Of a hundred or more classmates in my UVic writing classes, Yvonne Blomer is one of only a handful who went on to become a working writer. In the decade since she and I workshopped each other’s creative nonfiction pieces, Yvonne and her husband, Rupert Gadd, have taught in Japan, cycled through Southeast Asia, and lived in England, where Yvonne completed a masters in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.
Back in Victoria again, Yvonne writes, teaches writing, and hosts the Planet Earth Poetry reading series. This week she will launch her third book of poems, As if a Raven.
Q: Would you share one of the poems from your new book?
Audubon: still life
“…his technique consisted of shooting as many birds of the same species as possible so that he could use them as models for his life size paintings.” Everglades Digital Library
What was nest has been skimmed
for bone structure, feather lustre,
feathers, beaks, fine-boned wings;
things that have gone missing from trees.
Children will not scream, will study
the pretty birds unflown,
not feasted on by fox or hound, no;
consumed by eye, finger, palette and brush.
To capture with rigour, death
consumed by eye, finger, palette and brush,
not feasted on by fox or hound, no;
the pretty birds unflown.
Children will not scream, will study
things that have gone missing from trees:
feathers, beaks, fine-boned wings,
for bone structure, feather lustre.
What was nest has been skimmed.
From As if a Raven by Yvonne Blomer (2014 Palimpsest Press)
Q: How did “Audubon: still life” come to you?
A: The poem is a palindrome, that is, it goes forward then backwards. A few things were going on at once to help me write this poem. First of all, I was teaching a form course and I got my students to write a palindrome. I was writing with them, as part of an in-class exercise, so I started the poem in the class. At that time I was also doing final edits on As if a Raven, so this is one of 2 new poems in the book. I’d mentioned Audubon in another poem but knew I wanted to tackle him more head on. I wanted to take on the ideas of creation and destruction that Audubon is a big part of—he created amazing illustrations of birds but to do so he killed hundreds of them.
Q: How long did it take you to write the poem?
A: The poem came quite quickly, but I made edits to it, took it to my writing group, and then made a few more changes before sending to the editor and adding it into the book. This is not common for me. Often I sit with the poems a long time, but I think because I was immersed in edits, teaching, and the subject of this poem in addition to having been internally processing Audubon for some years, it happened more quickly.
Q: When and how did you discover poetry?
A: I had to do a poetry assignment in grade 4 or 5 where we had to do a nature poem, a sonnet, and a few other things. I remember putting a lot of work into my booklet and I kept it and I loved doing it, so I think that was the first time. I wrote in a diary in my terrible left-slanted printing and writing, which perhaps was the beginning. The draw for me then was talking to myself in words, and I think that continues to be a draw. I think it was Ilya Kaminsky who said that poetry is first a conversation with the self that we then make public. I took my first writing class in college and was scared to death, so that must have been when I realized it was important to me. Poetry appealed because of the play, less like an essay and more like a dance on the page.
Q: How often do you read poetry?
A: Every day I read some poetry. I get one by email, or posted on Facebook, I run a weekly reading series, I have towers of books of poems everywhere in my house.
Q: Who are your favourite poets?
A: That is hard to answer, but poets I love include Ilya Kaminsky, Cornelia Hoogland’s Woods Wolf Girl is a favourite, as well as Auden and Yeats for their language, also Tim Lilburn and Jan Zwicky and Seamus Heaney.
Q: Where do you write your poems?
A: Anywhere I can, and I have a studio in my back garden that my husband and I built shortly after our son was born. The studio is not quite finished, but I run an extension cord from the house to it. It is 8×10 and fantastic.
Q: When you were telling me about the creative nonfiction piece you’re working on, I was surprised to hear you call poetry a distraction. Do you think of yourself as a writer first and a poet second?
A: No, I think of myself as a poet and writer, probably. I am primarily drawn to the language and process of poetry so that when I go to my studio to work on the longer travel memoir, I get distracted by poetry in that I work on a poem first, or I try to work lyrical moments into the memoir, or I’m editing a poem for something, perhaps to send to a contest or for publication, or for the just-finished book, so that the poetry, in my writing life, is the main distraction. I begin with an image or a line, I walk around sometimes with a line in my head, so that driving, cooking, writing a review, poems are on the surface, or poem brain.
Q: How hard is it to make a living as a poet?
A: I’m not sure it is even possible. Let’s imagine you could get a $20,000 Canada Council grant a year (which I don’t think you can, you can probably only get one every other year assuming you could get one every time you applied), you could then earn about $22,000, the other $2000 being from reading fees, book sales (you’d need some money in the bank to buy the books to sell in the first place) as well as some class/school visits, etc.
I don’t support my family on what I earn as a poet or writer at this point in my writing career. I’m not sure many Canadian writers can live off their earnings even as fiction or nonfiction writers. But many teach and that is where the expertise as a writer enables you to earn a living by teaching other writers. That too is quite difficult though. So…my husband has a very good job and is the main breadwinner for our family, or as we like to say, he “brings home the tofu.” We have a young son, I run a reading series and work hard as a writer and teacher of writing to supplement the family income.
Q: What’s the best and worst thing about being a poet?
A: Worst is that many people are a bit scared of poetry so that the enthusiasm for poetry comes from other poets rather than from a strong non-writing readership. I think poetry and math are both poorly taught in schools so that people come out of those subjects fearing or believing they “can’t understand poetry” (or math) and what a shame.
The best thing is I get to do what I love and explore the world and my understanding of it in writing and that is a privilege. Many, many people sit in offices sorting through piles of papers and reams of numbers all day, and though they may be equally passionate about it, I think there is less of a sense of freedom than in what I do.
Q: What advice can you offer an aspiring poet?
A: Write and read. Go to public readings and listen to others read and get up there and read yourself. Buy books and read them. Think deeply about what you are reading and how the writer did what they did with language, line, space, punctuation and metaphor. Don’t worry about “dissecting” the poem to “understand” it but follow your heart and body in how it understands the poems you read. Notice the openings made within you and then ask how the poem/poet did that.
Yvonne Blomer’s new book As if a Raven will be launched on Thursday, April 24, at Russell Books in Victoria, BC. Details here.