4/4: Meredith Quartermain’s Radical Acts

Kim Minkus

Several years ago I took Meredith Quartermain’s “Writing Places” workshop in the Dominion building on Hastings Street in what was then the office for the Kootenay School of Writing. It was the late spring of 2007 and Meredith’s workshop seemed part of a lineage of “city” writing workshops previously hosted by Daphne Marlatt and Lisa Robertson. I had at that time been thinking about the space of the city as poetic site and also the “history” that these three women had engaged with in their writing. Daphne Marlatt’s Vancouver Poems, Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture and Meredith Quartermain’s Vancouver Walking were part of a feminist tradition of city poetics that drew heavily on the contents and ‘language’ of the archive. Meredith’s writing was and is a strong part of this tradition of feminist writers and her workshop led me to traverse the city in my own way. The idea for my long poem “Condo” in my first book 9 Freight came directly out of this workshop. Meredith’s exceptional sense of community continues to foster a strong Vancouver network of women writers.

KM: I developed the title for this interview from a comment you made in your CWILA interview where you quoted poet Nicole Brossard as saying that it is a “radical act” to love women and to give them “public credibility.” How do you perceive this “public credibility” occurring or what can we do or continue to do to make women “present” in the literary world?

MQ: The terrain is dicey because you don’t want to reinforce masculinist culture by positing an essential feminist identity, or reinforce gender wars by engaging in them. Masculinity is embodied by those who claim power over others, whereas femininity is embodied in those who position themselves under or beside a power source. Males and females can adopt either strategy but we are socialized from birth very overtly and often violently towards one or the other, and we all learn to attribute more value to those gendered masculine or to those who adopt masculine power strategies. Pierre Bourdieu’s Masculine Dominance articulates the situation very clearly and reminds us that we all reinforce this structure for the most part completely unconsciously moment by moment in our daily lives, in the way we raise children, the kinds of roles we assign to men and women, and the expectations we have of each other’s needs and performance.
Public credibility occurs within this framework and, for writers and artists, it also particularly occurs within the dynamics of cultural production, where, as Bourdieu puts it (in The Field of Cultural Production) players position themselves and struggle to gain “cultural capital” in fields of artistic activity occupied by various recognized schools, dominant players and marginalized players. The field is both called into being by players’ attitudes to each other and at the same time the ground on which they imagine themselves standing.
So reality is not a given. We are always making it; and therefore we can make it differently. This is the most exciting thing for me to remember whenever I start falling into assumptions about how it is “out there.” Keep fluid. Look for what is possible, not what you think is given. This leads me to questions like how can we configure power differently? How can we for instance tap into and inspire others with “power to” rather than “power over”? Also how can I change the way I imagine where I stand?
One thing is clear: women must play the field (i.e. actively promote themselves to others) and do so as consciously as possible. Here, I ask myself: How can I play the field so that I help to change the field to one which values work by women on an equal footing with work by men? To do this, we must shift the gaze to women, as subjects of writing and art projects, and as subjects of reviews and social network postings. We must resist our cultural training to devalue women, and commit the radical act of loving them.

KM: You have been very central in supporting women writers in your own writing community in Vancouver. One example is the monthly meetings of women writers at the Rhizome Café that you began several years back. How is this community of women important to you?

MQ: With my mother’s death in 2007 I was jarred into thinking again about how difficult her professional life had been. She took a degree in Household Science from the University of Toronto in 1936. In the war she was the officer in charge of meals for 2000 RCAF men, but after the war she was expected to go back to homemaking, not a career. Later she was the main breadwinner in our household, running into rules for instance that prevented a married woman from holding a teaching job, or School Board officials who posted her to a different town every year. If only there had been as many women helping her along as there were men helping younger men along, things might have been a lot easier for her. If only she’d had women she could turn to for ideas and suggestions.
This is what a company of women can make possible, a network of friendly faces, ideas and problem-solving. Looking at each other over drinks and dinner, we consciously change our gaze away from what society has taught us to focus on. We see things we’ve been trained to ignore, beautiful things. We make a critical mass of energy for each other in the field of cultural production. Best of all we make lasting, thought-provoking friendships.

KM: You and your partner Peter also publish books under the title Nomados Press. In what way does the business of publishing feed into your literary practice?

MQ: Nomados Literary Publishers started with a book called Wanders which included poems by Robin Blaser printed opposite my “translations.” So initially it commemorated this playful gesture. However, having learned the type-setting program, I quickly realized that we could make a contribution to the literary community by publishing chapbooks. It is a good way to stay in touch with other writers, meet new ones, and help build a community of writers we enjoy. And the laser-printed chapbooks are a lot quicker to produce than works on our letterpress. We’ve published 39 in just over a decade.
As editor of many of these books, I’ve explored a range of poetic and narrative practices which challenged my assumptions and opened possibilities for my own writing. Susan Holbrook, Nicole Markotić, Lisa Robertson, Dodie Bellamy – these writers, and others, like especially Robin Blaser, helped shape my literary consciousness. I write now in conversation with them.
When you feel it’s hard to get published, chapbook publishing is very empowering. It’s also a good way to work out what makes pieces hang together well as a book. I recommend self-publishing this way when you’re starting out.

KM: You are known primarily as a poet but most recently you have been publishing fiction. Describe your current fiction project and the difficulties (if any) you encounter as a poet in moving into this new genre?

MQ: My first forays into fiction-writing happened in Recipes from the Red Planet, a series of playful episodes where I began exploring the elements of character and action, without requiring that they unfold a conventional conflict and resolution story line. Some pieces use dialogue and theatrical scripts. Other pieces compose themselves predominantly in sound patterns. All of them began as improvisations, based on dreams, book covers, things I overheard, things I researched, bits of local history, or thought experiments. I would launch into them with only a requirement that I find surprises and unexpected conclusions. They were fun to write though I sometimes had to work hard to round out through research the paths they took me on.
When I started writing a conventional novel (Rupert’s Land), I found the transition arduous. As a poet, I could just let my imagination go with playful rhythms, word inversions and surreal connections, along with various research strategies. But in the kind of conventional novel I was attempting with Rupert’s Land, I had to design scenes through the apparatus of character and action; I had to harness my imagination around the unfolding of character desire, see the world through various imagined positions, stay focused over a very long arc on the changes possible in my characters and their consciousness. I came to see characters and settings as half-excavated rooms in my own consciousness or perhaps even the total consciousness of humanity. Novel writing became a rhythmic circulation through these sites in successively building waves.
The story grew out of some anecdotes my mother had told me about her growing up. She had a rather dim view of some of the social forces at work on her in depression times, and felt she had been a victim of her father’s fundamentalism. One problem that cropped up right away in my novel-writing was seeing the character modeled on her as a heroine, and seeing her as active rather than a passive recipient of 1930’s social attitudes. I had to think hard about the desires and dreams that could drive this character, and what kinds of actions those desires would lead her to.
Poetry is often heavily descriptive (unless you can work it in theatrical ways, as Moure does for instance, in stagings of utterance), whereas novels are made of actions, especially actions that have repercussions on other characters. At least 70% of my time was spent asking myself and slowly answering questions like: What could this character do to carry her desire forward? How could the goals and desires of other characters help or impede her? I became fiendish about avoiding description by the narrator which only after all would tell us the narrator’s opinions, instead of what the story really rides on which is the characters’ views. This led me to a very limited third-person style of narrative where the narrator can slip into the stream of consciousness of the characters (what James Woods in How Fiction Works calls free indirect style).
Of course, when I started out, I really didn’t know what the story line would be. As a poet I’ve always written into what I don’t know, in order to make discoveries, having found that if I know what I’m going to write before I write a poem, it comes out as a dead poem which no amount of poking and badgering will bring to life. But in conventional fiction it is often very helpful to know which of the two or three or maybe 13 standard plot structures you are working with ahead of time (is it about a character trying to get something or a character trying to escape something is one way of thinking about it). So my whole first draft was a giant discovery process (18 months) where I found out what the story was about by writing scenes and piecing them together. I knew right from the start I’d need help from a good editor, and luckily I was accepted into the Writing Studio at Banff where I had two absolutely splendid editors: Daphne Marlatt and Michael Crummey. Over the five-week period, first with Michael and then with Daphne I rewrote and reshaped the novel into two completely new drafts.
Looking back on it, as I’m about to start my second novel, I think actually I still write into what I don’t know even in writing fiction, as I excavate whatever shadowy rooms in the human consciousness I choose to explore. Harry Mathews (in The Case of the Persevering Maltese) reminds us that the fiction writer is not “‘saying something’ to the reader”; rather, the writer must “do no more than supply the reader with the materials and . . . the space to create an experience.” Indeed he emphasizes that “of the writer and reader, the reader is the only creator.” The writer and reader are collaborators, and to establish a place for this, the writer must choose “as the innermost substance of” the writing, “a terrain unfamiliar” to both writer and reader.

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