Phil Hall in conversation with Wanda Praamsma about a thin line between

September 24, 2014

Wanda Praamsma’s debut poetry collection a thin line between crafts a story that transcends geographic boundaries and time periods, by weaving together lives from her own family’s past. What emerges is a poignant, and at times humorous, portrait of a Dutch-Canadian family and a close look into a young woman’s exploration of her own being and creative life.

Our Poetry Editor Phil Hall talks with Wanda about her long poem, about being Dutch-Canadian, her influences, and her year of big firsts:

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PH: Tell us about being Dutch-Canadian? There are Dutch words integrated into a thin line between. Does the Dutch language exert a force in your writing?

WP: My parents are both Dutch and I grew up with the language, but in a funny way, I suppose, because they didn’t speak it all the time. They’d already been living in North America for 14 years by the time I was born, so English was very engrained. Dutch was there, but I didn’t speak it with them. They would speak in Dutch and us children would respond in English. It was only when I spent significant time in Amsterdam that I began to learn how to speak it myself. As a child – living this way, with two languages, but one that I didn’t know completely – I felt a little like a few pieces of the puzzle were missing. No one else I knew was speaking Dutch in Lanark County, so I felt early on some difference. And this whole other family on the other side of the Atlantic – I wanted to know them! There it is, this feeling of in between. A little here, a little there.

Definitely while writing a thin line between, Dutch exerted a force. I was there, in Amsterdam, immersed in it, taking twice-weekly classes with immigrants from all over the world at a little community centre near my uncle’s atelier. And a lot of the world makes more sense in Dutch. At least for me. Words that have no direct translation in English. Those are the most fascinating discoveries in language, and I’ve loved finding them in all my travels and language-learning. I love to think in English, Dutch, Spanish and French. Each one gives me new thinking, understanding. So, I think, not just Dutch exerts a force, but all these languages. They’re all bubbling around in my body.

PH: You have written a long poem as your first published work. Why the long poem? Did you work from journals kept during your trip to the Netherlands? And how has your grandfather, the writer Bert Schierbeek, been an influence?

WP: I didn’t consciously choose the long poem. I guess you could say the long poem chose me. I kept several journals while I was in Amsterdam, writing down a lot of what I heard around me, or what sparked something in me. My uncle’s words intrigued me the most – the most wonderful constructions he has when he speaks English. (Just the other day in an email he advised me to not get “stressed up”!) And this very direct way of speaking, which is very Dutch. The language makes you speak directly. I worked from the journals, typing everything into a document, then adding words and poems, and eventually rearranging it into this long narrative. I worked intuitively, seeing where all the associations came up.

I started getting intrigued by my grandfather and his writing in university. I remember I took a course on Symbolism & Surrealism and there he was, nestled in that world, at least for me. Since then I’ve continually gone back to his writing, and I’ve always wished I got to know him better (he died when I was 15). I’d go to Amsterdam and wander around, and wonder about him walking those streets. So when I went to Amsterdam this last time, I set out to get to know him better, through his writing, the family, and my own writing. Bert’s somewhat of a controversial figure over there – his writing was/is out of reach for most people, but he was/is also well loved. It felt strange and wonderful for me to go and find things like pillow cases with his poetry on them, sold in the bookstore, or a poem of his tiled into a block-length stretch of sidewalk. And then there was the family side of him – as father to my uncle and my mother – much of that investigation is in the book.

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PH: What are the implications of your title?

WP: That thin line – between people, families, countries. That liminal space. So easy to feel this as a child of immigrants. And surely if you’re an immigrant yourself. Always in between.

PH: Your poem is refreshingly unliterary in the sense that it does not use metaphor. Instead, it uses voices & first names & place names as markers. Can you talk about this?

WP: I don’t know if I can talk about being literary or unliterary. I just write what I write. I follow my nose (to steal some words from Clive James, who was on the radio the other day). But I suppose the way I use voices & first names & place names springs from my background as a journalist. I’m used to working with the words and voices of others. And place is very important to me. Being elsewhere and what comes up in those places/spaces pushes a lot of my writing. Putting those place names in the text were important markers for me, in that sense.

PH: One result of your style in this book is that the rush of language foregrounds. Not content, or meaning. The rush is the meaning. How did you build and sustain this aspect of the poem?

WP: I wrote most of this long poem in three months, while living in Amsterdam. I think that contributes to the rush. I also had the whoosh of bicycles at my back. This rhythmic motion – legs pumping, wheels spinning – pushing me. A force. As long as I kept writing, it kept pushing. Listening was key.

PH: This year is big for you: first book, first child (Saul!). How are they both affecting you, separately, together? No comparison, I know, but you have probably had thoughts about this, yes?

WP: I’ve always thought and said that becoming a mother/parent is the ultimate way of knowing your self/Self. And it’s true. I’ve had to dig deep into myself these past few months, as I move into and through this nurturing phase. It’s joyous and murky, the easiest and most difficult course to navigate. Writing is that other cave for self-exploration. So the two easily go together for me. I suppose they are both, baby Saul and my book, catalysts for letting go. With Saul, I am letting go of a former me. Still me, of course, but another layer is building, and he is all the lines on each peel of onion. He is the texture. When I first held my book, I almost waved into a depression. Lack of sleep may have contributed, but I felt, also, that all of a sudden, the me who wrote this book walked out the door.

This excerpt from Anne Waldman’s poem Number Song pretty much sums it up, on both fronts:

He was part of me,

he came out of me,

he took a part of me.

He took me apart.

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