Michelle Elrick: Though many people around the world were introduced to your work through your 2010 Giller Prize-winning novel The Sentimentalists, you have also published two books of poetry, Late Nights with Wild Cowboys, and I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being, as well as a book of short stories, all masterfully rendered. Do you feel more at home in a particular genre? How do these different forms work together for you as a writer?
Johanna Skibsrud: No, I don’t think I feel at home in one genre more than any other. It’s poetry, though, that I understand to be at the root of everything I do. That is, in its more original sense: an effort of revelation, the bringing into being of something (some new configuration of thought or feeling, some new way of looking at the world), that was not there before. The word “poetry,” which can be traced back to the Greek verb “poiein,” is usually translated as “to make,” but our understanding of what this means has shifted drastically over the years. Rather than an emphasis on activity or production, the original meaning of the word was more along the lines of simple “presence.” A poem was a way of bringing to presence “presence” itself. It was (and continues to be) a contemplation — and a heightening of the experience — of what it means to be present — alive, aware, one among others — at all. I see poetry to be the root of everything I do, then — as fiction writer, a poet, and a scholar of literature — for the simple reason that it is at the root of everything I do as a human being.
ME: Both your poetry and prose are rich with images that serve as receptacles for memory, wonder, emotional substance and human connection. I think of the recurring image of the “boat,” which appears in all four of your books in one way or another, each instance revealing another use of the image. How does the character of an image change over time? Does the image risk losing its potency in the telling/retelling?
JS: It would be impossible, I think, to run out of ways of refiguring an image, re-examining a single idea, or retelling a story — so long as each time you are engaged in the thought, feeling and act of writing in a new way and the image arises naturally as a part of that act. A tired or “clichéd” image is only one that’s been used as sort of shortcut in place of something that might (if the proper work had been done) feel to the writer, and therefore to the reader, more “true.” As long as an image is able to express or carry an idea or emotion through a piece of writing based on something internal within it and the writing — is not, that is, being forced to do that work on the basis of expectations or preconceptions that exist outside the work — it will never be tired or clichéd. I hope, for the most part, boats function like that in my work: that each time they are a part of something new. It’s just like, you can use single words over and over again, but as long as they’re being recombined in different ways you’ll never write the same sentence twice. Even the most ordinary words have the potential, in a really good piece of literature, to seem as though they’re being used for the first time.
ME: There is a lot of remembering happening in your work. The Sentimentalists has been called “a hypnotic meditation on memory” and the title story of your collection This Will Be Difficult to Explain twists though the unreliable events of personal and inherited memories. Again, in your poem “The Pompidou Piano” you play with the fleeting present and lure of nostalgia, and in “In Light of This, as I’ve Lived on Board This Boat” you write the following:
Looking back, it’s just, there always seems to be more
room within each moment than, originally, I’d thought.
So that it’s only, then, in retrospect, that I
explore each moment, truly; only then take that great pleasure,
and that’s so sad.
How does your writing reveal the past? What opportunities (if any) does the page offer for exploring the moment through retrospect?
JS: Going back to the idea of poetry as “presence”… I think that writing can bring to “presence” what might, in ordinary thought or experience (understood according to the linear trajectory by which we usually understand thought, experience, and language itself), seem lost. The classic example of course is Proust’s madeleine. The madeleine seems to bring back, or “make present,” his past, but it’s not actually the madeleine that succeeds in doing this — it’s the concentrated effort of the character (and, beyond that, of course, the author) to “present” this experience of the madeleine and all the complicated things it entails through writing. We are constantly being reminded of the past in brief “flashes” like that; we are constantly having almost formless thoughts, waking from dreams we hardly remember, and having experiences we find, for whatever reason, “difficult to explain.” Writing offers a way of approaching all of this — some way of bringing what seems most fleeting and ephemeral to form, and thus back into our lives in a meaningful way.
ME: This fall you will be judging CV2’s first annual Young Buck Poetry Prize for writers under 35. Though a young writer yourself, you have already accomplished a great deal, with four books in print, a Giller Prize under your belt and a PhD in English Literature. What space does writing occupy in your life? What has been your approach to mastery?
JS: First of all, thank you — but I hardly feel like a master … I think that’s important, though. I think that my approach so far has been to write — a lot — because I don’t feel like a master and don’t anticipate ever feeling like one. I think I will only (and should only) write so long as it continues to be a challenge for me. So far it certainly has been. I never get it right on the first, or the second, or even the fiftieth try. I write and I rewrite over and over again. But I’m convinced that’s the secret to most good writing. There’s so much work that on the first draft I might have just thrown away if I didn’t believe that — in the process of it, the simple hard work that goes into making any piece of writing worthwhile.
ME: What advice do you have for other young writers as they pursue the craft of writing, and as they prepare their submissions for the upcoming Young Buck Poetry Prize?
JS: I would echo the above. Read your work over and over again: in your head, out loud, to a friend. And don’t be discouraged by cuts and re-writes — and least of all by not winning prizes or being accepted right away by publishers or magazines. If you really want to write — and more than that, you do write — none of that is ever failed, or wasted effort.