1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Before I published my first book, I looked at my friends with books as being fundamentally different from regular people, like angels or supermodels. I would hear someone say casually, “My first book is forthcoming from wherever,” and I would feel an almost physical electrical jolt. When I got a phone call from J. Michael Martinez at Noemi Press, saying that they wanted to publish my book, MOUTHS, I was stunned and had basically an out of body experience. I remember holding the phone and looking out the window, and feeling a sensation of floating but also profound confusion, and I don’t think I said anything coherent to Michael during that call.
And of course, after MOUTHS was published in 2017, I realized that my life didn’t actually feel different, and I was still looking and dreaming ahead. My second book, Oil Spell, was already on its way to press at Omnidawn Publishing. I was working on choices connected to its design and layout—it’s a complicated text visually, and the designers worked closely with me to make sure it was just right.
But on the subject of having one’s life changed, or yearning to, I’ve often felt that that intense longing is essential to being a poet. That productive, almost pleasurable, envy of the peers you admire most—that fervor to be part of a conversation that’s been unfolding in slow motion from book to book, as books respond to books and spark new thought—feels vital to creative work.
Maybe the feeling is social, and comes from needing to imagine interlocutors for a creative act which, in the case of poetry, can so often take place in solitude. Or maybe the yearning stems more from the act of creativity itself, the supernatural thrill of making something out of nothing, of putting things in relation to one another.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have an inherent resistance to categories and can’t help but see poetry, fiction, and nonfiction as facets of one another, interconnected and symbiotic. Actually, one of the recurring debates in our home is in what section a book belongs on our shelves. Does Stein’s The World is Round go with children’s literature? Or with her other poetry? Or with philosophy? And then I go looking for The Waves in the poetry section but find it with the novels, or Douglas Kearney’s Mess and Mess and in theory but I find it in poetry.
I think that my category confusion, or my unwillingness to understand writing as only one thing, plays out in a lot of my work, actually. My poetry often wants to be prose and my academic writing edges stubbornly toward lyric. Essay and poetry, especially, seem very closely connected to one another in a tradition that includes Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Lyn Hejinian, Fred Moten, Anne Boyer, Bhanu Kapil, Maggie Nelson, CAConrad. Language’s slippage reveals, in a sleight of style, the possibility for flight.
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 definitely a note-taker, and develop projects gradually out of whatever set of questions is obsessing me. My most recent book, wyrd] bird, retains much of the notebook form it sprang from. It’s a hybrid text about the 12th-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, and combines many forms: notebook entry, dream journal, and scrapbook of photographic ephemera.
When I’m not actively working on a specific project, my notebook fluidly moves in and through my thoughts like a radio transmitter, picking up bits of what I’m reading, questions, dreams, the number for the plumber, work reminders, the fact that a ladybug just landed on my page with a hollow clicking sound.
My concerns will usually coalesce and shape themselves out of that notebook, and how quickly that happens depends on the project and what’s going on in my life.
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?
I tend myself not to write poems that function as discrete units, as gemmy surfaces containing distilled meaning, that could be extracted from their context and anthologized or recited. My poems are usually messier than that. They attain meaning cumulatively, through their relationship with other poems in the book, and a line re-sounds in a new context and in a new way, and a rhyme at long distance adds another echo, and an image returns but backwards, familiar but strange.
For this reason, dividing a manuscript into sections that make sense for publication in journals is always challenging for me. So is choosing what to read at a reading.
I write out of questions that I don’t know the answer to. To me, writing feels like asking, and asking again. For that reason, my poems are like an unsettled and impermanent positing that almost immediately must find new shape.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love the social aspects of poetry, whether it’s reading poems aloud, listening to other people read, sharing work in progress, discussing revisions, or talking about favorite lines, ideas, authors. Maybe best of all, I love working with students who are just starting to develop their creative practices because their excitement and discovery are continually reenergizing. As a shy person, I often have to work myself up to these public encounters, but the social anxiety with which they are charged only (usually) makes them more valuable to me.
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?
All of my books is motivated by a different set of questions. In wyrd] bird, one of the refrains was, What would it mean to write an utterly embodied book? In Oil Spell, my questions were more around how the polyvocal arrangement of texts created surprising relationships on the page. What becomes possible or impossible about resisting violent structures of power when voices meet in new ways? And then when writing MOUTHS, I kept asking, How can one sing at the end of the world?
I also love reading theory, and maybe most obviously my writing is informed by ecocriticism, feminism, and sound studies.
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?
There are so many different roles for writers. And I think all of them are essential in different ways and at different moments. Writers document. They remember. Writers research and theorize and educate and instruct and demonstrate and illustrate. Writers create worlds, they entertain and delight. Writers warn and prophesy. Writers illuminate new ways of thinking and being, and make those new possibilities possible. Writers identify problems and ask and insist that people be better. Writers share information.
Then again, there are also insidious roles for writers. Like in the way that writers can spread hatred or lies, or excuse violence, or sell harmful products, or sew doubt in order to mislead the public and further enrich powerful corporations. Oil Spell dis-arranges these voices, invoking counterspells.
I think for my own personal writing practice, what feels most
pressing is to question. I believe that writers have a profound capacity to
question received meaning, authoritative structures of knowledge-making, and
ask what is true and untrue, what must change.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love working with editors. At Omnidawn, my editor is Rusty Morrison, and her insights always feel to me like being met on a profound and intimate way by someone who has thought deeply about my work, and in some ways understands it better than I do. I find the collaborative nature of editing to be both frightening and wildly exciting.
Actually, some of my favorite conversations with friends have
been over manuscripts-in-progress, whether theirs or mine. I love sharing wine
and just talking for hours about what’s going on in poems. Those conversations
are different from teaching, but there are many points of connection in a
workshop context. Students are generous and insightful readers of one another’s
work, and it’s enlivening to be part of those conversations as creative work
comes into being, collaboratively, through thoughtful conversations.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
As an undergraduate I remember learning that every day that Daniil Kharms failed to write, he put in his journal, “Today I wrote nothing.” I have always found that very moving, although I am not the kind of person who writes every day. I would love to write every day, but for me, the demands of life and of those who depend on me—especially as a woman—often feel more immediate.
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?
My writing routines are fluid and usually built around the
schedules of other people—of my children, my partner. I move in and out of
attention as I am able. I write when my children are sleeping, I jot notes as I
walk to the bus.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Books and music inspire my creativity. But, if I’m in a
period of not-writing, I allow that fallow time to regenerate my spirit. And
then I find that writing is still there for me when I’m ready again.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
For me, the word “home” recalls rural Ontario in the 90s. I smell viburnum, cold sweet mud from the banks of the stream, cat musk, mildew.
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 I’m always in a state of being influenced—by smells, cravings, the voices outside my window, that repetitive pinging sound, the architecture of the room, the ghosts in the space, the honking of the traffic outside.
Speaking of science’s influence, I love the “discovery” (as though poets didn’t always already know this!) that we as humans are not actually discreet beings. In an essay called “Holobiont by Birth” in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Scott F. Gilbert describes the profound imbrication of bodies with their environments, and the collaboration between bacteria and mammal bodies—like cows or humans—and insect bodies—like termites. A pregnant person develops two sets of nutrients in their milk: one for the newborn baby, and one for the bacteria that will colonize the baby’s gut. That’s just one example of many in this wonderful essay.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So many! But for my current manuscript-in-progress, I’m reading a lot of children’s literature, and so on my desk at the moment I see Counting on Community by Innosanto Nagara, Kuma-Kuma Chan’s Travels by Kazue Takahashi, a bunch by Margaret Wise Brown and Ezra Jack Keats, nursery rhymes and songbooks.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to be more involved in the physical making of books. My sister-in-law, Anna Benjamin, is a talented artist, printmaker, and paper maker, and I’m inspired by her tactile relationship to the material of paper as a thing that starts, really, as a vat of mush. She describes “pulling pages”—a phrase I always find beautiful and disorienting—and the newly born paper needs to dry for weeks before it’s ready to hold ink.
At Nion Editions, the press I co-edit with Lyn Hejinian and Jane Gregory, we work with Derek Fenner, who is incredible, and he designs and typesets our books with exceptional skill. Then we have the books professionally bound in gorgeous hardback editions. So although I feel close to each book, and have watched each go through all the stages of becoming, the process is not a physical one for me—and then they arrive at my house by mail in a glorious box of color and light.
One day I’d love to make paper, work with a letterpress, and bind books by hand.
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?
Maybe a deejay, connecting song to song and finding the edges of sounds that fit together, remixing, shaping and building a feeling, watching people dance. Or a builder who works with wood or clay, or yarn, or fabric.
But these are all ways of being a poet.
Something totally different I’d like to do is be a beekeeper. I love bees and I think I would find deep joy and peace if I devoted my days to being a custodian of their innumerable murmuring.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I guess I’ve never not been writing. But I don’t see it as a kind of doing that keeps me from other things. The relationships and activities that fill my day with their demands and joys—like being a mother or a partner, preparing food, walking with a friend, organizing an event, participating in a reading—also feel urgent and deeply connected to living a meaningful life.
Writing is the thing I do, like breathing or sleeping, that
binds my soul to my body and releases it at the same time. If I were a bird,
writing would be the sound I make.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m totally blown away by Motherhood
by Sheila Heti. I love movies but haven’t been watching very many
recently. But I was so amazed by the Heti book that I watched Teenager Hamlet, directed by Margaux
Williamson, and also co-starring Heti, and I loved it, too.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a book of essays that combines literary criticism and memoir, tentatively called Moon Room. It’s about rhyme in children’s literature, which becomes a way to think through the experience of a complicated twin pregnancy and disability in the context of species loss and climate change.