canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: a.rawlings

As a poet, editor, publisher, host, and multidisciplinary artist, she has had her hands in a number of significant literary endeavors and institutions including: working at The Mercury Press, editing WORD, hosting The Lexiconjury Reading Series, the new documentary series Heart of a Poet, running workshops, helping to run the Scream Literary Festival, co-editing (along with derek beaulieu and Jason Christie) the very successful anthology of new Canadian writing Shift and Switch. Remarkably, amidst all this work in the name of Canadian poetry, Rawlings has found the time to develop her own poetic career. In April 2006, Rawlings published her incredibly accomplished first book of poetry, Wide Slumber For Lepidopterists, with Coach House Books.

Photo credit: Dean Tomlinson

Interview by Suzanne Zelazo

(April 2006)


SZ: Wide slumber for lepidopterists,  is a sensual exploration of the anguage of lepidoptery and sleep studies. You have said that it began as a five-page long poem back in 2000. Was it initially conceived of as a book length project,  or did it emerge piece by piece wherein, to borrow a line of yours, the "story stars and starts itself" (37), evolving as a kind of gestault?

AR: The first five pages of Wide slumber, which were initially written in a burst of energy (25 hours over a 3-day period), were both the seed of the book and a completed project unto themselves. At the time, it was the longest poem Iíd written. Six years later, Wide slumber underwent its final metamorphosis, and the two versions of the text (five-page poem to 112-page poem) look as different as egg and imago. You can read the original online, linked on my website.

But I digress. I wasnít too sure what to do with the initial five-page long poem. I thought it needed additional sets of eyes, so I showed it to a handful of people -- including Jeremy McLeod, Carolynn Seaton, and Douglas Webster -- who offered line edits and ample discussion. The text gestated quietly as I worked on "LOGYoLOGY" (a stalled hypermedia project).

Fifteen months later, I showed it to Darren Wershler-Henry. His feedback provided a turning-point in the project, as he called me on two things; the first I knew and the second I didnítÖ 1) My gerund usage was overwhelming (and not in a good way) -- I privately thought of the gerund as a necessary evil and habit of the poem I hoped no one else would key in on -- and 2) Wide slumber should be book-length.

From 2002 to 2006, I wrote, rewrote, edited, excised, primped, pulled, culled, finessedÖ Iíd go months without working on the project, then write feverishly on the fourth section for five days. I didnít work steadily or linearly. The book is divided into six segments, and the sixth segment was completed earliest. The first section came in year three, and two through five metamorphosed several times during the process.

Thereís an excerpt from Wide slumber published on Alterran Poetry Assemblage in 2003. Itís excerpted from the second segment (dyssomnia, egg to larva), and if you compare the online text with whatís printed in the 2006 book, youíll find the texts quite dissimilar. Iíd envisioned that segment going in one direction, wrote it, built other segments around it using it as foundation, and eventually found the foundation to be out of step with the new material. And so, update.

The Coach House version of Wide slumber feels even to me, complete in that moment, a photograph of the textís developmental state at that moment. Iíll admit I had a brainstorm just a week ago on another way to work through the second segmentÖ

SZ: Did that initial poem develop in conjunction with Matt Ceolinís images which also appear in the book? How important is collaboration to your writing?

AR: The poem developed in conjunction with Mattís art, yes. The original treated photographs he offered as a response to the five-page poem were later revised by Matt to suit the changing text. Images that appear in the appendix were last additions to the book.

I find literary production is an independent collaboration. What I write is informed by what I encounter everyday, so in a large-scale sense, I collaborate with the world around me. Working with editors (editing as an intimate, close, responsive readership) is an act of collaboration. The typesetter and designer engages in collaboration as he shapes the text into a book object (and, in the case of Wide slumber, I was fortunate to have a hands-on role in this process). The copyeditor leaves her impression on the book. The printer affects the final outcome of how the book functions (for Wide slumber, Tony @ CHB added a tinge of blue to the ink to give it a soft, subtle look which I think suits the object brilliantly).

Thatís a long way of saying I am aware of collaboration, seek it out, and consider it an integral part of what I want to do. Thereís a reason Iíve worked in so many areas of literary production; I want to be at least a little familiar with each contributing role, so I have an holistic understanding of how the parts affect the whole.

SZ: The book is dedicated to Northern Ontario. Is the book a response in any way to Chris Dewdneyís A Natural History of Southwestern Ontario?

An astute observation and a great question; no, itís not a response. A Natural History is a neat text, though, and Iíd encourage others to read it.

I had initially intended to dedicate the book to "dads who raised bees," but felt this was included in the more general dedication to Northern Ontario.

I dedicated Wide slumber to Northern Ontario for a variety of reasons. First, Matt and I are both from the Algoma District, and I thought an introduction that would mean something to us both made sense. Second, many of the poems in the text come from locations in Northern Ontario. As I wrote it, I imagined the poem in the first segment (O: insomnia, egg) set in a field near the rural intersection of HWY 638 and Gordon Lake Road. A poem in the third section (~: NREM, larva) is partially an homage to a tragedy that occurred in the small mountains north of Sault Ste. Marie. And last, my writing is largely concerned with physical space and environment, so dedicating the book to a place rather than a person struck me as appropriate.

SZ: Wide slumber is ambitious in integrating so many genres, and yet it does so with such aplomb. It is a very accomplished first book. You manage to combine lyric-- lines like "night gapes its mouth a swamp milkweed opened" --with visual and sonic explorations that stretch semantic limits. You "pin words near vowels" and let the reader "watch text uncurl dusk," and the result, for this reader, is a "Spiral flight" full of "feverwind" . How would you define your aesthetics? Would you call yourself a post-Language poet? A pataphysician exploring the gendered hegemony of language? Or do you see yourself more simply, as a poet exploring the generative aspects of literary constraint?

Aha, a question of classification! Kate Eichhorn recently asked me about classification in Wide slumber, so itís intriguing to have this extended to a personal description of my arts practice.

Wide slumber is concerned, largely, with classification -- lepidopterae taxonomnies and the necessary categorical fucntions the brain undertakes while asleep to process information gathered while awake. While classification can be a necessary and useful activity, Iíve been troubled by the occasional misuse of classification as a mode of owning via naming-- the discovererís plant-the-flag tendency.

Your offered description are quite gorgeous, curious, and Iíd love to chat with you about them individually and in-depth. That said, Iím occasionally leary of affixing a label to what I do. Poet? Okay. Interdisciplinary artist? Sure. Mostly likely, Iíd say I explore sound, text, and movement. How do you describe yourself?

SZ: To me, you are very much a dancer in the pages of Wide slumber. Your words, en tournant, glide, and pirouette in and around themselves with an ease and agility that belies your own background in dance. You seem, in these pages, to have "a habit of holding/ shoulder blades/ as wings/ when at rest"óalways on the verge movement. How much do you think that your aesthetic is informed by your work in the performative arts, by theatre and dance? How does the physicality of that enable you to embody and eroticize your poems?

AR: Iím interested in investigating the visual, aural, and kinetic properties and possibilities of language. From the shapes and sounds of letters to our bodiesí physical responses to text (eyes moving across the page, mouthing words as we read, nodding or shaking our heads, tracing text with fingers, etc.), itís my intention, my pursuit, my hope to consider text holistically. In my work, I pay attention to a textís sensual materiality, compose with the entire field of the page in mind, and am aware of the structure of the poem and how the material qualities of language create and inform the poem.

Thatís a long way of answering your question. In short, I think my textual concerns are greatly informed by my work in other disciplines. And by spinach. Yes, aesthetic is greatly influenced by spinach. On soba noodles, with olive oil and feta. Yum.








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