m curious about the world and the way disciplines intersect and connect. I’ve become interested in Robert Langland’s program of unifying conjectures, of harmonic analysis, and it’s something I’m trying to understand for a piece of writing.
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?
In a healthy ecosystem, there’s function and balance. I think that human cultures need storytellers and artists as much as they need anyone else – doctors, lawyers, child-care workers, poets.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve had some very good experiences with editors. At its best, the relationship is generous and lively; editors have challenged me to go further, have suggested possibilities that might not have occurred to me. One or two have been intrusive. I’d hate to have work with an editor too early in the writing process when I think intention and style might be influenced. But as a way to make a completed work as good as it possibly can be, I think the relationship is essential.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Do what you love.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’d written only poetry and a novella (which began as a series of linked prose poems...) before my children were born in the 1980s. I stopped writing when they were small because there simply wasn’t time. My husband I were building a house, there was the dailyness of laundry, cooking, making a garden to grow some of our food (and to put roses on the table), and somehow writing got put aside for about 10 years. And I think I always thought I’d return to poetry. But that voice wasn’t there when I came back to writing. I couldn’t manage the lines, the condensation of what I wanted to say. I kept moving the material around on the page, stretching it out, until finally I decided to simply let it go on as it obviously wanted to – phrases of song, recipes, conversations, map-readings, etc.. That resulted in a collection of essays, Red Laredo Boots, which came out in 1996, and then a novel, Sisters of Grass, and there was no going back to poetry (although I would, in a heart-beat, if it would have me). Though I guess I’m interested in hybridity more than anything – how prose is influenced by poetry, how poetry can be cross-pollinated by scientific prose, etc. In so much of the work I read and admire, the tension is in the language, the ideas, not in how one should finally define the form. When I was 18, I read James Agee and Walker Evans’s extraordinary book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and I remember this bit from the Preface: “The nominal subject is North American cotton tenantry as examined in the daily living of three representative white tenant families...More essentially, this is an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”
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?
When I’m actively working on something, I like to write in the morning. Strong coffee, notes and research materials spread out on my desk and the floor around my desk (luckily I have a room of my own and I have to say I love old reference books, field guides, musical scores so there’s usually a midden in my room when I’m writing...). And when I’m truly in the zone, I often get up in the middle of the night and come down to work for a bit in the quiet of a sleeping house.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I am willing (mostly) to be patient. I know it doesn’t go away and sometimes the work is better for its rest.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Wood smoke – and rain.
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?
All those things. I love the specificity of field guides (Nesting information for the Calliope hummingbird in the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: “2 bean-sized white eggs, surprisingly large for such a tiny bird, in a small lichen-and-moss nest covered with cobwebs on a limb of a bush or well-protected small tree.”). I love early music and opera. I’m an avid reader of natural history and science writing and it does inform my own work. And last year, in New York, I was captivated by “house of memory,” an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Musuem of the American Indian in which the Seminole/Muscogee artist C. Maxx Stevens explored how our memory of time and place is composed and sustained. She is a visual storyteller and her imagery resonated with me, echoing in some ways the very work I’m engaged in now, trying to reconstruct my grandmother’s early life in a small village in the Beskydy Mountains in Moravia.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Gary Snyder, Kathleen Jamie, Alice Oswald, Sappho, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Nancy Turner’s ethnobotanical work with coastal First Nations...it’s an endless list.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
A libretto for a grand opera or masque about the western landscape in which rivers, talus slopes, Ponderosa pines, and birds all have roles. In which salmon sing arias of the long swim home and stars sing their guidance.
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 began to take voice lessons about 6 years ago and I sometimes wish I’d begun much earlier, that I’d come to music as a young person, that I’d had the discipline to spend an entire day on a note, a phrase. And I’ve always wished I could draw.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It was the closest thing to my code for understanding the mysteries of the universe. It doesn’t entirely work but it gets me closest.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Oh, so many books! I’ve been reading Edward Frenkel’s Love & Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, which is wonderful. I just read Robert Hass’s Time and Materials: (Do they confer, do the lovers’ bodies/In the summer dusk, his breath, her sleeping face,/ Confer --, does the slow breeze in the pines?/If you were the interpreter, if that were your task.) I don’t watch many films but did love Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a book-length series of essays called Blue Portugal. Some of the pieces explore family history (that Moravian grandmother) and the essay I’m writing right now, “Euclid’s Orchard”, is an attempt to explore quilting, math (Langland’s program among other things), pattern, horticulture, and love. I recently finished two novellas and hope to write another once I’ve completed these essays.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;