Former PRISM poetry editor (2014-15) Rob Taylor sat down with Vancouver poet Elee Kraljii Gardiner to discuss her debut poetry collection “serpentine loop“. A “serpentine loop” is a figure which skaters etch in the ice with their blades, and it serves as a central motif for a book which explores the sport of figure skating – its beauty and risks – alongside the author’s beauty-and-risk-filled path from childhood to adulthood.
Boundary for the Married – Elee Kraljii Gardiner
Approach an electric fence with caution—
a blade of sweet grass extended
between thumb and forefinger. Lay the tip
of green upon the wire: it dances
when the line is hot. Forget about touching metal
with bare hands, closing the circuit with your body.
Register the thrum of this green blade as pleasurable
warning. Every so often a heartbeat will gallop loose
and threaten the collusion of crickets
the patience of funnel spiders. Commotion,
while electrifying, is short-lived and for better or worse
we do not forget. The bite of the wire on an open palm
will remind you your job is to stay clear, to respect
the divide. How long you carry the imprint depends
on the intensity of the charge and your impulse to stay.
(Anvil Press, 2016).
Reprinted with permission.
The poems in the second section of serpentine loop,”Push Off”, drawn from your childhood in Massachusetts, are filled with details (the digger with “his orange T-shirt written with sweat”, the childhood skates “Grey as cygnets”) which seem to be pulled straight from very clear, precise memories. It was hard, as a reader, not to see the precision in these remembered scenes as mirroring the precision of skating figures – repeating and repeating specific movements and shapes until they were mastered. Of course, that might just be my mind doing its things. Could you speak a bit to the role of precision (of line, or image, of memory) in your poetry?
As a kid I was fascinated by what is left on the ice after the movement ends. Skating perhaps functions for me in a way memory does. We watch the skater’s body articulate movement and when she leaves the ice all that is left is the trace of her line. Maybe memory – as it is warped by years, changing attitudes, awareness – is the line, just part of the event. The poems I wrote are an echo of things, a trace of an idea or occurrence that either happened to me or that I imagined so intensely it might as well have.
More generally, do you feel a connection between your experiences figure skating and writing poetry? Did that earlier training on the ice inform how you approached, and learned about, writing poetry?
Being around creative people who become better at their craft the more they tap into themselves is great training for being human, nevermind being a poet. In skating, not only is it important to connect with emotion and expression, it is imperative.
There used to be a part of competition when I was little called “Interpretive.” Skaters heard a piece of music for the first time while they were on the ice in a group and then they were sequestered in a locker room while each person took a turn creating a spontaneous, reactive program meant to demonstrate their instant creative response. It’s just like what we do in Thursdays Writing Collective writing to/from/off fast prompts.
The poems in serpentine loop relish the use of specialized languages and terminologies. First and foremost the language of figure skating (with its five-page, small-font glossary at the back of the book), but also military (“Who You Are By What You Recognize”) and sewing (“Costume Maker, 1960”) terminology. How do you think the use of these specialized languages influences the way your poems are written, read and interpreted? What effect, if any, do you hope it will have upon the reader who may (or may not) feel outside of the terminology?
My mother was a skater and surgeon but my father was a philologist and classicist whose idea of fun father-daughter time was to diagram language root systems. He brought me the words. Aren’t all of us always outside some language? Isn’t being a human a constant act of translation?
Yes, of course. And I think you make the right choice to embrace that outsider-ness, rather than skirt around it. Still, I wonder if you had any trepidation about writing about your sport, specifically? Some themes, and some languages, translate better than others, and I find writing about sport (especially less popular sports) to be particularly tricky. I’ve shied away from writing about the sports I play and coach because I haven’t been able to find a language or context through which to crack them open and have them speak to more universal themes. You’ve certainly pulled that off here, but did it take you a while to approach writing about skating? Did your mother’s fame in the sport have an effect on when/how you chose to write about skating?
I wasn’t nervous about writing about skating per se. Skating is a motherlanguage, so I react to/with it the way the daughter of an immigrant might to her mother’s natal culture. It’s my norm. By writing about it I can highlight/distort/question it from arm’s length. I can’t write about the sport with total knowledge as it is now; I don’t follow it closely enough. But it formed me. Luckily, I have a sister who is a professional skater and is hooked into the skating world. She fact-checked, reminded me of ideas or words, triggered memories.
serpentine loop, as a collection, is very skillfully crafted. Though it contains discrete parts, including some which are far removed from the world of skating (“Boundary for the Married” is one such example) the whole book builds in meaning, culminating in the long poem “Final Flight”, which resonates widely and deeply – in ways otherwise unimaginable – because of all we’ve read and learned in the proceeding poems. In this way, it reminded me of another Anvil Press title, Jennica Harper’s Wood, which adeptly brought disparate parts together as a coherent whole. Could you speak a bit about how the book came to take in its final form? Did you present it to Anvil this way, or did it take shape in the editing process? Was there discussion of leaving out poems/sections not clearly or immediately tied to some element of skating?
The form developed last. I had most of the material and a miasmic notion of what I wanted. But working with editor angela rawlings was crucial. She was boundless, inquisitive, suggestive, respectful. Her conversations grounded the text and let the form become. The actual figure of the serpentine loop guides the reader through different areas of thought (these I leave to the reader to imagine, but an obvious one is child-mother-crone). Equally important to me was to translate the notion of the change of edge in the figure (skate blades have two edges and you are always on either the inside or outside edge) into a literary experience. When the figure is skated it creates an encircling shape. A fundamental question in the collection is: how do we include and exclude people?
As I mentioned in my last question, in reading serpentine loop it felt to me that the whole book was inside-and-outside-edging toward the long poem “Final Flight,” about the 1961 plane crash which killed 73 people, including the entire US National Skating Team (which your mother had been a member of before retiring five years later). It felt as if everything we’d learned up until then about you, your mother, your family, and all the rigour that goes into struggling to excel at skating, parenthood, relationships, life, etc. – all of it was building an emotional context in which to fully appreciate (and be devastated by) the immense loss caused by the crash. Could you speak a bit about writing that poem? When did it come along in relation to the other poems? Had you always thought of it as closing off the book?
It’s a horrible thing to write about. My mother and her friends are pushed to relive it every year as a “fact” of the sport’s history. To lose that many friends and colleagues at once so spontaneously is a trauma I cannot imagine. The only way I could think to write it was to look at the facts and then witness the shards of grief my mother knew. As I wrote it she shared more of her experience than I had ever heard. When she and Dick Button (the US Olympian, historian of the sport, TV announcer and definitive authority on skating) read it and accepted the poem with the spirit in which I offered it, I was relieved, grateful. At the very least I didn’t want to re-hurt them. When they thanked me for writing it I was proud. It had to go at the end of the book because of the way it grapples with (im)permanence: what do we take away? How do we continue?
Before publishing serpentine loop, you edited numerous poetry anthologies, most recently V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (co-edited with John Asfour). All of these anthologies were in some way connected to your work at Thursdays Writing Collective (TWC), through which you’ve run free, drop-in creative writing classes in Vancouver since 2008. What did editing those books, and running TWC, teach you about your own craft – both in writing individual poems, and in assembling a collection as a coherent whole?
Every author should take a copyediting and production class. We need to know our skills, what’s under the hood of the galleys, how to change the oil, how to fix things! Because I was aware of what the steps would be and what potential stress fractures can occur with timelines, edits, etc., I had a very smooth time of it. My experience with considering sequence and frame with the TWC publications made all of this familiar and fun. Also, I know how easy it is for things to slip by or get messed up so I haven’t been too anxious. I’m happy to say I have not noticed a single problem in the text, although there must be something, surely.
Anvil Press allowed me to interact with the form, the shape, the everything of the book so that it feels as if serpentine loop rose out of my chest. Not every author has that relationship to the object their name is on. The cover image was snapped by Joan Naviyuk Kane (who also contributed a quote of support on the back) as she flew over Nunavut. I think it looks like a close-up of pond ice but it is from 37,000 ft in the air! The scale is so deceptive. We inverted it (thanks, designer Derek von Essen!) because we liked the slightly creepy, not-everything-is-alright feeling it produced.
Also, angela rawlings’ “keep your eyes on this” guidance was very reassuring and helpful.
It’s rare a debut collection breaks the 100 page mark, as yours does (though just barely). This book has been a long time coming (oh, how we’ve waited, Elee!) and you’ve had time to accumulate work. Still, as serpentine Loop revolves around a handful of central themes, my guess is that many of your poems were set aside as outliers from those themes. Is there, perhaps, another manuscript already waiting (or near completion)? I think of Kevin Spenst, who teased us with that first book for many years, and now has two books out in two years, both from Anvil – all that built up material finding a good home. Now that serpentine loop is out there (in the “kiss and cry room”, so to speak), can you fill us in on what might be coming next, be it written or yet unwritten?
Well, thank you for waiting. Publishing can be glacial. One press held the manuscript for 18 months – agony! But Anvil was quick – we signed a deal and exactly a year later the book was back from the printers. I tithed poems out of serpentine loop as the form gelled and am delighted they allowed me enough pages to be able to include a glossary. I actually thought serpentine loop would come out after another manuscript I was writing. It’s a poemoir in long form about what happened to me when I tore an artery in my neck and a blood clot went to my brainstem. That manuscript got shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry last year. I’m also working on a collaborative poetry manuscript titled Nature Building with Andrew McEwan about Canadian identity and post-pastoral, post-lyric poetry.
I think that after a publisher has held a manuscript for 18 months, the should be morally obligated to publish it (though would you really want them to, at that point?). I’m glad serpentine loop found such a welcoming home, and look forward to the other manuscripts finding good homes (with publishers; in my hands) as well.
Thank you for asking me all these questions. Answering them allows me a visit with the work in a new way!
Elee hasn’t found a single error in the text of serpentine loop. Do you take that as a challenge? If so, or if you just want to read a darn fine poetry book, you should pick up a copy. You can do so at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the Anvil press website. Or, if you like your universe riddled with errors, from Amazon.
You can read more of Rob Taylor’s interviews here.