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Interviews | Interviews | Juliet McLaren
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Interview with Carolyn Zonailo, by Juliet McLaren, Ph.D., Canadian Literature

JM: I noticed in looking at your first book, Inside Passage, that the imagery you return to and develop in Split Rock is already present there. Did you find that this was something you've always taken with you? Particularly, the gardening and rock imagery that you really work with in Split Rock is beginning to surface already even in your first experimental poems.

CZ: I think that particular image is very much beginning to surface in Inside Passage. And that's because the rock imagery comes naturally—I was born on the west coast, raised here, and have been involved with the coast most of my life. And so that imagery comes from a natural involvement with the landscape that I felt when I was growing up, and that's still here now and always will be, especially when trying to find mythic entrances or trying to make meaning of living in relation to landscape. That's what you see in Split Rock that's there in auto-da-fe, too. The landscape in auto-da-fe becomes more of a personal landscape because it is the Interior—the Kootenays—and is a place that has to do with my family background. But the Doukhobor poems are also an exploration of the landscape— of the other landscape I knew when I was growing up.

JM: Do you see yourself as part of a group of women working around mythology, and is this a result of the feminist consciousness of the later part of the twentieth century, or an accident of some kind? Poets, of course, have always worked with myth—this has been true for centuries—but I think there is an astonishing revival of interest in mythology among creative women right now.

CZ: I think that if myth has something to say to us psychologically—which I feel it does —then it seems obvious that if you're looking at your own face in the mirror, if you're exploring your own identity and especially if you are trying to find out where you come from, historically and culturally, then at some point you turn to myth. So that part is an historical co-incidence. It doesn't explain my own personal fascination with myth, which began before I was even an undergraduate at university, but it explains why women are turning to myth as they also turn to find out more about themselves.

JM: Have you had difficulty in finding a vocabulary that expresses your sense of the world?

CZ: I think the only area in which I've had trouble with the vocabulary is when I started, in Split Rock, to write what I called at the time "erotic" or "female romantic" poetry. Then I had trouble with language in terms of the vocabulary, in terms of wanting a word that wasn't used in patriarchal language or in patriarchal culture, in wanting the word to come alive for my particularly female experience.

JM: I'd like to hear more about the problem of the female erotic vocabulary, the female erotic idiom. Do you see any writers having found a language for this or do you see any other writers concerned about it?

CZ: I don't know what you mean—do I see any other writers trying to find a language for this? I think there have been a lot of female writers, from Sappho on down. Sappho was a poet I read as a teenager, almost pre-consciously, and she appealed to me because of her lyrically erotic language and the way in which it worked for her, as a woman. So, I think if you are a woman and writing, it's something you're going to come up against and when you ask if there are other writers sharing this concern, I presume there are a lot of other women writers who...

JM: Okay, I guess my question wasn't so much about what other writers are doing but in the sense that a language has to be a tool for communication where there's a shared ground of meaning, it seems to me that in order to make a language functional we have to find other people who understand it, as well as other people who are willing to speak it. I guess I'm wondering if you are finding some solutions to those questions.

CZ: I always work from the poem, and for a long time it was the poem and whether or not the poem was working, and whether it was working for someone else at the time of writing was irrelevant to me. The poem has to work for me and the audience I write for is not myself but is the poem. I'm not trying to be metaphysical, but I would say that the change in consciousness, historically the feminist movement, suddenly opened up a world and an audience that hadn't been there, but the content and what I had been working with was already there.

JM: How did you come to write "Fallen Among Thieves," the poem for Pat Lowther?

CZ: That was another of those poems that just happened. It surprised me when I wrote it —what happened afterward with the poem surprised me even more—and the direction it took me in surprised me. I had been reading Lowther's work and I had always felt a closeness to her work, as a coast poet and as a woman. That poem started the rest of the poems that are in Split Rock. It started the garden poems, the flower imagery. As we said, rock had been there and I had at that time bought a piece of property on the Sechelt Peninsula, a little piece of rock on the Pacific Ocean. And the rock poems had started, but the flower and garden poems hadn't, and the poem for Pat Lowther began the shift into the garden, into the flower, and into the specifically female erotic poems.

JM: Okay, let's talk about your garden. It isn't that garden of Eden described in Genesis; it's nothing quite that simple.

CZ: When I go back to "Fallen Among Thieves," I think the garden grew out of looking at the terrible kinds of "passion" women suffer from and that someone like Lowther, her life and her fate, is emblematic of. I realized that desire draws you into a potential situation of victimization. I wrote the lines "Woke up in what could be/ a garden/ or jungle paradise" and the word garden went click inside me, and suddenly I was writing garden and flower poems. Also, I then had a sense of wanting to go back and explore that old metaphor of woman as flower. That sense of walking around Vancouver in the springtime, or of watching all the women working in their gardens. Men work in gardens too, but at that time I was noticing all the women.

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Wave Goddess
The Wave Goddess
Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Zonailo attended ...
CZ is a visionary poet who writes with compassion and careful detail about the world she lives in.
GoddessThe Goddess in the Garden combines mystical insight and sensual language to evoke a timeless meadow where humans and deities play out eternal passions.
She draws on her study of mythology, astrology, and Jungian psychology, for a seemingly inexhaustible source of imagery.
There is a quality in her work which makes all her poems hers, but Zonailo’s style does differ. Compendium is a collection of short, lyrical poetry; Zone 5 of prose. Each book is an extension of her poetic exploration and a separate expression.
Over the years of sitting in Grant's Cafe or the Europa and talking poetry with Lewis Gretsinger, the questions have been asked: why write? what are you saying? what are your poetics?
Last Will and Testament
I give my soul to God.
I give my body to the earth.
I give my poems to posterity.
I give my spirit to tolerance.
I give my mind to the future.
Forthcoming Titles
The Land of Motionless ChildhoodThe Land of Motionless Childhood is a memoir of short stories by Carolyn Zonailo about growing up in Vancouver, and her Doukhobor heritage.
Photo Gallery
CZPictures of CZ from her 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.
Literary Papers
Spanning the years 1955 to 2005, the Carolyn Zonailo Papers holds, as nearly as possible, a currently complete collection of Zonailo's extant literary papers.
CZ Go to the Top of the Page.
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