A series in which Isabella is excited about everything that is happening at Growing Room 2019, so she sat down with some festival authors to hear about their work, and what events they are most excited to take part in.
Triny Finlay is a queer writer who lives in Fredericton. Her most recent poetry collection is You don’t want what I’ve got (Junction, 2018). Learn more about the 2019 Growing Room festival by visiting our website, festival.roommagazine.com.
ROOM: Hello, Triny, I’m delighted to get the chance to join you here. First of all, your poetry chapbook, You don’t want what I’ve got, just came out with Junction Books this past year. CONGRATULATIONS! Tell us more about this collection and how it came to be. Talk us through the process. Why did you decide to structure the book in the form of a long poem, with a series of interconnected vignettes, rather than pose them as individual poems.
TF: Aw, thanks so much for your kind words, Isabella! So my recent chapbook, You don’t want what I’ve got, represents my own experiences with mental illnesses and their treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy (“shock therapy”) and its after-effects. It’s a long poem that took years to write, for many reasons: because I have been severely mentally ill for years, suffering both from the conditions of those illnesses and from the side effects of the treatments I was receiving. Because, despite so many corporate-sponsored PR mechanisms (such as “Bell Let’s Talk Day”), mental illness is still so stigmatized that it’s difficult to go public with personal experiences. Because I needed space and time to work through those experiences (amid ongoing, chronic mental health issues)—with my treatment team, in my relationships, and in my own writing.
Several years after my experiences with ECT, I took a long poem I’d been working on for nearly a decade, and I scrapped about 75% of it. I’d been writing this book-length narrative poem about unrequited love, mapping characters and plots and thinking of it like a novel. After years of feeling that this project just wasn’t working, I asked myself, Why am I writing about unrequited love in the first place? Do I need to expose its arteries? Do I need to upend that convention? So I took out all the sex poems and trashed them. I slashed away at the rest. It was only ever peripherally about love and sex—it was also about madness and obsessive behaviours. It was only ever peripherally make-believe. I carved it down to something else, something about what it’s like to lose your mind in multiple ways, something about learning how to recover. It turned out to be as loose, as troubled, and as broken as my truth, and the parts that were left became the chapbook You don’t want what I’ve got.
Now that this long poem is officially out in the world, I’m ready to talk more, and more often, about these radical subjects: debilitating mental illnesses; how we treat the mentally ill (medically, socially, professionally); how that treatment can affect the mentally ill; and how we can represent those experiences in poetry.
ROOM: In the long poem, you speak to the effects of having debilitating mental illness, and how it makes you feel “Separate head from body.” You also work to address the stigma surrounding it, with the incredibly powerful lines, “They call it a spiral, but it does not resemble/a spiral. They call it the black dog, but it’s no/tame animal.” These are important conversations that are often left out in our everyday discussions. I’m sure that this chapbook will resonate deeply with its readers, but I’m interested to know what you are hoping to get out of it. What conversations are you hoping to raise? What conversations do you feel we need to have going forward?
TF: One of the major obstacles when we bring mental health issues to the table is that often the people who end up talking about it, writing about it, treating it, legislating it, and trying to accommodate it in the workplace are the people least affected by it personally, and therefore least able to understand the nuances of actually living and working with it. Or maybe there’s so much at stake for people in positions of power that they aren’t willing or able to acknowledge the impact of difficult issues such as mental illness—in the same way that issues of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are often recognized generally in many institutions, but not on an individual or practical level. This is why I wanted to write a long poem about what it’s like to lose your mind in multiple ways: through mental illnesses, and through the medical and social treatment of those illnesses. I wanted to write a long poem about breaking; about severe depression and psychosis; anxiety and OCPD; panic attacks and racing thoughts; compulsive behaviours and paranoia. About ECT and the terrible after-effects I experienced; multiple suicide attempts and judgemental ER docs; psych ward life. About stigma.
I’ve been thinking a lot about, and reading a lot of, literature that deals with mental illness, or “madness,” as its main subject. Historically, there is a strong connection—in medicine, in literature, in language—between women and madness (think of the Greek root of the word “hysteric,” which means “belonging to” or “suffering in” the “womb”/uterus). These days, people are writing more nuanced accounts of the medical and social impacts of mental illnesses; however, there is still a need for more complex, first-hand, and feminist accounts of these experiences. Memoirs such as Mark Lukach’s My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward—which documents his struggles while dealing with his mentally ill wife, Giulia, and how her illness affected their marriage—are topping bestseller lists, and I find the concept of that Lukach book troubling, especially the implication that his voice is primary and crucial to this conversation (do we need a cisgender white man speaking for the marginalized, aligning heteronormative ideas about love and marriage with sanity?); that mental illness and psych ward life should be represented and commodified by those who don’t actually suffer through these experiences first-hand; that Giulia’s mental illness needs to be contextualized by her loveliness, by her beauty, thereby marking his wife as separate from all of the supposed ugliness of mental illness and those who struggle with it daily.
I suppose this all a long way of saying that conversations aren’t enough; talking isn’t enough. People need to check their beliefs about mental illness, check their values, and then they need to change their behaviour: by offering compassionate support; by learning more about issues that mentally ill folks actually face; by advocating for their friends and colleagues and loved ones.
ROOM: As a young writer, I’m always interested to hear others’ stories. How did you come to writing? When did you know? Who were the people/mentors that helped you get here?
TF: Oh, I think about this a lot! I started writing in journals when I was four or five, and I just kept going! I recently unpacked an entire bin of those journals, and it was like confronting every self I’ve ever been, which was both joyful and challenging. I wrote in every genre as a kid: poems, short stories, lots of plays and skits, songs. In high school, I was greatly encouraged by my OAC (Grade 13) Creative Writing teacher, Marlene Bourdon-King, who cared about me and my writing more than anyone I’d ever met up to that point. She ended up connecting me with the WIERed Writers program, which offered online support at school from literary mentors across the country (at a time when the Internet wasn’t a common household service!). So I would submit these funny little poems I wrote to the WIERed portal, and authors like Susan Musgrave and Patrick Lane would send feedback. I felt so lucky. I also spent a lot of time at the public library near my house in the Beaches, in Toronto, and found books by Gwendolyn MacEwen and Bronwen Wallace and other Canadian writers, especially poets, whose writing blew my mind! I started sending my work to journals, and had some early successes that really boosted my confidence. When I got to university, I had professors who were very supportive (Deborah Wills and Mark Blagrave at Mt.A; Ross Leckie, Wendy Robbins, and Jennifer Andrews at UNB; Mary Nyquist, Rosemary Sullivan, and Maggie Redekop at UofT), but I also found communities of writers and friends whose work—and whose lives—inspired me, and this all felt very different from my early experiences of sitting in isolation, scribbling away, hoping that something I had to say mattered.
ROOM: Speaking of mentors, you are also doing some far-reaching mentoring yourself. You are currently teaching English and Creative Writing at UNB. Do you ever find that your creative writing interests intersect your teaching/research interests? You say that love is a theme that you come back to again and again in the course because it’s something that we all need and look for. Do you write a lot of love poems yourself?
TF: I feel so lucky to work with such amazing students at UNB; some of our graduate students are already pushing CanLit in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I was a student (such as Rebecca Salazar, who has two amazing poetry chapbooks out now)! I would say that my teaching and writing interests definitely intersect. I’m most interested in teaching literature that forces me, and others, to think about something more in depth, or differently, or anew, and that’s what I hope to push in my own creative work as well. And that’s its own act of love—caring enough about the world we live in to want to find new ways of looking at things, to want to enact change. I wouldn’t say that I teach CanLit in any traditional, canonical way, for instance, and that has shifted even more as issues in CanLit have been interrogated more directly. So in my current CanLit courses, I’m teaching work by Elizabeth Smart and Dionne Brand and Eden Robinson and Katherena Vermette and Elizabeth Bachinsky and Billy-Ray Belcourt and NourbeSe Phillip and Shyam Selvadurai and Alex Leslie and Joshua Whitehead and many other writers whose voices haven’t always been raised up in Canadian classrooms because people haven’t been, and still aren’t, willing to ask the difficult questions about whose voices get attention in this country.
As for love poems, yes, I do write them, but certainly not exclusively! I’m interested in all of the different ways people conceive of love, and how it can reflect deeply-held beliefs and values that might go unexplored or unquestioned. What does it mean to love someone unconditionally? How do I write a poem about my love for my teenaged son without somehow infringing upon his own selfhood? I just wrote a longish, list-y (lusty!) love poem for my partner, which I’ll share on Valentine’s Day as a way of celebrating our queer love, and that’s the kind of love poem I want to see more of: one that breaks open long-held literary conventions and challenges normative visions of the world.
ROOM: We have you featuring in several panels, including “Art and Academia,” and “The Vast Inscape: Writing About Mental Health.” But tell me, what are some other events that you are most keen on attending?
TF: I’m especially excited for the Indigenous Brilliance events, as well as the Black Voices Raised evening. But the entire festival is so packed with incredible events, it’s difficult to choose one over another!
ROOM: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me, Triny. I’m so excited to have you for Growing Room 2019!
Isabella Wang’s debut poetry chapbook is forthcoming with Baseline press in 2019. At 18, she is the youngest two-time finalist and writer shortlisted for The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Essay Contest. Her poetry and prose have appeared in over a dozen literary journals, and she holds a pushcart prize nomination in poetry. She is studying English and World Literature at SFU, interning at Room Magazine, serving as the Youth Advocate for the BC Federation of Writers, and co-ordinating the bi-weekly Dead Poets Reading Series.