Bridging the Gulf with Leslie Vryenhoek

By Whitney Moran

Leslie Vryenhoek is a St. John’s-based writer whose fiction, poetry and memoir have been published and broadcast nationally and internationally. Her work has won numerous awards, including the Winston Collins/Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem in 2010, Arts & Letters Awards in both fiction and poetry, and the Dalton Camp Award. In 2009 she published Scrabble Lessons, a best-selling anthology of stories. Her newest book, Gulf, is a collection of poetry that explores the nature of longing and belonging in a transient world, and how the displaced fool everyone until they feel at home. Recently AE’s Whitney Moran reviewed the new work, and also spoke with the author about the art and craft of writing.

A ‘gulf’ can be thought of as something that separates - a division on either a geographical or even personal scale. A fitting title for her first poetry collection, Leslie Vryenhoek’s Gulf (Oolichan Books, 80pp /$17.95) explores the permanent state of transience and quest for sanctuary implicit in the life of anyone who has never safely used the word ‘home’. Focusing on the importance of minutiae as remnants of the past, the speaker asks, “What if home is just/the taste of dirt/in the woods behind the house/on Clairmont Drive?” In exploring numerous nostalgic artifacts such as this, Vryenhoek addresses the concept of belonging in myriad ways: from those exterior subtleties of citizenship provided by accents, arbitrary borders, and the metric system to the physicality of home as building with the clever assertion, “Home Depot is not your home”. The end result is a poignant navigation of identity through the recollection of details. With each poem functioning as an integral relic in the suitcase that is the collection, Gulf itself becomes a sanctuary for the uprooted. Entirely salient, Vryenhoek’s debut leaves an impression of permanence in a culture of temporality. – WM

WM: There appears to be a heavy autobiographical element to Gulf. What inspired you to put this collection together?
LV: There’s a journey in the arc of the book that loosely follows my own in terms of geographic residency and displacement, but I would note there’s as much made-up stuff in here as in any work of fiction. (For example, I don’t actually know anyone who’s ever stolen a faucet from Home Depot. Honest.) Real life can just make such dull reading, and I believe one should never let facts stand in the way of good sound in a poem. The themes in the book are close to my heart—displacement, belonging, how we define home in such a mobile culture. Also, I wrestle with the question of whether we should define home or the related concept of who is native to a place, or if that is just a way of excluding, of saying some belong and others don’t. I think in some way I am always writing about belonging, about that search for tribe and root. Moving six years ago to Newfoundland, where the sense of being from vs. being from away is still a part of daily conversation, brought these issues to the fore in my thinking, and I decided to tackle them through poetry. I had originally planned to write a more external, almost political (for lack of a better term) book, but the poems that emerged were really more personal, more engaged in an internal dialogue.

WM: What was the most challenging and/or rewarding part of the process?
LV: I enjoyed the whole process. The most challenging, I think, was having to abandon that original vision of the book as an exploration of larger socio-political issues around coming and going, immigrating and making a home—I wrote several of those poems, and I just couldn’t get them to ring. The most rewarding part was seeing the new shape, the new arc of how the book would be. It was an all-at-once blast, a real high – that, and writing the Jacques Cartier poem, New World. I had so much fun writing that.

WM: Why the title, Gulf?
LV: I had and discarded several titles on the way to Gulf, but it just felt right. There are several geographic gulfs in the poems—the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and there’s a line in My Parents’ Past about the US/Canadian border: “that thin line a wide gulf”. But beyond that, there’s the whole implied gulf between longing and belonging, between being home and the search for that place.

WM: The poems in Gulf focus largely on the importance of artifacts; ‘minutiae’; small details. Can you explain their significance in relation to the concepts you explore throughout the collection?
LV: I was trying to in some way say—as the first poem does rather outright—that what we think of as that sense of being “home” is really locked in those small memories, those sensory experiences – in the poems, those are rendered in the taste of dirt, a particular crack in a tile, the smell of a bathing cap, and the very specific feeling of the earth beneath bare feet. Home as an emotional landscape doesn’t look like the outline on a map, a geographic designation—it’s much more personal, and much smaller.

WM: There is an ever-present sense of nostalgia weaved throughout these poems, which becomes most clear in “Longing” What role did nostalgia play in writing these poems? What do you feel is the role of nostalgia in this collection?
LV: I suppose nostalgia is one of the key experiences that I wrote the poems to invoke—though until you asked me this I hadn’t even considered that word. I think it relates again to those sensory experiences—that a familiar smell, a taste, a sound can unlock an emotional memory that leads to the feeling of nostalgia for a time before. And that’s a thing—nostalgia—that is both very personally rendered, but also very easily manipulated to include some/exclude others.

WM: Stars, constellations, clouds, the sky, Aurora Borealis—throughout all four sections of the collection these types of images remain frequent. What is the significance of this common thread?
LV: What’s in the sky has a same-ness, a constancy – no matter where in the (northern hemisphere) you are, the constellations and the clouds look pretty much the same. (Aurora’s doing a different job because she’s more geographically specific, and in the poem where she appears she’s actually reordering the stars, messing things up a bit.) Also, the stars lend themselves to the notion of fixed point and navigation—one of the reasons I needed to summon my pal Cartier was because he had an astrolabe to help him sort out the stars, navigate by them, on his sea voyages.

WM: What made you want to become a writer?
LV: I’m not sure I ever made a conscious “I want to be a writer” decision. It’s just something, in one way or another (for better or worse), that I have always done. Poetry was a much more deliberate choice. Although I wrote and read poetry when I was young, for a long time as an adult I steered clear of it—I really had no path to it. I think it thought it was beyond me, beyond real grown-up modern life. And then I happened to start, quite unintentionally, writing it again (secretly), and stumbled one day into a poetry reading, and that led me to come out of the poetry closet and take a class at Memorial University with Mary Dalton. There was, in all that, a kind of giving myself permission, and the really lovely thing about it was that I had no expectations of poetry (as I once had for my prose writing) so it has just been joyful.

WM: What is your poetic process?
LV: Some days it’s to sit down and write until something emerges. Other days the process is happening somewhere in my deep brain, and I don’t know until the lines start dropping into my mouth (I talk aloud a lot) and then I have to write them down. (These are, respectively, what the amazing Patrick Warner calls a “cold start” and a “hot start.”) Either way, the first go-round is just a lump of sounds, images and ideas that then get worked and molded—some more than others, but there’s always a lot of manipulating (aloud, aloud, aloud) until it really starts to take shape. (I feel a little like I’m describing how things are made: “Then the poems sit on a conveyor belt until they are cool…”)

WM: How do you gauge a ‘good’ poem?
LV: I’m stymied by this. I wish I could craft a definitive equation – something like Sound+Rhythm+Meaning+Sensory image+Originality=Good Poem…. but then there are probably a thousand examples that don’t fit the equation, but are great poems.

WM: What happens now? Are you working on anything new?
LV: I’m working on a number of projects (including supporting myself!). I’ve turned my attention right now to writing narrative, which is a whole different kind of fun. Nothing is really far enough along to talk about yet, though.

WM: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
LV: You’re either a writer or you’re not. If you think you are, be honest with yourself about whether or not you have the stuff. It’s rare for a writer to achieve anything that we recognize as success, financial or critical. For every writer who is gliding on the updraft of their talent, there are a hundred more dealing daily with rejection, criticism and poverty. If you want to do this, it should be because you absolutely must. And even then, remember: enthusiasm is not talent, and neither is desire.