Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: Kate Cayley interviews Jessica Moore

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Jessica Moore

Jessica Moore is a writer, a translator and a musician. Her literary debut, Everything, now (Brick Books) is part lyric, part memoir and deals with the sudden, accidental death of Jessica's partner. The book has been called "a powerful journey through love and loss".

Today we feature a special interview with Jessica, conducted by fellow Brick Books author Kate Cayley, who has a book of poetry forthcoming from the venerable press in spring 2013.

A moving discussion of loss, art and life, Jessica and Kate share their experiences and impressions of the book.

Everything, now will be launched on October 11, 2012 in Toronto. Click here for event details.

Kate Cayley for Open Book:

To begin, I have to say that I was gobsmacked by the collection. I'd read early drafts, and had a strong response to the poems, but I think I was unprepared for the force of the finished thing. It made me think of stone carving made over years — something carefully considered, made in infinite patience, but once complete, so "fitting" that it's impossible to imagine that the stone ever took another form. Perhaps it makes me think of stone because it is so much an excavation — of love, of grief, of writing. Something long and difficult, that requires a kind of scrupulous attention, and also asks that of the reader. Reading it, I felt I was literally going underground. You don't make it easy, but you make it full. Here are some questions I had as I was reading it.

Everything, now looks at the death of your partner Galen in a bike accident, and what came before and after. Letters recur — letters to the dead, letters from the dead. The title itself comes from the line "Everything, now, becomes a letter to you," which is later reworked and beautifully redeemed in the line, "everything, now, is a letter from you." The book's great achievement is its specificity which is so distilled and so well-considered that it becomes general, including the reader. How, in your writing, did you think about the problem of the eventual reader? Did you find balancing the personal nature of the work with the fact that it would be read by strangers problematic? Is the book a letter to the reader as well? (okay, that's three questions, none of them very good, but never mind — if you can see one question in what I'm trying to get at, please condense.)

Jessica Moore:

I must have had a sense of the eventual reader, the stranger, as I wrote — and I even had the chance, partway through the process, to show the work to a larger audience when I presented my Master's thesis containing earlier versions of many of the pieces. Yet in each writing session — entering, as you say, that particular underground — it was not for anyone else. I was writing to someone who was lost, writing for him and for myself. So no, it was not really a letter to the reader during the process of composing it, though I'm very glad to think it could and has become that.

It was in the various editing processes as Everything, now took shape as a whole, through each new reader, that I woke and warmed to the thought of that eventual audience. I was quite dependent on outside readers to point out instances in the book where it was important to clarify for others (for example, giving a small touchstone of explanation for who each person is in the narrative), because I was so immersed in the letter part of it.

I suppose that through the particulars, as you say, my hope is to be touching something that approaches the universal. Grief is certainly a universal experience. And I've found there to be something affirming, even comforting, to read about it in someone else's words, through their specific experience — this is part of what compelled me in Turkana Boy. So thank you for saying that the specificity becomes general and is the book's strength — this is certainly my hope.


Shards and fragments also recur in the collection. These are fragments of memory and also the fragmentation of writing, or storytelling, itself, as contrasted with the undigested wholeness of experience, of life, and the terrible fact of death. You really grapple with the danger of imparting meaning through storytelling. Yet of course the existence of the book itself is part of the telling of stories. Can you elaborate on how you were able to come at the problem of narrative as you wrote the work, and what your difficulties were?


This is so well-said — that the fragmentation of course relates to the writing as well, and to all storytelling. Because my great fear in writing about this loss was that I would diminish it by doing so, fragmenting what was whole and absolute, making it small enough to fit on the page; or that I would leave something, or someone, out.

This sends me in several thought-directions — first is the way in which we become like two halves of an orange to each other (a dear friend once put it in those words), in which each person in a relationship carries half the memories, and we need each other to have a whole picture. This part was devastating as I thought about Galen, especially our time traveling together, when there were no other witnesses (that we knew) to what we experienced. Suddenly I carried the whole weight of those moments — and when I began to write, it was in a panic of wanting to get it down before it was all gone.

I also think about the way memory comes in segments or shards (that can, by the way, steal you whole out of the present) — yes, like stories then, having a boundary, a beginning and an end, a narrative. With memory we can never hold more than this, it seems — a series of narratives we've woven out of our experience. In a sense this book is an extended, polished version of a memory-story — and now I have a small fear that this is what will be remembered, because it's been given form and gone over and over — but there are of course a thousand other memories and moments that create the wholeness of my experience with Galen. It is dangerous. It is exactly like the framing of photographs when you choose a shot — there is a choice of what to include and what to leave out, there is always a certain artifice in angle and in the very act of including some things and not others. Galen was trying to get at this in his artist statement while we were together.

One more thing I will say here is that fragmentation was in fact the very thing that allowed me to approach the narrative at all. If it weren't for this as part of the process, I would never have been able to write the book. For two main reasons: one, that it was too difficult to sit writing these pieces for longer than 45 minutes at a time, and two, that through the structure I chose, which included employing passages from Turkana Boy as epigraphs or formal constraints for my own pieces, the nature of the work was to respond to fragments with fragments. It was only after my thesis was completed — containing both sides, translation and response — that I began to think of them as two distinct and whole works. I came to this whole through shards. And somewhere along the way, I released the idea that I could come close to containing, in any completeness, the depth and breadth of this experience, of Galen, and of his community.


There is a quote I love from Polish theatre-maker Jerzy Grotowski in which he says that theatre is fundamentally a service for the dead. I find this often much more true of poetry. I thought about this a lot reading your book, in the literal sense of a service. A litany, a chant, even a funeral mass or the homily that is delivered for the dead. When you were writing, did you consciously engage with some of these traditional forms? Or did the echoes occur unconsciously through your own process of writing? Or both?


What an intriguing quote — I have never thought of theatre in this way before. I wasn't consciously drawing upon any of these traditional forms while I was writing, but I was living some of them — for example, the Buddhist practice of observing the 49 days after a death as the person's journey through the bardo — which I only learned a little about after Galen's death, from Jacques, who became and remains my true friend. It is entirely conceivable that traditional forms, or something of them, would enter my work without me actively choosing them. Another friend, who read an earlier version of the manuscript, emphasized that the structure is “an epistle, a letter to the dead, a lament, a kaddish,” and though I wasn't consciously writing in any of these forms, except the letter to the dead, it's possible that I was engaging in them. There was certainly something about the collecting and the writing that did feel ceremonial at times.


Throughout the book, you are inspired by and in a call-and-response to the novel Turkana Boy, which you translated from French. Many of the poems open with a quotation from this novel, or weave around a phrase. Can you elaborate on your relationship to the novel and how your translation of it was a part of Everything, now?


I found Turkana Boy while I was searching both for ways through grief and for a book I loved enough to translate. I read the first few pages, and it was as though a chord was struck deep within when I came upon the following questions: “Were the mornings moored to sparrowhawks?” and “Was the soul, then, a sky tangled in every person?” (my translation). Questions are a central part of the beauty and strangeness of the book, for me. Both of these found their way into Everything, now.

There is a loss at the centre of Turkana Boy, and there is much contemplation, surreal imagery, and continued wonder — this was essential for me to find. Continued wonder about our relationship to life, and joy, even in the midst of sorrow. The words as well as the act of translating moved me to write in response. As I translated, I would write down passages that struck me (I just found the notecards on which I'd written pieces of Turkana Boy, in a far-back corner of my desk drawer). Then when I sat down to write, I could choose from a selection of quotations as departure points. Sometimes I used the passages as structural constraints, in the manner of the glosa form of poetry — using lines from the novel as the skeleton around which I built my poem in response. Threads of Turkana Boy can be found all the way through Everything, now, because I was working on them simultaneously. So the influence was tremendous, and both translating and responding were deeply creative acts for me.


This collection, like all collections, went through substantial rewrites and was read by a number of people, mentors, teachers, friends and fellow-writers, and of course editors. I wondered as I read it, what that process must have been like for a work that is so internal and so personal. How did you approach your own process of rewriting? How did you approach formal criticism? Did you find the editorial process at all problematic, given the nature of the book?


This book had a long journey of coming into being. The bulk of it was written over the course of about a year, and, as I stated, was deeply intertwined with my translation of Turkana Boy. That was in 2005-2006. Then there was a long period of rest before I was ready to consider shaping the pieces into an independent, whole collection. The resting time was critical — even more than with other works, in this case it allowed me time and space to come to a new place with grieving — and the work grew in integrity, I feel, for having had that distance. Also, as you mention, the careful readings and comments from friends, advisors, and colleagues (yourself included — thank you, Kate) helped me to see the collection as a whole.

It is true that each step of further sharing felt a little precarious with this work. I was careful who I showed it to. And at the same time, it was always important to me — essential — that the work be considered in and for itself. I have a very hard time with the word 'therapeutic' in relation to this work. That may have been a side effect, but the writing for me had to come first and foremost — the collection had to be considered for the writing, as work that was strong in itself, separate from the strength of sorrow in the subject. So formal criticism was welcome and very helpful through the editing process with Brick Books.


The soul, the open space, which you also call a sky, runs through the collection as a contrast to the fragmentation of story. You have some astonishing considerations of the soul, and go so far as to say that we need to give more space to this consideration. I loved this — I feel that so much poetry does not consider the soul, is only about writing itself. Just the fragments. Your work is both. Can you elaborate a little on how poetry must allow space to consider the soul? Is this connected to religious practice? To grief? How is it linked, for you personally, to the act of writing?


I love how you've put this. I suppose this — spacious, true-feeling poetry, that does allow for consideration of the soul, is the kind I'm most compelled by. This is where I go when I'm in a poetic frame of mind — to thoughts of the soul, and love, and being — what it is to be alive in the world.

I'm not entirely comfortable with the word 'religious,' I realize. I'm not religious, but I do consider myself spiritual, and somehow that word is an easier one to adopt. And yes — this slant in my poetry is certainly connected to my sense of spirit; and also to loss, particularly in the poem you refer to in the question. At the moment of writing that, I needed to consider a much wider space than I ever had before — one that still contained Galen's being. When I write, my thoughts are full of such things.


A much more general question to finish off. You are also a songwriter and a literary translator. How do both these other pursuits differ from writing poetry? How do they complement it?


One very important difference for me between translating and writing is that with translating, I am never faced with the blank page — I always have something to work from. Though I do find it, like writing, to be a creative act, I am never at a loss for what comes next! It is quite comforting to be able to work on a translation simultaneously with a writing project, and turn to translating when writing is not coming easily. It is wonderful in general to have other forms and pursuits to turn to (songwriting included) when any project needs a break or a new burst of inspiration.

Writing and songwriting are quite distinct in my mind as well — though I have found that both often begin with a rhythm, whether it's meter running through my mind, or whether I am literally in motion, as when I'm walking or taking the train somewhere. I do turn to my journals and poems to find lyrics to a song, often, but the shape they take in a song is quite different than in a poem — simpler, maybe, more direct, usually dictated by rhyme, and less wordy. That said, one of the songs on my new solo album (currently in the final stages of mixing) is called “Everything, now,” and takes some deep cues from the poems in the book.

Jessica Moore is a writer and translator. Her poems and translations have appeared in Arc, CV2, The Antigonish Review, Cenizo and The Literary Review. She also writes songs and plays the banjo in her band, Charms, whose self-titled album was released in 2010 in Toronto.

For more information about Everything, now please visit the Brick Books website.

Buy this book directly from Brick Books or from your local independent bookstore.

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