“Letters of our generation”

An interview with Sina Queyras

Sina Queyras on her recently published book Unleashed, a selection of posts from the first years of her successful blog LEMONHOUND, and what happens when literature goes online, and when online goes literature.

BT: Your book comes out of your blog LEMONHOUND, which has transformed into something much different than how it began in 2004. Does Unleashed seek to capture this transformation? Have you selected entries which help to tease out a narrative of growth and change? At one point early on you ask yourself, “What would I have after ten years of blogging?” How does Unleashed answer your question, if it does at all?

SQ: Well, yes, there is a narrative in Unleashed. It traces the development of a voice, a way of being in a public space that suits my way thinking and working. We are told that we have to adopt a certain voice, a certain style, to speak of poetry or art. We are told time and time again we must evaluate given certain criteria, we must somehow give these “balanced” and “formulaic” bits of critical writing, or non-fiction. What I have, after six years of writing in this format, is a body of work that suggests other ways are distinctly possible. And now what I have, thanks to Jay Millar and Kate Eichhorn, is a physical book.

BT: On the topic of narrative, some blogs give themselves easily to narrative, in the sense that a lot of blogs record, as a journal would, our personal lives. This seems to have been slightly unsettling for you in the beginning of your endeavour, your fits and starts seem to circle around a uncertainty about how and what and why to share through your blog. As far as Unleashed goes, the personal activities and sights of your life, the early art gallery trips and wonderful descriptions of environment and mood of a space, dissolve over time into extended readings and discussion, with an opening up to other’s voices. A personal narrative seems to change into a narrative of criticism, a narrative about criticism. Does the blog format, in so far as it informs the book, create the opportunity for this new type of narrative, a narrative which is hard to distinguish from a long conversation? Is it a narrative at all? At one point early on you refer to the blog as a path, is this a better why to look at it?

SQ: We are also told that we need to confess to be poets. We need to “be real,” we need to discuss “real life.” My circling around these questions was about trying to find a balance in what and how I wanted to reveal my thoughts. There seems to be two distinct strands of thinking where poetry and writing is concerned. The one strand suggests that writing is an individual journey that holds only the self accountable, the other suggests that while writing is an individual pursuit it is nearly impossible to achieve without being in conversation with other texts, and further that a writer is already part of a community as a person in the world. I have conversations with many writers–they all have quite different perspectives, but they do seem to fall on one side of this question or the other.

Ironically, my narrative, my voice, is both personal and I would argue speaks from communities, perhaps not one, but many.

BT: To go back again to the early sections of the book, and the blog, I am taken by your ability to describe spaces, especially art spaces, (The silo space in Carroll Gardens comes to mind, and also your description of the Alberta Utopia and Dystopia Exhibit). This heightened perception seems to inform your reading of poetry as well, I have a little list going here with all the spatial metaphors used to describe what you’ve read (coiffed feeling, more like beach glass than shards, feeling like you’re in a plane crash, physicality mirrored the text, prison to escape from, split open the poet, the phrases swirl grounding us, gymnastic imagery). At one point you also refer to space in terms of its affects on our reading and writing, asking what a change of scenery or architecture could do to your writing and thinking. What does the space of a blog do, or what does it look like? How does it compare to the space of a book? Can one be captured in the other?

SQ: The space of a book can be quite literal. When I read Lisa Robertson’s Seven Walks for instance, I do feel a kind of exteriority that in some ways is quite performative. For all of our gains women’s space is still quite interior. This is a radical move for women I think, externalizing the space of our texts.

BT: A lot of space in the book is dedicated to photography, in its power to reveal to us that which might be normally hidden. A lot of the discussion circles around the idea of technological manipulation, in that it both helps and hinders this insight. What does technological manipulation of poetry, or simply text itself, help to reveal, if anything? There are large differences here of course, photography is more immediately representational perhaps, and spatial, while poetry might align itself better with a temporal sort of reflection, but can we take anything from the comparison? I guess, more narrowly, what I’m asking is what happens to poetry when it goes online, in the way that it has at LEMONHOUND or the Poetry Foundation for example?

SQ: I love poetry and photography quite equally, but my decision to focus more on art was really a way for me to talk about poetry without having to get into the kind of debate of mastery, the posturing that one sees in the endless parade of young bright poets come to make their mark on the landscape by decimating whatever has come before. I’m not so interested in these moves. Talking about visual art I am usually talking about poetry…it was a liberating move for me.

What happens when one attempts to have a conversation about poetry in a more head-on fashion is as you see in the comment stream in Harriet and other places, a kind of territorial posturing that is very militaristic.

BT: Thinking of temporality, I have a lot on my mind after reading your book. You talk about the different temporalities of walking, body moving through a city, compared to that of sitting at a screen, and the ways this changes our thinking, our ability to allow our thoughts and ideas to extend and engage. You also mention the appeal of a “dailiness,” in reference to political/social/environmental change, and also, if only implicitly, shifts in criticism. I agree with you that the blog provides a good forum to encourage dailiness. The internet has also provided for us a collapsible temporality, we can fold many things, times, presences, into one space, and this is a sort of blessing and curse (recently on LEMONHOUND, Nikki Reimer wrote about the possible links between this “multi-windowed” existence and depression/anxiety). I think one thing that comes through in publishing the posts from LEMONHOUND in the form of the book Unleashed is the shift in temporal sense. What effect does this multi-temporality have on the discussions on LEMONHOUND? What happens to the reading experience, the engagement discussion with of your ideas and opinions when taken out of the multi-windowed form?

SQ: Yea, that’s a good question. i am not entirely sure how to answer it. There are different temporalities for sure, and as i have said on my blog and elsewhere, it is in the shifting of these spaces that one gets a sense of scale and shape. Perhaps this comes back to my childhood on the road: for my siblings this was quite disastrous. for me it was intensely inspiring. i adored entering and exiting cities, sensing the differences in landscapes, the subtle changes one notes at the 30 mile, 20 mile, 15 mile mark entering a dense area. Being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night was on the one hand, quite dramatic, but on the other hand quite beautiful to see the house in a new light, the different tempo of the street at night, the way lights bled, etc. I have continued to mine these gaps, these moments of

BT: At one point you describe poetry as intentional community. My experience upon reading Unleashed was in part the experience of entering your artistic community, as it extends from Vancouver across Canada, down to LA and overseas. Was this community built in part through LEMONHOUND? Can online communities provide for artists in the way a physical or ‘real’ community does? How has the communal environment around LEMONHOUND affected your work as a poet and/or editor? And as a reader?

SQ: People seem to love Lemon Hound, which is great, I do too. I’ve always had friends in a lot of different cities so it’s not unusual for me to be existing in my head in several places at once.

BT: Do you find that as the internet and blogging continue to transform, are their more voices speaking or less? I am thinking here mostly of your ongoing discussion of women critics and what you seem to see as an alternatively subtle critical voice. By the end of Unleashedwe have heard directly from many of these other voices, men and women. How are the many other voices holding up amidst the field of mega-bloggers in 2010?

SQ: Women are still losing.

BT: You quote David Levis Straus in saying that we prefer photos to reality; do we prefer our cyberselves to reality in the same way?

SQ: That’s very funny. I’m in love with my avatar! I want to marry myself when I see my updates on Facebook! I’m so bloody clever I can’t stand it! I google myself and update myself and in the future I hope to be myself.

BT: Does your title Unleashed refer to what you might see as an alternative voice finally being heard on the internet? Or is it a more personal reference?

SQ: It took me a long, long, time to speak up. Friends who knew me in my 20s in Vancouver were shocked to meet the me that appeared in my 30s. The silent decade was over. Then I hit New York and the Internet and well, I was unleashed. So unleashed works on a personal level. But it’s also about letting women know that there is this force–we all have access to it. The power has been unleashed whether you want to walk away from it or not. Someone will use it. Why not you?

BT: Could Unleashed one day serve as a historical window into the poetic/artistic personalities and discussions (I don’t dare say ‘movements’) of your particular place and time? Do you view yourself as shaping the future direction of poetry and poetry discussions?

SQ: I hope that I can’t imagine future directions in art or poetry. I’m not one who craves acolytes, or wants to make people over to be “like me.” The notion of poets and artists choosing their artistic heirs seems a bit creepy. I like what Woolf said about this–she wanted to see not what those immediately influenced by her were doing, but three generations on. She hoped they were doing something radically different.

So do I.

BT: Related to the last question, at one point you ask “Who will care to read the letters of our generation?” referring to the sheer amount and arbitrariness of what is written online today. Is Unleashed a testament to the fact that there is writing online worthy to be read, and recorded for the future, and that ultimately the internet has not yet provided us with the permanence or authority available in a book?

SQ: No idea. That’s not for me to say.

Sina Queyras grew up on the road in western Canada and she has since lived in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia and Calgary where she was Markin Flanagan Writer in Residence. She is the author most recently of Unleashed (BookThug), a selection of posts from the first four years of her blog. Her previous collection of poetry, Expressway (Coach House 2009) was nominated for a Governor General’s Award and a selection from that book won Gold in the National Magazine Awards. Lemon Hound (Coach House 2006) won a Lambda Award and the Pat Lowther Award. In 2005 she edited Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets, for Persea Books. She is contributing editor at Drunken Boat where she has curated folios on Conceptual Writing and Visual Poetry. She has taught creative writing at Rutgers, Haverford and Concordia University in Montreal where she currently resides.

Jillian Harkness is a graduate student at Ryerson University and a new intern at BookThug.