Thursday, 25 October 2012
Ali Riley - 33 Million Solitudes (an interview)
Ali Riley’s first poetry collection, Wayward (Frontenac House, 2003), was short-listed for the Gerald Lampert Memorial award, and her second, Tear Down (Frontenac House, 2006), was short-listed for the Re-Lit award. She was born in Calgary and was the singer/songwriter of the seminal psycho-country band Sacred Heart of Elvis. In Toronto, her produced plays included dog dream, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Hole in My Heart the Size of My Heart. She was a contestant in the Book Television reality show The Three Day Novel Contest, and her three-day novel, Hag, won the Walrus Magazine/SLS literary contest. Her writing has appeared in Geist, The nth Position Anthology, Matrix, This Magazine, Event, The Moosehead Review, Alberta Views and Walrus. Her third book, 33 Million Solitudes (Frontenac House, 2012), explores Canadian themes of isolation and survival with a 21st century twist, and re-imagines the fur trade as a modern metaphor for love. She lives in Nanton, Alberta.
The following poems are from 33 Million Solitudes.
Window Smasher at Large
She is failing to thrive. Wrapped alone in her room, fuzzy
crocheted solitude. Grad-girls wear eyelet. In coulee country
manners are learned in the womb. Buckle-boy fingertips slide
down the brim of their Smithbilts.
On town trips (sixth floor, top of the Bay, fries and gravy) she
alone among her friends keeps attracting these…weirdos. the
Five Star bag lady stands at the soda machine, puts her hands out
in benediction and tells her Proceed…but with prayer. Rejoice!
The ill-from-birth simpleton, that brother-teased prophet,
confers a benediction. You’re a witch as sweet as buttermilk he
says, outside Wing’s Confectionary. So pretty. A horse speaks your
language. You are a little bit my relation, a little bit queen.
Late night movies make her a sociologist of swagger. She
cobbles a Cabaret look out of silver and green. She is the freak
magnet, the fruit bat in the bathroom. She publicly derides hope
chests, pulls up the blanket, dreams of the romantic lure of plate
glass. Panes kicked into pebbles.
Franklin the Failed
In the quest for love one has to be willing to give up one’s own
skin. Our trading language is Hysteria. My mother tongue.
Lead in the food, sugar in the tank.
Van dead. End of the tour. We are just bodies, animals that have
forgotten themselves. We withhold, are withered and stuck.
Franklin in the ice. We smoke the plastic-scented air to thaw and
lengthen the legend.
The side door slides open outside the last diner. The mud frozen
to the shape of a shoe, the ridges filling with sleet.
Instructions to a Mail Order Bride
Solitude of a Fille du Roi
House rules: Pack lynx pelts and a bellyful of salted reindeer. Make
the bed carefully, like an undertaker. There are scrub-brushes for
everything. Attack your teeth as zealously you scour bed-sheets.
Blood will be generated, blood will be eradicated. All evidence
must be removed.
This is dog town, plenty of holes. The ground is covered with
artefacts. Ignore them.
Your duty is to sex up the sky, give backroom treats for future
reverie. The rollaway cot folds in on itself, a misery taco.
Curse that frog peasant you bought beer for, the one who stretched
caution tape between you and the life you wanted, who denied
you a ride to the Multiplex, left you dirt bound and sniffly,
clutching a slice of bread.
Remember – two nights will buy a pair of red shoes. Claim
diplomatic immunity when caught with the meat in your mouth.
Don’t worry about the sheets. I’ll make them clean it up. They
don’t speak English anyway.
TTQ – Your background in the arts is extensive and includes songwriting, poetry, and working as a playwright. Which genre are you most passionate about and is there one that supersedes the other in terms of calling it a lucrative career choice?
Ali Riley – None of my career choices are what you would call lucrative, though I do have a union job and it involves dealing with people that have broken with reality—I work with dementia patients—and there is a lot of spontaneous poetry. I’m keeping a written record of it that with an eye towards working them into found poems.
In terms of genre, music will always be my first love. I have to confess that lyrics probably influence me much more than poetry, seeing as I’m one of those annoying people that pretty much remember every song they’ve ever heard. When I’m getting my oil changed I’ll amuse myself by seeing how many albums I can sing all the way through.
TTQ – When did you start writing poetry and what inspired you to do so?
Ali Riley – Though I always wrote and journaled, the time I really started writing was for my band, Sacred Heart of Elvis. I had to come up with songs for our practices. The kind of music I liked heavily emphasized lyrics—Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Dylan, X.
I was lucky to be in a band that would tell me when my lyrics were lousy. Tim Campbell (a respected Calgary guitar player who died of cancer in 2011) had a look he would get on his face when he thought something was cheesy. “More Grit!” was our motto.
TTQ – What should people expect when they begin reading your latest book of poems 33 Million Solitudes (Frontenac Books, 2012) and is there a specific message or theme you're trying to convey to the reader?
Ali Riley – I like to shape shift and time travel within all of my books. I think what a person reading any of my books should understand is that I work very much in assemblage and collage. Juxtaposition really is “my main man”, as one of the characters in 33 Million Solitudes says—actually he writes it, on a cocktail napkin stuck to the strings of Chet Atkin’s Country Gentleman Gretsch.
33 Million Solitudes in particular has an overarching theme that all eras are always with us, and that includes the future (at least our myriad concepts of what the future can hold.) 33 Million Solitudes has the characters of the two traveling musicians—who are leaving messages for one another in various hidden places as they tour Canada—moving in and out of the personas of explorers like Henry Hudson and Samuel Hearne.
Disgruntled bassists stand in for Henry Hudson’s men, who, as they became more famished and deranged on their venture, begin to suspect Hudson of hiding provisions, just as band members on tour may doubt the evening’s count and think the singer is ripping them off.
The idea for that particular juxtaposition came from my friend Carolyn Mark, the hardest-working woman in show business. In fact the initial idea we had was that the book would later be presented as a musical. I still think it’s a great idea. I have some great costumes planned.
A lot of the poems, especially in the title section, are very fluid in terms of time, place and identity. “Instructions to a Mail Order Bride: Solitude of a Filled Du Roi” starts with a girl with a hope chest full of lynx pelts and salted reindeer and ends up in a failed joyride to a multiplex. There’s a kind of fairy tale logic that runs throughout the book. Spirits and totemic objects appear and vanish, there’s a trickster-witch figure that appears to all the characters at one point. She’s an amalgamation of tough settler, dancehall girl, runaway and troubadour.
I really enjoyed playing with the idea of Canadian identity: using cut ups of Roughing it In the Bush, taking on the idea of the road and prairie landscape with the city-stuck poems, and throwing in a bunch of references to obscure Canadian bands that I’m sure only one or two people will appreciate.
I loved that the motto for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Pro Pelle Cutem can be translated as “to obtain a skin you have you give up your own”. I saw that as such a great metaphor for love.
The title of course, refers to the 2 Canadian solitudes of French and English…and that we are living in such a culture of individualism—with its attendant isolation and alienation—that there is a separate solitude for every person in this country.
I gave a reading a while back and there were some younger folks that hadn’t heard of the concept of the two solitudes of French and English, and didn’t really understand the meaning of it, which surprised me. It almost makes calling the book 33 Million Solitudes even more apt. Maybe I should have called the book 33 Million Facebook Accounts.
TTQ – What is your writing process like and do you prefer writing in a specific environment, time of day or do you simply write when you feel inspired?
Ali Riley – Different books get written differently. With Wayward, my first book, I was living in a cabin on a river in British Columbia, off the grid, and I would get up, have breakfast and go and sit by the river and write. I think I’ve tried to mimic that isolation, to different degrees of success, ever since.
When I’m alone, especially by a forest or in a farmhouse, I become inundated with voices. It’s almost like being in a trance. I like dressing up, dancing around for a bit, making collages and working with colour. Visual art really inspired me with this last book. There’s a lot of colour in 33 Million Solitudes. Lots of splashes of red and German Expressionist acid green.
So my first three books, I’ve been joking lately, were part of my self-imposed period of seclusion. I think I’m becoming more inspired by the idea of living in a city and absorbing that energy. I haven’t lived in a city for years now, but I read last week in Calgary at the Single Onion reading series and it was so great, this bistro packed with writers. It was blustery outside and through the windows you could see people rushing by, looking longingly in at this packed café with warm light and entranced people.
TTQ – How important is reading your poetry live in front of an audience before publishing it in print?
Ali Riley – There’s two kinds of poems in the book—shorter ones that sort of work as a unit, like the section called “Subcutaneous Wall Tattoos” that are basically epistolary found poems between the two musician characters. Those ones I don’t really develop in front of an audience, but the longer ones really benefit from performance.
There’s a poem called “Adventures in the Fur Trade” that expounds on the fur trade as a metaphor for love, and I read it at a festival near Fort Macleod, South Country Fair, and it took on all this history from the area over the weekend and it really helped the poem.
TTQ – What is your opinion on the current state of poetry in Canada and do you think poetry is going through a kind of resurgence right now or are most in the literary world apathetic when it comes to poetry?
Ali Riley – I live in such isolation these days that I feel like I can’t even comment on the state of poetry in Canada, though there sure seems to be a lot of bickering, at least online. Nobody’s apathetic in those comment sections!
TTQ – What was your favourite poetry book that you have read in 2012 and why?
Ali Riley – One thing I read while writing 33 Million Solitudes that inspired me was Gabriel Dumont in Paris, by Jordan Zinovich. It’s a fantastic piece of assemblage. It didn’t come out in 2012, but I loved Eileen Myles’ Inferno: A Poet’s Novel. It was such an audacious approach to autobiography. Her book of essays The Importance of Being Iceland I also enjoyed. I’m reading more essays these days than poetry. Right now I’m reading The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art by Wendy Steiner. It relates to something I’m working on right now.
TTQ – Tell us about some of the plays you have written in the past and are most proud of. Will you be writing and producing more plays in the future?
Ali Riley – I think the plays I like the best are my Marquis de Sade Trilogy. I adapted Philosophy in the Bedroom for the Summerworks Festival one year, juxtaposing the characters in the original text with some 70’s teenagers dropping acid in a rec room. That piece started me on a trajectory that took me into some very unexpected and dark places. The second play in the series was Hole in My Heart the Size of My Heart and it was about a kind of Cindy Sherman type photographer that liked to take pictures of herself as a murder victim. This was in the mid-90s, the so-called “mayhem culture” was huge and serial killers were like Elvis, in terms of the ironic appreciation some people had. I wanted to comment on that. The photographer character visits a famous killer in prison and it becomes a kind of purging and epiphany for her. Greg Kramer played the Marquis de Sade as a ghostly commentator, gleefully rubbing his hands at what he sees as his children.
The final play was Schadenfreude Funhaus and in retrospect I have to say it was more of an installation than a play. I was so steeped in my own ideas about the subject at that point that no-one knew what I was talking about. The Toronto Star said that the meaning of the play was kept from the audience as if by an armed guard at Queen’s Park, or something like that. But Kate Taylor conceded that I had a poetic soul.
TTQ – What are the biggest differences between songwriting and writing poetry, and are you still playing music in a band?
Ali Riley – For me there’s not a huge difference between the two, except that songwriting is easier because you can push a so-so lyric over if you have a great tune. I recorded a song a couple of years ago, so at this rate I’ll have a CD by the 2020’s.
I seriously would love to play music again, though. I think I should get myself an autoharp. They seem to be the new ukulele.
TTQ – What’s next for Ali Riley?
Ali Riley – I am happy to be alive. I had a serious accident in June that put me in the hospital for two months. I am still off work and doing physiotherapy. The experience of going from being perfectly healthy to suddenly being a heavy consumer within the healthcare system is something I am still processing and sifting through.
It’s ironic because I was already writing a lot about the body. I’m in the early stages of working on a performance piece called, 7/8 Lifesize. It’s about the artist, the muse, self-invention, growing up in 70’s look-at-your-cervix-in-the-mirror feminism, and little girls as the ultimate drag queens.
Ali Riley reads from 33 Million Solitudes at the launch party at the Auburn Saloon on April 18, 2012 in Calgary, AB as part of the Calgary Spoken Word Festival.