Lorri Neilsen Glenn is a Canadian poet, ethnographer and essayist. Born and raised on the Prairies, she moved to Nova Scotia in 1983. She is the author and editor of several books on literacy and ethnography, scholarly and freelance articles on women and literacy, and book reviews in national and international journals and newspapers. Her first book of poetry, All the Perfect Disguises, was published in 2003. In 2007, a chapbook, Saved String and the collection Combustion were published. She published Lost Gospels in 2010. Her latest effort is a collection of essays on poetry and loss, Threading Light.
What inspired/motivated you to put this work together?
For years, I had been gathering bits and pieces I’d written about loss. When I became involved in a low residency program about seven years ago with Don McKay, Jan Zwicky, and Tim Lilburn, I began to read widely about loss and grief – philosophers, poets, theologians, palliative care workers, everyone – and suddenly all the pieces I’d been working on began to make sense. I wanted to see my own losses as threads in a larger human tapestry.
Did it come together quickly or did you really need to work at it?
Both. What took time was simmering ideas, letting the work steep, sifting. I realized the manuscript needed to be a collage of prose and poetry, what is sometimes called bricolage --- a form of creative nonfiction. Once I stopped trying to force any kind of linearity or conventional plot or progression, things became simpler, and, I think, more consistent with how we experience loss and grief. As a reader, I love work that plays radically with form; it’s engaging, unpredictable, and seems to mirror the tumbling dryer bin that is our minds.
What was the most challenging aspect of the process?
Distilling. Being clear. Curbing my incessant habit of researching and staying with the writing. (I am an ethnographer by training – which is like being a detective – and I kept finding stories of loss everywhere). And, as Elmore Leonard has said, “Leaving out the parts readers want to skip.” Finishing.
What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
All of it. I’ve rarely been so immersed in a process and subject – it was both humbling and energizing. I grew. I have led workshops in memoir for a decade, in Canada and abroad, and most of the stories are, at the root, about loss. Loss is the sore tooth we always go to, and it truly is a privilege to work with people as they tell those stories.
What did you learn during the process?
I learned that what drew me to poetry was my own grief and sense of impending loss – this is not news. But watching and experiencing how art (visual, literary, other) lifts our losses and grief into something transcendent is profoundly life-changing. There is a hard beauty in the creating/grieving process that teaches us perspective, a sense of proportion, and creates its own light. Learning to lose may be the best lesson we can learn while we’re here.
Where does the title of the book come from?
I draw (sketch) on occasion – the balance of light and dark is what makes memorable, vivid images. Mark Tobey’s painting, Threading Light, weaves light into and out of dark. A initial working title was Ligatures – ligature shares the same root as religion and ligament-- and it refers to a surgical tie, a cord, or a thread. But I couldn’t shake the murder mystery note it rang-- ligature as a method of throttling someone. Ack! Threading light suggests a weaving, movement, a reaching outward.
Do you have a favourite piece or 'vignette' in the book?
Whenever I write about my youngest son (who was deprived of oxygen at birth), it breaks me open. It’s a complicated joy; no one has taught me more. The sections about our need for community buoyed me. The orgasm piece was fun, as was the send-up of sitting practice at a local meditation centre. Each of the pieces demanded something new, so they were favourites in that way.
What has the response been like so far?
Heart-felt, and immensely gratifying. Friends from Australia to France to the U.S. are buying the book for other friends and family. Three close friends have undergone profound losses recently and tell me they read and re-read the book. Because we don’t talk enough about grief, my hope is this book helps to open up that conversation. Reviewers such as Mary Jo Anderson, Carol Bruneau, and Lisa Martin de-Moor (in her writerinresidence blog) seem to have really dug in, thought about the ideas and the stories, and responded thoughtfully. They made me see my own book in new ways, and I’m grateful for that. The book is not an overnight read; it’s a book to read in small doses, meant to connect and to comfort, not to dazzle.
Does that matter to you?
Reviews? Yes, and no. I respect reviewers who are open and curious, and who know their own motivations. Nowadays, newspapers have scaled down review sections, and so we see a tendency for the “drive-by review,” the quick gush-fest or sucker punch. I read recently a comment about poet Pablo Neruda’s approach to poetry – the writer said Neruda went inside his own creation in order to understand and follow its lead. Neruda’s contemporaries, the writer said, tended to preside over their art like an all-powerful deity. That’s an overstatement, but there is a parallel there, and something to learn about humility in the process. I am drawn to write and read reviews that enter into the work and cast light more than they judge – I want to know what the writer is on about. To read is to dwell inside a work, to respect it, to listen to it, not climb on a soapbox. What’s learned from tossing reality show brickbats? -- “pitchy, you chose the wrong song, that was a train wreck.” Nothing. Currently, a group of Canadian women writers is launching a forum to discuss reviewing in Canada, especially its gender imbalance – it’s an exciting, and long-overdue conversation.
How have you grown as a writer since Lost Gospels?
Lost Gospels was published by Brick Books in 2010, but this book, Threading Light, has been in the works for almost fifteen years, so they parallel each other in some way. It’s hard to separate your growth as a writer and growth as a person. I’m not as tentative. Writing inside grief and loss makes you put your hands in the furnace; it teaches you fearlessness and resilience.
What's next on your creative agenda?
I’m writing a memoir about the wild, gothic, and dysfunctional antics of my birth family. It’s slow going (another decade-long project!), in part because of teaching and other projects. I’m editing an anthology about mothers of the 1950s for spring 2013. And in June (next month), Carsten Knox and I are launching a collection in which we’ve assembled Atlantic Canadian writers’ wisdom – it’s called Salt Lines.
What made you want to be a writer?
The thrill of publishing my first poem at age 12 in our school yearbook. (And then it took me almost 40 years to write another one).
What makes a good book?
Compelling. Innovative. Either a great story or a great set of insights. Something I wish I had written. Something I want to re-read so I can marvel again. I love a book that gives me heart-flips when I read it, as though I’m reading the literary equivalent of Cirque du Soleil, or that electrifies my brain, or one that is hospitable and enriching – homemade soup and a fire.
What are your thoughts on the current state of Canadian literature?
It’s thriving. The writing is knock-your-socks-off great, diverse, and wide-awake. The publishing industry is in flux. All the old givens are gone.
Who are your favourite Canadian authors?
The list is too long. Today? Poet: Bronwen Wallace. Prose: Jean McKay.
Why do you think that Atlantic Canadians enjoy such a vibrant literary culture?
The landscape. A sense of proportion. Being coastal (I mean that psychically and conceptually – we are our own centre, far away from what others may perceive to be the centre). Around here, we work hard and play hard. We don’t whine about hangnails. And, I think, we’re resistant – at least the writing community I know is -- to the kind of ambitious and grasping behaviour you sometimes see in larger centres. But most of all, it’s because Atlantic Canadians are readers. Readers beget writers, and vice-versa. With the exception of Saskatchewan, I don’t know of another area of Canada with better, more avid readers.