Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Wanda Praamsma

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Wanda Praamsma (Photo Credit: James Winkel)

Wanda Praamsma is a writer of poetry and literary non-fiction whose work has appeared in Ottawater, 17 seconds, Feathertale and the Toronto Star.

Wanda's first book of poetry, a thin line between (BookThug), is a verse-novel that weaves together her own Dutch-Canadian family's past and a young woman's exploration of her own being and creative life. Poet Sadiqa de Meijer praises the book saying, "Few books are so gracefully themselves: a thin line between accomplishes an atmosphere that seems enigmatically familiar, complex and unassuming."

Today, Wanda speaks with Open Book about connecting to the Dutch language, the sculpture that inspired the book's cover and how she describes success.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, a thin line between.

Wanda Praamsma:

a thin line between is my first book, and it’s a mix of prose and poetry. It is a book about family and art, and the connections between and among those things. The relationships. It’s about me exploring my family, who they are, were and how we are joined, or dis-joined, the ocean a vast space between us. It’s about creating, and where and how we find the movement forward, the traction to build something from within. It’s about place, distance, where we find ourselves and how that pushes us out from under ourselves. And for me, especially, I see it as a bit of a call to arms – the arms being the poetic pen and pencil.


a thin line between has been described as a verse novel. Is this a description with which you agree? Do you see a fluidity between poetry and prose?


Sure, I agree with that description. There is a story running through the whole book, so in that sense, it is like a novel. It’s also been described as a long poem, which it is, too. I find it hard to categorize my own work, as I don’t necessarily see the need to label it as anything in particular. It is poetry and it is prose, and there is a meeting point between the two. Mixing prose and poems comes naturally to me. As I wrote the prose parts, poems I had written already or wrote on the spot naturally merged, and vice-versa. So, yes, definitely a fluidity.

I think, in a way, I like the term compositional novel best. This is how my grandfather, Bert Schierbeek, described his books, which also melded both poetry and prose.


Your grandfather was a poet and your uncle a sculptor. In what ways has your family's artistic work and inclinations influenced you as a writer?


They are huge influences. My grandfather and my uncle, yes, but also my grandmother and my mother, both sculptural potters, and my father, a mix of artist, writer, scientist, and furious reader. And my cousin, an illustrator. All of them are and have been so determined to make art. Maybe determined isn’t the right word. They’ve just done it. Especially my mother’s family. It seems to be inherent in them to build, whether with words or clay or metal or wood or photographs. The rest seems secondary – I guess the rest is the practicalities of life, making money, etc. – somehow that will take care of itself. Or it won’t take care of itself, but somehow life goes on. Maybe living and growing up during World War II helped in a certain sense. They are not swayed by much. That’s certainly inspiring to me.


Your family is Dutch-Canadian. Are there particular aspects of the Dutch culture that you feel have stayed in your family? If so, how do you find yourself affected by this culture?


I think the Dutch language is the strongest aspect of Dutch culture I connect with at home in Canada. I don’t speak it fluently, but it’s burrowed inside. When I hear the Dutch accent, or Dutch words, of a stranger, my ears perk and I move a little closer, somehow thinking that all Dutch people must want to be my friends. I guess, in a real sense, it is my connection to my parents, who spoke and still speak Dutch at home, and to my larger family. The language makes me feel greater than my self. Or less alone.


Tell us a little bit about your writing process during the creation of this book. When and where do you tend to write? What would an ideal writing space look like for you?


I wrote most of this book in a room with very high ceilings and tall windows in my uncle’s atelier in Amsterdam. The red sculpture on the front of the book – that was in the room, and I’d glance over to it every so often. I set out to write two hours a day, but that didn’t always happen. I’d get antsy, go for a walk, or to an internet cafe, or to a regular cafe, for coffee and more writing or internetting. I think getting out of the atelier was crucial for the writing, because a lot of this book is what I heard and saw on the streets. I took lots of notes in tiny notebooks while walking and cycling the city. Some days, back at my computer, I’d transcribe all those little notes into a document, and then see how they fit into my larger document, which was shaping up to be this long poem. Some days I wasn’t writing – I was absorbing and moving words and making subconscious associations. But I guess that is all writing, in the larger sense of the word. I did the same thing while back in Canada, where I wrote the last section of the book.

In general, I do find writing in the morning best, before I’ve done anything else. Oftentimes I just write on my yoga mat, after doing a practice, a few poses, or meditating. I’d say I’m not very picky about where I write. I’ll write on the sofa, at the kitchen table, on a ferry, on a train, on a bench, in the grass, stopped on the street, pausing on my bike or in the car, and in airport terminals. Anywhere but the desk I’ve set up for the purpose of writing. Maybe the desk is just for business-like duties.


When you set out to complete a book like this, what are your goals? How do you define success as a writer?


I don’t think I set out to write this book. I set out to write. I didn’t know what would come of the writing. I hoped something would come of it. In the beginning, my old journalism brain kept saying, "do something and finish it and publish it – and now!" But that brain was not helpful. Once I rid my mind of annoying pressures, I felt much more free to just see what comes up.

Success. I don’t like this word, but if I have to define what it is for me today I think I’d say success is getting up in the morning and staying awake enough to be present and aware of every moment’s passing, and of the thoughts that come with that moment. Maybe I’m "successful" only a few minutes a day, if I’m honest.


What are you reading these days? If you could recommend one recent read, what would it be?


A mix of poetry, essays, fiction, non-fiction. Ocean (Sue Goyette), X (Phil Hall), A Peepshow with Views of the Interior: Paratexts (Aislinn Hunter), Air Carnation (Guadalupe Muro), Can you hear the nightbird call? (Anita Rau Badami), Fierce Medicine (Ana Forrest), Eastern Body, Western Mind (Anodea Judith).

I haven’t finished it yet, but Air Carnation is super (and not just because it’s published by my publisher, BookThug). Muro’s sentences are magical twists, zigging and zagging, looping and making me pause, thinking "what the? how did that happen?" And she takes me to places I’ve been and somewhat forgotten (Argentina, in particular).


What are you working on now?


I’m working on revising a long poem I started in 2013 called aversions, and starting a new one.

Wanda Praamsma grew up in the Ottawa valley in Clayton, Ontario. Her poetry has appeared in Ottawater, 17 seconds and Feathertale and several literary non-fiction pieces have appeared in the Toronto Star, where she worked for several years as an editor. She has worked, studied, and lived at various points in Salamanca, Spain, Santiago, Chile, and Amsterdam, The Netherlands and has travelled to many places in between and beyond, including Cuba, India and the Balkans. Praamsma currently lives in Kingston, Ontario, and is working on an MFA in Creative Writing through the University of British Columbia. a thin line between is her first book of poetry. Find Praamsma at www.whywandawrites. com, or connect with her on Facebook

For more information about a thin line between please visit the BookThug website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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