January 2016

Teri Vlassopoulos


A Conversation with Gillian Sze and Teri Vlassopoulos

Redrafting Winter, published this past fall, was co-written by Alison Strumberger and Gillian Sze. It's a series of seven rengas accompanied by correspondence between the two writers. The nijūin renga is a type of collaborative poem made up of twenty stanzas of alternating tercets and couplets with specific constraints (required references to seasons, the moon, a flower, love.) While Sze and Strumberger set out to follow these rules, they eventually used them only as a loose guideline. The format was inspired by rengas written by two other Canadian poets, P.K. Page and Philip Stratford, in their book And Once More Saw the Stars: Four Poems for Two Voices, written right before Stratford succumbed to cancer. Redrafting Winter, on the other hand, was written at an entirely different time in Strumberger and Sze's lives. As they say in their introduction, "We wrote these poems during a period of transitions between schools, jobs, languages, lovers, countries, and homes. It was, as that period in one's early twenties usually is, marked by recklessness, sudden change, and learning."

Teri Vlassopoulos's debut novel, Escape Plans, was also published in fall 2015. The book revolves around three characters: Niko, his wife, Anna, and their daughter, Zoe. It tells the story of Niko's last days in Athens before a fatal sailing accident in the Aegean Sea, and then recounts the aftermath from Anna and Zoe's perspective.

Despite differences in form, there are overlaps between Redrafting Winter and Escape Plans -- the tentative bravado of youth, the sense of a passage of time, and variations in setting, with both books written in different locations all over the world. Following the theme of correspondence raised in Redrafting Winter, Sze and Vlassopoulos exchanged emails to discuss their books and editing process.

Gillian Sze: Your first book, Bats or Swallows, is a collection of short stories. Did you find working in the form of the novel liberating or constraining in new ways?

Teri Vlassopoulos: Escape Plans originated with the story "Swimming Lessons" from Bats or Swallows. Is it uncouth for writers to pick their favourite stories from their books? Will the others feel less loved? "Swimming Lessons" and its main character, Zoe, was the one I thought about long after the collection was published, so I expanded it. Short stories and novels are entirely different beasts and the stamina required to write a novel surprised me, the amount of singular focus you need. It took time before I switched from short story to novel writing mode, but once I did that, the words flowed more smoothly. There were many false starts, though.

I (embarrassingly?) was unfamiliar with rengas before reading Redrafting Winter, but love the idea of a structured, collaborative form of poetry. What prompted you and Alison to write them?

I met Alison in Montreal in 2004 and we became fast friends while studying at Concordia. After we graduated, she moved to Toronto and we maintained our friendship over mail. She read And Once More Saw the Stars, a collection of rengas composed by P.K. Page and Philip Stratford over post, and suggested that we try renga-ing ourselves. We were writing to each other regularly, so collaborating on poems felt like a perfectly logical project. Writing with another poet is always a mysterious and exciting exchange, and because we were writing only five lines at a time, it also wasn't very demanding or laborious. There was plenty of room to play.

There's a beautiful description in your book about the desk that Niko's parents, who are writers, share that I think aptly encapsulates the process of collaboration:

The surface was so raised with bumps from the pressure of thousands of pens and pencils that it was impossible to write on smoothly [...] I'd suggest they buy a second desk, but they appreciated the intermingling of their notes, and I'd often see my father's pencil marks on my mother's pages or the other way around.

I like that impossibility of smoothness, the friction between voices, and the way someone else's words impress on my own, and vice versa. So I'm intrigued by your choice of writing Escape Plans recursively in three voices: Niko, Zoe, and Anna. I'm particularly interested in Niko's point of view -- just the fact that he has one. Unlike Zoe and Anna's perspectives, his is a voice from the past (and the dead) that enters the present-day mode of the novel. What led you to this decision?

Escape Plans started with Zoe on her own in Montreal, haunted by the strange story of her father's sailing accident (I recall a phrase from your renga, "Levelling": "To measure out ghosts is a daunting task.") But I found myself thinking about Niko's last days in Greece and then also Zoe's mother, who was a mystery to me for a while. It made sense to incorporate all three voices, so I wrote each of their sections individually and then braided them together. It didn't seem odd to include Niko's voice from the past -- it was part of the weave of their story.

I like the timelessness of family stories, how they get told and retold from generation to generation and how much people know and don't know about their family members, including their own parents or children. I know you appreciate this as well, since your last collection of poetry, Peeling Rambutan, deals with similar themes.

Family stories are always haunted, so I appreciated Niko's voice. And this telling and retelling was effective in your novel when your reader could move forward in the narrative while slipping back in time through him. I like that retrograde motion that we (and your characters) succumb to in the book: this desire to rebel against the past, the eventual return to it, and, at the same time, the pressing need to move forward.

I had similar concerns about family history and narrative in Peeling Rambutan when I wrote: "Tell me how to reduce stories to their simplest parts." And I think your character Zoe has an apt reply to my request: "You just meet at a comfortable halfway point of truth and semi-truth." When it comes to the past, that halfway point seems like the best we writers can do.

Both Redrafting Winter and Escape Plans attempt to capture the feeling of being young in Montreal. Zoe falls in love in Parc Lafontaine, and there's actually a line in your last renga, "The Final Egress," that reminds me of her encounter: "I will remember a winter day, a greyed wooden bench, / a bone button, a frigid finger, a touch disarming and / remote." What is it about Montreal? It's such a romantic, intense city. Does being young make it even more so?

There are so many things to be swept away by, especially if you're coming from the sleepy prairies like I did: Montreal's rich literary past and present, the fantasy of becoming a writer, the availability of wine in grocery stores, cheap rent, autumn fashion, the city's impressive resistance to winter, the faint whiff of pot at every corner -- the list goes on. Think of Elisabeth Harvor's All Times Have Been Modern, a novel in which the city is central to igniting passion, both literary and erotic. I think that so many people carry the same story. It's recognizable. And, as Redrafting Winter shows, Montreal (and especially our moving here to study creative writing) was transformative and vital to our development as writers.

I'm curious about how you and Alison felt about publishing correspondence from such a raw time in your lives, and also how much you edited it.

Alison and I initially planned to put together a collection of poetry, but it soon became apparent that the experience of the rengas was deepened when read alongside the letters. The contents of our lives found their way into our lines and it was only in hindsight that we could see the important overlap. Editing took about a year and it was all done in a shared Google doc because I was here in Montreal and Alison in Melbourne. We removed the tedious bits (weather, what we had for supper) and pared it down to the narrative details of our lives.

The decision to include our edited letters was both easy and daunting. We were cognizant of the fact that we were composing rengas at the early start of our writing careers, when we were bravely na´ve, optimistic, and wide-eyed (we probably still are). A very different time in life than Page and Stratford. Death was lurking nearby during their process, and eventually cut short their correspondence. We were writing in our twenties and just starting to venture out, so that distinction gave our poems a different sway. Redrafting Winter is a response, an homage, a resuscitation.

I think that's why, when it came time to write a book description for Redrafting Winter, Alison and I struggled with how to place it generically. There was a pull between memoir (our personal letters) and invention (the rengas) -- not to mention the editorial shaping that took place between these poles.

The passage of time is set up explicitly in Redrafting Winter, with the rengas written between 2007-2010. I read the book two ways: first as a whole, combining the correspondence and poetry, and then the completed rengas on their own, sequentially. For certain stanzas and lines, I went back and reread the correspondence associated with it. I also found myself looking for evidence of how much your writing had changed over the years. I sensed a kind of confidence in say, "The Last Egress" (the last renga) compared to "Redrafting Winter" (the first one). Maybe confidence isn't the right word -- it was more decisive? Less tentative? Can you tell me about how your writing changed over that time period?

I'm delighted that you sensed some development in my writing. The first renga was composed shortly after I put out my first chapbook with WithWords, so the beginning of Redrafting Winter marked a beginning. While I was renga-ing with Alison, I published my first book, was editing my second, and starting work on my third. I write with always the future project in mind, so how my writing has changed in those three years escapes my own observations. I wrote in response to art in Fish Bones, to people in The Anatomy of Clay, and to family history in Peeling Rambutan. So while I can't quite say how my writing has changed, I can say how it's stayed the same. Poetry for me has always been an opportunity to respond. (Mary Oliver puts it best when she says that writing poems "is a way of offering praise to the world." I would agree.)

I've been writing this with my baby on my lap, swiping at keys as I type. I know you edited Redrafting Winter with a newborn, like I did. What was that like for you?

Instead of reading practical guides while I was pregnant, I was reading essays and books like Shannon Cowan's Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood, Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work, and Louise Erdrich's The Blue Jay's Dance. So I knew in theory that it would be tough to write with a newborn. I still wasn't prepared for how difficult finding time would be. When my son arrived, I found it hard to pull myself away from the blur of breastfeeding, exhaustion, joy to clear a little mental space for reviewing and revising. You can do both, but it's never balanced. I think of what Theresa Shea wrote:

I learned that being a good mother and a good writer, at the same time, is for me an impossible undertaking. They're both full-time jobs, and the demands for each are too high [...] I can be a writer who does not write, but I can't be a mother who does not mother.

During the final editing stages, Alison was visiting from Melbourne. It was July, my one-month postpartum confinement was done, and so we took the manuscript outside to my backyard and worked on it in the sun. Thankfully my mother and husband were around to look after the babe and hand him over when he got hungry. It was a good system that we had in place for a few days of intense editing.

What was your editing process like? I had the manageable task of engaging with only a few lines of poetry or small excerpts of letters -- fragments that fit within the snippets of time I could find between the needs of a baby. Editing a novel, on the other hand, seems so much larger a project.

I found out Escape Plans was going to be published two months before my due date, and, because of the publishing schedule, knew that most editing would be done within the first few months of my baby's life. I also read A Life's Work and Double Lives while pregnant and was, frankly, terrified about how much a baby would disrupt my writing process. I tried not to think about the implications and just steeled myself for the work -- what else could I do? The nice thing about the early months is that babies sleep for large swathes of time. The bad thing is that your brain is scrambled from hormones.

Because Escape Plans is set up in short sections, I tackled them one at a time while the baby slept. I also read the entire novel out loud more than once, since the sound of my voice soothed the baby and I could edit at the same time. I had a few anxiety attacks along the way, moments of uncertainty and exhaustion when I simply wasn't sure if I could remember how to write a single sentence let alone an entire novel, but they passed. Once I started to feel more like myself, I was able to see the overall picture more clearly. My editor and publisher were amazingly patient and soothing, which helped a lot.

In light of having a child, tradition and inheritance are certainly at the forefront of my thinking, as I'm sure is also the case for you. An important motif that appears in your novel is that of lineage and inheritance: the family shipping business, the gift of writing that seems to have been passed down to Zoe from her grandparents, even Niko's name, derived from St. Nicholas, also belonged to his grandfather and great-grandfather. But lineage and tradition pose some complication: "This string of names in a family was sometimes comforting and sometimes oppressive." Niko deliberately breaks tradition by choosing a name for Zoe, instead of borrowing his mother's. Nevertheless, he finds himself concerned about legacy. Can you talk more about how the problem of lineage stretches through your narrative?

Legacy is such a strange thing. It's kind of selfish, this insistence that some part of you persists when your physical self is gone. Niko being concerned about what he would leave for his daughter was a matter of pride and genuine concern, even if he was keenly aware of the burden of an inheritance. I wanted to explore how generations are linked both explicitly and accidentally through DNA in Escape Plans. At the same time, I'm obsessed with the idea of connecting threads and building narratives from small units. I like this line from the renga, "Small Hours": "Things I can't see: minutes, molecules, / how daybreak finds our bodies / migrating to separate thresholds, / the thresholds, our bearings, our words / before they meet and flatten, strange and mute." It seems like a large part of making sense of life and why things happen is to pick out the things we can't see and string them into a larger, more visible thread, no matter how tenuous the connections might be, in order to tell a story. I see this in Redrafting Winter, and I hope it's also evident in Escape Plans.

Gillian Sze's work can be found at http://gilliansze.com.

Teri Vlassopoulos' work can be found at http://bibliographic.net.