Roxanna Bennett’s The Uncertainty Principle (Tightrope Books, 2014).
Roxanna Bennett is the author of the poetry collection The Uncertainty Principle (Tightrope, 2014) and web editor for Matrix magazine. Kilby Smith-McGregor’s first book of poetry is Kids in Triage (Wolsak & Wynn, 2016); she is curating this month’s Town Crier. They met through the internet, as readers of one another’s work. This is the second installment of a two-part correspondence between them.
Kilby Smith-McGregor: You’re editing the upcoming Mad Pride issue of Matrix magazine, which has a June 1st submission deadline. Can you share a little about the context of the issue and what you’re looking for from contributors?
Roxanna Bennett: The Mad Pride issue is important to me. It’s very powerful, the radical acceptance of having a mind that has always and will always work differently from the majority of other people’s, and being not just OK with, but proud of that.
Within psychiatry there is the recovery model/narrative that is pushed on patients. “I had a regular life but then I got sick but I worked really hard and took my medications and now I have my life back.” This does happen for some people. Some, but not all, and not most. It’s a popular narrative because it normalizes the experience, makes it palatable, package-able—I’m thinking of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign in particular. It has a concrete goal of getting people back into the workforce. It discounts the very real experience of people who have always been ill, who have a history of trauma, who will maybe improve and be able to leave the hospital but will always need support. It discounts the experience of people who will never be able to leave an institutional setting.
The Mad Pride movement is inclusive, it allows people to know that they are just as valuable and worthy as people who are not ill. It’s interesting, too, we say ill but people develop differently and is that an illness? PTSD, for example, is a brilliant way for the mind to protect itself. When the symptoms become unmanageable it can be undesirable, yes, but the mind developed those symptoms as a way to protect itself from a situation no one should have to endure. That’s incredible. A mind is so complex and individual and to reduce a person’s lived experience, to say that they are ill because they’re different, I’m not sure I buy that.
There is a richness to experience coloured by an extraordinary mind.
I’m a patient at a psychiatric hospital and there is a concerted effort by patients to accept each other with compassion, to give each other the right to their own reality. In the dominant popular culture, we have this need to share reality with each other and anyone who violates our shared reality is shunned, becomes an object, and an object is easily discarded. All people are entitled to their stories.
There is a richness to experience coloured by an extraordinary mind. People spend an enormous amount of energy trying to fit in, to be accepted, to “pass” as “normal,” to be loved. Constantly being told that you’re broken, that you need to be fixed or corrected, so you can be just like everybody else—it’s a lie. To be shunted to the outskirts because you don’t behave exactly as expected is awful. It takes very little effort to try to understand why a person behaves the way they do and to treat them with kindness.
In terms of what I’m looking for in submissions: honesty, humour—dark humour is great. Don’t be afraid to be weird, embrace it. Be grim, too, it’s difficult to celebrate institutional food and not being able to leave the ward. I would love to read more work from writers who identify as neurodivergent. You needn’t have been in a hospital setting for me to want to read your work. It’s OK to be utterly blunt about your experience, don’t feel you need to make your work comfortable for others to read. Experimental work is adored. Send me your strangest pieces, the work you’re worried won’t fit anywhere and that no one will want to read because the subject matter isn’t pretty.
To be able to think differently can be a gift, can allow for unusual insight and expression, why not celebrate that? We have millions of stories written by neurotypical people, I’m interested in the stories we don’t hear, that don’t get told.
KSM: Writing can provide connection between people in very tangible ways. I am often propelled into either laughing or crying when I read something that clicks for me—both of those being very physical responses to recognition, to connection. I feel like sometimes the idea of “the poetics of witness” can be theorized into meaninglessness. Witness is a real thing. Testimony is a real thing.
RB: I was a client at a Rape Crisis Centre that holds an annual Take Back the Night event. The found poem “Take Back the Night,” in my collection, The Uncertainty Principle, is one I assembled specifically for that occasion. It wasn’t meant to subvert the original text, which is something I’m normally invested in exploring with found poetry. It was intended to highlight the similarity of experiences with sexual assault around the world. The text was taken from anonymous online forums for survivors. At the time I (I hesitate to use the word wrote, as I did not create that piece—assembled? arranged?) made that piece, it was pre-Twitter. There were things I was not as aware of as I am now, l’m not sure now that I would feel comfortable co-opting other people’s words for a public purpose. The accounts in that poem are heavily edited so it wouldn’t be possible to identify the original speakers but the piece itself is appropriative … although at the time I didn’t see it that way. I am trying to articulate this as I type and am struggling. Whether or not I had the right to use those words, I don’t know anymore …
KSM: Considerations of the politics of voice and appropriation terrify me, because we will fail at it continually, but the best writing risks engaging with that which is outside ourselves. Responsibility to otherness is complex, but it’s clear to me that a found poem like “Take Back the Night” is a world apart from something like Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘rendition’ of “The Body of Michael Brown,” for example.
I do love that there’s room for both reverence and irreverence in your writing, though. Let dark humour reign! Your poem “Another Motive for Metaphor” provides us with another kind of intertextual encounter—different from a found poem—in dialogue with Wallace Stevens … can you speak to your ‘dominant O’ versus Stevens’s ‘dominant X’?
RB: I love Wallace Stevens, and I love “Motive for Metaphor” and each time I read it I feel I understand it less. It’s so vague but that last stanza is so very deliberate. I feel it’s speaking in part about objectivity versus subjectivity, or of metaphor being a way to describe the world to ourselves instead of experiencing the world … it’s such an authoritative title, too, ‘The Motive for Metaphor’ as though there is a singular reason for anything. It’s very mechanistic. And X is a fraught symbol, in math it’s the unknown but it’s known as the unknown. I wanted to gently argue with the entire piece or the idea of determinism itself and the poem was a way to have that argument. And I wanted to be funny, too, because orgasms are Os and having an orgasm seems to be most people’s reason for living.
KSM: And then there’s your collection’s opening poem, “So Long, Leonard”…
RB: Like many Canadian school children, Leonard Cohen was my Can-con-requirement-meeting intro to poetry. I grew up listening to his music. I wanted to be Leonard Cohen, I wanted to be a Ladies Man, before I understood there was no female equivalent. I wanted to be the romantic, tragic, misunderstood poet who left a string of broken-hearted lovers behind me (I was probably an 11-year-old when I developed this idea) so imagine my outrage when I became a teenager and learned that girls were not allowed to behave that way.
I wanted to be Leonard Cohen, I wanted to be a Ladies Man, before I understood there was no female equivalent.
This was the early ’80s when “slut-shaming” was a very literal thing. Being a “slut” was very dangerous for a girl, you became a target for a kind of viciousness … no one was “pro-slut” back then, let’s just say. This made me furious, that it was fine for boys to notch their belts and be congratulated on getting laid, but that girls were shamed if they dared admit they even had sex, let alone with multiple partners.
Bound into all this is also the idea of woman-as-muse to the male artist and my not wanting to be that but to have my own muses … it seems quaint to speak about these things now; I’m not sure if the idea of a muse is still even relevant.
Kilby Smith-McGregor is this month’s Town Crier guest editor
KSM: When I was in grade nine we were given the assignment of researching a famous Canadian, and Leonard Cohen was on the list. I picked him nearly at random, but that was it, I was smitten. Like you, it was more of a-wanting-to-be than a wanting-to-be-with, a first real romance with the idea of ‘artist.’ I loved all the music and still do, all the variously weird stylistic periods. And Beautiful Losers was probably the first book I read as a teen that felt subversive and actually dangerous. There was lot I didn’t understand about it, sexually, politically, but the language, what the language did as it moved, I got that on an instinctual body-level. I haven’t thought about that book in ages but it made a lasting mark. The same might be said for plays I devoured in high school like Jean Genet’s The Maids, and Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade—though I’ve only read those in translation—or Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. It’s funny because my social self, despite wrangling with depression, has always been pretty warm, relaxed and friendly—but a quiet compulsion toward existential crisis, extremity, and violence in language was definitely there long before I registered it intellectually.
RB: Oh! Beautiful Losers, yes! I remember reading that and feeling very adult and somewhat dirty and very, very cool. So many books have changed the way I thought about language or altered my relationship to the world, or my relationship with myself.
I love that: a compulsion toward existential crisis. I was a voracious and early reader. I read 1984 when I was ten and it not just warped, but possibly snapped, my worldview in half. My father was very into the Beats and when I was—eleven maybe?—he gave me On the Road and A Clockwork Orange to read. I handed On the Road back to him because I knew the sex and drugs were inappropriate and it made me uncomfortable at that age. But I read A Clockwork Orange and was enchanted with the idea of inventing vocabulary.
The first time I read a story that was first person singular and realized the speaker was a woman was shocking. It was an Ursula K. Le Guin story and I had never before read a story from the point of view of a female character, to know that ‘I’ could be a woman felt transgressive, simply because I’d never experienced it before. Up until then I had accepted that all points of view were male.
KSM: To be shocked by a physical reaction of recognition is my favourite reading experience. One can never control how a reader will interact with or respond to one’s work. That’s a marvelous thing and also anxiety-inducing. Yet I found your book without ever having met you, and now here we are, engaged in a conversation entirely through reading and writing. One thing I am pretty sure about is that no reader of The Uncertainty Principle—or hopefully, Kids in Triage—will accept that all subjective points of view are male. Thanks, Roxanna.
Roxanna Bennett and Kilby Smith-McGregor are contributors to a month long series on writing the body.