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Accidental Tourist in the Dark Realm - Diana Brebner speaks with Stephanie Bolster
by Diana Brebner

I spoke with Stephanie Bolster in late March, in the restaurant of the National Gallery of Canada. We've known each other for a few years, and have often met for lunch at the same table with a view of the Parliament Buildings high above the Ottawa River. Stephanie's first book of poetry, White Stone: The Alice Poems, was the winner of the 1998 Governor General's Award. She had previously received the Bronwen Wallace Award for poetry in 1996, and the Malahat Long Poem Prize in 1997. Her second book of poetry, Two Bowls of Milk, was published by McClelland & Stewart in April. Born and raised in Vancouver, she studied Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. She now lives in Ottawa with her partner, playwright Patrick Leroux, where she writes, teaches writing, and works on contract as a writer-editor for the National Gallery of Canada.

DB: Are there any people, books or events that you can identify that brought you into focus as a young writer?

SB: I think there were a few strategic things that I read. I read Sylvia Plath when I was sixteen-probably a lot of women have had this experience. It was horrific on the one hand, because of what happened to her and the direction that it took her, but I thought: It doesn't have to be this way. There's something about the urgency of her poetry, and her journals as well, that I really identified with. Years later, I read Robert Hass' book, Human Wishes, which is an incredibly crafted yet diverse collection of poems, and Eavan Boland, an Irish poet.

DB: Plath's poetry is so personal and "confessional". Your first book, White Stone, is a collection of poems which isn't at all, at first glance at least, about yourself. It's about the character, Alice, from Lewis Carroll's [pseudonym for Charles Dodgson] Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The poems also explore the life of the "real" Alice, Alice Liddell. When did you start writing the "Alice" poems and why did this character/person interest you?

SB: It was when I started writing poems about women characters in fairy tales that something just clicked, and I took off with that. It was a way of voicing things that I wanted to talk about, but not in a confessional way. It also gave me a form, and indulged the academic part of myself. In the early nineties, I started writing the Alice poems, and it was in 1992, when I started the Masters program at U.B.C., that I seriously started working on the manuscript. I think there were a few different things that interested me. Initially, I decided I wanted to write something about Alice because she had been overlooked. We all know about Dodgson, but who knows about what happened to Alice?

DB: Young writers, especially poets, often write with considerable angst and self-absorption about themselves. In White Stone this angst-ridden "I" is conspicuously absent. There is, instead, "the poet", a highly stylized and detached observer, who appears in some poems, and hangs about in the background in others. It seems that "the poet" is a fictional creation, related to you in the way that the character "Alice" is related to Alice Liddell. Are you "the poet"?

SB: That's a really good analogy. It was something I was very conscious of doing. It was partly a reaction against confessional poetry, and also the fact that so many books are process-oriented. I knew that this had to be process-oriented because people would think: Who cares about poems about Alice? Why did she write this? Why is this important? I knew I had to be in there in some way, but it's only part of myself. It's a version of myself. In the same way, Charles Dodgson was Charles Dodgson the professor, but he was also Lewis Carroll the writer of children's stories. Somewhere between those two, encompassing everything, was the real person that he was. When I'm writing poetry, there are some poems where I am 100% myself, and there are other poems where it's part of me. With these poems, I very much crafted experience to make it fit the poem. I think writers are always doing this. But people always assume that the "I" in the poem is the poet, and it's almost never entirely true.

DB: White Stone ends with "The Opened Door", a poem that seems disconnected from the rest of the text. It seems to foreshadow the content of your new book, Two Bowls of Milk. Why did you choose "The Opened Door" as the final poem for the book?

SB: I have Michael Harris to thank for that. He had this manuscript for a long time before it was published and we would meet and talk about it. He kept saying there's something more, it's not done, the end is not there, it's not finished yet! And I thought: Of course it's finished! We talked about my imagery, the imagery of doors and windows. He said: What happens when the door opens? I had already written most of the poems in the next book. So, I think, because "The Opened Door" was the last poem that I wrote for White Stone, it is more in the voice of Two Bowls of Milk. The door is opening and it is leading me, leading readers, into the next book.

DB: I remember someone telling me that T.S. Eliot said, somewhat facetiously, that when he read reviews of his work, he always found out interesting "facts" about himself and his poetry that he was previously unaware of. These so-called "facts" were not presented as conjecture or possibilities but as absolute truth. I'm sure this has happened to you. Since its publication in the spring of 1998, White Stone has been widely reviewed. What have you learned about yourself and your poems from those reviews?

SB: For the most part I have been very lucky because the book has been well reviewed. There have been a few reviewers who have been very insightful and have even picked up on things that I had intended, but had forgotten I had intended. These reviewers have read very carefully, and have talked about technique. And then there have been the blandly positive reviews that talk about the subject matter. Those are disappointing, because I'd like to think that people have thought about the fact that it is a book of poetry, not just a book about Alice.

There has only been one review that upset me, which was actually in Books in Canada. The reviewer made a particularly, to me anyway, glaring misreading of a poem ["The Poet as Nine Portraits of Alice"]. She lept from the fact that because the speaker of the poem -who in this case was me at nine years old-wore a t-shirt with the image of the teen idol, Shaun Cassidy, on it, to the assumption that I had been sexually abused by an older man. This is very upsetting because, for one thing, psychoanalytic criticism is not the same thing as literary criticism. But it was also blatantly untrue, and it seemed to me that she used that one detail to anchor an argument which she then proceeded to apply to other poems. I see this assumption as ungrounded; anyone familiar with Shaun Cassidy would realize that his image implies fascination at a distance, not an actual encounter.

DB: Do you think that somehow the responsibility isn't completely with the critic? Did you go back and look at the poem and ask how could this have been misread, and maybe see how that could have happened?

SB: Well, there are certain cases where I can see how someone could read material in that way in the sense that, about Alice herself, I am being deliberately ambiguous and subtle about her relationship with Dodgson. But maybe part of the potential confusion comes from the fact that, like many poets, I'm basically a sensitive person. My childhood was very comfortable, secure, uneventful in terms of dramatic, horrific things...

DB: Not terribly good for an artist! (laughter)

SB: Yeah, but I have the kind of temperament that others might call melodramatic. For example, in one of the poems, "In Which the Poet and Alice are Suddenly Old", there's a line: "We are grey with loss of childhood". That in no way refers to my particular childhood. What I'm saying is simply that childhood is over, the magic is lost. It's not taken away in any kind of drastic, violent act.

DB: Your new collection of poetry, Two Bowls of Milk, is very different from White Stone. In many ways, it is a more conventional book in that it contains many individual lyric poems that are not linked by a common theme or character. The first thing I noticed about Two Bowls of Milk is that "the poet" of White Stone has disappeared and the first person "I" of Two Bowls does not seem to be a detached observer but rather she is more of a participant within the poems. You, as a poet, seem to have entered the poems, although in poems such as "Come to the edge of the barn the property really begins there", and "Flood, Deer Lake, B.C.", the person in the poem seems to be prone to getting stuck in snow, or water, or mud. So, tell me about that.

SB: There was a certain point where I realized I was becoming much more present in the poems, that I was moving from one type of writing into another, moving more into this book from White Stone. I do tend to be an observer of things, rather than a participant, and I think that's where the sense of "stuckness" comes from. I'm in the poem, but I'm not necessarily doing anything except looking. I'm fixed in one place observing things, observing where I am. So I think it's an "I am here" assertion, but not necessarily "I am running across the field". I recognize that as a trait, in my writing and at some point that may change or that just may be a quality of myself.

DB: There is often more than a twinge of violence, bloodiness, a dark underside to your work. All the serenity and calm of your polished lines cannot prevent this chthonic element from poking through. I'm thinking specifically of "Lost things poke through melting snow" with its red mitten pinned directly to a little girl's chest, and her heart, hard as a stone, in the centre of a thrown snowball-shades of Robertson Davies!-which is later thawed in a microwave oven. Pretty gruesome. The poem ends with the line: "The next year she went walking in her red rubber boots until only/a trail of hollow exclamations marks was left."

Has Stephanie Bolster gone over to "the dark side"?

SB: I think I have always been curious about what's under the surface of things. It comes out in Alice in the fact that she goes underground. It comes out when I look at paintings and I'm thinking about what's not seen, what's behind the door. And probably because the darkness isn't there in my life, it gives me, in a sense, almost the indulgence of letting the mental darkness come into the poems, and it's not too frightening. I think I'm also very interested in contrasts...

DB: Sort of an accidental tourist in the dark realm..

SB: Well, I'm in a safe position to explore that and I think I'm interested in the contrast between the serene surfaces of the poem and the dark things underneath. And the edges, that's something that I've been much more interested in the past few years-not making beautiful things, but looking at the edges of things, and allowing the edges to be edges, not cleaning them up.

DB: Two Bowls of Milk contains sections of poems about paintings, photographs, objets d'art. One series of poems, "Deux Personnages dans la Nuit", is about the work of the Quebec painter, Jean Paul Lemieux. Why did you choose to write about Lemieux's work?

SB: When I moved to Quebec, I discovered his work for the first time, and it was everywhere. My partner, Patrick, who had grown up in this type of snowy winter environment, finds those paintings very soothing, and I find them very depressing. And I thought: Why is this? Lemieux himself was so much rooted in his own landscape that when he went out to B.C. at one point, he couldn't paint, everything was encroaching, there was no horizon. It was just mountains, and water, and trees! That's how I'm used to seeing the world, so I felt very alien in his landscape. I thought that by writing about his paintings I could try and understand what about that place made him feel at home there, and also just explore issues of home and displacement, the fact that it works both ways. I was also interested in the figure of his wife, because she was an artist who seems to have given up her own art for him. Patrick's grandmother studied with Lemieux so she was able to give me some anecdotes about him. She mentioned the fact that his wife had been a painter and then stopped.

DB: Another group of poems about art is "Inside a Tent of Skin", subtitled "poems in the National Gallery of Canada". I remember walking through the gallery with you when you were beginning to write these poems. I suggested that you should write not only about the works you were attracted to, but also about those that you found disturbing, a suggestion which I think you found disturbing. (laughter) How did you finally choose the works you have written about? Did you just stand in front of a painting and feel drawn to it?

SB: Yeah, there's partly that intuitive thing, but I also wrote thirty or forty poems at least, most of which aren't in the book. Many of them worked as individual poems, but they didn't necessarily speak to the concerns that I had decided I would pursue in the section. I wanted to explore ideas of the body and dislocation from the body. Only certain artworks spoke to that, and those are the ones that I kept.

DB: And the title of the group of poems?

SB: It comes from an image that appeared in one of those poems. The idea of bones pitched inside a tent of skin, seeing the body as a place, inhabiting the body as a consciousness, but acknowledging that the body is there. As a writer I tend to be very cerebral and read a lot of cerebral writers, so this is a way of exploring other issues.

DB: They may be cerebral, but there's a lot of power and concern with the body, the bloody, in "Inside a Tent of Skin". I think that really comes out in the triptych of poems that ends the book. "Three Goddesses" moves through time and is about three paintings in the National Gallery's collection: Venus, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1518); Hope, by Gustav Klimt (1903); and Transformations No. 5, by Jack Shadbolt (1976).

SB: The Cranach painting and the Klimt painting are both nude women figures, vertical paintings...

DB: And very representational...

SB: That's right. The Shadbolt is entirely different. Very contemporary, gritty, bloody.

DB: Closer to abstraction...

SB: Yeah, and I hadn't written about abstract work before. So, what I think is interesting about these is that I chose them for their contrast. I set myself a deadline. I wrote the poems in two or three weeks. They were the first poems that I wrote with a process of revision that has carried through with me since, which is spending a lot of time on each word, each line, not writing the poem in a gush and then going back and tinkering with it. I thought very much about these poems as I was writing them.

DB: We've left our regular lunch table and walked to the Contemporary gallery of the National Gallery. We're standing in front of Jack Shadbolt's painting, Transformations No. 5. It is divided into three panels, which are echoed in "Three Goddesses". It is very colourful, yet it has a lot of darkness in it. It looks like a series of exploding, transforming butterflies. What do you see in the painting and how did that become the third poem of "Three Goddesses", "Fear of the Twenty-First Century"?

SB: What I like is the organic quality of Shadbolt's work. When I was living in B.C., there was a period when I was doing research on Shadbolt. It was also a counterbalance to the serene or melancholic snowscapes of Lemieux. There are all these colours, things are exploding and transforming. It makes sense, in retrospect, that this became the last poem of the book.

DB: It's a very large work. There's no size indicated here, but I'd say it's approximately nine feet by five, maybe six feet.

SB: It's not the kind of thing you're going to have in a living room. There's nothing quaint about it...

DB: Well, maybe in my living room. (laughter) I say that, but it is a bit overwhelming. Not the size so much, but just the powerfulness of it. And in a sense, this poem is also very overwhelming, very powerful, almost to the point of being painful to read.

SB: I think this painting liberated me to write a poem like that. The poem surprised me when I was writing it, and I knew it had to be an explosive poem. I knew that on the page it had to move-all those things that I hadn't done before. I guess because things were breaking free, transforming in the painting, I set up that expectation for myself when I sat down to write it. A lot of the actual content is images straight from the painting, bits of flag and firecracker. That's what these exploding butterflies look like to me. The blood and guts-it's all here in the painting.

DB: In this poem, the "I" , that first person "poet", definitely moves. It's not a static poem. It's unstuck.

SB: Yeah, in a sense, that is where things come unstuck. And come apart.

DB: It seems like a good omen for the future. There is the possibility of change and transformation. Do you feel that is what's happening to you as a poet?

SB: I think it's always happening and if it's not happening I make it happen by doing things like collaborations, or I end up moving to a new place, or even something as simple as writing about abstract art instead of figurative art.

DB: Do you see yourself as a butterfly, an exploding butterfly?

SB: Not really, although I tend to use a lot of images of creatures of the air and of the water, exploring the elements. And I have the "Alice as Chrysalis" poem in White Stone. So, that butterfly imagery has been there, and also that's partly what drew me to this painting. But, I've never thought of myself as a butterfly.

DB: That's not your personality?

SB: In the poem, it is much more the "she", the "other", that is the butterfly. 

Diana Brebner is an Ottawa-based poet. She has published three volumes of verse, including the award-winning Radiant Life Forms (1990) and The Golden Lotus (1993).


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