Interview by Matthew Walsh
Catriona Wright, poetry editor for The Puritan, an online magazine based out of Toronto, came to Vancouver recently to promote her debut poetry collection, Table Manners, at the Tonic Reading Series in June. The poems in this collection move with amazing precision and never go stale, leaving the reader with a richer vocabulary. Wright is a poet with a sharp eye and endless imagination. In this interview, we talked about food, inspiration, and how this book came together in what can only be described as a poetic feast for the mind.
M: The use of language in Table Manners was the first thing I noticed. It’s magnetic, and kept me reading and completely engaged in the world that the text constructs—and I learned so many new words. Sometimes I start a poem just by collecting words. Did you stumble onto any new words, or find other meanings of words while you wrote the poems?
C: I was interested in exploring the language surrounding food culture, including restaurant reviews, menus, competitive cooking shows, dumpster diver message boards, diet tips in magazines, anthropological texts, opinion pieces about genetically modified food, etc. I wanted to investigate the role of food in our lives from as many perspectives as possible. I kept lists of new or interesting terms that I encountered and sometimes sonic riffs on those words—anagrams, rhymes, assonant words, etc. I drew from this lexicon while writing the book.
M: There are some genius lines in Table Manners and many comic moments. For instance, the line “When Cassie posted those pictures of barbecued tarantulas in Cambodia / I wept with jealousy and rage” in the poem “Gastronaut.” There is something conversational about it, but the use of “wept” seems formal, old-fashioned. The pairing totally works. Was this something you wanted to do with this particular voice?
C: Many of my poems are persona poems, by which I just mean that the ‘I’ isn’t me, although of course these ‘I’s share some emotional experiences, realities, and obsessions with me. The voices for these poems often arrive unbidden, fermented chimeras composed of art I’ve read, heard, or seen, things that have happened to me, emotions I’m feeling that day, research, etc. In the case of “Gastronaut” I was channelling and exaggerating a “foodie” voice, so I chose to amplify her diction to give her a sense of desperation that is at once comic and tragic.
M: The sound in these poems pops and crackles. “Parties: A Selection” is sound-focused, but all the poems in Table Manners have a high quality of sound. I was curious how you found that groove. Is sound something you pay a lot of attention to when you are writing poetry?
C: Yes, I’m very conscious of sound. I read all my poems aloud over and over again when I’m writing, which means it’s impossible for me to work in coffee shops and libraries and which probably makes me annoying to live with. A few years ago I took a workshop with Hoa Nguyen on the work of Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein, and she pointed out many of their sonic strategies—assonance, consonance, etc.—which helped me be more deliberate about sound in my own poetry. Having said that, my use of sound is still quite instinctual. The poems often end up achieving a metre, but it’s a ghost metre. While I don’t set out to write in iambs or trochees or anything regular, those rhythms are lurking there.
M: Sometimes when writing, a poem just comes to you perfect as a gift—sometimes. I was curious about your writing method. Do you make a lot of notes, write lines here and there before you jump into writing a poem?
C: I keep several notebooks, files, and notes on my phone with fragments of poems, images, words, or single lines. Sometimes a poem will come to me more or less fully formed, as was the case for both “Gastronaut” and “Magpie,” and other times I will need to do serious revisions. For example, “Date Night #2” took three years to write and only came alive once I realized I needed to add a second section from the octopus’s perspective. I also wrote many, many poems that don’t appear in the book, and those poems mostly failed because I was overly focused on the cleverness of the language—pure play—without having any meaningful core.
I stumbled onto food as a topic after members of my poetry workshop pointed out that most of my poems, or at least the poems that had any merit, were about food. Once I had a focus, I started to be more conscious about researching and thinking about my relationship to food and how food serves as a signifier of different identities. Often my poems will come out of an emotional experience filtered through research I’ve done on a particular food topic.
C: That’s a tough question. It’s generally very instinctual. I’m looking for an energy or urgency—although these can be quiet or restrained—in the poem, a sense that the writer needed to write that specific poem. I’m also consciously trying to get different styles into the magazine. It’s been very helpful to work with A. Zachary, the associate poetry editor, who has introduced me to the work of many exciting writers, including Prism’s own Shazia Hafiz Ramji, whose work appears in our current issue.
M: Dedications can add another layer of meaning to a poem. I noticed that one of the poems, “Mother’s Day,” was dedicated to Mary Toft, and another, “Magpie,” was dedicated to a character in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Both stories they are attached to are so surreal and great—did you find out about Mary through research, and what made you dedicate the poem to Rebeca, from OHYOS?
C: You also like reading the notes section of poetry collections! I think the notes reveal a lot about an author’s influences, their literary lineage, and their idiosyncrasies.
Now onto your questions:
My poem “Mother’s Day,” in which the speaker gives birth to and struggles to raise nine blue rabbits, is dedicated to Mary Toft, an English woman who, in 1726, claimed to have given birth to rabbits. Because there was so much misunderstanding about the body, particularly the female body, medical hoaxes were common at that time. I first heard about Toft when I was taking a graduate seminar on Gulliver’s Travels. The professor casually mentioned the case, and I was intrigued. It seemed like the ideal metaphor for generational differences (a theme I also explore in “Lineage” and “Talking to my Father”). In this case, Mary Toft’s offspring were literally a different species. At the time, I was also reading Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon, a book that discusses the distinction between vertical identity—identity inherited from your parents—and horizontal identity—identity created by being part of a specific community of your peers. I fused these two ideas together in the poem to consider what identity challenges rabbits would face if they had a human parent.
My poem “Magpie” is about pica, a condition in which people are compelled to eat things that don’t have much nutritional value, such as dirt or plaster, and it is dedicated to Rebeca from One Hundred Years of Solitude because she suffered from that condition. Or maybe ‘suffer’ is the wrong word because for Rebeca eating earth became this feminist, rebellious act and it’s an equally ecstatic, defiant act for the speaker of “Magpie.” When I first discovered García Márquez as a teenager, I was instantly hooked. Magic realism offered me a new freedom in my writing, and I think you can see that influence in the collection, for example in “Occult Growers Association Keynote Address, 2075.”
M: With Table Manners out in the world, and yourself on tour right now, are you working on anything new in terms of your own writing?
C: I’m focusing on writing fiction at the moment. I have a collection of short fiction coming out with Nightwood Editions in Fall 2018. I’m also writing some new poetry, but it’s mostly terrible, so it will be several years before I have a new poetry collection ready.
M: You have a story about a sheep in the winter issue of Geist, which was generated by a prompt from the CanLit Premise Generator, found here: http://canlitgenerator.com. I also like to use prompts, like anagrams sorters. What did you like about this particular process of writing?
C: I rarely use prompts for writing poetry, but I’ve found them helpful when writing fiction. I wrote that particular story while I was at Sage Hill, a writing residency in Saskatchewan. I was there to work on my short fiction manuscript, but I was having trouble motivating myself, so I decided to write a short piece based on a CanLit premise every morning as a warm up. For me plot is absolutely the most difficult part of fiction writing. Although I can describe a room for days, I sometimes can’t figure out how the character came to be in that room or how they will ever get out. Prompts are helpful to jumpstart a plot.
M: As a poetry editor, teacher, among other things, I was curious what is on your bookshelf. What are you reading these days?
C: I’m reading a lot of short fiction these days to get myself into fiction-writing mode. I recently read and admired Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh and Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller. On my summer to-read list are Danila Botha’s For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known, Daniel Zomparelli’s Everything Is Awful and You’re a Terrible Person, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love.
Matthew Walsh is a poet and short story writer whose work appears in Joyland, The Malahat Review, Arc, Bad Nudes and others. twitter: @croonjuice