Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
Paola Ferrante’s poetry and fiction have appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Puritan, CV2, Canthius, Joyland, and elsewhere. She won Room’s 2018 prize for Fiction, and was shortlisted for PRISM International’s 2018 Grouse Grind. She has a chapbook, The True Confessions of Buffalo Bill, with Anstruther Press, and is the current Poetry Editor at Minola Review. What To Wear When Surviving A Lion Attack is her debut poetry collection. She resides in Toronto, Canada.
I can be found on twitter at https://twitter.com/PaolaOFerrante
What to Wear When Surviving a Lion Attack is available at http://mansfieldpress.net/2019/06/what-to-wear-when-surviving-a-lion-attack/
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
If I’m honest, I started trying to write poetry in university because I had to, for a course. I didn’t understand what I was doing, and I wrote a lot of really terrible poems. But I also had a really great teacher, Priscilla Uppal, who sadly passed away recently. What I remember is her encouraging us to write poems about the thing we thought we couldn’t write a poem about. Years later, I was introduced to the idea of the unsympathetic voice in poetry by Robin Richardson, who I am also lucky to count as a fantastic teacher and mentor. And I thought, I want to be able to tell the hard truths in poetry, to talk about the things that really matter, to cut to the bone with words. That was when I really started to write poetry.
2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
I haven’t really been aware of a dominating presence of more established poets, especially among my contemporaries. In my experience, many more established poets have been incredibly supportive in offering opportunities, mentorship and guidance, so I guess I’ve been very lucky in that sense.
3. What is your daily writing routine?
When I can, I write in the mornings. Saturdays are my best writing day because, if left to my own devices, I would like nothing more than to start working before I am fully awake. When I can do this, I can trick myself into not thinking about how good or bad the piece is going to be and actually get down to the writing. Usually though, my writing day starts at 5 or 6, after I’m home from my day job. Before starting to write, I let out my two ferrets, and between them wanting both my attention and in general just to nip at my toes, I provide myself with enough distraction to take the pressure off. When I’m writing poetry, I start with a word, a phrase, sometimes a sentence that’s not yet fully formed. I will read non-fiction that is somehow related to whatever I think my poem is going to become, and I collect fragments as I’m reading in my notebook. Words or phrases I think will make it into the poem as is I put a star beside or outline in a square. Most of the time this is so I remember to read them, because my handwriting is only slightly better than a child just learning to print and even I find deciphering it painful. I think if I ever became famous enough that students would want to study my notebooks they would need a background in cryptology. Most of the time, I can finish the bulk of a poem, minus edits in, two to three days.
Prose takes longer, and is more painful. I’m currently working on a collection of short stories, and spend an inordinate amount of time doing background research into things like possum biology, and sex robots. I will also take half an hour to rewrite a sentence if I don’t like the way it sounds (habits from poetry die hard sometimes). I rarely write fiction from beginning to end, although I need to nail down the first page before I’m convinced I’ll even finish the story. One thing I currently like to do is surround myself with short stories and collections with which I feel my work is in conversation (currently that’s Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Zolitude by Paige Cooper, and the short story “Orange World” by Karen Russell). For me, it makes the process of developing a piece a lot less lonely.
4. What motivates you to write?
I remember reading Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women when I first started seriously trying to write poetry, and being impressed by her ability to use the language of science to express a deep understanding of the politics of social injustice and violence against women. To me, poetry is like integral calculus; it wants us to understand the deeper truths about the issues in our world through code-breaking, revealing the obvious in unexpected ways. That’s the reason I write poetry, to make other people look at their world through a different slant in order to see the patterns in the issues inherent within it. I think, to be honest, I don’t know how to live a life where I’m not writing. I tried it for a couple of years, and didn’t like the results very much.
5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
When I was a kid, my mother had a huge, illustrated edition of the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales that I probably read cover to cover at least a dozen times, knowing exactly what pages to skip so I didn’t have to look at the wicked queen as she turned into a terrifying dragon or an old witch. Most of the time, I think these stories seep into my work unconsciously, because much of it looks at how relationships always subvert fairy tale narratives in real life. When I was writing my first book of poetry, What to Wear When Surviving a Lion Attack, I deliberately revisited these stories, so there are poems about women having their feet cut off because their red shoes won’t stop dancing, and poems about women as nightingales being kept in cages, and one, very unsubtly titled poem, “Beauty and The Beast,” that looks at domestic abuse.
6. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
This is always a tricky one to answer because there are so many! For poetry, I love Anne Boyer for the way she uses science in her writing to talk about feminism. Garments Against Women was actually the book that inspired me to write my first collection. I also love Terrance Hayes for his direct “say what you mean” take on sonnets that tackle racism and Robin Richardson, who is also a mentor and friend, for her distinct ideas about the unsympathetic voice and honesty in poetry. Her poems hit you in the gut and I aspire to do the same. When it comes to fiction, I deeply admire Carmen Maria Machado for her ability to blend horror and lore and genre writing into some of the most masterfully crafted short stories I’ve ever read. She essentially inspired my next project, which is a collection of short fiction, much of it in the magic realist vein, with the working title Her Body Among The Animals. I also love Kristen Arnett and Catriona Wright for the way they blend the weird into something heart-rending and very darkly funny in their fiction.
7. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Aside from reading everything you can, and chaining yourself to your desk for a specified amount of hours a day until it becomes habit, I’d offer the best piece of advice I ever got, from my mentor and friend, Robin Richardson, which was simply “remove the ego.” I think that’s critical when it comes to writing—you need to be able, after the initial messiness is on paper, to stop thinking that you’re not good enough as a writer, and worry only about the work needs. If you’re doing it right, it means you start to want to hear someone else tell you what’s not working, and what you could do to make the work the strongest it can be.
8. Tell me about the writing projects you are involved in at the moment.
I’m two thirds of the way through writing a collection of thematically linked short fiction with the working title, Her Body Among Animals, which explores the boundaries placed on women’s bodies. The stories all use animal metaphors and are a blend of magic realism, science fiction and some horror. And of course, I’ve started working on the next poetry collection. I’m also currently the Poetry Editor at Minola Review (minolareview.com), which is an online journal that, going into its fourth year, publishes quarterly and represents the strongest, most courageous voices in women’s writing. Currently, I’ve just finished putting together the details for our inaugural poetry and fiction contests, which will be open as of July 14.