|Appearance:||Interview in Touch the Donkey’s online supplement|
|Outlet:||Touch the Donkey|
Natalie Zina Walschots is a freelance writer and bailed academic based in Toronto. She writes everything from reviews of science fiction novels and interviews with heavy metal musicians to to in-depth feminist games criticism and pieces of long-form journalism. She’s recently written about her time working as a content creator for an Internet pornography company, the years-long catfishing deception behind popular Gamergate figurehead Alison Prime, and the most misandrist metal records of 2015. She is the author of two books of poetry, and is presently finishing a novel about super villainy and henchpeople, exploring the poetic potential of the notes engine in the video game Bloodborne, and writing a collection of polyamorous fairytales. She also plays a lot of D&D, participates in a lot of Nordic LARPs, watches a lot of horror movies and reads a lot of speculative fiction.
… And buy her books! I recommend her excellent DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains!
(Less of an interview and more of a conversation, as you can see from my first question — I just popped Natalie an email the other day, and this a cleaned up version of what eventually unfolded.)
Hey, you like horror films, right? What are you favourite slasher films? And why do you like them?
I love horror movies. I always have. As a little kid I was fascinated by them — I read a lot of ghost stories and SpecFic and tales of the supernatural kind of stuff, and was just starting to explore some classic horror when I had a pretty intense traumatic experience: my father took me to see Se7en in the theatres when it came out, I was I think 11. He made me sit through the whole thing, a 10 p.m. showing, even though I was so scared that I entirely froze. I remember not sleeping for days and after that the prospect of frightening films was off the table for a really long time. I would still read horror novels, and read the backs of VHS tapes and DVDs longingly, but I was too freaked out to attempt much.
It was in my very early 20s that I started to really explore the genre again. It was William Neil Scott who helped me through it. I explained my problem, that I adored horror narratives but had a trauma thing that I was having a hard time getting over, and so we improvised a course of exposure therapy. Over the course of a couple of years we watched a ton of movies together, starting with classic ’70s slashers (which were more funny than scary, but still foundational) during the day, and gradually ramped up until we watched The Exorcist late at night. That was the moment I felt like I could watch everything I was interested in. Torture porn is still something I can’t handle, the Saw movies are fine but Hostel and anything like that is completely off the table.
I have a soft spot for slashers because they were the first step in my horror recovery. I like the archetypal nature of them, the fairytale-thick symbolism. Every character is an allegory, every move symbolic. They may as well be the fucking Faerie Queene. Within the very tight bonds of the genre restrictions there’s a lot of creativity and variation, and I enjoy watching all the different ways that the steps play out. There’s both the satisfaction of having expectations met and also the novelty of it changing.
All horror is deeply cathartic for me, but it’s also an issue of relateability. No other genre more accurately reproduces my lived experience about what the world is like. Not in that there are ghosts or whatever, but that things are scary, and challenging, and sometimes straight-up want to maim or rape or kill you. It presents a model for fighting back, for winning, for emerging bloody but unbowed. Horror is also a genre that acknowledges that trauma has consequences, that it makes monsters, it leaves people harder and weirder than they were before, but victory is still possible. The stories are stranger.
My favourite slasher film is unquestionably Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. It’s a slasher deconstruction that is super funny and brilliant. It creates a world in which slasher monsters are real, but also allows a bunch of peeks behind the curtain, taking them from supernatural to manufactured. It acknowledges and plays with the archetypes brilliantly. Leslie Vernon, the horror monster in question, is deeply likeable while also being profoundly threatening. Plus the action sequences are genuinely intense. I adore it.
How do you feel about horror films, especially slasher films, as a feminist? What works or doesn’t work for you in horror, from a critical perspective — and is it the same or different from what works for you as a fan?
My feelings about horror as a feminist and as a fan are inextricably bound together, and I don’t (usually) find it helpful to separate them. What works for me, in the context of horror, is that they represent, with an accuracy that no other genre approaches, exactly how harrowing, frightening and dangerous the world can be. It’s the only place I see the fear reinforced as real and valid rather than something to dismiss or ridicule.
In particular, the fears of women (and children) are shown to be real and valid, and those who dismiss them do so at their extreme peril. There are monsters, they are trying to get you, and ignoring that gets you dead. Only fighting back and treating those fears as real leads to survival, and the sooner you get with that program, the better your chances of living will be. Women are not only cast as believable characters and reliable narrators, but also tend to be the most resilient characters (the Final Girl trope is an excellent example of this).
What I struggle with, as a feminist and a fan, are places where the genre conventions are still kind of sexist and shitty — like purity myths, the equation of sexual abstinence with virtue, and the likelihood that being sexually active will get you killed off first. The characters tend to be very archetypal, which is great in some circumstances and problematic in others. I also struggle with certain kinds of violence, but I can also find it very cathartic. It’s complicated!
One thing I find interesting and perhaps progressive in modern slasher-horror is how it borrows Gothic conventions but transmutes the “woman imperilled by a male monster and saved by a male hero” into “heroic woman imperilled by a male monster.” At the same time, it’s troublesome how these final girls tend to be masculinized or de-feminized.
I go back to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as perhaps my favourite of the genre (before it really congealed as a genre) because among other things the final girl is clearly feminine and sexual, not playing into the purity myth you mention (and yet, of zero sexual interest to the male killers!), and in that film more men than women are killed. It also interests me that the male killer, Leatherface, is feminized to some degree, especially when he’s wearing his female face, although Carol Clover has pointed out that this is common.
All of this brings me to another, related question: What do you think of female monsters? When do you find them engaging and perhaps admirable versus ridiculous or offensive?
This is a great question!
I LOVE female monsters, and I think there have been some excellent ones recently. Three of the horror movies that I’ve seen recently that have scared me the most, and that I also adore, are Mama, The Babadook, and Goodnight Mommy. I find monstrous mothers especially fascinating. I think that these monsters tackle very complicated questions of love, attachment, obsession, abuse and vulnerability in very different and eloquent ways.
I don’t think female monsters are inherently more offensive somehow than male monsters, not at all.
It seems to me like a strain of horror presents female monsters who operate to illustrate cultural fears of women that transgress social roles. I think of the Arthur Machen novella “The Great God Pan,” which was a touchstone for both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King — the monster there is a half-human woman who has a lot of social power and mobility and is seen as a corrupting force, specifically to be corrupting men, and in many ways I think it’s an anti-feminist story about these “horrible” Victorian women that don’t need men.
I feel like women don’t get to be monsters in the same way as men. They represent social fears about women more than being “simply” horrible. Like in Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is a monster but his male-ness is almost beside the point, except insofar as he relates specifically to Clarice Starling, whereas a female Lecter would be seen as illustrating something about how women move in the world.
Am I generalizing too much? Do you get this same sense that women don’t get to “be monsters” in the same way in horror, where the gender issue is always firmly and primarily in play?
Oh I disagree — I think a lot of monsters embody “maleness” pretty profoundly. In particular, a lot of male monsters embody the worst aspects of patriarchal violence: they penetrate, destroy, do violence, annihilate agency, violate. I feel like a lot of horror movies actually succeed by putting men in situations that women face regularly: being seen as prey, stalked by a predator, in danger of being injured, raped, kidnapped, destroyed, etc.
I think men and women are transformed into monsters differently. Male monsters are often extreme versions of the violence we see in the world — serial killers transformed into something supernatural, obsessive exes turned into ghosts, etc. Female monsters tend to be vessels that pain has been poured into until they have been transformed and broken into something terrible, or monstrous incarnations of things like motherhood.
That’s an interesting and (from a writer’s perspective) useful distinction. Something I’m working on is trying to produce a novel modelled in some ways on slasher films but with a female monster that is NOT one of these “vessels of pain” — someone completely without weakness, who also doesn’t serve as a cipher for male fears of women (often both get conflated — like in Dracula where Lucy works both as an “evil mother” who is feeding on children at night as the “bloofer lady” and as representing male fears of women’s sexuality).
One of the things I am struggling with is that I wonder if my goal is possible. Will any female monster who isn’t “broken” and a victim just be coded by the reader as representing some fear of women themselves, whether I like it or not, even if I strive to avoid this? Does the culture just fear powerful women so much that the gender issue overrides anything else?
I try to just work and not think too much about things as I work but it’s always a concern in my mind, how things will be “delivered” to the reader, if you know what I mean.
Man, it’s really tough — trying not to at once feed into fears about women (bloodthirsty sirens! witches!) or transform them into monstrous victims (rape ghosts! dead mothers!). The thing is, monsters are monsters for a reason: they tap into something about our culture that scares us. And that usually means playing with stereotypes to some degree. I think the key is just to do is smartly and critically, and make is as weird and complex as possible.
On another note — are you finding yourself in a similar position with your novel-in-progress on the supervillian “hench” figure … how do you handle the weight of the existing ways the genre and gender inside the genre is already coded, and maybe coded against what you’re trying to do?
In Hench, I am embracing every part of the genre in terms of the structure, but in terms of the actual embodiment of that structure, I am blowing up as much as I can. Which means it’s all about comics, of course, but there are no women in refrigerators. On the surface it appears to be about a superhero and supervillain duking it out, but really it’s about female friendship and recovering from trauma.
Thanks for talking, Natalie. This is really helpful.
Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, multimedia artist, and the author of 20 books of poetry and fiction as well as books for kids. His most recent books are the short fiction collection, I, Dr Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457 (Anvil) and the poetry collections, Moon Baboon Canoe (Mansfield), and The Wild and Unfathomable Always (Xexoxial). Yiddish for Pirates, a novel, will appear in April 2016 from Random House Canada and a new poetry collection in 2017 from Wolsak & Wynn. A PhD in music, Barwin was 2014-2015 Writer-in-Residence at Western University and the Toronto Public Library Young Voices eWrite-in-residence in 2013. He has taught creative writing at a number of colleges and universities and currently at Mohawk College. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario. GaryBarwin.com
Shopping for Deer
I went shopping for deer
there were no deer
the shopping cart became the deer
I brought it home
and turned off the lights
the seasons changed
I lived on earth
sometimes the bright sun shone
I became old
when I die, I will remember the deer
I will remember its wheels and antlers
I will remember its flesh and lightning
its womb of silver bones
from The Porcupinity of the Stars
Let’s start with this poem in its broad strokes — in a review earlier I said that “Barwin’s poetry expresses a near-religious faith in poetry’s transcendence, its ability to forge meaning rather than simply convert meaning into money.” You said that you disagree with this, or at least don’t fully agree — I’d like you to comment on my comment, but let’s get there through the poem.
I feel that when it comes to forging meaning, “it’s complicated.” It’s not that I don’t believe that poetry or “the poetry experience” can’t construct meaning — and a meaning that is somewhat sometimes able to elude being co-opted by capital — but I believe it’s a question of what kind of meaning and where it is located. For me, the issue is connected to my interest in non-realistic forms of representation, of moving outside of the consensual forms of reality (including grammatical reality), those that are sold to us by mainstream culture and master discourse. In this poem, I think I could make an argument for the shopping cart as an image that resonates with this. By not consenting to a normative notion of reality and representation, or at least by problematizing it, I think the poem attempts to open up the implicit assumptions about the reality we are “sold.”
It’s also true that I am intrigued by poetry’s ability to create an aura of meaning, a husk of numinosity, resonant meaning-ripples moving out from the signifier and/or signifying empty or ambiguous centre. To get all Basho about this: “plop” = centre, “water-sound” = ripples. The writer and reader are somehow involved in the concepts of water, leap, and frog. But the relationships are destabilized, not quite what they seem. I do think it “begs” these questions.
This puts me in mind of a favourite few lines of Wordsworth’s from when I was an adolescent (and yes, I had friends…really…)
Oh! grant me Heaven a heart at ease
That I may never cease to find
Even in appearances like these
Enough to nourish and to stir my mind.
— “A whirl-blast from behind the hill”
I think about how the “appearances,” in addition to the “natural” world and human culture, are also the process and results of signification, of metaphorization. Of enlanguaging.
Here’s how I like to look at “Shopping for Deer”: the first stanza forges a metaphor (shopping cart as deer) but the real metaphor, the one that gets overlooked (by people who read the poem as about homelessness, or hunting, which are the two common ways I see it interpreted) is this: the shopping-cart deer fusion is the vehicle in a metaphor where the tenor is metaphor itself. The poem then becomes an extended metaphor for how central metaphor is to our lives and our understanding of our lives, and of course is our only way to somehow comprehend death.
I do really like how you look at it — the tenor being the metaphor. The message is the medium.
This chimes with what I’ve said above about consensual ways of conceiving of the world, I think. We see the world metaphorically. Is it that perception is a metaphor for itself or that our world is always metaphor for itself?
I also see the deer/shopping cart metaphor as engaging with an exploration of the relation of the technological or human-made and the construction of nature and the natural. What ideas are embedded in the concept of the pastoral and how does it relate to the modern world? In this sense, the poem explores ecopoetic concerns. I think that the poem asks if shopping can be considered as hunting and gathering. Are shoppers (i.e. the modern person) both hunter-gatherers and consumers of the spoils of hunter-gatherers?
And as for death, I hear it is inevitable, but I’m waiting until it’s all over before I make my final determination. To click on that ultimate shopping cart and “check out.” But I think the fact that we have the possibility of metaphor, the possibility of both engaging in and feeling a kind of poiesis is how we can try to, if not understand, then at least reckon with our world of life and death and the experiences in between. To have it to “both nourish and stir our mind.”
Can you explain a bit about how you came to write this poem? I understand it was inspired by an image by Banksy?
First of all, as I walked about the city (Hamilton, Ontario), I kept discovering deer. Deer in the woods. Deer on the road and on the lawn bowling field, deer in the park, late at night as I walked through the mist with my dog. And I’d find shopping carts nestled in alleyways, nuzzling telephone poles. Shopping carts tipped into rivers. Carts that had strayed far from their grocery store.
I had been thinking about how we respond both emotionally and intellectually to human-made materials versus those of the “natural” world. How the modern pastoral might include a toaster, a TV, sheep and a cellphone. And perhaps beyond the pastoral, how an ecopoetics would include wire clothes hangers, a gas giant, an echidna, and tractors. I’d been following the blog Next Nature whose philosophy states that, “Where technology and nature are traditionally seen as opposed, they now appear to merge or even trade places,” and considering the notion of biomimicry and how we populate our image banks and metaphor hordes with a kind of conceptual pareidolia or technological/nature synaesthesia. In other words, we tend to biomorphize. On the Next Nature blog, I came across this image by Bansky which was a resonant conflation of shopping cart with prey.
The conflation of shopping cart with prey seemed apt. Of course there is the visual rhyme: the rectangular box-form and four wheels of the cart resembles the torso and legs of the imagined prey. (It also conjures for me a gurney and a coffin in a procession.) The carts often seem to roam and graze across the urban grasslands. But, unlike Banksy, I was interested in the cart/prey image in the “developed” world. We are hunter-gathers as we prowl the city for product, pulled by the tracks and scents of our commodity prey, picking and choosing, both hunting and gathering. And there is the implicit movement of capital, of commodification, of marketplace in the transaction. The shopping cart is the “check-out” symbol on websites.
And what does the image of the deer mean in our culture? I’m thinking back to the heads of deer on medieval castle walls, on the modern hunter’s wall. The deer carried on a stick back from the hunt, or on the roof of an SUV. The deer as spoil. The ballads about the aristocracy’s control of deer. As a symbol of wealth and power. I think of, for example, a song that I love, “Geordie” where the eponymous geordie “stole sixteen of the King’s wild deer,” — the “wild” deer “belong” to the king — and so the geordie is sentenced to death for hunting them.
But there’s also deer-headed people in cave drawings who I think are shamanic. And so the deer is a portal, a gateway between worlds. As I said, between the human and the non-human (whether animal, commodity, object) but also between the worlds of life and death, the immanent and the transcendent, the phenomenal and the noumenal, the material and the spiritual. But as I see the glinting silver of the shopping cart, its strange yet familiar shape, I see these dualities in the image of the shopping cart also. I feel that it’s not me doing the Shklovskian ostranenie but the world is making me strange to myself.
I assume you wrote the poem operating with the image more surrealistically, without trying to develop it metaphorically. Can you respond to my reading here by way of explaining how you see yourself working in poetry to forge or even resist meaning?
So, in terms of your question about the actual writing of the poem, it’s true I don’t begin with an explicit concept of what an image or trope means, but rather feel its heft and location in multidimensional meaningspace, culturespace, or languagespace. That is, how it feels to me as material — what it suggests in terms of development as an image, what might go with it, or where it might go formally. “Meaning” per se isn’t something that I consider except, as you suggested, to resist it colonizing the poem with big-booted obviousness.
Putting my ear to the verbal track usually means that there will be some “meaning” coming down the line in some form, though I won’t know what it is until it arrives. My usual line is that “the writing knows more than I do.” This means that I try to trust the language to take shape and self-organize, the way interstellar dust gradually forms planets, comets, and other space objects. I feel like I am tapping into language and culture this way and the result will be much more complex, subtle, and interesting than if I tried to impose my likely more monolithic and simplistic ideas and meanings.
Of course, it some way it necessarily will reflect the shape of my looking, the way I see or am able to conceive of language and culture as I work with the material until I’ve shaped it into—or discovered within it—a satisfying aesthetic shape. (By the way, I do hope you are enjoying the ongoing unfolding and salmagundi braiding of my mixed and mashed metaphors. Perhaps they’re reflective of the heterophony of my thinking on this. Or just lazy bloody noise.)
Your earlier draft of the ending stanza read this way:
When I die, I will remember the deer.
I will remember its wheels and antlers.
I will remember its silver bones that are
a womb for flesh and lightning.
Then, you moved to this:
When I die, I will remember the deer.
I will remember its wheels and antlers.
I will remember its womb of silver bones.
Can you talk about how you (1) moved from one draft to the other, and then how you (2) combined elements of both drafts to produce your “final” version (the one in your book The Porcupinity of the Stars, which is reproduced above)?
I can’t quite remember the process, but looking at these various drafts, I can see how the last two lines of the original draft are more pedantic or at least less energetic (“its silver bones that are” is a much more passive construction). Also, “[i]ts silver bones” isn’t as interesting or surprising (for a shopping cart) whereas a “womb of silver bones” is much more so, both imagistically and sonorously.
The image relates the part of the cart meant for carrying to a womb, which brings in lots of interesting associations: the cart as a female body, as a mother figure, as (re)productive, as a source of birth. But yet this fecund place is metallic (silver) — maybe that glitter is magical or alchemical or symbolic — or maybe fruitless?
Likewise “bones.” Is that a fetal image or one of death? What is a “womb of bones”? It doesn’t sound good, quite like a death image, although of course we grow bones inside the womb and they’re not the dry rattling Wasteland bones of T.S. Eliot. I have a line in the same book describing fetuses as “soft-fisted swimmers.” What if they were silver-fisted?
I wonder how this “womb of silver bones” relates to shopping? To cultural icons? The poem refers to getting old and aging with is, of course, related to birth and the life cycle. Also, the w of womb and wheels plays nicely and there is an interplay with the o of womb and of bones, and those m’s in remember.
As you note, in the final draft, I put back the “flesh and lightning” which I liked for its contrast of images (this is also present in the womb and the silver bones line). All the way through the poem, there’s a contrast between the organic and the non-organic and how they relate. And also, between some kind of energy — “light” or “lightning” or life-force — and the corporeal (whether embodied in a deer or shopping cart) so I can imagine why I added the line back in.
I can also see why I chose to end with the “womb of silver bones” line — that’s a stronger image and one that ultimately embodies the energies of the poem. It also has a better rhythm and sound for ending the poem, I think.
Your earlier versions of the poem contained normative capitalization and punctuation, as the ending drafts show, and I’m wondering why you moved away from this?
There are two reasons. One is that in putting poems together in a book, I want to standardize how I handle punctuation and capitalization so that when there is a deviation it is meaningful, either in terms of semantic or musical notation. In this book, I opted for no capitalization (except for the first person “I”) and to reduce the use of punctuation wherever possible. Part of this is an impulse toward minimalism and concision: I try to use only the signs that are absolutely necessary and include nothing extraneous or non-essential. Part of the decision also stems from the thought that I am signaling that this is specialized linguistic space. It’s not expository text but a particular kind of textual music.
I also like the idea of the contrast between the energy of the poems (their “meaning” or their images) and the fact that they are made from such unpresupposing and plain materials. Even the choice of a very simple and inconspicuous unselfconscious typeface is part of that.
When you are making changes in editing like this, what are the typical things you are trying to do? In other words, what are your usual editing goals, other than the vague “improve the poem”?
As I mentioned, I do try to eliminate anything extraneous, to compress and compact. I try to remove any weak spots, any dips in energy, any “filler” or merely functional text. I look for opportunities to tweak the poem in order to create the most energy. This doesn’t mean that the poem is necessarily a blur of high-intensity gesticulation. Sometimes it means that it is a quiet yet steady flow, or perhaps, better, an ebb and flow. I look for places that I haven’t considered, places that aren’t doing anything particular and see if I can make something of them. I also see if by changing the order of lines or images, or by eliminating or modifying words, phrases, or images, or by reorganizing the shape or size of stanzas, and linebreaks, I can generate more textual electricity at whatever is the appropriate wattage for the particular poem.
When I teach, I tell my students to “trust the writing, it knows more than you.” I try to be guided by this. I really believe that by trying not to get in the way or impose one’s own expectations or desires, but rather by listening carefully, by looking for opportunities and possibilities and then by tinkering, tweaking, buffing and shining to attempt to bring out the innate music of the poem (whether punky, brash, luminous or shimmery), the inherent “genius” of the language and culture will make the text far richer than if you relied on your own conscious desires for it.
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The Porcupinity of the Stars
28 January 2016
Kathryn Mockler is the author of the poetry books The Purpose Pitch (Mansfield Press, “a stuart ross book,” Spring 2015), The Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books, 2012), and Onion Man (Tightrope Books, 2011). Her writing has been published in The Butter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Found Press, Geist, and This Magazine. Currently, she is the Toronto editor of Joyland: a hub for short fiction and the publisher of the online literary and arts journal The Rusty Toque.
Kathryn’s other books are available here:
Humanity is stopped in its tracks when everyone is sterilized to eliminate the human race. Basically it’s mass suicide.
Wow that’s a good idea.
They’ve decided to let the plants and animals take over to see if they fare any better.
So in this scenario getting pregnant is the worst thing you could do for mankind.
Yes, it’s worse than serial killers.
This sounds romantic. This sounds too good to be true.
I read your poem “Serial Killers” not long after reading Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM ), in which he outlines the philosophical history of pessimism and the idea that consciousness is an evolutionary mistake and humans should march into self-extinction. I then watched the first season of True Detective ( Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM ) and recognized wholesale borrowings from Ligotti there, when Rust is going on about the same ideas.
By the time I read “Serial Killers” the idea wasn’t so weird, but when I teach the poem students are shocked by the extreme oddness of the idea. I’m wondering, first of all: how did you come to grasp this concept and write this poem?
First of all, this concept is basically my world view which is the reason I enjoyed the first season of True Detective and Ligotti (which you had recommended to me a while back). I’m not one of those people that think life is good and we should be grateful to have been born.
I think life is pretty much a horror show and no one gets out unscathed. There are moments I enjoy in life and there are things and people I like and love of course especially my husband and my sister and mother—I’m not dead in inside (completely!), but on the whole if someone (or my parents) had given me a choice to live or not exist then my choice would have been, no thanks, I’ll pass on life.
The first line of the poem Serial Killers is screenplay idea that I’m developing. Jason Camlot edited The Saddest Place on Earth and he sent me about 10 or 15 suggested titles and just said go and write a bunch of poems from these titles. He gave me one week to do this, and Serial Killers was one of the titles.
That week I wrote about 15 poems. Of course a bunch were terrible and didn’t make it into the collection, but having the title prompts and time limit put the right kind of pressure on me and I was able to write a lot. In my searching for poems and ideas, I started flipping through my notebooks and pulled out the tag line for a screenplay that I was working on: “Humanity is stopped in its tracks when everyone is sterilized to eliminate the human race.”
I thought this line kind of fit nicely with the theme of the book, so I just used it as the starting point for the poem and just went from there.
But essentially the poem is literal and describes the way I actually feel about the world and humanity.
This poem, like many of yours, can be read either as a monologue or a dialogue. How did you hit on this structure and why did you find it appropriate for this poem?
Many of the poems in The Saddest Place on Earth and my recent book The Purpose Pitch have a dialogue or monologue structure. I don’t try to do it, but it just comes out that way.
You know, I’ve never written a play, but I think I might be a frustrated playwright because almost all my stories, poems, and even my screenplays are more like plays than anything else.
The poem resembles poetry less than it resembles a movie story pitch meeting. In fact, I sometimes use this poem in screenwriting classes to show how you can start developing a story by teasing out the implications of a basic premise (since a premise is not a story). You teach at a film school — how do you find film influencing your poetic writing?
Although I started writing poetry first as a creative writer, the majority of my adult writing life has been as a screenwriter. I went to UBC and my thesis was a feature film which was optioned and went through a long development process but didn’t end up getting made. In 2005, I went to the Canadian Film Centre where I had a couple of short films made.
I started writing poetry again in 2008 after becoming really frustrated with the film world. Having to rely on funding to create something really bothered me, so I went back to writing poetry where I didn’t need a grant or millions of dollars to write what I wanted. But I really identified as a screenwriter and had a lot of trouble when people called me a poet.
I still don’t really think of myself as poet even though I write poetry. I turned to poetry for creative freedom. Although I absolutely love reading poetry and I’m passionate about publishing it, I’m not much interested in the concerns of poets—especially all the infighting. I’m not interested in rules or any kind of poetic purity. I write what I want and I call it a poem if I feel like it.
Partly my attitude towards poetry is a reaction to the structure of film writing and the reliance on other people and money. If you’re a screenwriter and you’re not directing the film you’re writing, you don’t have creative control and that is something I wanted again and poetry gave it to me.
It’s not surprising, given my background, that the poem would resemble a pitch meeting because I had spent so many years pitching scripts and ideas to other writers, directors, producers, and agents.
Image is at the heart of both genres and that’s what makes them not so different from each other. Film writing is really visual story telling and there’s a lot of poetry in film writing because of that. Harmony Korine’s films scripts, for example, read like poems.
The big difference between the genres of course is that filmmaking and screenwriting require collaboration. I teach in a creative writing program, and one thing I really try to help my students develop in my screenwriting classes is their ability to give and receive feedback and to work with others.
I tell them that if you want to be an asshole be a poet because poets don’t need to rely on anyone, but if you want to work in film, you need to learn how to work with others. Not that there aren’t asshole directors and screenwriters, but, wow, it really sure helps a lot when you’re starting out to not be an asshole.
The ending line often shocks and startles readers. Did you have alternate endings for this poem, in earlier drafts? How did you hit on that ending line?
To be honest, I can’t really recall how I came to this ending. Endings are usually instinctual for me. But in dialogue poems, I think I’m conscious of trying to say something unexpected to avoid the poem from getting repetitive or boring.
I guess having a speaker say that the extinction of the human race is romantic is something that one might not expect at the end of a poem.
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21 November 2015
Armand Garnet Ruffo draws on his Ojibway heritage for his writing. In 2014, his creative biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird appeared with Douglas & McIntyre. In 2015, The Thunderbird Poems, poems based on the paintings of the artist, was published by Harbour Publishing. He currently lives in Kingston and teaches at Queen’s University.
Photo credit: Pearl Pirie
Your two most recent books, the biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird and the poetry collection The Thunderbird Poems, both come out of your research into and engagement with Norval Morrisseau’s life and work. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to Morrisseau and his artwork, and why you found yourself responding to his work in these different ways?
I have to say at the outset that from the very first time I saw Norval Morrisseau’s work at Robertson Gallery in Ottawa in 1982, I was mesmerized by it. Of course I had seen his work in magazines prior but I’ll never forget the first time I actually saw his paintings. Of course I wanted one! So I guess I have always been drawn to Norval’s work.
And it goes without saying that Norval Morrisseau’s best work is magnificent and a truly singular achievement. I mean he created his own style of art! And for someone of Ojibway heritage like myself, it is a profound statement about cultural survival, and beyond to rebirth.
That said, what got me onto Norval’s trail so to speak was an invitation by the National Gallery of Canada to write something for the Norval Morrisseau “Shaman-Artist” retrospective catalogue, and one thing led to another until I had the two books. I have to say though that at first I was hesitant. Like many people, I had heard a lot about him, but I really didn’t know very much. Right from the beginning, then, I knew that if I took on the project I would have to learn a great deal, everything from visual art history, aesthetic theory, Ojibway material culture, the Ojibway oral storytelling tradition, about the Ojibway “Manitous,” and I knew it would be daunting. Not to mention that I would have to learn the details of his life!
So while I was thinking about all of this, I guess you can say I had a kind of epiphany, where I suddenly realized that his life was indelibly connected to what had happened to Aboriginal people in Canada during the first half of the 20th century. (He was born in 1932 or thereabouts.) Sure he was unique because of his artistic gift, and he had an extraordinary life, but what happened to him, the abuse, the poverty, the displacement, the stereotyping, was conversely not unique to him.
Furthermore, the NGC ended up giving me carte blanche as to how I wanted to approach the subject, which also opened a door for me, and which I found both intriguing and challenging. And so, after the NGC’s catalogue came out, I continued to work on the project, and I ended up with the two books. I’m still not sure how that happened, but the poetry came naturally, if not always easily, and in the end there were simply too many poems to include in the one book.
There is connection between the two books other than just the subject matter, because I included a few of the more lyrical pieces in the biography and a few of the longer prose poem pieces in the poetry collection. I like the idea that they are connected in more ways than one to each other.
What went into your decision to blur the borders between poetry and criticism, as you do (for example) when you preface the poems in The Thunderbird Poems with notes about Morrisseau’s life and art and sometimes respond to or comment on the paintings themselves?
I did that for practical purposes, because I figured that some of my readers would know little about Norval’s life and probably even less about Ojibway culture. I wrote the poems first and then went back and added the prose, but once I started doing it, I realized that it was exactly what the poems needed; to my mind, the “commentary,” or criticism as you call it, adds a kind of gravitas to the book.
I was also interested in adding another form to the book, something that would mirror the poetry. Form and genre is something that has always interested me.
What are some of the challenges of writing about a real person, either in biography or in poetry, where you need to respect them and their families but also maintain a certain distance and perhaps be critical?
That’s a tough one, isn’t it? First, I can say that I adhered to the facts of Norval’s life as I understood them. In other words, I never tried to make anything up. If I have him riding the taxi-boat from Cochenour to McKenzie Island, rest assured he took the taxi-boat! As for personal things that might be controversial, like sexual abuse, I tried not to leave anything out but at the same time I did not want to sensationalize things either.
I think that’s one of the reasons the poetry happened. I found that I could handle things in the poems that would have been difficult in the prose. I found I could say things through implication in the poetry that I would have had to spell out in prose at the risk of sounding sensational. To my mind, then, I think the two books compliment each other in that together they serve to bring all the disparate facts and events to light.
I suppose you could say they echo each other to provide a kind of dimensionality to Norval; together they plumb straight down into his life and art.
Morrisseau’s work is well-regarded and its importance is established. How might you have approached the books differently if he was relatively unknown? What benefits or difficulties does his already-existing reputation provide?
Certainly it would have been a very different book, because Norval’s fame is part and parcel of who he was; for example, the money that came with the fame allowed him to do things that most artists can only dream about. Think about it, he never had to worry about his material life. He constantly had a following of groupies, apprentices, and acolytes, whatever you want to call them, who basically worshipped the ground he walked on. No unknown artist could possibly have had the life that he led, sold out shows, everyone constantly after him, wanting to represent him, wanting to be his friend.
The most difficult thing I encountered as a biographer was that there were people who knew Norval, but, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t talk to me. Norval was a very complex person, and likewise his relationships were very complex. On that note, I was lucky — though Norval probably wouldn’t call it that — because despite his fame, mine is the first full-length book about him, and so I didn’t have to compete for the story.
Conversely there were many people who were eager to talk about him. It’s also interesting to note that while Norval has this huge reputation, few people actually know the full story of his life. People could tell me about a small portion of his life, some aspect of it, such as the “Red Lake Years,” for example, but not much else. So it was left up to me to piece all these disparate facts together.
And, yet, there are still many, many untold stories about him, and I suspect there will be other books, though probably none using the narrative and poetic techniques I’ve employed. In fact, I know a scholar who is currently writing an academic book about him.
Outside of the fact that they are generally regarded as his masterpieces, what made the paintings of “Man Changing Into Thunderbird” so important to you, so that you titled both books around them and so on?
To put it in a nutshell I think the theme of transformation is central to Norval Morrisseau’s life. As I say in the book, he was always the thunderbird man changing into someone else. For example, he had this ability to walk away from people, his family, friends… objects, his art, personal possessions… whatever, and simply move on. How many times did he start over in another part of the country? Only later to move on again.
The theme thus connects him to the idea of rebirth, starting over, relapsing, one step forward and one step backward, and I think this too is integral to who he was. And, further, I see it representing his deep-rooted connection to his Ojibway culture, the mythology and epistemology of the Anishinaabe, which informed who he was as an “Indian” (as he always said) and, of course, as you note, to his artistic practice — which, I can say with confidence, will live on as long as human-kind has a place for art and beauty in the world.
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Kayla Czaga is the author of For Your Safety Please Hold On (Nightwood Editions, 2014), which won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Debut-litzer. Her chapbook, Enemy of the People, is published by Anstruther Press. You can follow her on twitter @kaylaczaga.
Photo credit: Janet Kvammen
This is a game for girls: putting a hat
on the cat, putting pants on
the cat, drawing a turkey by tracing
her hand. Little girls like cats.
A dress is a game with armholes.
A dress is played with a waistband.
A waistband is a game with a firm
winner and sore loser. A dress is
plaid or floral or polkas. Dispersed
vertically with gathers, a dress is
a section of flowers in a dancehall.
A waistband plays flat music a little
girl will twist. This is a set list. You
play a girl by flipping through her.
the girl crayons little girls are like that
the little boy is blue
the duck is yellow
the duck is yellow tumbles forever into the green lake
the beginning of the black cat waxes in the red tree
the little girl is a sweet sad colour–bruised or blushing?
the little girl holds out her blank hands toward the little boy is blue
the little girl holds out her hands filled with little girls are like that
the sweet sad colour accumulates in the pencil sharpener
the little girl tumbles forever into the boy is blue
the little boy is blue accepts little girls are like that
the little girl is faceless until she colours it on
A girl is game with how many licks
gets to her centre. Little girls like
a firm licking. Little girls play will he
call on the third or fourth day
after a successful date. Little girls
play Friday flip-up day. What did
he mean, keep it casual? What did
he mean, that girl is asking for it?
A girl replays twenty unsayable
questions in her head. Little girls
lose the game inside their heads.
What was she asking for, exactly?
This poem covers a lot of ground, from childhood gender indoctrination to rape culture apologists — I think it works partly because of the four-part structure. Do you ever pre-plan this kind of structure, or does it develop in a different way, when you work on poem sequences?
When I started writing the poem, I knew it would have sections. I was trying to make the content and language age throughout the poem, becoming older and darker, and it seemed that sections would make this progression more graceful. I didn’t preplan specifically for four sections — it just sort of ended up there. I’m glad it seems to work for you even though I think three or five sections generally feels more stable.
Every time I write a poem, I have to improvise a structure to contain its content. They never completely come out in the same way twice. I always have to ask, “why this length of line?” “sections or no?” “stanzas?” Some are more similar to other poems [in the book] — “for play” was similar enough to “gertrude stein loves a girl,” and “I forgot to mention the thunderball,” echoed “Gone is the VHS. Gone is the Whir.” enough that I could reuse formal elements between those pairs of poems.
This poem recalls Gertrude Stein stylistically, which is something many poets attempt and few pull off. I think it works especially well in the third section, which contains my favourite line in this poem, “the duck is yellow tumbles forever into the green lake.” You play with Stein-esque lines elsewhere in your book For Your Safety Please Hold On — can you explain why you chose to tackle Stein lines and what you had to do in editing to make them work?
There is something so subversive and sexual about Stein’s writing. I knew as soon as I read her that she was teaching me to write about some of the things I wanted to explore — sexuality, violence, the strange half-there memories of childhood. Her style and my subject matter were a perfect fit.
When I overthink and tinker with Stein, she falls apart. Instead, I read her over and over to absorb her music as if I was a sponge. It was like rereading picture books to learn language. Every time I reread her, her work felt new to me. Then I started mimicking her in a playful way tangential to my subject. I knew that if I tried to tackle sexual violence and gender roles head on, my poems would be too polemical and tract-like. I had to get there through images, through colour and music, in a more-body-than-head way.
Why did you break up the two cat games and the line “little girls like cats” with talk of the turkey drawing in the first part? Did you play around with other images here? Can you give an example of an image you cut from this poem and explain why?
I know there’s a term in music or poetry that describes when a piece deviates from a pattern to create tension and then returns to it for closure, but I’ve forgotten what it is. I was trying to do that.
I chose the cat and turkey for several reasons:
1) I did both of those things as a girl.
2) I think they sound like funny and musically rich things.
3) There’s mention of a turkey in one of my other Stein poems: “gertrude stein loves a girl.”
4) Stein also uses the image of a turkey (and a very large one) in “Idem the Same: A Valentine for Sherwood Anderson,” which is a poem I love.
3 & 4 b) In both Stein’s and my other use of turkey, “size” is referenced. I was talking about eating disorders and Stein was asking what the difference between a medium sized turkey and a very large one was. There are undertones of body policing in this poem (i.e.: the waistband), so the turkey was sort of meant tangentially to tie into that conversation.
Those images came out very naturally together, so nothing was cut in editing that section. I’m sure that I made cuts in other parts of the poem, but I don’t keep copies of my edits and the poem was written so long ago that I can’t remember.
The third section has a nice move from the child colouring to a woman putting on makeup, two images you suture with the verbs “crayons” and “colours.” You also parallel the phrase “little girls are like that” at the start and end of that section. How much of editing for you is finding and developing, or adding, these kinds of parallels? Or do you spend most of your editing time on other things?
I find most of my editing time is spent cutting redundancies and improving rhythm. I may have added a repeat of “little girls are like that,” but it would’ve been more for sound than sense. I find that most of those parallels that you pointed out are found in my primary writing process during which I throw a lot of things on a page and see what sticks and what echoes, where the ideas and images and emotions want to go. My editing process is more of the flower arrangement/pruning part.
Your line “the little boy is blue” obviously refers to gender stereotypes but it could also be read as an allusion to the nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue.” I’m wondering if you intended that, and also: (a) if you did, does it matter to you if a reader doesn’t notice it, and (b) if you didn’t, does it matter to you if a reader reads that in? How much do you try to guide readings when you write/edit?
I didn’t intend that reference, but I think it works. My friend spotted the “pink triangle” as a reference to a Nazi concentration camp badge (also unintentional.) I think that every reader is going to bring something I didn’t intend to my poems as a result of their own unique experiences. I read an essay in which Mary Ruefle talked about someone finding some of her poems funny, when they were sad for her. I think it would be a never-ending and joyless mission to try to control a reader’s whole experience even though one might want to.
Part of the fun of poetry for me is its openness to interpretation. A poem is a game that both the writer and the reader get to play. It depends on the thinking and pattern recognition of both parties. I am sometimes sad when a reader doesn’t pick up on some nerdy thing I did in a poem, but that’s a result of those differing experiences that made her pick up on some strange unintentional allusion or technique.
I do have a group of peers with whom I share my drafts and whose feedback I listen to closely, so if they say, “hey, Kayla, this made me really uncomfortable,” or “I think you are being unintentionally offensive,” I’ll listen. Likewise, if they point out a potential reference that the poem could be using better, I will look into it.
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31 August 2015