First and foremost, I am a Scottish Literature student and therefore I am constantly searching/exploring Scotland’s literary connections globally. Whilst on a study exchange semester at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, I took a Canadian Literature course where I had the opportunity to study The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology. Being a Canadian Literature course, my home University in Scotland was slightly dubious as to whether I would encounter any Scottish Literature. Therefore, when I saw Kathryn’s last name, I was hopeful that she might have a connection with Scotland. Do not fear, I have not converted Kathryn into a Scottish writer, however her first answer in this interview is very interesting regarding her heritage.
On a more personal note, I wanted to do this interview because as literature students we rarely get to engage with authors. We frequently study literary figures that have been dead for quite some time and literature can often become synonymous with history. Perhaps the ‘Death of the Author’ has become a little too literal in this post-modern world. For me, literature is about having and enabling a conversation, and there seemed to be no better way to do this than to contact the writer herself!
I was doubtful as to whether Kathryn would reply, and I could not have predicted the wonderful response she has given. This interview only exists because Kathryn was willing to have a conversation with a strange Scottish Literature student. However, her response speaks for itself and hopefully will remind literature students that, sometimes, the author is still very much alive!
Kathryn MacLeod lives in Victoria, BC and works at the University of Victoria. Her previous books and chapbooks include How Two (Tsunami Editions, 1987), mouthpiece (Tsunami Editions, 1996) and Entropic Suite (above/ground press, 2012). Her dissertation, Transgressing Words and Silence: Aesthetics, Ethics and Education (UBC, 2011), explores the relationship between ethics, aesthetics and education using the limit case of art created in response to the Holocaust. Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Companions and Horizons: An Anthology of Simon Fraser University Poetry (2005), Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology (1999), and East of Main (1989).
Can you elaborate a little on your three poems included in the Anthology: ‘The Infatuation’, ‘Asylum’, ‘One Hour Out of Twenty-four’. How were you approached to write for the Anthology? Did these poems already exist or did you write/adapt them to be included?
You asked about the three specific poems, so I will write more about those on Sunday after I have the opportunity to review them. However, you also asked if they were written specifically for the anthology. I don’t recall exactly, but I am guessing they already existed, and may have been published in a literary mag before appearing in the anthology. Or they were already started, and I refined them to be included in the anthology.
Now that I’ve reread the three poems from the anthology, I am pretty sure that none of these were written specifically for the anthology. I believe they were all published elsewhere. Infatuation was published as a little chapbook by my friend, Susan Clark, in her Sprang Text series. The chapbook is dated 1993. The others look like they were all written perhaps around the same time. I am not sure if I submitted more and they decided to publish three?
I quite like all three of them, and I like the way they were arranged in the anthology. It appears to make a progression from darkness to light, in some ways.
The first one was definitely a deliberate experiment with form, but it was not just that. It is, as you probably can read, a somewhat angry poem focusing on gender politics and sexuality. I find it interesting to reread in the light of all of that is occurring in the U.S. these days. You may not be as overrun with American news as we are in Canada? But the issues of sexual violence and misogyny are rampant in our media right now. I think the form works with the content, even though it felt a bit deliberate at the time. I was not sure if the emphasis on form was just for form’s sake, but I don’t think it earned the poem.
The Asylum is a poem I am still proud of. Have you studied Christopher Smart (English poet, 1722-71)? The quote in the poem is from someone writing about him. He wrote a lot of religious poetry and did end up in an asylum. My recollection is that he developed a kind of religious mania, and apparently would just fall to his knees in the street, praying. I love his poem about his cat Jeoffrey, and his poetry is something I return to. Such deep passion, and deep desire. And then perhaps a slide into what was then thought of as madness, but such a productive madness.
You talk, in your interview with rob mclennan, about reading Post-modernists and experimenting with form. In reading, ‘One Hour Out of Twenty-four’ I was drawn by the language and just how personal the poem is, but I know in other work you do focus a lot on form. How much of an influence does form and structure have on your poetry? Does structure ever take priority over your content? How do you work through the dialectic between form and content?
Form and content! Such an interesting, and ongoing struggle! When I think about this in my work, I have to consider the history of my learning how to write. Before I was introduced to and influenced by the kind of work that KSW became known for, I studied writing at the University of Victoria (where I now work, many years later). My teachers there were more traditional poets and focused on lyrical free verse, British and Canadian writers. I certainly developed a love and a capacity for language, but I think my work was quite closed–meaning that I tried to resolve the questions or explorations that the poem posed before it ended. Kind of like wrapping it up in a box with a ribbon. When I was first introduced to language writing at the Kootenay School in Vancouver, after I’d left Victoria, it was shocking to me! But I was also intrigued by it, and I recall the excitement of exploration (and fear!) when I wrote my first poem without the kind of adherence to traditional syntactical structure I had been used to. But I never lost, nor did I want to, the deep connections of language to emotions. I experimented a lot, but I would consider some of the poetry I wrote at that time to be too focused on form. And in fact, I now find some of it boring myself! But I have come to see the tension between form and content as the place that opens up the poem, allows multiple meanings to exist, constantly reminds the writer/reader that there is always ambiguity, that meaning will not be fixed, even with our desire to do so.
You talk about Post-structuralism as being an influence and indeed The Kootenay School of Writing is known for being ‘Avante Garde’. However, even in this freedom of space, were there any struggles/restrictions you faced. Did you feel you had to conform to this idea of the ‘Avante Garde’? Also, I find with structuralism and post-structuralism, the identity or almost personal aspect of poetry tends to get lost, whether through writing or its analysis. However, your poems seem to be very good at balancing both; balancing form and the personal. Can you talk a little about this discourse between the personal writing and writing with the influence of structuralism?
Your third question is really related to the second, and I think you see/caught the tension I described above. For me, there is always a push and pull. I remember someone who was not a poet once reading one of my poems and asking, with frustration, why I couldn’t just say what I wanted to say, instead of trying to obsfucate? I understand, deeply, that the great power of artwork in all mediums lies in its ability to open perception, to help us see what we have not seen before, to create space so that we can experience something we have not experienced. But I also believe there are many, many ways of creating. An emphasis on form was good for me personally, as it deconstructed all my preconceptions about creating “beautiful”, finished poems.
But at that time, as you suggest, there was probably as much rigidity about being avante garde as not being. Certainly there were strong cultural and political biases in that community that even then, although I was immersed in it, I found hypocritical. So at times I think I tried conform more strictly to the rules of the experimental! And at times this pressure was silencing.
But one of the things I learned in my university writing education at was that experimenting with writing styles and structured forms was good learning. I strongly believe that learning the hard craft of any art form is vital. So I don’t regret going down that path on occasion. Learning to use one’s tools well is a lovely thing. It gives you freedom to experiment more, confidence to keep pushing against your own expectations.
‘Meaning and its trickery’ seems to be very important to your work. What is meaning’s relationship with time? Does being extremely conscious of meaning/meanings affect your work? When writing, are you aware of your works meaning or what it will mean to other people? Are you aware of your influence/ lack of influence?
This is such an interesting question! Meaning and its trickery…I am both acutely aware as I write that I am creating meaning, and acutely aware that I have little control (and thus, a great responsibility) as I do so. I hope to create a voice that draws the reader in, that one trusts, that speaks with clarity and emotional honesty. And yet sometimes I want that voice to disrupt and challenge and break down preconceptions. Sometimes you can do that with content, and sometimes you can do that with form. Something as simple as a line break, or as layered as broken syntax. Content and form play off of each other constantly. They both create and break intention.
Time seems to be another very prominent theme, especially in ‘One Hour after Twenty-Four’. You talk in your interview about the tension between longing for permanence and watching it slip away, over and over again. However, how does this idea of permanence relate to the past? Surely the past is permanent?
You ask about meaning’s relationship with time. If you think about our relationship to time, as humans, it is exhilarating and unknowable at the same time as it is mundane. In the period of my life when wrote those poems I think I was bewildered and fascinated by what I did not know. In the same way that I understand the fragility of meaning–wanting to fix it, to make it stick while understanding the impossibility of doing so–I understand the impermanence of time.
I have studied and am influenced by Buddhist ideas of impermanence. Humans deeply and sometimes desperately want our lives and meanings and truths to be fixed and permanent, and we learn over and over again that they and we are not. What interests me is our longing. I am one of those creatures longing for meaning to be fixed, time to be still, change to be painless. And I understand intellectually, and now that I am older, with lived experience, that the desire creates the loss. And still I am yearning, and always I am disappointed. These are the gaps and fissures that create understanding. There is brilliance and light in the absence.
You ask if the past is permanent. I would say it is not. I have had experiences where I am exactly in the past, where memory is not memory because it is alive around me, emotionally and almost physically. I have had experiences where my version of the past is so altered in the present that it takes my breath away.
You talk about ‘Resting and wrestling in and with the unknown’. Here are you trying to figure out what is unknown, or just come to terms with the fact that you will never know?
Let me reread the interview and respond later. I need to see the context of the line you quote, which I am assuming is from rob’s interview questions? That answers question 8 I hope, but I still have to answer question 6 for you: the quote from the interview about “resting and wrestling in and with the unknown.” You ask if I am trying to figure out what is unknown, or come to terms with the fact that I will never know. It is the latter–I do want to be able to rest in not-knowing (the unknowable), but so often am wrestling with wanting to figure things out, stop time, and make meaning stick! I wrote about this yesterday when I wrote about impermanence. This is obviously a theme that I suspect I will never be done with.
I would just like to know a little about the creation of The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology. I know there were certain people who refused to be included for various reasons. I was wondering if you ever felt conflicted or had reservations about adding your poetry to this Anthology. Were you ever worried that you were, as you say, ‘risking your intentions’?
The KSW anthology. I apologize, but I have very little memory of how it came to be. You suggest that there was some controversy, and there probably was, because the culture of the community was always fraught with competition. But I don’t believe I cared enough to stop my work from being published. I am guessing that some people were left out, but of course, there are always people left out of every collection, which is something every artist experiences.
You don’t have to answer this one but it has been pestering my mind. What is your interpretation of the line ‘The one and only home run’ in ‘One Hour Out of Twenty-Four’?
The final poem, One Hour out of Twenty Four, is full of hope and longing, love and faith. It is also about the kind of yearning that I wrote about yesterday, and so it too explores desire and loss. You asked about the fourth section and the final line about the “one and only home run”: This section of the poem is about joy, comfort and loss. The softball references are about my mother and what she passed down to me. She died a year or so ago at 91.
As I sit writing this, I have above my desk a photo of her that I love. She grew up in the province of Saskatchewan on the Canadian prairies during the 1930s. Her life was circumscribed by poverty (the middle child of a Hungarian immigrant family of 14 children growing up on a farm) and the sexism of the time (she had very few avenues open to her as a young woman). But at one point, after she was able to leave the farm and go to secretarial school in the city of Regina, she played on a women’s recreational softball team. In the photo I have of her she is in her softball uniform, her hair is windblown; her hands are on her hips and she looks tough and saucy! The photo was and is very important to me, because it captured her in a way that I rarely saw her. The norms for women at that time were so restrictive–it was as though her younger self was the mother I really wanted her to be.
Because of her I played softball as I was growing up. Unfortunately, she could never really practice with me, though, because by then she had a bad knee injury. I played shortstop and I loved it. And I hit one beautiful home run, in a game that was fraught with emotion and charges of unfairness against the umpire! It was exciting and eventful and wonderful. It reminded me of the same feeling of exhilaration that being on stage (acting) had been for me (the reference to being backstage, waiting for the first cue).
So that is where the line comes from. For me it is bittersweet. This section (IV) of the poem is very much about my mother who had such strength of character but who missed out on so much in her life because of time and circumstance. The sadness of lost opportunities in her life and in our relationship. But it is also about joy.
Finally, you say that you have a better understanding of ‘Why I am writing and who I am writing for’. Could you elaborate on this and also, how much influence does this awareness of the self-have on your work?
I can respond to this now, as I do remember writing it.
When I was younger, and experimenting with language and form and meaning, and I was part of a community that had such rigid definitions of what constituted good art, there were times where I felt I was not living, nor writing, my real values. I have not felt that way in many, many years. I probably would not have been able to articulate what I was feeling then, but at this point I understand more clearly why I write or am involved in art. Art, for me, is a question, and the pursuit of the answer is where the transformative power is. I write to be transformed, to understand what I think, to dive into the not knowing so that for a moment I am convinced of knowing. I make art because that is how I reach into the absence.
Róise Nic an Bheatha was born and raised in the North of Ireland. In 2011 she moved to Edinburgh. Róise is an undergraduate at the University of Glasgow where she studies Scottish Literature. She loves to write in her spare time and has had multiple works published online and in magazines. Róise is currently on a one year study exchange program at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver.