*Editor's note: This conversation between myself and Mr. Dust covered a lot of ground. I could cut it down, but I'd rather leave as much in as possible. Before we got to the meat, Eddie said to me, "I ain't one for leaving my skeletons in my closet… there are a fuckload of other males going through that same Hell. Maybe something we dig up between us can help." So this one will be posted in two parts. I've cut a little bit out, moved around a few paragraphs, but this is pretty much all of it.
E. Mersereau: So Eddie, you've performed remarkably well during your undergrad at UNB, but this is not your first degree. What's been different about this go around?
E. Dust: Jesus, what isn’t...?
The first time through, I really was just using university as a way of avoiding the so-called “real world”. Due to my undiagnosed bi-polar 2 and PTSD from an extremely abusive childhood (what a fucking combo…) I couldn’t much function outside of academia. But simultaneously due to my issues I couldn’t really effectively attend class. My grades were either As or Fs (due to incompletion). Took me 7 fucking years to get a 3 year general Arts degree.
This second time around I know what I want. I want my PhD in English. I want to be a writer - theatre, screenplays, poetry, short stories, novels, goddamned greeting cards and bathroom stall graffiti… to quote Lennon: “You give me a fucking tuba, I’ll get something out of it.” (NB: Lennon was a sleazy misogynist and I think he was a douchebag) I’m not here avoiding life; I’m here to hone my skills so I can better participate in life.
Partly I’m older (43), and that takes away a lot of pressures. Profs give me leeway they wouldn’t necessarily give a younger student. And I’m not intimidated by professors at all, which makes it very easy to get to know them as people. And no matter how stressful school gets, I’ve been through way, way worse.
All that said I nearly fucked the whole thing up. When my cat Monkey died last September (for a cat he was a klutz, hence the name) I totally fell apart. I missed almost two weeks of classes. Thankfully I out-and-out told my profs what was wrong. They gave me extensions, notes, whatever I needed. They directed me to counselling services at the University of New Brunswick and there I got my diagnoses and my lithium prescription. Two profs even offered to walk me there. Since then my moods have been much more stable.
Once the wreckage of my traitor brain got swept away, I was able to finally function for relatively long stretches of time. Once mountains now molehills, I suppose.
Think of it this way - let’s say you spent your whole life wearing heavy weights on your limbs. Then one day the weights come off. How fucking strong are you now that you are no longer held down?
Ultimately though, I have to say it’s because of the human connections I’ve made. The professors of the UNB English department are absolutely above and beyond. They saw to it I got the help I needed. The university made sure I was taken care of. The resources were available to me. And the friends that I made here accepted me for who I was (Aside: I really like Gen Z - they’re anxious as fuck, sure, and often socially awkward, but they have far more compassion and acceptance than any generation before them. Those I know are socially aware and political AF. They’re pessimistic but not cynical. That’s an impressive combo).
All that I had going for me is in truth a sign of unbelievable luck, when you think about it. Were I an American I’d probably have shot myself decades ago… makes the soul curdle to think of all those who don’t have access to the kind of compassion, understanding, and mental health resources I do, don’t it?
E. Mersereau: I'll tell you what though about Gen Z: I'm four years older than this year's grad class and even that difference really shows. The kids I grew up with- we were cynical. I had to learn this compassion thing from the people I met in uni. You're right though, they're a good bunch. They call BS and demand better in the places that count, and they accept someone's shit because they're dying to scream about their own.
You ever listen to A Perfect Circle? They did a cover album like 15 years ago with this funeral-march version of "Imagine" on track 2. I always thought it was a more honest take on Lennon.
E. Dust: I know A Perfect Circle well. I’ve been a fan of Maynard since Opiate. “Judith” and “3 Libras” are probably my favourite of APC. As for Tool, Jesus… probably “Prison Sex” is the song I come back to most, although “Bottom” and “4 Degrees” both hold a lot of love in my heart. There’s too much to choose from but mostly I like their angrier stuff. Someone described listening to Tool as falling down a rabbit hole and I have to agree. I met a guy who went to one of their concerts. I wanted to eat his eyes and ears in the hopes I might absorb what he saw and heard.
E. Mersereau: First time I really listened to Mer de Noms I was on the city bus for my morning commute. "Judith" hit and I immediately knew public was not the right place to hear that the first time because it was just so much and I had to keep everything I was feeling locked in. As much as I love that album, I'm more about Thirteenth Step. MJK does things with his mouth on that album (like the way he says "Dig into the" on "Weak and Powerless") that have stayed burned into me like a memory you can't lock. But it's the ambiance that I keep returning for.
Anyway, I get your weights analogy. I've had depression for a decade now and I finally got it squared away with the right drugs and people.
E. Dust: Depression is a total bitch. I liken bipolar, bipolar 2, and depression to heaven and Hell. When you’re bipolar 1, you go all the way into heaven, and all the way into Hell, though BP1 don’t spend much time in perdition compared to the others. They get to talk to god. Hallucinations are extremely common. Lots and lots of the homeless are bipolar 1. Bipolar 2, you get to visit the parking lot of heaven. You get to have a huge party like the parking lot at the Super Bowl. It’s fun times but you don’t see angels. You don’t get to go past the pearly gates, but you can still hear the music coming from within. You can see a little through the bars.
Depressives never get to see heaven. But you sure know Hell.
Bipolar 2s spend about 50% of our time with you, in Hell. We’re 15x more likely to kill ourselves than the general population. When you’re really, really depressed, you don’t even have the energy to die. When you’re both manic and depressed (called a mixed state) you have the energy, the drive, and the desire to kill yourself. So it’s very, very dangerous to be bipolar. Bipolar 1s have it the worst of us all, in truth - they go totally pie-in-the-sky manic and leave a trail of wreckage behind them - sexual promiscuity and extreme risk-taking is part of mania. And a depressive episode often follows the mania.
At least the mania is awesome.
I don’t envy you your depression. I go up and down like a motherfucker but I at least go way up. When you’re hypomanic, you’re Odysseus and Achilles combined.
While I don’t get those highs anymore, I still go higher than most people. And I still go low, but compared to the suicidal days, it’s a goddamned breeze. I don’t mind a winding road, so long as there’s rails. Plus I know it’ll end.
But depression eats you up. It’s pure exhaustion. It’s a feeding leech. And it doesn’t necessarily end this side of the shovel.
As a fun aside, the etymology of “happy” is telling. It comes from the word “hap” which means “lucky”. I don’t need to explain that, do I.
E. Mersereau: I'll give you a taste of a depressive's heaven: other people - the moments where you can totally share yourself with someone else. Not in a romantic or sexual sense - though those are fulfilling for their own reasons, some related - but a moment when you can be fully present with company, make them laugh, give yourself fully to what they're saying and doing without having to make an effort, without it being a heavy moment. Maybe just making a lousy meal together with the best intentions in the cabinet, or riffing back and forth on each other's nonsense. Being alone and not fucked up is bliss, but being with others like you've never been fucked up is heaven. Living, and being exhausted from it - emptied instead of empty: that's a depressive's heaven. Or at least it's mine, because it's in spite of condition but not absent from it; it requires a break from the isolation. The condition doesn't bring you into heaven like mania, but it makes even a sample euphoric. So no, you really don't need to explain "hap."
E. Dust: I definitely agree - it’s our interconnectedness that keeps life worth living. It’s isolation that leads to a broken soul. Life really is about other people. Sartre was only half-right when he said Hell is other people. So’s heaven. So’s everything.
Doesn’t that make “the pursuit of happiness” a dumb idea? You’re pursuing something only achievable by luck! Go for fulfillment. Happiness is only going to get you killed when you realize it doesn’t actually exist outside of the past. You can only have been happy.
E. Mersereau: As it turns out, yeah, I've just been thinking about the pursuit of happiness. I was seeing a counselling therapist to help clear some shit recently, and she told me on our first meeting, "So I don't usually suggest this but have you ever read any Slavoj Žižek?" I don't know if it was my unkempt beard or what, but I don't know what about me says "I bet that guy has read structural theory or could highly benefit from it." Anyway she sent me home with a prescription for Violence, The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, and some Youtube links including his 2-minute appeal to being interesting instead of happy. Factor in this root of luck in happiness and yes, I can definitely see happiness as something absurd.
E. Dust: I’ll check out Slavoj Žižek - I’m always looking for something to read.
I don’t think I’ve ever been happy. But I’ve certainly felt fulfilled, and that beats even bliss any day.
In my rarely humbly expressed opinion - whatever your current or past goals, pursuing them solely for the hope of happiness I think has dangerous potential to totally blow up in your face. You might achieve your goals and find you’re no happier. God knows I’ve found that out the hard way, over and over and over some more.
Look at all the famous people who still kill themselves. Heath Ledger was at the absolute pinnacle of his career. Famous beyond understanding. Handsome, talented, beloved.
Still killed himself.
There’s things our society has either failed or refused to acknowledge - that materialism and ladder climbing is an unfulfilling, Sisyphean existence. That the zero-sum game is a pile of divisive, hateful bullshit. That our society is a hoarder’s society. You look at stores overflowing with perishable merchandise… you look at how much we throw out… you look at the depression and anxiety rates, which are soaring even as life gets supposedly better with every passing decade, even in the face of constant growth… it's like some malignant tumor of which we’ve grown fond… and all of this nonsense is predicated on the idea that that sweet, sexy jacket coming out this fall is going to make you happy or act as a lure to snag a bit of happiness on your hook.
And it’s all horse shit.
Although it is a really nice jacket...
We’re definitely missing some kind of soul work. Religion just isn’t doing it anymore - too many questions, too many unanswered, too little evidence, too many monsters locked up in priestly frocks instead of prison cells. There’s some nebulous amalgamation of one’s thoughts and beliefs and experiences I think of as a soul - the essence of a person so to speak. That thing, whatever it is, needs exploration and we have no trustworthy guides. Where’s a reliable psychopomp, for fuck’s sake! Where’s my boatman Charon?!
There isn’t one. No one knows what the fuck they’re doing and no god is out there looking after us from above. Alan Moore put it best: “The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Illuminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory. The truth is far more frightening - Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.” Conspiracy theorists and the religious - same thing. Both invent these preposterous hierarchies to give some meaning to a meaningless existence. What’s the difference between The Illuminati running the world and an all-powerful god fighting a hidden war against his own treacherous angels with human souls as the ultimate prize? The Illuminati makes slightly more sense.
I do want to point out that I think Jesus is a pretty badass character - like Superman with a humbler skillset. And if a person said they wanted to act like Jesus, not because they believed in a heaven whose property you purchase via good deeds, but because Jesus was a good guy and had a lot of good ideas. I’d support that any day. An atheist christian, basically. Then you could actually apply logic to the Bible. “If Jesus said love, charity, acceptance, and compassion, then the whole of Leviticus should probably be completely ignored.” An eyes-wide-open christian. I’d have a lot of respect for such a person. But it seems more tribal than anything to me, religion.
But I have no great wisdom to offer. When it comes to wisdom I’m my own refutation. There’s no book I can recommend, no self-help guru I trust or respect. I’m just as lost as everyone else.
All I can say with certitude is what Blue Rodeo sang better: “And if we’re lost / then we are lost together”. Pretty sure that fulfills our Canadian content quota.
E. Mersereau: It's all CanCon all the time on this website; the CRTC ain't got shit on us. We've more than earned a few international hits, but my mom will really appreciate the Blue Rodeo - that's her favorite band.
How'd you figure out you wanted a PhD? That's not a decision someone just kinda comes to, is it?
E. Dust: I dunno. I guess I know that I can’t get by in the real world. I ain’t a muggle, which means I have a choice between art and academia. The PhD covers all bases. Plus UNB now offers an expedited PhD program for Creative Writing. I’ve got the grades and am working on the accolades to qualify.
It’s a funny balance, though. Think of it this way: an artist requires celebrity and an academic requires reputation. One gains celebrity by doing shit like this - honest, uncultivated interviews, risk-taking… you rip out your heart and hold it high before the world. Anything less than the risk of death and you’ll wither beneath livelier vines. One gains reputation by NOT doing shit this way, but rather through careful, articulate responses and deliberate, well-considered academic contributions. One does not rock the boat; one reinforces it.
When you’re sloppy and let’s say emotionally clumsy as I am, celebrity is the easier of the two. It’s a quandary. Thankfully academia is something of its own solution - eccentricity, so long as it’s harmless and great to talk about at parties, is an asset. No one wants a writer in residence who’s boring, nor do they want one who is going to be featured in the Opinions section of the Washington Post. Unless it’s as an article. And it’s well received.
E. Mersereau: What are these other accolades you're working on?
E. Dust: For my own trajectory, the Direct Entry PhD program at UNB allows you to skip the master’s and go straight to the PhD. It requires a 4.0 minimum GPA and basically whatever else you can show that makes you competitive - for me that’s trying to win awards for my work. So far I’ve got the marks and I've won the Angela Auden Levine Memorial Book Award - it’s a UNB-specific creativity award. I think I won it due to a TV pilot I wrote, "Crisis, Inc." I’m hoping to pitch the series to Netflix or Amazon Prime, but getting access to someone to pitch to is a miserable ordeal. There’s too much competition for too little attention.
I think all writers need to more seriously consider working in TV format. The visual mediums have always been the most popular - Shakespeare wrote mainly plays, after all, and those are what people return to most. While there’s no real room for creativity in movies right now (at least in Hollywood - there are amazing things being done overseas), there’s loads of room for really interesting premises in Netflix and Amazon. It’s also a good paycheque if you can get steady work. While poetry is my passion at present (as is, apparently, alliteration), it don't earn squat. It’s the interpretive jazz bar you keep losing money on, but you fucking love interpretive jazz for some disturbed and hermetic reason so you work three jobs just to keep the joint alive.
E. Mersereau: You've said of your writing that you want your readers "to weep like Alexander," and for professors to teach your poems. Now that comes from a context of something like you've died and there will never be another Eddie Dust release, but I'm wondering what it is specifically you want to leave people with. Is this a general goal for your writing career, or is there a thing - a message, an arc, a realization of subtext, a destructive climax, a moment, etc. - that you want to drop on a reader?
E. Dust: That’s a complicated question.
I don’t have a specific agenda except to create. I want to wear both masks, so to speak. Comedy, tragedy, action, introspection, surrealism, I’ll try anything. I’m no guru and I’m not an advocate. I’m just a writer. I love wordplay and I love the variety and precision of English. It can be either beautiful or blunt or biblical. I think too few poets care about alliteration and rhyme. That shit can be devastating. I am always drawn to “Carrion Comfort” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s an overflowing sink of alliteration and sound work. All that said I don’t want to churn out a bunch of forgettable bullshit that is popular in the moment.
If anyone remembers me, I want them to be inspired by me and not repulsed by me.
I guess if I had to push some kind of agenda it would be that there are many ways to be a polar man [I refuse the term “cis” - it sounds like cyst, and seriously, fuck that. Heteronormative is a goddamned mouthful. I like polar - it accepts the idea that sexuality is a spectrum and not an X or Y statement and is pretty clear that I mean heterosexual without being disparaging (I don’t like “straight” because the opposite is “crooked”, for example) I will say that I’m willing to hear any arguments one way or another - people forget that English is a living language and that these debates over what words to use are signs of a healthy and vibrant language].
Hemingway isn’t the only way to be tough, nor is he the best interpretation of the strong, stoic male. I think a lot of young men and boys are desperate for a healthy, masculine role model. I don’t imagine myself anyone’s role model, holy shit, no! But I’d like to be able to at least offer the world an alternative form of tough guy - something that doesn’t involve misogyny or destruction or conquest. Yes I’m big, I’m bald, I’m tough, and I’m scarred. But I also raise orchids and write love poems.
Consider Hugh Jackman. He was Wolverine. But he also sang musical numbers. That’s a much more versatile way of being a tough guy than has been allowed in the past. I want to expand on that with my own interpretation of healthy masculinity.
Assuming I’m healthy.
And you know what they say about ”assume"...
Continued in Part 2
EM: Charlotte, we have an advantage that I don't have with the other poets I'm speaking with in that you and I have gone to the same university. However, we're not from the same place. Tell me about Cape Breton.
CS: I assume you’re referring to the opening line in my presentation. I had elected to open with a joke, and I was quite proud of that one. There’s something admirable about subverted humour, but I digress.
I’m from the first town that one would arrive at after getting to the island, Port Hawkesbury; a small, simplistic, and supremely unremarkable location. Both of my parents grew up on the island, and they had decided to move there when I was around nine years old. My parents separated when I was thirteen, right around the time the local paper mill shut down, which was more or less the source of the town’s economy. My father had to move away for work. I was lucky enough to be raised by a wondrous mother, and I found a great group of friends as well.
My homeland is a popular target for romanticization, and it isn’t that hard to see why. I was never more than five minutes from a beach or a picturesque cliffside, and the musical culture of Cape Breton is nothing to shake a stick at; I shudder to imagine a world where I didn’t grow up listening to the Rankin Family.
And yet, my homeland wasn’t very special to me at all. I reckon this is a common theme when many of us talk about our hometowns; we become disenchanted with a location as locals, even if we enjoy living there. I think while my memories of home feel a bit bland, I’m thankful that I started small, because now I have so many more opportunities to be wowed by the ways of the “big city.” I found such joy in Fredericton, and I’m sure I’ll find even more when I move to Halifax.
EM: So you too are planning a move to Halifax? I've just been speaking with Heather Clark from the Original Poetry panel, and she's decided to make that her home after university.
CS: I'm not quite sure when it will happen. I anticipate it will be a couple years from now; I still have much left to do in Fredericton.
EM: What's drawn you there?
CS: Moving to an even bigger city is supremely appealing to me; more things to do, more things to see. My mother still lives in Cape Breton with my brother. Once he finishes his first year of college he'll be moving out, and my mother plans on selling the house and moving to Halifax after that happens. I want to go live with her and learn more about the woman who made me into the one I am today, and have some long-term mother-daughter time that we were never able to have while I was growing up.
EM: Your mother figures into your prose poem "Killing Myself Is A Bad Idea And I Can Prove It Mathematically." That poem deals in so many things: unmasking political bias in numbers and statistics, luck, reincarnation, gender dysphoria. It's loaded with suspense, but then near the end your mother shows up. You speak of her in terms of a lifelong educator. You must value her deeply.
CS: My mother is the most important person in the world to me. She taught me gratitude, how to speak my truth quietly and clearly, and to not look at life so seriously. I couldn't be happier to be following in her footsteps.
She's also been crucial in the more inaccessible parts of my transition. I wouldn't be on hormones if not for her presence; this time last year, I had given up all hope in the face of gatekeeping, but she spoke up for me when I couldn't, and now I'm one year on estrogen. She also paid for my laser sessions, without which I probably wouldn't be able to go outside without having a meltdown. So she's quite literally been the biggest reason that I've become the woman I am today.
It was important to me that she featured in that poem because she is one of my many reasons to continue living. Her presence plays nicely into the statistical portion of the poem. If I were to be reborn, there is a 100% chance that I would not have the mother I have right now, and the thought of growing up under a different mother genuinely frightens me. Not to say that other mothers are bad, of course, but I have my doubts that I would be able to replicate the person I've grown into if I had been raised by someone else. What's more, I could never put my mother through that sort of thing. As someone who has lost friends to suicide, I know the feeling all too well.
EM: So reincarnation is not just a theme for that section, but a part of your faith?
CS: I wouldn't say it's part of my faith. My mom raised us without religion, a choice I'm quite grateful for. She, however, is a very spiritual person, and I sort of just picked that up. Thus, the only thing I firmly believe is that there is something out there greater than us, but I don't attribute that to any particular entity or subsequent teachings. Even if I hadn't picked up such spirituality from my mother, I think it would be hard for me to believe otherwise; I remember crying before going to sleep one day, wishing I could see my friend who had taken his life a few months earlier, only to see him in a dream that same night. When you experience so many of those occurrences, you find it hard to not believe that there's a greater power than us.
I don't quite believe it, but I also don't rule reincarnation out. The idea has been with me for quite a while, and I use it to rationalize the age-old question of why the good die young. I have this idea that we're put on Earth to do a certain amount of good and/or become such a person that is a source of goodness, after which we'd be taken off the planet and get access to paradise or eternity, whatever that may be. Reincarnation, to me, was the way that our souls could continue doing good on Earth; if we didn't do enough in one life, we could continue in another, and another if we still didn't reach that goodness threshold, and so on. I rationalized that the good die young because they just needed a tiny bit of extra time to reach their goodness threshold, evidenced by the fact that they were good. If they only needed a little bit of time to reach that threshold, it stood to reason that they would be young in that life when they reached it, and it was no longer necessary for them to continue on Earth.
Nowadays, I humbly accept that we just don't know anything about what happens, and I think this is why humans fear death so much; we've no greater fear than the unknown. I suppose the presence of reincarnation in my poem is more of a what-if; a factor that may or may not be true, but one that I accept for the purposes of the calculations. I felt that this essence paired particularly well with the statistical nature of the poem.
EM: You alluded to your project's structure during your presentation, but I never quite got the scope. Could you tell me more about the sections you've organized your book into?
CS: I was aiming for a rough anthology of the human experience. The chapbook takes a look at the things we experience in life; the beauty we find in other people, the ugliness we find in other people, the inevitability of death, the regrets we carry with us, all the rest of it. A few sections are less widespread.
"In The Eye Of The Beholder" honours the people we love, or the people we may have loved in another life. These [poems] are for those people who, in one way or another, enchant our world.
"On Toxicity," quite blatantly, deals with the opposite. I wanted to bring that which harms us the most stealthily to light. The more exemplary poem for that goal was "The Weight Of Joy," which deals with toxic positivity.
"The War On Dopamine" unpacks the fear that come with emotion. My goal was to sort of personify anxiety, of which I was experiencing quite a bit during the time of writing. It was also important that the source of these fears were attached to another person; the fears of the less recognizable will come in a further draft.
"On Nature" is sort of a grabbag of all these things rolled into three poems with nature imagery. I was reluctant to deviate too much from the overall feel of the chapbook, but I don't think we should forget about the world that our experiences take place in either.
"Life As We Don't Know It" is a snapshot into a few theories I've had of the afterlife, in which the spirits of our loved ones still very much have a role in this world.
"On Blessings" deals with gratitude. The first two poems are more traditional, if I could even call them that, but the third one in this section is much different. My formula for this poem involved making a playlist of all my favourite songs, listening to each one, and writing down the first image I formed in my head while listening to it. I wound up with some delightfully quirky imagery, and perhaps readers may recognize their own chuckle as a form of gratitude.
"A Glass Of Wine With The Reaper" aims to be completely unapologetic about the reality of death. "Killing Myself Is A Bad Idea And I Can Prove It Mathematically" does this by toying with the idea of suicide, and eventually decides against it using something as detached, for lack of a better word, as statistics.
"On Regrets," also quite blatantly, deals with the regrets that we carry with us for however long, depending on the person, such as things we have said that may have destroyed an otherwise beautiful friendship, or wishing for even just a moment that you had breast cancer.
Finally, "To Honour An Old Friend" is about friends that we have lost. The visuals in "Vigil" represent the dialogue that the living and deceased may have in a dream.
EM: This book was also your senior project, right?
CS: It was my senior project, yes. I actually plan on auditing the course this coming school year to continue having that outlet to work on it.
EM: Did you start working on it in January or has this been in the works for a while?
CS: A bit of both. At least one poem in each of these sections was already drafted when I began working on the chapbook, and I used them as a starting point for what I wanted the section to capture.
EM: You and I both graduated from STU this year; since you're coming back, are you planning on doing a Certificate of Honours Standing, or are you just back to workshop your poetry more?
CS: I'm going back exclusively to work on this chapbook; I'll be auditing the Independent Project class with Andrew Titus, and nothing else. I'm not sure if an Honours certificate is something I want to do or not, because I think I do want to go to grad school at some point, and some people have told me that you need Honours for that, while others have said you don't, so I'm really not sure.
EM: I think it depends on the program you want to get into. If you're going back just for this though, what is it you can get from the class that you couldn't get from just sending new work to some trusted readers?
CS: Well, it's not to say that I wouldn't send my work out to fellow readers/writers in my area, in fact I'll probably also do that alongside this course. But I think the class offers a sort of formal, organized structure for this exact task. I think having that one group dedicated to improving this project, not to mention having it being led by Andrew Titus, would be a supreme asset to its improvement.
EM: No arguments there. I think I know someone who'll be joining that class as an Independent Study so they can complete their "Minor in Titus."
CS: Ah yes, I know exactly who you're referring to; they have also said that same thing to me.
EM: Was poetry or creative writing in general something you did before university, or was that something you took to once you got to STU?
CS: The first memory I have of engaging with creative writing was around middle school where I joined a wiki called Fantendo; the articles on this wiki were all fan-made video games and characters. I had to stop spending so much time on the website once I got to high school because I had been struggling with math, but I didn't ever really stop writing.
I credit my Grade 9 English teacher, Mrs. Morgan, for my interest in English. She read all of my papers and creative writing assignments, and I remember during a parent-teacher conference, she told my mother "Charlotte has a talent that cannot be taught." Needless to say, that was an incredible motivator. I dabbled in spoofing "Twas The Night Before Christmas" into a track team motivation poem as well as a grad variety show piece, but beyond that I never really ended up running away with it before university.
During my second year I started noticing how much I loathed my journalism classes and how much I loved my English classes. It wasn't until I took the creative writing course with Kathy Mac that I discovered a knack for poetry. I had no idea what drew me to it, and I'm still admittedly a bit blurry. My best guess is the freedom that it could give me; compared to prose or scripts, poetry let me do all kinds of crazy and stupid things with not only the form and the structure, but with the kinds of phrases and words I could use as well. I don't anticipate a short story could have a title like "Introspections From A Wannabe Bohemian Who Doesn't Deserve The Shit She's About To Go Through."
Nowadays I do a bit of everything; I've created so many worlds in my head that I want to turn into a book or book series. I have two scripts on the go, one of which I plan on submitting to NotaBle Acts next summer, and of course, my prized possession, my poetry chapbook.
EM: I'm fascinated with the range of tools and structures we have for telling stories. I'm curious, what pushed you away from journalism?
CS: I wasn't fond of how journalism courses tended to be structured at STU. I found they had a very "trial-and-error" structure, by which I mean we would write/shoot our first assignment with little to no instruction, we likely got bad marks on them as a result, and we used those mistakes as reminders on how to improve the assignments the next time around. That first assignment still went on our transcripts. That coupled with a few professors I didn't gel very well with made me fairly unimpressed with the program. I made some absolutely wonderful friends in those classes, so I don't regret taking them, but journalism just wasn't for me. I prefer to be in charge of my own writing, too.
EM: The way you've told your story in this discussion sounds like you've had your journey; like, you've made it through the other side of something really hard — made it through the epilogue and now we're at the back cover. That's not meant to be a call out or anything because I've definitely spoken in similar terms before.
CS: Truthfully, many of the things I speak about in the chapbook aren't in the past: dysphoria, fascinations with humans and death, and social/intimate frustration are still very real parts of my life. So I wouldn't quite say that that particular journey is over yet. That being said, I think it's of utmost importance to be able to look at these sorts of things with a sort of introspective, borderline-objective viewpoint, especially if you identify with them. My personal definition of intelligence is one's ability to distinguish between what they feel, what they think, what they understand, and what they believe, all while not being dismissive of the power and importance of what they feel.
EM: You've graduated from STU, you're working on this chapbook, you're thinking about grad school, and you want to move close to your mom. I think we've got a good sense of what's next for you, but I'm wondering what's happening now. What do the present and near future look like for you?
CS: Right now, I think I'm going to try and be as gentle with my life as I can. I'm getting a new apartment and will be finding work here in [Fredericton]. I think I'm going to take my time and do some reading, writing, and other leisurely, introverted activities while I wait for my surgery referral, after which I think my life as I know it will feel somewhat complete.
EM: I'd really love to get a recommendation from everyone I speak with. What should I run out and get right now?
CS: As an avid gamer I have three recommendations. The first isn't a video game, but a Netflix series called Tales of the City. It's rather difficult to explain the plot, but never in my life have I experienced a show that made me feel so visible. In a nutshell, it's stories about a group of predominantly-queer people who all live in an apartment building in San Francisco. Its representation is near flawless, it's sex-positive to a point where it's matter-of-fact, and on top of all the feel-good vibes it gives off, it reminds us just how much these alternative lifestyles had to and continue to be fought for. It also gets bonus points from me for casting Ellen Page as a lead.
I am not a fan of turn-based role-playing games for the most part. But there's not a single element in Persona 5 that doesn't have an alluring aura to it; the music is fantastic, the story has me enchanted, and the gameplay is sort of an RPG/Social Simulator/Dungeon Crawler, so it's a refreshing spin on genre. I'll toss in a bonus recommendation for Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap, which is an old game from the SNES era, but was recently remastered on the Switch. I'm extremely critical of video games, but Wonder Boy is an absolute masterpiece that was far ahead of its time.
EM: Japanese role-playing games are something I've been meaning to get more into for the last little while — never had the patience for them when I was a kid. I've heard nothing but good things for Persona 5. The Dragon's Trap, though, is something that's been on my radar for a while, and is much more my speed. And I'll defiinitely queue-up Tales of the City once I'm through with Neon Genesis Evangelion. Thank you so much.
Just one more thing, though: why with the two Is in Riiality?
CS: To quote Sheldon Cooper: "What's life without whimsy?"
Author's publications in The East: http://www.theeastmag.com/author/charlotte-simmons/
I thought about you while
eating lunch today.
Not to say you look like
a messy home-made pizza that
required two spatulas to
fish out of the toaster
oven, but then again,
it made me warm inside.
I wonder how you’re doing,
if you’ve been telling the
world to talk to the hand or
if the world has been gnawing
it off. I know it can be hard
to tell the difference.
I’m curious to know what’s
touched your eyes and ears
and how many of those things
have touched your heart since
we last spoke. Your stories are
the lemon kick in your voice of honey,
steeped in sugar reminding
me you understand.
I thought about you because
my drinks haven’t been very
warm this week. I’ve had apple
juice that serves to convince
my tongue that my lunch isn’t
too hot, and water that keeps
me alive, however unsatisfying.
I guess what I’m trying to say is,
thank you for saving me a seat
Used with permission of the author.
So we had our New Brunswick Book Awards back in May, and the winner of the poetry prize was Jenna Lyn Albert for her collection Bec & Call. I knew that at some point I would have to read it. She's Fredericton's poet laureate, and she also hosted an open mic event at The Abbey restaurant in downtown Fredericton for the Annual Atlantic Undergraduate English Conference. I didn't need to have my arm stretched to read her book, but it definitely seems like the right thing to do considering, well, everything about my job.
I, uh, I gotta say though, I wasn't prepared for this book. It's quite a lot. It's candid, and funny at times, shocking at others, and direct. I really enjoyed it. But that wasn't what struck me the hardest about it. No, it was that I lived and grew up in one of the settings she uses.
Her poem "Unnamed" (pp. 84-85) takes place on Albert Street and Connaught Street in Fredericton. I moved into a house on Albert Street with my family when I was six years old. We moved out when I was 16. I'm not gonna go into full detail about my childhood there but it was a welcoming neighborhood. Our next door neighbours would look after kids after school while their parents were at work, and they let us play in their backyard whenever we wanted. Their daughters used to babysit my me and my brothers. Our own backyard bordered a right-of-way with a lot of trees, and connected us with another closeby neighborhood, including a particular childhood friend. I had a paper route there, and I took it over from a kid who lived a few doors down from mine, and whose family was good friends with my mine. Actually a lot of people around there knew my mom and dad. And if all this weren't enough of a weird connection to Albert's poem, I was a French Immersion student at Connaught Street Elementary School. I also went to Albert Street Middle School, which is now a YMCA.
Why am I telling you this? Because I'm actually working on a critical analysis of that poem. I don't know if it'll go up - I might be the managing editor but I'm not all-powerful - but in case it does, I needed to clear the air a bit. The poem uses that location to do certain things, and I'm gonna talk about those things on that level. They don't paint the street in a good light, but there's a reason for it. Or rather, it paints a kind of sinister idealness for a highly Anglicized town like Fredericton and the effect that has on Francophones. I really, really love this poem, especially the framing device it uses. And I'm absolutely going to discuss these things more fully in the analysis. But I also loved living on Albert Street, and I couldn't just talk about it in the poem's terms.
- Evan Mersereau
EM: So Heather, the first thing I'd like to ask you about is your eclectic background. You've split your time between Charlottetown for school and summers writing in Montreal, and now you're living in Halifax. Are you from PEI originally?
HC: I am originally from Charlottetown, PEI. I started visiting Montreal with my family for Habs games, and now I go with my boyfriend because of our shared admiration of the culture. I’m fond of the cemetery where [Leonard] Cohen is buried. The last time I went was in February, and some wine and a rose was bundled into the snow at his grave. It’s exciting to share the same city as him, to drive around and be exposed to the same inspirations.
Halifax is equally as artistically inspiring, if not more. People cherish the Public Gardens like they do Central Park. I’m working on turning my apartment into a live-in greenhouse so I never have to part with the oasis green. The city did a great job of balancing heartland and hinterland here. There’re hundreds of thousands of trees in the municipality. It’s odd that their beauty is so preserved, as I recently read about an arborist who found a tree with bits of metal shards in its core — he suspects from the Halifax Explosion. History embeds.
PEI is picturesque in the spring and summer, but in the winter it can be isolating. Thankfully, as a poet, changes in scenery really aid the creative process. Atlantic Canada is great if you want to experience both the city and the dune, thanks to places like Halifax and PEI.
EM: It sounds like you're quite taken by Halifax. I've never heard it described in such terms, and never had a chance to admire it up close. You should see about getting with their tourism board because now I really want to plan a visit! If les Habs were what drew you to Montreal, what first brought you to Halifax?
HC: My boyfriend and I wanted a bigger piece of the world. We figured Halifax was the next step in our life and careers. We loosely plan on moving to Montreal next. I love the night life there, a two-story club with a gallery feels like an anomaly. There’s no clubs on PEI, just bars, so it didn’t take long for me to retire from that gritty circuit. In Montreal you can sit barelegged on the town house staircases after a night out, or buzz around the Metro to get to the next party. It’ll probably be winter but I’ll still be in lace-up heels if there’s something going on in the neighbourhood.
EM: You're definitely not the first Islander I've met who's told me about the bar scene there. Did you ever get a chance to see Cohen live?
HC: I’ve never seen Cohen, sadly. I feel fortunate enough to have seen some legends in New York though, at Crossroads in 2013. I saw the Allman Brothers two nights in a row at the Garden too. I don’t know why I haven’t written about those times yet. But seeing someone like Keith Richards come out as a surprise alongside Clapton is otherworldly. I’m just a little Islander — I’m not supposed to see these giants!
EM: A chance to see Clapton! I'm a little jealous. I had a whole phase of listening to him and his contemporaries. Those sound like some great shows.
HC: I’ve had one too many phases. Classic rock phase I do not regret.
EM: Since you've now relocated, and with future plans to relocate some more, does that mean you've finished your studies at UPEI?
HC: I’m still attending, just finishing off a few more electives. I’m taking online philosophy and religious studies courses over the summer and then fall will be my final semester. The best part of being an English major is that literature seems to encompass everything: psychology, philosophy, politics, religion, culture, nature, and so on. My academic career has been so fulfilling. I never want to stop learning.
EM: I agree, being an English major has been so helpful everywhere else. Are you part of a creative writing program of any kind, or has your writing developed separately from your English program?
HC: I have taken two creative writing courses at UPEI, one with David Hickey and one with Richard Lemm. Both professors have been extremely supportive and offered great advice. My writing needed a lot of work when I first took the course with David. I needed to learn the strength of concrete images. After I finished the semester with Lemm, I realized that creative writing courses are truly assets. The key is to accept other people’s opinions instead of taking them personally. You don’t necessarily have to follow everyone’s advice, but you do need to learn to sort through the good and bad reviews.
My issue is that nearly everything I write is confessional. Try taking a course with your ex, whilst writing about your ex and all your vulnerabilities. That was the most difficult course I’ve ever had to take. People in class are often rendered silent after I finish reading because my words hang heavy in the air. They feel the emotion behind each poem, but they can’t always understand what I’m saying. It’s a balance between giving what the reader needs and keeping what doesn’t need to be said. Throw the reader a line every now and then.
For now, I would rather join a public writing group, something with less pressure and emphasis on grading. I never loved the vibes in the classroom. People are much friendlier at home when listening and giving advice. I was a part of a group before I left for Halifax! I miss them. Looking for my own community here.
EM: Were you writing much before university?
HC: I wrote my first poem in grade 11. It was like crossing the bridge to Terabithia every day after school: I would come home, put on The Tudors or Pirates of the Caribbean as background music and possible inspiration, and then I would scribble out all my angsty high school thoughts. I was elated that I had all these words at my fingertips, words I hadn’t used in this way before. I was inspired to write poetry from my friend Uma Doucette. She had a Tumblr writing blog at the time, and I was awe-struck at her imagery and turns of phrases. I distinctly remember thinking that I could write like that, like being a poet was instinctual. And I felt jealous I wasn’t a part of this very exclusive world! So I’ve never stopped writing since — though I am a fan of taking spiteful hiatuses after the pressures of creative writing courses suck out the life of being a poet. Writing on demand isn’t really my thing. I write best alone at night.
EM: How did you hear about the AAUEC?
HC: Richard Lemm invited me on behalf of the English Department to be the UPEI creative writing presenter alongside another student. I was hesitant to accept due to my anxiety and the busy semester I was in, but I’m so glad I did it in the end. Because it was my first undergrad conference, I’m thankful for the advice Richard gave me in regards to which poems I should select. He told me, first, choose poems you would like to read. Then, think about your audience. Finally, consider what poems might work better out loud. I kept all of these things in mind when I prepared. My boyfriend had to listen to my entire speech about six times.
EM: Your set was hung from a quote from Jenny Xie's poem "Inwardly" from her book Eye Level: "We have language for what is within reach / but not the mutable form behind it" (53). Were your poems already gathered in some way for you?
HC: Most were written in Richard’s class I believe, which was last fall. Some were started in the summer preceding it. I noticed looking over my course portfolio that loss is a common thread. I hope they don’t come across as “woe is me.” They’re just reflections.
EM: Oh no, not at all. I think anyone who's ever had to read that kind of self-importance can tell the difference between your work and "woe is me" writing. I'll freely admit to writing "woe is me" stories in the past; they aren't good, and they aren't speaking to anything beyond their immediate circumstance.
HC: That’s reassuring, thank you!
EM: How did you find Eye Level?
HC: I kept seeing Jenny Xie around Tumblr. It’s a great place to be if you’re looking for someone new to read. And I’m eager to support fellow writers, especially poets that are writing in the here and now. People like Rupi [Kaur] have played a substantial role in reviving the genre as well. I’m studying her business model. Needless to say my social media is in the works.
EM: What is the social media-based approach to poetry?
HC: At it’s core, an amalgamation of two communicative mediums, the artistic and digital. I realized that with the growing dependence of digital technology, platforms like Tumblr and Instagram are redefining publishing. Not everything must be published in print to gain an audience now. I see Instagram as a channel of organic publishing. You can build and maintain a following from the comfort of your living room. That’s not to say that basing your work on social media is easy. It’s a talent, a new rhetoric, checking analytics, making the explore page, staying current and original, posting regularly, remaining politically correct to avoid “cancel culture” — it’s living and breathing to curate.
EM: I'm afraid to say I don't know much about it, and I only kind of know Kaur by her reputation for using the internet to gather a following for her work. Friends have teased me about how entire movements and eras come and go on the internet and I'm oblivious to all of them. I'd say I'm an old soul but I'm only 26 and I'm not doing it on purpose — I'm just not where they are, I guess.
HC: Sadly it’s not taken seriously by everyone in the literary world. And some say that it’s becoming — or already is — a saturated market. On her website, Rupi writes about how a creative writing professor once told her that it would be too difficult to get published. I’m 22, so social media is second nature. I’m not going to judge how other people choose to market their work. I’m branding myself and it’s not so soul-effacing as it seems! Poets need to make a living too.
I managed to stave off websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for several years now. You won’t find me anywhere because it’s better for my mental health that way. When my Insta-poet status is engaged it might be hard to avoid getting sucked back into the abyss, into negative self-critical thinking. But it’s worth the shot. I still see print publishing as the goal, but that doesn’t mean that Instagram is an unworthy comparison.
EM: Does this choice of platform alter or shape the content of your poetry?
HC: So far, not at all. I’m currently curating poems that I wrote before I started Instagram. I make digital graphics out of my work. Often I will take two or three lines from my longer poems so that it’s quicker to read. The length of my poems are too long for Instagram dimensions anyways. To counter this I include a link in my captions to the full version.
I’m confident this platform won’t alter the way I write. I’ll be striving for interesting phrases, vivid imagery, and new manners of expressing thoughts with or without Instagram. If anything, it’ll make me write more, which can only improve my poetry.
EM: Something that struck me while reading your work is that you seem to reconcile the personal with the observational. I'm thinking particularly of "For Palestine," but more generally each poem really draws out a different kind of nature — more like a normal, if that makes any sense. I get the sense of each person's life as part of something greater, from direct imagery of the heart rising in place of the sun in "Polished Silver" to the subtext-made-text of societal pressure in "Lacuna." Am I getting close to that "mutable form behind" you're speaking to?
HC: That's a neat way to think about it. When I reference "Inwardly," I take it as Jenny's way of communicating the incommunicable. Think about what is given to the mind directly by experience, like hearing water drip from the faucet, feeling the hairs on your arm shift when there's a slight breeze, or loving the emollient qualities of a new night cream. Some of these experiences may not be transferred fluidly from the initial impression to the communicated idea. I believe that poets try to defy the notion that sometimes there are no words. When I try to pen loss, there are so many inexpressible feelings. That's what writing is for me these days, more inexpression than expression.
EM: Heather it's been so thrilling to have this opportunity to speak with you. Part of what I loved most about doing my undergrad was getting to read books I'd never otherwise touch. So if you had to recommend something to me right now, what would it be?
HC: It’s been a pleasure. The first thing that came to my mind was Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. I give so many copies away I never have one for myself.
EM: I'm the same way with Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind.
Xie, Jenny. Eye Level. Graywolf Press, 2018, p. 53.
and for Afifi, my friend
Some are quietly devastated,
voices once melodic now low and impersonal.
Our people ask where to draw the border
and how to kernal resistance
heedless of firing squads.
the woman is homeland, ever-green.
Ephemeral are storms and ousted sons.
She was Palestinian,
and she is still so.
She is certain, though youth blinks in a dark cell,
that her memory may be carved
on the unblasted olive tree.
She names it the poetry of testimony
and begins to wholly reflect:
once there was a time beyond erasure from a map,
beyond the recess of laughter
and the last prison-visit by a returning cloud,
the wind beckoning to desert her as well.
Her land was put to music
with hope not yet hectored from the cheeks of children.
A time before exilic cries fattened the night,
mellowing into persecuted canticles at dawn.
In time, liberty will sail with the silver-bladed sun
and rise from the mudflats of rivers,
stamping the region of dispossession and defeat,
shaking shame, quieting crow-pecked eyes
returning God and gardenia,
Used with permission of the author.
Good evening, everyone
Starting this week, I'll be posting new interviews with the poets who came to Fredericton last March to present their poetry for the Annual Atlantic Undergraduate English Conference. Keep an eye on this blog every Friday for the next few weeks.
Something that I loved about doing this is getting to know not just more about the people and their work, but also what they're reading and what inspired them. What I've loved about this job and my broader experience in university is getting to read things I would never have touched otherwise, and I really wanted to share that experience with you. So as my library grows, maybe yours will, too.
Pictured below is last year's haul: Al Cusack's Rising (zine), Curtis LeBlanc's Little Wild (poetry), Nathaniel G. Moore's Goodbye Horses (poetry), Jasmina Odor's You Can't Stay Here (short fiction), Mallory Tater's This Will Be Good (poetry), and R.M. Vaughan's One Year After (play).
I'm so looking forward to sharing my conversations with you.
See you soon,
As the ACPA Editors, we wish to keep you up to date with new entries and exciting poetry news.