Chantel Lavoie

In pushing your work beyond your first title what were you most conscious of? What were/are you trying to achieve?

Most poets with one published book are, I suspect, trying to achieve the second to achieve the second; that is, to prove (most of all to themselves) that the first was not luck, or timing, or that one did write some good stuff, but then the muse just flitted off. That out of the way, whereas the poems in my first book were written over many years, those in the second were more concentrated and related to one another as I wanted them to be.

What memorable or formative experience around learning to write springs to mind?

When I was seventeen my parents paid for me to go to a week-long summer writing programme in Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. I had never read poetry out loud before, never really thought about the importance of line breaks or avoiding cliché. It was fantastic. Our instructors were Judith Krause and Ven Begamudré (whom I’d never heard of—because I’d hardly heard of anyone). They were terrific.

What was the most satisfying aspect of your recently completed work?

My most recently completed work is a tiny poem that’s been accepted for a Kingston poetry downtown billboard project. I’m excited to see my words up that high, and that big, with background visual art by another Kingston artist. It’s thrilling, because it will also reach people who never read poetry.

How is your writing practice informed by a sense of writing to or for others? Do you have an audience in mind when you write?

Writing for others is a form of self-consciousness that hits part-way through. It’s not the impetus for a poem—which tends to be an image or a strange juxtaposition, some idea or combination of words that comes from the world or springs from the brain. A really worthwhile piece will get worked on, and endure, past that stage of “so-and-so will like (or won’t like) this.” Through revision it takes on a kind of purity that Keats was talking about with negative capability.

Have you ever collaborated on a writing project with another writer? Or maybe you’ve collaborated with an artist/dancer/musician/actor? Can you share your experience?

For the first time last year.  I collaborate with Meg Freer, another Kingston poet, to produce a collection in honour of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, called Serving the Sorrowing World with Joy. The sisters have long served Kingston (and I worked with some of them years ago in Guatemala). Meg and I had each already written a poem about them, we discovered, and started to imagine a chapbook. Meg then brought in photographs from the sisters’ archives and it became a truly worthwhile endeavour.

What stories do you have (perhaps generative, perhaps constraining) about yourself as a writer? (i.e., What you’re good at or bad at, where you are in your writing journey, etc.)? How have these stories changed or remained the same over time/across different experiences?

When I was a child I won a couple of writing awards through my elementary school board—each time finding out that almost no one had entered the contest. That was humiliating—an understandable but (I think now) dumb feeling, based on competitiveness. Well, contests are, aren’t they? But then while I was doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa, I won the Books in Canada student poetry award, which was for publication in the journal and $1000. I don’t know if this is part of any story I tell myself: It’s both a nice memory and a cautionary tale I tell myself to remember just to focus on the work.

What elements/aspects of writing give you pleasure?

When you publish a book, as I did in February, people you know (and some you don’t) reach out and say, “Oh, I love this one!” or “I keep reading that one!” It’s wonderful, but it’s strange, because it’s not fresh to me anymore and I can’t quite see why they have this response. It gives me pleasure to know it gives a reader pleasure.  Otherwise, working obsessively on a longer piece is the best part of the process—more than even having those first words come from wherever they come. There’s a 14-sonnet cycle in my last book that I worked and worked on to get just right (and even so, I ended up with an extra syllable in one sonnet—argh!) and being lost in the work—truly not wanting to be doing anything else, is wondrous. It’s a gift.

What does the craft of writing mean to you?

The above anecdote about obsessive working speaks to the importance of craft. It means even if a poem started with something deeply personal, and feels personal on the page to another reader, it’s actually moved past individual expression and mined something more universal.  A well-crafted chair is one anyone can sit in and feel comfortable, supported, right? It feels like whoever made it knew chairs and knew people. A well-crafted poem achieves the same result.

Can you name a source of inspiration before the age of 12 that impacted your writing in some way?

Now this is personal, but it’s what comes to mind.  When I was 12 (so I’m cheating about the under 12 request, a bit) I stopped eating.  My mother took me to see our family doctor, a lovely old man who checked my blood pressure, etc. and asked me what I liked to do with my time. I told him that I loved reading. He asked me if I’d read any Charles Dickens (I hadn’t) and he recommended I try.  So, I did.  And—it’s not poetry—but it certainly inspired me.  I was blown away by the length and breadth of the world-building. I lost myself as I had never done in the shorter, easier novels I’d read up to that point. In effect, that kind of immersive and challenging reading, both nourished something much deeper, and took me out of myself. I started with Great Expectations.

Chantel Lavoie, originally from Saskatchewan, is associate professor in the Department of English, Culture, and Communication at the Royal Military College. Her first book of verse was Where the Terror Lies (Quattro, 2012), and her second This is about Angels, Women, and Men (Mansfield, 2021). She lives with her two sons, two cats, two dogs, and her poetry-loving (and long-suffering) husband. She finds Kingston to be a nurturing community for poetry and the arts. The most important part of her writing practice is reading. The other, of late, has become observing—and listening—with gratitude. 

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