Lauren Carter is the author of the poetry collection Lichen Bright and the novel Swarm, which appeared on CBC’s Canada Reads Top forty list of books that could change Canada. Her poem, “Island Clearances”, won Room's 2014 poetry contest, judged by Sonnet L’Abbé, and will be published in Room's June issue, 38.2 How We Relate. "Island Clearances" is from Migration, a recently completed collection tracing her ancestors’ nineteenth-century migration from Southern Ontario to Manitoulin Island.
ROOM: First of all, congratulations on winning! How does it feel to be selected by poetry judge Sonnet L’Abbé as first prize?
LC: Thank you! It feels absolutely amazing.
ROOM: Have you won a prize for your writing before? If so, how does this experience compare?
LC: I’ve won the 2013 Prairie Fire fiction contest and I’ve been made the long and shortlists for several prizes, including the ReLit Award, the CBC Poetry Prize, the CBC Short Story Prize, and THIS Magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt. My work has also been nominated for the Journey Prize and the Giller. It is always exciting and incredibly rewarding to have a nod towards one’s work, especially from writers that you respect.
ROOM: Where have you been published? Or, where can the Room audience read more of your work?
LC: I have two books out: Lichen Bright, a collection of poetry, and my first novel, Swarm. I also have fiction and poetry appearing fairly regularly in literary journals (upcoming in The New Quarterly, Taddle Creek and Little Fiction) and am working right now on another novel (well, two) and a collection of short fiction. Migration, the poetry collection which includes Island Clearances, is finished.
ROOM: “Island Clearances” was the name of your poem and it’s from your recently completed poetry collection called Migration, about the 19th century migration from Southern Ontario to Manitoulin Island. How have you researched this move?
LC: This migration is a personal one; it’s specifically the movement of my great-great-grandparents, Margaret and John Chisholm (and their children). In the mid-1800s they pulled up roots and moved from a community called Louth, which has since been absorbed into St. Catherines, a city in the Niagara region of Ontario, to help establish a village on the Lake Huron coast. From there, after the village burned to the ground, they moved further north, deeper into the woods, as the Anishnaabe were pushed onto reserves, until eventually ending up on Manitoulin Island where my grandfather manned a lighthouse. I became aware of them when I began doing genealogy research. I spent a great deal of time on Ancestry.ca, and when I became more interested in pushing further back, I visited archives in the communities in proximity to where they lived: St. Catherines, Southhampton, Owen Sound, Wiarton, South Baymouth, Gore Bay. I recall being in the museum in South Baymouth, on Manitoulin, looking down through a glass case at a store ledger, pages yellowing, ink a faded brown, and seeing my great-great-grandfather’s name staring up at me from one day, over a century ago, when he bought butter.
ROOM: Is there a particular ancestor that narrates the collection or that resonated with you?
LC: The collection began in first person, with my great-great-grandmother, Margaret, narrating. But because it moves from that section into several poems about more immediate family members (my grandfather and his siblings, my grandmother, my uncle, my mother) and then finally into a section about infertility and coming to terms with not having children, not continuing the lineage, I decided that a third person narration worked better for the collection as a whole. But, yes, it was Margaret who first caught my imagination, largely because she was so very absent, as women were in those days, and I wanted to find whatever I could find about her which, ultimately, wasn’t very much, so I had to more-or-less create her.
ROOM: What inspired you to write, not only a poem but a collection about the migration of your ancestors?
LC: The story of survival is one I’m fascinated by: how people come through very difficult times and make a life. Swarm is also partly about this, although set in a future of economic collapse and subsistence living. Part of my research for Swarm involved looking back at methods of pioneer survival and, since I was working on Migration more or less in tandem, I started thinking about Margaret and how she would have engaged with these practices. I see this migration, though, as not only a physical journal but a mental, perhaps even spiritual one: through a time of bare-knuckle survival to a time of acceptance, of finding a foundation. This is the overarching theme of the book, especially as it relates to the journey of infertility, of taking that difficult passage to arrive at a place of acceptance and peace.
ROOM: Has this book been accepted by a press?
LC: Not yet. Fingers crossed!
ROOM: Is poetry your genre of choice?
LC: My first creative writing breakthroughs came with poetry, and my first book was a poetry collection, but I’ve always written in multiple genres: freelance journalism, short stories, essays, novels, blog posts. I think that all genres are different and have different aspects to appreciate. I enjoy the dream-state, the deep-submergence of poetry, and I enjoy spinning a long story, and carefully building the puzzle of a plot. While working on Migration, I had other writers tell me that they could see the novelist in me coming through by way of the narrative arc of the collection.
ROOM: Are you currently working on another manuscript now that you have completed Migration.
LC: Yes: two novels and a collection of short stories. I have ideas for another poetry collection, but they will have to wait.
ROOM: You have published two books in your career: a book of poetry Lichen Bright (2005, Your Scrivener Press) and your debut novel Swarm (2013 Brindle & Glass Publishing). While Lichen Bright is a poetry collection, Swarm is your debut novel. Can you tell me a little about the difference between assembling a poetry collection and writing a novel?
LC: Both Lichen Bright and Migration were produced over several years, with poems written as they emerged, or when I wanted to write and focus on poetry. Swarm was much more, I would say, intentional (in part because it began as my MFA thesis). I write novels by sitting down every day and following the path of a story, writing longhand in a notebook, until I feel like it’s done. Then I type it all up, make a list of the plot points, and figure out where I’ve made mistakes. For me, so much of the process of novel writing is in understanding the puzzle of the thing: how can that important scene on page 20 echo throughout the book, how can this character’s motivation spill over into disaster for another character, how can we close the loops so the whole thing sings rather than sags. Poetry, on the other hand, is faster for me. The best poems I’ve written are the ones that just came out of me, whereas a novel, for me, needs steady, daily occupation, in order to come to understand what I’m really trying to say within this larger, complicated whole. Novels are hell, poems are magic (although, not always, and sometimes they can have their own frustrations and demands).
ROOM: Do you have any difficulties switching between genres? How did you find the process of writing a novel versus compiling a collection of poetry?
LC: Well, they are two very different animals. Sometimes if I’ve been concentrating on fiction for awhile, I will find it difficult to return to poetry because my instinct is to find the narrative thread, to ask myself where the story is. It is less difficult moving from poetry to fiction. But once I really get into a project, I don’t tend to move between different genres within the same day or even week. It’s important to be able to focus exclusively on one thing at a time rather than ricocheting from novel to poetry collection, etc. – which is how, after several years, I finally finished Migration. I brought it to Sage Hill and immersed myself in it for a couple weeks.
ROOM: Can you describe your writing process and how you got “Island Clearances” to the prize-winning draft it is now?
LC: Speaking of Sage Hill ... I attended the poetry colloquium in 2014 with Jan Zwicky and a bunch of other fabulous women poets. Jan did a reading in Regina one night and it was while she was reading Robinson’s Crossing, the poem from the collection of the same name which considers her family’s history on aboriginal land, that I started thinking about my great-great-grandparents occupation of an area that had so recently been native land (I wrote about this at length on my blog at laurencarter.ca/island-clearances, if anyone wants to read the whole story, including dates and historical context). I wrote the poem after that, while at Sage Hill, immersed in the collection. When I came home, I redrafted it a few times and when I was preparing it for the contest, I rewrote the end five or six times, aiming for the correct rhythm. The hardest part was telling a political story without becoming verbose, without sacrificing the poetry.
ROOM: You included an epigraph with your poem from Gwendolyn MacEwan. Are you inspired by her work? What other female poets do you read?
LC: Absolutely. She was one of my first and lasting poetic loves, as were Sylvia Plath, Susan Musgrave, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver. There are many others: Jane Munro, Brenda Shaughnessy, Jan Zwicky, Dionne Brand.
ROOM: Do you have any advice for writers wanting to submit to contests?
LC: Commit to the work, so that you have a regular practice, and your voice, confidence, and understanding of form is able to grow. Then, you can choose what you feel are your strongest pieces to polish for a contest. Honing, rewriting, editing, fixing, tinkering is all important, of course. Start early, so you can set the piece aside for awhile and come back to it, and you’re not in a panicked rush to get it submitted by deadline. Other eyes also help, so find a trusted fellow writer with whom you can share your work for feedback. And, of course, the given: read, read, read! And, of course, the other given: if you lose, it doesn’t mean the piece is bad. Tenacity, practice and reading those who’ve come before are the most important elements of creative success.
Room's 2015 fiction and poetry contests are currenty open for submissions, judged by Shani Mootoo (fiction) and Jen Currin (poetry). The top prize in each category is $1,000.