You know those people who fall into your life and change everything, the people who let you feel more acutely the magic of being alive? Laura Farina is one of those people.
I started writing poetry the summer after fourth grade as a camper at Centauri Summer Arts Camp in Ontario, Canada. I enrolled as a dancer, but found that I liked the writing crowd better. They would spend the entire morning writing under the fondly dubbed “Poet Tree,” break for muffins, and then get back to the business of stringing words into lines, and lines into poems. I fell in love with words. I love them still.
Laura opened the door to poetry in my life. She genuinely valued every voice in the group. She made rambling okay. She had us write to music. She encouraged us to share our work (but didn’t push), even if it wasn’t anything close to polished. She endorsed climbing trees and writing in their branches. She had us lie down with our heads in the center of a circle and look up at the sky and all at once shout out our favorite word. Then we had to take someone else’s favorite word and write a poem with it.
Laura, thank you for being you.
What inspired you to start writing? When did it happen?
I don’t actually remember when I first started writing. My father is a great storyteller and so I feel like the act of making up stories was part of my life from a very young age. One of the first stories I remember writing was in Grade 1. It was a retelling of one of my father’s stories about a magician he met in a park on a business trip to Japan. I illustrated it and everything. Even at a young age, I was a much better writer than artist.
I think I started to seriously write poetry in about Grade 6. I fell in love with the work of the Canadian poet Alden Nowlan. There was something about his straightforward, conversational style, and his fondness for the details of everyday life that seemed almost revolutionary to me. I started writing my own poems that mimicked his. I wrote a poem about crosswalks, I remember.
Why do you write?
I mostly write for myself – to observe closely, to reflect, to capture moments. I’m a better human when I write, more thoughtful, connected and grateful. I also write because it’s enjoyable to me. Sure, sometimes the words don’t come and it’s frustrating, and I end up breaking my poems rather than editing them, but sometimes it’s just pure fun. Every time I sit down to write, I’m thinking it’ll be one of those fun times. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.
Who were the best writing teachers you had in your life? What were they like?
I’ve had two best teachers in my life, which means I am lucky.
I went to a high school for the arts, where I studied writing. My teacher there was a man named Michael Fitzpatrick. He changed my life. I’m still in touch with so many of the writers I met at that school, and as adults, we’ve had many conversations about what made Mr. Fitzpatrick such a great teacher. I don’t think we’ve ever been able to put our fingers on it. (Here’s my friend Chris taking a stab at it: http://www.fireflycreativewriting.com/mr-fitz/)
Mr. Fitzpatrick was unfailingly kind and generous with his time. He had almost impossibly high standards. He was insanely well read. He encouraged us to write in our own voices about our own experiences. He kept any secrets we wrote about on the page. I remember a friend coming out to me and when I asked, “Who else knows?” he said, “Just you. Well, you and Fitz.” He was the sort of teacher you trusted with the big stuff.
The second teacher is Beth Follett, the one-woman
miracle behind Pedlar Press. I was Beth’s assistant when she taught creative writing at Centauri Summer Arts Camp (where I met you!) and at that time in my life, I was unbelievably stuck in my writing. I was one year into university, and the only kind of poems I felt like I knew how to make were ones from my own life, but I felt like I had written about literally everything of interest that had ever happened to me. Beth had two rules of writing, “Stop making sense” and “Great writers are great human beings”. Slowly, she introduced me to new and amazing ways of approaching poetry. She taught me that it’s more important to capture how something feels than to capture its literal details. She was always slipping me perfect books, most notably Farmer Gloomy’s New Hybrid
by Stuart Ross, Lunch Poems
by Frank O’Hara and Songs for Relinquishing the Earth
by Jan Zwicky – still some of my favourites.
When did you start calling yourself a poet? A teacher?
I think I didn’t call myself a poet until my first book of poetry, This Woman Alphabetical, was published. Before that, I think I would have described myself as, “someone who likes writing poems sometimes.”
Even though I’d taught writing for years, I didn’t think of myself as a teacher until my grandfather gave me a page a day calendar for teachers one Christmas. It was a cheesy gift, and I don’t think I used it, but the fact that he thought of me that way meant something.
Where do you teach now?
What do you hope for your students?
I hope that my students all discover the pleasure of writing a good sentence. I hope that some write novels, or books of poetry and that some start music review blogs, and that some write precise shopping lists. I hope each of them gets that feeling of satisfaction from getting something down exactly as they see or feel it.
How do you approach teaching poetry to a group of young adults?
I think the two things I can do to make a writing workshop good are to provide an uninterrupted block of time where participants are not required to do anything but focus on their own writing and to take the pressure off participants to create brilliant works of literature by giving prompts that pull them out of their usual ways of doing things.
With young people, I try to keep things really relaxed. I think it’s important that a writers’ workshop be a very different space than school. I let there be a small amount of chatter, I think a strictly enforced silence is sort of creepy. Whenever I can, I try to write along with the people in my workshop. I think things tend to go better when there isn’t this sense that there’s a teacher, and there are students and those roles are really separate. I like the idea that we’ve all just come together to write.
The other thing I like to do is keep things moving. I often tell participants that there will be a lot of different prompts given, so if they find one that works for them, they should just go with it for as long as they need, but if a prompt really doesn’t work for them, they shouldn’t get worked up, because another prompt will be coming really soon. So much of a good writers workshop is keeping people relaxed enough that their own creativity can take over.
Who inspires you?
I am inspired by people who go for what they want, who take creative risks. I am inspired by people who are unabashedly themselves. I’m inspired by people who have learned how to do something, anything, really, really well. I’m inspired by people who make things.
What are you reading right now?
What projects are you working on?
My latest book of poetry, Some Talk of Being Human, just came out this month, so I’m sort of casting around for a new project. So far, I think I want to write a long poem in parts about living with chronic illness. But very image-based, and listy. And sort of funny. It’s hard to explain, but almost clear in my head.
Do you have any stories related to water or climate change that you would like to share?
Remember how I said my dad was a great storyteller? When I was a kid, we were swimming one day at our cottage, and he dove down much deeper than I could go. When he came up, he had a pack of gum in his hand. He told me that he’d found a bubblegum tree at the bottom of the lake. The deal with the tree was that he was the only person who could find it, and if we didn’t believe in it, it would probably move. I was obsessed with this tree, particularly with wondering what a bubblegum blossom might look like.
My cousin was perhaps less enchanted, and told us that my dad probably just put the gum in the pocket of his swimming trunks. When my dad heard about this, he assembled my entire family on the dock, promptly got naked and dove in to find the tree. And wouldn’t you know it, he came back with gum. When I asked him, years later, how he did it, he said, “You don’t want to know,” which is gross because I ate that gum.
What is your favorite place on earth?
My family goes to a cottage in the Kawarthas in Ontario every summer. It belonged to my grandmother’s best friend from high school, and is now being run by her daughter. It is my favourite place on earth. My mom has been going there for her entire life, and I’ve been going there for mine. It’s magical. And quiet. It has a hammock that is perfect for reading in. There’s this sleeping cabin that three generations of children have slept in. They’ve all written their names on the walls and hung their boy band pictures from the ceilings. The days just pass by there. I’m never as relaxed as I am sitting on the dock, looking out over the lake. If your water travels ever take you to Ontario, you’ll have to swing by. My cottage family has SUCH good stories.
What’s your favorite word? (Is it still “cinematographer”?)
I do so love that word! I can’t believe you remember! I really like it in that Paul Simon song, “I Know What I Know.” The line goes, “She said, ‘Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?’ and I said, ‘Who am I to blow against the wind?'” So pleasing….