Interview with Charlotte Simmons
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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.
JK: 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 definitely 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.
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