Before leaving Canada for the United States, Naomi Guttman lived in Montreal, which is where we met sometime in the 1980s. (We both had work published in the anthology Celebrating Canadian Women in 1989.) After getting her B.F.A. from Concordia University and M.F.A from the low-residency program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, she left Montreal with her husband Jonathan so that he could pursue a graduate degree at UCLA, in September 1989. Guttman, too, did graduate work (M.A. English Literature 1994) and then a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California (1999). While in Los Angeles she also taught composition and was a teaching assistant. Her husband got a job, they bought a house, and in 1994 they had their first child.
When they moved to Los Angeles, Guttman thought it was temporary, that they’d return to Quebec. But in 1996 they moved from California to Clinton, near Utica, New York. By 1996 she had a tenure-track teaching position — before she’d finished her dissertation. She now teaches English and Creative Writing at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.
Meanwhile she was writing award-winning poetry: Reasons for Winter (Brick Books 1991) received the A.M. Klein Award in poetry (QSPELL 1991) and Wet Apples, White Blood (McGill-Queen’s U.P. 2007) was named best poetry book of 2007 by the Adirondack Center for Writing in June 2008. Check out Naomi Guttman’s website for her numerous grant awards and periodical publications.
Her third book of poetry, a novella-in-verse, was published on March 15, 2015 by Brick Books: The Banquet of Donny & Ari: Scenes from the Opera. Donny is staging Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. His appetite for life expresses itself not only in music but also in food, and in his love for his wife Ari:
Donny can remember when Ari ate it all: pad thai
and paella, pulled pork and posole, veal stuffed with apples
and pâté de foie gras. Now she rejects his meat and all the rest.
When, when will she feast with him again?
-from “Feast and Famine”
Ari meanwhile moves in the opposite direction, developing away from weaving at her loom to fibre art (her Human Footprint series). During the year of this book, she grieves for her mother, restricts her appetite to vegetables, and is consumed by “misery and guilt” over her “calories and carbon use” (“The Book of Life”). There are parallels to Dionysus and Ariadne, while Orpheus’s love, Eurydice, becomes Donny’s temptation.
This interview was conducted online from early April through May, while I was travelling. Because of the exquisite descriptions of food in the poems, I begin my questions on the subject of food. –Debra Martens
DM: From the first poem in The Banquet of Donny and Ari, food is important. Maybe that’s obvious given the title. But it seems to me there is something beyond the banquet. In the second poem, “Early Music,” Donny serves cantaloupe crushed with ice and lime, which develops his character as a gourmand. In “Putting By,” when Donny is visiting his mother’s farm, he thinks of food as seduction (p. 69). As well, you have written articles about food, on such topics as pierogis and picky eaters, sustainable food and molecular gastronomy. Why is food so much present in your thoughts and poetry?
NG: I come from a family in which food has always been extremely important, and I guess that’s why it’s important to me – it’s a given, part of the culture in which I was raised. Since childhood, I’ve been interested in shopping, cooking, and eating. I’ve had a romance with growing vegetables, too, but I’ve never been very good at it, so now I leave it to the experts and buy shares in one of the local organic CSA farms. I also shop at our local farmers market in the summers.
On a theoretical level, I believe that what we eat and how tells us a lot about our values, our interaction with the world, our politics, our aesthetics, not to mention our class. As children, sharing food is probably the first ethical situation of which we are aware: who gets what at the table: which cut of meat, how much mashed potatoes.
As for Donny and Ari, they are two sides of myself in the privileged world in which I live: I have the freedom and means to choose what I eat, and I value that privilege; at the same time, I feel a great deal of guilt and a sense of responsibility. Eating is the most basic means of consumption which, in the industrialized west, we overdo in so many ways, and so I wanted to capture the indulgence and pleasure of consumption as well as the other side, the temptation to refuse to consume. It’s a conundrum, of course, because we can’t survive without consuming. We can’t live on air.
Donny uses food to seduce, to remember, to delight himself and others; it’s a means of expression and connection; Ari denies herself food as part of her rejection of her privilege, her awareness of environmental doom, and also, at this particular moment of her life, as a way of mourning. But she is, obviously, also refusing connection with Donny, and to some extent, with her children.
Part of the way in which these characters arose for me has to do with having spent a good deal of time over the past few years with “foodies” at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, where I’ve presented several times over the past 10 years, and here in the Mohawk Valley, where I’ve been involved off and on in a local Slow Food chapter. There’s such joy in commensality, in preparing food, in uncovering the histories of certain dishes; but at the same time, there is awareness that such activities are doomed, that we need to be paying attention to the very basic matter of how to feed seven billion plus people on the planet, that people are suffering and dying each day for lack of access to food.
DM: Although the book is set in Montreal, and the marriage is not yours, the poems are influenced by your life, such as this commensality, this sharing of food, and your awareness of environmental degradation. Tell us a bit more about where you live. What do you see from the window of the room in which you write?
NG: Right now [early April], I see very early spring. I live in a 130 year-old farm house to which another room seems to have been added every 25 years or so, and my study is at the back, on the first floor. It was probably originally a porch, though I’m not sure of this, but I suspect so because it has windows on two sides and a back door, which we no longer use and which is blocked by the computer table on which I am now writing. So I see my yard, which is a rock covered in mostly crabgrass with a few hard-won flower beds I have worked to build up over the years. The yard slopes down to a marsh on the other side of which is a steep wooded hill. Today almost everything I see from these north- and east-facing windows is rust colored: the trees, the hill covered with fallen leaves, the scruffy brown winter grass, my not-very-well raked flower beds. Nothing is in leaf yet, though this morning I had the sense that soon, very soon, the marsh marigolds at the soggy bottom of the hill will start sending up their greens. And then will come the buttery, Matisse-like bouquets. It will be such a joy to see them.
DM: Is there a poem that was the seed for the collection?
NG: The two seed poems were “Feast and Famine” and “Orchard and Forest” which portray the interior life of each of the two main characters. Donny came to me first with his love of good eating and his despair about not being able, anymore, to connect with his wife through food, which signals a lack of other kinds of connection. These two poems introduced me to the emotional core and the dramatic situation of these two characters. My job then became to figure out what their story was, what had led them to this place and how they might continue, or not, from it.
The story is set in Montreal, and that’s important to me, and I hope that I’ve succeeded in making it a quasi-mythic city, maybe even a character, in the book. -NG
DM: A novella in poems: are you the first to do this? Why novella rather than, say, linked poems? Or why poems rather than a novella?
NG: As for why a novella in poems? I guess because I’m essentially a poet, though I long to write fiction. I think it’s constitutional: I’m naturally drawn more to the music of language and to poetic forms than I am to story, though as a reader I also love story. So once these characters presented themselves to me and gave me their voices, I went with that in poetry because that’s what I’ve trained myself to write, and that’s the way these voices arrived.
Why the novella rather than linked poems? Well, they are linked in terms of thematic, of representing the “whole opera,” as it were. I wanted to get the range of voices and of textures, of things happening in these connected lives over time, as one would expect from a novel. But I have not been brave or stupid enough yet to try a novel.
And yes, there are many novellas-in-verse: of course there are the Homeric epics, though I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about. Pushkin published Eugene Onegin almost 100 years ago. More contemporary examples include: Derek Walcott’s Omeros, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Les Murray’s The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (fantastic book!), and many others. Lately it’s become an extremely popular form in the Young Adult market, though I could not speak to why this is.
DM: You were seven years in California. What was that like?
NG: I certainly felt alien in Los Angeles: the climate, the landscape, the vegetation, the culture. I did not exactly embrace it, though eventually I came to appreciate some things: like the beauty of the desert; like certain flowering trees I’d never seen before (the jacaranda replaced the lilac).
I believe we corresponded at that time (regular mail!) while you were in Kenya?
DM: Yes, we did. And I loved the jacaranda trees at the bottom of our garden in Muthaiga. After 25 years away, do you still consider yourself Canadian? How does living in the U.S. affect your sense of self?
NG: I feel Canadian, though it’s harder to make the case, since it has been so long since I’ve lived there. I visit family and friends in Canada regularly, and I think culturally I am and always will be Canadian (I say “I’m sorry” a lot, with a long O). My students find how I pronounce certain words amusing, I think: shone, sorry, about. I say holiday instead of vacation. But I’ve become a dual citizen, mostly because I wanted to vote in the country and community where I live. I wanted to be counted, to participate, and to have full rights and protections. My children have dual citizenship as well. That said, I think the Canadian personality, if we can speak of such a thing, is still more geared to the public good rather than to individual rights, the way it is in the U.S. And if I were to get a job offer in Canada, I would strongly consider leaving here. In the long term, I certainly think about retiring to Canada, as counterintuitive as that may seem.
DM: How does living outside of Canada affect your work?
NG: I’m not sure. I think I have been exposed to more U.S. arts and culture than I might have been had I stayed in Canada, and obviously the reverse is true: I’m less aware than I should be of Canadian writers and artists, though I do try to keep up. I try at least to read a few new Canadian and U.S. poets every year, and to keep up with what some of my old favourites are doing. In the past year, I’ve read Karen Solie and Helen Humphreys, for example, whose work I had meant to read for a while.
DM: What helps your work, what hinders it?
NG: Things that help: time to read deeply; silence; walks. Being able to write at least a little bit almost every day. Things that hinder: any social or work-related obligations. Life, pretty much.
DM: Are the jokes about Americans’ lack of knowledge about Canada true?
NG: Where I live, which is pretty far north—a two-hour drive to the Canadian border—there is more awareness of Canada than there would be if I lived in, let’s say, Texas. But I don’t think the average American is fully aware of the political and cultural differences between Canada and the U.S. as evidenced by U.S. politicians’ reactions to Rick Mercer’s “Talking to Americans.” I don’t think American lack of understanding of Canada is especially unique; I think Americans, as citizens of the most powerful state in the world, are undereducated about much of the world because they can afford to be, and because the media they consume keeps it that way. Perhaps that changed somewhat since the September 11th attack and the subsequent wars, but I still think people are not as aware as they should be of what their country is doing around the world and therefore how America is perceived abroad.
DM: Do you participate in the local cultural activities: have you met local writers, or other expat writers, or artists or musicians etc.?
NG: I have a peer poetry workshop which meets monthly during the academic year. Most of us teach, so this is a way to keep ourselves working a little bit, to gossip about the poetry world, talk about what we’re reading, etc. I think of it mostly as a means of reducing isolation and keeping a hand in while I’m teaching full time. I do participate in local arts events and I support local poets and writers by trying to make it to their events. There is not a large Canadian community locally, and certainly not a community of Canadian artists.
DM: What else?
NG: I am extremely grateful to the Canadian presses who have published my three books. With both McGill-Queens U.P. and Brick Books, the editorial and production processes were painstaking and professional, and the physical products have been beautifully made and designed. The fact that this year marks the 50th and 40th anniversaries of Coach House and Brick Books respectively is testimony to a singular sort of dedication to poetry in Canada, and I’m delighted to have been a small part of that history.
- Naomi Guttman’s Canadian book tour starts on June 4 in Winnipeg and continues to Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto through to June 11, 2015. For details visit the Brick Books website, where you can also order the paperback and eBook.
- Naomi Guttman’s Brick Books author page includes her essay and a conversation with her editor: Brick Books. While there check out the Brick Books poetry podcast.
- Listen to Naomi Guttman read poems from her book Reasons for Winter on audioboom.
- Three poems from The Banquet of Donny & Ari have been put up on the Lemonhound website.
- Another interview with Naomi Guttman on OpenBook.