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Interview with Linda Besner,

author of The Id Kid (Signal Editions, 2011)
1. You're working on your next book, which will be released by Coach House in 2017—can you tell us about it?
 
Okay, so the book is provisionally titled Feel Happier in Nine Seconds, and is slated for Spring 2017. That deadline seems unbearably soon to me, but without deadlines I can’t do anything, so presumably I will somehow get it done. I stole the title from a cover article in Cosmopolitan. I’m in a big phase of stealing titles right now—I have poems that take their titles from newspaper articles, an alternative physics paper from the 1970s, and a joke on a statistics poster.

The book isn’t themed, so it’s not “about” anything. But when I try to say smart things about it I come up with sentences like, “The title, Feel Happier in Nine Seconds, reflects the collection’s guiding interest in logic—especially, the distorted logic that often governs both the private and the public realms.” As smart things to say go, this is reasonably true. On my shelf I have the textbook from my CEGEP logic class, which is full of gems like these propositions: “All gluttons who are children of mine are fat” and “Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile.” I can’t say I did well in this class—or did I? I don’t remember, I may have been able to fake like I understood this material—but I’ve always loved the idea of being able to sort of turn abstract words into these mathematical ideas that either are or aren’t internally consistent. I think the fact that I kind of don’t get it is what makes me like it. I was having a conversation recently with someone else who works in media (I do freelance magazine journalism as my day-job) about why editors and radio execs are so scared of having the audience be presented with anything they don’t understand. I think the idea that it’s “alienating” to read or hear something that isn’t immediately explained just doesn’t make sense to me because personally I kind of enjoy that experience. In this conversation, I was trying to explain why, and I had a flash of memory of being a little kid sitting under the table while my parents were having a dinner party. My parents are both academics, and their friends are also largely academics, so as a kid you heard a lot of talk that was way over your head (ha ha! Get it??). So in a weird way, I feel sort of comforted by this kind of talk. I don’t personally really expect to arrive at a full understanding of most things—almost anything, really.

So yeah, I think understanding/not understanding the world, and the various ways we seek order in it, is part of what Feel Happier is about.
2. I find this really interesting—the idea that the media-consuming public will cringe at anything they can't perfectly/neatly/immediately understand—and having worked in media for so long myself, I'd agree it's a pervasive sentiment in the field. I've heard people say similar things about poetry: I don't like it because I don't get it or it's over my head. Your description of sitting under the table at your parents' academic-filled dinner parties could almost be an analogy for reading a poem: we most likely won't understand everything the poet is saying the first time around, if ever, but if we like poetry, we enjoy that experience. Do you think poets and poetry lovers tend to be people who are more comfortable wandering around in the unknowable? Or in pursuing questions or ideas we can never fully have answers to or understand?
 
I mean, I think so? Like if you don’t enjoy wandering around in the unknowable you are not going to like poetry, for sure.

I think the extent to which you believe you should or can understand something is a bit of a wedge issue in poetry that divides people into schools. I would say some of my poetry friends are more interested in ambiguity than I am. The idea that language resists your attempts to use it or understand it is maybe more central to both how they read and how they write. Personally, I think I’m a bit less willing to wade into those deeper waters. Or just less willing to give up so much control to the reader—I’m still kind of invested in having the reader bow to my authorial authority!

But I’d say I’m willing to give a fair amount of control to language itself to determine what a poem says. I think I’m in a sort of middle camp between the people who think the writer’s job is to make language say what they want, and the people who think it’s impossible to use language to convey meaning. I think language and I are more so passing a soccer ball back and forth, and I’m not so sure either of us has a clear idea of where the goal is. At times we seem to be moving in a purposeful direction, and at other times we seem to just be running in circles for fun—I’m not sure. I feel like with every poem I’m kind of waiting for the rules of the game to become clear to me. Sometimes I get annoyed and tired with all the running around—I think if it were solely up to me, the goals would be more clear. But (in our relationship anyway) language seems to have its own priorities. Ha, maybe it’s a birth order thing? I’m a younger child, and I had to accept pretty early on that I was not going to be the one who determined the rules of how our world worked. And that if I wanted to play with the big kids, I had to work harder to keep up.
 
3. Do you think your relationship to language is different now than when you were writing your first book?
 
I'm not sure. I hope I'm a little more attuned to what language wants to do, so maybe getting better at listening for the right kinds of cues. I feel like I've been sort of spinning in the whirlpool of language for the past couple years, and now, because I'm under deadline for this book, I'm maybe trying to impose a little order on the running in circles. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. Right now with my newest work I feel like I'm doing the underpainting
laying down the bottom layer of what the main composition of the poems is supposed to end up looking like. But I feel like it takes so long to build up those many textured layers that result in a finished piece I'm nervous about having time to build up the complexity that I like, which I find is about letting language do its job.

Interview conducted by Katherine Leyton.

 
The Archibald Lampman Award recognizes an outstanding book of English-Language poetry written by someone living in the Ottawa region. Prize is $1500. Submit by March 31st.
Would you like to be Arc’s next Poet-in-Residence? 
If you’re interested in mentoring emerging poets, consider applying. Deadline is February 1st. Apply
here.

The Diana Brebner Prize: Submit by March 15, 2016

The Brebner prize is awarded annually for the best poem written by a National Capital Region poet who has not yet been published in book form. Prize: $500.
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Poems by Lorna Crozier, Susan Alexander and Laura Matwichuk.

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