E: Congratulations on the launch of Night Gears (Wolsak and Wynn, 2010)! The book is just beautiful and the poems are acute and stunning – I find them tugging at me constantly as I go about my day-to-day life. Can you comment on the overall metamorphoses of turning a collection of poems into a book?
B: A collection of poetry is both a mystery and a task you work diligently at. Listening for poems, being available to transcribe them is part of that mystery. Revising the poems and arranging them into sections that speak to each other is hard work. For a collection of poems to turn into a book it requires both elements.
The poems in Night Gears were all written during a three-year period that revolved around my master’s degree. In that sense, they shared the same concerns and had a certain cohesiveness that made putting the collection together easier in some ways. Though not all the poems I wrote during that time made it into the book. I was continually shuffling new poems in and old poems out. This process could have continued indefinitely, but having a thesis deadline acted as a catalyst for completion.
E: Night Gears began as your MFA thesis. How did your thesis change into a manuscript?
B: After completing my thesis, I quickly sent it out. I was impatient to get on with the process. After ten years of writing seriously, I wanted a first book. Luckily, my publisher saw the book inside the thesis and I was able to work with my editor to elevate it to the next level.
On the surface, the book has the same four part structure as my thesis. Many of the poems inside those sections are the same, though altered. The second section about my experience working in a fire lookout shifted form, as two long poems merged into one to better capture the public and private sides of that experience.
After a year and a half of not looking at my thesis, I was able to enter into those revisions with a greater perspective. I pushed each poem as far as it could go. I no longer played favorites. If a line or a stanza or a poem wasn’t working, I cut it.
E: What was it like to work with an editor? Can you compare the process to working with a thesis advisor? What’s different?
B: Without the encouragement and rigor of my thesis advisor, Rhea Tregebov, there would be no book. Her support throughout the writing of the manuscript was key. She oversaw numerous revisions and raised the overall caliber of each poem. Working with an editor was different, in that my editor, Alayna Munce, was coming to the work with fresh eyes. She didn’t see how far it had come, but how far it could still go. Together, we looked at the manuscript as a whole and debated the order of poems and sections.
E: How did you find the process of revision? I couldn’t help but notice the title poem “Night Gears” has changed significantly since it was first published in Prairie Fire – and I have to say that as much as I loved the first version, I find the final version achieves a layer of resonance I wasn’t picking up before – through the omission of “Moose!” the poem takes on a whole new layer of semantic meaning.
B: Sometimes the revision process was invigorating. What needed to be done was clear and the changes came easily. Other times it was excruciating, trying to get to the gut of it, to say what I really meant. I think there is a lot of pressure when it comes to revising your first book. The stakes are higher. Once it goes out in the world, you can’t take it back.
E: Because this blog is called Occupational Hazards, I have to ask the following question: Can you comment on managing thematic obsessions within manuscripts? Some of my favorite poems — “Office Work,” “Road Work,” “Red Light,” and the section “Weather Observation Record” — all deal with employment, but in very different ways. While employment may be the uniting motif, the subject (and consequently, meaning) of each poem is completely different. Were you aware of thematic obsessions and were they something you had to consider in the context of the book? (Perhaps I’m revealing my own obsession with obsessions!)
B: For me, the best obsessions in poetry, the most genuine, are the ones I’m not fully aware of. I just keep writing about something from different angles until I’m no longer drawn to it. In retrospect, an overall theme emerges. With the work poems, I wrote a handful of them, but choose only to include the ones that captured it best.
E: I’m interested in the process of producing the book itself. How much of a hand did you have in the layout, cover art, and other design aspects?
B: My publisher, Wolsak and Wynn, stayed true to my initial manuscript layout. They were incredibly obliging when I asked them to change the spacing or add a blank page here. I had a great experience working with them. I got to chose the cover art, a piece called “Return” by Nikki McClure. I still remember getting up the nerve to ask her and how thrilled I was when she said yes!
E: Here’s my final question: How do you find post-MFA life?
B: Getting back to your earlier comment on obsessions, I think work is still something I’m grappling with. Working full-time, I’m always elbowing out a space for writing and reading. I miss having the dedicated time that you have during an MFA program. Working, though, has its advantages besides a pay cheque. It exposes us to a wider range of experiences, which can generate poems. I’m currently working on a series about my job as a park interpreter.
A few other important things I’ve learned about post-MFA life are to set myself deadlines and goals, to have a group of writers to share my work with, and to fit in writing whenever I can. Twenty minutes while the rice is cooking? I’ll take it.
Bren Simmers lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she works as a park interpreter. She has a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Winner of the Arc Poem of the Year Award and a finalist for the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award and the Malahat Long Poem Prize, her work has been published in journals across Canada. Night Gears, her first poetry collection was published by Wolsak and Wynn in fall 2010.