An Interview with Alison Calder

Sharon Caseburg: If you could be something other than a university professor, what would you be?

Alison Calder: If I were independently wealthy, I’d take my husband Warren and the cats and move to some small piece of land on one of the Gulf Islands, where I’d bake bread and make jam and raise sheep and spin my own yarn. Back in the days when it looked like neither Warren, who also is a professor, nor I were going to get an academic job, because there were several years in the ’90s when there were no academic jobs to be had, we considered chucking it all and moving to a tiny town in Saskatchewan to live cheaply and try to make it as writers. If I had to make a living, it would be at some job that required writing and organizing.

SC: How do you approach writing a poem?

AC: I’ve figured out that, much to my frustration, I can’t just approach a topic head on, and write a poem about something. If I try to write a poem with a message, like War Is Bad or I Love You, it turns out to be a terrible poem. I have to kind of sneak into the poem through the back door. Sometimes I have to read and read and read about a particular thing, like when I was doing the series of freak poems, and wait for some strange angle to present itself. I need a lot of percolation time, and then, when I work, it tends to be in fits and starts. I also need to do a lot of pacing (meaning, moving around) and have a lot of idle distractions like knitting or surfing the Web. However, I also need an uninterrupted stretch of time in which all this fidgeting can take place.

SC: What sorts of things inspire and interest you?

AC: Things that I find strange or contradictory are inspirational to me. Other people’s ideas are inspiring. My immediate environment is also inspiring in terms of detail. My husband is continually detecting sources for poems—when I was writing “The strange incredible and true story of Mary Toth …,” which is about a woman in the 1700s who was famous for giving birth to rabbits, he accused me of putting an egg in the final stanza because we’d been eating eggs for breakfast for days. And he was right, that’s exactly where the egg came from.

SC: When did you discover poetry?

AC: I think it’s really always been around. I was a big fan of having my parents read Dr. Seuss books to me, so something like Hop on Pop is probably my earliest influence. We had to write poems in school as part of our writing assignments, and when I discovered that I had a knack for it, I decided to “be” a poet. Of course, I had no idea what that really meant but I was pretty sure it would make me rich and famous. I had a really good high school English teacher, as well, who was very interested in local writers and would speak passionately about the need for people in Saskatchewan, where I grew up, to see themselves reflected in their work, and for Saskatchewan writers to write about where they were. He organized readings and workshops by then local writers such as Lorna Crozier, which made a big impression on me.

SC: Which writers have influenced your work and why?

AC: I think I’m always influenced by the last writer I’ve read. In terms of writers whom I don’t know who have influenced me, Bronwen Wallace is probably one of the most significant influences. I started reading her when I was starting university and when I was also discovering feminism in a serious, coherent way (my mother’s been a powerful feminist influence from way back). So I was just entranced by Wallace’s style, which allowed her to talk about incredibly significant political topics very conversationally and effectively. Also, her technique continues to amaze me—she’s so good at zooming in on particular moments or details, and then suddenly expanding out to get the big picture, and the telescoping back in again. Her work seems so simple, but it’s so layered. And I see the power of her work every time I teach one of her poems—class response is always vigorous. Writers like Anne Carson and Don McKay are role models in terms of the way they’re thinking in and through their poetry. There’s some really sustained and vigorous critique there, rendered in fabulous poetic language. More direct influence on me comes from writers such as Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, both of whom I worked with in classes and workshops in my so-called formative years. I think I’m starting to figure out my own, very eclectic, style now.

SC: Speaking of Bronwen Wallace, in 2004 you were awarded the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award. This award is given to a writer under the age of 35 who has yet to be published in book form. How did winning the Bronwen Wallace Award affect your writing? Or, for that matter, being included in the first Breathing Fire anthology (Harbour Publishing, 1995), almost a decade earlier? What kind of pressures were there for you as a writer?

AC: When I’ve gotten awards—which makes it sound like it happens all the time, which, sadly, it does not—I don’t feel pressure, just relief that I’m not such a big loser after all. There is apparently a phenomenon among women in academic jobs called Impostor Syndrome, where you’re continually worried that your true inadequacies are about to be discovered, and that your apparent success will be revealed to be a sham for the world to see. And then, you know, you’re fired and no one will speak to you and the next thing you know you’re pushing a shopping cart through a deserted city park. I’m sure this impulse isn’t limited to academic women, though men seem to be immune. Anyway, I suffer from it. Winning the Bronwen Wallace Award affected my writing in that it validated my project and I’m sure made it easier to find a publisher for Wolf Tree.