Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

"It just made sense to me..." Shannon Bramer

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"It just made sense to me..." Shannon Bramer

By rob mclennan

Ottawa writer, editor and publisher rob mclennan is now working on the second series of his 12 or 20 questions and here is his recent interview with Shannon Bramer.

Shannon Bramer was born in Hamilton and lives in Toronto. She is the author of three poetry collections, scarf, suitcases and other poems and most recently, The Refrigerator Memory.

RM:

1- How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

SB:

When my first book (suitcases and other poems) was published I felt a mix of gratitude, shock and unaccustomed joy. It changed my life insofar as I felt like I had suddenly been given permission to be a poet. I am an oddly obedient soul. I needed to be told that what I wanted (to spend a lot of time writing) was okay. My most recent book (The Refrigerator Memory) came out in 2005, with Coach House Books. I was a new mother and the book felt like a miracle. Although my concerns and passions (love, death, small things, relationships, refrigerators) haven’t changed all that much, I hope the writing itself is a little more refined, a little more adventurous.

RM:

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

SB:

I came to poems through prayers. Although my parents were mostly indifferent to religion, my grandparents were (mostly) devout. I was raised on a mix of Catholic masses and Protestant Sunday School. I loved hymns and singing. I had a special picture-book of prayers that I read before bed. That book was filled with idyllic images of children (in gardens, playing by the seashore, tucked in bed with their cats). I still have that book and it almost pains me to look at it. Those “illuminated” prayers were my first poems. From a young age I tried to copy/imitate other poets. I thought I had a right to claim poems I’d read and loved as my own. When I came across Irving Layton’s poem, “Song for Naomi”, in grade six, I copied it out in my notebook (changing the title to “Song for Shannon”) and read it aloud to my mother, telling her that I had written it. I ached to own that poem. I loved fiction too, but I had more intimate connection with poetry.

RM:

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

SB:

I’m slow. I think about things for a long time before I start putting anything down. First drafts do arrive close to their final shape, but I tend to exhaustively tinker and then keep or discard whole pieces/sections if they don’t come together properly. I like to sit on things for a long time, and then return to them. I like to feel detached near the end of the process; I like to feel like the poem or story is separate from me in a way that only happens with time.

RM:

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

SB:

A poem most often begins with a line, word or title in my head that pursues me. I don’t often get an idea for a book until I have several poems or stories in progress.

RM:

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

SB:

I enjoy readings: the warm pubic space, the wine, the curiosity—the unpredictable nature of the audience. Unfortunately, I’m not so good at the chit-chat and mingling that happens before and after. I’m terribly awkward when it comes to small-talk.

RM:

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

SB:

I’ve never explored theory directly. For better or worse my impulse is lyric. I’m always listening to the way people speak, and I love songs. I’m interested in language as a form of touching, of making necessary, often secret, contact with other beings. I’m always thinking about the solitary human, and that same being partnered with others, or moving silently through a crowd. The questions always depend on who’s asking. I usually start by questioning myself; I question lovers first and strangers next.

RM:

7 - What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

SB:

I’ve always seen the writer as someone invested in language beyond its utility; I believe that language creates dimension, space—and that it is fundamentally beautiful. I want to teach my daughters to cultivate space for themselves in writing and reading. That is my priority right now; it’s difficult to separate my feelings of responsibility as a parent with my responsibility as a writer. I want my daughters to write well. I want them to explore the complexity of language and imagination without apprehension. I want them to have the comfort and thrill of books in their life. I want to continue to share books with them as they grow older. So, I guess my current role as a writer is to promote the act of reading!

RM:

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s essential. I wait a very long time before showing anyone my work, so I really value fresh eyes. It’s especially important that your editor “get” you on the page above all else—your sense of humour, for example. You have to trust the person editing your work, think of them as a companion—someone who’s got your back, who won’t let you make a fool of yourself on the page.

RM:

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

SB:

My Nana (Bramer) told me to travel. I still love that word. Her word.

RM:

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

SB:

Sometimes I’m in the mood to work on poetry, other times I like the open, expansiveness of prose. Lately I’ve been thinking “in plays” and trying to write them. I think the appeal is in the choice itself. Most musicians are curious about multiple instruments, and even if they can only play one really well it always feels good to experiment. I think most people learn and grow when they endeavor outside their comfort zone.

RM:

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

SB:

I start every day nursing my baby girl, Lydia. I’m not a morning person at all, but since having children my entire routine has changed. I’ve recently discovered the only way for me do get any writing done, with regularity, is to wait until the entire household is asleep. I rarely get time to myself during the day, but when I do I often take my book or my computer out of the house and work at a café. It’s hard for me to get things done when the house is messy, and my house is always messy.

RM:

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

SB:

I’m not sure I turn to anything for inspiration. When things aren’t going well with my writing or if I just feel too tired or too stupid to write I seek comfort. I write letters and emails to a close friend of mine who lives in Victoria, B.C. I turn to books I love. I walk. I stay up late and watch TV. I drink too much wine. I feel sorry for myself. I complain to Dave (my hubby, also a writer) who tells me to just get back to work. He’s the most disciplined person I know.

RM:

13 - What fairy tale character do you resonate with most?

SB:

I think it’s the mermaid in the original fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson—the silent one who rescues the prince. Once she joins the prince on land, she relinquishes her capacity to speak. She is unable to communicate in the conventional, expected manner and the prince is filled with pity for her. Unfortunately, he decides to take her as his sister, not his wife. I think it’s a heartbreaking story. I think that how we love and understand each other is so complex—that humans are constantly losing themselves in the quest for a certain type of reciprocal love that is often unattainable.

RM:

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

SB:

I think most poets are influenced, to varying degrees, by all of the above. Visual art, music, nature, science—all involves an appreciation and dedication to composition. Poetry revels in shape, in form. When I hear a song, I hear its shape—its parts and how they join together. Visual art has been especially important to me. I like to study images. I take a lot of photographs of my children and things they build and make. Photography has become a surrogate for writing during the day because I love to catalogue and document. Dance and theatre are two other art forms that inspire me greatly—I love the translation of thought into movement, the way some artists embody what they are doing in their entire physical being—that magical merging of sound and image, up off the page and onto the stage.

RM:

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

SB:

I read heartily and haphazardly. I’m often attracted to authors that are doing work that is distinctly different from my own. I’m dazzled by Angela Rawlings, Lisa Robertson, Jay MillAr, Sina Queryas—the range and depth and exuberance of what they make both on an off the page. Recently, I’ve been blown away by the plays of Hannah Moscovitz and Adam Seelig. I love Dani Couture’s poetry and photography. For fun and escape I turn to cookbooks and field guides (trees, flowers, birds!). I’m reading a lot about Emily Dickinson right now because I’m planning on teaching her work to elementary students at some point in the future. Before bed it’s often Iris Murdoch, Haruki Murakami, Lydia Davis, Miranda July, David Derry. Recently I read Low Moon (a graphic novel), by Jason, and FELL IN LOVE. Hard!

RM:

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

SB:

To play piano—to read music! My eldest daughter is learning right now; she’s only five but it’s amazing to watch her learn to play, listen, and absorb such a wonderfully complex yet highly intuitive language into her being.

RM:

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

SB:

I’d love to make documentary films. I have million ideas for films I’d like to make. If I could sing and play music I’d love to do that. More practically speaking, I think I’d make a good massage therapist; I’d like to help old people take care better care of their feet. If I hadn’t pursued writing it’s quite likely I may have gone to teacher’s college—it’s still something I’m considering doing. I’m especially interested in ESL students and students with special needs.

RM:

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

SB:

Writing was what I wanted to do. It just made sense to me, and I was lucky enough to have friends, family and teachers who supported me.

RM:

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

SB:

Book: Low Moon by Jason. Film: The Triplets of Belleville, a fantastic animated feature from Quebec.

RM:

20 - What are you currently working on?

SB:

I’m working on plays. I’ve got three in the works. One of them (MONARITA) is being produced in St. John’s, Newfoundland in February (2010).