Interview with Ariel Gordon
By Sharon Caseburg

Sharon Caseburg: Much of your writing considers landscapes. In what
kind of landscape do you find the most inspiration—urban or rural?

Ariel Gordon: I’m most comfortable in the transition zone between urban
and rural. Take Assiniboine Forest, for instance, which is 287 hectares of
aspen parkland in Winnipeg’s south end. It has all the problems of the
community surrounding it: poor drainage, teenagers with paintball guns,
pollution. It floods in the spring, is full of poorly constructed tree-forts,
and its trees are stressed. But it’s this patch of woods located within city
limits with a field and a pond that has somehow never been commercially
developed. The city lays down mulch paths and performs managed burns
when invasive species begin to outperform native plants, but unlike most
other parks, it’s pretty much left alone. Trees rot where they fall. This is
magnificent for mushrooms, a particular favourite of mine. They’re episo-
dic, like poems: they appear suddenly and disappear just as quickly unless
attended to by someone with a camera … or a notebook. Fungi like stressed
trees, rotting logs, and mulch paths. But notice, please, that two of those
situations are produced by human intervention, even in this ‘wild’ space.

The forest is full of lovely contradictions. Deer bed down between trem-
bling aspens but are canny enough to realize that the rusted out shell of an
old car provides a good windbreak. Lost moose lurk in the stubbly clearing
where a small plane crashed. And monarchs emerge from chrysalises near
the CPR line at the far end of the forest.

I think it’s the contradictions that make me so comfortable there. I grew up
in suburban Winnipeg, but our family vacations were spent in Minaki, in
a cabin with kerosene lamps on the walls and an outhouse. The property
was on an island with only a few other inhabitants that was only reach-
able by boat, which provided a measure of isolation from the Lake-of-the-
Woods ‘tourism experience,’ but we could still go to town for groceries.

The great majority of my poems are set in these kinds of spaces and often
actively explore them, but the closest I could ever come to pinning a label
on them was ‘urban/nature/love poems.’

SC: I’ve only known you to live a more urban than suburban lifestyle. What
does one have that is preferential to the other? How does that figure into
your daily creative process?

AG: I grew up in a house on the river, which meant that our basement
flooded semi-regularly and that you’d see deer and ducks and even foxes
on the riverbank corridor—so again, always, wild/tame.

But as I got older, my sensibilities shifted. We had this really interesting
back yard but the front streets were all long dusty blocks. Downtown was
concentrated, with many things existing and co-existing. When it came
time to go to school I chose the small downtown activist university over
the large suburban university. My first house was in a bad old neighbour-
hood in Winnipeg’s downtown. It was one of five houses in a row that were
derelict and had been derelict for years. It was our street’s row of rotten
teeth until the federal government offered funding to renovate housing
stock in low-income neighbourhoods. We bought one of the first reno-
vated homes and lived there nearly a decade … which made me aware of
all kinds of things I’d been taking for granted in my life and in my writing. It
also complicated everything, of course.

If you look at my first book, Hump (Palimpsest Press, 2010) as a barom-
eter of my influences—urban, rural, and suburban—nine poems were set
in Assiniboine Forest, with a further two in other green spaces. Nine po-
ems have urban settings. And a further sixteen poems were set in and
around that first house, which I guess you could call ‘urban domestic.’

SC: How does the constructed landscape of the city figure into your writ-
ing process? Are you more at ease in an urban environment, freer with
your language and your own poetic constructs, or do you prefer to write
and produce poetry in a more rural environment?

AG: What I like about Winnipeg in particular is that, like Assiniboine
Forest, it is neither completely urban nor rural. We have a few glassy sky-
scrapers and a good collection of grand old buildings with ornate facades,
but we also have an elm canopy comprised of approximately 160,000
trees. Sitting in the nosebleed section of the old Bomber stadium one July,
I was quite thrilled to look down and see the city disappear under the trees.

I also quite like the fact that the reason we have those grand old buildings
at all is because Winnipeg never recovered from the first World War, the
1919 General Strike, the dirty thirties. It was no longer the “Chicago of
the North” or even the “Gateway to the West.” Calgary and Vancouver
became enduring boomtowns, cities full of ambitious or even just rest-
less Winnipeggers. If you’re a boomtown, everything has to be bright and
shiny. So your buildings get knocked down every generation and bigger
shinier ones get put up in their places. Because Winnipeg was anything
but a boomtown for so long, we kept the buildings in our mercantile neigh-
bourhood, The Exchange District, some of which were derelict but many
of which were transformed into artists’ studios and galleries and cafes,
which, taken together, create something … interesting.

That said, although I’ve worked and lived downtown, I have never rented a
studio in a made-over factory or camped out in a tin-ceiling-ed coffee shop.
I have, however, scribbled first drafts in my notebook in the car while my
partner drives. For me, the serious work of writing—research, writing and
then re-writing—has always taken place at home, which right now means
my dining room table in our house in Wolseley—Winnipeg’s granola belt.
Wolseley has strange old houses and green spaces and functions as an ad-
junct to downtown. I can’t imagine, anymore, living very far from downtown.

Even though I get most of my writing done in the every day, during bought-and-
paid-for writing days, I also travel to writing retreats and extended work-
shops. Like those offered by the Sage Hill Writing Experience
and the Wallace Stegner House, for instance, both of which are situated in
rural Saskatchewan. I’ve also done an overseas retreat at Hawthornden
Castle Writers Retreat just outside of Edinburgh, Scotland.

SC: How do these types of environments aid or hinder your creative process?
What hidden discoveries have you made in these types of environments?

AG: I don’t always get a lot of writing done while on retreat, but that’s
because you can’t always schedule a surge of first-draft writing the way
you can schedule a retreat. But I always get in lots of editing and reading
and thinking and I somehow always manage to find trees to scrabble under
for mushrooms. And I always take away a writing friend or two, which is
invaluable to my writing life if not my writing.

I’d like to blithely say that I can write anywhere—urban or rural—but I
am sensitive to my environment. It took me a week, a potted plant from
Safeway and a stolen poster to get comfortable enough in my room at the
Banff Centre to do any writing there. And I had to take down all the cru-
cifixes and images-of-god in my room at St. Michael’s Retreat Centre
and make/drink many cups of tea before I was able to get going on the project
I’d brought with me.

While retreats aren’t meant to be that stimulating in and of themselves,
I’ve enjoyed poking around in each site. When I was at Hawthornden, for
instance, another writer and I located a set of pictographs described in
nineteenth century travel accounts that the current administrator couldn’t
find. And my last stint at Sage Hill happened to be while the saskatoons
were ripe. I was walking from tree to tree, mouth full of berries, and nearly
stepped on a fawn that had been hidden in the middle of the path. A few
days later I was nearly bowled over by a galloping deer.

SC: What is the appeal of the “hidden” or “unseen”?

AG: I have a journalism background and I think what journalists (and nov-
elists and non-fiction specialists and short story mavens) … and poets
have in common is an inclination to find out what’s behind the facades.
To rattle doorknobs and authority figures, even if the writer in question
doesn’t identify as an activist. So I don’t think it’s a question of “appeal”
so much as aptitude. Writers are, at their core, curious people. Every time I
sit down to write, I try for something “hidden” or “unseen,” whether that’s
a surprising image or combination of words and sounds or the subject of
the poem.

SC: Do you miss journalism?

AG: I miss journalism occasionally. Mostly when my partner, who’s a
photojournalist, comes home and says that he got to ride in a helicopter
or visit a remote community in the North or take a picture of a newborn
bison. Though I miss journalism, I’ve found that asking “how does it feel?”
via poetry is much more satisfying.

SC: Name five cities, five hidden treasures from those cities, and how their
discoveries shaped your writing.

AG: The soccer pitch in Winnipeg’s Memorial Park, where there are end-
less games of pick-up soccer in the summer, was the subject of my poem
“A year in: footsie” from Hump. The players are largely African immigrants
to the city. Driving by and seeing them there is endlessly reassuring to me.

The tattoo parlour in Bukit Tinggi, Indonesia, was washed clean by a to-
rrential rain but full of men smoking and drinking the darkest of dark cof-
fee and flipping through photocopied western tat mags. I described it in
one thread of my long poem “Guidelines: Malaysia & Indonesia, 1999”
(Rubicon Press, 2009). But the whole poem was about the hidden/un-
seen; six years after my sister and I travelled there, I discovered that our
great-grandfather was a Governor General of the Dutch East Indies, which
became Indonesia. And so the poem sets our experiences in Kuala Lumpur
and Bukit Tinggi against those of our ancestors in Jakarta and Aceh.

My partner and I went to Hong Kong and Yunnan province in China during
the SARS epidemic in summer 2003. We walked through a pop-
up ceramics market in Li-jiang just as awareness of SARS was spreading
throughout mainland China: police staring balefully at foreigners over sur-
gical masks, women turning their backs on you in the streets. And there
were these immense pots next to small delicate vases next to gold cats
covered in glitter. It became a part of my poem “Hawk,” which Jonathan
Ball published in his Martian Press Review chapbook.

When I was living in Halifax and Seoul, South Korea in my twenties—for
journalism school and teaching English respectively—I wrote poems. For
me, both cities were hundreds—if not thousands—of years older than my
hometown. I had to re-jig my conception of the city, of the possible oc-
cupants of its built landscape. I published a few poems here and there on
both cities, but … in the end, they wound up in what I call ‘the manuscript
of my twenties,’ which was retired from circulation more or less gracefully.

SC: You once undertook a project titled Wrought Substance in which you
and a photographer entered into a poetic and photographic discussion
about urban decay and derelict buildings. Can you tell us about that project?

AG: For many years, I worked on a poetry/photography project with Jon
Schledewitz focused on five or six of Winnipeg’s derelict buildings. These
buildings—hotels and factories and homes—weren’t hidden treasures.
Winnipeggers were, if anything, overly familiar with them. These hulks had
always been there and they’d always be there, because their absentee
landlords couldn’t be bothered to pull them down and the land wasn’t
worth much. People couldn’t see past the boarded-up windows and the
kicked-in doors … it was hard enough for me to see them as something
other than what they’d become.

So, as a part of the writing process, I tried to find out who had built them
and who had inhabited them over the years and also talk a bit about the
neighbourhoods they were situated in. Part of that research involved
spending time in or near the buildings. Sometimes I talked my way into
buildings as they were being demolished, sometimes I endlessly walked
their perimeters, sometimes I climbed fences. I found the websites of
urban explorers, so I got to look inside buildings I was too timid to explore
myself. Part of that research was consulting archives and libraries and
organizations that had once occupied the buildings. I interviewed an
elderly woman over tea for the poems on the Salvation Army Citadel. I
pored over the Henderson Directories for the names and occupations of
the people who once lived in the derelict house next to mine.

SC: What did you hope to accomplish with Wrought Substance, and why
was it abandoned in the end?

AG: I was hoping to write a social history of Winnipeg in verse that would
talk as much about people as about architecture. Heritage-building folk tend
towards ‘Oh, isn’t it sad that these buildings are crumbling! We must
save them!’ without acknowledging the neighbourhoods the buildings are
in, and what function they might serve in those neighbourhoods. Descrip-
tions of the structures tend to focus on the big-wigs that built them in
Winnipeg’s golden age of ‘Progress! Prosperity! And Industry!’ And I want-
ed to talk back to that a bit.

But to write about the neighbourhoods that the buildings were in, to talk
about the people who lived in those neighbourhoods, I had to encounter
homelessness and [sex work] and mental illness. Violence and addiction.
I just didn’t have the tools, as a young poet and as someone from a middle-
class suburban background. I couldn’t ever get away from that fact that I was
choosing to live downtown. It was a locked door I rattled in the poetry. And
so I turned to first-person accounts, both recent and historical, and included
portions of them in poems.

We published poems/images from the series here and there but stopped
working on it in a concentrated way when I became pregnant. After my
daughter arrived, it was much more difficult to find time to loiter in vacant
lots. Also, writing about pregnancy and mothering completely hijacked my
writing practice. I think the last straw was when the photographer moved
away. Since that time, many of the buildings we documented have finally—
finally—been demolished as Winnipeg experiences a mini-boom.

I think I might be able to move back into the project now. Everything the
poems attempt is still very important to me. As people say of derelict
buildings: they have such good bones!

SC: What are you currently working on?

AG: I’m currently compiling poems for my second collection. A piece
I’m presently engaged with is a poem called “The Heart is a Small Appliance.”
It is what I call a ‘value-added poem.’ It was sidebar to another poem
I was working on just before bed one night. I was already enervated
with poem-work when I turned out the light. I laid there, listening to the sound
of my partner snoring next to me against the coyotes barking somewhere
outside and lines started coming to me. So I turned the light back on and
started writing them down, because you never get to keep those lines
overnight. Specifically, the poem is my long-delayed response to Winnipeg
crime writer Michael Van Rooy’s death, at 42, of a heart attack. I was more
angry than sad when he died. It was, in a word, criminal. If anyone knew
Winnipeg, its back alleys and carriage lanes and bike paths, it was Michael.

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SHARON CASEBURG is a Canadian writer, editor and book designer. Her
poetry and critical writing have appeared in numerous publications, including
sleepwalking, a long poem chapbook published by JackPine Press. She is the
co-founder of the Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry.

ARIEL GORDON is a Winnipeg-based writer. Her first book, Hump
(Kingsville: Palimpsest Press), won the Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for
Poetry in 2011. Most recently, she collaborated with designer Julia Michaud
on the disaster DIY chapbook How To Prepare For Flooding (Saskatoon:
JackPine Press). When not being bookish, Ariel likes tromping through the
woods and taking macro photographs of mushrooms.

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