Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: angela rawlings

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The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: angela rawlings

This spring, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer's Craft class conducted interviews with Canadian poets as part of a class project. The interviews have been posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book throughout June. We finish the series with Malvern Collegiate student Shannon Wood speaking with poet and arts educator angela rawlings (Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, Coach House Books, 2006).

Shannon Wood:

When I read through your book Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists for the first time, I was in awe. The design was fascinating, the language was enthralling, the rhythm was incredible, and I had absolutely no idea what a lepidopterist was. Now, I know how to spell it from memory! Exploring your work, including the visual and aural poetry site Gibber, was very entertaining and influential. As an aspiring writer, I’m very thankful for all the work you’ve put into this project and the time you’ve spent answering my questions. Thank you very much angela, and I’m excited to read your responses!

angela rawlings:

Thanks for engaging, Shannon. To quote the Prize Budget for Boys, “Let’s play art!”

SW:

In an interview with Christine Leclerc, you said you were pursuing a Master’s in Environmental Ethics and Natural Resource Management in Iceland. You were also recording aural poetry during this time, much of which is considered tranquil and peaceful. In another recent interview with Jeff Latosik, you said that you are very interested in volcanology. While peace and slumber (like in Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists) are everyday occurrences, volcanoes and eruptions are definitely not. What aspects of your life are volcanic? Has your study of volcanoes changed the way you look at some of your poetry?

ar:

Shannon, when I read your question asking me what parts of my life are volcanic, my impulse was to ask you the question in return.

The key to your question, for me, is the use of ‘your.’ I imagine anyone might use the volcano comparison to exemplify sudden, unanticipated moments (especially those terrifying, life-altering, impossible to ignore) — but the specificity, the intimacy of asking for my examples renders your question psychotherapeutic in tone.

What aspects of my life are volcanic?

Trauma déjà vu: wild Atlantic tide, nearly dragging me to drown… needle plugged into portacath… crossing Kattarhryggur… car crash. Unexpected trauma-within-trauma, trauma-nostalgia, the trauma within dreams. In three dreams, I died. Tornado. Plane crash. Glacier. I sometimes return there.

Shannon, what aspects of your life are volcanic?

In Iceland, some glaciers cover volcanoes.

My ongoing interest in volcanology has shifted more my engagement with land, with body. Engagement with land and body is always, inevitably, engagement with language, since it is largely through language that we sense the sense of body and land. In this indirect way, yes, volcanology shifts my poetics.

SW:

Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists is unlike anything I’ve ever read. There is hardly a linear style. Sleep has different stages. For the most part, these stages are linear. However, your work within this linear pattern went in circles, with lines mentioned in previous stages brought up again and twisted. Words are read both backwards and forwards. I even found myself turning the book around in an attempt to read words that were upside down. Why did you choose to have veering, twisting words rather than a straightforward traditional style? Was there any inspiration from other poets?

ar:

I listened to Björk’s songs “The Modern Things” and “Headphones” repeatedly while writing Wide slumber. I had this playlist of two songs — imagining some connective tissue between the atmosphere of the book and the songs.

Repetition.

Cycles.

And I thought of Gertrude Stein’s assertion that there is no true thing as repetition, since every renewed utterance of something renders it new in our interpretation. If you say, “again and twisted… again and twisted… again and twisted… again and twisted… again and twisted…,” the first time I comprehend your meaning. The second utterance, I imagine you’ve ‘repeated’ for emphasis — to make sure I truly heard and understood you. The third time — maybe I become confused as to why you’ve said this again. The fourth, fifth, sixth — eventually, I ‘get’ that you’re repeating (and I am no longer comprehending “again and twisted,” but instead I am identifying your pattern and wondering at that). Seventh, eighth, ninth — I might get annoyed (yeah, yeah, I get you’re repeating already, stop please). Tenth, eleventh — I smile at my annoyance. Twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth — I listen again and the words lose their meaning. Sixteenth to twentieth — lost meaning emphasizes the rhythm, the sonority of the phrase.

Steve Reich’s remarkable sampled recording “Come out to Show Them” demonstrates this well (I encourage you to listen). The whole point here is that we have a different reaction to each repeated utterance of the same thing— and our different reactions prove it is not possible for true repetition to exist.

This reflects, in small part, on non-linearity. I encourage you to listen, also, to part five of Jordan Scott’s interview, as his explanation of narrative resonates with my own. This certainly informs why I opt for non-traditional approaches.

About Wide slumber and influence: yes. Material in the book was heavily influenced by my peers, my friends-who-write. The acknowledgements page lists by first name many whose conversation and text impacted me and informed Wide slumber’s progression, while the epigraphs page provides quotes from works and folks who impacted the development of the book.

One of the greatest influences on my writing is the work of bpNichol, a Canadian poet of prominence in the 20th century. On June 6th, Coach House Books will launch a new compendium of bp’s poetry. For the launch, I’ve arranged a Twitter-based performance where more than twenty-five writers globally will tweet lines from bp’s work. This gesture is homage, is thank-you. All are welcome to join us on Twitter or at the launch.

SW:

In your book, you used many made-up words. On pages 68-71, I found in that in the midst of these words and jumbling letters, real words were ‘hidden’. For example, “nn lttt lntdt tlnt dnl ndlnt icteritia limenitis, reducta.” Are the made-up words meant to highlight these real words or is each made up word as significant as another? As the designs of the pages look very similar to the wings of moths, are the words meant to be more of a visual or verbal accent?

ar:

I’d turn these questions back to you as the reader, Shannon.

A reader’s interaction and intention with a text may be of greater interest than a writer’s intention. What does it mean to you if you experience a text that uses neologisms or jumbled letters to highlight real words? Do you perceive a hierarchy of linguistic forms (with nonsense secondary to meaning carriers)? How do the power dynamics shift if you perceive equality in the weight between all forms?

Isn’t a writer also a reader (of her own text)?

Since our primary interactions with written text are based on vision, how cognizant am I of the visual impact of each page, each recto-verso spread, each inter-relating section, and the book in its entirety? How does a poem’s content express itself in its visual structure or form? How is a designed page also potentially a script for performance? By these questions, I suppose I mean that for me (as a reader of Wide slumber), it’s important that the design of each text has a visual raison d’être. The verbal aspect is always present, of course (as most of us hear text in our heads when we read it) — and/but in the case of Wide slumber, the visual aspect of the page may translate as a performance script or score.

So to answer your questions, yes: both/and.

SW:

While reading your book, I found that the clear images and words present in the beginning of the book started to become blurred and eventually faded into one. Like the title suggests, it felt like the book was heading into a deep slumber, and the words of the moth and the capturer blending into one entity. How would you describe this bond they share? I also noticed on pages 42 and 43, you switched from writing about moths and capturers and began writing about words and the writers of words. “Collect, kill and mount specimen. Collect, sort and frame text.” Are the moths in this book metaphors for the words in your poems? What aspects of words are difficult to pin down?

ar:

I love the way you describe your reading experience here, Shannon! It interests me, too, that you’ve likened the act of writing (or pinning down words) to the violent yet clinical actions performed by entomologists.

The bond shared between lepidopterists and lepidoptera is one of interdependence and potential communication, of patterns (cycles), and even of lexica. We also share ecosystems. Where does the (subconscious) acknowledgement and awareness of our interconnection exist if not in the muffled restructure and restoration that occurs nightly as we sleep?

What aspects of words are difficult to pin down? It’s a fantastic question, Shannon; let’s consider this together. How would you and your fellow interviewers answer this question?

Laura (Jason Christie‘s interviewer) writes: “Words are difficult to pin down when you attempt to explain things. It just seems that the most concise and proper way to explain something to someone always manages to escape you, and then you start to get flustered and the words escape more! Explaining things is hard, unless you know the thing you’re explaining like the back of your hand. Even this is getting too long and I’m rambling, due to the inability to find the right words I want to use!”

Penelope (also Jason Christie‘s interviewer) writes: “Words can be extremely difficult to pin down when attempting to describe something… unreal. When something — an object, a place, an experience — is so far out of your realm of understanding that finding an accurate word or expression becomes close to impossible. Sputtering and stammering, and generally making a fool of yourself with wide arm gestures, words can be impossible to pin down.”

Nigel (Steve Venright‘s interviewer) writes: “Words can be hard to pin down when attempting to provide accurate descriptions, when nothing you say seems to do it any justice. They can also be hard to pin down when trying to explain something, all the while in a downward spiral getting closer to the perfect explanation.”

Sabine (Dani Couture’s interviewer) writes: “Many words are difficult to pin down or define. Words that often require a description that are simple such as up or down. Definitions of words such as these usually vary and no one can define just one definition for words like up or down. Feelings are also very hard to pin down. Like love or anger. Even as i try and brainstorm such words, these are simply the ones that initially come to my mind that I myself find difficult to define. Usually the words most difficult to pin down aren’t ones that i can think off the top of my head but ones that i don’t know until asked about them.”

Shannon responds: “How do you explain thought? How do you explain emotion? Emotions and thoughts are fleeting. They arrive violently and fade abruptly. How do you describe the euphoric moment when you come home from abroad to see the smiling faces of family and friends? How do you describe the shock you feel when you stare at the TV wondering how one man could have done that to all those innocent people? How do you pin down thought and emotion in a way that could get someone else to understand? How do you spill your feelings on a page in a way that truly conveys what you are trying to say? How do you make your heart an open book? Is there really a word to describe this? Is there a word to describe what I’m writing now?”

I sense in our collective responses that what is difficult to pin down with words (and with language) is also what we might label volcanic (to bring the interview full-circle back to its start) — that sudden, unanticipated moment that leaves us in a state of aphasia. How do we articulate emotional impulses?

I would add that our adaptations of languages over many generations and centuries also attribute to their elusive natures. Definitions are in slow, constant flux; Sabine noted that definitions to commonly used words can even prove tricky to articulate at times. Neologisms are invented. Spelling has fluidity. Pronunciation shifts with dialects and accents. We struggle with standardized grammar. Even learning foreign languages can leave us temporarily unlocateable,unpinnable. Our struggles with all of these lend to eventual linguistic transformation, an action altogether difficult to pin down in a short-term sense.

There is a new field of research called ecolinguistics that holds space for investigating the relationship between ecosystems/environment and language formation/usage. Ecolinguistics, for me, may hold answers to the elusive qualities of language in relation to non-human entities — what could also be typified as difficult to pin down.

SW:

During my research, I watched a video of you reading Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists aloud at the Nýhil poetry festival. Listening to you reading it was much different from reading myself. You manipulated the sounds on the page to create a very different image from what I had initially visualised. In many of your interviews, you discussed your work with sound and visual poetry. After listening to a few of your sound poems, I noticed patterns and sounds that I was absolutely sure I had read in your book. What is the connection between sound and written poetry? Are the sounds of the moths (for example, a hoosh a ha) in the book a kind of sound poetry?

ar:

When you read text on a page, do you hear it voiced within your head? How does text transform when embodied? How many different ways can we translate page-based text into an aural environment, and how can interpretation shift through such acts?

“A hoosh a ha” could be a kind of sound poetry. I tend to define ‘sound poetry’ as a subgenre of poetry whose emphasis is on the sonic materiality of a language — either where recognizable, known language is manipulated in a way to emphasize sound instead of semantics, or where nonsense mimics linguistic structure (such as syntax). With “a hoosh a ha,” this nonsense phrase could be interpreted as mimicking a communicable structure (and so then might satisfy the definition of sound poetry I’ve offered here).

SW:

The Sound and Visual Poetry Project was a huge part of your stay as Queensland’s Poet in Residence in 2012. Gibber is the result of your work in Australia recording aural poetry and visual poetry. What do you like about using digital media to present your poetry? In the future, would you find yourself more likely writing another book of poetry, or continuing your usage of digital media as a platform? If you are continuing with digital media, what kind of technology would you like to see improved in the creation of both your sound poems and visual poems?

ar:

Beautiful and timely questions, Shannon; thank you.

Each project I undertake tends to identify its desired format as it progresses. As you might have noticed, I identify projects as sentient entities, where I follow their leads rather than dictate their forms. This helps me stay on my toes — in a place of active learning as I seek to understand the material with which I work, rather than solely writing from a self-assured authoritative position.

We are gifted to be at a moment teeming with new technologies (such as Recording and Insta-Publishing) and with access to traditional technologies (such as The Book). The projects I’ve undertaken tend to explore multiple technologies in their development and dissemination. This gives me the chance to write the project, but also to learn (about) supporting technologies. In order for me to write a hypertext project, I desire to have some experience with HTML. If I am collaborating with a programmer, it helps me to have some cursory understanding of website architecture, coding, and design so we can converse with greater ease. Audio recording necessitated I become familiar with sound-editing programs (GarageBand, SoundForge), audio equipment (hand-held recorders), and acoustic ecology. I fell into photography as a medium for documenting performances and poems, which prompted me to learn digital cameras and image-editing software (Adobe Photoshop, iPhoto). When developing books, I’ve benefited from learning the basics of typesetting software (Quark Xpress, Adobe InDesign) and bookbinding.

The future may offer further fusion of technologies with a transdisciplinary approach to creation (transdisciplinary meaning that projects span more than one knowledge set or medium). I recently started a new project called RUSL (the Icelandic word for ‘trash’), which combines site-specific performance (where I photograph trash as I find it within Icelandic environments) with subsequent photoshopping of the identifier ‘rusl.’ The RUSL sequence may become a digital poem or a video. It may be published as a book or exhibited in a gallery setting. Individual RUSL texts/pieces/photos (? what should I call them? not yet sure) may be printed in journals.

So to answer your question — future projects likely hold a synthesis of print and digital technologies, combined with performance.

And to answer your question — I dream of eco-sensitive (low impact, locally sourced, recyclable, sustainable), user-intuitive, open-access, and waterproof technologies to come.


a rawlings (a.k.a. angela rawlings, a.rawlings, angel:a raw larynx) is a poet, arts educator, and interdisciplinarian who has presented and/or published work in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, and the United States. Her first book, Wide slumber for lepidopterists (Coach House Books, 2006) received the Alcuin Award for Design. rawlings received a Chalmers Arts Fellowship in 2009 and 2010, enabling her to research Icelandic, improvisation, nordicity, and volcanology for the development and presentation of new work in Belgium, Canada, and Iceland. Most recently, she was selected the 2012 Queensland Poet-in-Residence; during her tenure, she spent three months in Australia developing Gibber, an interdisciplinary project that combines poetry, acoustic ecology, and counter-mapping. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Environmental Ethics and Natural Resource Management at the University of Iceland.


Shannon Wood was raised by ninja tigers in the remote jungles of southern China. Even though they tried to teach her their ways, she is about as coordinated as a rollerblading giraffe. She comes from a long line of writers and readers, and plans on continuing the tradition. She is interested in cosmetics, voice acting, poetry, Marvel comics, youtube, clothes, philosophy, video games and anime conventions. When she is not saving the world from evil space pirates led by her arch-nemesis Liam, you could find her in her backyard writing on her laptop or attempting to play basketball. She plans on attending the University of Ottawa in the fall where she hopes to find some sort of direction to head in. If not then she plans on living in New Zealand with a flock of blue penguins and albatrosses.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page