Redwing, I Say - Kate Braid
Sparrow, we say, redwing, magpie, crow
The field goes on.-Maureen Scott Harris
Redwing, blackbird, able feeder,
what do you have to teach me?
Forgive my demand. It is based on urgency.
I do not say desperate but you will understand.
Redwing, bearing your own epaulettes,
unspeakable courage to always fly
forward. Are you not tempted sometimes to return
to the egg?
Redwing, why did the one who named you
omit the gold, the sun that shines from you to light the way?
Or is it your song that leads, gives me courage,
tricks me some days, into looking up. Just this.
(Caitlin Press, 2018).
Reprinted with permission.
(Caitlin Press, 2018).
Reprinted with permission.
From her years of teaching creative writing to her work organizing community writing groups, editing anthologies, coordinating reading series', etc. (including the Dead Poets Reading Series, where we worked together for six years), Kate has always endeavoured to draw in and empower new writers. She's proven similarly devoted to exploring the work and life of great artists, be it Emily Carr (Rebel Artist, To This Cedar Fountain), Georgia O'Keeffe (Inward to the Bones) or Glenn Gould (A Well-Mannered Storm). There is a kindness, and a deep attention, that she brings to both the subjects of her poems and her real-life interactions - the two feel inextricably linked.
A few years back, I was invited to present Kate Braid with a Mentorship award. At that time, I asked some of her former students to weigh in on the impact she'd had on their lives. One response came from Amber Dawn, who herself has become one of the leading mentors in the BC writing world. She wrote:
"[Kate] taught not just to respond to poetry, but to show up for other writers. To let the collective knowledge of the classroom lift us all up as poets. To this day, being taught to value my sense of belonging within literary communities has been a lesson even more powerful than being taught about craft itself."
The poems/the writers. The writers/the poems. How can we be kind and generous to one and not the other? It's a question we are confronting over and over these days, and one for which Kate's life demonstrates many of the answers.
For this, and many other reasons, it was a joy to chat with Kate about her new book, Elemental, which widens her circle of attention and praise even further, to draw in the very elements of this world: the water, fire, wood, sky, and earth from which our world is derived. And the redwings, of course. I hope you enjoy.
|Kate Braid, in the elements. (Sorry, couldn't help myself).|
Rob: I spoke with you briefly for PRISM international back in 2014, and at that point you noted: "Looking over my recent poems, I’m a bit alarmed to find I’m writing more personally, neither behind the mask of another or out of my experience as a carpenter – which also became a sort of persona." True to that statement, Elemental, though certainly structured around "elemental" themes, feels in other ways like your first "general" collection (your past collections having channeled Glenn Gould and Emily Carr, among others). In that sense it feels almost like you're living the traditional poet's trajectory in reverse (the early, more personal/general collection, followed by themed "projects").
Do you think of this book in those terms ("general" and personal), and do you think it represents a larger shift in your preoccupations/energies as a writer? Did “removing the masks” allow you to access some more "elemental" part of yourself?
Kate: Ah, interesting question! I’d never thought of it in terms of “trajectories as a writer,” only that when I started writing, I was terrified of being vulnerable, revealing myself. I think this at least partly had to do with the fact that the first poems were drawn from construction where I felt I had to be very, very careful and hide my private self. Or maybe it’s because I’m just more chicken than most poets! Some of the poems in Elemental were actually first-drafted at that time but I didn’t (dare) publish them. I think now I’m braver. Or I care less about what people think of me. This is one of the great joys of getting older.
Rob: Elemental opens with a quote from D.H. Lawrence which speak of "the whole-life effort of man to get his life into direct contact with the elemental life of the cosmos..." In your version of the quote, you've inserted a "[wo]" in front of "man" and a "[her]" in front of his, as though you are pushing open space in Lawrence's description for women, and for yourself.
This feels very in keeping with your life as a construction worker (where you were the first woman to join the Vancouver local of the Carpenters’ Union and one of the first women to run her own construction company), and also for your writing on that subject, including Covering Rough Ground (and Rough Ground Revisited), Turning Left to the Ladies and the memoir Journeywoman.
Could you speak a little about the importance of the quote, and your adjustment to it, in the context of this book in particular? Do you think your background breaking gender barriers shaped or contextualized in some way the way you thought about and approached the "elemental life of the cosmos"?
Kate: I found the Lawrence quote some years before Elemental came together, in a book of essays about Georgia O’Keeffe who was one of the women (along with Emily Carr) who greatly inspired me during and after the construction years. (O’Keeffe and Lawrence had been friends.) As Elemental was coming together, I felt at a loss as to how to define it; this book was/is unlike anything I’ve written before. As you say – it wasn’t a persona book, nor is it directly about construction. As I kept poking at the question, “What is this book about?” I ran across Lawrence’s quote again and it helped me articulate what I’d begun to see but hadn’t yet dared name – a coherence to the universe and how life-giving, life-enhancing it is, even if we don’t understand – or even acknowledge – it.
I don’t think my gender had much to do with how I approached this “elemental life” and I don’t want to fall into the clichés of women being “closer to the earth” because of menstrual cycles and childbirth. Knowing carpenters, I think men know it too. I’d say it was the job itself – mucking about in dirt and rain and holding hands with lumber all day under the open sky – that sensitized me.
And yes, references to “man”kind and “him” now seem very old-fashioned. They specifically exclude women. I’ll tell you a construction story; in the pre-technology days of the 1980s, union jobs were given out on a first-come-first-served basis. As you left one job, you reported in to the Dispatch Office and your name card was placed on the Dispatch Board. You’d then be called out to the next available job in that same order. But there were actually two Boards – one for Apprentices, one for people with their journey tickets. So when I earned my Red Seal Carpenter’s certificate, I was shifted from the Apprentice to the Journeymen’s board. I’ve always been sensitive to the language of construction (“ballcocks, studs, lesbian connections, erecting walls, depth of penetration” – the list goes on!) so one day I asked some of the guys standing around if we could change the name from “Journeymen” to “Carpenters.” Gender neutral – perfect, right? But the guys objected and said the word didn’t matter. “Journeyman” applies to everyone, they said, male or female. But there’d never been a female on that Board before. So I told them, “If it makes no difference, let’s call the Board, “Journeywomen.” Well, their very vocal response showed that the words clearly do make a difference. (Still, to the union’s credit, a few days later, the name over the Board was “Carpenters.”)
Rob: Elemental features a number of ekphrastic poems, especially in the first section, “Water”, where you respond to two paintings by Hiroshige and one by Jean Dominique Ingres. Responses to works of art have long played a central role in your writing, be it Emily Carr’s and Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings or Glenn Gould’s music. That said, one of the joys of ekphrastic poems is that what we ask of them is always changing with technology – pre-photography ekphrastic poems were in a sense necessary to convey a sense of the object, and with each subsequent recording technology the necessity of the form has waned, requiring the form to adapt in response. I see your books on Carr, O’Keeffe and Gould as a part of that process – moving into the art, but also the lives of the artists, and conversing with them in a way that expands the circle of what we know and imagine about their art.
In the time since those books were written, technology has changed greatly – the internet has brought with it an unprecedented volume of, and ease of access to, images and songs. Has your thinking about writing-on-art – its nature, its utility, its reception – changed in any way over the course of your writing life? Do you sense ways in which the ekphrastic poem you write now is different from one you may have written in the early 90s?
Kate: To be honest, I’ve never had any conscious goal or technique in writing about Carr or O’Keeffe or Gould, nor in my approaches to them. In each case, I saw something in the art (or the person’s life, or both) that I deeply connected with and wanted – needed – more of. I spent years researching their lives, including a trip to Ottawa to visit the Glenn Gould archive, a trip to New Mexico that made O’Keeffe come brilliantly clear, and of course, I live in rain forest and always loved huge trees but I was still learning about the larger concept of “forest” and a few trips to Tofino were key. With each artist, I wasn’t thinking of anything when I first encountered them except maybe, “I want more of what they have”: in Carr’s case, her courage as a woman in the face of strong opposition; in O’Keeffe’s, likewise, plus her nasty personal character (it was fun to be crabby for a while!); and in Gould’s, his passion for music at a time when I’d just lost my hearing in one ear and was terrified of losing the other. I learned a lot from each of them: from Carr, to be persistent, regardless of what people thought; from O’Keeffe, that I didn’t always have to be a Nice Girl, and I got to celebrate female friendship; from Gould, that even with one ear, there was extraordinary beauty in sound and at least for now, I could drink that in and be grateful.
Inward to the Bones
I’ve long been aware that in writing about artists – especially without the art in front of them – people who aren’t familiar with it will be less interested, but I wasn’t writing for those people. I was writing for me, and then for the people who did know those artists, their art, in some way. This is one reason I begged the publisher (then Michelle Benjamin at Polestar, and since reprinted by Caitlin) to include reproductions in To This Cedar Fountain, the book of responses to Emily’s individual paintings.
I’ve always been surprised at the public response, especially to the Carr books. A lot of women have written thanking me for Cedar Fountain and for Inward to the Bones: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Journey with Emily Carr, because it turns out those women inspired them, too.
Rob: Connected to the ekphrastic poems, a major theme I see running through all your books – from construction work, to Carr/O’Keeffe/Gould, to Elemental – is “making” (with ekphrasis serving as a "remodeling," in a sense, or perhaps the building an addition onto a house). In Elemental I think first and foremost of your poems for Jude, the cabinetmaker, and the attention you pay in describing his eye and his craftsmanship.
Kate: It feels like all your subjects, yourself or one of your “masks,” are makers of something. Do you think of the process of “making” – both honouring the art and the artist – as a central (dare I say “the” central) concern of your writing?
Interesting you use the word “maker.” It was George McWhirter at UBC who first told me the word in Scots for poet is makaris, meaning “maker,” and surely, as poets we’re all “makers.” But yes, I’m also fascinated by people who create – art, houses, music – as I’m fascinated by their creations, small miracles. I was in awe of my paternal grandfather, an ironworker, for how handy he was – fixing, making anything. And sitting around construction shacks, I heard such great stories that when I taught creative writing, introducing oral history and getting students to interview fishers and mill workers was a delight. It’s something I learned from my first mentor, Tom Wayman – the fascinating stories working class people can tell, and the importance of their work in literally building, “making,” this society, feeding us, etc.
Rob: Speaking of “making,” I’m interested in how you came upon the structural choice to divide the poems in Elemental into sections based on the five elements (Water, Fire, Wood, Sky and Earth). At what point in the process of writing these poems did that become an organizing principle for the book? Did the decision shift the course of the book in any way? When did the idea of an "Autobiography" of each element, opening its section, come to you?
Kate: The idea of the five elements has been roughly in my mind for years but I can’t remember why or when or where it came from. It wasn’t until I sat down in 2017 and started pulling together what seemed at the time very disparate poems, that I saw the pattern – or rather, the pattern hit me over the head, it seemed so obvious. The autobiography poem at the start of each section came from a writing exercise in a workshop at UBC with Dionne Brand in the 1990s. Isn’t it amazing, and wonderful, how things all pull together at some point! Poetry magic.
Rob: Oh goodness, don’t go getting everyone all jealous talking about Dionne Brand workshops now…
Sticking with the sections for a second, in the “Wood” section you make a return to carpentry, in a sense. But here your concerns feel more “elemental”, studying and admiring the wood itself (at times sounding like a repentant hunter-turned-vegan, but for trees!). Did that return to a core subject of yours result from, or in, a new perspective on your material (wood)?
Kate: Always, in the past, I’d focused on the relationships of construction – getting along on the job with the people I worked with. Now that I’m “off the tools,” this book was a change, a chance to look back and focus on something else I’d been fascinated by, and respected – the material itself, and its source.
Rob: In the first of two poems for Jude the cabinetmaker, you write “Is this what we call holy, this connection of the whole, / each to every other? // Which brings us to the silence of the island where we live—“
The back-cover blurb of Elemental suggests that your close engagement with construction materials led to your careful attention to the elemental materials of our daily lives, but I wonder to what extent also your return to living on the Gulf Islands (where your journey as a construction worker started in the 70s) precipitated this shift in your attention. Could you speak about the effect that move had on your writing, and on the shape of this book?
Kate: I’ve always yearned to get back to Pender Island, the people and the land, and have been going back for weekends and longer periods of time whenever I can. Pender is my spirit place, renewal place. So yes, buying a house there recently, where we’ll retire one day, was a wonderful sense of “rooting” for me. Amazing how much more physical living in a semi-rural place is – cutting grass, tending a garden, pruning trees and canning food can’t compare with the mostly-sitting and some walking that I do in the city. I think Pender gives me the courage, and the quiet, and the time – the physical grounding – to say a bit more clearly what I know, or feel. I think this is also partly a reflection of this stage of my life. I’m not on the tools, I’m semi-retired. I have time to think.
Rob: Speaking of being “on the tools,” you’ve written books both on construction and on form poetry (In Fine Form, co-edited with Sandy Shreve). To what extent do you see your interest in each as flowing from a common source?
In Fine Form, 2nd edition
Kate: If we follow the theme of “making,” then formal poems certainly fit. They’re “constructed,” following the rules of the material they’re made from – language. But when Sandy and I first came up with the idea of an anthology back in the early ‘90s, I wasn’t thinking of that, I was only aware that the best poems my students were writing were the ones in a given form. Somehow the structure of sonnet or pantoum or glosa forced them to let go of cliché, of ego, and let loose their unconscious, wiser selves. Somehow following the blueprint of a form allows us to be more creative – more poetry magic!
Rob: You include a number of prose poems near the end of the book, and also a number of narrative-driven poems with line breaks. What tips you toward turning a writing impulse into a prose poem v. a lineated poem (or perhaps a non-fiction piece, or something else)? Generally speaking, do you sense the poem’s needed form immediately, or does an “aha” moment come later in the process?
Kate: Another good question! This is something I’ve talked to other poets about without any clear answers. Partly for me it’s based on what feels organic. Very quickly a poem feels “right” one way or the other. I’ll start it as prose poem (or straight prose) and realize this isn’t working, that it wants line breaks, or…
Sometimes the idea of writing in a traditional form comes first. Example: after I read T.S. Lawrence’s memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I desperately wanted to write about it, but everything I tried (free verse by default) didn’t work. Then I realized, “Obsessive guy. Why not try an obsessive form?” So I sat down and within an hour had written two sestinas. They aren’t in this book – perhaps the next!
I’ve been working a lot on essays lately. Perhaps that’s also leading me to a more expansive, narrative form (i.e. prose poems) and I hadn’t noticed?
Rob: Speaking of influences, as I read this book, I kept returning to PK Page’s (elemental and formal) poem “Marble and Water”. It made me wonder if you were inspired, in writing this book, by any particular poems or books by others, which you could use as a guide in some way?
Kate: My breath caught when I read your reference to PK. She was a huge role model for me as a woman and as a poet and I love “Marble and Water”; as you know, Sandy and I used it in In Fine Form as a wonderful example of the stanza form.
But I didn’t consciously use any particular poem or poet as a guide in Elemental. In a general way, of course, I’m always inspired by others. It’s why I read so much poetry and go to poetry readings. I love the work of PK, of W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Lorna Crozier and lately David Wagoner, among many, many others.
Rob: Many of these poems are written in the first person, but some, like “Cueva Del Indio, Vinales, Cuba” and “The Door to Rock” are written in the second or third person. Could you speak to why you made those choices, and what different opportunities you think those various perspectives offer a poet?
Kate: For me, first person is up-close and personal. Second and third person, singular or plural, allow more distance, objectivity, and a sterner eye. And sometimes it’s just fun to do a “Mary Oliver” and use the imperative.
Rob: Ha! In addition to Mary Oliver, another poet who’s clearly influenced your writing is Rumi. You’ve read his poetry at the Dead Poets Reading Series, and you close Elemental with an epigraph of his:
as a mineral. We emerged into plant life
and into animal state, and then into being human,
and always we have forgotten our former states,
except in early spring, when we slightly recall
being green again.
What role has Rumi played in your writing, and in your thinking about life?
Kate: I keep coming back to what gives me courage; when I wake in the middle of the night and need a book, I go first to either Rumi or Rilke, both men of spirit, but also of the earth. I’d printed out that Rumi poem years ago and stumbled across it again as Elemental was going to press. It seemed a perfect ending to this book.
Keep coming back for Kate Braid's poetry, ok? You can pick one up a copy of Elemental at your local bookstore, or via the Caitlin Press website or, I suppose, from Amazon.