Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Julie Roorda

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Julie Roorda

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Julie Roorda is the author of three volumes of poetry: Eleventh Toe (2001), Courage Underground (2006), and most recently Floating Bodies (2010), all published by Guernica Editions.

She has also published a collection of short stories called Naked in the Sanctuary (Guernica Editions, 2004) and Wings of a Bee, a novel for young adults published by Sumach Press (2007). She has been a winner of The Fiddlehead’s annual fiction contest, a finalist for the Confederation Poets Prize and the K.M. Hunter Artists Awards among others, and has published work in several literary journals across North America. She lives in Toronto.

Her most recent poetry collection, Floating Bodies, traces both the macabre and ecstatic, probing the body by means of metaphysics and transcendence through pure sensuality. Roorda’s poetry describes the disintegration of story that occurs in the face of false love or faith, revealing the ironies, the non sequiturs, the sacrifice. Floating Bodies is both witty and bereaved, managing to interweave the complexities of intimate and public moments, yet asking the same question: can suffering be said to have meaning?

Given Wings

why would angels walk
across the pedestrian bridge
that spans the Gardiner Expressway?

Is there something to be gathered
from the gridlock of cars below failing
to sail over the guardrail,

or from the wheelchair accessible
ramp that descends at bridge’s end?
There is the Palais Royale Ballroom

on the lakeshore, where these
angels will require ties
to be admitted, and the question is not

the number of angels dancing
nor the dimensions of the floor. Here
precision of footwork is paramount:

tango and rhumba, foxtrot and jive.
And if the odd feather pokes
out from under a silk strap —

this is the nature of every misgiving,
every slip on the gleaming
waxed wood, reflective

as the surface of the lake
and just as solid — the possibility
of a wing unfurled to catch

you when you trip. Novice,
it is an invitation for lift-off:
“Stand on my feet.”

Julie Roorda
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TTQ- What inspired you to write Floating Bodies, and in what ways has this collection of poetry provided more insight to your readers regarding the question: can suffering be said to have meaning?

JR- It seems to me that suffering and ecstasy are really two sides of the same coin. But while people rarely ask the meaning of pleasure, suffering frequently evokes an intense desire to understand why. In Floating Bodies I wanted to explore the intersection of the two, the paradox by which they both transcend and trap us in our bodily senses, the way they both demand surrender.

TTQ- The term Stockholm Syndrome is used to describe a paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein hostages express adulation and have positive feelings toward their captors that appear to be irrational thoughts because the victim is in danger. You write in your poem "Stockholm Syndrome": Vulnerability corrupts. The lure / of no responsibility. Confinement can be remarkably freeing....When you attempt to extract the truth / from my fingernails, remember I've interrogated / them often myself with my own teeth. What intrigued you so much about the Stockholm Syndrome for you to write a poem about it, and is there a particular incident that inspired the poem?

JR- The poem “Stockholm Syndrome” is not meant to refer literally to a particular incident. Rather I use it metaphorically to evoke certain qualities of the relationships that intertwine throughout the collection, between self and lover, self and society, and self and the divine (however one might define the latter.) What fascinates me is our complicity in our own captivity, our willingness to grant another power over ourselves, our failure to take a stand to prevent it. It is a surrender that in some contexts elicits ecstasy. In others it is primarily destructive.

I am particularly dismayed — and some of the other poems in the collection explore this — by the readiness with which we as a society are giving up hard-won rights to privacy and liberty for the sake of some illusion of security. The saying, of course, is that power corrupts. But it is through the complicity of the weak that the most destructive power accrues, which is why I wanted to turn the idea on its head and explore how it is that vulnerability corrupts.

TTQ- Floating Bodies is your third collection of poetry along with a collection of short stories, Naked in the Sanctuary, and novel Wings of a Bee. Do you consider yourself a poet first? How different is your writing process when it comes to writing a collection of poetry versus a collection of short stories or a novel? Which genre is the most difficult for you to write and why?

JR- I find it necessary to write in a variety of genres — I would get bored if I didn’t. Different genres offer different, complementary modes of inquiry into whatever it is I am trying to understand. So I do not consider myself primarily one or the other. Writing poetry is more difficult within a given slice of time; you can’t write your way into something, following a thread, the way you can with narrative prose. With poetry you’ve got to muscle images and ideas in your head, and sometimes smash them together to figure out what’s going on. It is more strenuous and often, literally, makes my head hurt. Writing a whole novel is a much bigger endeavour, and weaving all the different threads and pieces together is ultimately just as difficult; the difference is that you can work on a novel, return to it day after day and find a flow without always having to hold everything together in your brain at once.

TTQ- How important is reading your poetry live in front of an audience to you, and in what ways does it help you personally with your writing? Did you read many of the poems from Floating Bodies at poetry readings prior to the book being published, and did it help at all with the editing process?

JR- Reading to an audience is one of the best/only ways to promote one’s poetry. Small publishers have extremely limited marketing budgets, and people rarely buy books of poetry unless they’ve had a taste of what is between the covers and been moved by it, so it is essential to developing an audience.

I do not usually read works-in-progress to an audience. When I read to an audience, I consider it a performance, and it is important to me that it be polished and effective. However, reading work aloud to myself, figuring out the phrasing, where to breathe, etc., can be very helpful to the editing process; it exposes deficiencies and problems I might not otherwise notice.

TTQ- What is your opinion of the current state of poetry in Toronto? What changes would you like to see implemented in order to excite non-traditional readers of poetry to become more accepting of the genre and start reading it?

JR- The poetry scene in Toronto is vibrant and a remarkably large number of books of poetry are published here. It is possible to attend a launch or a reading every night of the week, but audiences and readers are usually comprised of the same small circles of people.

I think the best way to expand poetry’s readership would be to close the gap between the urge to write poetry and the inclination to read poetry. The urge to write poetry is a natural one, like the urge to sing or make music, and very easy to excite in people of all ages, from young children and teenagers — especially teenagers — to adults of all ages. Yet for some reason, many of these would-be poets don’t see the connection to reading poetry; don’t see that reading is just as essential, especially if they want to improve their writing. I can’t tell you the number of times I have met people who will admit to writing poetry but never bother to read it. That gap does not exist with music. People who make music are always also avid listeners of music.

I’m not sure why it exists with poetry or how to bridge it. Perhaps it is the lack of exposure to poetry that begins at a young age and leaves people feeling intimidated when they do encounter poetry later on. Inviting working poets into classrooms, on a frequent basis, to read and work with students might help to make the connection.

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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