Home > Interviews > Using the Tools at Hand: An Interview with Elena Johnson

Interview by Rob Taylor

Spines - Elena Johnson

spine of the sky
 spine of the sparrow

   spine of the sheep’s horn
    spine of the antler

       spine of footsteps over tundra
        spine of white plastic

          spine of unknowing

           spine of modern research
           spine of the lilting shack

           spine of the black spruce
          spine of the pika

         spine of the 21st-century human

     spine of a caribou 
    settling into the scree  

from Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra
(Gaspereau Press, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.

Elena Johnson’s Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra is to the Canadian poetry world as a marmot is to the Alpine Tundra. I don’t think I need to explain how the world of CanPo is like a barren tundra, do I? But Field Notes being a marmot might take a minute.

Ok, so you’ve got a big empty expanse, right? Lots of scrub plants and stubby trees clinging to the sides of rocks and such, the wind howling. And occasionally there’s a big, flashy animal making itself known: some proud caribou or robust mountain sheep or a grizzly bear taking swipes at its neighbours. They insist on being the stars of the show. But then you hear this little sound every once and a while, this little whistle, and you know something else is busy at work, too. You just can’t see it yet.

Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra is that marmot hiding in the rocks while all the bigger creatures lumber by. It has been living in the CanPo tundra for years (originally composed in 2008), and you’ve heard or spotted it from time to time, as when excerpts or earlier versions of the book were longlisted for a CBC Literary Award in 2010 and shortlisted for the Alfred G. Bailey Poetry Prize in 2012 and 2013. But it took until Spring 2015 for you to spot it in all its glory, when it was published by Gaspereau Press.

Slight in stature (48 pages with all the paratextual padding), narrow in scope (exclusively focused on Elena’s short visit to a field research project in the Yukon), and composed using stripped-down language to match its subject, the book could easily slip your attention. Don’t let it. An attentive, meditative look at wildness and how we can and cannot lasso it (in words; in graphs and charts), it’s a book to read and return to, to dip into when you need a refreshing jolt, like stepping into a cold stream.

I hiked into the Alpine Tundra and waited for Elena and her little marmot to arrive. It took many months of waiting, but Elena had taught me to be patient. When they finally appeared, I asked Elena a few questions about Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra, and the results are below. I hope you enjoy!

– Rob Taylor

Elena Johnson, in her blue period.

Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra is a series of poems composed in 2008 during your time as writer-in-residence with a field research project in the Yukon. Could you speak a little about the residency? How did you find out about it?

I had applied for a job back in 2006 to work as a field ecology researcher at the Kluane Alpine Ecosystem Project’s field camp in the Yukon’s Ruby Range. I ended up taking another job that summer instead, but I kept wondering about this remote mountain range in the Yukon. It occupied my imagination for several years. In 2008, after the first year of my master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, I had the great luck of having some free time to travel in the summer, and wrote a proposal asking to visit the camp as their writer-in-residence, in exchange for assisting with some field research (and doing my share of cooking, etc.). A close friend of mine who had worked at the camp for many years vouched for my abilities as a backpacker, researcher, writer, and generally likeable human being. The proposal was accepted. I was helicoptered in with the food supplies, and I hiked out at the end of my stay.

Did you have any hesitations about taking on the project? Was there ever a point during those weeks when you found yourself questioning or regretting your choice to attend?

On the day I was supposed to hike down toward the treeline and head home, I got lost. It was a foggy day, and I was with someone who knew the way. But because there was a dead sheep on the usual trail, which meant the grizzly that had killed it was likely still in the area, we had to take an alternate route. No one would lend us a map. (There were only two topographic maps at the camp, so they were valuable.) So we ended up on a mountainside, in a dense fog, not sure where or how we’d taken a wrong turn. I had a compass, notebook and pencil in my pocket, so we drew a rough map of where we’d come from and marked the last place we were certain we’d been. Then we attempted to retrace our steps back to that area. Luckily, we found our way. When the fog cleared a bit, we had already made our way – roughly – back toward camp. At that point, we were very close to the trail with the dead sheep – exactly the area we were supposed to be avoiding! All that to say that on that particular day I imagined a helicopter search and hoped they’d find us alive. But even during that incident, I didn’t regret being there. I did attempt a poem about this experience of being lost in the fog, but it simply wasn’t a good poem. There are hints of this experience in the book, though – a line or stanza here and there. And there is a poem about the dead sheep.

I’m someone who loves to camp and travel, so I’m accustomed to roughing it. A more precious person would have had a hard time in these conditions – no bathing, unless you could jump into an icy creek or get the cook-tent to yourself for a half hour and heat a pot of water; cold temperatures; sleeping in a shared tent; etc. But I loved it. Well, I guess a bath or shower would have been nice.

Hoary MarmotYes, I remember that poem – the “Dead Sheep Valley”. The way that image of the dead sheep (“Bear-marks / in its flank”) jumps out of the poem, leads me to think about one of the most arresting qualities of the poems in Field Notes. The language is so spare and stripped down, mirroring the landscape. But then one flashy word suddenly appears in a poem and it shines like it never would in a different collection – like wild flowers, or a small mammal springing up among the stones, or a dead sheep out of nowhere with a claw slash through its side.

I wonder if you chose this sparse, stripped down writing style consciously when writing these poems, or if it came about naturally, in response to the landscape?

Thanks for this insightful description of the poems. Nearly all of the poems were written in the mountains (the Ruby Range), and I think the setting – the terrain itself – did have a big influence on the shape and style of the poems. But it wasn’t a conscious decision – as always, I just picked up a pencil and scrawled some lines into a notebook. I’ve noticed, over time, that the size of the pages of the notebooks I’m writing in affects the forms of the poems in both subtle and direct ways, and I think that principle was at work here, too – I had tiny notebooks that fit into my pockets, and one wider notebook. As for the language, I think I was just using the tools at hand – the vocabulary of the people around me, and the phrases my brain put together as I observed what was around me.

I’ve noticed that for myself, too – that the size of notebook can affect the shape of the final poem. How do your non-Field Notes poems, written (I assume) in notebooks of all shapes and sizes, differ from these? Is your stylistic approach the same?

I don’t have a consistent stylistic approach. My approach to poetry is always evolving. So my non-Field Notes poems are very varied – in theme, style, tone, voice, diction…. Some are quite sparse and small, like these, some are lists, like some of these, but others are very narrative and some are experimental. Found poems pop up now and then in the other collections I’m working on, as they do in this one. I’ve also been writing haiku and tanka for many years, and people have pointed out that there is a haiku-like feel to some of my other work. Another ongoing influence is my interest/background in ecology. I suppose a consistent element in my work is that it’s often a response to a geographic environment, whether urban or rural; the poems tend to have a clear setting, rather than being abstract or language-based. (And yet I enjoy reading work that is abstract and language-based.)

In reading Field Notes, I was reminded of a number of other books in which the poet reports from a remote part of Canada, such as Al Purdy’s North of Summer (especially poems like “Trees at the Arctic Circle”) or Anna Swanson’s The Night Also and its suite of poems about her time in an Alberta fire lookout. Did any books (poetry or otherwise), or particular poems, serve as inspirations or guides for you in writing these poems? Did you look to any titles in particular when considering how to compile the poems as a book?

I did bring a few books with me on this trip, and I remember that one of them was by Charles Simic. But I don’t think you can comb through and find any Simic influences in here. I don’t remember which other books I brought along, but I know that none of them were Northern-themed. When I camp and travel, I like to photocopy a few pages from many different books and bring those – it’s a mini collection that is light to carry and can be put to other uses (scrap paper, tinder, etc.) if necessary.

When I got back home, it took a while to type up what was in my notebooks and see what was working. As I started to shape the poems into a series, I did look to some other collections. I remember that I read much of Gary Snyder’s Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems. While Snyder’s poems didn’t resonate directly with my own work, his translations of Han Shan (Cold Mountain Poems) did. There was one passage I copied down and tacked to my wall, and I included that passage as the postscript in Field Notes.

I also looked to some other poets’ collections to see how they had incorporated a long series of poems into a more assorted collection. (I originally thought Field Notes would be just one section of book, so was trying to figure out how to structure a collection around it.) While I was in the final editing stages this fall, I read some of Paulette Jiles’ writing on her time in Northern Ontario, including the poetry collection Celestial Navigation; I loved a lot of it, but I don’t think it had an influence on these poems, especially because the locale – and community – she was writing about were so different from where I was. And several writers have noticed that there might be a Kroetsch influence in these poems, but I hadn’t read his work at all until these poems were finished.

I should mention that one of these poems was included in Arc Poetry Magazine’s North-themed issue in the winter of 2013. If anyone reading this interview is interested in poetry about – or from – the North, that issue contains a lot of incredible work. There are so many amazing poets in it, many of whom live in Northern communities. The issue’s out of print now, but available in libraries.

I love that idea of reading poems and then using them to start fires! The poems in Field Notes… prepare yourself… really “caught fire” themselves – they were longlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in 2010, and were part of larger manuscripts that were shortlisted for the Alfred G. Bailey Prize in 2012 and 2013. In other words, these poems have been garnering acclaim, and bouncing around from one arrangement/manuscript to another for quite some time now. Can you speak a little about the journey the poems took from original composition to the final product as a full-length collection?

This series of poems remained fairly unchanged between 2010 and its publication date (2015). But it took me a while to gather my confidence and start sending it around to publishers. The changes that were made to these poems were fairly minor: deleting a word here or there, or taking out unnecessary passages – mostly whittling and reordering.

Connected to the above, Field Notes is just barely long enough (48 pages with all its paratexts and a good amount of white space) to qualify as a full length “book” by Canada Council standards. How do you feel about that? Did you have any desire to add poems to the series to pad it out?

I’ll admit I did feel a bit shy about putting a smallish book out into the world, especially for my first collection. This work was originally part of a longer collection that included a variety of other poems not related to this series – travel poems and urban poems, for example. It was my editor at Gaspereau Press, Andrew Steeves, who suggested that we try splitting the collection in two and giving the Alpine Tundra poems their own book. When I put my ego aside, I could see that he was right – I had basically folded two books into one, and the Alpine Tundra series was really distinct from my other work. And, deep down, I had always wanted these poems to have their own book – I just didn’t realize that there were enough poems. 48 pages seemed the right size for this collection; in the end, I actually had a few extra alpine tundra poems that we just didn’t have room for.

Do you have a general preference when you’re reading towards shorter or longer collections?

As a reader, I enjoy both short and long collections. But I do find that 70 or 90 pages can feel a bit long if the book is exploring just one main theme. Friends of mine (poets and non-poets) have mentioned that the small size of this collection appeals to them – they feel that they can potentially read it in one sitting, or that they’re not overwhelmed/intimidated by the idea of reading a whole book of poetry, cover to cover.

I’m glad you mentioned Andrew Steeves and Gaspereau. As I read your book, which includes some charts and tables from the scientific research the project was undertaking, I was struck by how it seemed perfectly suited to Gaspereau, who are known for not just publishing great writing, but making physical books that are works of art in themselves. Were all of the graphs and maps in the book already a part of it when you submitted it to Gaspereau, or were some of them added later?

All but two of the graphs, maps and other visuals were already in the manuscript when I first sent it to Gaspereau. Two of them were added in later, during the year between signing the contract and beginning the final edits. I had some time that year to take a new look at the manuscript, and wrote to the camp’s head researcher to see if he had any graphs that illustrated certain ideas/findings I was hoping to incorporate into the text. He sent a few, and two of them fit in quite perfectly.

One of the things I’ve really appreciated about working with Gaspereau, and specifically with Andrew Steeves, the editor, is that he sees, in the same way I do, that these visuals are poems in themselves. I think he sees the true beauty in, say, the illustrations of the cross-sections of willow stems. Not all editors would be open to including these scientific charts and illustrations.

More generally, how, if at all, did working with Gaspereau change your expectations for what the book was, and what it could be?

As I mentioned above, the biggest change the book underwent (and this was just a few months before publication), was being split in two. I’m so glad to have been working with an editor who could see that these poems needed a book of their own. The other change was that I sent Andrew some of my photographs from my time in the Yukon, with the thought that perhaps he’d like to base a line-drawing on one of them for the cover of the book. Instead, he chose to use two of the photos in the book itself – one as the cover, and one as a two-page spread at the front of the book.

I felt the book was in good hands, and that was a great comfort during the editing and production processes. Gary Dunfield and Andrew did such a beautiful job with the book. Even the typeface was so thoughtfully chosen. I feel pretty honoured to have worked with them.

Have you shown these poems to members of the research team you accompanied? If so, did you have any trepidation doing so, and what was their response? If not, do you plan on sending them a copy of the book?

I sent an early draft to one of the head researchers a few years ago, to make sure it all made sense from a scientific standpoint. And I sent a copy last summer to the professor in charge of the field camp, with the same intention: to make sure it made sense, and that I hadn’t misrepresented any of the science.

At this point, they’ve both received their copies of the finished book, and have sent words of delight my way. It means so much to me that they love the poems, and the book. They were open to having a poet at their camp, having no idea what would come of it. It goes without saying that I couldn’t have written this book without their support.

Self Portrait Alpine Tundra 2Researchers – mostly biologists and ecologists – were coming and going from the camp during the weeks that I was there. We had a group of 6-8 people at any point in time. Because the group kept changing, I wasn’t able to thank them all by name in the acknowledgements at the back of the book. But I am so thankful to each one of them: they cooked for me and ate what I cooked, they made sure I knew where to watch out for bears, they took me along on their field studies (including marmot-trapping and plant-counting), they made good coffee, and they reminded me to spend time writing poems. They even made me a card when I left – a crayon drawing on a folded sheet of printer paper. While the poems have an alone-in-the-wilds feeling, there was definitely a social element to my time in the mountains. Even if I spent the day alone, I was happy to have supper with these folks at the end of the day.

In one of the nearly-final versions of the book, I made a sweeping dedication: to all the scientists who dedicate their lives to the study and protection of northern ecosystems. The dedication was perhaps a little much, and was edited out; I simply thanked this specific research team in my acknowledgements. But I do feel this work is dedicated, more broadly, to field scientists in general, and especially those who focus on northern ecosystems.

Make sure you corner a copy of Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra and pluck it from the scree. You can do so from your local bookstore, or from the Gaspereau Press website, or, if you wish to gut the book industry as a grizzly does a sheep, via Amazon.

Rob Taylor is a former Poetry Editor at PRISM international. You can read more of his interviews here.

All photos © Elena Johnson.