Amanda Earl is a poet, publisher and pornographer from Ottawa. In her latest book Kiki(Chaudiere Books), she explores the crazy years of 1920s Montparnasse and the lives of the poets and artists who flocked there. The poems focus on the persona of Kiki de Montparnasse, a real-life maverick, through various formats, from first-person journal to streams of language to snippets of visual imagery, capturing the wildness of those years.
Amanda speaks to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.
Today, Amanda talks to Open Book about how she came to be interested in Kiki de Montparnasse, what she needs in order to write and the British comic series that inspired her penchant for punning.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Kiki is a series of long poems that engage with the lives and works of writers and artists who lived in Montparnasse in the 20s and 30s. I grew interested in Kiki of Montparnasse after seeing a CBC documentary, Legendary Sin Cities, Paris: the Crazy Years. I hadn’t heard of Kiki and this surprised me because she seemed to have such notoriety. She was a model and lover to some of the most famous artists and photographers of the era, a cabaret singer, a sexual libertine and eventually a well-loved scoundrel of her time. The more I read about her and the fellow residents of Montparnasse between the wars, the more intrigued I became by their work, their personalities and the era itself.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
After I’d read books on Montparnasse, I realized that I needed some way to include these personalities and their experiences in what I was writing. It wasn’t so much that I was concerned with accuracy about facts as I was about emulating the spirit of play and creativity that seemed to encapsulate the era. But I don’t want to make it sound like I had this all sorted out from the beginning. It was something that emerged as I read, as I wrote and played with snippets of text from the source books. I believe that this creative spirit, which certainly didn’t start with Montparnasse, is an ongoing wonder, and I wanted to show that as well, by including a dialogue with William S. Burroughs and by making a dedication to those who have come after.
Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
I had no idea at the start that I was working on something that would end up being a book-length manuscript. The only section of the book that I envisaged was “Alice,” Kiki’s journal entries. I wrote and rewrote that part so many times: as stanza based poems and then eventually as prose poems. Until I had that sorted out, I couldn’t contemplate anything more.
I began the first poem about Kiki in 2007 and the manuscript was published in 2014.
What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
The unconditional love, encouragement and support of my two darlings, a quirky imagination, coffee, a red couch, a room full of books, the ability to walk my feet off…
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I play with form. Would the work in progress work better as a prose poem, as haiku, couplets? Or I switch genres and media: I work on a story; I noodle around on my guitar or I play with acrylic paints. I have a good wank. When all else fails, I go for a walk. I read the good stuff and forget about writing for a while. I have no deadlines and no one to answer to. I’m not punching a time clock.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
I don’t think I can generalize about what defines a great book, I’m not a literary authority of any kind. As a kid, I lovedBeano and Dandy comic book annuals sent to me by my relatives from England every Christmas. I blame them for my penchant for punning and making those around me groan in agony. As a teen, I devoured books that seemed taboo to me, like V.C. Andrews Flowers in the Attic and The Exorcist. Emily Brontë and Mary Wollstonecraft fed my appetite for the Gothic. In university, I learned to appreciate French literary classics by Stendhal, Hugo, Baudelaire etc. In later university courses, I discovered Chaucer’s bawdy wit in the Canterbury Tales, and Dante’s and Milton’s vivid portrayals of Heaven and Hell. Helen Oyeyemi and Angela Carter caused me to revisit fairy tales. John Lavery has thrilled me with his offbeat characters and word play. Tom Walmsley’s versatile, humourous and heart-wrenching writing made me fall in love with him. I’m drawn to writing that stumbles, that leaves behind a trace of image or emotion that lingers.
Numerous of Anne Carson’s books have thrilled me, but especially If Not, Winter – Fragments of Sappho. “you will go your way among dim shapes. Having been breathed out.” I love the silences, the fragmented nature of these poems, their contemplative nature, the longing they embody.
What are you working on now?
St. Ursula’s Commonplace Book, for which I’ve been fortunate to have received funding from the City of Ottawa in 2014. It’s a book of art and fervor, inspired by the legend of a fourth or fifth century woman who, along with 1100 virgins, was beheaded by pagans en route to her wedding.