Home > Interviews > “Poetry won’t save us exactly, but it’ll still do a lot of work”: Interview with Adèle Barclay

Interview by Aja Moore

Vancouver poet Adèle Barclay just released her debut poetry collection, If I Were In A Cage I’d Reach Out For You (Nightwood Editions, 2016). We talked about it over dosas the day before Halloween.

I was thinking a lot about these poems as a physical collection, a book in my hands and how much follow-through that requires, and about how (astrological) Cardinal Signs are said to lack exactly that. How did the book come about? One day did you think, “well, now I have a lot of poems,” or were you working toward a specific goal?

How the book came about is: I didn’t do an MFA, I didn’t do a BFA. I was working on my PhD in English Lit so I was following this more academic route. In 2014 I was in New York ostensibly for research for my dissertation, but I also had some American friends who were poets doing their MFAs who introduced me to a lot of American poets. Then I went to Montreal and did a three-day workshop with [poet] Brenda Shaughnessy. At the time I had just a handful of poems. She had such faith and confidence in my writing and she said, “so you’re going to write a book and it’s going to be published,” and at that point what she said did not make sense to me. But she gave me that boost of confidence. I really get a lot of energy from workshops. So Brenda sort of planted the seed of “you can do this,” and I started writing more. I did try to experiment a little bit with form, or just try different voices. I’m afraid of writing the same poem twice, so I like inventing formal tricks for myself to see what falls through. On the one hand it’s pointed, but on the other, I am a person who moves very intuitively.

The theme of encouraging others and reaching out to others seems to have come full circle through the text you produced, which felt to me to have those principles at its heart. This book seems to be the result of being pushed and encouraged to make what you’ve always wanted to.

When I was reading your collection, I immediately thought of Ann Cvetkovich’s Public Feelings, which is a work of affective theory. She argues for archiving our emotions as a form of research, so empathy and intellect become synonymous. In particular, she claims her book is for anyone who might be experiencing a “political depression,” which she defines as the sense that “customary forms of political response including direct action and political analysis are no longer working to change the world or to make us feel better.” She suggests that we disrupt political depression through works of art, or just by continuing to be open with people even when we are encouraged not to. Your poems showed me an antidote to the neoliberal spirit of this city, and a counterargument to not sharing. In Public Feelings, Cvetkovitch makes the point that any anti-capitalist work must also necessarily centre emotionality without pathologizing it. Your book felt like this wonderful blueprint for doing exactly this—although I’m not trying to suggest that poetry will solve all our problems.

I think we can make those claims without pitting poetry against other genres. Why poetry? It has that effect of magic, or foregrounds it. That’s what it has. It’s made of many things logic, illogic, feelings, thought, the spaces between these things. I love this idea of centering emotions without pathologizing them, which I think is a difficult but necessary task. This capitalist system has convinced us either to repress or discretely deal with emotions in order to carry on upholding and inhabiting these demoralizing structures. The openness is a disruption I hope. And my engagement with poetry was a way to complicate that openness or seeming directness. I like to imagine the world through a surreal emotional veil and to charge these minute objects with meaning instead of rushing past or repressing and as a way to explore political, emotional realities without completely pinning them down. I love that these poems resonated with you and registered on this political scale. I do see poetry as a magical antidote to the crushing neoliberal spirit of this city and this moment.

The poems that I remember most vividly are the two really small ones that are beside each other and linked by their titles, “What Transpires in the Night Before the Night”, and “What Transpires in the Night After the Night”. I was wondering about your experience with small poems. Do you write them a lot? Do you love them?

Small poems do a lot of heavy lifting and they’re hard to pin down. They counter rules about narrative and metaphor and conceit; they can be quite radical because they’re saying: this is all you need. This is all this poem is, nothing more. Short poems are such a fuck you.

I had a favourite part: “the heart breaks/in poetry and then in prose.” I’m curious to know what your intentions were with those lines?

That makes me really happy because I thought it was a little gushy. But I also felt I had done enough work and I deserved the gushiness. I proved that I can be cool and calculating and now I’m going to gush—I felt a little insecure about those lines but it’s from a poem for a friend so I drew strength from that. I guess what that line is about is that visceral connection between poetry and emotion and the processing of it. Poetry gets to be there first because everywhere else it seems so superfluous. You can tell the story and its irresolutions with poetry and then maybe with time you’ll massage it into a narrative that’s palatable, but poetry gets to be there first for the messiness, and not that the poetry itself is messy it’s just that it can hold the messiness. In this rare scenario poetry gets priority.

I was thinking it suggests, if not the superiority, the very unusual and particular affective power of poetry, which is really achieved through its non-normative state: Could you speak about when and why to communicate through poetry? What other forms of communication should we employ as well? Because I think of poetry as being gorgeous but also on the flip side, essentially the most inefficient way of communicating anything.

And that’s where it derives that magic and power we were talking about. It fucks with the normies because it is inefficient. It fucks with capitalism because inefficiency is disruptive. There are definitely times where you want to be efficient. You want to tell someone what you’re feeling and what you need and they don’t get poetry and so you use efficient language. But I want to make room for the gorgeous, absurd, and conflicted too.

I also love letters. I like writing friends very, very long messages. To the point where I wish I could do it all day like an old fashioned French aristocrat. What I like about Twitter and social media and its relationship to poetry is that I think that it’s a place where you can really experiment and cultivate personae and I think that relates aptly with poetry. Obviously there are scary aspects, but I think what we’ve been shown is that the internet didn’t invent hatred, and patriarchy, and racism and classism and homophobia and all these other things we see, it’s just showing them to us.

The first poem that I ever saw of yours was “Cardinal Versus Mutable”. I was wondering if you would just say a little bit about those two signs, and your experience as a Cardinal sign (Aries, Cancer, Libra, Capricorn) dealing with Mutable signs (Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, Pisces)?

It’s definitely a poem that announces itself to an audience. I wrote it during the Virgo full moon, in deep dark February while visiting my friend in Penticton and she’s a Virgo. Virgos are Mutable but what I love about Virgos is that they don’t think they are. They think they’re stoic and entrenched in ideas, but they’re actually more fluid. The poem is about connecting over that intensity that bubbles under the surface. What I like about astrology is that it’s an exercise in relating to other people. I think it can encourage empathy; also, like poetry, it is about finding that connection through paradox and trying to build on those connections; like, I’m motivated in this way, and you’re motivated in those ways, but how do they link up?

One theme that I kept coming back to was distance, but the distance isn’t simply geographical—it’s emotional distance, and it’s also just timing. It made me think of “Queer Time”, and that the impulse to think chronologically is not necessarily conducive to accurately expressing our emotional selves. One place where this came through in particular to me was in one of my favourite poems in the collection, “Unfucked”: “a child sleeps in the room/where I sometimes write/which makes your new relationship feel realer.” This whole poem sort of broke me apart, but in particular I read these lines as this sort of pained (yet powerful) admission that even the most radical of us can default to measuring ourselves against these prescribed markers of intimacy. I felt that the poem was pointing to the fact that more things are measured symbolically (emotionally) than most of us would like to admit.

Sometimes feelings disrupt that notion of linear time. Again, linear time is sort of that colonial construct that capitalism has really latched onto. And everything is this sort of escalator that you’re on but life is really way more chaotic and circular than that. There are things you don’t know and we kind of learn this from astrology where you have retrogrades. Things move forward, then they go back. I like that you used the term “Queer time” especially when it comes to friendships and relationships. This idea that you love someone and then it’s over and then it’s done…but no, those feelings don’t go away—they maybe disperse or change. And whether or not a certain relationship fits a certain script, where do you put those feelings? In poems? That’s where I found a place I could put them.

This book is very punk —or—what I wish the punk scene was like, predicated on vulnerability and honesty rather than hyper-masculine posturing. I found this book incredibly radical.

I’m usually thinking about radical kinship; that was also something I was trying to grapple with. It turns out the nuclear family is toxic—and with a name like that! How do we then build our families and our kinship networks? I really do believe in friends as family and in acknowledging the pleasure and difficulties inherent in these relationships. We neglect our friendships or we think they’re simple and easy and we don’t necessarily do the emotional work they require. We diminish it or we don’t really get to talk about it. When a friendship ends we don’t get to mourn it in the same way we would get to mourn a romantic relationship. I tried to pay homage to these other forms of kinship and that sort of radical vulnerability, that there’s strength in that. And those are often very feminine traits that get denigrated in society, and trying to honour all of that while living through it.

One thing I really loved about the book is that it foregrounds the feminine I, which can be really daunting and scary to commit to. Even the title of your collection forces the reader to stare the book’s subjectivity in the face. Can you talk about using I?

Yeah, I think it’s easy to be invalidated as a feminine person wielding the I. We can see that a man’s misery is read as political but a woman’s misery is pathologized. But introspection is one of the few places you have power, especially as a woman. Also, the I so often in relation to other pronouns, other entities and social webs. I often address a person, a you, not to define this you but to invite them into this world of language and desire with me. I want my poetic I to feel open rather than closed off.

I thought there was this really interesting tension that had me laughing by the end because this book is so much about connecting with others and yet I feel that astrology is one of the most divisive things I’ve ever become interested in.

I’m just trying to mend and bridge. Whether or not you subscribe to astrology, I do think the intra-personal can transcend that divide. People don’t have to be into it. But I do think that when we heal ourselves and our relationships that reverberates out, so whatever people need to do to process, whether it’s therapy, and astrology is like therapy—I can’t always afford to go see a therapist. I used to resist astrology as well. I felt like it was a weird scapegoat. At the time I didn’t really relate to being a Cancer. I don’t think astrology ordains things: I think it prompts you to consider certain themes to think about as you relate to other people, as you move through this world, as you try to love people, or make art, or do whatever it is you do. It alerts you. And again, that self-refection is really, really helpful—knowing what motivates you and why.

There are a few poems in the book, which are really explicitly about astrology— “Cardinal versus Mutable”, which we’ve talked about, and then “The Return of Saturn”. I would love to hear about the process of writing that poem, but also I’m wondering: do you ever write a poem and then realize after that there is an astrological dimensions to it that just seeped in?

Totally. I think there are probably a lot of astrological references I didn’t set out to do, but the poems absorbed them because they’re part of my atmosphere. There are a lot of new moons in the collection, and that has to do with the way that I mark time. Astrology brings up certain themes at certain points in my life. In “Return of Saturn” I was being a smartass, but it came back to get me. I wrote it before my return of Saturn actually started. My return of Saturn started in February and ends in November, which overlapped with the end of my PhD, and finishing writing, editing and publishing the book. So I wrote the poem before all that and it was a coy and playful title because I knew about Return of Saturn but I didn’t quite take it seriously. And then my Return of Saturn happened—and it kicked my ass in bad and good ways. So I think I was being a little bit of a smartass and then Saturn was like, “Oh, girl, you think you know, but you don’t even know.” Yeah, Saturn, you’re just an olive pit, and Saturn’s like, it’s all gonna come up. I was resisting it. My Return of Saturn felt like everything in my life burned down and then started over again. My Saturn is in Sagittarius, so it was very fiery and it also means huge change and travel. They were good changes, but they were tumultuous.

Is there anything you can think of that new writers, really, really new, unknown writers might want to know?

I totally welcome that. I just put out a book and I just went through my PhD and so I’m in this time of great reflection—not that I have a whole lot of wisdom, but what do people want to or need to know about these experiences? I did a reading at the University of Victoria on Friday and at the end I said, “So: don’t ever sacrifice anything for your degree.” And that’s something someone said to me and again, the intensely neoliberal academic climate wants you to be this good capitalist worker and shut yourself off from community, real nourishing community. But don’t neglect your friendships, your relationships, whatever, your art, your future, your health, that’s just going to further alienate you. The book is also about my love for people and friendship and wanting to validate a lot of relationships that don’t fit normative scripts. I don’t think most relationships do, but really sort of getting at the spaces between the lines—the textures of those loves and those friendships. I do think poetry and letters and words really can bolster relationships and build worlds.

Aja Moore is a writer currently completing her undergraduate degree at The University of British Columbia. Her work can be seen online at the Minola Review. She is currently at work curating a poetry mix tape. You can find her on Instagram at: @smallhoax.