Theresa Kishkan – Red Laredo Boots and Phantom Limb – Interview

LP: You’ve had two books of essays published Red Laredo Boots ( New Star Books ) and Phantom Limb ( Thistledown Press ). What is it about the essay form that interests you as a writer?

tk: I have a curious and undisciplined mind. I’m interested in the details of a place, a time, the layers that make up a particular history – geological, regional, human, natural; and how they fit together. I’m interested in long meditative lines that I somehow couldn’t make work in poetry, lines that take their inspiration from roads, the shape of hills against a wide sky, how a formation of sandhill cranes scribbles its name over Nicola Lake on a late September day. And the essay form is generous and flexible, capacious enough to hold everything that comes to mind, to heart.

LP: How do you these pieces start, do you keep detailed journals/notes?

tk:  Something will agitate for my attention – a fragment of song, a building, a phrase, a moment in which I sense a particular potency.  And then I follow this to wherever it might lead. Often I’m not sure exactly what it is I’m looking for but I know when I’ve found it.  A name might speak from a page, a plant will appear with the most evocative family tree, or a photograph will show me a place, or a family, or a moment in history, and then I’ll get out my maps, my field-guides, and try to put something together to give a shape to what has until then been a series of notations, maybe, that I hope will accumulate until I have the critical mass that acts as a first draft. I used to keep journals but don’t any longer. I always have a notebook, though, and use it to make little cryptic notes that I have trouble deciphering afterwards.

LP: Many of the essays have history and historical events woven into them. Do you have to do much research for those pieces or that information?

tk: I am devoted to research, though as I confessed in my answer to your first question, I am not very disciplined. I think I begin with the best of intentions and am sidetracked by interesting details, like a magpie taking bright objects back to its nest. I do build my work from an accurate or actual ground, though, and think of this as a kind of anchor, or ballast. And we find ourselves in history, don’t we? We see aspects of ourselves as the past shifts slightly to accommodate our presence there. Reading letters in an archival collection, we suddenly hear our story. Or looking intently at old photographs, we see a familiar cheekbone, the ghost of a smile.

LP: While the writing in both books covers everything from travel to personal reflection ultimately they form a personal history of your family. We see your children grow etc.  Any thoughts on that?

tk:  Years ago I read something by Annie Dillard that has served almost as a raison d’être for me.  Writing about her journals and notebooks, she said that when looking at them, she has the sense that time has not simply passed but rather it has accumulated. I think of my essays in the same way. Although they can’t be read exactly as a precise record of our lives here on the Sechelt Peninsula, they contain much of what has been significant – the shifting seasons, the passages, our pleasures, and some of the sorrows too. The other day John and I were walking over by Ruby Creek and we saw the dark forms of fish in the water. These are one of only two known fall-spawning populations of cutthroat trout on the Coast. One year our older son conducted a census of the spawning trout as a science fair project – he was 12 that year – and every day for about a month we’d go over to the creek after school and count fish. So of course the shadow of that boy was present at the creek the other day, the shadows of those earlier days, when we were accompanied by a dog now long dead. And that boy is now about to defend his PhD dissertation in Canadian History so how time does accumulate!

LP: The details of the natural world really jump out in the work. Do you feel particularly close to the environment/landscape?

tk: I’m enraptured by the natural world, constantly in thrall to what I find there. It’s important to me to be able to “read” the landscape, its intricate narratives. And those change, as anything changes; new versions or idioms emerge just as older ones surface too. I’ve become fascinated by the fossils of the Tranquille Shale, between Kamloops and Cache Creek, and the amazing stories that are told in those layers. Tiny pre-salmon, sequoias, maple samara: the quotidian details of a lake bed 51 million years old!

LP: A few of the essays, especially those dealing with death, The Road to Bella Coola and Phantom Limb, are intensely personal. They must have been difficult to write and possibly even more difficult for you to re-read.

tk: Language and form allow us to shape our grief and lend a formality to what might otherwise be wild and chaotic. “The Road To Bella Coola” has as its epigraph a line from a poem by Stanley Kunitz: “How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?” That’s the central paradox, isn’t it? That we are nourished in some deep way by the rituals and ceremonies associated with death. It’s the way human beings can attend their dead with respect and dignity.

LP: You also write about the loss of things, Erasing The Maps (places) and Autumn Coho In Haskins Creek (salmon) are two that come to mind. Do you think writing is a way to make sure those things don’t disappear completely?

tk:  Writing is an act of commemoration. Think of what we know because someone has written it down! So I try to pay an attention to what matters to me and to explore it, adore it, praise it. And sometimes that attention takes the form of elegy, I suppose, or threnody. It conspires to remember. Memory itself is such a complicated entity. I’ve been reading Cicero with reference to his Method of Loci and am intrigued by his system for the ordering of memory. In some ways I think of my work in this way — the attachment of a particular body of imagery to a specific locus as a way of remembering.

LP:  Are the essays something you work on all the time or do you write a series all at once?

tk: I’ve always written essays along with other things. While working on a novel, I might find myself wanting to explore something that I’ve come across in research or on a trip or as a result of reading or some unresolved personal issue. It’s a wonderful luxury to break away from an extended work, a novel, to write an essay.  (I’m reminded of the pleasure of taking an unexpected side-road while travelling!) I usually have several in various stages of completion and some of them never really find their true shape, remaining as drafts for years. Working with an editor tends to help me identify particular thematic connections and so I’ll shape a manuscript by concentrating on a specific group of pieces, leaving others out. I’m currently at work on a book-length series of connected essays. Right now each one is discrete, devoted to a particular set of materials. When I’ve finished the whole series, I may in fact decide to create a kind of connective tissue to draw them together into a single body. I’m not sure yet and don’t want to second guess not only myself but the material I’m immersed in by predicting the final form this work will take.

LP: You’ve had several books of poetry (six) and two novels published. Can we look forward to a new book in either of those genres soon?

tk: I’ve recently completed a novel, The Age of Water Lilies, which I hope will be published next year. It’s set partly in the community of Walhachin on the Thompson River just before the Great War and partly in Victoria in the years just after. And I’m at work on a memoir called Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. I’d love to write poetry again but haven’t been able to find that voice, that concentrated sense of language, for some years.

LP: You operate High Ground Press with your husband, the poet John Pass. Can you tell us about that endeavor?

tk: John and I bought a late 19th c. Chandler and Price platen press in 1980 and we use it to print mostly poetry broadsides. This is letterpress printing in which we hand-set the work and then print in very limited editions. We’re presently working our third series of broadsheets; this one we call the Companions Series. We’ve asked a number of Canadian poets to respond to another poem – preferably one for which we don’t need to get permission to reprint – and we print the two poems on a single sheet. So far we’ve printed work by Bill New (responding to John Clare), Maleea Acker and Wallace Stevens, Sue Wheeler and Don McKay, Joe Denham and John Thompson, a version I did of a recently discovered poem by Sappho,  George McWhirter and John Donne, Russell Thornton’s bow to Juan Ramon Jimenez, and John is just setting Chris Patton’s response to a passage of Ezra Pound. Several more are planned for this series. We’ve also printed a couple of chapbooks over the years as well as ephemera – Christmas cards, keepsakes for the Alcuin Society Wayzgoose, etc. To be honest, John does most of the work because when we began to learn to print, we had a baby, quickly followed by two more, so he was able to go out to the print shop – it’s a building of its own, away from the house – more than I could. But we plan the projects together and design them together and I think we both see the work as a congenial adjunct to our writing lives.

LP:  Did you ever buy yourself a pair of red Laredo boots?

tk: I did. A few months after I’d written the title essay for Red Laredo Boots, I sold a different essay to the Vancouver Sun. The payment was exactly the price of those boots. So the next time I was in the Nicola Valley, I went to the Quilchena Store and bought them. I still love them. There was never any discussion of an author shot for that book. The boots went to Vancouver for their own photo shoot, packed in their box with a coyote yipping at the moon,  and came home with soft blue flannel from someone’s old  shirt (maybe even Gary Fiegehen’s as he was their photographer) tucked into them to give them the demure shape they have on the back cover of the book.

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