THE SARAH BURGOYNE INTERVIEW

SARAH BURGOYNE is an experimental poet. Her second collection, Because the Sun, which thinks with and against Camus’ extensive notebooks and the iconic outlaw film Thelma & Louise, was published with Coach House Books in April 2021. 

Her most recent publication is a collaboration with American poet Vi Khi Nao, a long (infinite) poem based on the number pi called Mechanophilia (Anvil, 2023), A Feed Dog book, an imprint of Stuart Ross. 

Her first collection Saint Twin (Mansfield, 2016) was a finalist for the A.M. Klein Prize in Poetry (2016), awarded a prize from l’Académie de la vie littéraire (2017), and shortlisted for a Canadian ReLit Award. Other works have appeared in journals across Canada and the U.S., have been featured in scores by American composer J.P. Merz and have appeared with or alongside the visual art of Susanna BarlowJamie Macaulay and Joani Tremblay. She currently lives and writes in Montréal/Tiohtià:ke. You may find her recent publications here.

Kevin Andrew Heslop: Okay. “You are in Montréal and I am in” London, Ontario “as this interview is being unfolded—it is quite sunny and bright here. What is the weather like there? Is it heliotropic? The last time I was in Montréal—it rained (nearly) nonstop or my memory of it at least.”

I refer to your interview with your collaborator Vi Khi Nao because it seems to me to have been the best conversation which has ever transpired, containing as it does the following exchange:

SB: What’s your favourite number?

VKN: 3, 6, and 9. They are all the same – I see it as one number. 

SB: Because they stack into each other like Russian dolls?

VKN: No – like one is beside the other and other – like linear translucency. I also like geometry.

Actually, just thinking now about that collaboration between the two of you, of Mechanophilia, of linear translucency and geometry, I often think of this phrase night-time rather than day-time logic; and in your collaboration with Vi Khi I feel like there’s a kind of night-time logic operating, a kind of evasive, sinewy unfolding in its logic, a meaning-charged careful tumble or like a kind of unfurling dialogue alongside the digits of pi, indicating that you’ll be collaborating again and maybe forever. There’s also a line somewhere about how “it was always the hardest thing to imagine not being eternal” from your first book Saint Twin. And so there’s a kaleidoscope and do with that what you will. How’s the weather in Montréal? It’s nice to meet you.

Sarah Burgoyne: Wow. I love that intro. The weather is very sunny today as well. In fact I was just in London, Ontario; I didn’t realize that was where you are based. We could have had this interview a couple weeks ago. But it’s not nearly so lush. London is the city, I’ve discovered, of birds—just incredible birds everywhere along the river; and we have some great birds out here but it’s still—I always think of spring in Montréal as having a false start. There are so many false starts and now it feels like it’s finally started but it’s hard to trust. It could snow tomorrow.

KAH: *chuckles*

SB: But one thing I just wanted to point out that you said that I find interesting is—You said “night-thinking and day-thinking”?

Yeah, yeah. Night-logic, day-logic; night-thinking, day-thinking.

And night logic is something sinewy?

There’s like an oblique associative quality to it.

Mhm. Mhm. Yeah, I really like that. I think of Steven Heighton—Do you know Steven Heighton?

Mm-mm.

Canadian writer who died too young. But he wrote this amazing book called Workbook where he talks about the day-mind and the night-mind and the day-mind is the sort of the editing mind and the night mind is the creative mind. And yeah, when you said sinewy, night as associated with the muscular, the tendon, the skinless, and how that is a type of creativity. I’m pretty sure our memories are stored in our muscles.

Mm.

We don’t know where they’re stored but I do know that any time I stretch my muscles I have the craziest dreams; the craziest things come back to me. But you’ve got me thinking a lot just from that introduction. So, yeah. Night logic. So you’re saying that’s what you think Mechanophilia is?

I mean, I think even from Saint Twin there’s a sense of embracing oblique associations within the same line but then also as demanded of the reader’s attention between stanzas, many of which I felt like could be capsular poems in their own right.

Mm.

And the difference between them then demands that sort of oblique associative—

Right.

—I don’t want to call it work—because serving coffee at Tim Horton’s is also called work—but that attention that’s invited from the reader.

Yeah.

Also, I’m thinking that night and day come up in your conversation about Because the Sun, given that, as you engage in that book with the film Thelma and Louise, there’s a murder that takes place in the day despite that the night is associated with danger—and I remember that being referred to in a gendered context, that night’s dangerous for women—and that the violence that took place in that film took place in the day. And I don’t know if that bears at all on this question of day-time logic versus night-time logic, but I’m taking your lead and just obliquely associating whatever thoughts are coming to mind.

I have a few things to say about that. So, when I was writing Because the Sun I was reading Camus’s journals because, when I was eighteen, I had to read L’Étranger in English and in French in highschool; and I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. I don’t remember loving that book or feeling very attached to the writer or anything but it was something about the image of the sun beaming into your eyes and being blinded by it; and any time when the sun was at a low angle and was kind of blinding me, I would think of that scene on the beach; and I thought, What is Camus’s deal with the sun? As an Algerian writer obviously he lived in a hotter climate, but one of his quotes from his journals that I used in Because the Sun was, “Misery is not the night; it’s the heat on the quays.”

And just thinking about Film Soleil as opposed to Film Noir, so, Thelma and Louise is Film Noir in many ways but it’s taking place under the sun. We think of night as this space of obscurity, this space of danger. We have the Take Back the Night movement; we have the idea that you don’t walk around alone at night. But it’s so much worse under the beating sun.

I had the opportunity to go to the desert for the first time last year—I’m writing a novel with my friend the poet Jessie Jones—and just getting out of the airport in Las Vegas, where Vi Khi Nao is from—speaking of Vi—and I felt like there was nowhere to escape. This heat, this direct sun—I felt like I was aging quickly. I felt like I was thirsty, that all of me was thirsty. I felt this kind of paralysis: no matter where I go, what direction I started to walk in, I can’t escape. And I do find, especially with climate change and global warming, the heat has become something that feels like an oppressive force. It’s also something that makes us go insane. So, what does the heat mean? And how does it—It feels like a type of ambient violence. And then that started making me think of instances of ambient violence in society, especially—this was before the #MeToo movement, but—especially as a lot of women writers I know were experiencing aggression, maybe micro-aggressions or harassment, from lots of different male writers. The same names kept circulating. And I thought of a relationship I had with someone where it felt like I could see the violence in his life, what had happened to him, and I felt like he could easily absorb that and then it just got redirected like a beam towards whatever, whoever was closest. Often me. And so it feels—Yeah, I was thinking a lot about that. And then of course the gender politics in L’Étranger and the racial politics: who’s the real stranger? was a question I had.

Amazing.

Yeah.

Well this is just already the best conversation I’ve had all day, all week, all month. So great.

*chuckles*

So, I’m thinking about the sun as ambient violence and then associating that with the different forms of ambient violence that can exist within society and culture and as I was reading and re-reading this interview/conversation/exchange with Vi Khi, something that I really admired and maybe aspire to replicate or aspire to join in its spirit was the way that the questions never felt like a narrowing; they always felt like an opening. It never felt like pinning something down; it was always the opposite of that; it was always expansive, that conversation.

And I wonder about that in the context of an interview: I wanted to ask you, What is an experimental poet? It seemed to me something like someone who doesn’t take conventions of any kind on board, someone who doubts axioms and maybe reconstrues new ones and reasons from—Or maybe not reasons but begins from zero. And also, What does an interview do? And how can an interview exist in a way that doesn’t try to narrow?

Mm.

I feel that the responsibility as somebody trying to facilitate the kind of conversation that I’m trying to facilitate now has something to do with not being like, Okay, poet, what did you mean? Can you give me an explanatory paragraph, ideally just one sentence, maybe two, which could just tell me explicitly what the truth is—because I’m uncomfortable with uncertainty?

Mm. Mm. That’s—I mean, I love the question, What is an experimental poet? And, What is a question? I feel like that is a really interesting question. There’s another element to this. I think often of orientation towards language as a starting point for experimentation. If you start with the premise that language works the way it’s supposed to, you end up writing in a way to convey meaning, or you end up writing in a way to communicate something. But if you start with the premise that language fails, that it doesn’t actually do what we want it to do and it’s in fact out of our control, and that in fact when we use it “incorrectly” then more meaning is conveyed, we get closer to the unnameable—because everything’s ultimately unnameable, right? So I found that that was a real turning point for me. It was when I started reading Paul Celan in my early twenties. I was reading a collection of his work, Micheal Hamburger’s translations, and I felt so much when I read those poems. But based on my entire education, I had no way of conveying what those poems meant. I couldn’t do a close reading of those poems or break them down. It just felt like a sort of ambient meaning, if I’m going to use that word again. Or that I was in a bath of affect and—

*clapping*

—I didn’t know how to, in any way, put it into words.

Ah.

And then I started—I needed new material to understand how to speak about Paul Celan’s work, which turned me to language theorists and Derrida—love him or hate him—and this sort of idea that language isn’t going to work the way we want it to. It’s always out of our control. And Paul Celan, for example, his most famous poem is “Todesfuge“, or “Death Fugue”. He was a poet who survived the Holocaust; his mother, who was German, was killed; his father fell ill in the concentration camps and died. His father was Romanian. And he had this really fraught relationship with the German language because it was his mother tongue, literally, but also the language of her murderers. And so he felt like he couldn’t use German the way it was supposed to be used, so he would make up words all the time; and his poems were long and formal at the beginning but they get smaller and sparser and more fragmentary. And he could never write directly about his experience because it was unspeakable. And when Adorno at that time said that “no poetry can be written after Auschwitz”, it was partially, I think—Or, what was happening around the same time was Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue” was reviewed by a literary critic who was also an ex-SS officer. And he said, “what a beautiful thing that such a horrible event could be turned into the beauty of poetry.” And you can imagine Paul Celan’s reaction to this—utter horror and disgust—and it made him feel like he had to write differently. He had to sort of not try to make it pretty in any way. And his work is—I don’t know if you’ve read it, but it’s so affecting. Adorno’s statement that no poetry can be written after Auschwitz—the main challenge to that statement was Paul Celan’s poetry. Does poetry always make something beautiful?

The other thing is that I think with Walter Benjamin a lot, and he has this really zany idea that language as a tool of communication is a bourgeois idea—that before the bourgeoisie, the use of language was to name; and to name is so different than to communicate. And if you start with poetry and you think of, “how do I name an experience like a concentration camp?” you have to be indirect. So in Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge”, the refrain is, “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening / we drink it at midday and morning we drink at night / we drink and we drink”—this image of black milk being consumed constantly. That is not literal in any way but it conveys an unnameable horror through defamiliarization, which is Viktor Shklovsky’s idea that I am also very much a proponent of. I’ll stop there. I feel like I’m kind of rambling at this point *chuckles*.

I mean, I’m just going to look up the etymology of “rambling” here.

*laughs* Rambling like Bob Dylan, I hope. Rambling and gambling with my ideas.

I mean, Bob Dylan summoned a generation together and won the Nobel Prize, so—

*laughs*

—If you’re rambling, may it persist. “Walk for pleasure, typically without a definite route.” I mean, if we had a definite route we would be mechanics.

Right. Yeah.

And I’m thinking about a million things now but one of them is: I’m thinking of M. NourbeSe Philip and “English is a foreign anguish” and how Fred Moten says “All I can do with the English language is to destroy it” and the moral imperative of neologization and also German and the film The Zone of Interest that recently came out. I’m not sure if you saw it but part of the brutality of that film is the way that it very carefully constructs conversations, which may very well have taken place between high-ranking SS members, about the precise mechanics of crematoria. I’m thinking about how maybe there’s a coloniality or violence implicit in the idea of naming at all, that—and this is something that’s preoccupied my attention a lot lately—that nouns are illusions of language and that they’re referring inevitably to verbs, because everything is shifting and in flux and moving and not fixed as we might, by naming it, wish for it to be; and also, the noun purports to disconnect the thing from everything else by saying that this is a thing and everything else is not that thing. And so language is dumb. Why are we poets? is my question.

*chuckles* Well, I guess that there’s a difference between naming and thinking you got it right, or naming as a way to own or possess, versus naming knowing it’s always wrong, right? So there’s no connection between you and your name or the tree and the word tree; and in fact it’s so misleading that we think a tree is a unit that can exist without sun, without air, without soil, without fungus, you know?

Mm.

So it’s a sort of—I feel like a poet has to take a humble stance towards language. But I think there’s a way to work with its failings that is exciting. Because it is something we exist in. And some work with more of a fraught relationship than others, like M. NourbeSe Philip’s “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” very Celanian in a way, this fraught relationship to English as something that was forced upon enslaved people and also at the expense of their own languages. And Fred Moten—I think a lot about *chuckles* about everything Fred Moten has ever said.

*laughs*

I think about it all the time, especially this one little thing he said in an interview about mayonnaise as the sublime. He hates mayonnaise but he talked about emulsification, mixing oil and water, to get that thick but pillowy condiment—Mayonnaise as having a complex relation to the sublime is one of my favourite things he said. He’s someone who’s really able to be with and in the world and is a true philosopher because everything—even the mayonnaise that he declines on his burger—is something to investigate philosophically and I just love that. But yeah, to use language at all: when you were talking about these associative gaps between stanzas in my work, I’m really influenced by the Persian form the ghazal—

Yeah.

—Which, you know, you have to—You have these couplets, and there’s more rigorous relationships to that form than others: John Thompson wrote a book of ghazals, Stilt Jack—you could argue they’re not—but what they do is they have this associative logic. The Language Poets I think most famously worked with associative logic in an effort to dehierarchize the author and the reader (in an effort to dehierarchize everything in light of the Vietnam War); but my favourite effect of it is how the poem begins to read you, in a way.

So, you’re reading the poem but because the gaps you’re filling in with your own ideas and only your ideas, the poem actually reads you back. And some people love that and some people find it infuriating and pretentious and obscure, but it depends again on your orientation toward language and experimental work because—You know, I teach Gertrude Stein to eighteen-year-olds and they are baffled by her work and they feel left out and it’s not that they are; it’s that they’ve only been taught to approach poetry one way, which is, “What does this mean?” Instead of what Stacy Doris used to say in her workshops, which was, “How does this mean?’ And you could think with Wittgenstein as well: language is a game. When you draw a boundary around something—let’s say sense and nonsense—Like, this is in the realm of what makes sense and everything else falls outside of that, it’s not real; it’s just telling everyone what you have decided counts as sense.

*chuckles*

And then he goes on to say a boundary can be drawn for any type of reason. It could be to delineate territory. I reject what doesn’t make sense to me. Or it can be a fence that you’re invited to jump and play within. So, when you see Stein as someone who’s inviting you to play and who’s thinking with Picasso as a cubist, it’s a totally different type of work—and it’s really fun. You can’t approach Gertrude Stein and ask, “what does this mean?” You’re not going to get anywhere at all. But it’s a shame that that’s the question we enforce through education, you know?

I like Robert Hass a lot; and I remember him writing a poem—I think it’s called “What the Modernists Wrote About”—in which he says, at one point, referring to a building in Paris, “Where Gertrude Stein spent her time writing sentences like ‘tea towels aren’t necessarily.’”

*chuckles*

And this idea you can choose to make a boundary anywhere and that there’s something necessarily agential about a boundary as opposed to the recognition of a connection. And I’m thinking about a line by Randy Lundy where he says, “metaphor can startle us not because it creates a connection between two separate things but because it reveals a pre-existing connection between those two things.” And as you were mentioning the ghazal and John Thompson and Stilt Jack, I was thinking that your first book—I suppose we should at some point address your work directly—

*chuckles*

—Though maybe that would be a trespass on the oblique logic we’ve been entertaining so far—

*chuckles*

—But you had a line of John Thompson’s, a couplet, which was the epigraph for your first full-length book.

“Deep below the ice the trout / are perfect.”

“Deep below the ice the trout / are perfect.” Yeah, this is—And it was then also alongside Sam Beckett’s “Hooves! Hooves!” and it was a really intriguing pairing, those two voices. And I guess, just to intrude a banal question on the conversation, Why did you choose those ones?

*laughing* Um, well. I wanted—There’s a figure in Saint Twin that keeps coming up over and over, and it’s John. And John is actually an amalgamation of three or four Johns, one of them being John Thompson, one of them being John Berryman, one of them being John the Revelator *chuckles* and I think that’s the three. I don’t—I can’t remember—It’s been so long—

Ashbery maybe? Do you have Ashbery somewhere?

I love Ashbery but he wasn’t in my mind as I was writing. So, John Thompson and John Berryman are both sort of tragic figures, in a way: they both took their own lives; they were drunks. At least Thompson was; I’m not sure if Berryman was.

They definitely both were. 100%.

I think so, yeah. But they were both these incredible writers and I wanted to signal—Because I was kind of working with a ghazal form that I didn’t call the ghazal because I felt like it was—

Yep.

—Not close enough and it felt kind of rude to call it that when it wasn’t. But I was working with the sort of Thompsonesque-couplet ghazal form and I wanted to sort of signal that and I just loved some of his lines, like that one. “Deep below the ice the trout / are perfect.” And this sort of creature that’s in torpor, that’s slowly alive, that’s waiting there. There’s something so spooky about that but also so beautiful.

Mm.

This hibernation in ice. And the perfection of that. I don’t know if trout die in the ice like that ever but I wonder if—There’s something that’s always intrigued me about the fact that the fish sometimes get frozen. And what that must feel like. And if that does feel like perfection to them.

Ah.

They don’t have to do anything; they can just exist in their beauty in the water in this eternal-feeling mode that isn’t—They’re not worried. There’s a video I saw online once of a cat who had gone out onto the ice and there was this trout or a goldfish I think, actually, a big one frozen in a pond; and the cat sees it underneath the ice and just starts going nuts trying to get at it and leaping and throwing itself all around and the difference between the anxiety and excitement of this cat and this trout’s utter zen, which is a type of perfection I guess, though possibly dead, with death being a different type of perfection, if we go with the etymology of perfect which is complete and exquisite.

*chuckling*

There’s something really striking to me about that. And then Beckett: I was reading a lot of Beckett at the time and my favourite Beckett piece is his radio play Embers. And “Hooves!” is from Embers. And it’s one voice and he’s sort of remembering these different scenes by the beach and different moments of his life and then his rumination gets interrupted: you first hear the hooves coming and then he yells, “Hooves! HOOVES!” And there’s something—

Hm.

—Speaking of ethereal—there’s something about the onslaught of memory and interruption and the interruption taking the shape of a horse—there was something kind of profound and funny and tragic about that. Saint Twin—You know, a first book is often an accumulation of a life’s work up until that point. I think my life kept getting interrupted by a wild horse who’d spin me in a new direction every couple years or so.

Stacy Doris, who is another big influence of mine, talks about poetry as a type of interruption. It interrupts our life and it’s interruptive in time. It’s sort of a non-capitalist form of writing because you can’t digest it as quickly as a novel or—Not all types of novels, but it’s not consumable in the same way that a lot of literature is; and it forces you to linger; it forces you to kind of hang out. It’s like a bath versus a shower.

I had this conversation with someone the other day where I expressed that a bath is very anti-capitalist because you’re not in a rush and you have to sit there and soak and a shower is so capitalist and you’re just in and out as fast as possible and you go to work. And the person I was talking to reminded me that Marat, the French revolutionary, was killed in the bath; and I thought, “Yeah, it’s because he was anti-capitalist that he was taking a bath.” I know that’s not true, but poetry is like the bath of language: you have to sit in there and be with it and you really have to focus on being with it in order for it to have meaning. A rushed bath is no bath at all.

So, on this, It felt rude to call it a ghazal, I was thinking of an anecdote that Gary Snyder offered when some American Haiku Society convened a haiku convention in Japan, as Americans are wont to do; and they give Gary Snyder this big prize for being the best haiku-person; and they fly him to Japan and he’s speaking with a Japanese poet who’s helping to convene the convention at the behest of this American organization; and they’re in the car together driving towards the convention; and Snyder confides, “You know, I’m a little embarrassed because I’m not really a haiku-poet: I maybe have written one, maybe two, things that are actually—That I would think would qualify.” And he says, “And the Japanese are very funny. My chaperone said, Oh, oh, we know that. But the Americans, they want to give you this prize and let’s just enjoy ourselves.

I remember somebody saying about the haiku that it has these strict requirements formally of the kireji and the kigo and the syllables and that one of those strict requirements is that it needs to be written in Japanese.

*laughing*

And so, I like living with the refrain that I don’t know anything, but I will affect to know something with regard to this question of the trout: I think that the water, when it freezes, is coldest at its surface and that it gets warmer as you go deeper; and so there’s an ambient lethargy maybe rather than an ambient violence; and I like for that lethargy to be zen-inducing. And this sense of the perfection of these trout exists partly because they’re inaccessible. And this is driving the predatory cat nuts.

*chuckles*

And the capitalist shower slash the anti-capitalist bath …

Um, there’s a moment in the film adaptation of Air’s Error that is something like the perfection of synchronicity on camera. “What is being offered? You don’t know and suddenly the eyes met with a new gaze. Once acknowledged, the new gaze moves confidently past.”

This was almost perfect. Speaking of almost perfect, I recently read that because Mayans believed that perfection was the realm of the gods they would deliberately err in the production of hieroglyphic stone tablets.

Mm.

Um. So, synchronicity, perfection, collaboration. I’m thinking about An Eagle Flew in the Sun Again But It Didn’t Mean the Same adapted by JP Merz into soprano voice, flute, viola, and piano; and Air’s Error danced by Hilary Bergen; and your response in Long Con to Jamie Macauley—and I was thinking of its publisher Andy Verboom because I remember him thinking about poetry as a bath—and so: collaboration, synchronicity, perfection?

*chuckling* Okay. With Air’s Error, I tried to—So my friend Hilary, who is an amazing dancer and a scholar, I was interviewing her about the street in Montréal that I’m writing about right now, the St. Hubert Plaza—recently named by Time Magazine as the best street in the world. It definitely is the weirdest street in the world; and it’s kind of famous in Montréal for its weirdness. I like to think of it as sort of kitschy or quétaine arcades, kind of like the Paris arcades that Walter Benjamin was delighted by and wandered through (hence why I’m reading a lot of Benjamin: because I’m writing about this street). But I interviewed Hilary about her experience of it because we both lived near it for a long time; and then in the interview I asked her to “do the dance of the Plaza.” She didn’t know I was going to ask her to do this; I just sprung the question on her. And she’s very brave and she’s a very good dancer so she just picked a storefront that she thought represented the Plaza as “the best place for dreamers,” because the plaza is a sort of dream-like space, with these mannequins in gowns and—It’s a lot of cheap prom dresses, a lot of glitter and colour—

*chuckling*

—And these faceless mannequins. It’s enchanting, in a way. It’s like a fairyland. And she just did this dance in five minutes. And it was freezing cold. You probably noticed her shaking her hands at the end of the video. But then I wanted to—We had, in the interview, talked about how difficult it is to write about dance because it’s another kind of big place where language fails.

How do you describe a dance in a way that in any way conveys the power of a dance? So I took it as a bit of a challenge. I thought I would give it a shot. So I thought I would translate her dance into poetry and I tried to do it in real time but it was ridiculous; it was too fast; so I slowed it down to a third of its speed. It’s fifteen minutes instead of five minutes. And I wrote to it at that speed. And that helped a lot. And then I read the poem. I divided the poem into minutes and Anstruther Press published that. Each poem is divided into minutes, which is also inspired by Vi Khi Nao’s Sheep Machine, where she does something similar in response to a video work by Leslie Thornton. And I just tried to see what would happen. I read the poem over top of the video; I waited for every minute to come; and then I’d start reading that section, but the sections are all different lengths. So there’s some gaps in the readings, but it was totally random, which moments between dance and poem lined up, and which moments didn’t. And I kind of loved that; I love what I like to call leaning into the error, allowing the error to exist—maybe not like the Mayans in terms of increasing imperfection, but there’s tension when there’s error. If, in the poem I would describe a gesture that Hilary wouldn’t have done yet but would do later or if some of the words and gestures lined up—there’s still something interesting about the viewer’s experience of that, that flickering. But yeah, I loved doing that piece.

In terms of collaboration in general, it’s so exciting to collaborate with people. It doesn’t work with everyone; you have to have some artistic chemistry; but when it works it’s just thrilling and works get done a lot quicker because you’re sort of holding each other accountable to the work as well. This novel that I’m writing with Jessie Jones, the first draft we would just meet on Google Docs every week for two hours and just start writing. One of us would write until we ran out of steam and the other person would just take over and we wrote a whole novel that way. So, it’s exciting to kind of—Obviously the pandemic made it difficult to collaborate but that format actually made it really easy, in a way, though I prefer meeting in person and collaborating in person.

So, Hilary plunges bravely into showing what the dance of that particular street will be; and I was thinking—There’s a teacher, Ken Robinson: he has this anecdote of a five-year-old making a picture; and the teacher says, “What are you drawing?” And the kid says, “I’m drawing the face of God.” And the teacher says, “No one knows what God looks like.” And the kid says, “They will in a minute!

*chuckles*

And—

I love that.

—I’m thinking also, just to indulge in this free association a little bit, about meeting on Google Docs every week and writing until you’ve written what you have to write and then passing it on and that there’s a baton-passing quality and I’m thinking about your running track and whether this can get back more into the details of your being a human person and the move to massive cranberry fields at four-years-old and then the highschool that demanded a hundred poems in a month and you wrote forty-nine in a day and what was being a kid like? Is it still now? And what do you recall of that?

*chuckles* That’s a great question. I was raised by born-again Christians, so being a kid was magical, in a way, because I was surrounded by the love of God. And my parents are both readers and very scholarly about the Bible, especially, but hated church. I don’t think they would say it outright but we all dreaded going to church and neither of my parents were raised going to church and it was not their thing, but they did love reading the Bible and talking about it and so I was exposed to a lot of poetry at a young age; and I remember just being totally enchanted by the Psalms and by the minor prophets and by the Book of Isaiah, which I still think is one of my favourite texts of all time, even though I’m not religious. And I grew up in BC so we would go away in the summer to places where we were in the mountains and in the forest and I had a lot of room to imagine and I didn’t have a lot of anxiety because I felt certain about being loved by something bigger than any of us.

Mm, mm.

This kind of big love that I could depend on no matter what. And that was true insofar as that was the love my parents provided and still provide me. But, you know, it wasn’t—As I got older and started thinking differently, obviously I look back on it now and I miss that security. I miss that idea that if there’s one power ruling the universe, or one sort of logic, let’s say, that rules the universe, and that is love. That is such a beautiful idea.

Mm.

And I hope that is true. But yeah, I also—I loved fantasy, so I was really into Lord of the Rings; I was really into Narnia; I was really into The Black Cauldron. And my dad would—He knew I loved books and when I was in grade seven my dream was to go to Oxford or to go to Cambridge and become a writer and I started writing a novel when I was twelve, a fantasy novel, and got pretty far but somehow lost steam, I guess because puberty hit. But my dad would bring me books all the time, so he’d bring me books that he’d get from university reading lists. Beowulf, for example, and Moby Dick, and Bulfinch’s Mythology. And I would read Beowulf in Seamus Heaney’s translation and just love it. My poor mother worried, I think, that I was going to be a loser, so she would bring me things—I have two sisters; they were very cool and still are—but she would bring me an iPod or Lululemon pants *laughing* to try to save me from my world of Beowulf and pencil-crayon pictures of dragons and Millenium Falcon cut-outs.

*laughs*

*chuckling* So anyway, I discovered poetry in highschool: I was in a class where we had to write a hundred poems in a month. I wrote 49 in that month, not in a day, but the teacher—I freaked out and I went to the teacher and I said, “I’ve only written 49. What can I do?” And he said, Oh, you’ve probably written more than anyone else. It doesn’t matter. And so I ended up doing extremely well in that class and by the time I got to U Vic, I thought I knew poetry. I was like, I can whip off a poem in two seconds because that’s what I was taught; and I remember the first poetry assignment I had, I was in Carla Funk’s class. I got a 60% and it was the lowest grade I had ever received in my life and I went to her office and was like, “What is going on? How do I—What have I done? How do I fix this?” And she gave me some very helpful advice which was to go out and spend more than five minutes working on a poem.

*chuckling*

And I ended up doing better the next time, when my poem made an associative leap, if I remember, about drawing sidewalk chalk over my skin and face as a toddler as “the first map of the world”—nothing spectacular but not bad for an eighteen-year-old— and I feel like something clicked through my conversations with her. And then of course with Tim Lilburn’s workshop, which was—It’s famous in the memories of my life. I think about the workshop all the time. But I decided to pursue poetry because it was hard. It was the hardest thing I’d ever tried. And I couldn’t figure it out easily. And that’s why I’m a poet now. But little bits and pieces—I collect things as I go—and certain things make more sense as I get older, but one thing—just to circle way back to the beginning of the conversation when you were talking about interviews and questions—I think about Hannah Arendt, who said that, basically, thinking, with the advent of science, started to become about the hypothesis. So, in the nineteenth century thinking was about coming to a conclusion; and before that, she says, “Thinking was the handmaiden of theology.” And she uses this term handmaiden, which I love. But it was something more akin to contemplation. And through her sort of investigation of Nazis after World War Two and Adolf Eichmann, who felt like he had done nothing wrong because he was just following orders when he was deciding which camps to send people to to die, she realized that thinking is not about coming to a conclusion. He had come to a conclusion that you get a job, you follow your orders, what’s wrong with that? He couldn’t think past that to genocide. And so her idea was then that thinking is the propensity to ask unanswerable questions. And I feel that that is the most interesting form of a question, as something that is ultimately unanswerable. As something that prevents not engenders genocide.

The unanswerable question like the, from the cat’s perspective, inaccessible trout.

*laughs* Yeah. The trout is the cat’s unanswerable question *laughs*. It’s true.

What was Tim Lilburn’s class like?

It was amazing. Have you met Tim Lilburn or read his work? He opened the workshop, in my memory, with the question, “What is the point of a workshop? And what do we do here?” He said the worst workshop is one in which everyone’s style is colonized to suit the style of the workshop leader.

Mm, mm.

And how the sign of a successful workshop is that everyone becomes more themselves as writers and there’s this increase in difference, actually. But a strengthening. And we weren’t allowed to read Canadian or American poets; we could only read outside of the dominant North American scene. And so we discovered a lot of writers, like Mina Loy, Czesław Miłosz, Paul Celan. Tim organized the poet Xi Chuan to come from China to teach Chinese poetry in translation, so we were exposed to all of this poetry that has never been published in English and some that had, like Hai Zi, whose work made the greatest impression on me.

Sure.

But there was a lot of really great writers in that workshop. Nora Fulton, Nicole Raziya Fong, Michael Nardone, Jessie Jones, I think Kayla Czaga was in that workshop, too. It was just like a ton of us that all ended up publishing books eventually; and many of us ended up coming to Montréal. And Gail Scott, who is a writer I adore and who is a mentor of mine and a friend, she said that she feels like BC’s experimental poets came out of this one UVic scene, because BC isn’t known for—I mean, I shouldn’t say that; I guess there’s the Kootenay School and a lot of different spaces that are more open to experiment, but when I was at UVic I really thought of poetry as something that had to be reverent and sort of in reference to nature and kind of gorgeous and lyrical. And I really rejected that when I came to Montreal. I started writing about the city.

But lately all I can write about are bogs *laughs* and I just can’t—I feel like I’ve returned in some way to this place where I started with poetry as having something to do with nature and I can’t get past bogs and birds these days. I feel like that’s what I’m writing about now. And if you look at my Instagram, it’s just flowers *laughs*. It’s like terra nullius; little else is interesting to me as social media content I can provide, which I do very rarely anyway. The pandemic was part of that too: I was just suddenly close to nature, to animals, to a stillness that I had kind of forgotten about as someone living in a city and working full-time.

Well thanks to the Fates for conspiring to put that group of people together at that time is all I can say about that Lilburn workshop.

Mhm.

I feel like we’ve entered a place in conversation where I’m just going to retreat into banalities because we’ve already explored the universe and so, Why Montréal?

Why Montréal? It’s affordable.

Easy. That’s good. Two-word answers henceforth.

Yeah. It was really affordable when I moved here. It’s changing now but it’s still more affordable than Vancouver, which would have been my other option. Vancouver is hostile to young poets because we can’t afford to live there; there’s just no way in hell we can afford to live there and write. So Montréal was the first place where I could—There were a lot of writers I know who had no jobs and got by just fine and I was like, This is amazing. This is a space that is welcoming to artists because it’s cheap rent and it’s cheap food and it’s also—I just love the people here.

Alright I’m bored now that we’ve returned to the earth; let’s go back into the cosmos.

*laughing*

Although I do note that you had mentioned that you were expected to read L’Étranger in both the original French and in English and so obviously your education was bilingual or at least partially so; and one of the thoughts that I had about Montreal and one of the reasons you might be interested in being there is because of the slippages in meaning available in a pretty distinctly bilingual city. And I noticed in your conversation with Vi Khi you mentioning how adorable—I think adorable was the word you used—was the word “two” and especially because it also has the “tu” familiar “you” in French; and I feel like it’s almost—I don’t want to sound elitist, but—there’s so much available in the slippage between meanings when you’re aware of interlingual homophones. Is there something there in Montréal about multiple languages that’s generative for you?

Yeah, definitely. I feel like your brain is always working harder when you’re living in multiple languages, but I just love—I mean, English and French are so close, so the interplay between those two languages is really exciting; and there’s a whole scene of Francophone writers and poets. I just was at a reading at this great franco bookstore called Le Port de Tête where Nicole Brossard, Gail Scott and Juliette Langevin were reading. Nicole Brossard is a hero of mine; I just love her poetry so much in English and in French. And Gail was reading in English but obviously is very fluent in French; and both of them were part of this Theory, A Sunday reading and writing group. So there’s a real kind of feminist lineage in Quebec, I think, and mostly Quebecois feminist lineage; and I love being around that energy in the writing scene. I feel like there’s a lot of writers in my generation that are influenced by the Theory, A Sunday group or who were taught by Gail or are thinking rigorously about language and politics in their work.

But also translating. You can’t be more intimate with a work than if you’re translating it. And I’ve only recently started translating poems from French into English, but I’m finding that really exciting as well. Of course there’s so many other languages that you hear when you’re here; and it’s just a place that—I mean, despite the way it comes across as sort of a hostile space—which, you know, there’s hostility at the top with François Legault and the Language Police, but in the streets, you don’t meet that hostility. It’s not among the people; it’s a fear-mongering tactic to get votes.

Mm.

But I just find—Yeah, it’s really thrilling to hear so many languages. I teach at a college and they’re writing short stories in the New Narrative style which came out of San Fransisco in the 70s and the students are presenting them now to the class and one of my students—half of the dialogue in her story was in Cree and half was in English and Montreal feels like a linguistic space where you can do that and people don’t feel shut out from the work. That’s something that came up earlier, this feeling of being kept out. It just feels normal to flip between languages and switch, even mid-sentence. It’s more generative than threatening—despite how language in Quebec is represented on the level of the media and government, which is a shame.

Well, as we approach a close, insofar as this interview has participated in the media, I feel like it has been a good counterpoint. And to wrap up, I wonder, What does a good teacher do?

Hmm … I think a good teacher … I mean, that’s such a complex question. I feel like it’s something I’m always figuring out and year to year I might have a different answer. I feel very humbled by that job because it’s not ever been my passion, necessarily—it’s just a way for me to eat—but it’s something that I deeply love and respect, even though the job doesn’t get you much respect from, again, the government. But I don’t know. At this point I’m thinking that a good teacher encourages unanswerable questions. That’s where I’m at right now.

 -- Website

Kevin Andrew Heslop (b. 1992) is a multidisciplinary artist born fifth-generation Canadian of Celtic-Danish ancestry. Trained as a musician and theatre actor, Heslop's debuts include the correct fury of your why is a mountain (poetry, Gordon Hill Press, 2021), six feet | between us (art, McIntosh Gallery, 2022), and mo(u)vements, (film, Astoria Pictures/Rose Garden Press, 2023). As of July 2024, his most recent publication in print is the poetry chapbook the rules of grammar will not save you at the hour of your death (with Roxanna Bennett, Baseline Press, 2024); his most imminent, the chapbook anthology of dramatic works for the stage and screen Human Voices Wake Us (with Taylor Marie Graham & P.F. Tego, Rose Garden Press, 2024). Heslop's non-fiction debut, a hometown discussion of Medical Assistance in Dying, is forthcoming from Gordon Hill Press in the Fall of 2025, with new works in film, vibrotactile sculpture, and print contracted to follow. He currently serves as Resident Interviewer with The Miramichi Reader and Parrot Art, Contributing Editor with Centred Magazine, Director with Changing Ways, and Extraliterary Liaison on behalf of six Canadian publishers to support the adaptation of their IP to the stage and screen.

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