9/20/2021

I’m Not Supposed to Be Here: An Interview with Junie Désil

The following interview is part one of an eight-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2021. All eight interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.caThis was the third year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here, and the 2020 interviews here).

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excerpt from “transatlantic | zombie | passages” - Junie Désil

in the ocean where we were disposed of by drowning or shark ravaging
salt-brined unmarked graves paradoxically our freedom the very molecules
of sea-womb water we are here we still remain our DNA ingested and
upcycled by every single organism our bodies extracted ingested this
probably made your heart lurch and sink and beat and flutter all at once
if i say that in fact time is unable to absolve/dissolve if i say five hundred
years ago we were bondaged bodies if i say that despite the passage of time
if i say that time in this case is measured in residence time and that five
hundred years is not five hundred years ago that past horror is not past
that it is present time if i say our ancestors are still here we are still here
if i say that we are zombies we are ghosts we are traces we are revenants


Reprinted with permission
from eat salt | gaze at the ocean
(Talonbooks, 2020).


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Rob Taylor: Early in eat salt | gaze at the ocean you wonder “how to write about zombies: / when you’re a generation / removed from the soil”. Your parents immigrated to Canada from Haiti, and you were born in Montreal. Did writing this book bring you closer to your Haitian culture? In writing and publishing this book, what insights have you learned about writing about a home you weren’t born in?

Junie Désil: I can’t say that writing this book brought me closer necessarily. I think the fact is I will always be removed from “home” and “culture.” There are ways of being and knowing that I can attribute to my culture and upbringing, but at the end of the day there is a sense of loss at the interruption, whether it’s my parents immigrating to these territories as a result of the political atmosphere in Haiti, or the larger interruption of the collective “Black” history. Certainly, that not-home/un-home feeling informs my writing and, in particular, this collection. I think it’s something you’ll note in many of the Caribbean diaspora writers.

Haiti is there whether I speak to it or not. I suppose it’s like loss, you don’t get over it, it’s always there, it imparts a gauze on your lens, and you either make peace or not. For myself, I found it organized my thoughts and feelings on the subject. It forced me to confront the things not talked about in my family. As a result of who I am, where I was born, the choices my parents made, the choices I’ve made and continue to make, there will always be unknowns and the unresolved. I suppose then that the insight is just that writing about “home” will always be an unfillable hole.

RT: Let’s move from “home” to the other half of that quote: zombies. “How to write about zombies” speaks not only to your distance from Haiti, but also the trickiness of writing about zombies within a Canadian/American cultural context (earlier in the same poem, you list zombie movies you’ve watched: I Am Legend, World War Z, Shaun of the Dead, etc.). Was it daunting to write about Haitian zombies through the fog of American media representations? Do you think the gap between Haitian traditions and pop culture is bridgeable, and if so, was it important for you to try to bridge it?

JD: It certainly was fascinating (appealing to the nerd part of me) and daunting for a number of reasons. The information and the directions I could go with zombies were so vast; I felt inclined to write a dissertation of sorts! I think what was overwhelming was realizing how much heavy lifting the zombie imagery does. For a moment it left me bereft. I know this sounds dramatic, but hear me out. The zombie is a metaphor for the condition of slavery, and here this very metaphor is still “working” across the screen, across various narratives, to be what we need it to be. It’s seeing how this symbol in Haitian culture has become American culture. That even in death/undeath Haitians can’t catch a break. 

Anyway, it was more important to share what zombies mean and that zombies aren’t what we’ve grown up knowing; that zombies have been misrepresented. There was also the thrill of understanding and re-discovering what zombies meant to Haitians, and more so the thrill of discovering that Zora Neal Hurston, a writer whose fiction, essay and anthropological work I long have admired, was also interested in Haitian folk tales, zombies, etc. She really put her whole self into the study of zombies and Haitian spiritual and cultural life.

RT: You mentioned there that you “felt inclined to write a dissertation of sorts” and in your book’s acknowledgments you note that you “have not pursued what [you] thought would be a career in academia.” It’s clear, though, that you brought some of the academy into eat salt | gaze at the ocean: the book teems with historical research (and archival documents, which sometimes appear directly in the text). Could you talk a little about your movement away from the academy and towards creative writing? How did that journey shape the book you ended up writing?  

JD: I love academia, or rather learning. I’ve had terrible experiences with academia, and also realized it’s not the be-all and end-all. I can still learn, share, educate in other ways. What I did not realize or what I did not have in my academic time was the ability to be creative about my academic pursuits; the permission to weave creative writing with academic research/learning.  

I moved from Montreal when I was 19. I’d never been in BC and didn’t know much about it. I gave up a scholarship and acceptance at McGill. I struggled. I struggled with the blatant and subtle racism. I struggled with the lack of room to explore and shape my thoughts and opinions in a political and creative way. I struggled with the loneliness of being Black in BC. I couldn’t articulate this. I thought that academia could be a place to intellectually pursue research, work and study on equity and justice etc., and found that I couldn’t research these things while actively being the “PROBLEM.” So writing on the side, in secret, was my only way to exist and articulate these things.

I’m lucky and blessed that over time various people like Wayde Compton, Dr. Yvonne Brown, Cecily Nicholson, Mercedes Eng, Hari Alluri, Betsy Warland and so many others, saw that there was something of value in what I had to say. I wouldn’t be here without folks like the aforementioned. Listen, in a (paused) heartbeat I would do it again, but maybe only because I’m older and supposedly wiser with a lot more resources around my belt, and a strong, supportive community of folks and family.

RT: I’m glad you struck off on your own path, interweaving academic research and creative writing. It comes together so powerfully in eat salt | gaze at the ocean. In the excerpted poem that opens this interview, you write that “past horror is not past”. In another part of that same poem you say that “there is no pastness”. Throughout the book, your own life is palimpsested over, or mixed into, the more “academic” historical events the book explores. The Haitian Revolution, the crimes of The Cotilda, the 2010 earthquake, Black Lives Matters protests, and your father’s saying he’s “never met a cop who doesn’t respond to respect,” all seem to be speaking back and forth to one another simultaneously. Similarly, in an image from the book you map out your own “triangular passage” between Haiti (Ayiti-Kiskeya-Bohio), Winnipeg (Treaty 1) and Vancouver (Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh), beside that of the slave trade.

Could you talk a bit about how the present and the past feel merged, for you, as you go about your daily life? Do you think it could have been possible for you to write authentically about your ancestral past without also writing about your present (or vice versa)?

JD: I don’t think I could have written this without merging past and present. I mean – who I am, how I am here, is informed by my past, my ancestry, and my ancestor’s experiences. I’m here in these occupied territories because my ancestors were removed from their lands and shipped various places. I’m here because my parents’ lives were impacted by US (and Canadian and French and other) imposed dictators, ongoing colonial projects and practices. I’m here and not there (Haiti/Dominican Republic) because there isn’t necessarily a home to go to. Also, this is how I understand and organize my world, if we’re being literal. All of this only makes sense in the context of the past that keeps haunting me/us.

As to the matter of authenticity, the other reason I wrote it this way was to ensure that what I wrote about wouldn’t necessarily be taken as absolute truth. There are omissions and gaps in this text; these are both deliberate and accidental (because of time, memory, and trauma). I’ve mentioned, or tried to convey, that this writing is an act of re-membering (Toni Morrison): putting myself back together through memories, stories, and events, but I only have a particular perspective so the process will be incomplete, imperfect and ongoing. So is it authentic? Yes and no. I couldn’t get complete answers from my folks, they too have an incomplete memory, and their experiences are mediated by their own traumas, their own displacements.

RT: Incomplete and inauthentic are different things – I appreciate so much how you threaded together what you knew of both your past and your present. 

To close the book you ask “when will I feel alive”: is there a connection between the omnipresence of the past and your inability to feel alive? What would change for you if the past could truly be in the past?

JD: It’s a complicated question (and answer), and also a vulnerable one for me. I’m not supposed to be here. Historically our timeline was interrupted; there is an active, subtle and not so subtle desire to extinguish us. I mention briefly being 15 and making an attempt on my life. I couldn’t explain it, my mother was so preoccupied she was not aware that I’d swallowed half a bottle of pills, and I was trying to cover up what I’d done. What I’m saying is that it is an act of labour to stay alive, in myriad ways, despite the zombie personas we adopt (or have placed on us).

The more I know, the more I explore, the more I wonder when I will feel alive. This uncovering, re-membering is painful. Like therapy; sometimes you keep digging and unpeeling and it’s too much and you want it to stop, but you keep going because… well you have to have hope sometimes. So while I say that I don’t feel alive, that I am the walking dead, I am here and that’s an act of love, on my part, on my family’s part, continuing on even when there seems to be no reason to.

RT: Yes, an act of love—exactly. What do you think would change for you if the past could truly be in the past?

JD: I don’t know that the past could ever truly be the past. I think that’s the thing we argue when seeking reparations, asking for statues to come down, renaming schools, streets, etc. None of these horrors are past; they just have a different form and serve as a reminder. We’re all collectively haunted, and hauntings are about the unresolved, unconfronted and unacknowledged horrors.

RT: In regards to endless haunting, in the book’s middle section you write “it is exhausting to write about slavery, ongoing oppression / as if that’s my only history or point of interest… in fact it is your history”. Did writing about slavery and oppression in eat salt | gaze at the ocean feel like a choice? If not, to what extent was that because of your own needs and desires v. those of white Canadian readers?

JD: It didn’t feel like it was going to be a choice, but in my “limited choices” I made decisions of how and what I was going to talk about. I considered implications on my family and myself: putting out personal things, and being aware of the balance of how to write about the difficult things that implicate parents while shielding them from potential judgement.

I also chose not to do too much “trauma porn.” When it got too much I couldn’t write. There was a period of a few weeks where nothing was coming out. I knew what I wanted to write but I couldn’t find my way in or around. I took it to mean that there are some things I’m not prepared to confront, or write about; there are some things that are not meant for the world. Some stories deserve protection and care. So I made a series of choices along the way. Sometimes I think What if I had written this collection this way or another way, what would it have looked like? I know I made choices because of time constraints. I made some choices instinctively and wonder what it would have looked like to be mentored through the process. Would I have taken more risks?

RT: I think all writers wrestle with those kinds of questions (before and after our book are published!). 

With some more time and experience behind you now, do you see a way forward to being able to write about other “points of interest” in your life? What would you like to talk about?

JD: I‘ve been thinking about this question for a while now, and don’t have an answer. In November, while on vacation, I felt like I could write again. I worry about not being able to write. I once had a five year absence from writing because of work, and I promised myself I wouldn’t let that happen again. I could see myself getting back to that place and I started worrying. While on the break I felt inspired and thought Great, I can write about something else. Well, I realized that it would again be somewhat autobiographical (again) and that it would be political.

I’ve wrestled with how to balance writing about the things that “matter” and the things that I want to write about, and I keep coming back to this poem by Ross Gay, “A Small Needful Fact.” This beautiful poem is about Eric Garner, and the extrajudicial killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, but it’s also about life; he talks about seeds, and the gentleness of placing seeds in the ground to grow and nurture, the circle of life. I think I worry that writing about “other points of interest” means giving up writing about the difficult things, the political things. American poet Tiana Clark‘s debut collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, perfectly encapsulates what I’m trying to say. Clark recognizes that the trees where Black folks were lynched contain a history that is inescapable, and like me she weaves in personal and public accounts to talk about the horrors, the present hauntings: trees.

There will always be this tension; I can’t un-know things so I can’t write about anything neutrally. I haven’t found a way to do so. And some of the tension is about participating in trauma porn, commodifying Black pain.

Ross Gay sums up some of the concerns that I grapple with in his blurb for Clark’s book

“Critiquing the commodification of [B]lack pain while also acknowledging and revealing your hurt as a [B]lack person is tricky as hell. It is dangerous. And that is precisely what Tiana Clark does in these beautiful, vulnerable, honest poems.”


I always look to the writers I admire when trying to sort out these questions. I’m not the first to navigate these things, and I know that the ability to tap into such wisdom lies in access and privilege. In any case, what I want to learn to do is just what Toni Morrison says: “The best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”

RT: That’s no small task, and one I think you’ve accomplished here. And I’m glad that you pointed to Gay’s poem on Eric Garner as an influence. 

As the book’s title suggests, salt, and the awakenings salt induce, are central themes in eat salt | gaze at the ocean. In one story/poem, eating salt is what awakens the Haitian zombies working in American-owned sugar cane fields, reminding them they are dead and sending them running to their graves. The salt sting of the ocean into which rebellious slaves were tossed is also tied to both awakening and death.  

The salt sting that seems to explode this book into awareness—that sears together its composite parts so fiercely—is the Black Lives Matter movement, and specifically the 2016 killings by police officers of Black and Indigenous people. When you write about that year, the poem overflows (both emotionally and formally, as the poem becomes prose and fills almost two pages with solid text). Would you consider that moment in the book an “awakening” of sorts? Was 2016, and all that came with it, a kind of “salt” you consumed, bringing with it both awareness and death?

JD: Growing up Black one is always taught about the “dangers” of existing while Black. My parents tried to shield us from this as much as they could as they were going through their own painful processes. I remember hearing some of the stories and being unable to comprehend why my parents were subjected to the treatment they received at work.

I didn’t have a political language to articulate the experiences of growing up Black in Winnipeg or attending high school and CEGEP in Montreal, and I was a relative baby when I moved to Vancouver. Still, I had awareness. While I was in high school in Montreal, the police infamously pulled up to our school and bribed young Black boys with pizza so they could take their pictures for a lineup. I also experienced the Rodney King beating and riots when I was 13, and the horrific beating and sexual assault of Abner Louima at the hands of the police in 1997, when I was 19. Those two events were shocking to me, and started to linger in my consciousness.

So yes, perhaps I was like a zombie and over the past five or six years there was a strange and repeated awareness and death cycle. What I’m saying is that absolutely 2015/16 was a particularly explosive awakening; this was when cell phone videos provided irrefutable proof that law enforcement was killing Black people. But also it wasn’t an awakening; these were part and parcel of being Black. I think 2019/20, with what seemed like an epidemic of extra judicial killings of Black women, Black trans folks, and Black men, was too much. The difference being that I had actually watched the video of George Floyd’s killing, and it hit differently.

RT: What made it hit differently? The “watching” instead of “hearing about”?

JD: I don’t know that I can talk about it properly; likely I’m not ready. Obviously watching the filmed extrajudicial killing of George Floyd is the difference; I have always avoided watching any of what is tantamount to snuff films. This time I did. I honestly don’t know why.  After watching the film, I avoided people, but went to work and went through the motions of existing in this world. I asked my partner to shield me from people and their desire to imperfectly do or say something. I avoided text messages, emails, etc. from well-meaning people. And I just grieved for about a month. It’s not an answer to the question, I know, but how does one articulate their feelings about ongoing state-sanctioned killings of Black people, and having to defend their very existence? Perhaps the hardest part of this was that it felt impossible to mourn, or when we mourned we wondered what about this particular death made it harder. And the mourning for me felt messy, the grief didn’t feel like it had a proper container to hold it.

RT: Thank you for talking about this, difficult as it is. It’s hard to imagine any container could hold such grief. But I think you hold a portion of it, in a powerful and transformative way, in eat salt | gaze at the ocean

A book that had a similar effect on you as I suspect your book will have on young Black and Caribbean readers, was Haitian poet Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory. In your acknowledgments, you write that reading that book made you believe you “had something to say.” Could you speak a little more about Danticat’s influence on your writing?

JD: Edwidge Danticat occupies a particular place for me. Growing up I was an avid reader, and while reading was encouraged, I did not have access to Black writers or writers of colour. My parents would talk about Haitian literary greats, but they were also the product of a colonial education system, so they referenced THE CANON of French, Russian and English writers.

My father had a closet full of textbooks and other books, so I would dig through and read Checkhov, Tolstoy, Orwell, or French philosophers. When I was old enough to check out books on my own from the public library, I wasn’t really reading anything by writers of colour. The African-American History class I took in my undergrad year at UBC was the first time I read Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, etc. All this to say that I was in my 20s before I read something by a Black Writer, and later still when I read Edwidge Danticat.

When I discovered Danticat, it was like pieces of my childhood narratives coalesced: being Haitian, understanding some of my parents’ unnamed trauma. I think it was the moment when I realized that I too could write stories that matter, that influence, that change people. Of course I must mention Toni Morrison as a literary role model. I hope that once I start writing fiction that I can write so well about hauntings and horror.

RT:  In addition to Danticat (and Morrison—yes!), eat salt | gaze at the ocean also brings to mind so many tremendous Caribbean-Canadian poets (Dionne Brand, M. NourbeSe Philip, Jillian Christmas…) who write about slavery and the history of the African diaspora in the Caribbean and Canada. Could you talk a little about other writers on these subjects, whose books showed you a way forward?

JD: Dionne Brand writes about not having a home, as Caribbean diaspora. Yes we can say we are from Haiti, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, but this is an interrupted history as well, a second other home, with an inability to trace back precisely where/what home is.

There is a familiarity and a specificity, and a range of experiences in the Black Caribbean Canadian experience, and to me this has been a beautiful thing to see and be a part of. Toni Morrison says to write the book you never got to read (I’m paraphrasing) and I think there are still books that have yet to be written. That moment of recognition is beautiful when you read something that speaks to you and your experiences. Something that understands the deepest, most secret parts. That is what I love the most about writing and reading, and what I look for. 

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Junie Désil is of Haitian ancestry. Born of immigrant parents on the Traditional Territories of the Kanien’kehá꞉ka on the island known as Tiohtià꞉ke (Montréal), raised in Treaty 1 Territory (Winnipeg). Junie has performed at various literary events and festivals. Her work has appeared in Room MagazinePRISM InternationalThe Capilano Review, and CV2. A recovering academic, a UBC alumnus, and most recently a participant in Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio, Junie currently works in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, on the unceded and Ancestral Lands of the xwməθkwəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ (Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh) and lives on qiqéyt (Qayqayt) Territory (New Westminster), juggling writing and life.

9/13/2021

Rain That Washes Away the Pretty Surface of Things: An Interview with Jen Sookfong Lee


Yesterday You Had The Best of Intentions - Jen Sookfong Lee
A glass of water, tepid and undrunk, in the bedroom air.
A body beside you whose movements are so small
and so slow you cannot measure them.
Muddy, thick hours spent listening to the night pass.

This is the long rolling of time, that liquid dim
that breaks over the neighbours’ rooftops and leaks
through a crack in those curtains you have never hemmed.
The broken lamp beside the garage buzzing, a raccoon

walking upside down, claws tapping and tapping
on the gutter it clings to. You squint, the continued
watch in the night. The black hurts your eyes.
Do you know what you’re watching for?

There are secrets, indecent and jagged like a stranger’s teeth
biting the thin line of your clavicle. You could whisper
them now and he would not hear you. But no.
You should wait. Nighttime lulls. That soft, enabling dark.

Outside, the first chickadee sings.
You have twenty minutes, maybe thirty,
before the sky lifts, burning, and kills
what you have been staring at all night long.

(Wolsak & Wynn, 2021).
Reprinted with permission.
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After writing eight books of fiction and non-fiction, Jen Sookfong Lee published her first poetry book, The Shadow List, this April from Wolsak & Wynn’s Buckrider Books imprint. Lee’s books include The Conjoined, nominated for International Dublin Literary Award and a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, The Better Mother, a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award, The End of East, Gentlemen of the Shade, and Chinese New Year. She was born and raised in Vancouver’s East Side, and she now lives with her son in North Burnaby.
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Rob Taylor: In "Yesterday, You Had the Best of Intentions" you write about a black that "hurts your eyes", and also the "soft, enabling dark." Blackness and darkness pervade The Shadow List right from the title, and are often cast in even parts sinister and comforting. The poet Jim Harrison once wrote "I think that night's our balance, our counterweight," and I wonder if that might resonate with you in some way. What lives in the dark of your poems that wouldn't survive in the light of day?   

Jen Sookfong Lee: I always think of these poems as being secrets, the ugly thoughts and unspoken desires we give space to in our heads when we are awake in the night. I learned very young that good Chinese girls didn’t ever allow those wants to be spoken, and it was only alone, when everyone else was asleep, that I let my brain circle around the thoughts that I felt were shameful. In a way, The Shadow List is a tribute to those moments when sex or drama or visceral things were what your body ached for, even if they were never allowed to see the light of day.

RT: Perhaps in keeping with that need to have a separate, shadowed place to think through the “unspeakable”, The Shadow List is entirely written in the second person, and that "you" often feels very much like biographical you, biographical Jen Sookfong Lee. But of course it is "you", not "I", and that distance opens up alternate possibilities. In the poem "Third Person Intimate", you write "You are used to writing novels, / to placing a human in the middle / of a slowly unwinding nighttime dilemma" and it’s hard to know for certain if this is Jen speaking or another character you’ve plunked in a nighttime dilemma. Why did you make the decision to write your debut poetry collection in the second person?

JSL: Oh well, Rob, the second person voice is, in many ways, a disguised first-person narrator. Of course! I am mainly a fiction writer, and I had been very used to obscuring aspects of myself in my fiction behind the words and actions of my characters. When I started writing these poems, after three novels, I was so utterly uncomfortable writing about myself explicitly, that I used the second person to push this narrator away from myself. She isn’t always me, and I am not always her, but I also don’t really like separating her from me. There doesn’t seem to be any point in enforcing a division, meaning that there are times that I may have done or said what she does, but does it matter? As drafts of these poems have been written and rewritten, that division seems irrelevant. She exists on the page, and inside of me, but she isn’t by any stretch representative of the holistic me. 

RT: In recent years, you've moved from exclusively publishing fiction, to publishing non-fiction and now poetry. How has that journey impacted your thinking around personae?

JSL: The non-fiction books I had written before these poems were mostly educational books for children, and memoir was still something that I only flirted with. Since then, of course, I have written a memoir in essays, titled Superfan, that’s scheduled for publication in 2022, and I think The Shadow List was a really necessary conduit from Distant Novelist Jen to Let Me Show You My Secrets Memoirist Jen.

RT: Poetry is usually thought of as the gateway drug to fiction. You’re doing everything backwards, Jen! Let’s talk that journey of yours through genres. What brought you finally (at book #9!) to writing poetry? Were you just sick of getting royalties?

JSL: I am never sick of royalties! But no one writes poetry for the money! I started my MFA in 1998 with a poetry thesis, which is something no one knows about me. Back then, I never wanted to write prose and had no intentions of writing a novel. However, as it turns out, Creative Writing programs in the 1990s were not the most welcoming place for women of colour, or anyone with a marginalized identity that was under-represented in publishing. The workshops were a difficult space for me to be in, and I dropped out after one semester, returned to Vancouver, and didn’t write another poem for 15 years. I had lost all of my poetic confidence. In the years since, my novels were successful enough that I began to think I could try again, and so I did, with some very bad poems to begin with, but eventually I stumbled upon the voice that I use throughout The Shadow List, and a collection began to take shape.

RT: What has poetry allowed you to explore that you couldn't access in other genres?

JSL: Poetry has always been, for me, an exploration into voice. Who is this person speaking? What do they need to say? What are the places and people around them that can be used as narrative tools in this moment they have a reader’s attention? It’s a luxury to be able to focus so specifically on voice in this manner, as this was never something I could do in a novel. Novels are too long, too messy, and subject to a million different rules of internal logic. My speaker is, here, just herself.

RT: I’m sorry you had those bad experiences in your Creative Writing program, but I’m glad you eventually found your way back to poetry. Did certain people encourage your return to the genre, and to “poetic confidence”? I assume the people the book is dedicated to—"Andrea, Carolyn and Carrie”—had some hand in it (at one point it's suggested that "Carrie" told the speaker "the world needs your poems"). What role did they play, and were there others (friends or writers whose books you read) who spurred you in this new direction?  

JSL: I think the first person who saw any of these poems was my poet friend Shawn Krause, whose encouragement gave me just enough confidence to explore the directions this collection could go. The Carrie I refer to is the author Carrie Mac, who has been reading my poems since 1995—and that is no exaggeration! When I had finished writing The Better Mother, she had said to me, “Yeah, your novels are good, but where are your poems, Jen? That’s what I want to read.” Her words nagged at me for years, until I was finally in a place where I felt I could have fun with poetry again. I also think that so many of my friends write poetry that I finally felt like I could see a place in my career where poetry could live—something I hadn’t ever really considered while I was running on the hamster wheel of producing novels.

RT: That one or two voices can make all the difference, eh? I’m glad you heard them. Speaking of these poets you’re surrounded by, in 2017 you joined poets Jordan Abel and Canisia Lubrin on Buckrider Books' newly-formed editorial advisory board (Buckrider, an imprint of Wolsak & Wynn, is run by yet another poet, Paul Vermeersch). We all know, now, of the poet-osmosis that took over, leading you to publishing The Shadow List with Buckrider. What drew you to the press and allowed you to make it a "home" in these ways?

JSL: Buckrider is one of my homes! I like that. What I think is consistent with the books that Buckrider publishes is that they play with form and content and push at the boundaries of what readers expect. I like to think that no one has really expected me to write poetry at all, and especially poems that meditate on vanishing twins or bad dates or freezing to death in your own home. I am usually a very reliable person and I felt that Buckrider would understand my need to write the opposite of that.

RT: While Buckrider is your new poetry home, you’re settling into new digs editorially, having just been hired as an acquisition editor with ECW Press, which also published your most recent novel, The Conjoined. You’ll be looking at fiction and non-fiction manuscripts (no poetry, eh? I guess ECW is trying to turn a profit or something). You’ve spoken with Quill & Quire about the types of manuscripts you’re hoping to find, so I won’t trouble you with that question again. But I am curious what effect all this editing has had on your own writing. Do you find the process of reading/editing others manuscripts influences what you produce?

JSL: For sure! I learn a lot about writing from the authors I edit, who all have strengths much different from mine. I find that I am more willing to take a literary risk now than ever before, as I’m really motivated by the fearless and magpie ways other writers tackle book manuscripts. The first novel I ever edited was The Death Scene Artist by Andrew Wilmot, which is part screenplay, part horror novel, part literary fiction. I remember thinking as I was charting all its component parts, Wait. You can mash all that stuff up together?

RT: Ha! That’s wonderful. Those risks feel more possible at a small press like ECW or Wolsak & Wynn than at the big houses. You've spoken publicly before about the benefits of small presses v. the bigger houses. What can a small press offer you that a large press might not? 

JSL: I started my career with a big press, arguably the biggest possible press, and I think it was useful for me to begin that way. You know, like teaching a child to swim by throwing them into the deep end. There was no faster method for me to learn the good, the bad, and the ugly of publishing. By the time I came to ECW with The Conjoined, I had a really clear idea of the book I was writing, the way I wanted it to be marketed, and how much editorial and promotional support I needed. The great thing with a small press is that there are no rules, as long as the ideas are good and you’re not spending huge rolls of cash. But I wouldn’t have been able to articulate a clear vision with a first book.
 
RT: The Shadow List features poems on writing about people with whom you’ve dated ("The White Lie"), and also the reverse: being written about ("When You Read His Poems”). These poems circle around questions of permission and deception. Do you have any tips for writers about how to navigate this issue? Just don't date writers?

JSL: Maybe I should write a dating advice column for people who date writers! My experience is limited to only two, but both of them were poets, so essentially, my advice is this: expect to be written about and in turn you can also write about them. That’s it. It’s a free-for-all. And I’m not sorry about it.

RT: You co-edited (with Stacey May Fowles) the anthology Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Stories of Life after Sexual Assault (Greystone Books, 2019), and themes of trauma and recovery run through The Shadow List. In the poem "Chiaroscuro," in response to the question "How do you get through trauma like this?," you write, "You just do. You have no choice. / What a bullshit answer that is."

Could you talk a little about "getting through" - what you've learned from other women and what you'd like to pass on to readers who are in need of advice? Are there any non-bullshit answers, and does writing or reading play a part in any of them?

JSL: I’ve had the great privilege of being in counselling for most of my life, and if I have learned anything about managing trauma, it’s that everyone has different ways of distracting themselves, finding reasons to get through a day, or confronting their core issues. For me, writing is not therapy, it’s work, even if I write about personal experience. Mostly, I talk a lot, too much probably, about my feelings, about the reasons I react in ways that I’m not proud of. The desire to live with my mental health as a priority and to be a more engaged parent has everything to do with raising my child so that he can have a more literate relationship with his emotions about painful things. But that’s just me.

RT: That definitely comes through in The Shadow Lists. Another consistent presence in the book is Vancouver: visions of the city are grafted on to many of the book’s personal narratives. "For This, You Need a Map," for instance, features sour cherries, tankers, rivers and bridges, nurse logs of Belcarra and Anmore, the cliffs, the waves...

From one life-long Vancouverite to another, how do you think the city has shaped your writing and, more broadly, your outlook on life?

JSL: Vancouver and its surrounding areas have profoundly affected me and my writing, perhaps more than any other theme in my books. There are many reasons for that: the borders of mountain and ocean, urban spaces versus suburban sprawl, intersecting communities, the rain (so much rain!).

Vancouver renews itself constantly, with new condo towers and restaurants and migrations, but the history constantly bubbles up to the surface, impacting the contemporary. We are a port city, where vice has always been and will continue to be an industry all on its own. We have always been a place where people come to be at the end of the world, when the rest of it has become too much. And no matter how hard developers build on old neighbourhoods, the descendants of those razed communities are still alive, still remembering. All of this is a structure that my poems, and my prose, mimic—circularity, past timelines imposing on the current day, rain that washes away the pretty surface of things.

RT: That’s fascinating—how the circularity of the city provides a structure for your poems. I see that in them, for sure.

JSL: I have a hard time letting go of the past, which I think is the main thing Vancouver has instilled in me. What do you mean not everyone wants to revisit their childhoods to wring out every last trauma and inciting incident? Come on! It’s my best party trick!

RT: Ha! One piece of pure childlike joy that shines through in The Shadow List is your love of dogs. The book features a very loving poem for your dog, Molly ("She was fast or she was still and nothing in between... It was, and is, only now"), and in your acknowledgments you thank your dog, Rosie, for "lovingly reminding me that writing isn't everything." I get the feeling that dogs may have taught you more than books ever have. Is that true? Why should every writer have a dog?

JSL: Oh, my life would be very incomplete without dogs. I work at home, alone, and have done so for many years, and the act of caring for a dog and taking it outside means that my brain is at rest and the dog is free to act and react, without forethought. This feels like a small vacation every single day. Not everything is connected by a narrative thread or thematic symbols. Dogs embody this chaos in the most charming way possible. All writers need something to remind themselves that their navel gazing is not always productive. Get a dog, everyone!


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The next best companion to a dog is a copy of The Shadow List, which you can pick up at your local bookstore, or via the Wolsak & Wynn website or, if you must, from Amazon.

9/01/2021

"Exhibitionist" by Molly Cross-Blanchard



I was thrilled when I heard that Molly Cross-Blanchard's debut poetry collection Exhibitionistwas to be published this year by Coach House Books. I love Molly's poetry, which is sharp and funny and honest. Back when I edited Best Canadian Poetry 2019 I long-listed one of her poems, "First-Time Smudge," and so wished I could have squeezed it in the anthology. Better late and online than never, I get the chance now:

First-Time Smudge - Molly Cross-Blanchard

It takes eight matches, a burnt thumb, and a quick Google search
to light the sweetgrass braid Mom scored for me from an elder
at work. Always use matches, she said. Spirit likes matches.

I don’t have the abalone shell or eagle feather—
water and air—so I just hold them in my mind, cup the smoke
to my face, my left chest, down the fronts of my calves
to my feet. I notice too late I forgot to change the Spotify playlist
to something more traditional. Hopefully Spirit likes
Jimmy Eat World. I think about the word smudge

while I coax the smoke into each corner of my bedroom, the way
it might mean a smeared mark, like how the message from him
apologizing for the women in my bed was a smudge

on my inbox today. The way I felt when I read it, a smudging of my cool
front. I want to think of the word smudge as wiping away but
to soil is simpler than to cleanse and I’m afraid all this smoke
can’t smudge his spirit from the air here. I open the window, cough

an acrid cough into the dark. I notice too late: the Google article said
to keep it open from the very beginning.

In many ways, this poem - documenting the speaker's efforts to connect with their Indigenous heritage - mirrors the poems in Selina Boan's wonderful debut Undoing Hours (you can read my interview with Selina about her book here). In other ways, though, it's totally different. As Selina puts it herself in our interview:
The first time I read [Exhibitionist]... I was blown away—I laughed, I cried. I felt the whole book in my gut in the best way possible. She uses humour in a way I could only dream of. Her poems are tender, raunchy, and moving.
Yes! "Hopefully Spirit likes / Jimmy Eat World", for instance, feels like a distinctly Molly Cross-Blanchard line!
 
The book's jacket copy hits on similar themes:
One minute she’s drying her underwear on the corner of your mirror, the next she’s asking the sky to swallow her up: the narrator of Exhibitionist oscillates between a complete rejection of shame and the consuming heaviness of it. Painfully funny, brutally honest, and alarmingly perceptive, Molly Cross-Blanchard’s poems use humour and pop culture as vehicles for empathy and sorry-not-sorry confessionalism. What this speaker wants more than anything is to be seen, to tell you the worst things about herself in hopes that you’ll still like her by the end.
I'm so happy to have Molly joining me, Jen Sookfong Lee, and Barbara Nickel at the September "Strangers Summer Series" event. The reading will take place on Saturday, September 11th at 3 PM. It's a free outdoor event, though advance registration is required. 

You'll be able to pick up a (signed!) copy of Exhibitionist at the event, but of course you can also purchase one from your local bookstore, or online from the Coach House Books website. Whichever way you go about it, get this book!

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Molly Cross-Blanchard is a white and Métis writer living on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, cka Vancouver, where she works as the publisher of Room magazine. Her debut collection of poetry is Exhibitionist (Coach House Books, 2021).

8/30/2021

a very sustained process of reading


I think we erroneously give pride of place to the act of writing rather than the act of reading. People think you just read because you can understand the language, but a certain kind of reading is a very high-level intellectual process. I have such reverence for that kind of sensitive reading—it is not just absorbing things and identifying what’s wrong but a much deeper thing that I can see would be perfectly satisfying. Anyway, this separation is fairly recent: not long ago the great readers were the great writers, the great critics were the great novelists, the great poets were the great translators. People didn’t make these big distinctions about which one was more thrilling than the other. 

Writing for me is just a very sustained process of reading. The only difference is that writing a book might take three or four years, and I’m doing it. I never wrote a line until after I became an editor, and only then because I wanted to read something that I couldn’t find. That was the first book I wrote.

 

- Toni Morrison, on working with editor Robert Gotlieb, from Gotlieb's Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.

8/26/2021

as an orange is final

 

Pati Hill: What did you first write? 

Truman Capote: Short stories. And my more unswerving ambitions still revolve around this form. When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium. 

Hill: What do you mean exactly by “control”? 

Capote: I mean maintaining a stylistic and emotional upper hand over your material. Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence— especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all. 

Hill: How does one arrive at short-story technique? 

Capote: Since each story presents its own technical problems, obviously one can’t generalize about them on a two-times-two-equals-four basis. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right. 

Hill: Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique? 

Capote: Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. Even Joyce, our most extreme disregarder, was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners. Too many writers seem to consider the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise. Well, in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising.

- Truman Capote, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.

8/23/2021

a touching faith

 

Bob has an uncanny knack for putting his finger on that one sentence, or that one paragraph, that somewhere in the back of your mind you knew wasn’t quite right but was close enough so that you decided to worry about it later. Then you forgot about it, or you convinced yourself that it was okay, because it was too much trouble to change. He always goes right to those places. It’s an instinct. He and I share a belief that if you take care of all the tiny problems in a piece, all that small attention will somehow make a big difference. Sometimes I think that’s just a touching faith of ours, and that, in fact, nobody ever notices whether, say, you use the same word twice in a paragraph. At other times, I’m convinced that the details are all that matter.


- Charles McGrath, on working with editor Robert Gotlieb, from Gotlieb's Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.

8/19/2021

stand on our shit-hill and hope it will grow

In my early thirties I saw myself as a Hemingwayesque realist. My material: the time I'd spent working in the oil fields of Asia. I wrote story after story out of that material, and everything I wrote was minimal and strict and efficient and lifeless and humor-free, even though, in real life, I reflexively turned to humor at any difficult or important or awkward or beautiful moment.

I had chosen what to write, but I couldn't seem to make it live...

Having gone about as high up Hemingway Mountain as I could go, having realized that even at my best I could only ever hope to be an acolyte up there, resolving never again to commit the sin of being imitative, I stumbled back down into the valley and came upon a little shit-hill labeled "Saunders Mountain."

"Hmm," I thought. "It's so little. And it's a shit-hill."

Then again, that was my name on it.

This is a big moment for any artist (this moment of combined triumph and disappointment), when we have to decide whether to accept a work of art that we have to admit we weren't in control of as we made it and of which we are not entirely sure we approve. It is less, less than we wanted it to be, and yet it's more, too - it's small and a bit pathetic, judged against the work of the great masters, but there it is, all ours. 

What we do at that point, I think, is go over, sheepishly but boldly, and stand on our shit-hill, and hope it will grow.

And - to belabor this already questionable metaphor - what will make that shit-hill grow is our commitment to it, the extent to which we say, "Well, yes, this is a shit-hill, but it's my shit hill, so let me assume that if I continue to work in this mode that is mine, this hill will eventually stop being made of shit, and will grow, and from it, I will eventually be able to see (and encompass in my work) the whole of the world."


- George Saunders, from his essay "The Heart of the Story" in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.

8/16/2021

tragedy doesn't exist any more

On the whole I do feel that comedy is the only form left. The reason why comedy looks so odd is that tragedy doesn't exist any more, it doesn't resonate - no one's going to believe in it any more. So comedy is having to take on all the real ills, the refugees from other genres. The original butts of comedy used to be buffoonery, pretension, pedantry, but now they have to include murder and child abuse, the decay of society. Dickens, a comic writer of another age, dealt with his villains by either tritely punishing them or improbably converting them. But the old schema no longer work. We know that evil isn't necessarily punished any more than good is necessarily rewarded. I think now we can deal with iniquity only be sneering and laughing it off the stage. It's all you can do because you know that in real life it's not going to be converted or punished, it will go on. There's a lovely bit of Nabokov in one of his lectures where he said: You do no punish the criminal in his armchair by having a conspirator tiptoe up behind him with a pistol; you punish him by watching that little finger of his probing in a profitable nostril. You watch him picking his nose, that's how you get your own back as a writer. You use ridicule, not an obsolete machinery of punishment and conversion because that just doesn't convince any more.

 

 - Martin Amis, in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel. As published in More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel. 

8/03/2021

"The Junta of Happenstance" by Tolu Oloruntoba



Tolu Oloruntoba's debut poetry collection The Junta of Happenstance was published in May by Palimpsest Press. I'm thrilled to help bring the book a little more fully into the nearly-post-COVID world by having him read with me (and Dallas Hunt and Shaun Robinson) at the August "Strangers Summer Series" event (a free outdoor event, though advance registration is required). 

In a recent interview for Prism International, Tolu (rather delightfully) said:
A poem is never done. You either get it published or you keep editing it whenever you stumble on to it, until you die. I often replace words or edit small aspects of poems that have been published, when I have to read them publicly. There’s always something that could be said better, often because of the clarity that time away from the work builds. Having said this, I often sense I am done with the poem when I get a sigh-like feeling, a feeling like I have said all I could say at the time, as well as I could say it, while being faithful to what I had in mind.

Here's a poem from the book, "Co-exist", which was clearly long-edited but also contains that sigh-like feeling of accomplishment:


Co-exist - Tolu Oloruntoba

Africans never presume to count another’s children,
so we don’t know how many they had, the family
ours moved in with, each sidestepping the other.
Mostly. Avoidance was respect: night was their time,
the musical clan tapdancing ceiling boards to pipes,
and winching squeaks from plumbing, chorus stars
above, cosmic dust, pointilist, in sifted asbestos below.
You would go into their kitchen at night for water
and see their conspiracy scattering, snooker balls
struck by light, darting stragglers huffing for the pocket
hole. Easy, having nibbled their doors under ours,
thoroughfare through the house and gourmet gougings
of bread, each mousehole ornate. Losing their shyness,
we occasionally met at dusk, their whiskers tightrope
lances measuring the abyss of air on either side,
sifting our intention, teaching the resonance of mice:
while the world continues to build ours at the edge,
to wrench our microcosm from potential space.


That "sifted asbestos"!  Those "darting stragglers huffing for the pocket / hole"! Tolu's poetry is alive with sound, and so much more, as his press summarises nicely:
 
Personal, primordial, and pulsing with syncopated language, Tolu Oloruntoba’s poetic debut, The Junta of Happenstance, is a compendium of dis-ease. This includes disease in the traditional sense, as informed by the poet’s time as a physician, and dis-ease as a primer for family dysfunction, the (im)migrant experience, and urban / corporate anxiety. In the face of struggles against social injustice, Oloruntoba navigates the contemporary moment with empathy and intelligence, finding beauty in chaos, and strength in suffering. The Junta of Happenstance is an important and assured debut.

Do pick up a copy of the book, either online from the Palimpsest Press website, or from your local bookstore, or in person on Wednesday, April 11th from Tolu himself!

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Tolu Oloruntoba is the author of the Anstruther Press chapbook Manubrium. His poetry has appeared in Pleiades, Columbia Journal, Entropy, and other publications, and his short fiction has appeared in translation in Dansk PEN Magazine. He founded Klorofyl, a magazine of literary and graphic art, and practiced medicine before his current work managing projects for health authorities in British Columbia. After a somewhat itinerant life in Nigeria and the United States, he emigrated to the Greater Vancouver Area, where he lives with his family.

8/02/2021

the first steps are made

John Berger: ... we are today less familiar than most men and women in other centuries with this emotion of pity.

Eleanor Wachtel: Given that we probably live in a time when it's perhaps most called for, why?

Berger: I think that's very complicated and something that is changing. I think the banishment of that emotion - if one can call it that - which dominated perhaps two centuries of European thought, is now over. The problem with pity as it is something understood, is that, okay, so you feel pity, and that means, having felt pity, you can sit back and do nothing. So it becomes a kind of cop-out. But that's a defamation of the idea, not of the idea, but of the faculty, because it is a part of what constitutes human nature. It is maybe the first action of the imagination, and is something that is extremely basic to human nature. One sees it in all children, everywhere. Children identify with those around them, with animals, even with their toys, with the characters in their stories, completely. This is the first act of imagination, to at least make the steps towards getting into somebody else's skin. It is not achievable, of course; it would be very sentimental to say that. But the first steps are made. In my opinion this is where not only ethics begins but also art.

 

- John Berger, in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel. As published in More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel.