canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: S.E. Venart

S.E. Venart writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Recent magazine publications include Books in Canada, Nova: Culture Sliced Thin, This Magazine, Matrix, Prism International, and subterrain. Recent anthologies include Telling Stories, Ribsauce, Headlight 4, A Room at the Heart of Things; and The Best of Blood & Aphorisms. Recent awards include the CBC-QWF Short Story Award and This Magazine's Great Canadian Literary Hunt. 

S.E. Venart received an MA in Creative Writing & English from Concordia University. She has BAs from Mount Allison and York University. She is grateful to past and present mentors, including Elisabeth Harvor, Don Coles, Matt Cohen, Audrey Thomas, Don McKay, and Trevor Ferguson. 

Currently, she is learning a great deal about editing poetry from Barry Dempster, who is working with her on her first book-length poetry manuscript, We Are Really Happy.

For more visit http://www.woodshedding.org/

TDR conducted this interview in the autumn of the year 2005.

*

Tell us how it all started.

My mother is a writer and both my parents read a lot, so I grew up in a fairly literary environment. I began writing at Mount Allison University. Two events occurred during my sophomore year.  First, I fell in love with this junior who hung out on the same floor as I did in the library. And he wrote poems, so I wrote a poem for him (an artless piece that used an avocado rolling off a table as a central metaphor for alienation). 

The second event involved the poet Douglas Lochhead, who happened to be my Canadian Studies professor. He assigned a project in which we were to write a biography of our hometown.  I grew up on a farm in Pleasant Vale, NB, which is a church at an intersection of dirt roads and about four farms. I had nothing but an oral history to pull from, so I wrote the paper in the voice of our neighbouróan eighty-year-old farmer who was the great-grandson of an original settleró and in the voice of his wife, who was as sweet as an apple pie and a little smarter than one. 

For the first time ever, I found that writing an essay came easily. When Lochhead returned the papers, he asked several people to come see him, including me. I was sure that he was disappointed in my paper, but he surprised me by giving me probably my only ĎAí grade at Mount Allison.  He also told me that I had some talent and made me promise that I would keep writing. I still donít see what he saw between the lines of spelling and grammatical errors, but his encouragement meant a lot to me.  It still does. 

Are you working on anything now?

Iím editing a manuscript of three novellas and getting ready to send them out to publishing houses. Iíve finished researching my next project, a novel tentatively called The Church of Walt Whitman.  If you know a thing or two about Whitmanís Leaves of Grass, youíll see the irony in that title ("Is it this pile of brick and mortaróthese dead floors, windows, railsóyou call the church?  Why this is not the church at allóthe Church is livingÖ").  It is set  in New Brunswick in the Ď70s.  

What is woodshedding?

As far as I know, itís originally a blues term, it means "an arduous rehearsal." On my web site, I've played with that definition, writing that it connotes the honing of a craft in a solitary environment. The word's etymology comes from woodsheds being formerly used in administering sound thrashings.  Which works in a way; woodshedding isnít easy.

I started using the term when I left Montrealófirst to teach in Korea and then to write at writing retreats in Canada, the US and Europeó and left my strong and cosy student writing community at Concordia. It was weird and hard at first, but I felt it was really necessary to remove myself and concentrate on my craft. And I don't regret disappearing.  

Iíve been woodshedding off and on for four years.  The longest period was when I dog-sat for a year and a half on the Bay of Fundy.  I didnít have a car, but I had a ten-speed that I rode to the post office once a day to pick up my mail.  It was pretty isolating but I produced so much; I finished a fiction manuscript and the poetry manuscript. And my sister Emily was a hero. Sheíd take me out for groceries once a week.

Besides winning awards for writing what do you do? Do you have an office or a park bench? Or both?

I use both park benches and a desk.  It depends on where I am. I used my desk at John Abbott College when I was teaching there last year.  Now I use the National Library.  But I do like park benches. I spent a month writing in Walt Whitman Park in Brooklyn. I was dog-sitting there as well. The park is basically a tiny patch of grass, surrounded by parking lots, between the Manhattan bridge overpass and the Brooklyn Bridge, overlooked by the gigantic false tower on the roof of The Watchtower offices. Talk about an un-Whitman-like setting. 

Do you write about your family?

Not  really, no.  In some of my poems, I write about the experience of growing up in a large family, being part of the audience of childhood ó you know, the one from which you watch and learn the intricacies of adulthood. People think I write about my family ó I had a poem published in This Magazine a few years ago about a mother whose baby died from SIDS. My mother got a lot of long, sad looks from people for that poem. 

If you had to choose between writing about nature or writing about concrete what would you do?

Nature. Mainly because living things downright delight me.  I just came back from Minnesota where I got to sit on a lake, eating marshmallows and watching loons. One fellow put on this terrific display, pulling himself up on his feet and rushing across the water toward us, making that loopy cartoon call. Loons get so loony at dusk. Apparently itís called penguin dancing.

Brick is celebrating 30 years as a publisher. Thatís quite amazing. You must be excited to be working with such a legendary press. Tell us about your book, tell us everything.

I met Don McKay and Barry Dempster at the Banff writing studio in 2002 and right away I felt like they got what I was trying to do in my poems. Barry Dempster has been so generous with his time; he edited the manuscript well beyond Banff. In January, Iíll begin a final edit with Liz Phillips and Iím looking forward to that.

The collection is called We Are Really Happy. Half the poems were written while I was woodshedding on the Bay of Fundy and also at writing retreats in New York and Scotland and Minnesota. Some of the poems are about that singular existence.  The other half of the manuscript was written when I returned to Montreal last year. Iíd go running at night. There are a lot of running poems.  And there are poems about concrete, about lit office buildings at night, and the puzzle of highway and tunnels everyone avoids like the plague.

Any words of wisdom for people who want to be writers and win contests and awards?

The thing about wisdom is, you have to live it to really get it.  I got wisdom thrown at me from teachers and writers and although I damn well should have listened, I was too excited about the romantic idea of being a writer to pay attention to most of what was offered.  The exception was Matt Cohen; he got so exasperated with me.  He called me a punctuation criminal and he kicked my ass.  He was so right: my composition skills were abominable. 

What I tell my students is to read. Read, read, read. Itís crazy, but I used to feel guilty to be caught reading rather than writing, but now I see that itís the most important exercise for a writer.  And I suggest marking up the books you love. Take notes. Underline what you love.  Break those spines.

I donít have much wisdom about contests. Except maybe donít apply to contests. Contests, schmontests.  I mean, I apply because I like a concrete deadline.  But rather than pay an entry fee, you can submit to a magazine for the price of two stamps. But no matter what the submission, remember to send only what is asked for, not more. By reading the magazineís contents first, you can make sure your story or your poems are apt. And once youíve dropped the envelope in the mailbox, consider itís tumbled down the rabbit hole. Forget you sent it and move on to the next submission.

Nathaniel G. Moore is the reigning and defending TDR features editor.

 

 

 

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