Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The Artistic Struggle: An Interview with Karen Connelly

Excerpts taken from Kaleidoscope Volume 2.2 (2001)

Dawn: In an earlier interview you said that the creative process is about risk. One wrote from a perspective of newness, as if the experience he or she is having has never happened to anybody else before. The freshness of that experience is compromised through the controlled act of writing. I was thinking about Wordsworth, and how for many poets, writing is not a spontaneous overflowing of feelings as he famously wrote, but a time-intensive, precise and controlled act. How do you keep that freshness of experience alive? Is it difficult for you to write with technical precision, yet not make the technical aspects of the poem more present than the lived emotion?

Karen: This is the mystery and I don’t know “how” I do it. I’ve been working on a novel now for five years. Some of it has been rewritten probably more than fifty times, yet in some cases it is fresher than the original, more real, more lived in. I don’t know how I keep the freshness of experience alive. Sometimes things feel over-written, and must be tossed and rewritten from another perspective, a closer place. Perhaps some writing is not spontaneous at all, bit has to be achieved, has to be won over slowly. Certainly that is the case with this novel. For me, though, poems tend to write themselves, following their own rules. Poems are dictated by the powers-that-be; prose is a battle.

DK: How do you go about editing your work?

KC: Slowly, laboriously. I edit everything line by line as I write, so even if it is a huge novel, like my current project, the editing stretches the writing out almost indefinitely.

DK: Do you rely on the opinion of editors or other writers? Is the critique of your work by others essential for your growth as a writer?

KC: Well, I think at the earlier stages, yes, it is utterly crucial. But as a writer matures, I think the mechanism of self-criticism becomes more refined, stronger. Though another objective eye, if it’s a clear one, is always helpful.

DK: As a writing instructor, what are the problems you encounter most with the work of aspiring writers?

KC: In prose, a tendency to tell, rather than taking the time to draw out scenes and show, paint, really go deeply into the character and setting. In poetry, a tendency to be preachy or sentimental. In both, a lack of discipline, a slowness to change the habits which are obviously problematic. A lot of people have some talent but not enough inclination to really develop it. They are lazy.

DK: Is there one particular problem you continually wrestle with in your own work?

KC: Laziness. I laugh, writing that, but it’s true. I must be somewhat disciplined, because I’ve written quite a bit — most of it unpublished, but publishable, in various states of development. But I never do enough, and I always seem to find excuses to not do more. It’s quite awful really. It drives me mad.

DK: In your recent collection of poems, The Border Surrounds Us, your style has changed from a shifting, informal pattern to a more formal structure. There are exceptions to this statement, as in the poems “the border” and the first part of “The Border Surrounds Us”. The majority, however, are more traditional in appearance when compared to the indented margins and shortened lines found in your first collection. Why the change? Has this been a gradual shift?

KC: The change came through line length which came through writing harder, sharper descriptions and harder, sharper metaphors. Some of the poems are still very flowing and sensual. I think all my work is sensual, in a way, but many of them deal with very tough, sharp themes — refugees, war, violence of various kinds. The shorter line length reflects the shock of those themes. Also, there is more and more silence in my work, so more and more space on the page. The silence is the same as mourning I think…

DK: Although your poems tell stories of human suffering, there is also a determination to survive and fight for life. You write of endurance, of continued grace, of digging though the rubble to construct anew. Is there always hope?

KC: Given the state of the world right now and the US bombing of Afghanistan, I frankly do not member where I get that sense of hope. Surely it will come back, but right now I am overwhelmed by a sense of outrage, which has no useful outlet, though it certainly helps me imagine how angry Islamic fundamentalists must be right now.

DK: You discuss borders both real and metaphorical, which are constructed to bar the truth — that we are not so different after all. Did you come to this realization after your many travels? Are these lessons that you learned from first-hand experiences?

KC: Even if you are a very keen traveler, it is easy to shelter yourself. The border is also just a door that you shut, and air conditioner that you turn on, a shower that you take. It is, it has always been, it will always be, much easier to look away. To understand what is happening in the world means you will feel intense sorrow, sorrow that is really unmanageable, and most people, perhaps understandably, are not prepared to experience that.

DK: In North America it is not common to see the poet as a political force, but the truth is that poets are spokespersons for their community, whatever that may be. Do you feel a certain responsibility to give voice to those who are typically unheard? What do you see as your role as a writer?

KC: Such a question has to be answered the whole of a writer’s life, I think, because it is easy to get sidetracked and I think one’s role can change. We do change, after all. I think my role is to voice my own truth about what I see, what I know. I am witness to my own life, to the lives of others, to my time on this earth. I believe in the writer not only as one who interprets history but as one who challenges it. When people tell me their stories and ask me to tell those stories to the world — as in the case in my involvement with Burmese dissidents — then yes, I do feel it’s my responsibility to share those stories in my work. The alchemy of the kind of writing I do insists that at some level those stories become my stories too, become stories about many people, many times. North Americans are profoundly wealthy in a material sense, but poverty-stricken in a collective spiritual sense. I would like to become an interpreter of that too, eventually, which is one of the reasons I came back to live here: to understand better my own country.

Read the entire interview in Kaleidoscope: An International Journal of Poetry Volume 2.2 (2001) available for purchase at www.palimpsestpress.ca.