25th Trillium Award

A profile of Abby Paige (with a few questions)

 
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Abby Paige

by rob mclennan

One might say it would be hard to pin down a quick description of Abby Paige, as ?writer and performer? simply doesn?t allow for her range. Born and raised in Northern Vermont, she performed stand-up and sketch comedy as an undergraduate at Vassar College, where she also spent a term as a Fulbright Scholar. She later joined the award-winning San Francisco comedy collective, Killing My Lobster, and spent five years with the group as a featured writer and performer before returning to Vermont in 2003 to work on The Voices Project, a documentary theatre project she co-wrote and co-directed with filmmaker Bess O?Brien that focused on the lives of Vermont Teens. She subsequently co-wrote the project as a screenplay, which appeared as the feature film Shout it Out! (2008), the same year she emigrated to Canada. A couple of years ago she moved to Ottawa from Montreal, and, later this year, she and her family will be relocating to Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Her poetry, essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications on both sides of the border including Room, ottawater, RHINO, Bitch Magazine, Arc Poetry Magazine, Hunger Mountain Review, Structo, the ottawa poetry newsletter and the Montreal Review of Books. Her solo show, Piecework: When We Were French, explores the legacy of French-Canadian immigration to northern New England. As Paige described the origins of the show for Bob Nuner in The Bridge in 2013:

Piecework: When We Were French began with a series of interviews, a dozen or so generous Franco-Americans sharing their stories and memories with me, and the life of the show on the road has continued to be collaborative. One of the greatest rewards of continuing to share the show with audiences has been the sense of community created in each performance. I expected a solo show to feel a bit lonely as I stepped onto the stage all by myself, but again and again audiences have picked up where my original interviewees left off, sharing their heartfelt responses and their own memories through postshow talk-backs, sidewalk chats and thoughtful e-mails. I have learned so much from these interactions, and they are, in fact, why I keep the word piecework in the show?s title.

She later composed a long poem furthering her research on French-Canadian history, appearing as the chapbook Other Brief Discourses (above/ground press, 2013). In his review of the chapbook for the ottawa poetry newsletter, Ryan Pratt described the work as ?a sequence of poems centered on a trip to Quebec [.]? He writes:

But Paige finds a unique lens beyond the escapist reverie: ?translating? Samuel Champlain de Brouage?s encounters in New France ?during the early years of the new millennium?. In this fantasy memoir, the explorer wrestles to integrate himself amidst post-millennial Montreal?s ?pox of pavement?, the outer banks of the Saint Lawrence River and citizens who illustrate modern life as secular and money-driven (compared to the late 1500s, of course). [?]

Although fully aware he has lost four centuries, Paige?s Champlain rarely engages old-world wonderment as much as in the above excerpt. In fact many observations feel symptomatic of a far less lengthy absence; the sprouting big-box outlets in Montreal, the zoned-out travelers and junkies at the bus station. This is as much Paige?s poetic retelling as it is a fictional what-if tale and Other Brief Discourses thrives on the duality of its yearning protagonist(s).

By its very premise, this sequence of poems is charming. (A poem chronicling Champlain?s irritation while waiting at the American border keeps springing to mind.) Paige doesn?t settle for situational, fish-out-of-water commentary though, instead touching on shades of nostalgia and belonging that gather additional traction for her narrative. From cramped, urban tunnels and hostel quarters to Champlain?s soiled, waterway haunts; through the flurry of morning commuters to downtown?s late-night pub-crawls; Other Brief Discourses strikes a natural ebb and flow that frees the reader from feeling stuck in one place for too long.

Abby Paige reads next in Ottawa as part of The Factory Reading Series on Friday, February 20, 2015, alongside Calgary poet Nikki Sheppy and Fredericton poet Hugh Thomas.

rob mclennan:

I?m curious as to how you feel as though your variety of creative works connect, or have perhaps influenced each other, given your time performing stand-up and sketch comedy, working in theatre and film, to your solo work in performance and poetry. Do you see each of these as aspects of each other, or are they even connected at all?

Abby Paige:

It?s taken me a long time to work that out for myself. Just in the past ten years or so I?ve finally found some through-lines. Doing solo work helped enormously, as did my MFA program, where I was forced to articulate my ideas about my work. A big part of it is storytelling. When I say storytelling many people will automatically think I mean narrative, but I mean something less literary, more psychological than that ? an impulse to give testimony, to tell a story the way it?s done in therapy or a 12-step program, where the speaker is working out the story?s meaning as it?s being told. I?m interested in how the work of talking about ourselves and our experiences shapes our identities and is part of what lets us take up space in the world. I think that process is fundamentally human ?as in, humans tend toward storytelling, but also storytelling is part of what creates and supports our humanity and our sense of connection to one another. And I?m interested in how people go about it, and also in what happens when they fail to go about it, and allow themselves to be defined passively, outwardly.

I?m really interested in this thing that Catriona Strang said, that the idea of an individual writer is bullshit, because we?re all constantly talking with people and being changed and affected by people, and to all writers are collaborating. That?s really how I understand my work, even my solo work. My work is porous, my ownership of it is loose, and it?s often very much about me trying to make sense of what?s me and what?s other people. That?s part of what?s compelling about acting ? the slipperiness of myself, how I can shift voice or posture or diction in some way, and I?m simultaneously still myself and someone else. I?m curious about that as a writer, too. It?s a bit like how some poets use form to drive them to new places linguistically or emotionally. For me the form is other people, the exercise of trying to imagine or embody other people. When the work is about me, as it is with stand-up or sometimes with poems, I?m still trying to understand myself in relation to other people. Where did I come from? What parts of me are mine? How can I make myself known? To what extent do I want to?

rm:

Both your solo show, Piecework: When We Were French, and your poetry chapbook, Other Brief Discourses, are deeply engaged in different elements of French history on both sides of the border. What first precipitated your interest in such, and what made you choose the forms of solo performance and poetry to explore it? How successful do you feel these projects have been, and are you planning any further work on the subject?

AP:

Geography is really important to me. I have a very muse-like relationship to the area where I?m from. Northern Vermont is the center of the universe for me. I consider myself a Franco-American artist, which I sort of love saying to Canadians, because they usually have no idea what I?m talking about and their eyes bug out a little. To be fair, a lot of people in the US would probably not know what that meant either, but I think that in Canada, because French/English is one of the fences that everyone is supposed to fall on one or the other side of, claiming myself as Franco-anything (and in English) is sort of puzzling in a way I enjoy.

I grew up close to the Quebec border, and my ancestors have lived in that borderland for as long as white people have been in North America. I grew up in the US, but I had always thought of myself as French-Canadian, probably the way white people think of themselves as white, which is pretty much not at all, until they?re in a situation where they get smacked in the face with it somehow and have to articulate what that is. For me the face-smacking came when I moved to Quebec, and of course realized that I was something other than French-Canadian. The solo show and the Champlain poems grew out of that process of, first, feeling a sort of shame that I wasn?t quebecoise after all, that I was somehow less-than, and then, second, reinventing a sense of myself as a historical person, creating for myself the story of how I came into being, which is tied to the history of New France and Canada and the US. I?m always interested in history, history on a personal scale. I?m working on some poems now about citizenship, now that I?m officially a dual-citizen. I like to always be looking across borders.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I continue to be interested in what I guess I would call white ethnicities. I think there?s a lot of work to be done around race in North America, and I think most of that work needs to be done by white people. I think there?s a sense that brown people come from places and have these exotic foreign cultures, but white people just exist, ahistorically and without the need to explain themselves or account for their present place in the world. And to me, I?m very interested in how I got to where I am now. I think the fact that my ancestors gave up their culture to buy me the full privileges of American whiteness, that?s something I keep wanting to come back to. The citizenship poems are part of that, trying to untie what citizenship means in different contexts and how people have been able to move across space over time. And also how stories about Nation are contructed.

For me, solo performance as I was able to do it with Piecework, is sort of the perfect combination of stand-up and poetry. The structure of the show was explicitly poem-like. It has more of an emotional arc than a narrative one. I was inspired by David Budbill?s Judevine, which is a Vermont play, and I had read William Carlos William?s Paterson, which is this long chaotic mess of a poem, and I liked the kitchen-sink approach of it. And a quilt that my great-grandmother made was a big influence, too. That?s where the title comes from. She made this quilt out of mismatched scraps of fabric, and that became my organizing principle. Juxtapose these different voices and moments, and the arc is created by how those things hang together. Stand-up is kind of like that, too. A comic doesn?t get up to tell you one story, but a good comic is doing something larger than just a barrage of disconnected jokes. What I like about stand-up is the intimacy and immediacy of it, the fact that the audience and the performer are explicitly in the same space, and vulnerable there together. I like that the performer is held accountable. You can?t suck when you?re the only person on stage; the audience keeps you honest. I like that accountability.

rm:

How did your ?Hoems? project, a project in which you spoke of combining your ?poet? self and ?homemaker? self, first emerge, and how has the project developed?

AP:

I?m glad you asked about the hoems; I was thinking about reading some of them at the Factory Reading on the 20th. I would have to say that the hoems emerged by necessity, or at least frustration. I wasn?t one of those people for whom motherhood was a rich and inspiring experience, at least not at the beginning. For me, the newborn phase was a big empty gray space with a baby in it. I found pregnancy kind of like that, too, kind of flat. I finally started to get colour back when my son was about nine months old. I emerged from the fog enough by then to want to write, but that desire collided with the practical problem of how to write. I didn?t have time or childcare, and I also felt that I had a deficit, almost on a neurological level, of language. I felt like I didn?t have the capacity, practically or mentally, to elaborate a thought. I was also sort of waking up to the permanency of parenthood, or the pace of it, and I was starting to understand how slowly I was going to be able to regain ground. I am a slow writer. First drafts, for me, are like blood from a stone, and then I like to revise a lot. It all takes time. Writing that way, at least in the short term, felt like it was off the table. I?m a gardener, so to use a gardening metaphor, it was like I had moved to a new climate. I knew I theoretically could grow things there, but I didn?t know what or how or when.

Also, in reading, I had noticed that I had developed a kind of allergy to a certain kind of work, work that I probably would have enjoyed a lot previously. I remember reading one whole book that was this guy walking around in the woods, and I just felt like, Jesus! Who has time for this? And I say this as someone who has a whole series of walking poems. Walking is great! I love the woods! It wasn?t that it seemed self-indulgent. It seemed almost the opposite of that ? contrived. There was all this wind whispering through the pines and geese flying overhead, and it just made me impatient. Like, did you bring snacks? Are your feet cold? Where did you leave your car? Because for me, these had become the essential questions: all the rigamaroll that goes with being out in the world. My whole life had become rigamaroll, and there?s no rigamaroll in poetry. Poetry is way above the rigamaroll.

I read a great interview between Rachel Zucker, Wayne Kostenbaum and Matthew Rohrer in The Believer around this time that seemed to diagnose my problem. They were exploring all the things that aren?t usually considered worthy of poetic treatment, things that are domestic, or maybe just too pedestrian, too quotidian. I remember the price of haircut being something that one of them felt should be written about, and I felt like, yes ? that?s what I mean: rigamaroll. I want to write about rigamaroll.

And then, the same week, a friend sent me a poem by Joe Brainard that goes:

Sometimes
everything
seems
so
oh, I don?t know.

Isn?t that just one of the loveliest things you ever seen? I love the concision, and the appearance of saying nothing while also transporting you straight into that emotional place of being just totally over it. The laziness of it! It just seemed like a grand gesture of permission, like, Look, a poem can have 8 words in it and not really say anything, and it?s still a poem.

So I started to think about writing really little poems, seeing how little they could get. And then I decided I?d get a Twitter account, in part to prevent myself from revising too much, from getting too precious with any of it, by saying okay, today this poem is going to born and revised and published, and let?s see what that?s like. It was a way of taking poetry less seriously, and also of taking my day-to-day experiences more seriously, of sort of dignifying the experience of being home with a child, which is work that has zero value in our culture. I had felt like I was no longer having thoughts, because I so rarely had the opportunity to pursue a thought very far. The hoems helped me to see a thought when it went passing by and to catch it. Not because it was a great thought, but because it was a thing, a human thing.

Now that my son is a bit older and can talk, I don?t have quite the same feeling of isolation I did before, and I have a bit more space to write about the things I want to write about, rather than just those little moments. But I?m still interested in the challenge of brevity. And I?m still very interested in exploring the verboten in poetry ? and I think there?s a lot of verboten where kids are involved.

rm:

How has your creative life shifted since you became a parent? Apart from the obvious exhaustion and lack of attention for creative work, how has it changed the way you think about creating work?

AP:

There are some good muscles that I think parenthood exercises for an artist, or a writer. For example, my son is three now, and he?s very social and verbal; I call him The Ambassador, because everywhere he goes he wants to be talking with people and connecting. I spend a lot of time these days explaining what words mean, which is something I want to be able to do well. Also, because I spend the majority of my time with a person who has a growing vocabulary, I spend a lot of time considering which words to use. What is the simplest, most direct way of putting this, while not dumbing it down? How can I convey this enormous, difficult idea in words that he will understand? And I?m interested in that question as a writer, in putting things plainly but not dumbly. He also wants to make up stories a lot of the time, and I?ve never enjoyed improv ?I love revision!? so it?s good practice for me, to collaborate with him in that way.

I feel that, if anything, parenthood has distilled me; I?m not different from before but more emphatically myself. My hunger to work is greater, mostly because it doesn?t get fed as much as it did before. My interest in prose has grown, also mostly because the opportunity for me to grow a thought and expand on it is really limited now. And I have a greater sense of peace about myself as a writer. I have kind of recognized that whatever problems I have with the work are the problems I will always have in one way or another; those are the things I need to rub up against in order to do my work, the helpful little irritants.

I am careful when people ask how parenthood has changed things, because I feel pretty strongly that the changes are mostly due to society?s unwillingness to support parents in substantive ways. I feel the loss of status that comes from having additional needs, from the practical business of life being more complex and expensive than before. Parenthood has sharpened my anger about how women and children are devalued in our society ? valued symbolically, but not actually. Alice Walker has written about our genius great-great-grandmothers. She calls them ?springs of creativity that had no release.? She?s writing particularly about black women, of course: a woman who felt moved to paint but was forced to raise white people?s children, or a woman who was meant to write but spent her life picking cotton instead. I?m more aware now of just how limited my grandmothers and great-grandmothers were, of how painful it would have been for them to have children if that wasn?t something they felt called to do. I feel angry for them, and that anger, for me, is good fuel. It makes me feel like my working is important in a larger sense. It makes me feel like I can ask my grandmothers to work through me, to collaborate with me. I need all the help I can get.


Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa with his brilliantly talented wife, the poet, editor and bookbinder Christine McNair, and their daughter, Rose. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He also curates the weekly ?Tuesday poem? series at the dusie blog, and the ?On Writing? series at the ottawa poetry newsletter. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com. He currently spends his days full-time with toddler Rose, writing entirely at the whims of her nap-schedule.

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