how will we translate ourselves?


To continue Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour (which I am organizing through Upper Rubber Boot Books to celebrate National Poetry Month), I interviewed Deirdre Dwyer, author of Going to the Eyestone and The Breath That Lightens the Body.


Joanne Merriam: What is your writing process?

Deirdre Dwyer: I write a first draft of a poem in longhand, and will rewrite and revise that draft in longhand several times. I like writing in longhand because the time it takes to write is more in time with my thinking process. After several revisions, I want to see the poem on my computer screen. The first printed version does not mean the poem is finished; it is just starting to take the shape it wants to take or I want it to take. I will revise the poem again many times, sometimes with my poetry group. If I’m lucky I may not need to make serious revisions, but that is seldom the case.

I also like to let the poem sit inside a binder for a week, or sometimes even months. Later I’ll take it out and see again what revisions are needed. When I see the poem with fresh, more objective eyes, I can more easily detect what is not working. Often the first rough draft and the final version of the poem can be very different. Poems are amazing things… I love how they evolve and how I let a poem evolve…!


Joanne Merriam: What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

Deirdre Dwyer: When I think about the word ‘advice,’ I think of a parental talk or a grandfatherly comment from a one-on-one with my private mentor. My parents didn’t talk about my poetry and I didn’t, and don’t, have a private mentor, but I have worked with a number of great Canadian writers, at the Banff School of Fine Arts, the Maritime Writing Workshop in Fredericton, and with the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia. At Banff in 1982, Phyllis Webb told the writing students there that we should play more. She was talking not just about poets, but people in general. I think it is powerful advice.

When I was in Banff in 1982 and 1984—a wonderful place to be with artists of all kind—I also received advice from W.O. Mitchell. He taught the writing students about what he called Mitchell’s Messy Method, or Freefall. It was his way of finding new material. I spent a month in the summer of ’82 and ’84 freefalling, free writing without a censor, writing about almost anything until you find something full of emotion and story, and then writing about and fully exploring that emotion and story. Natalie Goldberg calls it Timed Writing in her book Writing Down the Bones, a book I often return to. Freefall prevents me from getting stuck. It prevents writer’s block. When I do get stuck in a poem, I freefall a line and revise it, and meander until the creative juices are flowing again, and I understand where I am going in the poem. I try to take Goldberg’s advice of not letting the censor take over. He’s mean and says nasty things about spelling, grammar, and words. But I don’t listen to him. I throw him off my shoulder and out of the room and just play with words and ideas. I feel lucky to have gotten such great advice.

I also want to add that I am a member of a poetry group that is supportive, helpful, and genuinely concerned about poetry. The group, and other members of the group who have moved away, have provided wonderful advice, great cups of tea, snacks, and friendship too! Thanks to all of them! (They know who they are.)

I still feel I am an apprentice writer and still look for advice anywhere and everywhere, from the poetry I read, from writers writing about writing, and from all my writer friends. Therefore I read widely or try to. I wish I had more reading time…


Joanne Merriam: Maritimers and Atlantic Canadian writers often seem to get lumped together into a single category, as though geography were all that’s needed to understand their work. Can you comment on what it means to you to be located in Nova Scotia, both for your own work, and its reception outside the region?

Deirdre Dwyer: We are certainly more than our geography. If I am allowed to quote myself, I will quote from the closing poem “The Same Weight as Water” in my travel collection, The Breath that Lightens the Body: “nobody is only their country/so how will we translate ourselves?” When I was traveling I thought about the first question we ask other travelers, Where are you from. Why is that important? Or maybe it isn’t? I’m still not sure, and so I still wonder what questions help us understand an individual.

Your question is an interesting one. What does it mean to me to be located in Nova Scotia? I don’t know if I can fully explain what it means to me to live here. I love living in Nova Scotia and on the Eastern Shore in the same community as where I grew up. Musquodoboit Harbour is a sub-suburban community about 50 kilometers outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and I live with my husband and golden retriever on a piece of land that my grandfather bought in the 1950s, or perhaps earlier. I live in a house I helped my husband build, right on the harbour itself, in which I swim. I love living in the country, love the smell of seaweed at low tide, the colour of long, blonde winter grass and so much more. I write about this place, about nature because it is so immediate and changing. There is an emotional connection to the land, an ancestral connection, and a strong feeling of community here too.

But I have lived in other places—in Windsor, Ontario; in Halifax; and in Tokyo, Japan, and when I was living in those places I thought about my Nova Scotian homes from afar, which was also interesting. The perspective was different and I loved the contrasts of a big city and my village. That contrast and the distance helped me write poems. Place then is very important to my work.

What I can say about the reception of my work outside my region? Not much. I hope that readers from other regions respond to the emotion, humour, and story in my poetry. Perhaps that I have been published in a variety of literary journals across Canada says something about the reception of my work elsewhere. The only other thing I can say about the reception of my work elsewhere relates to the two companies that published my two books: Beach Holme in Vancouver published my first book, and Wolsak and Wynn in Toronto published my second.


Joanne Merriam: Do you think writing poetry helps you understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a poet more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

Deirdre Dwyer: I hope it is not a cop-out to say it is a bit of both. Poetry certainly helps me understand myself and the world. It is no a coincidence that many people start writing poetry in adolescence when they are trying to understand themselves and the world, which is always difficult (and in my experience, that doesn’t get any easier…) I think it is also true that poetry has helped me learned to communicate the things I already know, and as I advance (and step backwards many times too) I learn to communicate what I know—and what I do not know. I love putting questions in my poetry—some get answered and others don’t, or I ask the audience questions, hoping they will somehow supply answers. Or I ask questions, just to explore ideas, without wanting to receive particular answers.

Your question is quite philosophical—how do I know I know something? Writing a poem helps me realize I do know something, though before I start a particular poem I may not have known that I knew that thing. I hope this makes sense. (I was a philosophy undergrad.) Maybe the “or” in your question should be an “and.” (I’m revising, playing editor, because I’m starting to be confused about what I know I know versus what I know—and what I didn’t know I knew.) Perhaps I know nothing… and is that knowing something?


Check out more poetry-related interviews, reviews and guest posts at Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour!

Related Posts