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Writer’s Block: Jenna Butler
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.”
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.
Jenna’s workspaceALU: 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.
* * *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. Find Jenna on Twitter and Instagram or at www.jennabutler.com
* * *Thanks so much to Jenna for answering our questions, and to Noelle at Wolsak and Wynn for making the connection. Revery and other titles by Jenna Butler are available on All Lit Up.For more Writer’s Block, click here.