A podcast about Canadian literature, feminism, and everything in between. New episodes published on the 15th of every month. Hosted by Mica Lemiski.
Episode One: Why We Write (featuring Selina Boan and Mallory Tater).
Poets Selina Boan and Mallory Tater talk to Mica about why they write, what it's like to drink beer in an art gallery as a toddler, and how to write a fantastic poem about thongs.
Mica: This podcast was recorded, edited, and is probably being listened to on the unceded traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
Mica: If you're a writer or, really, anyone pursuing art beyond just a hobby, you've probably asked yourself, "Why? Why am I doing this? Why am I putting these things I've created out into the world for people to see and think about? How am I benefiting others? How am I benefiting myself? What drives me to share with you?"
Mica: I think about this question more than is mentally healthy, which is why I have decided to make it the topic for today's episode, which is the very first episode of Fainting Couch Feminists, a brand-new podcast with Room magazine. If you're wondering what Fainting Couch Feminists is all about, please check out our video teaser episode, which you can find on Room magazine's Facebook page. The teaser explains what our show is—an interview-based audio program featuring women and genderqueer writers speaking to a vast number of socially and non-socially pertinent issues—and also provides a mini history lesson on fainting couches themselves, which I'll have you know were very scandalous pieces of furniture, and maybe even platforms for Victorian sexual deviancy, literally! Also, hey, my name is Mica Lemiski, and I am your host. I am also a woman. I live in Vancouver, and I write primarily non-fiction, journalistic and otherwise, but lately I've been focusing on a sub-genre I am calling "musical memoir tragicomedy," which is currently not super-marketable, but I'm doing my best.
What else? Well, last night, I spent an hour looking at mood rings on Etsy because maybe I want one but not like the kind I used to buy at the dollar store alongside my stick-on earrings, but a nice, sturdy one, a mid-sized jewel, but not the kind that's going to cost me more than $50 because I don't think I'm the type of girl to spend that kind of money on hippie jewelry. I think the mood ring appeals to me though because it seems like a gateway to better understanding of my emotional self, which can be so tricky. Maybe it has the same purpose as my period tracker app but is more glamourous and therefore better. That is probably all you need to know, and more, about me. So, without further self-indulgence, let's get onto the meat and podcast potatoes, i.e. an interview with poet Selina Boan and Mallory Tater, who chatted with me about why they write, what it's like to drink beer in an art gallery as a toddler, and how to write a fantastic poem about thongs.
Mica: First, we're gonna chat with Selina. Selina Boan's work is forthcoming or has appeared in CV2, Room, Poetry is Dead, The New Quarterly, among others. She won the Gold National Magazine Award for poetry in 2017 and was shortlisted for the 2016 CBC Poetry Prize, woo-woo! She works as a circulation editor as Prism International and is currently working on a collection of poems exploring her Cree and European heritage. She is also a night owl. Selina, welcome. Welcome, night owl!
Selina: Thank you. Thank you.
Mica: What does "a night owl" mean? How late are you staying up?
Selina: Oh, it varies. It really varies. Probably like 2:00. I don't know if that's really that late, but 2:00…
Mica: That's late. Mallory, when's your bedtime?
Mallory: Oh, between 11:00 and midnight.
Mica: Okay, yeah, that's very reasonable and responsible. I haven't introduced you yet, Mallory, but I will in a second. But first, Selina, I was to ask you about something you've read or listened to or, I guess, just ingested in some form that has excited you, either in a good way or a bad way.
Selina: I actually recently got to go to a book launch and a workshop that was connected to the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, and it was a book launch for t'ai freedom ford's book, how to get over. It was really amazing. I really love going to readings and discovering new artists and writers and hearing their work orally for the first time. So, that was really cool, and I connected with it a lot.
Mica: I love that. I love that you mentioned discovering writers by hearing them aloud. I heard a quote once. It was on the CBC, and somebody said, "There's nothing more authentic than somebody reading their own story." I was like, "Oh, wow, that's really beautiful," and I love how it ties back to the oral tradition and all… oh, just gave me the warm fuzzies. Okay, well, I'm going to introduce Mallory Tater now. So, Mallory's poetry and fiction have been published in literary magazine across Canada, such as Room, CV2, The Malahat Review, Fiddlehead, The Maynard, The New Quarterly, Qwerty, Carousel, Canthius, Seed Poetry, Poetry is Dead, Prism International, and Arc Magazine. So, this gal has been around the literary block in the best way. [laughs] She was also the recipient of CV2's 2016 Young Buck Poetry Prize. I love that they call that the "Young Buck." I don't know. It has such a…
Mallory: I wish it was "Young Doe." [laughs]
Mica: "Young Doe," yeah. Why is it… It's so gendered! I don't know. I like the word "buck." I don't know. It seems, like, feisty.
Mallory: I felt very strong for a while after that.
Mica: Right? Yeah, you were a young buck. Okay, so Mallory, you are also the publisher of Rahila's Ghost Press, a Vancouver-based poetry chapbook press, slated to release the first print run in Fall, 2017. So, that's coming up very quick. Am I right?
Mallory: That's right. We're hoping within the next month or so.
Mica: Oh, gosh! And who are your writers?
Mallory: So, Beni Xiao, Jake Byrne, and Megan Jones—three amazing poets, so we're super excited about that.
Mallory: I'm really excited
Mica: So, Mallory, also, your first book of poetry, This Will Be Good, is forthcoming with BookThug Press in 2018, so that's very exciting.
Mallory: Mm hmm. I'm getting more excited about it every day as it's becoming a little bit closer, yeah.
Mica: I also love this title, This Will Be Good. It's good, and I wonder how you came up with it.
Mallory: It's actually the title of a poem that's in the book that I really connect with that kind of talks about the strain on families when they go on vacation, when they're away from their home, and everyone kind of connects from being in their own worlds to be together. It's a poem about my mother picking me up at the airport. Then, I decided that it would probably make sense to make it the title because I think a lot of the poems kind of tackle family connection and disconnection. It's also sort of cutesy for a first book—like, "This oughta be good! I'd give this a shot."
Mica: [laughs] Yeah, I like that. I like that. I think sometimes as writers we're afraid to be cute about things. We can be cute, right? It's okay.
Selina: Yeah, right.
Mica: So, Mallory, what is something that you have read or heard recently that got you going in some way?
Mallory: Well, I've been reading a lot of non-fiction, and I just finished Sarah Gerard's book of essays called Sunshine State. I really love sense of place, and she writes about the Floridian landscape and her growing up in a middle-class family just outside Orlando.
Mica: Oh, "Floridian," like Florida. I was like, "Uh-oh, I don't know what that is!" [laughs]
Mallory: But poetry-wise, because that is my main genre, Suzannah Showler's Thing Is. She's similar to Selina, hearing someone read their work out loud. She read at the last Tonic Reading Series, and I really connected with the work because it was hip poetry talking about social media and technology and how that can cross with gorgeous language and lyric. I feel like a lot of… myself included, kind of shy away from using technology. Even though I use it in my day-to-day life, I'm still reluctant to put it in my poems.
Mica: Right. I think, automatically, those two worlds, we assume they clash sometimes—the kind of, I want to say…
Mallory: The colloquial.
Mica: Yeah, yeah, exactly, and then the high art or what have you.
Mallory: Yeah, and I learned from Suzannah's book that it's actually a huge uprise of this kind of new vocabulary and new ways of communicating, that it really is beautiful to put in a poetic form.
Mica: Yeah, I love that.
Mallory: So, I appreciated that, probably because it's very different from my own process or how I develop poems and what I incorporate in poems. So, I like reading work that's different from what I do.
Mica: Yeah, cool.
Selina: She's good with humour, also.
Mallory: She's also hilarious.
Selina: She's really good, yeah. Makes me laugh.
Mallory: Yeah, she's writing a non-fiction book coming up next year about The Bachelor.
Mica: Oh, yeah, I think you had mentioned that before. That's exciting.
Mallory: She's wonderful.
Mica: Oh, high and low art combined. I don't know if you can call The Bachelor "low art." I don't know what you call The Bachelor.
Mallory: I think calling it "art" is controversial.
Mica: That's true. That's true.
Mallory: Anyway, it's gonna be a really, really interesting complex, fun book.
Mica: Cool. Oh, that's very exciting. Something I watched recently that kind of, I guess, sort of pinched a nerve for me… This is way less cool and intelligent than your examples, but I was home over the weekend, and watching cooking competition shows is a real guilty pleasure of mine. Sometimes, it's just a pleasure, but sometimes it is quite guilty. I was watching Master Chef with my entire family, actually—my parents and my brother—and they had this challenge where it was an outdoor challenge. They had to cook at a campground, and the campground was on this lake. The three judges… so, there's two men, one woman named Christina, and they come in on this boat. Christina is driving the boat, and the contestants make a really big deal out of the fact that she's driving a boat. They go, "Is that Christina driving a boat? Oh my God, girl power!" I'm like, "Jesus! Can we have a woman operate a piece of machinery without it being a huge deal?" I'm sitting there on the couch all crotchety feminist, right? I say that to my family. I'm like, "Why does it have to be a big deal? It's normal." I don't remember exactly what they said, but it was one of those times where I thought I could maybe see their thought bubbles, as in, "Relax. Here she goes again. Do you have to overthink it all?" I don't know. Yeah, sometimes I'm like, "Aw, I should maybe just shut up already," but, anyways, I just thought…
Mallory: It's hard sometimes watching popular media though. Like, sometimes I can totally turn off my brain, and sometimes I'm just like, "What?" [laughs]
Mica: Well, the thing is, with this, they're trying to do a good… like, their intentions are good in that they want to showcase a woman doing a man thing. Is driving a boat a man thing? I don't know. They're a few steps behind, I think.
Mallory: Absolutely. I think shows like the Food Network, I find… because I watch a lot of Food Network also, and it's really gendered and very sexist because it's a male-dominated field. So, the women get tokenized really quickly from the fact that they can use a knife to, I guess, Christina driving a boat. [laughs]
Mica: Yeah. Well, Food Network nonsense aside, I thought that since today our topic is "Why Do We Write," it might be a value to discuss how we started writing and to spin for our listeners some yarns of the origin story variety. So, Selina, do you have a yarn?
Selina: Yeah, I have a yarn. So, I was really fortunate in that I grew up in a very creative household. My family were visual artists, so I was around art a lot. I can remember being a little kid—like, four years old—wandering around this little art gallery in Victoria, picking up people's beers and drinking them as I wandered around, which was probably, you know… [laughs]
Mica: That's hilarious.
Selina: And now I'm a poet! No, just kidding. Yeah, so I was really fortunate to grow up in a household where that was really encouraged, and I would say, in particular, my mother has had a huge influence on my creative life. She was always very encouraging, and even from a young age when I would write things which I didn't identify as poems, she did identify them as poems. That was interesting, to be so young and to have someone tell you something you're doing that feels small is significant or important. So, I really have her to thank for that. It's, yeah, pretty amazing.
Mica: That's cool. She kind of told you what you were doing and that it had value. Exciting.
Selina: Yeah, it was very powerful, and I feel very fortunate to have grown up in an atmosphere where that type of art was recognized. She gave me my first poetry book, and I can remember receiving it and being like, "It doesn't rhyme," and she was like, "Poems don't have to rhyme," and my brain just went [makes exploding sound].
Mica: Wow. Do you remember what book it was?
Selina: Yes, it was a poetry book by Margaret Atwood.
Mica: Okay, and did you always know that writing poems would be something you wanted to pursue in the larger way than just a hobby or a side project?
Selina: I think probably around age 10 or 11, sort of stereotypically, I was like, "I want to be a writer." I think this was partly a result of being in an environment that was really encouraging. I thought that that was something I could do, but at the same time, growing up with two visual artists, I definitely know the economic reality of trying to be an artist and also working a full-time job. It's hard. So, I shied away, or I really didn't want to go down that road fully because I was scared of… yeah, scared.
Selina: So, I would say it took me a long time to work through those anxieties, and only within the last couple years has it been something that I started to seriously pursue.
Mica: So, you've said, "I know this is going to be hard. It's not going to be easy financially, or in a number of other ways, but I'm going to write. I'm going to do poetry." What has clicked in the past couple years that's made you think that?
Selina: That's a really good question. I would say it was like I just had to do it, if that makes sense. I was trying to do all these other things, and it just wasn't working for me in the way that I wanted it to be. I'm a fairly anxious person, and I find when I'm actually writing, some of that quiets down. So, it's become something in my life that's helpful for that reason.
Mica: Oh, that's amazing. Well, congratulations on finding your calling. [laughs] That sounded… I don't know. That sounded Hallmark card-y or something but… Mallory, I know you have sort of an interesting little tale of how you began. Would you like to share?
Mallory: Absolutely. I went to elementary school here in Vancouver, or I guess in the suburbs—in Delta, technically. They had this contest there where you could write your own story and perform it in front of all these other schools and parents and teachers once a year at this Speech Arts Festival. At the time, I became really motivated because I've always loved language and reading, and I've read very voraciously. I kind of wanted to be able to contribute to that with my own words, so I got really excited to enter this contest in Grade 1. Then, I got writer's block because I'd never written before, and I couldn't think of anything. The deadline was coming up, and I just remember just writing a sentence about, I don't know, a dog, and then erasing it, and being like, "It's not good enough." I also had advice from a teacher that I could write a fairy tale, and she said to take on the voice of a queen or princess and go from there, because we had been talking a lot about fairy tales in school. I've never been a princess person. I have nothing against the princess narratives, but, for me, I don't really connect with those very much because I think there's too much focus on romantic love and, I suppose, the need to be rescued and that kind of thing. So, those themes actually never worked for me as a kid. So, I decided to write my own narrative, but I couldn't think of anything. So, in the middle of the night one night, inspiration, just like lightning, bolted down to my little noggin. I ran to my parents' room because, at the time, computers were still semi-new in households, and I didn't know how to type.
Mica: Right. Yeah, your computer was probably the size of…
Mallory: Just a dinosaur in the dining room kind of thing. So, I woke my mom up, and I was kind of nervous she'd be mad at me because she had us four kids under the age of six. She just needs her sleep, you know? But anyways, I was like, "She's gonna help me." She did. So, she made me hot chocolate, and I transcribed to her… or she transcribed my story.
Mica: While you read it aloud to her?
Mallory: Yeah, just from the top of my head. It felt like it took forever, but I'm pretty sure the story was, like, 10 lines. It was called The Dragon that Couldn't Blow Flames. It won. I liked public speaking, so that was never an issue. So, I performed it, to the best of my ability, and I ended up winning.
Mallory: Then I got really thirsty for this competition every year. So, then, all of a sudden, I have this funny portfolio of all these stories I wrote every year to perform. After that, I just got hooked, and I wanted to get better and better and better and expand themes and learn about conflict and develop characters. I had decided, in my head, pretty much from that moment, that this was what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
Mica: Wow, I'm so in awe of people that have that self-assurance at such a young age… is really fantastic.
Mallory: I was also really bad at math and science. [laughs]
Mica: Yeah, I guess that narrows the field a little bit. Still… Your story was called The Dragon that Doesn't Breathe.
Mallory: …that Couldn't Blow Flames. [laughs]
Mica: I like this because it seems like you're tapping into an individual that is somehow an outsider, right? Like, a marginalized creature or person will say… I love these moments of looking back on our childhood selves and realizing, "Oh, we were tapping into something and didn't even know what it was." I remember going to the skating rink as a little kid and renting skates, and they would automatically give me figure skates, and it made me furious as a kid – like, as a four-year-old – because I didn't like the stupid…
Mallory: The pick.
Mica: The pick, the pick! I didn't like the pick. I wanted to play hockey, always did, and so it just drove me nuts that they were trying to force me into these white boots anyhow. I think back, and then I'm like, "Oh, you know what? You resisted the gender normativity!" I don't know.
Mica: That's a simple example, but do you feel that way with that story or…
Mallory: Yeah, because I really do feel that that story still very much is applicable to my values now. They're more expanded now, but the idea is that… What's the character's name? The protagonist is a cisgendered green dragon named Little Flames because he can't blow them [at all. 0:21:03] He is too stubborn at first to ask for help, and then a secondary character comes along, named Fire Anne—great name for a lady dragon. I still think that.
Mica: Mm, Fire Anne. I do like that.
Mallory: So, Fire Anne agrees to take time out of her busy femme dragon day and help Little Flames. So, he is able, with her help, to train himself to blow flames. I think reversing the gender roles… because I think I'd seen so often it be the opposite, where Little Flames would be female—or a woman dragon—and have a male come rescue her, teach her. We still see that constantly in mainstream narratives, so it's kind of neat that I started not doing that immediately.
Mica: Yes, immediately. That's so cool. I think it took me a long time to unlearn things I didn't even know I had learned. Then, so you were saying after you wrote that story, you were addicted to the rush of winning this competition. [laughs]
Mallory: I mean, essentially. I was really bad at sports, too. This is the one category in my life where I could actually, you know receive a blue ribbon. Every kid wants that, wants something like that where they win something.
Mica: Right, yeah, that's natural. It's interesting, you sort of tapped into this writer at a young age, and I think, to a certain extent, I did as well, but it took me a lot more trying on different career ideas and disciplines to figure out that this is what I wanted to do. By "writing," I mean… I'm working primarily in non-fiction right now, and some music, but I think just growing up, Selina, I had kind of the opposite situation of you. So, I grew up in a family where… Well, my mom's a teacher and my dad's a vet, but my dad's family comes from this long line of lawyers and dentists and doctors. It's just all of these professionals. So, nobody ever told me, "You can't do art as a career. Don't do creative things." No, my parents always encouraged creativity, but I think I sort of felt this indirect pressure to go into a career that seemed just more natural or more valid to me, given how I was raised. So, I did. I thought I was going to be a doctor or a specialist of some sort. Psychiatry was interesting to me. So, I did a year of science at McGill, but I remember I was in… So, I was in an acapella group.
Selina: That's amazing.
Mallory: That was probably before it was trendy, too.
Mica: It was before it was trendy, and then Pitch Perfect came out and everyone saw the truth that acapella is actually amazing, but I discovered it first. Actually, acapella at McGill was very competitive. Anyhow, one of the altos, actually, in the group, she decided she was dropping out of McGill to go to university in Boston to do musical theatre. I remember thinking, "What? She can just do that? That's amazing." I remember going to sleep at night just thinking about how she was going to audition and how she was taking this huge step. It just seemed too fantastic and out of reach to me, but I fixated on it. Then, I kind of just… I don't know. I remember one day being at my desk, thinking, "You know, you actually could do something creative." So, I transferred to Western University in Ontario and began taking some courses in pop music, which eventually led me to a creative writing course, because I wanted to get better lyrically. The writing that really grabbed me was memoir and short stories and all of this stuff.
I took this course with this amazing, kind of mean professor who gave me horrible marks, but it really sparked this drive in me. I don't know. I just became totally, yeah, obsessed. Like you, Selina, it's only been kind of recently that I've said, "Okay, I want to write, and I want it to be a career." I'm still at the point where I don't know what form it will take exactly, but I also think we can do a lot of different things. I don't mind having a day job right now. I like that I'm writing for different magazines and doing a podcast or something. We can have a lot of different projects. I think I'm starting to be more resistant to the idea, which is something we're all taught, that you have to have one career; you have this one job, and that is you.
Mallory: Yeah, writing is super malleable and flexible in those ways that a lot of people consider a disadvantage, but I think it's super advantageous because if you're good at writing, you can pretty much enter a lot of different fields to make money, while also doing the creative stuff that you love, and hopefully getting compensated for that, too. But it's just a risk all the time.
Mica: I do actually want to do an episode in the future that focuses on money. Okay, so we've talked a bit now about why we began writing. So, I want to dive into why are we writing now—like, what keeps us going, what drives us, why are we putting our words out into the world for other people to gobble up? I thought we could start with a quote from Ms. Joan Didion, literature goddess. So, she says, "Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind, there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see, and what it means, what I want, and what I fear." I guess she, to me, is talking a lot about discovery, and I'm wondering if you kind of identify with that statement or…
Mallory: I absolutely agree with the idea of writing about what you connect with but also what you're afraid of—like she says, what she fears. I think, for me, it's just kind of breaking my own ground to understand what outrages me about the world, what I love about the world, and trying to look back at memories, deaths that have occurred in my life, or other hardships of the people around me, and using poetry to understand those losses or those triumphs better.
Mica: Right, okay. When we go through situations that are messy—emotionally messy or even in terms of family or politically fraught…—writing about them helps them make sense. Do you know what I mean? We're almost creating a version of the truth or something that we can digest a little easier.
Mallory: Absolutely, and if you still can't make sense of it, you can critique it.
Selina: It almost feels like a form of translation, you know? You're taking these things that are happening inside your body and then putting them out into the world or on the page.
Mica: Do you get a sense of the catharsis that Mallory mentions? Do you get that from writing poetry?
Selina: Absolutely I do, I think sometimes more than others. I think sometimes writing can be stressful, and sometimes it can be really cathartic, depending on what stage you're in. But certainly, that initial writing I find can be really helpful for, yeah, working through the messiness of life, I would say, in whatever form that comes.
Mica: I think it's interesting because poetry exists in this space that… The thing I love about poetry is that it is not classified as fiction or nonfiction, which I think… you know, we get really hung up sometimes on what is the truth. I'm not a poet, or don't consider myself to be a poet, so I'm sort of speaking a bit from the outside here, but it seems often autobiographical, and yet nobody is going to dig too hard, shining a spotlight… I feel sometimes with non-fiction… I feel like a bird in a cage, you know, being watched, whereas poetry, there's kind of a freedom. Does that make sense?
Selina: No, it definitely does. I would say sometimes, for me, when something is really personal, I might, to be honest, sometimes hide behind language a little bit if it's an emotion or a feeling I want to explore but I don't necessarily want to identify or make vulnerable people in my poems. I definitely do change things to keep people safe or just to protect my own identity.
Mica: Of course.
Mallory: From different poets that I've talked to, everyone kind of seems to have their own authentic relationship with the speaker-to-author ratio of how much personal they're willing to claim for it or how much they're comfortable with. So, although my poems are primarily autobiographical, I do blend time. I exaggerate and those kinds of things. Also, in general, memory is not reliable all the time. So, that's important to consider, too, when you're reading poetry, or any form, really, that memory is not always reliable. So, for me, speaker and myself are pretty interchangeable, but I know a lot of people where they don't feel that way at all. I find it super fascinating in this genre.
Mica: Yeah, I think it's cool that there is a varying degree of, as you said, the closeness between speaker and author.
Selina: Yeah, there definitely is. I would say there's been a shift more towards confessional or more personal poetry. A closer proximity between speaker and "I" was sort of not fashionable for a while. I think, recently, particularly with people our age, there's been a lot of pushback against that, and more blurring has occurred. I think that also exists in conversations around identity and appropriation and making sure that we're telling the stories that we have the right to be telling.
Mica: That's such an important point, and I know, Selina, a large feature in your work is identity and kind of navigating your Cree heritage with your European heritage and kind of reconciling those two things and figuring out what it means for you and also for the different cultures you come from. How does that identity play into your writing and make you want to write?
Selina: It's really challenging in the sense that I want to be careful. So, on my birth dad's side, my two grandparents grew up in two reserves right next to each other on Waterhen Lake and Flying Dust First Nations. My grandfather is French and Cree, and my grandmother was Cree. They both spoke the language. I didn't grow up with that side of my family. So, I grew up with my mother, who was European settler, and a father figure, as well. She… how do I phrase this? It's just that I'm very aware of needing to… that the Cree part of myself is an identity that I'm learning about all the time, and I really don't feel like I necessarily have a right to tell certain stories. I really want to be respectful of my position and the privilege that I do come from and where I grew up and my positionality in the world. I think this is something you hear writers speaking a lot more about. Alicia Elliott wrote a really amazing article. Carleigh Baker, I know, wrote an essay recently about identity and being mixed. So, I think there's a lot of really important conversations being had around those things. In terms of writing, I do think, like, it's exciting sometimes to encounter indigenous authors who I feel like, in some ways, part of my experience is reflected. Though my experience is different—and everyone's is, of course—that still is really empowering sometimes. It's important to have that recognition or to see yourself reflected in the many facets that…
Mica: Right, definitely. Yeah, I think one of my favourite things about reading either of your poems—or even better, listening to you read them—is that you both have a way of really articulating young womanhood in a way that really resonates with me. I grew up kind of with the mentality that poetry was unapproachable, and that I didn't get it, and "why bother," which is an unfortunate mentality to grow up. Luckily, I have done kind of a 180 in regards to that, but I remember hearing you both speak and thinking, "Oh my gosh, I get this, and I can see myself. Isn't that a beautiful thing?" Okay, so I wonder… This is less of a good reason to write, I guess, for approval and for validation. Do you ever find yourself seeking recognition? I think I've always been a performer, which is sort of an attention-hungry way of being anyways. Not that I would describe myself, necessarily, as "attention-hungry," but I think that to have your words out in the world and to have people say, "I get this, and I care," is a very empowering thing. What do you guys think about that?
Mallory: I agree with that completely. I feel like it shouldn't be the main drive behind someone's writing, but it's also very motivational and challenging to send your work out. That can be difficult. But when a magazine or, you know, a publication makes space for your voice and your work, and you feel like you're contributing fragments of your best self on the page or expressing important emotions and you want it to resonate with other people, publication is super beautiful in that way. So, I think that getting the approval and being able to build up a portfolio professionally in that way is super validating. It's not the reason why I write, but it's definitely supported me to keep going.
Mica: Yeah, I would say that I feel similarly. It's not the reason why I write, but it's something that gives you a boost.
Mallory: I don't think it's a bad thing to feel hungry for the approval of others or for attention in those ways. It just has to be with the proper humility and also making sure that you're not taking up space that should be filled with other voices too.
Mica: Yeah, exactly. That's a good point.
Selina: I was just going to say that. I feel like it's really connected to community and community spaces, and, yeah, I think it's really important to make space for all different kinds of voices.
Mica: Yeah, this is definitely a hot topic right now, and in a place where the dominant voice is one of a cis white man, is it still okay for those people to share their stories? Yes, but as you both have pointed out, make room for other voices.
Selina: Yeah, I think stepping aside sometimes can be such a huge, needed gesture. I was just reading Alicia Elliott's interview on Room, and it's so incredible. She talks a lot about making space and getting out of the way. It's really interesting. You should go read it.
Mica: Yes, yeah. I would love to. I think maybe another reason I write—and I don't know if you guys identify with this too, but… non-fiction at least. If I'm writing an essay, I want to be my, I guess, ideal self, or what I think of as a good person or an intelligent person. You know, you're talking in real life sometimes, and you're like, "Oh, shoot. I didn't articulate that well. I feel bad about that," whereas, you know, you write an essay, you're kind of given unlimited space to put your best foot forward. I was reading an essay by Phillip Lopate the other day, and he has this quote; he says, "If, in the beginning, I had thought I was coming across accurately, I would never have bothered to become a writer," which I think is kind of interesting. He writes a lot of non-fiction and uses that, I guess, to show people, "Okay, maybe I'm not always my best in real life, or what I consider my best, but here, this is something I worked on, and I want to show it to you."
Selina: I was gonna say, yeah, I mean, writing doesn't exist in a vacuum, right? So, it's really important to keep that in mind as you move through various communities. I was gonna say, even just in relationship to my identity, community is so important. What are you doing in the urban indigenous spaces? How are you not necessarily exclusively writing, but just how are you contributing to those communities, and what does that look like? What does that look like as a poet or a non-fiction writer? How are you making space? Mallory, I think you're an excellent example of making space for people and welcoming people into a community. I really consider you a poet warrior for us.
Mica: You are a poet warrior.
Selina: But it's amazing to have people like that around who really are cognisant and really working.
Mica: Yeah, it's so important.
Selina: It's a form of labour. It's a huge form of work.
Mica: It is, and to unlearn those kind of unconscious biases that we're brought up with. I mean, Mallory, yeah, just looking at the poets who are releasing chap books with Rahila's Ghost, you have great diversity and people talking about different things, and I think, what a cool thing that you've done, starting this press and kind of getting to curate authors and lift up those voices and perspectives that have traditionally been silences or marginalized. It's so great.
Mallory: Thank you. So, I guess it comes down to capacity, and right now I have the capacity to nurture and listen in my community. I'm not perfect, but I've tried to do this with Rahila's Ghost and also making the physical space that my partner, Curtis, and I do by having a biweekly poetry group physically gathering. That, to me, is really important, and I have the energy and capacity to do it right now. So, I'm honoured to be able to make space for those voices. So, for me, it's fantastic, and I get so excited by it. It re-energizes me to be a better educator, be a better editor, be a better writer, be a better me.
Selina: I was also gonna flag… there's a lot of really interesting conversations around the word "diversity" in literature right now.
Mica: Ooh, okay.
Selina: I can't remember… I think it's actually in Alicia Elliott's essay, where it's something like, "'Diversity' is a white word," or something and that we just need to be conscious of the language we're using and how we're employing it. Anyway, interesting.
Mallory: That is interesting.
Mica: Yeah, I think maybe the last thing I'd like to address in terms of why we write is I think there's always this conception of writing as a solitary pursuit but also a very melancholy one sometimes. You know, we have this image of the tortured writer sitting at their desk banging away with a bottle of whiskey or… This is very archaic, but I know, for me, sometimes I write about something hard and it does make me sad. So, do you ever experience that, and what makes that kind of bluesy-ness worth it?
Mallory: There is a whiskey called "Writers Tears." [laughs] I always find that hilarious, but the thing is it's so expensive I don't think many writers can actually afford it, so it's ironic.
Selina: That's funny.
Mallory: That's an interesting question. I like the act of writing in a dramatic way once in a while. I love going into the bathtub and immersing myself and thinking.
Mica: This is funny. This is reminding me of the story you told about being hit in the middle of the night by inspiration when you were a kid. I love the drama in it. [laughs]
Mallory: I do. I really like the pang you get inside you where you have to write it down. Sometimes, it doesn't come organically, so you try all these different tactics, whether it's going for a walk or, yeah, having a glass of wine or going in the bathtub or phoning another writer friend and talking about it. I love the buildup and, I guess, the… not "performance" but the drama. It's a funny word to use for it, but it's just the ritual that goes with it. Yeah, and sometimes that does cause sadness because you have to sometimes tap into pain.
Selina: I would say, yeah, I feel like, often—and it sounds so cheesy, but it's sort of exactly what you're saying—is that a line or a thought or something that you want to write down sort of inhabits you. Then, you have to make space for it, and you just follow that thread wherever it goes. I would say, for me, the pain of writing comes from not writing. So, just being stuck on something or procrastinating writing, that's where I sort of feel like, "Ooh, you know, I'm not really… I'm a phony! Why am I not writing today?" or something like that, but then when I'm actually writing, it feels… But it's true though; you do, sometimes, depending on what a poem is demanding of you… for me, I have to be in a certain state of mind. Sometimes, that state of mind… I can't be around anyone.
Mica: Oh, absolutely, yes.
Selina: I can remember being in a coffee shop in Ottawa, and I was working on this fairly intense poem, and I was really in the middle of it, and I always work with headphones so I can't hear what's around me. My roommate came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder, and I just felt like I got transported out of this world I was in.
Mica: You got derailed.
Selina: I looked up at her, and I didn't recognize her. It was this really weird moment. She looked at me weird, and I was like, "Oh, sorry." It was a split second, but it was really strange.
Mica: You'd almost gone to this other dimension.
Selina: Yeah. I mean, that's the golden spot.
Mallory: Right, it is.
Selina: That's where you're trying to get to. Then when someone interrupts, you're like, "Ah!"
Mica: The funny thing is when you're in the zone, I guess—for lack of a better term—you don't even know. If you have the thought, "I'm in the zone," you're not in the zone.
Mallory: I get like that particularly when I write fiction, actually—even though I mostly write poetry—but stream of consciousness… and there's no better feeling, but you don't really get to appreciate it until after it's done because, like you just said, if you think about it while you're in the middle of just typing very fast and tapping into something in your brain and just not thinking about it… There's something that feels so good about that.
Mica: You're absolutely right. Selina, what you said about the pain of writing being not writing, that makes absolute sense to me. I think the worst times are when you're sitting there at your computer or with a notebook—usually, for me, it's the computer, although I'm trying to make the switch to analog… but it's like you go on your Facebook, you check your Gmail eight times. Like, "Have I heard from this… What could I possibly do to keep myself from diving into this?" That's what is mentally fatiguing and frustrating. But then, you know what? Yeah, the act of writing, you're doing it, it's the most special thing.
Mallory: I know my sisters and my parents, who are not writers, they often say to me that they're kind of envious that I am able to kind of achieve that mindset, even if it's just once a week or even less than that. It's definitely not every day that I can do that, but some people can't do it at all.
Mica: Yeah, and I feel very fortunate that I'm able, in a more social sense, to pursue an art. Isn't that the best thing? I don't know. Just coming from a background of… like, I wouldn't say "high privilege," but in the scheme of things, yeah, a lot of privileges. To be able to pursue what I'm passionate about, and what we are all passionate about, it's like, God, I feel so lucky.
Mallory: I agree. I think, also, I feel that kind of privilege and a lot of gratefulness is that I was able to do it—and you two as well—in a post-secondary academic environment because we had the abilities to have space and time and support. That is a huge privilege that we've had, to be able to do that. It was really formative to my work.
Mica: Oh, gosh, I just love talking to you guys. You know what I want? I want, now, to hear—and I think we all want to hear—your work. Selina, do you want to kick us off?
Selina: Yeah, sure. So, this is a poem that's actually going to be in the migration issue of Room.
Mica: Oh, awesome, perfect.
Selina: So, I thought it would be appropriate to read here, for this. So, it's a poem, essentially, about meeting new family.
Mica: Oh, nice.
Selina: Here we go
cutting walls for money, mom smoked ideas
out on the ridge of backdoors, broke
her tendons in Duncan playing basketball on the curb,
soaked basement sinks with thinner, skinny paint,
all-dressed chips in bed, I read love scenes
like the inside of clouds, tender and inexact,
through teenage crowds I used to kiss myself,
hands passing other hands in the hallway
in a dream, whales and their shiny black bodies,
so big there were waves, I had to run
night-wake up north, I visit new family
and can’t sleep, listen as my niece tells me
a story about three little fish at the kitchen table,
kindness a bed, a highway,
a heat lamp for the belly of pigs,
I try to talk like him, hear, here,
see, daughter proof, right in the head,
I accept the gift of two coats, poke my arms
into a puff of feathers at Sears,
mom on the island like a jaw, an entrance,
and me, awake upstairs,
the sky doesn’t stay the same wherever
Mica: Oh, Selina, that was beautiful. The "black shiny bodies" of the whales, come on. That's beautiful. Mallory, would you like to share?
Mallory: Sure, yeah. This poem is called "Secret Washing," and it's from Room's fall issue last year, which was an issue that was dedicated to Elise Partridge. So, this poem was shortlisted for their contest, and it's about me and my sister hiding thongs from my parents, who were very conservative when we were growing up. [laughs]
Mica: I like… this is spicy.
Mallory: Yeah, it's a spicy poem.
In the laundry room, Monica hand-washes
her G-string thong, chosen from the four-dollar bin
at Giant Tiger, pancakes and syrup cartooned
on the crotch. A bar of white soap clouds her hands.
She says if I don’t tell, it’ll work in my favour.
My parents call that kind of underwear floss-like,
offensive, have banned it from our house.
My sister is a senior with shaggy hair and a tough,
acned boyfriend. She keeps rum in a drawer,
her bed in the closet, the pitched-roof attic
above her to prove she is brave.
Monica and her girlfriends return from a strip mall
with paper bags and a reel of photos—three girls,
socks down bras, fish-lipped and peace-signing.
She leaves a fuchsia thong under my pillow,
a kitten on the tag with hearted eyes.
At school, I expose the thin straps above my jeans,
around my hips. The chafing fabric, thin waistband—
the first on a laced line of many firsts.
My sister no longer does the washing alone.
All we wish to be is as fierce as the fabric
fixed pretty and tight between our legs.
Monica and I never talk about sex. It is something
we bathe away in a deep sink, hang to dry quietly
on the wooden ledge of my bunk-bed. Sex drips
water on the floor at night. Sex is a small triangle.
Sex is the trees blowing snow on the pane.
It towels above my head. It turns my eyes
smoky and blue. Sex reaches the edge of the yard
one day, asks me to eat meatball heroes and listen
to Straylight Run in his basement. I learn what I wear
underneath can shape this. Twice a week,
in the laundry room, before our parents come home,
Monica and I wash our forbidden underwear.
We wring out the simple in us, our hands oily,
dishonest, our worlds soft goat’s milk.
Mica: Mallory, thank you. I've heard you read that poem at readings before, and it's so…
Selina: It gets me every time.
Mica: I know, I know. It's so good. I think, too, I was such a square growing up, this almost seems like access to the world of this somewhat scandalous girl I wished I was. [laughs]
Mallory: I think, yeah, trying to capture the dynamic of having a cooler older sister gave me that access.
Mica: Gosh, yeah, amazing. Well, thank you both so much for sharing your time and ideas, words, and just overall poet goddess-ness with myself and our listeners today. I think this has been a really wonderful way to spend part of an afternoon and also to make up our first episode. So happy to have had you both on Fainting Couch Feminists.
Selina: So happy to have been here.
Mallory: Yeah, thank you for the conversation.
Selina: Thank you for having us.
About the Host
Mica Lemiski is an MFA student at UBC and contributor to Room ("Tiny Parts," Issue 39.2). Her thesis project is a combination of comedic personal essays and original music, which is being developed into a podcast series. She is the host of "Fainting Couch Feminists." She is originally from Vernon, B.C. but is currently based in Vancouver.
Follow Mica on Twitter @MicaLemiski
Hosting, editing, and all music by Mica Lemiski
Produced by Room magazine and Mica Lemiski