Reality Hands published Dessa Bayrock’s poem “Birdfoot Is Found In Waste Places, Roadsides And Lawns” in Issue 20.
What’s the first piece of literature that you connected with?
I’ve always been a huge reader — I used to carry Alice in Wonderland around with me everywhere in grade one, like a safety blanket — and I don’t actually remember being unable to read or learning to read. It feels like it was always in me, intrinsic to my body the same way my brown eyes and freckles are intrinsic. Part of always having been a reader, too, is always having been a writer; my mom still has scraps in a box somewhere, where I would write these funny little stories as about animals who got into weird situations and could or couldn’t get out of them. We’re out of baking powder! mourns the alien cat. I fell out of the nest! cries Chester the chickadee. I’m trapped on the roof and there are no ladders! says Melissa the mouse. Weird little stories where I was already teaching myself that if these helpless creatures could reason their way out of trouble, so could I. There’s something Alice-in-Wonderland-esque about these narratives, too — strangeness that can be resolved through a change in perception. Problems can’t always be muscled through.
All this to say: I guess Alice in Wonderland was the first book that I imprinted on, but this was also a time in my life when I would read ANYTHING that someone put into my hands — so does it really count? I’m not sure. I also imprinted on Have Spacesuit Will Travel by Heinlein when I was twelve, and Tam Lin by Pamela Dean when I was fourteen, and Anna Karenina when I was seventeen. Are those more literature? Or less? It’s easy to become obsessed with something when you’re still figuring out who you are as a person, and that doesn’t necessarily mean those are objectively the best or most important works, but all of those books are inextricably a part of me nonetheless.
And all this aside — I apparently have a lot of thoughts on this — this question makes me think of when I was a teenager in my first year of university, with a laptop and a steady internet connection for the first time, and all this time between classes to waste time and discover all kinds of weird shit. Do you remember StumbleUpon? Is StumbleUpon still a thing? It was basically Google’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” function on steroids — you could click categories you were interested in, and it would land you at a page tagged as one of those categories, and you could tell the algorithm if this was a good match or a bad match, and slowly it would bring you more and more things it thought you would like. You could hop from page to page like flipping channels on a television set, and I found all kinds of strange and interesting things that way. Inexplicably, one of the categories in StumbleUpon was “poetry” — or maybe not inexplicably, since basically every millennial had a LiveJournal account for their emo poetry — and I stumbled into all kinds of new voices that way. Up until this point in my life, my experience in reading poetry was limited to my older sister’s lit textbooks, which she would buy for school and then leave in my bedroom when the semester was over. Which is to say: I read a lot of dead poets. I basically taught myself a survey course in the history of poetry by reading these textbooks front to back, and all of that poetry is still pigeonholed away in my brain somewhere. Coleridge, Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Stephen Crane, Pablo Neruda, William Carlos Williams. But most of these people were dead, and / or white, and / or men. So StumbleUpon gave me more of an education in living poets than poetry textbooks ever did. I remember landing on a page with Kayla Czaga’s “Poem for Jeff” and being shocked — just bowled over. Poets could write like this? It wasn’t just the swearing, although I was in love with its swear words, too, but also the frankness of it, the everyday beauty, the beauty in the everyday. Poetry didn’t just have to be momentous occasions or great pain, but just everyday frustration: The students reading / by the dim light of their textbooks are fucked. The couple / fucking on a kitchen table in a loft on 3rd Avenue is fucked. / The hipsters, plastered in wallpaper pants, blazing ambient / noises through hamburger headphones are fucked. Totally illuminating. It was like I could feel my skull expanding. Which is not to shit on Coleridge or Shelley, but I suddenly had this sense that poetry could be so much more, so much more alive. I think I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.
How do you structure your work? What’s that process like?
Almost all of my poems start from scraps I scribble in my notes app either on my computer or my phone — hurried little fragments that might be something or might be nothing. It’s almost like building a puzzle: a poem can come out of a single fragment, but sometimes I have moments of absolute clarity where I realize how two or three fragments could be connected, and those poems are the easiest to write. It feels a little like being Google Maps: I have two or three destinations plotted on a map, and I have to figure out the best way to get between them while accounting for traffic and construction and wanting to complete the journey in a reasonable amount of time and also wanting to take a detour to walk by the lilac bush I love. You know? Sometimes my drafts turn into these crazy journeys that take hours and go in circles, and then I know I need to cut out some of the stops and start again. It can take a while to come to that realization; there are some drafts on my computer that have seen five or six completely different iterations and still haven’t found the right shape. But sometimes I can figure it out right away, and everything lines up perfectly, like stars in a constellation.
Who’s an author who’s really underrated?
Marian Engel is an author I love who always gets a bad rap — a lot of people think of her just as that crazy Canadian who wrote a romance novel with a bear as a love interest, and leave it at that. The cover of the trashy paperback edition of Bear — I’m sure you’ve seen it, it’s a half-naked woman being embraced from behind by a bear, and she has this look of ecstasy on her face — does nothing to help. It comes up on Reddit every couple of years with a title like “Can you BELIEVE what AWARD-WINNING FICTION is like in CANADA??” and they quote the most salacious passages and have a good laugh and never actually read the whole book. But I’m basically a Bear evangelist at this point. I keep buying copies and lending them to as many people as possible, because yes it’s a novel about falling in love with a bear, but it’s also this amazing allegory that critiques what it means to have desire as a woman, especially written in a time when women were only really allowed to be desired, and not actually have desires themselves. It’s a feminist fable about what happens if you dare to choose something other than a man — whether that means yourself, or another woman, or a bear. What does that look like? How can you hide that from people who will use it to demonize you? Should you hide it? What kind of terror can be inspired by a woman who refuses to hide her desires? What happens when those desires are, in themselves, terrifying? It’s brilliantly written, and the other half of the plot is that this woman — an archivist — is shut up in a strange, remote house, trying to file and organize the personal library of a man who has died. The bear, chained in the yard, is somehow part of that archive, and she keeps finding scraps of papers and notes that seem to refer to the bear in this almost superstitious way. It’s so strange, and totally unsettling, and even though she feels endangered, she can’t stop trying to make sense of it. It’s brilliant. Reddit can suck it. There’s a reason why it won the Governor General’s award for fiction.
If you could have an interviewer ask you one question, what would it be? And what’s the answer?
“Why do all your poems seem to have this undercurrent of fear to them?”
First of all, how dare you, that’s a brilliant question. I really do think that if you sat down and tried to find a common theme in my poetry it would be a sense of fear and / or anxiety, like an underground river which threatens to undermine the structural integrity of the earth. I’m beginning to realize that I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life, although I’ve always mediated it in one way or another — by being meticulously organized, by keeping so busy that I never have a chance to sit still with my thoughts, by drinking too much or sleeping too much or having too much coffee. It’s something that I’m only coming to terms with now, even though for years — and I feel like this should have been a flag a long time ago — I’ve had extremely vivid dreams, almost every night, where I’m running away from something or being chased by something or skirting some kind of disaster. I wrote my MA thesis about apocalyptic fiction and THAT fodder turned into some real banging nightmares, let me tell you, and they lasted for years.
It’s hard not to let anxiety feed itself. I’m still figuring out if writing through anxiety is a way to help it dissipate it, or if it’s like intrusive thoughts where any kind of attention makes it immediately worse. But writing through anxiety is one of the best ways I know of making it feel less intense, at least for a little while. Even in poems that don’t seem anxious at first glance feel anxious to me — like the poem I have in Reality Hands, which is about flowers, but also about this impending sense of everything and everyone rushing towards something, or away from something, but just rushing, rushing, rushing, with no idea what that really means or whether it’s really necessary. Even hopeful poems, like “In this one” in IDK Magazine, where I try to reimagine a narrative of subjugation into something like creation — I’m looking forward to that world, but I’m still so, so aware of a pessimistic flip side. This world would be nice, yes, but what if we fail? Maybe we need that fear, that urgency, to try and get us to figure out how to save this earth and each other. Maybe poetry can be a part of that, even if it’s afraid. Even if I’m afraid. Which I am, constantly. But I’m working on making that feel okay.
Dessa Bayrock lives in Ottawa with two cats and a variety of succulents, one of which occasionally blooms. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Is Dead, Blank Spaces, and Funicular Magazine, among others. She is the proprietor of post ghost press. You can find her, or at least more about her, at dessabayrock.com, and at @yodessa on Twitter.