canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

K.I. Press is the author of Pale Red Footprints (Pedlar Press, 2001). Michael Bryson interviewed Karen by email in November 2001.

Pale Red Footprints - ISBN 0-9686522-3-9


TDR: Let’s start with the poet. Who are you? Where did you come from? How did you get here? Give us some of the basic facts.

KP: I grew up in the Peace River country in northern Alberta, where my parents were schoolteachers. We moved to Edmonton when I was 14, and I’ve lived (and gone to school) variously in Edmonton, Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto since I was 20. I’ve lived in Toronto now for about a year and a half.

TDR: Your book, Pale Red Footprints, is a kind of “novel in poems” taken from your grandfather’s journals. On the one hand, the poems tell the story of one man’s experience growing up in pioneer Alberta and living through decades of vast change. On the other hand, you intercut the protagonist’s story with commentary from a second narrator, which may or may not be you. This second narrator takes a broader and more detached view of the book’s primary narrative. Can you tell us a little about the primary narrative, and the second narrator’s function in your book?

KP: The primary narrative is broken into three parts. The narrator grows up in a francophone community in northern Ontario during the 1910s and 20s. He grows up on the farm, and it’s not an easy life. As a young man he settles in northern Alberta just in time for the Depression. The second section ends around 1945, and then the book skips about 25 or 30 years. The third part is about the narrator’s retirement to Arizona, distant in so many ways from the previous two sections—geographically, historically, economically.

The second, detached, narrator’s main purpose is to draw links between the present and the past. To some degree the main narrator also does this. How do the relatively limited choices of previous generations create many more choices for future ones? At one point the narrator makes a monumental choice: to become a priest or a farmer. Those are the only choices. The secondary narrator, on the other hand, has the luxury of writing poems and waxing philosophical about ancestors.

TDR: What was it like to write about someone in your family? Your grandfather’s journal was written in French and translated by your mother. That makes Pale Red Footprints a real intergenerational project. I imagine that could be both rewarding and daunting.

KP: My grandfather loved reading, and he says in his writing that it was his love of books that made him want to write his own memoir. He wrote it throughout the ‘80s, and my mother, as the most bookish of her siblings, was entrusted the task of typing up his journals and translating them from French into English. I remember her working on them quite a lot , on an old Apple IIc, when I was in junior high. The bilingual edition was photocopied and distributed amongst the family in 1989. I know the event was very important because I remember how emotional my aunts and uncles were. At the time, however, I can’t say it affected it me very much. I was fourteen. It was only when I was in university that I read it carefully and, fascinated, wanted to tell his story to an outside audience.

The book is in part about this process of translation, between languages and between media, and simply from storyteller to storyteller—like the old “telephone” game. My mother is neither a writer nor a translator, and at times the translation is a little awkward. I’ve tried to preserve that in some of the diction. This is also why it was important to use “found” passages occasionally.

I have yet to see how my family reacts to the book. My parents, sisters and grandmother knew that I was writing a book based on my grandfather’s memoir, but they haven’t seen any of the poems before. I expect very little comment, maybe just polite smiles. My mother asked for a copy of the book to give to my grandmother for her birthday, for which there was a big family reunion. (The book wasn’t ready yet, unfortunately.) I was a bit skeptical, and asked her if she was sure that they’d know I’d made most of it up. She assured me that it was unlikely anyone would actually read it.

That’s probably being pessimistic and not a little snobbish. But on the other hand my grandfather’s writing is and will remain the important version of the story within my family. Pale Red Footprints is a significant liberty. Even though it would have been impossible without my family (and I’ve dedicated it to my mother for this reason), it isn’t really meant for them.

TDR: What other projects are you working on? What can you tell us about them?

KP: I’m working on two new projects. One is a poetry manuscript which I’m a fair way through. It’s one of those inevitable “meta” projects, poems about books and reading, broadly defined. Poems about childhood favourites, about classic literary characters in and out of context, about the book as an object, about printing and typography and about book and publishing history. I’m trying to explore the variety of relationships one can have with books. I’ve had many—as a reader, writer, academic, publishing underling. One of the poems, Slushpile came about after having slogged though hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts while I was an editorial intern and an assistant at a literary agency.

I’ve also started writing personal essays. It’s my first serious foray into prose, and I may regret ever having mentioned it. I’ve been writing a lot of poems in other voices, but when I try to write as me, about personal stories, the poems come out sounding like essays. So essays they shall be.

TDR: Here’s the dreaded “influences” question. Do you have any particular poetic influences? Why?

KP: It is a dreaded question, particularly with the predictable, groan-able influences I’ll mention. I conceived of and wrote my original notes for Pale Red Footprints while I was doing my M.A. in Canadian Literature. I was taking a year-long course in the “Canadian Long Poem”! Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid were both direct influences. I never really thought about them in subsequent years while I was working on the book, but several people picked up on it right away when they read the complete manuscript.

That fateful year, I was also doing my M.A. thesis on the work of Lola Lemire Tostevin. She’s a Franco-Ontarian writer (but writes in English), and writes a lot about language and belonging. Her take on those themes were also very much on my mind when I wrote the first draft of Pale Red Footprints.

In more recent years I’ve been entranced by Kristjana Gunnars’ novel/essay The Rose Garden: Reading Marcel Proust, and by the work of Erin Mouré. I don’t tend to read very widely, I’m afraid; I’m the kind of person who latches onto a book and then reads it twenty times. I spent many years as a CanLit scholar. I’d like to read more international poetry, but it’s a slow process. I always feel so far behind.

TDR: If you were going to write a column on a poem for The Globe and Mail, what poem would you choose and what would you say?

KP: I think I’d have a hard time with one of those Globe and Mail articles. It would inevitably come out sounding like a bad dissertation. But I think I’d like to do one of Mouré’s poems from Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, which I love. It’s set in the Toronto neighbourhood I live in, so I think I’d focus on setting, along with translation, in the abstract at least, with which I’ve been fascinated for a long time.







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