Lauren Carter discusses how to stay the course during a lengthy (and deeply personal) writing process in our latest Quatrain Questions interview.
1. You spent over a decade working on Following Sea. How did you retain your focus and direction over the length of time it took to complete this collection?
Well, when I say over a decade, what I mean is that I was writing poems through those years. The first ones (included in both the “Barren” and “Following Sea” sections) were mostly written from about 2004 to 2008. Then I turned my attention to the genealogical poems in “Migration” and worked on them for a few years. I didn’t know for a long time that these seemingly divergent topics would be able to meld together into one book. The work on the manuscript as a whole, as it is now – bringing these poems together and reflecting on them as a whole – started around 2013.
In terms of retaining focus, I’ve always found that it helps to be able to move between projects. So, while working on Following Sea, I finished two novels (well, three, but one died…) and numerous short stories, and other poems that didn’t fit but that will hopefully find a place in another collection.
I could have pushed the manuscript aside and let it lapse, for sure, but that’s the truth about all creative works. I learned at some point that it’s entirely up to me if I finish something or not (in other words, nobody cares if I write). I have to foster and nurture my own dedication which I do by reading work by other writers that I love and connecting with other writers and maintaining a practice.
2. Where were you, geographically and emotionally, when you penned your very personal poems about your struggles with infertility?
This is a good question. I wrote “Barren,” the title poem of that section, in 2007 or 2008, upon waking from the dream which I write about. We were living in Orillia, Ontario, and we were right in the midst of the effort at that time – cycle monitoring, IVF, drugs, counsellor, naturopath, etcetera. I think it had been about three years of trying to conceive. It was a very dark winter. Other poems came out at that time and I realized at some point that I they were sort-of tracing the months – hence, the titles.
The trio of poems about my miscarriage, though, were not written until a couple years after the event. I needed distance to write those.
The writing definitely did help while I was in the heart of this struggle. Writing has always helped me, actually, when I’m in difficult circumstances. Poetry especially helps me reflect, refract, reframe my emotional truth but all writing helps me just simply handle whatever hard thing is happening. I find that using emotions and life events as material enables me to build a bit of distance that helps me process and keep going. The same thing happened after my brother died. I dove head first into my novel about a brother and sister for the five months following his death (I also wrote a lot of poems). The characters are very different from Tim and I but the material of our relationship and my brother’s breakdown informed the book.
3. Elsewhere, you have said that you struggled to reconcile how your family history fits into the historical narrative of Indigenous displacement. How did you come to terms with this when writing the collection?
I didn’t, and I don’t know if it’s possible to reconcile ourselves to historical injustices that continue to play out. The truth is how Candace Savage puts it in A Geography of Blood, which I’m reading right now (just swap out ‘prairies’ for Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin Island – or, indeed, wherever any of us live): “As the descendent of incomers to the Canadian prairies, I am the intended beneficiary, however unwittingly, of an ecological and humanitarian atrocity.”
This area has some differences in that, as settlers, we didn’t plunder the buffalo for our own use, thus eradicating a sacred and essential source of food, clothing, culture, life, but we did overfish and log old-growth trees (some of them 14-feet wide, I learned) and cut the land into grids for farming and generally did our part to fuel the engine of the runaway industrial machine that is now imperiling the planet.
This, despite the fact that Manitoulin was very controversially signed over in a disputed treaty and, Wikwemikong, the eastern half of the island, was never ceded.
For me, as I believe it should be for all settler people who have benefited from colonization, this position is uncomfortable and deserves attention, but because the focus of that part of my book was about family, Margaret and John, and their journey as a family, I chose not to wade directly into that aspect of their story.
Nevertheless, the personal is always political, which is why I wrote Island Clearances, the long poem questioning the notion of the island as a ‘home’ to me when it was robbed from others. There are no answers in that poem, only observances, reflections, considerations, a looking inward (as the Gwendolyn MacEwen epigraph suggests). I believe poetry – and all creative work, for that matter - is meant to raise questions. As Mary Oliver writes in the poem Mysteries, Yes:
“Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.”
4. How has your relationship with Manitoulin Island evolved from the writing of this book?
If anything, the island feels like more of a spiritual home to me, even though I haven’t been able to visit for several years. It is also wonderful to have gained a deeper understanding of the place in terms of my ancestry. It is certainly a very special part of the world and I feel blessed to know it and for it to have played such an important role in my family. I hope to return for a visit soon.