Interview with Ruth Daniell, Winner of the 2014 Young Buck Poetry Prize

Photo: Ruth Daniell

Photo: Ruth Daniell

Brief Biography:

Ruth Daniell was named the winner of the 2014 Young Buck Poetry Prize by Contemporary Verse 2 and is a current nominee for the Pushcart Prize for poetry published in One Throne Magazine. Originally from Prince George, BC, she now lives in Vancouver, where she runs Swoon, a literary reading series on love and desire that she founded in 2013. She has been honoured twice on the longlist for the CBC Poetry Prize and her poems and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in various journals across North America and online, including The Malahat Review, Room Magazine, The Maynard and Arc. Her website is ruthdaniell.ca.

Geosi Gyasi: You are the creator and co-host of “Swoon”, a Vancouver-based reading series. Could you tell us how “Swoon” came into being?

Ruth Daniell: I was drinking hot chocolate at Cocoa Nymph, my favourite chocolate shop in Vancouver (now since closed its doors), with fellow poet Kayla Czaga. Our conversations over cups of hot chocolate tended to revolve around our love lives and the practice of writing and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to host a love, sex, and chocolate-themed reading here?” Kayla agreed with me, and offered to be my co-host for the first event.  I invited my dear friend Jeffrey Ricker to host the next event with me. Jeffrey and I did a lot of brainstorming and drank a lot of hot chocolate together and he helped me solidify the Swoon “brand” and really turn Swoon from a one-time thing and into a series. Jeffrey has since moved back to St. Louis but still does the graphic design for us. I’m so pleased to have Sierra Skye Gemma now onboard as my ongoing co-host. She’s really my permanent partner in crime and has helped to shape the vision for Swoon’s future.

Geosi Gyasi: How has been the reception of “Swoon” after it was established?

Ruth Daniell: The reception has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve received praise for offering something that didn’t exist before. Themed-reading are just good fun, and since love is such a broad theme and can be interpreted in so many ways, we really get a wide range of excellent writing by excellent writers. And although we encourage literary and critical explorations on love and desire—there are certainly dark turns in those themes—our events still tend to lean towards positivity. I’ve always wanted to Swoon to be a happy, safe place for its community, and I think it’s working. We’re not presenting an artificial, shiny version of the world—we’re being honest that bad stuff is out there—but we’re making a point to celebrate the good stuff, the positive power of love.  Besides, everyone likes dessert! Cocoa Nymph closed its doors, but we now have a relationship with this great local coffee shop— Trees Organic Coffee— that’s famous for its cheesecake.

Geosi Gyasi: Why did you solely choose to do a reading series on love and desire?

Ruth Daniell: Who said that quote that you should “write the books you want to read”? Was it Carol Shields? I think that’s a pretty good rule of thumb, and it applies to other things as well. I basically just created the kind of reading series that I wanted to attend. I’m so excited that other people want to attend, too!

Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about your own writing. When did you see yourself as a writer?

Ruth Daniell: Oh, I have wanted to be an author/artist since I could pick up a crayon. I’ve always known what I wanted to do. I think, though, that I probably first started taking myself seriously as a writer at the end of high school, when a local writer took an interest in my writing after I won the local school district writing contest a couple of times. Mentors have always been important to me. From my hometown writing community, the communities I became a part of while studying at University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver writing community at large, I’ve been very blessed to have wonderfully supportive and nurturing mentors (and peers!), who teach me a lot while encouraging me to find my own voice.

Geosi Gyasi: You were named the winner of the 2014 Young Buck Poetry Prize by Contemporary Verse 2. What do you think of this prize?

Ruth Daniell: The Young Buck Poetry Prize has been very good to me. I was a finalist in its inaugural year and I’ve received first prize for it this, its second, year. It’s hard to comment on prizes, because of course not all writing of incredible merit receives prizes, and it’s difficult to take something as subjective as art and get competitive about it.

Because the prize is through Contemporary Verse 2 which is, in my mind, one of the best magazines in North America, I feel like the prize means something to those within the community. It’s got weight and prestige behind it, even though it is such a new prize. I’m hopeful this means that my poem “Fire and Safety” will have more readers than it might have otherwise. What matters most to me—aside from the actual process of writing—is the hope that I will find readers. I’m very grateful to be recognized by my peers.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re also a current nominee for the Pushcart Prize for poetry published in One Throne Magazine. Can you tell us anything you know about the Pushcart prize?

Ruth Daniell: The Pushcart Prize supports and celebrates small presses, and I think that’s important. I’m pleased to be nominated!

Geosi Gyasi: What is your assessment of the literary magazine, One Throne Magazine?

Ruth Daniell: I think One Throne Magazine is stellar. I discovered it through Twitter when someone on my feed re-tweeted one of the poems from their summer 2014 issue: “Dog Years” by Ryan Favata. It’s a poem that seems quite light, at first, and is talking about something very ordinary, really—arguing with a lover and having to sleep on the couch—but gets at the immediacy and importance and really the extraordinary within the ordinary. I love the way the poem plays and rehabilitates metaphors and is unapologetic about what a big deal sleeping on the couch feels like—really, what a big deal love is. The tweet—which of course was just the title and not the entire poem—was accompanied by an image of a dog and it intrigued me. So I clicked, and read the entire poem. I loved it, so then I read the entire issue of the magazine. And loved that. And wanted to be a part of it.

What the magazine is doing is smart, I think, by including visual art alongside each literary piece. It’s sharp and eye-catching and because it’s an online magazine competing for your Internet clicks, a strong visual element is important.

I like, too, that the issues are small, with only a dozen pieces. Even with the varied aesthetic pieces of the visual art, the magazine manages to be almost minimalist, very approachable.

The editor, George Filipovic, has been wonderful to work with—very supportive. He really cares about producing a quality magazine, and about giving due attention to each piece that he publishes. That’s apparent, I think, in the way that the artwork is curated to accompany the poem. I am thrilled with “Vain Harpy” by Sandara; it’s the painting that appears with my poem “Love and Nail Polish” in the magazine. The painting doesn’t duplicate what I am saying in the poem, but it complements it. It’s like that fashion advice—your clothes don’t need to “match,” they just need to “go.” The whole magazine “goes.”

Geosi Gyasi: Your poem, “Love and Nail Polish” was recently published in the winter issue of One Throne Magazine. Your choice of title for the poem is intriguing. Do you have a special way of choosing titles for your works?

Ruth Daniell: No, I don’t have a special way of choosing titles. Sometimes they come first, before the rest of the poem, and sometimes they come last. I do have a bunch of poems that are titled by pairing love with contemporary, ordinary things. There’s “Love and Nail Polish” as well as “Love and IKEA” and “Love and Nintendo.” Later this month, you’ll be able to read “Love and IKEA II” online with ​​The Maynard.

Geosi Gyasi: Would you consider “Love and Nail Polish” as a love poem?

Ruth Daniell: Absolutely. But then, I think that almost all my poems are love poems. Even if they’re not addressed to a beloved, they’re expressing love for someone or something. In this case, love for a friend. Love for nail polish.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you do any research about brain injury before writing “Love and Nail Polish”?

Ruth Daniell:  No, I didn’t do any specific research about brain injury in order to write the poem. It’s more the other way around: I did research about brain injury and that prompted me to write the poem. Whenever someone in my life is going through something, I try to educate myself about whatever it is (if I don’t already know much about it) so that I can be a better friend. Sometimes my relationship to the information, and my relationship to the person, will spark a poem.

Geosi Gyasi: You teach at Bolton Academy of Spoken Arts. Could you tell us some of your routines as a teacher?

Ruth Daniell: It’s hard to talk about having a routine, because I work one-on-one with my students, which is great because it means that I can customize lessons to reflect their individual needs and interests, and each class is different! I teach writing—everything from poetry and metaphor and rhyme, to fiction writing and story structure, nonfiction and memoir, paragraphs and essays, and I love to focus on ways to help my students communicate their ideas with power and clarity. I favour imagery and concrete details and description as ways to explore more complex and abstract ideas.

A lot of my work, though, is teaching speech arts, which is a discipline that I wish more people knew about it, because it is so important. Speech arts is unique because what it really does is teaches students to be confident in themselves and their ideas. Yes, it teaches how to write speeches and do oral presentations, but we also teach the skills of speaking through the study of literature. My students perform poems, prose, and drama (including Shakespeare!) and through those performances learn speaking tools that will remain relevant to their lives no matter what their future goals and careers will be. Everyone can benefit from having more confidence in front of an audience. My colleagues and I at the school teach students how to control volume, pace, emotional emphasis, and encourage an understanding of natural physicality and facial expressions in addition to many other tools and an understanding of literature.

It’s work that is really rewarding to me because I really believe in its value. I was lucky enough to grow up taking speech arts lessons—my hometown of Prince George, BC has a flourishing speech arts community that my (recently-retired) mentor, Debbie McGladdery really helped develop—and I’m thrilled that I get to pay it forward through my role at Bolton Academy.

As a student, speech arts gave me proof that I was not alone in my love for literature, and it expanded and enriched that love. I was an aspiring writer who did not yet know how to seek out a writing community and other resources, and speech arts was my first exposure to a world in which others also took poetry and writing seriously and believed they were fun. Speech arts gave me not just confidence as a person, but it also helped to foster my sense of identity as a writer. In a more general sense, I believe that speech arts is valuable because of the way it fosters an early love and appreciation of literature with the emphasis that literature is something that can be enjoyed out loud. By using literature as the way in which we practice and learn good vocal habits, we gain through literature not just the richness of all its meanings, and stories, but also the pleasure and playfulness of its sounds.

The art of oral interpretation introduces students to a way of connecting with literature in a personal way: each poem, story, or monologue is not a static object, but something to which we can each bring our own individual experiences, knowledge, and sense of seriousness and play. By studying literature through performance, we learn how to connect with characters and people who are different from us. This ability to connect with others— empathy—is another skill that remains essential through students’ lives and in their pursuit of future personal, academic, and career goals: it is as vital as a confident voice, good self-esteem, and a sense of pleasure in sound and story.

Geosi Gyasi: You were awarded first prize in CBC’s 2014 Shakespeare Selfie Challenge. Could you tell us something about this prize?

Ruth Daniell: The CBC created the Shakespeare Selfie Challenge in celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday last year, and its aim was to point out the continued relevance of his stories today. To this end, they encouraged Canadians to take a Shakespearean character, situate him or her in a present-day scenario, and write a new soliloquy or monologue for that character. It was tremendous fun! I chose to write about Ophelia and explore what it would be like if she was alive in contemporary Vancouver and fussing over a small patio garden. It was a fantastic opportunity to explore a character whose side of the story hadn’t been fully explored before.

Last year, the CBC held the contest for adults (19+) and for youth (age 12-17). It was so much fun and I am pleased it was successful enough that they will be holding the contest again! While it doesn’t look like they are opening up the contest to adults again this year, they are holding the youth contest again. I will definitely be encouraging my students at the Bolton Academy to participate!

Geosi Gyasi: Where did you get the idea to write, “Rapunzel,”?

Ruth Daniell: ​I love fairy tales, but as a feminist I do find them problematic. ​My manuscript The Brightest Thing is heavily influenced by fairy tales and my investigation into their female characters. The manuscript opens with a series of dramatic monologues—of which “Rapunzel” is one of many—and then the manuscript shifts to tell the story of a contemporary speaker and draws parallels to the fairy-tale search for a happy ending. I want to complicate the idea of “true love” and celebrate healthy, loving relationships (romantic or otherwise). “Rapunzel” is one of the opening poems that complicates “true love” from the point of view of a fairy tale princess.

I wrote “Rapunzel” because I have always wondered what Rapunzel must have felt when she met the prince for the first time, when he surprised her by climbing up into her tower that first evening. Rapunzel had been locked up in a tower for her entire life, and the only human she had ever seen before was Mother Gothel. How confusing and frightening it would be, I think, to suddenly see another living creature that she was not familiar with! And the story goes that Rapunzel and the prince consummate their love on that same evening… The story leaves room for a lot of questions (about consent, and love, etc)​ and I wanted to explore them.

“Rapunzel” is written as a sonnet crown. The final line of the first sonnet becomes the first line (with variation) of the next line, and so on, until the first line of the first sonnet becomes the final line of the final sonnet. It’s written as three sonnets, which for me was a conscious decision to play at the idea of “braiding”: the rhyme scheme and repetition of the form is braided, Rapunzel has famously long braided hair, and the story itself explains how these three characters’ lives and fates come together like a braid—Rapunzel, Mother Gothel, and the prince. I hope it’s not too blatantly trying to be clever—I got so excited about the idea!

Another one of my fairy tale poems—this one based on “Beauty and the Beast”—was just published in the spring issue of Rose Red Review, a great fairy tale themed journal that is free to read online. I encourage you to check it out!

Geosi Gyasi: Can you give us a taste into your new fiction, “Daily Bread”?

Ruth Daniell:  My fiction explores similar themes to my poetry, often about societal expectations around romantic love and marriage. “Daily Bread” is about love and desperation and hope and the celebration of the Eucharist. It tells the story of a woman who is having difficulty becoming pregnant and decides to try going to church and praying. It’s from a short story collection I am working on that is all about food and sex and love and what it means to be in your mid-20s to early-30s, that time of life when it seems expected that you and all your friends will get engaged and married and pregnant. It’s a weird time of life.

​I was delighted when I found out that ​the next issue of ​Synaesthesia Magazine would be “EAT”; I am tickled pink that “Daily Bread” has been published by them!

Geosi Gyasi: Are you working on anything new?

Ruth Daniell: I’m always working on things. I’m doing the finishing touches on my poetry manuscript The Brightest Thing; my poems “Love and Nail Polish” and “Rapunzel” are from that manuscript. I’m working on my short story collection, too. The newest thing is probably a collection of children’s poetry. I always have more than one thing on the go!

END.

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2 Responses to Interview with Ruth Daniell, Winner of the 2014 Young Buck Poetry Prize

  1. […] by Geosi Gyasi, a Ghanaian poet who writes the popular book blog Geosi Reads. You can now read the whole interview online. I talk about the origins of Swoon, my belief in the importance of speech arts and teaching, my […]

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  2. […] a couple authors you may already have heard of if you hang around me long enough: the delightful Ruth Daniell and the equally delightful Ngwatilo Mawiyoo. He’s also looking for other writers who’d […]

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