In Conversation with Stephanie Bolster

I've enjoyed Stephanie Bolster’s poetry and conversation for a long time. She spoke with me in Montreal about about-ness and other matters while the leaves were still on the trees.

SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry?

STEPHANIE BOLSTER: First, an immediacy. A means of talking to myself that got to the heart of things, and that I imagined I could share with others. Like many children, I was brought to poetry very early on, as a reader and in grade two I had my first vivid experience of making, through haiku. That I remember my little poem shows that it was important, as I don't remember much else about that year, or most years of elementary school, for that matter. But the image of the garden in my poem (“My mini garden / of crocuses and snowdrops. / Tiny though lovely”) was real, compelling in the way a dream image is. And it was mine. As a shy child who spoke a lot at home but not much in public, I appreciated the intimacy of poetry (and, I see now, the smallness of both that garden and that poem).

When, in my mid-teens, I began to write poetry more seriously, what drew me was the heightened sense of sound and image, the emphasis on mood, and the primacy of the lyric speaker. Intuition over intellect. I was a teenager, after all.

I wrote poetry and fiction concurrently for many years, often feeling that I should choose between them and not wanting to, but by grad school I'd realized that my thesis would be in poetry. Critiques of my fiction praised the language while pointing out deficiencies in character and plot development; poetry came more naturally to me, and more easily. It was – it seemed then – less work, more play. More – to come back to that term – immediate and authentic.

SG: Many of your poems achieve an inner tension that seems to be as much what the poem is about as is its overt subject. How do you regard subject matter and the about-ness, if I can call it that, of poetry?

SB: I'm led by subject matter to a greater extent than many writers. From midway through my BFA, I began to work in series, to choose (or feel myself chosen by) a subject rich enough to pursue over the course of several or many poems. I feel that my strongest work exists in a larger framework, not the individual poem but the series or the book. So there is a strong "about-ness" initially, though there are also, inevitably, many poems written in an attempt to find a sustaining subject, and many poems written in response to nothing in particular, that may or may not find a home in journals and books later on. 

Having found a subject, perversely, liberates me from being beholden to it. While I worked on my first book, the most fun
Alice poems to write were those in which I put Alice into a contemporary setting, made her my own. The aboutness of the project required me to do my homework, reading around the historical Alice's life and around interpretations of Carroll's books, but ultimately the poems came alive only when I transcended that research. 

In class, whenever I find myself using the word “about,” I step back and critique what I've just said. I don't think it's useful to think of a poem or even a book as being "about" anything. I could say, and have in fact probably said, that the poems in A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth are about zoos, but what I mean is that I wrote many of them in response to thinking about, visiting, or looking at images of, zoos. What the poems are about is for them, and for the readers, to figure out. Richard Hugo’s essay, “Writing Off the Subject,” delineates a crucial distinction between what he calls the “triggering subject” and the eventual or true subject of a poem. It’s pretty much a truism that all poems are about their own making. My current project is pretty much about everything.

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?

SB: For the past several years I’ve been working on what I think will be a book-length poem inspired by, among other things, Robert Polidori’s photographs of such post-disaster sites as New Orleans and Chernobyl. That such disturbing subject matter “inspires” me is in part what propels the project; I’m interested in examining what draws me, and him, to such devastated spaces devoid of human beings. The subject is vast, complex, at once specific and diffuse, and full of resonances.

I’m inspired, too, by writers whose innovations are far bolder and stranger than mine, such as Margaret Christakos and Juliana Spahr. Early in my development as a writer, I read poets who seemed to me like-minded but whose craft far exceeded mine. These days, I find I learn more from reading writers whose work comes from a different aesthetic, writers who surprise and sometimes baffle me, whose innovations are far bolder and stranger than mine. Margaret Christakos and Juliana Spahr come to mind at the moment. Mary Ruefle’s book of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey, is brilliant, and her poetry’s full of mystery.

And I’m ongoingly inspired by other art forms: photographs, paintings, installations, music, films, architecture. A poem’s actually more likely to be sparked by one of these media than by something I’ve read. Perhaps because teaching writing means that I spend a lot of time with the written word, I need to look farther afield for that pulse of interest, for something that speaks to me but that is resoundingly Other.

Stephanie Bolster’s most recent book, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award, and an excerpt from her current project was a CBC/Canada Writes finalist in 2012. She teaches creative writing at Concordia University. Read her poem "Tapestry, the Cloisters" here.