Interview with Carolyn Zonailo,
by Juliet McLaren, Ph.D., Canadian Literature
JM: I noticed in looking
at your first book, Inside Passage, that the imagery
you return to and develop in Split Rock is already present
there. Did you find that this was something you've always taken
with you? Particularly, the gardening and rock imagery that you
really work with in Split Rock is beginning to surface
already even in your first experimental poems.
CZ: I think that particular image is very much
beginning to surface in Inside Passage. And that's because
the rock imagery comes naturally—I was born on the west
coast, raised here, and have been involved with the coast most
of my life. And so that imagery comes from a natural involvement
with the landscape that I felt when I was growing up, and that's
still here now and always will be, especially when trying to find
mythic entrances or trying to make meaning of living in relation
to landscape. That's what you see in Split Rock that's
there in auto-da-fe, too. The landscape in auto-da-fe
becomes more of a personal landscape because it is the Interior—the
Kootenays—and is a place that has to do with my family background.
But the Doukhobor poems are also an exploration of the landscape—
of the other landscape I knew when I was growing up.
JM: Do you see yourself
as part of a group of women working around mythology, and is this
a result of the feminist consciousness of the later part of the
twentieth century, or an accident of some kind? Poets, of course,
have always worked with myth—this has been true for centuries—but
I think there is an astonishing revival of interest in mythology
among creative women right now.
CZ: I think that if myth has something to say
to us psychologically—which I feel it does —then it
seems obvious that if you're looking at your own face in the mirror,
if you're exploring your own identity and especially if you are
trying to find out where you come from, historically and culturally,
then at some point you turn to myth. So that part is an historical
co-incidence. It doesn't explain my own personal fascination with
myth, which began before I was even an undergraduate at university,
but it explains why women are turning to myth as they also turn
to find out more about themselves.
JM: Have you had difficulty
in finding a vocabulary that expresses your sense of the world?
CZ: I think the only area in which I've had
trouble with the vocabulary is when I started, in Split Rock,
to write what I called at the time "erotic" or "female
romantic" poetry. Then I had trouble with language in terms
of the vocabulary, in terms of wanting a word that wasn't used
in patriarchal language or in patriarchal culture, in wanting
the word to come alive for my particularly female experience.
JM: I'd like to hear
more about the problem of the female erotic vocabulary, the female
erotic idiom. Do you see any writers having found a language for
this or do you see any other writers concerned about it?
CZ: I don't know what you mean—do I see
any other writers trying to find a language for this? I think
there have been a lot of female writers, from Sappho on down.
Sappho was a poet I read as a teenager, almost pre-consciously,
and she appealed to me because of her lyrically erotic language
and the way in which it worked for her, as a woman. So, I think
if you are a woman and writing, it's something you're going to
come up against and when you ask if there are other writers sharing
this concern, I presume there are a lot of other women writers
JM: Okay, I guess
my question wasn't so much about what other writers are doing
but in the sense that a language has to be a tool for communication
where there's a shared ground of meaning, it seems to me that
in order to make a language functional we have to find other people
who understand it, as well as other people who are willing to
speak it. I guess I'm wondering if you are finding some solutions
to those questions.
CZ: I always work from the poem, and for a long
time it was the poem and whether or not the poem was working,
and whether it was working for someone else at the time of writing
was irrelevant to me. The poem has to work for me and the audience
I write for is not myself but is the poem. I'm not trying to be
metaphysical, but I would say that the change in consciousness,
historically the feminist movement, suddenly opened up a world
and an audience that hadn't been there, but the content and what
I had been working with was already there.
JM: How did you come to write "Fallen Among
Thieves," the poem for Pat Lowther?
CZ: That was another of those poems that just
happened. It surprised me when I wrote it —what happened
afterward with the poem surprised me even more—and the direction
it took me in surprised me. I had been reading Lowther's work
and I had always felt a closeness to her work, as a coast poet
and as a woman. That poem started the rest of the poems that are
in Split Rock. It started the garden poems, the flower
imagery. As we said, rock had been there and I had at that time
bought a piece of property on the Sechelt Peninsula, a little
piece of rock on the Pacific Ocean. And the rock poems had started,
but the flower and garden poems hadn't, and the poem for Pat Lowther
began the shift into the garden, into the flower, and into the
specifically female erotic poems.
JM: Okay, let's talk
about your garden. It isn't that garden of Eden described in Genesis;
it's nothing quite that simple.
CZ: When I go back to "Fallen Among Thieves,"
I think the garden grew out of looking at the terrible kinds of
"passion" women suffer from and that someone like Lowther,
her life and her fate, is emblematic of. I realized that desire
draws you into a potential situation of victimization. I wrote
the lines "Woke up in what could be/ a garden/ or jungle
paradise" and the word garden went click inside me, and suddenly
I was writing garden and flower poems. Also, I then had a sense
of wanting to go back and explore that old metaphor of woman as
flower. That sense of walking around Vancouver in the springtime,
or of watching all the women working in their gardens. Men work
in gardens too, but at that time I was noticing all the women.