September's Author of the Month is Joanne Epp. Joanne's debut poetry collection, Eigenheim was released in April 2015. In 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Joanne Epp (below), she shares a few thoughts about her creative process and invites us peek into her studio in My Studio: Joanne Epp. You can also find out what the motivation was for Joanne's new book in her Behind the Page: Eigenheim by Joanne Epp.
Joanne Epp's book with Turnstone Press is:
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
It took a long time to get from “I write a bit” to “I’m a writer,” and I’m not sure when it happened. Having my first poems published in a journal was very encouraging, but still didn’t give me the nerve to say “I’m a poet” out loud. For a long time I felt like I was a writer who didn’t write much. The turning point may have been around the time I started getting book reviews published, or when I was accepted into the Manitoba Writers’ Guild's mentorship program; either way, it was relatively recent.
Do you submit work to literary journals and ‘zines? Or are you now focussed on writing full-length works? Why or why not?
You do feel, when you’re starting out, that you have to build credibility by getting things published in literary magazines, and it’s a way to get your work in print without necessarily having all the material for a book. Having a book published means that publication in journals isn’t as much about proving myself as it was before. Now, with a second manuscript in progress, I think I’ll still want to submit to journals, partly as a way to give myself goals and deadlines, and partly to find an audience for material that doesn’t necessarily fit into the manuscript I’m working on.
Is there a particular time of day which you write best?
When it comes to getting initial ideas down on paper, any time is good. I keep a pencil in my pocket and write little snippets as soon as they come to mind. But for doing concentrated work, morning is my favorite, followed by afternoon. I tend to fade in the evenings. And I don’t do early morning either; I don’t voluntarily wake up at 6 am.
What is your typical writing routine like?
What I like best is to go for a walk or bike ride first thing in the morning, then come back home, make a cup of tea and get to work. I wouldn’t say that happens routinely, though. In fact, the only real routine is the tea. The act of making tea and carrying it to my desk is my signal to myself that it’s time to write.
What inspires you?
Many things. The natural world, more and more; music and visual arts; other poets; my own memories and experiences. It doesn’t take much to find inspiration; I don’t have to actively look for ideas. The hard part is turning that initial spark into something that works as a poem.
Do you write any other form besides poetry?
I also write prose, these days mostly in the form of occasional book reviews. But poetry is what I care about most.
What is it about poetry that makes you care about it so much?
I’m attracted to the sense of compressed energy that poetry has. It’s also concise. (I love reading fiction, but I can’t write it—there are just too many words.) A poem can evoke its subject so precisely, and at the same time resonate with things beyond itself. And I like the way poems employ the sound and rhythm of words as well as their sense.
Many poets work intentionally with form. Others try to keep as far from it as possible. What are your thoughts about form and poetry? Is any particular form your current favourite?
I write and read free verse, but I also enjoy and admire poetry written in form. I’ve encountered quite a lot of contemporary poetry written in forms, going all the way from strict villanelles or sestinas to stanza forms that use rhyme in such a subtle way that you almost don’t notice it consciously. I haven’t learned to do that myself, but I do try, in writing free verse, to give it a rhythm that will sound good when read aloud.
As a reviewer, do you stick to reviewing books of poetry or do you also review fiction? Is one more challenging to review than the other?
I have reviewed fiction, and even a little non-fiction, as well as poetry. Book reviews always require a lot of time and thought, but I find it especially challenging with poetry to find a precise way of describing what’s going on in the work. I feel like I’m always groping for helpful vocabulary, for language that feels accurate and is understandable to the reader.
Some writers prefer the process of composing a manuscript while others prefer the editorial stage of fine tuning and polishing. Do you have a preference? Why?
Both stages are satisfying in different ways. In the writing stage it comes through working out the possibilities of an image or idea. In the editing stage it’s the satisfaction of finding a new word or sequence of lines for a poem and feeling things click into place. Each stage has its difficulty, too: in writing, it’s mainly about having something that wants to be in a poem, but having no idea how to get it there; in editing, it’s knowing that a poem still needs something, and struggling to figure out what that is.
While editing a manuscript do you ever start writing or working on something else?
It’s always tempting. When I’m in the middle of a project, I suddenly get attracted to something new that has nothing to do with what I’m currently working on. That’s one reason my second manuscript has been half-finished for several years!
Do you journal? How does journaling figure into your writing process?
I used to write copiously in my journal; now it’s more an occasional thing. I have sometimes gone back to old journals, when writing about the past, in order to retrieve details and remind myself of how I thought and felt twenty or thirty years ago. That’s not always as useful as I’d like; sometimes I’ll read through entries hoping to find particular details, only to discover that I didn’t write those details down. But old journals are still good for recreating an atmosphere.
I also make notes on things I read, which is journalling of another sort. This is usually some combination of summary, quoted excerpts, and my own questions or comments. Doing this helps me to think through what I’ve read, and I think I do retain things better this way. This kind of journalling feeds my writing in a less direct way, by shaping my ideas about writing itself and about some of the subjects that interest me.
What do you think about a writer’s need to be part of social networks?
Writing is a solitary occupation, but writers need each other, and they need other artists. Since moving to Winnipeg fifteen years ago, I’ve learned to know other writers, as well as visual artists, more than I ever had before. I need and appreciate the friendships, advice and shop-talk; I like attending arts events; and I’ve learned a lot from participating in the Manitoba Writers’ Guild in various ways. I think social media can add to what you get from those in-person contacts: you can keep in touch with writers from far away, keep informed about the literary world, and read widely. But because I can easily slip into wandering from one thing to another online, I do limit my social media activity.
Do you enjoy giving public readings?
I do, yes. It is satisfying to read a poem aloud and feel that it works, and to get a response from an audience. It’s like a kind of completion, the poem reaching its hearers. That happens when people read poems in print, too, of course, but there’s still a certain electricity you get when reading to a live audience. It’s also helpful to read new work to someone else, whether that’s my writing partner or the audience at an open mike session. Often I can tell immediately where a poem flies and where it still stumbles.
And now a few fun questions:
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
When things land on my desk, they tend to stay there for months or even years if they are significant in any way. Right now I have (among other things) a tiny booklet of poems that came out of a workshop with Winnipeg poet Jennifer Still, a coaster made of glass with a golden tree painted on it, and a small lino print by local artist Kelvin Free. There are also a few cards that I received from friends when my book was launched, which mean a lot to me.
Do you draft first in longhand, or on a computer/keyboard?
The first draft is always in longhand. A poem doesn’t get onto the computer until it’s well into the second draft; likewise a book review. The exception is blog posts, which I do compose at the keyboard, but even with those, if I’m having trouble with wording, I’ll pick up a pen.
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write? How about when you edit?
For both writing and editing, tea is essential, with the variety varying according to the time of day and season of the year. Black or oolong is for morning, usually, and rooibos or other herbals for afternoon. Spicy teas feel right for cooler weather, while fruity herbals are nice in summer. And I always add just a little bit of honey.
I’m also fond of chocolate, the darker the better, just a little piece as fuel to get myself started or as a reward for having accomplished something.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
I don’t listen to music while I write. I prefer quiet. But if there is a lot of sound around me and it’s too distracting, and I’m trying to work, then I put on headphones and play something like Bach’s cello suites.
If you could not be involved in the literary arts, what career might you have?
If I couldn’t produce literature, I’d probably try to work with books in some other way. My mom was the town librarian for a few years while I was growing up, and also ran the church library, so I hung out in libraries a lot.