IS IT ABOUT RUINS AND GHOSTS?, The Trick to Feeling Safe at Home, and Worry & Fuck. She recently completed a doctorate about Canadian literary awards. You can find her, or at least more about her, at dessabayrock.com, or at @dessayo on Instagram.
Her poem “Winter Poem” appears in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “Winter Poem.”
A: Years ago I read a post online from a stranger that said something like I beg you to find ways of marking time that do not rely on the calendar, which link you more deeply to the natural world. It said something like notice the way the trees and flowers respond to the changing seasons. Mark the patterns of birds floating north for the summer and south for the winter. I chewed this idea over and over and to be honest I'm still chewing on it, but I've come to the conclusion that this stranger was describing a kind of personal almanac, which is an idea that really appealed to me. After all, I've always been interested in the idea of time as a palimpsest, with every year laying over the previous one. Sometimes these layers allow things to leak through; sometimes it's like jam soaking into the edges of a book, and sometimes it's more like a greased piece of paper through which I can see the shifting figures and shadows of my previous years as I overlap them.
All this to say: one of my favourite additions to my personal almanac is my habit of writing a new year's poem, which happens at a funny kind of crossroads: the year turns over, according to the calendar, but the season is hitting its stride in earnest. It's a strange little intersection where the season says I'm only just hitting my peak while the calendar says we are starting something new. It's a continuation; it's an interruption. It's an interesting time to write a poem.
As with most of my poems, many parts of this are metaphorical but also quite literal, and specifically the central image of the boots: at the beginning of the season, I broke the zipper on my heavy duty winter boots and also ripped open the side seam on my traditional autumn / early winter Blundstones. Both went to the cobbler, who lost them for months, and in the meantime I had nothing to wear on my feet. I spent the first half of the winter in three different pairs of borrowed boots, each of which failed me in their own way: I wore a hole through the bottom of the first pair, slipped around in the too-big second pair and had a dramatic fall that I think fractured something in my elbow, and the third pair fit well and stayed water-tight but had absolutely no insulation, and I froze my feet over and over again every time I stepped outside.
Winter has never been my favourite season; I hate feeling trapped inside when the weather is bad, and I forget to eat, and every year I have at least one major slip and fall that leaves me gasping breathlessly up at the sky like a beached fish. Writing this poem was a way to write out all the ways the season was trying to trip me up, to rip me up, and all the ways I was still, nevertheless, relentlessly moving forward. And sure, it's not all good; spring means the revelation of everything that's been rotting under the snow before it means flowers. I guess I tried to write this poem in a way that felt sympathetic to winter, that tried to relate the season back in a way that winter would recognize — but also in a way that felt hopeful in a way that winter rarely does, to me. It feels a bit like a compromise, I guess — the same way that new year's seems to be a compromise between the season ramping up and the year ending.
When I wrote this poem, it felt like it had been the hardest winter of my life. And it had been — but it was a winter before Covid, and several winters in lockdown showed me how much more difficult and strange a winter season could be. All the same, in all the hard winters I've experienced since, this poem has felt a bit like a loving road map from my past self. See? She says. Spring always comes. And sooner or later the cobbler will find your boots in the back of the shop and call you to pick them up.
Q: How does this poem compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: This poem is honestly one of my favourites from the last few years — a piece that feels pretty representative of what I try to do in my poems, and what I’ve been trying to do for a while, which is namely: unlock the universal through the specific. Sometimes, as I said above, this makes them much more literal than figurative, and I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea — I once got a rejection from a well-known Canadian literary mag that basically (and kindly) said: have you tried being less literal? And yeah, I have, and I don’t like it. My favourite poems have always had a clear narrative path, a reliance moreso on simile than metaphor or other abstract imagery, and take on a kind of “braided” form where a central image spins out into several different paths before coming back together at the end. I like my poems to feel conversational, and honest, and this poem accomplishes that goal in a way that I, personally, find satisfying. Which in the end is what I think poetry has to be: first and foremost for myself, and whether or not other people like it is up to them.
Q: What first drew you to this kind of conversational approach? And what do you feel might be possible through this that might not be otherwise, say, if you were “less literal”?
A: I first started thinking and working in this conversational approach because of Kayla Czaga, whose poems are likewise conversational narratives in a way. I was immediately struck – and immediately in love with – the way that she inserts the names of real people from her life into her poems, which seemed to unlock something for me. I’d read poems for ages where poets would reference someone they knew but obscure the name, in a Poem for A___ kind of way. For a long time I respected that utility, but seeing the way that Czaga ignored it or defied it broke things open for me: You don’t have to obscure or hide from the reader. I use this kind of conversational narrative approach to build intimacy, leaning into the idea of telling a story rather than building literary impressions the reader is left to interpret themselves. I think it’s important, maybe now more than ever, to show the reader that the poet is a real person on the other side of the poem. Poems aren’t just thought experiments or art created in a vacuum – they’re moments in time that have been pressed between waxed paper like flowers so they can be saved, seen from all angles, studied, remembered. And, like Czaga, I now use the real names of my friends (with permission!) when they appear in my poems. The poem wouldn’t exist without them, so why would I hide it? It feels like another way of being open with the reader and coming to them in good faith: listen, I’m telling you the truth here, as best as I can. There are other places where truth becomes foggy in poems – but there’s no need to invent places for that to happen. I think it’s stronger if it happens naturally.
Q: You mention Kayla Czaga: have you any other models for this kind of work?
A: Ada Limón comes to mind; Sabrina Benaim maybe, although she plays with space on the page much more than I do; Chloe N. Clark, although the worlds of her poems are often a little unsettling rather than the more straight-forward worlds of my poems.
Q: With three chapbooks under your belt, as well as your current works-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: My first chapbook (IS IT ABOUT RUINS AND GHOSTS?, Ghost City Press 2019) is still very dear to me, but feels very representative of my poetry when I was just starting out – like Conyer Clayton’s but the sun, and the ships, and the fish, and the waves, those poems were a way to reckon with the jungle of literal nightmares that descended every night for almost two years. When I return to these poems, I’m struck – especially given what we’ve been talking about – about my use of you in these poems -- a figure that the reader slips into, but a slippery you that refers to six or seven different people throughout the chapbook. I don’t use anyone’s name, except in the acknowledgements, which feels like a way of creating distance between me and the reader. You can't know what I’m talking about for sure, these poems tell the reader, as though to pass the confusion of my nightmares onto them. I still use you in a fair number of poems – but for quite some time now it has meant me, as though I’m writing a poem to myself. (Which, to be fair, I usually am.) So this is an interesting evolution, to me – instead of using you to create distance (I’m over here and you are over there and you don’t even know who you are), I’ve started using you to create intimacy (You, by which I mean me, by which I invite you into me, because we are the same, and here is what we are feeling).
In some ways these poems feel tentative to me, even as they feel fierce – I was pushing into new ways of writing in response to these nightmares, but also felt like challenging them on the page was giving them more power. Poems felt then to me like songs in a musical: a necessary expression of something that refused to be curtailed by mere dialogue alone. These poems say: I have something to write about and I don’t know what it is just yet. They feel a bit like dumping a tote bag on a table and saying does anyone see my keys in here? I think that’s valid, and that’s useful to some extent, but now I’m looking forward to how I might imagine poetic projects differently. I’m in the early stages of formulating a project on a theme that I can trace through others’ works and through historical records and wrestle with in different modes of writing and thinking, kind of in the vein of A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam, which feels like a meaningful and interesting way of levelling up my work. Poems responding to the poet’s own emotions can only go so far, I think – it’s time to find other frameworks and ideas to build into.
Q: While you do reference “songs in a musical,” I wonder about the music of your lyric, even within the first-person conversational. How aware are you, if at all, of sound and flow and music as you write?
A: Oh, yes. Very aware! I generally draft quickly, and try not to be precious about line length or flow or things like internal rhyme, but once I start editing it’s all about the flow of a piece – any story has a good flow. I read my poems out loud over and over and over again while I’m working on them, trying to make sure it sounds the way I want. I have a pretty good sense of meter, or at least I think I do, because I come from a background of sonnet-writing; sonnets were all I wrote for years and years and years, deadly formal, iambic pentameter, the whole nine yards. There’s something so beautifully insistent about the flow of a sonnet, about the math and structure of it, and while my poems now are decidedly less formal I really try to retain that sensibility of rhythm and flow. Sometimes I’ll work on a poem for ages, and it looks great on the page – but it gets stuck in my mouth when I try to read it out. So back in the box it goes until I can make it line up with my sense of what it should be.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: A poem I turn to over and over and over again is the first poem in Tara-Michelle Ziniuk’s collection Whatever, Iceberg, which is called “What if love existed but you didn’t have your notification settings turned on?”. It’s basically just a series of playful questions which take on a kind of urgency as the poem progresses, as the questions become rephrased, as the meaning of the poem both develops and devolves. The last stanza goes: If a relationship happened but one party fell off the face of the earth? Was the earth love? Was falling? Was soil? Was traffic? Was a plane? Was a face? Was your face love? It was to me.
That last four-word statement is the only non-question in the poem, and I cried abruptly when I first read it, the same way your body knows to immediately physiologically shoot out exactly two tears from each eye when you get your nose pierced. Although TMZ writes a more abstract narrative in this poem than I would, there’s something so beautifully shifting about its colours and impressions. And then that last line – whew. Like watching dancers whirling across a stage and suddenly, beautifully all stop in the same moment. Finally you can see the image – but also the image has disappeared, because the true image was its motion. I think this poem is exactly like that. I think a lot of good art is like that.