Swoon founder Ruth Daniell caught up with poet Adrienne Gruber (Fall 2016 Swooner) via email to talk about the challenges of balancing family life with a creative life, the importance of breath, and the allure of desire. And, of course, to celebrate Adrienne’s second full-length collection of poetry, Buoyancy Control, with Book Thug.
Adrienne Gruber performing from Buoyancy Control at Swoon Fall 2016
Ruth Daniell: Thank you so much for performing such wonderful poems at Swoon Fall 2016, and for catching up with us again here! I want to start by asking about Buoyancy Control. This is your second book. Did you find that the process of creating the collection was different than your first? In the back of the book, you refer to the book as being “born”; was its gestation period, so to speak, easier or harder than the first?
Adrienne Gruber: Buoyancy Control’s gestation period was much longer than my first book. It went through multiple drafts and, in many ways, felt more like a true first book experience. This is the Nightmare was written in my early twenties, when I was still developing my voice. It feels like a young book to me, representative of a younger me. I have a lot of affection for my first book but the process of writing Buoyancy Control, particularly the revision process, transformed me as a writer. It was a long labour, arduous at times, but through grueling work and collaborative conversations about the book with other writers I learned how to really revise my own work.
RD: What did you love most about writing this book (or writing in general)?
AG: I think what I loved the most about writing Buoyancy Control was the exploration I was doing at the time. Though this is in retrospect as I was depressed during the period when many of the poems were first written. I was exploring unique environments that were new to me (the ocean, lakes, landscapes, cultures) but I was also excavating myself, therefore the poems felt adventurous and exhilarating to write. I didn’t know where they were headed and I didn’t want to know. It was a really exciting time.
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I’ve just finished the first draft of a new collection right now, and the experience of working on it was radically different than when I worked on Buoyancy Control. I knew how I wanted the book to be very early on in its development. It had a natural progression and order and that became clear after I’d written the first few poems. Towards the end of working on the first draft I was simply fleshing out sections and I knew exactly which poems I needed to write. I felt much more in control of the process than I ever have before.
RD: The entire book—not only the section titled “Intertidal Zones” with all its sexy sea creatures—is invested in desire. In an early poem in the book, “Only He Knows the Story of his Precious and Particular Life” you speak of desire and “the strain of [this] balancing act.” How conscious is your engagement with desire in your work? And do you ever work against desire?
AG: Pretty conscious. I am fascinated by desire in all of its forms; how and from where it manifests, how it shapes us as humans. I wonder how much of our desires, whether sexual or other, are shaped by our peers and friends, by social media, by trends, etc., and how much comes from within. Can we experience desire that is impartial? Do we have some choice as to who and what we desire? Do we have control over our desires or is that simply shutting ourselves down?
I’m curious what you mean by working ‘against desire’. I might be going too literal here, but are you asking if I ever purposefully shut down desire or try to avoid it in my work?
RD: I suppose when I asked about working against desire I was curious if you ever consciously choose something you don’t desire. I don’t mean choosing vegetables when you really want chocolate cake… Although, actually, maybe that is exactly what I mean. Do you ever feel a responsibility to attend to themes, subjects, forms that you are not naturally attracted to? Do you ever intentionally resist the temptation to write about something you long to write? I think this idea is probably largely a ridiculous idea for a writer to do—don’t ignore the work that calls to you!—but on the other hand I think it’s common for writers to sometimes feel a little embarrassed of their own pre-occupations. In my own writing, sometimes I feel a little self-conscious when I finish something and I think, “Oh, bother, another poem about birds.” And there’s a tiny part of me that thinks I should maybe try to write about something completely atypical and unexplored for me.
Do you think that working against desire has artistic merit? If we allow ourselves to wallow in our own longing, do we risk redundancy?
AG: These are fantastic questions to contemplate. I have definitely had those moments of ‘not ANOTHER poem about the ocean/sea creatures/break-ups/sadness/loneliness/sex/lack of sex/heartache/longing…’ etc. It’s funny, but since moving into a new writing obsession (pregnancy/birth/motherhood) I’ve concluded that I want to own these obsessions. Not to say I want to unleash a barrage of poetry on these topics with no thought to what’s already been written, but, for example, there have always been criticisms of poetry written by women about motherhood and parenting, about relationships and the domestic sphere. As a mother and a partner and a full-time domestic goddess (note my sponge cake akin to an erupted volcano), I am currently immersed in writing that would be considered the quintessential ‘female experience’. In the past I may have felt shy about my work and wondered if it deserved an audience, if I should ‘tone down’ the exploration of motherhood or birth in the hopes of appealing to a wider readership. The fact that I was anxious about that at all is proof that the patriarchy is still thriving. I want to own the content and the voice of my latest work as legitimate and necessary.
I don’t resist the temptation to write about the things I long to write about, simply because if I did that I’d likely never get to the good work. I need to write through my desire, so to speak, in order to get to anything of substance. But yes, I do feel a responsibility when I write poetry, to not simply follow my own whimsy, but to contribute something of value to the community, a voice that is hopefully fresh and unique and that speaks to a diverse audience of readers.
I absolutely think working against desire has artistic merit if that’s something one wants to do. I think I’m moving into that territory these days. Having recently completed the first draft I mentioned earlier, I am, for the first time in a long time, possibly ever, staring out into an abyss of possibility in terms of poetic content. My plan is just to wade into that unknown for a while and see what poems come out of this time when there is no specific desire I’m working through. Of course, that’s not entirely true. There are always desires, it’s just that some are so prominent that they obstruct and erase others.
Also, I live for chocolate cake.
RD: To steal another of your lines, the book is “unabashedly human.” Part of this humanness seems to me to be a willingness to be present in the body. I’m struck by the way that you speak about the body and, in particular, the breath. I know you enjoy scuba diving. Did that in part inspire this awareness of breath? I imagine that, underwater, you might become hyper-aware of the importance of breath.
AG: Scuba diving definitely inspires an awareness of breath. I was heavily influenced by my diving experiences while working on this book and the entire collection is rooted in breath; how we stay present in our bodies and in the moment, how we use breathing to stabilize ourselves in our experiences. I chose the title, Buoyancy Control, for the collection because it speaks to how breath impacts our bodies, how it influences our reactions, how it destabilizes or calms us.
Controlling one’s buoyancy in the water is all about controlling breath. It is probably the most essential skill you can learn and perfect as a diver. Diving can be anxiety inducing and one manifestation of nervousness is the tendency to hold your breath. You can’t do this when you dive, it can be fatal. The ability to stabilize and maintain consistent gradual breathing applies to surviving life as well as diving. This has caused me to reflect on what makes a person float or sink in relation to loss. How do we survive our experiences of pain? How do we physically bear (and bare) the weight of loss, the pressure it puts on our bodies and our hearts?
RD: I find your thoughts on the breath so fascinating. As a speech arts teacher, I think about the breath a lot and its relationship to the spoken voice, and how to make the breath most effective; and I think about it a lot as a writer, too, when I’m working with the poetic line. Your comment about loss reminds me of one of my favourite passages from an old speech arts theory stand-by, the book The Right to Speak by Patsy Rodenburg. She points out that “breathing is the first and last thing we do.” She explains that every feeling—emotional and sensory—that we experience is manifested in our breath. She writes: “Our most traumatic life experiences—grief, rage, joy and sexual contact—are held in breath patterns.” To hear you speak about the awareness of breath as a diver, and to “hear” that breath come through your poems (those about diving, and those not) on the printed page, is wonderful.
AG: Thank you! I love those two quotes by Patsy Rodenburg, especially that last one. Understanding and nurturing the limbic system seems to be the secret of life.
All underwater photos provided by Adrienne Gruber
RD: I love all your sexy sea creatures. When and why did you start loving sea creatures?
AG: Sea creatures are pretty easy to love. They range from angelic to bewitching to grotesquely alien. Diving in the ocean is a sci-fi experience, finning around coral that resembles a giant brain and anemones with dozens of tendrils. There are sea stars that regenerate limbs and eels that look like the love child of a snake and a large Amazonian fish. There are underwater forests of slimy, bulging kelp. And my personal favourite, the Leafy Sea Dragon, with the dwarfed head of a horse and a body akin to foliage.
I can’t remember exactly when I started this heteromorphic love affair. What I do remember is laying in the chair in Dr. Janzen’s office when I was fifteen, waiting to get my teeth cleaned, and admiring the two framed 16×20 photos of tropical fish. Those Blue Damsels and Emperor Angels and one fish the colour of a lemon tart with a long trumpet nose I later learned is called a Forceps Butterfly. I was transfixed by those fish and when I found out that Dr. Janzen had taken the photos herself on a dive in Cozumel, I made a mental note to see these creatures as soon as possible.
RD: What about other balancing acts: how do you fuel your creative practice alongside your other commitments?
AG: Writing is what I do in every possible spare second I have these days. Being a writer while parenting full time means my spare seconds are few and far between. Much of what I do with respect to fueling my creative practice involves longing. This is something I haven’t been able to reconcile yet and I may never be able to. Though I’m happier with my work and my progress as a writer than I was before having kids, I carry around a weight of desperation, a desire to duck out of my familial obligations and work on poetry. I’m living the ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ writer’s life – I spend an awful lot of time fantasizing about writing. I visualize my writing projects more than I ever have before, the result being when I do get a bit of time I can be incredibly productive. Though I long for large chunks of time to write and I dream of attending residencies, I actually think I’m more productive in the life I have now. Before kids I was never able to write full time. It was too much pressure.
RD: What are you working on now? Can we expect more sexy poems from you?
AG: Yes, in the sense that my next book is all about the pregnancy and birth of my first daughter, and there’s nothing sexier than creating and birthing a human. It’s been an interesting transition, moving from writing sexy lusty poems about sea creatures to writing about birth, which is full of the rawest type of lust: moans, grunts, screams, multiple positions, sweat, bodily fluids, intense pain, hallucinations, the etherealness of labour followed by the wild oxytocin high once the baby is born. While many of the poems I’m working on these days are radically different in style, voice and form, they share a bodily connection with the poems in Buoyancy Control. I’d say my new work goes deeper into the body, into what bodies are capable of, how they rupture and heal.
RD: The new collection sounds dynamic and exciting; I can’t wait to read it! It definitely sounds like Swoony material.
At Swoon, our mandate is about creating a love-filled community for writers. We are delighted to have you part of our community! How does community play a role in your life as a writer?
AG: Community has always been very important to me, but since becoming a parent I struggle with access. There are multiple communities that battle for space in my life. Communities on social media, the writing community in Vancouver and the larger Canadian community (of which also has a large and overwhelming social media presence), various communities of friends and family spread out over the continent, and my own micro community that consists of my partner and our two children (and my wonderful in-laws who live two floors below us). As a writer, all of these communities are crucial because they fuel and inspire my work. Having said that, I stay at home with my two young daughters and I often feel trapped in a bubble of domesticity and child care, some of the most challenging work I’ve ever done and some of the most isolating. Community is more important to me than ever but these days it is not so easily obtained. As much as I struggle with the negative affects of social media, I rely on it to meet my needs socially and communally, to reduce feelings of isolation and to keep my motivation high.
RD: At the risk of making myself seem out-of-touch—perhaps it’s common knowledge that you are an octopus masquerading as the accomplished poet Adrienne Gruber—I’ll ask this: If you had the powers of the mimic octopus for a day, what or who would you mimic and what would you do?
AG: This question is blowing my mind! How have I never thought about this before??
After contemplating this question for some time (and going over the running tally of celebrities-I’d-die-to-meet) I realized that I’d like to mimic my past self. In the advice column Dear Sugar (#71: The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us), Cheryl Strayed writes the people we might have been live a different, phantom life than the people we are. She talks about the sister lives we have, ghost ships that pass us by, lives we would have had if we’d made different choices. I sometimes wonder where I’d be had I chosen other paths. I’ll always be curious as to how I would feel on my ghost ships.
As for what I would do? I would try on those sister lives and see how well they fit. I would mimic myself traveling to all the places I’ve always wanted to go, meeting tantalizing new partners and exploring different careers. And then, even if those ghost ship lives were transformative and delicious and beautiful and freeing, I’d stop mimicking and get back to my girls as quickly as possible and kiss their smooth, flushed cheeks while they dream and climb into bed next to my loving and loyal partner (in some kind of ideal world where we sleep next to each other and not with our children) and thank every possible god out there that I chose this life.
Pick up your own copy of Adrienne Gruber’s fantastic book, Buoyancy Control, from your local independent bookstore or order directly online through the publisher, BookThug.
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Adrienne Gruber is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Buoyancy Control (BookThug) and This is the Nightmare (Thistledown Press), and three chapbooks, Mimic (Leaf Press), Everything Water (Cactus Press) and Intertidal Zones(Jack Pine Press). She has been a finalist for the CBC Literary Awards in poetry, Descant’s Winston Collins Best Canadian Poem Contest and twice for ARC’s Poem of the Year Contest. Her poem “Gestational Trail” was awarded first prize in The Antigonish Review’s Great Blue Heron Poetry Contest in 2015 and she won the bpNichol Chapbook Award for Mimic in 2012. Originally from Saskatoon, Adrienne lives in Vancouver with her partner Dennis and their daughters Quintana and Tamsin.
Ruth Daniell is a writer, the founder of Swoon, and the editor of Boobs: Women Explore What It Means to Have Breasts (Caitlin Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in Arc, CV2, Event, and Grain. Most recently, she was awarded first prize in the 2016 Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest with The New Quarterly. She is currently at work on a collection of poems with the support of a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.