Interview with poet & playwright Abby Paige

“I would say that even in my poetry, I’m interested in spoken language and how words sound, and a lot of what an actor does in performing is figuring out how language is inflected. You can say “I love you” and mean it in a very sincere and earnest way, or you can say “I love you” and mean it in a kind of nasty, insincere way. So I’m interested in how words can be used in different ways, and I think poetry and performance both do that.” – Abby Paige

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Mark: I’m very happy to have on the line right now Abby Paige – welcome Abby, to the show.

Abby: Hi Mark, thanks for having me.

Mark: My pleasure. You’re another one of the artists in residence at the Barracks and this week – well, I understand that you are a wordsmith and appropriately named ‘Paige’ as well. You had to have heard that joke a few times.

Abby: It was meant to be, wasn’t it?

Mark: You’re the second writer in residence that I’ve talked to – what’s it like for you to be writing in public? Or is that what you’re doing this week?

Abby: That is what I’m doing this week and I don’t know if it’s how I would prefer to write all the time, but certainly I’m somebody who has a lot of trouble with a first draft, so it’s good for me to have some distractions and some activity around me when I’m writing a first draft so that I don’t spend too much time agonizing over it. And also just to have people who I’m talking to about the kind of themes that I’m interested in writing about. It’s fuel for the flames.

Mark: So what sort of things are you writing about this week?

Abby: Well I’m sort of focusing on the expression “come from away” which is something that I’ve heard a lot in the last year because I moved to Fredericton with my family a year ago and just talking to people about how they use it, what they think it means, and who belongs in Fredericton, who belongs in New Brunswick, and who’s an outsider, and then using people’s ideas and comments about it to kind of start structuring some new writing.

Mark: Where were you coming from?

Abby: Well I’m from Vermont in the United States originally but I immigrated to Canada in 2008 because I married a Canadian, and since then we’ve lived in Montreal and Ottawa and then a year ago we moved to Fredericton, so I have some miles on me.

Mark: Well I’m kind of curious because I’ve been in the Maritimes my entire life, and this expression “come from away” – when I was a kid, it was used just to sort of designate those who had come to the community, but it has felt like it’s taken on even more negative connotations over the last few years. How has your reflection been on it so far?

Abby: Well it’s interesting because where I come from in Vermont is, I think, culturally quite similar to New Brunswick, or at least it reminds me of Vermont when I was growing up because we use the word ‘flat-lander’ to describe people who have moved to Vermont from other places and they can be flat places or not flat places, and that word could be used to describe somebody who is up there for the weekend to go skiing or somebody who moved there 30 years ago and has been living in the same community ever since. And we have the same sort of habit of describing people as not really Vermonters unless they have many generations under their belt in Vermont. I had just always taken that for granted, and then when I got older I started to notice the same thing you’re describing, that people – when they’ve identified another group as ‘separate’ from themselves – start assigning all kinds of characteristics to that group. Anything that I’m not, those people are, so I think it just sort of happens when you start separating people into us and them that negative connotations can get attached. So it’s been interesting this week to talk about it. Partly because we’re downtown where I think a lot of the foot traffic are tourists and also people who live here who are bringing people to visit – there have been a lot of people who have talked about having been here for years and years and still feeling like they’re not part of the community. I don’t think anybody feels necessarily deeply offended, but it’s just got me thinking about what kind of impact that might have on Fredericton as a place if a lot of the people who live here feel like outsiders and like they don’t really belong.

Mark: I know that there’s been some recent criticism of the idea because New Brunswick as a whole does not have a booming population – in fact I think the growth is either stymied or even in the negatives, but the influx of Syrian immigrants is also a notion that we have to embrace more people and break down that wall. Do you feel like you’re seeing some of that or is there still some resistance to that? Obviously it’s been just a week, but how do you see that all working out?

Abby: Well I’m interested to keep having these conversations. I see this week as an opening and then I would like to spend some time talking to Syrians and other immigrants – people like myself or who are from farther away than myself, and also I genuinely think I have only met one person since we’ve been here and we’ve had over 200 visitors already this week – and I would say of those that only one person had said with great confidence “I am from here.” So I’m interested to continue these conversations and to try to search out the people who I don’t feel like I’ve spoken to yet. I have certainly gotten the impression that people are very open to the arrival of the Syrians, but I think it’s also easier when you know why somebody is coming and you know that they need support and help. I know when my husband and I and our son moved here last summer we got a lot of people asking us why we were here in a way that didn’t seem totally like idle curiosity; it seemed a little bit like suspicion. I don’t think there’s anything negative behind that, necessarily, but just that there wasn’t a real sense of openness like “well it’s wonderful that you are here” rather than “you don’t have a reason to be here” as though we’re loitering. So I’m interested to get more people’s input.

Mark: I think the dynamic that often plays out in New Brunswick and in the Maritimes in particular is that a lot of folks bemoan the fact that kids move away to find work or move away for school and then sometimes come back in later life, but that sort of outflow of locals is concerning. So I think in part some of that response might be “why did you choose to come here? We have so many people leaving – why did you choose to come?” So I think there’s suspicion and kind of curiosity and wonder and sadness that people are leaving. With the writing that you’re doing, is this looking to write fiction, non-fiction… what’s the product style you’re looking at?

Abby: Well I’m a poet and a playwright, so when I started the week I wasn’t really sure what I was going to be writing in terms of which of those, but as I’ve been talking to people I’ve partly been interested in how people talk to each other about these ideas so I’m thinking right now that it will be some kind of text for performance rather than just being read on the page because there’s been some really interesting back and forth between people that I think would be fun to capture and for people to see on stage. So that’s my initial feeling that it’s gonna be some kind of performance. I have a solo show that I was performing and touring before we moved here a few years ago and that’s about similar themes, but based in Vermont and New England. The show is called Piecework When We Were French and it explores the legacy of French Canadians immigrating to New England and how the descendants of those immigrants have kept their culture alive, but also sort of transformed their culture in the United States, so it’s sort of a similar theme.

Mark: I’m wondering if you’re finding more and more – it sounds like it from what you’re saying. You’re finding more and more parallels from Vermont and New Brunswick than most would have realized.

Abby: Well it’s a funny thing. I was saying to Allison Green, who is my partner for this week, that every time I sit down to write I think I’ve got a great new idea, and then I realize once I get a little ways in that I’m writing about the stuff I always write about. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but these seem to be the things I’m most interested in as well: questions about where you live, the places where you spend your time, and the people you spend your time with – how they change who you are and how identity is shaped by place and by history.

Mark: So what kind of responses are you getting from people? Are they surprised that you want to write about that stuff, or that your view of New Brunswick is that similar?

Abby: I would say people are interested – well, it’s interesting to be here with a visual artist because Allison has beautiful work in this space and I think people don’t really know what to do with me because I’m sitting here at a table with a bunch of papers, and I have tried to add some visual stuff, hang up some work, and display some poems and other stuff, but I think people feel like writing is kind of private so they don’t want to disturb me. It’s part of our job as artists in residence I think is to de-mystify our art forms for people. Partly I think people are a bit reluctant because writing seems like a very solitary and private task. But as far as people’s reactions to the theme, I think I’ve just been surprised at how many people have said “I’ve been here for 25 years but I’m from away.” One person even said “I came here 20 years ago and I’m still from away and I still don’t really feel like I’m part of the community” and I said “where did you come from?” and she said Sussex. It’s also helped me to understand how much of it is very localized. In Fredericton, you really have to be from Fredericton to be from here, but if you’re in PEI, you really have to be from the island to be from here and if you’re from Miramichi you really have to be from Miramichi – it’s not the same if you’re from Tracadie or Moncton. So I’m really interested in how small and how tightly-knit communities still are in New Brunswick, which in some ways I think is a really positive and beautiful thing, that there’s still such a sense of place here and community, but I just wonder what the consequences are of shutting a place off to newcomers, and not in a way that’s intentional, I don’t think, but that in practice people don’t feel welcome to participate in the same way that you do when you move to a less tight-knit place.

Mark: That fierce sense of identity is something I think that I’ve noticed for my entire life – I’ve always been from New Brunswick, but one of the questions about New Brunswick has always been “what is the New Brunswick identity?” And the country itself has a similar question: “what does it mean to be a Canadian?” Have you noticed on a larger scale a similar thing, having immigrated to Canada some time ago?

Abby: I have. We don’t have that in the United States – we have a very strong sense, sometimes too strong, of who we are, and I think it’s difficult for Canada with the United States right there to define itself except on comparative terms. A lot of people talk about the ways in which Canada is not like the United States, but it’s harder to talk about how Canada is, without making those comparisons. I don’t as know much about New Brunswick in particular but I think the Maritimes have a strong sense of identity, but I’m not sure. It does seem to me that when you talk about the Maritimes, sometimes people forget to include New Brunswick in that – you would know better than I, having been here your whole life.

Mark: Well there have been times when it’s been described as the “drive-through” province or “the picture province (you take the picture and you keep on moving)” but definitely there is a sense of pride here. It is a hard thing, I think, to identify. Now, you’re a poet and a playwright – I’m very curious about the different forms and how they fit. Do you do different forms with each form, or is one a reflection of the other?

Abby: Well I’m really interested in how language is used, so I would say even in my poetry, I’m interested in spoken language and how words sound, and a lot of what an actor does in performing is figuring out how language is inflected. You can say “I love you” and mean it in a very sincere and earnest way, or you can say “I love you” and mean it in a kind of nasty, insincere way. So I’m interested in how words can be used in different ways, and I think poetry and performance both do that. It’s taken me a long time to figure out how they’re related, but I also see poetry in a really open way. I think a lot of people are intimidated by it and I think often the way that it’s taught in school makes it seem like trigonometry – as if most of us are not smart enough to get it. I’m really interested in finding it in a way that we use language that we use every day, so I think that’s how they’re related.

Mark: Is there a particular style of poetry that you use, such as free verse or any of the rhyming schemes or anything like that?

Abby: I’m not a real rhymer, but one of things that I’m working on right now is a collection of very, very short poems that are only a line or two long that I started working on when my son was a baby – that was during a period when I didn’t have lots of extended periods of uninterrupted time. They’re exploring how small and insignificant can a poem be.

Mark: Insignificant?

Abby: Yes. What can you write a poem about that is the least poetic thing to write a poem about. I can read one to you now: “No one looks into my eyes as frequently, or as fervently, as the food in the freezer.” Some of them are a little bit like one-liners because they’re so small.

Mark: So is it kind of observational, where you’re literally standing in front of the fridge or the freezer and going “this is a moment I need to capture” or is it as much about the internal workings?

Abby: I think it’s more about the way that these poems were created, were much more sort of like “these ten seconds that I have, looking for food in the freezer, is my ten seconds of contemplation for today because I have so much other stuff going on. And so the size and shape of the poem reflects the situation in which they were written.

Mark: So you probably don’t take hours and hours just to agonize over the right words, then.

Abby: Not with these particular poems: that was sort of the challenge with writing these – letting go of the fact that I have always been somebody who’s very much a reviser, so I have a harder time with a first draft, and have to sort of trick myself into write a first draft, but I love to revise, I love to sit and play with, you know: “Should this word come before that word, or the other way around? So I was kind of flipping my usual writing on its head and trying to do something really simple and straight-forward. You can only revise so much when there are only 6 or 8 words in the poem.

Mark: Do you think that modern social media forums, like Twitter in particular or maybe Facebook, calls to being more poetic for the average person?

Abby: I think they do because they’re not as intimidating. I think they can be a gateway. I hope that people would eventually get to Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson or something that seems a bit more foreign, but I think there are people who are doing stuff on Twitter and online that doesn’t quite feel as varied or as formal when you’re looking at it on your phone, you know?

Mark: I’m wondering if plays are the opposite end of things – they’re longer, I’m assuming, and they have to be performed by actors on a stage. Is that the other end of things for you, just to try to put as much length into it, or as much description into it, or work it out harder, or differently?

Abby: Yeah, I would say that is more typical of my work would be a more elaborate exploration of something. The solo show that I did is ten monologues by ten different characters, and as I said before I’m interested in people and in voices contradicting each other, so in a longer form, that’s something you can do is rather than have one authoritative voice speaking, have one character express one opinion and another disagree. It creates the same kind of interesting tension that ideally happens in a really good conversation, although I don’t know how many great conversations people have anymore, now that we all text each other.

Mark: Well that’s an interesting challenge, and I’d love to talk about it more but we’re kind of running out of time. I do want to know – you mentioned that you have a book coming out. What is the name of the book and where can people find it?

Abby: Well I can’t tell you that yet.

Mark: Is there a place online where people can follow you and follow your work to find it later?

Abby: Yes – my website is, and Paige has an i in it.

Mark: Well, Abby, thank you so much for joining me for these 20 minutes here.

Abby: Thank you – lovely to talk to you.

Mark: I’ve been talking to Abby Paige – she is one of the two artists in residence currently at the Barracks and is writing poetry and asking the question: What does ‘come from away’ mean?


Listen to the audio podcast of Abby’s interview here:

The Lunchbox Interview: Abby Paige (Writer)


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