Chelene Knight [photo credit: Ayelet Tsabari] was born in Vancouver and is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at SFU. She has been published in Sassafras Literary Magazine, Room, emerge 2013 and Raven Chronicles and is the Poetry Coordinator at Room. Braided Skin, her first book (Mother Tongue Publishing, March 2015), has given birth to numerous writing projects, including a work in progress, Dear Current Occupant. Her work is deeply rooted in her experiences of mixed ethnicity. Her mother is African-American, and her father and his family were victims of the Asian expulsion in Uganda during the 70s, when President Idi Amin led a campaign of "de-Indianization," resulting in the “ethnic cleansing” of the country’s Indian minority. Chelene is currently pursuing her BA in English at SFU.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I don’t think it was the book itself that changed my life, it was the journey getting to this point. Before the idea for Braided Skin even emerged, I wasn’t really taking myself seriously as a writer. I had little to no writing experience besides writing small articles for a local parenting magazine (I taught myself to write freelance articles out of pure desire to just be writing something, anything). I found that I wasn’t using any of my ‘voices’ when I was writing articles so it feels completely different now with my creative writing, poetry in particular because now I am saying the things I’ve always wanted to say, and completely uncensored. It’s freeing. It’s satisfying.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
As a child I was drawn to writing poems and short stories; this came naturally. I’ve always had characters floating around in my mind because when I would read novels as a young girl, I would get very attached to the characters. They became a part of me. I would wonder about them and ask questions about the missing pieces that the book itself didn’t provide. I wanted to provide these missing pieces. I would write as a response to these questions in my head. As I got older I tried to write short stories again, but somehow they always managed to turn into poems because there was a strong emphasis on bold imagery and music in what I wrote. There was still a good sense of character in some of my pieces but I would always stray from the narrative in my writing and focus on the way words sounded together and how they looked on the page. Poetry had its arms wrapped around me, and to this day I truly enjoy this embrace.
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’m a collector. I file words and phrases in notebooks and draw from them later. Then, before anything even hits paper, I write in my mind first. Things marinade in there all the time, so I always seem to have something in stock. Sometimes people who meet me for the first time, find me to be quiet, or non-social because everyone around me is talking and engaging with people, while I sit there, in silence, but I’m writing in my mind. Just writing. When this ‘mind writing’ happens, I give in to it completely. Then everything comes fast. I edit and revise quite a bit and go purely with a mix of gut instinct and feedback from my writing workshops. Each piece has its own formula, but most of my first drafts are no where near where they end up. I’m a vicious reviser, I rip things apart, move things around and I don’t apologize for it later. I LOVE when I get constructive feedback and get to hear other experienced writers tell me what doesn’t work in my piece because then I get excited about all the possibilities for revising. I don’t take it personal. I think a poem is done when you feel it is, no editor or mentor can really do this for you, they can only guide you to that point, but polished work as an end result is one of the most satisfying feelings a poet can have, well in my opinion anyway.
4 - Where does a poem or 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?
A poem almost always begins for me, as a word or phrase I’ve heard in passing, or read somewhere. These words or phrases can spill over to me from overhearing a conversation, watching a movie, listening to music etc. I will usually jot it down or just say it over in my head multiple times until I can get it down on paper later. I think I always have a larger project in mind but this doesn’t always show up as a clear vision. Most times I will see a thread throughout a few pieces and then the idea for a larger projects shows itself.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
My very first reading took place in 2013 as part of The Writer’s Studio student readings and I was terrified. When we speak about ‘stepping out of one’s comfort zone’, I saw doing readings as exactly that. Over time, and with many readings under my belt, I found it became a very important part of my creative process. I like the atmosphere of being around other writers and knowing that the audience truly wants to be there, and wants to hear what the reader has to say. When it comes to poetry, it is so important to hear it read aloud, to listen for those subtle things one just can't get simply from reading it on the page. The reading is an experience all in its own and it’s one I feel has become a necessity in my writing world.
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?
The only concerns I have currently, are to do with how certain poems are perceived by people who do not read poetry. Most people assume that all poetry is personal and that the writer is the poem, and the poem is about the writer, but this is not always the case. In my book, I write in various ways and forms (rant, prose, story, lines, erasure etc) and even though some poems are drawn from personal past experiences, many of the pieces have nothing to do with my personal life but instead are based on characters I have created. We poets can wear masks too and we can write stories through verse, and we can paint pictures, and have backstory, slight narrative, climaxes, arcs, you name it. I worry that some people will not get this, but I also know I can trust in my work, and know that it will do what it needs to, and to remember to give myself the strength and breathing space to step back and then come to the table ready to answer the inevitable! I am always looking to answer questions about missing things, missing information and things in history that do not get shared the way they should.
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?
Fantastic question. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about roles, and the ones I play in my daily life and how we define them. Do we update these definitions and descriptions frequently enough? I think we need to think about this more. In the writing world, the obvious role of a writer is to share stories, by any means necessary, and I’ve repeated that very line in multiple ways throughout many of my pieces. We as writers tend to be lumped in these very general categories riddled with stereotypes (like all poets are broke and all fiction writers are sitting pretty on a pile of cash) and I think our role should also be to cross borders and break barriers with words. Our role should be to educate, create new ways to share stories and write stories, and with that, realize that every thing is story. Poem, novel, memoir, essay. Stories, opinions, voice and information. I have a very good feeling about the writer’s role in today’s society, and how it’s evolving.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
This depends. If I am writing poetry and the editor is not familiar with or doesn’t have a lot of experience with modern forms etc, then I would of course find working with them difficult. It is important to remain open to other’s opinions, but also to remember to stay true to the core of your pieces. I think if you can create a clear, unobstructed line of communication with the outside editor, then there is always a way for both to relate and to have each other’s opinions voiced and heard.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
From the mouth of my then-ten-year-old daughter: “Just do your writing and stop waiting around.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I think I tend to blend the two together more often than not. A lot of my newer pieces are short fiction mixed within a poem. I love the idea of bending, mixing and merging genres. Genres are shifting and weaving more and more. Poetry comes easy to me but, if I do write short fiction it will be very ‘poetic’. This very concept of poetic fiction reminds me of Jamaica Kincaid’s work. Within Kincaid’s fiction, are these long, soft and flowing ribbons of imagery, rhythm and repetition; three strands, forming a ‘braid’. At times she strays from narrative and focuses on character description and inner thoughts which then lead the reader into this poetic land of dense and vivid images, sometimes very unexpectedly. I am drawn to this genre-mixed style of writing and I try and emulate this style within my own writing, and hope that readers pick up on that, and welcome it.
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?
Ah how I love routine! I would say I am probably the most organized person I know, when it comes to the daily stuff. I start my day at an average time of 7 a.m. (sorry, but I am not one of those get-up-at-5 a.m.-to-write kind of writers) I do breakfast for my daughter and I, then head to work. I have a lot of outside responsibilities, volunteer work and everyday life stuff to take care of (as we all do) so I have categorized reminders in my phone to keep me on task. If I wasn’t organized, I would be completely overwhelmed and probably wouldn’t write, or make time for events like readings and book launches. It is important for me to attend events not only to support my colleagues, but also to keep that sense of community that us lonely writers so desperately need. When it comes to writing, I try to allow myself the freedom to write. I am not one of those people who can write at a scheduled time. I can edit and revise on schedule, but not write. I always say the writing comes when it comes, you can force it if you want to, but I don’t.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my writing gets stalled, I put it away and work on something else. I really don’t like forcing the work. The writing will suffer, and it will show. If I am super stuck during the revision stage, I have a few key people I turn to. Sometimes I just need a fresh eye to find what I couldn’t find.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
In all honesty, I am still trying to figure out where exactly “home” is.
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?
Living in BC I guess I should say that nature influences my work, but it doesn’t really. I tend to look for things between the cracks, things no one blinks an eye at, the forgotten. Music plays a huge role in my writing, especially that of Lauryn Hill, Nina Simone, and more similar songstresses. I also watch a lot of documentaries and these types of movies also force me to create.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I constantly quote Toni Morrison. Her writing always inspires me to create something. It’s usually a line that strikes me, and I’ll write it down for later use. When it comes to poetry tend to like rhythmic poets who can tell a story and then make you figure out how it ends. Writers that make you think. For this, I celebrate Dionne Brand and Patricia Smith. It is also important for me to read new and emerging writers that I workshop my writing with. We all become familiar with each other’s stuff, and this is integral to learning to look at writing openly and objectively.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Over the past two years I’ve been setting writing goals for myself such as doing more readings, publishing in literary magazines, publishing my book, speaking on a panel, and getting the cover of a newspaper and being on the radio. In the past two years I have achieved every last one of those goals and that is huge for me. The next big goal I would love to achieve is to judge a poetry contest. You never Know!
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?
Had I not become a writer, I know I would have been somewhere in the Culinary field. I trained as a Chef 15 years ago, worked in a few restaurants and really loved what I did. But the writing bug couldn’t be silenced no matter how much anyone tells you it can, it just can’t. If you are so passionate about something that it takes over your thoughts everyday, you should probably turn up the volume on that, and start listening.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I had this need to be heard, but I was always afraid to speak up, share my opinions etc. I knew I wanted to write, I knew I should take some classes, be around other writers, hone the craft. It was my daughter (who was 10 years old at the time) who said, “Just do your writing, and stop waiting around.” Simple. Straight forward. Blunt. But those words from her mouth held such power and after that day, I followed her advice, didn’t give up, kept at it. I haven’t looked back since.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently read Kayla Czaga’s For Your Safety Please Hold On and I really loved it. She has this way of using repetition to create a unique musical-vibe in every poem. I’ll probably read it again very soon.
As for film, recently I have been re-watching my favourite movie (which I guess is still technically a book) The Color Purple. I always consider that movie to be like a long poem. I remember watching it multiple times when I was younger, and feeling such a strong connection to the characters. I try to re-watch it often because there is something about that movie that sparks new writing, every single time.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Right now I have finished the first draft of my second manuscript, Dear Current Occupant which is a mix of letters, prose poems and sonnets written in the voice of a young woman. She writes letters to all the occupants of the 20-30 houses she’s moved in and out of as a child. It is loosely autobiographical, and it has some really different styles so far. I am excited about this project, as it has forced me to do some digging into my past, and it is almost like I am re-learning about myself. Another life changing journey is being had, and I kinda like it.
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