Tuesday, May 19, 2015

An Interview with Sean Howard, the Winner of The Fiddlehead's 2015 Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize

Sean Howard is the author of Local Calls (Cape Breton University Press, 2009) and Incitements (Gaspereau Press, 2011). His poetry has been published in numerous Canadian and international magazines, nominated for a Pushcart Prize in the US, and anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English (Tightrope Books, 2011 & 2014). Sean lives in the lobster-fishing village of Main-à-Dieu, Nova Scotia, and is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University.

Rebecca Salazar: Congratulations on being named The Fiddlehead’s 2015 winner of the Ralph Gustafson poetry prize. Your winning poem, “Cases (Unbound Poems, from Nova Scotia Reports),” juxtaposes what appear to be found fragments of domestic conflict reports to create a series of brief but emotionally packed scenes. Can you comment on the source material for this poem, and on how you went about writing it?

Sean Howard: "Nova Scotia Reports" are, by their own definition, “a series of law reports designated by the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society for the publishing of judgments of the Nova Scotia reports.” For some reason, dozens of volumes line the walls of the Faculty Lounge at Cape Breton University where I often go to meet colleagues or just read. The volumes always made me feel both curious and uneasy, and one day I decided to dive in and see what "pearls" of latent or unintended poetry I might find. I found a lot, using my usual, very simple method: reading down the page, the first word of every line, or just skimming the text, seeing what words light up. Conducting such rapid "raids" helps ambush, so to speak, the strict and dry legalese, flushing out hidden meanings and imagery. My aim was twofold: to evoke and distill the real human drama of the "cases" being so prosaically summarized, and to interrogate and invigorate – open out from inside – a language "encased" in its own professional certainties.      

RS: Some of your previous works, such as your collection Incitements, also operate by adapting or cutting out lines from other texts. What, to you, is the potential of “found poetry” as a genre or technique?

SH: For me, the images and meanings I "find" by scrambling texts is, while often startling, only the starting point.  I then try to amplify the new material, inspired by Carl Jung’s method of dream amplification, which can in turn generate new images and symbols. Every text, I believe (following William Burroughs), has an "unconscious," a range of implicit material the "surface" language often contradicts or attempts to repress. "Found poetry" in this expanded sense can be a literary variant of the return of the repressed in psychoanalysis. In this poem, however, almost all the twelve micro-sections are unamplified, taken directly from the text. This rarely happens, and I think can be explained by the intensity of emotions and experiences I was able to tap into.

RS: “Cases…” is quite minimal, at times resembling haiku. I found overall that this allows the content to speak for itself, as opposed to being weighted with the melodrama or didacticism that can often accompany depictions of familial violence. Still, the poem unsettles traditional notions about family roles and values. What were the difficulties of approaching this topic in a poem?

SH: (Haiku is a huge influence, so thank you!) I tried simply to listen to the unlocked language: to follow its powerful dream-logic. "Case #8804" reads: “youth: breaking, entering the world,” identifying the youth in question (or youth in general) as both a force capable of breaking into something and being broken by it. My method, and experience, I guess was rather similar: breaking into the text, and often being shattered by what I found. The poem only took a few intense sessions to write, but quite a while to recover from.  

RS: As a professor of political science, do you often find socio-political issues working their way into your poetry? If so, how do you negotiate this?

SH: I should be clear I’m only an adjunct professor, able to dedicate most of my time to poetry. And yes, poetry is often for me an intersection of the personal and political. In recent years, for example, I have been engrossed in a major experimental project called The Shadowgraphs, no less than 150 "raids" (a few of which have been appeared in The Fiddlehead) into all Nobel Physics Lectures delivered in the 20th century (149 by men, by the way!). This crazy venture stemmed directly from my horrified interest in nuclear weapons and the Faustian science that brought us the Bomb and other horrors. And presently, to anticipate a later question, I’m working on a series of experimental responses to a book of Great War photography, at the same time I’m working with my wife, CBU Political Science professor Lee-Anne Broadhead, on academic papers (as well as collaborative poetry) related to the War. "Negotiating" this different modes of expression is sometimes difficult, for sure, though I hope the academic and creative approaches can enrich and inform each other.

RS: More generally, how do you find that your teaching impacts your writing? How do you balance your academic work with your creative pursuits?

SH: As stated, I’m not a full-time teacher or researcher, so the balance is (usually) fairly easy to maintain. (If I actually had a real job, God knows what would happen!) Interactions (and friendships) with faculty and students, though, are a frequent source of both insight and inspiration.

RS: Do you have any poetic projects or manuscripts in the works right now?

SH: There’s the World War One photography project, and some other pieces (published and not) which I think work well together.

RS: What is your perspective on literary contests, or on their importance, either for writers, readers, magazines, or others? Has winning the Ralph Gustafson prize changed how you think about contests?

SH: Contests are obviously important for magazines, both financially and in terms of profile and impact on the literary landscape. I’ve been fortunate to win three contests now (after many years of trying!), and each success has been gratifying.  (I also hope my success may encourage some other experimental poets to try their luck.) Last year, incidentally, I was a juror for the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry, a huge and entirely unexpected honour which gave me deep insight into the dangers and difficulties of judging!  

RS: Is there anything you’ve learned in your writing career that you wish you had known when you started out? What piece of advice would you give to new or emerging poets?

SH: I can’t think of any piece that doesn’t sound condescending!  Right from the start, by far the most important thing for me has been my belief and trust in the Presence Celan called "The Angel of Poetry." Of course, there are many practical considerations: putting the time in, responding intelligently (but not submissively) to criticism, dealing with inevitable rejections, reading like hell, drawing on your whole psyche (“Think with Thy Self,” as Shakespeare says), etc. But poetry doesn’t, fundamentally, come from – just flows through – the poet.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

An Interview with Lisa Alward, The Winner of The Fiddlehead's 2015 Short Fiction Prize.

Originally from Halifax, Lisa Alward has a master’s degree in English from the University of London and was the Literary Press Group’s first sales manager. She presently lives in Fredericton, where she teaches courses in clear writing and has worked as an editor and freelance writer. She has been writing short fiction for three years. “Cocktail,” her second story to be published, is inspired by the cocktail party world of the sixties and early seventies. She is thrilled that it was chosen for this year’s short fiction prize.

The Spring 2015 issue of The Fiddlehead, No. 263, presents "Cocktail" by Lisa Alward, Winner of our 2015 Short Fiction Prize.  Lisa was kind enough to talk with Reid Lodge, one of our Editorial Assistants, to share some insights:

Reid Lodge: Were there any personal experiences or stories from people you know that you built into this story? Do you use your writing to work through your own personal thoughts, or is fiction more of a way to explore different worlds for you?

Lisa Alward: My parents, like the narrator’s, threw a lot of parties in the 60s. “Cocktail” draws on my impressions of that whole cocktail party scene as well as stories my mother later shared with me. It also has a personal resonance because my mother was dying of cancer as I wrote it. But what most interested me creatively was exploring this parallel past, similar to mine yet very much its own world, with the sleazy party guest who sneaks upstairs and the runaway older brother. Since I’m relatively new to writing fiction, I’m conscious of sticking close to home, to what I know, but I find that taking imaginative leaps, even if sometimes these are more like jumps, really excites me.

RL: The details in this piece are wonderful and build up a very tangible sensory environment for the reader, particularly in the early cocktail party scenes. Do you have any favorite authors or people who you discuss your work with who have impacted your writing style? Have you read anything recently that contained some interesting elements you might like to explore in later projects?

LA: I had been trying for a while to write a cocktail party story, but it was only when I found the list of expenses for my parents’ first party in their new house that I could see a way into it. From that, all the glasses and sparkly toothpicks and packs of invitations fell into place. I am very drawn to detail in fiction, but I like it to be meaningful, to reverberate in some way. I wrote my master’s thesis on Virginia Woolf, so probably this comes from reading To the Lighthouse at an impressionable age. These days, I feel I learn from every story I read, but two that have really inspired me recently are Nadia Bozak’s “Greener Grass” and Kathy Page’s “Red Dog,” both published in The Walrus. I just finished Page’s collection Paradise & Elsewhere and would love someday to explore the same shifting sands between story and tale that she does. I am also very fortunate to have worked with two amazingly generous and sensitive writers-in-residence at UNB, Sue Sinclair and Jeramy Dodds.

RL: The relationship between the main character and the Tom Collins figure begins in a fairly sinister way and his presence evokes a lot of dramatic tension. Where did you get the idea for this character? Did you have anyone in particular in mind when you first imagined him?

LA: Well, an inebriated party guest did once visit me in my bedroom when I was about twelve, but I sent him packing — end of story. Tom is mostly made up. He is meant to be a sinister presence and also a bit elusive, even dreamlike. The narrator, after all, is sleepwalking when she first sees him and his name is very likely not Tom Collins. I think of him as being in a way emblematic of the era. It’s something about the ease with which he oversteps boundaries. At one point, I sent “Cocktail” to a friend who’d also grown up in the 60s and early 70s and she immediately emailed back her own Tom Collins story, which gave me goose bumps.

RL: Sexuality and the power dynamics inherent in sexual relationships are also major themes in this piece. Were there any discourses about sexuality and power that you were specifically hoping to challenge or draw attention to in the story?

LA: I wanted to express some of the confusion latent in the sexual revolution, especially for women. By the late 70s, the idea that sex was natural and fun was creating an expectation for women to be open to casual encounters, and yet many young women were still looking for love. The narrator keeps trying to find her Tom (at least her image of Tom) at the bottom of a glass or in a stranger’s bed, but, of course, he’s never there.

RL: I’m also interested in the way that this story points to the differences between what we tell children about love and marriage and the ways those concepts actually end up functioning when we enter those types of relationships. How do you think the “divorce wave” that emerged in the 60’s and 70’s that is mentioned in the piece affected the ways these narratives affect children and young people?

LA: My sense is that there was much greater separation between the world of children and the world of adults in the 60s. Our parents really did seem to forget about us when they put on their party clothes. And yet things were happening at those parties that would eventually turn our own world upside down. My parents’ generation fascinates me because although they came of age in the late 50s and were settled with careers (the men, at least) and children way before the Summer of Love, they were also very influenced by the counterculture. They may not have been doing drugs and growing out their hair, but they were still experimenting with limits and also drinking a lot of hard liquor. Yet when the “wave” of divorces struck, it took my generation, I think, mostly by surprise because we’d been so sheltered from all that.

RL: Did you do any research while writing this piece about the time period or other elements of the narrative? Did anything in particular come up that surprised you?

LA: I did do some research into the history of cocktail parties, but the most interesting and surprising texture came from my mother’s stories. Some of these actually shocked me, I suppose because I’m still carrying around that conservative 60s child who wants to believe the adults have it all under control. I also spent a ridiculous amount of time looking at vintage cocktail dresses on Google Images.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Upcoming Readings by Fiddlehead Editors and Contributors

Fiddlehead fiction editor Mark Jarman will be reading from his new book Knife Party at the Hotel Europa in multiple locations in Western Canada next week. The Vancouver Sun has recently called Mark's book "fierce and beautiful, one of the most stunning books I’ve read in a long time, and one which should not be rushed."

Here are the reading details:

Wednesday, May 20, 7:30, at Vancouver Central Library

Thursday, May 21, 7 pm, at Russell Books in Victoria

Friday, May 22, 7 pm, at Audrey’s Books in Edmonton

* * *

Past contributor R.W. Gray ("Blink" in Fiddlehead no. 256, Summer 2013) will be launching his new book Entropic on Thursday, June 18, 7pm at Westminster Books in Fredericton. 

According to the publisher, "R. W. Gray finds the place where the beautiful, the strange, and the surreal all meet — sometimes meshing harmoniously, sometimes colliding with terrible violence, launching his characters into a redefined reality. A lovestruck man discovers the secret editing room where his girlfriend erases all her flaws; a massage artist finds that she has a gift, but is uncertain of the price; a beautiful man sets out to be done with beauty; and a gay couple meets what appear to be younger versions of themselves, learning that history can indeed repeat itself."

Monday, May 4, 2015

Upcoming Readings by Fiddlehead contributors

The Confederation Centre Public Library in Charlottetown hosts book launches by Fiddlehead contributors M. Travis Lane and Zachariah Wells. Lane launches her new book, Crossover (Cormorant), her fifteenth, and Wells is launching his third book, Sum (Biblioasis) on May 9 at 2pm. Lane was featured in a special retrospective in last summer's poetry issue (no. 260), and Wells' most recent contribution was in No. 251 (Spring 2012).

M. Travis Lane’s poetry has always been diverse: variously serious, silly, melancholy, cheerful, meditative, witty, philosophical, enigmatic, colloquial, intimate, simple, complex. Though her concerns are often feminist, environmental, civic, and political, her poems transcend such labels. Crossover is her fifteenth collection.

With homages to Hopkins, Graves, Wisława Szymborska, Paul Muldoon, and more, and in allusion-dappled, playfully sprung stanzas, Sum, the third book from poet and critic Zachariah Wells both wears its influences openly and spins a sound texture all its own, in a collection far greater than its parts.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Help Us Celebrate Our 70th Anniversary!

In 2015 The Fiddlehead is celebrating 70 amazing years of publishing.

To help us celebrate, please send us your thoughts about your relationship to The Fiddlehead as a reader (max. 250 words).

Why do you read The Fiddlehead? What has it meant to you? When did you first discover the venerable ol’ fern? What was the first issue you read? Where were you? What voices did you discover between the covers?

There is no limitation to how you may interpret this theme (other than word count, of course)!

Select submissions will be published in upcoming issues and online. Submissions may be edited for space considerations. Contributors will receive a complimentary copy!

Please send your submission to thefiddlehead@gmail.com