The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews our Poet of the Month for June – the glorious, peacefully-powerful, Liz Howard.
Liz Howard is a writer from Chapleau, Ontario. She won the Griffin Poetry Prize for her debut collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, in 2016.
Natalya: At what point in your life did you start writing poetry, and why were you drawn to poetry?
Liz: I remember loving the poetry exercises we did in grade school. Sublime freedom paradoxically within constriction/convention/form. When I was eight years old a poem I had written in class on the topic of winter was selected to be published in my small hometown’s newspaper. I started keeping poetry “journals” in earnest when I was nine. My aunt had gifted me a beautiful cloth-bound journal to write in that I still have, embarrassingly. I was drawn to poetry I think because of the rush I would often experience through exposure to patterned sound, unusual words, and repetition. My grandmother used to boast that she started bringing me to church when I was just two weeks old. By the time I was eight I could recite the Catholic mass forwards and backwards, the rosary in English and bad French. The repetition and high-flying Latinate vocabulary of Catholicism were characteristics I also came to experience in poetry, and then so too did the reading of poetry come to be an experience of The Sacred for me. A few years later, when I began reading poets like Leonard Cohen and Susan Musgrave, I found that poetry could also be sexy and a little dangerous. I suppose after that I was properly hooked.
Natalya: How does your experience as a woman and feminist influence and propel your writing?
Liz: I want to say that writing my own truth, what I could have understood that to be at such a young age, was my first feminist gesture but it was probably defiantly climbing pine trees in my Sunday dress and plastic Mary Jane’s from Sears. There has always been a wildness in me that gender-proscriptive norms have pressured me to mute, delete, or at least control. That wildness and the truth of the difficult things that have happened to me over the course of my life, all causally related to having a female body/identity, have always propelled my writing, been the necessary force behind it. If I don’t speak, I die. What is different now that I am older is that my feminist gestures in writing are more conscious, deliberate/deliberated/liberated and have been composed under the blissful sisterly auspices of various texts, friends, and mentors. I like to think that I “take no shit” patriarchal or otherwise in my writing now, but who is the requisite judge really? I’m just ineffably grateful that I’ve found a medium in which I feel I can wholly express myself and a community within I can feel at least a bit at home and certainly welcomed.
Natalya: How does your childhood in Chapleau, Northern Ontario and your family history influence and propel your writing?
Liz: You know, I may or may not be working on/dreaming about several different books that even if completed would still not come close to answering this question fully. It’s everything, really. I was completely formed (biologically, psychologically, etc.) by, and continue to be modulated by, my childhood in the north and by the dark family stories that continue to unfurl beyond me. One thing of interest that I can offer is that from the age of 12 to present writing has been a way for me to “communicate” with my estranged birth father and our First Nations relatives. I found myself writing to them. In an early poem called “Ojibway Song” I wrote about issuing sound patterns at a distance into the mind of my grandmother. Imploring her to hear me and find me worthy of love, that I am not like my mother or what I was told of my father. I am worthy of love, do not forget me. I’ve learned that my grandmother spoke some Anishinaabemowin and taught it to my aunt. I tried to reach her through The Sacred I knew, poetry. But life is so difficult and I never got to speak to her before she died. During grad school, I researched Anishinaabe systems of thought and philosophy and I discovered the rite of the Shaking Tent. A means by which information could be communicated via that spirit world. I began to think of my writing as a form of the Shaking Tent. A way to reach my father and grandmother who both died too young as a result of colonialism. It was a way for me to reject being assimilated entirely as I can easily pass for a full-blooded white Canadian. There is a lot of unfinished business between me and the north. I hope to be a voice for it.
Natalya: Can you describe if and how your life changed or evolved while you were writing your Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent?
Liz: Well, this is also a very long story but I will try and offer a summary. By the time I was approaching my mid-twenties I knew I had a solid book in me, knew that I did have enough work to submit as a manuscript, but I was unsatisfied with what I had written. I decided to apply to the MFA program in creative writing via Guelph University. It never occurred to me to apply elsewhere because I was so poor and indebted I never thought I could afford to leave Toronto, a place I was sure I could always get serving jobs in order to pay my student loan debt. I applied because I knew I would never produce the great thing that was hammering its way through me. I got in and got to writing. In the first week of the program I pissed off 1) a faculty member because I couldn’t make good on a reading due to being unable to get time off from my SECOND job, 2) my old boss because she had forgotten I was no longer her fulltime employee and I was delayed 24 hours in responding to a minor issue and apparently this was likely going to cost me that (partial) job, 3) my new bosses as they wanted me to work six days a week serving assholes and were dumbfounded when I traded shifts in order to write, and 4) my partner at the time who felt emotionally underserved because I worked so much. I ended up sleep-deprived biking home after serving and was pushed off the street by a car. I woke up concussed with a split chin and a group of students telling me I needed to go to the hospital. I did and a medical student glued my chin back together. After that I did what I had to in order to write my book. It was the most terrifying, traumatic and glorious time of my life. I was variously broke, creatively nurtured, dehumanized, vainglorious, exploited, and told I was brilliant. All in all a 3.5/10. After all of this I was quite self-possessed. It came as it came and I wrote it down as best I could. I worry sometimes that I may never be able to be as raw, vulnerable, “nuts”, and true again. Remains to be seen, I guess.
Natalya: Have there been any mentors in your life – either within the art world, or academia, or just in your family life – that you can tell us about who have been important to shaping your poetry?
Liz: Margaret Christakos, Erin Moure, Dionne Brand, Lisa Robertson, Ken Babstock… Perhaps also some of the female members of my family who modelled a mode of fierceness in me despite themselves. Also James Douglas Westley, an Anishinaabe elder and residential school survivor who blessed me at age 16 under the traffic light of the main intersection of Chapleau’s downtown. He called down the sky to save me. I wish he was still alive so I could thank him.
Natalya: What subject matter would you like to explore in your writing as you go forward (or, if you are working on a different art form or project right now, please tell us about that too!)?
Liz: I am trying to explore true intimacy in my new work and also, in contrast, the influence of a larger “cosmos.” I may also be writing a novel/memoir. I’ll be consulting many persons/portals/legalities to determine which is best.
Natalya: Are there any writers, artists or dancers from Northern Ontario whose work interests or excites you that we can share with our readers?
Liz: Jaime Whitecrow from Fort Francis (artist, activist, filmmaker); Christi Belcourt from Manitou Sakahigan, Okimawaskiy (artist and activist); Waaseyaa’ sin Christine Sy (poet, scholar, goddess); Margaret Christakos from Sudbury (poet, author, artist); Shannon Maguire from Sault St. Marie (poet, scholar); Mat Laporte from Sault St. Marie (poet, community builder); Sarah Pinder from Wawa (poet, activist), and Armand Garnet Ruffo from Chapleau.