Jenna Butler: Stories from the Wilderness
Stories from the Wilderness:
An Interview with Jenna Butler
Jenna Butler appeared in the first issue of The Compass, with a sequence of prose poems born out of her recent work in the Arctic. As editors we were struck by the feeling for landscape in the poems and wanted to explore this with her. The following interview was conducted through a number of email exchanges in January this year, and it was a huge pleasure to encounter her commitment to deep nature and her generosity in discussing her work.
Jenna has divided her time between England and Canada since her family emigrated there in the early eighties. She has published three full-length collections of poetry, Aphelion, Wells and Seldom Seen Road, and last year she published her first prose book A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail. As well and writing and farming she teaches ecocriticism at Red Deer college.
Your latest book, A Profession of Hope, is actually a prose book, about what we might call your ‘marginal farm’ at the edge of the ‘Grizzly Trail’ in Canada. The book shows the farm as the practice of a deep ecological commitment. Could you tell us a little about the farm?
Jenna: Absolutely. Our farm, Larch Grove, is a quarter section (160 acres), with 135 acres in untouched old-growth boreal forest and 25 acres in hay, which our neighbour leases for his dairy farm. We decided against clearing the entire quarter because we wanted to see what we could do in terms of small-scale organic farming practices that would work with the land and the unique ecosystem of the boreal forest. We cleared 1.5 acres by hand over the space of several years, and we run a large market garden and a small, unheated greenhouse, in addition to a naturally managed apiary. Our growing area and apiary are surrounded by an eight-foot fence made of larch (tamarack) trees from our land, as we have a healthy population of moose, deer, bears, and even the occasional cougar that we need to keep out of the veg. Early on in the planning for our farm, we took a cue from the fact that the nearest hook-up to the county’s electric grid is half a mile distant and decided to go fully off grid. Our cabin is powered by solar panels, heated through our -30C winters with a catalytic converter wood stove, and lit by beeswax candles. We grow the majority of the food we eat and preserve it for the cold months.
At the farm, we’re fascinated by the borders between the human and the “wild” land: where these borders are, what constitutes “wild,” and whether we can successfully work with the land to get what we need, instead of simply ruining it for our own gain.
We’re continually striving to be low impact and to close loops in our production to make ourselves more self-sufficient by adapting and saving seeds that work well in our harsh climate and digging a 15-foot farm pond to overwinter trout and diversify our food sources. Our future plans include building a straw bale artist residence and teaching studio, opening an off-grid B&B, and running workshops on preserving and beekeeping.
We’re interested in your poetic processes in relation to the farm. Any form of solitary activity, especially that which takes place outside, can be fertile ground for creativity. Do the poems take shape while you’re working on the farm, coming to you in words and phrases, or is it more a case of ideas forming which you explore later?
Jenna: The farm has a definite impact on my poetry, specifically in my concentration on place. I’m used to working outside in all weather, from +38C summers to our worst -50C winter days with windchill that will literally freeze flesh. Working with my hands through such changeable seasons makes me slow down and notice the sky, the light, the animals passing through our farm. The tasks ground me in my body and breath. It’s become the same when I travel to present research or to write in different environments: I become hyper-aware of what surrounds me, and I look for ways in which to slow down the frenetic pace of travelling to more deeply sink into those locales.
Sometimes poems take shape as I’m working, and other times, I find myself “filling up,” as it were, storing images and sensory experiences for months at a time before sitting down to write. At times like those, I’ll often complete a manuscript in one go after weeks or months of not writing, simply working and observing.
You divide your time between the farm and teaching eco-criticism in Red Deer. How do the teaching and farming relate to each other?
Jenna: My life on the farm and my teaching absolutely inform each other. For a start, living on the land in a sustainable manner permits me a unique perspective from which to teach my eco-criticism students. In the classroom, I have the opportunity to speak about the theories of land use that inform my life on the farm; I don’t come to eco-criticism as an academic writing from a research-only background. When I’m out at the farm, I’m constantly casting back to those critics whose work I’ve read. We started our farm to make a sustainable living, but also from a number of ideological reasons, and having a teaching background in eco-criticism provides me with the ability to better articulate those reasons.
Are there particular critics and writers that you cast back to?
Jenna: At the moment, I’m immersed (again) in the ecosemiotic work of Timo Maran from the University of Tartu. I also find myself sounding back to Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver down in the States, and up here in Canada, to Candace Savage’s writing about the layered history of the Prairies in A Geography of Blood. Lately, with the increasing evidence of seismic activity in farming land in my province because of fracking, I’ve been reading Andrew Nikiforuk’s Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry.
Your most recent book of poems, Seldom Seen Road, is a reimagining of the lives of settlers in the Canadian prairies. Do you see all your activities as part of one ecological project?
I hadn’t consciously set up my life and work in that way, but yes, everything I do – the teaching, the farming, and the creative writing – has come to be centered on the land.
In Seldom Seen Road, I was attempting to dig beneath the surface of the Canadian prairies, a landscape that’s so often dismissed as ‘flyover country,’ possessing neither the immediate, rugged beauty of the Rocky Mountains, nor the bustling culture of our easternmost and westernmost large cities. But having lived on the prairies for much of my life, and now living there much more intimately on the land as a farmer, I’ve become deeply aware of the layers of narrative. Seldom Seen Road looks at the stories of the settlers moving across Canada in waves in the wake of the railroad, encountering, and often discounting, the histories of the aboriginal people who already called the land home. As an immigrant myself from a mixed background, moving out to the country and building a small farm on this very storied land, I was intensely aware that I needed to learn more of the buried stories of the region I call home. Seldom Seen Road was my attempt to do just that: to uncover the lost or hidden narratives of the prairies, whether those were aboriginal narratives or settler narratives. I developed a particular interest in women’s stories and experiences of the land during the writing of that book.
When I think back, though, my two earlier books of poetry were also rooted in that concept of land/landscape and home (homing), and my latest book of farm essays is absolutely grounded in the boreal of northern Alberta. In many ways, my life has been shaped by the layers of stories I’ve been striving so hard to learn, and I’ve been drawn out to the land myself because I want to understand the history of this place to which I feel so deeply tied.
You chose to write A Profession of Hope as a prose book rather than as a collection of poems, though it does include a couple of your poems. Do you think that poetry and prose have different functions?
Jenna: I took a long time to finish taking notes and to actually start writing A Profession of Hope. A good part of that hesitancy was me permitting myself to step away from poetry, which has always felt like my first language, and to start writing this book that perplexingly wanted to emerge as non-fiction. I wasn’t sure whether to allow it the form it wanted or corral it back into poetry, and I’m endlessly glad for my wonderful editor, who encouraged me to write the stories of our farm, that land, as though simply telling them to a visiting friend.
Poetry has always struck me as the quickest way into the human system. When the words are just so, it’s as though you’ve been given them intravenously, bang, straight into the bloodstream and on their way to the heart. There’s very little room for words that don’t carry their own weight. Prose, though, can be a slippery thing; there’s more room to think your way around what you want to say, more room to build up to an image or an idea. It’s got a capaciousness that I don’t see present in poetry, which is always compressing itself like rock under pressure. Poetry always seems to be reducing itself to gem form, morphing into these hard, bright, glittering nuggets. By contrast, there’s something languid about prose.
I wanted to tell the stories of the land we’re lucky enough to care for, and my goal was to be able to speak those stories in a way that simply opened that land up for people, as a map unfolds. Poetry couldn’t quite do that; it would have been a very different book. Prose, this non-fiction blending of fact and personal narrative, gave me just the format I needed.
You say it perplexingly wanted to be prose. Many poets seem to turn to prose to discuss stories and ideas about nature and the landscape – Kathleen Jamie most obviously springs to mind – and often the prose acts as a commentary on the poems. Is there a collection of poems within this experience as well?
Jenna: I think I wrote the poetry collection underlying A Profession of Hope in Seldom Seen Road. Though Seldom Seen has a greater reach, stretching across all the Canadian Prairies, it’s very much the buried narratives of the land that continue to fascinate me here on the farm.
You recently spent time in the Arctic Circle, and a four-part poem ‘Lines Toward Ice’, which came out of that experience, was published in the first issue of The Compass. You’ve said to us that you were ‘haunted’ by the Arctic. Could you tell us a little more about it?
Jenna: In the summer of 2014, I was invited to spend two weeks on a barquentine sailing ship up in the Norwegian Arctic with a group of scientists, artists, and writers from around the world. We shared about 800 square feet of cabin and common space amongst 30 people, which was novel-worthy in itself, and travelled from Longyearbyen to Ny-Ålesund and all along the coastline, visiting glaciers, abandoned whaling stations, and Russian mining colonies. All of this happened over the summer solstice, so on top of being in the rigorous climate of the Far North, we were in 24-hour daylight. It was, hands down, the most uncanny experience of my life.
I’ve mentioned before being absorbed by the layers of story in a landscape, by land as palimpsest. The Arctic had so many such layers: the Sami traditions subsumed by whaling and mining, and then the most recent layer, tourism, sketched in overtop. And yet the Arctic is a landscape of stone, so traces last generations. I’ll never get the image of the piles of beluga bones at the abandoned whaling stations out of my head. In so many ways, the Arctic reminded me of the prairies I call home, where one can still see tipi rings and the faint tracks of settlers’ wagons in the few untouched spaces of original grass. In the Arctic, little breaks down because of the cold and the heavy winter snows. Those traces, the remnants of mining colonies, whaling stations, and failed expeditions, will be there for the duration.
Is ‘Lines Toward Ice’ part of a larger project?
Jenna: It is. I’m working on a manuscript of prose poetry about coming to a landscape like Svalbard, one that has been rigidly defined by men in terms of exploration, mining, and whaling, and being there as a woman. This male-dominated history is the case in many places, but in a ‘frontier’ such as Svalbard, it’s more evident in the history and the attitudes of the locals. Just as a landscape like the Arctic has its layers of history, and the land reveals these layers in the artefacts lying about, so too do humans have layers and histories and stories. It’s taken me a year and a half back here on the prairies to fully process what happened to me, to all of us, up there in Svalbard, but it was a sort of paring. The land whittled us away. The time together on the boat, crammed in together and learning, as the explorers did, how to survive such forced intimacy, whittled us away. The 24-hour daylight whittled us away. The poems in this new manuscript attempt to mimic that paring process, both in regard to land/history and in terms of personal narrative/experience.
To talk again about form, ‘Lines Toward Ice’ is written in short prose paragraphs. It’s a contrast from the spareness of the form in Seldom Seen Road. What influences your formal choices?
Jenna: The particular project influences my formal choices, really. In Seldom Seen Road I was trying to retell these buried layers of story in this rich, fertile landscape, but I also wanted the reader to have a sense of the vastness of the Canadian prairies and the gaps in the buried narratives I was telling. The poems in that book are hyper-aware of space, employing it as a form of punctuation. ‘Lines Toward Ice’ parallels, in many regards, what I was doing in Wells, my second book. There, I was talking about a loved one disappearing into senile dementia, and the gaps were already so vast. To mimic them on the page would have been to lose too much, because there wouldn’t have been enough language to hold the spaces together. The same is true with the Arctic poems. I’m turning toward prose poetry because there is already such sparseness present: the land is rock and bone and light, very little more. I’m trying to flesh it out a bit with the longer lines.
You have lived in the UK as well as Canada. Do you have a sense of different cultures within you, and if so does this influence your projects?
Jenna: Absolutely. My own background is mixed far beyond the UK and Canada, with my mother’s history in Tanzania and her family’s emigration to escape the violence there. Like many of us, I’m carrying landscapes in my bones that I’m only half aware of. But having been born in northeastern England and gone back frequently to visit, I carry that land very close to me; it’s still one of my homes, even though I’ve settled for good on the Canadian prairies.
When I think of the land here, I think of it as a palimpsest, storied and erased and rewritten, over and over again. When I think of the human, though, I think our tendency is to want to hold onto multiple homes. When I’m out at the farm, I’m trying to hold all the stories at once – aboriginal, settler, my own as an immigrant to this place. Holding all at once keeps me vigilant, attentive to all the stories at once. Just as I can feel at home in England and in Canada, I want to be able to hold the aboriginal history of the land and the settler history of the land in my head at the same time. Nothing left behind, nothing forgotten. All of the places I come from are constantly informing how I walk in the world.
Thank you so much Jenna for giving us a fascinating insight into your life and work and the way they relate to each other. We’d like to wrap up by asking what’s next for you. Presumably ‘Lines Towards Ice’ is coming to fruition, but do you have other writing projects on the go, and what are the next big tasks at the farm?
Jenna: Thanks so much for the great questions! Yes, the Arctic manuscript is coming into being through the fantastic support of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and I’m also working on a new collection of essays about women, beekeeping, and international community-building called Revery: A Year of Bees. This manuscript is taking me to some far-flung places around the globe to interview women beekeepers who have built strong, independent communities and self-supporting ways of life through their newfound trade, and the research will connect back to our own apiary at the farm. The province we live in, Alberta, is the top honey-producing province in Canada and has its own roster of intriguing women beekeepers, so there will be a definite connection.
I’m also a big fan of creative communities, so I’m thrilled to be writing three essays about off-grid living, beekeeping, and living with Mother Nature (which, in our case, means moose, bears, and cougars!) for the new North American anthology Women Who Farm. This book will draw together the stories of women from Canada and the United States who, for myriad reasons, have taken up working with the earth.
At the farm, we’re busy clearing ground for our farmhouse – 2017 will see Larch Grove open as an off-grid artist residence, so we’ll be moving out of our wee cabin and into a slightly larger living/work space so the cabin can be turned over to visiting artists. Our other plans include getting the outdoor bread oven completed and building a straw bale gathering house for the artists … but those plans are a couple of years in the future!