Interview with Carla Funk

by Ann van Buren

Noted Canadian poet Carla Funk was born and raised in Vanderhoof, British Columbia, one of the earliest Mennonite settlements in the province. She now lives in Victoria, where she served as the city’s inaugural poet laureate from 2006 to 2008. In her poetry, “Funk works between polarities as she sifts through nature, the sacred, the rural, and the past while giving way to the urgings of the profane, the urban, and the present.” (Gillian Sze, Rhubarb) She has published five books of poetry including Gloryland (Turnstone Press, 2016), Apologetic (Turnstone, 2010), and The Sewing Room (Turnstone, 2006). Her work has appeared in seven anthologies, including Hammer & Tongs: A Smoking Lung Anthology (Smoking Lung Press, 1999) and Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets (Harbour Publishing, 1995). 

Carla Funk completed a BFA in Writing and English and an MA in English Literature at the University of Victoria, where she taught for more than fifteen years. She currently runs independent writing workshops and retreats. In 2012, she won the Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Award and she is currently polishing a creative nonfiction collection about small-town childhood and spiritual imagination. “Better than anyone, Carla Funk finds words for the rural, the north, the troubled family, and for ‘that feeling when the world goes wrong and true.’ Reading this book makes me shiver with delight. This is a writer who’s been baptized with the dark waters of poetry.” (Lorna Crozier, on Gloryland)

The following interview took place, via Skype, on October 23, 2017 and was published online on October 29, 2017. The transcript has been lightly edited.

The interviewer Ann van Buren is a poet, teacher, and writer. Her poems have appeared in the Westchester Review, Columbia Review, and Let the Poets Speak, among other journals. She interviews poets for the Katonah Poetry Series and for The Rumpus online. 

Ann van Buren: Your book The Sewing Room offers a picture of biblical figures. It’s like Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology–where we see characters and the society they live in and are able to embrace them, even as we see their flaws. Or perhaps it’s a bit like Pilgrim’s Progress in that it lays down a blueprint of the basic archetypes and tenets of Christianity. Can you give us some of the background to your poems? Religion continues to be a character in your work. How would you describe your outlook on religion and religious practice? What are your influences, and what kind of transformation do you expect from your readers as they move through your work?          

Carla Funk: Spoon River Anthology! I’m deeply honored! And Pilgrim’s Progress—interesting. I haven’t read that one in years. I grew up sitting in the pews of an evangelical Mennonite church. My hometown, with the outlying areas, had 5,000 people. At one point we boasted the most churches per capita in Canada. When I say I went to an evangelical Mennonite church, it’s just to tell you that there were 10 different Mennonite churches in that one town, and each one had its own flavor. My dad’s side of the family went to this Mennonite church, my mother’s side went to a different Mennonite church, and there was yet another on the corner. There were just Mennonites everywhere! We weren’t the horse and buggy Mennonites, we were the ones where a lot of the men would drink and smoke on weekends. They lived their blue collar lives and then they would guiltily slink into the pews on Sunday morning to listen to a sobering sermon before returning to their regular life on Monday. That was my dad’s side of the family—a lot of them. So that church was liturgical in some capacity.

What I remember as a kid was listening to the King James translation of the Bible, which has Shakespearean rhythms to it. My earliest introduction to literature was the King James Bible. That was where my narratives came from. It’s the poetry I heard and certainly the moral teaching, and it was foundational to all of my literary experience. Everything I read after that was an echo—vs. my husband, who had the completely opposite upbringing. He grew up reading Greek mythology. He didn’t read a Bible, gosh, probably until he was in university. When he did, he went, “Oh, this is interesting.” It was a completely different experience for him.

Yeah, we were in church every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, sometimes on Wednesday morning when I was little, for Bible stories. That was foundational. It was something I tried to shake off for a long time. I thought, “get away, get away,” but then I thought, no, that was my understanding of the world. I could certainly critically look at it and look at it objectively, but I am very thankful for that rich literary heritage because I arrived at university and I was shocked to find out that most of my classmates could not pick up the biblical allusions in a text. I felt like, “I’m scoring here!” So, in terms of my own religious practice, I certainly did walk away from everything I grew up with. There was a period of time when it felt like it was something I had been handed vs. something I chose. My husband, on the other hand, when we were married, he was a complete atheist and had no experience whatsoever with religion.  [Yet] he came to a place where he thought, “Oh, wait a minute, I’m interested in exploring this idea of faith.” I thought, “What?” But somehow we found, somewhere in the middle, that beautiful faith in mystery, where what, when I grew up, was black and white, and when he grew up was his own version of the universe. Somewhere along the way we found that there was mystery in the world and that was part of the pursuit of faith and spirituality.

AvB: In addition to the theme of religion, nature plays a big role in your work. Many of your poems depict tragic scenes interspersed with moments of natural beauty. I’m looking at the poem “Genesis,” from Gloryland (106), where “the wind comes down to hook us, reel us back/to darkness where we burn to start again.” We can also see the cycle of creation and destruction in your book, Apologetic, which is filled with celestial images and allusions to the creation story. The very first poem, “I Want to Say This Thing, Important and Alive” shows this. It also hearkens back to the waters in the 23rd Psalm when the poem references the greenness of water. Here is an excerpt:

Words, like breath in winter,
manifest and vanish.
The body, too, a mist
that settles in the grass,
then fades. How quickly it lies down
beside the greenness of water,
how soon its shadow falls
under the anvil of the sun.
Though the world goes up in fire,
out of the skull of the village fool
dream-bleached and soaked in light,
burst all those common morphos,
blue wings flying up
through temporary darkness,
planet-tilt, interstellar hum,
back to the furnace and the cloud.

                                                                                                                                                                                    My question for you is as follows: Given the hurricanes, floods, droughts, and fires that the world has been seeing, is nature a reliable source of solace? How would you parallel your work with what we have been seeing in nature?

CF: I think my experience has been that all of nature is like a book that we are reading, constantly reading. And I feel like I’m a writer who is sometimes just scratching marginalia. Any time I write a poem and refer to nature and am engaging with it on a literary level in some sort of creative capacity, I feel like I’m scratching notes in the margins. When I go for my morning walk— I have a dog and live near a lake and I watch the seasons shift— sometimes you can read the trail and see the changing patterns. We just had a big downpour of rain on the weekend and there’s rivulets running in the trail and beautiful leaves all buried under mud and I can’t help but think to myself, “What is that teaching me? What is that telling me?” Certainly it is easy to stand on top of a beautiful mountain with blue skies and you can survey the world and be like, there’s so much hope and beauty and look at the green—but then you read the headlines and you’re lost in the firsthand experience of some sort of natural disaster and it just shifts the perspective. So I think my posture is that we come humbly to nature, and we read it and there are so many different narratives and story lines woven into this book, this huge book.: sometimes it strives and sometimes it seems meaningless and sometimes it seems haphazard and random and other times it seems like maybe there are thin places.

AvB: You refer to these places in different ways, with the image of the veil, for example, or perhaps the “interstellar hum” in the poem I’ve just quoted.

CF: Yes. This idea comes from the Celtic mystics, who believe that there are these thin spaces in the world between what is here and what is beyond. Sometimes nature gives us moments and small glimpses of something beyond what we’re experiencing physically. But, to get back to the question of whether or not nature is a source of solace—I think it’s easy for me on my island right now to say absolutely, look at the world that is so beautiful—golden leaves and the rain washed the mud away from the streets. But we’re all waiting on this island for the big earthquake, the one that they say is inevitable. If you ask me that question on a different day, I’d have a different answer. So solace, I don’t know. I don’t know if nature is a source of solace, but it is a teacher, absolutely. That one I’m going to stand by. Nature is a teacher.

AvB: Thank you. Music, like religion, is another motif in your work. In “Beyond the Blue” (Gloryland, 105) there are bittersweet echoes of song, references to a life unlived:

             How long until I learn the tune
             that everyone is singing,
             and how with my body—
             fire, feather, water, wind—
             to live it?

What is this tune that everyone sings? Do you think it’s one that is real, or is it one that we among the lonely—which, at one time or another, includes all of us—only imagine?

CF: Even back home I was interested in the space when the speaker suddenly feels very apart from what’s going on in the world, feels very small. Just as you say, sometimes it’s a perception that everyone else is hearing something and someone is not. Sometimes it seems like everyone else is singing a song, and this speaker is only catching faint notes of a motif and wondering, “How do I learn to sing that?”  I think, on a personal level, it’s always the ache in me when I’m writing—to grab hold of something bigger, something beyond, something more than. If there’s anything that I am feeling right now, as a human and as a writer both, it is that our world, our culture, is just starved for wisdom on so many levels—personal, cultural, political—in every capacity. We’re striving for facts and that’s important, but there’s a loss of wisdom. It would be a huge conversation to tease that out, why that is.  I know that in my particular family, as the grandparents and parents pass away, there’s this loss of some sort of library of experience.  A library that suddenly has gone missing. It’s like every time we lose an elder, a book in the library has been removed.

AvB: That’s a beautiful parallel, and one that I can relate to as a former librarian who has seen books removed from the shelves when they are deemed less “useful.” My argument has always been that we can’t know if the books are useful or not if they are not there to browse. Many texts, including poetry, are not available on the Internet. But I digress. It seems to me that your poetry is carrying on the wisdom of your elders, wouldn’t you agree? Is that something that you are trying to bring to all of us?

CF: I don’t feel like I’m this wise person! However, I find that a lot of the time, as a writer, I’m looking in the rearview mirror, interrogating the past—memory, history and family history—

I don’t want that to be lost. I don’t want to lose it. I think some writers lean into the future and are more interested in looking ahead. That’s where their pursuit is, but not mine. I’ve always been looking in the rearview mirror, probably because I don’t want anything to get lost. I don’t want to lose what I’ve inherited. I don’t want to lose the stories. I don’t want to lose those voices. And I don’t want to lose the wisdom that’s there. Certainly, part of interrogating the pastis to make sure—to see whether the wisdom will hold up—truth will hold up. But there’s also a lot of stuff that needs to fall away.

AvB: What are some of the aspects of the past that have fallen away, do you think?

CF: Generationally, and I would say also religiously and culturally, certain Mennonite traditions are very patriarchal. I grew up assuming that that story line was the story line. I did not have much to compare it to. Certainly growing up when I did, in a small town tucked in a valley in the very center of our province, it was very insular. I grew up in this huge extended family where you just saw that the women did the work in the kitchen while men sat and picked their teeth with toothpicks and had a snooze after the meal. There wasn’t a lot of agency given to women and I didn’t even think about that. First I’d move away from home, then I’d get married myself. Only then did I find myself asking, “Wait a minute! When did that start? Why is that okay?”  For example, in my mom’s family, every household was referred to by the name of the man. My dad’s name is Dave, so we were referred to as Dave’s, like Dave with an apostrophe “s,” even though it was the household of both my mom and dad. My uncle’s household was “Larry’s.” All of the people belonged to him. I didn’t think about it. But distance gives you objectivity, so when I moved away, I thought “Wait a minute!” It’s very interesting how that played out. That’s something that’s fascinating to me. I want to know where that came from, why it was sustained for so long, why is it still sustained in some capacity and then you see it fall away. Time will also let go of things naturally, and that’s one example.                                                              

AvB: That response is very relevant to my next question. Your work describes scenarios that we’d expect to find in a small town, yet you live in a medium-sized Canadian city. How do these two experiences play off one another in your work? Are you writing mostly from memory, or do you incorporate what is around you into your new work?

CF: I certainly have written mostly from memory. I just can’t get away from my hometown. I just finished working on a memoir about growing up in this town and I have so much fondness for it and so many questions for it at the same time. I’ve now lived in Victoria longer than I’ve not lived in Victoria, so things are starting to shift. Even my imagery is shifting—more ocean than snow. So that’s an interesting shift. It’s just starting to happen—I’ve lived here for 25 years. It has taken a long time. I can’t remember which writer talked about “writing from a site”—you go there and dig through it, sift through it, until you’re done. It feels like I’m getting to that point, where I’m starting to be done. But Victoria is on an island, so there is something similar to a small town feel to it because it is also insular. You cross the ferry from the mainland to the Provence and there’s a different atmosphere. Everyone is very laid back and neighborly. So there is something of a kinship between the atmosphere here and where I grew up. I’m certainly writing from my life now; I end up writing a lot about the natural world. Family relationships, primarily marriage, I’m very interested in writing about, the—I don’t want to say box, that sounds horrible, I’m very happily married— but marriage is a narrative structure that exposes so much about people and the human heart and mind and habits and psyche. I’m interested in it as a structure through which you can learn so much about yourself, inside.

AvB: “Torch Song for Patsy Kline” (Gloryland, 92-93) tells the story of Patsy Cline’s untimely death, which is another life cut short, not quite fulfilled, but it also picks up on a recurring image in your poetry. I notice that you use the image of the white dress, “unzipped,” both in “Torch Song to Patsy Cline” and in the poem “Open Letter to Emily’s Bones” (Gloryland, 96.)  Can you talk to me about the “unzipped dress” and “the dress” itself, as a symbol in our culture?  It seems that the unzipping in your poems brings the character of the poem one step closer to transcendence, perhaps even heaven. The image of a dress also appears in the poem “The Test.” (Gloryland, 18-19) This time, it’s a green dress, “vanishing skyward.” How would you like your reader to reconcile what can look like an invitation to sexual freedom—or maybe the imagination—through the unzipping of the dress with its virginal qualities implied by the color white or, in the transcendence of the green dress toward heaven?

CF: When I’m thinking about the dress, there certainly is the sense of the female body. For the longest time, on my mom’s side of the family, women did not wear pants, you had to wear a dress, and because I went to this other Mennonite church where I could wear pants, I still felt a little bit evil around my cousins with their long hair and no makeup and no jewelry. The dress was almost an enforced femininity. For the longest time I said, “Nah, I’m never wearing a dress.” Now I have no problem with it. But certainly the dress is about the physical body. The Patsy Cline story is just fascinating to me. My dad listened to a lot of country and western classics. Her voice was constantly in my childhood, along with George Jones and Johnny Cash and all those sort of classic country singers. But there is something so haunting about Patsy Cline’s voice. I remember, even as a girl, hearing her story and listening to the music and reading some reference to her death. When I did more reading about it and discovered that her white dress was taken from the crash scene and never found again— oh—to me this was just fascinating! Of course, my poetic imagination started thinking “What happened? Was she somehow transfigured?” Probably somebody just stole it from the scene, but it brought to mind this idea that we’re all reaching for transcendence. At some point the body is done, but there is something else that keeps going. I keep listening for her voice, I keep listening to writers who have died and reading their words. There is something that is lasting. For me, it’s an echo or an emblem or a hint that there’s something more when we’re zipped out of all of our clothing and our clothing is all gone and burned and done and disappeared. The body is done, but there’s something else that keeps going. To me it’s the mystery and a fascination and I wonder, “How do we live in a way that privileges and honors that vs. the white dress?”

AvB: Thank you. I’m going to move from the transcendent back into the practical realm. From 2006 to 2008 you served as Poet Laureate of Vancouver. At the same time, you’ve been a teacher. This is a full plate! Can you tell us a little about what your work, both as teacher and laureate entails? I ask this question, in part, because much of the energy for KPS comes from former US Poet Laureate and college professor, Billy Collins. In the US, the Poet Laureate often leads the way for a national poetry project of some sort. Billy Collins made a collection called Poetry 180, which offers high school students a poem to read on each one of the 180 days in a school year. Laureate Robert Pinsky instituted the “Favorite Poem Project,” in which he gathered recordings of people from all walks of life, reciting their favorite poems. The FPP, as we like to call it, also launched an ongoing series of community readings at which, again, people from all walks are invited to recite a favorite poem before a live audience. Do you have a particular angle to your work as Laureate and teacher? If you do, what is it? If you don’t, how do you think you would make the act of reading and writing poetry applicable to the community as a whole?

CF: When I was serving as Poet Laureate my whole mandate was to bring poetry to people who thought they wouldn’t like poetry. Because I was the inaugural Poet Laureate for the city, there was no role that I had to fit into. So there was a little bit of freedom for me, along with a little, “Aw! What do I do?”  Where I come from, I did not grow up reading poetry or having poetry read to me. It was something I stumbled into in high school with some wonderful high school English teachers. When I went into University, that was my real introduction to poetry. Every time I would say—and a lot of poets face this—every time I would say, “Oh I’m writing poetry,” instantly there would be this wall [that would] go up in people who either had bad experiences with poetry or feel they don’t understand it. I knew my mandate was simply to make opportunities for people to hear and experience poetry—especially people who wouldn’t be regular readers of it. So, we had various events in the city, community events. One that we did on Valentine’s Day was called “Love Poetry and Chocolate.” A local chocolatier donated chocolate—so I knew we would get people out for chocolate, at least! There were door prizes and lots of incentives for people to come and listen. I had an array of poets from the city reading poetry and it all centered around various kinds of love because it was a Valentine’s Day event. Then in the end, audience members had their names in a hat and each poet drew a name and wrote a poem for that person. So we would sit down with those people and listen to their lives. I would take notes and write a poem for a particular person. Almost all of those people had no experience with poetry, but when they saw their own lives in a poem, suddenly it was like “Oh! Poetry is living, and it’s my life!” It was really powerful!

AvB: That’s wonderful! I never heard that prompt before.

CF: It was wonderful. I had never written a poem for a stranger before. Recently, I did one at a memorial park. There was an event where people could honor those who have passed away. There were prayer flags and a singing choir that wandered around gorgeous acres and acres of Memorial Park. They had three poets come and anybody who wanted a poem written about the person they were there remembering could sit with one of us and tell us about this person who had died. It was powerful. These people just sat and poured their grief out and their memories, and then we would go away and just sit and think and write a simple poem. It meant so much to these people. I’m all about experiences where poetry becomes a connection and bridge vs. something locked away for some other people to read. That was my mandate as Poet Laureate. When I teach, my whole goal is to bring people into poetry and to bring poetry to people. I love inviting new students into poetry, saying, “What is your experience in poetry?”  I ask them what they love and then I find poets whose work somehow speaks to them. Suddenly, it’s “My God, I love poetry!”—because they found a voice that is somehow talking to them.

AvB: That’s great—these are wonderful projects—and there’s Spoon River Anthology again. You mention that there were a group of people writing these poems. Who were those people?

CF: During the year that I was Poet Laureate, I invited people who were able to come. I think there were five of them. I don’t know if they’d be names you’d recognize, local Canadian poets. This project is something the current Poet Laureate, Rachel Rose, is still doing. This Love Poetry and Chocolate event has become a yearly tradition.

AvB: I like that! So, I’m thinking about parent figures and their legacy. In fact, both parents in Gloryland are cut from a cloth that is recognizable, particularly the father figure. In poems such as “Elegy” (Gloryland 59), the father is a drinker, a smoker, and a heavy presence, to say the least. Who are your poetry mothers and fathers, and are there any who have emboldened you to write? “Emily’s Bones” references Dickinson, and I find tones of Sharon Olds, maybe because she was my teacher, and perhaps even Adrienne Rich, as her work implores us to break the silences and to talk about things that you’re not supposed to talk about. In your work, you also adopt the “Adamic power of naming” that has heretofore been the privilege, for the most part, of white men. Am I wrong to make these associations? If not, can you tell us who your influences are, and how and when you discovered them? How did your life as a poet unfold

CF: Hmmn. All of those voices that you mentioned are ones that I have read and feel like their work has read me as well. I think of Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” I remember reading that and feeling a little bit like I was looking in a mirror in some ways. Not that I was the daughter-in-law or the mother-in-law, but I certainly recognized the imagery and honesty and to-the-bone nature of the voice. Certainly Sharon Olds–all of her poems in The Father—I think they gave me permission to start writing out of my relationship with my dad. Emily Dickinson—as someone who loves to play with form, I pulled certain tools from her work. Emily Dickinson is such a mysterious and interesting formalist. I would also include some consistent voices closer to home. Lorna Crozier, a Canadian poet who was a professor of mine, was a true poetry mom to me. I showed up in her second year poetry workshop at nineteen and I had just gotten married and was expecting a baby. I entered the room naively, and she was such an encouragement and just a voice of constant exhortation to keep going, keep going. I’m so glad I had people like her. Her husband, Patrick Lane, is a wonderful poet to me as well. He was my first poetry teacher at the University of Victoria. He wrote this note on one of my poems—I’m sure that the poem was absolutely terrible—but he wrote on there because I had said to him that I was considering going into law. He wrote, “Why law? Why not try poetry?”  I was like, “Okay!” Again, I needed the permission to be impractical. Poetry felt deeply impractical at the time. So those were close to home. In terms of reading, I still love poets like Robert Frost. I find his formal techniques and what he writes about writing poetry to be fascinating. Wallace Stevens is someone who is always challenging to me. I have loved Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall. Currently, I’m reading the US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, and I love her work as well.

AvB: Are there other Canadian poets whom you’d suggest?

CF: Canadian poets: Jan Zwicky is a must-read. She taught philosophy at the university here for years and she’s fascinating and brilliant. She’s obsessed with baseball, music, philosophers, mathematics, and poetry. She’s just so great! I’m so honored—it’s rare that Canadian poets and writers find audience outside of Canada. There’s a very rich literary scene in Canada, and we’re certainly reading work from south of the border. It’s always interesting to me why our poets maybe don’t find as many readers. Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane and Jan Zwicky are part of the whole wealth of Canadian poets. I hope that audiences will pick up a book by one of them. Tim Lilburn is another. My encouragement to any American reader would be to start digging into the Canadian library. It’s a rich one.

AvB: I noticed that you appear on YouTube reading your poetry with Genevieve Johnson, as she does interpretive dance.

CF:. That event was a little bit spontaneous. It was part of a festival and literary conference for the Federation of British Columbian Writers. I didn’t know that dancer before we performed. The dance school thought that this would be an interesting way to take an interdisciplinary approach for an event. Each poet was paired with a dancer and the dancer received the text about two weeks ahead of time. They had the text to read and absorb and to consider how they might move to it. We arrived and did a quick run through and then we did it! The only disadvantage for me was that I couldn’t see the dancer while I was reading. As somebody who is perpetually curious, I would have loved to have seen what she was doing! I’ve done that sort of thing before—there was a contemporary dance company here in Victoria that did a fundraiser every year. They paired prose and poetry writers with dancers. The only thing that the dancers would be given was the first line and the last line. It was very improvisational and spontaneous. They might be given a tone of the piece and we would go up there and I would begin to read my piece and this dancer or a pair of dancers would come on. It was beautiful! The words became the music and they would interpret with their bodies. Some were flamenco dancers, some were contemporary or ballet dancers. It was fascinating and the audience loved it every year.

AvB: I’d like to end with a question that I hope will provide a little fun for you. Each section of Gloryland opens with a brief poem which introduces a theme that reappears in the poems that follow. You’ve said that you organize your books in this way in order to welcome your readers. If your poems were a house, what would it look like? What kind of occasion are you inviting us to, and what would you like to see happen by the end of the gathering?

CF: That’s a good question! If it were a house, I’d like to think it was open concept, that you could walk in and there might be a fire going and comfortable places to sit, but if you dug around a little bit you’d find all kinds of goodies hidden in the crawl space and in the attic and junk drawers and you’d say, okay, I know there’s stuff going on here. I would hope it would be the kind of gathering where people get fed, where there’s food. My favorite kind of actual gatherings are ones where everybody brings something and puts it all on the table and then we all share our food and everybody’s well fed. They’ve laughed, there have been stories told, and moments of epiphany for all of us. We don’t regret the evening.

AvB: Well, from reading your work I think you’ve created a house like that. I look forward to hearing you read for the Katonah Poetry Series!