Lauren Turner is a disabled poet and essayist. Her chapbook, We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time, was published by knife | fork | book in March 2018, and her full-length debut, The Only Card in a Deck of Knives, came out with Wolsak & Wynn in August 2020. Her work has appeared in Grain, Arc Magazine, PRISM International, Poetry is Dead, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Maynard, The Puritan, BAD NUDES, canthius, and elsewhere. She won the 2018 Short Grain Contest, was a finalist for carte blanche’s 2017 3Macs Prize, and made the longlist for Room Magazine’s 2019 creative non-fiction contest. Originally from Ottawa, she lives in Tiohtiá:ke/Montréal on the unceded land of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Oh, I couldn’t say yet! The Only Card in a Deck of Knives was published by Wolsak & Wynn during the middle of a global pandemic while I was personally living with a collapsed lung, thanks to my cystic pulmonary disease. It was, and still is, a very surreal time. I don’t think I’ve even properly processed what having a first book means. But I loved my experience with Wolsak & Wynn and would like to publicly thank them for their team’s dedicated work, first in publishing and now in promoting The Only Card.
In terms of projects, The Only Card staggeringly differs from my chapbook, We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time (knife | fork | book, 2018), which was a third-person reimagining of the Samson and Delilah parable through a modern lens. As a shy, private person, I used to find it humiliating to write auto-poetry. But then, I fell in and out of love (a few times), started to come to terms with my own trauma history, and learned I was terminally ill. Things change.
Like how Anne Boyer wrote in Garments Against Women, “I decided I would be a poet so that I could complain publicly of this,” arguably, I have a few bones to pick. If you want to know more, I’d invite you to read my book.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My mom has a BA in English Literature and I was fortunate enough to benefit from her love of poetry. I was read a lot of poems as a child, so growing up, I never made that hard distinction between poetry and prose. She even gave me these Shakespeare Can Be Fun! books in Grade 3, which had poetic dialogue from the actual plays included. I was obsessed with the Macbeth one—like, really obsessed. I feel like knowing that tidbit about Baby Lauren gives you a lot of insight into my poems.
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’m an exceptionally slow writer, maybe because of my Taurus Mars. I often need to ruminate for months, even years, before I can start to write a poem. When I read during my MA program that Louise Glück had writer’s block for multi-year spans, it was oddly validating for me and my glacial writing practice. There’s no need, after all, to assign capitalist values of productivity to artmaking: poems go where they go in the end.
My first drafts sometimes look like final drafts, and sometimes not. For The Only Card, I didn’t work from notes, but recently I’ve made a concerted effort to keep a research practice. Essentially, I write lines from books on flashcards with the intention of incorporating them into a future project. It’s also just a soothing way to preserve words that I love. I enjoy the deliberateness of it.
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 on a gut feeling. As someone who scrupulously pillages my own life for poetic material, I tend to write towards a specific person. I fully ascribe to this Ani DiFranco lyric: “Every song has a you/ A you that the singer sings to/ And you’re it this time/ Baby, you’re it this time.” If something or someone is weighing on my mind, the poem will give me away.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the intricacies of disabled friendships and relationships, which is leading to a series of interlocking poems that one could say is starting to resemble a manuscript. Planning a book leads to expectations, which lead to failure, so I’m not questioning the direction right now.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
The reading environment isn’t a comfortable one for me but I’m learning to adapt. What has helped, with all these Zoom events lately, is being able to watch myself post-reading. When I read poems to an audience, or try to banter, my inner monologue is badgering me with charming comments like wow, you’re coming across like a total weirdo. But upon watching myself at the virtual Wolsak & Wynn launch in October, I was surprised to see how calm I appear. And normal, yes, I also seem normal.
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?
For The Only Card, many of the poems were anchored by Alexander Chee’s question in his essay, “On Becoming an American Writer,” where he asked: “Dying, what stories would you tell?” Yes, I put that kind of pressure on myself. Existing inside the awareness that my body is slowly disintegrating requires a lot of living, writing, and loving others with intention.
I often ask myself, “What is helpful?” If I write a poem purely to blow off steam, I won’t share it. My writing practice is for me, but I’m beholden to the work I put into the world.
As for theory? I’m a babe in the woods of theory.
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?
As a chronically ill writer, I do feel accountable to the sick/disabled community. I have a public platform to address disability issues. And even a small platform, like mine in CanLit, is a form of power and power needs to be handled responsibly. It’s always possible to write with more inclusivity, generosity, and compassion—all very pressing goals of mine.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I quite like working with an editor! Paul Vermeersch at Wolsak & Wynn edited The Only Card and it was an enjoyable, validating collaboration because he really believed in the work and understood what I was trying to do. (I often think others perceive my poems more clearly than I do.)
On the flipside, I’m not someone who asks friends for edits on individual poems—which is probably to my detriment because I know some exceptional poets. It’s not an issue of ego, I can be shy amongst my peers.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Trust your own intuition. As a younger poet, I was often swayed by reputation and other poets’ starry eyes for a certain writer or press. Ultimately, my life was happier when I read what I wanted, sent my work to publications that I liked, and didn’t pander to community members if I had a bad gut feeling about them.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?
Lyric essays give off a siren’s call for me. I’ve always liked the long poem as a format. Approaching a single issue from a multiplicity of angles delights me. I love changing my mind—a trait that gets me in trouble in my personal life but seems to lend itself well to poetry.
Thanks to my (many) Gemini placements, I can play devil’s advocate with reckless abandon. It’s a matter of amusement for me—exploring ideas to their fullest and teasing out different pathways for the poem to follow down.
So, over time, these long poems that I was writing morphed into lyric essays. I dabble in calling myself an essayist, because I think it’s a touch reductionist to refer to everything I do as poetry, even if poetry is my first and most abiding love. The Only Card has two lyric essays included as “appendixes,” and for my next book-length project, lyric essays will hopefully play an even larger role.
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 writing routine is relegated to weekend mornings, at the moment, since I work a 9-to-5 marketing gig on the weekdays. Generally, I like to sleep in and then have my two coffees and a chocolatine in bed before diving into a poem (still in bed, of course).
Even if I didn’t live with chronic pain, I think I’d still write from bed. The appeal of desks alludes me.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Music. If I hit a snag in a poem, it’s generally because my mood has shifted. Like I was feeling my feelings and then I got distracted by Instagram. In these instances, I’ll put on a suitably emotive album—such as Phoebe Bridgers’s Punisher or Fenne Lily’s BREACH—and manipulate my inner state until I can write again. Sounds healthy, no?
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Laundry mats on a subzero winter’s day. I used to think that was an amazing smell as a child in Ottawa.
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?
Visual art gets my synapses firing. After I received my first CALQ grant, I booked a wintertime flight to Paris, so I could see the Ana Mendieta exhibit at Jeu de Paume in-person. It’s still one of the best decisions I’ve made. My art history knowledge is slim-to-none, so I get to just be a fan, inhabiting a state of pure appreciation and wonder as I walk through museum galleries.
Really, anything that makes me feel alive can influence my writing. To quote the wonderous Mary Ruefle, “I hated childhood/ I hate adulthood/ And I love being alive.” Being sick smashes my heart with a sledgehammer every day—but I like being here, experiencing life and translating it into poems.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This is my favourite question. It’s like show and tell in kindergarten, except I’m 30 and want to personally host a guided tour of my bookcase. Once, at a housewarming party for an old apartment, my friend and I sat on the floor beside my book collection and talked about the different titles. I’m terrible at hosting parties but I adore books, ok.
These books have been the most impactful on me (for a myriad of reasons, in no particular order): Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women and The Undying, Amy Berkowitz’s Tender Points, Tess Liem’s Obits., Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines and Book of Mutter, Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here, Richard Siken’s Crush, Lynn Crosbie’s Liar, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women and Her 37th Year, an Index, Adèle Barclay’s If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You, Natalie Eilbert’s Swan Feast and Indictus, and Sachiko Murakami’s Render.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write another book? I’m living on borrowed time with my progressive illness, so I like to say that there will be a next collection. It feels like making a pledge to optimism and to the future.
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?
A psychologist. I loved my psychology courses in undergrad and I probably should have pursued that line of work, instead of my English degree. Sometimes, I still debate going back to school for it (despite my health constraints) and offering therapy for patients also dealing with chronic illness. I’d actually like that a lot, maybe I will.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Necessity. I depend on writing as an outlet to temper my anxious and depressed tendencies. If I don’t write, you’ll notice a dramatic shift in my moods, which must mean I’m addicted to poetry. Alarming.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. I like being reminded that love is complex and intense, and often just awful. On a related note, the last great film I watched was Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu). I was pleased with myself for correctly guessing that the director, Céline Sciamma, is a Scorpio. So much smoldering want!
20 - What are you currently working on?
I guess I’m working on a manuscript? I have a folder on my ancient MacBook’s desktop labelled “NEW PROJECT,” which I hope holds the bones of my second book. Its working title is Victim Complex and I’m quite serious about that, although everyone I’ve told seems to assume I’m bluffing.