Conyer Clayton is an Ottawa-based artist and gymnastics coach, originally from Louisville, Kentucky. She has 6 chapbooks; most recently Trust Only the Beasts in the Water (above/ground press, 2019). In 2018, she released a collaborative album with Nathanael Larochette, If the river stood still. She is the winner of Arc's 2017 Diana Brebner Prize and The Capilano Review's 2019 Robin Blaser Poetry Contest, and writes reviews for Canthius. Her debut full-length collection of poetry, We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite (Guernica Editions), is forthcoming May 2020.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first full-length (We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite) comes out in May of this year, so I am not really sure how it has or will change my life, if at all, but I can say one thing that feels different already, is the intensifying hope that it will land with some folks. With my previous work, I was pretty content just to write it, get it into the world, and if people didn't like it personally, I was rather non-plussed about it. I am feeling a bit more needy with this one, for better or worse.
It isn't impacting the way I write, as I just do what I do, but I have more anxiety and fear with this full-length than I ever had with my chaps. My hopes that people won't hate it, that someone will "get it," loom a bit larger.
I think this is magnified by the fact that some of the work in this is 10-11 years old, so I wrote it when I was 19 or 20. Eek! Not all of it, but some. That is a bit freaky. So obviously my newer manuscripts feel more alive to me, because they are me, whereas sometimes when I read my forthcoming book, I feel like I am reading about someone else's life.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually didn't come to poetry first, but short stories and flash fiction, which I wrote quite a bit of in high school. As my flash pieces became more poetic and shorter, they became poetry. I now have a few projects taking the same path but in reverse!
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 am definitely not a note-taker, or a researcher, in my writing. My writing comes fairly smoothly, both what is meant for a specific project, and what is not. But speed is relative I suppose. I recently realized, that I have all the material for 2 (maybe 3) chapbooks, and a full-length basically all there, just waiting for me to order, edit, parse out. I am also working on 2 other full lengths and a chapbook/music/hybrid project, all at the same time, some of which I haven't touched in months. But things get done. The project decides when. Sometimes my first draft of something ends up being almost completely done. Sometimes it is years later, and unrecognizable. There isn't really a strong trend one way or the other for me.
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?
Poems normally begin rooted in physicality. Something in my body that needs to be released.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love readings! In the last few years, performance has become much more important to me, and the act of memorizing my work, and also working collaboratively with musicians, has really changed the way I view literary performance. I don't memorize every set, of course, but I feel like I connect with my work and the audience differently when I have the poem set within me. I can embody it.
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?
Current themes I seem to be exploring in various projects: dream symbolism/how the unconscious speaks to us through dreams, how stress/trauma/loss manifests in the body, the "real" in imaginary spaces/in visualized physicality, addiction and recovery.
I don't know what I am asking. I usually only figure that out once a project is mostly done.
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 every writer's role is going to be different, and personal, and based on their own positioning in their community, in society, in themselves and their experiences. For myself, I feel my role as a writer is to give expression to what I wasn't sure could be expressed, as a form of release, and in the hopes that it can be a gift to anyone else who has felt alone in that feeling or experience. To help people feel less lonely in pain. In loss. Sometimes to make people laugh? I hope? To be a mirror for grief, so its reflection back is perhaps a little less harsh.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It is very rewarding and essential. I find myself to be a poor judge of my own work sometimes, so a good editor's eye, especially for things like ordering a manuscript, and which poems need to get cut, is so so crucial.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
To not worry about trends, and write what you want to read.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to musical collaboration)? What do you see as the appeal?
I found it quite natural. I've always been involved in music in some capacity. I played piano and was in choirs as a kid, then again in high school, taking music theory courses. I have always been surrounded by musicians as my main friends/peer groups, and am a huge music fan. So my collaboration with Nathanael Larochette on our album seemed just right and like it couldn't have happened another way.
I am exploring music moreso now, playing marimba and vibraphone and singing/composing songs, both solo, with Nathanael, and with a friend back in Kentucky remotely. I have another poetry/music hybrid project on the go right now, just with myself, that I have no idea how will turn out. We shall see!
I also do contemporary dance, and am a gymnastics coach. I feel like all of these things are just branches off the same tree, organs in the same body. It is all practice. It is all craft.
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 don't have one. I just write when I write!
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Plants, dirt, people I love, movement.
13 - What fragrance reminds you 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 certainly. Nature of course. Music is probably the other art form that influences me the most. But movement also finds its way into my work. I am a very physical person. I've always been an athlete, and I have trouble being still (working on it!). I feel things in my body very strongly. I think my bodily experience is where much of my creativity is rooted, stems from, and comes back to.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The Ottawa writing community is very important to me. Some of my best friends are in it, and I have found such support here. I am scared to start listing, because I don't want to leave anyone out. So many friends who I care about deeply, and who I feel inspired by all the time. Sometimes I worry I am not a great community member, as I feel I often don't have a ton extra to give as far as organizing and the like goes, but I try, and despite anything, I feel like Ottawa has my back. It goes without saying that I am also talking about you, rob, but I'll say it anyway!
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Have extended time off of work to focus on creative pursuits. Do a creative residency somewhere.
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?
I think I would be a good counsellor, child psychiatrist, or physical/occupational therapist. I've actually considered going back to school to do any one of these things. Maybe I will! I love teaching, I love kids, and I love helping people move, all things I already get to do in my job, but I think at some point I might like to hone in one of these facets more than the other.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I just couldn't help it. I've always written, I just had to.
I also think that though I've always been drawn to music, I was surrounded by (and dated) some very snobby and un-encouraging musicians in the past, and it really deterred me from exploring that side of myself. No longer!
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
3 full-lengths, 2 of which are prose poem based, and one of which is maybe actually a short-story/prose poem/novel hybrid thing?
Various vibraphone and voice compositions, and an ambient vibraphone soundscape to go along with a chapbook.