What's not included is as essential as what is: "How She Read" by Chantal Gibson

The following interview is part two of a nine-part series of conversations with BC poets which I conducted in April 2019. All nine were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca.

bullet points – Chantal Gibson

All rights reserved—no part of the book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine or newspaper.  —We Grow Up, The MacMillan Company, 1939.

  • P. 19 Jupie is a good cat. He lives alone in a little red farm house.
  • P. 57 Dick is the mailman on the train. He has bags full of letters and packages.
  • P. 62 Jack is a pilot of a big airplane that flies at night. He has a radio.
  • P. 88 A brownie is about a foot high. He lives in a cellar. He has a brown face. He looks queer, lives in queer places and does queer things.
  • P. 160 Little Ugly Face lives in an old Indian village. She looks so queer that the children laugh and call her Little Ugly Face. She is sad. She has no friends. She really is not pretty at all.

Reprinted with permission from 
How She Read by Chantal Gibson 
(Caitlin Press, 2019).

Rob Taylor: Your debut collection How She Read (Caitlin Press) is filled with gaps and mysteries that seem designed to complicate a reader’s experience. Words are blacked out from quotations, letters are blanked from words and words from sentences, the letters in words are rearranged, and—most notably—many of the book’s poems (including the opening and closing poems) feature a shorthand derived from your own handwriting which is impossible to read (for me, at least!).

When in the process of writing How She Read did you strike upon these various techniques, and how did they shape your thinking of the book as a whole?

Chantal Gibson: Yes, How She Read is full of holes, holes in words, holes in sentences, holes in stories, holes in logic. I’m interested in language (how we learn to read and write words) and how knowledge is produced and re-produce across a culture (how we learn to read and interpret everyday objects, images and signs). In particular, my book is a decolonizing effort that challenges the mis/representation of Black women woven into the fabric of Canadian culture—the holes left by historical silences and hegemonic erasure.

The process of writing How She Read got me thinking about how I learned to read, so I started at the beginning. That’s why you see several ‘cloze poems’—those familiar fill-in-the-bl_nk exercises used to teach spelling in grade school. That process got me asking “Why left to right? Why up to down?” It got me thinking about the rules and conventions of proper English I had come to accept and embody without question—run on sentences, dangling modifiers, split infinitives, passive voice, the stuff of writing handbooks. Since English is the only language I read, write, and speak fluently, I figured I should brush-up on the rules before I set out to break them.

Rob: The holes these maneouvers leap vary in their difficulty to navigate – the jumbled words can be untangled easily, and many of the missing words can be guessed at, while others seem unknowable. Collectively it feels like the poems are making a statement on race, history, and cultural spheres (especially Black Canadian and White/”Mainstream” cultural spheres): what can be understood by one reader cannot be by another. Of the shorthand, you mention in your notes at the end of the book: “If you can’t read it, you’re not meant to.” When did the idea of your shorthand come about, and the decision to integrate it throughout the book?

Chantal: In addition to the holes, the book is also full of bad spelling and bad grammar. Moments from the language experiments introduced in the first section, “the grammar of loss,” are repeated and woven throughout the rest of the book. All of this is done to unsettle the tropes, myths, and stereotypes in the images of the Black women I write about. I asked myself how I might use these “errors” and “mistakes” as a form of backtalk, as a form of dissent, as a constraint for writing, as a way of fragmenting and subverting the colonial language I use every day as a good, literate citizen.

The “shorthand” or graphic mark-making is inspired by my mother’s warning during grade 11 course selection, “you gotta get your shorthand girl!” and it’s the outcome of an iterative process of deconstructing my handwriting down to its essential marks and strokes. For months I wrote and erased letters, words, lines and stanzas. The aubade (Sonnet Crown) at the end of the book concludes with a palimpsest of fourteen stanzas, thick layers of black marks stacked on top of each other (who said stanzas had to be side by side?). Ask any graphic designer, the length and weight of a single pen stroke can tell you a compelling story.

Rob: Or the leaving out of a pen stroke!

A powerful moment in the book comes in the poem “c words,” when you write “How do you c_nfr_nt the past / with a c_l_n_z_d tongue? // Truth is. // I c_n’t.” With this gesture you seem to draw yourself into the field of unknowing you are creating for others in the book. Do you see it that way? Are there ways the content of this book is elusive or unreachable even for you, the author?

Chantal: The answer is yes. In school I was taught to write in complete, coherent sentences to avoid confusing the reader, but there are some things that cannot be articulated in words, in English, in complete thoughts.  At home I was taught to communicate in winks, whispers, gestures, and suck teeth. Again, no words.

Some things can never be said, can never be known—like the memories and experiences of my ancestors, the gross weight of joy, the total circumference loss. There are holes in my history, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.  The incoherence and incompleteness in the work became the material and the message of the poems.

Rob: “There are holes in my history, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true”—yes, exactly! Connected to that, the last two sections of How She Read feature a number of poems written in the voices of historical (mostly Canadian) Black women, often women who were the subjects of photographs or paintings. Can you talk about taking on that daunting challenge of giving voice to the historically voiceless (its own form of “fill in the blank”) and how it speaks to the larger themes of the book?

Chantal: Yes, more holes. In this case, fill-in-the-Bla_k!

I curated several portraits, paintings and photographs of Black women and girls who appear (and re-appear) in Canadian art, historical, and literary discourses—subjected to the Colonial gaze. Their presence presented me with the opportunity to play with ekphrastic poetry. Instead of describing the portraits I was looking at, I imagined each of the women staring back, talking back, challenging the gaze, discussing and critiquing modes and methods of their representation. I created persona poems that provided them with a space to talk freely about the use and misuse of their images.

Sometimes they talk to the reader, sometimes they talk to authority, and sometimes they talk to each other. For example, in “Don’t Call Me Minty,” Harriet Tubman writes her own Canadian Heritage Minute, thank you very much! In the dialogue poem “Centrefolds: Marie-Therese and Delia on Opening Night,” two nude Black subjects eye viewers eyeing them at an art gallery opening while implicating Art and Science in the racist and sexist notions used to mystify and mythologize them. I swear, I could hear these women talking—so I let them speak.  There’s a lot of sass in those pages.

Rob: Goodness knows a lot of those Heritage Minutes need rewriting! That brings us nicely to the theme of the book’s “Canadian-ness.” It can be difficult to have conversations about Blackness in Canada (or just about anything in Canada) without being drowned out by American narratives (“Can’t a good woman / be Black here without being draped in American context?” you have Viola Desmond ask in “Cease n Desist: From the Desk of Viola Desmond”).

How She Read is filled with specifically Black Canadian stories and voices (including the four blurbers on the back of the book!). Can you speak of the importance, to you, of the book’s Canadian focus?

Viola Desmond
Chantal: In “Cease n Desist” I enjoyed helping Viola Desmond liberate herself from the ahistorical confines of her Canada postage stamp—the myths, the erasure, the nostalgia. In “Veronica?” I enjoyed hearing this unidentified portrait subject explain what it’s like to be a sign of the times, a Black woman hanging with the Group of Seven at the centre of the AGO, disrupting the whiteness of the landscape.

How She Read is unapologetically Black and Canadian. It’s the book I wish I had in university. The poems are about Black women in the Canadian cultural landscape. The poems are buttressed by Black women writers, Canadian and American, Audre Lorde, Dionne Brand, Toni Morrison, M. NourbeSe Philip, Afua Cooper.  For example, I met “the black wench” in a third year Canadian Literature class while reading Thomas McCulloch’s The Stepsure Letters, which was originally published in the Acadian Recorder in 1821–22. She was a stereotype, dehumanized, a buffoonish non-character wresting a pig on the kitchen floor, and I was the only person of colour in that class. Twenty years ago, it didn’t feel safe to put up my hand and ask about her. “The Black Wench Suite” afforded me, with the help of Toni Morrison, the opportunity to talk back to McCulloch, the first Dalhousie president, the father of Canadian satire, to ask why Mammoth (a giant boar) warranted a name and “the black wench” did not.

Only Black women speak inside the book.  On the cover you’ll find my generous reviewers, Lawrence Hill, George Elliott Clarke, Chelene Knight, and Wayde Compton holding the space for me and all those women to speak.

Rob: Speaking of important women in the book, though How She Read is about larger political and historical themes, it is also a personal book: it is dedicated to your mother, who died in 1986 (and whose photo, age 5 or 6, graces the cover). Many of the book’s poems explore your mother’s life and your relationship with her.

This adds whole new layers of exploration – of knowing and unknowing – to the book, at times blurring the collective and the personal (at one point you write “there are no honest poems / about dead women” and it seems to touch on everything). Can you speak about the importance, to you, of including that personal content in the book?

Chantal: My mother was my first book. She had me at 17. Everything I learned about being a Black woman in Canada started with her. She was always the only Black woman in our Ontario neighbourhoods, the only Black woman in our tiny BC town. Visible and invisible at the same time. I watched her navigate those spaces with dignity and distrust. She loved us fiercely. She smiled, she laughed, she was funny as hell, but those who knew her well witnessed the daily grind of microaggressions.

As an exercise for How She Read, I researched old Canadian spellers and vocabulary readers (1950–60s)—the books my mother might have read as a little girl growing up in Halifax, in Viola Desmond’s Nova Scotia. I was horrified by the ideological weaponry on the pages, the small daily doses of racism, sexism, homophobia delivered in the stories and the images. The poem featured to open this interview, “bullet points,” is based on one of those encounters.

“There are no honest poems / about dead women” is a line from an Audre Lorde’s poem “Our Dead Behind Us.” This gave me permission to include my mother and intimate moments from my childhood in the book with the understanding that memories have membranes.

Rob: Thank you for bringing us around to Audre Lorde. How She Read feels inspired by any number of great Black female artists, but three poets in particular stand out: Lorde, Dionne Brand and M. NourbeSe Philip, each of whom is quoted or referenced in the book. What do you think you learned from each of them, and how did those lessons manifest in the book?

Chantal: As you can see from my answers so far, my book is filled with the words and wisdom of famous Black writers. The scariest thing about writing How She Read was doing them justice.

I still have my copy of Audre Lorde’s Our Dead Behind Us, a book about blackness, womanhood, motherhood and cancer. It came out in 1986, the year my mother died, but I didn’t read it till grad school 1997, years after Lorde died. I was struggling in grad school, not with courses but with content. It was a lonely experience. I kept asking, “What am I doing here?” When I read the poem “There are no honest poems about dead women,” I dog eared the page and moved to Japan to teach English in 1998. I read that book over and over again. It became a familiar friend in a foreign land. Lorde’s work brought comfort to me at a time when I had to step away, to take a break, to work on myself. I’m so grateful she opens my book.

Dionne Brand is my hero. She’s the only writer I’ve ever gushed over in public. (It’s embarrassing.) No Language is Neutral (1990), Inventory (2006), and Ossuaries (2010) are particularly important to me. A signed copy of The Blue Clerk is on my nightstand waiting to be read. Her attention to detail, to nuance, is unparalleled for me. The world can turn on a word. Thus, in How She Read, I obsessed on words like “Hottentot” and “break”—like I said, every word has a job to do. Dionne Brand makes me think, makes me ask, “What do I mean by justice? Is there such thing as justice? If so, whose justice for whom?” These are questions I meditate on throughout the book.

As for NourbeSe Philip, the first time I read Looking for Livingston (1991), I was rocked by the line “silence is a sentence.” So many ways to read those four words. Such sass, such backtalk, the alliteration is deafening. My friend Diane Roberts gifted me Zong! (2011) a few years ago. That book got me thinking about fragments and utterances, the necessary tools for telling a story that can’t be told.  I am indebted to these Br_ll_ _nt writers!

Rob: Speaking of giving thanks, in the book’s acknowledgments you thank Caitlin Press publicist Michael Despotovic for his “business card… and for thinking your former writing teacher might have something interesting to say.” Could you tell us how the book came together and made its way to Caitlin?

Chantal: This is a good story.

A few years ago, I was invited by Chelene Knight to do a rooftop poetry reading at Room Magazine’s new office space.  After the reading, Michael came up to me and said, “Hello.” He introduced himself as a former student in one of my writing design classes, and Caitlin’s marketing rep.  I think he was surprised to see me reading poetry. After chatting about my book project, he handed me his card and asked that I consider Caitlin Press when I was ready for a publisher. I told him I would.

Two years later, I sent off my manuscript to Caitlin Press (and one other publisher) and made a note in the cover letter that I was honouring Michael’s request. After a gentle nudge from him, publisher Vici Johnstone contacted me. She said she was interested in “getting the scoop” on the book. She asked me why Caitlin, and I told her it mattered that I was a Black woman writer from BC. She asked about my vision for the book, and for one hour she listened: I told her I wasn’t interested in writing a book of poetry, I wanted to create a Canadian cultural artifact. I told her the book needed to beautiful, inside and out, treating image and text equally. I told her I was confronting colonialism head on. I told her my mom had to be on the cover. She was in. We decided to collaborate.

At my request, Vici hired Canisia Lubrin to edit the book. If you’ve read Voodoo Hypothesis (Wolsak & Wynn) or ever heard her read it (off book) Canisia is Br_ll_ _nt!  She understood what I was trying to achieve, and she was unwavering in her commitment to the work. She encouraged me to experiment but kept her eye on the poems. In our Skype meetings, she’d say “You know you’re writing poetry, right?” At one point she said, “try a few more iterations and see what happens,” and out of that came the poem “reciprocal pronouns.” The poem “amber alert” was originally a letter to Curious George—she said “get rid of everything but the headlines,” and it worked. For me, a first-time poet way to too close to my work, she was terrifyingly awesome. 

When the poems were done, the Caitlin team took over. Holly edited the text and Vici pulled everything—fonts, paper, poems, photos, shorthand—together. The nuance of the shorthand, the sharpness of the graphics, and the exquisite cover design are her doing. It’s a beautiful book… I’m so glad Michael said “Hello.”

Rob: Yes, the visuals in the book (in colour, no less!) are striking – such a rarity in a poetry book! But it felt in keeping with your work in general, much of which is visual art. In your visual art series Historical In(ter)ventions, you sewed black threaded braids into several old Canadian history books.

Of your altered book projects, you write “If you took away the white space, what would the black text do? What would it say?” I wonder if you think about How She Read in the same terms? And if so, do you think that factored into your choosing to write poetry to explore these questions – the written form in which the interplay of the white page and the black text is most pronounced?

Chantal: My threaded historical book sculptures, along with poster-size pages from The Canadian Vocabulary Speller Grade 4 (Macmillan, 1948) redacted with thick black paint, were featured in two recent art shows that book-ended the country. How She Read: Confronting the Romance of Empire (Open Space in Victoria, BC) and How She Read: (re)Visiting my Mother’s Nova Scotia (Ross Creek Arts Centre in Canning, NS).

Together, these black-on-white artworks challenge how we write and how we read history and nationhood. They question what’s included and what’s not. They scratch at ideology, scratch at hegemony. I think my poems are doing the same thing. In both cases, I’m asking viewers to consider the “holes”—the voices, stories, and bodies that have been erased, silenced, or excluded from dominant cultural narratives. For me, black text is just another material to manipulate, to explore positive and negative space. I gravitated to poetry because poems are forms made from gaps and spaces and exclusions. Like historical narratives, what’s not included is as essential to the poem as what is included.

Rob: In “Close Reading: The Black Wench Suite” you write “Most words are harmless if you / just let them be” and later in “Excerpts: Marie-Joseph Angelique, Montreal 1734” you spend the poem unpacking each of the dictionary definitions of the word “break” (you noted that this was partly inspired by Dionne Brand). Exploring the power and powerlessness of words (what they mean and what they could mean; what they carry inherently and what we put into them; what remains when the word itself is removed/blanked out/transformed) seems important to you. Did writing this book, or preparing the corresponding art exhibits, make you think differently about the power and function of words?

Chantal: Yes, absolutely! I just talked about reading space, but, of course, words have a job to do.  Words are powerful, especially in a poem. One word has so much work to do, semantically, semiotically, aesthetically. When writing “The Black Wench Suite” I did a deep dive into the word “Hottentot.” I asked myself, why did Thomas McCulloch use that word? And what are the effects of him putting that word in his narrator’s mouth? That word references a term given by Dutch colonizers to label the Khoikhoi people of South Africa. The word entered the English language and became associated with Khoikhoi women, in particular, Sarah Baartman (1770s–1815), whose body became the spectacle of New World freaks shows and science labs. That word is loaded with ideology: it represents the colonial project of subjugating the Other, the historical oppression and exploitation of Black people, and the systemic dehumanization of Black women. This is how stereotypes are formed. Fucked up ideas about Black women’s bodies continue to circulate in our culture. Thank God Roxane Gay is coming down hard on that. Look how long they last, these notions, how far they travel in time and space in consciousness. I know McCulloch’s book is satire, that Hottentot thing is meant to be funny—but I can’t take a joke.

As for unpacking the word “break” in “Excerpts: Marie-Joseph Angelique, Montreal 1734”, I was deeply impacted by Afua Cooper’s book, The Hanging of Angelique (2011). The scope of the research, the time she spent reading, writing, and humanizing that woman. Seriously, Afua Cooper, how she read! I was also touched and torched by Lorena Gale’s portrayal of the alleged arsonist in her play Angelique (1995) (in particular, her attention to a desirable and desiring woman). I wanted to do the same in my poem—to humanize Angelique—so I used various definitions of the word ‘break’ to move the reader from the object of the poem, a systematically, tortured body of broken bones, to the subject of the poem, the broken-hearted mother of three longing to hold just one of her dead children.

Rob: Your poem “Veronica?” is written from the perspective of a painting of a Black woman which was relocated to the centre of the Art Gallery of Ontario in order “to reconcile the past, to challenge / the climate of the centre.” You then have the woman say, “I’m a sign of the times, / still, no one knows my name.” What are your thoughts on our current “corrective” moment, where we put a Black woman’s portrait in the middle of the AGO without really knowing anything about her? Are we moving in the right direction? What do you think is needed to better confront the reality of past and present anti-Black racism in Canada?

Chantal: It’s the doubleness that troubles and fascinates me. Harriet Tubman is honored with a Canada History Minute and Viola Desmond gets a Canada postage stamp. We see them every February. And yet, their representations are simplified while Canada’s history of oppressing Blacks and Indigenous people is erased. That’s what my poems are trying to unpack.

On the one hand, I’m glad there is a portrait of a Black woman at the centre of the AGO (Untitled by Yvonne McKague Housser, c.1933) and that Norval Morrisseau is across from her on the opposite side of the room. On the other hand, the portrait is surrounded by the Group of Seven, and Emily Carr, glaciers, mountains, lakes and singled trees, imagery and iconography stitched and threaded across the Canadian cultural imagination, the giftshop images that visitors pay for. I considered writing a midnight version of “Veronica?”—a poem that imagined all the voices after hours. What might be said? What might happen to “Veronica?” in the gallery when the lights went off. The Thing in my head was terrifying.

For me the “corrective” moment is charged with complexity.  I’ve tried to capture that in my book. I’m not interested in blaming white people for being racists. I want to help dismantle colonial systems, systems that continue to oppress marginalized people, systems that poison everyone’s thinking.

I believe in books, good books. They can help us become more thoughtful, more reflective, more empathetic citizens. You asked what we need to do better? We can become better listeners. That means actively seeking out new voices that may be unsettling and unfamiliar. That means being open to different ways of learning and challenging ourselves to sit in the discomfort of not knowing, of not having all the answers.

I am in the on-going process of decolonizing my thinking—that makes me feel very uncomfortable at times. How She Read is the creative outcome of sitting in my discomfort, of listening to the voices, past and present, that inform my life and my work.

Chantal Gibson is an artist-educator interested in the cultural production of knowledge. Her work explores the overlap between literary and visual art, challenging imperialist notions quietly embedded in everyday things. Last year her work appeared at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Recently, she has exhibitions bookending the country—at Open Space in Victoria, BC and Ross Creek Arts Centre in Canning, Nova Scotia. Both exhibits were based on her first book of poetry How She Read, a CBC Books favourite for spring, published by Caitlin Press. Recently named one of CBC’s 6 Black writers to watch in 2019, Gibson is an award-winning teacher in the School of Interactive Arts & Technology at SFU.

No comments: