“. . . I want to know about blindness. I want to
ask poetry where the birds went when they disappeared and how it
was they reappeared in cursive loops like a new language above the
daffodil fields one afternoon in late March.”
~Eve Joseph (from “Questions”, The Secret Signature of Things)
Ask Eve Joseph if it’s day or night, and she won’t be able to tell you. At least, not when she’s consumed by writing.
The author of two books of poetry: The Startled Heart (2004) and The Secret Signature of Things (2010), and the recipient of multiple awards and nominations including the CBC Literary Awards shortlist for Creative non-fiction, Eve calls her writing process a “compulsive, irrational, self-absorbed kind of madness.”
She explored this compulsion in our interview, opening up about what drew her to language as a young girl, the years she didn’t write, and the ways in which writing surprises her. I feel really honoured to share her words and wisdom with you. (Thank you, Eve!)
1. What’s your earliest memory of feeling a connection to writing, of getting a sense that it was significant for you?
My earliest connection to writing was in grade 5 in Mrs. Black’s English class in Ridgeway Elementary School. Mrs. Black often came to class smelling of gin which may explain why some of her lectures were passionate rants about things she loved. Poetry was one of those things. The day she introduced us to the romantics: Shelley, Keats, Blake and Byron, I was sitting in my wooden desk at the back of the row and when she used the word “ephemeral” to describe an aspect of poetry I remember time slowing down and all sound disappearing. I remember the way the light slanted in through the tall window near my desk and the way I could almost taste the word. I fell in love with language long before I wrote anything.
2. What was the turning point in deciding to pursue it seriously?
There was no moment when I decided I would be a writer. I read a great deal and wrote poetry until my early twenties at which time I went to work on Norwegian freighters carrying lumber and pulp and paper from the West Coast to ports in the Pacific and Caribbean. It was during this time that I met my first husband, Floyd Joseph, a carver and member of the Squamish First Nation. For the next 25 years we raised three children and I pursued my Masters in Counselling and worked in a hospice with the dying.
I have often wondered about how I turned from writing and, to a great extent, reading during those years. I have told myself “if you were a real writer, you couldn’t have left it.” I came back to writing in my mid-forties, right around the time my marriage was ending. It was not so much a decision to return to poetry as it was a necessity. Poetry is both an act of writing and a way of seeing; what I came to understand is that through all my years of working with the dying, and living and learning within a First Nations community, I was engaged with poetry as a way of seeing the world. I just wasn’t writing. When I returned to writing poetry I was struck by the similarities between writing poetry and working with the dying: both acts demand total presence, both call on all that I am and all that I know – neither writing nor counseling are served solely by academic degrees. And both require an ability to enter the darkness, to be comfortable with what Keats called Negative Capability; or the capacity to be with uncertainty, doubt and mystery without reaching for quick answers.
I often turned to poetry to help me understand what I was seeing with the dying; poets like Jane Kenyon, William Carlos Williams, John Thompson, Stanley Kunitz, Neruda, Lorca, Rilke, not only helped me to make sense of what I was seeing but gave me a way to think about death that was not bound by the literal. They allowed me to see death through the lens of the imagination and art.
3. Can you describe your typical writing process-rituals, time of day, location, tools?
I don’t have any set rituals. Carolyn Forché says the best advice is ass-on-chair and I think she’s right. There is a constant tension between waiting for inspiration and doing the work even when there is nothing there. I seem to have to write really bad poems – lots of them – before I begin to feel something break through. Even then there is no guarantee a decent poem will come. Solitude is the one thing I know that helps. I need long stretches of time on my own. A couple of winters ago I rented a room in the city and went there for days, sometimes weeks, to read and write. It’s about derangement of the senses. When I’m consumed by writing I don’t know if it’s day or night. It is a compulsive, irrational, self-absorbed kind of madness.
4. What’s the most fulfilling aspect of writing for you?
The most wondrous thing is how writing is smarter than I am. I don’t set out knowing where I will go with a poem or an essay…the writing leads me places I would never have otherwise gone. Robert Frost said “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” I love being surprised by the way the creative act reveals the ordinary in new ways.
5. What part(s) do you find most challenging?
It’s hard when it feels as if writing has deserted me. Right now, having been immersed in nonfiction for the past few years, I find it impossible to write poetry. It always feels as if it’s gone for good and then suddenly it’s there again. At least one hopes it returns.
6. What do you turn to for inspiration to keep the creative tap flowing?
I turn to good writing: poets I love, essayists, memoirists. Right now I have a stack of books on my desk all relating to prose poetry. I have been reading French prose poets and loving them. In particular, I love Jean Follain’s work. Reading a good piece of writing can spark me although it is still necessary to lay the ground: to be in a receptive state. For me, the ideal would be to go away on my own for a week or two with all these books of prose poems and read until something starts to stir in me.
7. How do you deal with criticism?
Depends on the source. If the critic is someone whose opinion I trust then I may be irritated but I will take another look at my work and see what I can do to rework it. If I don’t trust the critic I just tend to think they don’t know what they’re talking about! It takes a certain amount of ego to continue in this endeavour.
8. What stands out as the writing lesson that has most influenced your work?
The most essential “lesson” is that we have to find our own voices and trust them. I had to stop going to writing workshops about 10 years ago as I felt I was starting to write like the teachers I was studying under. I remember asking my partner, Patrick Friesen, what I should do and he said “book a room at the Sylvia Hotel for a week and just go and write.” Creative writing programs can certainly teach a lot about the craft of writing and that is good, but it is not enough. I had to come up against myself…to figure out my rhythms, my thinking; I had to play with form, write reams of junk, keep writing, in order to somehow remain receptive for the times poetry feels more accessible. It really does help to sit at a desk and work every day, even when there is nothing there. Eventually, that kind of patience pays off.
9. What has surprised you about the writing life?
I have been surprised by the enormity of the gift of it. It has taken me places literally and metaphorically that I would never have imagined. It has brought a community of wonderful people into my life and it has revealed the world to me in new and wondrous ways.
I have been surprised, as well, by how hard it can be and how bereft I can feel when it disappears. It really is one of the few things that makes me feel fully alive.
Eve worked as a counselor at Victoria Hospice for 20 years. Her upcoming book of non-fiction–tentatively titled In the Slender Margin–explores death from many perspectives: mythology, philosophy, natural science, personal anecdote, art and imagination.
She will be reading on Saltspring Island this summer and at Planet Earth Poetry this fall. Contact her for details at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Listen to Eve read her work–it will both soothe and awaken you.