Tuesday, December 9, 2014

TtD supplement #15: five questions for Emily Ursuliak

Emily Ursuliak is the current fiction editor, and a member of the board, for filling Station magazine and an executive producer for the literary radio show Writer’s Block. This spring she was given the Volunteer of the Year Award by the Alberta Magazine and Publishers Association for her work with filling Station. She recently completed an MA in English at the University of Calgary where she worked on her first novel and collection of poems. You can find her work in Warpaint, Blue Skies Poetry, FreeFall, No Press and the anthology The Calgary Project: A City Map in Verse and Visual. Her chapbook Braking and Blather was recently published by above/ground press.

Her poem “Tourists” appears in the third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Your two-part poem, “Tourists,” originally appeared separately in different places. Do you see the poems working equally well apart as together, or was the goal always to have them appear as a single unit?

A: The two sections of “Tourists” can work separately as they are each individual portraits of people that Anne and my grandmother Phyllis encountered on the road. However, by appearing together the two sections emphasize the road-weariness of Phyllis and Anne at that stage of their journey, and also their sense of irritation at being treated as a spectacle, or tourist attraction, by fellow travellers. I prefer them together as a unit because it demonstrates the repetition of “tourist” behaviour that the two women encountered. They were stopped a number of times so that they could be photographed, or questioned and while the tourists might have thought that these interactions were flattering, they were in fact inhibiting to the women’s progress on their trip.

Q: “Tourists” appears to apply a similar strategy of sketching out short, lyric narratives as your chapbook/poem, Breaking and Blather (above/ground press, 2014). What is it about composing such lyric portraits that appeals?

A: I think the subject of the poem often drives what form it takes, or at least for me it does. “Tourists,” “Braking and Blather” and the other poems in the collection The Diamond Hitch are lyric narrative poems because their source material, my grandmother’s travel diary, has a strong narrative running through it. The poems tell the story of this somewhat rebellious and unconventional journey Phyllis and Anne took. A number of the poems are portraits as well because the two women encountered so many rich and unusual people in their travels and in many circumstances had to rely on the unusual relationships they developed with this people in order to survive. So there’s that reason, and I also seem to be naturally drawn to writing lyric poetry. I think this might be due in part to the fact that I also write fiction. I’m relentlessly attracted to the idea of narrative and it’s interesting for me to explore how I might tell a story through poetry as opposed to fiction.

There have been times when I’ve felt insecure about being a lyric poet. I live in Calgary which is known for being a hotbed for experimental poetry. The work of these poets, many of whom I count among my friends, is intriguing and inspiring to me, but I've always been more interested in bringing experimental concepts into my fiction instead. I’ve heard it said a few times in the experimental camp that lyric poetry isn’t pushing at the boundaries to the extent that experimental poetry is, that we’re becoming too lax and that our poems aren’t doing the real work of poetry anymore. I used to feel insulted and irritated by that sentiment, and while I don’t agree with it, I consider it a friendly challenge now. As a young poet, still in the process of developing, my work might not yet be pushing at any boundaries, but by continuing to tackle topics which for me feel engaging, or at times may push me out of my comfort zone, I hope to do so in the future.

Q: Considering that Erin Moure, one of the more engaged experimental poets in Canada, has repeatedly called herself a lyric poet, I would suspect there’s still far more to be discovered within the lyric. And I think the whole notion of experiment actually begins with the idea of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Given the rich nature of the stories you’re working to tell, I’m curious as to why you chose to tell the story in the form of lyric poetry over, say, fiction or non-fiction?

A: I guess thinking of yourself as being either in the “lyric camp” or the “experimental camp” might be symptomatic of living in Calgary where there does seem to be these separate groups of poets that don’t cross-pollinate a lot, which is something I find frustrating. Each group has something to offer, and while it’s probably natural for literary communities to break off in this way I think it’s unfortunate. That’s not to say that everyone stays within their own little “camps,” there’s plenty of others that feel the same way as I do, but it would be nice to see more engagement between these different groups.

Why is The Diamond Hitch in poetic form instead of the alternatives? That’s a tough one and it’s something that seems to come up quite a lot. I remember telling derek beaulieu about the travel diary once while a bunch of us were out for drinks. He said, “You should definitely write a novel about that!” and then when I told him I was actually turning it into a collection of poems he seemed puzzled, although he’s been very supportive of the work that resulted from it. I’ve also had someone suggest that it would make a great screenplay. Maybe at some point I will pursue telling the narrative in different forms, but I don’t see that happening in the immediate future.

I think it came out as poetry because prior to starting it I had written this small collection of six poems about the residential school just north of Edmonton. After that experience I enjoyed the idea of working on a number of poems that were unified around one topic instead of just “one-offs” and the travel diary had always been something I wanted to explore. I started working on the poems the summer before I got into grad school at the University of Calgary and I don’t think back then that I was as critically aware of what I was trying to do as a writer, it was a lot more instinctual at that point. Now, looking back at the source material the poems came from, I’d say that there’s a lot of poetic moments within the diary that I wanted to use. One of my favourite poems ends with a piece of found text from an interview my grandmother did with a reporter shortly before they left for the trip. It was quite clear from the article that the reporter didn’t take my grandmother and Anne seriously when he heard about them, but came away feeling somewhat intimidated by them. One of the last questions the reporter asks is if they can talk a bit about the 1927 MG Roadster the two of them co-owned and were planning on driving for the first half of their journey. My grandmother rattles off an impressive list of engine specs that seemed like pure poetry to me, it just required shifting a few of the lines around and arranging the text the right way to bring out the natural cadences that were already there.

Q: I’m presuming The Diamond Hitch is the title of the work-in-progress that includes both “Tourists” and Breaking and Blather? How far along is the manuscript? What has been your process of putting your first full-length poetry manuscript together? Was much of it mapped out beforehand, or has it been more of an accumulative process?

A: Yes, The Diamond Hitch is the title of the manuscript that both “Tourists” and Breaking and Blather are a part of. The manuscript is technically completed, and I have been sending it out, but after a very helpful rejection letter that Goose Lane sent me a few weeks ago I think I might be revisiting some of the poems in the collection to give them a bit more polishing. The thing I’ve found most difficult about being a young writer with your first manuscript is knowing when the hell the thing is actually ready to be put out there. When you’re just starting out you’re very reliant on the advice of more experienced writers and what can happen sometimes, and what’s been happening to me, is that I’ve received advice on both ends of the spectrum. Some have told me the manuscript is very strong and I need to get it out immediately, and others have said that I need to go back to the drawing board and spend several more years on it. I’ve realized I just have to trust my gut. I feel that the manuscript is pretty much ready to be out there, but that it could be stronger than it currently is and finding weak points to strengthen is a good plan before resubmitting.

The manuscript came together in a year-long poetry manuscript class that I took with Christian Bök in the last year of my masters degree. That class was pretty transformative for me. Christian and I are very different people and I don’t always agree with him all the time, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a teacher. I’ve tried to think about how I could describe the effect that class had on my writing and the best way I could put it is this: you have an instrument that you fiddle around with because you enjoy music, and maybe you learn how to play a song or two by ear because you have a natural instinct for it, and then someone comes along and teaches you how to read sheet music and the way you look at your instrument and its potential is completely altered.

The manuscript was kind of already mapped out in that I was working from this travel diary that both Phyllis and Anne had taken turns writing, as well as a few newspaper articles and photographs of their journey that were included along with it. They wanted to go on an adventure and at the same time buy some horses, so they drove their 1927 MG roadster from Victoria, British Columbia to central Alberta, bought a horse each plus a pack horse and then rode them back through the mountains. For two women in their twenties to want to do something like this back in the early fifties is pretty outrageous and they were/are both very literary, witty women so the source material was terrific to work with. I basically read through the whole diary once, and then went back through and flagged moments that seemed fitting to interpret into poems. There were a few poems that didn’t make the cut, and a couple more that I might still decide to take out. Basically the process of creating the manuscript in the class involved a hell of a lot of writing and a hell of a lot of intense editing and I felt a bit alarmed that at the end of the class I’d actually produced this manuscript-length thing, and even more alarmed when people told me that it was almost ready to start sending out. There was one last draft of it that I did over the summer after the class had finished that involved adding some new poems and working from Christian’s suggestions on the final version I submitted for the class. He was gracious enough to meet with me over the summer to look over the changes I’d made and make a few more suggestions about the new work that I’d added.

The funny thing is that when I came to the University of Calgary to do my degree I was only planning on writing fiction. I worked on a novel as my thesis, but prior to starting the program I had about ten really rough pages of poems for The Diamond Hitch. I was afraid that if I got too wrapped up in working on the novel that my “poetry muscles” would atrophy and I'd never actually do anything with these poems. Christian was teaching this class and, though I’d never taken a class with him before, I knew him from the writing community and he managed to convince me that I should be in it. It was a lot of work to do both a poetry collection and a novel at the same time, but it ended up working out well. I wrote the novel under the mentorship of Suzette Mayr and thought I enjoyed working on it, and am still enjoying the puzzle of trying pull it together into something publishable, the material I was dealing with for that project was really dark and at times emotionally draining for me, and the poems were a bit more playful and light-hearted so it gave me some balance in my writing life.

Q: Given some of the material you’re working with and from, what kind of responsibilities are you feeling for the original facts? Perhaps this might apply more to the poems you composed about the residential school than to the facts around your grandmother’s trip and her journal entries, but I’m curious if, when dealing with real events and real people, you’ve allowed yourself to shift detail for the sake of the writing.

A: I feel a high level of responsibility, and as you suggested, that responsibility felt a lot more heightened when I was working on the poems about the residential school. That project was one that I did a long time ago for a senior level English class for my undergraduate degree when I was at Red Deer College. I was lucky for that project in that I had a good professor who advised me on how to tackle it. It was a class where we could do what we liked for our projects as long as they were responding to the theme of the class which was Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. I decided to write this small collection of poems and then started to have a lot of anxiety about it. Was it something I was allowed to write about if I had no First Nations ancestry? My professor’s advice was to study the angle that I wrote from and be respectful. Doing research for the poems was incredibly difficult. Often my sources would contradict each other and I wasn’t sure who to believe. The poems became more about the impossibility of writing about the tragedies that occurred in residential schools and wrestling with this dark history. I also went and visited the site of the residential school just outside of St. Albert and the mass grave there as well as the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, which was an abandoned building that they’ve only just started to tear down. The Camsell Hospital played its own disturbing role in the history of the residential school system. There was some indication that another mass grave was located on the hospital grounds, but officials will not address those claims, so it it’s hard to know where exactly the truth lies.

The uncanny thing about that project is that every time I read those poems at different events around Red Deer there was always at least one First Nations person in the audience, and every time I noticed that I’d get very worried about how they’d respond, and at the end of every event the First Nations audience members would come up to me afterwards and were incredibly warm and kind. I spoke to people with both Cree and Blackfoot ancestry and all of them said they were happy that I was writing about it, and that as a white person I’d treated the issue with respect. I think the most meaningful conversation I had was with a man that told me his grandmother had been abused and used as a test subject at the Charles Camsell Hospital and that he didn’t think people even knew what had gone on there and that he was happy I was telling others about it. I’m not happy with those poems anymore because they feel very amateur to me now, but I learned a lot from the experience. I workshopped them in a class I took up in Edmonton about a year after writing the poems and I promised myself that I would visit the site of the mass grave again and pay my respects. So that was a very profound part of the process. After my course was over I bought a bouquet of flowers and visited the site again to honour those that are buried there.

The biggest concern for writing The Diamond Hitch was how I would portray Phyllis and Anne as these characters within the poems when they’re both people that I care about and love very much. I wanted the depictions of them to be as honest as I could. When I was a kid I watched Phyllis and Anne interact a lot, they were like two teenagers constantly teasing each other, making silly jokes and annoying each other. I wanted there to be some of that chemistry in the poems. Also my grandmother could be a bit stubborn and difficult and I wanted to stay true to how she actually was. My grandmother can’t call me out on anything that happens in the poems because she passed away back when I was finishing high school after she fought a second, heroic battle against cancer. I feel like she would be happy with the collection though. Luckily Anne is still with us. I sent her a portion of the manuscript when I was still in the process of writing it. She had a few factual corrections to make, but seemed thrilled that I was writing about it. I've emailed her the manuscript in it’s entirety, but haven’t heard from her. I’m not sure that she still uses her computer much anymore. I’m hoping to have her read everything and get her blessing before the book gets published though, that is very important to me.

As far as the other parts of the narrative there are sections where I’ve invented details that aren’t actually there in journal entries. For instance the stories that Mr. Richter tells Phyllis and Anne in Braking and Blather are invented. The journal entry said that he regaled them with local gossip all the way up the road, but didn’t provide any details. For the most part I stay pretty true to how things actually occurred within the journal and just add a few details or flourishes where they’re needed. 

Q: You say that you’ve “always been more interested in bringing experimental concepts into my fiction.” Why the division between your poetry and your fiction? I’m also curious at the models for your writing. What authors and works influence the kind of writing you’re currently working on?

A: I imagine that the division between the work I do in fiction and the work I do in poetry will probably dissolve more and more as my practice matures. I suppose that right now I still think of them as separate because I approach them differently. Fiction is a place where I can let go and the words flood the page, whereas poetry is a far slower process that involves a lot of ruminating on different combinations of words before I decide what sounds right.

I guess when I talk about wanting to bring experimental concepts into the work I do in fiction I’m thinking about a project I hope to do in the future that’s very inspired by the work of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The best way I could sum up Miller and Cardiff’s work is that they’re interested in the narrative potential of ambient noise. While I admire their work I find that some of the narratives that they layer over ambient noise aren’t as sophisticated as something a writer could produce. I want to find my own approach into this kind of work with more of a writerly concern driving what I’m doing. At the present moment the project is this delicate fetus and I have other things I need to get done first. The funny thing is that I’ve labelled this project as a “fiction project” and now I’m realizing that’s kind of an arbitrary category to put it into.

In terms of fiction Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace was definitely a model for what I wanted to accomplish with my novel, which is also historical fiction. She has a way of using very evocative, contemporary language while still giving you the feeling of being in the time period in which the novel is set. Suzette Mayr’s work has also been an influence for me. I knew that I wanted her as my thesis supervisor after reading Moon Honey. When I read that book I noticed the physicality with which she explores her characters; you get the sensation of being very rooted in their bodies. That was something my own work used to really lack and I think being mentored by her allowed me to get more into the flesh of my characters, which has been fun, and at times a bit disturbing. I’m a big fan of the work of Miriam Toews and Sarah Selecky as well.

I have to confess that in terms of poetry I’ve been a bit lazy in the past about actually reading that much of it. This is something I’ve made a concerted effort to change, and part of the reason why I decided to take up the 95 Books challenge this year. I think Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid was very helpful for me when working on The Diamond Hitch. I remember someone recommended that I read it while working on my poems and I almost didn’t want to because so many people had gone on and on about how that book changed their lives. I thought it was too over-hyped and the work wouldn’t have any effect on me, but I was wrong of course. The prose poems from that collection informed how I wanted to approach the ones I was working on. Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue is an old favourite of mine. I have the 2004 version of it with the wood engravings by Jim Westergard. It’s probably some kind of cliché now to be an Albertan poet who says they’ve been influenced by Kroetsch, but I feel sincere about it. There’s lines from Seed Catalogue that have stuck with me, and not all poetry has the power to do that for me. The book that I read most recently that really blew my socks off was Robert Majzels and Erin Mouré’s translation of White Piano by Nicole Brossard. The powerful precision of language in those poems is something I long to have.