25th Trillium Award

Profile on Frances Boyle, with a few questions

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Frances Boyle

by rob mclennan

There are three Ottawa poets this fall over the age of fifty publishing their debut poetry collections, from Amanda Earl?s Kiki (Chaudiere Books) and Roland Prevost?s Singular Plurals (Chaudiere Books) to Frances Boyle?s Light-carved Passages (BuschekBooks). Given the length of time Boyle has been quietly publishing in literary journals and anthologies (far longer than Earl and Prevost), it would seem curious that she hadn?t published a trade collection well before this (and yet, one shouldn?t hold such against her). Over the years, her poetry and fiction has appeared in journals such as The New Quarterly, Vallum, CV2, Prairie Fire, Fiddlehead, Room (and its predecessor, Room of One?s Own), Bywords, Arc, ottawater, Freefall and Moonset, among many others, as well as anthologies on subjects from Hitchcock to form poetry to mother/daughter relationships, including In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry and A Sea of Alone: Poems for Alfred Hitchcock. She was the winner of the 2014 Tree Press chapbook prize (resulting in her chapbook Portal Stones, some poems from which are also included in her Light-carved Passages), Arc?s Diana Brebner Prize, CV2?s 2-Day Poem Contest ?People?s Choice? prize in 2013, and This Magazine?s Great Canadian Literary Hunt for poetry (with third place for fiction in the same year), as well as placing second in Prairie Fire?s Banff Centre Bliss Carmen Award in 2008, and long-listed for The Best Canadian Poetry in English.

Raised in the prairies, she studied at the University of Regina and McGill, and spent a dozen years in Vancouver before arriving in Ottawa nearly twenty years ago, and spent time as a volunteer Producer and movie reviewer at Vancouver Co-Op Radio (while working at a corporate law firm). Since her time in Ottawa, she has sat on the Boards of Directors of a dance school and CACDA (the charity that supports Canterbury High School?s Arts Program), became a member of the Ruby Tuesday and Other Tongues writing groups, as well as a former member of both the Wellington Street Poets (2006-2010) and Pachyderm Poets (2002-2010). She has served on Arc Poetry Magazine?s editorial board since 2010.

She launches her debut poetry collection, Light-carved Passages, as part of the RailRoad Reading Series in Ottawa on Thursday, December 4, 2014.

rob mclennan:

You mentioned once about attending the Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts (the precursor to the current Sage Hill Writing Experience) in 1980 to work on fiction with Jack Hodgins. There?s a significant gap in your curriculum vitae after that, in which one might presume you were busy working and having children. What was it that finally brought you back to writing and publishing? Or: were you quietly writing the entire time?

Frances Boyle:

The Fort San experience (Saskatchewan Summer School for the Arts) was my effort to cement a writing practice as I left my home town of Regina for school in Montreal. It sort of worked ? after having talked my way into Jack?s Advanced Prose group and, largely silently, soaking up what he along with participants like Bonnie Burnard, Edna Alford and David Carpenter had to say, I came away with the impetus to think of myself as a writer. I did keep plugging away all those years, although with some long breaks and minimal output. Yes, the corporate law grind and raising two daughters definitely kept me from spending any significant time writing, but I did take a few short workshops in Vancouver. I recently came across an old class list for one of them, and realized that Catherine Owen, then a teenager, had also participated in it. We?ve compared notes since and, while neither of us has any clear recollection of the other, we both remember the intense soul-baring and secret-spilling of that experience.

What brought me back to writing in a real way was moving to Ottawa, and the luxury of time. The first few years here, I was home with my kids while doing contract and consulting work, including some interesting research/writing projects on charity law. I?ve had a day job again for a considerable while, but it is far short of the 60+-hour weeks I tended to work in Vancouver. A farewell gift from my oldest friend there was a copy of The Artist?s Way, so a period of diligently writing ?morning pages,? and the luck of falling in with a good critiquing group, gave me the incentive, feedback and confidence to write regularly. I submitted a story I?d workshopped with that group to the Nepean Public Library contest where it got an honourable mention and was eventually my first publication. Then, incrementally, I wrote more stories, expanded to also write poetry, got prizes in a few more contests and had more work published. Literary magazine publications were great, of course, but the locally-based chapbooks also provided a wonderful forum for getting writing into the world, working with fellow writers and developing a sense of community.


You?ve taken a number of workshops over the years, from the aforementioned fiction workshop with Hodgins, to two further, also for fiction: with Elisabeth Harvor at the Maritime Writers Workshop in 2000, and with Audrey Thomas at the Victoria School of Writing in 2003 (with shorter, and more recent fiction workshops led by Mary Borsky, Joanne Proulx, Jan Andrews and Rita Donovan). What do you feel those experiences have allowed you, and what is the status of your fiction? Is there a manuscript still being worked on?


Fiction is where I began, and what I think I understand best. (Even now, poetry at the early draft stage still tends to be an intuitive, fumbling in the dark process for me). Intensive residential workshops like the ones you mention provided the chance to work with writers I admire, uninterrupted stretches of time for writing and long conversations about writing. The courses and groups that meet once a week have resulted in comradeship, support and ? when they?re good as mine have been ? solid suggestions to make the writing better. (There are also practical comments such as the improvements suggested to a story I ? with my distinctly un-green thumb ? wrote about a gardener protagonist). Every group leader I?ve worked with has a slightly different approach, and I?ve learned new elements of craft, editing and close-reading from each of them.

My fiction writing informs my poetry, and vice-versa. Not all my poems are narrative by any means, but a number of them do relate stories, both fictional and based in reality. And a magazine editor once commented that one of my stories was ?clearly written by a poet? (though in the context of a rejection, so I?m not sure that was viewed as a good thing).

I do have enough stories for a collection, but it seems rather a mixed bag. There are several linked stories, and others unrelated to the linked ones, or to each other. I am part of an ongoing fiction group that grew out of Mary Borsky?s workshop and meets regularly, and I will keep revising and bringing stories there with a view to putting them together in a more cohesive manuscript over the course of the next year or so. I don?t move very quickly?


Over the past decade, you?ve been slowly making your way through just about every corner of Ottawa?s literary community, from publishing in Pearl Pirie?s phafours publications, engaging with a variety of writer?s groups and reading series, to being part of the Arc Poetry Magazine editorial board. There?s a certain amount of curiosity, even fearlessness, that such a level and variety of engagement suggests. How do you feel these engagements have facilitated your work as a writer?


Curious, yes, but hardly fearless. I am a fairly timid person, so going by myself to poetry readings was initially painful ? not the readings themselves, but cringing in socially awkward paroxysms through talking (or not-talking) to people beforehand. It did get easier with time and greater familiarity, and now the readings and related conversations are fun social events with the added benefit of enriching experience though listening and conversation. I early promised myself that I would attend any reading where I knew the writer personally. As I got to know more and more people it became impossible to attend them all ? but I still feel badly when I can't make it out to lend my support to someone in the community.

Writers? groups are gold, at least for me: stimulation, exposure to different styles and perspectives, continuity, comradeship sometimes growing to exceptional friendships. Actual writing happens in my regular weekly group. We always start with a prompt or an exercise, and there are particularly busy weeks when that may be the only writing I do. My bulky notebook is the compost bin for ideas, phrases, images and very very rough drafts. When I get down to creating a poem, I will frequently start with that raw material and shape it from there. And there are expectations ? I don?t want to show up more than a week or two in a row without a new poem. Deadlines are good, which is why so many of my publications came from contests rather than regular submissions.

It?s about gaining confidence and being engaged with community. New experiences, such as being part of the staged/scored performance earlier this year of extracts from Dean Steadman?s new book (coming from Brick in 2016), help me stretch, provide a new sense of possibility. Arc is a great learning ground and ? like the writing groups ? have given me some of my most precious friendships. I don?t have the same depth or breadth of knowledge about poetry as many of my editorial board colleagues, and I haven?t read (or even heard about) every emerging writer and new book. But I am a pretty good sheepdog, and can nip at heels so that things get done.

And the more I go to readings, sit in Arc meetings, workshop a poem or story with one of my groups, or stand in front of a microphone, the better I feel about my own writing, and my place in the community. Community is why I am so glad that I was invited to launch my book as part of a regular reading series, rather than out on my own.


How did the book Light-carved Passages come about, and how long have you worked on the manuscript? Is this an accumulation of years? worth of work, or a more recent construction?

Frances Boyle:

This collection is indeed a selection from among poems written over a number of years. It includes some I wrote in the past year alongside (a revised version of) my first published poem from 2001. The manuscript began to take shape at a couple of workshops (one with Beth Follett and Stan Dragland, and another with Elizabeth Bachinsky). Up until then, it had just been a bunch of random poems. I began to see common themes, images, preoccupations, and drew on them as I assembled and substantially revised the poems with Barry Dempster?s guidance over the course of the Banff Wired Writing program. The completed manuscript made the shortlist with several publishers, and I continued to revise and substitute poems until John Buschek accepted it for BuschekBooks this summer. Rita Donovan quickly worked through editing suggestions with me, and John was able to bring a handsome book into print in remarkably short order, for which I am very grateful.

Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. 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) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), 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 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

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