Katherine Leyton's first poetry collection, All the Gold Hurts My Mouth, was released by Goose Lane Editions in March 2016. A native of Toronto, she recently moved to Ottawa.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I don’t know that my first book has changed my life. I think my first book draws together a lot of the experiences I had in my 20s and early 30s (alongside totally fictional elements, of course), and almost feels like some sort of review of my initial chapter of existence, which is bizarre to behold now, in book form. This book-object also symbolizes the accomplishment of a life-long goal: wanting to publish a book of my work, so when the realization of that settles I might feel differently. For now it is a reminder that I am passionate about an art form that very few people read, and that I’ve achieved a goal the “outside” world regards as highly curious.
I can’t tell you how my recent work feels compared to my previous, because I am writing in a very unserious way. I haven’t really tried to shape my new work for consumption by others yet, so it’s hard to say. The process feels as hard and frustrating and wonderful as ever.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually came to fiction first. I wrote fiction furiously until grade 7, when I discovered poetry through a unit at school and instantly fell in love. There was something there for me that fiction didn’t offer— a way of capturing moods or memories that I was finding difficult to capture in fiction. I was very attracted to its musicality as well. I still occasionally write fiction though, and I’ve been writing non-fiction for publication since my early 20s.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I don’t think of writing poetry as a project – unless I have been commissioned to do a specific project. I just write and write and write and edit and edit and edit. With my book, I decided at some point I felt ready to shape some of that work into a collection, a process which took years.
My writing comes quickly initially – but in waves. I have periods where I am writing copiously and periods where I am producing very little. In the periods I am producing little, I am editing. I edit for an incredibly long time. I have both poems that change very little from the first draft—although those small changes are significant and essential to making it a decent poem—and poems that are completely unrecognizable from the first draft.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’m really not concept-driven, not that I am opposed to starting with a concept and working from there, but I think the same handful of concerns drive my work, so I feel in a way that I am always starting with a base concept.
Poems begin as ideas and images and lines that force their way into my head almost violently, often when I am out in the world, and I follow them by allowing myself to ‘write’ the poem in my head over and over, memorizing it in a way, until I have the chance to get to a computer or a notebook.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I feel immensely guilty saying this, but I do not particularly enjoy readings. My relationship to poetry is on the page, and that is how I prefer consuming poetry—I need to see it there to fully absorb it, to fully appreciate it. Readings are a whole different art form – one where the poet is interpreting the work for you. I do think readings can be wonderful, and I have – as an audience member—had moments of intense pleasure listening to poets read, but they are very rare.
I suppose that I don’t understand why someone would want to see me read, as I have never claimed to be a performer, to be compelling in person—I strive for my writing to do that on the page. Nevertheless, I understand people do like readings, and I feel incredibly lucky and grateful any time someone wants to see me read, so I have been trying to figure out for the past few years how to be a good reader, how I can enrich my poetry when I am reading it. I keep asking myself: what can I add to the audience’s experience of my work? I am wary of acting my poems, or putting on a ‘Poetry’ voice, but I am also wary of reading in a monotonous way that puts my audience to sleep. It has been a struggle and I am not quite sure I’ve figured out what’s right for me, but I try to learn from the readers I really admire, such as Aisha Sasha John and Phil Hall. Having said all this, I am not sure if public readings are part or counter to the creative process; it’s interesting to see how people react to my work when I read it aloud—it can be surprising, and that helps me learn about the effectiveness of my poems. However, their reaction also comes partly from how I read my work, so it confuses things. Otherwise, readings are a distraction to the creative process that really interests me. But hey, it is another creative skill to learn, and I am always interested and up for the challenge of learning another creative skill.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I largely write about my concerns with how women are treated and represented in North America (and abroad, as I lived abroad for several years, but when I do that, I clearly state that these observations are through my highly-biased ‘Western’ filter). From a very young age I often found the treatment I received as a girl, and then woman—and that I saw other women receiving—disturbing, but I observed that other people accepted this treatment and representation as normal. I wanted to challenge that, or at least express how infuriating I found it, and poetry seemed like one of the most effective ways to do so. I’m often attempting to show the dark underbelly of the normal, the damaging effects of what most people have decided is okay or ‘no big deal.’ I’m particularly interested in the hyper-sexualization of women, which I think has damaging consequences for both men and women, but particularly women; the constant threat of sexual violence women face; and the general devaluing of the feminine. I write from the perspective of a woman who feels she has internalized some very harmful misogynistic views and constantly has to battle that internal misogynist, who is sometimes (but rarely) tempted to turn ‘his’ views on other women, but mainly interested in turning those views on herself. There’s a poem in All the Gold Hurts My Mouth called “The Misogynist” that is all about a woman simultaneously allowing herself to think of other women with violent contempt, while herself fearing the threat of sexual violence from men.
I’m often trying to answer the question of how to live richly as a woman in our society without participating in behaviours and patterns of thought that are damaging to myself and other women. How can I free myself from the internal misogynist? And how can I express my sexuality in a way that feels powerful and ‘authentic’ (whatever authentic means) instead of in a way that feels scripted and packaged and limited?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I don’t feel comfortable saying what I feel writers should be. I know what I want to do and be, but I think different writers serve different purposes, and they are all valuable. I definitely think writers have a role in the larger culture: I think they still dictate, inform and shape culture, even if a lot of people no longer realize it. The majority of movies in the cinema were once books, whether they are trivial garbage or moving statements on existence. I think writers express ideas that can affect generations of people, maybe because it affects one politician or scientist or whomever, who then implements that idea or spreads it to a larger audience. And I think writers can give voice to experience and emotion that make people feel less alone, that validate their anger or fear, and that provide them relief from their grief, and I think that will always be an invaluable role.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it’s essential. When I find an editor that really understands what I’m trying to do with my work, and is excited about it, I find working with him or her incredibly easy, no matter how hard that person is on my writing. When I’m working with an editor that has a very different aesthetic or has a different view about what the function of poetry is, I find the collaboration challenging, but still useful, even if it is just to take a long hard looks at my own motives and aesthetics and come back and feel reaffirmed in my choices. Often though, those editors can be wonderful at spotting the technical and logical flaws in my work, which is viatl.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Oh god. What a difficult question. I hear amazing advice all the time. Then I forget it.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Poetry, fiction and non-fiction are all very different things and getting good at each one of them takes sustained effort. I find poetry and non-fiction more intuitive and easier for me than fiction. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a decent piece of fiction. Each form is appealing for different reasons. Poetry appeals to me because it allows me to express ideas and feelings and moods that are almost impossible to grasp or capture, that require some combination of rhythm and space and emptiness, that can only be suggested rather than explained. Non-fiction appeals to me when there is a political or social issue I feel I can write about in a clear and direct manner, and that I want a wider audience to be aware of. Fiction is appealing for its ability to create a compelling world through sustained narrative, as well as the possibility for vivid and powerful characters that can help the reader empathize for a longer period of time.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My routine changes based on what job I have, where I’m living and what sort of pressing drive to create I have at any particular time. My life circumstances have been wildly different from year to year, and so have my working patterns. However, I definitely always work better at night, when my mind seems to open and function on some different level of consciousness.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I turn to other writers. Or I go outside and live my life – that usually works.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Hmmm. Nothing in particular, really. Maybe the smell of cold –like the way wool mittens smell during the winter. And fresh cut grass maybe.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Sure. Every one of those. I’ve been influenced by nature, music, science, photography, pop culture, the things I hear people say on the street, things I see in the subway, an advertisement on a billboard or on TV. Everything.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So many, and they are constantly changing. Discovering Phyllis Webb, particularly her suites and anti-ghazals, was very important to how I thought about space on the page and the possibility of multiplicity of voice. Anne Carson has been hugely influential. So has Ted Hughes. Osip Mandelstam was once very important to me. Louise Glück teaches me about how to be brilliantly cynical without alienating the reader. An American poet named Michael Burkard, who is little known in Canada, has been very inspiring in demonstrating how to show a speaker’s interior dialogue in a poem, and how to be strange in a way that seems perfectly accessible and brilliantly easy to read. Tomaž Šalamun demonstrates how to do the surreal wonderfully without concern for the reader’s ability to follow along. I couldn’t live without Mary Ruefle. I lived in Italy for three years and I speak Italian fluently and an Italian poet named Patrizia Cavalli is just one of the most brilliant poets out there; she can do more in three lines of poetry than most poets can do with a whole book. She is delightfully playful with language and simultaneously incredibly complex, but without exposing that complexity to her reader in a painfully obvious manner. Sadly, I’ve never found a decent translation of her work into English. Karen Solie, Elizabeth Bishop, Eileen Myles and Olena Kalytiak Davis all thrill me. I have returned to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and DG Jones Under the Thunder the Flowers Light up the Earth recently. I could go on. I won’t.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a book that’s cross-genre.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Rock star? Astronaut? National Geographic Photographer?
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
My parents passed on a love for literature from a very young age. It was an immense comfort to have someone else give voice to the thoughts and feelings that I had, but that weren’t frequently discussed aloud. It made me feel connected to other humans in a way that very little else does. Also, I’m somewhat anti-social, and have always been an avid observer, and I suppose writing allows me to do something with all that observing. And then there is that thing I mentioned before: that observation of things I found highly disturbing that were accepted as normal, and the desire to challenge that.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just read Ben Ladoucer’s Otter and was thrilled by it. What a remarkable debut. I’m in the midst of reading photographer Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still, and am completely enthralled; she is an incredible writer and it’s so inspiring to read about her single-mindedness and drive to create remarkable photographs, as well as the effect of place on her work. She sometimes wouldn’t leave the property she lived on for weeks, and yet she produced some of the most memorable images of the past fifty years—and I think that creativity within those confines is fascinating.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m actually trying to write fiction currently. I’m also writing a few poems here and there, but in a relaxed way; I don’t know what will happen with them. I need a break. Mostly, I’m working on making a living.
[Katherine Leyton launches All the Gold Hurts My Mouth on March 17 as part of VERSeFest 2016]
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