Field Work: An interview with Jenna Butler
Jenna Butler was born in Norwich, England in 1980, but has spent most of her life on the prairies of Western Canada. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including the James Patrick Folinsbee Prize, and has been produced by the CBC. Her poetry has appeared a number of books, anthologies and periodicals. Butler is the author of three short collections of poetry, Forcing Bloom, weather, and Winter Ballast, in addition to a new trade collection from NeWest Press, Aphelion.
Butler’s work will also be featured in the upcoming WONK7 and in person as she reads with fellow poet Glen Sorestad in Wetaskiwin on October 7. In anticipation of this occasion, WONK’s Jonathan Meakin talked to Jenna about poetry, publishing and the challenges of doing both in rural Alberta.
WONK: Writer, editor, publisher, scholar, instructor – clearly, there is much that keeps you busy. Do you see these roles as complementary and/or interrelated?
JB: Most definitely interrelated. I’m very fortunate to be able to teach within my discipline, creative writing; I’ve taught English for several years at high school and university levels, but there’s something about teaching creative writing specifically that allows me to bring the enthusiasm I feel, as a writer experimenting in her craft, to the classroom. I’m finding the teaching and practice of creative writing mutually enriching.
I’ll also happily admit to being what they call a professional student. I find I am most excited about teaching when I am concurrently learning something new. I’m very close to completing my PhD, and after I’ve given myself a bit of downtime following the defense, I’ve got some further courses picked out that I want to run with! (Nothing to do with literature; I want to spend some time learning about herbal medicine.) But I don’t think I could function quite right as a teacher if I wasn’t simultaneously being pushed as a student. I’m in that same actively engaged mindset (and I’m also more aware of the time stresses that students experience).
As an editor, I feel very privileged to have worked with a huge range of poets from around the world. That’s exposed me to a vast pool of very diverse writing, and just as that impacts the scope of the little poetry press I run, it’s certainly impacted me as a writer. It’s an honor to read such a variety of manuscripts. Yes, some aren’t quite as polished as they need to be, but there are a lot of gems out there, too. That’s reaffirming as both a writer and an editor. I love to encounter new work, as a poet, that absorbs and challenges me. If I have the chance to act as editor for such a collection, well, that’s the icing on the cake, and I get to have fantastic, in-depth discussions with poets whose work I really admire.
WONK: With three chapbooks (Forcing Bloom, weather, and Winter Ballast) already to your credit, your first trade collection, Aphelion, was published by NeWest this year. How have you enjoyed these different modes of publishing? Have the expectations – yours? the publishers? the literary community? – been different?
JB: I really love the chapbook format — the “taster” nature of it, the immediacy. You get to leave your readers (all going well!) wanting more. It’s a perfect format for learning how to refine a series, to polish and cut until the bones are where they need to be and there’s no unnecessary excess. There’s no room for poems that aren’t quite working with the rest of the series. In many ways, the chapbook experience was invaluable in the creation of the manuscript for NeWest; I was a great deal more aware of how tight I needed to make the collection and how I wanted to structure it. And the first book experience was amazing. That’s thanks in no small part to the folk at NeWest, who have been fabulous from day one. I’ve been really happy just to learn what I can as I go along, about both the publication and promotion processes, and to take up experiences and opportunities as they’re offered. For instance, I was absolutely honored to launch Aphelion with Robert Kroetsch, as he celebrated the launch of his latest collection Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait. I was also invited to read with the wonderful Bert Almon, and now there’s the WONK reading/launch with Glen Sorestad, another poet I have long read and admired. There have been these gifts all the way through the first book process. It’s been about staying open to experiences and being grateful for the support of the literary community around me.
WONK: You are also the founding editor of Rubicon Press. Do you view your work as a chapbook publisher as an expression of your artistic practice or something else entirely? (And feel free to trouble that easy recourse to an either/or binary.)
JB: Glad you said it, because I’m going to land squarely in the middle of the binary here. Part of what I founded Rubicon Press to do was to work with the poets I publish to create the books the poets had in mind when they wrote their respective manuscripts. We all do that — we all imagine how we’d like things laid out, images that have influenced our manuscripts, colours, textures, etc. I work with poets to make these ideas a reality. That can mean discussing the nitty-gritties of paper texture, colour, weight, font, ink type, etc. It can also mean working one-on-one with a photographer or artist who has donated images for the chapbook. So it’s not really all my own artistic practice. Sure, I bring my own ideas to the table, but it’s not about me. I want to engage in a dialogue with the poets I work with, the back-and-forth of creating something meaningful together. There’s a great dynamic in that.
WONK: Although your family emigrated from England when you were a child, you have remained active in literary, academic, and publishing communities on both sides of the Atlantic. What fuels your efforts to maintain and deepen your connection to both Canada and England?
JB: Many things. As a small-press editor, there’s so much good poetry out there. There are a number of writers in Europe doing fabulous things, and I want to immerse myself in their work. Kathleen Jamie. Matthew Hollis. Denise Riley. So many more. I want to read additional work like theirs and eventually get into publishing more of it, if I can.
My time at the University of East Anglia, during the year my husband and I lived in Norwich while I was completing my MA, introduced me to a very supportive and innovative academic community. I didn’t want to lose touch with that UK community when I moved back home to Edmonton, and so I’ve striven to maintain contact in terms of taking part in both conferences and readings overseas. I’ll be back in England again in the spring.
I’ll always choose to live in Canada, though. I love the literary scene in Alberta; in Edmonton especially — it’s deeply supportive and encourages writers from a number of different genres and groups to get together and form community.
Finally, my husband and I run a small organic farm here in Alberta during the summers, and much of my writing comes down to a deep connection to the landscapes that ground me. I might live away from the people and places that are home to me for short periods of time, but I’ll never choose to move permanently.
WONK: Aphelion offers two groups of poems under the headings ‘Europe’ and ‘North America’. Would you like to comment on these groupings as a structural or thematic principle?
JB: Each section was written in the opposite place: I wrote the ‘North America’ section while living in Norwich and the ‘Europe’ section once I’d returned to Canada. I found the old saying true: it’s much easier to see clearly at a remove. Trying to write about a place while living in it didn’t work for me, but writing about it in absentia was very generative.
The poems in ‘North America’ are different from the ‘Europe’ section in both structure and content, though all the poems in the book, in some way, connect to the theme of finding/building home. The poems in ‘North America’ abstain from a recognizable rhyme scheme and flirt with breath and form — in particular, the anti-ghazal, à la Phyllis Webb. There’s a great receptivity in Canada to poetry that plays with form and sound, and the ‘North America’ section of the book reflects this openness.
In contrast, the ‘Europe’ section contains more internal rhyme, a gesture back to the centuries of literary tradition that ground poetry there. This section makes reference to Greek myth and legend and connects to the varied landscapes of Europe that I feel I am just beginning to know.
WONK: There are many resonant images and ideas throughout Aphelion. The close of “Salt Spring Island”, a poem dedicated to the memory of Lilo Berliner and Wilson Duff, still haunts me with its evocation of a paradoxical form of sight:
i begin to see you
less clearly more truly
Does this perspective inform your recovery of the lives of women featured in your new sequence, “Lepidopterists”?
JB: Absolutely. So much of my writing is focused on the little-known story, the tale forgotten or buried. In “Salt Spring Island,” I am referring both to the way in which we oversimplify our perceptions of others, and the far too simple view of suicide as an unvoicing (Lilo Berliner killed herself by walking into the sea, but challenged this concept of suicide as silence by leaving her correspondence between her and her friend, a previous suicide, on Phyllis Webb’s doorstep). Thus, the oversimplified view as untrue, as too easy.
In “Lepidopterists,” I look at a number of women in Western Canada whose stories are either relatively little known by the general public or completely buried in time. During the writing process, the more I read and listened to the stories of these women, the more I realized that there were layers upon layers there in the telling. There were women whose traditional ways of life were being destroyed, whose entire sense of identity was being rewritten by an incoming patriarchal settler culture. There were immigrant women who were expected to create “home” for their husbands and families, but who struggled bitterly with what “home” meant when all property was in the man’s name and it was often the man who was acknowledged as having a deeper and more visible connection to the land he was working. So many paths, so many stories, overwriting each other, layering each other out.
WONK: I have the impression that considerable research in areas as diverse as botany, ecology, geology, entomology, etc. informs your work. Is this research a conscious activity? Or is it simply a matter of voracious reading and a hunger to understand and represent the physical, cultural, and political landscapes to which you are drawn coming together as an unconscious activity?
JB: It’s a bit of both. I read a lot, and widely, across a number of genres and subjects. I’ve loved being outdoors since I was a child, and between years of backcountry hiking, camping, gardening, and now the farm, I’ve devoured many hundreds of texts on diverse elements of the outdoors. My grandfather made his living as a gardener and a great deal of his interest in the outdoors rubbed off on me: the studies of botany and ecology are second nature. I’d been perking on the idea of writing something like the “Lepidopterists” series for years, ever since reading Nabokov’s Butterflies and beginning to understand how Nabokov perceived himself as a lepidopterist first and a writer second; as attached to the natural world first, and as a recorder of that connection second. So many of the stories in that book are tied to his own childhood in Russia — I began to imagine how that connection to lepidoptery and the sense of “opening a landscape” through the capture of specimens for study might be different on the Canadian prairies; might apply to women. And so there was research involved there to connect the different species of butterfly from the various prairie zones to the corresponding prairie women who lived approximately during the same era as each butterfly’s discovery. In that case, research came before writing — it had to, to correctly inform the poems.
WONK: Would you like to comment on your writing process? Do you begin with quickly written rough hewn drafts? Or do you do other, more exploratory forms of writing as a way of finding your way in/through/around ideas or images you may be mulling over?
JB: My writing process is erratic. I can’t claim to be one of those disciplined few who sit down to write X number of minutes per day. Having written for years, I find that daily practice isn’t my rhythm, and I don’t produce work I want to keep that way. I spend a lot of time filling up on the things that drive me: being outdoors, working with my hands, listening to music, reading. And then, when I feel that I’m full up and can’t function without sitting down to write, I write. I have to. I make the time.
I always jump right into drafts, and — cardinal sin! — I only write on the computer. I save right over top of old drafts and keep on going. It drives writer friends crazy. But I am fascinated by the concept of writing the “I” out of my work, of creating poems that can stand on their own as literature without needing “me” in there to tell my singular story. If I use “I,” it tends to morph, to become less a definite identity and more an amalgamation of stories I’ve been told, people I’ve met, etc. And so I write using a keyboard, not a pen and paper — I don’t even want to see my own handwriting when I’m drafting poetry.
Photography is, for me, a form of pre-writing, as is playing music. I noodle my way through ideas and images on the piano quite frequently before sitting down to write. I have synaesthesia, and so sound, colour, and shape are strongly connected to my writing.
WONK: Any reader of your work will likely note your references to Denise Riley. Would you like to discuss your influences and who you are reading now?
JB: Yes, Denise is a good friend and mentor. Until her recent retirement, she was also my PhD supervisor. I deeply respect her work, its layered, imagistic richness and the way in which it accretes, building upon previous works of literature. She is most definitely an influence.
I’m reading now — and always, in cycles — Phyllis Webb, especially the anti-ghazals in Water and Light. Di Brandt — Now You Care and So this is the world and here I am in it. Douglas Barbour, especially the breath ghazals in Breath Takes. Newlove, continually. And the work of my peers! I think there is a tendency to get caught up in experienced writers and to forget or be wary of the writers of one’s own generation. I’m reading Angela Carr and Angela Rawlings — brave, beautiful stuff, gorgeous breath work. Also Gregory Betts’ The Others Raisd in Me. I so respect what he’s done; the sense of play, the sheer scope of the (as he calls it) plunderverse.
And outside poetry! Always, for the balance. A reread of Brian Brett’s Trauma Farm, for the wry humour in it and the love of the land that resonates with me in my own feeling of walking our farm. C. J. Cherryh’s Regenesis; I adore tightly-written sci-fi. And, as of yesterday, Harvest, a new series of short plays by Ken Cameron. Brilliant stuff, and not just the way he’s captured farm life. But that’s darn good, too.
WONK: On October 7, 2010, you will be reading with Glen Sorestad in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. Is it fair to say that poetry as a practice along with poets & poetry readers as communities are more often than not located in and focused on larger urban centres? Organizations such as the League of Canadian Poets and the Writers’ Guild of Alberta, for example, have certainly facilitated live readings throughout Alberta, but those have been infrequent. What more can be done to bring poetry readings to rural Alberta? And what, in your view, are the benefits of poetry readings/performance in general?
JB: I think you’re right: generally, poetry events, communities, and readers are most often located in larger urban centres. I think this is a result of accessibility: most of the well-known poets on tour come to the larger cities, and the cities themselves often have greater budgets for hosting literary events.
There is funding available through the various granting, agencies, however, for hosting visiting poets in a wide variety of communities, and I think this is a great opportunity for rural communities or smaller centres to bring in guest writers.
I think the issue is mostly a question of forging connections within Alberta’s writing community. I know of friends, all poets, who have recently read in small towns across the province — just by virtue of knowing people in those particular communities and accepting invitations to come out and read. So connection is really key.
A great number of writers meet and connect through the League of Canadian Poets listserv; it might be neat to see if, at some point, a local listserv of Alberta writers could be created, which would allow for a more focused sense of community connection within the literary scene in this province. A number of writers use the Internet as a tool in their daily practice; it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to use something like a local listserv to discuss current writing issues and practice, inform writers of events or readings across the province, and act as a communication centre where writers can contact other writers to invite them to come into town for readings.
The benefits of poetry readings and performances in general are many and varied. I’m a big believer in poetry readings being an extension of poetic practice: it’s one thing to write the work and hope that people read it in book form and connect with it, but it’s another thing entirely to bring your own work, through a reading, off the page and to life for a roomful of people. We get so close to our own work that we lose the ability to see whether it’s effective or not. A reading in front of a roomful of people will provide that instant feedback; as a writer, you can sense if the audience is with you, is walking along with your words, or not.
And again, readings are a way for diverse communities to access and really forge connections with a writer. You can do a lot through technology to create connections, but being there in person to read, to mingle, to respond to questions? That’s key.
WONK: Thank you, Jenna.
– Interview by Jonathan Meakin