Aaron Schneider Interviews Spenser Smith
Spenser Smith is a Regina-born poet, essayist, and photographer who recently moved to Winnipeg after 10 years in B.C. His debut book of poetry, A brief relief from hunger, was published by Gordon Hill Press in 2023.
Aaron Schneider: Where did this book come from? Did it begin as individual poems that you gathered together or did you conceptualize it as a book early on in the writing process?
Spenser Smith: The first poems started as a response to the cruel but prevalent comments I read on social media about drug users and overdose survivors. This was in 2016 when British Columbia had declared a public health emergency over rising overdose deaths. I was an undergrad in Nanaimo and already writing about my experiences with addiction, but the crisis and the public’s reaction sharpened my focus, especially since I had friends dying from overdoses. From the start, I thought about these poems as a book, but they didn’t come together as a collection until I started my MFA.
AS: You do some fascinating things with form in this collection. The poems range from more conventional poems to erasure poems, but what I am most interested in are the poems that appropriate non-poetic linguistic structures to poetry. For example, “Treatment: Three Yelp Reviews” takes the form of three reviews complete with star ratings, and the longer poem “Hundreds of Men: A case study” follows the structure of a case study, including field notes and interviews. Why did you choose to write poetry in these forms? What do you find interesting about working within structures that are formal but not poetic? And how do you choose these forms?
SS: There is a richness in non-poetic forms that weave through our everyday lives, and I try to tap into that. I love online reviews, for example. There is something compelling about the way people express their extreme emotions there, often venturing into creative expression (the pizza either “TASTES LIKE CARDBOARD” or is “A SLICE OF HEAVEN FROM NEAPOLITAN GODS.”) “Treatment: Three Yelp Reviews” reflects my own extremes with treatment centres, from a centre secretly run by Scientology that harmed my recovery, to a reputable centre that genuinely helped me turn my life around. The stark contrast between these experiences lent itself to the form, which I was a bit obsessed with at the time. Instead of doom scrolling at night, I scrolled restaurant reviews.
When it comes to “Hundreds of Men: A case study,” it’s like I’d been doing a lifelong case study on masculinity without realizing it. I spent the first twenty years of my life analyzing the tough, handy employed by my parents’ roofing business. As a sensitive kid who wasn’t good at building things with my hands, I often wondered where I fit into this picture of manhood. Years later, as a high school dropout who somehow found himself in university, I was suddenly immersed in academic research and case studies, which offered the perfect structure to investigate my findings.
If I stuck to just writing conventional poems, I’d likely get bored. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but for me, experimenting with non-traditional forms is creatively energizing.
AS: Many of the poems in this book are quite intimate, and some of these poems involve people other than yourself. I’m always interested in how writers decide when it is and isn’t appropriate to include intimate material about other people in their work. How do you make this decision? When is material appropriate for poetry and when isn’t it?
SS: Figuring out when to include intimate details about others is tricky. At first, I shared everything in my poems, much like I had learned to do in treatment and peer support groups, where being open is part of getting better. Once I started publishing my work, the stakes changed, and in a couple of instances I hurt people by sharing intimate details without their permission. Now, I’m more careful. With the poem “Scratcher of backs,” I asked my mom if it was okay to include some details about her health history, which is something I wouldn’t have done in the past. I’m still learning the right balance. I don’t want to hurt anyone, and, at the same time, I want to be honest about what I’ve been through.
AS: You use a variety of visual techniques, such as erasure and bolding, in these poems, and you are also often attuned to the sound of your writing, for example in “Interview #1” in “Hundreds of Men: A case study.” Can you talk about how you conceptualize poetry in relation to these two dimensions? Do you see it? Do you hear it? Are both at play when you write?
SS: I use erasure and bolding to focus attention on certain parts of text. It’s like how certain sounds can catch our attention. For most of my life, I couldn’t identify bird sounds. But once I learned to recognize a few, like the calls of the American robin and Anna’s hummingbird, I began hearing them everywhere. It changed how I see the world. These bird calls were always there, but I wasn’t tuned into them. Similarly, sound in poetry has the power to make us notice and appreciate things in new ways, things that were always there but previously overlooked. I think bolding and erasure and other visual techniques do some of that same work.
In terms of the writing process, I’m constantly reading my poems out loud. If I’m stuck on a line, I’ll read the existing lines over and over until something new comes to me. Doing this also helps me to catch parts that don’t sound quite right. It’s a bit of a subconscious process that is hard to explain. Why something sounds right in the moment is often hard for me to quantify. It’s usually not until months or years later when revisiting the poem that the “why” becomes obvious.
AS: Many of these poems take place as part of a dialogue of one kind or another. A handful are, for lake of a better word, epistolary, addressed to specific people, and there are a series of poems that respond to Facebook comments. I’m interested in how you see poetry as part of a set of larger conversations. In particular, how do you see the poems that are responses to Facebook comments working? The comments themselves are deeply callous and cruel, and I’m interested in what you see the poems that respond to them doing. Do you think of these poems as correctives? Rejoinders? Or as something else or more?
SS: When I first came across these conversations on Facebook, I was struck by how they excluded the voices of people with lived experience of addiction. There was an intense desire in me to respond, to add my voice to the mix. But I had learned a long time ago that engaging in social media debates is rarely productive. That’s why I turned to poetry.
Originally, in my poems, I included the real names of the people who posted these comments. However, an instructor pointed out the potential downside of this approach. The focus might shift from the poem itself to the act of “calling out” individuals. This resonated with me. My intention was not to single out specific people, but rather to share my story as a response and shed light on systemic issues related to drugs. So, I made the decision to remove the names. I also view the poems as a form of reclamation. Stigma, like the stigma found in these comments, is a story someone else tells about you. These poems are my story.
AS: I’m interested in the granular details of craft, and this book is filled with inventive and deft poems. Can you choose a stanza and explain the decisions behind it? What did you cut? How did you revise it? Why does it take the particular shape it has in the book? It could be one of your favorite stanzas or one that you had to struggle with.
SS: I struggled with the ending of the book’s first poem, “Builder of sons,” which is about my relationship with my dad.
Here is where I ended up:
“ . . . I survived seven-day binges,
overdoses, and scoops of peanut butter
for dinner because I picked up just enough
of your lessons. Not the practical tips
and tricks (I’m thirty and can’t change
a tire), but the care. You, a teenager
who lost his father in a fire. I survived
because you remained
a sturdy structure.”
Originally, I said “love” instead of “care,” but it didn’t quite capture what I was trying to express. What I referred to as “love” was the way my dad taught me things, like how to build a deck, even though I wasn’t particularly skilled at them. His effort to teach me, despite my lack of skill, demonstrated a form of care that was deeply meaningful, especially in the context of my struggle with addiction. It was a sign that someone cared for me, a feeling I carried with me through tough times. While love was certainly a part of what I felt, “care” seemed to be a more accurate descriptor of the central sentiment. Even now, I’m not entirely sure if “care” fully captures the feeling, but it’s the closest word I’ve found so far.
The lines “I survived // because you remained / a sturdy structure” initially read “I survived because you did first.” With the original lines, I tried to convey how my dad, having survived a traumatic house fire that claimed his father’s life, passed down lessons of survival to me. However, I felt something was missing in that portrayal. My revised line ties in better with the construction metaphors introduced earlier in the poem and, most importantly, highlights my dad’s sturdiness, not just in enduring his own losses, but also in being a steadfast presence before and during my addiction. This sturdiness helped save my life.
AS: Finally, what question haven’t you been asked about this book that you wish an interviewer would ask? And can you answer it?
Q: What is your favourite fast-food meal?
A: Fast food appears throughout the book but, strangely, my favourite fast-food meal doesn’t. Here it is:
Whopper with cheese
Hershey sundae pie
Aaron Schneider is a queer settler living in London, Ontario. He is the founding Editor at The /tƐmz/ Review, the publisher at the chapbook press 845 Press, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing Studies at Western University. His stories have appeared in The Danforth Review, Filling Station, The Ex-Puritan, Hamilton Arts and Letters, Pro-Lit, The Chattahoochee Review, BULL, Long Con, The Malahat Review and The Windsor Review. His stories have been nominated for The Journey Prize and The Pushcart Prize. His novella, Grass-Fed (Quattro Books), was published in Fall 2018. His collection of experimental short fiction, What We Think We Know (Gordon Hill Press), was published in Fall 2021. The Supply Chain (Crowsnest Books) is his first novel.