Roxanna Bennett is the author of Uncertainty Principle and web editor for Matrix Magazine
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 first installment of a two-part correspondence between them.
Kilby Smith-McGregor: David McGimpsey describes your poetry collection, The Uncertainty Principle, as having “a poise that is itself a compelling narrative.” Poise remains, first and foremost, for me, a physical word—a description of a how a body holds itself. This book holds its vitality, violence, and rawness in remarkably precise ways, and one aspect of that is by engaging with classical poetic forms. What’s the history of your relationship with form? Have formal elements in art and writing always been important to you?
Roxanna Bennett: I have a visual arts background; I went to an arts high school and was briefly enrolled in the Experimental Arts program at OCAD University. My classical arts training included a lot of theory and was quite rigorous. Whenever the students complained about being forced to learn “boring” things like colour theory we were told that we needed to first learn the rules before we could successfully break them. I think this is a lesson that I have internalized.
One of the classes that I took in high school was life drawing. Before we were allowed to draw from a model we had to create skeleton and anatomy studies. We learned all the names of the bones and how they connected, and had huge medical charts to copy. We memorized the names of the muscles and we were tested on that as well. It was our teacher’s belief that learning the structure of the human form would improve our ability to draw it with accuracy in proportion. I think he was right, or at least that method worked for me. I need to know how things are connected, the way in which objects—or words, in poetry—hinge upon one another to make the larger system work.
Another lesson that has stayed with me is composition, and learning that negative space, the space on the page that is unoccupied, is as important as the space that is filled. This is something that I’m very conscious of in poetry. The placement of words on a page can be as important as the words themselves.
Poetic form to me is like sculpture in a way; you have the armature of the form and then lay your words on top of it.
I had always written and read voraciously but have no academic background in writing. At the time when most of my peers were in university or starting their careers I was a single mom on disability, so I’m mostly self-taught. I’ve been lucky enough to take a few workshops with singular writers though, including Ken Babstock’s Intro to Poetry night class at U of T, where I first learned what a sonnet was and how it was constructed. I think Ken called the form “a lovely box” (sorry, Ken, if I’m misquoting). I knew from high school English that a sonnet was a thing that Shakespeare used and ugh how boring, but it was entirely new to me that people still used forms in poetry and that you didn’t have to capitalize every line or say “thee” or “thou” to write in a form.
I will often try a poem in a few different forms before I find the one that works best. I’m uncomfortable writing free verse, although I’m experimenting with it more lately. I’m always delighted when I read a poem that at first doesn’t appear to have a set form but when you study it closely you unlock a formal aspect. Aside from the few workshops I’ve attended I use the book In Fine Form by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve as a reference.
Poetic form to me is like sculpture in a way; you have the armature of the form and then lay your words on top of it. Making the concept fit the construct and finding a way to break the reader’s heart within the confines of the structure is what appeals to me. I’m intensely interested in constraint, and I think this is where my visual arts training comes into play, I want to understand how a thing is made before I feel I can successfully deconstruct it. How is as important to me in art as why.
Something that informs my work almost as much as form is that I don’t listen to poetry. I’ve been told repeatedly: “poetry is an aural art form”—which I completely disregard. It’s like saying that people who are deaf or who have auditory processing disorders can’t enjoy or write poetry. Because of my health issues, I almost never attend readings (if you see me out in public, know that I have made an utterly heroic effort to be there and will likely soon be leaving). I don’t listen to work, I don’t read my own work aloud. I have a slight auditory processing disorder and cannot “hear” iambic pentameter, it doesn’t make any sense to me. I have had it explained to my umpteen times and I am unable to grasp it.
KSM: Your account of art training and the sculptural qualities of poetry make a lot of sense in the context of reading The Uncertainty Principle. The way that visual formal elements are foregrounded—in part, because of the unique way your body processes information, outside of the standardized bubble of oral/aural dominance—is fascinating, and makes me realize how deeply, and uncritically, I’ve bought into this idea of poetry as circumscribed by sonic rhythm.
“Making the concept fit the construct and finding a way to break the reader’s heart …”
RB: I write entirely visually. I have very little sense of the rhythm of poetry, to me it’s about how it fits on the page. It’s simply a different kind of structure, a different kind of body. It seems appropriate, thinking of form in relation to the body … my years learning anatomy and drawing the human form over and over again alongside this lived experience of being sentenced to exist in this system that gives me so much pain and has reduced my life to a pinprick—at the same time, I have a white body and privilege, and am able to live reasonably independently so am fortunate.
But that word poise: I love your definition, a body holding itself. I might need to steal that line for a poem. I very much resent having a physical body. As a child it made me vulnerable to physical abuse, having a female body made me vulnerable to sexual abuse and assault and having physical illnesses and chronic pain I feel a prisoner in my skin. As a young woman I felt I was a target but as a middle aged woman I’m largely invisible. It’s necessary for me to hold my body in certain postures to minimize pain; I feel that way about my work as well. I sometimes feel that detachment can make my work stronger, that removing my self, my “I” from the work as much as possible allows me to speak about very personal, intimate things, if that makes sense. Perhaps part of that comes from spending so much time as a patient and having to dissociate from my body to endure procedures.
KSM: I’ve always felt a discord between my experience of consciousness and my experience of physicality, and while it has only transformed the accustomed dailiness of my life during periods of acute depression and recovery, I think that schism is at the heart of everything I make. The combination of detachment and intimacy in your work, that’s right on the money for me, in terms of opening a space that allows for something charged and raw to happen, but holding that space, not letting it to collapse or burn up in emotion and energy. It is that sense of form—of holding—that to me marks a responsibility to the vulnerability and violence within, and suspends them in a place where I can enter, and perhaps break a little, but break through and toward meaning and humanness, as opposed to the breakdown of collapse.
There is an exhausting expectation to be OK no matter the circumstance.
RB: Yes! To exist in that schism, to explore that schism, to make from within that space, yes. Exactly, this. Recovery is a word and concept I could spend a million words upon and still not have said all that must be said …
KSM: It’s true any concept of “recovery” does have a hell of a lot of baggage …
RB: People who are ill spend so much energy trying to make well people comfortable. There is an exhausting expectation to be OK no matter the circumstance. And more so for women, I think.
KSM: What I respond to in your poems is that I feel like I’m not under pressure to be OK. Your use of form is part of what allows me, as a reader, to trust you, as a writer, that through form you are supporting me, holding me, in a way. I’d never quite thought of it like that.
Roxanna Bennett and Kilby Smith-McGregor are contributors to a month long series on writing the body.