Despite promoting her new poetry book, living life, and being a wonderful poetry editor for FreeFall Magazine, Joan Shillington still found time to sit down for an interview with us about Folding the Wilderness Within.
FreeFall: You started taking writing seriously later in life. What was the catalyst? And when and why did you first call yourself a “writer?”
Joan Shillington: My daughter Laura was the catalyst. She bought a scrapbook for the poems I had written over the years; simple, rhyming poems for family occasions and games. Once they were gathered in one place, I decided they could be better and began to search for a poetry course. At the Alexandra Writer’s Centre I found a Saturday, all-day Beginner Poetry Workshop. It was May 1999, Bob Stallworthy was the facilitator. By the end of the day, I had fallen in love with poetry and registered for a six-week fall course.
In May 2010, eleven years after the Beginner Poetry Workshop, I began to think of myself as a writer. Sequestered with nine poets for five weeks at the Banff Writing School, discussing and writing the craft of poetry, I became part of their poetic journey, and, they became part of mine. It was an experience that changed my poetic perspective.
FF: Your book Revolutions is written from a historical perspective while Folding the Wilderness Within is more contemporary. How was the writing experience different between the two? Is one more autobiographical than the next? Or, are both just an amalgamation of writer imagination?
JS: I began writing the poems for Revolutions in 2001 at a Mount Royal College class taught by Richard Harrison. What started as an endeavor to write ten poems for a mid-term portfolio developed into a series of poems, an obsession with Russia and then, a book. Revolutions introduced me to the craft of poetry. Folding the Wilderness Within began at my mother’s hospital bedside near the end of her life and continued for a number of years in the same style and form as the poems in Revolutions. This was the collection I worked on at the Banff Writing School and returned home knowing they needed something but not sure what. Six months later, I wrote the poem Cessna in about 15 minutes. The poems flowed after that.
The writing experience for Revolutions involved not only research of the historical material but learning the craft of poetry as it was very early in my writing experience. With Folding the Wilderness Within, I had a better understanding of form, language and poetics to write into.
Folding the Wilderness Within is more autobiographical than Revolutions. I connected with the Romanovs on two levels; the absolute power of the Tsar, in relationship with my father, and their family of four girls and one boy, which is similar to my own children’s birth order. Folding the Wilderness Within explores how an individual navigates the wilderness within themselves and their family. It is part autobiographical, part imagination and then the cage door opens and the language of poetry enters.
There is a saying, Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I think this applies to both books. Writing Revolutions, I attempted to enter the Romanov story through “little things” and let my imagination run with it based on research, landscape and personal experience. With Folding the Wilderness Within, I began with memories and the conversation surrounding my imagination.
FF: Who are your inspirations?
JS: Richard Harrison, Bob Stallworthy, Rosemary Griebel, Micheline Maylor, Juleta Severson-Baker and Chris Dodd are a few poets in the Calgary writing community who have been an inspiration to me with their poetic sensibilities, honesty and support. From my bookshelf there are a number of love-worn books that I read over and over; Patrick Lane, Lorna Crozier, Stephanie Bolster, Li-Young Lee, Jack Gilbert, Linda Gregg, W.S. Merwin to name a few.
FF: What was unique about writing Folding the Wilderness Within? Did you take a similar approach to writing this book as you have in the past?
JS: I think what was unique about writing Folding the Wilderness Within was understanding the concept of writing into the poem, experimenting with different forms, different angles/takes of a situation or the influence of another poet’s work. Patience. Sometimes it takes years to write a poem, one line written five years ago fits in a current poem. Another time, it’s a gift, written in five minutes. Also, I had acquired a new confidence in my writing since Revolutions, which allowed me to throw the doors open with language and poetics.
I think the process for writing a book must be different each time. I only have two experiences to draw from and they were both different. My goal is not to write a book but to write a good poem, develop my skills, language and form. If the poems come together for a book, that is a bonus.
FF: You’ve been published in a number of literary journals. How is that different from writing a book of poetry? Do you write a poem with a home in mind for it?
JS: I keep my work in a file and every once in awhile go through and send out poems to literary journals. Usually 5 – 8 poems chosen at random. A book requires 50 or more poems, so the thought of a book begins to creep into my mind when there are 35 or 40 poems. Even then, it can take years. I have to be in love with the poems and what they are saying. I have to believe in the poem and the poem has to believe in me. It has to be honest.
I do write poems with a home in mind. All the poems in Revolutions were theme-based. In the final editing of Folding the Wilderness Within I wrote a number of poems especially for the book. I have also written poems for the opening of Bluerock Gallery and for an anthology.
Folding the Wilderness Within can be found here.
Find out more about Joan Shillington here: