In celebration of National Poetry Month, Swoon founder Ruth Daniell caught up with poet Elise Marcella Godfrey (Swoon fall 2015 alumni) to chat about the creative process and how to balance light and dark.
Ruth Daniell: Thank you so much for performing such wonderful poems at Swoon Fall 2015, and for catching up with us again here! I want to start by asking about your MFA work. Your thesis work at the University of Saskatchewan was very well recognized. Will you tell us a little about that project?
Elise Marcella Godfrey: I wrote an experimental poetry manuscript exploring the history and future of uranium mining in northern Saskatchewan. I wanted to write about this province that never really felt like home and I knew I would need to find a very particular angle if I was going to gain any traction. I am fascinated by human relationships with the non-human world. Sometimes we approach the non-human world tenderly and cautiously, but more often, we approach it with an agenda and a great deal of aggression or coercion. I find this disturbing. So I wanted to explore this. I zeroed in on transcripts from public hearings that were held throughout Saskatchewan when the uranium industry was expanding in the early to mid-nineties and this helped give the work a more humanistic and less scientific lens. I got really overwhelmed by the workload I took on and have since shelved the manuscript but the topic continues to fascinate me and I suspect I may return to writing about human relationships with minerals at some point in the future.
RD: Your work—that uranium manuscript, for example—seems very brave to me. Your writing shows a generosity to darkness, which is fascinating to me as I also know what a bright soul you are. Part of our Swoon mission is to provide “space for great writing, for love, and the darkness that so often accompanies both of those things, but we also want to remind ourselves of the legitimacy of happiness, and of being lighthearted.” How important is the balance of light/dark to you as you work? How conscious are you of the way that you gravitate towards certain subject matters in your writing?
EMG: I would say that that balance is very important to me, because I find it hard to sustain any kind of consistent work if I am not able to find points of aperture into some larger sense of possibility, which is akin to hopefulness, I suppose. When I was working on my uranium manuscript, I tried to envision possibilities for the future (as well as gentler, more peaceful histories — imagining what could have been done differently) and this helped me navigate what was otherwise a very heavy and dense subject. I think I am becoming more and more conscious of the way that I gravitate towards certain subject matter in my writing because I have become more aware of how writing can both disrupt and perpetuate patterns in our own lives as well as in the wider world. Choosing one’s subject matter (which narratives to interrogate or interrupt and which to build or propel forward) is thus not an off-hand process; it can affect both culture and community.
RD: Yes, and I think that almost all good writing originates in desire. What do you want your writing to do? Where do you want it to go?
EMG: I want my writing to provide with me a way to express myself, first and foremost, and in so doing to find ways to connect to others and perhaps even contribute to that source of sustenance that we refer to as “culture.” Self-expression is an aspect of self-care, in my opinion. We all need it. So long as we express ourselves mindfully, with an awareness of how our expressions affect others, I think that’s an inherently positive thing. Beyond this, I would like my writing to do all kinds of things: offer glimpses into alternative ways of seeing and feeling; ask questions and provoke others to do the same; provide insight into certain personal and cultural quirks. I would also like my writing to entertain, at least to some extent; I would like to make others laugh, as well as draw attention to issues that are really more terrifying than they are hilarious.
RD: It’s an interesting thing, that balance between the terrifying and the hilarious. Do you think that it is more difficult to write about joy or sorrow?
EMG: I think it depends. Which is scarier? In some ways joy can be scary, because it can stimulate us into states that are just as precarious as those triggered by grief.
RD: You recently won SubTerrain’s Lush Triumphant Literary Award for Poetry. Congratulations! How does your winning poem, “Influenza,” fit into your current writing projects?
EMG: I’m not sure that it does! I had tried writing about influenza for several years. I had wanted to approach it from a more historical perspective: my great-grandmother was a nurse and died during the pandemic in 1919. My grandfather was just six years old at the time and accompanied her body back to Canada by train (she had been living and working in North Dakota). I tried to write about this but it just wasn’t working; it was an anecdote. Then I got the flu twice in 2014 (two different strains) after not having had it for about 20 years (seriously). And out came the poem. And my great-grandmother wasn’t in it. But somehow that desire to write about this virus, about its metamorphosis and re-emergence through generations, gave rise to that poem.
RD: It’s fascinating to know what gives rise to poems! I know that you are also interested in other creative pursuits, including visual art, especially collage. How do your other art practices influence your poetry?
EMG: I think visual art allows the linguistic part of my brain to take a break and gives other parts of my brain a chance to get some exercise. These other parts of my brain are inherently less critical and judgmental. So this is always a relief. Honestly, I need to give the linguistic part of my brain a break much more often. Although there is crossover: I think of music as a language, and I find I am equally drawn to images as well as to the sounds of language when I write. I also practice yoga and meditation and these are ways of accessing other states of being as well (states other than our default discursive non-stop chatterbox talktalktalk oh my gosh make it stop!). The body is wise and the more time I spend simply being in my body, without an agenda, the more connected I feel not only to myself but to the world around me. I think this is a very good way to be, especially because it does, in turn, feed my writing practice.
RD: Speaking of other things that feed the writing practice—what are you reading right now that you absolutely love?
EMG: A very thoughtful and generous friend bought me a copy of Miranda July’s No one belongs here more than you several months ago and I didn’t get to it right away, but I am reading it now and really enjoying it. It’s totally weird and there is this effortlessness to many of her narratives, like maybe she writes with her eyes closed, or when she’s half awake/half asleep. What I absolutely love, however, if I am completely honest, are the posts in a Facebook group I recently joined: it’s a private group facilitated by my obstetrician just for twin mums (I am expecting two boys in July). There are non-stop posts about breastfeeding and nap schedules and behavioural issues and I find it all totally fascinating and hilarious and terrifying. It’s the best.
RD: We’re so excited for you—two boys!—your life is going to be even more full of love (just what we Swooners are such fans of)! Okay, one more question, just for fun: if you were a chocolate truffle (or another dessert), what would you be and why?
EMG: If I were a dessert I just might be a chocolate truffle, and if I were a chocolate truffle, I would be a dark chocolate hazelnut truffle! Actually, I would be a slice of chocolate hazelnut torte from the Wildfire Bakery in Victoria, because it is layered and nutty and not too sweet.
Read some of Elise’s wonderful work online in the current issue of Ryga: A Journal of Provocations: Ryga 8.
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Elise Marcella Godfrey’s poetry can be found in Room, Ryga, Filling Station, Grain, PRISM, CV2 and forthcoming in OK Magpie. Her suite of poems entitled “Influenza” won subTerrain‘s 13th Annual Lush Triumphant Literary Awards. She holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Saskatchewan, where her work was funded by SSHRC and received a thesis award.
Ruth Daniell is an award-winning writer, the founder of Swoon, and the editor of Boobs: Women Explore What It Means to Have Breasts (Caitlin Press, 2016). Her poems and stories have appeared in various journals, including Arc Poetry Magazine, Grain, Room Magazine, Qwerty, Canthius, The Antigonish Review, and Contemporary Verse 2.