Liz Worth is the author of Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond. She also wrote something strange called Eleven: Eleven. Her new book, Amphetamine Heart, is her first poetry collection.
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, Treat Me Like Dirt, changed my life in so many ways. I am definitely not the same person I was before I started it. Some of the changes were very unexpected. I learned a lot of hard lessons that grounded me quite a bit.
After spending a lot of time talking to some individuals who had fallen into addiction and poverty and ongoing instability I realized how easy it is for those things to happen to anyone. Some people might feel like they’re far, far away from anything like that, but we are really only ever a step or two away from a serious problem. It’s really easy to go from a drink a day to two, three, four, more. I’ve had a lot of family members and some close friends struggle with alcohol so for me it’s always been there, but it wasn’t until Treat Me Like Dirt that I learned that it’s very easy to slide into something like alcoholism or other addictions.
I also learned that no matter how talented you are, or smart, or beautiful, or whatever, nothing is guaranteed. This is a hard one to accept because I think we all want to believe that if we’re good at something, or work hard at it, that eventually it will pay off. But how it all pays off could be a lot different than what you want, or what you expect. It’s really important to be open to all possibilities and to remain grateful for whatever comes your way.
Intent is very important. If you let your ego determine your aspirations, you’re building a very weak foundation for your art, and for your happiness. Aiming for attention, praise, and money means you’re aiming for uncertainty, and it’s very hard to be happy when your work has nowhere to land. If you focus on creating, on making something you want to make and you come from a sincere place when doing so, then you can’t fail. Don’t set out to become known. Set out to bring a certain work into existence, set it free, and see what happens from there.
In terms of how Amphetamine Heart compares to Treat Me Like Dirt, the process for this book was of course very different, though I think it helped to have the emotional experiences I had while working on Treat Me Like Dirt because they kept me grounded.
Treat Me Like Dirt is about a lot of other people, not about me. Amphetamine Heart, in a way, feels like having a first book all over again because it’s so different from Treat Me Like Dirt, and so much more personal.
2 - How did you come to non-fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I’ve always straddled both non-fiction and creative writing, but it took me a bit longer to get serious about putting my poetry out there. When I was about 12 years old I first got into Edgar Allan Poe, whose writing I found to be very accessible and satisfyingly dark enough for me at the time. I also discovered Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Magic Animals around that time, which to me then felt like discovering an ancient text of secret spells.
By the time I was 13 I’d decided that I wanted to be a poet. I felt very certain that poetry was something I wanted to create in my lifetime, and throughout my teen years I worked on poetry off and on. I dropped away from it for a while in my early 20s because partying and making zines were my main priorities, and then towards my mid-20s, when I was working as a freelance writer and starting to get to work on Treat Me Like Dirt, the need to bring more creativity back into my life became very strong. I love interviewing people and telling their stories, but I needed to balance that out with something.
I was so burnt out after Treat Me Like Dirt that I thought I would never interview anyone ever again. That’s when I started working on the poems in Amphetamine Heart, and that’s when I finally felt I was ready, as a writer, to play around with language and push my boundaries as a poet, which was a place I hadn’t reached yet with my younger work.
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 think I’m like most other writers in that I have a lot of ideas but never enough time to take them on all at once. With poetry, I do tend to write quickly but I will tinker poems and play with them into third or fourth drafts, but the first draft is usually reflective of the direction it’s all going in. I do make notes – some of my best ideas come from dreams, and from walking around – and those notes, even if they are just one or two words, are usually enough to building from.
Some of my work has come out quite quickly, like my chapbook Eleven: Eleven, which was written in about three weeks with very few passages going into a second draft. Most of that was all done in one go.
Once I’ve committed to an idea I get to work on it. What takes longest is deciding whether the idea is the right one to pursue. Time goes so fast and there’s so little of it that I always want to make sure whatever project I’m working on right now is the right one.
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?
With Amphetamine Heart, I didn’t know it would be a poetry collection for a while. I’d just started writing poems and sending them out for publication. I also wanted to do some performance poetry, so I was adapting some of my writing for the stage.
One day I realized I’d generated quite a few poems and started to think it would be a good idea to work towards a book.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I can be quite shy, but at the same time I’ve always been drawn to readings, both as a participant and an audience member. I remember seeing Toronto’s Monica S. Kuebler when I was a bit younger and admiring her confidence and delivery on stage.
I also had Bif Naked’s spoken word album and Lydia Lunch and Exene Cervenka’s spoken word recordings and I knew theirs was effective because they were performing and projecting.
When I first started readings I was still in high school. I would do open mics and things like that and people would be very nice and polite to me after my reading but I knew I sucked. My voice was small and I’d read too fast and had no sense of timing, and that stuck around well into my mid-20s.
What helped me get over my shyness was a project I had a few years ago called Packanimal. It was me and this other guy – we don’t talk anymore and I want to keep it that way so I’ll leave his name out of this – and I did spoken word while he built walls of noise with an EMX Electribe, which is like a little synthesizer. Being surrounded by sound helped me a lot. So did practicing. It was really helpful for me to have to memorize my lines and work on delivery with someone else there.
For me, readings, even my worst ones, have been important for my creative process because they’ve pushed me to write for performance, not just for the page, and they’ve also helped me stay inspired. You never know who you’ll see or meet at a reading who will blow your mind and make you want to step up your own work.
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?
There are recurring themes in Amphetamine Heart but I haven’t really thought of them as questions, or as answers. I’ve long been aware of the underlying self-destruction that goes with binge drinking and partying – even if you think you’re having a good time you’re still doing something that could kill you. People do overdose and they get their stomachs pumped, but I don’t think most of us think of those things when we’re hitting it hard on a Saturday night. I’ve always been fascinated by that fine line between having a good time and going too far, and I think a lot of my writing comes from a place that’s trying to understand why that line is there, and why it’s so thin that some of us never even notice it’s there.
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 think the writer’s role is the same as any artist. Writers keep people informed and they keep them dreaming. They show them things they’ve never seen and they take things they’ve seen too often and invert them into something new. Words flow through music and fashion and tattoos and film and collage art. They tie so many things together and they need writers to keep making sure that happens.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I like working with editors. I think it’s important to get a fresh set of eyes on something, especially when those eyes belong to someone who’s solely dedicated to making your writing work, not to making you feel better about yourself.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
If you want to write, just go out and live your life.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to journalism to artwork)? What do you see as the appeal?
I can’t just do one thing. I wouldn’t be satisfied if I was only doing journalism, or only poetry. I have to make things with my hands. I like to make collages and sew.
I don’t find it challenging to go between any of them because I like the break I can get from writing by spending a few hours with a needle and thread. But I do wish I had more time to do all of the things I would like to do.
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 am disciplined but I don’t well with too much routine. If I am driven to do something I will get it done. Over the past year I’ve experimented with more rigid schedules but only came to the conclusion that if I get a fun invitation to go out, I’d rather not turn it down just to stay home and work.
Instead I make sure I don’t overbook myself, so that I always have time to write, and when I do I try to write a minimum of 1,000 words a session or draft one poem from start to finish in a sitting. Editing happens later, after I’ve had some distance from a piece or a big revelation about it.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Sometimes I’ll re-read some of past work, to remind myself that I can actually complete and polish a piece of writing. I also like to re-read books that have inspired me in the past, especially if it’s similar in style to what I’m working on.
For example, if I’m working on something a little more experimental, I’ll pick up a Kathy Acker novel. It’s helpful to be reassured that someone’s gotten their weird work out there.
I’ll also go back and read what I’ve written so far. Sometimes you get so far into a piece of writing that you forget the momentum you felt at the start.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Lavender. Every year, since I was a little kid, I’ve been going to the CNE with my mom. She always buys fresh lavender there and puts it everywhere – in her drawers, under her pillow, in sachets hanging from doorknobs. At the end of the summer my parents’ house is full of the smell of lavender, and even though it only lasts for a couple weeks of the year it’s the one smell that always reminds me of home.
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?
Oh yes, definitely. Music has always been a big influence for me. I’ve always been very inspired by the fact that poetry is so tied to rock n’ roll, punk, and goth.
Animals and forests feature frequently in my poetry. Astrology, tarot, and the occult do, too.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’m a big fan of Chandra Mayor, Daniel Jones, Poppy Z. Brite, Lisa Crystal Carver, Christy Ann Conlin, Lynn Crosbie, Blake Nelson, Sandra Jeppesen, Lisa Foad, Liisa Ladouceur, Danila Botha, Darcey Steinke, Grace Krilanovich, Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch, Exene Cervenka. They all have their own styles, their own statements, their own trajectories. They do things on their own terms and they do them well.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
So many things. At the moment, my top three picks would be to learn taxidermy, live by myself in a forest for a while, and go to Norway.
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?
If I could pick anything, I would like to be a tarot card reader. But if I hadn’t have chosen to be a writer, I would have gone to school for social work. Maybe one day I will. I would like to try to live as many lives as possible while I can.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It’s something I’ve always felt drawn to, and something that just seemed to happen. Sometimes stories or ideas or the right lines just appear.
But in terms of deciding to write, I think there was some luck in being encouraged to do it, as well. It seemed to be something I was good at. It’s a lot easier to decide to pursue something when people support you in it, although I think I would have worked towards writing regardless. I used to play guitar but I wasn’t as good at music as I was at writing, and I was having trouble making time to practice as well as making time to write, so I made my decision one day and have stuck to it ever since.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just finished reading Dani Couture’s Algoma. The characters in that book stick with you.
The last great film I saw was Drive.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a novel about the end of the world, which is something I obsessed over continuously for a few years throughout my 20s, to the point where I was convinced our last days were moments away. My story about the end of the world isn’t so focused on how it happens, but more about the slow dread and decay as everything unravels.
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