Jane Munro grew up in a log house her father built in North Vancouver, British Columbia. As a young woman she lived in Indiana, where she completed an undergraduate degree, in Turkey, and in Ottawa. Later, she made several trips to India, but Vancouver remained her home and it was there that she raised a family and earned graduate degrees in English, Creative Writing, and Adult Education. She also taught Creative Writing at three universities and worked in the field of distance education. Jane now lives on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Jane Munro’s fourth collection of poetry, Point No Point, was published in 2006 by McClelland & Stewart. Her previous books are Grief Notes & Animal Dreams, The Trees Just Moved into a Season of Other Shapes, and Daughters, a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award. She is the winner of the 2007 Banff Centre Bliss Carman Poetry Award.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
No, not one specific moment. As a small child, I loved to listen to my mother read poetry aloud. She had an anthology of poems called Silver Pennies. One poem I remember went (if I do remember it!):
The moon’s the North Wind’s cookie.
He eats it day by day
Until there’s but a rim of crust
That crumbles clean away.
The South Wind is the baker.
He kneads clouds in his den
And bakes a whole new moon
That greedy North Wind eats again.
My father also knew some poems by heart, or sort of knew them. He’d start reciting a poem and then make up his own rhymes to fill in what he couldn’t recall. He’d play with poems.
In a childhood where there was not a lot of money or things, poems and books—free for all, thanks to the library—meant a lot. Poetry made me happy. Why not pursue it?
How/where do you find inspiration today?
I keep journals and notebooks. I’ve done this since I was a child. My notebooks are private—for my eyes only—and I use them in different ways. One thing I’ve learned to do is to date my entries.
At times, I’ll follow a practice of drafting a poem a day in my notebook. These are not precious objects, and few go further than that draft, but at least once a year (often, more frequently) I take the time to review my journals and flag things that interest me.
Currently, I’m following a practice of writing down my dreams as soon as I wake up. Then, before I get up to make breakfast, I draft a “proto-poem” in the same notebook. These are often inspired by the dreams. I just write them down as they come, without judgment. When the notebook is full, I’ll go through it and see what I’ve got. If there are promising proto-poems, I’ll work on them.
I started this practice because I’d been feeling harried and stressed. When my focus is too much on externals, it’s hard to hear the poems that may arrive. At first, the dreams just evaporated. Now the dreams stay for a while, and sometimes, as I write them down, other bits reappear. Poems do this too. They can be elusive.
What is your writing process?
Poems come in different ways. Sometimes, a phrase or an image will arrive while I’m walking. Lines can come while I’m driving. I might wake up at night and feel I need to go and write. Or, as I’ve been saying, poems can start from a dream. Now and then, I’ll just sit down with my notebook and expect a poem to begin. Another great place for me to find poems is in the shower! I’ve been writing haiku and these tiny poems seem especially adept at appearing in a steamy downpour. Maybe it’s the relaxation in each of these situations. A yogi told me, “You cannot energize what is not relaxed.” Poems are a fresh energy, a surprise, that it’s hard to sense if your mind and body are tense.
Usually, I handwrite first drafts, and proceed somewhat slowly, listening for phrases, watching for images, and feeling my way. If what I get remains interesting, the next step is to type up a draft on the computer. I’ll work on the computer for a while, always hearing the poem as well as seeing it, and saving my drafts (I’ve learned to title them sequentially). Sooner or later, I’ll print the poem out. Then, I’ll read it aloud—walk around with it—scribble on the paper. Type in the revised version. This process can go on and on.
What is your revision/editing process?
Writing, and rewriting or editing, are much the same thing.
I think it’s as creatively demanding to rewrite or edit a piece as it is to write the first draft.
Often that first draft just gets me into the territory where I might find a poem.
Sometimes the final poem doesn’t resemble the first draft that launched it; at other times, it’s nearly identical, at least in parts. I may snip bits from several proto-poems and piece them into something new.
Revision and editing usually involve cutting, reading aloud, thinking closely about what I’ve got, challenging it, and rewriting. Many of my poems have gone through innumerable drafts. File folders of drafts. So, to begin with, my revision / editing process includes not knowing if what I’ve got is a poem, or a path that might lead to a poem, or a dead end. Mostly, I have to trust my gut on this, and continue to trust it as I work.
I also need to trust my mind, and my poetic craft. This is where craft can make a big difference. When I’m having difficulty with a poem—say, a line feels clunky or off—I will scan it. That’s like getting an XRay of the poem. I almost always count syllables. I always count lines. I think about the shape—both physically on the page, and as a pattern of ideas or images or both—and if the poem is in tension with a traditional form.
Sooner or later, I’ll want to read the poem to someone. That person’s reaction can be helpful. And, the simple act of reading the poem aloud TO someone is clarifying. It helps the poem become transitive. Knowing this, I’ll practice reading it to an imaginary audience.
It can take a very long time to write a poem.
Sometimes, even after a poem’s been published, I’ll revise or edit it. This can happen between a poem appearing in a magazine and later being collected in a book.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
Yes, some. I think I wrote it, mostly in secret, in lyrical moments. I kept a diary, but I also scribbled poems in other notebooks. It seems to me that I had poetry published in the high school annual, or maybe in the school paper. I worked on both.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
A dictionary. Books of poetry. The best resource is poetry. Read it. Listen to it. Love it.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
You can be a poet.
Write what only you can write. Find those poems.
The art is always greater than any one practitioner. Don’t think you have to be able to write in a particular way to be a real poet.
Poems take time and work. They almost never emerge complete and finished in a first draft.
Revise. Revise. Revise. And keep your drafts. Your best version may not be your last draft.
Read your work aloud. Poems are music.
Relax. Dance. Play.