An Interview with Anne Simpson
When I met Anne Simpson in 2008 at the Vancouver International Writers Festival, she mentioned to me that she was working on a book of essays. So when a chance to review the book presented itself, I was delighted. (My review is here, at Prairie Fire.) The Marram Grass is a deeply thoughtful and richly textured book – both metaphorically, and literally, thanks to Gaspereau’s beautiful design. Here are some of Anne’s thoughts on writing it.
Q: You’re well-known as a poet and novelist; The Marram Grass is your first book of essays. What attracted you to the form? What, in particular, distinguishes the essay, as a genre, for you? What can it offer to a writer, and to readers?
A: I had questions that I kept circling around, and these questions were complex, and layered with other things that interested me, which is also how my poetry works, I think. To answer the questions, I had to find a way to ground myself, literally, by using the ground of the places near where I live.
And I don’t know if I was attracted to the form of the essay: it was more that the form chose me. And then it invited me to move around, so I could explore various avenues. But I don’t know if I understand what distinguishes the essay. Everyone who writes an essay reveals something different; its magic is that it is so flexible a form. A person can fool around within it.
But all I know is that my questions wouldn’t leave me alone—and, of course, I’m not done with the questions just because I finished the book. The curious thing is that I didn’t structure this book: I didn’t have an idea that one essay would lead to another essay. It was as if the questions kept leading me and leading me, until, finally, I came to the issue of empathy at the end. Every writer comes to this idea, I think, in one way or another. What I didn’t know is that the book was forming itself unbeknownst to me, and that, in fact, this was exactly where it was supposed to end up. The book opened out into the idea of community.
What can the essay offer to a reader? Well, I don’t know, exactly, but I know the writing of an essay is a way of thinking something through, and so the reading of an essay must be a similar process. However the writer expresses his or her ideas in an essay, it is an invitation to the reader to accompany the writer. It’s the beginning of a conversation.
Q: The range of reference in these essays is extremely wide and rich. Can you tell us something about the reading you did? Was it different from or similar to the kind of reading you do when you’re writing poetry or fiction?
A: The reading for this book was very different than it has been for other books I’ve written. When I do research for fiction or poetry, I’m something of a scavenger (I need to know one or two things and go back to writing, and then I surface again, and find out another couple of things, and so on). In the case of Marram Grass, I not only read widely to try to figure out my answers, which were never really answers, I also audited a course – one term in length – through which I could study the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. At a deeper level, though, I was still living with questions that had come up in two colloquia held at St. Peter’s Abbey in Saskatchewan – on Nature Writing and Wilderness Thought – in which I’d participated. Because the conversations had been so deep and thoughtful in those colloquia, I wanted to respond in kind.
I think if I write another such book – possibly one on creative communities – I may not include as many references to secondary sources. But this book simply voiced itself this way.
Q: The essays in The Marram Grass frequently juxtapose concrete descriptions of nature against more abstract passages of philosophical speculation. Reading them, I felt invited to participate in a sort of balancing that reinforced the central premise of the book – that metaphor schools us in the ability to hover between apparent binaries, to tolerate ambiguity and the unresolved, and in doing so, to deepen our understanding of “the other.” Thoughts?
A: I know I do this in my long poems: I have to move between one thing and another, and this oscillation is the way I find out what I’m trying to say. So, too, with Marram Grass, I guess.
And I’ve been influenced by Jan Zwicky’s Wisdom & Metaphor. The very form of her book is married to its content. Throughout that book, the left page of the text poses a challenge to the right page of the text. It’s not that the right page answers to the left page, it’s that meaning springs between the pages as the reader reads. Zwicky is actually giving evidence of the metaphor at work. But I didn’t know I had done something similar until you asked me this question.
I think that I also wanted to show that the operation of metaphor reflects the possible, and that this can indeed operate in the world: we can open our imaginations, foster empathy, and develop and enrich community. So I wanted to move back and forth between fiction and reality, as in the essay, “The Dark Side of Fiction’s Moon,” in order to reveal this.
Q: The line drawings in the book are fresh and lovely. For me, they echoed and reinforced its arguments and are integral to the whole. At what point did you decide to include them?
A: I suggested to Andrew Steeves, one of the publishers at Gaspereau Press, that I could do some drawings back at the beginning of this project. Then I promptly forgot that I had to deliver! So while I had some of the drawings in a little sketch book from times that I’d been away – at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, NS, for instance – I had to scurry around and do some more right sketches at the last minute. It was a challenge. But Gaspereau is such a wonderful small press: they do a brilliant job of solving design issues, like the incorporation of the drawings with the text.
Q: Who were your inspirations or models for this book (if you had inspirations)? What essayists do you admire?
A: Actually, some of them are Gaspereau Press writers. I’ve mentioned Jan Zwicky. And, of course, Don McKay’s essays are very fine. Tim Lilburn. Anne Carson. Robert Bringhurst. Trevor Herriot. I could go on…
Q: What was the biggest challenge in completing the book?
A: Writing to a deadline is always a big challenge for me. Thinking doesn’t fit a schedule. On the other hand, I usually work to a deadline quite well; something about the pressure seems to help me finish a manuscript.
Q: What was the biggest reward?
A: I wrote this book as a kind of homage to my adopted province of Nova Scotia. It has been home for me and for my family, for over twenty years. So it was a labour of love.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: I just finished Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And I’ve been dipping into Averno, by Louise Glück, along with How to Read a Poem, by Edward Hirsch. I’ve also been doing a little research for a new novel, so I’m reading Les Stroud’s Survive! Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere – Alive. I’m never entirely happy unless I have a novel, a book of non-fiction, and a couple of poetry collections on the bedside table.
Q: What is your next project?
A: A novel. But oh—the projects I’d like to do! I think writers all need about nine lives, don’t you?
A winner of the 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize for her second poetry collection, Loop, Anne Simpson has also been nominated for the Governor-General’s Award. Four of her six books have been selected as Globe & Mail Best Books. Her second novel, Falling, won the Dartmouth Fiction Award and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublic Literary Award. She teaches part-time at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS.