Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Shannon Maguire

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Shannon Maguire

This spring, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer's Craft class conducted interviews with Canadian poets as part of a class project. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book throughout June and July. In this interview, poet Shannon Maguire speaks with student Erin Hanley.

Hi Shannon! My name is Erin Hanley. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for your time in offering to participate in my interview. I have thoroughly enjoyed both reading your works and researching your background. This experience has been above and beyond my expectations! Below are the questions I have come up with for you. Hope you enjoy!

Hi Erin! Thank you for your thoughtful questions. It has been a real pleasure to find you so engaged with the work.

While researching you, I discovered that you studied playwrighting at the National Theatre School of Canada. I also read that earlier in life you enjoyed the absurdist playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. Does your admiration for playwrights, specifically these individuals and their works, draw any connection to the abstract language and format of your own poetry?

Yes, I did start out studying playwriting. I was still a teenager when I studied at NTS. But I was already a raging feminist! Ha! Which meant, on the aesthetic front, that I placed my own queer subjectivity at the centre of my experience, even if I didn’t have the fancy theoretical language to talk about it at the time. It was obvious, though, in the plays and scenes that I wrote that I was struggling to find ways to represent ways of being and seeing that were outside of the mainstream and that had a political edge. So I was drawn to the absurdists because they were all “to hell with the ‘well made play’ arc”— that linear orgasmic schema of inciting incident, rising action, crisis (ie. big bang), and dénouement. Beckett and Ionesco are still among my favourite because of the way that they use language. In their plays (and in Beckett’s poetry and short fiction) language is thick and overrides notions of a traditional stable character. And this thickness of language opens up a space where knee-jerk meanings are lost and where all of the horror and humour of contemporary life, which is usually concealed under those meanings, are brought right up to the spotlight. It is theatre of ambiguity and it is exciting. But there is also a way in which gender relations remain unexamined and unchallenged in their work. So I was also very drawn to British playwright Sarah Kane’s work. I spent a lot of time reading her plays and admiring their poetics and daring. But she committed suicide while I was at theatre school and I was shaken when I read her obituary in The Independent. All of a sudden, the stakes became evident.

You ask about the abstract language of the absurdists and the format of my own poetry…. There is a series of poems in fur(l) parachute that owes a debt to Beckett’s short play Not I. The poem “A Wetlands Ophelia” and the other fragments that look like it, all borrow Beckett’s use of ellipsis and hesitation. And I do imagine a staged version of the entire book. I also originally imagined an interactive web-based digital version that would fuse visual art and sound art with the work. So who knows. Maybe that is all in the future.

In an interview with The Toronto Quarterly you stated “I love reading to an audience. And for some of my projects, this is first and foremost. But for fur(l), it happened after I wrote. I’m still learning how to read it to an audience (although my method of composition is always vocal).” Touching on your methods of composition, could you speak a bit more about how your physical voice plays a role in your writing? What other aspects contribute to your personalized process of creating poetry?

I often work vocally, building sounds, images, and rhythms out loud with my voice. But I am terrible at the pronunciation of dead languages. So when I was writing fur(l) parachute, I did a lot of fighting with my tongue. I knew intellectually what it was “supposed” to sound like (we don’t really know what Old English sounded like!) but the sounds I actually made didn’t really conform. So then I realized that this dissonance could be creative in itself. But it’s a little unnerving to go there in front of an audience. And then poems like “spill” pose a different challenge because it was written as a sound poem for two voices. I was lucky to get to actually perform it with Lee Skallerup Besette out in Kelowna last summer. But I basically put her on the spot! The reading was organized by Karis Shearer as part of “Poetry Off The Page” and I walked in and said to Lee, wanna read with me? And she said yes! It was really fun and Lee was brave and such a sport to indulge me. Next time I perform it with another voice, I’d like to rehearse a bit.

Under the heading 6 sketches of wulf, certain poems of yours such as “Portrait of Wulf in journal of a snoeshoe” and “Wulf walks west” seem to be more of a visual art as opposed to a series of legible words making up audible or readable poetry. Are my observations of this difference in art form accurate or do you have a different explanation for these poems? What was the inspiration for these sketches?

The other side of my writing practice is the visual. My mom is a visual artist (her work features on the cover of fur(l)) and I’ve always admired the surrealists. Particularly surrealist collage. Collage is another way to short-circuit traditional meanings and I think of my poetry as collage much of the time. I knock one image against another unrelated image and see what ends up emerging. Sometimes the sound and visual aspects create an added level of dissonance, but sometimes they make strange harmonies. Because I’m a conceptual poet, I’m always working towards new meanings rather than against meaning all together. If you want to follow an argument through fur(l) you can, it’s there to follow. But you can also enjoy it by letting it take you along to places you may not have known were there.

You are right to say that some of the poems in the 6 sketches section begin from a visual art sensibility. But I think of them as vocal knots as well. They are spells in the sense that language weaves a net around experience but the net can be frayed and undone, and rewoven, too.

In the beginning of fur(l) parachute, you cite “Wulf and Eadwacer”, a fragment written in old English. You have said that you think of this passage as a “surrogate” for this specific work of yours. In the back of the book, you write that there is “no consensus as to its meaning, origin, or even to genre. Some see it as a riddle, others as an example of a woman’s lament, and yet others in the broader tradition of the elegy.” Why did you choose “Wulf and Eadwacer” to start this collection of poetry? What does this abstract poem mean to you/how do you perceive it?

I chose to work with “Wulf and Eadwacer” because it made me ache. It still does. It sits between the riddles and the elegies in the tenth century Exeter MS and it has an anonymous female speaking voice. It is also an example of undecidability: “Wulf and Eadwacer” is impossible to interpret in a definitive way and therefore it opens language to infinite possibilities. So I see my whole book as a translation of this work, a translation that is never complete. Each section takes one of the “characters” from the poem (in my version, though, the anonymous woman speaking voice is divided into a chorus that are separated by time) and teases out threads of their desire. Along the way, I pick up other surrogate texts that are woven through my engagement with “Wulf and Eadwacer” including the first verse of the Middle English “Pearl Poem,” some lines from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, some words and phrases from the Victorian lesbian collaborative Michael Field’s Underneath the Bough and instructions for a parachute lure for fly fishing as well as some language lifted from a textbook for mathematical knot theory.

While watching and reading multiple interviews of yours I began to notice your extensive knowledge of the human language coming through in the way you spoke. I began instantly to admire and respect you more as a writer as I realized more and more how you appeared to love the language you expressed yourself in. Is an expanded vocabulary important to you both in your writing and in everyday conversation? Do you have any habits or tricks on better learning English to an advanced level?

Oh, I am a pirate. No language belongs to me but I take the silver knives of several tongues and melt them down for my own purposes! I take an experimental approach to language because it is very easy to become entangled in fixed and constrictive definitions otherwise. Ionesco wrote his first play, La Cantatrice Chauve (usually translated as “The Bald Soprano”) after listening to ESL tapes to help him learn English. He was struck by the strange assumptions not only of the programmers but of the language relations themselves. I have always taken the approach that I don’t know English. It is haunted by its earlier forms and by speakers who speak it with various rhythms. So it fascinates me. But I suggest going after what fascinates you about language and working from a sense of wonderment and distrust. Never romanticize language. The English language has killed many and continues to.

You mentioned a collaboration surrounding a new project with Lesley Belleau among other endeavours such as a book-length long poem and a sci-fi novel in an interview that I came across while reading up on your future plans. I’m interested in hearing more about the nature and format of this project with Lesley Belleau. Can you give me a general idea of this project’s purpose and layout? When can we expect to see it released and available to the public?

Lesley and I have just begun working, after a hiatus, so it’s hard to say anything yet. We will be presenting our first excerpt from the work in St. Catherines in November 2014 at the Avant Canada conference organized by Dr. Gregory Betts (Brock University). My second solo collection, Myrmurs is forthcoming from BookThug in 2015. It’s already finished— a second in my Canadian medivalisms trilogy, it combines the study of ants with the exploded sestina— and I’m working on a third solo collection now that will complete that trilogy but its name keeps shifting so I can’t tell you what it will be.

I’m also collaborating with Finnish poet Vappu Kannas on a bilingual (Finnish/English) collection called One Night Stand. And Tanis MacDonald and I have been working on a series of uncivil and incorrigible elegies.

Shannon Maguire‘s first collection, fur(l) parachute (BookThug) was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. She has also been a finalist for the bpNichol Chapbook Award for Fruit Machine (Ferno House). Her second collection, Myrmurs, is forthcoming from BookThug in 2015.

Erin May Elizabeth Hanley’s body, also known as “May May”, “Moose”, and “Rin” throughout different periods of her life, was born on the beaches of Eastern Toronto, though her heart was born and raised in the upper-East side of New York. She was carefully created and given traits through create-a-sim, played on the Macbook of some higher power. Often living in the comfort of her memories, she struggles to realize the beauty of the present. On a strict diet of raisin toast, sweet pickles, and Mcdonald’s chicken nuggets, Rin hopes to flourish and grow into a daisy in a warm, breezy field. Currently residing in Procrastination-Nation with no sign of relocation in sight (she’ll think about it sooner or later…maybe), she continues to frolic with her friends Kit, and almost-Christian.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page