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Againstthe Grain
by Barbara Carey

Lorna Crozier`s poetry aims to prick holes inf alse comforts LORNA CROZIER is the author ofeight books of poetry, including the McClelland& Stewart titles The GardenGoing On Without Us (1985), Angels of Flesh, Angels of Silence (1988), andInventing the Hawk (1992), her most recent collection, which won the GovernorGeneral`s Award for Poetry last year. She recently took time off from herteaching duties at the University of Victoria for a brief visit to Ontario, andspoke with Barbara Carey while in Toronto. Bic How did you get started writingpoetry? Loma Crozier: In some ways, it`s still a surprise to me, and it`s certainly a surpriseto my mother, who says things like "I hated English in school, and I endup with a daughter who`s a writer!" I come from the kind of family thatdidn`t have books around the house. Both my parents grew up on a farm, and itwas very much a working-class family, not an intellectual family. We nevertalked about literature or the world of art or of music, beyond "DonMesser`s Jubilee," which was their favourite program. So it does seem oddto me, sometimes, that I developed a love of reading and books and especiallyof writing. Bic: Was it a kind of rebellion? Itsounds as if it was so much against the grain of your family Crozier: I don`t think it was a rebellion. It was justsome itch that I was born with, to put words down on paper. I can`t think ofany other way to describe it. But I do recall an incident in grade one, when Ibrought a poem to school - I can`t remember whether it was assigned or if I didit on my own. It was about a dog dying, and it had the refrain "But we`llmeet in heaven by and by." Obviously it sounds like a terrible thing, butI remember the teacher tacking it up on the bulletin board. BiC: So you were praised for something you`d done. Crozier: Yes. And suddenly it was expected that I could do something with words. Soperhaps that laid the course for me to be a writer. I have no idea, but I doremember feeling really special that people were reading those words and likingthem. BiC: When did you apply yourself seriously to writing poetry? Crozier: When I was in my mid-20s Itook the brave step of going to the Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts andtaking a creative-writing class taught by Ken Mitchell. I had just had a poempublished in Grain - a godawful poem, when I look back on it, but I guess theysaw some promise in it and were kind enough to publish it - and that gave methe courage to say, "Well, maybe I should learn a little more aboutthis." Taking that course was like having a huge, marvellous door openingin my head, not only because of learning a bit about the craft of writing, which Icertainly didn`t know much about, but also because I found my people there. Imet people who were as avid about books as I was - all they could talk aboutwas what they were reading, and who was writing what, and how their work wasgoing. Suddenly there was this world I was granted entry into, that I had hadno idea existed. But when I discovered it, things just changed - forever. Someof my very good friends go back to that time, which is 20 years ago now. Peoplelike Gary Hyland and Bob Currie and Judy Krause and Lois Simmie. They`re all peoplewho either hadn`t published anything at the time or had only published smallchapbooks, and are established writers now. BiC: Your group must have had aphenomenal success rate. Crozier: It did. We liked each other so much that Bob and Gary and SteveScriver, the "hockeypoet," decided to establish a workshop group in Moose Jaw, even though welived in different cities, to meet once a month. Ed Dyck, who`s publishedseveral books of poetry, was also a member; Byrna Barclay, who`s published herthird novel and a collection of short stories; and James McLean, who wrote abook called The Secret Life of Railroaders, which came out with Coteau about 10years ago. We called it the Moose Jaw Movement, partly as a joke, a reaction tothe idea that good writing couldn`t come out of any place but Toronto,Vancouver, Montreal. BiC Your work carries a strong sense of identification with the naturalworld, and with fanning. And yet I understand you`ve never actually lived on afarm? Crozier: The truth comes out! I really did think of myself as a city kid - I knowthat people who grew up in places like Toronto would find it a joke that I grewup in a city of 14,000 and thought it was the big time. But I did. I was bornin Swift Current [Saskatchewan] and stayed there until I graduated from highschool, and then left. But what I grew up with, where the farm comes from, weremy parents` stories. I think once you were born and raised on a farm, as theywere, it never leaves you; and for me the farm became a bit of a mythic place.I didn`t have to deal with the realities of that life, so in some ways Iidealized it. Though that`s not entirely true, either; my parents certainlydidn`t idealize it. My mother was on the farm during the Dirty Thirties, in afamily of seven kids, when they were feeding the cows Russian thistle becausethere was nothing else around, and my grandfather would line up at the trainstation to get salted cod from the Maritimes and apples from Ontario to feedthe family. So she certainly never romanticized that life. But from the time Iwas very small until I was about eight, we would go to my grandparents`- mymother`s parents - farm for Sunday dinner. I loved that world, even the grislypart of it. I used to love watching the chicken get its head chopped off, howit would fly around the yard spurting blood. I found it fascinating - it wassuch a great adventure, a magical world. Also, I`ve lived in various citiesthroughout MY life, but I`ve alwaysgone back to Saskatchewan, and I don`t think you can live in that provincewithout the farm being a presence. Right now in a sad way, because so manyfarmers are going bankrupt, and rural Saskatchewan is obviously dying out. Andthat leaves a grey pall over everybody, including people who live in the largercities like Saskatoon and Regina. When the farm economy`s good, the rest of theeconomy is good, and when it`s bad, the rest of the economy goes down with it. BiC You mention that your parents` stories were influential. The importance of storytelling in people`slives comes through in a lot of your work. Crozier: I think I`ve heard Robert Kroetsch talk about it as a Western phenomenon -the storyteller in the bar or around the kitchen table. In my home, it wasdefinitely around the kitchen table: my father went to the bar but my motherdidn`t! So the family stories I heard were in the kitchen when relatives werethere for Christmas or Thanksgiving or whatever. They were all storytellers,not in a fancy, high-falutin way, but just, "Do you remember the timeUncle Rusty rode the pig through the livingroom?" - that kind of thing. Ididn`t realize, when I was listening, that I was listening so intently, and Ididn`t know it would become material I would transform or use for poetry~ But Ithink that I understand the world and the larger concepts through anecdote andpersonal experience, rather than through philosophical statements. It seems tobe the way that I can gather material and use it and live with it. BiC People often expect poetry to be deadly serious; aren`t you aftaid thatyou won`t be taken seriously if you write about things like "The Sex livesof Vegetables"? Crozier: In fact that`s been a criticism that has come up more than once in reviewsof my books. So, yes, a lot of people do not like humour in a poetry book. They find it almostoffensive that someone is daring to try to be funny in poetry, which strikes meas extremely limited and nalve, since most humour is very serious. I like humour with some sort of edge; it makes you smile, but there`ssomething else going on, too. And I think that`s true of "The Sex Lives ofVegetables," which is in some ways a feminist work. You know, the earth isjust so much larger than those poor carrots, who just don`t know when to giveup! There`s what I hope is a graceful kind of mockery going on in those pieces,and I think they`re also political in the sense of being poems about veryordinary things. BiC Because of those poems, someone walked out of a reading once I and you`ve received hate mail. WAat do you thinkaccounts for those reactions? Is it the combination of sex and humour Is it the fact that you`re a woman? Crozier: I think they don`t expect a woman to be saying "dirty words" outloud, in front of an audience. They`re annoyed BiC: I know you consider yourself a feminist. How does thataffect your writing? Crozier: One of the things I absolutely delight in is what Adrienne Rich calls"re-visioning": looking at the old stories, but looking at them in anew way; adding women to the story when women have been left out; or adding aset of episodes to give a story a different slant; saying, "There`sanother story, and then again, there`s another, and there`s also onemore." As a feminist, I want to reinterpret the old tales that we grew upwith, that have influenced so much of our lives. There`s a great wealth ofthings to be said again from a different viewpoint, in a different way. BiC: You`re regarded as a Prairie poet, but you`re now living onthe West Coast. Do you foresee a shift in your work as a result? Crozier: I hope there will be shifts in my work, because I don`t want to keepwriting the same things. Perhaps the change of landscape will cause some shiftsin my work. But the Prairies are what formed me, and I really do feel that theair you breathe and the light you see help form all the cells, the blood, andthe bones. I`m sure it will be in my head, though perhaps more as an imaginedplace now. Although I think in some ways I always did use it as an imaginedplace, so I`m not sure that it will become more imagined. But one of the thingsthat surprised me, looking back at Inventing the Hawk, was the number of poemsabout the sea. In fact the ocean recurs as an image in all my work. I`m notsure, why; whether it`s because it`s the great imagined place when you`re inthe centre of a continent, or because the Prairie sky is very much like theocean -it`s that vast, it always shifts and the colours change, and you can see things comingfrom a long way off. So maybe there isn`t that much distinction between the twoplaces. There`s an old myth that Prairie farmboys made the best sailors in thewar because they didn`t get agoraphobia. They were used to being way out in themiddle of something with no definable guideposts to tell them where they were. BiC: Is there a specific process to how a poem develops? Crozier: More often than not, it starts as a first line, though that line might getthrown out by the third or fourth draft. Sometimes it`s an image, sometimesit`s even vaguer, just something that`s bothering me that wants to turn intowords. My work definitely grows out of other writers` work, too. When I`m notfeeling particularly creative, the best way for me to get going is not to gofor a walk and see the natural world, but to sit down and read a book of poetrythat I love. And then a word, an image, a sound, will get my own imaginativewheels turning. What I write may have nothing to do with what I`ve just read,but that person`s words will have inspired me. BiC: You seem to work intuitively, but do you ever choose to headoff in a particular direction? Do You` say` look backat what you`ve written in order to go forward? Crozier: One of the reasons I love writing poetry is that I never know where a poemis going to take me or how it`s going to end when I sit down and start writingit. If I become too conscious of what I`m doing, and too pushy with the poem,it`s likely to end up in my huge file of poems that don`t work. And more oftenthan not, if that happens, it`s because of a problem with the ending. Sometimesit`s too contrived, too much like a door closing. If the ending isn`t there inmy first rush, the first draft, I can`t seem to create one that will make thepoem the sort of living organism it can be. So I work very unconsciously inearly drafts and it`s only later, in the revision, that I bring what I knowabout craft to it, and start tinkering. But the form of the poem is there fromthe beginning. BiC: I wasn`t thinking so much of individual poems, but of recognizing a pattern in past work and deciding topush in that direction? Crozier: No, I would never work that way. I think it would absolutely seize me up.I guess I wouldn`t want a conscious journey in the beginning because it might leadme too much in an organized direction. I tend to be someone who likes to jumparound between styles and different ideas and themes, not that these are everconsciously chosen, for me anyway. Dennis Lee, when I sent him my manuscriptfor what became The Garden Going On Without Us, said that I reminded him ofsomeone who entered a track and field meet and began running the 100-yard dash,but in the middle decided to pole-vault and jump a few hurdles. I never knewwhether that was a compliment or an insult, but I thought it was an accurateanalysis. I very much believe in what the unconscious does, and for me that`sextremely important from the first draft to the final one. Now, there`s another side to that,because I do give myself assignments. For instance, "Facts About MyFather" was written because I was thinking about the perception that mypoetry is very personal, almost confessional - that I haven`t held back. And Ithought that in some ways that`s not true. One of my most formative personalrelationships was with my father, and I noticed that he was not in any of mybooks. My mother was, but in a way as a caricature, as the figure of an oldwoman who tells stories. But my father didn`t even appear in passing. So Ithought, There`s something here that you`re avoiding, and you should explorethis man and your relationship to him. And I gave myself the assignment towrite a poem about my father in one way or another, part invention, part truth,it didn`t matter, but that was the area I wanted to explore. Often when I givemyself assignments what I try to find is that area of vulnerability that`scharged, that hurts a little when you touch it, and say, "There`s a riskthere; it`s an area that troubles you, and so maybe that`s an area you shouldwalk into and see what happens."

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