Ash Winters is an emerging Toronto-based poet. Genderqueer and sober, their work navigates complex and colourful emotional landscapes. They graduated with their BA in English from Lakehead University in 2010. Their poetry has recently appeared in; Existere, Open Minds Quarterly, and The White Wall Review. Their first collection of poetry, Run Riot, came out with Caitlin Press in January 2021.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It feels big! Run Riot has opened up some possibilities for sure. Having a book published allows for me to make more room in my world for writing. I can apply for grants and residencies that were previously out of reach. It gives me chances to meet writers and create a supportive community. I think honestly one of the biggest things that it has done is allow me to take myself and my writing more seriously. Well, seriously seems like the wrong word. I think perhaps it lets me treat my writing more passionately.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I suppose you could say that poetry came to me more than I came to poetry. Poetry is something that I have always written. Whether in the margins of note books in school or on the back of unused missed delivery notices when working for UPS I have always found space for poetry. When I got sober and started writing every day it was no surprise to me that poetry came out first. Though I am not quite sure I could tell you why.
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?
Writing projects usually have a slow start for me. I approach a collection of poems or a group of short stories and work away at them slowly. This could be in part because I haven’t had big chunks of time in my life I could dedicate to writing. I am always trying to fit in as much time for writing as I can around my other obligations. Once I do get the first draft in front of me there is much editing to be done. I am always tweaking and rethinking how things sound or feel. Someone once said writing is rewriting and I seem to have taken it to heart.
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?
This depends a bit on the project. Run Riot was a very unintentional book. I was writing poetry every day in rehab simply because it felt good. Writing every day made me feel as though I was building up the good parts of myself. I think it still does feel that way. I didn’t think of putting the poems together into a collection until I was almost finished my stay in treatment. The projects that I am working on now are far more intentional. I have a book of poems based on Tarot cards that I am editing and a short story collection that has a clear theme of homecoming and family.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I am hoping that public reading becomes a part of my creative process. Due to Covid-19 I have not had many opportunities to do public readings. Although the opportunities I have had to read give me a lot of energy. I really love the feeling of reading aloud to someone. I think it is a really neat way of connecting, to each other and to poetry. I do find it somewhat terrifying but still worth 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?
I think my main theoretical concern is to point to, through storytelling, the paradoxes that we live in. This makes me think of intersectional feminism and how the crossroads of identity give structure to our understanding of each other. I am interested in those parts of ourselves that cross each other in ways that seem impossible and yet define us. I think Run Riot does this in moments where reflections on the hopelessness of a situation bring strength. Or when attempting to be gentle and careful with the emotions of those around you is an almost violent act of self denial. With my writing I want to bring these contradictions in ourselves to the forefront and cherish them. I want to show that we are impossibly complex emotional creatures and it is the best and worst thing about us. I think the biggest question right now is who are we? This choice could be heavily influenced by the fact that the biggest question I am asking myself right now is who am I?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I am not sure about “should be” but I think there is lots of room for what the role of a writer could be. Right now the role of a writer could be to tell stories. More specifically to tell the stories that you are surrounded by. In this big world with an ever growing ability to accept diversity, stories are how we reach across vast differences to understand each other. I think the role of the writer could be one of representation. That is representation of your own community out into a bigger mosaic of stories.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. I find so much value in hearing what other people think of my writing. Every time I share a piece of writing with an editor ,whether that be a friend or a professional, I feel it grows stronger.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I think one of the best pieces of advice I have been given came from a prof who said “Show don’t tell”. She was talking about writing and it has been very valuable in that area but surprisingly useful in other arenas too. Living a life of action rather than one filled with hopes and promises has probably done more for me than any other single piece of guidance has.
10 - 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 start my day at five thirty A.M. I grab a cup of coffee and head to my desk every morning. On weekdays I get about an hour and a half there to write a few poems and get a little bit of editing done then I head off to my job as a carpenter. On the weekend I spend long expanses of time at my desk working on writing or at least thinking that I am going to at any moment start to work on writing.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I tend to get involved in my physical world a bit more. Go for a long walk with the dog. Pick a project around the house I have been meaning to finish. Cook a nice dinner for my partner. I may even clean the house from top to bottom. I find digging back into the more creative aspects of my physical day to day feeds my creative fire. Before I know it I am back at my desk with ideas flowing with a lot more ease.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sandalwood incense or sawdust. I burn a lot of the incense. I grew up burning it and it has always smelt like home. The sawdust is because my dad is a furniture maker and so is my partner.
13 - 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?
I think nature has a pretty big impact on my work. I spent many summers of my youth working in the woods in Northern Ontario. There is a special quality to the silences in nature that I am particularly interested in. The entirely perfect way in which these pauses start and end is something I clumsily try to mimic in my writing. I also find endless inspiration in people watching. I find nothing more interesting than a person that I do not know yet, who I will, probably, never know.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Anne Carson and Jeanette Winterson are two writers who really shaped my ideas about what words can be and what prose can do. I hope that their writing has heavily impacted the way that I write. My dad introduced Leonard Cohen to me at a very young age and my mom introduced Nikki Giovanni to me at a slightly less young age. I will always be grateful for these introductions because they are where I began reading poetry and have had a great impact on me.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I have been threatening for a while now that I am going to write a memoir. This is in part inspired by having read some phenomenal memoirs recently: Heart Berrie by Terese Marie, A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Bellcourt, In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado… and in part because I have always wanted to tell the story of growing up queer in small town Ontario.
16 - 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 loved drama as a kid. I was in community theater outside of school and musical theater in school. I think maybe there is a chance I could have been sucked into at least trying to become an actor. I could also see myself working behind the scenes in some capacity.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I have always loved stories, written one especially. I was slow learning to read due to some conspiring learning disabilities but even before I could read I was carrying around a book with me everywhere I went. I remember the book, it was a choose your own adventure about dinosaurs. I carried it around with me until finally one day I could read it. I also have numerous attempts at writing novels when I was very young. Having just barely mastered the art of writing in a way that was half legible I felt it was time for a novel. I can remember climbing a tree in the back yard with one of these first attempts and spending what felt like the whole day up there but getting hardly any writing done. Not a ton has changed. I guess you could say writing for me is more of a compulsion than a choice in some ways.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was Maria Dahvana Headly’s translation of Beowulf. I knew I loved Beowulf. I just needed Headly to show me how much I loved Beowulf. The last good film that I saw was I Am Divine, wow! What a queen. Her last words in the movie that “anything was possible” really hit home for me. What an incredible life to have lived. I find learning the stories of queers who paved the way for my generation incredibly inspiring. It fills me with energy to make art for my community. For the community that comes after me.
19 - What are you currently working on?
Right now I am getting ready for Run Riot to come out next month which is incredibly exciting. I am also working on a collection of short stories centred around homecoming and family. This collection is pretty personal because I have just moved back to Ontario after living in BC for nine years. There is also a collection of poems based on Tarot cards being edited and I am keeping up with a little instagram page where I post some poetry too.