Roxanna Bennett is the author of The Uncertainty Principle
Roxanna Bennett published a review of Jon Paul Fiorentino’s I’m Not Scared of You or Anything in Issue 26, Summer 2014. Her debut collection of poems, The Uncertainty Principle (2014), will be reviewed on The Town Crier next month.
Domenica Martinello: Before studying Creative Writing at the University of Toronto under Ken Babstock, you pursued a degree in Experimental Arts at the Ontario College of Art and Design. You have also taught art education. I’m always curious about how people who’ve worked in other creative media approach the writing of poetry. Do you feel like your background has added an extra dimension to your work or changed your approach?
Roxanna Bennett: True story: I had to go through the portfolio admission process for the OCA (as [OCAD] was called back in the day) twice, because the first time I went for my interview, exactly half the jury wanted to give me Advanced Standing, and the other half thought I should never do art again. So they had to put together a new jury and the same thing happened. So they compromised and let me attend Foundation Year, and I hated it. I refused to stand up and explain any of my work, partly because I’m a fucking asshole and also painfully shy, but also because if someone assigns a colour study where the instructions are: “create a portrait using chromatic blue,” I feel that there’s nothing to talk about. Is it blue? Did you make it blue? Is it also a portrait? Good. Shut up now.
In visual art I’m always more interested in the process than the final piece. I was dirt broke poor when I was in college and couldn’t afford to buy canvases so the few I had I would just paint over again and again for different assignments. At one point I had one canvas that had a dozen paintings on it.
When I write poetry I throw everything into a document and then edit and edit and edit. I don’t often save rough drafts of work, I just keep erasing and rearranging until I think it’s done.
I don’t see a big distinction between composing or painting or writing. The materials and techniques are different but the process is the same. Anyone who creates is always searching for that next high: that moment when you’re lost in making something and when you know you’ve nailed it. And then the bitter self-loathing that immediately follows. I think that’s the creative experience across the board.
DM: As a writer you also have experience on the other side of things, as a poetry editor for the online literary journal Halfway Down the Stairs. I love that your editor’s bio states that your work has “appeared in a long list of publications and has been rejected by an even longer list of publications.” Could you explain the gains and challenges involved with navigating the submission process yourself, while also having to accept or reject the work of others?
RB: The gain is realizing that rejection isn’t personal. It’s usually a matter of work not being a good fit for that particular publication. All of our issues are themed so sometimes we get a great poem, but it doesn’t work for our theme, so we don’t accept it. I can say that one thing I almost never do is read the author bios. I read the work and, if I want to know more about the author, I read the bio after.
DM: Speaking of Halfway Down the Stairs, the journal is named after the first line of a poignant children’s poem by A.A. Milne. Certain poems from your debut collection, The Uncertainty Principle, “The Robber Bridegroom” and “The Mermaid Sisters” for example, remind me of wicked nursery rhymes or sinister fairy tales. Are you influenced by children’s or YA literature, or do you find the distinction between ‘adult’ and ‘non-adult’ writing unnecessary
RB: I want to marry this question I love it so much.
Those particular poems were written for an anthology of fairy tale poetry and are based on the original stories. The Little Mermaid actually doesn’t get to marry the prince. She trades her tongue for human legs and every step she takes “will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow.”
She dies horribly, of course.
“The Robber Bridegroom” has a more satisfying ending, but is still a story where women are butchered and eaten.
Is there such a thing as a nursery rhyme or fairy tale that isn’t sinister? I’m not talking about Disney versions with songs and happy endings. Fairy tales are very dark, cautionary tales that are littered with bodies.
I read a lot of YA books and some of the best books I’ve ever read—the ones that have stuck with me—are considered children’s books. Alice Through the Looking Glass is my favourite book.
I had the kind of childhood that not everyone survives and I think the only reason I made it through was because I learned to read very early. So I had an escape hatch. By the time I hit grade four I had read through every age appropriate book in the library. I remember complaining to the librarian because I had nothing to read next, which was something that’s always kept me going: how will it end, what happens next? I was outside at recess a few days later and the librarian came into the yard and told me she had left a present for me on my desk. When I got back into the classroom I found a copy of The Machineries of Joy by Ray Bradbury.
I read 1984 when I was 10. I read On the Road when I was 12, although my father tried to get me to read it when I was younger than that. When I was 14 I read Nietzsche and Descartes and Camus. I read Vonnegut at the right time; I was 17 and hated everything. But I was also reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the Anne Rice vampire books as well as comic books and graphic novels. Now that I’m in my forties, I read a lot more fiction targeted at a younger audience than I did when I was a teenager and will gladly get into fist fights with anyone who says YA and comic books are for children, as though children are somehow lesser than adults. Or stupider or less discerning.
I think there’s a misconception that just because a story is shorter, like a YA book versus a book intended for an adult audience, that it’s somehow simpler to write, which is ludicrous. I can spend five years writing a poem but can spend two days writing a story. A cynical teenager is the toughest reader a writer is likely to have. If you can capture the attention of a kid, you’ve accomplished something heroic.
An author photo, whether you like it or not
DM: I came across a hilarious article you wrote for Edge Fiction about how disingenuous and awkward author photos and bios can be. It was sharp and refreshing, but also touching, as you were willing to be vulnerable in the face of the neutered professionalism and posturing that is often a prerequisite for ‘serious’ writers. Babies out of wedlock, unglamorous living situations, dropped degrees, and mental health issues are not usually acknowledged so sincerely and unabashedly. If you could enforce any changes to the literary community in Toronto, no matter how kitschy or outlandish, what would they be?
RB: I so fucking loved writing that post. It’s true! It’s funny because it’s true!
I actually know almost nothing about the literary community in Toronto or any other city. There are Toronto writers whose work I deeply respect but I don’t know them in real life. […] I interact with writers online but don’t belong to a formal writing group. I work in a bit of a bubble. Or more accurately, I’m like a feral child who wandered out of the woods and wrote some stuff.
Arts communities, and I don’t think this is CanLit specific or specific to literature, are like secret clubs. You have to know the handshake and get hazed. There is a social etiquette I don’t understand because I’m not in the secret club. There are a lot of unwritten rules you’re just supposed to know, although I’m not sure who is supposed to teach you. Maybe that’s part of the academic process? I’ve often thought there should be an advice column and also a fairy godparent for new writers.
I also don’t understand why author bios are a thing. I don’t fucking care where a writer lives or if they have pets or what school they went to. If I love their work, I’ll seek out more. If I didn’t love it, I’m not going to track it down. A bio doesn’t impact the work and it’s not there for the reader; it’s there for the editor who is deciding if they want to risk publishing you or not. […]
Do awards and degrees and previous publications influence your work as much as your fucked up childhood, shameful secrets and insecurities? Tell me about that. Tell me who you are, if you’re making me read a bio. Or at the very least, outlandishly lie and make it funny.
Wouldn’t it be great if everyone dropped all pretense and just acknowledged that we hold each other at arm’s length because we never know who will be on that next “blind jury?” That we’re afraid to critique each other, even with the best and most respectful intentions, because everyone is someone else’s editor?
Roxanna Bennett is the author of ‘The Uncertainty Principle: Poems,” from Tightrope Books. She is an artist-educator, non-fiction writer, and one of the poetry editors at Halfway Down the Stairs.