Featured Writer: O:JA&L’s interview with LORNA CROZIER
O:JA&L Interviewer’s introduction (script for live interview):
Poet and essayist Lorna Crozier, born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada, was a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria until 2012. She is now a Professor Emerita. She is the author of 18 books of poetry and a memoir and has been the recipient of several national awards. These include three Pat Lowther Awards (for the best book of poetry by a Canadian woman), the 2016 Raymond Souster Award for the best book of poetry, the 1992 Canadian Author’s Association Award for Poetry and the 1992 Governor General’s Award for Poetry.
She has been awarded five honourary doctorates for her contribution to Canadian literature, both as a writer and teacher: in 2004 from the University of Regina; 2007, from the University of Saskatchewan; 2013 from Mount Vincent University in Nova Scotia; and in 2015, from McGill University in Montreal and Simon Fraser University in Burnaby. In 2009 she was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada, and in 2011 she was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour. She also received Saskatchewan’s Kloppenburg Award for Literary Excellence and British Columbia’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement.
The most recent of her 18 books of poetry, published in 2017, is What the Soul Doesn’t Want. Others include The Wrong Cat (2017) and The Wild in You: Voices from the Forest and the Sea (2017), a celebration of the Great Bear Rainforest with photographer Ian McAllister. The Blue Hour of the Day: Selected Poems came out in 2007; her memoir, Small Beneath the Sky in 2009, a collection of poems Small Mechanics in 2010; and The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things in 2012. It was listed as one of The Globe’s top 100 books for that year. Amazon listed her memoir as one of the hundred books you should read in your lifetime.
Three children’s books, Lots of Kisses, So Many Babies and More Than Balloons were published by Orca Books. Her poems have been translated into several languages, and she has read her work for Queen Elizabeth II and in such countries as South Africa, Scotland, Australia, Malaysia, France, Italy, England, Chile and China. In 2009 Trilce Ediciones in Mexico City published a collection translated into Spanish by Carmen Leñero, La Perspectiva del Gato, and in 2002 Vermillon Press in Ottawa published a French translation called Apocryphe de la Lumiere. Along with Patrick Lane she edited Addicted: Notes from the Belly of the Beast and two anthologies of young Canadian poets. In 2010, she edited The Best Canadian Poetry, which was launched in Toronto and New York. She is the travelling poet for the online magazine Toque and Canoe.
Margaret Laurence called her “a poet to be grateful for.” Books in Canada claimed “she is one of the most original poets writing in English today.” The Ottawa Citizen described her as “One of Canada’s most read and most honoured poets….[Crozier’s poems] become part of the reader’s permanent memory.” Ursula Le Guin wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “What a joy to have a volume of selected poems by this marvellous Canadian poet, storyteller, truth-teller, visionary.” Canadian Literature claimed, “Crozier writes of a world of imperfection, clumsiness, violence, betrayal, pain, and in spite of everything, delight and love….Always accessible, Crozier speaks a language we understand, but she uses it to tell us things we don’t.” Of her memoir, which received the Hubert Evans Award for the best book of nonfiction published in B.C in 2009, Sharon Butala wrote. “I found it deeply touching,” and the reviewer of The Book of Marvels in The Globe and Mail said that after reading this book, “From here on in, it will be impossible to be bored or take anything for granted every again. And for that, we can ever be grateful to Lorna Crozier.”
Please welcome now Ms. Lorna Crozier.
O:JA&L: You have had a long and productive career in academia and the literary arts. Will you summarize for our audience your early career– those important breakthrough moments that helped establish your trajectory as a writer?
LC: When the poet and critic Eli Mandel, my second creative writing teacher at a summer program, said to me, “One day soon you’ll be very well-known Canadian poet. What are you going to do about that?” At that time, in my mid-twenties, I needed that kind of affirmation from such a respected and famous writer. It helped me gain faith in myself and my abilities. My answer to his question, though I said nothing at the time, would have been, “I’m going to read myself out of ignorance, learn everything I can about the craft of poetry, and write my ass off, no matter what.” I’ve been doing that now for over thirty years.
The two weeks at spent at the Sask. Summer School of the Arts for about seven years (first as a student but then as a teacher) changed my life. I met teachers who believed in me and mentored me as mentioned above, but I also met my peers, others around my age who were as passionate about poetry as I was. We ate together, danced together, went to the bars together, talked about books and poems and sometimes slept together. I knew I had discovered my people and my world.
I was lucky with my early endeavours at publication. Someone told the editors of Grain, a prestigious and hard-to-get-into literary magazine, that I was an interesting new poet. They asked to meet with me in person, and with me in the living room of the chief editor, Carolyn Heath, they went through the poems I’d brought with me, discussed them, argued about them, and chose six for publication. Six! I was thrilled.
Not long after that, the editors of the new Thistledown Press told me they’d like a book from me. I gave them about 40 poems, which became the chapbook Inside Is the Sky. The title came from the last lines of a small poem: “I look small and earthbound / but inside / is the sky.” In neither case—my first poems in a literary magazine and my first chapbook—did I have to send out and send out and collect rejection slips. I had so little confidence that I don’t know if I’d have lasted had that been the case.
O:JA&L: What influences helped to shape your perspective, your worldview?
LC: I can’t get away from the influence of growing up poor in a house devoid of books and art. Nothing I had read showed me my world as I was living it day after day. I felt driven to find a way to speak my landscape, my unemployed broken father, my hard-working mother who’d been sold as a child to the farm down the road, my talented hockey-playing brother who slept in an old car in our back yard. All of this exerted as much of an influence on me as did my early mentors and teachers and the books I discovered and read.
O:JA&L: What circumstances of your life had the most profound effects upon your work?
LC: During the 1930s, the prairies where I grew up suffered from a ten-year drought. My parents were just children then, but it affected them profoundly. For ten years there were no crops taken off the fields. Children born during that time had never seen rain. I grew up with my parents’ and grandparents’ stories of that period of dust, grasshopper clouds, desolation. My mother couldn’t go to school because there was no feed for the horses. Hundreds of families abandoned the land they’d homesteaded and moved away with just a few belongings in a wagon. What seeped into my blood from the stories was that nothing lasts, everything can be swept away until there is nothing left, even the grass can stop growing.
I think this had made me acutely aware of the vulnerability of all forms of life and of the inability to know what one’s future will be. It’s also made me sensitive to the natural world. I appreciate the smallest thing, like the drift of snow on a chickadee’s beak at the feeder, like an ant trying to navigate a crack between two boards on the deck. I’m also aware that you can lose your home, your animals, the very ground you stand on, and there may be no help coming your way.
O:JA&L: What writers have the most influence on your own work?
LC: As a child: Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Romantic poets, Robert Browning
As an adult: Patrick Lane, Margaret Atwood, Gwen MacEwen, Alden Nowlan, T.S. Eliot, Jack Gilbert, Norm Dubie, Transtromer, Rumi, Rilke, etc. etc. etc.
O:JA&L: What can you share with us about your writing habits?
LC: Because I have a busy professional life that includes a lot of travelling and teaching, I prefer to disappear for a couple of weeks at a time and write with no interruptions. For this, for the past thirty years, I’ve gone to a Benedictine monastery in Saskatchewan in July. I’ve also gone to a place on Vancouver Island.
I love revising, for the most part. What works for me is to set poems aside for quite some time, even a year or two, and then to sneak up on them and startle them and look at them as if I’ve never seen them before. That often helps me to see them more clearly and to know what they need to be better.
O:JA&L: What are your sources of inspiration? Your common themes?
LC: My sources of inspiration are often from the natural world, the wonders, joys and surprises it brings us. For instance a poem in my latest book was inspired by discovering that flies have five eyes, not just the two we think we see.
Common themes: Love, aging, climate catastrophers, the startling beauty of the earth, animals, silence, feminism, the holy in the ordinary, family
Common forms: lineated poetry, prose poems, essays
O:JA&L: After reading the delightful sampling of your work in the first issue of OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters, what specific works should our audience explore next?
LC: The newest is “The Door,” a short story published by Grain this fall; the most well-known, a series called “The Sex Lives of Vegetables”; and this writer’s personal favourite is “Fear of Snakes.”
O:JA&L: What single simple truth would you like our audience to take away from this interview?
LC: Poetry is what keeps us in touch with the astonishing, the unsaid, the wondrous. In poems those things that take our breath away are given breath and music. We won’t die without poetry, but we’ll be less alive.
For more information about Crozier’s work, see here for schedule.
God of Shadows, to be released in September 2018
What the Soul Doesn’t Want, released May, 2017
Image: Crozier portrait by Gary McKinstry