Sunday, April 21, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Anna Lee-Popham

Anna Lee-Popham is a poet, writer, and editor in Tkaronto (Toronto). She holds an MFA Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University and University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Education Creative Writing Certificate, where she received the Janice Colbert Poetry Award. Her writing has been first runner-up in PRISM international’s Pacific Poetry Prize, shortlisted for The Fiddlehead Creative Nonfiction Contest and Room's Poetry Contest, and longlisted for the CBC nonfiction prize, and has been published or is forthcoming in Arc, Brick, Canthius, Riddle Fence, and Room, as well as Autostraddle and Lingue e Linguaggi. Her debut poetry collection, Empires of the Everyday, was published by McClelland & Stewart in Spring 2024.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Some of my earlier work struggled to see beyond my own life. Yet I'm interested in the ways that poetry opens writers and readers out into the world. In my collection that is about to be published, Empires of the Everyday, I had a thrill of a time with an "I" that was clearly not “I, Anna” – and that landed me in a poetic voice that carried its own weight, its own toner, cadence, its own severity. This was not a conscious construct, but rather the space that opened up to write into. It’s an approach that learned from the path forged by many other writers.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

Like many, I wrote poetry as a child – on some days, remnants of a poem I wrote as a younger person (about not being able to sleep? not counting sheep?) linger in my mind. I wrote poetry, or parts of writing that had tones of poetry, in books that I kept hidden for much of my life.

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?

Many notes, much reading, then more notes, then being out in the world, then noting that too, and back to reading. I am not sure I feel clear about when any particular project starts. While I remember a specific moment when I knew that Empires of the Everyday had taken on a shape –  laying in bed with my partner, discussing the voice of the "I",  the key questions, the piece was interested in exploring, and a clicking into a shape that seemed to be happening  – I feel that certainly these questions, possibly even the shape, were likely things I had been mulling about for years, living in the world we live in, as I do, with the relationships and interactions I get to have.

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 Empires of the Everyday, I knew it was poems that were all circulating a common project – though it took a moment, and prompting by others who were reading the poems, for me to understand it as a book. I am drawn to the expansiveness of a linked collection of poems, or a long poem. Bernadette Mayer, discussing the sonnet form, wrote “How serious notorious and public a form to think you could find the solution to a problem or an ending to an observation in one brief moment” – and this resonates with me. When I have tried to write poems that attempt to show a significant insight within the limits of a single poem, they have, in my experience, often fallen flat. This may, in part, be because for me any one thing, any one experience, always seems to hold complexity, often seems to open out to more nuance and intrigue. In this I feel in conversation with Grace Paley's writing about her relationships with her husbands. She writes "Either [of my husbands] has enough character for a whole life, which as it turns out is really not such a long time. You couldn't exhaust either man's qualities or get under the rock of his reasons in one short life." For me, this perspective extends beyond any individual or relationship to our broader world – in that it is not possible to get under the rock of the reasons of so much in our broader world, but I'm sure interested in peaking in. In this also, I am much more interested in questions than in answers – the questioning work that poetry can do, to open out more specific questions, to try "to find better questions to ask," as Canisia Lubrin discusses here.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I'm currently in the process – meaning today, this week, as I write – of Empires of the Everyday being released. Yesterday, a friend texted saying that she'd received a notification that the book is available for pick up from her local bookstore, although the publication date isn't for a few days, and so I'm in that process of having something that was written alone, shared with a few people, then a few more, then supported heavily through editing, design, and all, by the phenomenal and generous team of more people at M&S – having this book suddenly emerge out to the broader world. Public readings can feel similar, that glorious experience of a thing emerging into the world. I appreciate how something through which I am attempting to engage with the world, then gets to engage with the world itself, though I don't crave the attention on oneself that a public reading requires.

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 wrote Empires of the Everyday sparked most actively by an incident in February 2021 when the city of Toronto started to demolish plywood structures that had been built in local parks. The structures had been built in response to the chronic issue of lack of affordable housing in Toronto and the acute issues of winter in Toronto (as night time temperatures frequently reached below -10’C) and rampant cases of COVID in homeless shelters.

When the mainstream media reported on this, they focused on the safety concerns the city cited for tearing down the shelters. But, from what I read in mainstream news, there was much they left out: experiences of violence towards houseless people by police, the disproportionately impacts of houselessness on communities of color and Indigenous communities, or the ongoing history of colonialism and imperialism in the city of Toronto, including the questionable legality of the Toronto Purchase Treaty between the Crown and the Mississaugas of the Credit, in the late 1700s or the fact that in 2010, the Government of Canada settled the Toronto Purchase Claim and the Brant Tract Claim for compensation of $145 million. There was certainly no mention of the history of slavery in the city of Toronto.

There was no reason for me to be surprised by the way the media reported on this incident, or by the city’s response. But this incident and the offhand, cool, distanced, piecemeal, uncontextualized reporting hooked me.

I became curious about what a tool might look like that would communicate this history, this context, link back to what the present is built upon. I began to wonder about how AI technology might act as a sort of translator of the news. What would the relationship be between the AI technology and the human? What would it be fed so that an analysis would be brought forward that could help develop an understanding? What form would the communication take? What would be its limitations? Why use AI technology for such a process?

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 certainly come after – meaning I attempt to follow — Dionne Brand's framing in An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading that "the role of the writer… is to narrate [one's] own consciousness." Adrienne Rich has also informed my understanding of the role of poetry. In a conversation with Claudia Rankine, Rich explained: “In a time of frontal assaults both on language and on human solidarity, poetry can remind us of all we are in danger of losing — disturb us, embolden us out of resignation.”

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential. I haven't found the process difficult as of yet, though importantly humbling.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I was reading through some other interviews by other writers on this blog, and Canisia's response to this resonated with me: "Be careful not to burn out."

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?

There is no typical right now. I'm currently teaching and finding it quite expansive in terms of the time that I can put into preparing for each class. On an ideal day I write in the morning before my home, even the city, and certainly email, wake up. On an ideal day, I wake to a quiet house and write for a few hours, likely starting around 5am.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I always turn to the world, wherever the writing is at. Sometimes that's a walk or bike around the city, to the Don River, or to Lake Ontario, or it's turning on the news, or going to a space where people are wrestling with similar questions as I'm trying to hold in the writing — a community event, a podcast, a rally.

12 – What fragrance reminds you of home?

Sheets dried in the sun.

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?

Certainly all you've said – and really anything I can take in: an interaction on the streetcar, flora and fauna in the city and outside of it, a picture my brother recently sent of the northern lights, people, …

14 – What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Dionne Brand, Canisia Lubrin, Christina Sharpe, Cornelius Eady, Don Mee Choi, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, M. NourbeSe Philip, Aimé Césaire, Robyn Maynard, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Edward Said, Mosab Abu Toha, C.L.R. James, Italo Calvino, Chinua Achebe, Muriel Rukeyser, Sonia Sanchez, Claire Schwartz, Solmaz Sharif, Rita Wong, Gwendolyn Brooks, Natalie Diaz, Kaie Kellough, Yoko Ogawa, Otoniya J. Okot Bitek, Jordan Abel, Alycia Pirmohamed, Frantz Fanon, Antonio Gramsci, Gayatri Spivak, Walter Benjamin, W.E.B DuBois, the list goes on and grows frequently.

15 – What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?

Hmm, write this next book. Get outside today to play in the snow…. Live in a social world that isn't predicated on violence. You know, simple things.

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?

As a child, I dreamed of being a dancer. I loved the motion, and moments when I could feel the rhythm of a thing, and experimenting with the limits of what my body could and couldn't do, but I didn't love the idea of people watching me. Sometimes I can feel the ways that writing is an extension of those same interests.

17 – What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Writing is where I come to try to understand the world. Writing is where I come to try to engage in — as Dionne Brand noted in a phenomenal talk "Writing Against Tyranny and Toward Liberation — "reflecting, intuiting, making sense of, and undoing the times we live in.”

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa, certainly, certainly, certainly. A great book I am currently  reading is Landbridge, by Y-Dang Troeug, The film 7 Prisoners. So many more.

19 - What are you currently working on?

My current project, titled In the Hours After, follows an event I attended in Montreal, fifteen years ago, where a Longshore worker active in the South African anti-apartheid struggle discussed the movement's limitations: he believed that because they did not fully believe in their success, they failed to imagine the day after they won. As a result, they weren’t prepared for the liberatory potential after the fall of the apartheid regime — a message I've heard echoed by leaders and elders throughout my involvement in social movements over the past dozen years in Canada and the US.

In the Hours After takes up this order — to imagine a liberatory future — by building from Empires of the Everyday, which examines how the imagination of Empire that has led to the current crises is both ever-present and at times operates invisibly. The “I” of the poems in Empires of the Everyday is the voice of a piece of AI machine technology that is fed news and spits out poetry to translate life in the city into a less linear — and more comprehensive — language. That collection concludes by exploring possible endings, most of which are dire. In the Hours After examines what is next beyond these dire endings, with a focus on the liberatory.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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