Author spotlight: Tammy Armstrong

Tammy Armstrong is the author of two novels and five poetry collections. Her debut collection, Bogman’s Music (Anvil, 2001), was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award. Her most recent book is a poetry collection titled Year of the Metal Rabbit, which was published by Gaspereau Press last fall. In what follows, Armstrong discusses her writing practice, what she loves about living in southwestern Nova Scotia, new books she’s looking forward to, and more.

How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and poetry in particular?

I suppose, like many writers, I’ve been writing in some way since I was young. Before I started school, I’d sit on the kitchen counter while my mother cooked and she’d say, “Tell me a story or make up a song,” and so I would. I never had a sense of being “drawn” to writing until I submitted a manuscript to UBC’s Creative Writing Department. I was an undergrad and wanted to switch out of the English department, but was unsure where to go. Before that, writing was just something I did, and I didn’t see it as anything beyond that. I didn’t have aspirations to publish books; that wasn’t something that I felt to be in my reach until I was in my mid-20s.

I probably have suspicions about language that brought me to writing, slant-wise, as well. I had to go through the ITA program in grades one and two. ITA was a ludicrous, 1960s literacy project based on synthetic phonics and short hand, with a symbolic alphabet of 43-45 characters—none of which accounted for regional accents. On the page, it looked like Chaucer, the Jabberwocky, and the Cat in the Hat got together over drinks and co-wrote a book for children. Parents couldn’t read it and were therefore shut out of their kid’s first years’ of literacy. I could already read and write when I started school, but I was reprimanded for spelling even my name in conventional English or reading books written in conventional English. In this way, English became subversive to me. I learned that writing exercises my mother made me do at home, were not the exercises I did at school. It was all very Cold War. In grade three, we were told to forget ITA and learn how words were really spelled. You can see how there’s now a generation out there with terrible spelling skills. I came away from that project with a distrust for rigid systems, but also with a better understanding that there is no one-way to approach language. It has shape-shifting qualities.

Having said all that, I came to poetry through music as well. I wasn’t exposed to much poetry when I was younger, but I had access to a lot of records and so songwriters, to some degree, have influenced how I think about language and form. I’m thinking of writers like Gordon Lightfoot, Bobbie Gentry, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt. Each of them, in their own way, manage to endow marginal characters, edge lands, and difficult experiences, with a sense of grace that other, lesser writers might overlook or dismiss. I also grew up in the 90s and there were many, many wonderful songwriters recording then, as well.

How do you know when a poem is done?

Finished is always a feeling, isn’t it? I never know, really, but I have a sense when the snags are sanded down, when nothing jumps out of the frame. If a line or a word bothers me each time I read a piece, if a stanza is balancing badly on three legs, then I know I’ve got to go back and fix it. When I feel that everything is resting or moving as it should, where it should, then I’m ready to move away from it.

While I wrote the collection over six-seven years, I wanted to compress many of those experiences into a seasonal/annual wheel. Over those years, I lived in four cities in two countries, I travelled to another six countries, and saw firsthand austerity riots in Athens, mega forest fires in New Mexico, and Colorado’s flash floods, which tore through our little town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains—with devastating results. I saw the yards of old boats that African migrants risked their lives in to reach Sicily. And my husband and I drove from Colorado to Nova Scotia five times in two years. All the people I met and all that I saw in those years made my sense of the world strange. It made everything feel displaced and misplaced.

While all of this shifting was happening, I was also finishing up my doctoral dissertation, which explored how animals disrupt poetry with their presence. So, I suppose the “metal rabbit” is that juxtaposition between all things outside the animal (in my case a lot of cars, and planes, and urban living) and all things which give space to the animal (in my case the sea birds and seals now, and the mountain cats, bears, rattlesnakes, mule deer, coyotes, and rabbits I shared my yard with in Colorado). This is why there’s so much shape-shifting in the collection, I think. When you pass by things quickly, or see them through glass, they can trick your eye. They can become something they’re not.

What do you do when you have writer’s block?

Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” And I adopt that sort of gentle handling, when it comes to how I think about writing. I come to the page every day, but some days might be puttering or reading or taking notes, and that’s okay. I’m not a fast writer, so I don’t have daily word count expectations or unachievable goals. With things the way they are right now, I feel inadequate with words. So I’ve been spending time reading Anna Akhmatova and letters written during the Spanish Flu, though I have to keep reminding myself that I am reading from the other side of that pandemic and the letters are from the centre; there was no ending for the writers yet, there was only being inside of it.

I also love how various art forms speak to each other. Lately, I’ve been really interested in visual artists, such as Andrew Wyeth, Andrea Kowch, Linden Frederick, and the Russian architect Alexander Nerovnya. All their work orbits around houses, in a sense. I think seeing how others translate the world in other mediums is both a humbling and inspiring way to spend an afternoon.

Do you have any writing rituals?

More habit than ritual, I suppose, but I like to take the first hour every morning to read some poetry or some fiction, especially something that challenges my own preconceptions of writing. I always have a hot cup of Yorkshire tea beside me when I work. And I always write under a quilt that a friend made for me some years ago. I write in an armchair by my window so I can spy on the bird drama that unfolds daily from the English Walnuts outside. When I’m editing, I like to use these really nice metallic gel pens that I bought in Latvia a few years ago. I haven’t been able to find them anywhere since, so I suspect I’ll miss them when they’re gone. I wish my dog would come hang out in my office with me, but he’s afraid of stairs and refuses to make the trip up to my room. That’s a German Shepherd for you.

What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?

I’m not sure . . . maybe the misconception is how much work goes into writing a book, how much of yourself you have to put into it, for years. I read a while ago an analogy to this (can’t remember where), that said something like, can you imagine an architect building a beautiful home and then having to put it on a flatbed truck and move it around, asking if anyone wants to buy it? Writers work on projects for years with very few assurances that they’ll ever see publication. I think all the foolishness with social media tends to skip the hard work because everyone just wants to see the result. Here’s a photo of me after all the hard work’s been done. But we also learn from mistakes and disappointments, and these are, sometimes, the most vital means of achieving a goal, or realizing that we were reaching for the wrong goal. When I look around at all my bookshelves, I see them in terms of years and years of very hard work, so I quietly celebrate and appreciate them in that way.

What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?

It’s very quiet and kind here. I live in a village where my husband and I may be the only full-time residents not connected, in some way, with lobster fishing. My neighbours not only welcomed us here—no familiar ties, just a couple of vagabonds from away—they’ve also taught me a lot about the landscape, as well as the wildlife. I’m much better with my shorebirds now and my neighbours know, if they see me, I’ll have questions for them about something or other. I’m privileged to be able to live in a rural area by the water, with so many beautiful beaches nearby, and I say a little thank you every day for being able to wake up here and spend my days writing. I’ve always felt that I write from the edges of the country anyway, so I’m happy here, where I can watch the tides and weather change. It’s also the second longest address I’ve ever had.

Are there any books coming out this year that you’re excited about?

I’m looking forward to reading quite a few books, when our world find its balance again. In fiction: Edward Carey’s The Swallowed Man; Anne Louise Avery’s retelling of Reynard the Fox; and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. In non-fiction: Cassie Chambers’ Hill Women; and Lives of Houses, edited by Hermione Lee and Kate Kennedy. And in poetry: Molly Spencer’s If the House; Bruce Snider’s Fruit; Peter Gizzi’s Sky Burial; Linda McKenna’s In the Museum of Misremembered Things; and Sinéad Morrissey’s Found Architecture.  . . . seems to be a bit of a theme here . . .

What’s next for you?

I’ve been working on a novel for a few years now that takes place in New Brunswick lumber camps in the 1920s. I’m also working on a new poetry collection.

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