Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

THE BALLAD OF CAROLYN SMART

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THE BALLAD OF CAROLYN SMART

I first met Carolyn Smart in 2003, when Gil Adamson and I gave readings for an audience of two in a café/bookstore just outside of Kingston, Ontario. Gil was launching her fantastic second poetry book, Ashland, and I was launching my (hardcover!) Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Poems New & Selected (both from ECW Press). One of our two audience members was Carolyn.

I bumped into Carolyn a few years later, as we both wound up at the same bar coming from different readings in Montreal, and we got to talk a bit more that time. And a couple years later, she asked me to apply for the position of Writer in Residence at Queen’s University. I held that incredible job – among the greatest experiences of my writing life – during the fall of 2010, working out of Carolyn’s office in Watson Hall.

Carolyn has written six collections of poetry, including the much-acclaimed Careen (Brick Books, 2015), Hooked: Seven Poems (Brick Books, 2009), and The Way to Come Home (Brick Books, 1993). An excerpt from her memoir, At the End of the Day, (Penumbra Press, 2001) nabbed first prize in the 1993 CBC Literary Contest. With mentorship an organic part of her practice, Carolyn is the founder of the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, a prize that has gone to Alison Pick, Jeramy Dodds, Alyssa York, and Stephanie Bolster, among others; she’s also poetry editor for the MacLennan Series of McGill-Queen’s University Press, and since 1989 has taught Creative Writing at Queen’s University.

I learned a lot from Carolyn during my time at Queen’s. She is painstaking in her own writing, taking her time and taking great care in every poem she writes. And her rapport with her students was remarkable: she is simultaneously tough, encouraging, challenging, warm, respectful, and direct, and young writers who have studied with her over the years often remain in touch – many of those who have gone on to successful writing careers are invited back to Queen’s to talk with her current students.

A final note before our e-mail conversation: if you ever have the opportunity to see Carolyn Smart read from her own work – be there! It is an exhilarating, formidable experience.

ME: Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow have been the subjects of TV miniseries and feature movies and print biographies and stage musicals and a ton of songs (I think I’ve listened to Georgie Fame’s “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde” about 5,000 times). And last year, you released a powerful documentary poetry book called Careen, about the legendary outlaw couple. What do you think poetry can do that those other forms can’t?

CAROLYN: One of the things I love about poetry is that it has no rules. The freedom of form allows me to express myself in poems exactly as I wish to, and for this particular collection of poems I used a variety of forms. You can find a glosa, a list poem, lyric poems, several prose poems, and some interior (and even more formal) rhymes. I wanted to tell a story that had not been told in previous representations of the Barrow Gang narrative, one of true hardship and poverty, not the false romance that has been presented in films and television shows. These people came from utter desolation – young Clyde and his family living under a wagon and being fed by the Red Cross – far from the glamour of fancy hotels and flashy clothing that you see in gangster films. That’s partially why he was drawn to do what he did: even his fellow gangsters looked down upon him as white trash. He was loyal to his class and his friends, to the very end of his days. I admire that and wanted to express that with my poetry, any way I could.

Poetry stems from the oral tradition, unlike fiction, and I have grown into a presentation of my work that relishes that performative aspect. This collection too has garnered interest from theatrical groups both in Canada and the U.K., and I look forward to seeing what they will make of it.

ME: That’s great — I was wondering if this project might be transformed into something for the stage, in the way Hooked was adapted by Nicky Guadagni. (Though you yourself are a compelling and formidable performer of your poetry too!)

I want to ask you a bit about teaching. You’re a professor of creative writing at Queen’s University in Kingston, and an amazing list of writers have come out of your classes: Moez Surani, Adèle Barclay, Alex Porco, Grace O’Connell, Nicholas Papaxanthos, and so many more. When I was writer in residence at Queen’s in 2010 (one of the best literary experiences of my life, by the way!), I visited a couple of your classes, and you are clearly a passionate, caring, no-bullshit writing instructor. But I’m curious to know if that work feeds you as a writer, if the experience over the years has influenced your own writing.

CAROLYN: Absolutely! Amongst other things, I garner a reading list from students that feeds me consistently. Adèle Barclay and I were at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Los Angeles in early April (with another former student, Bob McGill), and she sent me a reading list that blew me away. I am constantly challenged by what the students are capable of in terms of original, groundbreaking writing. I try new directions and forms in my own writing in order to keep up with them! Also, workshopping with them clarifies my own thinking around strengths and weaknesses in both their work at hand and in my own practice that is enormously helpful for me.

ME: Your first poetry book came out in 1981. Have there been changes, do you think, in the reception of poetry in this country since then?

CAROLYN: It feels like a new world in so many ways! It’s as if the practice of poetry has exploded across the country. It also works in cycles: I’ve watched reading series, literary and trade publishers, and multiple magazines appear and then fall away again. I am constantly amazed by how poetry availability has been altered by desktop and online publication, as well as hiphop and performance poetry, specifically. To watch public engagement with that has been mind-boggling. Yet what’s declined has been a serious critical reception of the work, and that’s shameful. It’s hard to see very fine books receive little or no review space at all.

ME: Anything coming up you want to tell us about? Oh, and what’s the title of your newest poem?

CAROLYN: I’m currently editing a very strong collection of poetry through my position at the MacLennan Series of McGill-Queen’s University Press (sorry to say I can’t reveal the author yet), and in the winter term I’ll be editing Lake Effect 8 (Upstart Press), which will feature some fine short fiction and poetry by Queen’s Creative Writing students.

In regard to my own work, the poems from Careen will be produced onstage in March by the Drama Department at Queen’s, and there’s another production of Careen coming up in Glasgow later in 2017 that’s very exciting.

My own new poetry will be on hiatus for a while – as it always is while I’m back in the classroom – but I’ve had a good summer of writing poems. The newest poem is going by the title “Mudlark” – but that’s just this week’s title.

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.

Stuart Ross

Stuart Ross is a writer, editor, and writing teacher living in Cobourg, Ontario. The acclaimed author of 20 books of poetry, fiction, and essays, Stuart got his start selling his chapbooks on Toronto’s Yonge Street during the 1980s. His recent books include Our Days in Vaudeville (Mansfield Press, 2014), A Hamburger in a Gallery (DC Books, 2015), (Anvil Press), and A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Wolsak and Wynn, 2016). He is the co-translator or Marie-Ève Comtois’s My Planet of Kites (Mansfield Press, 2015). You Exist. Details Follow. (Anvil Press, 2012) won the sole award given to an anglophone writer by the Montreal-based l’Académie de la vie litteraire au tournant du 21e siècle; Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books, 2009) won the 2010 ReLit Prize for Short Fiction; and the novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew was co-winner of the 2012 Mona Elaine Adilman Award for Fiction on a Jewish Theme. Stuart has taught writing workshops across the country, and was the 2010 Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s University. Since 2007, he has had his own imprint at Toronto’s Mansfield Press. Stuart is currently working on several poetry and fiction projects, as well as a memoir.


You can write to Stuart throughout the month of August at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Stuart Ross’s Author Page