University of Guelph: Creative Writing MFA
The other day, someone asked me what it was like to go back to university after being a working artist for over two decades. The word that immediately came to mind was: luxury. There was something very luxurious about declaring that for two years I would immerse myself in the study and craft of writing. My reasons for going back to school were also practical — I wanted to get a graduate degree to boost my teaching credentials, and I wanted to learn how to write a novel. I had made an attempt at a novel a few years before, but had become quickly overwhelmed at the size and scope of the project. I knew I’d benefit from the structure and accountability of a writing program, and decided that an MFA would be my best bet.
Catherine Bush’s plenary turned out to be one of my favorite classes. It caused me to think about the art of writing at a deeper level than I had before, and the essays gave me the opportunity to research and write critically about topics that interested me. In my first year, I studied poetry with Lynn Crosbie, who introduced me to Sonia Sanchez, and sparked my fascination with the relationship between the jazz poets of the Black Arts Movement and the evolution of literary performance in Canada. This led to my writing a paper called “Spoken Word: A Signifying Poetic”, which was revised and presented at the annual Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs Conference, and more recently at the South North Griots’ Summit in Toronto. I also took two fiction workshops, which helped me understand the fundamental elements of the form, and during the summer mentorship, I began working on the first draft of my novel with Jeanette Lynes. I was able to complete the novel as my thesis, instructed by Kathryn Kuitenbrauer, who helped me edit and shape my fractured, chaotic first draft into a coherent whole.
In the end, the experience of working towards a MFA in creative writing was one of the most rewarding journeys of my life. I was not only able to complete and publish my first novel and enrich my spoken word practice, I was also introduced to a new community of colleagues and friends along the way.
By Lauren Carter on July 2, 2015
Who are you?
I’m a brown kid called Andy, sitting on the curb with her best-friend Julie Kagayama, singing, “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee” and “The Hills Are Alive”, until either the neighbours tell us to shut up, or the street lights go on.
I’m the little girl tucked in bed, listening to her grandmother concoct adventure stories about inquisitive children in spooky old houses with secret doors and magical gardens – because we’ve finished all the C.S. Lewis and I am hungry for more.
I am the hung-over teenager, covering my ears on Sunday morning as the sound of Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong blast from my grandfather’s new HiFi.
I am the young woman who went west on a whim, and met her totem animal during a hallucinogen-fueled spirit-quest on an endless beach in Tofino.
I’m the woman who declared at thirty that I was going to be a poet when I grew up.
And I’m the middle-aged writer who sits here now, typing this – watching the way the past bubbles and brews into the stew of the present tense.
I’m the mind, stilling to listen to the wind blowing secrets through the trees outside my window. It’s early afternoon on Canada Day, and the hum of the city is quiet and contented. I am thinking about the writer friend who will come over for dinner later. The salmon I will cook. The wine we will drink. The laughter that will make our faces hurt. The stories we will tell.
I read online that “the concept for Over Our Heads evolved from Jane Austin’s book Sense and Sensibility, where two dissimilar sisters create contrast and tension as the book’s main characters.” Can you talk about this inspiration and how it lead to the novel?
I loved the way Austin’s Elinor and Marianne Dashwood bounced off each other – the way they showed idealism and realism in a kind of inter-relational dance, and I thought it would be a fun idea to play with. Also, I’ve always loved books about families – their dysfunctions, politics and generational patterns. I think families are ground zero for our ability to understand how our past and our perceptions colour our world.
In your novel, Over Our Heads, you explore topics as diverse as cosmology, physics, astrology and telepathic communication with animals. Can you tell me what led to you exploring these topics?
I wrote Over Our Heads as a thesis for my MFA Creative Writing degree at the University of Guelph. I loved the structure of school, but found that between schoolwork, writing and doing work to pay the bills, I often felt stressed and like I just wanted to turn off my mind for a bit. This desire led to an obsession with animal documentaries. I watched pretty much every BBC documentary narrated by David Attenborough, and then I shifted gears and became obsessed about cosmology. There are some really amazing documentaries about cosmology online, and I watched as many as I could. This led to a fascination with physics and off I went learning as much as I could about that.
At the time, I felt a bit guilty that I was spending so much time studying these science topics instead of editing my book, which was completed at that point, but to me, seemed a bit lacking – the characters didn’t feel fully developed. Then one day, I was doing a talk with students in Lillian Allen’s writing class at OCADU, and Lillian said something that struck a chord in me. She said, “Whatever your passion is – whatever you’re thinking about and obsessing about while you’re writing, is feeding your art.” This was like a light bulb going on for me. I went home and took out my manuscript and suddenly knew what it was missing. I needed to fill in the gaps in my characters with topics that I could dig my teeth into. I wanted to write a book full of things that I loved to think about.
One of your two main protagonists, Emma, is of mixed race heritage. Can you explain the role race played in the construction of your characters?
The issue of race was important for me to address in the construction of characters. To me, it seems that if the race of a character is not mentioned, or made clear through description, often the default is to imagine the character as white. I wanted to circumvent this, and also to create a character that resembled my own bi-racial background. I decided to keep the specifics of Emma’s racial background ambiguous to show the reality that many mixed-race people deal with of being mis-identified. I have had people assume I was everything from Malaysian to Mexican, which can be interesting or annoying depending on the attitude of the person doing the assuming.
Do you have an “ideal reader’?
For Over Our Heads, my ideal reader was poet and former Queens University professor, Elizabeth Green. In the gap between the time that the novel was accepted for publication and the moment when I began working on it with Inanna’s brilliant editor, Luciana Ricciultelli, I started to get cold feet. I thought: who the hell will want to read a book full of astrology and physics and telepathy and talking dogs? I was afraid the esoteric elements would put people off. Through this phase of insecurity, I kept thinking about Elizabeth, who is a wonderful writer and an extraordinary editor, and who also has an interest in metaphysics. I got up the gumption to ask Elizabeth if she would read the manuscript, which she did, returning it with thoughtful notes and questions that got me excited about the editing process again, and got me back to work on the book.
You are one of this country’s pioneering slam poets. How did you find the shift from writing and performing spoken word to writing a novel? What were some of the challenges and joys?
Spoken word is like a sprint, and writing a novel is a marathon, so the first challenge I had in switching from one genre to another was one of pacing. With poetry and spoken word, sometimes – if you’re really plugged in – you can finish a piece in an evening. There’s a lot of immediate gratification that comes from that quick a pace. And the whole matter of performing… with spoken word, you have the blessing of being able to get fast feedback on a piece – sometimes within hours of putting down the pen. For me, fiction requires more faith – and much more patience. It’s also got me thinking much more about process. There were long stretches of time during the writing of Over Our Heads, when I wasn’t writing at all. At the time I laid a big trip on myself about it. But later, I realized that taking that time off was part of the process. I needed to let things simmer a bit before I was ready to take the work further.
What’s next for you? Are you working on a new project?
Yes, I’m working on a new novel right now.
What has recently turned your crank as an artist (sentence, phrase, novel, short story, play, painting, philosophical question, deep understanding about art-making)? Why do you find it so exciting?
I’ve really been digging visual art of late. I spent some time with Ilene Sova and women artists from around the world who had gathered for a two-week residency as a part of the annual Feminist Art Conference, and was deeply affected by the work they cooked up. That was in early May, and it seems to have started a trend… After that, I met a lovely artist in Edmonton named Ray Beau who does these powerful, provocative collages. Then I came home, and fell in love with a painting of High Park, by poet and mystic Clara Blackwood. And I recently did a reading at the Secret Handshake gallery in Kensington market. For some reason I keep running into visual artists who help me to see the world differently. I love that. People with a strong visual sense always keep me from getting too stuck in my head. They’re like my seeing-eye friends. They help me appreciate the beauty inherent in everything.
From Spoken Word Artist to Novelist:
We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
January 29, 2015 at 1:37 PM (From the Inanna Blog)
Publishing a novel was, for me, an epic journey. My first attempt, about ten years ago, began with my posting an innocently optimistic yellow sticky note above my desk, reminding me to: trust the process. Fast-forward one year, and there I was - surrounded by piles of paper, with said sticky note crumpled up at the bottom of the recycling bin. Although the piles of paper I was left with looked like a manuscript, they were, in fact, only a few scenes – written in past tense, in the present tense, from various points of view – the same scenes written over and over as I changed my mind again and again and slowly came to the painful conclusion that I had no idea what I was doing. I was in over my head.
So I decided to go back to school. At first I was thinking about the writing program at Humber College, but decided instead to apply for the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Guelph. It was my birthday when I looked in my in-box and found a message from program Coordinator Catherine Bush. I was in.
What followed was two years of learning how to write fiction – a process that taught me to be kinder to my earlier budding-novelist self. Fiction was hard! During the first year of the program, I worked with Jeanette Lynes, who helped me craft the first draft by offering an incredible amount of patience and encouragement. In the second year, I began the manuscript as my thesis and began working with my advisor, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, who taught me the nuts and bolts of constructing a story arc (among many other things).
When I began to work with Kathryn, the manuscript was a mess. To my mind, it was beyond repair, so at our first meeting, I suggested I throw everything out and start again. But Kathryn reassured me. “Everything is in there,” she insisted. “Everything you need to bring the story together is already there.” Incredibly, she was telling me the same thing I had told myself almost a decade before: trust the process. So I got to work. I read about William S Burroroughs using what he called the ‘cut up’ method, and decided to give it a try. I got out the tape and scissors, and turned my office into a replica of a movie set for “A Beautiful Mind.” The insanity of editing had begun.
Two years later, with the assistance of Elizabeth Green, who talked me out from under the bed when I had once again given up, and Lucianna Ricutelli, Inanna’s Editor in Chief, whose editing abilities verge on the supernatural, the book was finally born.
The transition from short form to long form writing is like learning to run a marathon after a lifetime of sprinting, like being in a long-term relationship after a series of one-night-stands. The learning curve has been steep, but the rewards have been worth it. The story is finally out of my body. I’ve learned how to write a novel, and more importantly to trust myself, and the intuition that prompted me to put that sticky note up above my desk all those years ago. I had come full circle, and like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, realized I had what I needed all along.
- Andrea Thompson, author of Over Our Heads
POETS IN PROFILE : ANDREA THOMPSON
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Poet and novelist Andrea Thompson has been a part of the Toronto spoken word and literary community for over twenty years, contributing both as a writer and as a teacher, mentor and activist.
Though Andrea has focused her energies on poetry and music in the past, this fall she is turning over a new leaf with her debut novel, Over Our Heads (Inanna Publications).
Over Our Heads tells the story of two half-sisters with very different lives. Emma sings in a punk band, writes poetry and works as a pet psychic, while Rachel fills her days with work as an actuary and spends her nights looking at the stars. When the grandmother who raised the girls passes away, the two are brought together in their grief and shared history.
Andrea speaks to Open Book today as part of our Poets in Profile series. She tells us about her own grandmother — who sparked Andrea's early interest in poetry — city neighbours as muses and her awesome list of recommended reads (from which you may want to steal!).
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
My earliest memories of poetry, especially poetry spoken aloud, revolve around my grandmother. Not much of a drinker, about half-way into a glass of wine, Grandma has a tendency to either start singing or reciting a poem she learned when she was young. I’ve always been amazed by her memory. I remember telling her once that we had been studying Coleridge at school. She responded with, “Oh, I know him! In Xanadu did Kubla Khan…” and off she went. Even today, at 94, she can do Shakespearean sonnets by heart.
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
The first poem that affected me deeply was Robert Frost’s, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” There were always poetry books around the house when I was a kid, so I’m not sure how old I was when I read it, but it was the first time I became aware of the power of metaphor. I remember the moment it dawned on me that it wasn’t just a poem about a guy and his horse. What a revelation! I was so moved by the idea that a poem could speak about more than one thing at a time, and so grateful to Mr. Frost — for both his talent and sentiment, that I tore the poem out of the book and framed it. I still have it to this day.
What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?
My first thought after reading this question was, something by Rumi. Rumi is like a spiritual tonic for me. If ever I’m completely out of sorts, and hungry for something to make me feel at peace and re-connected to what is beautiful about being human, I go to Rumi. So many people do, and that just astounds me – that this 13th-century Persian poet was able to write words that have uplifted so many, over such an expanse of space and time… What a wonderful legacy to leave behind.
But thinking about the question a bit more, I can’t honestly say that there’s any poem that someone else has written that I wish I would have written myself. For me, that defeats the purpose of writing in the first place. I think that the best, most satisfying writing is an expression of the writer’s essence — their unique nature. I think there’s an audacity and freedom in authenticity that takes you back to the first time you picked up a pen. I love when a writer uses words and voice to express themselves on their own terms. You can tell they’re getting a buzz off it, and when it’s done well, the result is always a kind of reinvention of language and its possibilities. ee cummings wrote a piece called “A Poet’s Advice to Students,” that sums up the idea of writing like nobody-but-yourself beautifully. Or so I feel.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
I think the most unlikely source of inspiration for me are my neighbours, especially neighbours I don’t know very well. Over the years, quite a few of them have ended up in my poems. My neighbours are like my secret muses. I may never speak more than twenty words to them, and yet I listen to their music, smell their food, hear their children playing in the yard. Without really wanting to, just through proximity, we develop this simultaneous intimacy and distance between ourselves and our neighbours that fascinates me.
What do you do when a poem is not working?
What I do, and what I tell my students to do with a poem that isn’t working, is to put it away for a while. Give it some time to breathe and figure itself out. If a student throws away work, it’s a heart breaker. Sometimes a dead piece can be resurrected once we figure out what we’re trying to say with it. At the very least, there’s usually some line, some seed of an idea worth keeping that won’t revel itself without some ripening.
What was the last book of poetry that really knocked your socks off?
I’ve got a few books on the go at the moment that I’m digging: Forecast by Clara Blackwood, The Last Temptation of Bond by Kimmy Beach and The Reinvention of the Human Hand by Paul Vermeersch. I’ve also heard some great live poetry of late, so next on my shopping list are Understories by Elizabeth Green, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway by Alexandra Oliver, and anything by Barry Dempster or Jeramy Dodds. Oh, and I met a lovely poet when I was in Saskatoon earlier this year named Fionncara MacEoin, whose collection, Not the First Thing I’ve Missed made me cry on the plane home.
What is the best thing about being a poet….and what is the worst?
The best thing about being a poet is getting to play with words, sound and meaning. For me, writing a poem is like figuring out a puzzle. It’s a pure, giddy, nerdy joy. And when it finally clicks and flows and works — it’s like everything is golden and right in the world. I also love the energy exchanged when a poem leaves a mouth, enters a room, an ear, a heart, and is returned. Poetry readings are my version of church — potent environments of inspiration, enlightenment and transformation. Hallelujah!
The worst thing about being a poet is the paycheque.
"'Hindsight. The only way to see clearly.' This proverb illuminates the genesis of the life lessons that poet Andrea Thompson unfolds in her page-turner — and new-leaf-turning —debut novel. Over Our Heads is the poignant yet sprightly story of a family troubled by abandonment, accident, addiction, adoption, and death. Centreing on the fraught relationship between Rachel — a cool-and-calculating actuary — and her half-sister, Emma, a poet songstress gifted with ESP, the novel moves between the "now" of funeral arrangements and the girlhood "then" of Etch-A-Sketch and Easy-Bake Oven, Wonder Woman and Harry Belafonte. Thompson orchestrates a wondrous collage of Ziggy Stardust and the Dalai Lama, urban parks and Aboriginal medicines, home renos and black holes, all to reveal that divisions of gender, class, race, and ethnicity are, truly, only skin-deep. Thompson writes with a poet's careful eye and a novelist's open heart."
- George Elliott Clarke, Poet Laureate of Toronto (2012-15)
"A rare novel, by turns poetic, psychic, and down-to-earth, always wise and engaging, Over Our Heads affirms "the holiness of the heart's affections" and will remain long in the reader's memory."
- Elizabeth Greene, author of Moving and Understories
"How to describe this book? You know sometimes you read a book and you feel as if it was written just for you? That the messages and characters were written as such, just for you? A bespoke book! Ridiculous as it may sound, Over Our Heads feels like my bespoke book and I urge you to try it, it might be yours too! Two very different sisters, an unusual family, stardust versus accounting, astrology versus astronomy, rationalism versus mysticism... I was enchanted and engaged from the very first page to the last."
- Lisa de Nikolits, author of The Witchdoctor's Bones
For more information or to order click here.
by Molly Littlewood McKibbin
Adebe DeRango-Adem and Andrea Thompson’s new collection of the artistic, autobiographical, and scholarly work of almost seventy women performs the important task of bridging the gap between late twentieth-century mixed-race writing and more contemporary work. Their text demonstrates the changes multiracial discourse has undergone and is undergoing. Other Tongues addresses the important concerns that dominated multiracial discourse in North America in the final decades of the twentieth century, which, as the contributions illustrate, are still quite relevant to the experiences of both older and younger multiracial women.
University of Toronto Quarterly
Volume 81, Number 3, Summer 2012