I met Branka Petrovic at the cozy Montreal gem Café Soufflé, at the February rendition of the High Wire Reading series (hosted by Larissa Andrusyshyn). She read a great poem about chairs, so naturally, I had to approach her to do this interview. The result was a fascinating conversation about the intersection of ballet,visual art, and poetry in her life.
How did you start writing poetry in the first place?
I started writing poetry quite late: as undergrad, actually. I remember attempting to write a novel at the age of 10 or 11, but a few weeks later the computer broke down and the eight or so pages I had written got lost with it. After that I didn’t write creatively until my university days. I was studying English Lit at McGill, taking all sorts of classes—mostly from distant centuries and mostly about British writers/poets. As fascinating as all that poetry was, it felt distant, too high to reach. In my second year, I took a class on Can Lit. where Gwendolyn MacEwen, P.K. Page, Margaret Avison, Leonard Cohen, A.M. Klein, Irving Layton and company inhabited this century and this city. Here were poets writing about my own backyard. They were populating with words the very streets I walked on to get to class; in fact, some of them (the professor later informed us) sat in the very same chairs we were then sitting. Suddenly poetry became real, and, more importantly, reachable. I became so enthralled that I had to attempt it myself. I read everything I could find and I wrote. A year or two later I applied to the Creative Writing program at Concordia and got accepted.
You studied ballet and almost pursued a career as a classical dancer before turning to literature. How has your background in dance influenced your poetry, or approach to poetry?
That’s a great question. As most of us know, ballet is all about discipline, and, as I found out a few years later, so is writing. Just as you need to practice your Pas de bourrée for hours on end in class, you also need to practice your sonnets, pantoums, and/or free verse for hours on a computer, or a piece of napkin, or wherever. There is technique to both, and neither is as easy as it seems. I suppose that ballet taught me from a very early age that art is work, a lot of work—in addition to passion, talent, will, and all that other stuff.Then there is also performance: both disciplines rely almost entirely on performance. Yes, poetry also exists on a page, but it’s primarily there as score. It must be performed if it is to come to life—to move others. Poetry must be articulated in one’s mouth, twisted around the tongue—that’s where all the excitement lies. Direction is one thing, execution another.
Who are some of your favourite writers right now and why are you drawn to them?
I’ve been reading Karen Solie almost obsessively. The cover of Short Haul Engine is wrinkled, its pages contorted, so much have I read and re readthe book. I love Solie’s music, her unique rhythm; the way she unfolds her lines with such surprise. I actually won this book after placing second in a contest John Steffler had created for a workshop at Concordia. I randomly chose this book out of two or three others. So I came to it quite by accident. Or perhaps it was fate, I don’t know. Otherwise: Margaret Avison for her line breaks and more; Frederic Seidel for his wackiness and vast originality; Charles Simic for his simplistic genius and his philosophy; Mahmoud Darwish for his poems which are involved in the world’s affairs; and the list goes on…
Your research project for your Master’s degree in Creative Writing and Literature was about painter Gustav Klimt and his relationship with Emilie Floge. What drew you to this topic in the first place, and what were some unexpected inspirations you found when you researched the topic further?
A writer friend once asked me this question, and when I told her that I don’t exactly remember how I came to this project, she said: you have to make something up because they’ll ask you about it and you better have a story. I remember this much: I stumbled upon one of the postcards Klimt had sent to Emilie quite by accident, and then I found a book containing a lot more postcards. I became fascinated with the fact that this artist (Klimt) never wrote anything about his art or his technique, yet had exchanged 400 or so postcards with Emilie, his friend, confidant, and muse. He wrote about his art, but he also [wrote] about silly things such as the weather. With the postcards we enter their day-to-day thoughts, and this is what I was interested in; I wanted to go behind the scenes and enter their feelings. The postcards led me to writing about other objects in their estate (unexpected inspirations), such as chairs, clothes, cupboards, etc. The objects poems are for the most part philosophical explorations of art, of poetry’s place—or lack thereof—in today’s society, as I didn’t want this project to merely be about Klimt or about Emilie. That’s for books on art or biography.
I was always in love with visual arts. There is so much excitement in ekphrasis—in art communicating with art. It’s a feeling similar to when you’re translating poetry, where you can sometimes enter, even if for a brief second, the soul of another artist. In addition, poetry can teach us a lot about artworks, since it can open our eyes to a particular way of seeing that might not yet have been articulated by the art critic; just as poetry can bring us places where science sometimes cannot. It’s one of the reasons why I fell in love with writing. I like poetry that offers many possible angles or ways of seeing, and that’s also what I attempt to do in my own writing.
Where can people find your work?