Angeline Schellenberg’s poems appear in journals such as CV2, TNQ, Grain, and Lemon Hound. Her first chapbook, Roads of Stone (the Alfred Gustav Press), launched in May 2015. Her poetry won third prize in Prairie Fire’s 2014 Banff Centre Bliss Carman Poetry Award Contest and was shortlisted for Arc Poetry Magazine’s 2015 Poem of the Year. Angeline lives and reads in Winnipeg with her husband, their two teenagers, and a German shepherd-corgi. Tell Them It Was Mozart (Brick Books) is her first full-length collection.
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?
The day I got the email from Brick Book’s acquisitions editor Barry Dempster – asking for permission to shortlist my manuscript – was one of the happiest days of my life. Even if Brick had chosen not to publish this book, knowing Barry Dempster thought my work “had guts” and “resonated” made me feel like I’d become an author.
How the book will change my life remains to be seen! I expect it will give me opportunities to see more of Canada.
The difference between my 2015 chapbook Roads of Stone and this book is that Roads was inspired by other people’s stories, whereas Tell Them It Was Mozart is all about my own. And Mozart has more variation in form and tone; overall, Mozart is more playful, less serious.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I did go to non-fiction first because it felt less risky. About ten years ago, I started sending good news stories about non-profits to a monthly newspaper, and they took them every time, eventually offering me a mental health column. Now I write/copyedit part-time for a national church magazine. I love it when an interviewee says things like “You captured the heart of what we’re about.” I’ve met some interesting people, from matchmakers to Elvis impersonators.
I always wanted to do poetry, but there was an anxiety in the way; I was afraid of writing bad poetry. What I discovered is that all poetry starts as bad poetry. You just have to keep writing past it. In 2011, my desire overcame my fear.
What I love about poetry is that I (as a reader and a writer) can dip deep into an emotional experience, and then come up for air in a hurry. I didn’t need a long attention span (what mother has one?) or a great memory (lost that too). The intensity of poetry was perfect for giving others an experience of mothering autism and for subverting some of the negative messages out there.
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 hear other people talk of running to a notebook because a great line just popped into their heads. Don’t I wish! I start scribbling and ideas come only as my pen is moving.
I find the blank page less frightening than the flashing cursor, so I start with erasable pen in notebooks and then I type out and rearrange the words on the screen.
I have the rare poem that keeps its original form (I think the final poem in the book is one of them), but most of them have gone from prose poems to couplets and back, been turned backwards and upside down.
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 always work on full manuscripts from the beginning. I need a topic, otherwise I don’t know where to start. With the autism poems, I had lists of things I wanted to cover; e.g., drug trials, echolalia, bolting. And every day, new experiences made the list longer. I never had to wonder what to write about.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love public readings, both as reader and a listener. The spoken poems buzz in my brain, and the energy of the audience adds to the experience.
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?
With Tell Them It Was Mozart, the political questions were always in my head. Am I portraying autism too negatively and thereby doing a disservice to the autism community that deserves to have their strengths known? Am I not being honest enough about the difficulties, thereby disrespecting other parents fighting for support? Am I putting myself on every psychiatrist’s blacklist by saying this?
Autism conversations can be polarizing. They get derailed quickly when someone wants their child referred to as “autistic,” and someone else prefers “person with autism.” Or when one parent thinks a vaccine causes autism and another says it’s a gluten issue. The very people who might actually be able to understand one another are sometimes the ones at each other’s throats. (Mostly it’s because we’re so darn tired!) The book rarely mentions autism directly (and when it does, it’s usually in the context of found poems) because the focus is on who the children are, not how they’re labelled.
Your question about questions makes me laugh because, well, here are the sorts of things Tell Them It Was Mozart asks: “Have already we watched ‘The Survivor in the Soap’?” “Did you notice I was holding a banana?” The media asks all kinds of things about autism. I think these are closer to the right questions.
The main thing I want to get across with this book is joy. The joy of looking at the world differently.
The joy of connecting as family, even if that looks different from what you expected.
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 don’t have any grand notions about changing culture. But eventually 600 people will own a copy of my book: that’s 600 people who may respond more gently to a child screaming in a checkout line or flapping his hands at his desk. If even just one reader tells a mom, “I’m here with you” (instead of “you should have been spayed”), that’s a big win.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Murphy’s Law: it often happens that the poems I want help to completely rewrite, editors beg me not to touch, whereas the poems that sing in my head are the ones they suggest I revise or cut completely.
At first, in the editing process, I had the mental picture of ripping seams, but then I realized that the fabric was intact. All we were doing was pulling out a few embroidered flowers and replacing them with equally beautiful songbirds. Then I felt better.
It was so valuable to hear an editor say that the effect I was going for wasn’t getting across yet. The tricky part was clarifying the message without losing the music. Sometimes I argued for my original, sometimes I fell in love with my editor’s wording, but more often it led to the creation of something brand new – a very productive process.
I recently went back over the many poems that I ached over cutting from the book, to see if I could turn them into a chapbook. I realized that none of them were worth keeping. And when I read the proofs, some of the new poems – which I was originally unsure about adding – became my favourites.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don McKay told me to “Let the dog off the leash.” In encouraging me to write more prose poetry, he said, “The lyric is a bird flying from treetop to treetop. The narrative is the dog sniffing here and here: it brings home unlikely things.”
In my fear that what flowed out of me naturally wasn’t “poetic” enough, I’d been privileging the bird and forgetting the dog. Since then, I’ve given myself more permission to write long lines about everyday things like vomit and dryers without fear of being prosaic. It doesn’t have to look like a poem (or smell like roses) to be poetry.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
On my days off, I get home from dropping my daughter off at school, walk the dog, make my second cup of coffee, sit down on my sofa at my south-facing window, and write most of the day. Saturday morning I go straight to work in my pajamas and don’t stop until “lupper” – like brunch but we eat it between lunch and suppertime to stretch out that Saturday morning feeling. Sundays after church are another peaceful time for poetry. Even on days I’m going into the office, I do some poetry with my first coffee before getting the kids up for school. I write best in the morning – before my inner critic wakes up. My best time of year is summer when I can sit on my backyard swing, or by a campfire, or on a dock somewhere and write.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When I get stalled writing new material, I rework old pieces and submit completed ones to journals and contests. Or when it feels like there aren’t any words in my own head, I write found poetry: erasure, oulipo, collage.
For inspiration, I reread some of my mentors’ work, until I hear the encouraging things they’ve told me in the past singing in my head again. (Don McKay once told me, “You rock!”) I read poets I love, and sometimes I try finishing one of their sentences and see where it takes me.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The farm where I grew up: lilacs, freshly mowed grass, French bread baking.
My current home in Winnipeg: bologna, sweaty teenager, and dog.
13 - 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?
Mostly my work comes from everyday life experiences, either my own or the ones I live vicariously in conversations with others.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Joanne Epp and I have workshopped our new poems every month since 2011. I rarely submit anything without it passing her desk first. Our styles are different, but I trust her completely.
Sarah Klassen’s book Journey to Yalta was the first poetry book I picked up when I decided to become a poet, and she was the first poet I asked, “Is this any good?”
Meira Cook and Don McKay were a big part of how Tell Them It Was Mozart came together. Meira mentored me through the Manitoba Writers’ Guild Sheldon Oberman Mentorship Program in 2012 when I was just starting out. Don McKay was my instructor at Sage Hill in 2013 when I was getting the manuscript ready for submission.
Jennifer Still led the first poetry workshop I attended and many I’ve attended since. She’s the one who directed me to found poetry.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Since my relationships with my husband of 22 years and with God are the most intimate, and sometimes the most difficult, I’d like to write great love poems and devotional poems – both very hard to do well.
I’ve always wanted to visit the Maritimes. And to take my family to Straubing, Germany – the village where I lived in the summer of 1993, when I volunteered for an organization that assisted refugees.
16 - 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 wish I could be a figure skater, contemporary dancer, or gymnast, but since (growing up Mennonite in the 1970s) I wasn’t allowed to even tap my toes until my twenties, the connection between my limbs and my brain is lacking.
I enjoy languages, so I thought of being a translator or linguist. I studied French and German in high school; and Greek, Hebrew, Ugaritic, and Aramaic in seminary. But two weeks after earning my MA, I gave birth (trading textbooks for Dr. Seuss) and promptly forgot all of them.
Clarinet was my thing in high school, so I considered studying music performance. But I let the competitiveness of the music scene scare me away. I don’t regret it; writing does everything music did for me and more.
I love babies. I think I’d enjoy fostering someday. But I’ve gotten used to not having my cupboards emptied and sleep interrupted, so it would take some adjustment, for sure.
Someday I might like to be a spiritual director. Walking alongside someone through their spiritual journey is as profound as poetry.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing makes me happy.
I tried teaching college, and I could do it, but I hated feeling on the spot for three hours at a time in front of a room full of bored 18-year-olds. With writing, I can mull over what I want to say for ages before anyone else needs to hear it.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I read poetry almost exclusively. Recently I’ve enjoyed Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy, Transmitter and Receiver by Raoul Fernandes, Verge by Lynda Monahan, and Heaven’s Thieves by Sue Sinclair.
I won’t even try to comment on cinema. I have two teenagers, so I mostly watch things with Iron Man in them.
19 - What are you currently working on?
Two years ago, I started a side project about colours. It was a fun break from the difficult emotional work of confessional poetry. This research-based work allowed me to write about cultures and history I hadn’t experienced, to explore my darker, sexier, more exotic side. Now that it’s my main project, I really miss confessional writing: that satisfaction of moving something from deep inside me into the world.