Daniela Bouneva Elza has lived on three continents and crossed numerous geographic and cultural borders. Writing has been a faithful companion no matter what country or language she found herself in. To date she has released more than 120 poems into the world. She just completed her full length poetry manuscript and is also working toward the completion of her doctorate in Philosophy of Education. She lives with her family in Vancouver and blogs at http://strangeplaces.livingcode.org/
Five Questions with Daniela Elza:
1. What great images you conjure up in "old dust made new"! More generally, though, how did you receive the harmattan each year in Northern Nigeria? With excitement? Relief? Frustration?
It was part of life. People wore hats and scarves in the early mornings. I wore a coat over my short sleeve uniform on the way to school. I was curious about how the haze made the familiar less familiar, the strange halo around the moon at night. The Harmattan was mostly a mystery to me. How it would steal into the house. Every morning a new presence, one that arrived from far away. The smell of the dust was most memorable. I clearly remember having difficulty breathing, not being able to go to sleep. It was so strong. My mom made me and my sister little gauze masks that she dampened and put on us at bed time. There was an ointment called Robb that I would rub on my temples, forehead, even under my nose, and the smell of eucalyptus and camphor helped. My favourite part in Rob's harmattan poem "Under the Harmattan Sky" was where he said we "write no poems." Interesting. Poems for me are very closely related to breath, so that sense came through for me. Looking back though my childhood lens, "mystery" is what best describes the Harmattan for me. Now even more so when on last week’s poem one of the readers mentioned the Harmattan did not come this year.
2. Your poems use space very intentionally. The size of the space between each word, and each letter of each word, seems very intentioned. What drew you to writing in this way? Did you have any other writers as points of inspiration in developing this style?
The words in my poems started to pull apart years ago. It was like coming to a place and feeling at home. I recognized it as my form. It has helped me address rubs and struggles with language and how we are in language. How we inhabit it. The form became an outward expression of this journey. It spoke to me, I learned from it. These spaces are breath, are missing memories, are blanks in our knowledge. They are reminders that our world is not seamless and ordered. There are silences we cannot ignore. I can go further: my order is not your order. We also get lazy and complacent with habitual arrangements of words. A word apart from others can take you on its own journey at the same time as it is part of the community of other word.
An important aspect of the spaces is inviting the reader to come in, take part in this co-creation. As readers, we have a tremendous responsibility reading and interpreting another’s words.
Language is like a net with which we try to catch the slippery fish of experience. It is the fish I am after. Yet, language is seductive. We can end up just playing with the net, be mesmerized by it. So this form for me always reminds me of the permeable membrane that exists between word and world.
I am inspired by people who take risks with language, test its limits and what it can achieve. I am humbled by the fact that no matter how hard we try we cannot put it all in the words. I am curious where the breaking point is. The fine line between the discomfort of chaos and the comfort of order. Or, perhaps for some, it is the other way around: the comfort of chaos and the discomfort of order.
3. These aforementioned spaces in words seem to function in two ways: they enact the words (i.e. "s l   o   w") and they create or isolate new words (i.e. the "us" in "d   us   t" and "ho   us   es"). Then there are some words that are subtly stretched for reasons that are less clear (i.e. "w e r e"). What leads you to playing with the spacing of particular words and not others? Do you feel it intuitively or do you think/map it out very cognitively?
The next logical step was the letters pulling apart. For different reasons. Like in "slow" it is the pace, or it could be for emphasis, or to invite the eye to linger with letter combinations. My latest exploration is highlighting words within words. For instance, in houses and dust, what struck me was that they contain us. We also get blurred by the dust. I see it as a way of adding an extra layer of images/ideas, subtexts, meta-content. I could easily be in danger of overdoing it. But, hey, if I do not overdo it, how else will I know I have gone too far? In the case of "w e r e": I saw we’re in it. And wondered if the reader will see "we’re memory" at the same time as "dust" and "desert" being memory. For me this poem is very much about memory, haunting us like the dust. How it renews itself, and us. Or, perhaps, "w e r e" is one instance of pushing too far. This is a new poem. I have to be patient, trust the balance will be established over time. I hope in each poem the technique responds to the content and continues to be an exploration, instead of a set form or path.
We spend so much time arguing around and about words. So many battles today are fought on the level of words (political, academic, ideological, religious). Yet, the words only fragment something whole (a thought/feeling) that is trying to come through. So I fragment the words. Meaning is in the words, but also not in them. Are we in control of the words or are they in control of us? Language is a slippery slope and can be treacherous. At the same time it can present us with many gifts.
4. Both of your poems featured thus far on OGOV have been written in couplets. Is this a general style of yours, a particular style you prefer for your African poems, or merely a coincidence?
They both took that shape, but may not have. This one was more premeditated than "Savannah Rain, West Africa" since it begins with the cold and the dust coming in couplets. That set the tone for me. This also goes back to the previous question: of how much is intuitive and how much is planned. Can we separate the two? I like to premeditate some. Yet, once the poem is loose on the page I am also prepared to flow with it, see where it leads. Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Reverie says: “The word lives syllable by syllable in danger of internal reveries.” If I cannot learn something from writing a poem, I am not interested in writing it. Perhaps an analogy might be: the teacher who knows when to abandon the lesson plan and follow the opportunity that a classroom serendipitously presents her. It is a fine balance between structure and flow. I am happy to embrace that in my practice. Some serendipity may grab my attention and then I can work that in the structure.
Now, for the reader the premeditated might appear coincidental. What was coincidental may be so seamless and graceful that it appears premeditated. For instance, the lack of punctuation was premeditated. I imagined how in the haze such little signposts will disappear first. However, if I had not said this you can come up with your own explanation/s (and you will) irrespective of what I intended, or did not intend. We are just that kind of creature. And that could lead to new serendipities and creations.
If I planned everything out before hand I am unlikely to venture into unknown territory. The sense of play and discovery is lost. And there is so much negotiation to do between word and world, and it could be done in an infinite number of ways. To quote Bachelard again: “What a lot of minor conflicts we must resolve upon returning from vagabond reverie to reasonable vocabulary!” In the complex laboratory of reverie and writing it is difficult to distinguish all these aspects.
For me writing is organic. It flows and changes and I let myself be at the mercy of what wants to come through. Of what possibilities are inherent in that moment of writing. Most of the time I find that a lot more interesting from what I planned. Again Bachelard nicely puts it: “For a dreamer, a dreamer of words, they are all swollen with insanities.” It is a constant back and forth between what the words want me to say and what I want to say with the words. In that process, I believe, both the word and the writer are enriched.
5. What new things have happened in your life/writing in the year since our readers first met you and your writing?
2009 was a busy year. It started with writing collaborated poems, four of which got published in Mutating the Signature issue of qarrtsiluni. Along with that in February my first poem went up here on OGOV with an interview. There were a couple more interviews last year, one with The Peak, and one with The Cascade. Press 1, BluePrintReview, Matrix, Vallum and ditch, poetry that matters gave a home to another 12 poems. The anthology A Verse Map of Vancouver housed another two. I won an Honourable Mention at the SIWC Poetry Contest. The highlight was the 4 Poets book in which Mother Tongue Publishing showcased the work of four emerging British Columbian poets. I had a lot of fun launching it. I must have read at least 25 times last year all together.
In the summer I completed my comprehensive exams in Philosophy of Education and in the Fall presented at the 2nd Symposium on Poetic Inquiry (Prince Edward Island). I had a chapter published in the book Poetic Inquiry: Vibrant Voices in the Social Sciences(comprising of 12 poems). Finally, I completed my first full length manuscript. This spring I will be the feature poet in The New Orphic Review, and I had my first micro story accepted for the BluePrintReview. As of January, I took on the volunteer position of Vancouver/Lower Mainland Representative for the Federation of BC Writers. Phew. It feels like a lot. But it is what I enjoy doing.
Author Photo © Frank Lee