Love is not all: "The Brightest Thing" by Ruth Daniell

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

Main Characters – Ruth Daniell

I remember one evening in your car, that silver Malibu
with the 7-11 cups rolling in the back. You drove us
up Foothills, rounding our way back up to the Hart,
the radio crooning a cover of The Time of Our Lives
and you told me you didn’t know if you’d ever have what I have.
You were talking about love. I didn’t understand.
The sun was setting in the same colours the pine beetles
had turned the valley, and that were curving in the glint
of the car’s hood: a dry red that fell, too, through the windshield,
across your forehead. I sat silent in your passenger seat, guilty
for daydreaming about my boyfriend, the one
I knew then, already, I would marry. In the fairy tales,
there are never any weddings for two princes. I get it now.
Those silent years must have felt to you like those
the miller’s daughter suffered when she could not speak
without dooming her brothers to be birds, or like
the pained quiet of the little mermaid whose tongue was cut out
because she loved the wrong kind of person, or of the eldest princess
who couldn’t explain how she wore out her dancing shoes,
or like something else I just can’t understand.

Reprinted with permission from 
The Brightest Thing by Ruth Daniell 
(Caitlin Press, 2019).

Rob Taylor: A major theme in your debut poetry collection, The Brightest Thing (Caitlin Press), is stories: what gets told, and how, and by whom. This is explored both in the book’s personal narrative and in its study of the history of fairy tales, where the same archetypes (like Folk Tale Type 425, the “search for the lost husband”) are repeated and repeated, each time slightly changed by the new author. The Brightest Thing describes how certain tales moved from the oral tradition into the writing of Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, Hans Christian Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm (often via their neighbour, and Wilhelm Grimm’s future wife, Dortchen Wild), and then were transformed into 20th century pop culture artifacts by the Walt Disney Company. 

Of that last move, from Grimm (et al) to Disney, you write in the book’s end notes that Disney’s changes “seem to emphasize the role of the saviour/prince and on opportunities to experiment with new visual techniques rather than expanding a community of storytelling.” Could you unpack that quote a bit? How do you believe a “community of storytelling” should deal with these stories, and in what ways did Disney (and perhaps others) neglect to do this? Do you see your book as an answer, and an alternative, to Disney’s approach?

Ruth Daniell: You’re right to note that by putting a personal narrative alongside an engagement with the history of fairy tales I am hoping to contribute to something I’d like to think of as a community of storytelling. I think that many fairy tales—whether they’re the folk tales we receive (via Dortchen Wild and other sources) through Grimm, Perrault, and von Schönwerth, or those literary ones written by Andersen, Mme d’Aulnoy, and Mme’ Leprince de Beaumont—have been the most useful, and the most personally transformative, when they were offered as part of community-building. The original folk tales were shared from teller to teller and adapted to comment on, and console against, local fears.

Then literary fairy tales, when those folk tales were first brought into the Parisian literary salons and institutionalized, were used to question the aristocratic society of the time. Although we tend to remember Charles Perrault—a man—most of all, it was really a lot of women who were mastering the old folk tale motifs and reworking them to comment on contemporary society. They were dreaming up magical solutions to their problems. The stories were now preserved in books, and interest in them grew, but the oral tradition continued to flourish simultaneously alongside the newer literary versions, and there was lots of borrowing and trading of folk motifs that went on and enriched the stories.

The move from books to film was more dramatic. Disney’s versions of fairy tales are the ones with which Western audiences are now most familiar. The films are so skillfully done, and the marketing so relentless, so attractive and addictive, that they tend to subsume the versions of the stories that came before them. This is by design, really: the fairy tale as story is used as a vehicle for animators to express their talents and develop their technology. Actually, in one way, films bring the fairy tales back to a wider community; the stories are simplified, the gags and jokes and emotions made accessible to a wide audience in a way that the move from public oral storytelling to private literary reading did not. For example, in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), the dwarves are given individual names and personalities and have their own peculiar visual quirks and gags. These antics allowed the animators to show off their skills—the new visual techniques you asked about—and aren’t there for any particular storytelling necessity. They’re just fun, and impressive from a technological standpoint.

Of course, what most annoys me about the Disney films now is the emphasis on the male role in this idea of “happily ever after.” The idea of “true love’s first kiss” revolves around the prince’s ability to swoop in and save the princess and represent everything her heart desires. But this “true love’s first kiss” is almost entirely Disney’s invention; it’s not nearly as frequent an occurrence in fairy tales as is believed in our popular consciousness. Out of the most well-known fairy tales, the only one that pivots on “true love’s first kiss” is Sleeping Beauty, and even then that’s only in some versions—in older stories, Sleeping Beauty is woken up when, after having been raped while asleep, she gives birth to twins. One of the babies suckles at her breast, and the other manages to suck the splinter from the spindle out of her finger and thus wake her.

Whether bestowing true love’s first kiss or not, however, the male role in Disney movies do tend to be maximized, whether or not he was important to the original story. Disney was looking to establish himself as the king of animation. The way in which he adapted his fairy tale material, including framing the narrative through the presence of the prince, served to celebrate the enterprising young (male) hero who earns his reward through hard work and ingenuity, outwitting his opponents to achieve his happily ever after. There are pretty compelling reasons to think that many of his films, including Snow White, were autobiographical: Disney’s own rags-to-riches story of rising to the top of the animation industry. To quote Jack Zipes, author of Breaking the Disney Spell, Disney wasn’t looking “to explore the deeper implications of the fairy tale narrative and its history.” I am. My hope is to explore those implications, its history, and the way it plays out in our contemporary society and my own personal life. Like some of the fairy tale tellers before me, perhaps like Mme d’Aulnoy or Dortchen Wild, I’m looking to see what is hidden in the stories that I can bring out and offer in our present moment.

Rob: Wow! It’s always humbling to think of how much research and thought is tucked away—often almost invisibly—in someone’s poems. Thank you for bringing some of your background work to the foreground here.

One theme you’re bringing forward from these stories is imperfection. The book’s titular “brightest thing” itself is a jester’s hat the speaker’s father wore in a photo, when he was expected to wear a crown. It’s the one thing in the photo that didn’t “belong,” and it ends up being the most memorable part of the photo. The Brightest Thing interweaves expectations of perfection and purity, as captured in the princesses of fairy tales, with the speaker’s experience of being raped by her first boyfriend, and her subsequent journey to move forward with her life. In the process, both become more complete through an embracing of “imperfection”: the perfect princesses are made more flawed, nuanced, and human, and the speaker begins to be able to heal (“One day it occurs to her that the act of love / might not be a gift he stole / but might, in fact, never have been precious at all”).

What do you think the traditional fairy tales taught young female readers about imperfection, when compared with the Disney versions? To what extent do you think the personal narrative of the speaker aligns with that of many of the fairy tale characters, and in what ways do they diverge?

Ruth: The Disney versions are just meant to delight their audiences, I think. They’re full of humour and beauty. They’re pleasurable to watch. Of course, this pleasure is a little limited by the images, too—the images are very specific and so the audience may not envision a fairy tale for themselves in the same way as they might while reading or sharing the story aloud. This is where representation becomes so important. My favourite literary fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast. Part of the reason I latched on this story when I was a child was because the protagonist, like me, loved books and felt like an outsider amongst her peers, but I’m not fooling myself into thinking that I didn’t primarily like Belle because she looked like me: out of all the princesses, she was the only one with brown hair and brown eyes. (I try to imagine being a child of colour and wanting to be a princess and it makes me sad, though I know representation has gotten better.)

I fear that one of the things that the Disney versions teach their audiences is the importance of physical beauty, and a specific unrealistic, thin, usually white, clean, tidy, heteronormative, unthreatening kind of physical beauty. There’s not a lot of room for imperfection there. And that’s on purpose, of course, because if the Disney movies are meant to be entertaining, meant to be showcases of the animator’s skills—and as far as I know, today’s Disney studio is still at the top of that technological race—then there’s no room for imperfection. All the images must be perfect, the characters drawn in sharp ink lines and pretty colours and synchronized precisely with the film’s sound.

While the traditional fairy tales do emphasize female beauty and virtue—and that virtue is usually depicted in their skills in domestic work—I think there’s more wiggle room in the stories to interpret how we see the characters and how we see ourselves in the characters. And it’s easy to imagine how the stories would have altered from telling to telling, from teller to teller, to include regional or personal details.

The speaker in The Brightest Thing—the autobiographical “I” of the book—sees herself as both a princess and not a princess, as someone who does and does not qualify for a “happily ever after,” because of what she blames herself for and learns not to blame herself for. The main difference between me and the fairy tale characters is that I live in the contemporary world, and I have more time and access to people and tools and resources that help me cope with my trauma. And one of those resources is, of course, fairy tales themselves.

Rob: This blurring/comparing of the fairy tales and the speaker’s narrative is central to one of the most fascinating poems in The Brightest Thing, “Learning to Be Two.” The poem is broken up into “she” sections, written in the third person, and “I” sections, written in the first person. Both tell the same story of the speaker coming to terms with her rape, years earlier, and finally telling her parents about it, with the support of her new boyfriend. But of course they aren’t the “same”: the perspective shift changes how we engage with the content; how intimate and immediate it feels. Between the two parts is a meeting place of “stories” and “real life,” though that real life is not entirely, or necessarily, yours as the author (the book’s description reads, “The Brightest Thing tells the story of a young woman…”). So the “real” becomes a story and the story perhaps a bit more real.

Could you talk about writing this book in this way, where the narrative hews closely to your own life and also moves far away from it into the worlds of centuries-old fairy tales? If the book is pursuing a “truth,” is it yours? Or does it move beyond you? Is it a narrative truth, or something else? 

Ruth: Oof. Big questions. Yes, “Learning to be Two” is a deliberate juxtaposition/blending of perspectives. Part of the intent is to mimic the way that talking about yourself in the third person can be a very useful coping mechanism post-trauma. But as you mention, it also lends a sort of un-real/magical fairy tale sheen to the personal story, which has its own uses—and is a particularly relevant approach within a book that wrestles with the ways in which the fairy tale lens can be harmful or healing. I wanted to be okay with sitting in clichés and in contradictions. I mean, fairy tales are full of them—and so is life, and the whole idea of living and loving is messy and weird anyway. Why not explore that? Perhaps that’s the truth the book is pursuing. Love is good. I want that to be true. It is true. But how we define love is not always good, and how we pursue it is not always good. That’s getting to the narrative truth of the fairy tale.

It’s one of my dearest wishes that the truth of the book moves beyond me. I really hope that this book finds it readers, and they can find something beautiful and useful in it.

Rob: Which came first, the interest/research in fairy tales or the desire to tell a more personal, present-day story? Did writing about one induce in you a desire, or necessity, to explore the other?

Ruth: As a poet, I’ve always been interested in the personal, and as a person living in the world I’ve always been interested in fairy tales. The Brightest Thing arose out of the simultaneous desires to explore fairy tales and to explore the ways in which present-day stories mirror and diverge from fairy tales—to connect to that community of storytelling we talked about earlier.

I’ve been interested in fairy tales since I was a small child, and I think you could say I’ve been researching them since I first read an authentic retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and was mortified to discover that not only does she not get the happily-ever-after that the Disney version portrays but that she straight-up dies at the end of the story: I was an extremely furious fourth grader that week. That was probably a formative experience for me. I remember very distinctly the single-headed determination I had when I then proceeded to read every single fairy tale book that my elementary school library had. I was going to find out what other lies the movies had been telling me about my favourite characters. Of course, I didn’t stop loving the movies, but I also became more and more entranced by the strange, sometimes sad beauty of the original stories.

I’ve always felt some kind of urgency about the importance of fairy tales and the injustices that the female characters face (that poor mermaid!), and this sat discontentedly with my rather typical little girl’s desire to be a princess and grow up and live happily ever after. This discontent got more sophisticated as I grew up, gained life experiences both good and bad, and became, almost concurrently, a feminist and a married woman.

Rob: Fourth-grade-you gets her chance to set things straight in the second section of the book, “The Princess Who Felt the Pea,” which is a series of dramatic monologues delivered by female fairy tale characters. This feels like a feminist revision on multiple fronts: the content itself, but also the form, which has most famously been connected to male poets (I’m thinking of Browning, Tennyson, Arnold, etc.,—Browning’s “My Last Duchess” looming largest). When in the writing of the book did you come upon the idea of doing this? Was your goal primarily the idea of giving these silenced or sidelined women a voice (and a voice within a dramatic monologue, at that), or was it more about the particulars of what they had to say?  

Ruth: What a fun question! The book began with the dramatic monologues. The first seed of the book really took hold years ago when I first read Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (which is not a fun play at all). One of the characters is Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, and her story—which is horrific—gets swept under the rug for the sake of the male characters’ own drama and folly, and that really struck me. I wanted to know more about her; enough about all the nonsense with the men and their war and pride and treacheries. Lavinia is quite literally silenced—her rapists cut off her tongue as well as her hands—and unable to tell her story. She spends most of the play in the background as a pitiful ornament, the perfect victim, and generally we’re expected to be sad about her because of what it means for her father and his reputation; he ends up “mercy” killing her because her purity and beauty are forever tarnished. I wanted to know Lavinia’s story, but I wanted more than just her unhappy ending. Who was she before she was a victim? What did Lavinia say and think about before her tragic wedding day? She didn’t stop being her because of what happened to her, and yet we often treat survivors of (sexual) violence like that: we define them only by the trauma they’ve experienced.

So yes, I wanted to give these silenced women a voice, but I also wanted to know the particulars. Not just the “facts” of the trauma (“this and this” happened or she was a victim of “such and such”), but the impact of it beyond the initial experiences. I wanted to know who these people were before their trauma but also because of it—the aftermath of it. We tend to completely dismiss trauma once the women get their “happily ever after.” Oh, you get to marry the prince, so all the hardship you’ve endured before was totally worth it, right? But of course that’s so dreadfully simple. I have to imagine that a pretty wedding—for those who get a wedding, and obviously that isn’t the case for every character—wouldn’t erase those difficult memories. They’d be bound to have some serious trauma to bring into their true love unions. How did they cope?

Awful things happen to characters in fairy tales. Lavinia’s counterpart in the Grimms’ stories lives but still goes through terrible violence. Fairy tale characters endure abusive (step)parents, vindictive (step)siblings, starvation in the woods, punishing manual labour, torture, sexual violence, the wrath of corrupt kings or witches or ogres…. What did the Little Mermaid’s sisters think about her dying for the sake of a human man who didn’t love her? Did the princess who married the frog king ever feel guilty about nearly killing him when she threw his amphibian body against her bedroom wall? How could the giantess have withstood being married to the bloodthirsty giant—and how could she live without him after he fell from that beanstalk? Did Sleeping Beauty ever blame her parents for failing to protect her from the spindle’s curse? After seeing past his physical ugliness, did Beauty ever doubt the Beast’s love matched her own?

Rob: On the far more mild end of curses and hardships, in “Waiting for Spring, or Something,” you write “I’m still sad here in the city’s / never ending construction, its building and babble.” That very much sounds like Vancouver! You’ve lived in many different parts of BC: Prince George, Victoria, Vancouver, and now Kelowna. Those moves have involved being further from, and closer to, both your family and the world you were familiar with in your childhood. What effect did being in each city have on what you wrote: both the subject matter and the tone? Which city do you attach this book to most readily in your mind?

Ruth: Oh, yes, in my mind this book is most firmly attached to Vancouver, its rain and bustle and loneliness and beauty, and the life I began there. Although we met in Victoria and held our wedding in Prince George, my husband and I spent our newlywed years in Vancouver and it’s where The Brightest Thing was written (with some late addition exceptions since our move to the Okanagan). Each move did have an effect on what I wrote. In particular, when I was in Vancouver, it was easy to become homesick for Prince George, especially during the winter—the West Coast rain was hard on my mental health—and that homesickness leaked into the poems. The poem you mention, “Waiting for Spring, or Something,” explicitly looks backward to Christmas in my hometown. It’s a self-aware idealization of time and place. I think it’s easy to get nostalgic about the past and build it up so that places seems more mythic and beautiful than they might actually have been—our own lives can take on a “once upon a time” quality that we’d like to return to but can’t. I play with that idea—through Prince George, Victoria, and Vancouver—in the book, in part because it works with the idea of looking at my own life, whether happy or sad, as a fairy tale, and also because it grounds the book in the real, contemporary world, which was also important to me.

Rob: Moving to another part of the province, The Brightest Thing was published by Caitlin Press, located on the Sunshine Coast. Though this is your first book, it wasn’t your first time working with Caitlin Press, as you edited an anthology with them (Boobs: Women Explore What It Means to Have Breasts) back in 2016. Did working on that anthology give you any insights which helped you in the writing of your own book?

Ruth: The Brightest Thing already existed in a complete draft by the time that I was working on Boobs. Working on Boobs was a wonderful way to feel engaged with the writing and publishing world and a lot of the feminist, female-body-centred issues that fascinate me while also giving myself time away from The Brightest Thing. I think working on Boobs, and the world of non-fiction, after spending so long entrenched in the world of fairy tales, was useful in terms of keeping me grounded and productive. The success of Boobs, too, gave me a little nudge of confidence as I returned my editing eyes to The Brightest Thing.

The deeper I got into The Brightest Thing the more complex the project got. I realized I had to spend more time making sure that I was being as responsible to the subject matter as I could before the manuscript was ready to be published, but the project was (is!) so dear to me, and felt so urgent, it was difficult to set it aside and gain some necessary distance. Working on Boobs provided a distraction and helped me return to the editing stage of The Brightest Thing with new energy. Of course, Boobs was another project that was extremely meaningful to me in its own right. I’m still reeling from how amazing the experience of working on the anthology was. I believe Boobs is intelligent and necessary and community-building. It’s my hope that The Brightest Thing will prove itself useful too.

Rob: It’s rare that a poet can edit a large anthology before publishing a book of their own. How did you convince Caitlin to get Boobs made? (I never though I’d write that sentence.) Did working with Caitlin on this book grow out of working with them on the anthology? More generally, what role would you say Vici Johnstone and Caitlin Press had in making The Brightest Thing what it is today?

Ruth: Honestly, I just pitched the idea of Boobs to Vici and she was immediately enthusiastic about the idea. This isn’t very humble of me, but the idea for the book was just a really, really, really good idea. No one had done it yet! And the idea was mine, which I think was reason enough at the time to trust that I would be a good editor for the project. I’m very grateful for the amount of trust and space that Caitlin Press gave me for Boobs, and enormously grateful to all the writers who submitted pieces to me.

For The Brightest Thing, once again Vici Johnstone and Caitlin Press really supported me and my vision. Working with Caitlin has been very positive. And can I just say how delighted I am with the cover design that Vici made for me? It’s exactly what I hoped for. Vici found the image for the book. The illustration is by a woman named Virginia Frances Sterrett whose career really ought to be as celebrated as those of Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen, all those other (male) canon artists of the Golden Age of Children’s Illustration. I wish I’d known about Sterrett earlier. I might’ve written a poem for her in the same spirit in which I wrote for Dortchen Wild and Mme d’Aulnoy.

Rob: The last poem in The Brightest Thing, “Book of Alternative Services,” hints at the possibility of children in the speaker’s life, in the form of a cat-as-baby proxy (“Can’t fool me, you say, what you want is a baby…”). You now have two children—almost! My wife and you share a due date for our second babies: our baby has just arrived and yours very well might have by the time this interview is posted. I think having children invariably alters how we think about fairy tales, and about the people we were when we first consumed fairy tales in story books, Disney movies, etc. Did having your own children shift how you thought about your subject matter, either at the time of composition or during your final edits for the book?

Ruth: Congrats to you and your wife on your growing family! I love babies.

I don’t think having children (Ah! Plural!) changed the book during its final edits (aside from slowing it down—as you well know, babies are very time-consuming), but I do think about how and when I’ll share fairy tales with my children. When I lived in Vancouver and was composing the first drafts of the book, I was teaching K–12 speech arts full-time, and then, as now, I used fairy tales in the classroom quite often as ways to teach the traditions of storytelling, and the performance of storytelling (versus the performance of memorized or read prose). Fairy tales are just so rich—there’s so much to be mined there—and they really do resonate in the mind in a way which seems magical, or sacred, or primal, or necessary (but which of course psychologists and other writers have tried to research and explain in less mystical terms). Fairy tales talk about our most basic desires and fears—of possessiveness and abandonment, of poverty and wealth, of starvation and greed, of loneliness and love. I know they have their problems—I wrote a book about them!—but I also think they’re wonderful. They still deserve a place on our bookshelves.

I think there are responsible ways to share fairy tales—by sharing a diverse range of them, by talking critically about the ways in which gender, class, violence, love, etc. is depicted in them—and I think it’s worth doing that work to do so. They’re worth preserving and adapting and telling and retelling and making our own. And wasn’t that one of their original purposes anyhow, back in the age of oral storytelling? To build community, to share stories, to pass on dreams of wish-fulfillment, to come up with ideas for problem-solving, ways to safely criticize the way that others hold power over us and to discover happiness?

Our daughter has a very minimum amount of anything Disney or princess—although we’re open to that changing as she begins to have her own preferences—but she does have a few board books that depict fairy tales, and I recently achieved “Peak Ruth” when she pointed at the princess in one of her books and declared that the character was “Mommy.” I look forward to sharing fairy tales with her—and her sibling—as she grows up and to the conversations we’ll be able to have about her ability to tell her own story.

Rob: Congratulations to you as well! In many ways it does seem like you’ve found your “happily ever after” (I mean, yeesh, you’re even a princess now!). Perhaps that’s why, in the last section of the book, the place reserved in most fairy tales for the “happily ever after,” you chose to include poems about depression, self-harm, arguments, etc. The end of the book is still very much a happy one, but it’s a realistic type of “happy.” On this subject, you write, “the happily ever after / is the return to the disenchanted life” and, elsewhere, the speaker’s love is described, via the moon, as “perfectly ordinary and rare.” Why was it important for you to end the book in this way?

Ruth: “Love Is Not All (Sonnet XXX)” is one of my favourite sonnets—do you know it? Not everyone loves Edna St. Vincent Millay (I gather you’re more of a William Carlos Williams guy)...

Rob: No, I actually lean toward Millay (she’s just far less meme-friendly). “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)” is one of my favourite poems. I hadn’t read “Love Is Not All,” though, and now you have me crying. I’m going to blame the sleep deprivation!

Ruth: “What lips my lips have kissed…” is another of my favourites. I’m pleased I got to be the one to introduce you to “Love Is Not All” (and I wish you a good night’s sleep!).  It’s a lovely poem, isn’t it? “Love is not all” is a recurring thought behind much of my poetry, although any direct reference to Millay left the book many revisions ago. We have other needs—food, water, shelter, medicine—that are arguably more important than love, but we tend to treat love, especially romantic love, as if it can cure anything that’s wrong in our lives. Fairy tales tend to propagate that idea, as I mentioned before; it’s as if we believe that achieving the “happily ever after” will make our other problems go away. That’s not true. We’re still going to be sad sometimes. Maybe even more than sometimes. We may still struggle with depression, with self-harm, with arguments, with the aftermath of sexual violence and other traumas, with sexism and homophobia and all kinds of awful things. Love, even good love, can’t make all the bad stuff go away. But good love is still really… good—and good love can come from anywhere, not just from romantic partners. It can’t magic the bad stuff away but it can help.

You’re right that it was important for me to be honest about the messiness, maybe even improbability, of “happily ever after” but it was also important for me that it did end on the hope for a kind of “happily ever after”—probably because I’m still just a romantic at heart and always will be, but also because I think that we need to be honest about how restorative and nourishing love can be. It’s usually easier to believe in the bad stuff than in the good, but I need more tenderness than I need bleakness, and I think that’s true for everyone.

Rob: What do you think a younger version of yourself would think of this more honest “happily ever after,” and what would you say to her about it, if you had the chance?

Ruth: I think a younger version of myself would probably be pretty okay with this more honest “happily ever after.” I’m not sure what I would say to her if I had the chance. Maybe I’d point out to her that the majority of her “good love” people—the people who love her well and who she will love for her whole life—are already in her life. I might tell her not to be impatient for her “true love” to come along, though he will. I’d remind her to spend time with those lovely people she already has in her life. I’d tell her to go hug her mom, dad, brother, her best friend Matt. And if I was daring I might tell her that all four of them will one day make pretty darned spectacular, very moving speeches on her wedding day. And even later down the road, that every single one of them will insist on a signed copy of her book of love poems.

Ruth Daniell is an award-winning writer whose poems have appeared in Arc Poetry MagazineGrainRoom magazine, Qwerty, the Antigonish Review, and Event. The recipient of the 2013 Young Buck Poetry Prize with CV2 and the winner of the 2016 Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest with The New Quarterly, Daniell is the author of The Brightest Thing (Caitlin Press, 2019) and the editor of Boobs: Women Explore What It Means to Have Breasts (Caitlin Press, 2016). She holds a bachelor of arts degree (honours) in English literature and writing from the University of Victoria and a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. She lives with her family in Kelowna, BC.


Getting closer to the truth: "Bounce House" by Jennica Harper

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

Excerpt from Bounce House – Jennica Harper

Once, within twenty-four hours, I’d washed
both their hair. Each fine & lightly waved,
the saturation darkening, straightening. One
had been a wash of mercy: fingers massaging
a scalp untouched for weeks. Then the other,
to get the guck out, honey & brambles, detritus
of a day not worth remembering – that one had
been a mercy for the washer; for these hands.

Reprinted with permission from 
Bounce House by Jennica Harper 
(Anvil Press, 2019).

Rob Taylor: Bounce House, your forthcoming Anvil Press book, is a long poem which explores that in-between place many young parents face: raising a new generation (their children) while losing another (their parents). Just as you start to gain insights on your own parents (having become one yourself), they begin slipping away from you.

In your poem the speaker is stretched between the world of her young daughter and her dying mother (which involves cross-country flights, underscoring the great divide she’s trying to hold together). Mid-way through the poem you write: “I’d worn her pearls to the funeral. / Dressed in floral, like a woman or // a woman in costume as a woman.” Could you talk a bit about what raising your daughter taught you about your mother, who died in 2017? What watching your daughter being raised taught you about yourself?

Jennica Harper: I always understood, intellectually, that everyone was a child once, including my mother. But when I was bouncing back and forth between helping build a world for a kid and watching the world be un-built for my mom, I really felt it in my gut. That my mom was once a kid, a teenager, a young woman entering hopefully into a doomed marriage. That my kid would one day be where I am, waiting for me to die – sometimes impatiently. And that my kid would one day be the one dying.

I suddenly had much more empathy for my mom. There’s a poem in the book that alludes to the fact that when I was young, I changed my first name. I felt, for the first time, how that might have hurt my mother (even though the name Jennica was her idea.) I feel almost hyper-aware of the little wounds each generation inflicts on the others. A full life means lots of little wounds.

Rob: Oof. Yeah, ain’t that the truth. I love how deeply you explore this difficult set of realizations: a poem on the theme that’s so long it spans a whole book! That said, Bounce House isn’t your first book-length poem/suite of poems. That was What It Feels Like For a Girl (Anvil Press, 2008), and after it came Wood (Anvil Press, 2013) which contained multiple section-long suites of poems on particular themes, often written in particular styles.

I’m interested in how you come upon a writing “project”: do you write one-off poems and then find a theme or style gathering between them, or does the idea come first and the poems follow? I’m curious particularly about how Bounce House came to be: did you take the same type of approach as you did for previous books?

Jennica: I don’t start a book thinking “this is going to be a book.” I can’t think top-down at the beginning; that comes later. So far my approach has been to just start writing. A couple of poet friends (Marita Dachsel and Laisha Rosnau) and I periodically set aside a month and commit to writing a poem a day. Sometimes this results in some great writing (much of both Marita’s and Laisha’s recent collections were drafted as poem-a-day poems).

For me, I have found the daily writing practice doesn’t usually result in great poems, but it does make me realize what’s picking away at my brain. I often discover the thing I want to write about this way – looking at 10 drafts of poems and realizing what they have in common. Bounce House began with a poem-a-day poem contemplating the connection between my kid standing on a basketball, not believing she was going to fall off it, and Flat Earthers. For a couple of weeks, I wrote these short poems about my daughter, my mom who had recently died, and kind of meditated on the globe, basketballs, and all things round. Once I started seeing themes within those quick drafts, I started new poems with more intent.

Rob: Wow, that’s amazing that your poem-a-day months can be so productive! I can’t imagine pulling that off. Do you still write single poems, and if so, will you ever find a way to give them a home, or is it themed-books from here on out?

Jennica: I do sometimes write single poems! But I fully admit I’m drawn to groupings. I don’t know why. If I write a one-off I like, I sometimes search for a jumping-off point within that poem to another one.

Rob: The form of the poems in Bounce House—four couplets per page—is very compelling. It features the compression of a haiku (or, dare I say, a tweet), the appearance of a ghazal, and the energy of a sonnet (short, square-ish, with that last couplet often snapping it into place at the end). How did you come to this shape? Why do you think it worked for this particular book?

Jennica: Thank you! The four-couplet shape was instinctive more than conscious. It’s not dissimilar to the form of the poems in What It Feels Like For a Girl: they’re also four-couplets apiece. I do think of them a little like pithy sonnets.

If the form works for this particular book, I think it’s because the piece overall isn’t narrative so much as meditative or impressionistic. I hope the poems add up to a whole, but it’s not intended to be linear and come to a “conclusion” per se. In fact, there was a time in which my editor Michael V. Smith and I discussed the possibility that the book might be presented as cards that can be shuffled and read/experienced in any order. That didn’t feel quite right in the end, but I do feel that these little boxes exploring one, or maybe two ideas, provide pieces of an experience without necessarily all the connective tissue. I leave that to the reader.

Rob: As you’ve now written in this particular length and shape in two books, to what extent has writing this way become natural to you? Did you start “thinking” in the form, and not needing to corral them much to get them into the shape, or was it always a struggle to edit into being?

Have you written much poetry since you finished Bounce House? If so, did you find it easy to “shake” the form and write something else?

Jennica: While the four-couplet shape was natural, the drafts had wildly varying line lengths. They were much less boxy. There were also a number of poems interspersed throughout the manuscript that weren’t four-couplet box poems. I thought of them as interstitials.

But both my first trusted reader, Marita, and my editor Michael pushed me to keep the form consistent: the poems as boxes without the “filler” of the other poems in between. I think Michael’s argument to me was that there was great tension in just the compact poems, and I should lean in to that. Let the tension remain without defusing it; let people be uncomfortable even.

The truth is I needed the encouragement – I think I was instinctively leaning back from the intensity of the box poems. I needed to know they were strong enough and would carry the book.

It has been surprisingly hard to shake the form. I don’t think I’ve written a poem I’ve liked since finishing the book. Which I hadn’t fully realized until now. THANKS, ROB.

Rob: Ha! Any time. Now to get you to over-think another formal quirk in the book (it’s kinda my thing!).

Bounce House follows the growing trend of referring to presumably-real people by their initials. In this case, the daughter is “D.”, the brother “B.”, and the husband “J.” (which align with their real names, listed in the dedications at the end of the book). It seems to position the book in between autobiography and fiction—the character’s almost the real thing. But maybe I’m misreading that entirely! Maybe it just helps shorten the poems so they fit the boxy shape!

Why did you make the choice to use initials? What freedoms or restrictions do you think it put on writing about your “real” life? And, more generally, would you say this book is autobiography-in-verse, or—like the initials—a little adjacent to the real thing? 

Jennica: I didn’t know this was a trend! I thought it was an old-fashioned Victorian epistolary thing, very “Dear Reader.” There were two reasons I chose to use this convention. First, as you suggest – if it’s not their name, I’m not married to some kind of literal truth about these people. There’s some flexibility in the telling. The second reason was purely practical: I couldn’t imagine, in the size of poems I was writing, repeating those names over and over again. There just wasn’t space.

Rob: Picking up on this idea of “flexibility in the telling,” midway through Bounce House you write, “This is not a story. I want to narrativize / but the planks don’t meet clean. It’s all // slivers and gaps between the slats.” Beyond how damn lovely this is—the sound of it!—these lines contain an interesting statement on poetics, for the book and perhaps for writing in general, with the couplets as planks and the white space between them “all slivers and gaps.”

Poems don’t align, not entirely. They have gaps (and slivers!) inevitably, and often intentionally. If a poem’s “truth” isn’t a narrative truth (if the “truth” that a poem tells is not a “true story”), then what is it? What kind of truth (if any) are you seeking as a reader when you pick up a book of poetry, especially a book which contains seemingly autobiographical first-person narrative poems? Are you looking for something different than what you’re looking for when you pick up a (prose) memoir?

Jennica: Thank you again. I’ve thought a lot about what I want a poem to be. At one point there were more “meta” poems in this manuscript but, like the “interstitial” poems I’d had at one point, they defused the tension too much. I had a lot of drafts of poems that were asking: “Why write these poems at all?” That’s an internal conflict I have much of the time (“Who cares about this?”) and more than ever before with this book. People have parents who die, and people have children who need raising, and what is so special about my voice on either subject? Can I write something that is both wholly true and actually, you know, interesting?

The conclusion I’m coming to is I’m not as interested in narrative truth as I am in authentic emotion (including ugly ones). My goal is to get closer to that truth: finding something raw and real. I don’t think I’m perfect at this. It’s just a goal. I hope Bounce House gets at a particular way of experiencing grief – non-linear, circling back on itself. Maybe some readers will relate to that emotion, if not my specific experiences.

Rob: Speaking of themes that have traditionally been unfairly hampered by “Who cares about this?” questions, Bounce House is also “on trend” in that it’s part of a larger surge of writing on motherhood (this Spring season alone sees books specifically on motherhood by Elizabeth Ross and Adrienne Gruber, as one small example). Do you have any thoughts on why that’s happening now? Did any particular writers, or books on motherhood, inspire you in taking on this project? 

Jennica: Feeling like I was part of a trend was definitely daunting for me. As I mentioned, I really wasn’t sure I had anything unique to bring to the subject. On the other hand, has it been so long, in the grand scheme of things, that women have been writing about motherhood? No. Not compared to men writing about lovers. So bring it on!

I was almost explicitly not reading other writers on the subject when I was working on the book. Some poets that were influential (not formally, but in energy) were Ada Limon, Sina Queyras, and Kim Addonizio.

Rob: On the theme of influences, Bounce House opens with a Van Halen quote—”Might as well jump. Jump!”—which is one hell of a way to start a poetry collection! Reading the book, though, the song lyric that kept returning to me was “She means we’re bouncing into Graceland” from Paul Simon’s “Graceland”(late in the book you refer to death as “slip-slid[ing] / into the dark,” which seems like another nod to Simon). The girl from New York City who calls herself the “human trampoline” feels so at home in this book of bouncing balls, spinning globes, and turning wheels; of falling, flying, and tumbling in turmoil.

When in the process of writing the book did you come to the title “Bounce House”? Was it in any way tied to Simon’s “human trampoline,” or do you think yourself and Simon were just on similar wavelengths when it comes to the good and the bad, the joy and the danger, of bouncing?

Jennica: This is amazing. Slip-sliding is definitely a reference. But now I’m wondering how much of Paul Simon is in the book – in spirit if not directly. The complete Simon & Garfunkel collection was in constant rotation in my house growing up. At my mom’s service, we had a singalong to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” And after she died, I saw Paul Simon live for the first time, and could not stop connecting songs to memories of her. So it’s entirely possible he’s everywhere in this.

The title came from a phrase used in a draft of a poem that never made it into the collection. But isn’t it fun to say? So round and pleasing.

Rob: And it led to a hell of a cover! It and the book’s interior are illustrated by poet andrea bennett. The interior images consist of whimsical line drawings of the (largely) circular objects mentioned in the poems (a quarter, a basketball, a ball of yarn, etc.). The objects aren’t always located next to the section which mentions them: sometimes they precede the mention and sometimes they serve to remind us of a previous section of the poem. How did the idea of interior illustrations come about? How do you think the book reads differently with them in there?

Jennica: They are largely round objects! I was tempted to keep them all round, but andrea had ideas for other ones (for example, the House of Birthday Cards) that I liked too much not to include. Choosing the images was very collaborative – I had some I knew I wanted, and she proposed some. But for the most part, they’re circular. Spheres amongst all those boxes.

The idea for illustrations was instinctive. I just had a feeling that this might feel a little like an artifact instead of a conventional book. I think they serve partly as breaths between movements. I wanted the order to be fluid because that’s really what I wanted to get at: memories returning unexpectedly. Everything part of the churn. And I wanted the reader to sometimes be anticipating some motif or moment that had yet to come. I resisted logic and linearity – I wanted the experience to be full of undertows. To be messy.

Rob: You work as a writer and producer for television, most recently as co-creator and executive producer of the CTV comedy Jann. That, combined with parenthood, must not leave must space for your own creative writing. How/where do you fit the poetry in?  

Jennica: I’m very excited and grateful that another form of writing is my “day job.” I love what I do. Poetry definitely takes second (really maybe seventh?) priority. But I like the balance. When I have time to return to poetry, usually during longer hiatuses from TV, it’s an amazing change of gears. What I love about my poetry life is there’s no pressure there. None of the intense deadlines I get in my TV life. I find it freeing and really rewarding to come back to. Like a summer romance…

Rob: Do you find writing for TV influences your poetry in some way, or vice-versa?

Jennica: I think there are a lot of similarities between screenwriting and poetry. They’re both about crafting an image, and often use language economically. Nothing thrills me more than figuring out how to say something in the fewest words possible and still have an impact. Which you’d never guess from the answers to these questions!

Rob: As an interviewer who asks long-winded questions, I’m not about to throw stones at your bounce house over your thorough answers. I love it!

At the end of the book you thank two poets, Michael V. Smith and Marita Dachsel. You’ve talked a bit about each of them here, but could you expand on the role both of them have played in your life, and in the creation of this particular book?

Jennica: Marita is my best friend and first reader for all my poetry. She’s been instrumental in how my last three books came together. She actively helped me with the order and structure of What It Feels Like for a Girl. And she’s the one who, after I wrote a poem about Sally Draper having an abortion, insisted I write more Sally Draper poems! Which I did, for Wood. For Bounce House, Marita helped me figure out what the heart of the book should be (and what I should leave out). Basically, I trust her to prevent me from making a fool of myself!

Michael V. is a wonderful friend and an extraordinary writer. I hadn’t asked him to read or edit my poetry before, but I had read his book My Body Is Yours (Arsenal Pulp Press) on one of the weekends I was visiting my mom in the hospital. One aspect of the book is Michael’s father’s death, and all the big and small revelations surrounding it and their relationship. I was moved by the book and how Michael wrote it with such clear-eyed self-awareness and empathy for his father. And I love Michael’s poetry. It seemed a natural fit to ask him to edit the book, and I’m so grateful he said yes. He was incredibly supportive yet honest, and pushed me a little, which is what I wanted.

Rob: Speaking of long-term collaborators, this is your third book (and eleventh year!) with Anvil Press. What has that relationship been like for you? In your acknowledgments you specifically thank Brian Kaufman and Karen Green at Anvil for their “faith”: do you think their continued support of your writing has influenced the kind of projects you’ve taken on, or perhaps bolstered your courage to go after them?

Jennica: I’m really grateful Anvil has allowed me to go in VERY different directions for all three of these books. They don’t expect me to have a “brand” – they’re supportive of me and seem to be fine with me pursuing really different kinds of work. I do think feeling like I have a “home” with Anvil
allows me to pursue experiments and take risks.

Jennica Harper is the author of three previous books of poetry: Wood (Anvil Press, 2013), which was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, What It Feels Like for a Girl (Anvil Press, 2008), and The Octopus and Other Poems (Signature Editions, 2006). Her poetry has been translated for the stage (Initiation Trilogy), gone viral, and won Silver at the National Magazine Awards. Jennica also writes for television and lives with her family in Vancouver.


Therapy for me and an education for others: "Fresh Packs of Smokes" by Cassandra Blanchard

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

Market and Metal – Cassandra Blanchard

On Hastings there’s a black market of sorts that goes on for a block where one can find things like steaks and porn and clothes, people have their shopping carts full of junk and dealers hustle the crowd, Glen and Kim and I used to drive a large old van around scrounging for food in the back lot of the Superstore and then selling it on the street, this block is crowded and when police walk the beat the crowd disperses fast like mice and then regroups, we also used our van to collect metal and sell it at the junkyard and if you collect enough you can get quite a bit of money, those old radiators are good to scrap, once a big truck went by and a chicken fell out and sat there in the middle of the road and for a minute I thought I was seeing things cuz it came out of nowhere and it was one of those poultry who can’t walk anymore and two seconds later a dude took the chicken, probably to sell it in Chinatown I don’t know, but I felt sorry for that chicken and I would have carried it to the SPCA but the man was quicker than me so that’s how it goes.

Reprinted with permission from 
Fresh Pack of Smokes by Cassandra Blanchard 
(Nightwood Editions, 2019).

Rob Taylor: Your debut poetry collection, Fresh Pack of Smokes (Nightwood Editions), is described by your publisher as a book exploring your years “living a transient life that included time spent in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as a bonafide drug addict” in which you “write plainly about violence, drug use, and sex work.” From that description, and from the raw honesty of the poems themselves, it feels like a memoir-in-verse. Do you think of it in that way: as a memoir as opposed to something more creatively detached from you? Is the distinction important to you?

Cassandra Blanchard: I have written poetry since I was a young teenager and it is a medium that I am very comfortable with. It is also the best way in which I express my feelings and experiences. As for Fresh Pack of Smokes, I would say that it is a creative memoir. I write of my life experiences like a memoir but in a creative form. I would also say that this book has been a cathartic process for me, something that releases all the pent-up emotion. So it is a mix between creativity and memoir, though it is all nonfiction.

Rob: Yes, you can absolutely feel the pent-up energy being released in so many of these poems. You mention that you’ve written poetry since a young age. Is that why you turned to poetry instead of a more traditional prose memoir?

Cassandra: I didn’t start with the intention of doing a traditional memoir. I didn’t even really think that much about how these poems would fit within the definition of a memoir itself. I wanted to make a record of what happened to me and poetry was the easiest way to do that. I also thought it would be more interesting for the reader to read poems than straight-up prose.

I was drawn to poetry as a means of communicating my story because it was the best way for me to express myself. As I went along, I found that it was also the best way to lay out descriptions of events, people, and locations. The poems are basically one long sentence and I find this captures the reader better than the traditional form.

Rob: One long sentence—yes, that’s often true! Many of the poems in Fresh Pack of Smokes feel like they were written in a stream-of-consciousness style, moving freely from one image or memory to another. How do you approach the writing of a poem? Do you usually write the first drafts in one sitting, producing that one long sentence quickly, or do you piece them together in a more methodical way over a longer span of time? 

Cassandra: For Fresh Pack of Smokes I wrote down the poems in exactly the way I thought of them, from sentence to sentence. I didn’t do drafts for the poems, I just wrote them in one sitting and then fiddled around with commas and periods. My editor, Amber McMillan, did edits that consisted of grammar changes and small things that made the poems more polished and flow together better. When I write poetry I don’t do different versions, I mostly just lay it all out pretty quick. The main thing is that I write it how I think it.

Rob: All of the poems in Fresh Pack of Smokes are prose poems. What draws you to this form? Did you write them all this way from the beginning, or did you transform these poems into prose poems at some point further down the line? Do you read, or think about, a prose poem in a different way than you do a more “traditional” poem with line breaks?

Cassandra: I have always been drawn to prose poems, or prose, that channels a stream-of-consciousness. I love how it feels like you’re peeking into the mind of the poet or writer. Earlier drafts of Fresh Pack of Smokes included a few poems I’d written in the “traditional” form but they never really meshed with the rest of the book so they were cut. I don’t really know why I wrote them. I probably wanted to mix it up a bit. However, the meat of the book takes on the prose form.

Prose poetry feels more genuine to me because traditional poetry seems to take so much work to write and structure it.

Rob: While these poems are all prose poems, the length of those poems varies significantly: from a few lines to a page and a half. Some of the poems seem to reach a natural conclusion, while others end abruptly: jarring the reader in a way that compliments the jarring subject matter of the poem. Many of the poems could flow easily from one into the other, as one larger piece. Did any of the poems go through major revisions (perhaps trimmed way down, or split into two poems, or combined, etc.) during the editing of the book? How do you know/sense when to end a poem?  

Cassandra: It’s kind of hard to explain how I know when to end a poem. Sometimes I know it should be finished after a few lines and sometimes I know it should be longer. When I can’t think of anymore lines to write I stop.  The poems finish themselves basically.

Rob: All of these poems have distinct titles with the exception of “Love,” which recurs in seven different iterations (“Love I,” “Love II,” etc.) in the book’s second section. It’s obviously an important theme for you! Why did you centre it in the book in this way? How do you think ideas and manifestations of “love” have changed for you between the time of addiction and sex work, and now? In what ways have they stayed the same? Did the writing of the “Love” poems influence your thinking on the concept in any way?

Cassandra: My editor was the one who thought of naming the poems “Love I,” etc. She managed to put together the poems that all had the same theme of love and desire. The “Love” poems are about intense feelings that I had for people, that I had for drugs, and that others had for me. The feelings I had for drugs were so intense that it was like the feelings of love between two people.

Between now and my active addiction, I think that the meaning of love has definitely changed. I say this because back then I was in love with crack cocaine; it was the most important thing in life for me. Now I see love as family-based and for special friends. Drugs no longer have a place in my life but I for sure was in love with it. I wouldn’t say the “love” poems have influenced me at this stage in my life but it is interesting to see how I saw love back then.

Rob: In “Love V” you talk about how you “would just listen and these women would pour their hearts out.” It made me wonder: who listened to you when you most needed to pour your heart out? Was writing these poems a way to create a listener for yourself? More generally, do you think writing or reading poetry can be therapeutic in a way akin to sitting and talking (and really listening) to someone?

Cassandra: I have had a counselor for a long time, especially during those years I was actively involved with drugs and the lifestyle that goes with it. During those times, I was very lonely and felt quite isolated and my counselor was the only person I talked about things with. So she was the person I poured my heart out to even though I would sometimes go a long time between appointments. Eventually, she reported me missing to the police youth squad, but I contacted her again after a while. I also talked to people while in rehab and so forth.

Did I create a listener with these poems? I don’t know the answer to that question. I absolutely believe that poetry can be a kind of therapy for people. It was for me. Releasing all those feelings through writing helped to relieve a lot pent up emotion. Reading my poems makes me feel so glad that I have changed my life around.

Rob: In your acknowledgments you thank poet, author, and editor Amber Dawn for supporting you “since the beginning,” and poems of yours have appeared in Dawn’s chapbook anthology Sex Worker Wisdom and forthcoming full-length anthology Hustling Verse, edited by Dawn and Justin Ducharme, to be published by Arsenal Pulp Press in Fall 2019). Could you speak about the role Amber Dawn has played in your life, and your development as a writer? 

Cassandra: Amber Dawn has been absolutely instrumental in my journey as a poet. I studied her book Where the Words End and My Body Begins (Arsenal Pulp Press) in university and I was awed by her poetry. It inspired me and I decided that I should try to write about my experiences too. I contacted her on Facebook and told her I wrote some poems and she said she would read them. I sent 10 poems to her and she said they were good. I felt encouraged, so I continued to write more poems and about a year later, I sent them to Nightwood Editions. Amber has been a mentor to me, too. She explained the publishing process, read my contract and gave me feedback about it. When I have questions about anything related to poetry or publishing or readings, I ask her. I am very lucky to have such a friend.

Rob: Yes, you certainly picked the right person to connect with.

In poems like “Jail” and “Drying Out,” you discuss the connection between jail and waiting/down time, and how it allowed you to “recover my mind and body” and “face the person I was.” You also note in the poem “VGH,” of being hospitalized, that you were “grateful for the pause.” What role did your time in prison play in leading you to writing? Do you think of poetry as something which offers you these same things: a pause, some recovery, a chance to face the person you were? 

Cassandra: Jail saved my life. I was in such a horrible downward spiral that I think I would have died sooner than later. A tap on the shoulder would have done nothing—I needed to be knocked off my feet. Jail forced me to stop everything and, even though you can get drugs in jail, I detoxed and stayed clean. Jail didn’t make me grow as a person, but the four months I was in it did give me the pause I needed. Even though I continued to use after jail and after rehab, that pause really did save me.

Poetry isn’t really a pause, but it is a way to face the person I used to be. I read some of Fresh Pack of Smokes and I see bits of myself that now I am embarrassed by and also afraid of. I don’t think I was the greatest person, but I do see a kind of innocence that wasn’t crushed.  

Rob: There’s certainly an element of this book that is about you writing about/to/for yourself. At the same time, many of the poems in Fresh Pack of Smokes explain in some detail aspects of the inner world of drug use, drug dealing, and sex work. One such poem is “Dial-A-Dope,” which describes how it was safer to have the dealer drive to buyers: “maybe on the street you could score pretty fast there is always a risk of getting ripped off because that window of opportunity between the moment you have cash and the moment you get your drop is what goofs live for.”

Poems like this one seem to be guiding readers through a world they may be unfamiliar with; a conscious effort is being made to bring “outsider” readers along with you. Was that always a goal of yours, right from the first drafts, or did the editing process involve adding a lot of explanations? More generally, how do you think this book will be read differently by people who have lived, or are living, in these worlds, compared to those who have not?

Cassandra: I wanted the book to be therapy for me and an education for others. It had always been a goal of mine for this book to be a guide to the areas in life that some have no knowledge of. The explanations were always there, there was no adding.

If I didn’t write these poems and instead was a reader who knew the drug world, then I would think that the writer of these poems knows what I have lived or am going through. The knowledge is there. To readers who have not gone through these things, I assume they would read the poems as a series of explanations. This book is an educational tool. 

Rob: You’ve mentioned here and there some elements of working with Nightwood Editions. Could you talk more about how the book ended up with them? You hadn’t published poems widely before the book came out, so how did it come to Nightwood’s attention?

Cassandra: In May 2017, I submitted four poems to the Nightwood Editions submissions page on their website. I was just surfing the internet looking for somewhere where I could submit poetry. In November. I got a response from Nightwood asking for my full manuscript. It was a surprise because I had almost forgotten that I had submitted something, as seven months had gone by before they contacted me. So I sent my manuscript and then they wanted more poems because my book was pretty short. Time went by and a few months later they offered to publish in Spring 2019. Amber McMillian at Nightwood is an awesome editor and I was lucky to have her edit my book.

Rob: Vancouver has been “mapped” poetically by any number of poets, including George Stanley (Vancouver: A Poem), Meredith Quartermain (Vancouver Walking) and Michael Turner (Kingsway). I would put Fresh Pack of Smokes in their company: so many intersections, parks, and buildings in the city are present and palpable in your poems. Do you think there is something particular about Vancouver that causes such interest in writing about the city with great specificity? Why did you choose to describe the city in such detail, down to individual streets and neighborhoods, when you could have told your story in a more generalized way?

Cassandra: I have mixed feelings about Vancouver. I lived in the city for many years before I moved to Vancouver Island. I loved my neighborhood in Mount Pleasant and I like Vancouver as a whole. However, there is a really dark underbelly to the city, and it can suck you right in if you let it. It is this underbelly that I wanted to talk about. I also wanted to express how the city affected my experiences of addiction. To do this I decided to focus on specific areas of Vancouver where I spent time. I feel like Vancouver is a living entity infused with the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Rob: Speaking of writing about the city, I’m curious about what portion of this book was written while you were in Vancouver, and what portion was written elsewhere? Did where you were writing change how you thought/wrote about the city and your years living in it?

Cassandra: Of the book’s 67 poems, 39 were written in Vancouver. I wrote the rest in Duncan and added them to make the book a little longer. I don’t think it made a difference in which location I was writing in.  

Rob: That’s interesting. I would have thought having more distance (physical, and in time) from your experiences in the Downtown Eastside would have altered the poems a bit.

Speaking of gaining distance from your drug addiction: the book ends with a suite of poems about getting clean. In “Clean” you write, “I’ve had so much excitement, if you can call it that, in my life that I won’t mind if the rest of my years are simple and quiet.” Will writing be a part of that simpler, quiet life going forward? And if so, do you have anything in mind for what you might write next?

Cassandra: I love writing so much I can’t imagine my life without it. It will for sure be a part of my life now and in the future. Right now I am currently dabbling in short stories. I love creating different worlds and characters. So I think that is my next step.

Cassandra Blanchard was born in Whitehorse, YK, but called Vancouver home for many years. She holds a BA from UBC with a major in gender, race, sexuality, and social justice. Her poetry has been published in a handful of literary journals. Fresh Pack of Smokes is her first book of poetry. She lives in Duncan, BC.