Roxanna Bennett is a poet living with disability in Whitby, Ontario. She is the author of The Uncertainty Principle (Tightrope Books, 2014), unseen garden (chapbook, knife | fork | book, 2018) and unmeaningable, forthcoming from Gordon Hill Press in Fall 2019.
Her poems “Empress of Cups,” “The Reflecting Skin” and “Feast for the Yellow King” appear in the twenty-second issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “Empress of Cups,” “The Reflecting Skin” and “Feast for the Yellow King.”
A: All three poems are from my book “Unmeaningable” forthcoming from Gordon Hill Press in the fall, and all three poems are part of a larger crown of “crippled” sonnets. The book is about my lived experience as a mentally ill, non-neurotypical person who is also physically disabled. As the sonnet sequence progresses, the language and form become more chaotic and less intelligible, to echo the experience of living with chronic, fluctuating conditions in an unstable bodymind.
The poem “Empress of Cups” stars Dr. Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter, whom I have reimagined as an avenging angel who eats people who have been mean to me. “The Reflecting Skin” takes its title from the film of the same name. While not technically a horror movie, it’s both an horrific and beautiful film. It’s stacked with references to films as a tribute to my partner who is a massive horror movie fan, but horror is a genre that I have complicated feelings and ideas about. Horror is inherently ableist but is one of the few genres that does engage with difference, albeit usually in grossly offensive ways. Still, I am a sucker for the aesthetics of most horror-themed art. “Feast for the Yellow King” was written right after the American election; I was trying to keep myself as mentally healthy as possible by not thinking about Trump but he leaked out anyway. It felt post-apocalyptic, culturally, and I kept thinking of “The King in Yellow” from the Robert W. Chambers stories, and “Carcosa” from Ambrose Bierce. And I was watching season one of True Detective so of course the cosmic horror spilled over into the work.
Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: I’ve been working on longer and less formally constricting poems recently, but I love sonnets and usually return to them if only to argue with the form.
Thematically, my recent work is similar to these poems, but maybe with a little less cannibalism. Slightly less. I’m lying, Hannibal ‘the cannibal’ keeps popping up even now. But I am always writing about disability in some form as that is the lens through which I experience the world.
Q: What keeps you returning to argue with the sonnet? What kind of arguments do you mean?
A: Why must it be a box? Why must it be fourteen lines? What is iambic pentameter? I struggle with the auditory component of poetry, I don’t grasp the concept of stressed syllables. I can’t really hear it and don’t understand it. I can grasp fourteen lines on a page though, and how the rhyme scheme is meant generally to work. It’s like the meat and potatoes of poetry, the sonnet. Or a block of wood, uncarved. I like constraints because I like taking them apart to see how they work, and because creative constraints are much like living with disability. One must be creative to exist within the bounds of the constraint. The sonnet will always elude me because I am not able to ‘hear’ it. I approach poetry visually, and the compactness of those fourteen lines appeals to me, as does the deconstruction of those fourteen lines. So I guess I keep coming back to it, arguing with it, because it’s symbolic to me, personally, of feeling shut out of the poetry world, and the world. My arguing with sonnets is also me arguing with oppressive structures like systemic ableism and sanism. But those oppressive structures exist within a larger framework of culture, and are complicated, and I don’t see the value in burning down existing things but re-working them to be more....workable for all. Arguing with sonnets is also me wanting to feel as though I can be part of a poetic lineage by using a traditional form but feeling as though the form is beyond me because I don’t understand the auditory component. Sheer bloody-mindedness, really.
Q: With two full-length collections (including your forthcoming Gordon Hill Press title) as well as a chapbook under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: I think it’s developed less concern with being ‘correct’: are all the commas and periods in the right place, is it coherent, is it logical, which I think was strangling some of my earlier work. I was trying very hard to make the work ‘fit’ into what I believed was ‘poetry’. And now I don’t give a fuck. I don’t fit in the world but I was trying to make my poetry fit. As I grow into a deeper understanding of myself, become more accepting and comfortable with myself and my many and various afflictions and ailments, my work has become, I think, more fluid, less (f)rigid. I’ve been taking workshops with Hoa Nguyen and she has a magickal knack for allowing freakiness into the work, she encourages the weird. “I myself am strange and unusual” but have often felt like I had to be closeted, so to speak, with how different I am, trying to pass or having passing privilege as “normal”: straight, sane, able-bodied, neurotypical, when I’m none of those things. I think my work reflects that and will continue to get weirder.
Q: Apart from working with Hoa Nguyen, have you had any models for this type of work or approach?
A: I don’t have much experience with formal instruction. I don’t have any post-secondary education and have taken a handful of poetry workshops. If there are other workshops that sort of, kind of, blend poetry with Jungian alchemy, rhetorical devices, academic essays, and divination, with a side order of art history and magick, I’m not aware of them. But highly recommend!
Q: Are there any other poets you are aware of working in similar ways?
A: Do you mean using similar techniques to write or writing the same sorts of poetry?
A: I have been reading more work by D/deaf and disabled poets, poets who are writing from madness, chronic illness, etcetera, like Shane Neilson, Dominic Parisien, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Ally Fleming, Adam Pottle, San Alland, and the two anthologies of disability poetics that I’m aware of: Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Mike Northern, and Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back edited by San Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: All of Karen Solie’s work, but I think I’ve owned three copies of Modern and Normal that I have loaned or lost or loved to pieces.