An Interview with Birdy Odell

First and foremost, what inspired you to write Cemetery Music

When I begin a collection of work, I’m not entirely sure which direction it will take.  In fact when I drew the little birds that illustrate the poems I did it separately. It wasn’t until later on that I began to attach words to the images.  I wasn’t sure they would resonate with people. In fact, I very nearly didn’t submit this collection for that reason.   

I’ve always been at odds with the notion of dying.  It seems, on one hand, a lovely reprieve, and on the other a spectre that hovers over me each day threatening my happiness.  It’s not that I set out to write about death, it’s what bubbles up as I sift through piles of cut up words. I think of it as a form of therapy.  

Why found words?  

My process is organic.  Intuitive. I am not a writer who studies various forms of poetry and follows a prescribed set of rules. Writing poetry is, for me, an expression of emotional thought, a way to put unnamed feeling into words.  Using found words allows me to go into a completely relaxed headspace. I let the words come forward. I may find a phrase that I like and that will be the jumping off point. Sometimes it comes easily and other times it will take days to complete one poem.  If I overthink it, I get nothing. The words sound too contrived. Working without forcing my agenda onto the words provides a more organic experience. It’s like a treasure hunt. And I am thrilled when I find something that just fits.  

Birds are a recurring (and oh so beautiful!) image throughout this collection–is there a particular significance to them?

I think I find in them a beautiful sadness and I’m drawn to that.  They may be charming little chatterboxes or thoughtful predators. But I don’t know that they ever seem entirely comfortable.  We find beauty in a seagull soaring overhead. But its own experience is an endless quest for food. I am thrilled when the geese fly off in the fall and love to hear the hush, hush, of their wings in between calls. I take joy in such a peaceful moment but for them it is the beginning of a perilous and exhausting journey.  A chickadee huddled in on itself in the dead of winter says so much to me. As does the first sight of a robin in the spring.  

When I was 10 years old I found a great horned owl beside our house when I went to get the garden hose.  It scared me to death as a child but as an adult, I think how lucky I was to have seen that. And not long ago my husband and I were driving in the country.  A snowy owl was perched on a post. It took flight but low to the ground and just in front of the car all the way down the snow covered gravel road. Like a guardian leading us home. 

Did you struggle at all, writing about a topic as difficult as death?

I think I was born into the middle of an existential crisis.  I’ve thought about death for as long as I can remember. So in some respects it’s been a constant companion.   Death, while difficult, isn’t as hard for me as loss. That’s much worse. I think most of us would say the same.  We don’t fear our own demise as much as that of those we stand to lose. 

The first funeral I attended was that of a family friend who had been beaten to death.  It was sad. For sure. But it was his existence that really wounded me. It was tragic.    

I find writing about death kind of lovely in a way.   I love the poignancy, the nostalgia and the peacefulness of a cemetery walk.  There is a strange comfort there. And yet knowing we are all going to die is still terrifying to me.   It is an absolute paradox. An unsolvable riddle. One I continue to pick at through poetry. 

What was your process in writing this book?  Did you create the pieces individually and notice these through-lines or set out with this final product in mind? 

I had been writing fiction for awhile in an attempt to be a novelist.  But one day I just made the conscious decision that anything I wrote from now on would be only for me.  I wanted to simply enjoy the process. That’s it. Once I gave myself permission to do that it was amazing how productive I suddenly became.   So with this book the birds came first. Every day I’d just paint a little bird. In the meantime I was working on found poetry with vintage photos, which is my first love really, and then one day I pulled out a picture of one of the birds and added  the words, “between the beating of heavy wings, the weary heart smiled” and that was it. The words dictated the image. I most often find the words first and then the image they depict. The process itself is tremendously cathartic. It’s a mood. I try to explain it but most often if the writing is going well I feel as if I’m just the messenger.   And as I completed more and more of the poems I realized that I was writing about death. I hesitated about the imagery but by then it had a mind of its own. 

Do you have a favourite piece(s) from this collection?  

I love so many but I think the one that sort of sums it all up is this,

‘I am but
A place in time
Echoing the sun’

It is the circle of life, days come and go, seasons change.  Babies are born, people die. But in echoing the sun I am able to find joy while I am here. 

Were there any pieces you decided not to include in the final version? Or pieces you added later in the process? 

Yes, a few, mostly for formatting and page count.  Here are two.

above the tiny garden
perfumed lavender
little streams, very blue
all wet with tears
as it began to rain

             —

the old man was weeping
watching birds hop from
branch to branch
he felt pity for them
like any ordinary day
among the cherry trees

Who would you most recommend Cemetery Music to?

I think that anyone who has suffered a loss will identify with the poems in this book.  But because the images are lighthearted it isn’t limited to those who grieve. The poignancy of a small moment captured in very few words is something we can all relate to.  I write in vignettes on purpose. I prefer a few words that make me think or resonate with me. And even though there is a melancholy tone to the book it is still a book of comfort and sweetness.  

What have been your favourite and least favourite parts of the publication process?

This year from start to finish has been a learning curve.  Having my first chapbook published has been thrilling at times and at others I’ve been ready to close the blinds and hide.  But all in all I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. Having an editor/publisher who understands both sides of the process has been a gift.  And when my proof copy came in the mail I felt like I’d crossed an imaginary finish line.   

I have actually enjoyed the whole process.  The only part I find difficult is tooting my own horn.  But I’m learning.  

Do you have any advice for those who might want to follow in your footsteps?

I would say write what you want.  Don’t try to imitate anyone else’s voice.  Start small. There are so many lit mags that are happy to support new writers.  It’s fun to see your work out there and feels great to have publishing credits to add to your submissions.  Never give up. And be grateful.  

What project(s) are you working on going forward?

I’m feeling the need to work on something about shame.  This ties into my childhood themes and will still be in the found word style.  At the moment I’m working on artwork again. When the time is right the words will come.  In the meantime I have other manuscripts out there in the world of submissions and art to make for an upcoming show. 

Besides the amazing work you’ve created here, what’s your favourite piece you’ve ever created? How about your favourite by someone else?

That’s a tough one but I love a short story I wrote called ‘The Gardener’,  (you can find it on Commaful) in fact there are a few I adore, ‘Goodnight Alice’ is another one. ( Imagine Alice in Wonderland on her 90th birthday.)   Each piece I create is my favourite in the moment. 

I feel like my favourite poem about death is appropriate here.  It’s by Christina Rossetti.

From the Antique (1852)

The wind shall lull us yet,
The flowers shall spring above us:
And those who hate forget,
And those forget who love us.

The pulse of hope shall cease,
Of joy and of regretting:
We twain shall sleep in peace,
Forgotten and forgetting.

For us no sun shall rise,
No wind rejoice, nor river,
Where we with fast-closed eyes
Shall sleep and sleep forever.

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