Lynn Crosbie and Frank
I was incredibly lucky to discover Lynn Crosbie’s writing during my undergrad. I was in the York University library when I stumbled upon Queen Rat, a collection of poetry that changed my life.
I opened to the poem “Miss Pamela’s Mercy,” and I was struck instantly by the precision of the imagery and the emotional acuity. I remember that I had to grab a notebook to write down the lines: “His glitter and plastic tool kit / his velvet platforms / My tender heart / notorious and threadbare.” Later, I would try to track down everything she’d written, including Liar, a poignant and gorgeous book length poem about the dissolution of long term love. Liar served as the inspiration for my recent collection of short stories, For All the Men (And Some of the Women) I’ve Known. Since then, Crosbie has published the acclaimed novels Life is About Losing Everything (which won the ReLit Award in 2012) and last year’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night. In April, House of Anansi will publish a new collection of her poetry called The Corpses of the Future. Full of characteristic sensitivity, grace, and vulnerability, it chronicles her father’s diagnosis and subsequent struggle with dementia. I had the great privilege of talking to Lynn about it recently.
Danila Botha: I want to start by asking you about your writing process for this book. What I understand from the foreword is that in 2013, your dad lost his vision, and then was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for you.
Lynn Crosbie: I started writing [The Corpses of the Future] because when my father first got sick I didn’t know how to process what was happening. I was so traumatized. I would just write; I want to say everyday but it didn’t quite work that way. I would write a lot though. You know how people talk about the writing process as feeling purged? It was the only time I’ve felt that way. I would write each poem, put it aside, and then cry. I didn’t reread them until the editing process. It was hard to confront them again. It was almost as if someone else had written them. I didn’t even remember writing some of them. You know how, as a writer, you just know where you need to be?
My father’s illness was a strange crux when I was writing the last few chapters of my last book, Where Did You Sleep Last Night. He had just had this horrifying surgery, he had fallen down the stairs, and he was bleeding in his brain for two weeks. He managed to get on the phone from the emergency room to say something like, “Come down now.”
I went to visit him at the hospital and he saw some miserable looking old people snarking at each other, and he looked at them and said, ‘Those are the corpses of the future.’
His eyes were wild and his head was shaved, and he had this huge V of staples, all on his head. He was mad, he was talking about bombs in the building in vivid detail. It was like being in hell at that point. At the time, I was working on this sexy love story, and in the end I transposed everything that was happening into that book. The female character winds up in the hospital with a V of staples in her head.
DB: I remember that. It’s amazing how things work their way in sometimes.
The Corpses of the Future by Lynn Crosbie
LC: Once it was edited and done, I realized that I still had to keep writing about my father. I talk to him everyday, twice a day. The writing process was an ongoing thing. Sometimes he would say these awesome things, and talking, I would remember things about us and that would go into the work that day. Some funny and great things about the book are all him. The title of the book, The Corpses of the Future, that was all him. I went to visit him at the hospital and he saw some miserable looking old people snarking at each other, and he looked at them and said, “Those are the corpses of the future.” There’s a poem called “Stinky Little Blankets” which was from him, too. He was really mad one day, and he said that. He just has an amazing way with words.
DB: There are so many vulnerable and devastatingly sensitive lines throughout the collection that I almost feel invasive quoting them without the rest of the poem for context. One that really made me cry was in the last poem, “Baby Boy”: “That I would end when I had nothing left to say about you: that will never happen.” Tell me more about your dad.
LC: I did a reading recently at York, and he made me laugh so much that day. He made up a song about being kicked by a camel. Really funny and vulgar. [Laughs] It’s ongoing. When I was writing the acknowledgement and the foreword, I talked about the book as a collaboration between us. The book is all about conversations and experiences we’ve had. I told him about it when we were editing it just a few weeks ago. I told him I wrote a book about him and he said, “What? No one’s ever written a poem about me.” That’s in the book, too. He’s a tough guy but he’s also as shy as can be, and modest and diffident.
DB: He sounds wonderful. You can feel the love for him in every line. What was your mom’s reaction to the book?
LC: She’s been supportive from the start. She thinks that people need to know what it means to love someone with this disease. You can read a lot about Alzheimer’s but very little about dementia.
The fact is, my dad is a very sick man. He’s very unhappy and it’s been devastating to all of us. That’s the hardest part. I can’t fix that with writing.
My dad’s doctor, both his parents have dementia. He said his brothers and sisters don’t like him because they’re bringing these romantic ideas about dementia, and he’s bringing these pragmatic, hard truths. He’s quoted in the book, too. He said, “There’s nothing interesting about this disease.” He doesn’t speak English very well, but I liked his use of the term interesting. As in, it’s just too awful to speak about, you know?
DB: I know what you mean. There’s a lack of compassion in the way people are riveted by medical and health issues sometimes.
LC: A prurience.
DB: Did you find certain poems, specific ones, more challenging to write and work on than others?
LC: The ones that are hardest to write are just about how sad he is and how sick he is. There’s only so much you can do with art and writing, you know? There’s only so many magic doors you can go through before you hit a wall, and that’s life. The fact is, my dad is a very sick man. He’s very unhappy and it’s been devastating to all of us. That’s the hardest part. I can’t fix that with writing.
DB: That’s so heartbreaking. I think about that a lot, too, about the role that art or writing can have, as an idea, versus what it really can’t change. What was it like to edit this book?
LC: Sara Peters was the editor. She was great. She was very smart and sympathetic. She helped me with the emotions around it. We didn’t talk too much about the writing; she was able to push me to get the writing out. The copy editors were great. Stuart Ross was one of them. He’s an amazing editor. The whole process, all told, took almost three years.
DB: If you had to choose, in terms of what you prefer to write and work on, would you say it’s poetry or fiction?
LC: I probably prefer fiction because it’s newer for me. Also, you get to tell so many amazing stories so quickly, because it’s more telegrammatic. You get someone in a car or get them to Tijuana in one paragraph, which is pretty exciting. Something about the motion of it, I like. Poetry to me feels slower. I thought I wasn’t going to write poetry at all anymore, it held no interest to me whatsoever. I hadn’t written a book of poetry since 2006. This seemed like the only form to write about my father.
DB: Tell me about the cover photo. It’s beautiful.
LC: It’s a photo I took of my dad that I’m very fond of. I don’t like pictures of him in the hospital. There’s only one picture of him that I like; I brought my dog, Frank, to see him after two years. It was my mother, my dad and me, and my dad just held my dog. It was a beautiful moment. I took one quick picture. I just wanted to feel it.
Lynn Crosbie was born in Montreal, Quebec, and now lives in Toronto, Ontario.