Adèle Barclay’s writing has appeared in Vallum, The Heavy Feather Review, glitterMOB, The Pinch, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Puritan, PRISM international, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2016 Lit POP Award for Poetry and the 2016 Walrus Readers’ Choice Award for Poetry and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her debut poetry collection, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You, (Nightwood, 2016) won the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her second collection of poetry, Renaissance Normcore, was recently published by Nightwood Editions. She was Arc Magazine's 2018-19 Poet in Residence and Canadian Women in Literary Arts 2016 Critic in Residence. She is an editor at Rahila's Ghost Press and the 2020 Writer in Residence at the University of the Fraser Valley
Adèle Barclay reads alongside Gabrielle Marceau, Ezinwanne Odozor and Ben Ladouceur in Ottawa on Thursday, March 26, 2020 as part of the tenth anniversary VERSeFest.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book changed my life utterly—If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You came out two weeks after I defended my PhD dissertation. It launched me from being a grad student to being a professional writer. That book opened my world and it was humbling to witness my poems have lives independent of me, to see them conjure meaningful sparks for some and provide ballasts for others.
Renaissance Normcore feels different because it’s a sophomore effort—I was coming to these poems from a more sure-footed vantage point and that emboldened me to play more cheekily with voice. This book differs in tone and diction—it’s more conversational and direct than If I Were. I worked with an intimate lyric in my first book but amidst surreal imagery and this more fantastical, shimmering emotional landscape. With Renaissance Normcore I wanted to play with the idea of a seemingly clear, bold voice with a few subtle lyrical flourishes. It’s still poetry and it was a fun challenge to harness the many voices of conversation and confession, the subtle flicks of wryness and sincerity.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was 6 I noticed my older sister Elissa (then 13) writing poetry and song lyrics in her journal. I wanted to be just like her and wield the power her mysterious lyrics and poems possessed. I began writing poetry and as I developed my writing it became even more surreal and coded because I knew my parents would be reading my journal. I was processing some very difficult experiences and poetry seemed like the only thing that could hold my reality.
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?
So far it’s taken me about 2 to 2.5 years to write a collection of poetry. When I write poems, I tend to write fairly quickly with the poem needing only a few minor edits. The poem either lands immediately or not, but what’s underpinning that poem could be weeks, months, and years of feeling and thought. I’ve written a poem in 20 minutes that was 5 years in the making. The time between writing each poem, however, can be short or long depending on how much time and space I can afford to devote to writing, reading and thinking.
The overall concept of the book is something I am curious about as I write the poems and usually reflects the personal and cultural shifts moving through and around me. For example, Renaissance Normcore records the claiming of a direct voice in tandem with an emerging cultural dialogue around how we address or don’t address talking about power and trauma.
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?
A poem usually begins with a gut feeling in my body—something is up and I need language to grip as I ride the wave.
Since I started writing books I think more in book-length project, how a bundle of poems could speak to each other, how they echo and diverge. But I begin with the individual poems and each one discloses more about a bigger picture as I go.
I’ve also noticed each manuscript so far has its own colours, atmospheres, and soundtracks.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love reading poems aloud. I feel myself and the poems come alive when I do public readings. Voice is so important to me and my poetry and readings allow me to wield the multiple and minute inflections, tones, and gestures of my work. I love how embodied reading aloud is. I also like giving very fresh poems some air so I can better understand the weight and texture of them.
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?
How does the body carry language and vice versa? How do you heal from trauma as the world burns? How to make a poem that sounds like a queer femme singing about fear and desire? I don’t know if I can answer these, but I think of poetry as a place where I can carve out space to address the complexities and paradoxes of living with anguish and joy, loss and living.
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 like to think about how the poet sits at this weird intersection of cultural currency and very little actual currency. I think our relationship to clout and scarcity is odd and unique and tasks us with the responsibility of calling out this neoliberal nightmare we live in. In our poems we can imagine connections and worlds beyond our failing structures. I think the role of the writer is to gesture towards other ways of being and connecting.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love working with an editor! As someone who came up outside of the MFA system I am generally jazzed to see how my poems fare in the hands of someone else. It’s a gift to receive engagement, feedback and a perspective beyond my own.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
WHERE ARE THE LOVE POEMS? –Brenda Shaughnessy to me upon discovering I was in love but not writing about it.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Shifting between genres feels like shifting between gears for me—there can be a few creaks and jolts in the process. But I love writing critical prose and cultural journalism. I’ve written many review over the years and have been giving myself space to develop lyric essays so that I can spend more time with the questions poetry plops on my doorstep.
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?
I try to keep a routine as I work from home often. I freelance and sometimes teach and tend to have many gigs on the go at once. I begin my day with sharing breakfast and coffee (decaf for me) with my partner before we head out into our respective worlds. I often pick away at emails and admin tasks over the course of the morning and then move onto whatever I have on my plate—writing a poem, interviewing someone for an article, applying to a grant or residency, reading a book to review, editing someone else’s writing, drawing up the plans for a workshop—and multi-tasking into oblivion. When my eyes start to burn and I find myself spinning in circles I take a break in the late afternoon to do yoga or swim or go to the gym or run a small errand that entails walking. I try to wind things down in the evening to make dinner, spend time with friends, go to a reading, cuddle my cat, etc.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I return to reading—when the heft of my own writing is frustrating, it’s a relief to inhabit someone else’s perspective. And I also find it important to turn to some type of experience—walking, running, swimming—that reminds me I have a body.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Bleach and kitty litter.
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?
Music hugely influences my work—pop, grunge, 90s riot grrrl, jazz, Lana Del Rey, Tori Amos, Hole, Billie Holiday, Rufus Wainwright, Fiona Apple—any musician that makes me feel things deeply and who I could also potentially write a dissertation on.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Attempt a stand-up comedy set.
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?
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is something I deeply enjoy even with all its vexations. I feel grounded when I hold onto words while everything around me feels like it’s shaking. And then the connective, conversational potential of writing is what brings me back for more—that my voice can go into the ether and can be absorbed and built upon by others is invigorating to me.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just read The Undying by Anne Boyer—holy fuck. And I recently watched Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite in theatres—double holy fuck.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A collection of poetry, tentatively titled Libra Rising, on grief, ecological & personal, as well as a few lyric and cultural essays on a range of topics—such as concussions and PTSD, Tori Amos and online survivor forums that popped up in her name in the early 2000s, stealing lumber to build bookshelves—but loosely exploring how traumatized queer bodies come home to themselves and each other and/or how they sometimes don’t.