An interview with Frances Boyle

Frances Boyle is the author of two poetry books, most recently This White Nest (Quattro Books 2019). She’s also written a novella, Tower, and a forthcoming short story collection, Seeking Shade. Her poems and stories have appeared throughout North America and in the U.K., with recent and upcoming publications including Best Canadian Poetry 2020, Blackbird, Prairie Fire, Parentheses Journal, Cypress and The /tƐmz/ Review. Originally from the prairies, Frances now lives in Ottawa. For more, visit www.francesboyle.com

How did you begin writing, and what keeps you going? 

I have been making things up for as long as I can rememer. Family lore says that my kindergarten teacher needed to paste an extra-long piece of paper onto the back of my artwork so she could transcribe my entire ‘explanation’ of what was going on in my painting. In elementary school, I would hide out during recess writing stories, usually modelled on superhero comics and books about magic (Edward Eager and E. Nesbit were favourites). Just before leaving my home town of Regina, I spent two weeks at a fiction course at Fort San in the Qu’Appelle Valley where my instructors were Jack Hodgins and Robert Kroetsch. I thought that experience would keep my writing going, which it did at least in part. Through university, then working as a lawyer and starting a family I managed to fit in a couple of short workshops here and there. They kept my desire to write alive, but I wasn’t even thinking then about polishing or publishing work. It was only when I moved to Ottawa that I was really able to focus any significant time and energy on writing. My oldest friend had given me a copy of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and it triggered a morning pages habit that was generative for a very long time.

In my first forays into the Ottawa community, I joined a writers’ group, then several, started attending readings, and took various writing workshops. I forged friendships and writerly connections that have kept me going ever since. Writing initially generated or workshopped in these settings accounts for a very high percentage of my finished poems and stories. The support, encouragement and generous critiquing by fellow writers, not to mention the gentle expectation that we’d all regularly bring work to critique, have been integral to me carrying on.

What poets have influenced the ways in which you write?

I thought of myself only as a fiction writer for much of my life (with the exception of a stretch of writing adolescent-angst poems), so I came to poetry fairly late, and without being at all well-read in it. For influences, I think of individual poems that stuck in my memory because of their sonic resonance, rhythm or imagery. Some are Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, a poem called “Gillespie” (that I now recognize as jingoistic and racist but originally loved for the driving rhythms and repeated phrases like “fierce and fain”), Robert Graves “Warning to Children” with its looping language and trippy infinity-mirror images. Poets I read and reread included Gerard Manley Hopkins for all his sounds, sprung rhythms and coined compound words, Yeats and Blake for mysticism, T.S. Eliot especially for the lines from “Little Gidding” that I quote on my website home page about the end of exploration being to return to the place we come from and know it for the first time. Like many women of my generation, I was drawn to Sylvia Plath and carried my copy of Ariel around like a catechism, and Plath’s work led me to poets like Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn MacEwen. More recent influences are difficult to list; it sometimes feels as though all the writing I love somehow infiltrates my poetry eventually. But I think I remain most influenced by work that carries emotional weight but is rich in sound and images.

Have you noticed a difference in the ways in which you approach the individual poem, now that you’ve published full-length collections?

For me, the individual poem has always been the thing, and it (mostly) continues to be. Both of my published collections were precisely that – collections of poems I had accumulated over several years—and my current manuscript-in-progress is also an assemblage. But in each case, as I select and shape poems, my preoccupations and obsessions begin to come clearer as themes and motifs that I can tease out as I structure the book (doing what I’ve heard Sue Goyette refer to as ‘writing the big poem’).

My approach to the individual poem remains very much the same as ever – I allow associations to emerge as I write in response to something outside myself, be it a line or phrase from another poet, a memory, or a specific prompt. I look for places of energy among the resulting mishmash – often finding it in alliteration and assonance and internal rhyme – and try to amplify that energy as I revise and edit. I used to fret over the lack of intent or ‘aboutness’ in my poems but writers who I respect encouraged me to recognize my process for what it is, and to trust the way I fumble my way into a poem with no particular goal or theme in mind.

That said, a current project is a themed set of poems that resulted from one of Hoa Nguyen’s recent workshops, focused on my childhood neighbourhood. I’m struggling a bit to stay on theme without falling into deathly-dull prosiness. However, I’m hoping that persevering with revision will result in something I’m sufficiently satisfied with and that eventually may be a chapbook.

How important has mentorship been to your work? Is there anyone who specifically assisted your development as a writer?

Mentorship has been extremely important. I am so fortunate to have worked with a series of amazing teachers and mentors. Locally, workshops with Miller Adams, rob mclennan and the late Barbara Myers provided the solid grounding in craft and critiquing that I needed. More intensive mentorships, including working with Barry Dempster, Don McKay and most recently Sandra Ridley, helped me shape manuscripts and learn how to be a better editor of my own poems. And that’s just (some of) the poets! I’ve also worked with great fiction mentors, notably Isabel Huggan. Some of the editors I’ve worked with – particularly Theresa Kirshan and Anik See of Fish Gotta Swim Editions, and Stephanie Small of The Porcupine’s Quill — have helped my development as a writer to almost as great an extent, pushing me to better realize the potential in work which they liked enough to accept for publication in the first place.

But mentorship happens outside of formal settings as well. I think that the interactions in my writing groups, particularly the Ruby Tuesday collective, really do amount to mutual mentoring.

You are currently on the editorial board of Arc Poetry Magazine. Why was this important, and have you been learning through the process of working on a journal?

I have been on the Arc board for more than ten years, and it has been a true schooling and apprenticeship in poetry. I highly recommend to anyone that hey consider getting involved with a journal. I was pretty much a neophyte when I first joined Arc, recruited less, I suspect, for any literary expertise than for my organization skills, which I was later able to use during a several-year stint as Board president. But, over more than a decade of sifting through poems on Submittable and then engaging with colleagues over what makes a particular poem a slam-dunk and another one that we need to take a pass on, I’ve gained greater critical abilities and am now fairly confident in my current role as associate poetry editor. I’ve also learned that, because of the sheer volume of submissions we receive via the online platform, there are many many eminently publishable poems we can’t use, since there is a limited amount of space in each issue. That makes me feel better about the rejections I receive for my own work, and the acceptances even sweeter.

Through Arc, I made connections with writers across the country, particularly when I was coordinating our reviews of poetry books. I’m proud of having a role in putting together some amazing themed annual issues, including ones that focused on the North, on Spoken Word Poetry, on Art in the End Times (eerily prophetic since we launched it the evening before the 2016 U.S. election – just kidding about the Apocalypse we tried to say, to no avail). I also contributed to discussions around how we could better make space for the voices of marginalized writers, with some of the steps we came up with including the 2017 “Oh Canada, We Have Issues” annual on decolonization and reconciliation (with more themed annuals on the horizon: this year’s honouring LGBTQ+ poets with a focus on the voices of Transgender poets, and next year’s planned Black Lives Matter annual), establishing a diversity group composed of people both on the editorial board and not, as well as expanding our Poet in Residence program by appointing a second Poet in Residence mandated each year to mentor poets from specific marginalized communities (beginning this year with Randy Lundy, who will work with emerging Indigenous poets).

However, ten years is a long time to spend with any organization and I’ll shortly be wrapping up my final term on the board. Many fine people contributed to the running of the magazine and its programs during my time there, building on the work begun when Arc was established in 1978, and continually trying to improve Arc as a diverse, safe and inclusive space. Several of my current and former colleagues on the magazine have become good friends, sharing our own work as well as recommendations for poets we need to be following. The current staff and editorial board members are wonderful, and it is bitter-sweet to leave, being certain that they will accomplish terrific new things with the magazine in the coming years.

You’ve published full-length collections of poetry as well as works of fiction. What is the difference between working on poems to working on short stories or a novella? Are you able to work on both poetry and fiction concurrently?

For me, poetry begins in much more of an intuitive place than fiction. When I’m free-writing, I can trick my conscious mind (and that nasty internal critic voice) into delving deeper, exploring an image or a real or imagined experience. The results frequently surprise me and, luckily, I am sometimes able to take these imagistic sound-driven ramblings and shape them into something that coheres as a poem. Fiction, on the other hand, usually starts with a character or a situation. I often know where I want the story to end though I may not know the path that the journey will take. Which of course can also lead to a different ending-place. I’ll often match a situation (perhaps from my own life or something I’ve heard about) with an invented character whose backstory I develop through journaling or speculation. Plunging a character I’m getting to know into a particular situation lets me work the elements up into story. So, situation drives character, and character drives situation. Sometimes (generally in revision) I borrow from my poetry practice and free-write my way through a sticky scene or patch of dialogue.

I can and do work on poetry and fiction at the same time, but it seems that whenever I am able to give focused attention to one or the other, I end up spinning my wheels a little less. Ideally, I like to be writing in one form and editing in the other. I tend to default to poetry (aka procrastinate on fiction) because it is so much easier to submerge myself in a shorter piece of writing, tweaking line breaks and heightening rhythm, sometimes teasing out narratives from chaos. And I have reams of unshaped free-writing so I am never short of material with the potential to become poems. Working on fiction can be more slog than delight, and revision frequently means re-visioning, starting over nearly from scratch, with very hard decisions to work through. It often takes a looming deadline for me to actually get down to work. Once I succeed in immersing myself in fiction,  there is indeed a certain delight in the satisfaction of careful language choice and structure coming together.

Can you name a poet you think should be receiving more attention?

Most poets deserve more attention than the world at large gives them, so I’m tempted to say ‘all of them’. I am happy to see young poets like Terese Mason Pierre, Manahil Bandukwala and Isabella Wang receiving considerable buzz for their writing even before they have full-length books. However (notwithstanding that ‘emerging’ is often conflated with ‘under 35’), for a wide variety of reasons many fine writers don’t emerge at a young age. So, I’d love to see a few over-35 friends get more attention. Deborah-Anne Tunney, who previously authored a short story collection and a novel, has her debut poetry collection, A Different Wolf, just out with McGill-Queens University Press. The poems are based on Alfred Hitchcock’s films but go far beyond mere description, unpacking complexities within the visual medium, particularly the roles defined for women and girls, through the lens of growing up during the period Hitchcock was making movies. Another MQUP poet, Quebec-based stephanie roberts, who I met through Arc, ought to be be a rockstar. I think she is currently recognized more in the U.S. than in Canada, with compelling work in places like Poetry and Shenandoah, but I hope and believe that will change with the publication of her first book, rushes from the river disappointment. Laurie Koensgen was, for the longest time, hesitant to put her phenomenal poems out in the world but she started submitting in the last few years, and has quietly accrued some great publications and contest nods, including recognition in the Malahat Review Far Horizons contest, and Arc’s Diana Brebner Prize. Her work is condensed, lyrical and absolutely lovely.

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