Friday, September 2, 2022

TtD supplement #223 : seven questions for Jade Wallace

Jade Wallace’s poetry and fiction have appeared in journals including Canadian Literature, This Magazine, The Stockholm Review, and Hermine. Wallace is the reviews editor for CAROUSEL and co-founder of the collaborative writing entity MA|DE, and has a debut full-length poetry collection, Love Is A Place But You Cannot Live There, forthcoming from Guernica Editions in 2023. Stay in touch: jadewallace.ca

Their poems “Everywhere Else,” “Fun City,” “The Population of Caput Mundi,” “Taking the Greatest City in the World,” “Leaving Gotham,” and “Epistemology after New York” appear in the thirty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Everywhere Else,” “Fun City,” “The Population of Caput Mundi,” “Taking the Greatest City in the World,” “Leaving Gotham,” and “Epistemology after New York.”

A: These six are, for me, old poems, written in spring 2016, after my mother and I actually did take a train trip to New York City. It was the first time either of us had been there. Unlike the poems I write now, these are very much autobiographical, and they are very honest, possibly too honest, because someone who read them recently suggested they have a certain ‘meanness’ about them. Maybe they do; maybe I do. But I will say in my defense: I love my mother, and New York is probably a fine city, it’s just overall too big and slick of a city for me. (Though, as you can probably tell from the titles of poems, I did have fun with New York’s lively nicknames.)

These six poems are part of a longer sequence of poems about the trip my mother and I took to New York, “Cynic’s Guidebook,” which is a section of my debut poetry collection, Love Is a Place but You Cannot Live There, forthcoming from Guernica Editions in 2023. Like other poems from the section and the book as a whole, these poems play with psychogeography, which, not to go on too long a tangent, is an artistic and sometimes academic mode of exploration that tries to see locales through the lenses of defamiliarization and desire, rather than familiarity and capital. Psychogeography is an approach that obviously has its limitations, and I try to navigate both the possibilities and constraints of psychogeography in these poems.

Q: I’m curious about this, as you suggest, rare foray into the autobiographical. Is this a direction you see yourself working further in, or was this simply a specific burst, prompted by this particular trip?

A: The autobiographical is a mode that used to be my default for many years and has now become a rarity. I used it most during my adolescence and my twenties when my interior landscape and my place in the world often felt mysterious and uncertain to me. Writing autobiographical poetry was a way for me to both investigate and start to establish myself. Implicitly, my autobiographical writing was answering questions like: What are the narratives I use for myself when I sit alone and assess my life? How do they compare to the narratives others have ascribed to me? You’ll see this mode at work throughout Love Is a Place but You Cannot Live There, when it comes out. The poems in the book often manifest a persistent dialogic tension between the speaker (me) and other people I interact with. I don’t mean tension here in a negative way; it’s simply an observation. Recognizing tension can lead to insight, I find, if you can then parse the forces that are creating the feeling of tension.

Then my life quieted down a lot around the age of thirty. Home, partner, career. I’d picked my purple figs, as Plath might say. It was the most stability I’d had since leaving my childhood home. (Of course, such stability is always in part illusory, but prior to that I couldn’t even sustain the illusion.) I suppose my life became pleasantly routine, which meant that I no longer felt compelled to endlessly interrogate my perceptions, and instead increasingly turned outside of myself. My second poetry manuscript, for example, which is now substantially complete, is about how we define and value labour. Inevitably there’s a lot of me in it, but the poems are not about me. I don’t think that such a move toward the external is inherently either good or bad, it’s simply what's more interesting to me now.

Q: I’m curious about your referencing Sylvia Plath. Her work was obviously autobiographical, pushing deep into the confessional. Do you see this strain of your work as confessional? What other poets or writing do you feel influenced this particular direction?

A: When I reflect back on it, my poetry was probably guided by the autofiction I was reading at the time, which accounts for the autobiographical and narrative impulses. (It also probably explains why I wasn’t overly invested in having my poetry look or sound like PoetryTM; I was more interested in the content of the ideas than the form they took.) Whether my work from that period counts as confessional is a question I can only answer ambivalently. I suppose it was partly confessional, in the sense that the work, even now, feels personal and intimate, and often tinged by a blush of shame, like any good confession. But at the same time, the version of me that appears in the poems of Love Is a Place but You Cannot Live There spends an awful lot of time asking questions of, or observing, other people in the poems, which is rather the opposite of confession. This inclination toward a more social and dialogic mode of poetry was influenced by a couple of writers who, like me, grew up among the orchards of Niagara: James Millhaven and Terry Trowbridge. I’m still affected by their approaches to poetry, even if, on a superficial level, our poetry looks more dissimilar these days than it used to.

Q: With your full-length debut forthcoming, and your current works-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work heading?

A: The honest answer is that I’m not sure. Right now, I’m at or near completion on several projects that occupied me for the past few years: The Work Is Done When We Are Dead, my sophomore poetry manuscript; Anomia, my debut novel manuscript; and ZZOO, my debut collaborative poetry manuscript with MA|DE. While I was working on those projects, I had a quite clear sense of what I was doing and what I needed to occupy myself with to see the projects through. Once they are, hopefully, off in the world, I’ll still be at home, sitting with Echo Phenomena, a debut short fiction manuscript that I have a lot of drafted material for, but only a hazy vision of what the collection ought to be, and Petal Cipher, a third poetry manuscript that is, literally, nothing more than a title and three large envelopes full of paper scraps. So I suppose what I’ll be doing is making blueprints, looking at maps, sculpting clay, fumbling in the dark.

Q: I’m curious about your explorations through collaboration. What do you feel you are able to achieve through collaboration that might not have been possible otherwise?

A: I’ll speak to MA|DE specifically, as that’s been my longest-term collaboration, and the only collaborative partnership I’ve been in where the collaboration is treated as its own entity. MA|DE, as we like to say, has a ‘third voice.’ It’s something other, something more, than just a combination of my voice and my collaborator Mark Laliberte’s. We’ve been working steadily that way as MA|DE since 2018. Thus far we’ve published three chapbooks, written one full-length manuscript, and have started drafting two other full-length books as well. So we’ve done quite a bit of writing together, and we’re always testing out new approaches, and in that sense I see collaboration as an end in itself. It’s a mode of writing, like how fiction is a mode of writing; it has its own possibilities and challenges and it forces you to do particular kinds of problem-solving and develop certain skills as writer you might not have otherwise. That alone is worthwhile.

For me particularly, one of my limitations as a writer is that I can be quite narrow-minded. I need all the lines I write to make sense. I need to be able to explain them, at least to myself. I need to see a discernible flow of thought across the page. Mark is much more intuitive and, frankly, creative, than I am. He writes like he’s a wild vine, and I write like I’m a gardener. When we’re writing as MA|DE, we’re constantly navigating a space somewhere between those two tendencies. I have to become more expansive, he has to become more orderly. Our taste in poetry, likewise, often diverges, which is good. There are many influences and styles we each bring to bear on any individual poem, and it forces us to come up with unexpected workarounds to create a harmonious poem that we’re both satisfied with.

Q: I’m curious about the work of your second manuscript, speaking to how “we define and value labour.” When I think of “labour” articulated through poetry, I think of the strains of “work” poetry that manifested in those early days of the Kootenay School of Writing, through poets such as Tom Wayman, Phil Hall, Kate Braid, Peter Culley and Jeff Derksen, etcetera, or even some of more recent poets in the Philadelphia area, such as ryan eckes. How is this element presenting itself in your work?

A: When I was doing preliminary research about the poetry of work, these were some of the names that came up frequently! What I’ve noticed is that a lot of poetry collections about work focus on activities that are easily recognized as work. Consider for instance Braid’s Turning Left to the Ladies, which looks at construction work and carpentry done for pay, or the anthology Wayman edited, A Government Job at Last: An Anthology of Working Poems, which also explicitly focuses on paid work. Paid work is of course an important subject, but I wanted to consider it alongside other forms of work we do: identity construction, community-building, relationship maintenance. How do these forms of work compare? What lessons do we learn in one sphere of labour that we might bring to bear upon the others? I suppose what fascinates me is the rather sharp divide between the work we are forced to do to make a living, and the work we willingly undertake because we find it necessary, meaningful, fulfilling, even delightful, for its own sake. Could all our work one day be elevated, and made to transcend mere drudgery? These are the issues I’m tackling in The Work Is Done When We Are Dead and, as the title suggests, the urgency of the questions for me is related to the fact that labour of one kind or another is a lifelong requiement, pervading all of our days until we die.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: There are definitely certain texts that continue to preoccupy me for years. Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Nella Larsen’s Passing, Sue Goyette’s The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl, and Hiromi Goto’s The Kappa Child would be good examples.

But for me, energy typically comes from reading new material, reading widely, and reading whatever interests me at a given time. Sometimes that’s a news article, sometimes it’s philosophy, sometimes it’s a cookbook. It doesn’t matter, really, whether it’s relevant to what I’m working on. Sometimes it’s better if it’s irrelevant, so the mind starts drawing unusual connections. What inspires me is surprising language and new information—in fact it needn’t even come in the form written material specifically (though that's my preferred medium). The radio, podcasts, TV shows, a line I overheard when walking past someone on the sidewalk, it all gets stored somewhere in memory and comes back later in unexpected ways. As long as I stay curious and stay informed so I have a full well to draw from, I can write.

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