Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

"Collage, montage, politic, polemic, gut punching, slippage": In Conversation with [sic] author Nikki Reimer

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Nikki Reimer's first collection of poetry, [sic], came out with Frontenac House in 2010. It has been nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. http://frontenachouse.com/auth...

visit her website www.nikkireimer.com
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AH: The first sequence in [sic] "illness narratives" is largely constructed of what I'll call soundbites of medical jargon and media representations of health issues, can you comment on the work of fitting these fragments together by sound and/or by theme?

NR: I’ve been obsessed with health/sickness/disease/the body and the concept of the “illness narrative” for longer than I can remember, so thematically I find it a rich area from which to work. In my work I am interested in asking questions like: What is health? What is a body that works or doesn’t work, and what does that body look like? For women, I think, this is still an especially fraught area. Here in the 21st century, after three waves of feminism, our bodies in the capital “P” Public, and to some extent the private, sphere continue to be objectified and sexualized and commodified to the point that to call attention to the problematics and power imbalances within the normalized objectification/sexualization/commodification is to draw responses of “Geezus, lady, where’s yr sense of humour?”

Thus the text from the diamond ad: Your left hand says we. Your right hand says me. Your left hand rocks the cradle. Your right hand rules the world. Empowerment as embodied consumerism. I am Woman, hear the roar of my right hand blood diamond. And the advertising industry’s co-option of poetic language and poetic devices—the material is there for the stealing. (As Helen Hajnoczky has done in her Poets and Killers).

The initial core of the poem is derived from a very personal place. My 84-year-old great-uncle was dying of bone cancer at the same time that then 84-year-old Pope John Paul II was dying. So in an article about JPII’s decline, the quote from the doctor, Towards the end, people often open their eyes, some people smile; they just look very placid and calm.

I remain fascinated by death: what happens during the dying process to the body, to what we might call the spirit; what happens afterwards. Why do we as a culture repress death?

We might argue that language ends at death—does it?

Almost immediately after my uncle died, his sister my grandmother was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a disease where, to simplify, the neurons involved with motor activity weaken and die. Over time you literally become trapped in a hardening shell. The mind reminds intact as paralysis travels throughout the body. You lose movement and you lose the ability to speak. Eventually you can’t swallow and then you can’t breathe and then you die.

The ALS Society of Canada provides wonderful supports to people with the disease, including communication devices. In my Baba’s case we tried a laptop-style device, which I think my family bought from the Society, but for a woman who up till that point had had no desire to use a computer, it was a nonstarter. Instead she used an analogic device called a letter board, a laminated alphabet mounted on a hard board, which is in turn mounted on a soft cushion for sitting on the lap. In addition to the letters it can include common phrases like “yes,” “no,” “thank you,” “please,” etc. (I wanted to keep hers after she died—as a lingual talisman, I think, but it belonged to the Society. I should have stolen it.)

Communication between the patient and family/caregivers in these situations can be frustrating and difficult, and at times humourous, especially when the patient is seeking help for an urgent bodily need, like having to go to the bathroom, or needing water or oxygen or an itch scratched. Though in Baba’s case, she was not interested in simplifying her speech in order to get a point across quicker. That’s just who she was: there was a proper method for everything, and anything less than was unacceptable. She once spent 45 minutes trying to tell me that my bra strap was twisted. Most people would have given up; that’s how stubborn she was. She didn’t stop trying to communicate the idea until I got it. On another occasion we pored over her jewelry, doling pieces out to me or my mom or cousin or to be given to this or that relative. We asked her about a pair of earmuffs, which turned out to be chincillia. She kept spelling it out and I, impatient and arrogant, kept stopping her. She’d spelled c-h-i-n-c-h and I thought No word in English starts with “chinch”, she must be starting over, c-h-i-n, yeah, ok, we get it, next? C-h-i- n, what? And she would began again, c-h-i-n-c-h, till finally, I let her finish c-h-i-n-c-h-i-l-l-a. Oh. Chinchilla. Small furry rodent. Right.

Originally this poem consisted solely of the found text from the diamond ad. Over time other layers were woven in: the soundbites of medical jargon, the phrases we used with my grandmother and the language she used with us. Yes. No. Please straighten my bedsheets. As well as other snippets of text I took from overheard conversations and the newspaper (I have an unhealthy addiction to the newspaper.)

This of course is background, where I started from, and I neither expect nor want these biographical traces to be apparent in the poem. I think I start from a personal and emotional place in the initial inscription of a piece, and then circle wider and wider outside of that, working intuitively in terms of how things sound together and where they should be placed, trying to create dialogue through juxtaposition. And the poem has its own agenda and its own internal logic, which moves past narrative and story. I don’t want story, I want collage, montage, politic, polemic, gut punching, slippage.

AH: The first poem in the "corporate whores" section of [sic] begins, "please respond to the social imperative to martyr oneself" the second poem, "photographing" talks about "to 'suffer[ing]' for 'my art'". These concepts seem to be in dialogue with one another. Would that be a fair reading? To what extent is it useful to think of artists as a society generating a social imperative for one another to martyr him/herselves/ suffer for his/her art? [I'm referring, primarily, I think, to the concept of "selling out" that artists from time to time accuse one another of Could you talk a bit about this mirroring of mainstream culture in subculture, to the extent that you think it exists, and also how ideas stretch and weave from one poem into another in [sic]?

NR: I think that’s a fair reading, and I have a four or five-fold response to your question.

To be an artist in this society is to suffer, because society at large does not respect artists or the work that artists do.

When it came out that Stephen Harper had been a bit of a pianist in his time, I recall that the first time he spoke about it he said something suggesting that (this is my summary, I don’t remember it verbatim) he was distrustful of his love for playing the piano because it was too much of a dangerous distraction. Which I think is telling. Take that into the voting booth with you.

Look at federal policies on the arts, look at the slashing of arts funding in British Columbia (where I live.) Artists can’t (most of us) live off of our true work, so we have to beg, borrow and steal, live in poverty or sell out to other careers or vocations, or fit the work that fires us into the rest of our “daily lives.” It can be exhausting. God knows how parents do it; I can barely manage my partner and cats. And life, for our generation especially, has gotten harder, or at least more fraught and more serious. Everyone I know is tired. All we do is work. And worry, about our careers as poets, about status, about how poor we are going to be in our sixties, about whether we will have a job in six months, or ever again. Retirement? Pensions? Vacations? Property? Not that any of the aforementioned are human rights; but when you grow up in a middle- class “neo-liberalized” society, you think you have to attain them, and you think you’ve failed if you haven’t. (Every day I have to work towards being grateful and humble inside my basement apartment, even though the lack of sunlight contributes to my depressive disorder.)

Also I think the desire to make art comes from the same place that suffering comes from, which is a place of openness and vulnerability and of paying close attention to one’s surroundings. And if you’re at all aware, really aware, of where we are in the world (politically, environmentally etc. etc.) and where we’re heading, and you’re not depressed, to use a cliche, you’re not paying attention.

(Recognizing that all this whining comes from an enormous place of privilege: I’ve got the white able-bodied cis-gendered middle-class poet blues. Boo fucking hoo, right?)

These days we don’t accuse each other of selling out; we accuse each other of being careerist. What is a careerist? It seems to depend on who is making the charge, and who is in or not in the room at the time. I would wager that a careerist is someone who strives for recognition for their work at all costs. Is that positive or negative? I dunno; that’s another essay.

I don’t see mainstream culture versus subculture, I see boomers vs. gen Y, I see rich vs. poor, right vs. left wing, counterculture subsumed into capitalism. Artists, most of us, ape mainstream cultural values to the extent that there is no difference.

And of course the trope of the melancholic artist is older than the hills. Can I separate myself the writer from myself the anxious depressive? No, nor after three decades of coming to terms with my personal variety of mental illness, would I want to.

I reject the avante gardist assumption that all feeling is by definition gauche—derek beaulieu might assert that “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling,” (did you know that’s an Oscar Wilde quote? I didn’t till I googled it to make sure I was quoting it correctly) but I disagree with the unstated rhetorical conclusion that no good poetry springs from genuine feeling. All my writing springs from genuine feeling, initially. It’s what you do with it once it’s on the page that makes it art.

The ideas in [sic] are as disordered as my responses to your questions: multiple threads at once, all fighting for supremacy. And every thread wants to be further considered on another page. You can see why I did not go into academia; there are no cogent conclusions here.

AH: What are you working on for your next project? Poetry? How will it be similar and how a departure?

NR: Yes, poetry. If [sic] raves forth/froth from a disrupted past/present, the next project is not as blunt, though no less politicized. It plays more with strategies of found material, collage and recombination, and is comprised of texts from news comment boards, psychoanalytic theorists, pop lyrics, financial planning advice, health benefit booklets, the reports on the tasering death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, self-help manuals, and my own fevered brain. Some of the text is more disjunctive, language-y than in [sic]. Oh yeah, and there’s hashtags. Everybody loves #hashtag #poetry.

AH: To me, the disjointedness of the poems in [sic] represent a series of starting points (as well as representing a thoroughly contemporary distracted peripatetic-ness), and so, lots of potential and multiple points of entry. Do you think disjointedness is a fair description of one of your strategies in [sic]? Could you talk about how you use it and how in particular line breaks play
into this strategy?

NR: I suppose, though much of the book could be considered typical lyric narrative—not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, as long as it does something other than resemble a potted plant—as far as there is an “I” subject or speaker that addresses objects and recounts stories or fragments of stories, it is still, as you say, disjointed, though I am not sure that I use disjointedness as a strategy per se. More that the book is a reflection of the way we are all disrupted subjects (distracted peripatetic). The flaneur still walks aimlessly down 17th avenue, her thoughts everywhere at once. I just came across this Lyn Hejinian quote (from “The Person and Description”) which I think speaks to what is going on in [sic]

The “personal” is already a plural condition. Perhaps one feels that is is located somewhere within, somewhere inside the body—in the stomach? the chest? the genitals? the throat? the head? One can look for it and already one is not oneself, one is several, incomplete and subject to dispersal. The idea of the person enters poetics where art and reality, or intentionality and circumstance, meet...

I write a long line that breaks where I the person breaks, shifts, breathes, shudders, is disrupted, shifts positions. The line is always and never in control.

AH: THE MOVIE QUESTION:::

In some ways, I think that adapting a book to a film is like adapting a sculpture into a song, the media are so different and the expectations are as well. That said, to my mind, No Country for Old Men is a good adaptation, it stays true to the book in terms of plot, dialogue, pacing and atmosphere. Do you have a favourite book to movie adaptation? Do you have a least favourite?

NR: Little House on the Prairie, with the added bonus that Michael Landon is way sexier than Pa was in the book. Wait, that’s a series, not a movie. Worst? The English Patient was pretty abysmal. How about an adaptation Coming Through Slaughter, via Spike Lee?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Angela Hibbs

Angela Hibbs's second collection of poetry, Wanton, came out with Insomniac Press in the Fall of 2009. With Sachiko Murakami, she co-hosts Pivot at the Press Club.

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