Saturday, August 1, 2020

Conyer Clayton in Conversation with Lee Parpart

Poet, musician, gymnast-turned-gymnastics teacher, Twitter goofball, and collaborator Conyer Clayton has had a busy decade. Since publishing her first poems in 2010 and then moving to Canada and getting serious about poetry in 2016, the Kentucky-born, Ottawa-based poet has published six chapbooks: Trust Only the Beasts in the Water (above/ground press), / (post ghost press), Undergrowth (bird, buried press), Mitosis (In/Words Magazine and Press), For the Birds, For the Humans (battleaxe press) and The Marshes (& Co Collective, 2017). Her seventh chapbook, Sprawl, written in collaboration with Manahil Bandukwala, is forthcoming with Collusion Books in Fall 2020.

She has also released a collaborative album with Nathanael Larochette, If the river stood still (August, 2018), and published poems in ARC, Room, Prairie Fire, The Fiddlehead, The Maynard, Puddles of Sky Press, and other publications. She won ARC’s 2017 Diane Brebner Prize and The Capilano Review's 2019 Robin Blaser Poetry Prize. On top of all of that, she is a member of the sound poetry ensemble Quatuor Gualuor, the creative collective VII, and writes reviews for Canthius.

Toronto writer/editor Lee Parpart reached out to Conyer after hearing her read at rob mclennan’s 2019 Peter F. Yacht Club party. A former journalist and film studies academic who published widely in film studies books and journals before quitting the sessional teaching life and returning to creative writing in 2015, Lee now edits fiction and poetry full-time for Iguana Books in Toronto. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Silver Birch Press, Open Book: Ontario’s What’s Your Story collection, Negative Capability Press, and Vernal. She won an emerging writer award for short fiction from Open Book: Ontario in 2016, received an honourable mention in Negative Capability Press’s Spring 2020 poetry contest, and won ARC Poetry Magazine’s first-ever Award of Awesomeness in May, 2020.

Lee and Conyer met over Zoom on April 19, to talk about Conyer’s first full poetry collection, We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite, which was published on May 3, 2020 through Guernica Editions.

This edited transcript from their longer, recorded conversation begins with a discussion of what it has been like to live under lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conyer had just lost her job teaching gymnastics, due to the coronavirus outbreak that has shut down all non-essential businesses in Canada since late March. She describes the anxiety and the freedom of being out of work, and shares what it has been like to finally have time and energy for writing projects and collaborations with musician friends, with whom she has already released joint projects.

Having Tweeted at each other a bunch of times but never spoken before this interview (they read together but didn’t manage to meet at the Peter F. Yacht Club event), Lee and Conyer quickly discovered that they have two things in common, in addition to a love of poetry. Both dual citizens who were born in the U.S. and now live in Canada, they share a massive sense of gratitude and relief at having landed on the safer and saner side of the 49th Parallel.

They also discovered that they share a superstitious sense of their own culpability when negative things happen in the world. As this interview begins, they dive into a discussion of this tendency in relation to the mother of all external events: COVID-19.

The rest of this wide-ranging interview explores such topics as Conyer’s Kentucky roots, her move to Canada and her decision to become a Canadian citizen, and issues related to poetic craft, including voice, form, and the relationship between truth and invention. Moving seamlessly between life and art, this often intimately personal discussion also explores many of the concerns raised by Conyer’s poems, from alcoholism and sobriety to guilt and complicity with respect to trauma, and the complex work of grieving loss.

Lastly, they talk about revising poems and working with an editor (Elana Wolf at Guernica Editions in this case), and Conyer reads two poems from her new collection. Those poems are reproduced here, in the context of the interview, and with permission of the author.

The Interview

Lee: Can I start by asking you how you’re doing? What are your days like, your living situation and all that? How are you coping with COVID?

Conyer: I think I’m like everyone, where you have kind of a good day and then kind of a bad day, where things catch up to you. I’m pretty lucky. I have a really, really good apartment with my partner, who is amazing, and we have plenty of space and a really good living situation. It is tough in that I was laid off from my job. I was able to get the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, though, so that was great. I’m very, very grateful for that. So that’s, like, a bit stressful financially, but I’ll be fine.

Honestly it’s weird because this is the first time in my life that I’ve ever, ever been unemployed, since I was fifteen, or not been working and in school full time. So it’s strange.

I hate to say that it’s welcome, because obviously this is a horrible time and lots of people are in a lot of pain and dying and losing loved ones, but it is a bit of a … I’m trying to make the best of it, and I have been able to pursue a lot of things creatively and finish up some manuscripts and write a lot and do a lot of collaborative work with some friends and I’m working on some music, and yeah my book comes out in two weeks [it came out on May 3].

I coach gymnastics full time and it’s a really fun job that I love, but it’s a very emotionally and physically demanding job, so I would be tired a lot, and I have more energy now than I have in a very long time, so it’s a bit of a weird thing. I have a lot more space in my life than I’ve ever had. It’s sort of a silver lining, I suppose. And it’s something I’ve been craving for a long time, but not in this package!

Lee: I know what you mean. Before this all happened, I actually at one point said out loud “I want everyone to stop publishing books for just a little while. I want to feel like I can catch up a little bit, I want to feel like I can breathe.” And then Covid happened. In that vein, I’ve noticed something in your poems that I relate to strongly, and that’s a tendency to read external events through a lens of personal responsibility. One of your poems [“What You Actually Lost”] deals directly with this idea of complicity in the face of trauma. It’s like the much bigger version of saying “step on a crack and break your mother’s back.” [Conyer: Yeah!] This is really fascinating poetic terrain that you’ve taken up.

Conyer: Yeah. First of all, I’m sorry that that’s something you go through as well because it’s not a fun feeling. I completely relate because I said to my partner maybe a couple months ago, “I need no one to need anything from me for at least a month. I need to not be needed or have any responsibilities for at least a month.” And shortly after that, oops!

Lee: [big laughter] So it’s your fault and it’s maybe my fault…of course it’s nobody’s fault, but we think in those terms.

Conyer: I think it has to do with the impulse to control events. It’s this backwards way of feeling like you are actually in control of outcomes. And when you’ve experienced trauma, there’s just so much guilt that’s associated with that, and so it’s this way of control and guilt cycling back in on each other for me.

When I wrote that poem [“What You Actually Lost”] I was in a not good state. I was driving to a competition, maybe a year after I drove to Ottawa in 2016. I mean, I can identify now that I was having a panic attack, but I was driving by myself and I just got into this zone that I had, like, caused all this pain just by the thoughts I was having. I had to pull over and then I looked in the mirror at the gas station and I was like, I’m evil, look at my eyes. I called my older sister. She calmed me down. But I think, yeah, being able to be open about those experiences is important. It’s not something that happens often to me, but being able to put that into a poetic experience makes it feel a little easier to hold. Even talking about it right now I feel very exposed, but when I read the poem I don’t feel that way.

Lee: You said ‘holding.’ I like that idea of writing about challenging subject matter in order to hold it. I can sense this in your poems, where you’re trying to hold and re-witness aspects of past experience, including trauma, as a way of balancing the elements. You always seem to privilege the moment of exploration and balance over the attempt at top-down control, and I think it’s successful work, for that reason.

Conyer: Thank you very much. I was emailing [Ottawa poet] Margo LaPierre the other day and we were talking about the kind of relief you feel when you read work by someone who has experienced something similar to you or who feels something similar to you, and I do think I try to think about that a lot in my writing, at least in my editing process. When I’m drafting, it’s definitely more like holding events for myself, but trying to imagine the way that it can hold someone else a little bit as well, in the way that poems can — in the limited way that poems can.

Lee: Do you think it’s limited?

Conyer: I think it can be. I don’t know. I think it depends on the person. I think I said limited because I don’t want to put too much like grandiosity on my own work’s ability to do that for someone else, because I don’t want to assume that it’s going to fill that role for someone else, but lots of poems by other people have done that for me in a pretty large way.

Lee: I guess it’s only limited by the quality of the interaction between the reader and the poem. I feel like the poems in this collection are full of openings that allow the reader, in this case me, to extrapolate personal connections. I was really struck by the image in “What You’ve Lost” of you, or the speaker, running through a cemetery and being yelled at by a woman who was there grieving the loss of her husband. And you don’t make too much of that moment, but you do kind of signal it, you raise it as an image in the poem. As I was reading, I found that I actually got mad at the woman who yelled at the speaker. My reaction was: ‘How dare you try to own all of the space around this act of grieving, and what’s to say the speaker wasn’t continuing her own grieving by running through the cemetery?’ Anyway, all kinds of stuff happened there. Maybe it is a good moment to read that poem, since we keep coming back to it.

Conyer: Sure! I’m very happy with this poem.

Lee: As you should be.

Conyer: A lot of these poems are very old, and a lot of the longer ones are more recent.

Watch the video of Conyer Clayton reading “What You Actually Lost.”

What You Actually Lost

I convince myself
          death comes from the wind

I kill you
          with my exhale
          with the roughly chopped garlic

I dream of my mother
          a baby gets measles

I put on the wrong album
          you wreck your car

I see a darkness in my own eyes
           a tumour starts to form

I focus on the bruised skin of an orange to protect myself
This isn't unfamiliar

I've run cemetery paths casually
and been scolded by a woman
sitting at her dead husband's grave
I've stared at the turning leaves — overlooked
the names; noticed the wildflowers, not
the freshly-turned earth they sprouted from

I woke today
          with the image of blood spilling
from an umbilical cord onto my frantic palms
          diving naked into a snowbank
screaming the news of death at strangers

My dreams seep
into lightness —
into daytime thoughts

I woke heavy

as my mother's calm voice
a dark brown stain on the carpet.

Lee: Thank you so much, and I hope that’s not the last poem you read during this talk, but we’ll be moved as we’re moved. There are several things about this that I wanted to ask. I’m fascinated by the way this poem plays with past and present, moving between them and at times collapsing them onto the same plane. What is it about this poem’s subject matter — grief — that lends itself to such a fluid exploration of time?

Conyer: I find that grieving particularly has a way of surpassing the limits of time. In my own experience of grieving my mother’s death, you’re often grieving the future. You’re grieving now for what is missing in the present, and you’re grieving for all the things you didn’t do in the past or that you did do in the past, but you’re also grieving what can’t happen, what won’t now come.

I’m obsessed with cycles, also. So there’s this kind of cyclical nature. You’re never really rooted in one time when you’re grieving. It’s always moving, so I think that’s where that tense play comes from. And grief comes up in new ways all the time. My mom died almost ten years ago. And I find new things make me grieve in different ways now. Grieving is this murky, slippery thing that you sometimes think you have a hold on, but then you don’t, but then you do, but then you don’t again.

Lee: And probably for the rest of one’s life, especially with such a powerful figure as a mother.

Conyer: Yup. I’ve definitely come to a place of a bit more closure in the past few years than I had before when I was writing this book. Some of these poems are from before my mom died. This book spans a very long time. The first poems in this book were written in 2009 and 2010, and she passed away in 2010. And then some were written after that, and then there was a gap  of several years, and then some of them were written from 2016 on. “What You Actually Lost” was from 2016.

But yeah, in the past few years since moving to Ottawa I really found a better sense of closure.

Lee: I’m interested in this notion you raise in the third section of the book about ‘efficient grieving.’ You title the section: “How efficiently we grieve.” What is efficient grief?

Conyer: That line is from a poem in that section, but it comes from this notion of this pressure that we put on ourselves to move past things quickly or to grieve in a certain way, and I would extend that grieving to any sort of loss, a breakup, or the loss of a coping mechanism, like drinking, for example. Anything that is lost you do end up grieving, to an extent, and I am a very mentally structured kind of a person, and I think a lot of my life is trying to create entropy in my mind, whereas I’m actually very [uses arms to hack at the air, suggesting she’s regimented and enjoys structure]…

Lee: Interesting, for a poet.

Conyer: Yeah, I’m a really super organized, very tidy person who loves order…so I think that’s why I leaned towards drinking because it created this lack of control that I actually craved. And I think that I put that pressure on myself to deal with everything I’d been through extremely, extremely efficiently. I definitely had that pressure on myself in all my grief as well, and I still do. And it’s something that I work through with art, and with my loved ones, just through discussion and therapy [laughs].

Lee: Right? Good old therapy. Where would we be without it. I’ve had plenty…

Conyer: Same…

Lee: …but I need more. [laughter]

Conyer: Yeah, me too, probably.

Lee: Since you raised the issue of the drinking and since you love the work of Kaveh Akbar, whose work I also love and have been changed by, let’s talk about the drinking for a minute. I have a question that’s kind of a poetry question and a drinking question combined. In the end it’s just: Is there anything you want to say about drinking, drunkenness, and sobriety in relation to your poetic project? I’m thinking about the varied ways that you posit drinking and deal with it in your work. In “Trapped,” the cocktail glass becomes a receptacle for a spider, it becomes a trap, whereas “Southern Belle” envisions a speaker or a subject who is “ready to drink / and be drunk, despite the knocking.” And the knocking is kind of a Poe-like moment, in that you seem to be asking: What’s knocking at your life that you can’t avoid? And then in “Neighbours,” the speaker sits, “knock knocking back beers,” but the poem quickly moves onto exploring the grotesque aspects of drinking and the bar scene in particular: In this bar we find an older woman “grinding / a year’s worth of vomit and spinning ceilings / with her boot heels, dancing for a lottery / ticket, a free pass, telling everyone how good they smell.” This fabulous constellation of images reminds me a little of the caution warning on the side of a pack of cigarettes — like, “This is what your teeth could look like if you keep smoking.” And this is the person you could be if you keep drinking. So it’s a cautionary tale, processed through poetry, without any of the simplistic morality of most cautionary tales. So yeah, then the question is: At this point, what do you want to say about how you’ve metabolized drinking, drunkenness, or sobriety in relation to your poetic project?

Conyer: Well…I stopped drinking in 2017, and it was a long time coming. And I wasn’t one of those alcoholics who lost everything. I think it’s important to me to realize that a lot of people are alcoholics, and a lot of people who keep good jobs and get straight A’s and everything, your friends, everyone, are alcoholics. I wrote these poems inside of [the alcoholism], and I wasn’t, in a lot of them, I wasn’t really aware at the time really what was going on. I think I probably was [aware] in the back of my mind. And so I worried when this book was coming out that it would be received almost as glorifying drinking a bit, because I loved drinking!

Lee: [laughter] I loved smoking!

Conyer: [laughter] … Right! And I loved going out! You know, it was a big part of what I thought of as my identity, and so I wrote about it all the time. There was so much drinking in my work. I worried — because it does not at all reflect who I am now — that it would be seen as glorifying it.

Lee: Maybe if I craved alcohol more [it would seem to be glorifying it]. Alcohol just doesn’t happen to be my drug. But I’ve got a pretty serious sugar problem that’s been lifelong. It’s not as destructive, but it feels similarly out of control. And other issues as well. But I saw grotesquerie in that poem’s depiction of drinking, not the glory.

Conyer: That makes me feel good. I’m happy to hear that. And it’s funny to think that even back then I was writing in a way that was not glorifying it, even if I thought I was while I was writing it.

Lee: Could that make them transition poems?

Conyer: Yeah! And now I’m working on another full-length that deals a lot with sobriety and recovery and the way that that manifests. And I think for most people who have addiction issues, it manifests in not just one way but in many different ways, and so when I got sober it started manifesting in other ways that I had to stay vigilant about. I don’t know what I would want to say about that except that it’s really a lot more common than people want to think it is. I think that alcohol is the only thing you can be addicted to and it’s a socially sanctioned addiction, in my opinion, and I can say that from having been very much inside it. I was always on time to work…it hurt me in different ways, you know. I cannot think of a choice I’ve ever made in my life that I deeply regret that I made where I wasn’t drunk when I made that decision.

Lee: What prompted you to quit?

Conyer: It’s funny, because I think a lot of people get sober when they hit a bottom, but I got sober when my life was actually better than it had ever been, because it became so clear to me that alcohol was the worst thing in my life. For a long time alcohol was one of the better things in my life because other things were really bad. Alcohol really was this saviour to me, and then when I made choices that got me into better places in my life, then it became so clear that alcohol is actually horrible, like horrible, for me. And I didn’t want to mess up what I had going on.

Lee: You’re making me think of Kaveh Akbar’s point, that his alcohol and drug addiction are still the things that are trying to kill him every day.

Conyer: For me it manifested in issues with disordered eating and stuff like that too. And I deal with that in my new manuscript as well. I’m very comfortable now talking about the alcohol and drug addiction stuff, but I’m still very…I can already feel myself thinking, ‘Oh, why did you bring that up.’ It’s tricky because you feel like you’re exposing yourself, and the eating disorder stuff is hard because you can’t go cold turkey off food the way you can with alcohol and other drugs and things like that.

Lee: Interesting. There is one other question that I wanted to ask you about drinking. In one of your poems, it [drinking] is the very thing that the speaker does not want known, that appears in the centre of the poem. In “Buildup,” the middle stanza records the very thing that the speaker admits to not wanting recorded. The speaker has been drinking and has just fallen off a bike, and you write of: “Catching what I don’t want / known, recording the fall / flat on my back / in the parking lot, legs / tangled in chains / and flimsy rubber reflectors —”  What is the responsibility of the (sober) poet to record the truth of addiction? And what is your relationship to truth more generally in poems? Do you like to record bits of detail accurately — does that give you pleasure — or are you willing to play for the sake of a sound or a line or narrative?

Conyer: I think it depends on the poem. Because there are some poems where I feel a very, very big responsibility to myself to, like, tell the truth in this, and I think that would usually happen if I’ve been lying to myself about something, or if it’s something that I need to really directly face in order to cope with it. So like that poem was referring to, I literally was just drunk and I was trying to get my bike and I fell off my bike trying to get on it and someone took a picture, and it was awful, and I wrote that poem when I went home. It was very humiliating. When there’s shame involved I think that truth becomes more important to me, because it’s a way of owning that shame and maybe slipping beyond it. For other stuff I definitely play a lot. Sound is very important to me, and also I think I lean toward the surreal, maybe not so much in this collection as in other work, but I kind of lean toward that in my own thinking, so some images are certainly not things I’ve experienced. Some of them are things that I have thought, that feel as though they relate to the poem. In some poems I’m more dedicated to the truth of the feeling.

Lee: So when there’s shame or self-deception involved, then the onus becomes greater, and there’s a responsibility to record. So you don’t play with that, you don’t mess with that.

Conyer: I think I try not to. I think I feel like I owe it to myself to finally just say it and to share it, if it’s something I feel I’ve been hiding from everyone or from myself.

Lee: I’ve learned a lot from Kaveh [Akbar] in that regard. I remember him saying that he had to abandon a lot of his earlier poems because so many of them were focused on centering himself, the poet-speaker, as the hero or the victim of the poem. And to move beyond that was an act of overcoming self-deception, and also these rationalizations that we engage in when we’re trying to hide from ourselves.

Conyer: I think that’s a really important and powerful thing. I think also there’s a kind of element of self-protection in it, in a backwards sense. I wrote these when I was still drinking and was like, “Well if I just say it, and I own it, then no one can use it against me.” You know, if I just put this out there and I’m like “Yeah, I did an embarrassing thing, I fell, and it’s fine.” I’m writing about it, I’m somehow protected, and no one can be mad at me now because I own it. So there’s a slightly less honourable motive behind some of those poems when they were first written, that I honestly did not realize until this very moment. It’s definitely true, when I’m thinking back to some of those poems. That’s definitely true.

Lee: Yay! I love it when a conversation produces a new insight for the poet. So with that poem, “Buildup,” are you going back to the moment of writing it and realizing that it was a kind of defensive effort to get ahead of the humiliation?

Conyer: Yeah, and after that incident with the bike happened I had gone with my family to this small town where a lot of my family lives in Kentucky (I’m from Kentucky originally). And we were going with my mom and my two sisters to see my grandparents and my aunt and uncle, and my thumb nail was completely black from having fallen and they were asking me about it. I was also a [gymnastics] coach at that time,  and I was coaching children, so they were asking me about it. And I think those are some lines in that poem, like, ‘explaining bruises to in-laws, jams to children, lacerations to aunts and uncles…’ So I think just feeling questioned a lot at that time, knowing that I was not in a healthy place, I was drinking a lot, I was being kind of dangerously promiscuous, to be frank, at that time in my life, as a way of coping. Now I can understand that I was coping with some sexual trauma. At the time I was just like ‘Woo!’ So yeah, that poem definitely comes from a place of self-protection. I was just like “Yeah, I’m fine, see? I’m owning this! Stop putting pressure on me, I’m okay.”

Lee: One thing I noticed about your book is that it hardly every uses the first person in a way that would invite us to view you, the author, as the speaker of these poems. I asked Kaveh [Akbar] about his use of the first person, and he was like, “Oh yeah I’m the speaker of my poems. It’s me.” So when reading his poems you’re able to remove that veil, even though in grad school we’re taught not to assume that the poet is the speaker. You’ve handled things differently. There’s an element of confession within your work, but you often wind up invoking a second person ‘you,’ or a third person ‘we/they/them.’ And when you do use ‘I’ statements, you use them very sparingly, and they tend to be embedded in much larger contexts. Can you comment on your approach to voice and subject position? For example, there’s “Home,” which ends with the most poignant personal statement imaginable: “Please mommy take me home,” and yet there are many examples in the book of a poem that subtly floats one first-person reference within a context that continually pulls focus away from the individual. Are you aware of your tendency to minimize ‘I’ statements, and what do you think this means for your work?

Conyer: I have to try very hard to use ‘I.’ I tend to write with ‘you.’ That’s usually just naturally what comes out. And I think that sometimes — not all the time — it’s a bit of a dissociative mechanism within myself. It is still self-referential, but I’m referring to myself from the outside, as ‘you.’ I think sometimes it can be a case of me trying to lead myself somewhere, or comfort myself, in a way using the second person. Or I’m sometimes creating distance between myself and what has happened to me, or between myself and my own actions. I think in order to use the first person, I have to very intentionally get within myself, be embodied, and say ‘This is me.’ I have to push myself to do it sometimes, because there are moments in those poems where it’s ‘You you you you you,’ and at some point you gotta own it and switch to ‘I.’

It is intentional, and I think makes my use of ‘I’ pop out, which is what I want. But I don’t purposely start with ‘you.’ It just happens.

I think I use ‘we’ in a similar way, but also when I’m trying to talk about bigger ideas, as most people would, I invoke the ‘we,’ or if I’m trying to imply that something is more a part of a natural rhythm or cycle that everyone goes through, not just me, or not just ‘I’ or ‘you,’ it’s a ‘we’ experience. So I think that’s where that comes from. And, like Kaveh, I’m definitely the speaker in this book.

Lee: I want to pick up on your reference just now to natural rhythms. One powerful current within this book has to do with your connection to nature, and in particular small animals and insects. Spiders and beetles get a lot of play in this book, as does lichen. And you are seemingly concerned with nature and its relationship to human behaviour, but the human is sometimes such a tiny part of any given poem that it implies a radical reordering of priorities. In “After Green is Gold,” the opening line references ‘a man,’ while the rest of the poem veers off into a series of microscopic views of insect life. ‘Spiders sauntering over strings / pound out waves like words.’ And by the time you reference ‘he’ again, it’s no longer clear whether you’re referring to the man or the spider. “His roots twist up / into hips and down / through hardened beetle graves.’ Later, ‘An orchid breaks through / caverns of pulsating brass.’ I’m wondering how you think about the place of nature within your work, and if it’s still an ongoing preoccupation to want to bring that natural world in in that way.

Conyer: Very, very much so. That kind of writing is my way of expressing my spiritual thoughts. And I am not very comfortable saying what those are exactly, because the only way I really know how to express how I feel about the world spiritually is through writing about nature.

You mentioned making the human presence smaller, and I find a lot of comfort in that notion. And that poem in particular was composed after I went and heard some jazz at a bar. And it was this guy playing the saxophone, and I just feel like everything is so interconnected, and the way he was creating was reminding me of the way nature creates, the way that a spider creates, and everything just kind of weaving together, sounds entering our bodies … yeah.

So I feel like the way that one would find solace in things that aren’t healthy for you, you can also find solace in the natural world in a way that is healthy for you. I think it’s kind of like a way of seeking transcendence, and I think for a long time I tried to find transcendence in drugs, in alcohol, in sex, in relationships, and the only way that I really ever successfully found it was in diving into the natural world. So there are these moments throughout my life that that sustained me, even when I was in dark places, and I very much still dive into that now.

Lee: I’m wondering if it’s time to read another poem, and you’re making me think of ‘Reach into the Hollows.’ I seem to be pulling from the last section of your book a lot. Not sure why.

Conyer: I think some of the better poems are at the end. Personally, when I’m looking at what I want to read, a lot of them are at the end.

Lee: There’s a lot of good heavy hitters in the beginning too. What page are we on?

Conyer: “Reach into the Hollows” is on page 66. In 2017 I went to Scotland by myself for two weeks, and I stayed in this little town called Burnham for a while, and I just meditated on a log by a river. And then I was walking back through this little town, and I wrote this poem kind of while I was walking back to my hostel.

Watch the video of Conyer Clayton reading “Reach into the Hollows.”

Reach into the Hollows

When I was a child I plunged
my arm into the exposed
roots of creek-bed trees.
I shoved my small

hand deep, knowing
the scales that slinked beyond
my reach, that embedded
themselves deeper
          into their leavings.

There’s a rhythm
to it. An ice-age old
cycle. A fishing line caught
in the bedrock. Our gills still
functioning freely.

We find it in
our leavings when

we shed our skin
like dynamite. Smote
and sparkling. Relishing
in the drift of smoke upwards.

          In our leaving

the birds stretch
our skin beyond
recognition, our teeth
dropping like leaves

on a moving river.
We’ve grown
into large bushes and someone
must hedge this. Cut us
into dolphins and teacups and shapes

resembling humans
once living.

In our leaving they’ll dress us in our old worn clothes.
In our leaving we grow taller.
In our leaving we thicken and thin,
reach into the hollows
of an old oak and come out
empty and arid and dry.

We walk circles in a public garden,
incorporate the sound
of engines into birdsongs.
A song is a hum is a song —
like humming, thrums
          of our leaving

the way we calmly   left
the womb, moistly  left

on the ground
to wait for the rain,
to rinse the mothers
from our flesh.

Lee: Wow. Does that poem connect back to ‘Home,’ by any chance? I think of those as very connected poems. Do you?

Conyer: I would agree with that. And ‘Home’ and ‘Recurrent’ both delve deeply into cycles. As I said earlier, I’m obsessed with cycles. I find a lot of comfort in them. Small ones, big ones, little microcosmic cycles —I love seeing how they reflect the big things in our life.

Lee: There’s also something really specific in that poem about the state of mind of a person who has suffered a major loss. It feels like a poem that’s delving into the physical life cycle in order to metabolize a major loss. There is a frankness about what happens to the body after death, but there are also these beautiful recuperative gestures, as in ‘Home,’ where you write: ‘Her body / in a bird’s belly, her body / dropped on a windshield. Her body / scrubbed off at a gas station. Her body / poured onto the sidewalk with the soapy water.’ You could view that as a kind of brutal frankness.

Conyer: I think it’s beautiful.

Lee: Absolutely. It’s beautiful. It’s the beauty of a plastic bag floating down the street. It’s a difficult beauty.

Conyer: Yeah, and I think about the mundanity and about not just seeing the divine in only the most majestic things, but being able to see the divine and find that little moment of transcendence in these small, small moments, and even in these moments of destruction. And yes, I think I find a lot of comfort in that within my own grieving.

Lee: It’s incredibly helpful (for the person grieving) to think about the body of the deceased continuing on and coming back in new forms. It’s a way of saying that nothing is lost.

Conyer: Yeah, and I love the idea. We talked about the temporality of grief, and to me this applies to cycles, and to the idea that decomposition and recurrence also kind of transcends time. Because someone can be lost at some point and if their body is literally still in some way existing in the world, it can exist into the future, as it existed in the past. I find a lot of comfort in that notion.

Lee: These are mental constructs that we use to help ourselves grieve and remember. When I was 22 I had an unplanned pregnancy and terminated that pregnancy, and I recently finally wrote and published the poem of missing out on that person being in my life. The way that I’ve always talked to myself about it is, for one thing, I’m 100% convinced that it was a boy, and that is really strange for me because I was afraid of having a boy. I had a traumatic relationship with my father and would not have wished for a boy, but I have a strong feeling that it was a boy. And my way of communing with the presence of that person it could have been is through plants. I’m very plant-focused, but I’ll just be walking and see a particularly beautiful deciduous tree or something, or a bush in late summer, and I’ll just immediately think ‘that’s where he is now. He’s in that bush.’ And it’s kind of sounding a little cuckoo as I say it now.

Conyer: No, I don’t think it does at all. I really don’t. I think that that’s really beautiful. We talked about bugs earlier, and I have a similar experience with bugs and chipmunks and squirrels, but specifically chipmunks. For some reason, chipmunks and my mom are extremely connected, and anytime I see a chipmunk I think of my mom. I have absolutely no memory of anything with her and chipmunks at all. It’s just something that kind of came about, and if it’s a construct, so what. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it is or isn’t. It matters what it gives you now, I think.

Lee: Yeah, I mean our lives are made up to a large extent of our mental constructs. We make our reality, to an extent, by what we focus on. And that decision of what to focus on can be sustaining and healing, and spiritual. Well it’s been a wonderful conversation, and I know I need to let you go, but if you’re not too tired, I was wondering if you have anything to say about the editing of this book, either in terms of self-editing or working with Elana Wolff at Guernica Editions. Is there anything that leaps out there?

Conyer: Yeah, well this manuscript [We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite] … it’s funny because this manuscript originally had no new poems in it at all; it was just older poems. And I got accepted by Guernica, and then I started working with Elana, and I expressed to her early in our editing process that I was almost a little bit bummed with the collection because it didn’t reflect at all what I was writing now. I was so happy it got accepted, but I was like, ‘Everything’s so old. There’s nothing new in this.’ And she went ‘Well, let’s put new stuff in it. Let’s change it.’ And so I brought her a big selection of newer stuff that I felt worked, and she helped me figure out what fit, and she really helped bring this into a place that feels relatively fresh to me and that I’m excited about. That would not have happened had it not been for her, and she did such an amazing job and taught me about this for future manuscripts. She’s so good at seeing the hinges between poems, which wasn’t something I was very good at before, and I think I’m getting better at now.

Lee: I wanted to ask about those hinges, because in thinking about the editing and the selections and the ordering and the sequencing of poems, there were a couple of times where I thought ‘What? I definitely wouldn’t do that!’ And then other times I was just in awe of the balancing act that was going on. And everything in any poetry collection is highly conscious and is usually the result of many conversations, so there must be a reason why you did this, but ‘Blackout’ and ‘Full Sunlight’ are on opposing pages, and they both end with the very similar image of sunlight streaming through windows. And I kept thinking ‘I don’t know, I would have separated them!’ But it’s kind of a ballsy move, putting them so close together.

Conyer: That was intentional! I wanted to, I guess, directly oppose those two images and what they could mean in different contexts. Because in one instance, the sunlight is actually kind of a bad thing for me in the poem, and in the other poem it’s kind of a hopeful thing. So I think I just wanted to show that disconnect with the same image deployed in different contexts and meaning completely different things.

Lee: I’m going to have to go back in with that thought, because I’m not even sure which one is the positive and which is the negative.

Conyer: I would say that ‘Blackout’ is the positive one and ‘Full Sunlight’ is the negative one, but they seem like the opposite. Yeah, “Blackout” is definitely the one that I think is a good thing. And in ‘Full Sunlight,’ sun streaming in through the windows signifies that now there’s a hole in the world where the sun comes through, where it shouldn’t.

Lee: Interesting. So that was an editorial choice for sure. And then there are other choices that are so awe-inspiring to me, and that literally taught me new things about how to sequence poems. You have these short poems that are beautifully and strategically placed in relation to longer and more difficult pieces. That flow is handled really beautifully. So you get “Dock Drunk” followed by “Intake,” and it’s a five-line poem that’s a puff of wind, really. It’s a little palate cleanser and is so beautifully offset by the other poems that are around it.

Conyer: Yeah, I think that I appreciate that in a collection, when you get a breath, you know, so I think I tried to mindfully give readers a little break.

Lee: Those short poems are dotted through the collection in a way that is really pleasing and that kind of propels you through it, and makes it, not easy to read, because there’s a lot of work that’s really challenging, but it’s like a kind of generosity toward the reader to offer them this breathing room between poems.

Conyer: I actually just read today something that Jason Christie posted through Coach House Books, about punctuation as an act of kindness to the reader, and I thought that was so beautiful and I had never thought of it at all like that before. (Jason Christie, “Sunday Poetry with Jason Christie,” Coach House Press, April 19, 2020). But yeah, I think editorial choices of ordering can work in the same way.

Lee: Well, I love the way this has been shaped, and you’ve covered so much ground. Thank you so much for this conversation.

Conyer: I really had fun talking to you and it was fun getting to know you. I appreciate this a lot. I was in a really bad mood today honestly, and this was a really heart-filling conversation!

Lee: Oh good, I’m so pleased. Well you’ve been so generous with your time and your mind and all of it. I know we’ll talk again soon. Thanks so much.

Conyer: Thank you!

Lee Parpart worked as a journalist and film academic before returning to poetry and short fiction in 2015, and simultaneously becoming a full-time editor. Her essays, journalism, poetry, and short fiction have appeared in POV; C; 17 seconds; Silver Birch Press, Vernal, Gendering the Nation; North of Everything; Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Cultures; Athena’s Daughters; The Gendered Screen; Short Film Studies; Canadian Journal of Film Studies; The Nancy Drew Anthology and The Globe and Mail, among other publications. She won an emerging writer prize for short fiction in 2016 through Open Book: Ontario, received an honourable mention in Negative Capability Press’s Spring 2020 poetry contest, and won ARC Poetry Magazine’s first Award of Awesomeness in May, 2020. Lee lives in Toronto, where she edits poetry and fiction for Iguana Books.

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