Anne Fleming has worked for CBC Television, The Georgia Straight, and taught creative writing at British Columbia's best universities. Both a poet and prose writer, Anne's previous books include Pool Hopping and Other Stories, Gay Dwarves of America, and Anomoly. Her newest is the collection poemw (Pedlar Press), the title of which originated as a typo and became an emblem for a new kind of poem — the "approxi-lyric". poemw examines the beauty of the quotidian — secondhand clothes, graffiti, dead crows. The tenderness and humour of the collection create a warm, smart collection.
We're excited to present a conversation between Anne and Pedlar Press director Beth Follett, who speaks to Anne about her family's devotion to reading, moving from poetry to fiction and back again, and why laughter is never "just laughter".
This interview was conducted via email for Open Book.
Beth Follett, Pedlar Press:
When you were little, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
Janitor, park ranger, hermit.
Was your family devoted to reading, to poetry?
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Funny, I have been working on an essay about this, in essence about how I came to poetry through a book called Mirrors.
Was my family devoted to reading, yes, very much so. To poetry? Well, I think generations prior to mine incorporated poetry more broadly into their lives. When I was researching the First World War for [my novel] Anomaly, one of the things I noted was that people of all classes knew poetry and read poetry and quoted it in their letters. People of my parents’ generation knew many poems by heart, and quoted them regularly. But though my mother was a keen reader of Canadian books, the only books of poetry in the house were old school anthologies and leather-bound copies of Longfellow and Coleridge and that Scot who wrote in fake Habitant dialect, what was his name? and an A.E. Houseman that I couldn’t get far into and Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.
Oh, and children’s anthologies, A Child’s Garden of Verse, and another Canadian one, something about the wind or a rainbow. Let me look on my shelf. Ah. The Wind Has Wings. Then in 1974 or 1975, one of my brother’s teachers edited an anthology of contemporary Canadian verse called Mirrors, for Gage Publishing, the school market, and my mom bought a copy and I devoured it. It was not your grandma’s poetry. There was homemade beer and neighbour kids who fell into it and emerged with malted rear ends (Al Purdy) and parents who gave their kids “a swift kick in the pants and a father’s blessing on New Year’s day” (Louis Dudek, quoted from memory). There was bill bissett being all lower case and phonetic spelling, “legalize mariwanna now” in “yu shur hav mistur and missus right in canada.”
In my hands, that book became very dog-eared. It really informed my sense of what poetry is or can be — satirical, funny, self-reflexive, energetic, compact, loose, innovative, subversive, unswerving, unsentimental.
Oh, and there was Dennis Lee’s Nicholas Knock and Other People, which I also read over and over again. It did the same thing that Mirrors did. It gave me poems in language that was the language I used. And they were subversive. There was nothing prim about them. I hated primness and loved subversion. They were local. They were funny.
How long did it take you to write the poems of poemw?
Oh, boy, what a question. I wrote poems before I wrote fiction. I performed them at feminist coffeehouses in Kitchener-Waterloo in the 1980s. When I started my MFA at UBC in the early 1990s, I had not yet decided whether my thesis would be in poetry or fiction (or, for that matter, playwriting), but I rather thought poetry. I noticed at a certain point I was writing a lot of narrative poetry. And there was this one poem that I kept hammering at, which just wasn’t working until I realized it wasn’t a poem, it was a story. And with that I shifted more into writing fiction. But I have continued to write poetry. I just never had enough poems (that I liked) for a book. Anyway, to answer your question: twenty years.
How did the chapbook come about, and what moved you to take the poems into a collection?
So much of writing happens in a virtual space that I like to make things. It’s a counterbalance. (One of the great beauties of publishing books is that they are collections of words but they are also holdable things.) For the same reason I like to knit.
I had these poems I liked and I wanted to hand-sew them into little books to give to my friends as gifts. My friend Jake Kennedy had a student at Okanagan College, Rye Porritt, who’d made these really cool collage bookmarks and tiny journals sewn out of old maps and adverts and books. I found them inspiring and decided I would also sew together collages for the covers.
Here’s the one I made for Michael V. Smith:
It’s the original “poemw” typo. My ring finger hit “w” instead of “s.” I liked it. It made me happy.
Anyway, the writer-friends I gave them to — Jake, Michael, Leslie Walker Williams — they all said, Why don’t you make this into a book?
I said, I don’t think I have quite enough.
Write some more, they said.
Oh, I said. Okay. So I wrote a few more and then I sent them to you.
Elizabeth Bachinsky says of your new work, “Here — as always with Fleming — I find myself in the thrall of a storyteller whose passionate eye for detail captures quotidian experiences with grace, compassion and humour. How clever. How funny. How deeply humane.” As always, humour, she says. About humour, Stephen Leacock wrote, “The final stage of the development of humour is reached when amusement no longer arises from a single ‘funny’ idea, meaningless contrast, or odd play upon words, but rests upon a prolonged and sustained conception of the incongruities of human life itself. The shortcomings of our existence, the sad contrast of our aims and our achievements, the little fretting aspiration of the day that fades into the nothingness of tomorrow, kindle in the mellowed mind a sense of gentle amusement from which all selfish exultation has been chastened by the realization of our common lot of sorrow. On this higher plane humour and pathos mingle and become one. . . .Really great humour,” he says, produces “its effect in a long-drawn picture of human life in which the universal element of human imperfection — alike in all ages and places — excites at once our laughter and our tears.” Please respond.
Wow. Yeah. I like that Stephen Leacock quote. I wrote a thing for rob mclennan’s blog that said something similar:
“Just laughter” is almost never “just laughter.” Because if you laugh at something because you recognize it, it’s about our common humanity, and if you laugh at something because it’s absurd, it’s a criticism or an observation about what we find meaningful or relevant, and if you laugh at it because you’re shocked and can’t believe a person would say that, it’s about what limits we set ourselves and why, and if you laugh because it’s clever, it’s about human ingenuity, and if you laugh and then can’t believe you just laughed, then it’s about how we use humour to deal with pain. And so on.
Anne Fleming grew up in Toronto and lived in Kitchener, Ontario for several years before moving to Vancouver, where she received her MFA from the University of British Columbia. In Vancouver she read scripts for CBC television, reviewed books and theatre for The Georgia Straight, and taught creative writing at UBC, Emily Carr Institute, Kwantlen University College, and Douglas College, with additional stints at the Victoria School of Writing and the Banff Centre for the Arts Wired Writing Studio. She now teaches at UBC Okanagan.
Beth Follett directs the Canadian literary publishing house, Pedlar Press. She lives in St. John's NL with Stan Dragland and their lovely cat, Lew.
Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book: Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada). She also writes a book column for This Magazine.
For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.