Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: Beth Follett of Pedlar Press Interviews Poet Maureen Scott Harris

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Beth Follett and Maureen Scott Harris

Maureen Scott Harris is the author of Slow Curve Out (Pedlar Press), as well as two previous collections of poetry.

Today, in a special interview feature, Beth Follett, Publisher and Editor of Pedlar Press, speaks with Maureen about her writing process, her fascination with birds, the example of Joseph Campbell and much more.

Slow Curve Out will be launched in Toronto on October 4, 2012, along with fellow Pedlar poet Jan Zwicky's The Book of Frog. Click here for event details.

Beth Follett for Open Book:

Pedlar Press will release a new collection of your poems, Slow Curve Out, on October 4 in Toronto. Your last collection, Drowning Lessons, won the 2005 Trillium Award for Poetry and was recently a contender for the Most Loved Trillium-Award-Winning Title. Are you suffering any nerves about the launch of this new work?

Maureen Scott Harris:

I’ve only just become aware of various anxieties about the new book. Because Slow Curve Out is quite a different book from Drowning Lessons (it’s less internal a book, its concerns reaching beyond the self) I find myself wondering if people will “get” this work. What if the poems don’t speak to anyone else? In the past year and a half I’ve had nothing but rejections (except for a couple of requests for work), and that fattens this particular worry.

Also, because I’m a slow writer and have been in many ways out of the scene for a few years I wonder if people will even be interested in the book or like it, and what if they don’t, will they dismiss it as unimportant, will it get any reviews? — the usual doubts and worries that many of us experience.

If I push myself to think clearly about my anxieties — which your question encourages me to do — I see that part of me has enormous faith in the poems and believes that they will make their own way into the world and part of me is deeply worried about their reception. I recognize this mix of feelings reflects my feelings about myself, so for the moment I’m identified with the poems. But I know better than that, too, and will (soon I hope) be able to detach myself from them.

What I’ve come to understand over the years is that one never knows where one’s work goes and how it affects people. I find this thought delightful — I imagine a copy of my book being pulled from a library shelf and carried home, glanced at or read and then returned, leaving some trace of itself in the reader’s mind. Of course I’ll hear about some moments in its life (a review if it gets one, or comments from my friends and fellow writers, from a stranger at a reading), but I can’t track its travels. What happens to it in the end isn’t up to me. And it’s good to be free of it, able to move beyond it.

That’s not to say I don’t have hopes for the book — that it will find readers and be admired, that it will get reviews and nominations. Of course I hope for those things and I’ll be disappointed if they don’t happen. But I know the book itself will go on with or without them, and that’s what I try to remember when my nerves start jangling.

BF:

You dedicate the work to “All My Relations,” by which you mean, as First Nations people mean it, every sensate, every material, being. This new work is full of birds, in particular ravens and crows, meadowlarks too, and flickers. Will you say something about these relations you have with birds? When did you first uncover your ardent focus on winged things?

MSH:

I was in grade 5 or 6 when I discovered there were birds other than the ones I saw everyday: robins, sparrows, crows, meadowlarks. I got a birdbook somehow and spent time wandering in the bush in Fort Garry looking for — and finding — all sorts of exotic species. (I was, as someone has written about Thoreau, an indifferent taxonomist, but I had a good imagination.) I’ve watched and listened to birds and tried to name them ever since. Recently my eyes have changed and it’s harder for me to birdwatch. I haven’t been going out as often, but I’m always on the lookout for what’s around. From my Toronto front steps I routinely hear and/or see hawks, kestrels, chimney swifts, goldfinches, robins, cardinals, jays, starlings, nuthatches, Canada geese, crows and others.

Birds for me are an integral and defining part of any place. I love their birdness and I’m not sure it’s their flight that most enthralls me. They are what they are, entirely themselves, and they fit their world so well. Perhaps that’s it — that they are part of the fabric of their biome(s), suited, matched to them, rising from the places they inhabit, reflecting those places and also dependent on them. I suppose that’s the way I wish I could live — and that all humans could live, aware that they are shaped by and dependent on, part of, the Earth.

When I was in therapy for several years my analyst would push me to think about the meaning of a particular bird — one that appeared in a dream say, or that I’d encountered unexpectedly. I had a terrible time with that question. Birds don’t seem to me to mean, and they have no special resonance as symbols, they are simply themselves. They have nothing to do with me, though occasionally one will pay me the courtesy of seeing me and being seen. Eventually my analyst saw I wasn’t resisting her when I said that, and then we just enjoyed the birds that flitted past her window.

BF:

You retired from other work a few years ago in order to devote yourself to writing and thinking. I am planning for a time when I can shift the balance in my own life, thinking of Joseph Campbell, who went into the woods and read for five years. Has your reading changed in these years of more devoted practice? Have you discovered someone who feels essential for you to be reading at this time? Who are the writers you return to again and again?

MSH:

Oh god, I wish I felt I had time to go to the woods and read for five years, just read and think and muse and stare, but I feel now that time isn’t endless. Though I suppose my coming residency at Jokers Hill is a small version of going into the woods. But how that will work is still undefined, with both the Director and myself trying to think through what it might actually be. However, it is at least a house in the woods that I will be in for parts of most weeks, starting in late September.

I think, hope, my reading has changed, starting not with retirement but with my year of In the Field with Jan Zwicky. My natural way of reading is magpie-like. I hop about here and there, picking up this book or that magazine for a time, then dropping it and moving on to another. But I try more often now to come back to a book and finish it. And if it interests me deeply, to go back over it both in my mind and literally rereading. My normal hopping-about habit serves certain things very well, but a more attentive and sustained reading is good and necessary when I’m trying to understand something complex or gather my thoughts.

Rather than finding a particular writer is essential for me, I’m feeling my way towards some idea or practice or form I can’t yet see clearly. (A bit like the residency.) I think of it as reading by scent, nosing about among books till I find those that claim me. I have several areas of interest that partly determine where I stick my nose — place, birds, ecology, walking, brain science, perception, and lots of poetry and poetics. A small stack of books on haiku, haibun, and renga are on my table and I’m looking forward to them.

As you know I’m currently also interested in rereading. I’m curious about some of the books important to me in my early 20s — Rilke and Frye, for instance, and The Double Hook. The writers I’ve gone back to again and again in recent years include Rilke, but there’s a core group who won’t surprise you: Tim Lilburn (especially Living in the World as if It Were Home), Don McKay, and Jan Zwicky. Woolf, of course (Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own). Some of Ursula LeGuin and Alice Munro are also what I return to. David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. A collection of essays I’ve read three times in the past 8 months is Aislinn Hunter’s A Peepshow with Views of the Interior.

BF:

You belong to a couple of writing groups and thank their members heartily in your new book’s acknowledgements. How do these groups serve you? Are the activities of the group weighted in any particular direction, by which I mean, do you think everyone in the group benefits equally from the groups’ overall activities?

MSH:

The importance of my writing groups can’t be overstated. They serve both professional and personal needs. One of their most important functions in my life is friendship. Writing is solitary, and one needs friends who are also writers. With other writers you don’t have to situate yourself — you’re on the same page — even if you disagree about, say, forms of practice or the strengths and weaknesses of some other writer or what’s good or bad in films. Throughout my writing life I often would have stopped writing without the support and encouragement of other writers.

Writing groups (so long as they aren’t too large) that persist over time make for not only good friends but good and helpful advisors and critics. My groups know me and my work, including my habits that need challenging, and uncertainties that also need challenging but in a different tone. I try out new poems with them, knowing that I’ll get honest feedback and intelligent questions. I sometimes discuss larger projects or notions that are still unclear. Our “meetings” are a lot of fun — occasions for sharing food, drink, laughter, self-mockery, triumphs and failures, books and writers, as well as poems.

I can’t speak for the other people in the groups about their benefit, but I believe that everyone gains from our gatherings. We speak as a group of equals, and no one misses a meeting if they can help it.

BF:

If the title of the image on your book, “Cease to Know,” or David Abrams’ “Becoming Animal” had been available to you, you might have seized one of them for the title of this book. Will you talk at some length about the reasons why these two titles seem almost perfect to you?

MSH:

I was greatly taken with the idea of “Becoming Animal” as a title when we first regretted that it was already used, but in retrospect I’m not sure I would have chosen it. I love Abram’s book (should reread it too). It’s hard to articulate why I now feel it’s not so suitable — something about being animal already — something about making too big a claim…

I would give a great deal to enter the perceptions and consciousness of another (non-human) creature and experience the world as it does. Empathy and imagination can take me some distance — and some of my poems try to imagine what it might be like to be another animal — or maybe they are imagining what it’s like to be human through another animal. But I don’t believe I can escape my human self, my human experience, and experience an animal’s life as it does. I will always end up with a human version of it, I think. If I had grown up in a shamanistic culture perhaps I would feel differently.

“Cease To Know,” on the other hand has enormous resonance for me. For one thing it argues against a certain knowingness that I recognize (and no longer value) in myself — a half-conscious reflex that thinks I know the right answers, or already know about things. Certainty is more comfortable than uncertainty, but the latter is truer to experience. And if I already know about something then there’s nothing more about that thing to discover, which leads finally to boredom.

I — we — can’t begin to know everything, even about our individual selves, or the history of our home place, or any single creature on earth. There are always new facts emerging, and new points of view becoming visible. Also, each thing one learns alters the thing learned about, so it becomes slightly different from what it was, what one knew. A certain humbleness, a stepping back from knowing to question, seems good to me.

And I love that “Cease To Know” is an imperative: it startles, stops language for an instant, and I like that. The command gets words out of the way and allows the thing in front of you in, past your preconceptions and assumptions. Since that’s one of the things that we want art to do, I hope that at least occasionally my poems achieve the same effect.

BF:

Did your experiences in Tasmania have bearing on the manuscript, either directly or indirectly?

MSH:

My time in Tasmania didn’t have a direct bearing on the MS. There’s only a single poem in the book that comes out of that experience, and it’s an ekphrastic poem about the work of a South Australian painter whose paintings I happened to see in an exhibition in Hobart.

As for an indirect bearing, I don’t know. When I went to Tasmania I didn’t take writing with me, I focused on being there. I kept a blog and brought home journals, notes, and books to read, but I’ve yet to turn any of that material into finished writing. Perhaps the poetry MS benefited from my turning away from it for a period. I was no longer wedded to every single poem I’d managed to write, and so weeding out things to compile the final version may have been easier. Maybe the time away gave me a different perspective on what I was doing or what I wanted to do.

BF:

You were for a long time production manager at Brick Books. How did that experience, being so closely involved with other poets and their works, affect your own poetry practice?

MSH:

When I worked with Brick Books I was involved in the poetry world not just as a writer, and that was good for me and for my writing. I got to work with many different poets. It became clearer to me that writing wasn’t magic, but work, and that sorting out how to get my work done (both what I called Brickwork and my own writing) was the foundation for an on-going practice.

As for how my Brickwork affected my poetry practice, I was production manager for about 10 years, and I read every MS that we published at least five times to grasp the work and so be able to serve it properly through production. I learned from them all, but I didn’t analyze what I was learning. I don’t analyze much as a reader anyway — if I like or admire a book, I generally hope to absorb what is useful from it, soak it in, rather than spell things out. I’m too lazy to do the other kind of thinking unless I have to — for a review, say, or because it addresses my own writing in some way.

For a little while, at the beginning, I worried about being influenced by reading other poets so closely — influenced in the sense of echoing their voices and losing my own. But reading someone’s work several times proved so enthralling that I decided not to worry about being influenced. And I don’t think my work “sounds like” anyone else’s in particular, though there are likely echoes in it of people I have read and admire.


Poet and essayist Maureen Scott Harris was born in Prince Rupert, grew up in Winnipeg and lives in Toronto. She has published two previous collections of poems: A Possible Landscape (Brick Books, 1993) and Drowning Lessons (Pedlar Press, 2004). Drowning Lessons won the 2005 Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and in 2012 was voted one of four favourite Trillium winners in Open Book’s “Favourite Titles from the Past 24 Years” contest. Harris’s essays have won the Prairie Fire Creative Nonfiction Prize (2006), the Sparrow Prize for Prose (2008) and the WildCare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize (2009).

Beth Follett is the owner, editor and publisher of Pedlar Press, a Toronto-based house highly regarded for their catalogue of beautifully produced, innovative fiction and poetry. Her first novel, Tell It Slant, was published by Coach House Books.

For more information about Slow Curve Out please visit the Pedlar Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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