Interviewed by Yilin Wang
Elaine Woo is a Vancouver-based poet, librettist, and non-fiction writer. Cycling with the Dragon, her debut poetry collection, was published by Nightwood Editions in 2014 and recently nominated for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness. Her writing has also appeared in ARC Poetry Magazine, carte blanche, Ricepaper Magazine, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Her art song collaboration with Daniel Marshall, “Night-time Symphony,” won a festival prize in Boston Metro Opera’s International Composers’ Competition. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from UBC and has taught workshops for Megaphone Magazine and the Historic Joy Kagawa House. http://www.elainespath.org
I first met Elaine at the launch of Ricepaper Magazine’s Fall/Winter 2012 special double issue featuring Aboriginal and Asian Canadian writers. We both read at the launch, and since then, I have had the pleasure of listening to her read at many other events. Her writing explores marginalized voices, race, gender, family dynamics, and the creative process with raw emotion and experimental language. I corresponded with Elaine via email to discuss her inspiration, the publication of her first book, and her thoughts on a writer’s social responsibility.
What inspired you to first begin writing?
Creativity is my calling: I’ve always been creative, drawing prolifically as a child until my late teens. My twenties and thirties were fallow years, devoted to schooling in experimental psychology and working as a clerk/secretary. The psychology I studied had nothing to do with the soul, much to my disappointment. By mid-life, I had a lot of stories stored up inside. In 2006, when a couple of friends suggested I take up writing, I signed up for a credited creative writing course at Capilano College (before it became a university) and that was the start of my becoming actualized and whole again. Writing gave me everything to do with the intellectual, social, philosophical, and spiritual in the 21st century.
What are the three most important things that you took away from your time studying creative writing at UBC? Is there something that you wish you learned but didn’t?
Attending UBC gave me a community of peer writers. UBC also gave me the fundamentals of writing, which was a springboard for further learning and experimentation. Through Maggie de Vries came the chance of a first reading at a graduate conference for children’s literature in 2010. At the reading, I was so nervous facing a full lecture hall that no one could hear me despite the microphone. I’m grateful for Deborah Campbell’s Preparation for a Career in Writing class, which gave me the framework and mindset for pursuing writing goals after school ended. I don’t believe a school is obligated to give you all the tools you need. That is up to the seeker to find for her/himself. School is a playground and kindergarten.
Please describe your writing process. When you begin writing a poem, how do you start? How much do you revise?
A poem begins with a kernel of an idea in my mind or in different parts of my consciousness. I named the two parts of my unconscious mind my Muse: she consists of my dream content and a faint voice that comes unbidden to me. These initial seeds may be issues of our times or daily trifles or an emotional reaction. My conscious mind develops and processes the ideas both in hand-written form and as I transcribe to the computer. I revise anywhere from six to fifty times.
While some of your poems follow traditional forms, others are often avant-garde, playing with form, rhythm, line length, and visual appearance. For you, what’s the appeal of experimental poetry?
I’m not a creature of habit or tradition. Novelty keeps me interested in life. I like seeing how innovative a project might become and exploring how many different levels it might be read at.
For example, the structure of my poem “ARC” is that of a concrete poem that also reads like a brief film script, incorporating film language. It is a dynamic narrative because of the emotional language and short “shooting bullet” lines. E.g. “[Sound: Actual sound]/smacking on turbaned head/blood ketchup dribbling fury/[Action: Beat]/potato curls cling/to white cloth. ARC also speaks to the narrative arc of the poem, ending with the burning desire to change it.
How did you put together your first poetry collection, Cycling with the Dragon? How did it get published?
I began writing the poems at Capilano College and I was writing and assembling the poems for eight years. All the poems seemed related, although broadly focused. Many of the poems saw publication in various literary magazines, both online and print, before appearing in the book. I had no particular theme in mind and looked for one after compiling the poems. What struck me deepest was an overriding theme of being small in an overwhelming world. In 2013, a writer already published by Nightwood Editions sent Nightwood’s Silas White an email asking what he thought of my manuscript. Soon after, Silas emailed me directly saying he’d like to publish my work.
What advice do you have for writers who would like to submit their poetry to literary journals?
Be professional and make sure your submission doesn’t have typos or mistakes in grammar. Don’t be too eager to share your work before it’s at its most polished state. Get feedback from writing friends or an open mic reading before you submit. Online sites often have a shorter waiting period before acceptance and publication as well as giving your work a wider audience. Print publications still have more prestige, but I believe with most struggling financially, the future will lie with online literary magazines.
What was it like working with an editor on a poetry manuscript?
I have very little ego about my work. Silas cut a good number of poems but was most respectful in not changing my text and staying with my formatting. Naturally, it was shocking to see poems I really liked cut but I’m very happy with the sense Silas made of my manuscript. It’s an absolute joy to have found such a good editor—someone who improves on your best efforts and makes such even better. Silas and cover designer Carleton Wilson went with my wild concept for a cover and hence you see a comely dragon and a purposeful mouse on a tandem bicycle directing the said dragon.
You’ve written extensively about the challenges faced by women and racial minorities, as well as volunteered with literary and community organizations. To you, what’s the social responsibility of a writer?
To be as conscionable as possible. Also, to give unstintingly of yourself. It was no accident that I volunteered for CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) and Megaphone Magazine’s community writing program, which provides creative writing classes for low income and homeless people. After many setbacks in early life, I’ve become fortunate in mid-life and in my literary career. The volunteerism was my way of giving back. As a minority in many ways, both racially and as a woman, I’ve lived many of the struggles of those groups and I am proactive in seeking change and pointing the finger at injustice through my writing.
Has your experience as a creative writing workshop teacher and facilitator affected the way you approach writing? To what extent do you think creative writing can be taught?
For me, teaching is a give and take process. I learn from my students, too. Creative writing can be guided, but ultimately an individual’s life experiences and imagination create a unique stamp that can’t be taught. Some people tell me they are too logical to write creatively. Not having such a mindset, I really don’t know if they can’t be taught to write creatively.
Are you working on any new projects?
I’m working on a second poetry manuscript that I hope will generate as much interest as my first book. It can’t be characterized yet, as it is still in progress. It’ll have to remain a mystery for a while longer.
Yilin Wang is a writer interested in creating stories that explore marginalized viewpoints, cultures, and places. Her work has been published in Ricepaper Magazine, Abyss & Apex, Cerebration Journal, and is forthcoming in the anthology Bridging the Waters Volume 2. She is a fifth-year BFA student in UBC’s Creative Writing program and has studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh in the UK. Besides writing, her passions include playing the ukulele, traveling, photography, cats, and sushi.