Artist Q&A

Place and presence: a dialogue on poetics with writer in residence Daniela Elza

(The extended online version) I met with Daniela Elza in the bright open space of Alumni Hall on UFV’s Abbotsford campus, which Elza says she prefers to her office.



By Katie Stobbart (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: January 29, 2014


I met with Daniela Elza in the bright open space of Alumni Hall on UFV’s Abbotsford campus, which Elza says she prefers to her office in D3009, in part because of the view of the Rocky Mountains. Elza has three books of poetry: the book of IT, the weight of dew, and milk tooth bane bone, and is also featured in 4 poets. Born in Bulgaria and raised in Nigeria, she earned her PhD in education from SFU, and since 1999 has lived in Vancouver.

Well, the first thing I want to ask — it’s almost an icebreaker question — is why poetry? What speaks to you about it?

Well, I think poetry kind of more naturally happened for me, because when I started writing and to seriously write, I only had chunks of time. I had two kids, and at that time they were in strollers and daycare, so what happened [in my times for writing] were these intense, short things. I also feel I’ve written poetry for the longest time. I’m attracted to concise expression put beautifully.

I remember as a child, my dad had this little journal in which he would only write quotes. I called it the white book. I would read those over and over; there were concise little quotations from politicians, from poets, literary and any kind of quotations. I was in love with that book, and I realized I had love for that conciseness and beauty of expression.

On your blog, Strange Places, you said the blog is about bringing poetry and philosophy together. You also mentioned “the institutions that hold worlds and words prisoners, and with them our imagination.” Can you elaborate on that, and explain how philosophy impacts your writing?

Right now I’m writing a piece for Poetic Inquiry, and that’s exactly where I start. I’m constantly torn between these two spaces: poetry as institution and poetry as freedom. The institution, of course, will tell you oughts, should-nots, and it can get discouraging because there’s this power structure that says, “We know what poetry is and you are going to learn from us what poetry is.” Then you turn, you move away from that, and you look at how poetry can be part of your daily life and actually grow you as a person. It can serve a lot of purposes other than poet and profession. You can play, you can be reverent. I think that even the whole notion of poetry and how poetry is associated with academia … “the creative writing department” is an odd entity because it kind of adheres to an institution but at the same time poetry wants to be free. It does not want to be talked about, it wants to do its thing. The more we try to define it, it’s going to try to run away. It’s going to elude, I think.

[pullquote]“I’m attracted to concise expression put beautifully.”[/pullquote]

In your poetry, you use punctuation in unique ways. With parentheses, you either don’t open them, don’t close them, or you use them to represent movement like pooling, or waves coming onto the shore. What inspired you to start experimenting with that?

You know, the parenthesis is dear to me. When the parenthesis opened, it didn’t want to close. But I realized the parentheses get stacked, and I thought, it makes so much sense to me because it’s comfortable to open a parenthesis and to close it, and once I open a parenthesis you as a reader expect it to close. But life doesn’t work that way. It’s complex.

We can’t neatly just close this off and say we’re done with this, because it’s a part of everything. But that’s one of the things about the parentheses, and also opening a space away from or toward a certain group of words … All of a sudden you look out the window, and you see: that mountain. And you’re in this different space.

I’ve noticed you do interesting things with italics, too, where you’ll have words within words; part of the word is italic, and it changes the meaning of what you’re reading.

(Photo by Anthony Biondi/The Cascade)

I had a conversation with the editor about that, because I have two techniques. One is a full-stop inside the word, and the only one full-stop surviving with that was “at.tension.” I wanted the city poems (with the crows) to have those full-stops, like “the gar.bage.” “Sin.ew.” But she thought they did the same thing, the italics and the full-stop [“garbage.” “Sinew.”].

But the full-stop is more, just like in the city, when you’re stopped all the time. You walk down a sidewalk and you’re constantly stopping and redirecting and it’s very jarring. I wanted that effect, but we decided the overall effect, italics flowed better, because some of the places were awkward with the full-stops. The words within words, also, I like — the way crows break open mussels — it’s almost like I’m breaking the words up.

Again, there’s not enough time. If I’m writing this poem, I want that effect instead of rewriting a poem and redoing it within the poem, and then it starts layering. Like layering. I think the layers are really important to me. And that effect is hard to read out loud. I’m challenging myself all the time — how do you read that? I need an echo.

There are other poems, too, which I imagine would be difficult to read aloud, especially structured in columns where you can read it vertically or horizontally.

The visual for me is a different experience. When I read, it becomes more fluid. So I’ll read across and down. People come to me and say, “How do you read this?” It doesn’t have to look weird, and I say, “Why do you have to ask that question?” … So I wanted to do enough of that to tell the reader, “It’s up to you how you read this. I’m writing it, but this is our playground.” I’m trying to break away from that institution.

I think of my poems many times as membranes. A permeable membrane, more organic, where the reader and the writer can flow in and out — I allow the reader to come in. So it becomes like a cell with an exchange of nutrients.

I live in False Creek, with a big patio. Sometimes I sit, and the crows go to their roost, I look at them and sometimes they look my poems. Because they’re spaced, and they flow like a river of words over my head. That fluidity, that movement … the organic aspect ties in bigger ideas, like ecology and how we are in the world as well.

In many of your poems in the weight of dew, you merge references to language, etymology, and words with natural references. You talk about things like “the definite articles of place” and relate grammar to leaves and wild grasses. You also asked, in “in the city,” if poetry is a mutation in language. What are your thoughts on the relationship between the natural landscape and the poetic landscape?

I’m still thinking about all that, but I believe that language is very powerful, and a word is an action. That’s how I experience language. When somebody says something jarring and harsh, I physically and viscerally feel the language. How we — it kind of moves back and forth — how we narrate our world defines what that world might become. So we must be aware of that.

There’s so much danger in the narratives we create. We can see that in politics, the narrative can change how you are in the world, so I’m constantly working around that and of course we have our notions of how we are with our reality and our environment. Our environment is struggling, but we’re so detached from it. Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac, I believe, talks about reading the farm as a book. He also says — I hope I’m quoting him correctly — “we can only grieve that which we know.” So just, you know, if you can read the farm as a book, right there is that whole notion of language and your physical surroundings, but also: how much do we know that reality, get out of Facebook and Twitter.

Unless we have been truly present, we can’t describe what it’s like. We look at our trees as utilities, what we can get out of them instead of what they can do for us. Maybe it might even go toward the idea — and I don’t have answers to any of these things, maybe that’s the beauty of it, that I keep constantly circling around these thoughts — the notion of eros. To me it’s a very curious notion.

Tim Lilburn talks about ways of being, and one was like a thief, like a stranger, and he says there’s this third possibility — the thief is going in and taking stuff out, the stranger is always on the outside, but there’s this other third possibility he wasn’t very hopeful for, and I just took it and ran with it, is where eros becomes part of the cosmology, where this tree, in order to be this tree, needs you or me or someone to need it, to love it, then it becomes itself in the excitement of human consciousness. It’s a big idea. Those are some of these big ideas that keep guiding me.

In the weight of dew, in “explore yesterday    today (at Fort Steele Heritage town” you talk about the idea of branding a bit. The line: “Every Name is desperately trying to sell itself. tagged and branded in our living theatre we worship what has not been said.” What are your thoughts on that?

To me it’s a love/hate thing, because as a poet, you’re not taught how to “brand” yourself. The whole business aspect of writing … nobody tells you that when you write this, you’re going to be taking on this whole other chunk that you might never have wanted to do, or may even know how to do or be good at. I think I’m pretty good at managing both, but as you get more and more books out there that aspect seems to grow.

[pullquote]“How we narrate our world defines what that world might become. There’s so much danger in the narratives we create.”[/pullquote]

I hate “branding,” myself. I think of more, partaking in a community. So I read a lot. I’ve probably done over 90 readings in the last five years, maybe. Just in the last two years, when my last two books came out, I’ve probably done about 50. I feel like I’m out there a lot; I also do a lot of volunteer work, and organize a reading series. So the whole notion of branding is such a business-card thing. The thing about being a writer is you’re stuck in these contradicting places where it has to be a business — you have to make a living — at the same time, there’s a whole different space you’re trying to open and exist in.

You have a number of different physical geographic places that influence your writing. How would you say those places have influenced your work?

I liked what Aislinn Hunter said in the introduction to milk tooth bane bone. Having grown up in so many places it seems like the only way I can speak of this tapestry of memories that I’ve inherited — that I don’t know what to do with because they’re not a coherent story — I just keep getting them as little bits and pieces.

My grandmother never wanted to talk about the war, she lived in both of the wars, and she used to say look ahead. Don’t look back.

I was very resentful of that, because I felt like she was not giving me my history. She died, and the last time I saw her, she said, “I want to give you something.” And I said, “Grandma, give me photos. Give me memories.” She said, “Okay, I’ll send you some.” The next thing I knew she had died and I don’t know what happened to her stuff.

My parents actually allowed themselves to speak of those memories of theirs, to me it was so precious. But then, how do you put that in a book that is actually coherent? Then the crows become that impermanence, impermanent in terms of flight. So maybe the answer to that question about place is, you know, where is that place?

I don’t feel at home anywhere — well, I didn’t. Vancouver seems to be the most like home to me because so many people come from somewhere else, it’s a conglomeration of cultures and languages and different wild understandings.

A home, a place that you feel at home is one that embraces you back, it’s not just you embracing it. So in some ways, maybe that’s what I [feel] in Vancouver. Being close to the mountains and the water makes a big difference.

The city gets to you sometimes — busy, do this, do that. Then the water; you can get lost in those moments, you open those brackets, and that works for me.

You’ve published three poetry books in the past three years. They’re so full, they have so many poems in them, and even when I referenced individual poems during the interview, you knew exactly which ones I was talking about. What’s your writing and publishing process?

The three books happened bam, bam, bam, because for a decade I’ve been working. I have one that’s going to be even more, let’s say, my research on metaphor in poetry form. And I have one right now that I pretty much wrote this year — I’ve never done so much writing in two months — on loss and grief.

And there’s one on collaborations, I’m hoping to put a book together where I collaborate with other writers, whether one or more poems, but the whole book will be me having written a poem with someone else. That’s kind of unique, I think.

[pullquote]“It’s comfortable to open a parenthesis and to close it, and once I open a parenthesis you as a reader expect it to close. But life doesn’t work that way.”[/pullquote]

What do you hope to bring to UFV, to accomplish? Or focus on, might be a better way of putting it.

Well, one thing is I don’t want to come in and impose my ideas in a sense, I just want to sense what UFV is excited about me offering. So, I’m kind of feeling my way around right now. Feedback is great — when I go to classes I sometimes worry, did I just go over the heads of these people, but usually I like to err on the side of no, because I believe you’re smart, that you get it, because even if it’s a big idea, honestly that’s what has taken me to where I am. Like, Gaston Bachelard said “poetry forms the dreamer and his world at the same time.”

Ah! Talking about place, and that connection. Well, you know, when I read that quote, I didn’t get it. But that was like, six, eight years ago, I don’t know how long. But I put it on top of a poem, and I wrote with it and I sat with it and I lived with it and I ate with it, and I think I’m beginning to understand what that means now. So isn’t it interesting — there are some things that come to you, and you don’t know why you’re attached to that, and it takes time to learn, but something tells you this is important to you, so pay attention.

What are you hoping to take from UFV, to get out of your experience here?

Your excitement, your … just to know that you’ve been inspired, even in the smallest of ways, that I have sparked a fire somewhere … there’s no bigger reward for me than to hear that I might have changed someone’s life in some way, even a little bit.

And that’s hard, because as a teacher or writer, you can’t know that. I don’t think of my work as being about me, to me it’s almost like I want to make you think. If I can make you think, then I’ve done my job. It’s made me think, and if I can pass that along, if I can make you play, if I can make you experiment, if I can make you get excited.

One of the classes I went to we did a writing exercise, one of the guys came up to me after all jittery and excited about it. He couldn’t sit still. He said, “Oh my god, that was great,” and I thought, “Okay. That’s my reward.”

I know now what my goal is here! I want to invite everybody to write something that surprises them before I leave.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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