I’m thrilled to be in conversation with Betsy Warland, author of Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas, published by Dagger Editions, an imprint of Caitlin Press. This genre-bending book explores questions of who we are in the spaces between—in the gaps and pauses between relationships, physical spaces, creative projects, world events, and the very ideas and constructed narratives of who we are.
The Lambda Literary Review calls the book “... an achievement. It reminds readers of the vitality of Warland’s creative vision. Rigorously inquisitive, always probing the boundaries of language and identity, and centrally concerned with questions of beauty and transcendence in all forms, Oscar of Between straddles multiple poetry traditions and challenges the boundaries of poetry and prose.”
Betsy Warland is the author of 12 books of poetry and creative nonfiction including her bestselling 2010 book of essays on writing, Breathing the Page—Reading the Act of Writing. In March of 2016, Oscar of Between—A Memoir of Identity and Ideas was one of two books that launched Caitlin Press’s new imprint, Dagger Editions. Director of The Writer’s Studio at SFU from 2001–2012, she remains on TWS faculty. She founded and directs the distance program Vancouver Manuscript Intensive in which she is also a mentor. A professional manuscript consultant/editor for the past 25 years, Warland works with writers from across Canada.
THE CHAT WITH BETSY WARLAND
Trevor Corkum: Your memoir Oscar of Between began as an online salon project, but has been a work-in-progress for some time. Can you tell me how the memoir came into being, both as a concept and as a book?
Betsy Warland: In 2007, I began writing the manuscript of Oscar of Between in London where I’d arranged an apartment/flat swap. I was taking a break from revising Breathing the Page—Reading the Act of Writing and the flight gave me bracketed time to think about what my next writing project might be. I realized that I wanted to work within a book-length narrative comprised of the varying lengths of entries that I had used in Bloodroot—Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss (2000).
To create a new formal challenge for myself, I wanted to include one fictive device. On the flight, I had no idea what the narrative or the fictive device would be. I did know I needed to free myself from thinking that the destination was a print book and I wrote without any particular publishing expectation. It took a number of years to find a publisher for Breathing the Page (which became a bestseller). It was demoralizing—worse than being a first-time author. Despite enthusiastic editors, decisions were more and more in the hands of their marketing departments. To invent my own online publishing venue/platform based on my own values as a writer was exhilarating. Oscar’s Salon went up in December 2012. In April 2015, Caitlin Press (who had been following the salon) contacted me about publishing the book.
To invent my own online publishing venue/platform based on my own values as a writer was exhilarating."
TC: One of the central themes in the memoir is camouflage—both in its literal sense as a military form of concealment, but also how we hide parts of ourselves in order to blend in. Can you speak more to why this is an important theme for you?
BW: A couple of days after arriving in London, I saw the Invention of Camouflage exhibit at the Imperial War Museum. It stunned me. While viewing it I suddenly understood an “unidentified force” that had bewildered me my entire life: I’d never been taught an essential social skill—camouflage. It was then that I understood that my lack of camo not only confused people but even aroused suspicion and I needed to find a different strategy.
Gender is both a physical and an energetic cueing that is highly standardized. In public, I never know which gender I will be addressed as: boarding an airplane it can change back and forth several times. For a long time, I corrected people, but then abandoned doing so as it’s awkward; tedious. Since I did, it has made life in public an interesting, vibrant experience. I’m not trying to pass nor be either gender. I’m implicitly both. Coming to terms with my micro experience has enabled me to connect the dots to my macro concerns. My concerns about the massive level of deception propagated by corporate, religious, and political institutions that create an ever-increasing climate of violence in civilian life.
TC: You also discuss the idea of “betweenness”—being in between groups, categories of identity, physical places, relationships, understandings, projects. In a mobile, increasingly fluid world where many of us live with hybrid or complex identities, this is a concept that resonates with many of us. In what ways do you feel “between” is a category that applies to particular types of experience, and how much is a universal experience of shifting, changing identity?
BW: The category labels were always partial and defensive. So, I’d clustered four or five together but that was cumbersome; impractical! After the camo exhibit, a label flashed into my mind that finally fit: a person of between.
It was exhilarating! Like a switch was flicked, I immediately began to recognize an astonishing array of other persons of between. Sometimes they recognized me and indicated that; sometimes they didn’t but what mattered most was this new, expansive, connectivity. Betweenness was the keyhole through which I could address far larger concerns.
Like a switch was flicked, I immediately began to recognize an astonishing array of other persons of between."
TC: You speak often in the memoir of your role on the outside or on the margins of literary communities—within the poetry community, for example, or the lesbian-feminist writing community. How much and in what ways has this sense of exclusion or marginalization shaped your work and career?
BW: It’s been huge. Writers are among the lowest income artists. As a writer, if you are almost never invited to present or read in literary activities and almost never awarded writing grants, it makes it a very tough go. There were many times that I came very close to abandoning writing because there was no way to address a situation like this as it wasn’t a sanctioned professional rights-oriented infraction.
So instead, over the decades, I’ve created and helped create eight alternative options that are more inclusive (local and national writers’ collectives, publications, a conference, and schools) for writers who for various reasons didn’t fit or qualify. This has been very stimulating and satisfying.
TC: Finally, what’s a question no one has yet asked you about the book, that you wish they would ask? How would you respond?
BW: Hey, what a great question!
It would be: “Why did you use the form you use in Oscar of Between?”
The specificity of each narrative is what intrigues me most. Form has always been as interesting to figure out as the narrative itself. In this narrative, I needed to recreate the immediacy of Oscar’s unfolding state of consciousness as well as the eras she has lived in and is living in. As this is a visceral, associative recollecting and rethinking process, I indicated places, years and names to anchor each of the thirty-three Parts. It simulates a memory strategy but also it honours.
Within each Part, there are numbered sections to allow for mobility of shifts in perspective, time, topic. I’ve rarely cued place, year, and names in previous books: to do so was radical for me. Using my own given name didn’t work because it signifies an automatic entity of who I’m assumed and I’m known to be. “Oscar” signals my betweenness as well as an entity that took me six decades to understand and occupy.
Now that it’s a book, I find the form has some of the structural qualities of spiritual texts. You can easily pinpoint spots (Part 33, section “-5-“) and you can also move around in it for different “takes” (read all the Parts set in Montreal, all the section “-4-“ entries). The reader is important to me so I wanted to make it intimate, reader-friendly, respectful. Pace it. Not overwhelm the reader with the disturbing stuff but have it break the surface unpredictably from time to time just as it does in lived experience.
The form allows central concerns to reappear in an effortless, cyclical way with a little more understanding accruing each time. I have come to relish writing projects that span many years. This extended, flexible form also reflects my life. As a full-time freelance, I only get sporadically concentrated bits of writing time. With Oscar, when I did, each Part was like A Room of One’s Own.
from Oscar of Between by Betsy Warland
Part 1 excerpts
1914. Camo and cubism. British military needing to get an edge on. Two of its officers/artists invent “disruptive pattern.” Cubism inspiration for.
Announcement of war paint, agreed upon duel at dawn, eye-catching uniforms morph into first “war of deception.” Camouflage.
A different mindset.
Then there’s Oscar’s body.
Being not either nor neither.
Not a fitting in.
Nor misfit flaunting out.
Even the most aberrant group garrisons its norms
: its not between.
Reprinted with permission of the author.