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.

Saturday, March 20, 2004


Plagued by nightmares again. Sharks and wolves predominantly. My night terrors use to be confined to oceanic predators, but now they have branched out to soft pawed creatures. I have on occasion dreamt of swimming with sharks and it felt very free and peaceful, but as of late it is all teeth and slashing. The wolves are a new fixation. I think because they hunt in packs, it gives a gathering of gruesome images for my damaged id to obsess on.

One dream that has gone against this trend:

I am in a gloomy, deteriorating structure. I cannot see anything around me, and am using my hands to search for doorknobs or a window to the outside. I touch the walls, soft and warm like they are alive. I fall through several floors, and each time I do I am plunged into a new environment, like each room is its own little ecosystem. In one I remember being surprised by my sudden emersion in water. At first I struggle, and then realize I can breathe under the water. My pleasure is brief. Soon there are tentacles all around me, dragging me deeper, and squeezing so tightly that I can no longer breathe. Suddenly in another room and I am standing waist deep in water. The feeling of smooth wet bodies rubbing against me, so many fins and tails. It is still dark, and I cannot tell what the long muscular forms are. At first, I think dolphins. But then I realize the quiet, no clicking noises, just the thrusting cold bodies and splashing water. I feel something warm in the water, pain on my ankle… I realize a shark has bitten me. I burst through another floor and it seems I am in another world altogether. A jungle of vines. Slanted yellow eyes gleaming through the dark. The sound of howler monkeys, and buzzing, flying creatures near my face. I climb a rolling staircase, push open a door to the attic. Bats everywhere, and in the distance a slit of light coming from a window. I can feel leathery wings brushing against every part of my body. They swarm the window, almost carrying me with them. A tunnel and then I am falling.

After reading my description, I am surprised by the sexual imagery. It is strange that something that feels clearly un-sexual can be so informed by sexuality. Houses are traditionally viewed as metaphors for the body or soul. In this case, the soft walls are like the interior chambers of a woman’s body, perhaps a uterus lined with blood. I’m not sure what the tentacled beast represents, but it wanted to drag me further down into the primordial depths. Then there are the long muscular bodies of sharks, which are most decidedly phallic. As I travel to the upper parts of the house, I move from primitive aquatic life to forest canopy and then to the attic, where I obviously need to do some housecleaning. The bats swarm a “slit of light,” and I am pushed out a tunnel and fall, like I am being born. I managed to remember most of the details of this dream, yet I still have no clue what, if anything, it means. There is some element of the safe becoming dangerous. I momentarily felt pleasure at being able to breath in the water, and then the beast wrapped its tentacles around me so I could no longer breathe. The smooth bodies I thought were dolphins either morphed into sharks or were sharks all along, and I did not realize their threat until bitten. The shedding of blood generally symbolizes initiation into womanhood. Strange, I still have no idea where all this fear may be coming from.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004


I recently had my cards read. The woman, who for much of the time remained behind a beaded curtain and chain smoked, told me that my husband and I would separate within the year and that I had a family curse that was passed down through the female bloodlines. She told me that she could lift the curse if I came back and she performed a cleansing ritual. I found myself strangely affected by this, although rationally I told myself she was a charlatan. It was silly of me to go in the first place, but curiosity led me there after someone I know did a reading for free and mentioned something about a female specific plight that ran in my family. Very Brontesque I thought!

I never went back for my ritual cleansing, and about six months later my husband showed me an article in the newspaper stating that her business was shut down and she was convicted for stealing money from several of her clients.

Original line breaks in this poem will not fit - 3 lines to each stanza.

Tarot cards

I stare at the cards: pointed arrows piercing flesh,
a woman hung upside down in a noose, knot drawn tight.
There is talk of a family curse passed down from my mother.

Like a hooded figure in a Bronte novel, I have inherited
a tragic fate, must walk a dark wooded terrain.
I cannot explain why I believe. My rational mind

alleging it is a modern day parlour trick, a perceptional
slight of hand. In weakness, I cry.
She offers me light, tells me I can be saved.

Stars do battle over my soul, but the curse can be lifted
if I return every Tuesday, pay her fifty dollars more.
Her face obscured by a beaded curtain,

the shining crystal balls dangling from the ceiling’s sky,
like so many planets.
Still dressed in a robe, although two in the afternoon,
she asks if I mind that she smokes. I do, but do not say.

Jesus presides over the reading, his arms outstretched.
She pats the head of her ceramic god like a good luck charm,
reaches for me from behind cascading beads, takes my empty

hand, asks me to pray.
This modern-day gypsy asks me to trust her, to cut cards
and imagine a future she has spun. Painted nails click

as our planet orbits the universe, indifferent
to Pisces’ constellations.
A tiny star among other points, too vast to comprehend.
We bend our necks in prayer,

invent worlds and stories to sustain us.
She and I are the same, a poet and a storyteller, believing
in trickery, the ability to beguile. The difference is motive.

There are those who seek profit, and those who ask
to alter perceptions, to look at a beaded curtain,
see the universe suspended on a shimmering string of light.

Friday, March 5, 2004

The Exit Show — Book Review and Author Interview

Anne F. Walker’s The Exit Show was the first trade poetry collection published by Palimpsest Press and I was pleased to see that it was reviewed on www.danforthreview.com. The review, written by Sarah Bonet, is excerpted below. Sarah Bonet is a poet, and award-winning playwright and screenwriter. The entire review can be read at http://www.danforthreview.com/reviews/poetry/walker.htm.

The Exit Show
Reviewed by Sarah Bonet

Sex, in this book, becomes a vehicle for comprehension. Anne F. Walker’s fourth collection of poetry, The Exit Show, draws on multiple sexual and romantic partners as a way to explore and articulate complex social and poetic forms. Walker’s collection flows easily through a variety of formal and not-so-formal constructions (prose poems, emails, individual lyrics, and lyric suites), tied together by a powerful rhythmic sensibility reminiscent of a jazz drummer.

These varied sensibilities, in which form both echoes and transforms content, illustrate a method of poetic sexual comprehension. The multiplicity of forms evokes a world of shifting connections; they move within and around each other like bodies at a party- touching for a brief transformative moment, discovering a personal, private language, and then breaking away and sending out new tendrils in search of another connection.

Walker is an established Canadian author whose previous books (Into the Peculiar Dark, Pregnant Poems, and Six Months Rent) have examined illness, poverty, pregnancy, and birth, all with a strong presence that expresses the breath of the body in a manner that transcends the pages. As she turns her eye to experimenting with sexual norms (much of the poetry is set in the San Francisco Bay Area... need we say more) she continues to present a tangibly embodied sense of language that is truly breathtaking. This collection won several awards in manuscript form, and clearly pushes Walker’s work past previous thematic and aesthetic boundaries.

Walker’s use of rhythm is also worthy of note. Often, with younger poets, there is a struggle to find a cadence both individual and rhythmically fresh, and this effort to break into a kind of improvisational flow strains the poem. Walker’s cadence, on the other hand, is elegant and sure. She is not trying to do—she simply does. Her linguistic drum solos both serve the poem and elevate it.


The Danforth Review also interviewed Anne. Please see below for a selection. To read the entire interview go to http://www.danforthreview.com/features/interviews/walker.htm.

Q: Your latest book is THE EXIT SHOW. The back cover says this is a book "about coming to terms with plurality." Maybe you could explain your project here a little?

Anne: Many levels of pluralities are important within The Exit Show. Both the poetic aesthetic and content thematics explore variation. Rather than link myself with one particular school of poetics I utilize fusion. I see value in a tremendous range of forms and explorations. Some of these I practice in The Exit Show. Sometimes I mix and match, and sometimes let the forms stand cohesively within a particular piece. On the large scale this is to do with the varied styles within the collection as a whole: lyric, prose poetry, short stories, email form, and an integrated linguistic montage piece. On the closer-reading scale, tones switch sometimes within individual pieces.

In The Exit Show I played switch with narrative voices, sometimes narrating my own stories, sometimes others’, all using a mix of third person and first person, playing with directive and tense structures, and filtered through imagination. I stay away from autobiography, or its antithesis, as universal rules. A closer-reading scale example of this is in "Retail Slut," where I had the she-character speak in present tense, and the third person narrator speak predominantly from inside the he-character’s perception, and placed that awareness in past tense. A schism then exists between the time each character works within, even when they are in immediate dialogue. The story was based on a real story, but I switched the characters’ genders.
Social and physical landscapes integrate as both are, in human terms, aspects of consciousness. We understand both via our apparatus for comprehension. That which we see may be more descriptive of our tools for interpretation than anything else. This is what I mean by both being tropes of consciousness. When I can link place with motion, and with sound and overlaps, I feel joyous in my craft. I move that way in "start sequence 8. selling a car":

a glide of space above a boxy red jeep cherokee beneath
a white heron slides through air above freeway next to
(you were a bird. you were) next to the estuary

those constant small motions, of the series of docks
in which your boat is tethered, begin to suggest
how delicately (to me briefly, you were the ocean

I worked to develop a way to describe how the delicacy of motion between water and vehicle describe a personal attachment, and doing so with a rhythm that mimics the small waves, with imagery of repetition, and an endless end. The lyric works with elision of time and space, of narratives that overlap simultaneously via parenthetical interjection. I am very interested in temporal dislocation. When consciousness leaps away and returns I wonder how it connects to pluralities in the flow of time.