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, who had come to Winnipeg from Czarist Russia, had attempted to take his family "back" to the Soviet Union in 1935, but they had no status as citizens and so were refused permission to emigrate. 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 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, Qwerty, 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.