Sunday, February 3, 2008

Interview with Kimmy Beach

Kimmy Beach is the Spring 2008 Writer in Residence for the Writers Guild of Alberta/Parkland Regional Library System's "Check Out the Writer!" Program. She has been a teacher, Stage Manager, editor, bookseller, workshop leader, fries flinger, and roller rink Skate Cop. Kimmy was the 2005 International Guest Poet for the Dead Good Poets Society In Liverpool, UK, and launched her third book, fake Paul, on stage at the Cavern Club in Mathew Street. Her work has been featured on CBC Radio, Radio Canada International, BookTV, Bravo!, ACCESS, and Canadian Learning Television. Her work has been translated into Chinese, and she's won second place in the Lichen Arts and Letters Preview's Tracking a Serial Poet Competition.

Kimmy has published four books with Turnstone Press: Nice Day for Murder: poems for James Cagney (2001, second printing 2004), Alarum Within: theatre poems (2003), fake Paul (2005), and in Cars (2007). She contributed to a chapbook with St. Peter's Press entitled Chickweed, and has one of her own: Aberrant Lounges, from the Martian Press. Kimmy holds a First Class Honors English Degree from the University of Alberta, and writes from Red Deer, Alberta where she lives with Stu, her husband of twenty years.

I sent Kimmy a flurry of questions via email and she was kind enough to take the time out of her retreat at St. Peter's Abbey in Saskatchewan to respond to them. This is the first of what I hope will be many interviews with writers at Capacious Hold-All.

CH: By now you have a large enough body of work - four books of poetry - that certain themes become evident, obsessions are revealed. One of your themes - I think - is that of obsession. What draws you to this? It seems to me that the raw, vulnerable way in which you draw the characters, and the way that you don't interpret them for the reader is quite brilliantly risky. Can you speak to your strategies regarding the presentation of women in your books?

KB: Of course, I do admit to a certain level of obsession with the subject matter of my books, but I also think of that obsession (and it seems you feel the same way about my work) as a positive, creative expression of a deep interest in my subjects. As it relates to my work, “obsession” is equivalent to “tons of research.” I like to immerse myself in the world I’m building, as I feel there’s nothing worse than reading a book whose author clearly has not done her/his homework. What some see as unfathomable obsession, I see as thorough research into - and immersion in - my subject.

You indicate in your question that you see my obsessions with my subjects as leading into what you call the “brilliantly risky” way I write (I thank you for that phrase). Interestingly, I’ve often been mocked or questioned for my intense concentration on the subjects of my work, but usually those doing the mocking have been those who are unable to fully commit to the depth, joys, and possible darkness of their own work, whatever it might be. Some family and my close writer friends (yourself included) "get it" and know that that's simply how I work. I’d rather go all the way into something than linger on its surface. No good writing happens on the surface. The layers underneath are always more fascinating, and in the writing, I find I'm able to fully enter the world. What could be cooler than rewriting aspects of one's past or creating a place and time that never existed, and then allowing oneself to live in it fully, through the act of writing it? I'd rather be the brunt of misunderstanding than be living (as my husband would say) a perfectly normal, half-fulfilled life.

I will admit here that I currently have an ever-so-slight problem with Daniel Craig, the new James Bond. Thankfully, I have a Bond-crazed friend to share it with and an understanding husband who has a similarly debilitating problem with Jamie Leigh Curtis. This is a frequent mock-worthy topic according to several people in my life. The fact is that my last movie star obsession (with James Cagney, who I still really love watching) led to the publication of Nice Day for Murder: poems for James Cagney, which is now in its second printing. I enjoy gently reminding people of that; it tends to stop the conversation. While I don’t see myself writing a book about Daniel Craig, I have written some Bond stuff, and I see no reason why obsessions can’t lead to books. Mine generally do. I've always loved James Bond (in all his incarnations), he is endlessly fascinating, and aside from the latest films, some terrible FanFiction and some pretty good scholarship, not enough has been done with him creatively in recent years. From past experience, I already know that if I'm deeply attracted to (or compelled by) someone or something, I'd better take notice as there is always potential for good writing.

What draws me to the theme of obsession (which both informs the way I write and often appears in the work itself) is my desire to write as deeply as I can. What I mean is that I want to live the work, no matter what its subject. I want the experience of writing to be an immersive, joyous one, and I hope some readers might find similar joy (or at least some emotion) reading it. Of course, in the real world, an out-of-control obsession can be dangerous and can prevent the person experiencing it from interacting properly with the world. For instance, I once met a woman who had seen Paul McCartney live in concert over fifty times, but was incapable of carrying on a conversation with a real human being, or (by her own admission) of keeping her relationships healthy. In my case, my intense devotion to the subject of my current work (and to the work itself) only enhances my dealings with the real world because I'm able to separate the work from my life. I’m a pretty balanced person and can slip back and forth without losing myself. I carry on meaningful relationships with friends and family, attend all kinds of social and cultural stuff, phone my mom, and watch The Young and the Restless. Unlike some artists of the past (and present), I am not damaged by going deeply into my work when I need to.

To move to the second part of your question, I do try to present my characters as they are (as you say, raw and vulnerable) and I try never to explain them. We don't walk through life explaining ourselves at every turn. We do what we do, and those around us interpret us as they will. Any writing that resonates with a reader needs to meet that reader at least halfway (assuming the reader is willing to take that trip on the other end), and there is a necessary openness-to-interpretation that a believable character must have. Perhaps because most of my characters are sparsely drawn (as they must be in poetry), I rely on the reader more than I would if I were writing traditional novels or drama, say, to interpret the characters how they see fit. I provide some background and some actions and thoughts that are, by necessity, compressed and perhaps exaggerated given the constraints of poetry, but every character is fully-formed in my own mind. I use very few words to draw my characters. There is a boy called Keith in my latest book, in Cars. All the reader knows about him is that he drives a Challenger, he wants to have sex in it, and he has a "Rock and Roll mullet". Those few details provide a complete enough picture and I would bet that most readers see pretty much the same guy in their heads.

As to my strategies for the presentation of women in my work, I've come a long way, baby. I used to be passionately devoted to the school of gynocritics, and my first book is stuffed full of dames gettin' back at the mugs what slapped 'em around. Since then, I've become less obviously "feminist" in my work and have learned to embrace the passions of my female characters, whether the passion is a grossly misguided obsession with a rock star or movie star, a career (the theatre in Alarum Within: theatre poems), or roller skating, sex, hot boys, and hot cars. To me, my female characters are largely composites of the best and worst aspects of a passionately-lived life. In my latest book, the girls share the same desires and interests as the boys. There are as many girls dragging boys into the back seats of the muscle cars that the girls themselves have souped up, as there are boys dragging girls back there. Sex is often initiated by the girls, and occasionally, the boy is expendable. But in Cars is not a feminist book, nor is it just an exploration of female desire. I've created a moment in a non-existent 1982 in which the girls are equal to the boys in terms of their cars, skates, power, and desires. Since that world didn't exist, and I saw little point in recreating it as it actually was, the text cannot (I don't think) serve any feminist agenda. Some readers have commented on the power the girls seem to have, and that was deliberate, as I've said, but they have no more power than the boys. Just as there is no rape, there is also no pregnancy or other consequences of promiscuous sex. No one (male or female) has to answer to parents or teachers, and no one ever has to buy gas.

CH: fake Paul is maybe the obvious place to start, but all of your books seem to consider the personal facade. Would you mind talking a bit about the various ways in which you interrogate and play with "identity" in your books?

KB: First of all, I'd say that the very act of writing anything is the donning of an identity other than the writer's own personal one. Even if a writer is working with memoir or autobiography, nobody remembers everything right. You and I would likely remember the same conversation differently. I think we had Shanghai noodles the last time we had dinner together, but there had to have been more food on the table. You had your hair up and were wearing a black jacket, but I don't remember what kind of shirt you were wearing. If I were to write that occasion, I would already be assuming a new identity: the identity of a writer who really doesn't remember what the other food was so makes up beef and broccoli in a black bean sauce. In that case, the conversation was far more interesting than the food, so I barely noticed what we were eating.
I had a voice teacher back in theatre school who taught us an exercise which showed our true faces. We relaxed to the point where our faces were open, and we did it with our eyes closed as the second anyone looked at anybody else and their eyes met, their faces would instinctively "close" again. We are always already wearing false identities (except perhaps in sleep), and I think that writing is the addition of another layer, or several other layers.

In terms of how identity fits into my work, I have always been fascinated by the kind of person who would willingly take on another's identity as a way of life. In my work, I've dealt with people who act on stage as other people, an artist who spends a career impersonating another famous artist, and movie stars who put on their own separate identity as Movie Stars as opposed to the normal, fallible people they are underneath it. I've never fully thought of the ideas of identity and obsession being connected in my work, but your question has caused me to see they're absolutely related. The woman I mentioned earlier who had seen Paul McCartney fifty times made her way into fake Paul as part of the composite that makes up my narrator, as I was fascinated by her fascination with the persona of Famous Paul rather than the high-maintenance, fingernail chewing, gonch-tossing man he likely is behind the Rock Star. If that woman were to live with him, I suspect they'd fall into the same habits and annoying behaviours that each of us has but pretends we don't. When he's not a Rock Star, he goes home and makes garlic and onion mashed potatoes (his favourite; is it obsessive that I know that?...) and plays with his 4-year-old daughter. The narrator in fake Paul in incapable of seeing the man behind the microphone, even when it's not really him, but an impersonator. It's the levels of masks that fascinate me, and I suppose that's why the theatre book came together as well as it did. Theatre is all about masks on some level.

In the latest book, in Cars, my characters hide behind what I call the "nightly ceremonies of armour and scent". Only at the greatest moments of passion or tragedy are they themselves, or as close as any of us can get to being "ourselves". They live in a fake world of perfume, make-up, hair, the right jeans, a fake breeze, and the right moves.

CH: Not long ago Alarum Within was made into a play. What was it like seeing it produced? How much were you involved in the process? Did experiencing this affect how you have since approached your writing?

KB: I have to say that I think that book has been adapted enough now... Alarum Within: theatre poems is the most personal (that is not to say confessional) book I've written so far, and it was not easy to see the challenges of my life and long-ago health issues played out in living colour for all my friends and family to re-live. The book is not a play, and does not hang together as theatre, no matter how inventive the adaptation. Though I know I will never write a play, I know exactly how drama works as I was a professional Stage Manager for nearly a decade, and part of what I was doing in that book was deliberately not writing theatre. Some of those poems are absolutely unstageable, and that was a conscious choice on my part. In fact, a few of the "tiny dramas" in the book are laid out like drama with dialogue and stage directions, but they are the most unstageable pieces in the book. I wanted to give the impression of drama without providing the means to recognize it or realize it as drama. The companies staging the book both resorted to a kind of readers theatre/recitation to deal with a couple of poems that there was absolutely no way to stage. The book does not follow the proper arc of theatre, the first director was calling me all the time to say that this or that couldn't be done, and I tried to take it all in stride and to remind everyone that it's not a play. It's a book of poetry, and it was their bright idea, not mine, to try to put it on stage.

I realize that there certainly are books of poetry that are reworked for the stage, but in most cases, it's possible to do it, because the author has not deliberately set out to ensure that it could never be staged. That's the great irony of that book being adapted not once, but twice. In both cases, my publisher had contacted me to say that the companies wanted to stage the book. I was involved as little as possible in the actual development of the first adaptation, and slightly more-so in the second, as I'd learned from the first one that there was much about the book that just didn't work on stage or within the framework of the narrative.

Having said all that, I liked a lot of things about both productions and I was deeply honoured that each of the companies had chosen my work to stage as part of their seasons. The first was a collective third-year University effort with minimal props and costumes and an emphasis on the words, and the second was a tech-heavy Theatre Studies extravaganza which provided compelling, in-yer-face theatre with the occasional sacrifice of the poetry.

Experiencing those adaptations hasn't affected the way I create since then, as I've never set out to deliberately write something that will lend itself to another medium. I did joke with the director of the second adaptation of Alarum, though, that in Cars would make a great movie. I told him all he'd need is a few old beater wagons he could wreck and some kids who could roller skate. He added, "and a couple million bucks." I don't think there's any danger of anyone adapting this latest book. I suppose I would be amenable to that, and it's certainly more stageable than Alarum Within, but I don't expect it, nor did I write it with that in mind. A very well-known playwright once told me that he hated me because of all the success I was having as a playwright! He was joking, but it really made me publicly say whenever I could that I didn't write that book so that it would be adapted for the stage. I wrote it so that it couldn't be done.

CH: An interest in what goes on 'behind the scenes' is, in my mind, central to your work. Did your time spent stage managing position you behind the curtains, so to speak? Having heard you read on numerous occasions I can attest that you have a stage presence that most poets would kill for. While writing, do you envision your poems in any way as theatrical moments?

KB: Any good Stage Manager is also an actor but not in the conventional sense. An SM must constantly act as though she/he is interested in (or gives a crap about) the latest backstage drama/prop emergency/argument. She/he must act in control at all times, even when it's a virtual guarantee that the play will not go up on time without direct intervention from Dionysus himself. Stage Management is a tricky mix of organization, mothering, control-freaky power, and occasionally - and as an afterthought - the love of theatre thrown in for good measure. Though I'll never do it again, it taught me how to herd cats, stuff an octopus into an onion bag without any legs hanging out, and organize absolutely everything in my life. To this day, my husband makes fun of my many lists while simultaneously asking me to put ten items on one of them for him.

I thank you for your compliment about my reading style, and I have worked hard on that. I've been to enough deadly dull readings over the last fifteen years, that very early on I decided I was never going to be like that. My background in theatre certainly does help, as you need to be very engaging to maintain the attention of (say) forty-two teenage theatre students, eight boys under the age of twelve (or eight girls if you're doing Annie instead of Oliver), two dogs, twenty technicians, a dotty old "Actor" from the community who thinks it's polite to snap his fingers at you from the stage if he forgets his lines, and a distracted, over-caffeinated director who can't understand why you won't lower the entire cruise ship from the fly tower in the middle of Act Two while six petticoat-clad ingénues do the Charleston on its poop deck as it descends. These people need to be given many notes at the ends of many late-night rehearsals relating to everything from movements on stage and flubbed lines to the timing of light cues, so the Stage Manager has to be interesting yet not dictatorial (that's the director's job). I learned quickly that the production was in my hands, and that in order for it to go smoothly and to my control-freaky standards, the technicians and actors had to trust me and like me, and, more importantly, I had to get them to do everything I said.

I also believe that it's simply a choice on the part of every writer as to whether she/he is going to be boring and awful or engaging and approachable. I don't understand writers who won't engage with their readers or who act as though reading from a new book and signing a few copies of it afterward is some kind of unbearable chore that is so far beneath them that they sigh through it, mumbling the odd, barely audible "yes, thank you". Let's face it: readings are where we sell our books. Why not be as fun (or engaging, or at least interesting to listen to) as we can be, and leave an audience with a warm feeling about us as opposed to a distant, indifferent one? If a publisher has seen fit to publish a writer's work, surely there must be something in the book that warrants a spirited, engaged reading by the writer. I'm certainly not saying that I'm never nervous (I always am until I get up there) or that I've always felt like doing the launch I've had scheduled for months. Occasionally, I'd like to stay home and watch my taped episodes of Y&R and read some love comics, but I'm the entertainment, so I show up, physically and emotionally.

My feelings about my work enter into my answer as well. I don't read the poems I don't like as much, or those I feel needed more editing, or those that haven't gone over as I would have liked with a previous audience. I read the stuff I enjoy reading, and stuff that people seem to respond to. I like a lot of my own work, and I find it fun to see how audiences react to it. That tends to endear me to the listeners, and I'm always grateful for the warmth I usually feel at most readings I do. I have a lot of fun reading, but I take it seriously as part of the job I do as a writer. I've likened it elsewhere to the NHL hockey star whose contract says, "anytime a reporter sticks a microphone in your face on your way to the dressing room, you must say something about getting in the corners and the great offensive line on the other team." All part of the job.
As to your last question, I do see my work in my head as I'm writing it, but it's not visualized as theatre. Someone at a recent reading asked me if I was an observer or a participant in these visions of my work as I'm writing. Usually I'm a participant, which makes it easier for me to place my narrator into the moment. I rarely see the events of something I'm working on from the outside, or (to keep the theatre theme) from beyond the fourth wall.

CH: in Cars has as its central moment a tragic car crash. Loss and longing play a large role in all your books - and yet somehow I think of your books as siding more with comedy than tragedy. How conscious are you of guiding the reader through the many emotional registers that your books possess? What writers do you model yourself after in this regard?

KB: That's a very interesting observation; I like these questions a lot. A mutual friend of ours told me that he was surprised by the subtle undercurrent of despair in in Cars lurking under the roller skates and hot cars and sex and KC & the Sunshine Band's greatest hits. That was a deliberate choice on my part because (as I've said) I have to go deeply into the world I create. I believe that my friend's observation regarding the underlying despair and the narrator's (unspoken) belief that her innocence is fleeting and that something really terrible is around the corner - and not the car accident itself - gives this book its real tragedy. Perhaps that's why you see my work as more comic, as the tragedy is understated. I tend to agree with you, and I believe that tragedy must be tempered with comedy in art, and I use those words in the classical theatre sense as opposed to the ChickFlick/Dying Boyfriend Movie sense. I base that belief on the work of a number of writers, notably Shakespeare and Kroetsch.

Robert Kroetsch is famous for breaking your heart on one page, and on the next writing "how I wonder where you bum." Shakespeare has Macbeth commit one of the grisliest murders in the history of literature. The next morning, one of his soldiers tells him that all of nature was in an uproar the night before. Roofs were blown off, animals went crazy, the Great Chain of Being has been irrevocably messed up, and the entire country of Scotland is in utter chaos. Macbeth's response is, "'Twas a rough night." No kidding. Granted we read the word "rough" differently than his audience would, but no matter how you slice it, it's the understatement of the century, and is, necessarily, a relief because of that. Shakespeare knew (and we know it because of him) that an audience must be relieved from the tension and horror of the murder that precedes this line. We need to be given an opportunity to exhale.

I handled this situation in the latest book by deliberately following the poem in which the terrible accident graphically occurs with a poem entitled "How I Learned to Skate." Within ten lines of reading of the death of Joseph, the reader is faced with helium balloons and coloured skate laces. I fought with myself over that placement for some time before I decided it was absolutely right. I do think there is a lot of humour in my books, and that is deliberate as well. It's not possible to engage a reader (or myself as a writer) with a one-note book that plays only to the tragic, or the nostalgic, or the wildly comedic which has no underlying sadness. I can't stand relentless tragedy. I don't mind reading books in which the personal tragedies of the author are turned into poetry or prose, but I do mind if that's all there is to it. Our real lives are interesting, but they're not that interesting. I need to feel something beyond the author's (or even the narrator's) relentless pain, or I just shut down.

CH: I'm fascinated with examining your books in the context of genre, and in the context of the multiple registers they inhabit. They seem to confound categorization in many areas. You go from Shakespeare to Radar Love in 60 seconds. You're blending personal with fictional with the historical in unsettling and captivating ways. Given the biographical information found on the covers of the books, it's tempting to assume the narrator and the writer are one and the same, but you playfully challenge this. We could talk about your books in the context of the long poem, or theatre, or confession, or narrative poetry, or poetic novels. I'm not saying your books are any of these things necessarily, but that there is a richness in your work. What are your strategies for pushing boundaries? Where is your current work heading?

KB: Say, it's too bad you're not on all the book juries this year! Thanks for the insightful way you put all of that.

I feel strongly that I'm allowed to write whatever I want to, and if that means, as you say, moving from Shakepeare directly to Golden Earring where the work calls for it, then that's what's right for the work. My subject is often pop culture, but I also have an English Degree and I've read all the stuff that occasionally enters my work overtly, but more often covertly. I think the way to be a successful writer it to listen to what your muses or instincts are telling you and go with it. I've always done that, and while I know there are people who don't like my work or don't see what I'm doing with it, I think that the majority of my readers do. Ultimately, though, I write what pleases me, and often what pleases me confounds categorization. I write the way my mind works, leaping around from Macbeth to "Radar Love" as one's mind natually does. That's not to say that the pieces are not highly structured works building on one another; they definitely are. One of my goals is to create highly structured work that seems more casually put together than it is.

One of the ways in which I challenge the author/narrator question is to be very deliberately in the moment of the book at all times. When I hear "Dirty White Boy" by Foreigner (a song with which I'm currently obsessed; I'm listening to it as I type this), I don't think, "what a great song that was." I think, "I am at the rink, at this moment, dancing with Scott." I've read that smell is the sense most connected to memory, but I totally don't believe that, at least for myself. Music is my memory generator in a very effective, immediate sense. I hear, for instance, Human League's "Don't You Want Me?" and I'm instantly looking over a French Quarter street from the third floor of a Paris fleabag hotel in 1982. Nostalgia doesn't resonate with me (the music I listened to while writing in Cars helped me keep it immediate) and I worked very hard to keep this book out of the realm of the nostalgic, a technique I learned from the brilliant non-fiction writer, Kirsten Koza. As Koza in her book, Lost in Moscow, refuses to say "and looking back, this is what I learned," my book is written in the present tense, never leaves 1982 (except in flashback or dream), and never enters the realm of "if only I'd realized then that...". There is no "I remember when" in this book. I think that helps those who might be tempted to believe that all my narrators are me. Any thinking reader can see that they're clearly not (as some of my narrators end up dead at the end of the books, along with several other characters), and by locating the reader as solidly as I can inside the moment I'm creating for them, and not resorting to nostalgia, I hope that the dividing line between me and my narrators becomes quite clear.
Of course, there are elements of me in the work. After all, I'm the instrument of creation of the work, and I have a body of experience and beliefs that necessarily enters it. At the basest level, I'm the one doing the typing. One critic of fake Paul was put off by my tendency to stalk people, as though I clearly was my narrator. As it is, the man on whom I based fake Paul and I are still close friends, and I am utterly positive that he never felt the least bit stalked. It was a ridiculous thing for that critic to write. I felt it was abundantly clear that I had created a character and was not writing about myself, but apparently, there are still readers out there who simply cannot separate the author from the speaker or narrator. That's a great problem in current Canadian Poetry at the moment, I think. So much of it is so terribly personal or confessional, that I suppose it's a natural leap for some to assume that all Canadian poets write about nothing but their own lives. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but we still struggle against that narrow viewpoint. I'm glad that what you see as my "playful challenge" of that does indeed come through.

My strategy for pushing boundaries is a constant reminder I have tacked up over my computer. It reads, "Dear Kimmy, You can write whatever the hell you like. Love, Kimmy." I also have a quote taped on the screen itself by the great novelist, Ian McEwan: "Age is the great disobliger." As I've gotten older, I've figured out that the CPP (Canadian Poetry Police) are not going to come and arrest me if I subvert expected and accepted genres. The absolute worst that can happen if I don't fall into accepted writing categories is that I won't be nominated for any big awards (which I never am anyway, so no change there), a couple of critics won't like it, or I won't fit in with the rest of the poetry kids at the playground. I can happily live with all of that in order to stay true to my idea of what I'm doing in my work. A lack of nods in the CanLit world does not equal a lack of quality or innovation. I occasionally pay attention to people saying that such-a-such a theme or form is the New Thing, and deliberately avoid it. I have my own style, I know what it is, and I know it's not easily categorized. I like that. You didn't ask, but I'll tell you that my greatest influences in the boundary-pushing world are The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje and Headframe (1 and 2), by my late mentor, Birk Sproxton. Birk once told me that he writes "books" and that's a genre I've aspired to all my career. I understand that books must be categorized, and I suppose poetry is the nearest to what I do, overall, but it's my own take on what I think poetry is and can be. During the course of that conversation, Birk and I invented the Genre Sproxton and the Genre Beach to account for our reticence to fall into the established styles. His influence is the greatest in terms of me following my own path and not accepting that the way things are in the poetry world are the way they are for me.

Where is my current work heading? Right now, it's heading back to my little room here at St. Peter's Abbey in Saskatchewan where I do a great deal of the generation of my raw material and have done for nearly nine years. After supper, I hope to settle in with a manuscript in progress entitled Aberrant Lounges. it exists as a chapbook that was published by the Martian Press a couple of years back, and my goal while here is to write enough raw material to produce the better part of a complete (but very drafty) first draft of a full manuscript. I have also found myself writing postcard fiction (some of which fits into the current work), which I'm finding remarkably similar to poetry in terms of its compression and snapshot qualities.

I've brought a couple of other projects with me, and I always wait, day to day, to see what this place wants to me write.