“Between the Lines” – Josh Quirion in Interview with Ann Scowcroft

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JQ: Your debut collection, The Truth of Houses, received the Concordia University First Book Prize. About the work, jurors said it was “as if the author had been accumulating, constructing her vision long enough and could hold back no longer.” Is this accurate? Can you describe your method and practice of collecting material, and transforming that material into a collection of poetry?

AS: I think the jurors’ comment was accurate, perhaps more accurate than they knew, and perhaps especially regarding the reference to accumulation. Was The Truth of Houses my first book or my fourth? Difficult to know. I started writing seriously when my children were young and the book was published after they’d left home. Once I had enough poems to make up what I thought a collection would look like, I sent it out. There were always new poems, new ways to see how they might relate to each other whenever I got a rejection back six months or a year later. The pattern repeated itself until Brick accepted the manuscript it had become. Some of those first poems are in the book, as are a few that came after the manuscript was accepted. Of course there was the whole bit in between the sendings and the acceptance that involved sharing it among trusted readers. Given that I experienced the poems in that collection as cumulative and not thematic, it took feedback from friends for me to understand what a reader might hear. Michelle Ariss suggested the collection title, and, from there, I could see an organization was possible. That lead to fishing around in A Pattern Language, which also helped shape the sections in an otherwise non-thematic collection. In the years that I had been writing, sending, receiving rejections, re-writing, etc., poetry collections had begun to take shape in much more intentional ways that didn’t really reflect the accumulation aspect of Truth of Houses that the jurors noticed.

I suppose clarity and space are as close as it comes to method for me. I wrote for several years with a collective of writers from the Eastern Townships, and sometimes a poem would spring in its entirety in the kind of sacred space people writing and listening to each other can create. More often a line or a surprise reflection that seem suitable for a poem will just kind of float up from the clutter of every day mind, and I’ll write that down. Then it’s about creating time and space to sit with it and see what it would like from me, if anything. It’s really about the focused time in which an idea or a thought might develop into a poem.

JQ: You mention writing with a collective of writers from the Eastern Townships. Can you discuss your experience of belonging to “an association,” if you will, and what that can contributes to a poet’s (or author’s) work? And might I ask, also, who were the other writers from the Townships with whom you collaborated, and what form such a collaboration assumes?

AS: In 1993 my family lived for a year in western Massachusetts. I joined a writing group there, led by someone who had trained with Pat Schneider from Amherst. Hers was, at the time, a very particular approach that is probably more ubiquitous now. The leader provides a prompt of some kind, and the people gathered write whatever comes as a result of the prompt–or whatever comes despite the prompt. Then immediately, the extemporaneous fragments are read aloud, and each writer has an opportunity to listen to what the other writers heard in the piece. The listening and learning to respond to the writing and not the person is as important as the writing, and both are very useful for the writer.

I took that experience home to the Townships when we moved back in 1994, and started a group that included a number of people, including Carolyn Rowell, Marjorie Bruhmuller and Janice LaDuke, all of whom (and others still) eventually took the baton and extended the offer in other groups and locations. Many people have come and gone in the many permutations of that starter group. The initial gesture still resonates, still pulls new people in, and still gathers some of those original voices. More importantly for me personally was the kind of immediate community it created. Even if I haven’t led or participated in many years, the bond of finding people with the same yearning is a strong one, and many of those women (because it was mostly women) remain important people in my life. Impossible to meet one and not ask: how’s the writing going? It’s probably no more difficult being a rural writer than any other kind, but isolation can be an issue when you are just beginning to believe you might have something to say. Difficult to have confidence if there’s no one to listen!

JQ: From the perspective of someone who has written within a collective, can you speak to the mythos of the isolated, solitary writer? It would seem that this archetype is often romanticized in literature; would you say that it is so in literary practice as well? And, why do you think the writers you collaborated with in the nineties were mostly women; was it merely coincidence, or might there have been other contributing factors? 

AS: I wonder what you have in mind with “mythos,” and what romantic notion is coming to mind?  It gives me this image of the moor and substance abuse, but perhaps I am not reading the question right. Women tend to find time alone quite precious, or at least I have. Writing requires focus, and that usually means a fair bit of time alone unfettered by the needs of other beings. Is there any work that doesn’t require focus though? Even if you do what you do in the vicinity of others, chances are there’s a solitary aspect. I think I wrote earlier that there could sometimes be spontaneous and untouchable brilliance that arises in collective writing experiences; sometime something fully formed can appear. More often than not though, at least in my experience, the ghost of something swims up and needs to be taken home to be worked with. For people who don’t work in writers’ rooms or with performance groups, where the collective is assumed and needed, I think there is a certain amount of ownership that has to be generated around a given piece of writing, and that can only be done by building a relationship with it through long hours of singular contact. Having a community of other people who spend chunks of time with the life of their imaginations ruling things is important for many reasons, not the least of which are sanity and concrete creative feedback. When it comes to the work of writing, though, the fact is much it has to be done alone. I’m not sure if that feeds into the mythos or not.

Why mostly women in the group collaborations? I never asked. Men did participate in fewer numbers. Why was there only one man in my yoga class the other night? No idea. Geography? Flexibility? Disinterest? Is the gender segregation similar in degreed creative writing programmes? In groups or programmes led by men? Is it a rural thing? The possible variables are many and sound like they could add up to a healthy MA thesis. It’s likely a larger question that the small answer, whatever it is, about writing collaborations might contribute one drop to. You are probably better positioned to answer than I am: what do you think?

JQ: You participated, as writer, on an interdisciplinary performance project titled Frankenstein’s Ghost. You published the aforementioned collection of poetry, worked as a lecture at the Universities of Sherbrooke and Bishop’s, and you are now involved with the UNHCR as a Technical Advisor. How does it all connect? Does the artist have a responsibility vis-à-vis pedagogy? 

AS: Looks like restlessness more than a grand plan, doesn’t it? My work and creative lives have both meandered. It might take a few more years to see a meaningful pattern if there is one. I come from a family where it was understood that work delivered meaning to one’s life, and also that creative pursuits were fine as crafts, best suited for the basement or garage. Writing has always been both central to my interior life and shadowed in my external life. Which might explain the patience with waiting for the first book to take a publishable shape, and the willingness to go in a different direction with collaborations after. I’m circling another couple of projects now that seem singular, but not sure. I’ve lost a couple these last few years.

I’ve been asked a lot about the opportunities that the humanitarian work might bring to my writing, though never what an artist might bring to the work.  It has not yet brought content; I’m not convinced it ever will. It has made precision and clarity important, refined my attention to representation of experience so that it might re-create a reality and not a perception for someone who is not in a specific place, but who must make informed decisions about any number of impossible things that will affect the lives of significant numbers of vulnerable people in that place. The power of observation might then be what I’ve had to offer as a writer in this sphere of work.

JQ: What do you consider to be two great works of literature? 

AS: That word “great” is so dependent on time and circumstance for me. Anything by CD Wright for poetry; Steal Away is a particular favorite. For fiction, Rachel Cusk’s Outline was a revelation.

  Ann Scowcroft lives and writes in the Eastern Townships.

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