this interview was conducted over email from April to May 2016
Stephanie Bolster is the author of four books of poetry, the first of which, White Stone: The Alice Poems (Signal/Véhicule, 1998), won the Governor General’s and the Gerald Lampert Awards. Her latest book, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth (Brick Books, 2011) was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award and more recent work was a finalist for the Canada Writes/CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. Editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 and The Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems by the late Ottawa poet Diana Brebner, and co-editor of Penned: Zoo Poems, she was born in Vancouver and teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montréal, where she also coordinates the writing program.
In May 2016, above/ground press produced a 20th anniversary edition of Bolster’s first chapbook, Three Bloody Words, a chapbook originally produced through the press in May 1996. She will be launching the chapbook in Ottawa in August, as part of the above/ground press 23rd anniversary event.
You’ve spoken in the past of composing Three Bloody Words (above/ground press, 1996) in a class with Vancouver poet Daphne Marlatt. What first prompted the series?
Writing badly. I was taking an advanced poetry workshop at UBC in 1989-1990, and I was, if I remember correctly, the only undergrad in this cross-listed course. Impressed and intimidated by the work of the grad students in the class – some of whom went on to publish books in the early to mid-nineties – and by Marlatt’s reputation, and a little shaken by the (entirely warranted) toughness of her criticism, I lost my facility as a poet. My internal editor spoke up with loud insistence after pretty much every word I wrote, and my attempts to make my poems smarter and more distinctive and more mature and intuitive only made them stilted. Marlatt – who by this point was Daphne to me – suggested I try prose poetry. Whether she explicitly recommended it as a means of letting go I can’t recall (she also told me to read Erin Moure and Dionne Brand), but abandoning awareness of line-breaks and punctuation pushed me past that editorializing voice – I could type faster than it could speak.
I was also taking an English course in children’s literature, reading Grimm’s versions of fairy tales for the first time, and Peter Pan before Disney got to it, and of course Alice. The notion of a feminist retelling of an old story felt new to me, and this kind of project did, still, then, have a freshness it’s long since lost. Working with given stories freed me from making something up and of course, paradoxically, activated my imagination. I wrote quickly, revised little. Made a little photocopied chapbook (clumsily, 8 ½ X 11, in a serious academic plastic cover) for my final project of the year. And many of the poems got published, too, in Tessera (Daphne was on the board and solicited the poems – my first publication experience outside a student journal!) and Room of One’s Own (now Room).
How did you get from Three Bloody Words to White Stone: The Alice Poems? Did the confidence of one project propel the beginnings of the next?
They began concurrently, in fact. As you know, Alice shows up in TBW, and it’s not a cameo appearance; in my mind, she and Wendy and Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood were part of the same world. This conflation of all female characters in pre-20th century kidslit would never have happened had I not been taking the aforementioned class (thank you, Margaret Blom!). So Alice was there, and I had no inkling that she would become more special to me than the other girls and women. Then I spent some time with Ralph Steadman’s illustrated Alice, which freed me from the Victorians. His reinvention of Alice through psychedelic imagery echoed my reinventions, and I was off. Still, it wasn’t until 1991-1992 that I began writing Alice poems as a – very loosely considered — series, and only midway into the first year of my MFA (1992-1993) that I realized that maybe I was writing a book.
I’m curious about the prose element that you found so freeing in Three Bloody Words; why hasn’t that translated into further explorations through the prose poem? In your subsequent collections, the form seems to have slipped into the background. Where did it go?
I’ve been asking myself that, too. In the graduate class I led this year, of the students who chose to do a presentation or a paper on another poet’s work, all but one chose “poetry” that was presented as prose, or at least partially as prose (by Maggie Nelson, Bhanu Kapil, Marie Calloway, Myung Mi Kim, Harryette Mullen, Lyn Hejinian – it was a pretty amazing class). The question of genre didn’t even arise in discussion; only afterwards did I realize that it should have struck me as strange that we were a group of poets discussing prose. A number of these students were writing prose poetry, too.
This experience has brought the notion of the “prose poem” back into my mind, where it hasn’t been for a while. When I first wrote prose poetry, I was aware of it as such – an opting out, or at least a point of difference, from the lineated poem. The prose in the TBW poems was driven by narrative impulses, and many of my subsequent prose poems began with narrative as well. By A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, I was thinking of prose differently. I consider the recurring “Life of the Mind” poems prose, though their rendering on the page heightens the sense of the sentence and the stanza, not the single prose block we tend to envision when we think: “prose poetry.”
The prose poem as a form mystifies me. Sometimes it’s narrative, sometimes meditative, sometimes a default when line-breaks seem arbitrary. Sometimes a compositional strategy for a poem that will later end up lineated. I’ve considered teaching a course on the prose poem, to more systematically or at least more deeply interrogate the form, but I worry that we’d come up against a randomness that would feel disappointing rather than illuminating. There are things that can happen in a prose poem that differ from what can happen in a lineated poem, but the differences between prose poems are as great as the differences between a prose poem and a lineated one.
Poetry written as prose, that interests me more. I wouldn’t call most of the work that the students brought to class (their own or others’) “prose poems.” I’d call it prose. Poetic prose, maybe, though that tends to suggest “beautiful writing” à la Ondaatje or Michaels, and that’s not quite what I mean.
There’s much to be gained by thinking about genre, and much to be gained by not thinking about genre. In those “Life of the Mind” poems, I was thinking about the sentence. Others have declared that the building block of contemporary poetry is no longer the line but the sentence. That’s my own experience. The line’s there to create tension, and I want each line to have integrity, but the propulsion comes from the sentence.
So, I’d say that the prose poem per se has vanished from my work for now, but prose is very much present.
Three Bloody Words exists as a curious stand-alone item, outside the bounds of your subsequent chapbooks, all of which later appeared, in part or in whole, in trade collections. Was there a conscious decision to not include it in any of your trade books? Given the project-driven concerns of your first collection, at least, were the poems simply too historic by the time you began putting together further books?
That’s it, really; they felt, already, by the time of White Stone, like juvenilia. And because White Stone was entirely focussed on Alice, it would have felt strange, architecturally, to include TBW as anything other than an appendix. Nor would the chapbook have felt at home in any of my subsequent collections.
Which is why I’m pleased and honoured that you not only published it but have kept it visible. Even I would have all but forgotten its existence if not for you.
Another element from the chapbook that doesn’t appear in your subsequent work is the lower-case “I.” Was this purely a stylistic choice, or was there something further, to do with the narrator of the suite? Was the difference one of external “i” vs. an “I” that was closer to your own self as narrator?
I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “purely” stylistic choice – even a font has dramatic implications, as you well know. The lowercase “i” was very much in vogue in the UBC creative writing program in the late ’80s, particularly when your instructor was Daphne Marlatt. The implications were partly feminist – a resistance to the presumably patriarchal authority of the capital I. But there was/is, too, a subservience about the lowercase self that’s consistent with the oppression the female speakers of those poems endure. Lowercase suggests not only a modest sense of selfhood – a self resistant to ego and grandiosity – but a diminished one. It’s not as though I wanted to do something cheesy and move these girls and women from a lowercase to a capital I, but the tentative, minor quality of the lowercase suited their struggles.
The “i” in those poems was never a version of myself, and I wasn’t aware of an attempt to use lowercase to distinguish that “i” from me. I wrote many of my more personal poems in lowercase at the time. I liked the visual delicacy, even brittleness, of it; I adored ampersands, too.
More complicated approaches to thinking about the first person came about when I moved into writing White Stone, where in the initial versions of some poems I attempted writing in Alice’s voice. It was useful as a strategy to create intimacy within the poems, but ultimately I felt more comfortable addressing her as a “you,” while still offering the reader immediacy in the form of a first-person figure who was a heavily stylized, capital P poet version of myself.
But that was later. Honestly, much of the work that lowercase did for me in Three Bloody Words involved a parallel rejection of punctuation and, to some extent, standard syntax. That’s what unlocked the writing. The “i” was lowercase because I found a capital I in the midst of lowercase looked far too self-conscious. Now, lowercase itself seems self-conscious to me. (Sorry, rob.) But it served me very well at the time, and continues to serve many writers very well.
Since Three Bloody Words, you’ve continued to work with the occasional longer sequence/suite, as well as shifting, with your first trade collection, to the “book” as your unit of composition. When you are sketching out new poems, are you aware of how they might shape together into something larger, or is the process more organic? Are there ever poems that fall outside of these projects? And if so, where do they go?
I’m nearly always aware of my writing as part of a larger unit, usually a book. My movement, as you say, has been from the poem to the sequence to the book, although that description implies a linearity that’s not entirely accurate. After White Stone, Two Bowls of Milk and Pavilion were made up of sections rather than presented, as that first book was, as wholes.
Now that I’m working (interminably, it seems – though with long lags during the teaching year) on a book-length poem, I feel another shift. I’m aware of each part as simply a part; I’m no longer composing individual poems, for the most part, but fragments. Most of the parts wouldn’t satisfy anyone if published independently, though I’ve gathered selections of them together to submit and publish in various places. Even in that context, though, I see those collections as excerpts.
The writing process, because of this snippet quality, is more organic than my process in the past, as there’s never a sense of finishing something. And the subject of the poem – which began with Robert Polidori’s photographs of Chernobyl and post-Katrina New Orleans – is in some ways so vague and various that it’s hard to know, at this stage, what even belongs. I’m feeling my way, trying to trust the process, but it’s easier to give this advice to my students than to heed it myself. When it comes time to seriously edit, I’ll be ruthless, but I need, also, to be kind enough to the work to retain the digressive, meandering quality that has been essential to the writing process.
All this said, all the way along there have been “other” poems. Many of those in the first two sections of Two Bowls of Milk were written concurrently with White Stone. There were poems I considered including in Pavilion that I ultimately rejected, though in that case it was more because I didn’t feel they were strong enough than because they didn’t fit thematically. Since Pavilion, I’ve written and published a number (not sure of the number . . . let’s say between 12 and 24?) of discrete poems that won’t make it into my next book and may not show up anywhere else. I used to toy with the idea of a book of B-sides, but the truth is that I feel that my having published the poems in journals and read them publicly on various occasions (too much long-poem work exhausts – or maybe just bores – audiences, so one-off poems are necessary relief) does them sufficient justice.
Although the book is, for me, the most interesting unit of poetry, and although when working on my current manuscript I see myself as writing poetry, not writing poems, I take poems as they come. When I realize I’ve written one, and I like it, I’m a little surprised that I can still pull off such a thing. Maybe if I eventually do a Selected, I’ll make room for some of those lonely bookless poems.
How does Three Bloody Words fit into your consideration of “lonely bookless poems,” if at all? How does the work feel, twenty years after it originally appeared, and now, once again, in print?
I don’t see these poems as bookless, given that they have each other. Their togetherness in chapbook form as well as their distinctness from my writing since then – although the lineage between them and White Stone is clear, they are very much their own project – means, as I said earlier, that I’ve never considered including them in a full-length collection. They’ve got a home.
TBW feels like what it is, juvenilia. I feel tenderly towards this little chapbook (that I can’t resist calling it “little” says a lot), both embarrassed by and protective of the poems. They seem so much simpler than most of the work in White Stone, and indeed they were written eight years before White Stone was published. More significant is the fact that I revised them very little, whereas although the earliest poems in White Stone were written just two or three years after TBW, they went through significant changes before publication.
Part of me wants to hide TBW away, and – I’m being totally honest here – your ongoing support (love?) of this collection is the only reason the poems are out there in any visible way in the first place. Without you, they’d be a couple of publication credits on my CV. Archival material. And without your periodic mentions of the chapbook over the years, and your particular invitation to publish a reissue this year, they’d be – for me – a stack of slightly water-damaged twenty-year-old chapbooks in my office closet. Now they’re not quite Charles Simic’s definition of poems as “other people’s snapshots in which we recognize ourselves,” but nearly. Did I really write that, I think, and then I settle into the poems and yes, yes, that was me. My faith in process convinces me that, had I not written TBW, I wouldn’t have written my current work. I still have things to learn from who I was then and what invigorated me as I wrote those poems. When I decided, on a whim, to try a new one as part of the Postscript for the reissue, it spilled out with the ease and surprise of those original poems. I’ve made writing much more difficult for myself since then. Although I don’t think I’ve erred in that (what gets me stuck now is less the fear of not measuring up that I felt in Daphne’s class, more a desire to get it right – whatever it is – and, most crucially, not to bore myself), I suspect the TBW poems are telling me that sometimes it’s okay not to trouble what shows up on the page. Those poems arose from a questioning impulse, but I trusted the results.
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. In March 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. 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, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics, Touch the Donkey and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. 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