Poet and author Jenna Butler—whose newly published
Revery: A Year of Bees was recently published by Wolsak and Wynn—sits down Q&A-style with us to chat about the impulse to write, a standout writerly moment at age six, and how reading IBPOC/BIPOC writers makes her feel more "as a writer and as a woman."
All Lit Up: Is there one stand-out moment or experience you had that helped you realize you wanted to become a writer?
Jenna Butler: I remember being six years old and having written an early poem about being out on the land. I’d written it at school, and when my teacher asked me to read it aloud to her after class, I could feel her listening in this very intent way. When I got to the end of the poem, there was a silence, a kind of deep processing, and then she said to me quietly, “You’re a writer, aren’t you?” I suppose it was an odd thing to say to a six-year-old (generally swinging wildly between wanting to raise dinosaurs today and to travel to outer space tomorrow), but as soon as she said it, I felt a giant yes. It was true in a way I hadn’t known how to articulate until that moment. Writing was both doing and being: one could do the actual writing but also attend to the world as a writer, and I hadn’t known how to say it until then. I’ve been trying to find that same kind of attentive silence around words ever since, both in my own work with the page and in the reception of that work. You know when you’ve caught the breath of the room as a writer and when you haven’t.
ALU: Which writers have influenced you or had the most impact on your own writing?
JB: When you’re a young Brown girl in a very white school in very white Edmonton in the '80s, the writers you find are sometimes ends in themselves, and sometimes they’re means to an end that you can’t find anywhere else. I loved Emily Dickinson for her lush descriptions and the way she was a sly trickster with rhyme. I adored Ursula K. LeGuin for her EarthSea world-building and her fearlessness. And then, very slowly, I began to encounter work by Arundhati Roy and think, What? These characters are Brown. That’s allowed? I felt a huge opening in my chest, as though I was encountering air for the first time. I was a voracious reader and a budding writer, but the books I read in those early years had left me leaning hard into the white-chalked outlines where Black and Brown people weren’t. When I read M. G. Vassanji’s No New Land, it felt like an oxygen bubble in the bloodstream. Something blossomed and stopped my heart in its tracks. This was what I had been slowly writing my way toward: the silenced half of my mixed-race life, my mother’s childhood in Dar-es-Salaam, her family’s nearly-didn’t-happen impossible flight from violence. The first language never passed on to us, her English-silenced children, Kutchi dying on her wintering tongue somewhere between Toronto and Edmonton. The more IBPOC/BIPOC writers I read, the more I feel, as a writer and as a woman, that I am somehow stepping toward my mother and the echo-chamber-silence of her life after Dar.
Jenna's writing advice: "If you want to be a strong writer...be an invested reader."
ALU: What’s one book you always recommend?
JB: Without a doubt, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. It’s a book that is incredibly deeply rooted in the primacy of Indigenous teachings and world views, and it is one of the most generous books I know. It invites everyone to love and learn about and stand up for the land, and to find points of connection within that reverence. Kimmerer writes of a home in plants and of a blending of the scientific and traditional in the study of plants. On the small farm I run with my husband, as we learn from and share space with a diverse community of friends and teachers, we turn often to Kimmerer’s book.
ALU: Do you have any rituals that you abide by when you’re writing?
JB: It’s less a ritual than an impulse, but when I get that push behind my sternum, I know I need to clear the decks and write. That can be complicated when there’s a class to teach or the harvest to get in. It’s like holding your breath and watching the tiny bubbles of oxygen escape one by one. But when I have the chance to attend to that impulse, look out! The kettle boils dry, unnoticed. If there’s something in the oven…let’s just say we hope there is nothing in the oven. I give my husband the heads-up that I’m writing, and I’m gone. Sometimes the sun is just coming up when I sit down to write, and when I shake out of it hours and hours later, it’s dark and my legs have seized up, my feet are freezing, and I want nothing more than to devour an entire pizza. I don’t get much time to write (main earner in my family), so when I do, my ritual is to fully abscond from everything as quickly as possible and write hard.
ALU: Describe your perfect writing day.
JB: It has to be June because then I know I have the mental space from teaching, and it has to be raining because otherwise I’d be pulling a dawn-to-dark shift on the farm. So, early June, raining like the dickens, and I am off duty.
I’m up early because the farmhouse is cool when it rains, even in the summer, so this day starts with a tamarack fire in the cookstove and a steaming cup of coffee (and one taken upstairs to Thomas; the ritual is that whoever surfaces first in our house makes coffee for the other).
It’s not complicated. I sit and write. I do have my own desk in our small shared study—a luxury, for sure —but in the summer, I’m likely to be curled into the armchair with both study windows open so the scents of the rainy day blow across me. Greening grass, waking earth, sap rising in the poplars. Maybe a bit of the baked-earth smell of dry clay as it saturates with rain. Nothing fancy, nothing wild. A chair, a cup of coffee, the rain and the wind. Mostly, perfection is having the time to vanish into the work.
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More about Jenna Butler
I live on an off-grid organic farm in the bush in northern Alberta, in an 800-square-foot pine-and-fir cabin heated by a wood cookstove and the sun. We’re located toward the northern edge of Treaty 6, the traditional territories of the Cree, the Saulteaux, the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot), the Métis, and the Nakota Sioux, and we are committed to respecting and learning from the lands and communities we are linked to here. I’m a professor of creative and environmental writing (currently online) for Red Deer College, and my husband and I run a diversified regenerative market garden, flower farm, apiary, and apothecary. We live here with our two rescue cats, Basho and Chloe, seven resident moose, a pile of deer, coyotes, and porcupines, two mating pairs of eagles, and the occasional black bears, cougars, and wolves. As a woman of colour in a rural community, I’m active in supporting greater racial diversity in agriculture, as well as in finding ways for other IBPOC to safely and equally access land for recreational, spiritual, and harvest-related purposes.
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