natalie hanna is an Ottawa lawyer working with low income populations. Her writing focuses on feminist, political, and personal relational themes. From April of 2016 to September of 2018, she served as the Administrative Director of the Sawdust Reading Series and on the board of Arc Poetry Magazine. She is the author of ten chapbooks, including three with above/ground press, with an 11th from Baseline Press in the Fall of 2020. Her poem “light conversation” received Honourable Mention in ARC Magazine’s 2019 – Diana Brebner Prize. For more information, find her at: https://nhannawriting.wordpress.com
Her poems “font of the covenant,” “on the run with the cult of saint cecilia, beheaded unrepentant” and “b/c i was in mourning” appear in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “font of the covenant,” “on the run with the cult of saint cecilia, beheaded unrepentant” and “b/c i was in mourning.”
A: ‘font of the covenant’ is a gothic mess of feeling like an Orientalized actor in your own life, which is what the stage directions are about (two for a spirit and two for a live person). The first part literally discusses feeling like a visual on which other people read their own meaning without learning context. The second part cycles through some regular experiences of having Arabness used for the amusement of others/be appropriated/exocitized by others. The third part plays on the Orientalized legend of a mummy’s curse, except the narrator's awareness of being fetishized is the curse itself that dulls the pleasure of Orientalizing. The fourth part speaks to literally being ferried between countries as a child, and having Westernized terms for Arab spiritual concepts reinforced over the actual ones. All of the poems are overlaid with the imagery of baptism (the font) and being born “of Christ,” through the covenant of Christ dying to redeem our sins, in the same way that I felt it was reinforced for me to let the Arab in me hide / die out to succeed when I was younger.
I imagined a queer cult around St. Cecilia. She took a vow of virginity to god, but even when she was forced to marry, she convinced her husband to respect her vow by telling him god would kill him if he didn't (and also by showing him an angel to back up her claims). She converted her husband and brother in law. She was martyred after she enraged the prefect by doing charitable work. It was really gruesome- the prefect ordered her to be scalded to death. When that failed, he ordered her beheaded... but she lived three more days converting multitudes and giving away her possessions, which just made the prefect angrier. When I read about her, I thought about a scenario where maybe Cecilia made her vow of virginity to god because she was queer and this would be a likely way to avoid having to sleep with men. it's kind of hard to come across queer heroes in Christianity when you're a kid, so... she's kind of been a transformed queer icon in my head ever since. So I wrote this only slightly racy poem about being a reckless youth in love, for some old flames, as an expression of joyful queer love. It has a loving little secret call out for old Torontonians in it.
“b/c i was in mourning” is the weirdest premised poem I’ve ever written. (I’m a little surprised you agreed to publish it without having any backstory first.) My 22yr old cat, whom I’d had since her birth, had just died in my arms. It was Christmas Eve, and also one of my best friend's birthdays – who was also with me at the vet’s when the cat died and also like a cat-dad to her since her birth, and look – it was just a terribly complicated painful day. We were due to have supper with dear out of town friends we almost never get to see, and see Rise of Skywalker in the theatre. I cried for hours. Then we went to supper not to miss our only chance to see our friends from away, then to the movie to try to salvage some part of my friend’s birthday, and I’m pretty sure we cried through the entire movie in total surreal exhaustion. As a result, I missed that part in the background all the way at the end of the movie when two women characters (one unnamed) kiss - this kiss that was billed to us all as a great step forward in normalizing same-sex relationships in cinema - this total afterthought, this throwaway of a scene, that we were meant to be grateful for... The only person who knew that I was crying uncontrollably because the loss of my cat was sitting right beside me, and I was hoping no one would mistake it for some kind of queer joy over that scene, because that's no way to normalize anything. I ended up seeing the movie again a couple of months later just to be able to witness this alleged breakthrough scene and was just as exhausted with it.
Q: How do these pieces compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: Those are all pre-pandemic poems, so I don't find them falling into the well of strange emotional cocooning / distancing that some of my more recent poems do. It's hard not to veer into poems that are exclusively about loss since March, however, early on in the pandemic, I had the pleasure of seeing Andy Verboom perform (online) his poem 'The Appendectomy of Kenpachiro Satsuma," from his KFB chapbook "DBL". The poem begins:
"Even Hieronymus Bosch at Coachella
couldn't have drafted this rubberneck hydra
swamping the soundstage, this ill-fated tetra
-pak village, scuttled aside, its roach era
I was so taken aback by the beautiful absurdity of just the first two lines that I nearly slid out of my chair laughing. I then drafted three poems in Verboom's style, mimicking the absurdity, for "Salvador Dali at Burning Man...," "Basquiat at Ibitha...," and "Miro at Buckingham..." When I debuted them at the House Party Poetry Series 2, someone suggested I should write one for "Savaldor Dali Lama" next, and I am not opposed to this. Each of those poems reflect in their own way of the absurdity of what we accept as normal and how we create meaning.
Q: How do they fit, then, with the other pre-pandemic poems you were working on? Have you a line at pandemic that separates what you were writing before to what you have been working on since?
A: I don't think that’s a firm line. Or maybe on one side of the line it says “difficult poems” and the other side of the line it says “difficult poems in different ways.” My poems over the last few years have largely focused on social ecology, highly political themes like racism and violence, loss, mourning, our place in the world, etc... I try to temper collections of poems like that with some softness, but I don’t know if I succeed at that.
Since the start of the pandemic I’ve been finding a need for more poems of compassion almost as a defence against despair. Sometimes that compassion looks like what we’ve lost in terms of physical closeness, sometimes it looks like sympathy for the absurdity we’re all sharing, sometimes expressions of love and joy, but there are still difficult poems about identity, isolation, loss, medicalization, my legal work experiences, etc... Maybe is just that the tone is turning more towards consolations.
Q: You mention a shifted focus on “social ecology”: what originally prompted these shifts, and how do you see these shifts display themselves in your work? Have you any models for this kind of work?
A: I've always been very interested in the ways that we relate or fail to relate to 'each other,' but the other doesn't necessarily have to be another person. It could be a group of people, an animal(s), a location, a particular environment, or the world at large. This is what life is - a series of interactions with other entities, us affecting the other, the other affecting us.
I think the shift to writing that is more regularly informed by social ecology is probably a result of needing to express deep exhaustion with the strain of modern life and wanting to get back to a place of gentle joyfulness. I know that probably sounds a bit insipid, but writing is one of the ways we make sense of our contextualized experiences in the world so there has to be a place in which you can craft these kinds of observations. I am unconcerned in the utmost with comments that poetry should not be political, or that poetry should not be therapy, etc.
Most recently, I have been working on finishing up a chapbook length collaboration with Liam Burke. Actually, we've been working on it for six, almost seven years. It looks at a different kind of ecology. It looks at the human body as a machine, interacting with its environment, and how humans create and use machines of industry, science, and health upon the environment and ourselves. It also looks at the way our environments impact the human machine over time. There is an eternity to write about in there.
I feel like I can't point to one particular model for this work. I don't have the benefit of being an academic behind me in this respect. I remember reading Snyder and William Carlos Williams more than 20 years ago, and appreciating the precision of the natural narrative eye. But if you were to ask me about models for social ecology today, I am very interested in two, developed by respected friends. Conyer Clayton and Nathanaël Larochette's collaboration of grieving Clayton's mother, 'if the river stood still,' and Sanita Fejzić's ongoing philosophy around the lack of boundary between the body and other systems. Both of these authors have accomplished beautiful poetic philosophies regarding the interconnectedness of all things that are quite merciful, quite personal, quite honest.
I would also encourage everyone to read Natalee
Caple's remarkable Love in the Chthulucene (Wolsak & Wynn, 2019) .
Everything is there for you, in the details. It is like reading the relation
between place and experience across an emotional globe, turning on the axis of
Q: Since the mid-1990s, you’ve published a small handful of chapbooks, more than I think most folk are aware of. How do you see your work developing since those early publications? Where do you see your work headed?
A: The very first was a collection of micro-poems. They were very tender and I loved them. They were followed by chapbooks that mixed feminist body-politics with love poetry. I wrote about the break-up of my family. Later on, I wrote about the things I’ve mentioned above – social ecologies, medicalization, racialization, (broadly) experiences I’ve had through my legal work, violence against women, gun/war violence, the machine nature of the body, and the role of grieving. As friends recently reminded me, the creative part of my life largely depends on experience and memory. From a thematic point of view, that’s how it happened. Pushing myself to write more about difficult subject matter because it felt important.
Flexing the writing muscle in that way meant being open to sharing experiences, which can be a difficult thing. Some instances, even those that might be common enough experiences, can open in your mind like a devastating flower. There is sometimes a tendency to keep them apart and private. I think, however, it’s necessary to be generous and honest with your reader. I don’t mean that one has to be constantly confessional, or writing from an actual true lived experience, to produce a poem that is effective. I mean that striving for honesty of emotion is key. Whatever it is you feel about the subject of your poem, even if that’s ambivalence, try to capture it without your ego getting in the way - without fear of being thought of as hack. Just get it down on the page and respect what you love about it. Also, get to the work of editing, without thinking that every word is so precious that it can't be altered.
When I started to write with others, to work in writing groups, and to take workshops, it really opened up the notion of unselfconscious play, in terms of editing. I enjoyed creating poems and then breaking up the stanzas to make new poems from the fragments. I liked to learn what was effective and non-effective in the minds of various readers, so that I could offer alternative presentations of some poems. I’d like to think that I have become better at conveying images and sentiment through precisely chosen language, though I know my choices aren't always those of others. I enjoy working with enjambment to hopefully produce an echo of how I would speak something aloud, to produce the meaningful spaces between the words. It’s so freeing to move away from the hierarchy of traditional grammatical presentations for certain types of expression. One of my favourite things to do now is to ask musicians to work with me to develop a “score” for some of my poetry, such as my collaboration earlier this year with Liam Burke on music for my Baseline Press chapbook infinite redress, and earlier collaborations with other brilliant artists like Nathanaël Larochette and Jason Sonier. So from a technical point of view, that's how things developed.
Going forward, I think I’d like to spend some time mixing visual art, music, poetry, prose poetry, and prose, to build long narratives. For some time, there have been things I’d like to write, but to write them entirely as poetry or entirely as prose would be insufficient to convey what I’d like to, probably. My prose already veers heavily towards prose poetry anyway, and I could see an intermingling of the four styles. I think a long way back to Barbara Hodgson’s illustrated novel The Sensualist, which had a tremendous impact on me when I first read it – how entering that book was like entering a completely new universe of physical objects contained within its covers. Or Nick Bantok’s Griffin and Sabine books, in which you could sneak along the correspondences exchanged between characters. I think these can be gleeful and effective ways to enhance a narrative.
Q: You’ve answered a bit of this already, but what writers or works have you in your head as you work?
A: I find it really hard to wholly answer questions of this type. A lot of what is in my head as I'm actively writing is music. A tiny list would include: Debussy, Delibes, Andrew Rose Gregory, Bjork, Mercan Dede, Fairouz, Crowded House, A Silver Mt. Zion, MONO, Musk Ox, Hayley Heynderickx, Chelsea Wolfe, Kamancello, My Brightest Diamond, Om, duduk and ney music, and natural sounds. What they have in common is that they can temporarily take me out of my active scrambled thoughts and allow me the mental space to focus as I construct the lines.
For writers, I tend to think of a bit of mix of old school and new. I could start with Sappho's clarity. I could follow with the longing of Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje's sweeping The Cinnamon Peeler. Stephanie Bolster's Three Bloody Words has lived with me a long time. Robin Richardson's dreamy Grunt of the Minotaur joins. Dionne Brand's Land to Light On is so important, as is Lillian Allen's Women Do This Everyday (which she was gracious enough to sign for trembling me at VerseFest one year, right on one of my favourite poems). I'm looking for what's powerful and beautiful in my mind.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: In addition to the above... I go back to things like your own If suppose we are a fragment, and The Uncertainty Principle. I have a soft spot for Shannon Bramer's The Suitcase and Other Poems, and Judith Krause's Half the Sky. Sandra Ridley's Post Apothecary, and Sylvija are little treasures in my shelf. Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology are always lurking about. The other thing that I'll do is pull the poetry books written by friends off the shelf and sit with them again. It could be the tenth time I've come to a book - there are always more things to discover and learn from. Reading is a richness of textures that you sometimes overlook the first time in your haste to devour and enjoy. These types of questions of who you come back to distress me with nerdy guilt in a way because I feel like they do a disservice to so many wonderful contemporary poets.
When I want to reenergize myself, I will sometimes also turn to fiction by authors who can't help but create a poetic sensibility. Neil Gaiman, for example, has this rich history of visual and graphic and traditional written storytelling that taught me a lot about how to create expectation when I first came to his writing. I love the frantic absurdity of Franz Kafka. I love how the translations of Banana Yoshimoto's novels can't and shouldn't necessarily track with how we might traditionally conceive storytelling, and yet are so charming and engaging. If I want to re-energize on hopefulness, I'm probably reading Toni Morrison. I will never forget reading Barbara Gowdy's The White Bone and witnessing how well Gowdy built to such an effective traumatic conclusion. I think a lot about Naguib Mahfouz's books and how adept he was with contextualizing a reader in physical spaces. I tunnel back in my mind to Anne Marie MacDonald's magic realism in Fall On Your Knees a lot. Gabriel Garcia Marquez can make you feel like you've lived the same lifetime of his characters' 500 page lives.
I really want to encourage people to think of all
of their influences that may not immediately come to mind. We come to poetry in
so many ways and should recognize the merit in this blending of experiences
that helps us compose and distill our poems.