canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Alayna Munce

Alayna Munce is the author of When I Was Young And in My Prime. She grew up in Huntsville, Ontario, and has spent most of her adulthood in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto. In 2003, she won second prize in the CBC Literary Awards’ travel writing category. In 2004, she was featured in the anthology Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets.

TDR conducted this interview. It’s true. The questions are bolded. The answers are not. No names have been changed.

(February 2006)


Tell us about your origins.

I came from an intensely lit-loving family. It was almost a religion.  Another father might have quoted the bible--Dad used to quote everyone from John Irving ("Get obsessed and stay obsessed") to Forster ("Only connect") to Yeats (something ominous about a rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born...). Books seemed to me
the most basic balm around, and I could never figure out why anyone would ever want to do anything else with their life but try to make them.

Grandparents, it could be argued, seems for our generation, in many ways, to have had a big hand in raising us. They were in my experience, as important as my real parents. Is your book in some ways a tribute to them?

I guess so. A tribute to their endurance and ordinary guts. To the unglamorous heroics of immigration and manual labour and  marriage. There's a poem by Jack Gilbert called The Abnormal Is Not Courage that says it better than I ever could.

How do you feel about the questions people ask about books, be honest. I hate them. "Is it poetry is it fiction" don't you just want them to take it and inhale it and be like, yeah, i like it or no it's not for me. I hate having to explain things and say well page 35 came from an idea I had for six Tuesdays in May 2001.... people never question a painting or a song the same way. any thoughts?

Yeah, it drives me a bit nuts. Fiction/poetry. Fiction/non-fiction. I've been learning more and more clearly that caring about those distinctions when I write only shuts me down. I think the distinctiveness and authenticity of a writer's voice depends exactly on letting one's own unique blend of narrative and lyric impulses come to the fore. And also on finding a stance that feels natural (or unnatural but fruitful) with relationship to one’s own experience in the world, and on really letting oneself inhabit that stance whether it be close or distant or skewed or straight-up. Often, the more genuine a voice is, the less those genre distinctions matter—or vice versa maybe.  I heard Irving Layton's son (David?) on the radio a while ago talking about how no one ever talks about fictional or non-fictional poetry the way they do prose.  It's such an odd obsession, really.

What do you make of the locals?

I think my friend Sue Sinclair is an amazing poet. She goes to places that are very hard to get to. And Michael Winter's books (although I guess he's only local part of the time) floor me.  And there's a local song-writer called Andrew Penner (of The Sunparlour Players) who I'm a huge fan of—he often plays Sunday nights at the Tranzac, and it's always an infusion for me.

Do you find aging depressing? Or is it a part of life? I always see elderly people and don't get depressed so much as worry they are going to fall and get hurt. Then I end up falling on the way out the door to get coffee. But my point is, yes its part of life, but it seems to be the end.

It's not that I find aging in itself depressing. It is part of life, but it's also a particular crucible. The thing for me is that for a whole lot of people (in our culture at least), old age means violent loneliness. I guess find that more scary than depressing. Reallly scary. Way scarier than death.

Are you nostalgic?

Hell yeah. Can't help it. I wish I were funny instead, but I'm not. It's assumed that if someone calls you nostaligic, it's an insult. I think there are good and bad kinds of nostalgia though. Good nostalgia looks forward at the same time as back. It uses its regret. That's the kind of nostalgia the epigraph from Jan Zwicky is getting at, the kind I hope I traffic in. George Grant's phrase "intimations of deprival" has always struck me. I think it can be salutary to pay attention to that glimpse of a ghost of a sense of something missing.

You've won a few contests, how does this help your overall process as a writer? What pieces from your Grain contest wins are you proudest of? 

I like all three of the Grain pieces. The "Alice in Love" postcard story became the seed for the novel I'm working on now. I have a thing for short pieces (I guess that's obvious from the structure of my book). I mostly use contests as a way to manufature a deadline for myself to finish and polish something I'm working on. I need deadlines. I can make them for myself, but it's way easier to stick to them if they're in some way tied to the world. It can get me into trouble though. When I won the CBC literary award, I realized that when I'd entered I hadn’t truly thought through the fact that I might win. It was a really personal piece about the recent death of my father, and at the time I'd really needed to finish it.

Then all of a sudden it was being broadcast on national radio and being read by strangers on airplanes all over the world (they publish the wining pieces in Air Canada's ENRoute magazine). That experience of vulnerability was actually a kind of pivotal moment for me--I got that it's always going to be that way for me, it’s what I do. And that it was maybe a bit disingenuous to tell myself i hadn't thought about winning. I want my stuff out there.

There's a drive to communicate, and when you're an unknown writer contests can sometimes get you an audience.

What else are you working on?

A novel called I Can't Help Myself and a collection of poetry called My Cousin Ate Fire at her Wedding. I'm trying to keep the poetry and the prose a little bit more separate this time, to see if I can.

The anthology business is booming here in Can-Lit. How did you feel about _Breathing Fire 2_, and the rebutal anthology Pissing Ice and the State of Canadian Poetry? 

It was nice to be chosen for the anthology. I wouldn't argue with the charge that it doesn't have a lot of range. To be honest though, I don’t pay much attention to that kind of debate. It drains me. I read fairly widely in poetry--from Lyn Hejinian to Rilke, Basho to Tomas Transtromer. I write what I write. I eke it out of wherever it lives, and I feel lucky to get it out at all. I think rob mclennan’s right when he says there are more voices than the binary "conservative" and "innovative". I'm guessing my own work has moments of both, though I don't try to be either. I liked the night last month when I read with you at the IV Lounge: me reading from my nostalgic, lyrical sort-of-novel about love and aging and Parkdale; you reading from your urgent, hilarious, uncategorizable book about violent bowling; Betsy Warland getting volunteers from the audience to read pieces (which included much creative use of punctuation) from an art-installation she'd just finished based on tips for surviving natural disasters. I like voices that are coming into their own.

Nathaniel G. Moore is Nathaniel G. Moore.







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