This conversation took place at The Standard Westmount in Mooniyaang/Teionihtiohtiá:kon/Ville Marie/Montréal on Sunday, November 12th, 2023. It has been edited for clarity.
*At an apex amid a mountain range of Tara’s philosophical brilliance in response to a question about her evolving subjectivity in relation to her recently published (and unchanging) memoir, Kevin realizes he had been recording the first ten minutes of their conversation through the Bluetooth earbuds in his pocket, rendering the recording incomprehensible. The rest of their conversation, edited for clarity, ensued as follows*
Tara McGowan Ross: It’s always terrifying. I’ve been ghostwriting and a lot of it is all just—I have five million recordings, and the terrifying moment of—Oh, no! Was my microphone broken? We’ve been talking for five hours!
Kevin Andrew Heslop: Can I not extract some product from this experience?
Exactly. Is there not something here?
To prove that this happened?
And sometimes I have these moments of—I would call it remorse, as distinct from regret, when I look back at things that I’ve published that I’ve really outgrown; and I’m like, Oh, I wouldn’t write that now. I have different boundaries now or my style is so different now; and there’s a bit of embarrassment; and I’m invited to shame, and I have to actually counsel myself around it or whatever.
And what’s been helping with that, actually, is thinking about—My husband’s a painter.
And he talks about how a painting is not just a snapshot of where you are as an artist; it’s a record of you becoming a better artist—and that’s why you start with broad strokes and go down to details, basically, as you go through it. You’re not just Huzzah! Here I am! It’s like, You’re changing as you’re making it.
And it’s like, I could just keep on writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting a book, and it would never feel finished because I’m changing as I do it.
And so there’s a point where I have to be like, Honestly, just print it. And I’m radically different now than when I started it; and the goals I set out to accomplish I don’t even recognize anymore; and honestly, just print it. I feel like I would have the exact same problem if I worked on a book for ten years as if I worked on a book every three. And it would just have been a greater delay.
I suspect I would have the same problem. I don’t know because I’ve never taken a long time to write a book, and I’ve been publishing quite prolifically since I was 24. So, I’m just like, Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go. And there’s something about the relative impermanence of even just the perspective, the me that’s writing. I’m not that person at all anymore. I remember her and I recognize her, but she’s gone. But I also felt this sense of that always being a possibility and something that I thought was going to happen while I was doing it, and it’s nice to be able to visit her sometimes, and also there’s this constant practice of trying to put some respect to her name because she got me to where I am now. So even if I do outgrow her work, I wouldn’t be me without her; so it’s like, I owe her everything.
And that keeps me from falling into a shame-pit about it because the whole thing is impermanent. The whole thing is just changing and moving and growing and I think the whole art practice is about the grit of being able to endure being embarrassed. Can you endure being able to go and just fall on your face? Or make art that’s bad? Because it’s inescapable: even your best work now is going to be embarrassing in comparison with your best work in ten years.
So you can try to hone and make everything perfect now, but you’re still going to have that cringe moment because you’re going to change as you’re doing it. And if you wait to be ready, you’re never going to do it. So, that’s kind of that piece. And then there was a …
Other people misperceiving the memoir as a definitive account. And that might be a doomed avenue to pursue, this sense of anticipating how people are experiencing or perceiving what you put in the world, but I think it’s kind of implicit to the memoir particularly. Even if genre-fication, if I can put it like that, isn’t the province of the writer, but of the critic, or the academic or the librarian, inevitably those questions would have been coming up in the writing.
Yeah. The way I tend to kind of make peace with that harkens back to that first question in general, which is: Even if I set out to make something that’s totally, 100%, factually true, in order for it to make any sense, I have to impose some kind of structure on it—which, really, when you dig down deep enough, feels like lying, after a while. And I think about how there’s almost a personality state that I lapse into when I’m writing that feels different from the person that I am normally. Because I turn down the volume on some aspects of myself and turn the volume way up on other aspects of myself. And everyone does that in different contexts all the time.
I’m not the person writing that I am at a grocery store or that I am when I’m in a business meeting or that I am on the phone with my grandpa, you know? These are all different. That’s just kind of how people do people-ing. Sometimes when people just meet me in a normal setting, they might say, I expected you to be different. And it’s like, Well, that’s my job. That’s my work. There are ways that that’s me, but it’s almost like a version of me that’s so work-y; it’s so curated—and not in a lying way, but in a that’s-my-craft-and-I-work-on-it-every-day way. That it almost might as well be a lie in the same way that I’m sure a singer is not the same person as they are when they’re talking to their mom or whatever. And there’s definitely an element that feels extra complicated when you’re writing non-fiction, when you’re writing about yourself.
But it really does to me function exactly the same way as poetry or fiction or whatever, as like, It’s art. At the end of the day, the thing that I make is both of me and not of me. And both real and totally imaginary and made-up and it would be a mistake to take it totally seriously, as though it’s a history textbook. Because that’s not what it sets out to be. It sets out to be a work of art.
But the thing about the genre is that even a history textbook is so profoundly meticulously subjectively curated and inadequate.
And so this brings up the question—This is probably another dumb binary on my part to make a distinction between capital-t truth and minuscule t-truth, because then there’s only two types of truth, which is reductive and boring—
—But the imaginary book that you mentioned, the factual account of a life, would be impossibly long and couldn’t be consumed by a single human being in one life time. And where’s the boundary between one fact and another? Couldn’t it just consist entirely of chemical notation?
Letters from the periodic table and subscript?
And yet wouldn’t that itself be one version of a minuscule-t truth just as would—I don’t know—notations indicating the succession of vibrational frequencies? I just can’t fathom what a factual account would entail. And I don’t have a question.
No, I think that is a good question. Because another thing that I have been playing with is—There are two poems, one in Girth and one in Scorpion Season, which are document poetry.
Docupoems, you call them, right?
Yeah, docupoems. And in Girth, the one that is kind of my cheeseburger poem that I read at a lot of poetry readings because it’s really fun to read out loud and people tend to respond to it really well is called “STRIKE MOTION.” And the document that I was operating off of was the literal strike motion that my philosophy department used to go on strike. And it starts off—I don’t even change anything for a paragraph or two, and then I start inserting a bunch of jokes and then also poetry about what I thought was kind of missing from the strike motion about what I witnessed as my and other people’s actual human motivations for going on strike. Because the strike motion was us putting our best foot forward or whatever — and a lot of [the poem is] just fictionalized. Motivations I could imagine people using to go on strike: stuff like, I’m failing my continental philosophy class and I might as well go on strike because that’s a noble reason and it’s not just I that don’t understand what the heck Derrida is saying; or, I have this really big crush on this other person that’s doing this mobilization and I want to get close to her. That kind of thing.
And writing that poem, for me, was about thinking about how stuff like business writing or history or—That all of the constructed way that we portray information in that way is itself an aesthetic decision.
These are all aesthetic choices. Someone decided, This is appropriate. And “this is appropriate” is a version of “this is beautiful.” This is what looks like it makes sense in this place. And we’re going to exclude anything that doesn’t make sense in this little closed container, which is a curation, basically—the way you would curate paintings in the museum. And then plug it into a hierarchy, or decide it functions best in this particular thing. And I’m like, How is that more complete than a dream journal?
Or a bunch of information about who has a crush on who in the philosophy department that’s going on strike? Or everybody’s anxieties about which classes they’re failing? Or how we’re all very, very, very afraid of what it means to be an adult? And how those actually inform, in a really genuine way that is not stupid or frivolous, actual political concerns that are really important. I am terrified of what it means to be an adult because neoliberalism has degraded the fabric of the welfare state in a serious way; and it’s become this very sink-or-swim capitalist hellscape out there and I’m genuinely afraid I’m not going to survive. And because of this neoliberal ideology that’s being projected on to me as a failure of my own capacity to be responsible, and I am afraid the way a little kid would be afraid. Help me. I’m going on strike.
And is that not a legitimate political concern? That’s a very legitimate politic concern. But we reify certain things as legitimate political concerns and other things as not legitimate for reasons that are time-bound and historical and politically motivated in a way that can be a serious impediment to solidarity. And these all factor into how we construct what we think about as the truth. I want to go back to metaphysics and scientific realism and say I do think there are some things that are more true than other things. That doesn’t give me a fair license to lie about stuff and say things were true and did happen that just didn’t. But also it’s really hard to set out and tell the truth if you’re curious and critical and care about being responsible to something like a concept like the truth without the concept of the truth falling apart in your hands as you’re examining it. We can hold both at the same time.
WHEREAS the students of the Philosophy Student Association (SoPhiA), hereafter named “philosophy students” recognize the implications to their education imposed by austerity measures and the trend of privatization in the financial models of post-secondary education.
WHEREAS Concordia University has suffered more than 15.7 million dollars in budget cuts under the Liberal Government’s new Austerity Measures Act that imposes over 172 million dollars in cuts to education, amounting to roughly 30 million dollars since 2014 from Concordia. Additionally, the provincial government has expressed their intention to triple these cuts in the next budget to be released in April 2015.
WHEREAS everyone in charge should know what they are playing at because it is springtime and what do we do in Québec in the spring, Alan, for god’s sake where the hell do you think you are.
WHEREAS the Philosophy Department has suffered under these budget cuts in the form of reduction in quality of education due to increased class size and reduced TA positions, increased workload of employees and faculty, loss of “non-critical” segments of a collective narrative as well as unknown loss to the department directly, which is physically full of holes in which we continue to lose janitorial staff and our good pens, and which cannot be explained except, perhaps, by who did not try to explain Derrida at four in the morning, tweaked on ephedrine and self-hatred, saying things like “I like Derrida the way I imagine a lot of people like heroin,” and staring at an empty word document where an eight-page paper did not manifest, and so no longer has the GPA she was pinning her self- worth on.
WHEREAS Concordia philosophy students recognize the need for transparent and open discussions around austerity measures, budget cuts, and temporary lapses in monogamy as a result of a sense of collective purpose, alongside standing in solidarity with faculty, workers, and other student associations who suffer austerity measures and budget cuts within the realm of education, and who we will also sleep with, if they’re into it, and if you don’t text me back soon.
WHEREAS philosophy students acknowledge that university is not what we imagined it would be as children and that adulthood, the real kind, is hurtling towards us with an accelerating and alarming speed and we need to feel something that isn’t sleep loss and gut rot brought on by too much coffee and the truth behind the assertion that maybe it would have been better to study ecoNomics in the first place, am I right? ha ha ha. Oh god. Oh god what have I done.
BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Philosophy Undergraduate Student Association and its members vote in favour of a one-week strike effective between the hours of 12:01 a.m. on March 26th to 11:59 p.m. on April 2nd, 2015.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT in voting in favour of striking, Philosophy Students emphatically support the right of any individual to scream at the top of their lungs for once in their pathetic fucking life be- fore they die, or graduate, whichever comes first.
Be IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT if anyone else dares to valourize us directly or indirectly and you can actually get your shit together to just organize a General Assembly as is your job, Becky, then philosophy students’ strike mandate will renew and a special GA will be called for the evening of April 1st to deliberate upon the continuation of Philosophy undergraduate involvement in a strike movement which will by then be- come at least a temporary reason for putting on pants in the morning which I need, okay, Becky? I just need it because my GPA is only slightly better than average, and I don’t understand Derrida, and you still have a girlfriend and the way you look at me is going to kill me.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the night now washes over the city like the breath of your mother when she leaned down to kiss you goodnight back when you thought maybe there was something in this world you could learn, and that underground things are coming alive and one of those things can be you and you’re not alone I promise.
A board meeting’s notes are an aesthetic choice.
And maybe that’s just a toast sandwich—there’s none of the jam or peanut butter of lived life—but I feel like aesthetics from that perspective has a kind of stasis to it, a sense of art for art’s sake without having to go forward from there, whereas a board meeting’s notes are committed to the possibility of progress and productivity—that it’s a document that has more to do with utility than one that’s driven in its conception or in its execution by aesthetics. And this might just be another dumb minuscule/majuscule binarization on my part, but I wonder if there’s a distinction to be made about aesthetics and utility.
This is such a good question. I think this is a really good question. I thought there was no water left in here and there is. *Tara sips from glass in which there is surprise water* So this is actually one of the most interesting conversations that I ever had during my philosophy degree. It was in my rationalism course, actually—a course about the concept of what it means to be rational and what it means to make a rational choice and assess things rationally. And we were specifically talking about Galileo and Galileo’s discovery—if you call it that—
—Of the way that he was just like, I’m pretty sure—Sorry, everybody. Don’t get mad at me. But I’m fairly certain that the earth is not the center of the universe. And then everybody went crazy and it was awful. But the system that they had before that was the Ptolemaic system. Some dude name Ptolemy—there’s lots of dudes named Ptolemy—who had this—
—Yeah, earth-centric way of thinking about the universe. And it’s actually—If you see it mapped out, it’s really beautiful. I was going to get it tattooed to me but then I don’t have any money, which is a very effective way of not getting stupid tattoos—just never have $400 lying around. But it’s just got these gorgeous, swirly designs all around the earth at the centre of the universe. And the crazy thing about it is that it’s actually really accurate. I don’t think it’s perfectly accurate, from what I remember, but it is really quite accurate.
The only problem with it is that you need a completely different universe of math to anticipate the movement of every single heavenly body. So it’s insanely complicated, like wildly, messed-up complicated. And the thing that made Galileo’s conception of the universe better was that it was more efficient. It only used one universe of math, basically. He just kind of ran the numbers and was like, If we do it this way, then we can only have to use one set of numbers to be able to explain everything. And it was one of the most interesting days of my entire philosophy career: my prof standing up in front of everybody and being like, What makes that better? And really challenging all of us to come up with a really good reason as to why it’s better.
That was one thing. I’m pretty sure Galileo’s model was slightly more accurate. But basically the reason it’s better is that it’s simpler. It’s easier to explain; it’s much less complicated. And everyone’s like, It’s more efficient. And he’s like, Is efficiency better? Is simpler better? Like, a wheel is a significantly simpler machine than a computer. Is it a better machine than a computer? An ecosystem is a significantly more complex set-up than if you just razed the ecosystem completely and build a building there, but does that mean that the building is better because it’s simpler? This idea of privileging simplicity as necessarily better than complexity is actually much more complicated if you take it apart. And my prof made the argument that it’s an aesthetic distinction, basically, that simplicity is better.
Some people just like simple more than complex; and it’s kind of an opinion, a personal-preference thing. And if we have it in our heads that simplicity is always better than complexity, we actually can run that tape to the end to some pretty messed-up conclusions. Which is not to say that I don’t think Galileo was right—I think he probably was—but the take-away I got from that, and one of the reasons why I wanted to get Ptolemy’s model of the universe tattooed to me, is that it’s not correct, but it is beautiful, and it works. It’s this system of meaning-making that—There’s nothing really wrong with it except that it’s not true. That’s kind of the only thing wrong with it. I’m trying to think of what my point is in terms of the board meetings or whatever.
I think we’re beyond making points, honestly.
*both laugh uproarious*
I’ve had a lot of espresso already today. *laughing* Good luck with this transcript.
I mean, I usually slow the recording to half speed to transcribe but I think I’m going to have to slow it down to a quarter speed.
But it’s also like, Where do we go from here?
But I’ll figure it out. I mean, we’ll figure it out. So … you focus in your training on Indigenous disruptions to Enlightenment-centric Western worldview. I think that’s where we go, because I think that a commitment to efficiency has something to do with progress, and I think progress can result in profound disequilibrium. So … See, we’ve quickly gotten to a place that’s so complicated.
I love this. I love this. This is one of those moments where I can feel myself—There’s this feeling in my body, that is being annoying, that I can feel rising; and it’s also like, I’m so grateful that you’re sitting here and putting up with this because I feel like it’s a very intense drive in me to be annoying, and I take great delight in it and I love to do it. And I think I already know how I want to respond to this idea, which is to be an annoying philosophy person and be like, Well, what do we mean when we talk about progress? As the concept of progress?
No, this is not annoying. This is good conversation.
One of the things that I always figured that I had to do, eventually, at the top of every single philosophy paper I ever wrote, was to be like, Okay, we’re going to define our terms. Immediately we have to define our terms. Because with a word like progress we can really quickly see how much different people have such vastly different definitions of what progress means.
And that the concept of progress that is in common usage has all this cultural and historical baggage attached on to it. We talk about progress, in common parlance, as in economic progress and technological advancement and the expansion of different settlements, et cetera, you know? Driving history forward with a specific definition of what driving history forward means—which is a very Euro-centric, colonial way of thinking about progress.
Mm, mm, mm, mm.
And I think what has been very useful to me to kind of internally decolonize and just kind of cope with the world, especially at this very interesting, fascinating juncture in history, is to kind of unpack what I mean when I think about progress and what progress means to me. So one of the useful ways of thinking about that is thinking about the status of a country, for example, as being about a lot more than how much money it can make, how much money it has, what its GDP is, you know?
If we think about the status of a country and how well it’s doing, very broadly, as also being how well it can take care of its people, as opposed to how much money it has. How happy are its people? How much access to clean water and food and healthcare et cetera does it have? So, how close to the good life are the people who live there? Instead of just money. Then we automatically take a huge load-bearing pillar out from the very colonial idea of what progress is.
Well, let me try to take another one out, which is that those metrics, which we most readily associate ourselves with, are anthropocentric.
What are the metrics for human happiness? That itself is as curated a metric as economic progress.
Absolutely. Yeah, totally. Because if you think—Yeah, that’s a really good point. And another thing that I’ve been working on lately in my own way is thinking about—I’m really obsessed with the idea of how closely related to animals and plants we are.
My best friend, whose name is Elisabeth McMillan; she’s a philosopher; she’s a genius; she introduced me to this concept called LUCA, or the Last Universal Common Ancestor. It’s the genetic grandfather of all life that currently exists on earth, basically, because there’s a point at which we were literally the same thing as everything else that’s currently alive on earth. And I can’t remember if it’s just animals, but I think it might also be plants. So when Indigenous people are talking about being connected to everything and this is your family—you’re here amongst family—it’s not a metaphor.
It’s a very literal thing. Plants and animals aren’t necessarily your siblings. But they are your cousins—in a very literal sense.
And it’s not a metaphor. It doesn’t have to be one. And if we take away this other pillar, which is that human beings are fundamentally separate from life, from any other life, then everything else starts to crumble, too—this idea of division between different kinds of people, the division between selves, human happiness or the well-being of other animals or the well-being of the ecosystem in general. And if you start thinking about the good life and progress in general as being how close the people are to the good life, how healthy the ecosystem is, how well we treat non-human animals, how robust and spiritually connected are our communities, and we’re driven away from this ultimately capitalist-realist idea of thinking about the world, capitalist realism being this idea that Mark Fisher introduced, which was basically that in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union that people in the capitalist West have lost this example of a non-capitalist superpower.
And everyone can think what they want about the Soviet Union—I’m not here to say the Soviet Union did only good things and were all great guys—but it was an example of a way of doing economics that were not capitalist economics, that were highly successful at the goals that they set out to do. Which meant that people in the capitalist West didn’t think about capitalism and the internal functions of capitalism as this metaphysical law of the universe. Which kind of tends to happen now because we don’t have this clear example of an alternative. Which, to me, because I grew up in a very socialist-friendly environment, seems really bone-headed and silly.
But also mentioning this idea that capitalism is this natural law of the universe [as a silly idea] is judgemental of me, because a lot of people don’t tend to think those things because they’ve never had an opportunity to think about it. Capitalism has been very thoroughly implanted into the consciousness of the citizens of the capitalist West, and also promoted really hardcore by people in power to promote international economic imperial interests during the Cold War and after.
So it’s like, It’s nobody’s fault. If you’ve never thought about how capitalism is not a material law of the universe but is just another set of aesthetic sensibilities that a bunch of people decided were the right thing to do, and we can decide differently, you probably think that because there is a point in history when a bunch of people in power were like, It is really, really, really important that as many people as possible think about capitalism as being the only way of doing things, you know? And so they’re like really, heavily, carefully curating the way that we thought about information in general. Which makes me sound a little bit tinfoil-hatty, but I do think that’s a conspiracy that’s actually a real thing.
I think tinfoil hats require a made-up distinction between an us and a them. And I occasionally think that systems don’t exist, only people do; that concepts don’t exist except in so far as we think them; and that maybe concepts exist in proportion to how many people are thinking them simultaneously; and … Ah, Jesus.
I’m going to go get some more water and let your brain recover.
*Tara goes to get more water to let Kevin’s brain recover*
I’m thinking that exertion and recovery is itself a binary and that that was an active period of recovery which I’m still in the midst of.
I also need to use the washroom, so if you need more time …
*Tara goes to use the bathroom*
Okay. So I think that there’s something deep there about this question of an us-them distinction, and this idea that capitalism is premised on a belief in individuality.
And that belief is a complete fiction. That and ownership. Both of these seem to me to be like the most pervasively perpetrated fictions of western thought, whatever that means.
And capitalism requires both.
The idea that you could own something forever for all time throughout the universe is the bedrock of capitalism; so an alternative to capitalism requires the recognition that any boundary between the corporeal self and its environment doesn’t actually exist.
Right. Yeah, and this is something that I do have to think about a lot when I rail against capitalism, which I do frequently, is that if there is anything that I believe genuinely that I would struggle with if I were to live in a non-capitalist environment, it is the way that I have grown quite accustomed to being taken very seriously as an individual, and being able to assert my rights as an individual, and as somebody who gets to do my own thing, right?
And I think it’s important as somebody who likes to think of myself as an anti-capitalist, that I take that very seriously. That that is probably the thing— This very genuine belief that your individual rights, needs, right down to your individual personhood, that this kind of doesn’t really matter as much as the collective — this is something that I for sure would struggle with a lot.
Just culturally, if I were to ever wake up in a socialist utopia, you know? And I would like to think that there was a way of doing socialism or communism where that’s not that much of a thing. But I actually don’t know if there is. And that is, I think, a pervasive, load-bearing pillar of the propaganda campaign for western capitalism—because it’s a very compelling argument.
And it’s an argument that has to be reckoned with as the compelling argument that it is. So, I think that this makes me want to jump back, again, basically, to the Enlightenment. Because, basically, okay: the Enlightenment was an attempt by very humanist thinkers in Europe to essentially move away from the divine right of kings, basically, and democratize things like knowledge and power and take it out of the hands of people who were born with it, born into their station with no way to get out of it, and put that power back in the hands of people by democratizing information and democratizing how people made decisions and government, et cetera; and something that I do enjoy doing is ragging on the Enlightenment. I love doing it. It’s really fun.
But I think it’s also important for me to humble myself and be like, There’s a lot about the Enlightenment thinking that I really agree with, and think is really smart and cool. I just think that in order to be respectful of an idea, one must be fearless in confronting and really beating the crap out of its limits. That’s the only way. I have very secure attachment. I want to slam my fists and body against any potential disruptions in something in order to really find out how stable it is. So there’s lots of things about the Enlightenment that I take issue with. But there’s also that fundamental idea of just basically being like, Power should exist with the people; and knowledge should be something that anyone can do. Expertise is something that, with enough practice and get-up-and-go—You can have expertise into something. You don’t have to be born into the noble classes in order to become an intellectual. You don’t have to be born the son of a Lord in order to have power. And if you’re born in the gutter, you don’t have to stay there, you know? It’s, again, it’s a compelling thing because it’s a very beautiful idea, and it’s an idea that has given a lot of strength to a lot of people. So, I think that then the problem with that is that, somewhat ironically, in an attempt to dismantle hierarchy, what happened was that, kind of without meaning to—
—The people who were attempting to dismantle the hierarchy in fact imposed hierarchies they were not aware that they were imposing. They’re just like, Now hierarchies are gone. But this is basically how privilege works in general or how standpoint theory in general functions. If you are swimming in the soup of how the world is constructed, you’re not super aware of how that works. So the people who were like, We’re dismantling this hierarchy! were mostly educated European men. So what ended up still getting poo-pooed as ridiculous and silly were things like the body and the earth and women and people of colour, et cetera. And so a lot of the result of Enlightenment thought has become the template for colonialism and more cultural imperialism, et cetera.
Which is not to say that it doesn’t contain a lot of really, really, really good ideas. Of course it does. It’s just that all ideas have unintended consequences. That’s just generally how, I think, good ideas work. So, to bring this back around to capitalism and anti-capitalism, what I think ends up being the thing that I cling to a lot is that people like to talk a lot about how communism is great on paper but we’ve never actually seen it function properly because, inevitably, someone has to decide who gets what power, et cetera.
What I think is really interesting is that what tends to get left out of that is that capitalism’s actually, I think, pretty good on paper too. Because capitalism does function under a lot of liberal, humanist ideas. As opposed to the divine right of kings, if you work hard enough, you can have things. But what it tends to do in practice—especially in this late-capitalist West at this time in history—is that we essentially reproduce the divine right of kings, because we have these people who are sitting atop these gigantic piles of money, who are not letting go of it, who are not putting it back into the economy, and are passing it down to just the people they want to pass it down to, and then the rest of us are fighting over diminishing scraps.
That is exactly the same feudal system that the people who invented capitalism were trying to get away from. And that’s a huge problem. And I think that the fact that that is the case is a really gigantic, like an historically relevant problem that a lot of people in power are not really contending with in the way that they should be. Because it’s getting to a really serious boiling point. And it’s going to be a big problem really soon.
But all that is to say: the thing that still irks me about capitalism, even if it’s working perfectly, as it should, is this idea that, in order for something to have value under a market system, an economy of markets—because basically in economic theory there are economies with markets and economies without markets—in order to have value in a market economy, you have to give it to people who are willing to exchange the value for a thing and deprive people who are not willing or not able to pay for it. And that’s how you imbue it with value, as per the capitalist definition.
Which subsists in imbalance.
Yeah, it literally can’t exist without deprivation. And so I was absolutely horrified when somebody who worked for OxFam told me, when I was in highschool—so this statistic is old: take it with a grain of salt—that there is many times enough food for everybody who needs to eat. And that it’s really just socioeconomic things that keep people from eating. And I remember having this moment of, Okay, so, basically, in order to make it so that a small group of people can maximize the amount of money that they can make, we have decided to turn—what is it?—a child every seven seconds or something into this ritual human sacrifice in order to imbue this thing that is literally lying around, on the earth, with this thing called monetary value? And that’s evil *chuckles*. I have a really hard time with the idea that that’s anything other than evil.
It’s an aesthetic choice.
Yeah, an aesthetic choice made for [incomprehensible] reasons. And I made this argument in a political science class once: I’m not saying that there’s never been anyone who’s not gotten what they’ve needed under a socialist system, but if we reel it back to just the metaphysics of a socialist system versus a capitalist system, capitalism has in its very functionality this idea that some people’s lives matter more than other people’s lives. We’re just going to have to throw some people in the garbage or else things won’t have any value. Versus under communism, the fundamental idea is that every single person’s life matters the same amount. And sometimes we’re not going to be able to take care of everybody, but we’re going to all die trying.
I mean, once again we have this anthropocentric axiom undergirding both of those worldviews, right?
I mean, I think of the phrase, Squirrels are people too.
Right, right, right.
And so, Is life without hierarchy possible?
Mhm. Mhm. Mhm. There’s this amazing Twitter thread, actually, that I thought was so interesting, which is The Hierarchy of Alienness. It’s a beautiful use of the Twitter thread, because basically it’s this really long Twitter thread that rates animals from least related to you to most related to you. So the first one is like a sea squirt, basically. And then you go through the tree of animal life, specifically, and track it all the way to other people, you know? And it’s so interesting because you can just see them beginning to look more and more and more and more and more and more like you. And the moment it’s like, Boom, it’s a person! Or, Oh, I really see myself! Which, for me, is actually the squirrel point. They’re very closely related to us and they look a lot like us. They’re like a few steps before animals develop this shoulder mobility that—
Frees up the hands.
Exactly. They’re not quite there, but then in one or two other branches, then Boom, you’re a monkey. And monkeys are—I don’t know. Whenever I see a monkey, I’m like, It’s clearly a guy. It’s obviously people.
It’s a dude. Just bein’ a guy over here.
Let ‘em vote.
Bananas for me only.
Exactly. Exactly. But what was the point I was going to make?
Degree of alienness.
Yeah. Mostly I was thinking about how—I eat meat, you know? I eat it. I eat the meat. I have really, really, really strict boundaries around what kind of meat I’m willing to eat, because I think that factory farming is a horrific abomination that’s literally against God and we should never do it.
But I also don’t think I actually truly believe that it’s evil to kill an animal for food.
And also I’ve experimented and my body just does feel better when I eat animal products. But there’s this sense that if I even just eat a factory-farmed egg, I just have this sense of this moral debt. It’s like, I’m going to pay for that in the Bardo. It just feels like I’ve done something that—There’s some kind of promise my soul made at some point and I’m breaking it when I eat any animal product where I know that the animal wasn’t treated very well. And so I’m like, How do I rationalize these choices? That I’m perfectly willing to kill animals for food? I’m perfectly willing to eat them? And then there was a certain moment when I realized that I’m really uncomfortable eating pork. And I remember at one point seeing a hanging pig, and I was like, That’s a guy.
That’s totally a guy.
You know? That’s totally a guy. And it made me feel really uncomfortable. But I don’t feel that way when I look at a cow, necessarily—that sense of being like, What a beautiful, gorgeous animal. I hope it has a wonderful life. And it’s obviously made of food. Like it’s obviously very clearly made out of food.
That’s how I feel in my body when I look at it. But I remember looking at this tree of relationships; and I was just kind of like, A pig is significantly more closely related to me than a cow is, right? It’s a closer relation. And so, from there, I’ve written poetry about this. There’s a poem that’s coming out with … I can’t remember exactly the press. I’ll send it to you.
Is it the God one?
No, it’s coming out with—It’s actually not published, so I think I might not have sent it to you. But I’ll send it to you. It’s coming out next year in an anthology of poetry about mental health and climate crisis.
Oh, with Gordon Hill?
Yeah, with Gordon Hill. I wrote this poem for it which was basically me wrestling with this idea of—Because I think a lot about boundaries, and which obligations I have. Like, Do I have the exact same obligations to a tree as I do to my sister? I do think I have obligations to a tree. I feel a sense of responsibility to a tree. Is it exactly the same as the responsibility I have to my nephew? Do I have the exact same responsibility to my husband as I do to a stranger on the street? I feel a strong sense of responsibility to that person. Are they precisely and exactly the same? It doesn’t feel necessarily that they are. But what’s the distinction there? And I was thinking about this concept of spheres of intimacy, you know? And how it’s okay to feel like you have slightly different obligations to all of humanity as you do to your closest friends, as you do to your lovers, as you do to yourself, you know? But if I’m confronted at some point with the choice between cutting down a tree and killing my husband, I will probably choose to cut down the tree. I’m not going to feel great about cutting the tree down, but it would be, I think, silly of me to behave as if those were completely morally identical choices.
And it made me think about how, one time when I was a little kid, we were driving, my dad and I. And I was in the front seat. And we hit a goose. There was a bird on the road and we hit it. And I was horrified by the fact that we hit the goose. It was really, really, really awful. And I immediately started crying. I felt terrible about it. It died immediately. It did not suffer. But I was really sad. And it mostly—I was disappointed in my father because he didn’t swerve or do anything to try to avoid it. He did nothing to try to avoid it. And I remember talking to him about it and talking through this thing while I was crying in the front seat. And I was like, You just killed it. You didn’t try to stop. And he was like, Look, it’s winter. It’s night.
I chose you instead of the goose.
Yeah. I had to have my hi-beams on. It’s a soft shoulder. It’s a dirt road. If I swerved, I’m putting you and me at risk. And I don’t know this goose. I simply don’t know them.
*claps and laughs*
I don’t want to kill this goose. But I don’t know them. And the risk that I would kill you and myself—I’m not doing it. I don’t have the exact same obligations to this goose and that I do to you. And I think it would be quite silly to act like we did. And I accepted that as a perfectly legitimate thing. He’s like, I don’t take any joy in killing the goose. It doesn’t make me feel good. It makes me feel bad, actually. I don’t like that it happened. But it’s a clear and obvious decision to me. So as I’ve been reckoning with being a meat-eater who still has boundaries about which meat I eat and which I don’t, I also have boundaries around which kinds of animals I eat and which I don’t. I ask myself, Does this make any sense? I do totally think that squirrels are people. Absolutely. But I do think it’s also rational to think that I have slightly different obligations to the squirrel than I do to my brother. I don’t want to hurt the squirrel. I hope the squirrel has a wonderful life.
I mean, I think we’re bumping up against the question of being human beings, being embodied people, and we can’t kind of avoid that subjectivity, maybe except for experiences of transcendence—
—That I think the arts try to evoke—
—And is one of the purposes, maybe, of them, like music, or ritual. And part of me hears the echo of an imagined old monkish shrivelled Buddhist in an orange robe saying, There is no difference. But I agree with you that that could be a difficult position to sustain.
Mhm. Well, a thing that I’ve been noticing lately—and I think this harkens back to the first thing we talked about—is that there’s a metaphysics of scientific materialism that I totally believe is a real thing; and also I often find myself flickering between totally real perceptions, completely true perceptions of reality, and nothing will change, and sometimes it’s like it will happen in the course of a second, and you’re sitting there, and just lapsing through ways of looking at the exact same set of circumstances. It happened to me recently when I wrote something that I really believe is, first of all, maybe one of the best things I ever wrote. Two, I really wanted to write it. Three, I really believed in everything I wrote. And four, I believed that I was completely doing the right thing when I wrote it. And then also it hurt somebody that I didn’t mean to hurt by writing it. And I knew that that was a possibility when I wrote it, but I didn’t really—
—I don’t think I really understood what it would mean to hurt somebody with this piece that I was writing. And I was reflecting back on this piece and flickering through states of pride and entitlement about what I did, and a complete belief that the thing that I wrote was a thing that deserved to be in the world, and that I made it for good reasons; and then profound remorse, a very profound remorse because I could completely understand, suddenly, why it would be hurtful. And I was just like, Is it a bad thing or a good thing that I did? And I would flicker in between these states.
And nothing would even change about the circumstances of what I did; and I would just be flickering constantly between these different states. And part of what I got so stuck on was that I could not integrate that. The only way that I could really integrate it was by this concept that I learned in my philosophy education, which was that sometimes the truth is in fact suspended between fundamentally irreconcilable ideas—and that irreconcilable ideas hold the truth in dynamic tension.
That’s a great phrase.
Yeah, it’s a great, great, great phrase. And I think about that a lot when I’m thinking about this. If I were to go out and get hit by a car right now, there is a way that nothing actually would change about the atoms in my body, because there’s actually no space between myself and the car and the person driving the car and the air around me. There’s another way in which I would need to be transported to the hospital right away.
And in fact, if I’m actually getting hit by a car, it’s more important, short-term, for me to get transported quickly to the hospital. But there might actually be a sense of relief that I will get from the idea of being like, Well, you know, in the grand scheme of things, nothing actually really changed, if we’re speaking atomically. And it’s weirdly useful when I’m relating to other people, this idea that there is a way that there’s absolutely no distinction between myself and others.
And I’m always seeing a reflection of myself and they’re seeing a reflection of themselves and the universe is experiencing itself. And there’s another way that is also really important that we’re fundamentally other, you know? Like very fundamentally different, and there’s actually no way that I will ever experience another person. I have it tattooed on me, this concept of alterity, of basically being like, My experience of the world is always wholly subjective; and whenever I attempt to experience another person, I’m always attempting to cross a fundamentally uncrossable distance, and that’s actually a good thing that makes other people interesting. That’s what makes other people, like …
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Like, why would I ever want to cross that? What would there be to strive for? What else is there to live for except to cross this fundamentally uncrossable division between self and other? And both these things are true at the same time.
Dynamic tension … I feel like we’ve gotten so deep into conversation that it would be impossible for me to talk about Montréal or how you moved from Halifax.
So what was it like being born in Toronto? Yeah, I think dynamic tension between not even opposites because that binarizes it, but some kind of polyhedral simultaneity of something. Because, I don’t know anything, but there could maybe be an insidious Buddhistic rationale for cannibalism—that it’s just the self consuming self. No big deal. It’s no different from a venus fly trap swallowing a fly, which is a part of itself, and the fly is being swallowed by a part of itself. I feel like you could actually use that foundation for pretty morally reprehensible actions.
Oh, totally. I like that, actually, a lot. My friend Jay has this great phrase that they say a lot, which is, Play that tape to the end. And in my philosophy education, we always talked about taking a concept to its logical conclusion—even to and past the point of it becoming ridiculous. And at least my experience of that process was not to render an idea useless; it was just to see how far it’s useful until.
So sometimes I feel like people would be: there’s this very famous Kant concept called the categorical imperative. Only do things that you would want everyone to do in that particular situation. That can be turned into a universal maxim. That you would expect everyone to do in that situation or that can be universalizable without turning into contradiction. So that’s why Kant is really hard on not lying ever, because if everyone’s always lying, then the concept of lying disappears, because being able to lie depends fundamentally on the assumption that you’re telling the truth. So if you’re no longer able to tell the truth, it’s actually impossible to tell a lie. That’s a contradiction; so don’t lie. But of course there’s ridiculous applications of this law. It doesn’t make sense in every context.
And people can sit around all day and be like, Well, there’s this example of this ridiculous application. It’s better to lie in certain circumstances. There’s a fascist knocking at your door and the fascist wants to kill every one of a certain group of people and you’ve got a member of that group of people hiding in your closet and they ask, Is there anyone hiding in your closet? The morally right thing is to say no. But one of my profs at one point was like, It seems very cynical and silly to use that as a reason why Kant’s categorical imperative is just useless, somehow. It’s obviously very useful. It’s that, Why are you so special that you get to do this when you would expect every single other person to do differently in this situation? And that’s a useful line of examination to put your moral questions through. It’s extremely useful; and he’s like, That’s one of the reasons why, he thinks, a lot of people are so interested in tearing down the categorical imperative, is that it asks such a compelling and self-reflective moral question. But … What the frick did we start talking about?
Well, it’s once again anthropocentric.
It’s like, What would you want other people to do?
I’m thinking of the monkey whose action it is to maximize the existence of bananas on the planet.
And it just completely fucks the ecosystem of the whole planet for everything other than monkeys, and then also eventually monkeys because the earth isn’t sustainable mono-agriculturally.
Right. Or a deer who won’t stop eating the vegetation. This happens a lot: we’ve removed all the natural predators of deer, especially close to urban centres, because we don’t like having wolves running around. But we also won’t kill the deer because it will make everyone sad; so the deer just keep obliterating green spaces. And it’s like, They’re a really serious problem now. And what do we do about it? It’s not like they’re doing something morally wrong. They’re just being deer.
There’s a lovely poem by Dean Young, a Californian, who says, There are two types of people in the world and the right ones think it’s okay if a coyote eats the occasional chihuahua.
Yeah, it’s kind of just the coyote being a coyote. It was one of my favourite (also mind-blowing philosophy classes): a predator is doing the thing that’s morally correct for the predator to do. Predation is moral for the predator. Murder is wrong for a person, but predation is moral for a predator.
Again, murder within the bounds of anthropocentric worldview. It’s not called murder if it’s factory farming. But that’s actually edible genocide.
Totally. Yeah. But I’m trying to think of why this …
Degrees of alienness.
Yeah, hierarchy of alienness. I’m so ADHD I’m not—
The husband and the squirrel—
Are not exactly the same. And I was talking about hierarchies of … Anyway.
So at a certain point you moved to Montréal *chuckling*.
It’s true. It’s true. I lived in Halifax for a bunch of years and then I moved here mostly because I thought the revolution was happening here.
And I wanted to take part in the revolution. Certain protests were happening. And I was like, That looks awesome. I want to do that.
But you missed the boat, so to speak. It was four years later—
—I messed around too much. Exactly. I wanted to go to Europe and backpack through Europe first. So I backpacked through Europe for the whole summer while all the cool stuff happened here. And then when I showed up, basically immediately afterwards the protests ended and I missed the rev. So then I started school at Concordia and I never left. That’s basically been my life since then. I mean I left Concordia. I eventually left Concordia four years later, but I didn’t leave Montréal.
Parents born here, right?
Yeah. My dad’s from Anjou. I think he was born in Dorval; maybe he was from the south shore. But he mostly grew up in Anjou. And then my mother spent most of her life on the south shore and really close to here. NDG. Up near the Basilica, basically, is her neighbourhood. They were both born here but they never met while they were here. They met in Toronto.
Which is where you were born. Then moved to Halifax.
Yeah. I was born in Toronto. I actually lived most of my [young] life in a really, really small rural farming village about an hour and a half northeast of Toronto. I was really lucky, actually, because it was a really, really Norman Rockwell-type childhood. I think that there are relatively few places [in North America] where you can live the way I did as a child—which is basically the classical—Parents would be like, Get out of the house or I’m going to go crazy, which would be at 8am, and then I would wander home around dinnertime after catching frogs and exploring abandoned train tracks and doing all sorts of stuff all over my town all day. And it was a very safe and small tight-knit community where everyone kept an eye on each other. That was most of my childhood. We left for Halifax when I was seventeen.
And then I finished highschool there.
I was very briefly a theatre student at Dal—for like one year.
That makes sense, yeah. You were self-identifying as a “theatre kid.”
I was for sure a theatre kid. Well, in highschool I think I just kind of wanted to do all the art things. I loved every single art thing that it was possible to do. I really liked visual arts. Visual arts was my first artistic thing that I liked doing.
I feel really grateful for it because it taught me how to look, you know?
At things and examine them to figure out how they worked. If you don’t mind having your kids grow up to be annoying philosophy types that talk the way that I do, letting them learn how to draw when they’re young is a really good idea, because it gets a lot of your brain online and gets kids to look at stuff. So, started with visual arts; and then once I got to highschool, I’ve always really liked singing and making music, so I was definitely really into music. I was really into theatre. We had a really great theatre teacher at my highschool. Ms. Chismore. And she was kind of the king of the theatre department. It was kind of just her; and she got to do lots of really cool stuff; and she gave us lots of freedom; and we did weird stuff, too. She got me into absurdist theatre.
That’s how that started.
That’s Ms Chismore. And I do not think that I would have done the stuff that I did with my life if Chiz had not had such faith in teenagers’ capacity to understand Samuel Beckett, which is really, really cool.
And theatre of the absurd as an aesthetic refuge in the twentieth and twenty-first century?
It wouldn’t resonate in the same way if it came about 500 or 1000 years ago. It’s contingent on a post-war context.
Yeah. Totally. I think another thing that’s been a huge influence on my work is sort of the construction of art and art-making in the wake of World War Two. So I think the theatre of the absurd and absurdist humour and absurdist art is one thing, but post-war literature, and especially confessional poetry, very clearly and obviously had a huge influence on my work. And how I think about that and rationalize that and sort of insert myself into the canon there is that the Second World War was this huge rupture in the world order, the way that people kind of—In this very Enlightenment-mode of thinking about how things worked and the faith that people had in that and how it worked; and I think it’s one of the reasons why continental philosophy has always really spoken to me.
Because in philosophy there’s this often spoken-about continental/analytic split, which was always taught to me as a political and historical story, basically, as opposed to an ideological or procedure distinction. It has since become more a procedural distinction, where analytic philosophy is more interested in the shapes of thoughts, in things like proofs and logic and how we assess what’s true about material reality; whereas continental philosophy is more about smoking cigarettes and wearing leather jackets. And the way that it was described was two completely separate ways of dealing with the trauma of World War Two. It was like, Since World War Two happened, the continent saw more actual warfare than where analytic philosophy developed.
Analytic philosophy developed on the British islands, you know? It’s not that the British islands didn’t see any war—they got blitzed, et cetera—and the British islands coped with it by throwing up their defences and were like, We’re going to deal with this insane rupture in how we understand the world by digging super hard into fact, reason—just clinging into anything that they could that was about how the world works. For me it reads very safety. I have to—
It’s a trauma-response and it’s safety-based and I have to figure out how the world works and what can I say is true about the world.
And the continent of Europe was just like, Nothing’s ever going to make sense again. Everything is crazy. It’s a completely separate, different trauma-response: because the violence was more physically near, there wasn’t this—Which is not to say that the pain of the people experienced on the British Islands was not totally legitimate and very profound, it’s just something about the nearness of the pain: when the violence is happening directly right in front of your eyes, they’re just kind of like, We’re just going to have to smoke cigarettes and wear leather jackets about this. And write poetry about this, I guess. I don’t know what else to do.
There was some question about whether poetry could be written afterwards.
Exactly, yeah. Which is an interesting. I always think that thought is so interesting, because after has this double-meaning: it has this temporally-in-the-wake-of meaning but also about. And I always thought that to write poetry about Auschwitz is an abomination. But all those Frankfurt School boys loved ambiguity and double-meaning, so if it sounds ambiguous it’s probably on purpose. And I’ve always taken that to mean, you know, If you’re writing about the disaster, you gotta take it really—Like, how you depict the disaster is really serious, you know? So I’m really interested in what changed art-making and storytelling and meaning-making and stuff after World War Two—and specifically I was interested in the kinds of people whose approach to it was to be like, Why the hell aren’t we all walking down the streets screaming and crying and ripping our hair out?
You have a line somewhere that’s something like—Just scream at the top of your lungs for once in your life.
Yeah, before you die. Confessional poetry in America was this specific response to how all of these shell-shocked vets came home while the cultural response to World War Two was this very Leave It To Beaver and everything’s fine; everything’s fine; everything’s fine. And the confessional poets were this voice that was presently being like, There is so much unimaginable pain operating underneath the surface; and trying to act like it’s not there is compounding the problem. You’ve got to talk about how. You must. Not everyone has to but someone has to be walking down the street screaming and crying and ripping their hair out. Someone needs to take that on because if we’re all just sitting here with our Shop-Vacs and our perfectly coiffed hair or whatever, we’re all going to lose it. Those women are all on drugs; they’re all getting the crap kicked out of them by their husbands; and they’re all acting like it’s not happening. But it is happening.
So that’s the influence of confessional poetry on my work; and then absurdist humour is another one. Which is interesting because the locus of that, and the promotion of that, boomed on the British islands also. And also this protest narrative to be like, It’s fine. Everything’s good. Everything’s very orderly and good. And then you’ve got this Monty Python skits where it’s like, Everything’s really weird, actually. Monty Python was always very punk rock—to me, at least. And I really do think of the stuff that I do—hoping I’m not tooting my own horn too much, but—as fundamentally protest art. It’s very political. It’s really personal. And it’s art that is in protest of structures that maintain paradigms that I think are destructive. And do so by using things like humour and reifying things like humour and the body and honesty and all these other things that tend to get pushed under the rug in favour of the good, polite order of things.
Biopsychological assessment, October 27th 2014
GENDER: Female (?)
MARITAL STATUS: Common-law OCCUPATION: Struggling
NATONALITY: Colonized RACE: Restless INSURANCE: Handouts PRIMARY CARE: Alcohol
REASON FOR REFERRAL
Family doctor found the client scratching at his stoop during a rainstorm in a state of spiritual frenzy, too confident for a woman. Opened her mouth and coughed up thirty units lurasidone. Insists she never took them. Client does not appear psychotic.
Client insists she needs eight thousand dollars in a duffel bag. Violent behaviour exhibited towards expensive bowl, a shelf. Client has been coping by calling out, why? to the deaf ears of God.
Client has until now refused therapy, insisting she does enough work for other people. Client has been collecting eulogies like trading cards and this one went too far. Client is looking for lost people in pill bottles, on the tops of handmade shelving units, at the bottoms of sacks of flour.
So, it took us about an hour and a half to drink the aperitif before the meal.
And it was also very nourishing.
And I feel like there’s more conversation to be had but I’m aware of time.
I have a bit more time if you do.
I can go till four, so I’ve got like twenty minutes.
Alright. I’m going to grab a glass of water.
*Tara goes to get a glass of water*
*Tara returns with a glass of water*
I mean, I feel like—I did prepare a whole bunch of questions that were specifically in response to individual poems and even individual forms and that sort of thing—
—But just given the limitations of time now—*to a friend passing by the window* Hi!—
I’m such a bulldozer. Thank you for your patience.
No, this was great. I feel like I’m doing my job as an interviewer if I just say nothing, basically.
Right, right, right.
I’m supposed to listen, and then every once in a while be like, And then? And then occasionally to drop catalysts.
But I’m just thinking in broad strokes—because broad strokes feel like the only thing available given that we’re not going to be able to look closely at any of the work particularly, maybe—is this sort of trajectory when you’re talking about rawness—
—And the truth and I think Dundurn [Press] describes you as an unpretentious poet and I think that that’s a complicated idea that has to do with accessibility and class—
—And yet I think it’s also a synonym for something like unswerving and unashamed honesty and yet, at the same time, I see, over the course of the trajectory of these three manuscripts, the accumulation of tools of self-care and stabilization—
—And really great self-reflexive tools of introspection and boundary-making; and often I find, in conversations about—there’s no such thing as an artist; I don’t really believe in nouns; and there’s no such thing as a job—but to the extent that artists have jobs, it’s something about readying the instrument—
—For inspiration or something like this. And so, I wonder if you’d say a few words about this trajectory that has been charted, say, from that first book at 24 to where you are now at 31: a first book of poems; three years later a second book of poems; and then a couple years after that the memoir; and that’s been a couple years; and presumably there’s a new manuscript on the go. And I’m also recognizing confessional poetry and post-Second-World-War writing or art-making in the second book, including dates—
—With every poem, and how that speaks to the question of non-fiction and recognition of temporality and how you’ve changed since you wrote any given poem—
—by including a chronological element in the work itself. Anyway, this is not an example of me not speaking.
Oh, no. I love it.
This is me offering a long and convoluted question that has to do with the trajectory of self-care and how this informs the work and how—You know, a friend of mine says, Be crazy in public because it gives other people permission to be crazy in public.
So, exercising self-care in public and “I only read emails from noon to two o’clock on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday” as the footer of an email signature and how that gives permission to others. And so, again, there’s no question there—just a spaghetti of perambulation *laughs*.
Totally. Yeah. So, I think that this makes me think about how I think that there is—
Also, the body is God.
The body is God. Okay. Cool. I love that. I think that there’s—For some reason the first thing that’s popping in my head is this idea that I’ve been playing with a lot recently, which is that there is a point at which every artist needs to contend with this very Simone de Beauvoir idea that all people are both subjects and objects. I am both this fundamentally irreducible eternity that goes on forever inside of myself, and also I am a thing. And I’m a body in space. I’m a thing that exists in the world. And that thing that I am that exists in the world has a bunch of meanings that I don’t necessarily get any say in constructing, you know?
Mm, mm, mm.
And also that other people are going to project whatever they want onto and I can’t control that and gender factors into this and then also that the artist—gender, race, et cetera factors into this—but also the artist as—The art that I make is both of me and really really not of me at all as soon as I let go of it. There’s kind of nothing that I can do to control how it’s going to be received or worked with or whatever; and it the property of the reader in a very serious way. That is a sacred and important thing and that’s an agreement that I’ve made with the universe when I let go of it. It’s like, It’s mine, sure, but it’s also really not, you know? And that means that people get to hate it. They get to love it. They get to project onto it. They get to see themselves in it in a way that I would never see myself in it or I didn’t intend or whatever. And that’s allowed. That’s okay. That’s how it works. That is the work functioning properly.
And then there’s always this little bit of—and sometimes I wonder if this is me being a narcissist who’s always a little bit wanted to be a celebrity—the artist is a person who is sovereign and deserves privacy and also is just a public good that people get to project onto and take away from and whatever. And I don’t think that I can get away from that. I can set boundaries, but a part of it is also just a fact; and I can’t—And if I try to avoid it completely I will be avoiding something that is just true of being an artist. So this makes me think about how—And then this leads into something that I noticed when I first started writing: I’ve always been interested in writing about myself, mostly because, when I was really young, I had a very hard time expressing myself in words. I think I really became an artist and a writer because I sucked at talking, you know? And this is another thing where people are just like, You’re so different in person than you are—And I’m just like, Yeah, yeah yeah! Because I’m not very good at being an in-person person—or if I am good at it, it’s a very hard-won skill that I’ve never been naturally talented at. And it’s like, Who becomes an artist because they’re amazing at being a person?
*laughs through nose*
It just seems weird to expect that I did this because I was just fantastic at being a person in real life. Because I’m not. I’m an artist because I’m a freak, you know? And so I kind of inevitably had to write about myself because my first practice writing was me being like, I am very upset about this thing; and if I say it in person I’m going to start crying and it’s going to be embarrassing. And that was the beginning of me learning how to write, was just learning how to express myself in a way that felt safe.
If I dream of a house it is always that house: the gingerbread
curling impish over red and yellow bricks, lilac trees stippled black
with wasps, droning persistent and always too close. The door my father
painted blue and yellow, locked tight with the mudroom emptied
of my mother’s shoes; voices swelling from the kitchen,
where adults discuss politics, bread recipes, bunk science,
all the words I just learned sticking staccato amongst the murmur.
I dream of long and heavy summer days: borrowed books buckling
under the heavy blanket of August, dropping words I didn’t understand
between my greasy knees and onto the beige cushions of the couch,
while in the dining room my father diligently harvested sound —
decorating time as it crawled by dank with lilac, unctuous humidity
thickening to thunder. I dream of my closet, scratched with messages
for a whole future to cover up and write over: some approximation
of “someone lived here.” There was a time when we imagined
this would be where it all ended. Not anymore: Breakneck. Eastwards.
Eventually we all damage each other. All parents damage their children.
All children damage other children. There is little sense in countering
the bombastic insistence of a girl in a paper crown. When I left,
I wanted it to be for good. I’ve lived in so many places but if I dream
of a house it is always of the barnboard floors weaving ribbons
of dirt between them, of the corners that collected dust cast off
of the skin of people I’ll never see again. I see this house on postcards,
in architectural magazines, in the background of a daguerreotype
of my ancestors. Did you know it was built entirely of Mi’kmaq
hockey sticks and empty rolls of film? If I close my eyes
I can hear the racoons fighting in the walls above my head, feel
the Victorian foundations shake from apocalyptic thunderstorms,
from the sheer force of my sister’s voice, from the impossible
task of holding a family together until the roof is ripped off
and up, fly drawings of so many faces with no names,
and my brother’s old school notes are sucked angry and up
and into the storm. I grip my soaking sheets tighter around me,
press my tongue against the roof of my mouth,
to burke the evidence of a hereditary illness where it curls
like a foundling above my hard pallet. If I dream of a house
it smells like lilacs. Is that rain I hear? Or a swarm of wasps?
And had enough distance that I could actually do it, so I could express complex thoughts and feelings, you know? So I was always really present in my writing practice, and then I’ve also been a very ambitious person. And I’ve always really liked myself. Even when I was going through a hard time mentally. I’ve recently been playing with this idea that I think a lot of my mental health issues was not born out of a fundamental sense of worthlessness—
—That a lot of people talk about. It was in fact a weird kind of dysphoria where there is this internal world and selfhood that I experienced and I could not figure out how to make my actual self match that, you know?
And that was frustrating and disappointing and made me mad at myself because I knew that the person I wanted to be was up here, but I didn’t have any of the skills that I needed to have to be her out here. And so I’m a bit of a late bloomer because a lot of those skills were complicated and took a long time to figure out how to do. And also I’m kinda lazy *laughs* and acquire skills slowly. So I’m ambitious and I’ve always considered myself to be kind of a smart person; and so I always had all these opinions; and my selfhood was really present in my writing, because I had to write because I couldn’t really talk very well. I didn’t have those skills. I got good at [writing] pretty early. And there’s a way that I almost wanted to be preachy really young. But people don’t like that. People don’t like when you’re preachy to them. And this is a thing that I’ve realized. People hate it when you take up the role of educator when they haven’t consented to that dynamic, you know? They really don’t like it if you sit down and explain something to them, they don’t like that—in a specifically education context, of course, if they ask you a specific question, they like it. But they don’t like being preached at. And I have so many opinions. And I want to mansplain so badly.
Tell me who Ptolemy was *chuckles*.
Yeah, exactly. I want to do that kind of stuff. And also, I wanted to do it in a way where people would actually listen to me. And the cool thing about talking about yourself—
—Is that if you’re talking about yourself, and if you’re kind of making yourself into a bit of a jester, if you’re a goofy person in an infomercial who’s always spilling water on yourself, is that people will listen to you and ultimately kind of see themselves in you. And so I think about this post-war kind of thing where I really—A lot of those (mostly) women who were doing that confessional poetry were very much making themselves sacrificial lambs. They had to take on—I think they were doing something that was very good and very valuable that was about taking on this pain and expressing it in order to hold the reality of what society was actually like in dynamic tension with this Leave It To Beaver whatever.
Lovely. Because they weren’t provided with the platform from which to teach about anything other than their own experience. Oh, did you have a bad Thursday? You can tell us about it.
And then using the aperture of the self to talk about the world.
And somebody had to provide some alternative to everything’s fine and also women are things and what do you mean you don’t feel super fulfilled being a housewife and time for your lobotomy.
*chuckles, exhales sharply*
And somebody had to provide some alternative to that. And so I think that—
—Especially in my early work, I was like, If I can find out a way to get over how humiliating it can be to be seen as ridiculous and if I can figure out which things I’m comfortable exposing about myself and which things I’m okay with being like, There it is, then there’s a way that I can do this thing that I have always wanted to do, which is be kinda preachy, and speak my mind, in a way that people will actually listen to. My friend jokes that I have jester’s privilege, where I’m often like, If you say something kind of inappropriate, if you say it silly enough, if you say it funny enough, and you’re also like actually genuinely non-threatening and insightful enough and also you’re kind of making fun of yourself, then people can’t help but listen to you. And this has always been the strength of satire and the strength of the jester and the jester in the king’s court, is that that person can say things that other people are like, I literally can’t say that or there will be huge consequences. And I’m interested in doing that kind of work, which is also why I think about it as being protest art, as practicing the agitate part of agitate, educate, organize. And if I’m willing to talk about how I have been foolish and, the same way that a painting is not just a snapshot of how good of a painter you were at that moment, but is in fact a record of you becoming a better painter, if the art is not just a snapshot of what a great person I am, and how awesome I am, but in fact a record of how I acquired the skills that I need to acquire in order to be a person that I really like being, and I show all of the ugly, ridiculous, absurd steps along the way, and I can make them funny and stupid, then that can actually be a helpful kind of mirror to hold up to people and be like, Are you ridiculous like me? Because I like myself and I’m doing great. If you see yourself in the way that I am foolish, then know that there’s hope for you too. If there’s hope for me, there’s definitely hope for you.
Of Danish and Scottish ancestry, Canadian citizenship, and Nichiren Buddhist faith, Kevin Andrew Heslop lives at artist residencies around the world, most recently in Costa Rica, Serbia, Finland, France, and (currently) Brazil, with Denmark and Japan on the horizon in 2024.
As he travels, Heslop facilitates in-depth dialogue with leading artists, most recently Canadian playwright Camille Intson, Brazilian performance artist Guta Galli, Brazilian artist Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Canadian poet Arleen Paré, Italian installation artist Remi Picó, Maltesian photographer David Pisani, Canadian Mi'kmaw writer Tara McGowan-Ross, Canadian poet Benjamin Robinson.
Heslop is also the author of the correct fury of your why is a mountain (Gordon Hill Press, 2021); curator of six feet | between us (McIntosh Gallery, 2022) and in medias res (Westland Gallery, 2023); director-producer of mo(u)vements. (Astoria Pictures, Rose Garden Press, 2023); co-author, with Roxanna Bennett, of the rules of grammar will save you at the hour of your death (Baseline Press, 2024); co-author, with P. F. Tego and Taylor Marie Graham, of Human Voices Wake Us (Rose Garden Press, 2024); and writer-director of Some Things Are Too Important to Take Seriously and Art Is One of Those Things (Astoria Pictures, 2024).