In this conversation hosted at Massey College on April 21, Editor-in-Chief Laura Ritland interviews Rhea Tregebov about her career as a poet, teacher of poetry and novelist of historical fiction. Rhea Tregebov is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches poetry, children’s literature and literary translation.

Laura Ritland: Many younger writers including myself are indebted to your support and guidance as a teacher of creative writing. You’ve worked with so many wonderful students to bring some truly beautiful books into the world. And the list of your disciples precedes your time at the Creative Writing Program at UBC … I’m just wondering how you embarked on this role of mentoring other writers, or if… you maybe were just born with an innate generosity and compassion that outstrips most mortal human beings. Were there any teachers in your own development that helped you on your own path?

Rhea Tregebov: I had both a junior high school and a high school teacher who loved literature and English – it wasn’t called Language Arts back then, it was just called English – and she really took on that mentorship role with students. I kept in touch with her well into my thirties when I was living in Toronto. But, oddly enough, some of my desire to be direct and straightforward with my students was in response to teachers in my undergrad and even grad who were very silent and very withholding within workshops – you would try to read the expression on their face to determine if they liked your work – and I felt that I really wanted to give my students as much pure information as I could. [For example,] I give a pragmatics class about what it was like to struggle as a freelance writer up to the age of 51, when I got the job at UBC.

And, you know, my students have taught me; my knowledge base has expanded enormously, particularly at UBC, which has an amazing grad and undergrad program [for Creative Writing].

I felt that my job and role as a professor, a tenure-track professor, gave me the luxury of time where I could really give them [that attention]. […] An institution that allows one to express that kind of mentorship is really huge.

I also mother anything and any person within my range. There is a term for that – it’s called mama poule – mother hen; it’s definitely the mother hen in me that made me want to connect with students.

LR: Do you think creative writing can be taught? I mean, there’s this common suspicion towards teaching any creative art, but in your classes I got the sense in you were open and pragmatic about teaching creative writing.

RT: Absolutely. We don’t question “can you teach dance,” “can you teach visual arts,” “can you teach how to make films.” You can’t implant talent in people, but you can nurture it in people. And over my career, I’ve seen many, many kinds of talents – talent for narrative, metaphor, people with high concept poems, intense thinking, and so on. It’s been rewarding to teach these talented people, but it’s also rewarding to teach students who come in a little more shaky but are so devoted to developing their craft, and work so absurdly hard. I mean, the talented students also work hard! But it’s incredible to watch people who really have something to say. To watch the students who really are driven. They have something to say that might be incredibly hard, and they are going to find a way to express that.

So I can teach them how to use the line, and I can teach them about syntax; or I can tell them about the deictics of their poem, and I can give lectures in workshop. But a part of that whole educational process is helping them understand their project: what they are trying to talk about, what they need to communicate, and how to get there.

And you can create a stimulating environment where there are many other people who are also creating work and want to talk about it. You know, this is what you are talking about at the dinner table, talking about over beer, this is what you are putting as the centrepiece of your life, rather than something in the corner or hidden away.

LR: Talking about community and having those voices of that community around you, it makes me want to ask about when you were writing your first book and living in Toronto: was there something about being in Toronto as a writing community that inspired your writing?

RT: I really love Toronto. It was really hard to leave. I came here when I was 25 out of grad school and I found this really intense community when I was here, and you would go to every reading, the Harbourfront readings and the World Poetry Festival. It’s a place that really cares about the arts and culture. I don’t feel the same way about Vancouver, which is not to say that there aren’t spectacular writers there, but you don’t feel the structural support there. There’s no equivalent to the Toronto Arts Council there. When I was a freelance writer here in Toronto, I could apply to the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts. It was very, very competitive but the little bits helped. Every time I got a grant, I could take three or four months to write.

LR: So, shifting gears a little bit: Your first novel, The Knife Sharpener’s Bell traces the story of a young girl, Annette Gershon, and her family trying to escape the depression of 1930s Winnipeg by moving back to the parents’ homeland of the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. It’s a meticulously researched novel, an historical novel inspired, as you said, by your grandparents’ attempted immigration from Winnipeg to Russia in the 1930s. What are some of the challenges and joys involved in writing about history or remembering history?

RT: It [my grandparents’ story] was a very seductive story. My maternal grandfather had left Winnipeg and had attempted to take his family back to Czarist Russia, and had gone to the Soviet Union in 1935, but they had no status as citizens and so were refused permission. And so my mother wasn’t taken at the age of ten to Odessa and subjected to the horrors of the second world war. It stunned me. I knew my grandfather really well, and I wondered why anyone could be so foolish. He wasn’t a foolish man; he didn’t have a great deal of education, but he was a thoughtful and intelligent man.

I started writing the novel about ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and you start wondering about origins and alternate fates. I also grew up in the North End of Winnipeg among other kids, many of whose parents had been through the war and their lives were much, much tougher than mine. It was a striving to understand what had happened. It was that curiosity – partly a curiosity about how individual lives can be impacted by these large structures like wars and political upheaval. What would happen if you were ten years old and you were taken out of Winnipeg and plunked into Odessa under a Stalinist regime? It was a curiosity about the counterfactual, what had happened and also what hadn’t happened. All those other what-ifs. […]

In terms of constructing a past that I didn’t experience, I was aware and had watched friends that had taken on historical projects that you can do the research instead of writing the book! I knew next to nothing about that period of time. As a kid, my image of Soviets were these immovable, faceless, impassive, nonhuman people. But all I had to do was imagine very real people – like my grandparents, transplanted into that scenario. I also did very surgically precise research on that time period. […] I went looking for primary sources, or as close to primary as I could, so I could try to imagine what it would be like to be a left-wing idealist person who didn’t know what was coming [for the Soviet Union]. Your information back then was propaganda instead of objective facts, and you wanted to see this interesting social experiment. I read a memoir by a British teacher who had gone to teach English there and they said “they have these fascinating things called purges, where they get together and criticize each other, and I find it very healthy. These purges are so interesting and valuable!” [Laughter] So, it was very, very exciting to read and experience that period. […]

LR: In your work, I often see this deep need to connect with people who have suffered in the past or people who undergo very difficult, violent experiences. And these are very difficult, dark historical times you are exploring. Do you think there’s some kind of responsibility to write about the past and remember that kind of historical trauma and suffering?

RT: I think there is, Laura. I mean, there were sections in this book and the new one that were extremely difficult to write. Very hard. It feels like a responsibility. But like what one of the characters in the new book says – I’m also interested in human goodness, I’m interested in human happiness. If you’re interested in that, you need to look at the sources that impeded goodness and impeded happiness.

I went to a panel at the Writers Festival in Vancouver, where one of the panellists said that they feel a moral obligation towards optimism because, if you don’t, you don’t force yourself to look for solutions to existing problems, you just throw up your hands and give up. And so, with that feeling of responsibility to look at these very difficult human acts, it’s in the hopes of understanding them better.

LR: I’m wondering if, having written these books, do you feel that sense of optimism or understanding?

RT: I hope so. I hope the books have written me, as much as I have written the books. I certainly feel that about The Knife Sharpener’s Bell. I feel a different person than when I had started that book. Some of the things about my character [Annette] were wish-fulfillment: my character has much more agency and autonomy about her life that my mom did at that period. Some of it is wish-fulfillment, but you also feel those things, writing about it.

Rhea-Tregebov-portrait (666x800)Rhea Tregebov is the author of poetry, fiction and children’s picture books. She has also edited a number of anthologies. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, where she teaches poetry, children’s literature and literary translation. Her work has received a number of literary awards, including the J. I. Segal Award for fiction, the Pat Lowther Award, the Prairie Schooner Readers’ Choice Award, and the Malahat Review Long Poem Award.

Laura Ritland’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Branch Magazine, The Maynard, laura photoQwerty, CV2, The Malahat Review, The Hart House Review, and Popshot Magazine. She is the recipient of the 2014 Malahat Review’s Far Horizons Award for Poetry and the current Editor in Chief of echolocation magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

On June 23, we will be launching the Doubles Chapbook, featuring the winners and honourable mentions of the echolocation-Qwerty Doubles Contest! In this interview, first-place winner Sugar le Fae discusses his poem "Straight Man" with us.

Echoqwerty: “Straight Man” begins with an epigraph from Richard Ayoade: “A lot of comedies are based on the reaction shot. You have one person doing something stupid and one person is generally the straight man, and the laughs generally come on the reaction of the straight man to the funny thing the other person has done.” It seems that the butt of the joke in “Straight Man” literally is the straight man – the guy who’s attracted to the speaker, yet clings to the label of being “straight”. In another writer’s hands, this tension between the lover and the lover in denial could be awfully tragic. Yet, “Straight Man” is funny, and cleverly so. Why comedy? What does it enable you to do as a writer?

Sugar le Fae: Comedy allows me to laugh at myself, in poetry and daily life. It’s a defense mechanism as well as a passion: I love being funny! What’s better than getting a good belly laugh out of someone? A good joke is a kind of seduction. A sonnet, after all, is just a joke transformed into verse: there’s a set-up, a diversion/subversion of expectations, and a punchline i.e. the volta or “turn.” And this isn’t exclusive to sonnets. A good haiku can do it in three short lines. The kind of poetry that excites me most is always tightly contained but bursting at the seams, like a great joke. The comedy in “Straight Man” is sly, wry, and self-aware. A lot of the jokes are subtle, sometimes no more than a line-break.

EQ: On the topic of funny, the speaker compares sex with the Vulcan mating disease in “Pon Farr”: “sufferers must either mate, engage in ritual combat, or die.” How does science fiction inform your poetry?

SF: Well, I’ve always been a big fan of comic books, fantasy, and science fiction. As an awkward queer kid, these genres were one of the only ways I could connect with other boys my age. Fantasy appeals to LGBTQ kids exactly because it encourages us to escape our circumstances and imagine new possibilities. My straight male friends growing up didn’t care if I chose to play female characters in Dungeons & Dragons. Star Trek in particular offered us a humanity that had evolved beyond race and gender biases; I’m a big fan! I’ve wanted to use “Pon Farr” for the title of a poem since high school. There are lots of parallels between Kirk’s hyper-masculine bravado/Spock’s more graceful, feminine aspects and the “straight man”/speaker dynamic—not least of which is the underlying, almost unbearable, conflation of tensions: sexual, intellectual, social, etc.

EQ: As a Radical Faerie, writing about gay and genderqueer subjectivities, what is your mission? What do you hope for your work (poetry or otherwise) to do for your audience?

SF: I hope my writing opens people up. I write a lot about gender and religion precisely because we all need to start imagining new possibilities, as well as acknowledging the inherent violence of the current institutions. Also, I just hope readers enjoy my playful language and attention to detail. I hope they feel bigger and better after they read it, like they’ve been let in on a fat, juicy secret.

EQ: Where are you cruising next, Sugar le Fae? Any manuscripts in the works or projects in incubation?

SF: I’ve got a couple projects coming down the pipeline, though I’m not at liberty to divulge them just yet. I’m expecting to publish my first full-length collection by next year.

sugar le faeSugar le Fae (aka Zach Matteson) is a prize-winning poet, translator, teacher, photographer, songwriter, and Radical Faerie. His poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous literary journals in Canada and the U.S., including Plenitude, Lemon Hound, and Eleven Eleven. Sugar has an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and is currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice (UBC).

 

On June 23, we will be launching the Doubles Chapbook, featuring the honourable mentions and winners of the echolocation-Qwerty chapbook contest! In this interview, runner-up Jennifer Martelli discusses her winning poem "Stone Formations Along the Marginal Way."

Echoqwerty: “Stone Formations Along the Marginal Way” is a poem about the end of a romantic relationship, featuring a speaker who pauses along a walking path in Maine - the Marginal Way - to build a cairn. Indeed, the cairn seems to be the keystone symbol of this poem, perhaps a melancholic replacement for the speaker’s sense of loss. How did the Marginal Way cairns inspire this poem? Perhaps we could learn a bit more about their significance to you, or their importance to the landscape of the Maine coast?

Jennifer Martelli: My family vacations in Maine every year at the end of summer, usually Ogunquit; we’ve walked along the Marginal Way (how’s that for a crazy name?) a million times, but I never once noticed these cairns out on the rocks—100’s of them, all different sizes. They reminded me of that pile of rocks outside the kid’s tent in “The Blair Witch Project.” They were scary. That summer, I had started writing poems using images from kabuki theatre; more specifically, images used in Asian horror movies “borrowed” from kabuki theatre—think, “The Ring,” “The Grudge,” etc. They all feature a ghost, a woman, and you know she’s a ghost because of her messy hair hanging in her face, her mis-wrapped kimono, no feet, etc. So I tried to create this “ghost” woman—lost, rejected, building these cairns that just balance on the rocks. All ghosts stories are stories about broken hearts, no?

EQ: How important is place for you in your poetry? Notably, you specify that this poem takes place “off the path of the Marginal Way.” Do you often include such specific geographical markers in your work?

JM: Place has become more important to me. In this newer manuscript, I make a point of placing the poems in my own neighbourhood, or in Massachusetts, specifically, on the coastline, which is where I’m from. This is a very haunted location—I live next door to Salem! So yes, I’ve been including more geography in my poems. It’s probably the grounding for the more associative parts of my writing.

EQ: What qualities do you admire most in a poem?

JM: I think I especially love great syntax in poetry—I think of Marie Howe, Lucie Brock-Broido, Elizabeth Bishop—all very different in their styles, yet the music is generated by the placement of the words, how the sentences break. I love quirkiness—I just finished reading Bianca Stone and Emily Pettit—but only if it is true, and not quirky for its own sake. And when I mean true, I mean emotionally true, emotionally satisfying.

EQ: What’s next for Jennifer Martelli? Any manuscripts in the works or projects in incubation?

JM: Right now, I’m sending two manuscripts, fine-tuning them from a distance too! I have a handful of newer poems that I bring to my group, almost like bringing kids to pre-school: will they behave? will they play nicely?

jennifer martelliJennifer Martelli’s chapbook, Apostrophe, was published in 2011 by Big Table Publishing Company. She is the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Most recently, her poetry has been published in Bop Dead City, Tar River Poetry, burntdistrict, Jersey Devil Press and Right Hand Pointing. She’s taught high school English and women’s literature at Emerson College in Boston. She’s an associate editor of The Compassionate Project: An Anthology, and lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts with her family.

Join us on June 23 at 7:30 pm at the Victory Cafe to celebrate the launch of our Doubles Chapbook! The chapbook features the winners and honourable mentions of the Joint echolocation-Qwerty Doubles Contest, illustrated by the fantastic Dmitry Bondarenko! Our readers include Marcus Creaghan, Max Karpinksi and Catriona Wright. Books will be on sale for $8. Pst - we have a limited supply of these beauties, so we suggest getting yours pronto!

https://www.facebook.com/events/499137883576879/

doubles launch

Well, it's official! Thanks to our generous donors, the 2015 echolocation fundraiser was a success! Look for the names of our noble patrons in the next issue of echolocation. In the meantime, we have dedicated this video to them.*

*now, we're not saying you will see editors in swimwear if you watch this video. But you will witness something even more breath-taking and sublime.