Interview with Lily Wang
Interview conducted by Kevin Heslop
This conversation took place over the phone on April 6, 2021. It has been edited for clarity.
Lily, in an interview with rob mclennan, you said that you reply a lot with eyebrows and your shoulders; and given that we're communicating over the phone, I humbly ask that you please indicate when a movement of your eyebrow or eyebrows or shoulder or shoulders would suffice by simply saying “shoulders” or “eyebrows” —
— so we can move swiftly to the next question.
All right. So, of the book’s title, you’ve said, “And I see my dad bent over a bowl eating Saturn peaches, the juice dripping from his wrists. He fills the bowl with peach water, back when we lived in China, still seeing through my five-year-old eyes.” And the book begins with the following prefatory prose poem:
And so we have the seeds of the collection’s title: “I decide I am edible. I decide to eat a peach.” which maybe recalls T. S. Eliot’s metrically identical annoying ambivalence in “Prufrock” — “Do I dare to eat a peach?”, activating the canon, bringing us to Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which you were reading while writing Saturn Peach.
For Auerbach — according to one reviewer, Arthur Krystal — “literature is always bounded by the writer’s sense of reality, which, at its deepest level, depicts everyday life in all its seriousness” — a quotation that resonates with A.F. Moritz’s line about every poem in Saturn Peach embodying “the nostalgic recall of ordinary actions remembered with love.”
And so, I wonder whether we might begin with Mimesis as a doorway into Saturn Peach. I wonder what that book did for you and what, for you, the significance of reading that book in the process of writing the poems for what would ultimately become the book Saturn Peach was.
Yeah. It’s so lovely to begin with Mimesis as a doorway. So, I actually really like Mimesis because it taught me how to read, which is my professor's way of telling us that before you learn to close read, you have to learn how to read; and none of you actually know how to read. Mimesis is so incredible for so many reasons. When it came out, there were all these people who were like, What is Auerbach doing? He's not condemning Nazis, he’s writing this novel; he's writing chapters where he tries to generalize and make statements about a whole period of writing. What does this mean? And it made people really angry. And some people read it like a novel; and there are all these ways to read it and it's hard to find Auerbach’s voice in it because in each chapter — he’s very sly — he takes on the voice each chapter demands.
As when he’s writing about Virginia Woolf, he goes on and on and on: his sentences are like threads and needles in the way that Woolf writes.
So, to even understand the jokes that he's making and the little winks that he gives you along the way, you have to look at each comma; you have to really be there at the sentence level. And so in that sense, reading Mimesis, you’re hearing what Auerbach is saying but you don't really come away with knowing, Oh, now I understand what the problem of representation is, what mimesis is. He never gives you that answer. But when you're reading Mimesis you’re playing along and you're playing with the language and the rhythm itself. And so the reading process is also inspiring for the writing process. So, I took that course a lot at various years in undergrad so I had to return to it all the time and it was always in my head.
So no matter what course I was taking, I always had Mimesis there to help me read and to interpret different things — which is just to say that I’m a student and I happened to be reading those essays because they were assigned.
Two questions: firstly, do you still feel like your writing is in dialogue with Mimesis, and is it a text that you return to; and secondly, what is the distinction between reading and close reading — the distinction your professor made?
Hm. OK. The first question: I don't think I ever wrote — other than the poem the “Christian Cycle/Redemption/Etc” — none of my poems are in direct reference or even gesture to Mimesis; it's rather the question that Auerbach poses: what is the writer’s job? What’s your responsibility? And for him, writing in exile, writing as a Jewish writer when the Nazis are killing everybody, he’s very very conscious about the stakes involved in art and history.
And so, as a writer, when you're thinking about the reality that you are remembering for the public, or that you’re putting forth, or the truth that you're offering — or even the lies — that question of how you're handling the language is always very unstable. And it’s always a game; it’s a gamble. So when I write, and I’m thinking about doorways — and knowing that I’m so young and inexperienced and whatever, but if I can make a doorway — for someone else to enter, or for them to remember something through my remembering, then you are making something possible. So, artists inspire other artists — that's the cliché, right?
Sure, but clichés are true and Anne Carson knows that and I know you know Anne Carson.
Yep. I love clichés. I love cheesy movies as well. For the second question, honestly, I'm kind of a bad student: I’m a terrible person for answering questions like this clearly. When I had to do my first close-reading assignment for first year, I got a 60 and I was like, I can't be an English major anymore; I’ve got to drop out. But it turns out that I was just not understanding the assignment. And for a while — I forget: what's his name, Harold Bloom or something like that?
Harold Bloom, yeah.
The guy who's like, Oh, academics ruin literature. And I'm like, You know what? This guy’s got a point.
I read Stephen King and I have a great time. And like, What do you mean “what does the colour blue mean here”?
*laughs* Right? I just — I like to enjoy things. I have no deep answers for anything; I write a poem because it's fun. But getting deeper — So, I did consider dropping out, and I thought school was kind of pretentious and everybody was annoying. I'd tell a professor that Stephen King was my favourite author and he’d be like, OK, get out of my classroom. In all seriousness.
It was so awful. University is so classist. But — I mean, of course — Stephen King is mega rich, also.
But taking the Auerbach courses, I really have to thank my professor, Professor Warley: the way he teaches Auerbach means much more to me than the book Mimesis itself. You read a story and you have a good time and you go to class and everybody shares the little things they noticed and that story picks up so much more life and meaning and you are able to see in ways that you never could before. And nothing is more exciting than that: your reality is just what you know, so when you learn something that you didn’t know before, you feel your brain expand, and nothing feels better than that. And close reading, being able to see the little clues that are left, whether by the writer or through the diction, the way that the words jumble against each other and generate a new life force, there's always possibility if you are paying attention.
So, on this point of academics ruining literature I always return to this image of plucking the petals off and crushing them up and running the goo through a spectrometre in order to determine why a rose smells so pretty.
How about we just enjoy the rose rather than turn this into some kind of dissection? There’s a violence, almost, to criticism, I find. I don’t know how you feel about criticism, but I suppose Auerbach’s work is — I think you said — sly.
He’s such a sneaky guy.
He's a sneaky guy. So what's the value of Auerbach’s sneakiness, would you say?
Because Auerbach, even though he’s addressing the trickiness of representation, the problem of mimesis, what he’s also mainly saying is, How do you be a critic? And a general answer that you can come away with is that you have to be a critic and an artist at the same time. You're not reading something to tear it apart; you always have to read the thing against itself. You’re not bringing a ruler to a story and having a set judgement and all these specific numbers on specific notches; you're reading the story for the world in the story and that's the only way you can judge it.
And he's so famous for the Virginia Woolf chapter that he writes, “The Brown Stocking”, and the metaphor that runs through the whole thing is that, in To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay uses — The entire book follows the knitting of one brown stocking, and it sort of brings everything together and ties all the events together and there are multitudes of interior lives. So critics can really kill something if they don't begin to criticize in a way that allows real criticism. Wow: I basically said nothing in that sentence.
I mean, I think a writer’s job isn’t necessarily to say things but to use the language interestingly and be in dialogue with one another — which is what we’re doing, so we're perfectly fine.
I’m wondering about the use of this measuring tool: don't take a ruler from outside the story and apply it to the story because it's of a different quality; it’s not applicable.
Right. If we take the values we have and apply them to a book written in another time, you're not going to — You're not reading it.
And yet, at the same time, Auerbach’s book spans thousands of years but it’s selective —
— Right. He’s able to just be like, The roman empire fell because Ammianus couldn’t write sentences. But there's no actual ruler for judging; there's no hierarchy for things; you can't judge. And this is why Virginia Woolf rocks.
I’m not giving a reason — just re-quoting the Virginia Woolf chapter. That’s the slyness in which he works; and each chapter has its own way of judgement. I think if my professor was to listen to me talk about Auerbach I would fail the course.
Well, maybe if you were the teacher and the professor was the student talking about Auerbach, maybe you could fail them or pass them or just do away with marks altogether. What do you think?
Marks. Um. Marks are — I don't like marks; marks are silly. I’m a TA now and students will email me and be like, Please don't deduct a mark because I handed my assignment in a minute late. And I don’t even care if they hand it in a week late: it doesn’t matter to me.
So, I feel like we could stay in Auerbach for a while and I’m tempted to ask another question to re-enter the doorway we've gone through a few times, so —
I know. It’s very fun to talk about Auerbach. I apologize for not having that many Auerbach things to share; it’s just been so long since I took the class or read the book.
No, this is great. Necessarily in the process to select which texts Auerbach is going to treat in Mimesis, there is a ruler being used, right? It has something to do with historical importance; and we’re talking about the creation of the canon. The subtitle of the book presumes that there is a canon; there's necessarily a measuring tool involved there. Is there a contradiction here?
Right. But it's not consistent: in one chapter he randomly selects — Oh, what's it called again? The one in which he writes about the Spanish Golden Age. And it's the shortest chapter; I think it was added in in the last second too; it wasn’t in the original manuscript. It’s the story with the donkey. I don't remember the name.
Yes! And it disrupts the idea that he's taking these canons, and it also feels like, maybe it's a mistake because it’s just rushed because he's in exile. But then you also have to consider so much: he’s making you say, Well, Auerbach is just a guy also — and he has his own prejudices and judgements.
He was also notably without the texts that he was writing about. It was an imaginative —
Yeah, that’s wild.
So, speaking of the canon, I wonder whether I might endear myself to you by comparing your work to Anne Carson’s: it seems to me you write unusual but specific and lucid sentences whose magic comes not as much from the compression of the language within the sentence but rather from the compression of the thought between sentences — the specific and textured thinking required of the reader between sentences reminiscent of film theory, where between two images a third is added involuntarily by the viewer to create continuous narrative.
I'm thinking for instance of the following sequence from “Having a Thursday Morning”: There is always something in my eye. I just forgot. I must be late for something. I forget. // I have painted with a shaky hand. It’s Thursday and already I am old.
(This caused little crinkles of delight around my eyes as I read it.)
And my question is: what does Anne Carson do that's unique, and what about her writing do you or have you emulated? Because I think it’s Alice Munro and Anne Carson, if we’re talking about canonization.
Mhmm. I should change my name to start with ‘A’.
Sure. Why not?
Hm. I first fell in love with Anne Carson’s writing because of the way she works with psychoanalysis.
I am a big fan of autotheory, and writing that works with theory in an accessible way — which brings us all the way back to Auerbach to talk about doors and accessibility and the impossibility for a single artist or a single critic to say, This is an all-encompassing truth, but then to offer various doors. And to talk about the little quote from “Thursday Morning”, I learned about hypotaxis and parataxis reading the first two chapters of Mimesis. And so a quick description of those is either sentences with connectives — so, “I woke up this morning and had coffee” — or sentences that are cut off, with a lot of gaps in between; and the example Auerbach gives for that is the bible, where god says, You have to sacrifice your son. And you're just like, OK. And there's nothing in between that except this chasm of everything.
And then we progress to Dante and whatever and we get this mixture of styles, and it just complicates and complicates and changes. And so, as writers we're always playing around with sentence-structure and the use of white space — especially now: there’s a lot of visual poetry, which is very fun. And so I feel as if — if I’m writing about something as mundane as Thursday morning — I can just very simply list things I see, like having coffee or seeing a squirrel. Just listing those things and the gaps that occur naturally between each observation — this is what a Thursday morning is like; this is what every day is like: it’s simple and it's plain but it’s life.
And life is never just that. And anyone reading this, naturally, who has had their own Thursday morning will experience this perhaps deeper than it's even asking for.
And providing doorways to facilitate remembering in the reader is something you mentioned that you hoped to do in your writing. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about nostalgia and providing doorways paratactically between sentences for people to read themselves into the text.
Mhmm. I feel like — I don’t know if this is a question that needs to be answered or that I can answer because people remember and it's not really up to me or that I'm trying to trick people into remembering. It's like having a conversation with someone where you say something about your day and they start talking about theirs. So we're always selfishly remembering about ourselves and that selfishness allows us to connect.
Lovely. So, there are two particular images or locations in Saturn Peach I thought we might look at — the lake and the train — and —
— because they often occur in your work together, I thought we might address them at the same time.
The prefatory poem of Saturn Peach begins “I am rowing”; we have, in “There came a great buzz”, “The lake is a great image. Under fog and grey light.”; in “Green”, “The lake has elbows, sweet crook, find the joints.”; and the lake is referenced in the acknowledgements section of your Anstruther chapbook—“This book, the people who made it happen, the lake — all this is magic.”
“Cross Country” has the line “The train sings.”; “S/H” reads: “Ask me what I am: I stare out the window the entire forty minutes of the train ride, miss the lake when I fall asleep.” and you note in dialogue with rob [mclennan] that poems usually begin for you “On the train. Often in transit …”
And I wonder about the train and the lake. And it might be as simple as you take a train regularly past a lake, or maybe you did a bunch at some point in your life, but I wonder what those two spaces, of the train and the lake, provide you with, as a poet.
I laughed earlier because a few years ago one of my friends said they looked forward to reading my book one day and seeing the lake in it everywhere.
I am constantly writing about the lake. And it is as simple as me having taken the train a lot and seeing the lake a lot. It’s that taking the train and seeing the lake is different than driving up to the lake and seeing the lake. I think being close to the lake, it's kind of nasty. Oh, it’s the Ontario Lake. It’s all green and blue. But when you're on the train, the light always hits it differently, and you can see the light spanning over the lake, and the lake touching the sky. It's just — for me — it's like reading. Every morning, when I see the lake, it looks different. You know, every snowflake is different but that's the lake every time. The best part about it is that it’s just the lake and it’s always some shade of blue. But not understanding colours very much, or how the same colour doesn't feel the same, and that hope that there are things that you don't know, that you can't explain, and that feeling revives you. So, commuting at 8am and feeling very groggy and it's a winter day but the lake is this indescribable grey and it's very very exciting for me.
So, this state of 8am grogginess resonates what I’ve read in reviews and this state of mind between waking and dreaming that I find Saturn Peach and other of your writings induce in the reader. And I wonder if you'd talk a little bit about that hyperconnective, allegory-rich, metaphor-rich space and how that space is conducive to writing poetry.
I think trying to write abstractly is also inspiring for you as you write, whereas writing realism, as everyone knows, is very difficult because you have to be very careful what you're describing, what you’re noting, or else it’ll be cliché or unbelievable. But when you're writing poetry, you can play so much with line-space and imagery and be so selective about the details that you want to bring into a scene and not have it automatically be like, Oh, this is too abstract to be a story. Right? You can be abstract and the value can be the abstractness in poetry.
Well, poetry, first of all, I should say, is just fun, and I truly don’t think that much about it: I’m a fiction writer; I want to write novels. I don't write poetry with much expectation and that allows me to have a lot of fun and to write things and it doesn't matter if somebody says it's good or bad. And then I get to play around a lot with — You read different poems and a lot of them read like narratives but a lot of them are very jumpy and rely on images and sound, so there are all these different ways of offering the world in a new way in poetry.
So, approaching you for an interview about Saturn Peach misses that you're not — or you don't think of yourself fundamentally as — a poet but rather as a writer of stories. And I know that you began by writing stories and that you've recently finished a horror novel for your MA at the University of Toronto; and I wonder if you'd say a few words about the beginnings of story writing and what brought you to making these weird squiggles that we put on paper for some reason.
Mm. Yeah, my novel — I like to say it's a horror novel but it's not really scary. That doesn’t answer your question; it's just unrelated.
The reason for coming to writing is always changing: you have a different reason for writing each poem, each story. Every story has a different inspiration to it, and inspiration can have reasons or can be entirely random. So, right now I could say that I like writing because community blah blah blah. But the first story I wrote that I can remember was Captain Underpants fan-fiction, and I invented my own bad guy and it was like a lightning bolt and I just had so much fun. Ever since I was little I liked telling stories: I liked making my family laugh and I also liked making my sisters cry.
It's fun to be able to make something up and evoke emotions from someone else. Or it’s fun to lie and have people believe that's the truth. And maybe that's just the eldest sibling-syndrome where you get away with lying to your little siblings about being a fairy — and they believe you for some reason.
So I've always been a bad person, to answer your question.
*laughs* It seems to be serving you well.
I feel tugged in the direction of asking something like, What kind of truths can fiction tell? And is there a way that, if you tell someone a lie, and they feel something intensely, maybe they feel more alive than they did before you told them the lie and you’ve induced the sensation of truth in them. I know there are some old Greek thinkers on this question, that literature and drama, if it’s not based on true events, is circular illusion, the creation of unjustified emotions based on fictitious circumstance. Which is all just a roundabout way of asking, What kind of truths can lies tell?
I used to be a philosophy minor in undergrad but I dropped out in my second year because everyone was always asking questions like this —
And I just don’t — It’s not that I think all these questions are pointless but I can't really think of anything because it's never mattered for me. My dad likes to watch movies and will say, Oh, I’m not sad because it’s not real. I had a good time because they had a big budget so the car crashes were huge. And he said that stuff since we were kids, so we’ve always known that none of this is real; they're all actors; but we choose to let it affect us anyway. Even if it's an anime show and everything is fantastical, if the characters get hurt, it affects us anyway. There's always some reason for that and I don't think it’s necessary to define those things. I think at the centre of it is care and it's cool that we care.
Involuntary empathy — in the same way that you mentioned earlier you start talking about your day and they start talking about their day.
I think this all adds up to something cynical which I don't think I believe in.
What do you believe in?
I don't know. When I use the words “selfishly” or “anger”, I don’t use these words negatively: I don't think there are negative or positive emotions in that sense.
Like when you say something about your day and then your friend says something about their day, then that means you are listening to each other, that you can be inspired to open up about your day in that way, and you potentially couldn’t have opened up in that way if the other person hadn’t.
If artists’ jobs are to inspire other artists, it’s just a cycle of listening and saying and listening and saying and so on.
Mhmm. When I was in elementary school, that’s when I knew I wanted to write stories because I read a lot of books and they were so much fun and I would think, How could anyone come up with something like this? Like, how do you come up with a plot like this? Or monsters like this? That's incredible. And I want to be able to do that too, to give someone else that experience but also to see if I can do it, to test the limits of my imagination. So, all of these questions revolve around each other, right? Like, why do you write? Why do sports players play one sport and not another? If you're tall enough for basketball, you’d be a great blocker in volleyball. It’s the opportunities that come before you in your life: they all veer you towards one decision or another; you’re not born to do something; you just happen to do it and you continue to choose to do it. And it's the same thing with writing.
Great. So, as a result of an accretion of opportunities, you’ve found yourself writing — in contrast to Elijah White, who finds themselves drawing, making visual art; and on the point of Elijah’s work, in harmony with yours throughout this book from Gordon Hill Press, we’ve got, matching the title font “Erasure”, whose N’s are backwards, drawings on the cover and throughout the text, apparently done in crayon, by Elijah (whom, according to their website, “[specializes] in fun ideas, bold colours, and classic compositions - taking the normal and making it weird but highly memorable”, and whose thesis, Sculptura, was “about how humans assign sculptural objects with superhuman qualities to compensate for our own inadequacies”). And I wonder what the doorway into your artistic relationship with Elijah would look like.
I can’t remember where I got the idea of having a devil on the cover. I think it was a tarot reading, where it said, Your card for the year of 2020 is the devil. So I said, OK, let’s make that the cover. Elijah is a friend, so I thought, Wouldn’t it be cool if I got my publisher to pay you to do the art, and then have cool art and also support my friend? And since the book came out, people have asked a lot about the art — and I didn’t expect Elijah to do the little drawings throughout the book; that was a huge bonus and very, very fun — but the question that I sometimes get asked is about the title font or the childish drawings alongside my very plain way of describing things and very childish imagery that I like to repeat throughout.
It’s interesting for me to see that the way that people create this image of the speaker, of the poet, through these things, and people seem to ignore that I didn’t draw these pictures; I didn’t come up with them; I didn’t pick the typesetting. And so I’ve had comments like, This is very sweet, very girly. And I don’t take any of these things negatively or find them annoying; they’re just interesting to me because it isn’t who I am, but to put forth this language and then to work with other people and their styles of art and this new persona and new voice, this imaginary speaker, this is a thing we made together; so hearing different people’s different experiences of that is very interesting.
You mentioned the word repeating, and I noted that you have returned to repetition, that you’ve discussed journal-writing as a means of recalling experience; and I’m wondering about repetition.
We were talking about Woolf’s brown sock earlier, and there’s this way that every stitch is a repetition of the previous one but also different, creating a structure in aggregate.
I wonder what it is about repeating that has lately attracted you.
When you’re feeling really doomy, you feel like every day is a repetition of another and your life is a repetition of another and history repeats itself and bad things happen and we never learn from our mistakes. We’re going into lockdown again; thank you, Ford. But it’s always repetition with difference — or at least we have to think so. Kirkegaard said — and I love this so much: I use it in the beginning of my novel so other people can’t anymore; I called it.
He said, I can circumnavigate myself, but I cannot rise above myself. And then from that, his book on Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs is — spoiler alert — kind of a let down: he doesn’t talk about repetition that much. But other great thinkers start to talk about that. Edward Casey, Derrida. Honestly everyone talks about repetition. But there are all these great ideas about imagination and repetition, repetition and difference, and also, you know, Freud’s repetition is that of compulsion.
So, there are all these exciting ways of looking at something that repeats. A novel that uses repetition to look at history and the way we repeat history and possibly change history is Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World. It’s a very short book and one large shadow over it is this image of this vulture, representing a phoenix. And the phoenix is born again and again. And you can look at it on a linguistic level: there is a power in words that repeat. It changes depending on your different associations, and it doesn’t always work. Some of my students use repetition and sometimes it works and sometimes I’ll say, Cut it down a little bit, because it’s not doing anything here except its sound; it’s just the sound repeating and repeating. So, there is no ruler, to quote Auerbach, but playing around with it, things can always happen.
So, I’m thinking about William James and habit and about Gertrude Stein unsettling a language which was starting to become too settled with use in print and commerce. And maybe that brings us through William James and Gertrude Stein and neuroplasticity and maybe through prayer — how prayer and incantation through repetition and rhyme and habit can work to stave off doomy-ness.
And I wonder whether that could bring us to my asking you about prayer, and what prayer looks like for you — prayer or sacralized habit.
Related to repetition, there’s also that idea that words have no meaning, that words don’t mean anything, but we use them to communicate and to try, right?
Lacan says, Every time you make a sound, you’re always asking for love. So when you say, Oh, where’s my hat? You’re really saying, Listen to me. I’m speaking. Love me.
And so repetition, especially repetition of very simple words, of the same simple words over and over, builds a kind of tension and maybe even desperateness that all language is trying to convey and to get at (depending on the context of each piece). And so sometimes you don’t need to rely on big words to pinpoint something if it can’t be pinpointed anyway. But you can get someone to feel that very thing through the flow of words.
But — OK — prayer! Yeah, when I was little I used to go to church, so I had to pray. And I don’t anymore; and I don’t believe in a god. But also when I feel hopelessness or something, if something happens and I have nowhere to turn to, I pray. And I don’t know really who I’m praying to; and I know that, well, I’m being super selfish to only pray right now and this doesn’t even mean anything. But, at that moment, there’s nothing else that I can do. And it’s very human to not know what to do, and we all turn to different ways of asking for help.
So, communication is an act of desperation?
*Laughs* I guess, yeah. If I didn’t have to talk I wouldn’t talk.
I mean, this is why I had hoped to provide you with opportunities to include, between asterisks, “shrugs shoulders” or “raises eyebrows” rather than having to talk, but it’s kind of —
— I actually don’t do those things anymore.
Oh, you don’t?
Do you have any alternative ways of getting around, having to speak — to circumnavigate, if not the self, then at least some kind of expectation of communication?
Mm. I just don’t talk.
Right. Yup: that’s the way to do it. Well, I do have a few more questions for you, if that’s OK.
Yeah, of course.
Interviews are funny, because I feel like I can, sort of, have conversations if I need to, but interviews are set up so that someone works very hard and comes up with the questions for you and you’re expected to some extent to answer them. And I have no answers.
I mean, what profession has answers, or what vocation has answers? I don’t know if —
— I hope my family doctor does.
The family doctor?
Every time I say I have an eye allergy they send me home.
Well, maybe the answer is home, then.
Wow—that’s a poem. Your red eye is the red sun over your childhood home.
So, there’s this interesting quote from Edward Said that I thought might be a relevant doorway to Half a Grapefruit Magazine. He says Mimesis is not, “as it has so frequently been taken to be, only a massive reaffirmation of the Western cultural tradition, but also a work built upon a critically important alienation from it, a work whose conditions and circumstances of existence are not immediately derived from the culture it describes with such extraordinary insight and brilliance but built rather on an agonizing distance from it.”
And I wonder whether this might open us up to the question of one’s positional relationship to the Western canon, and also to bring us towards Half a Grapefruit Magazine, founded in 2017, which prioritizes submissions from BIPOC writers.
And if you don’t mind my bringing two quotations in the same question, I’d like to quote Anne Anlin Cheng’s Melancholia of Race: “In the splintering landscape of grief, identification and sympathy are at once imperative and fraught. For whom do you grieve, and how do you do so, in this world of layered victimizations, violence, and enmity?”
And I wonder whether, thinking as a publisher, I wonder whether you could respond to either of those quotations and offer a few words about your personal relationship with the Western canon.
My response to the two quotes is: yeah.
That’s it. Leave it to them to be very precise; there’s nothing for me to add.
But as a publisher, as an editor, we actually didn’t think to add that line until this year. We’ve always, as readers, prioritized BIPOC, but it’s another step to list it on your website, because, working behind the scenes — if you’re an editor yourself, you probably already know this — the majority of submissions are still from white writers, male writers. And even manuscripts: people will send books that are not done, not formatted, but they have the confidence to send their manuscript anyway. Meanwhile it’s just much more complex for marginalized writers to be a lot more wary of trying to apply for these opportunities. So to list that on the website is to encourage BIPOC writers and to say, “We value your work, and we will take care of it.” It doesn't change the values that, as editors, as readers, we’ve always had.
It just announces them.
Yeah. It’s a promise and guarantee, as much as volunteers can promise.
I wonder how you would characterize the sense of entitlement involved in someone sending a half-finished manuscript, expecting that a publisher will do a backflip in response to it. You said “confidence” but I’m suggesting the word “entitlement.”
I may not have left a question mark at the end of that.
I’m guessing they send it in being proud of it. I don’t think anyone submits something they’re not proud of.
And so I just want all writers, marginalized writers, to believe in their art, and to be proud of it as well.
On the question of editing, I notice that you’ve said, as an editor, you feel you need to be generous, and also that you need an editor to tell you when you’re wrong. And as a publisher and an editor with an Anstruther chapbook and a book out with Gordon Hill Press, I wonder whether you’d say a word of comparison between Jim Johnstone’s and Shane Neilson’s approaches to editing.
Hm. I think Jim Johnstone was the first editor I worked with outside of local workshops — editing for the sake of actual publishing. And it was a very professional experience, very wonderful. Jim took care of every poem in this chapbook. He looked at the line-spacing and how it would fit on the page on top of editing the words and the flow and the imagery. And so you feel very taken care of; you feel like you're being challenged to do even better despite entering it thinking, Oh, it’s just a chapbook. But Jim makes you feel like, No, it’s not just a chapbook; it’s poetry. It doesn’t matter how big your book is; it’s writing. It’s art.
I learned a lot from that experience and Jim actually recommended me to Gordon Hill Press; and Shane is wonderful to work with. He was much more hands-off and didn’t alter my poems but would come in with suggestions for bits that were a little rougher. Jim really took the extra step of coaching you and showing you what the publishing industry is like. But when you’re writing a full-length manuscript, you kind of are expected to send in something polished for publication; and at that stage, that’s your poem, that’s your voice. The editor will help make it clean but they’re not going to overstep and change anything more than that.
The reason I founded HaG Mag was because I was constantly surrounded by people I admired, and I know that all my friends were always making things and they kind of get left in folders and forgotten about. And I know what that feels like: you make something you’re proud of and you just have to get over it. But I don’t think that we should. Even if it’s not your best work, if you put work into it, and you like it, I’m sure there are other people who will like it too. Right?
This idea that you should be sending publications your best work—It’s why people say, Oh, I don’t really read. Or, Poetry is pretentious. And there’s a reason they say that, they say that and then they go on Twitter and they tweet and read and tweet all the time. And I want writing to feel fun again. So: have fun writing it; have fun reading it. We have a board of editors with very different tastes, and that’s the only way we can attempt to be objective: we can argue with each other and say, You know, hear each other out; and then we make decisions based on that. And if we need to do some editing — like grammar or to clear up some things that are unclear — we’ll do that; but we will never edit a piece to polish it up for publication because we’re just a platform.
How would you characterize your leadership style?
Hm. If you wanna get something done you do it yourself.
No, I don’t really feel like I lead other people. I want to do things and I do them; and it’s impossible for me to do it by myself. And then my friends come in and they help me; and then we become a team.
Lovely. Just a couple more questions. I noticed the short simplicity of your bio notes — Lily Wang is on a train to Toronto, dreaming a dream to write; Lily Wang is the author of Saturn Peach; Lily Wang (@liliecup) is the author of Saturn Peach out now with Gordon Hill Press—and was reminded of Anne Carson’s (I hope famous) “Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches Ancient Greek for a living.”
And while Saturn Peach might be read as “bites out of yourself you share with the reader,” you’ve been interviewed (at least) by David Ly, Jacqueline Desforges, and rob mclennan; the book has appeared in CBC’s ‘The Best Canadian Poetry of 2020’; and it has been reviewed a handful of times, by Erica McKeen, Jacqueline, Martin Breul, among others.
And I wonder how you think about privateness, as an artist, and what the past eight or ten months have been like for you emotionally as you become more and more visible in the world.
Hm. I guess I actually never want to do interviews.
I don’t really want to talk to people, especially about myself. But we’re talking about art and I’m always grateful to be invited into this community and to have someone say, I want to hear your thoughts on it, too. So it’s an honour; and from time to time I’ll get questions about myself or I’ll get assumptions about my life based on the things I write; and it’s very strange to be alive and to be criticized. But it’s also exciting — like I said about editors who tell you when you’re wrong. Because my dream is to be a great writer. I want to write really good books, and so talking about my writing that I’m putting out and the things they like and the things they don’t like, it’s good to take in, because it’ll help me grow.
And finally, you’ve just finished this novel — on March 5th, according to your Twitter page — and I wonder what the experience of writing such a long story has been for you.
Yeah, I would love to talk about this. I only really write short stories, but I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I write a lot of short stories because I get distracted a lot and I come up with new ideas halfway through stuff and I’m impatient — and also because I wanted to write more short stories and more poems to practice and improve my writing before I wrote a novel. And then I was doing my MA and they were like, You have to have a thesis project next year, and I was like, Oh my gosh, I have to write something. Might as well do it; so, I did it. And it turns out you can just do it. It’s really difficult: you have to stick with it and every chapter is scary because you don’t know if you can keep going after that chapter and it’s terrifying to think that I could write 30 000 words and not be able to write one word afterwards.
It takes much much more commitment than poetry and short stories — at least it did for me. But it feels so amazing because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do and I can just sit there and think about it and the process of writing this book every day: I’m thinking about what to do and — You know the meme of that guy with the red thread and there are all these connections among the connected pieces of red thread on the board and he’s all tired? That’s what writing a novel feels like. And that’s what I want to feel like when I’m writing.