Joining us for an email interview is this year’s Poetry Contest judge, John Elizabeth Stintzi (they/she).
Stintzi’s first novel, Vanishing Monuments, was a finalist for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, her second novel, My Volcano, was a Kirkus Reviews “Book of the Year,” and her latest poetry collection, Junebat, was a finalist for the Raymond Souster award. Stintzi’s newest release is a poetry and photography chapbook titled Flamingos in the Greenhouse. She currently edits poetry for Contemporary Verse 2 and Bear Review, and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Here, Stintzi discusses the craft of writing location, utopia, and the makings of a good poem.
ROOM: How are you today? Did you do anything fun or terrible (or both at the same time) this month?
JOHN ELIZABETH STINTZI: I surprised myself by having a thoroughly enjoyable time at a major league baseball game recently. I’ve never really had the slightest interest in baseball, as a spectator, but some friends brought my wife and I to a Kansas City Royals game and I had a really good time (as someone who does not easily have a good time, that’s quite the accomplishment). So I fear I may be fated to become a (live) baseball girl.
ROOM: As someone who is working towards dual citizenship, I’m always curious about the multi-national experience; nationhood is such a bizarre and fascinating construct. You’ve talked a bit in other interviews about rural nostalgia and mentioned your childhood in Ontario. Do you miss anything about Canada? Anything you don’t miss?
JES: I don’t really miss anything about “Canada”—aside from maybe Caramilk bars and ubiquitous poutine—since there’s not all that much difference (to me) about the US and Canada, but I do miss my part of northwestern Ontario. I think the thing I am always arrested by when I return is the way that time moves (slowly). I think that’s simply a rural vs urban thing, though, and the city has always felt at 1.25x or 1.5x speed for me (depending on the city). It makes it harder to feel like there’s enough time in a day.
ROOM: Your writing shows such a vivid awareness of place, and in many ways, your novel My Volcano feels like a love/hate letter to New York. Did you intend it as such? How do you approach writing locations in your prose?
JES: I think if one reads both My Volcano and my poetry collection Junebat, it would appear that I’ve got some love/hate feelings toward New York! I don’t know that I went in intending that to be extremely legible, though I did bring the city some animosity. I love New York, but it’s an impossible place, particularly for someone of my temperament. Maybe I never lived there long enough to be okay with seeing the horrors of capitalism so close to the surface (particularly in Manhattan). The New York minute is also an alarming pace to live a life at, and it’s also such a lonely city—which I think is compounded by how big of a place it is. I know some people find their people there, but I never felt more isolated than when I was living and working there, and have always had a hard time connecting with folks who are better fits for that place. I think I definitely gave those feelings to some of the New York-based characters in that book, and I am usually drawn to placing work in spaces that I am incredibly ambivalent toward (New York, Winnipeg, back home in Ontario).
I do consider place very heavily when writing, which is a thing that has—I believe—elevated a lot of my work over the years. Junebat does this as well—it’s not just a prose thing. My stance has long been, if a piece is being set somewhere, it may as well really be set there. Which mostly just means I don’t want to write one of those books that’s set in “vaguely New York” or “basically Toronto”—I want it to be somewhere, or be nowhere (if I don’t have a firm idea of where it would be set, though I don’t know that this works as well in novels as stories or poems). I like to write about places I have strong feelings about. I like to read that kind of work as well.
I think my first two books, Vanishing Monuments (a novel) and Junebat, really were the start of setting me down the path where I want my books to feel as though they exist in the worlds they exist in. I really believe in the personal being universal, and have always found it much easier to connect to work that is really particular in its place over work that is set in that “vague wherever.” I don’t find it easy to project myself onto a place that doesn’t exist but shares characteristics of places I know; I find it much easier to bounce myself around a real, specifically drawn place I don’t know at all.
ROOM: What have you read and loved recently, and why?
JES: I’ve been trying to get back into reading lately, which has been tricky, especially with the new semester starting. A few things that have gotten me excited was Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (an oldie, but I think every few years it’s good to give yourself a dose of KV) and earlier this year The Healing Circle by Coco Picard. I think both of these were refreshing in their pacing (though they are both very different) and their humor. Both books had really clear things that they felt they were trying to communicate with me, and reminded me why I am trying to make my writings public pieces. They inspired me to keep trying to make meaning out of all this meaninglessness. I’m enjoying some other books, collections of poems and novels, but I fear if I mention them I’ll stop reading them. I am oddly superstitious about that. Though I will say I’ve just started reading a fairly new translation of Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (translated by Julia Lovell) in the hopes of fitting it into a class I’m teaching in the spring, and am having a nice time finally acquainting myself with this story.
ROOM: I’m currently working on an ‘Utopia’-themed Room issue. I love it, but it’s also made me weary that ‘Utopia’ is mostly a colonial construct. At the least, ‘utopia’ is increasingly difficult to define. When Brooke Kolcow at The Rumpus asked you for an answer on the crises of late capitalism, you said “don’t ask me how to fucking solve anything.” I relate hard to this sentiment—Do you have any thinkers or writers that you do look to for solutions?
JES: I don’t think I would ever look to a writer for a “solution” to anything, aside from perhaps boredom and hopelessness. Which I suppose are “solutions,” but I don’t think that there are many writers out there who have answers, and if there are, I probably don’t trust them. I think a book that has been really attractive to me in that way that I recently read (very late) was Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I think that book does about as much as one can do to show how fucked up capitalism is, set against how refreshing (though not perfect) an anarchist society can be. I think that book really opened up my mind in a way that I hadn’t been opened up to yet about the idea of “anarchy”—which is obviously so maligned, purposefully, in our current day and age.
So, I suppose Le Guin is one of those writers for me, or at least that book is (I have always found it easier to pledge fealty to books than writers). I continue to balk at “solution,” but I do think that books can present us with intriguing possibilities and templates, which would likely never quite work in real life, but which I think can be valuable in our journey to finding real solutions.
ROOM: Absolutely. My initial draw to ‘utopia’ is the need to envision a place to go—it’s impossible to get out of our current quagmire if we can’t envision a future we want to live in. Continuing on that theme: Outside of The Dispossessed, do you have any utopias in media that you like to escape to? (I think far too much about Star Trek—very aware that I’m outing myself as the most basic of queers.)
JES: I don’t believe in utopias, and distrust that any would be interesting for all that long. I suppose if I were forced to choose, for some reason King Kai’s planet from Dragon Ball comes to mind. At least that way I’d have some cool company (in Bubbles and Gregory) and would occasionally get my whole world fucked up (temporarily) by some of Goku’s misadventures—just enough chaos to keep things interesting.
Alternatively, I’d like to hang out in the octopus’s garden (from The Beatles’ song). “We would be so happy / You and me / No one there to tell us / What to do.” That seems to be the best kind of place (anarchy!)
ROOM: I love that interpretation of anarchist poetry from The Beatles. Speaking of poetry—how’s this for a transition?—how do you feel your poetry practice affects your prose voice?
JES: I don’t know that I feel like they affect one another too much, though I am sure others would disagree. I have an ear for language, I suppose, which works in both. Considering fiction to be something that one might, in some way, hear, is maybe what gives it that extra dose of something. But it balances atop the prose skills, rather than acting as something which could distract readers from a lack of them. Or to give readers something to grab hold of to make up for the lack of those more technical prose writing skills, as I feel like many novels-by-poets tend to do. Which is a fine thing, but I find frustrating; in most cases, I’d almost always rather read that writer’s poems.
I do think that sometimes these things hold me back from leaning more one way or the other, though, where there might be some textures I’m not reaching with my prose. That said, I’ve got some prose work that will (hopefully) one day see the light which is much more discordant in its tones. But I do think knowing how powerful words can be in a poem does help one leverage them into more effective prose sentences, and poetic structure—and its evocative proficiency—does educate how I think of the structure of many of my novels, at least. So yeah, I suppose I do think doing both makes me stronger at both, because prose keeps me humble—and utilitarian—in my language-use in a way that I think works well for my poetic voice, because otherwise I could easily just sit there waxing beautifully but with no direction or point at all.
ROOM: Do you think you’ll come back to the themes of body and gender that you wrote about in Junebat in your writing again? Or did it feel cathartic and finished once it was out?
JES: I’m really happy that Junebat was able to contain so much of that. My gender, as Junebat has probably hinted at, is no decided thing, so I think there will continue to be work where I toy around in it, but I don’t think—in poetry at least—I am going to go so headlong into talking about it to that degree. At least until I write Junebat Revisited (which is hopefully a joke). But I’ll certainly keep writing about gender and the body (I mean, My Volcano has a lot of that, just not really about mine) through my fiction.
The poetry book I’ve been working on since forever (before Junebat) is certainly one that interacts with me and gender—The Farm Boy Parallel—but it’s a little bit more about masculinity, and the ways in which that can be embodied, and the ways in which I have failed (and not failed) to embody it, and how masculinity can be a tool for some folks. Certain lives—like being a farmer—do sometimes seem to demand certain “masculinities” to survive and thrive.
ROOM: Finally, what do you look for when reading for a contest? Or maybe more specifically, how does a poem grab you?
JES: I don’t know that there’s a predictability in what will or will not catch my eye, but I think I’m drawn particularly to poems which are not trying very hard to show off. I appreciate the play—the wonder of language—but I find it hard to connect to poems where that feels like the primary thing. I like a poem that is humble in the face of language, but reverent to its power, and which surprises me with the occasional flourish that may take me five reads to feel like I’ve got a grasp of. I like to be bowled over by simple little things that prove to me that you know you’re writing a poem, like when James Schuyler tosses “owl-silent wings” into his poem “Korean Mums,” or how Seamus Heaney demolishes me with his final “a foot for every year” in “Mid-Term Break.”
I would much rather you baffle me with the wonders of the straightforward world, rather than abstract that world into something unrecognizable in the hopes of transmuting that abstraction into wonder. I always like a poem where the figurative moments sneak up on me, rather than one that is a constant barrage. I like a poem that moves a bit like the “drunken fist” style of boxing, where just when I think I know what it’s doing it punches me in the face and breaks my nose.
I also like a poem that feels like it’s pointing somewhere. It doesn’t need to be “saying something,” per se (I quickly balk when I feel I’m being preached to, because as I noted earlier, I don’t trust “solutions” from writers), but I want to feel like the poem is ambling in some sort of direction. A successful poem (by my standards, for my own work at least) should feel a bit like a living moth: I should be able to sense that there is a source of heat it’s being lured toward, be it on the page or elsewhere.
But I will steal a rule from George Orwell’s “Politics of the English Language” and just say of everything I have just said: “Break any of these rules before saying anything barbarous.” Poems are strange animals, and the only true requirement of a poem is this (to borrow from Nicanor Parra’s “Young Poets”): “You have to improve the blank page.”
ROOM: What can we expect next from John Elizabeth Stintzi?
JES: I just put out a chapbook-length poem, which utilizes photography alongside the writing, called Flamingos in the Greenhouse, which is pretty exciting. I’ve been writing a lot more poems—particularly poems which are not clearly stuck to any particular “project”—this summer, which has been great, and hopefully means even more poems from me in the world. Flamingos is really exciting as well because of how it intertwines with my photography practice, and also because it is a love letter to my little corner of Kansas City. So I hope people swing by and grab a copy of that if they’ve been hungry for new JES poetry.