The song Emma Healey couldn't get out of her head
Emma Healey is a poet and writer based in Toronto. Her second collection, Stereoblind, is a series of prose poems that explores the many ways the modern world is askew, from fake news to malleable borders to the artistry that can be found in shopping at big box stores.
Below, Healey takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Kate Pullinger asks, "Do you plan what you write before you start writing it?"
Yeah! And here's how much good it does me: my new book of prose poems — a tiny poetry book with tiny poetry pages and big open poetry margins — took me six years to write. If that sounds like a punishing eternity, it is! Planning was the problem, or at least the technique I used to manifest a problem for myself. I knew I wanted to write this book but I had no idea how, so I spent forever plotting out these insane, elaborate narrative structures and then halfheartedly trying to cram my ideas into them. It sucked! The whole thing was just so filled with dread.
It's not hard to see why I did this, though. I wanted the exact kind of control I did not have. I wanted each of my poems to be haunted by a brilliant, omniscient author whose shimmering attention fell all over the scenery like good light. I figured that if the poems felt planned-out enough, people would have to know that the flashes of vulnerability inside them were there on purpose. I wanted some plausible deniability, a couple degrees of remove; I thought it was the only way I could get loose from myself. The work only got good when I stopped trying to control it so much. I wish I could say I've learned from this experience, but I am now working on another book and doing basically exactly the same thing again.
2. Jeff Latosik asks, "Do you think it's possible to separate writing from a need for validation or to have an audience?"
I think you kinda have to, unless you want to spend six years working on the same book of prose poems! Or at least that's how it is for me. As an inveterate Lisa Simpson, my desire for validation (and fear of screwing up) can be a big problem if I let it. And I can definitely let it. Some days, even when I turn my phone off, I can feel the idea of an audience growing around me, describing my outline, moving with me. Like an aura. It sounds like a big glowing tangle of harsh feedback, vibrates on a frequency that healthier people can hear a mile off and will swerve to avoid. The only way I am ever able to give myself a shot at writing something good is to try to get away from that crowd, I think. I need a lot of free, quiet space to spark against myself in that way that makes a piece of writing interesting.
3. Adeena Karasick asks, "Is there a game or a toy from your childhood, that now that you look back on it, has influenced your writing in unexpected yet powerful ways?"
4. Sarah Raughley asks, "What do you think about diversity and marginalization in writing and do you commit to this issue through your writing?"
This is a very complicated question that feels impossible to answer in a couple paragraphs! I want to start by saying I'm personally wary of overusing the word "diversity" myself, even though the concept it represents is obviously crucial. Growing up in downtown Toronto, I frequently heard (and used) that word as a tool for eliding the very real and very pressing issues this city has with race and class. Marginalized communities are actively ignored and frequently oppressed here, but I was able to spend a large chunk of my life comfortably labouring under the delusion that I had never participated in "real" racism because I lived in a "diverse" place, had "diverse" friends, ate "diverse" foods, etc. Until my 20s, I barely knew a thing about carding, or police brutality, or what gentrification was doing to communities just outside my door. I didn't have to. I lived in Canada's most diverse city! What more was there to think about? That's white privilege for you: turning a word that's supposed to be about paying attention to the world outside your door into a method of blocking that world out.
All that aside, I'm a pasty white able-bodied cisgender femme-looking straight-passing settler woman whose life has been so free of true hardship that I might as well have been living it inside a roll of bubble wrap. Of course I think diversity is important! My work comes from my perspective, and while my perspective has its uses, I can't imagine ever wanting to read or write or live or work in a community where everyone's lived experiences were the same as mine. Especially given how small and safe and simple my life has been. Thankfully, Canadian literature is blessed with a tremendous range of sharp, clear-voiced writers right now. The landscape looks much less bland than it did even a few years ago.
That said, this industry is still infected by a virulent strain of bigotry and small-mindedness, especially in its upper echelons, that frequently makes it a difficult and dangerous place for anyone who's not a straight white man to think and work and write. As a person with my particular set of privileges, I think it's my responsibility to try and figure out how to push back against that, create some safer space where I can. A lot of that has to do with knowing when to shut up, which I will do about this now.
5. Jalal Barzanji asks, "Why do you write?"
I can't possibly answer this question without sounding like a total narc! Sorry.
6. Tomson Highway asks, "Do you ever get jealous of other writers? If so, why?"
On a practical level, I get jealous of writers who know how to finish a project quickly and efficiently, writers whose houses don't turn into a big garbage pile when they're on deadline, writers who have money, and writers who have nice dogs. Art-wise, I get jealous of people who seem to see the world from the same angle as me, but clearer. That's the feeling, right? Like you've spent years trying to clear the same low level on the same stupid game, and then you look over your shoulder and this other person's just blasting their way through like it's nothing. I like this kind of jealousy, though; it's a bright feeling, useful. It reminds me that there are things I am interested in, that I aspire to.
7. Marina Endicott asks, "What is the line of prose or poetry that comes to you in the dark night of your soul?"
This morning I woke up at 4 AM with the Guess Who's 1969 hit single "These Eyes" stuck in my head. This is the third day in a row I have been haunted by Burton Cummings' insistent warble, those weird intense trumpets, the keyboards, the key change. Is it possible to die from having a song stuck in your head, do you think? Like, it leaches into your soul and just rots it from the inside out? Something to consider!
8. Laura Ritland asks, "What advice would you have given to yourself as a writer five years ago?"
Five years ago I was 22 years old, living in Montreal and doing technical writing for a porn company. When I remember this time in my life it is always late spring and I am the only one anywhere – on the metro, in my apartment, at my desk – though it's maybe best not to read too much into this. My office was about a 15 minute walk away from a Village de Valeurs that always felt like a church on a weekday: floors polished to a high gloss, tall tall ceilings, piped-in music so airy you could literally breathe it. I was frequently (actually) the only person there.
When someone else walked in I could feel it without looking, like an animal who knows another animal. I cannot overstate how hard this thrift store ruled, or how uncannily fused to the shadowy realm of my own desire it felt. One night I had a dream about owning a very beautiful sequined black dress, and then the next day, no kidding, I found that exact same dress at this store, right at the end of a rack, shimmering in a stray shaft of late afternoon light. I walked to this place every single day after work because I needed any excuse not to go home and work on my terrible novel, but also because I found so much good stuff there that it started to feel like I was working on some grand project whose shape I could not yet see.
Does that make sense? Like I was building a museum of my future self comprised of objects let go from someone else's past: an orange Le Creuset pot, a white antique radio, a camel-coloured spring coat. I knew I was compiling something, I just didn't know what it was. To that version of myself I would say, I guess, trust your instincts. You never know what you'll end up using years from now.