She hasn’t even reached 30 yet, but Ashley-Elizabeth Best is already proving to be one of the city’s most promising writers. Her work has appeared in The Rusty Toque, Fjords, Grist, and others. She placed first in This magazine’s 2012 Great Canadian Literary Hunt, and was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, as well as several other awards. She released a chapbook titled Now You Have Many Legs to Stand On with above/ground press, and is releasing her next book, Slow States of Collapse, with ECW press. Here, she tells us what keeps her in Kingston, who her favourite writers are, and how she once thought she’d be a cartoonist.
1. Are you from Kingston originally? If not, what is it that keeps you here over, say, Toronto or Ottawa?
I’m originally from Cobourg, Ontario. I moved here to attend Queen’s University and never left. I love the city of Kingston and can’t think of a more vibrant and encouraging writing community than the one we have here. A lot of artists get lost in the white noise of a big city and the competitive nature of publishing–I try to stay away from that as much as possible. I prefer to work alone and at my own pace. While I love to visit and read in other cities, I prefer to live as simply as possible and to spend as much time as I can writing. The Kingston community has been very generous to me over the years, and I’m fortunate to be a part of it.
2. What draws you to poetry over other genres?
I write and publish mostly poetry, but I also write short fiction and am working on a novel. Poetry to me is an open ended dialogue. A friend once told me that when she first fell in love with poetry it came from a sense of recognition, like when you connect with someone new and know you’ll be good friends. That’s how I feel about poetry. I was awakened to something and before I knew it I was making my own attempts at verse—I was in it and it seemed to come naturally.
3. Tell us about the process of working on Slow States of Collapse. Any hurdles? Moments that felt like real triumph?
I had a stack of poems sitting on my desk for the longest time. Each poem seemed so separate that I had a hard time finding the common thread to bring it all together and in the right order. It felt like a puzzle. Even after I finished putting a manuscript together I still felt unsure of it as a whole. My moment of triumph came when it was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. That’s when I realized that it would always feel unfinished to me, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t something complete and whole.
4. What gives you inspiration?
When I was in grade 3 I remember reading R.L.Stine books and wanting so badly to have created those stories, to have imagined them into existence, into a real physical book. For a long time after I tried writing but kept falling into episodes of anxiety over whether I could even create something within myself and put it on paper. I now understand this was an essential movement of artistic composition, the performance of singular parts acting as a whole in the absence of a frame. Through further reading as I grew up I found the frameworks to write what was in my head, and the confidence. I find I am unable to go too long without writing. It’s an impulse I don’t fully understand and it certainly has and will continue to complicate my life. I just know it is something I must and will do.
5. Who are your favourite writers, and why?
I have a hard time when people ask me this question. There are so many amazing writers I find it difficult to make a choice. I can name the writers I find myself going back to over the years: Iris Murdoch, Brian Moore, Seamus Heaney, Dylan Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop, Karen Solie, Sharon Olds, Thomas King, Sara Peters and the Sagas of Icelanders, or any folklore really, especially Irish and Louisiana folktales.
6. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
There were two brief periods in my life where I wanted to be a veterinarian and then a cartoonist. I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer, but I did always feel most at home surrounded by books. I’m an amateur historian and have always loved research. Growing up in a working class environment I often worried that I wouldn’t have the time or talent to focus on writing. It wasn’t until I went to university that I was able to allow myself the chance to write for fun and see where it led. I got involved with an amazing writing group, The Villanelles, and they taught me most of what I know now and, most importantly, self-compassion. Carolyn Smart was also instrumental in getting me motivated and writing. Like I mentioned before, the Kingston writing community has been good to me and now I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be or write.