Sharon Butala

Sharon BInterviewed by Tess Leblanc

Sharon Butala is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction. Her classic nonfiction work The Perfection of the Morning was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award and was a #1 bestseller. Her latest novel Wild Rose was a finalist for the WO Mitchell Book Prize. She is the recipient of the Saskatchewan Order of Merit and the 2012 Cheryl and Henry Kloppenburg Award for Literary Excellence. In 2002 she became an officer of the Order of Canada. Her new memoir Where I Live Now, about the death of her husband Peter, was recently shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.

How has your writing process changed over your forty years of writing?

At the very beginning, a lot of my writing practice was focused on learning craft. One of the big issues that I think most people who didn’t start when they were four finally reach is that moment when you try to figure out what the interaction is between craft and ideas – which comes first, so on and so forth – and I finally figured out that I could not express my ideas, I couldn’t even pinpoint them, until I had developed a certain level of craft. As years passed, and I got better and better at the craft, it became much easier for me to actually take a great leap into better ideas. I didn’t have to fight for the words so much. I was at the Victoria Writer’s Festival recently and they asked about rewriting, because this was a memoir – how many times do you have to write the same thing? For me, with my latest book, it was a great bunch of irritation and defeat and boredom to have to tell the story again. But, for example, when I reached the part where I had to write about the actual day and hours of Peter’s dying, that was actually a great joy to have that task in front of me. Not only had I never written it before, but it was a unique experience, which I think each death is. When you’re a real writer, that is the most exquisite moment, I would say… To render to experience as authentically as possible and in the most truthful kind of language.

How long do you feel like it took you to develop your voice as a writer?

It probably took me a dozen years, but I never knew what my voice was. There’s a part of me that says, “You always had the voice you would wind up with,” but I didn’t really know that, and I’m not so sure now that I haven’t written past voice, into some other stage where the experience itself is of less importance the meaning of the experience, the place of it, the feelings surrounding it.

In Where I Live Now, you talk about knowing a task of your writing was to convince urban people that rural people’s lives were worth reading about. Since you write primarily – and beautifully – about women’s lives, did you ever feel the pressure to convince a male audience women’s lives were worth reading about? Do you see your audience as primarily female?

I suspect that subconsciously I see my audience as mostly female, and I am subconsciously writing for women – although I wish that I weren’t, I would much prefer to be writing for everyone. I think that, because I was writing for women readers, I never felt any need to convince people women’s lives were interesting. I became more and more set in my desire to write about women’s lives with each book.

What was it like when you first began to publish? What path did you personally take to get your work out there?

I was at a weeklong writing workshop that used to be held at Cypress Hills Park once a year but hasn’t been for a long time. One of the teachers was a well-known – at the time – Saskatchewan critic and writing teacher, and she was giving me a ride one morning from the cabin I was staying in. It was a very, very foggy morning, and she pulled to the side of the road. I had asked her to read the manuscript I was working on – this was my first novel – and she pulled over to the side of the road and said, “I want that manuscript, it’s got everything, blah blah blah.” She said, “I’m starting my own publishing company and I want that novel for my publishing company and you owe it to me, I discovered you.” Like a Hollywood movie. She did publish the novel, though I think I waited a year after she got the publishing company going. The first one sold a couple hundred copies at most. Then she published a few other books of mine, and then I got an agent and a contract with HarperCollins Canada. And after that happened, of course, I was moving into the midlist author’s area – meaning I wasn’t a big star but neither was I a beginning writer who didn’t have much purchase yet.

That’s how it started, but at the same time Peter died there was this huge break and change in publishing companies. Although I was still writing every day, people immediately stopped asking me to write for magazines and newspapers, which was probably just as well since I couldn’t do it anyway, and I sort of dropped out of the whole writing scene. They didn’t ask me to go to festivals, they didn’t ask me to do reading. I was away for seven years, and when I returned the world had changed utterly. None of the big publishers wanted what I wrote, because they had the imperative to only publish books that would sell above a certain level, and nobody believed Wild Rose would. So we then sent it to Coteau Books. So there I was, I had dropped out of the big leagues and into the regional publishers again. I just changed agents, and my new agent is telling me it’s hard to make the leap from the small publisher back to the big publisher. I’m sort of shrugging my shoulders. In a lot of ways working with a regional publisher is better for you as a writer. You have a lot more freedom, and even though you don’t sell as well and you don’t get as much publicity, you get to publish what you really wrote. What you really wanted. The big publishers are a lot less open to experimentation. They know what they want, and they have pretty strict parameters. That limits a writer like me, who was able to create a career in a time when they were happy to get the book you gave them, and they’d work with it but they wouldn’t utterly change it.

You’ve spoken about the disappointment you felt in the past when your books were shortlisted for major awards but didn’t win. How do you feel about awards now, especially with Where I Live Now being shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award?

There’s a part of me that still thinks, like an 18 year old, that if I win the Governor General’s the world will be mine and I’ll be levitating with joy, and there’s a larger part that says in the general scheme of things, what’s the Governor General’s Award worth? Not nothing, but it isn’t going to make me 18 again. I’m tremendously pleased to have been shortlisted, and I like to think of my career as having started where it should, at the bottom, and having it slowly build and build until finally now I’ve reached the point in the normal course of events where my work is prize-worthy. That would be very satisfying, but not in the way of a kid at Christmas. Something grounded and sensible.

Something interesting in your book is the way you talk about how your career benefited from being quite isolated from the wider writing world. Do you have any thoughts for emerging writers who are wondering about networking?

It can be exhausting and embittering. There’s a line in the new biopic about Emily Dickinson – obviously I have to wonder about the screenwriters – where she describes herself as feeling that way, embittered. That’s what you have to struggle with, but the forces you encounter are rarely specifically aligned against you. Mostly it’s the way of the world that does this to you. Emily Dickinson was a woman living in a very repressive time and she didn’t go out in the world at all, and that’s probably a main reason she didn’t get published in your lifetime. When you think about the networking events you might feel pressured to do, I believe a lot of them are very worthwhile, but you have to pick and choose. On one hand, if nobody ever heard of you and you never talk up your own work, things will be denied you, I suspect. But on the other hand, overfamiliarity produces a kind of contempt to. “Oh yeah, he’s at all the readings, I don’t know who he is.” I can only speak for myself and look where it got me, but I always consoled myself with the thought I was becoming a better and better writer, and that in the end justice will out. In fact, justice won’t out, but at least you’ve got to hope, if you’re a really good writer. And if you’re always spending your time hanging around these other people, you’re not writing. It often muddles, and makes you envious, and makes you think, “That’s the fashion, I need to put some of that in my book! It’s originality, I think, that in the end gets you furthest in the literary world.

Do you have any advice for emerging writers?

I give advice to emerging writers all the time! Probably conflicting advice. I say “Don’t listen to your teachers or editors or your fellow writers, there are no rules in creative writing, the best memoirs find their own form… but here’s how you write a memoir.” I say that you have to stick to your essential writing self is saying. You have to resist the best advice, often. At the same time, you can’t think you’re so wonderful you don’t have to listen to anyone. It’s a hard path to walk. The problem with creative writing schools, in my view, is that they have a tendency to kill creativity in their workshopping process. They terrify people, and that’s not good either. I’ve people come into the classes I used to teach, and they left when they found out there’d be workshopping – they had vicious experiences in universities.Sharon B

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Thomas Fucaloro

Thomas F.pngInterviewed by Jenna Mann

Thomas Fucaloro is an author slam poet, editor and Creative Writing instructor out of Staten Island, New York. Fucaloro is a Creative Writing MFA holder from New School and is the author of two books of poetry published by Three Rooms Press. Along with his colleagues Jane Omerod, David Lawton, Mary Slecta, George Wallace and the late Brant Lyon, he is a cofounder of Great Weather For Media. You can catch him slamming on Button Poetry, pick up one of his books or see him live at one of the events he performs at in New York City and Staten Island. You may even have the opportunity to catch him on tour with his Staten Island Advanced Slam Team. Fucaloro also works as a Writing Coordinator at Harlem Children’s Zone. If you’re looking for a poet who deals in honesty and an introspective narrative, Fucaloro fits the bill.

Going into this interview, what are the three most important things you’d like readers to know about you?

  • I used to be addicted to substances. Now I’m addicted to poetry. It’s all about the substance.
  • I deal and write about a lot of mental health concerns. I used to take meds, now I write sonnets.
  • My beard is fluffy.

How does addiction and mental health concerns shape you as an artist? How do you think these things effect the reception of your work?

I think addiction and mental health are just one part of the overall writing equation. I think they have aided me in being able to dig deeper into myself. Both are doorways that take me somewhere inside of me, what that somewhere is, changes often. I know that is a bit cryptic and vague but it is a hard question to answer. I think the reception of these topics is like a double edged sword. Some people enjoy the honesty of it, some people will think it’s your shtick and define you as such. I have been exploring many new and wonderful avenues in my writing and am happy to be walking down them.

At what point did writing, teaching and performing poetry become your career?

Hmmm, not sure about that, I feel as they have always been there, just accessed each of those things at different times. A more concrete answer would be; I was a retail manager for 15 years. Once that career ended, a new one

How did the end of your retail Career act as a catalyst for change?

I think retail helped build me as a performer. You have to deal with the needs of so many customers and their emotions, you have to carry the weather each customer is emoting, and do it with a smile. You have to lie a lot. So the vessel for me to actually use performance for art was there, just not accessed. The change came about, because I was doing a lot of substances back then and it all came to a crash, where substances were taking over my life. I was hollow. Retail offered nothing for me. It was something I did to pay rent, the entitled little prick I was back then. I hate that version of Thomas and I am glad that Thomas is gone.

How are you able to be as prolific as you are?

Whisky and comic books. Seriously, I’m not sure how to answer this question. I know how to fail, and I know how to capture that failure in a poem.

What are some clichés about writers that you find off base or annoying? Which do you think are generally true?

I find a whole lot to be cliché. I even find calling writers cliché, to be cliché. I think every cliché is true to a degree and every cliché is false to a degree. I think it’s more about reinvention. Love poems are cliché. Poems about your ribs are cliché. Poems about drinking are cliché. But if you can reinvent how we see and feel those themes, there ain’t nothing cliché about that. I think the most cliché thing is a poet, who doesn’t recognize their own work and how to improve upon it. That their work is fine the way it is. That’s the most cliché. You find that the most in academic settings and playgrounds.

You post a lot of haikus on Facebook and Twitter. How has social media changed the landscape for poetry?

They’re technically not haikus, more like very short poems. Actually they are usually a stanza from a much larger piece. For me, social media has helped me share my work. I’m a sharer, and I need to get it out there. It’s hard to wait for something to be published in order to share. I’ve been able to reach so many people because of it, and that is what is most important. And other poets have been able to reach me.

I think social media is also just providing another canvas. Another way to get a poem across. I mean social media, in and of itself is the ultimate found poem. It would make sense to have some poetry in there.

What part of a writer’s lifestyle do you prefer? Editing, networking, writing, performing?

Anything that has to do with the creative aspect of it. I hate networking and my social anxiety leaves me a bit useless in that category. Performing is great because it’s like a therapy session and that really helps me on a creative and personal level.

How does being a sharer with social anxiety work?

It’s very easy to share your work now while being the only person in the room. Social media allows recluses to share their work and still remain in the confines of the pillow fort they have built at home.

In regards to the stage, that’s something I will never be able to understand. Could be the customer service in me. But I have always felt comfortable on the stage.

What does performing poetry add to the experience?

I am loud and obnoxious and it is good to be able to hone that into an auditory poetic emotion. It allows me to not be me, which is good for my well-being. I have some poems on Button Poetry that you can see me leaving my body for a moment and allowing something else to enter. That is freeing for me. I don’t like being me.

How does it feel to leave your body while performing? Do you ever have similar experiences watching others perform?

I think when the poem starts taking over your body, where you are moving with the rhythm of the poem, where you know the words and don’t have to think of them. That sounds cliché, I know, but it’s rather heard to explain. It’s being blue while looking like the color red.

I have seen other’s perform in this manner like William James, Timothy DuWhite and Jeanann Verlee. They soar out of their bodies but reenter them as song.

For someone whose poetry is often performed, how does the performance factor into your first draft?

It factors in a lot, which can be a problem. If I am writing a performance piece, that’s great, but if it’s a page poem, that’s where it becomes tricky. When you are writing page poetry, I have to remember, that when the reader is reading the poem, I won’t be there to read it aloud for them. So I have to take that into account, breaking my lines more, and really trying to focus on how the words build off each other. I think and speak in fragments so that helps with the page poetry aspect as well. I don’t want to become too dependent on my voice. The page has a melody and sometimes I have to listen to that.

What are the key differences between your written and performed poetry?

I don’t see too much of a difference because when I write a page piece, if I am going to read it, I will perform it, not just read it. That’s a really hard question for me. Each allows you to do different things but I am consistent, which makes it feel the same. As I mentioned earlier the difference is how I approach the writing of them.

How prominently does feedback from your audience affect the final product? Are your poems continually work shopped or finished before they are performed?

Audience feedback does help in the editing process, but not in the writing process. I try not to think of the audience when doing both, but the audience definitely lets you know when something needs more editing and that is helpful. I don’t think a poem is ever finished. We are constantly changing so I feel like our poems are as well. Wisdom and age are great tools for the poetry editor.

Your 2016 Chapbook was titled Depression Cupcakes. What are the ingredients in depression cupcakes?

Regret, anxiety, bipolar disorder, a grain of sand, salted caramel frosting.

Do you find living in New York City affects the subject matter of your writing?

For Depression Cupcakes, it definitely did. Depression Cupcakes is very much an ars poetica and it has a continuing series of poems about being a poet in the NYC. With that said, I don’t think it drives content, but it does drive the attitude of my poems. I think you can hear the New York in them and definitely hear it during performance.

How important is community for writers?

Extremely important. At times, we are all we got, especially in the poetry community. They are your support system and you try to be the same for them. Without a community to inspire you, staleness erodes.

As someone who both teaches and has a MFA in creative writing, how important do you believe formal education is for aspiring writers?

I think learning and developing are a huge part of poetry, but I don’t think a formal education is required. For me, I needed it. It was what my poetry was lacking. But that is me. I have met many poets with a formal education who didn’t know the first thing about the sensibilities of a poem. I’ve known people with no formal education who could cry you a poem of beauty and depth. I think it’s about the poet, not the education.

What was the intention behind co-founding Great Weather for Media?

I was part of a press called Uphook with Jane Ormerod and the late Brant Lyon. That press was great but we had some issues with one of our members (I won’t mention their name) so we decided to dissolve that press and start something a little bit more inviting. So Great Weather was born. And we really wanted to start something that crossed all spectrums of poetry from spoken word, to form, to dada, to whatever makes a great poem. The intention was to support and give a platform to poets.

What steps did you take to insure your press would be more inviting?

I think to try and give as many writers as many platforms as we can whether anthologies, single poetry collections, readings and online interviews, we try to assist in as many voices being heard as we possibly can.

What advice would you give to others looking to star their own publication?

Be committed (as possible as your life allows) and know what you are getting into. If you are looking to make money, you are in the wrong business. You have to be willing to do the work and understand that the work takes precedence, not money, not ego, but the work. But also find balance. It’s easy to say be committed but also remember that your health is important, and to not overdo it and overwhelm yourself. When you are working with other people you have to try and be as empathetic to them and home the same for you.

What advice would you give authors looking to submit to Great Weather For Media?

Just be as you as you can possibly be. Let it come from the heart.

What is your process for giving feedback and edits to other writers?

Just try to be as honest and from the heart as possible and take into account their sensibilities and what the poet is striving for. To be as respectful as possible and understand a poet’s experience may be different from my own, and it is important to take that into consideration when offering feedback.

What do you do when you’re not in the mood to write?

Whisky and comic books. I’m an idiot aren’t I?

What’s your favorite poem that you’ve written? Why, and what do you think it says about the author?

I don’t think I have a favorite that I have written but I think “God is a Cigarette” on Button Poetry. I think it’s a good example of my voice, style and content all doing different things yet finding each other in the end.

What’s next?

I have a new chapbook coming out through Mad Gleam Press called “There Is Always Tomorrow.” It is 11 list poems, each one of them illustrated by the great Julie Bensten. It will be out in mid-November. Continue to work with Great Weather for Media and Nysai Press. And keep Staten Island’s Advanced Slam going. We operate out of a great boutique called Richmond Hood Company and will be sending a team to compete in National Poetry Slam in Chicago in 2018.

Jenna Mann moved from Saskatchewan to Vancouver in 2015 to pursue a second degree in Creative Writing. She also enjoys comic books and videogames. Whiskey? Not so much. Find her on instagram at @jeghn, twitter @jenligh or view her other works at smudgesandstains.com

 

 

 

 

 

Would follow up with how did this become a catalyst for change?

Yep. Otherwise it seems like you’re running down a list of questions instead of having a conversation.