Apr/May 2011  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Gail Whitter

Interview by Helena Petkau

In a small community college, in the 1986 up-and-coming city of Fort St John, Gail and I met in a creative writing class, where we had an outstanding instructor who pushed us to excel, to expand our abilities, and not to fear to tread upon forbidden ground. Gail's poetry was first published in literary magazines in 1982; publication of her haiku and black and white graphics soon followed. While still in Fort St John, she volunteered as Regional Rep for both the Canadian Poetry Association and The Federation of BC Writers; when she moved to Vancouver she was hired by the Federation as writer/editor, hosting numerous Canada Council readings. She was president of the Small Press Book Association which hosted the first Small Press Book festival in Vancouver. Her work has been broadcast on CBC Radio, Co-op Radio [Vancouver], and on the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University radio stations. She has won numerous awards for her poetry. A Time for Ashes, her first online book, is Gail's second book of poetry, Insular Position being the first. A Time for Ashes is the "story behind every death by cancer; that there is a real person with important things to say about her life." Gail's mother's death from cancer was the catalyst.


HP     Tell us about your background. Did you show any signs of being an artist/poet as a child?

GW     I have a poet's soul. Art and poetry started for me when I was very young. An only child in a dysfunctional family, much of my early years was spent in my room, alone with books, pens and paper. I got my first typewriter when I was twelve. Writing and art have always been therapeutic—a way of release—healing. Numerous poetry/haiku were published in literary magazines here and in the U.S. My first book was Insular Position, a series of connected poems, which appeared in 1991. In times of crisis, instinctively I revert to words... it's automatic, this putting the words onto paper, and I find that it helps me to organize my thoughts and make sense of the experience.

Whether anyone felt I had talent at the time, I do not know. Compliments or encouragement came only during the sporadic visits from my aunt, Alice Moore. My working class parents frowned on things artistic or creative—they had no real value, as one couldn't support oneself through either words or art. To believe one could was to be living in a dream world and not in reality.

If I may step away from childhood and family, I would like to thank some of the men and women who have provided endless support and encouragement to me: Dr. Maidie Hilmo [our Creative Writing instructor in Fort St. John]; you, Helena; Mary Billy; Rudolf Penner; and, Owen Neill.

HP     Dr. Hilmo, or Maidie, has been a strong influence in both our lives. Can you tell us more about your connection with her?

GW     She has definitely been a mentor to me both for writing haiku and poetry as well as art. She continues to be my mentor and good friend, even after all these years. She pushed me, and her belief in me helped me push myself: push the limits, break the silences, publish both Insular Position and this manuscript. She is one of the main supporters I have had through my creative journey and should be recognized as such. She was/is a great teacher.

HP     Indeed! She awakened my passion for literature as well. Is she still a professor at the University of Victoria?

GW     No, she retired from teaching, but she's co-authoring a text book called Opening Up Middle English Manuscript Studies to be published by Cornell University Press. She is also editing a book of poetry and art in memory of Canadian poet Kelly Parsons. Its working title is For Kelly With Love: Poems on the Abstracts of Carle Hessay. Other than that, she's heavily involved in rescuing the University of Victoria bunnies and sending them to a safe sanctuary in Texas.

HP     Your latest book, A Time for Ashes, is published online for free download. What's that about?

GW     I contacted my beautiful friend Darlene Altschul and asked if she would put the manuscript into PDF format; we discussed the possibility of putting it online... from that point forward, A Time for Ashes took on a life of its own. Up until that point, the manuscript had been sitting in a file box since 1992. I shared it with close female friends, and Mary Billy felt strongly enough about the subject to write the Preface.

HP     Why is it free?

GW     Why not? It is the story of my experience—I created the work and thereby it is my choice what to do with it. I know I will receive a lot of flak from so-called established writers/poets who expect to be paid.

HP     So have you received flak?

GW     No. I have not received any flak, but I have been asked this same question several times. The response has been positive and overwhelming. To date, 800 people have read the book online.

HP     What are you seeking when you publish your work for free?

GW     I was seeking nothing other than a means to share the work with others, others who don't have the money or means to buy a book of poetry; others who may be facing or who have already faced a similar experience; others who may be inspired and freed enough to share their own journeys and all others who need to know that, unlike Eve, they are not alone.

My hope is that A Time for Ashes will help in another's healing or releasing of pain, fear, anger, or other negative emotion, so they may resume their path.

What I have received are the blessings of many of the women who have read A Time for Ashes and who have taken the time to email me their stories, their emotions, and their love. I am humbled.

HP     Mary Billy talks about the love of strong women in the Preface—"even to changing dressings and standing watch until the final hour." What does love mean to you?

GW     As humans we are faced with two choices: we can respond to other humans with either Fear or Love. Fear feeds the darkness. Fear is negative, and, in my opinion, has created much of the current chaos in the world. Love is light and is positive. I choose love, and choose to love equally and deeply.

HP     In all your experiences, have you learned anything about a universal aspect of human nature?

GW     We are all here on this planet to learn and grow. We do that by our experiences. If we make the effort to share our experiences, others will benefit. Regarding human nature—some universal aspect—in this time, no. I cannot say there is a universal, cross-cultural aspect... but the reality is, to paraphrase the Mayans, I am another one of You. We are all of the same Spirit. We are all related. Sadly, most humans choose not to see that.

HP     How would you describe A Time for Ashes?

GW     A journey. I wrote the book, so I cannot describe it objectively. I believe Mary Billy, who wrote the preface, says it all. It's about the "story behind every death by cancer; that there is a real person with important things to say about her life." It's about "noticing and being eternally grateful for the tender loving care of her daughter." It's about "setting the record straight before she leaves." And finally, "It is about how... love carries on; how even death cannot end it."

HP     Any history of notable poets in your family?

GW     No. As a matter of fact, my maternal grandmother couldn't read or write. I will credit my parents, though, with always having books in the house; books were always available. My Dad's favorite poet was John Donne. He also loved "The Lady of the Lake" by Sir Walter Scott. He could recite "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," a poem that he memorized in childhood in England.

HP     If you had to pick the one place on earth you would live forever, where would that be?

GW     My birthplace: Vancouver. The ocean is where I find my "still point." Nothing exists outside that moment.

HP     One of your readers asks: "When I read A Time for Ashes, I felt the emotions, the pain. Which poem was the most difficult to write? Or evoked the most emotion in you to create?" How do you answer that?

GW     Each of the poems is representational of the moment of which it speaks. I could not read any of the poems for many years, and when I re-opened the file, it brought all the emotions rushing back. I was lucky in that I had close friends who listened over and over during rewrites and who encouraged me to continue with the manuscript. Then it was filed away and so it sat for many more years.

Having recently done a private reading for a small group of friends, I discovered that even now, all these years later, when reading "Last Rites" and "Final Gift," the emotions come flooding back.

Last Rites

one last time
you open
emaciated arms
let me in
to the mother
you don't say
reaching out
is difficult
i don't say
it hurts to go on...

Final Gift

all night long
watching the pale prison
of your body
give over
this new reality
this real unreal
too near for you to see
i am side-eyed
& afraid & in a dark
that never saw the sun
huddled by your bed
pushing crushed ice
into your mouth of dust
your breath against my own
while grief roars up

through breast & bone
from the bottom of my belly
to root like stone
all night long
because women always
help each other die
knowing the memory
will be important

HP     Again, from one of your readers: "For those who don't embrace poetry, what would you say to them to get them interested in experiencing your book?"

GW     Challenge yourself. Get out of the box; out of your comfort zone. What are you afraid of? Check your fear & go read the book & let the book "get" you. Be IN the moment; FEEL the emotions... take a coffee-break between the poems if you have to... you just may leave the book having learned something and having grown in some small way. You might just relate to the world around you on a deeper level. You might recognize courage the next time you see it... it all depends on your receiving...


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