Laurie Kruk teaches at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario, where she is Full Professor in English Studies, specializing in Canadian Literature. She has published The Voice is the Story: Conversations with Canadian Writers of Short Fiction (Mosaic, 2003) and Double-Voicing the Canadian Short Story (Ottawa UP, 2016). She is also the author of three books of poetry: Theories of the World (Netherlandic, 1992), Loving the Alien (YSP, 2006) and My Mother Did Not Tell Stories (Demeter, 2012). Her latest book is described as weaving “tales that powerfully uncover the necessity of vocalizing that which is learned, experienced, and traditionally unshared” (ARC Poetry Magazine). Most recently, she has co-edited Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland (Demeter, 2016), a creative anthology, with poet Jane Satterfield. She is the current Host of North Bay’s thirty-year-old reading/writing series, “The Conspiracy of Three.”
Crossing borders in poetry and politics makes us braver
Interview by Monica Manolachi
Good morning, Laurie!
Good afternoon, Monica! Nice to see and hear you. Let’s turn up the volume a little.
Sure. So, you’re a professor, a researcher, a poet and a mother… How do you find time to write?
That’s a good question for every writer in the world!
Especially when you have children.
That’s true. It forces you to focus. I find that writing has been a companion for me through my life, my travels, my work and mothering. Writing poetry has been an essential survival tool as well as a necessary outlet. I think if I didn’t have children, I would write more, but then I don’t think I would write as well, or deeply. I feel I have more to say. Of course, that’s what made me co-edit a book about mothering across borders, that has already gathered a lot of interest: Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland (Demeter Press, 2016), co-edited with American poet, Jane Satterfield… It is a literary anthology of poetry and prose by over forty authors, most mothers or daughters, but a few sons as well, on what it means, in our century, to “write the motherland.”
To find time to write, you just work around everything else, I guess, you keep journals, write notes, but meeting other mothers and other poets, who are also mothers, helps and inspires me.
In what way?
Well, seeing that they can do it, I guess, also reading their work and thinking yes, that makes me think of something I want to say. We have something in common, even though we are often working across borders of race and class, ethnicity and language. There are so many borders we have to cross. For instance, our book has been enthusiastically reviewed by a British feminist Jane Chelliah, who has a blog called Ambitious Mamas. You can look up her review published at https://www.ambitiousmamas.co.uk/2017/12/borderlands-and-crossroads.html. She has also published poems by some of our contributors on her blog.
How often do you have this kind of meetings with other mothers?
Well, I belong to MIRCI, the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community and Involvement (formerly ARM, the Association for Research on Mothering). I joined when I became a mother, almost twenty years ago now! Through this international association, I have enjoyed sharing my poetry and literary work with a supportive feminist audience. I also am in a women’s writing group which has been going for almost a decade. We are a group of friends who meet eight or nine times a year. It’s organized as an informal workshop where we share and critique our work. And then I meet with students, colleagues, other mothers, friends, friends of my children and all these everyday encounters help me focus on certain stories that I want to tell… ones often untold. That’s why I titled my recent book of poetry, My Mother Did Not Tell Stories, also published by Demeter. I tell stories about being a mother, and a feminist, in my poems. MIRCI, founded by Dr. Andrea O’Reilly, has created a wonderful opportunity for women writers to network and inspire each other. Last summer I was in Galway, Ireland, at a conference called “Motherlines” where I shared my poetry. Crossing borders in poetry and politics makes us braver, I feel.
For a sample, here are the opening lines of my title poem:
My mother did not tell stories—
instead, passed around our sticky kitchen table
warnings, worries, laments, teatime croonings,
that diluted childhood, muted its paintbox primary
with shadings and greys from the dark pages
of adult discouragement. Being a man is hard work—
don’t ask your brother to dry the dishes…
About Grandma Elsie, dead when I closed the first circle of seasons,
my mother kept running away, but her Irish relations could only afford
to send her home. To “your husband.”
You have Irish roots…
Yes, on my mother’s side, though, of course, I’m born in Canada. My father was born in Belarus, not so far from you. I can say I have European and Russian connections. I had a Baba, Helen Kowalchuck, who was a strong presence in my childhood.
Conferences are connections that have brought me across borders, to meet with other women and mothers, but I still want to mention that I am very attached to the north of Ontario, Canada. That’s how I met British-Canadian Paul Sutherland, through a grass-roots writing group that I’ve been chief organizer of for a few years. It is called The Conspiracy of Three, a reading series that has been going in our community now for thirty years. It has been located at different venues, and featured many different writers from all over, but it’s kept going through the enthusiasm of the local writers who want to connect with other writers, local, national or international, and bring them together for readings. There are no fees and no membership requirements, other than enthusiasm. I’m really proud of this accomplishment.
It’s part of the community…
For me, it was a great way to meet other writers when I was new in town, newly hired by Nipissing University, and looking for connections. A support as a writer, a way to make friends.
Who organized it in the past?
It was started by a Canadian writer named Gil McElroy, who has since left town, but he passed the torch to all of us. We have just kept it going over the years. Once a month we meet. Different people organize it differently, but we always bring in a couple of writers and new writers always have a chance to read at the end. It’s very grassroots and very democratic, I’m pleased to say.
How many people participate in one reading?
It could be as small as 10; it could be as high as 30-35. It’s constantly shifting in numbers, but it’s always friendly and intimate. There is no membership fee and we don’t pay for the locations (using space at art galleries, for example). I’m the host right now, but we do share and take turns organizing events. We are having a meeting next Tuesday night. We’ll have two writers come in to present their new books. One is Kim Fahner, from Sudbury, next door to us. The other is Rod Carley from North Bay. There may be other Ontario groups that organize events like this, but ours is located in North Bay, Ontario, and it’s been going longer than most, I think: thirty years in May 2018, making it one of the longest in Canada. We’ve launched many many books. Students often participate as well; as their teacher, I encourage them to come out to read and to listen.
What do the places where you can write look like?
The place where I am talking with you right now is an attic I share with my husband, who has the other side of the room. It has a sloping, angled ceiling. I call it the garret. Sometimes is just wherever you can be, at the table, around the house, making notes, in the car. Writing poetry is rather informal and organic for me, especially since I became a mother.
What are those paintings on the walls?
My children’s paintings from a while ago. They are teenagers now. That’s a kind of inspiration too.
Do you also write on your way? On the train?
Sometimes, yes. Although we don’t have the same great rail service that exists in Europe, I have to say. Here we do a lot of driving! We have a camp in northern Ontario, it’s like a cottage, a rustic country home. That’s the place to write because you get away from the telephone, the television and the internet.
How often do you go there?
In the summer, a lot. That’s when I do most of my writing. As winter comes, not quite as much, as I get busy with school.
How would you see the role of the poet today? How is it now similar to or different from other epochs?
It’s a big question. In some ways poetry has been taken over, as you know, by popular music lately or rap music in some cultures. Some prefer “spoken word poetry.” But for myself, I also like to read it in books and want to present poems on the page and in the voice. It’s a double voice for poetry. Poetry has always been there, and it’s still important, although we forget about it from time to time.
Talking about performing poetry, how do you see it? Is it more about a stage or more about the text in itself?
That’s a hard question. I like to consider the performances storytellings, in a way. When I share my poems, they are often little stories of the heart, narratives of my family life in the north. It is important that it’s embodied in that moment, but, of course, as an English professor, I always enjoy having a book. It’s interesting that this artefact cannot be quite replaced by e-books or online material.
I also believe in the voice, in the embodiment of the text in performance, however, which is lost with the book. Once you publish it, it’s already in the past, you cannot change it.
Do the local authorities support writers and poetry?
Nationally, yes: Canada Council. Locally, it’s provincial. But most writers don’t make a living out of writing. Some get prizes, others have a day job like teaching. Most writers must have some kind of a day job. It’s something you do anyway. It’s not only about money.
Do you think that having a day job characterizes the poets of today?
Yes. In the past it was different, of course. There were patrons of the arts, more private. Now it’s funded by the government if you really do it well. But there are only a few that are at the top and can be supported through their books and prints. But I believe we have to make space for all kinds of writers and all kinds of ways of getting the word out there.
Are poets related more to local communities?
Perhaps, but at the same time, with the internet, the local can also become international. Our Skype conversation today is proof. We’ve crossed the border. I can talk about north and winter and you will probably relate over north and winter in Romania.
True… Do you consider yourself as part of a generation of poets? If yes, in what ways? If not, why?
We’re now in interesting times, in the twenty-first century. Generationally speaking, I still go back to authors like Margaret Atwood or Al Purdy, Bronwen Wallace or Laura Crozier for my founding. They are people who came out of the Canadian literature in the mid-Twentieth century and late Twentieth century. I am also interested in how women writers have come on and the generation of writers now is quite diverse. One of the former Hosts of the Conspiracy of Three, Doyali Islam, has done rather well in Canadian poetry. She is a friend of mine, twenty years younger, but she brings in a Sufi poet’s voice. I am proud to say that her next book of poetry will be published by McClelland and Stewart, one of our foremost publishing houses. Everyone brings in different cultural influences.
In Romania, there is this generational element, with whom some agree, while others don’t. The poets of the 1960s, the poets of the 1970s, the poets of the 1980s and so on…
I don’t think it’s quite as set as that in Canada. Perhaps because we are younger. There is always going to be new developments that you have to take account of… you have your roots where and when you were born. You are part of history. Being a mother and meeting other mothers through MIRCI made me part of a certain generation. It’s not just about Canadian literature, but different phases one goes through.
I’d now like to quote from a recent poem, inspired by my trip to Ireland, called “Historical.” The speaker is listening to a concert in a restored Catholic church, and thinking of her Irish grandmother, when the performance is interrupted by a crying child:
But from behind us, the voice of a child
four or five years old, pierces the sanctioned grieving
of violins, cellos, violas, with his own peculiar keening,
which, as we silently curse the selfishness of his parents,
seems to be a reminder of history’s wounds: children
even as the composer turns their pain to masochistic pleasure.
We sit up straighter, shoulders turned away
eager to climb the wall before us with ladders of notes, seeking
the elevation of the young
organist, who charms pedals, pumps keys
while the child, anyone’s child, cries on,
Like the lost Irishwoman, maternal ancestor
who had to bear Canadian daughters, who had to give up
her own homeland for the sake of the children,
who cried out in dreams to her own mother, across the seas,
across walls of willed distance,
and was also ignored.
In the lines “children / still heard / even as the composer turns their pain to masochistic pleasure”, you express one of the biggest concerns of our times: how to cope with intergenerational transformation, when life is taking us on a path we have not been before. Destinies that once went in parallel are now comparable, because they have become more visible and sonorous to each other: a composer’s music, children’s cry, a mother’s voice. What is your view about expressing voice in poetry?
That’s a good phrase, “intergenerational transformation.” The work of the generations—mothering—meets the arts and both are transformed, I hope. I was interested in the fact that we are turning our back on a crying child at the same time that we are immersing ourselves in the beauty of music. It just struck me that we are always caught, as parents and as mothers, between ourselves and the other, and we are always trying to put ourselves in historical contexts at the same time we are called back to the present. It was a weird moment of looking back, looking ahead and also being part of the beauty and the poignancy of the moment.
Perhaps poetry helps us express this type of simultaneity…
Exactly. I tried to use the metaphor of the music in the church and the child’s voice as a connection back to my Irish grandmother, how she had to leave so much behind. I was also fascinated by the idea of returning to where she left, my “motherland” in a sense.
How else do you use voice?
In lyric poetry there is always the voice of the speaker that is prominent. My poems are usually in a first-person voice. I’m drawing to some degree on my own biography and yet I’m selective, I’m leaving something out, so there is a kind of art to that. It looks very confessional, but it’s more artful and relational as in a staged dialogue.
You have published three collections: Theories of the World (1992), Loving the Alien (2006), My Mother Did Not Tell Stories (2012). How did you decide to write poetry?
I guess it comes from reading poetry, from loving it, from being moved by it and, therefore, falling into it. But I think that, as I got more mature, it’s begun to be harder. When you start up as a student, it’s easier because you are surrounded by other smart students, and you are eager to measure up. It’s being a student that inspires a certain reflection in literature.
What about your family? Did they encourage you?
Well, both my parents were teachers. They helped me from the beginning with typing! I have always written about family themes and my family have been very supportive. Even when they did not agree with me, they accepted my point of view, which is important.
So, writing was more important than…
…than making a lot of money. Reading and writing is more important, more so for our family than a trade, for example. Teaching literature and relating to it has been a way to cultivate cultural and community memory. I’ve written poems for my Baba and for Elsie, poems for my children… Writing poems is a way of fighting against the passage of time. You can memorialize it. My parents were both culturally displaced. My father came to Canada from Belarus at the age of eight and my mother was born in Saskatchewan, which most have been a dramatic change, for Elsie, coming from Ireland! Then my mother’s family moved to Southern Ontario, another uprooting, due to the Depression.
Which of the three collections do you think have had an impact, or have been more significant, and why?
Theories of the World is a younger person’s point of view. I’ve grown beyond that now. In the second one, Loving the Alien (a reference to a David Bowie song), I played with the idea of opening yourself up to other people, when you have to encounter their differences as well as your own and be able to let that in. It’s about relationships that lead to family life, to crossing borders. My third book, My Mother Did Not Tell Stories, has had more impact, perhaps because of the title’s double meaning.
It’s a pun…
…yes, it’s true. A “story” can mean “lie, falsehood”, and if my mother did not tell stories, it means she told the truth. I like to think I’m doing the same thing in my poetry. The volume includes some poems written at our camp of River Valley, Northern Ontario. That’s how I reached out to write about a space that was new to me, to embrace that environment. This third book has connected me to my community of mothers, but also to northerners.
This return to nature, how important is it in Canada? Is it still as important as it used to be?
I think so. We are living now with increasing environmental awareness around the world. Canadians are as much part of that as anybody, especially the younger generations. Here we still have a lot of space to retreat to. At the camp, we go canoeing, we watch the rivers, it’s part of our everyday life. I keep going back to this, it may be an extension of the Romantic poet perception. We also have another relationship with the Earth through an Indigenous perspective, which is only now being recovered.
Tell me more about it.
My husband has Native status and so do my daughters. We are starting to become more aware of our relationship with the Native peoples that we must repair, but also with our environment, with the Earth. We are revising treaties and we are bringing it to the university, by teaching Native Canadian authors like Thomas King, Tomson Highway… Voices that are brought to light after being suppressed, silenced. These Indigenous voices influence me as well.
When was that moment in your life when you said: yes, these are my poems?
Timing and being in a community are part of it. You sometimes get a push, return to your work, take it more seriously and have what could be called a community response. It becomes more public in that way, when you see that there are people who want to support new voices.
Considering that Canada is a place of many cultures and languages, have any of your poems been translated into other languages?
Not yet. But who knows? Thanks to you, “Historical,” is being published in Contemporary Literary Horizon, a multilingual review.
You have been interested in Canadian short fiction for some time now. When did you start?
As a graduate student. That was my Ph.D. project. I did interviews with Canadian short story writers and then I took that into a bigger project on the concept of the double voice in short fiction, because this genre has been very prominent in our literature. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for short fiction. Novels are more prominent in general, but the idea of voice is more prominent in short stories, I think.
Why do you think the idea of the “double voice” is important for Canadian life and writing?
It goes back to immigration, Native Canadians and women. It’s about crossing borders of difference to find commonalities as Canadians. We are both linked and separate communities. The francophone tradition is still strong, we are officially bilingual, but we are starting to bring in new voices now, such as the voices and the Native languages of Cree and Ojibway that have been spoken for a long time, were almost lost and now they are coming back in schools. They are taught both for the people who lost them and for those interested in learning more about Native cultures that have been almost wiped out, and healing our divisions.
As co-editor of the anthology Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland (2016), what would you say are some of the patterns regarding the idea of motherland?
The “motherland” works well as a metaphor, because the writers come from all over the place and we have people writing about Africa, people writing about the former Yugoslavia, about Korea, Canada, etc. The motherland is a very portable term, it can go anywhere. I find that mothering is forcing yourself to be so available to another person’s life that it forces you to challenge yourself with that otherness and its strangeness. “Loving the alien” again. Across borders and across different places, there is both love and loss.
Some people call their native country “motherland”; others “fatherland” and others don’t assign to it any gender. What do you think about it?
I like “motherland” obviously because it’s related to mother earth and to the idea of mother tongue and so it suggests where you were born and so it shapes you, right, in a way that is maternal. The maternal as divine too. That’s still an appealing metaphor for us to work with as mothers.
Talking about Canada, what does it mean to you?
Oh, boy! I need to write a whole second dissertation…. I teach Canadian literature, we always talk about it every year and I’m trying to bring up different ways of looking at it. I’ve been trying to figure out some of the differences between our culture and the American culture. We have grown away in large parts from our British ancestry. But we always have space… space for inclusion, a more inclusive ideology, I hope. We’ve always had a sense of hyphenated citizens, like “Irish-Canadian” or “Russian-Canadian.” If we grow up with it, we don’t fight so much over that, it’s our heritage, which means the voice is double, we have an openness to that hyphenation. We allow ourselves to speak differently under one umbrella. I try to dwell on that as a teacher and as a writer.
When you say “speak differently”, do you also think about other languages?
Yes, sometimes other languages creep in there, Cree in English or French in English. But by “double voice,” I’m not just referring to being bilingual, but also employing a tone of irony in a sense of questioning.
If things such as nationality, origin or accent matter anymore nowadays, in what way do they?
I guess they still matter on the surface, but once you scratch the surface, then you find out that there are more commonalities than differences. That’s what I mean by “loving the alien”, that’s another way to put it, of dealing with the fear of otherness. That’s really important in the world, isn’t it, in 2018.
Has your idea of home and belonging changed over the decades? If yes, how?
Yes, definitely! I grew up in southern Ontario – Toronto, London and so on – and then moved to the north and by being here now, I’m connecting with the Native culture that my husband brought to me. This move has definitely made me feel a different kind of person, perhaps a little more on the margins, in some ways a little more rural, a little less urbanized, but also still valuing more than ever that sense of connection with the environment … and building bridges with Indigenous cultures.
What are some of the most significant differences between northern and southern Canadians?
The power is in the south, the population, the economy, whereas in the north there is more tourism, resource industry etc. There are pros and cons. But the good side of today’s world is that wherever you are, you can be both local or regional, and also international or global. Our conversation today is proof of that, so thank you, Monica!