Stephanie Bolster’s first book, White Stone: The Alice Poems (Signal Editions/Véhicule Press), won the Governor General’s Award and the Gerald Lampert Award in 1998 and appeared in French with Les Éditions du Noroît in 2007. She has also published Two Bowls of Milk(McClelland & Stewart), which won the Archibald Lampman Award and was shortlisted for the Trillium Award, and Pavilion (McClelland & Stewart). Her work has appeared in literary journals internationally and has also garnered the Bronwen Wallace Award, the Norma Epstein Award, and The Malahat Review‘s Long Poem Prize. Her several chapbooks include, most recently, Biodôme (above/ground) and Past the Roman Arena and the Cedar of Lebanon (Delirium). Bolster editedThe Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems (McGill-Queen’s) by the late Ottawa poet Diana Brebner, and guest edited the inaugural The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 anthology (Tightrope). She’s currently completing a collection of zoo-inspired poems and co-editing the forthcoming anthology, Penned: Animals in Zoos in Poems(Signal/Véhicule). Raised in Burnaby, B.C., she has an M.F.A. in creative writing from UBC and teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montréal, Québec.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
No. Rather, ongoing affirmations. I have written creatively since I was capable of writing, and during my adolescence poetry began to become my literary focus. Looking back on it now, song lyrics were important, as were a few specific poems and writers that I encountered, which I’ll discuss in response to question 5. Essentially, poetry is how I think, how I understand the world. Perhaps I might understand the world differently if I wrote primarily fiction, but I do think that I chose poetry because it was the most natural means of expression for me. In order to pursue poetry as an area of study, rather than a private pastime, I had to confidence in myself and faith that, if I did what I wanted to do with my life, I would, somehow, survive financially.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
Much of my writing is drawn from my interest (obsession?) with particular subjects. The poems in my first book, White Stone, take as their subject the character of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired her creation. In my second and third books, I wrote a great deal about visual art, particularly about paintings by Vermeer and by the Quebec painter Jean Paul Lemieux. For the past several years I have been writing about zoos and the animals they contain, and about nineteenth century architecture and botanical gardens. In all my work, I’m interested in perception: in the frames that we imagine or build in order to contain, figuratively or literally, the things we wish to examine and possess. Like many writers, I wish to stop time, and yet am fascinated by its continuity. In more general terms, my poems are more likely to arise from research or reflection than from a moment’s inspiration or a lived experience, although the birth of my daughter two years ago is pushing me closer to life and farther from books.
What is your writing process?
That’s a difficult question to answer under any circumstances, but especially because motherhood has made time more precious and interruptions more frequent—so my process is in flux. Generally, though, it remains true that my first drafts are a mess. I begin to write, sometimes beginning from a line that arises in my head at that moment, sometimes from a line or words I’ve written down earlier, sometimes from an idea generated from my research, or even from a direct quote. I write fairly quickly, directly on the computer, with little sense of where I’m going. Sometimes, where I end up is not very interesting. Sometimes, I surprise myself. If the poem is going to be a “keeper,” by the end I have arrived somewhere unexpected, yet the final lines have a feeling of inevitability. It’s then my task to make the rest of the poem as strong as those lines. Later comes the challenging process of determining which poems are worthy or submitting to journals, of inclusion in a manuscript, and of deciding upon an order for those poems.
What is your revision/editing process?
Though I will often begin rewriting a poem immediately after finishing the first draft, most of the revision happens later, sometimes much later. When I was participating in writing workshops as an undergraduate and MFA student, much of my revision process consisted of tinkering—incorporating others’ comments or my own alterations. These days, I’m more likely to abandon almost all of a poem, retaining only a title or a few successful lines, and writing a new poem around them. I think of this as “hot” revision, versus my earlier, “cold” revision. The tinkering doesn’t come until later, when the poem feels close to finished. Nearly always, my final drafts are much briefer than my initial drafts; in a reference to a 70s film that I never saw, I sometimes refer to writing “the incredible shrinking poem.” I pare down to essentials though without, I hope, paring away too much. It’s always heartening to look back at early drafts and to be reminded of how bad they were, then to look at the “finished” poem and feel proud of it. Although I save my drafts, my memory of the revision process is hazy, in part because many of my poems are revised over several (often many) years. I would say that I spend at least 80% of my writing time rewriting.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
I have always written, though I didn’t move beyond writing odes to pop stars and crushes until I was sixteen, when I read the poems of Sylvia Plath. I’d been engaged by occasional poems I’d read in high school but had never become fascinated by a writer’s body of work, character, and career until that point. I didn’t realize at the time that there were girls all over the English-speaking world living the same experience. Plath was in many ways a poor role model—she was notoriously demanding of herself, likely manic-depressive, and committed suicide at age 30—but as much as through her poetry, which was intelligent, passionate, and impeccably crafted, she inspired me through her work ethic. I began to use a thesaurus, a dictionary. I began to read the writers she had read. I began to educate myself as poet, in short—to take myself seriously, to write as much as I could.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
There are many more resources than there once were—or, at least, the internet has made them more accessible. The League of Canadian Poets’ young poets’ website (www.youngpoets.ca) is a great starting place. I’m fond of Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry and have recently discovered The Mind’s Eye: A Guide to Writing Poetry by Kevin Clark, which looks like a stimulating book representing a range of poems and approaches. The best resource is poetry itself: reading and listening to a wide range of it as much as possible.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
“Follow your bliss.” It was hard for me to convince myself to pursue writing, as I wanted security in my life and poetry seemed unlikely to offer this. While it’s true that poetry is not going to pay one’s bills, it’s also true that many sacrifices are worthwhile, and that it’s better to follow one’s bliss early on than to do so only in mid-life, out of desperation, after decades of unhappiness. It’s also important to realize that there are living poets everywhere. Towards the end of high school I became aware of some local poets but none visited my school, and I didn’t realize that readings by established and emerging writers were happening regularly in my city. I do think that the internet has made it easier for writers, many of whom are shy, to connect with each other.
On the other hand, it would also have been useful for me to realize how difficult it is to be a poet, by which I mean not simply that it’s difficult to get one’s work in print, but that it’s difficult, and will always be difficult, to write well. If something seems too easy, it probably is. A first draft is rarely a final draft. Poetry requires work as much as, or more than, it requires inspiration. I was inspired all the time in high school but my discipline was to write a lot, not to revise: quantity over quality. Though it’s true that my poems became stronger over time, simply through practice, I could have learned earlier on how crucial revision is to life as a poet; if you’re not able to become passionate about revision, it’s unlikely that you have a future as a publishing poet.