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In Conversation With Ruth Daniell

Time for summer nourishment in the form of a good conversation and a caesar. Burgoo is a country-themed, cozy bistro serving up delicious drinks and yummy comfort food. The patio along Main Street is rustic and sweet with its wooden fence and farmhouse light fixtures. I am joined for a drink by Ruth Daniell, an accomplished poet and educator, visiting Vancouver for a couple weeks from Kelowna. Ruth was a long-time Vancouverite so she knows Burgoo and can’t wait to enjoy their housemade strawberry lemonade that comes with fresh crushed strawberries.

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Burgoo’s caesar comes with a lime, salt and pepper, and a spicy bean. The flavour is rich and delicious.

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Ruth, the good weather finally showed up! I can wear my sunglasses now.

Yes, it really did. I always feel when the weather’s really sunny, I could go lean against a beautiful tree and write poems in my journal but I know I’d probably end up closing the journal to just soak in my summer surroundings!

I understand that. Can’t multitask with too much nature-beauty. So you’ve been really busy writing, editing, and designing curriculum from your new home in Kelowna! It’s nice you were able to swing into town for a couple weeks. I know it was for your work but it’s always nice to come back to Vancouver, especially in summer. What has your year been like since you moved?

When we first moved to Kelowna, the anthology I created and edited had just came out and so I was splitting my time between being in this new place with promoting the book and attending literary festivals.  There was also a family wedding this past year and I was head of the bridal party so it was a very busy end-of-summer and transition into fall. There were also some extenuating circumstances which resulted in me and my mother making a rather spontaneous trip in January to Las Vegas, of all places! And then I’ve been working on the best project of all—I am pregnant and due in November!

Yes, amazing! I am so excited for you and your family!

Thank you! We’re excited too!

I’d like to chat with you about Boobs—Women Explore What It Means To Have Breasts—the beautiful anthology you edited which was released last year with Caitlin Press. What was the inspiration to create this anthology?

Caitlin Press is a fantastic feminist press and they were great to work with! The origin story for Boobs is that my sweetheart and I, before settling in Vancouver for graduate school, moved back to my hometown where I worked at the lingerie department at Sears. I got trained as a professional bra fitting consultant. And prior to that, I’d had my own life changing bra fitting and I felt the power of boobs!

The memoir piece I contributed to Boobs is about how I was a late-bloomer and I had all these ideas tied up in the fact that I’d be a small-breasted woman and it was hard and slow to recognize that wasn’t the case as I developed. Gaining a more realistic perception of my body was really important for me. I started sharing that experience more with other women and they had their own breast stories to share. Individuals of all shapes and sizes and colour and life experiences and ages all seemed to have their own breast stories. The project was in the back of my mind for awhile when I was in graduate school at UBC and I would chat about this idea a lot with my peers and I heard enough people say they would read an anthology like that or submit a piece so I decided to create it!

The right “fit!” What was the timeline for the submission, editing and publication process?

It came out last March. The whole process took a year. We put a callout the spring before and got a lot of interest and submissions. By the beginning of January, I’d done all the reading and selecting. From there, I worked with the writers to shape and support their pieces. I feel grateful I got to dive so deeply into that project. I have so much gratitude to the writers who submitted work and who were open to sharing with me their experiences of body and gender identity from both sides of the binary. I felt very privileged to be trusted with those stories.

I’m so pleased and grateful that you made space for those stories.

Thank you. We did a great launch here in Vancouver which was well-attended at The Heartwood.

A venue I miss so much.

Me too. Then we had some auxiliary readings in Vancouver. We had lots of opportunities for all the writers to share their work. There were a couple of writers who were from Calgary so I was able to be a part of a Boobs launch there at Shelf Life Books. There was also a launch for Boobs in Toronto but I unfortunately couldn’t make that one. I had the pleasure of going to the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts in August and then Edmonton LitFest in October. It was so much fun to get out there and see this conversation about breasts be welcomed by so many writers and readers.

Would you ever do a second edition of Boobs?

I’ve been asked that several times and I think yes, I would like to. If Boobs continues to do well and there’s enough interest, I would be so excited to edit a second volume. Since the anthology’s release, it’s been inspiring to encounter lots of women who share stories with me about their breasts. One topic that comes up a lot when talking about breasts and defining moments of our lives is breast cancer. There are stories in the book of people going through treatment as well as breast reconstruction after surviving breast cancer. Fantastic stories. And now I am more aware about a movement and community surrounding women who decide to remain breast-less after a double mastectomy that I wouldn’t have been aware of if I hadn’t have done this book and had more conversations following that; I would love to read the writing of those individuals’ experiences. I would also like to publish more transgender experiences in regards to breasts, as well as gender-fluid individuals. It would be exciting to get more voices and angles involved in the conversation.

I also didn’t read that many pieces during the submission process about breasts and their relationship with desire. It was mostly breast stories that focused on trauma, illness, puberty, and self-love. There are some moments in the book that explore breasts and pleasure but I would love to go into that realm even more. I was blessed with all these stories about the body and breast-feeding et cetera but not as much about sexuality. So I would love to hear more about that perspective if I did a second volume.

Desire is a theme that comes up a lot in your work and endeavours as a writer. Your past reading series, Swoon Reading Series, was about desire and love.

I think everything we as humans do has some kind of drive behind it. It’s definitely something I’m interested in—how we tell stories of love and desire and try to investigate how it exists in our lives. We live in a world where love is prioritized to consist of romantic couple relationships. That kind of love has been a positive thing in my life but so have my relationship with my parents, my brother, my friendships with other people. I want my work to celebrate those different forms of love and how we can celebrate and lift each other up.

Lovely. And a lot of your poems focus on fairytale and folklore explorations.

Yes, my first manuscript is explicitly about those themes.

Why was that a peak of interest for you? To explore fairy tales in your poetry.

Fairy tales provide an avenue to engage in unhealthy expectations held up by romantic love. We have this drilled-in idea of a princess who needs to be rescued by a prince at all costs; often, the princess is the prince’s “reward,” this object of romantic fulfilment, and that story, I think, holds danger. My manuscript attempts to point out how those narratives can be problematic in the contemporary world and the harm they can cause—how rape culture is normalized and restricted gender expectations hurt us. The ways that this particular princess-prince narrative involving romantic love leaves out so many other people. It’s a very heteronormative story and it values silence and physical beauty.

I grew up loving princesses and I still like princesses. I do perform my identity as very feminine most of the time but I dislike the fact that the stories where I got my love of princesses come from a heteronormative viewpoint with a very narrow portrayal of gender roles and expectations. There aren’t any stories of two princes or two princesses getting married. People are writing them now but in terms of looking retrospectively back to folklore, there aren’t any. Just as there are very few stories where the non-romantic love between two sisters or brothers or friends is shown to be as valuable or important as heterosexual romantic love. And that’s a shame. Because of course happiness and love can come from many kinds of relationships, not just the “romantic couple unit” we tend to privilege.

And I think of the mother figure—The Grimm Brothers couldn’t handle the idea of a mother being evil or bad so they split the mother archetype in two—the spiritual, fairy godmother good figure and then the evil stepmother.

Right. There are those archetypes built into society through folklore that we need to examine on a more critical scale. What’s the title of your manuscript?

The Brightest Thing.

I really like that. Is that the title from a poem in the manuscript?

Thank you! It’s a line from one of the poems. The book includes a series of dramatic monologues from the point of view of princesses from fairytales that have been devoiced which is contrasted with a contemporary speaker who is telling her own narrative of rape, dealing with family and love. I wanted to challenge the idea of the male rescuer while at the same time be open to celebrating the love that is good, the desire that can be unproblematic and not dangerous. The speaker in my book, after surviving sexual assault and an abusive relationship, finds good love with an individual who is male (like her past abusive partner), and this new lover is very kind, supporting her in her trauma after the fact.

One of things I wanted to be careful and thoughtful about was portraying that relationship authentically and making sure it didn’t come across as that male figure was solely a rescuer. I had to find ways to talk about solidarity with other voices and women in the book who experienced sexual assault and while also being truthful about the ways women sometimes fail in supporting each other. The deeper I got into the project and those relationships and the characters and the speaker and the princess voices that appear throughout the book, the more complex the project got. I’d like to spend more time making sure that I am being as responsible to the subject matter as I can before I give the manuscript a home and have it published.

I understand that. You want all the voices and characters and poems to come together in a way that’s harmonious to your thematic elements. It sounds like a very ambitious book! On a line level, your writing is beautiful. The language is always eloquent and intelligent but I get the idea of wanting to guide yourself slowly through a thicker more complex narrative. And a lot of those poems from that manuscript have been published independently?

In literary journals. The majority of the poems from the manuscript are in the world.

That’s a really great accomplishment. Tell me about the line that inspired the title. What is that poem about?

It’s from a poem in the manuscript called “Family Portrait at Medieval Times, Buena Park, California.” It’s near the beginning of the book right before we meet all the devoiced princesses; at this point in the book the reader is introduced to the speaker and how she’s viewing the world—especially her family and her relationships— through fairy tale tropes. In this poem, the speaker’s father is very excited to have the financial means at the time to take his adult family on a trip to California and they decide as a family to go to Medieval Times. Upon arrival, they find out their Medieval Times package involves a family portrait and they’re going to dress up. The speaker dresses up as a princess. Her mother dresses up as a queen. Her brother and the speaker’s male partner are immediately identified as princes. The father in a lot of ways throughout the book is a patriarchal type in the family. The speaker is aware of this and acknowledges the problems with that, though she admires her father and has a lot love for her father. The assumption for her is that the father would be an automatic king. Instead, he speaks up and really wants to be the jester. As the photo gets developed in the poem, you see the princess, the queen, the princes, but there’s no king, there’s a mid-fifty year old dad in a jester hat—and in the photo, it’s the brightest thing.

That’s such a brilliant inversion and is such a wonderful way to examine family dynamics and explore a more traditional, patriarchal character. I’m wondering also how your writing might work in other ways with these kind of themes—what other genres do you write?

Children’s lit and poetry, fiction, and memoir. But poetry is my first love.

Children’s poetry. That sounds really fun!

It is! As a teacher, I get a feel of what kids want to read and perform. I learn the subject matter that is exciting to them.

That’s where it starts. My love of language started because I was read to by my parents so much as a child and felt free to play with language.

Me too!

I loved Phoebe Gillman as a child.

Yes, my favourite book of hers is Something From Nothing. It makes me weepy!

The illustrations with the mouse family living out their own plot on the bottom of the pages was my favourite.

That part wasn’t in the original draft! Gillman drew all the illustrations without that mouse family, then realized something was missing. The mice narrative came up after the fact as an answer to what was missing. I think that subplot—entirely visual—gives the story so much extra depth.

I had no idea. That’s beautiful. Do you illustrate?

I am an artist as well. I don’t have an official portfolio for my art and so I don’t know if I’d illustrate my first children’s book. I almost need three separate lives for all the projects and pursuits I am excited for! But I do have some pieces on display right now in the Kelowna Art Gallery in The Games We Play, an exhibit that explores board games, video games, nursery games, sports and other games. My sweetheart works in the video game industry, and a reason we moved to Kelowna is so he could work in this great small studio. There’s a strong video game industry community in Kelowna. A lot of the work in the gallery is from visual artists, animation artists, student artists, and community members. When he heard about the exhibition’s theme, my sweetheart got really excited and he encouraged me to participate. I’m glad I did! I have four poetry broadsides in the exhibit, which I illustrated with watercolour paints.  They’ll be on display with the rest of the show until September 17th.

How long did it take you to accompany the poems with illustrations?

Not terribly long. I proposed some rough drafts for the exhibit and then worked on the art from there.  I like to do visual art when I can. Between teaching, editing, working on Boobs, then The Brightest Thing, and now a second poetry manuscript, I find it hard to get as much art as I would like to get done, so I love when I can squeeze in projects such as this here and there.

It seems fun to integrate art with poetry. I could see you doing a children’s book with your own illustrations one day! Have you thought of creating stories or poems to share or write for your baby on the way?

I’ve written a couple of poems for the baby and one of the pieces in The Games We Play exhibit actually was written for the baby.

Lovely. You showed me the art with the baby’s ultrasound shaped into the clouds. I didn’t realize it was a dedication piece. Gorgeous, Ruth! I imagine you and your partner are so excited.

We really, really are!

I want to ask you about your experience as an educator. You teach speech arts?

Yes, I taught here in Vancouver and I have students in Kelowna now. It’s an art-form and skill I am very passionate about teaching.

Do people ask you what speech arts encompasses?

Absolutely, it’s unfortunately underrepresented as a skill you can build upon. Music education, for example, is more valued. Parents put their children in piano lessons after school and maybe lots don’t know you can put your child into speech arts classes after school. I wish more people knew about speech arts!

Speech arts is exactly how it sounds. The art of speaking. It’s conversation skills, interview skills, public speaking skills, literary performance… and it’s certainly something a lot of writers could benefit from having more support and training with.

I think I’ve fallen into my own mumbling habits or saying “um” to fill gaps.

Verbal ticks. Words that aren’t actively contributing to the meaning or message you are trying to convey. Those are very common.

Well, I think of your students and how nice it is to learn to work around those habits at a young age. I use verbal ticks when I’m nervous.

For me, I struggle with pacing sometimes. I talk very quickly when I’m nervous or excited.

Do you coach your students on things like projection and volume?

Yes, and emotional tone, inflection, duration. Duration is the length of your vowels. Speech arts is a very important skill because public speaking is one of the most common fears people have. It’s important to learn how to speak well and portray your ideas persuasively and confidently no matter what you do for a living! Teachers perform all the time and in the business world, there’s lots of oral communicating and presentations. Scientists and academics need to present their findings or research concisely or apply for grants, that kind of thing.

Conversational skills, eye contact.

Yes, absolutely. And body language. All that good stuff. I find in our field of writing, reading our work is a great way to connect with others in our community. I always come away from a reading, especially if I haven’t been writing or reading as much as I normally do because life gets busy, so excited to read that person’s work that we just heard. Or I’ll walk away inspired to try in my own writing some technique that the reader shared in their own work. I’m always glad to have gone to a reading.

Swoon Reading Series provided that for the community for sure.

Thank you. I’m going to miss it!

At the last Swoon, I finally tried Trees Organic’s famous cheesecake.

My favourite treat from there is actually not the cheesecake! It’s the little chocolate peanut butter cups that they have!

I’ll have to try one next time I go. I also like how you always had all different genres represented from nonfiction, poetry, fiction and more!

We did that mindfully and it was really great. How is your caesar tasting?

Great. Classic. Celery salt, lime, spicy bean. I do wish I had an olive though! The flavour is good. Have you ever had a caesar before?

No. I’m not a big drinker but I’m also not a big tomato fan. Everything about a Caesar is pretty anti-Ruth except YOU enjoying one! I’m much more of an ice cream gal!

Earnest Ice Cream or Rain or Shine?

I have friends who are in the Earnest camp. I appreciate both but if my last ice cream cone was going to be salted caramel from Earnest or salted caramel from Rain or Shine, I’d have to choose Rain or Shine! When I still living the city, I frequented Rain or Shine more often because it was within walking distance of our apartment.

One summer, they had a corn on the cob flavour at Rain or Shine. Surprisingly, so good! Have you had ice cream since you’ve been here?

Oh yes, salted caramel at Rain or Shine, and Earnest for cookies and cream! I am not disloyal to either Earnest or Rain or Shine. I am devoted to ice cream and both of them!

I can see it in your eyes. You have love for both!

Much to my delight, in mid-June, they opened a gelato place within walking distance from our home in Kelowna, run by a lovely couple who went to a culinary gelato school abroad and came back and opened their shop. I’m already a regular! They have a strawberry lemonade flavour!

So it’d be like the drink you’re enjoying now but on a cone? Awesome!

Yes, so refreshing.

What are your plans for the rest of your summer?

I’m going back to Kelowna after this week; I’ll keep busy working on a freelance editing project, and my new book of poems on birds.

Oh my, poetry taking flight!

I’m really excited about it. I was so lucky during my first phase of working on the book to have a grant, so now, I get to work deeper on it as a collection. While writing The Brightest Thing, I think I learned how to put a collection of poems together and so with this manuscript, it’s been smooth and I am so energized to work on it.

So your manuscript is going to grow, your family is going to grow!

Lots of growing. Lots of change!

 

Thank you, Ruth, for chatting with me about your work, endeavours and passions! Can’t wait to meet again in Vancouver next time you’re here and I hope the rest of your summer in the Okanagan is, like you, “the brightest thing!”

My Burgoo Caesar Ratings:

Flavour: 4/5

Garnish: 3/5

Rim: 5/5

Patio: 4/5

 

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Ruth Daniell is an award-winning Canadian writer and the editor of Boobs: Women Explore What It Means to Have Breasts (Caitlin Press, 2016).  Her poems and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in various journals across North America and elsewhere, including Arc Poetry Magazine, Grain, Room Magazine, Qwerty, Canthius, The Antigonish Review, and Contemporary Verse 2.  Most recently, she was awarded first prize in the 2016 Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest with The New Quarterly. She is a recent recipient of a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and is currently working on a new collection of poems about birds. Originally from Prince George, BC, she currently splits her time between Vancouver and Kelowna.

https://ruthdaniell.ca/

 

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