Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

OF BLURBS, BUGS AND FLOATING BODIES

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Elana Wolff Interviews Julie Roorda

Elana Wolff:

Your first collection of poetry, Eleventh Toe, came out in 2001 with applause from two of Canada’s eminent men of letters. On the back cover of your book, Bruce Meyer calls your work “a remarkable achievement” and Austin Clarke puts you “in the vanguard of the overall Renaissance in Canadian poetry.” Does it help, or has it helped to be cheered in blurbs? Do you see yourself as a vanguard writer? And do you agree with Austin Clarke that Canadian poetry is undergoing a revival?

Julie Roorda:

Bruce Meyer and Austin Clarke were much too kind with their comments. It’s thrilling to have the support and encouragement of such accomplished writers, and I’m grateful to them for that. I’m not sure blurbs make a difference to readers. My feeling is that readers tend to take blurbs with a grain of salt, knowing it’s not uncommon for teachers and mentors to assist their students in this way. I don’t consider myself a vanguard writer. I might aspire to be, but I certainly can’t claim that label based on my accomplishments to date. Nor do I see a Renaissance taking place in Canadian poetry at this time, except perhaps in terms of the quantity of poetry being published.

EW:

Blurbs and excerpts of reviews are part of back cover culture, part of marketing. Aside from gratifying authors, I guess the assumption is that they do make a difference—they make a book more valuable in a way, more important, more appealing. Do you pay attention to blurbs? Have you ever judged a book by its back cover?

JR:

Unless a blurb says something specific about the content of a book that intrigues me, something other than simple praise, I pay little attention. I can’t think of any books I’ve been persuaded to read based on a blurb.

EW:

I find a spiritually-informed, mordant wit at work in your poems — and a lot of body parts. Perhaps the crafted fusion of the very physical and the highly conscious in your poetry is part of what Austin Clarke had in mind in placing you at the vanguard of young Canadian poets. The title poem of your first book is named for your “identical twin” — the “extra toe on [your] left foot.” This is pretty bizarre imagery, yet the poem comes across as completely sincere, and believable. You have a piece about your grandmother’s “legendary bunions,” a lot of skin and hair, a wishbone “lodged near [your] larynx,” a “footless woman.” You draw on body parts for your similes too—your mother pricks holes in eggs “like a brain surgeon removing a plug / of bone from a skull,” “nothing separates like flesh,” “skin turns tight, / like a wet Kleenex over blue veins.” In your second collection, Courage Underground, you go deeper into the body and get more graphic and personal too—there’s “blood from a knee-cap almost black,” “stitched skin,” “wonky eyes,” organ trade, an elegy for an organ,” and a section titled “Enter the Bones.” The final section is called “Out of Body.” Is the physical a stand-in for the metaphysical in your poetry? Is flesh the instrument of intuition?

JR:

I’m fascinated by the question of how it is that consciousness is contained in a body. Not to mention “why” — a question I’ve pursued more in soon-to-be published poems. In Eleventh Toe I think my use of body parts was mostly symbolic. Courage Underground is a more intentional exploration of the tension between physical and metaphysical. It is a struggle that yields not only discomfort and frustration with the limitations of flesh, but also the possibility that flesh is, in fact, an instrument of intuition, a means of consciousness.

EW:

Is consciousness merely, or principally, a cognitive state for you? Ruth Roach Pierson wrote a strong review of Courage Underground for the Winter 2009 issue of The Fiddlehead. She observes a “surrealist-metaphysical bent” in your poetry — locating the surrealism in your “imagination experiments” and the metaphysical in your “intellectual compression.” Ruth’s review is insightful, and laudatory overall, yet closes on a note of detraction. She writes that like your seventeenth-century metaphysical predecessors, your engagement of the intellect detracts from “that complete surrender that most of us find necessary for the appreciation of emotion.” Is this a fair assessment? Do you regard yourself as more of a head-poet than a heart-poet?

JR:

I use the term consciousness to mean something much greater than cognition. It might be defined as awareness — awareness that is not just receptivity and reaction, but also initiative and action. Awareness that is both immanent and transcendent — to the body, mind, and senses. Some might use the term spirituality, but I hate to use that word — its meaning has become so muzzy. I don’t regard myself as a head-poet, but do think Ruth’s assessment is fair. I’m most interested not in one category or the other, but in the places they co-exist. I’ve been more successful to date in expressing the intellectual components, less so in other aspects, including the emotional. So my response to Ruth’s assessment is, “Yes, I’m working on that.” It’s an exciting challenge — a challenge especially to language — as is already evident in my trying to define consciousness. Interestingly, I would identify surrender as one of the predominant themes of my upcoming third collection.

EW:

I appreciate your definition of consciousness, and understand your dislike of the term spiritual, which has become about as appealing as the term new age. I notice you don't use the word religious, yet clearly religious/spiritual terminology plays a focal role in your poetry. Would you say that you’re a person of faith in godliness and man—even as your "scepticism spills," even as you write "altruism is a failure of imagination"?

I agree with Ruth to a certain extent — you do engage your reader through humour and intellect. There are some fabulously imaginative, strange, and funny passages in your poems. But there’s pathos too. The poem "Joy" in Courage Underground, for example, has an exquisitely unshielded ending: "It will return to me the eyes / of a prodigal child / everything will be bigger / than I remember." And the opening lines of "Fine Dining" are just as revealing: "How it heats the back of my throat / to hear you say that I am beautiful." So it seems to me that you’re already working on expressing emotion.

JR:

Religion and spirituality — both troublesome terms, but I’ll go ahead and use them here — are a primary concern and fascination of my life and work, and have been so since I was a child. This arises not out of “faith in godliness and man,” but of what seems to me the obvious inadequacy of a strictly materialist interpretation of being. But I want to be careful not to suggest a dichotomy of material/spiritual, body/soul, profane/sacred, etc. Experience belies this dichotomy; this is what I want to explore, and to find a new language for. Your words “faith and godliness in man” suggest to me that you are not just asking about religious terms and imagery, but about morality, about goodness and evil. I do tend toward scepticism and irony in my approach, but these are probably symptoms of an intense desire to take some kind of moral grasp of the universe — something that eludes me, obviously, and I’m sure always will. But I keep trying, keep writing....

EW:

What’s with the insects — they’re everywhere. June bugs, ladybugs, carrier ants, mantises, gnats, an earwig, cicada, worms. Your title, Courage Underground, comes from a line in your worm poem, “Spineless” — which is a poem about morality, and childhood. Can you talk about the bugs? and why you went to this poem for your title.

JR:

My interest in the question of what it means to exist within a body is not limited to human bodies, hence these interrogations of the consciousness of bugs. Courage Underground also includes forays into the experience of several birds, and some other small creatures. With bugs and worms, I also wanted to investigate the occult, overlooked, sometimes detested, and frequently feared qualities of their existence. It’s a vulnerable existence. In writing these poems, I sought to reclaim value, beauty, and ultimately strength of such vulnerability, hence the title. It comes from the line “vulnerability / is courage underground.” It seemed appropriate, not just for the bug poems, but to the underworld/ afterlife/ nightmares and basements theme of the whole collection, and in particular to the symbolism of the heart—broken, ripped out, or transplanted — in its derivation from the French coeur.

EW:

Yes. As much as the themes of underworld/ afterlife/ nightmare and basement, there is the theme of loss threaded through Courage Underground — poeticized through symbolism of the heart. In all four sections — corresponding to the four chambers of the heart, perhaps? — the heart is the metaphor for love and loss. In the first section, you have “Elegy for a Vital Organ,” in which the heart is “pulled beating from my chest.” In the second, you have “Broken-Hearted Looks on Love” and three swan poems — swans being birds of love and fidelity — and the heart appears in the third of these. In the third section, in “Caesura,” a “recently widowed” woman feels “so low” she severs “her left / hand with her late husband’s table saw” — the left, the heart-side. In the final section, in “Valentines,” you have the qualities of “Valour. Romance. Lust” wryly migrating from the liver to an “undeserving... heart.” And in the closing poem, liver and heart again make a play: “Weeping, [Mom] asked me to check / whether Jesus was in my heart. I nodded, / though I’m pretty sure he’s in my liver.” Would you say that you bring to poetry that which cannot or would not be voiced in ordinary speech, or prose? Do you bring thought and experience to poems in order to lend them heightened import? Does poetry have that capacity?

JR:

If you mean to ask whether I’m willing to tackle subjects in poetry that I would not express in speech or prose, I would say no — although admittedly these subjects are unlikely to come up in casual conversation. If you are asking whether poetry has the capacity to convey what cannot be conveyed in other forms, again I would say no—not because I don’t believe poetry has that capacity — it certainly does — but because I would not set any limits on the capacity of prose or other forms. I write and experiment in many forms—poetry, fiction, non-fiction, scripts. While I may be more successful in one than in another, I don’t make distinctions in their potential. I write in order to understand my own thoughts and experience and emotions. Let me add, to avoid sounding so solipsistic here, that reading poetry by other people is even more necessary to understanding experience than writing my own. The two are very much intertwined.

EW:

I was hoping you would respond to my comments on love and loss—also to my query about the four sections of your collection corresponding to the four chambers of the heart...

JR:

The correspondence between the four sections and the four chambers of the heart had not occurred to me. Throughout the collection loss is symbolized by different parts and aspects of the body, of which the heart is one. In some cases, it is to express the mysterious and painful grace of continuing to live when you’ve lost someone or something that seemed vital. The question of what it means to be conscious in a body contains the question of what it means to be conscious of others, and of love. If awareness of a loved one exists in your consciousness, does it also exist in the body? If so, what happens when that person dies or leaves? Can consciousness of the severed loved one continue, as with a phantom limb?

EW:

If these are rhetorical questions, I suppose your answer to all three would be yes— consciousness does exist in the body, as well as beyond it. And when a person dies, or leaves, there is a lingering presence — in consciousness and memory, as well as in the world, in things. So yes, consciousness does continue, as with a phantom limb — because we are not just material beings — we are beings of soul and spirit and memory and consciousness. I hope I’m not putting words in your mouth...

JR:

It may seem that my answer is yes, but I mean to remain speculative. It’s the nature of consciousness that you can’t really know anything outside of your own consciousness. You may think you can, but you can never actually know that you can. Reality is subjective.

EW:

Before we veer right off into a discussion of epistemology, I’ll turn to reading habits:

Do you read a lot of poetry? More than prose or non-fiction? Who has influenced you most?

And do you have any favourite collections?

JR:

Non-fiction comprises the largest part of my reading, but it’s followed closely by poetry and fiction. I don’t lay claim to any specific influences. If I’m struggling with a certain aspect of a poem, I’ll turn to poets who are masters of that particular quality to see how they do it, but I don’t try to model my poetry after any one or group of influences. It’s impossible to name a few favourite collections; I have many favourites, depending on what aspect of poetry I’m seeking, and I’m always making new discoveries.

EW:

Who are your most recent discoveries? And can you give an example of a master whose work you turned to in time of struggle. What kind of struggle would make you seek out the ‘guidance’ of a mentor/master?

JR:

Some recent discoveries include the legendary Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz — not new to the world, certainly, but I hadn’t read his work till recently. Another is the French poet Pierre Martory — a volume of his work, translated by John Ashbery, was published recently. As for struggle, I use this word to refer to writing in general. There’s no part of it that comes easily. So I turn to the masters all the time to see how they’ve done things. As an example, while I was working on the long poem, “The Altruist” from Courage Underground, which incorporates two voices — that of a liver donor and that of a psychiatrist—I went back to John Berryman’s Dream Songs, which also comprises two voices.

EW:

I find it interesting that your two examples of recent discoveries are works in translation, and your two examples of masters are American poets. Can you elaborate on this...

JR:

It’s just a coincidence really, on both counts. There are many American poets that I admire. And if I limited myself to reading poetry written in English, I’d be missing out on a great deal. It’s energizing to encounter the different traditions and attitudes towards poetry often evident in work not written in English. It expands my understanding of what poetry can be.

EW:

In addition to two books of poems with Guernica Editions, and a collection of short stories, Naked in the Sanctuary, you’ve published a young adult novel, Wings of a Bee. Your third collection of poetry, Floating Bodies, is launching with Guernica next month, and I’ve heard something about a script in the pipes too... What is it that draws you to various genres? Is there a form in which your voice is most at home?

JR:

I’m no more at home in one genre than another. Various genres offer different modes of investigating whatever it is I’m trying to understand. Prose is a more linear, progressive approach to figuring something out, a kind of worming my way into a topic. Poetry is more violent, a kind of smashing together of images and ideas, in my head and on the page, to elicit insight. Approaching a topic in character, in the character of a young child, for example, can also generate surprising results. Some ideas may be better suited to one form or another, but usually I find that the different genres shed light on each other. For example, sometimes if I get stuck on something in the course of a novel, I’ll write a poem about it to figure it out, then return to the novel to render what I learned in prose. I could never limit myself to one genre; I would get frustrated and bored.

EW:

I find it intriguing that you use poetry as a problem-solving device for your novel-writing. What happens to the ‘troubleshooting’ poems after they’ve done their work? Do they stand on their own, or are they part of the process that falls away? It’s curious, too, that you regard poetry as more of a violent mode than prose—certainly poetry does have the capacity to compact and compress. Yet earlier you identified surrender as one of the predominant themes in your third collection. This poses an interesting juxtaposition—between violent mode and a theme of ceding. Can you speak about your third book of poetry....

JR:

The so-called "troubleshooting" poems are no different from any of my other poems. There’s an element of troubleshooting in everything I write, and poetry and prose are complementary processes, so those poems quite naturally become part of whatever larger project I’m working on. As to your second question, I don’t see the "violent" mode of poetry and the theme of surrender as oppositional. The theme of surrender came up in an earlier question about finding more emotional modes of expression. Surrender to emotion, surrender to passion can be very violent experiences — in the particular sense that we are using that word here — to refer to experiences. So it seems to me that a violent mode is well-suited to the theme of surrender. My third collection, Floating Bodies, is about this surrender to experience — to passion, love, heartbreak, loss and failure — explored in images of surrender that are often quite violent: falling from the sky, crashing into glass, surrendering to water, or to flames, or to scalpel.

EW:

Awesome. I’m looking forward to it. See you at the launch!

_____________________________________________________________________________

Julie Roorda is the author of two volumes of poetry Eleventh Toe and Courage Underground as well as a collection of short stories called Naked in the Sanctuary all published by Guernica Editions. Her third collection of poems Floating Bodies is forthcoming from Guernica in July 2010. Her novel for young adults Wings of a Bee was published by Sumach Press in 2007.

Elana Wolff has published three volumes of poetry with Guernica: Birdheart, Mask, and You Speak to Me in Trees, which was awarded the 2008 F. G. Bressani Prize for Poetry. She is also the co-author, with the late Malca Litovitz, of Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness (Duologue and Rengas), and author of Implicate Me: Short Essays on Reading Contemporary Poems, forthcoming with Guernica in July.

2 comments

It was fascinating to me, as someone who admires Julie Roorda’s writing, to be given a fuller glimpse of the consciousness that informs it – like being given a sense of the soil and climate in a meadow from which has come a particularly intricate and interesting species of plants.

Very interesting interview -- I am impressed by the quality of the questions and the thoughtfulness of the answers -- am particularly struck by the idea of poetry being a more "violent mode than prose" -- "a kind of smashing together of images and ideas...to elicit insight." I've never thought of poetry this way. I also find it fascinating that Julie Roorda sometimes writes poetry as a "troubleshooting" device for figuring her way out of a "stuck" place in the course of writing a novel.

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