In 2011, Winnipeg musician Christine Fellows travelled through the Yukon as Dawson City Music Festival’s songwriter-in-residence. The experience inspired Burning Daylight, a full-length album and poetry collection, both to be published by ARP Books in September. (Listen to the first track, “Call Of the Wild,” below.)
Q&Q spoke to Fellows, who is an adjunct creative-writing instructor at the University of British Columbia, about the project.
Before Burning Daylight, had you written poetry before? I love reading poetry, and working with poetry as inspiration – I’ve set poems by Julio Cortázar and Hamlin Garland to music, and wrote essentially an entire album, 2007’s Nevertheless, inspired by the life and work of Marianne Moore – but in the past, any time I’d start writing a poem, I’d just end up cutting it up and using it as bait (as Tom Waits would say) to catch a song. I figured my time would come, though. I stalk birds, and I’ve been told that poets are, as a rule, obsessive birders, so I know they are my people.
I started writing poetry in earnest last fall, while my husband John K. Samson [managing editor and co-founder of ARP, and member of The Weakerthans] and I were songwriters/storytellers-in-residence at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture. We started the residency by participating in a poetry workshop led by the wonderful poet Jennifer Still. I hit the ground running after that and haven’t stopped yet.
How did you determine which material would best lend itself to poetry over lyrics? I’m learning about that right now, writing both poetry and songs as part of my daily practice. Sometimes they bleed into one other, and that process has become really interesting to me. I’ve been working on poems that turn into songs at certain points, and experimenting setting spoken word to music. I’m collaborating with artist Shary Boyle on a new show, and she’s encouraged me to incorporate some spoken-word elements for the first time. That’s been really exciting, and weird. And terrifying. So far, I’m not sure what to with my hands when I’m reciting poetry, so I wring them.
What are the key differences in writing poetry versus lyrics? Is the editing process similar? I find lyrics are frustrating to write, and they make me impatient, but songs tend to come together relatively quickly. The process of writing poetry seems to be more meditative.
The thing with songs is the fact that they torture you until you finish them. You carry the song with you everywhere, it plays on constant repeat in your head, and if you don’t finish it then you are doomed to spend the rest of your life with it. I find that poetry is much kinder in that regard.
You’ve mentioned Jack London’s stories as inspiration. When did you first discover him, and what is it about his stories that appeals to you? I read Call of the Wild when I was a kid, but I didn’t read any of his other writing until February 2011, while John and I were Dawson City Music Festival songwriters-in-residence. Every night we’d read aloud to each other, and my reading pick was Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” because it was -46 with ice fog in Dawson City pretty much every day we were there, and what could be more appropriate than a bedtime story about freezing to death? I also read aloud London’s story “In a Far Country,” which is about two guys holed up in a cabin who ultimately crack up and kill each other. As a touring artist that story really resonated with me – one could easily replace the word “cabin” with “van.”
It was later, when I got back to Winnipeg that I started reading more of London’s writing, and a couple biographies. I could not resist the urge to respond to that muscular, manly writing from a feminist perspective.
What were some of the things about the North that surprised you? In the Iqaluit airport there’s a map of Canada, with a big star indicating that the geographic centre of the country is in Nunavut. That gave me a real sense of perspective. From touring Canada so many times, I have a sense of the breadth of Canada from East to West, but the North has essentially remained a mystery. This project is about rectifying that, and recognizing that we are all paying attention to the rapidly changing North right now, the Northwest Passage opening up to shipping, the implications of these large-scale Arctic mining projects, how all this change is affecting the Inuit people. I read an interview with [Canadian Inuk film director] Zacharias Kunuk in which he said that in his lifetime, he has seen his culture move from the stone age to the digital age.
You’ve described the songs as “minimalist Klondike show tunes.” What does this mean? Burning Daylight was originally conceived as a musical. But partway through writing the songs, I realized that I am not terribly interested in writing a theatrical narrative. For example, the main character dies five songs into the story, and then there are a whole bunch of songs from the perspective of the natural world surrounding her, as her body lies buried in snow through the winter, and thaws and decays in spring. So maybe there’s just a bit too much of a preoccupation with stillness and death to call these show tunes?
Can you talk a little about the collaboration with artist Alicia Smith, who illustrated the book? The collaboration came together very organically. Alicia and I went to Nunavut together last October as part of a National Film Board production, and had this intense, incredibly moving shared experience. She started making collages around the same time that I started cranking out poems, and we sent things back and forth over several months, and suddenly we had a book.
This interview has been edited and condensed.