Erin Noteboom

Plum Ruby Review Interview: Erin Noteboom

Erin Noteboom's first collection of poems, Ghost Maps: Poems for Carl Hruska (published by Wolsak and Wynn in 2003) won the CBC Canadian Literary Award in 2001. Noteboom, who was raised and educated in Iowa, moved with her husband to Canada where she is an editor at The New Quarterly.

In 1996, while researching a novel on the Battle of the Bulge, Noteboom encountered a veteran who was willing to tell his story, with the stipulation that she not use his real name. Noteboom writes:

He didn't want to talk about what had happened to him, specifically. We were supposed to stick to catching sleep in a foxhole , or keeping your socks dry in combat. Neither of us had understood how intimate the commonplace can be. From the details common to any infantryman, the fragments of his own story began to emerge.

The series of interviews with "Carl Hruska" ultimately led Noteboom to change the direction of her original project, ultimately scrapping the novel and turning Carl's story into this collection of sparse and evocative poems. The Plum Ruby Review "e-interviewed" Noteboom from her home in Kitchener, Ontario.

Plum Ruby Review: I am struck after having re-read Ghost Maps several times and, given the fact that I see this on some level as a "war narrative", there is actually very little war here. There are flashbacks, but almost no killing and only brief pulses of death. In considering the story of Carl's life, particularly after his war experience has passed, I think of William James' assertion that society needs a "moral equivalent to war" during peacetime. Perhaps this moral equivalent is simply to take the war experience on a personal level and carry on with one's life, somehow incorporating the memories into one's future? Does Carl spend the rest of his life trying overcome his brief war experience? Or is this simply a story of a man's life who happens to have encountered war?

Erin Noteboom: Overcome, no. Carry on is closer.

There's a Mary Gordon novella called The Rest of Life that was a touchstone for me when I was writing the part of Ghost Maps that takes place after 1945. It's about an old woman who returns to visit the Italian village where, as a teenager, she failed to join her poet-lover in a suicide pact. Her grown children have given her trip to the old country, but they don't know about her past, they don't know what it means to her.

After the disaster, there's the rest of life. You move on, maybe even move away, and you keep it secret often, and you don't even think about it much. But the disaster is there, it shapes you. But -- again, but - the rest of life is most of life. (I'm not sure what Mr. James means by "a moral equivalent to war." But perhaps he means that all disasters are the same once they move into the heart. And I think I agree.)

Thinning the Blossom

His first orchard half
wild, haw trees toppling
snake fence, split heart wood,
unkempt apples rust-dappled knuckled
as an amputation.

In a row of cameo
and northern spy he eases the lopper
into crowns too thick
for light. Takes the base
of a scaffold branch, feels the beak
catch, resist, then
shear. The branch staggers loose,
swings from clasped twigs, tumbles.

All day, he does this
slow work. He has seen fire
do it quicker - shells popping limbs
with blind precision.
Through the twilight, now,
black dog bounding like a mortar.

I think Ghost Maps is more about the memory of war than it is about the war itself - so I guess it isn't purely a war narrative. But neither is it the story of a life, because it leaves out the many parts of Carl's life that weren't touched by war and the memory of war.

As you say, there's really not much fighting in it. I think only one shot is fired (in "The Ghost," which was a direct response to a cute story about my sister, at six, in the paratrooper museum). That's mostly to do with a sense of silence. But also, I think, it's the nature of memory, to keep weird little details instead of the big picture.

For instance, the scissors tied to the medic's wrist with a shoestring is a more plausible memory of stepping on a mine than the actual blood-and-pain center of it.

Germany - March, 1945

It happened in an orchard.

Lying there, he stares
into the ragged holes the wasps have chewed
in windfall apples - soft
as mud, now, brown
as the hand of frost. Gone

to waste. By that alone
he might have guessed
at mines. This
         hungry country.

Black scissors swing
        from the medic's wrist.

        and pink-white
             the blossoms

That's how the mind works, or at least, that's how my mind works. Dreams tell us this.

PRR: Related to this question, I guess is this pre-thought: you've said that you initiated seeking out a veteran to interview. Was this because you wanted to write a story about war? Or about a life that was nearly over? Or something else? Did you have, in fact, any expectations when you began to interview Carl?

I was firmly stuck in mid-novel when I went looking for a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge to interview.

I had had this early draft that was set on a farm in South Dakota during the winter - but not much was happening. So I moved the farm to wartime Belgium, because I knew it had been cold, and I assumed that more things would happen. There was this character, Vernon, an American soldier who ended up on this Belgian farm - a deserter, sort of. Anyway, a very damaged person. And that's about where I got stuck. There were just all sorts of things about Vernon I needed to know that weren't in the history books, or at least not the ones I was reading, the kind where the maps have big arrows.

So the VFW hooked me up with a veteran who agreed to answer all these generic questions about how you survive in war, but didn't want to talk about his particular experience. That was fine, I didn't want to write about his particular experience. And then … let's just say it didn't work out like that.

PRR: Since Ghost Maps was ultimately the result of a different project, can you reflect and comment on what the constants were throughout the project's evolution-that is, did some aspects of the "novel" originally intended stay the same while other aspects changed, or was there a conscious decision to scrap everything you'd come up with and start over again?

Well, when I scrapped things I really scrapped them -- put the old drafts in a box and didn't look at them again. And it's embarrassing how many of those drafts there are: two different novels, a vaguely biographical thing, a Tuesdays with Morrie sort of series of sketches. And of course some really bad poetry.

I think what's constant through them are the stories that "Carl" told me. Or to take it back a step, I asked questions about the mundanities of life -- suddenly I like that word, mundane, from the Latin, earth. And I got very earthy answers. And that's stayed constant -- no arrows on maps, no great military strategies. It's the view of the war you get from flat on your belly. The more I wrote, the closer I got to that.

If there's a specific constant, it's the winter. Once upon a time the original novel was set on a winter farm in South Dakota, and when I got stuck I picked up the farm and moved it to war-time Belgium. The winter is the only thing left from the very first draft. As a prairie girl, I understand winter.

PRR: Did you set out expecting to write something "biographical"? Does Ghost Maps operate as a biography, in your view?

EN: I did try to write a biography, once, and quickly realized I didn't know the first thing a biographer knows. "Carl's" birth date, for instance, or the basic when/where of his military record. I did do a bit of digging, but it felt like an invasion.

There were gaps in what "Carl" told me, big, obvious gaps. What happened to Gawosky, for instance, he didn't offer, and when I finally asked he answered in one word: "shell." I cried and he didn't. How do you make a biography out of that?

So, no, I don't think it's a biography, really -- maybe the pieces around which a biography could be made. The real evolution of this project is away from my attempts to find settings for these fragments, and back to the fragments themselves.

PRR: Did you learn anything new or were you surprised by such a personal view of war? Since we frequently get only a "sanitized" version of what war means, personal stories are often paid little heed in comparison to the big names of political leaders and their motivations, prejudices and fears. What does a "common" soldier's story have to show us about war and how it was (or is) fought?

The things that surprised me were consistently about scale. The real killers were so small, and the solutions were so small: you keep snow out of your gun barrel with a condom, you keep your morphine syrette from freezing by storing it in your armpit, etc. American soldiers didn't get "snowpac" footgear till February, and that was life and death. And then there's scale in a literal sense: on the front lines during the Battle of the Bulge, the average GI in a one-man foxhole was closest to the nearest German than the nearest American. And close was very close: within easy earshot. (And, of course, many of these Prairie Boys spoke German, Hungarian, Czech, whatever their parents and grandparents and whole little town spoke.) It was a very intimate battle. Somehow I thought of modern war as cleaner than that -- that things would be organized, would happen at longer range. They weren't. They didn't. I'm willing to be they still aren't, and still don't. Smart bombs aside.

PRR: Is Carl a "significant" person in the writing of these pieces? That is to say, is his story unique or does the persona of "Carl" operate as a common reaction to and experience of war?

I'm not sure what you mean by "significant person." I don't think Carl's an Everyman, which a couple of reviewers have suggested. Or if he is, it's a failing on my part. I don't intend him as a cipher, a blank figure you can project anyone's experience onto -- and I do think one gets a sense of his personality, even though he doesn't talk about himself, really. But common . . . common is different.

Because Ghost Maps is so small scale, so close to the body . . . well, it's a paradox, I guess. The closer you get to a body, the less it matters whose body it is. Our human bodies are what we all have in common.

PRR: After 8 or 9 months of regular conversations with "Carl", there must be much that was left out--by you, by your editor or by both of you. What fragments didn't work as biography? How did you come to a consensus of what would be included or what would become a "fragment" you'd ultimately include in this collection? Were there things that were too personal to include?

EN: I think there's a sense of silence in the stories "Carl" told me, a sense of what can't be said. Not because it's too personal, but because it's too horrible -- another kind of privacy all together. To suggest those spaces without actually filling them in was hard; this is what went wrong with the novel, etc.

The first poem I wrote for Ghost Maps was "Morning," and I think it's a prototype of sorts: it's edge of the story, the edge of something that can't be said. Like most marginal things, it's small-scale, fragile, lovely, and a little odd. I think most of the poems I eventually chose to put in the book are at least two of those things.

Ardennes - January, 1945

You wouldn't believe how beautiful
it was. In the night the fog would freeze
and in the morning everything
was soft with it-ghosts of trees.
We advanced into open fields
the colour of apple blossom,
delicate with blue shadows.
Against that snow we stood out
like deer.

And then the shelling would start.

The stuff I took out, or couldn't write about, is more central, larger scale -- I took out the poem in which Gawosky actually dies, and just suggested the death in "Names." The poem about seeing the massed dead for the first time is replaced by one about seeing a detached hand and mistaking it for a lady's glove.

The Hand
Ardennes - November, 1944

At first glance, he thinks:
                  a glove
a white three-button dropped
in harrowed mud. It has
that length precisely.
There's no blood in it.

Come in, it says, its
           emptied gesture.

The poems about freezing your feet -- there were a lot of these, it was a central fact of battle -- never really came together. I couldn't find a way to edge up to them, you see.

Of course all that is all hindsight. The actual writing was more fumbling.

My editor, incidentally, doesn't really enter into this. The book was pretty lightly edited, mostly for length.

PRR: Did you write with a sense of what "Carl" would like or dislike in Ghost Maps or did you consider how he might react to what you had written? How would he react to the finished collection?

EN: He had died before I started writing it, you know. Sometimes I wish I could show the book to him. Other times I think I couldn't have written it while he was alive. I hope he might be pleased with the book, but I didn't write to please him. Sometimes I say I wrote to honour him, but that's not really it either. I wrote to take care of his stories, maybe -- he gave them to me; they are my responsibility. He trusted me, and that's a responsibility too. Oh boy, is it.

I did send the book (and earlier, a manuscript) to his daughter, "Liz" in the book, whom I know just through her dad. She wrote: "I think he might have liked them but maybe he wouldn't say so." Which sounds about right.

PRR: Do you have a writing ritual? Do you write in the same place or same time every day?

EN: I've been through several rituals; they work for a while and then they stop working. I'm between rituals at the moment, but I do try to write every day. And I have strong opinions on ink, pens, and paper, which you should not ask me to share unless you want an entire article on ink, pens and paper.

PRR: Given your background, do you consider yourself a Canadian or American writer? Are the two mutually exclusive?

EN: I hope not. If the two are mutually exclusive, I'm about to self-destruct.

The short answer is "both." The longer answer…. I was born in Iowa and raised in Nebraska, where I stayed right through undergrad. My family on both sides are farmers from South Dakota - on one side Irish fleeing the great famine, on the other Dutch religious dissidents. That's where I come from. Any version of who I am is going to have to include that.

On the other hand, I moved to Canada not too long after grad school, and if University doesn't count as adult life, I've spent most of my adult life here. Certainly I've spent most of my writing life here. The journals I've been published in are Canadian; the prizes I've won are Canadian; the New Quarterly where I edit has the tagline "New Directions in Canadian Writing." To the extent that I'm part of a writing community, it's the Canadian writing community.

So I call myself an American Canadian, much as one could be a German Canadian or Irish American or what-have-you. Some Canadians resist that description, because so much of the Canadian identity is tied up in not being American - but that's a whole 'nother story.


To read a review of Ghost Maps, Poems for Carl Hruska or to read more of Erin's poetry, click here.



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