"A Lifetime's Worth/of the Kind Creek": Micaela Maftei in Conversation with Christine Lowther

Christine Lowther

Christine Lowther explores the boundaries of creative nonfiction and poetry in "Not a Lake," published in the Malahat's Spring 2017 issue. In this interview with Malahat fiction-board member Micaela Maftei, Lowther broaches the life of water, be it lake or creek, sky or ground, as a story of assumption, mystery, and awakening.

 

Christine Lowther’s latest book, Born Out of This (a memoir) was shortlisted for the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize. She lives in Clayoquot Sound.

You're a poet as well as a writer of nonfiction. Would you say your process is different depending what type of writing you're doing? Have you ever had an image or a phrase that you initially felt "belonged" to one type of writing but later worked its way into another form? I'm curious if the two genres feel similar to you in terms of process, and whether the line ever becomes blurred in the end product.

I'm stunned and grateful to be writing anything, at all, ever. Life gets in the way so much of the time. All writing is the recording and expression of what moves me. Composing poetry—if it's working—feels somehow more magical than prose. Vera Manuel said she was told by an elder that poetry is a gentle way to talk about painful things. Both genres require equal attention and sweat. Events that are only vaguely or dreamily remembered but made you who you are: these might be more accurately expressed in poetry than in prose. Do you need to lay out every detail of the whole story, or make an impression using fewer words, in more lyrical language? Prose is steady hard work all the way through. Poetry can be elusive; I wait outside its door, sometimes for years. Once inside, poems can cascade onto the pages, more joy than work.

In my memoir Born Out of This I end up quoting my own poems several times, because both kinds of storytelling often feel necessary, complimentary. For the inaugural Growing Room Festival I was thankful to be part of a panel on writing through trauma. For my reading, I went back and forth between prose and poetry, comparing several examples of times I'd written about the same dark childhood episodes.

What are you reading at the moment? Do you find that your writing becomes influenced by whatever you're reading at the time? If so, are you careful about reading choices when you're immersed in a writing project?

I recently finished Nicola Harwood's hilarious, heart breaking, sexy memoir Flight Instructions for the Commitment Impaired; we did a reading together during my residency at Joy Kogawa House. The event was called Foster Care Readings. Her book recalled fostering a troubled black transgender kid in San Francisco. Also reading was David Ferguson, a young poet who had aged out of care just a few years ago. During my residency I was working on getting more than ten years of government files transcribed from when my sister Beth and I were in foster care (late 1975 until late 1986). I read everything I could get my hands on regarding foster care, whether in BC or elsewhere. The project is proving to be a long-term one. Most of the files are social workers' reports, and I've blended Beth and me into a single character, Tamzin, who reacts and responds to the reports and letters with her memories and contradictions. I also read as much nature writing as I can. Since the Internet, and movies living in my laptop, I don't read as much as I used to. I've been stockpiling nature books.

One has to investigate what's already been written about one's subject. If I'm writing about Clayoquot Sound I re-visit First Nation writers Nadine Crookes, Eli Enns and Chief Earl Maquinna George; refresh on nature writers David Pitt-Brooke, Joanna Streetly, Briony Penn. Re-read what Adrienne Mason wrote about marbled murrelets and porpoises. Not to model, but for awareness, knowledge and respect.

I wonder if you could speak a little about the final line in your piece. "When I was young, I sang back to it"—there's a sense of distance here, and yet the piece itself could obviously be read as a "singing to" the water, the surroundings. How would you say the last line functions in the piece, and is it meant to call attention to the different ways of "singing" that we practice over time (to things/places that are important to us)?

The final line—which the editor wisely made its own paragraph—came after much straining to do justice to the eternal giving of the creek. This begs the lines of poet Jeremy Pataki in "Steeped": "…I will/ drink a lifetime's worth/ of the kind creek." It feels insensitive to mention during a time of country-wide flooding, but I was writing about a small unnamed waterway that never dries up. Not even during the 2006 drought in which Tofino closed itself to visitors. The memory of childhood singing sprang up at the end of my efforts. An earnest if feeble attempt to thank the water.

Sometimes I roll my eyes when singing comes up in a poem I'm reading! As a metaphor, it can be overused. Yet, both the notion and the vocabulary are poetic and evocative. As a lonely kid I did sing to a creek. I made up some sad song. There is something I find deeply moving in the idea of somehow interacting or conversing with nature, and honouring the world this way. A dear friend includes singing in her hikes as a way of connecting. I'm taken with that.

Writing, being outside, holding politicians accountable, taking photographs, and obsessing—these are how I "sing" now.

Is there a project you're working on at the moment that you could tell us a bit about?

As well as the project I mentioned earlier, I'm starting to think of writing a book about the bay I live in, following the tradition of Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain. Nothing wrong with aiming high! I need to submit to more literary presses and contests. Never too late! I'm excited to have work in some approaching anthologies: The Summer Book, Canadian Ginger, Refugium: Poems for the Pacific, and Locations of Grief. Mostly, though, daily life gets in my way.

The powerful connection to nature is clearly featured in this piece, and I know much of your other writing is deeply engaged in speaking about, and perhaps to, spaces in nature. Could you talk about this as a recurring theme? Or perhaps you see it as something more broad or fundamental than a theme?

When I read exceptional nature writing I practically swoon. "Nature" is a sometimes controversial word that, in my own life at least, has been problematic. "Wilderness" is another one; Nadine Crookes (Kliiahtah) wrote that "There is no word in Nuu-chah-nulth for 'wild' or 'wilderness.' There is only home." Sometimes I just say "the outdoors" or "outside". Outside is where I find peace and wonder, in every scruffy little bush and ratty plant. It is how and why we are all here. I sit answering your questions, pen in hand, taking chugs from my water bottle, and look up at the creek. Part of that creek is in my bottle; part of it is in me. I'm alive because of it, all these years. It emerges from the planet, which spins in space! Water will keep rushing into the bay long after I'm gone. Right now though, I'm sitting creek; I'm walking, talking, writing creek. What if a corporate logging company had gotten here first? In fact one tried. MacMillan Bloedel was set to log Wah-nah-jus—Hilth-hoo-is. Tofinians and Tla-o-qui-aht came together and blockaded. Clearcutting destroys the integrity of water. Maps from only twenty years ago show this area as "B.C.F.P. T.F.L. (Tree Farm Licence) #44." My sister and I were fortunate to be introduced by our poet-mother to nature as something wondrous, and it keeps me sane to this day. Our mother shaped us into eco-activists. I hope that good nature writing shapes its readers in the same way. That it makes us fall in love, and work to protect what we love, which is under threat from so many directions. As long as the general public carries on as if nothing is wrong, as if climate, paved sprawl and oil spills can't touch their kids and grandkids, we need nature writing.

On first read, I was intrigued that this piece is categorized as CNF. Whose story are you telling here? The story of the "I"? The river's? Or their combined story, perhaps? In what way(s) would you say this piece is "true," or "a true story"?

I've mostly seen prose poems in the form of a single paragraph, so this piece didn't qualify as a prose poem! CNF is nonfiction expressed creatively. This is the story of assumption, awareness, appreciation and mystery. Assumption: a creek must come from the lake nearby. Mystery: it doesn't come from the lake. Appreciation and awakening: I owe my life to the creek, so I put in some time learning about its effects on the bay, its seasonally changing voice, where it comes from. As I type this we've had a wet spring even for a rainforest, and the creek has become a white torrent, sending tributaries spilling many metres away to emerge between red alders. "A hole in the ground" in fact is not the whole answer—the creek also comes from the sky.

The search for source becomes obsessive and is never satisfied. A story without end? In The Living Mountain Nan Shepherd was luckier high in Scotland's Cairn Gorms. "Water…one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins … so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock and flows away." What would Shepherd think of my creek? (Not that it's mine.) Would she burrow even deeper through salmonberry's piercing thorns, past sucking bogs, forests full of cougars and wolves until certain she had found its source once and for all?

The rainforest on either side of it took 10,000 years to reach its current state. It could be so easily devastated. I've listened to Tla-o-qui-ahts' stories. This bay might have had a name, but everything in it certainly would have, including the und(r)ying creek, and the clam-rich mudflat recently altered by oysters from the neighbouring farm. This place would have had a caretaker. Generations of caretakers. Like other bays and other streams, including those where salmon spawn.

A creek's story leads to larger stories of water. Esowista, a reserve on Schooner Cove just south of Tofino, had unusable water some years ago. Bet the tourists didn't know about that. May I plug thirstyforjustice.ca here? It's a movement to demand access to safe water for more than 100 First Nations communities.

In your personal life, do you move back and forth between rural and urban spaces? For some people nature is seen as a place of escape, or a place of respite from busy urban life, while for others the city becomes a space that one must periodically journey to, often for practical reasons. Do you feel you need both? And how do you balance the two?

Nicholas Bradley wrote that "The city and the country are not always distance worlds." I'm not sure that I successfully balance these two sides of my life. I'm always going far too long without the kind of night out best found in a city. In urban spaces I look for trees and community gardens. In my book I confess to sometimes feeling polarized by my "seasick, pendulous" way of life, but commuting to work, rather than living off land and sea, is a factor in that. Modern life is complicated. Without writing it would be a quagmire. Born Out of This was published by Caitlin Press, whose motto is "Where Urban Meets Rural." The sections are Floating Season (in which I write about my half of every year squatting in a floathouse), Asphalt Season (in which the chapters' subjects are times and travels in towns and cities), and Merge (pieces that fall inside both or outside either category). In the last section, the chapter "Let's Mingle" is a plea for empathy and nonjudgment between urban and non-urban writers/artists.

I'm extremely fortunate to live how and where I do. I want to not judge those who don't read nature writing and those who choose to live in the city.

Mobility is a privilege. Limited daylight hours, plus dangerous waters in storms, plus not enough sunshine for my two battered old solar panels, mean I spend winters back on the grid. Every autumn I scramble for a winter dwelling in Tofino; all the old possibilities are going to vacation rentals now. I ended up in a floathome because of a land sale and an eviction back in April 1998. My float is not exactly rural; it's close to "outpost" or "wild"—but every tag is tricky. My float is also within tribal park boundaries, and I wish I were paying my "trespass fine" to the tribe rather than the BC minister of finance. Whenever we look at questions of place, space, home and situation we must always be aware of class, culture, race, dis/ability and historical issues. I live an advantaged, if challenging life. We have to think about those who feel trapped, and have a hard time escaping from anywhere they don't want to be, even just for a break. And those who truly belong here but have been hurt. I'm acutely conscious of living in a conquered and stolen country. In any case we should be less than comfortable until those indigenous to the places we live are returned to power.

 

Micaela Maftei

Micaela Maftei

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