8-Ball: Interview with Diane Guichon

Diane Guichon is a M.A. graduate (’06) from the University of Calgary’s Creative Writing Program. Her poetry manuscript, Vignettes, was adapted and performed on stage by the University of Calgary’s Nickle and Dime Production Company (February 2006). Her first book of poetry Birch Split Bark (Nightwood Editions, 2007) was awarded the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell 2007 Book Prize. Guichon teaches English Literature and Academic Writing for the University of Lethbridge (SAIT campus) and presently serves as the first writer in a pilot project: University of Calgary’s Writer-in-the-School Program at Queen Elizabeth High School in Calgary, Alberta. Currently Guichon is working on a new poetry manuscript, Grass Clippings, which explores the cohabitation of nature and the human in suburban spaces.

1. What do you want to talk about—which question do you wish interviewers would ask, and what is your answer?

Interviewers tend to ask questions about authors’ writing practices or where authors get their ideas for certain works. I’d much rather they ask questions about what it is that is important about poetry and literature—both the reading and the writing of them. This summer I picked up The New Press’s Nobel Lectures from the Literature Laureates, 1986 to 2006. I am finding it fascinating to read what these Nobel prize-winning writers have to say about the importance of their art. They all seem to have slightly different perspectives depending on their own personal histories or nationalities. For instance, Gao Xingjian (China—exile, Nobel prize in 2000) defines literature in terms of the voice of the individual. “…Literature is inherently man’s affirmation of the value of his own self and that this is validated during the writing—literature is born primarily of the writer’s need for self-fulfillment.” A free society then is one in which an individual is free to pursue reading and writing in all its various forms. It is also a society that values the individual. We only have to look around the globe these days to see societies that do not value individuals and individual freedoms. Where is literature in these societies?

Joseph Brodsky (Russia—exile, Nobel prize in 1987) speaks in terms of language. If language is “what distinguishes us from other members of the animal kingdom…then literature—and poetry in particular, being the highest form of locution—is, to put it bluntly, the goal of our species.” I find this definition rather humorous in a way. I value writing and poetry especially, but am I engaged in the ultimate activity of human beings???

My work with students, even those in junior high, has shown me how we grow in our own thinking through the written articulation of thought and experience. Whether this articulation takes the form of an analytical essay or a poem, we are forced to spend time with ourselves and look inward while addressing some condition in the outer world. Not only do we learn about ourselves, through reading and writing, and our connection with the world, but we learn to empathize with the condition under which other individuals live. We see our humanity. This is all very idealistic, and perhaps interviewers just take it for granted that everyone who is engaged in the art of producing “literature” hold the same beliefs. I enjoy reading about other authors’ writing practices and where they get their ideas, but I would also like to hear their whys… why do they write? I’d like to hear their answers to your question no. 8.

2. What advice do you wish you’d received, but didn’t, when you first started to take your writing seriously?

I first started to take my writing seriously in poetry and fiction writing classes. I wanted my professors to tell me how I should be writing as a contemporary poet in Canadian society. If I wanted to be a published poet, then what kind of poetry should I be producing? Should I be writing as a language poet and engage in word play or aleatory writing? Should I be writing lyric poetry and base my writing on experience and emotion? I received such conflicting information based on the writing practices of each individual professor. Our critique sessions always focused on what was clichéd in our writing or how the form reflected or failed to reflect the subject. We seemed to focus on individual poems and lines rather than on the bigger picture of contemporary poetry in Canada, how it was being written, and if there was a single answer to how it should be written. I suppose that is why I started to interview such individual poets as Tom Wayman, Carmine Starnino and derek beaulieu. I wanted answers to the big questions and these were poets willing to talk about poetry within a larger context.

Of course, I realize there isn’t any one way to write poetry. Every poet, every subject will call for very different treatments in language depending on all kinds of factors and individual aesthetic considerations. Perhaps we still teach poetry based on a rhetoric originating from New Critics. I found that these classes failed to address the bigger picture. Now, I try to gather this information on my own by reading about individual poets and how they view their art (hence the Nobel lecture book).

3. What is wrong with the publishing industry, and what are they getting right?

I only have one published book so far, so I don’t have a great deal of experience with the publishing industry. However, I have received numerous rejections from a variety of publishing houses across Canada, so perhaps that has boosted my limited experience a bit. Canada appears to be a very small marketplace for book distribution and sales. Publishing houses seem to rely on just a small stable of “bankable” authors and so engage in building and reinforcing their star authors rather than taking the risk of publishing other voices whose work may show equal merit. If you add in regional interests and regional authors to this, then it is easy to see how difficult it is to get published as a new author. The publishing houses and the editors who run them are then in control of what work receives recognition.

As for what the publishing industry is getting right, I’m not really sure. I think once they have a book in print, they do a relatively good job of marketing it. They submit it for relevant prizes and try to keep it in front of potential buyers and readers. They seem to do what they can with the scant resources available to them.

4. How will technology change writing?

I love the physical aspects of buying and reading and collecting books. I collect books like others collect figurines or stamps or hockey cards. The book to me is a physical artefact that links me to a time and place and a particular experience. It doesn’t have to be a glossy, leather-bound nineteenth century edition – even a slim paperback will do. I’m afraid that with Google and with books on the internet, the book as physical artefact, similar to some archaeological find, will no longer exist. Future book collectors will only find traces of word dust in deleted computer links.

5. What is your process for a typical piece of writing, from idea to publication? (Give a specific example.)

I think in terms of writing projects that relate to a particular concept or idea that I feel compelled to examine from a new angle. Birch Split Bark came about because I was interested in exploring how the canoe had been written by Canadian poets since before Confederation, and how I could bring that representation into question. My last poetry manuscript (I call it Grass Cuttings—or sometimes Grass Clippings) is a fall-out from my connection with ecocriticism, and ALECC—the Association for the Study of Literature, the Environment and Culture in Canada. Ecocritics often study what I think of as “exotic” nature—bears, wolves, whales, etc., and our relationship with nature and the “wild.” I wanted to bring an ecocritical treatment to the suburban backyard. For many the only “nature” we are exposed to is that found in urban or suburban settings.

I typically develop a manuscript of poetry over time related to a particular concept. I edit the work for fresh language. I try to keep to the concrete in order to always reflect the physicality of the real world. When I think the manuscript is ready, I send it out to a publisher for feedback. I research publishers and try to match the subject material and my style of writing to what else the publisher has published. Sometimes this means sending my work across Canada. I have encountered what I think might be regional barriers to publication this way. But then, of course, you never know if a rejection is simply because an editor didn’t like the work, or didn’t think it was something the publishing house could easily promote. I’m not very good at pursuing publication options, as I’d much rather just move on to the next writing project.

6. What are your daily habits as a writer, and as a reader?

I don’t write every day, but I do read every day. I find lots of reasons for not writing each day—teaching class, researching how to teach, folding laundry, going to the gym, or training a new puppy not to pull on the leash. I research concepts until I can no longer deny the need to write, until I simply am compelled to sit down and start writing. Then I tend to write as often and as much as I can. Writing is never easy. It is hard work. As a writer you are constantly faced with the fact you will never be able to fully capture and communicate accurately the complexity of those images and thoughts in your head. You set yourself up for a very daunting task, and that’s why I find the most difficult task in writing is writing. It never seems to get any easier. The more you write, the more you realize you fail—the only thing that brings you back to it is knowing it must be attempted.

7. What is your ambition as a writer—what do you want to accomplish, personally and professionally?

Personally, I want to write something of true beauty. I want to write something—a piece of fiction, or a poem that could not be expressed any other way but how it was expressed. I want perfection in tone, in sound, in image. This is pure schmaltzy hokum and I know it, but when I read a text and recognize its perfection, I want to emulate that in my own writing. I would like to move people the way great writers have moved me. I want to write like Gerard Manley Hopkins; I want to write like Pablo Neruda or Philip Larkin; I want to write like Cormac McCarthy or Ian McEwan.

Professionally, I hope not to be a one book author. Publication does provide official confirmation that you can write. I have trouble when asked about what I do to respond, “I am a poet” or “I am a writer.” My response is typically, “I teach writing and literature.” I’d like to be able to state unequivocally that I am a poet, and one book just doesn’t seem to allow for that claim.

8. Why don’t you quit?

I’ve had some success with a book prize on my one and only published book. I suppose that spurs me on and challenges me to keep going. I also teach writing and that keeps me involved in both the creation and analysis of writing—it keeps me in the industry of writing and writers. It helps motivate me even in the presence of rejection. Writing now is simply a part of who I have become. Quitting is no longer an option.

Whipper Snipper

whipper snipper power extends
my arm across the Atlantic —–
the nylon cord ligament pulled
from my wrist whirring —–
disappears in a blurr of destruction
grass raggedy edges
cropped where they stand and struggle
against concrete, cedar or mountain gravel borders
where it is deemed unacceptable to take a stand
taller than the next individual
blades and boys have already succumbed
to the lure of the Cub Cadet lawnmower

Sandbox Death

sealed within a sandbox
mute
beneath plywood plank and
grains of sand
friends sifting through seasons
entering and exiting the body
at unpredictable times
the empty scoop shovel
the yellow dump truck idle
inarticulate no longer fueled
by childhood energy or emotion
to labour towards bridge creations
the biological eradication of a
neglected apple core decomposing
slowly in silence awaiting
next year’s summer and the
promise of air to give up life
complete and disappear
under sand unsealed

The South Wing

There is a hospital in my backyard where people go to die or get better. The automatic doors open and close all day long making it tough for me to mow the lawn. Ambulances careen through the dogwood, snap blossoms off branches on their way by. Doctors and administrators in white lab coats sit down to coffee under my patio umbrella and discuss the cost of tree stump removal or the dog’s pedicure. I hang green scrubs out on the clothesline to dry for the evening shift that starts at nine. Visiting hours last too long and I run out of egg salad sandwiches. The disinfectant applied to operating room surfaces kills my bedding-out plants. Parking is always a bitch but my son receives tips for providing emergency valet service. I have heard healthcare funding is a problem to be solved with every taxpayer’s cheque that I forget to remove from my pocket before I am discharged. I leave with a paper id bracelet still looped around my wrist after the demoral injection.

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