Interview by Alison Braid
a thin line between (BookThug, 2014) is Wanda Praamsma’s much anticipated first collection of poetry. Praamsma’s poetry has been published in ottawater, 17 seconds, and The Feathertale Review. Several of her literary non-fiction pieces have appeared in the Toronto Star, where she worked for several years as an editor. She recently completed her MFA in Creative Writing through the University of British Columbia. a thin line between is a lyrical, multi-layered long poem that paints a portrait of a highly creative Dutch-Canadian family, spending time with both Praamsma’s poet-grandfather and sculptor-uncle. As a family narrative is woven, the poem explores language, creativity, and memory, probing the everyday spaces of life that too often go unnoticed.
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a thin line between covers quite a vast family history and unfolds like a novel in the way the reader experiences the characters. What kind of family research did the poem entail? Did you find yourself learning more about your own family and ancestry throughout the writing of the poem?
I don’t know if I’d call it research, although my husband likes to remind me that he was my ‘research assistant’ while we were living in Amsterdam and while I was writing this book. I thought before I got into it that I would do research, go to the archives and such, but I think it was more haphazard than that. My ‘research’ was primarily my uncle’s words, occasionally the words of my mother, and others in Holland who know/knew my family. Craig (my husband) and I spent a lot of time with my uncle and his partner, both in Amsterdam and in France, and that’s how I began piecing together a lot of the history. I certainly did learn a lot about my family. The writing of this poem brought up a lot for me, in that I wasn’t sure how to digest some of what I was learning, and I think a lot of that questioning is in the book.
The poem connects many of your family members and explores the spaces between them. How did you find the process of writing about family? What was their involvement like in the writing of the poem? And what was their response to the finished product?
I found the process pretty easy (I say this now, 4 years later!), because at the time I wasn’t thinking about people’s reactions. I was just writing. Putting things down in notebooks and then piecing it together on the computer. I don’t think I would have written what I did if I’d thought too much about what the family would think. I did think about their reactions later in the process, when it was going to press, and I sent it to the people who come up most in the book. My uncle read an early version of the poem, and he liked it, and that gave me enough gumption to keep on with the publication process. I didn’t show the poem to many other people while I was still writing. A couple of good friends who visited me while in Amsterdam read what I had been working on, but that was about it. I showed the manuscript to my parents a few months before it was published. I wanted them to read it, but I also talked with them about how it is my perspective of the family, and how I sifted through what I heard while living in Amsterdam. I wasn’t going to change anything at that point. At times I found this hard. There is a lot in the book about my mother’s family, some of it about difficult relationships and parenting, and my mother doesn’t necessarily share all the views of her brother. She had different relationships with her mother and father, as we all do. But my mom is an artist, comes from a family of artists and writers, and she understood that this is my view of our family. I do hope it didn’t hurt her in any way. If anything, I think it’s made our whole family examine a little more what’s happened in the past, and what’s happening now. I think it’s also important to remember that while a lot of this reads as non-fiction, a sort of biographical poem, it is also fiction, in the same way many novels are semi-autobiographical.
While reading and rereading the poem, I was typing many Dutch words into Google and trying to find translations that fit. For any readers who are not fluent in both Dutch and English, this can provide a reading experience that emphasizes the liminal qualities of language. Throughout, I felt myself pulled in and out of the poem because of this, which was a very powerful and compelling aspect of my experience of the poem. At the end, the question, “is there really only one language in all of us?” seems unanswerable. What has your relationship with Dutch been like? Did it change at all while writing the poem?
Dutch has always been in my life, with my parents speaking it while I was growing up, and still speaking it now. There has always been a mix of English and Dutch—a junction between the two. They collide. I think many children of immigrants grow up like this, in the liminal space between two languages. There is comfort there, in a way. An ability to see the world through different lenses, words, phrases.
I think my relationship did change with Dutch while I was writing. I understood it better, living in Amsterdam and taking Dutch lessons. I wasn’t fluent, am not fluent, but I was more directly entwined with the language, and that’s how it easily made its way into the poem.
You’re right, maybe that question is unanswerable. Or maybe just so different for all of us. And it makes me think, what is language? Is it only words?
I believe you also studied Spanish at university? Are you fluent in Spanish as well? How do you find different languages change the way you approach writing or reading?
I did study Spanish. I was almost fluent but I haven’t spoken it much in the past few years so I’ve lost quite a bit. It’s hard to say how different languages change my approach to reading and writing. Hard to quantify, or qualify, I guess. I think, once all these languages are in you, embedded, then you are just subconsciously bringing them into all aspects of your life. How you interpret the world changes because you have different languages and cultures guiding your impressions. Things coalesce, converge, as you remember a certain word in Dutch or Spanish, how that word seems to better suit an idea, or ideal. It all gels together.
You look at editing language in the poem, as well as how we edit many aspects of our lives. How do you feel your editing and journalism background has influenced your poetry?
This is a big one! I think the editing is really important in my poetry. I love shaping, and tinkering, and moving things about, shaving a word here, a letter there—all of this comes from editing, I think, especially from my work as a layout editor at The Star. You were always shifting things—photos, words, text boxes. Slight adjustments. This all works into my poetry work. Not on first write, but later.
I’m also always a listener, a watcher, a questioner, and this all comes from journalism, too. Skepticism. But also intrigue, being intrigued by the world.
Alison Braid is a student at the University of British Columbia, where she is pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing. Her poetry has been published in The Claremont Review and shortlisted for the Winston Collins/Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem.