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. 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.
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.
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.
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