As part of Red Alder Review‘s Open Mic series – Q&A and poem from Betsy Warland.
Red Alder Review (RA): How do you normally connect to the poetry/literary community?
BW: I haven’t a “normally.” My first book (1981) was a collection of poems that was obviously feminist (and quietly queer). Since then, I’ve been drawn to experimental forms (my 1987 lyric prose book, serpent (w)rite, is likely the first “mash up” book in Canada). My 2000 memoir Bloodroot — Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss (used “inscribed” blank spaces of meaning on the page). In my recent books, I’ve explored narrative positions. So, how and what one writes impacts how and with whom we connect. My companionship happens with a wide range of authors of different genres as well as with writers I teach and with those whom I do manuscript consults/editing. Novelists and memoirists tend to be my most constant companions because I work in book-length narratives. I’m most interested in tracking and evoking how perception happens (emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, physically) so storytelling is essential. I’ve returned to poetry with Lost Lagoon/lost in thought that’s narrated by The Human.
RA: What is the most memorable poetry event or Open Mic you attended in-person?
BW: Toronto, Ontario in the early 70s when I first went to the sound and concrete poetry performances of The Four Horsemen (bpNichol, Rafael-Barreto, Paul Dutton and Steve McCaffery). These were incredibly dynamic and liberating performances that exposed all kinds of new possibilities in writing poetry and performing it.
RA: Who are the poets who most influence you?
BW: I’m only focusing on the writers who most influenced me at the beginning of my life as a poet/writer. I was drawn to writing outside to box in terms of subject matter, narrative position, stripped-down form, and socio-political vision. Several of these also wrote groundbreaking essay: (USA) Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, HD/Hilda Doolittle, Louise Gluck, Audre Lorde, Czeslaw Milosz, Joy Harjo, William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, Judy Grahn; (Canada) Margaret Atwood, bpNichol, Phyllis Webb, Nicole Brossard, Michael Ondaatje; (abroad) Pablo Neruda, Chaucer, T.S. Elliott, Djuna Barnes, Helen Cixous, and Virginia Woolf (whose prose is astonishingly poetic).
RA: Whose work are you most excited about reading in the months to come?
BW: Chantal Gibon’s How She Read; Sonnet L’Abbe’s’ SONNET’s Shakespeare; Jenny Offill’s Weather; Peter J. Clair’s Taapoategl & Pallet: A Mi’kmaq Journey of Loss & Survival. Makes my mouth water!
RA: How has the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic affected your writing practice?
BW: As a freelancer, I must continue to earn my living. All my public-based gigs have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely and it’s an odd feeling to have a wall of silence for new books. Fortunately, manuscript consults have increased (writers have more time to write and focus on finishing their manuscripts!). For myself, I’ve been far more involved with writing (and making short videos) connected with the book. There’s an illusion that online stuff is quick and easy but I find it is taking a lot of time. Maybe it is taking more time for me because I have to produce new material (text, videos, images) for each “gig” as they are all different platforms with different spins and audiences. SO, no time to really write yet these online “gigs” are poking me to think and write about aspects of writing that I haven’t publically articulated before. The pandemic is impacting every aspect of our lives from micro to macro and it’s revealing how we think and our underlying assumptions that we automatically operate on. It’s a wake-up call about the stories we tell ourselves (and one another); it’s revealing how habitually we occupy and don’t occupy narrative and that determines everything else. This is sobering and provocative.
RA: What are you working on right now?
BW: Ahhh, an easy question! Soon I will be working with my publisher on an augmented ebook of Lost Lagoon/lost in thought that will include stills and short videos that my partner and I’ve taken of Lost Lagoon life. The second edition of my most popular book, Bloodroot is coming out this fall and it includes a thirty-page essay I’ve been writing reflecting on that book twenty-some years later. This essay is really putting me through my paces! And I’ve been working with a composer to turn my 2016 book, Oscar of Between—A Memoir of Identity and Ideas into a one-act opera to be performed in the Indie Opera West Festival in Vancouver.
Picture it as a slightly aberrant-shaped lima bean
Picture a slightly aberrant-shaped lima bean—six blocks wide by four blocks across—with a path (hugging its shoreline) that’s held by conifers and deciduous trees’ protective embrace.From Lost Lagoon/lost in thought (Caitlin Press 2020)
Notice its well-camouflaged beaver lodges on the south and north end. Picture its ceaseless
reflective conversation with the trees, ever-changing sky and movement of air. Keep in mind
how close it came to obliteration numerous times, the final attempt by the Vancouver
Trades and Labour Council to get the city to drain it, fill it in, and make a sports field.
Whisper a thank you to those who worked to have it declared as a bird sanctuary in 1938.
Notice, at twilight in the early fall, how the Canada geese congregate at the narrowing arm
flowing into the stream. Puzzle why two or three quietly take turns paddling to the lagoon
opening (then retreat). Paddle out. Retreat. The Human is mystified: “What are they waiting
for?” Then—imagine them soundlessly unraveling in an unbroken line of thirty-six geese
and goslings swimming across the lagoon to where they spend the night. It takes a few times
before The Human understands. The adults are watching until the eagle turns in for the
night (and it’s safe). This choreography is as eloquent as The Human has ever seen.
Betsy Warland has published 13 books of creative nonfiction, lyric prose and poetry. Warland’s book of prose poems, Lost Lagoon/lost in thought was published by Caitlin Press in 2020. Lloyd Burritt’s opera The Art of Camouflage, based on her 2016 book, Oscar of Between—A Memoir of Identity and Ideas, will be premiered in a one-act opera festival in 2020. Warland is the director of Vancouver Manuscript Intensive and received the City of Vancouver Mayor’s Award for Literary Excellence in 2016.