Anne Simpson is the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and essays. Her collection Loop won the prestigious Griffin Prize in 2004. She has a new collection of poetry, Strange Attractor, due out in 2019, and a new novel coming out the following year. In the following post, she talks about her beginnings as a writer, what she likes about living in Nova Scotia, and what participants can expect from her fall workshop, Discovering Strangeness: An Exploration of Wild Poetry.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and poetry and fiction in particular?
I’ve been writing since I was a child, when I’d make little “books” with illustrations. I was also a voracious reader, as most writers are—how can we be writers otherwise? To tell the truth, I always thought I’d be an artist, because I also paint. I studied Fine Arts at what is now OCAD University in Toronto. I’m visual, so that helps me to “film” what I imagine. If an event is clear to me in my imagination, then it’s easy to put it in words, in a novel, for instance. But if things are cloudy—if I can’t see them, then it’s much more difficult to put it in words.
I was drawn to working much more intently as a writer after I came to Nova Scotia many years ago. At the time, with small children, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had an inkling that it had to do with writing, but I wasn’t sure how it could be done when being a mother was so consuming. Then I read about a writer living in New Hampshire. She wanted to write, and she simply decided to get rid of all distractions and do it. She got rid of her television, and she wrote. I thought to myself, “I could do that.” New Hampshire seemed similar to Nova Scotia, and if a writer could do her work there, I could do it in Antigonish. In the times when I wasn’t with the kids (mornings and naptimes), I wrote short stories and poems. I used the brief snatches of time that I had very well; I was much better then at time management than I am now. When the kids grew up, I started on my first novel, since the longer form requires more time.
I love fiction and poetry, but they are like the sun and the moon—vastly different. To write a novel, you have to immerse yourself in a world, and you are still involved in that world as you go to the grocery store or the bank, whether you’re writing or not. I’ve finished a third novel that took about ten years, given all the revision, and I’m still not done. But I’m already imagining the next one, which will be set centuries ago in New Brunswick. Poetry is utterly different. It’s as if I am working another part of my brain. I try to drive through the ideas in the poem by way of the images. For instance, I recently worked on a sequence having to do with the test that was often given to people suspected of having dementia. That particular test gave me the structure to imagine a woman being asked questions, and of having her answer the questions. Yet even these two forms—fiction and poetry—are not enough. I love the form of the essay too, especially when I can wind in and out of a kind of thinking that allows me a lot of scope.
In addition to being a writer, you also teach writing. Do you see a connection between the practice of writing and the practice of teaching?
I really love teaching. I have worked at St. Francis Xavier University, teaching literature courses and creative writing courses, but what I really enjoy is teaching informally. It’s partly because I don’t like marking! I like working with people around a kitchen table, or a table in a library or church basement. I’ve been working with a small group of poets in Ontario twice a year for about five years, and this does give my own writing impetus. Something happens in my own work through the stimulation of these informal workshops. And mentoring on a one-to-one basis is really exciting for me too; I just finished working with someone in Ontario who had a Chalmers Professional Development grant, which allowed her to work with a mentor. Her interest in learning helped me to explore new avenues too. The two occasions when I was a mentor for the Writers Federation of NS were also invaluable.
What do you love about living in Nova Scotia?
There is much to be said for living off the beaten track. I have time to think and work. But it’s not just that; Nova Scotia is a paradise. I hike, cycle, run, and kayak, and I have lots of friends who do the same thing. There is nothing like going out to Pomquet Beach on a midsummer morning and having a quick swim. This is really the place where I became a writer. When I started to write seriously, I knew that it was partly because of the place where I found myself. Nova Scotia taught me a lot about inventiveness, not just resilience. You have to be innovative if you want to live here. You don’t have everything at your fingertips. And for me—and for my writing—this is a very good thing. I don’t want to live in a suburb or in an apartment building in a city; I want to live in the woods where I can see water glinting through the trees.
What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?
I think that those who don’t write haven’t got a clear sense of what it entails. Writing a book, from beginning to end, is just plain hard work. There are the gifts, when a poem is given to you out of the blue, or when you write a chapter in one fell swoop, but there is also the day-to-day work in the rock quarry of making a manuscript. I learned how to weightlift when I was having trouble with a novel, and now, when I deadlift, I think of that novel, and how it felt easier to weightlift than it did to revise it. The mental focus needed to do both is similar. And many days I’d still rather deadlift than write.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
I think every aspiring writer should learn how to do deadlifts. I’m not serious, but it helps to have something you can turn to that doesn’t have to do with writing. Anyone who wants to see something through to fruition will probably do all right as a writer, because two of the greatest assets are discipline and patience. But the third asset is the ability to go for broke, to take risks, to have courage.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
When I go someplace outside Nova Scotia and I’m wandering the streets, I love eating a hot dog at a hot dog stand.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I do something kind of foolish when I have writer’s block. I keep writing, but I go around and around in circles because I don’t know what I want to write. I should just stop writing and go walk the beach with my dog and sometimes—no, often—I do.
What would you do if you weren’t a writer?
This year I was asked if I wanted to be a personal trainer. There was a voice inside: “Sure, okay—I could do that.” The thought was as compelling as running off to join the circus. I had to laugh at myself for that thirty seconds of wanting to ditch the writing, because I could never ditch the writing.
What are you working on right now?
I’m writing a book of essays right now, and my essays are a hodgepodge of different things. But the essay form allows me to think things through in a way that nothing else can. We are so fortunate to have Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia, because they publish essays, among many other things. My essays have found a home there; and it’s a wonderful fit.
What can participants in your upcoming poetry workshop expect?
This will be a four-session workshop next fall called “Discovering Strangeness: An Exploration of Wild Poetry” to be held in Antigonish. Really, it’s a workshop about discovering and exploring poetry in terms of its wildness—and how to make poems wilder. The participants will use mapping to think about what they’re writing, and invent forms to shape new work. Through de-familiarizing themselves with a way of writing they’ve grown comfortable with, splicing other writing into it, and cutting and shaping poems in ways they might not have considered, they can find what they didn’t know they wanted to say. It’ll be a lot of fun to do.