Interview: The Transgressions of Ann Fox Chandonnet
Interview conducted by Nolcha Fox
Alright, listen up, you degenerate bastards! We've got a hell of an interview lined up for you today with none other than Ann Chandonnet, a real badass in the world of writing. This lady's got more skills than a monkey on meth.
Ann isn’t your average writer. She's a non-fiction guru, a food historian, a retired journalist, and an active poet. You name it, she's probably written about it. She earned her stripes back in '65 when she grabbed herself a fancy Master's degree in English literature from the University of Wisconsin. Yeah, she's got the brains, but don't let that fool you. This lady's got grit.
For over three decades, Ann called Alaska her home. Can you imagine surviving in that frozen wasteland for that long? She was a staff writer for the Anchorage Times, digging deep into stories and exposing the truth for a solid ten years. And if that wasn't badass enough, she spent three years as a police reporter for the Juneau Empire. You don't mess with Ann Chandonnet, that's for damn sure.
But Ann's got a creative side too. She's dabbled in the world of music, writing lyrics for Shadows, a musical masterpiece about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Yeah, she's not afraid to tackle the tough stuff. And she even lent her literary skills to Mass for the Winter Solstice, crafting the introduction and exit for that mind-blowing production at the University of Alaska. This woman's got range, my friends.
Now, if that isn’t enough, Ann's also a damn fine poet. She's got collections like Ptarmigan Valley, Auras, Tendrils, The Wife & Other Poems, and Canoeing in the Rain under her belt. Her words have graced anthologies like In the Dreamlight: 21 Alaska Writers and The Last New Land. And don't get me started on the magazines she's been published in— Iowa Woman, Ice Floe, The Wormwood Review, and Northward Journal, just to name a few. She's got the chops, no doubt about it.
And you know what? Ann's work hasn't gone unnoticed. She's racked up awards from the Wisconsin Union, Alaska Press Club, Alaska Press Women, and Rocky Mountain Booksellers. The lady's got trophies coming out the wazoo. But the crown jewel has to be the education award she snagged from the National Council of Teachers of English for her book Gold Rush Grub. Yeah, she's making the literary world her bitch.
So, grab a drink, buckle up, and get ready for a wild ride with Ann Chandonnet. This woman's got stories to tell, insights to share, and she's not holding back. It's a hell of a conversation. Let's dive in and see what this badass writer has to say. Cheers, you magnificent bastards!
NF: Tell me a little about your background.
AC: I grew up on a failing dairy farm. My Dad wanted me to be a secretary and bring home dough. But I persisted in my dream of attending college, and with a patchwork of part-time jobs, I worked my way through college and then grad school. Fortunately, college was not as expensive then as it is now.
Readers want to know how I ended up in Kodiak after Madison, Wisconsin. It's simple: I had two job interviews at Madison: one from Kodiak (which required a master's) and one from Albuquerque (which did not). I chose Kodiak because they set a higher standard. And, my Gram Fox, with whom I lived for 21 years as part of my extended family, had always wanted to see Alaska, and I figured I could write her letters about my adventures.
I was a soft news writer for the Anchorage Times, 82-92. Experience gained in 11 years of freelancing and two cookbooks published gave me enough cred to get a job as a journalist although I had no training in that field. However, the Times closed in 1992, giving its employees two hours’ notice. What was the first thing I did after being let go at the Times? I went home and darned my sons' tube socks.
Fortunately, we had burned our mortgage and were able to stick out a mix of jobs (never be a Rent-A-Mom) until 1994, when I became the second woman in a two-person office of Alaska Northwest Books, a publishing company. My boss was 15 years younger and sucked on candy all day. I was the one who had the privilege of turning away people with the “I just retired and want to write a book” Jones on them. I was also the one to lug boxes of books to the Post Office. Five years there.
Then in 1999, my husband Fernand and I got jobs at the Juneau Empire and made the move. I was probably the oldest-ever cops and courts reporter at the Juneau Empire. I was good enough to get a murder trial moved out of Juneau so the killer would not have a jury influenced by my reporting. I spent 11 days in Ketchikan covering the trial. I am very proud of my work in that particular case.
NF: I’d like to focus on your latest book, The Shape of Wind on Water. First, I’m curious about how you organized the book. People are influenced by the places they lived, and places are influenced by the people who live there. It’s difficult to write about one without the other. People and place poems are sprinkled throughout all the sections. How did you decide which poems belonged in which sections?
AC: How did I organize? It required extra consideration because I was writing about two completely different landscapes, and Alaska itself is several climate zones.
Furthermore, Paul Marion, of Loom Press, was guiding me to write new poems, to have a sampling of the old but to show what I can do now. An envelope-back poem like my toddler son going behind the drapes, or an ermine disappearing into a blue hole in the snow (the depth of the snow makes the blue color). These are cute moments in time, but they do not have the historical/intellectual weight of poems like "In Velvet," which takes on the huge, heavy subject of menstrual seclusion.
The original poem was printed in three magazines, accompanied by notes, just as if it were a term paper on the subject. And it was.
Menstrual seclusion is still being practiced in many places in the world. I wrote of the Athabascan practice (as I imagined it). Today's Russian Orthodox Church does not allow a menstruating woman to attend church services. This ties in with women who must wear headscarves or cannot drive a vehicle. How can a country think itself civilized if it continues such practices?
Got off track here. For the New section, I considered Places, People, Things. But that seemed trite, and I ultimately settled on Harvest rather than Things; Harvest was more evocative.
Life is hard and discouraging, demanding. Under these conditions, we can never have enough or too much humor. That’s in the Selected section, of course.
NF: I love your poems about family relationships, for example, “Snow Water Under Culverts” and “Understanding the “Oedipus Complex.” Please talk about the difficulties and rewards of writing these types of poems.
AC: Writing about family relations is tricky. Do I go confessional like Anne Sexton and wring every word exchanged with her parents for the fear/dismay/gut reaction, that forced rhyme that might crop up? (I mention rhyme because she used a rhyming dictionary; I think that's cheating.)
Do I mention my father's weekend guest, who soon moved out of the guest bed and participated in sex with him in a room that shared a wall with my room? I had to listen to that tap, tap for years, Friday and Saturday nights. Couldn't he have moved the damn bed? Or was he showing off? What kinds of sex lives did he envision for his five kids as he created this tapping? Were we all deaf? Was there a lesson there – or just simple satisfaction?
The fact that my father is long dead influenced my decision to mention these sexual activities. Were he alive, I would not have used that material. And his partner has passed, too.
NF: I laughed at “My Muse.” The humor in this poem is great. How often (and when) does your muse visit you and encourage you to write, and do you write when he’s at the gym?
AC: "My Muse" was written in Chugiak, AK, circa 1976 when I could bench press 75 lbs. My husband had a bench and weights in the basement, and we would work out together when our 2 boys napped. Then we moved to Anchorage so I could go back to work.
Like the boy in the cave hoping to become a drummer, I am hoping to become a poet. I made a vow at age 16 to follow that road, and at 80 I'm still there, examining every flower.
NF: You have a gift for observing details and making them live in the reader’s mind (for example, in “The Civil War Ink Bottle”). How was this gift honed by the places you lived, and your work as a journalist and poet?
AC: The book covers 50 years of my work. The first year with my son Yves, I wrote one haiku. I was very focused on being a good mother and wife. At the close of that year, I took out my notebook, pulled myself up by my Anchorage galoshes and told myself, if you want to be a poet, you'd better get a move on, sister.
In those days, I was involved in putting out the first feminist newsletter in Anchorage. That led to some essays, and the forming of the essays steered me back into thinking like a poet.
I am an observer; I notice body language. I note micro-expressions. This is combined with the art around me. My talented aunt, Louise Fox, was one of the first female textile engineers. She designed fabric in NYC and would come home to Dracut with fabric samples to show Gram. I would be sitting there taking it all in. Gram was parentless because of a plague around 1900, and was then taken in by a tailor who owned one of the first dry-cleaning plants in that area of Massachusetts. Fabric, design, threads. These all meant something to me that was invisible to most people.
My Mom subscribed to a service that sold inexpensive copies of art by famous people. I was intrigued by Monet's hay ricks in many colors, many kinds of weather, etc. My Dad forbade her to spend money on books, and in that clash, the art prints were hustled to the attic. I would go there and look at them again and again. Why was this green and that purple? What casts that shadow?
I knew there were important secrets there. I wanted to dig them out.
The blue ink bottle is real, and has its cork. Could an ink bottle retain its cork in the shaky confines of a Union soldier's field desk (and we had one in the house, that tailor again)? While browsing in a barn-size warehouse of mostly junk in North Carolina, I spotted this bottle and bought it for no good reason. There was no way I could tell its age or its owner. I had to plumb its mysteries. And I had just been reading some poems in New England dialect, and I thought, "Maybe I could do that." I probably owned the ink bottle for 3 years before I put it to this use. It's the ermine popping its nose out of the hole in the snow. It's the initials on the cork. It's the poem.
NF: Which are your favorite poems in this book, and why?
AC: "Peas" is always a favorite since I wrote it 40 years ago.
"Iris Is Last" is a favorite because when I read it, I can see Shem Pete, a village elder, on the stage at the Anchorage Museum--where he was formerly banned.
I love the poems in which the kids are speaking, like "Understanding the Oedipus Complex." When I write these, I do not change the kids' words at all; I work around them to frame them. Kids say wonderful things if you listen. I spent 10 years at home with my boys. It was well worth it when I look at the thoughtful men they are today, 48 and 50 years old.
Lately I like the Willendorf poem (which I wrote just 3 months ago) because it contains an entire family plus an outlier. And they are JUST LIKE US.
NF: What are you writing now?
AC: I am not working on anything in particular right now, except for one poem in the mode of "In Velvet," That is, it will be long; I will invent history, It will require research. (A $40 book from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is already in the mix,)
Seems weird, I suppose; but this is my method and it works for me.
Right now I am celebrating the issuing of The Shape of Wind on Water. That topic/title came to me 30 years ago when we moved into a 3-story condo on one of the small lakes near Anchorage International Airport. From my dish-washing window, I observed the variety of the wind's actions on the surface, and decided to write a series about it. That series has proved to me that water is as fugitive as love.
End of Interview