Interview with Shawna Lemay
I’m delighted to present my first author interview with Shawna Lemay. Shawna’s book of essays, Calm Things, is currently shortlisted for the Wilfred Eggleston Award for Non-Fiction, an Alberta Literary Award.
Q: What inspired you to write this book? Why did you choose to use the essay form instead of poetry, since you have already written a great deal of ekphrastic poetry?
A: I’m fascinated by all the ways there are to write about art, to approach painting, to translate pictures, what we see, into words. So in many ways this was a natural progression, the move from poetry into prose. I had been reading a lot of travel writing beforehand, and I remember feeling very unsettled and wanting to reconcile this with the circumstances of my life, and also this desire to learn to be alone in my room, to sink into that, to learn how to be present in exactly the place I found myself. A good friend had travelled to Africa and had begun writing some excellent essays (A.S. Woudstra) and I started wondering what would it be like to write travel essays about home. Just looking at things with the fresh and curious eyes of a traveller.
As luck would have it, I had written one essay the summer before I began grad school at the U of A. I had signed up for Greg Hollingshead’s graduate seminar in creative writing fully intending to write short stories. Most of the people did write short stories but he was very open to the essay form, and encouraging. I remember him saying, ‘this is great material.’ The book really started in that class, then – my confidence in the possibility of writing a collection of essays came from that experience.
Q: What, if anything, do you feel distinguishes the personal essay as a genre?
A: I think it’s another possible mode of telling truths. The genre draws on other genres – poetry, fiction, journalism or reportage, and so for me, it’s the openness to these permutations, the possibilities inherent in the form, that distinguish it.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you encountered in completing this book?
A: There is some pressure, when you begin shopping your book around to publishers to revise the entire work, the single essays, into one larger book with a narrative arc. Originally the book had included essays on other subjects besides still life, and though I couldn’t envision the book as a single piece, I could see the sense in narrowing it to only those essays about still life. It was very difficult to excise those essays, but I’m glad I did, because one of them has turned into a much larger piece that I’ve been working on in the several years since.
Q: What was the greatest reward?
A: There have been many! Having written poetry for so long, my writing community is filled with wonderful poets – but the essays have also introduced me to others in the community that I might otherwise not have met.
I had long been interested in the idea of writing a short book, and had read an essay by Kristjana Gunnars on the topic in her book Stranger at the Door which solidified this yearning. There was a time in my life, when my daughter was young, that I sought out short books. Anything else seemed extravagant. So there was some pleasure in having accomplished this small feat without really setting out to do it.
Another reward is hearing so many people say that after they read the book they were inspired to paint or write, or head back to the studio.
And one last lovely reward – is that given the nature of the book, I knew that it would take a special kind of publisher to take it on. Palimpsest Press, it seems to me, is a perfect fit with the book. Dawn Kresan, publisher extraordinaire, did a superb job of designing it, so that the object itself, the book, is calm. It’s been a pleasure working with Dawn and Palimpsest.
Q: What do you like about writing essays, or how would you compare your experience of writing essays and poetry?
A: My experience of writing poetry is that it’s so much more intense – poems come out of the fire. One does a lot of preliminary work before coming to write a poem, but usually the poems I keep are written during one wild, mad, impatient day. After that, they’re revised and revised, but the bulk of the poem comes in one piece. I’ve found I need to be far more patient with an essay, to wait for various strands to appear, and then I need to work much harder to make the connections clear, though not too clear.
I think the form chooses us, and we write what we can, when we can. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that I wrote poems when my daughter was an infant and toddler, and then essays when she was in the early grades of elementary school. And now I’m writing a longer piece while she is 10 years old and so much more self-sufficient.
Q: Why did you choose this particular title for your work?
A: It’s the central question of the book, in a certain way. The Japanese call still life, “calm things,” I found out while researching the book. But for the French it’s nature morte, and for the Italian, it’s vita silente. So it has to do with perspective, about choice, how we choose to look at things, objects. It has to do with an approach to life, then, a way of understanding where we fit into the world through these every day, often overlooked, objects that in fact say so much about not only us as individuals, but the world from which they are plucked. These things that seem calm, still, silent, are at the same time, anything but. I could have easily chosen the title of another essay as the title of the book, “Precarious.” The book is very much about how to live as an artist, to live as creative souls in this most precarious world, this un-calm world, but I want the reader to come to that truth, through another, which is that it’s possible yet, to arrive at what is calm by attending to things, listening to things, and really, by receiving. As creative people, we receive so that we may send our creative energy back into the world in whatever form it may take – and this is the source of calm, the centre or core of it, that I hope resonates from this small book.
Q: What book would you tell aspiring writers is a must-read, and why?
A: I wish I’d come across Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, by Carolyn See earlier. Her advice is practical and given in a light, humorous tone. She talks about what to wear to a reading, how to deal with rejection, how to maintain a practice of writing, how to get published. She’s well known for recommending that writers send out ‘charming notes’ to writers they admire. She says that “the energy that accrues around messages is extraordinary, mystical, immeasurable.” She also says that ‘there is no better cure for a bad review than a thank-you note.”
I find Helene Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing indispensable. She delves into writing via dreams, the depths, those places I need to travel. Reading this book, I always remember why I want to write – I’m reminded of the pleasure of language, of those magic words that spark and delight and resonate deep in the belly.
Q: Who are your favourite authors and why?
A: Helene Cixous, Clarice Lispector, Susan Griffin, Annie Dillard, Elizabeth Smart, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Kristjana Gunnars.
I think in every case it comes down to how they use language. I’m more and more obsessed with works in which the language is thickly poetic and so am constantly re-reading The Waves, and The Stream of Life.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: Besides the aforementioned, I’m also about to read Anne Michael’s new book, and have been reading White Ink, interviews with Helene Cixous.
Shawna Lemay is the author of five books of poetry – Red Velvet Forest (Muses’ Company, 2009), Blue Feast (NeWest Press, 2005), Still (published by the author, 2003), Against Paradise (McClelland & Stewart, 2001),and All the God-Sized Fruit (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999). Her book of essays about living with still life is titled Calm Things (Palimpsest Press, 2008). She has a B.A. in Honors English and an M.A. in English, both from the University of Alberta. All the God-Sized Fruit won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Stephan G. Stephansson Award. She lives in Edmonton with Robert Lemay, a visual artist, their daughter Chloe, and well-walked black Labrador retriever, Ace.