Lauren Turner is a writer living in Tiohtiá:ke/Montréal on the unceded land of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation. Her poetry chapbook, We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time, was published by knife | fork | book in March 2018. Other poems and essays have appeared in Grain, Arc Magazine, Poetry is Dead, Canthius, Minola Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Puritan, and elsewhere. She won the 2018 Short Grain Contest and was a finalist for carte blanche’s 2017 3Macs Prize.
I moved to Fredericton, New Brunswick, nearly one year ago, and in that year, I’ve tried my damnedest to learn about Canada’s literary and publishing communities. It was Adroit that brought me to John Stintzi, however, when they interviewed author Hala Alyan for the journal earlier this year.
The conversation, below, between Ontario-born Stintzi and Montréal poet Lauren Turner, came about because, as an American living abroad, I have been anxious to merge the literary communities I know in the U.S. and those I am still becoming acquainted with in Canada. As the Director of Content, I am in a position to provide the confluence for such a conversation in the pages of Adroit. Both Stintzi and Turner recently published chapbooks with knife | fork | book, a poetry-only small press and bookstore in Toronto. I had the privilege to visit k | f | b in June, and I am so excited to give it—alongside its owner, Kirby, a CanLit institution—some much-deserved attention in the States.
The subject line of the e-mail I received from John, with this conversation attached, read “Lauren Turner conversation!” and I don’t think there’s a better way to express the excitement I feel in hosting these poets, below.
Lauren R. Korn, Director of Content
John Stintzi: We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time—your chapbook out from knife | fork | book—is a collection of poems, but it’s also a modern retelling of the Samson and Delilah story (from the Old Testament) set in modern day Montréal. I’d love to start by just hearing about what drew you to that story in particular?
Lauren Turner: I didn’t intentionally set out to write about Samson and Delilah. The project started in procrastination to writing an essay about Samson Agonistes by John Milton, a closet drama I was studying for a grad school seminar. Like most literature and pop culture devoted to the parable, Milton’s work presents Delilah as a conniving femme fatale and Samson as the wronged man ensnared in her trap. Beyond the misogynistic and two-dimensional nature of the Miltonic text, I started thinking about how when relationships end badly, there’s a knee-jerk temptation to paint the instigating party as the villain. I wasn’t convinced that Delilah made a good villain.
JS: I wonder how many great projects started as procrastination? My current novel started out as an attempt to write a short story in place of a term paper, only it refused to stay short and I had to write the term paper anyway! I love how you modernized this story. Like, Samson with a man bun is perfect—the book feels like Lynn Crosbie’s Liar meets Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. It strikes me that while being a part the chapbook’s narrative, each of your poems feel self contained. Did you find that to be a challenge?
LT: Right? In my defense, I was also due to submit poems for workshop that week! And thank you, that’s a tremendous compliment. Those two books were very influential during the writing of We’re Not, along with Ariana Reines’ Coeur de Lion for added grit. Rereading Liar is always the best remedy if you’re writing a piece that has lost its pulse! I wasn’t fully aware of what poetry could do until I started reading Lynn Crosbie.
Anyway, to loop back to your question: I’m relieved to hear that my poems read like individual entities. You brought up your novel and the writing of this project definitely felt novel-esque. But I’m envious of you, as a novelist, because the same pressure isn’t exerted on book chapters to stand alone outside the whole! When I started We’re Not, I was 23 and admittedly under-read, so I didn’t realize the mental gymnastics required to complete it. That sounds like a humble brag, but there’s a reason it’s chapbook-sized and not a 100-page tome!
JS: Every time I work on putting together my poetry manuscript, I have the distinct urge to write nothing but novels for the rest of my life. Collections (of poetry and otherwise) are so difficult to wrap a head around, because of they bring disparate work together, but also require some sort of constructed ordering. With We’re Not, I’m guessing the ordering was more straightforward to put together than a more general collection of poems, since you did have an underlying narrative timeline to tack the poems to.
To put together my poetry chapbook, The Machete Tourist, I had a hard time coming up with what to include, and ended up doing a “sampler” of several of the different kinds of poems in the wider manuscript rather than, say, feature a single strain of the underlying (lyric) narrative. But having the trajectory of the book in mind did give me something to hold onto when it came to ordering the poems I selected. What part of the chapbook experience (before or after publication) have you found most difficult?
LT: Oh, really? That’s surprising since The Machete Tourist reads like a very intentional whole. For me, your speaker holds the poems together. Their voice is the blade that crisply, and patiently, parses apart each thought. How you play with focus across the collection is really exciting, too. It feels like sitting in the optometrist’s chair, being asked to look through different lenses: “How does the poem look this way? What about now?”
As for my chapbook experience, I had things pretty easy! David Bradford, who formerly did editing for knife | fork | book, sent me a Twitter DM (of all things!) after a reading I did in May 2017 to ask if I had a chapbook to submit. At that time, I hadn’t even met (Jeff) Kirby, the owner of knife | fork | book, or visited their delightful bookshop in Kensington Market. So, I thought my odds of a “yes” were low to moderate—especially since 3rd-person poetry about biblical figures isn’t exactly en vogue! Anyway, I was scheduled to have coffee with Kirby, a month later, after a knife | fork | book launch in Montréal to discuss We’re Not. But the coffee never happened. Instead, we met at the event, chatted for a bit, and when my chapbook came up in conversation, Kirby said simply: “Oh darling, of course, we want to publish you!” And that was that.
JS: I’m glad The Machete Tourist felt put together—I guess the feeling (and fear) of their seeming disparate-ness is a curse levied on the creator!
Also, I definitely sympathize with the cautious pessimism of submitting my manuscript. I’d also never met Kirby, and was also solicited through a Twitter DM! Though it was from Kirby directly, after I’d tweeted about being 5 away from 100 magazine rejections. Kirby’s eventual response to the manuscript was: “You had me at ‘Dayspring,’ and held me through ‘War Wounds.’”
It did turn out that the real reason I was on their radar was that at one point (2013!) I had a blog (which nobody read) where I wrote a post against admiring people in secret—arguing that you should be vocal to people when you appreciate what they do, even if though it can feel weird. Somehow, Kirby had read that, and retained it, and followed me for it. It was weirdly disappointing to me to have to consider that they didn’t publish me out of pity regarding a silly tweet about rejection but because I’d actually—years and years ago—written something that made them feel something earnest.
I will say, on the “ordering” of manuscript idea, I did very clearly want to start at “Dayspring” and end at “War Wounds.” Most importantly, I wanted to end with “War Wounds” (a poem about experimenting with shaving my legs) because it was the queerest poem in the book, and was therefore the poem I was the most scared to have people read. I figured some people would put the book down before getting to it, but if they read the whole way, they would probably be on my side.
Did you find the experience of publishing yours scary at all, despite that the surface of the story is Samson & Delilah’s story? To me, it feels way more urgent and vulnerable than your cheeky description of it being “3rd-person poetry about biblical figures” might belie. I don’t want this question to seem to be too leading—“no” is totally cool—but was there anything you were afraid of in publishing this book?
LT: But Kirby is all about publicly admiring poets and championing their work! I’m not surprised an essay “against admiring people in secret” would stay with them. As someone who is (apparently) too hard on myself, I relate excessively to your “they must be publishing me for secret, alternate reasons” anxiety. Do you find that writing auto-poetry heightens the feelings of insecurity over rejections vs. being accepted? Like it’s difficult to untangle yourself as a person from the poems as art? The Machete Tourist is clearly written from the skeletal level. I like how when I said “the speaker” earlier, you just threw that mask out the window and referred to “War Wounds” as “a poem about experimenting with shaving my legs.” The ownership of the work is powerful. And ha, I’ve been found out! We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time is filled with my own self-interested concerns. A few years back, I was very preoccupied by the idea that your past could close off your future. It’s an anxiety that backbones my chapbook. I never intended Delilah to exist as a stand-in for myself. But there are overlaps between her existence in the poems and mine from the ages of 24 to 26. She’s hurtling towards everything, yet living almost entirely in her head, which fuels the lightning-paced relationship with Samson. They get married quickly, but I wanted their connection to appear ambiguous despite its intensity. Performative love, almost. But ultimately, I wasn’t afraid of publishing anything in We’re Not, because moving away from 1st person allows a certain degree of anonymity.
JS: I’m happy to hear that it wasn’t scary for you! And I will say that I haven’t had any bad reactions to mine, either—though I do think I probably have some conversations in my future related to it. I absolutely love that We’re Not takes up a space in the middle distance between your experience and simply projecting a voice onto the fictional lives of fictional characters. (I will maybe make enemies calling the bible “fictional.”)
As much as my poetry—these days—can be described as “auto-poetic,” I think there’s no lesser value in work which extends beyond the autobiographical or lyrical self, which is why I appreciate your use of “speaker” to refer to my voice in “War Wounds.” I don’t see value in reality over fiction, is what I mean to say, because I think that line often gets in the way of valuing the expression.
When it comes down to it, it’s simple: I don’t want readers to care about my life, I want readers to care about what I’m saying. Which is what I love about We’re Not. It says a lot of stuff about life and performative love (and generally relationships in this day and age) that I deeply connect with as a human being who has experienced these things. I don’t come to the book hoping to learn something about ex-boyfriends of yours, I come to it to feel things about the characters that I refuse to let myself feel for myself.
One thing I personally didn’t expect when the chapbook came out was how many people would, you know, actually read it. What has the experience of having the chapbook meant to you as a writer? (Besides getting to become part of Kirby’s entourage, which is not to be undervalued.)
LT: I went to an Alex Dimitrov reading where he was launching Together and By Ourselves, which comes across as intensely personal. And before the Q & A, he said: “Ask me anything, except about my book.” As a statement, it seems so counter-intuitive since the poems read as confessional, but I feel that way too. I’m very comfortable putting secrets in poems, tucked carefully under the gauze of aesthetic. It doesn’t mean I want to have a conversation about what I’ve disclosed. Essentially, this is my convoluted way of trying to show solidarity. I hate that writing auto-poetry—which is my main focus these days, too—forces you to defend the actual content, rather than strength of the writing itself. I’m open to gripes about word choice and metaphor, not about my version of the “truth”. In any case, The Machete Tourist is beautiful, affecting, and brutal, and it deserves a large, enthusiastic readership. So, I’m very happy that it’s getting one! Being primarily based in the U.S., did you worry about going with a Canadian publisher? A chapbook feels like a concrete indication that you’ve been working really damn hard.
In CanPo[etry], it’s definitely treated like the biggest step prior to publishing a full-length collection. Before knife | fork | book showed up, We’re Not felt like a failed thesis project. The manuscript didn’t work well at 50 pages, so I’d hacked it down to 20 pages and rewrote half of it. By this point, I wasn’t sure if the poems were even good anymore—which is what happens when you obsess over a project for four years! So, getting the green light for We’re Not was a huge confidence booster. Kirby’s resounding “yes” motivated me to spend more time writing, submit more work to journals, and ultimately felt like a welcoming hand into the community. Having a chapbook helps from a career standpoint, but it benefited me more emotionally. When knife | fork | book accepted my manuscript, I was living in the aftershock of being diagnosed with a terminal illness, barely two months earlier. Considering my affinity for the Samson and Delilah story, I’m shockingly agnostic. But new friends and good news have historically shown up at the bleakest points in my life.
JS: There’s so much I love here, and I think I shared many of these feelings. I’ll say that I have no qualms with having a Canadian publisher despite that I’m in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. (Unless, of course, that future gets much, much worse.) Also, a piece of advice that Brad Listi has been sharing a lot lately on his podcast—the Otherppl Podcast—is that you should “follow the enthusiasm.” It’s been a rare thing to feel as considered through a publishing experience as I have with Kirby. I don’t think I know anyone who loves poetry quite like Kirby does. Also, since poetry is such a fickle market, I don’t think it matters in the same way as it does with fiction where you’re being published. Silly as it may be from a “career” perspective, I’m actually really happy to publish in Canada as well as the U.S. Despite a lot of the pain in CanLit these days, there’s so much exceptional work happening, and I’m happy to pretend I’m a part of it.
And you’re right, a chapbook is definitely viewed as a big step towards publishing a full collection. It’s a great thing to have, but I personally don’t anticipate that if I ever find a home (in Canada or the U.S.) for Junebat—the full manuscript—it will be with someone who has read the chapbook. But I’m more than happy to be proven wrong.
For me, I don’t know that the actual achievement of getting the chapbook has hit me as much as the fact that the chapbook has actually been read by people. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t had a large readership (though I think my mom has bought and distributed ~20-30 copies) but more people have read it and responded to it than I (jaded as I can be) really ever anticipated.
I want more writers to have this experience, and I think more will. I love chapbooks, and love that they seem to be having a moment right now. It feels like, for me at least, most of the stuff I publish in magazines doesn’t really get read by anyone once it’s published (with one recent exception being my poem in The Puritan). Being out of school for awhile now, it’s been a time since I felt that an amount of people were reading my work. Which is all I really want.
One great thing also about chapbooks is that they don’t take long to publish, which is a kindness. Junebat has been under consideration with a press since before I was ever solicited for The Machete Tourist—and the chapbook has been out for three months now. I’m really heartened to hear that your acceptance was there to brighten up the dark times of your diagnosis. Shifting gears a smidge, I’ve been thinking a lot about time and publishing lately through the lens of writers who are working with illness, like you, and how the industry could better serve them by—for example—prioritizing their consideration and expediting publication. This said, I haven’t heard of any publishers doing anything like that, and I hate that this translates into sick writers having to compromise their ambitions by approaching smaller presses—often with a more limited distribution—because they have a quicker turnaround because they don’t have the privilege to tolerate the industry’s glacial pace, and just want to get their work out there. What has having knife | fork | book and Kirby championing you and your work meant to you? And how might we as an industry do better to serve writers with illness?
LT: This interview should double as a bat signal for readers to flock to your Goodreads page and leave their reviews of The Machete Tourist. We need some quantitative evidence here!
To start dancing around your questions, time is definitely a major concern in my life. Mainly, not having enough of it. But I’ve learned that it’s better for me if other people don’t conform to the pressure of my self-imposed schedule. Having such a serious illness, I often get stuck on what I’m going to do next and how fast I can accomplish it. It’s a little maddening for myself and for anyone close to me. Plus, I lose the enjoyment of my life as it happens. However, you’re entirely right. I’m wary of submitting to a press with a large backlog because my health is unpredictable. I don’t think I feel resentful about that fact or want publishers to speed up on my behalf, rather I’m hurt when my peers can’t empathize. The hardest part of being sick is the emotional isolation. So, I appreciate that you’re asking me how I want to be accommodated, even if I don’t have a perfect answer. Sickness is so individual. To create a CanLit that serves every sick writer, we’d have to start making an effort to ask everyone separately what would help. Looping back again, it’s easy to get hung up on the big-name publishers. But I try to remember they aren’t the be-all and end-all. Would wide circulation and prestige be amazing? Of course! Is it necessary to produce a book that readers enjoy? Absolutely not. I mean, Billy-Ray Belcourt just won the Griffin Poetry Prize with This Wound is a World, which was published by Frontenac House, a small press based in Calgary. The quality of the poetry comes first. I would be thrilled to home my full-length manuscript with a publisher who was excited about the work. That’s it. You and I both had positive experiences with knife | fork | book, which isn’t a large enterprise, but their impact throughout CanPo feels tremendous. We’ve been profoundly spoiled, I think!
JS: I so agree. I think that’s one of the great things about CanLit, is that—unlike the U.S.—a smaller house loving your work can still make a big impact. Billy-Ray is one of many great examples. It still happens in the U.S., of course, but I think in the U.S. there feels like there’s just so much more noise. I also think it’s worth mentioning that experiences with smaller presses (k | f | b being a great example, since it’s pretty much a one-Kirby operation) can also be much more rewarding than being taken as one of 30 books at a bigger house. There’s a trade-off, and just because the house might have wider distribution, you might not get that love-campaigning that can make all the difference.
And you’re right, I’m definitely guilty of oversimplifying how sick writers could be better served—there’s no one-size-fits-all, and I appreciate your calling me out! I just know how much the prolonged waiting erodes me, and I figured that if my time were more limited, I’d lose my mind.
I so appreciate your taking the time to converse with me about all things serious. Another of the great things about having been one of the three chapbooks launched this spring (mine, yours, and the amazing Roxanna Bennett’s Unseen Garden) has been meeting and connecting with you and your wonderful work, both in We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time and otherwise. What’s next for you? Is there anything exciting (brand new or coming out soon) we should keep our eyes peeled for?
LT: Likewise! It was a pleasure to meet you and your lovely partner at the launch in March! I’m so glad that we got to have this chat. Thank you for taking the time out of your week, and thanks to The Adroit Journal and Lauren Korn for facilitating this conversation. I have some exciting, top-secret news to announce in August. So, stay tuned for that! Readers can find me on Twitter and Instagram as @sickpoettheory where I post any new publications. Otherwise, I’ll be here in Montréal, trying to survive the summer heat and toiling away at my full-length manuscript, tentatively entitled The Only Card in a Deck of Knives.