An Interview with Meredith Quartermain

Meredith Quartermain is celebrated across Canada for her depictions of places and their historical hauntings. Vancouver Walking (NeWest, 2005) won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Nightmarker (NeWest, 2008) was a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award, and Recipes from the Red Planet (BookThug, 2010), her book of flash fiction, was a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Rupert’s Land (NeWest, 2013), her first novel, explores settler/first nations relations in 1930s dustbowl Alberta.

Quartermain was the 2012 writer-in-residence at the Vancouver Public Library, where she led workshops on song writing and writing about neighbourhoods, and enjoyed doing manuscript consultations with writers from throughout the Lower Mainland. She’s now continuing these activities as poetry mentor in the Writer’s Studio Program at Simon Fraser University.

Quartermain has taught English at the University of British Columbia and Capilano College and led workshops at the Naropa Summer Writing Program, the Kootenay School of Writing, and the Toronto New School of Writing. In 2002, she and her husband, Peter Quartermain, founded Nomados Literary Publishers, and since then have published forty-five chapbooks of poetry, fiction and essays.

Her most recent title is I, Bartleby (Talonbooks, 2015), a collection of short stories.

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Q: I’ve been curious about your progression from poetry into prose, shifting from prose poems to the “flash fictions” of Recipes from the Red Planet to publishing a novel, and now a collection of short stories. Your writing has long been engaged with the sentence, but do you see it as a progression from poetry to prose, or simply a sequence of projects?

A: Definitely not a progression. I’ve always had a hankering for prose forms. I’ve been reading Gertrude Stein’s prose since the 70s. Early on I felt a kinship with poet’s prose, like Robert Creeley’s short stories. Then I had the joy of discovering Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, Francis Ponge’s The Voice of Things, Barbara Guest’s novel Seeking Air, Rosmarie Waldrop’s novels (The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter and A Form/ of Taking/ It All), Lydia Davis’s fictions, Gail Scott’s novels and especially Daphne Marlatt’s novels. I found the Swiss feuilleton writer and novelist Robert Walser particularly inspiring. This gave me the short prose form that emerged in Recipes from the Red Planet, and continues in I, Bartleby.

Another important reason for exploring various forms and genres is that it enabled me to grow as an artist. In the same way one might not want as a musician to play sonatinas all one’s life, but also play works that involve different kinds of voicing, longer or shorter trajectories, different sound dynamics, I wanted to try novels and plays.

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Robert Creeley

Q: It sounds as though you consider genre to be rather fluid. What do you see as the distinction between “flash fiction,” such as Recipes from the Red Planet, and short stories, such as the new collection? Is there a difference in your mind, or are the distinctions one of labelling, and therefore arbitrary?

A: For me flash fiction has involved on the one hand fairly conventional architecture of a lead character wrestling with some sort of challenge, or on the other hand something more like a dramatic monologue that reflects back on the narrator and gradually reveals more and more about the narrator’s situation. We hear the voice of a character staging itself, and sometimes in Recipes from the Red Planet this erupts into actual playscripts with more than one voice, more than one character on the fictional stage. This playscript form does not occur in I Bartleby, but I do use the dramatic monologue approach, and I do include pieces about characters in situations, as for example a piece about Ethel Wilson’s Chinese cook being photographed by Dr. Wilson.

The I, Bartleby pieces are generally longer (some as long as 10 pages), and some of them are highly autobiographical in a way that I didn’t explore in Red Planet.

Also, whereas Red Planet is a collection of independent pieces, I Bartleby is a planned tapestry of particular threads to do with the materiality of writing and mark-making, various links in my past and present to Chinese culture, and links to other writers, scribes and copyists.

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Q: I find the structure of I, Bartleby to be rather intriguing, especially for the way you group stories together into sections. The structure of the book almost has the feel of a poetry collection over a collection of short fiction. Was the overall structure of the book something that emerged through the process, or was this something you were aiming to achieve from the beginning?

A: My general goal right from the beginning was to create resonances between the sections and between the pieces and sections. The exact form of this emerged as I developed the pieces and conducted experiments. Through this I worked out the five sections of the book: Caravan, Orientalisme, Scriptorium, How to Write and Moccasin Box, which signal explorations in various directions around the threads I just mentioned. For example Orientalisme involves pieces based on a series of Chinese written characters, whereas Moccasin Box involves pieces about other writers: a short one about poet Christine Stewart and a much longer one about my Vancouver foremother, Pauline Johnson. Scriptorium involves stories about learning to write, about my father writing, and about the famous medieval scholar, author and copyist Christine de Pizan. Much material in these stories also connects with Orientalisme.

 

Q: I’m curious as to why you chose to write in such a way on other writers. What was it about fiction that allowed you to write on other writers that another form, such as critical writing or through the poem, might not?

A: We narrate the world to ourselves through a myriad of lenses. We narrate ourselves to ourselves. We narrate every encounter with what we think of as out there with what we think of as inside. Mostly this is quite unconscious, but if we stop to listen to what is passing through our thoughts, we hear continuous narration visited upon us through the various discourses of our culture. I like to think of the thing we call self as a crossroads where a number of narrators are conversing. So narration is at the heart of sensemaking.

Behind the notion of a “critical writing” is a narrative that this writing will be definitive, and authoritative, a narrative that says the speaker has particular clout in this regard, that he or she will set out some sort of objective reality. But the idea of objective reality is itself another culturally founded story we tell ourselves, in fact a social convention. The culture agrees on the fictions it will call reality.

This takes me to Proust and his long treatise in Time Regained on the nature of artistic practice. Artistic work, Proust tells us (and I’m totally with him on this point), has nothing to do with notions of objective reality or realism of any kind. It has to do rather with unearthing the web of connections our minds register, blow by blow, as we live our lives. This web, he tells us, is our life, not the narrative of who we conquered, what we achieved, or what we ate for breakfast, but rather how the taste of a madeleine becomes woven inextricably with the cobblestones of a street, lime tea, a beloved aunt, the late afternoon sun and more. This web is also poetic and nonlinear, as are the pieces in I, Bartleby.

 

Q: Given your suggestion that you see genre as being rather fluid, I’m wondering why so much of your published work over the past twenty-plus years has been poetry? Obviously, I’m not intending to over-simplify the idea of genre. Is it a matter of blending everything into a particular form you happen to be working with, whether poetry or fiction, and whatever else might exist between?

A: The interesting thing is that out of my six trade books, only two contain lineated poetry. The rest are all prose forms. So I would say I’ve lived in what some call “lyric prose” more than any other form. My novel Rupert’s Land departs from lyric prose into conventional narrative, as does the novel I’m currently finishing. Their driving force is what’s at stake between the characters or between a character and herself, not sound play and sense play as in poetry or lyric prose.

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Q: Part of what is intriguing about the pieces in I, Bartleby is in the recurring motif of disappearing, whether characters slipping into their own background through self-imposed silence, into the works of other writers or, as in the story “Waiters –,” into fictional characters and personalities. One could even suggest that the book as a whole is interested in exploring the fluid nature of identity. Is this a fair assessment?

A: Yes, though I did not articulate that to myself as I wrote. Rather, I think I saw and see identities as fictions that appear and disappear according to language, context and the nature of the viewer. As for example in the difference between the way a carpenter, a painter and a biologist identify a tree. The instability and contingency of fiction or identity interests me, especially as the reader will invent a fictional world from my text, which I cannot experience. So my identity as an author is utterly contingent on a highly unstable network of perceptions.

 

Q: Was that “highly unstable network of perceptions” something you were deliberately playing with when composing the short fictions on and for, for example, Christine Stewart and Pauline Johnson?

A: In most of my writing I’m playing with this, and certainly in these pieces. The characters in fiction create multiple perceptions and instability. But in a way what we are talking about too is that place Keats referred to as negative capability – the writer’s capacity to let ideas and perceptions flow through and coexist in consciousness without making one idea the thesis dominating the others. This paratactic coexistence is something Ezra Pound saw in Chinese ideograms, he saw the basis of poetry in the fact that the root characters making up the ideogram do not dominate each other but rather float side by side. Using Chinese ideograms in I, Bartleby made Pound’s insight particularly clear to me.

 

Q: You speak almost in terms of collage, or even visual and concrete poetry, allowing multiple ideas and images to equally coexist. I find that quite interesting, how your use of Chinese ideograms brought you a deeper insight into Ezra Pound. Does this insight shift the way you approach his work? What brought you to utilizing Chinese ideograms?

A: I was always really taken with the collage aspect of Pound’s Cantos. He integrates texts from all sorts of sources. But I now see more clearly the theoretical perspective from which he wrote the Cantos, which he and Ernest Fenollosa set out in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. My use of Chinese ideograms came from the fact that I live near Chinatown and walk through it often. I had the crazy idea I could learn to recognize some of the signs, which turned out to be much harder than I thought. One day rummaging through a stationery store in Chinatown I found some kids’ books showing you how to draw some of the characters, and it went from there. This is just one thread in I, Bartleby exploring personal links to Chinese culture.

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Q: Part of the appeal of I, Bartleby is the expansiveness of the collection, your, as you call it, “planned tapestry of particular threads,” constructed more deliberately as a single, cohesive unit than, say, Recipes from the Red Planet, and more openly diverse than the narrative of your novel Rupert’s Land. How difficult was it to maintain this balance?

A: That’s a good way to get at the territory of the book, situating it between the expansiveness of poetry on the one hand and the linear plot development of a novel on the other hand. The poet has the freedom to draw into her poetic net anything in her universe, provided she offers some means of tracing patterns in these connections. Poetry dances in this complete openness of possibility. Whereas narrative forms tend to require a more or less linear pattern of struggles between characters or forces. We generally expect stories to tell us how changes came about, how problems resolved, that sort of thing. Readers tend to get irritated at material that doesn’t seem connected to these changes.

But for me some of the greatest literature comes from the attempt that you find in poets’ prose to meld these two impulses. Gail Scott’s novels, Daphne Marlatt’s novels, Nicole Brossard’s novels for example. But also certainly Melville’s Moby Dick and many passages in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill is another example that has been very important to me.

Proust’s long entwining sentences and Scott’s sentence-like paragraphs of digressions are striking methods of capturing the expansiveness of poetry in the linear form of narrative. Virginia Woolf’s play-like presentation of voices with no third person narration in The Waves is another striking example.

 

Q: How long did it take to complete I, Bartleby? Were you working on the pieces concurrently to any of your other recent titles, such as Rupert’s Land, or can you only work on one project at a time? There are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches to composition, whether singular or concurrent; where do you fall on the spectrum?

A: In a notebook beginning in September 2009 and running through December 2011, I wrote my first pieces for this project, including the first line of the whole book: “If I were a copyist what would I be copying down or over, from what page to what page . .  .” (slightly edited in the published version). For these first pieces I followed Robert Walser’s method of only thinking about the fineness of my handwriting. This altered mental focus erupted intriguing digressions into the composition.

I thought of this investigation then as the Handwriting Project. Another passage from this notebook reads: “How is the hand written upon? How is the hand a brain? How does it think? How is humanity a hand writing? What is it writing on? How is marking to a bird? Can birds write hands? Is the brain a hand? What does it grasp? With sounds as fingers?” Between 2009 and 2014 I published many short pieces from this project. So I guess you could say it took me about 5 years to write I, Bartleby. But also during this period, I wrote a second novel.

The question of whether one can write two projects at the same time depends on the time period. Within a given year I set aside blocks of time, each devoted only to one project. But my brain is always mulling over the other projects and periodically, when I’m busy on a novel for example, I’ll get sudden jolts to add to or edit the other projects that are on the go. I record the thought, then immediately return to the task at hand. Focus is essential, I find.

Once I begin a project I’m never not thinking about it. A lot of this goes on subconsciously or tends to erupt during periods of insomnia. My general strategy, however, is to keep my conscious day-time attention focused on only one project at a time.

 

Q: What books have been important to you more recently? And with I, Bartleby finished and in the world, where do you see your writing headed next?

A: The prose writing of WG Sebald has been very important. My Pauline Johnson piece in I, Bartleby pays deliberate homage to Sebald’s work. All the fiction by Herman Melville continues to bring me a wealth of news about possibilities for prose and fiction. What a thinker! What an innovator! Wayde Compton’s The Outer Harbour (2014) is a stunning, witty, thoughtful collection of interrelated short stories, breathtaking in its scope, and full of formal ideas.

It’s safe to say that I’ll be going further with the short prose form, and I will also within the next year I hope get my second novel ready for publication. I remember Nicole Brossard saying she generally switched back and forth between short and long forms, and I’m beginning to feel the same way.

 

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.

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