When 63 women disappear and their body parts are found scattered about a pig farm, what can we say? Cringe, then go about our business? Against the disposable, flat world of our daily news, Shannon Stewart offers her own brand of witnessing. Her latest poetry collection, Penny Dreadful (Signal Editions, 2008), places the missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside alongside poems gleaned from tabloids. The result—often fantastical, but never romanticized—is a jarring acknowledgement of the ways in which we are all implicated in the brutality and beauty of a world where facts are as lurid as fiction.
Stewart’s first book, The Canadian Girl (Nightwood Editions, 1998), was finalist for the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award and Gerald Lampert Award for Best First Book of Poetry in 1999. Stewart was born in Ottawa and raised in British Columbia. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, She lives in Vancouver.
Danielle Devereaux: Can you talk a little more about where that title comes from and how it came to be the title for your collection?
Shannon Stewart: Penny Dreadfuls were those cheap and lurid Victorian publications featuring a cast of gruesome characters such as Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Sawney Beane, a Scottish cannibal whose incestuous clan murdered and pickled anyone who passed by their cave in the 16th century. Dreadfuls were aimed at a newly literate body of working class boys, but it seems they found ready readership in many different households and socioeconomic classes. I grew up with stories of this ilk that my father collected in antiquarian boys’ periodicals. I’d leaf through them for the most sensationalistic bits of plot and for the bright and shocking illustrations.
My manuscript was originally called “Crazy Jane”, but when I lost a unifying female character and started to focus more on media poems, Penny Dreadful was born. As a title, it is apt; the most horrific aspects of our culture are sold just as cheaply as they once were, and with similar appeal. Sensationalistic news, as an often coarse and unrefined commodity, caters to our darkest fears and needs. It’s a strange affair, and one I wanted to examine, especially in light of Vancouver’s Missing Women.
DD: Where did the idea to write "tabloid poems" come from?
SS: For many years I was completely addicted to tabloids. In particular, I loved The Weekly World News which I used to buy as unashamedly as possible from the checkout stand in Safeway. Of course, all the art is in the headline. The news stories pale in comparison. Jumpstarting poems from a found headline is a great way to enter a narrative, and something I did in my first collection, also.
DD: What you’re describing sounds almost like a writing exercise – a way to decide what to write about. Could you say a little about your writing process generally?
SS: My first year in university was spent in Journalism at Carleton. Maybe that has something to do with my predilection for headlines. I immerse myself in all kinds of print while working on poetry, fiction and children’s writing. Words beget words. And walking the dog is a huge help.
DD: Can you talk a bit about the process of putting together a collection of poems that places tabloid poems (which are pretty fantastical: "Gay Disaster Dooms Dinosaurs" "Woman Gives Birth to Frog") alongside the stories of the missing women of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
SS: The word "tabloid" originally comes from the name given by a pharmaceutical company to an analgesic sold in compressed tablet form. For me, the tabloid poems worked as a kind of painkiller. They were a place of rest, of fantastical possibilities, away from the onslaught of horrific news, but still a contemporary take on the Penny Dreadful. Placing the humour next to the horror creates a shift the reader has to navigate. I’m interested in dichotomies in this collection. How the “fringes” rub shoulders against the “respectable”. And how that rubbing creates uneasiness.
DD: That rubbing is fascinating. As a reader, one of the ways I see the two fitting together has to do with the way legitimate news sometimes seems as unreal as tabloid news. The story of the missing women is so incredibly horrific and inhumane it seems like it must be made up, a lot of news seems like that today. Could you comment on that a little bit?
SS: The influx of graphic violence in our daily lives is overwhelming and the line between newsworthiness and sensationalism isn’t always clear. What is our relationship to news and what do we do with a packet of horror that lands on our doorstep every morning? And what is the function of news? Is it really for our edification or something else altogether?
I think what I found most troubling about this story was how easily people turned and still turn away from it, starting with the initial police indifference to the disappearance of a large group of women. Like any other reader and citizen, my initial reaction to those images of the pig farm and conveyer belts of dirt was to recoil, to push it away. But this literal search for pieces of women stayed with me and became metaphorical. The pieces of story collected through tabloid headlines aimed to shock and titillate are part of that metaphor; they belong to a different class of writing, catering to a different set of needs.
DD: How was the process of writing Penny Dreadful different from the process of writing your first collection of poetry, The Canadian Girl?
SS: I think it was more difficult. Emotionally, I found many of the poems hard to write. I also wanted this collection not to be based on personal stories, but to speak in a broader voice than my first collection.
DD: . Like your first collection of poems, your new collection is quite female-focused; "A Rose by Any Other Name" for example, riffs on various "names" for women—cow, slut, cunt, bitch, whore. Does gender matter when it comes to your writing and poetry generally?
SS: It depends on the poem…but certainly as a collection with a focus on a killer preying on female victims, my gender had a role to play in how I was going to enter the subject.
DD: Would you call Penny Dreadful a feminist book?
SS: I absolutely would.
DD: Well that’s a definitive answer, which prompts me to ask what makes a book feminist?
SS: For me a book that is feminist speaks about female experience which could be issues of gender, politics and inequality.
DD: I love the book's cover—a pile of worn, colorful pumps. It's an image of everyday objects that are at once fragile and lurid, used and beautiful. I know authors don't always have a say in what the cover of their book will look like, but this image seems quite well suited to the words inside. Could you talk a little about the cover image in relation to the poems?
SS: When I first saw David Drummond’s cover, I was very moved. It’s a rich and riddling image, working like a synecdoche-parts standing for the whole. I wrote to my editor to say it was “Holocaustian” – that’s what immediately sprang to mind. You certainly get the idea of femicide and the colours are perfect reminders of the illustrated wrappers covering the original Penny Dreadfuls. Your description of fragility and beauty are words that belong to the murdered women of Vancouver’s DTES. Much humanity was taken from them in the media’s reportage of their deaths.
DD: What you’ve done with this collection certainly gives back a great deal of humanity to these women – the poem “63 Missing From The Low Track” in particular comes to mind when I say that. Could you talk a little bit about some of the challenges or concerns that come along with bringing these women, their lives and deaths, their absences, into your work?
SS: I wanted to pull the missing women out of whatever dark and forgotten place their story had been shoved into. How to move the nullifying aspect of horror into a human realm was something I needed to do on a personal level, and something that I hope comes through in the book. But the human realm isn’t always a place of comfort. In “63 Missing From the Low Track” I’m the one who calls the taxi to take the women away. Guilt, passivity, denial are also themes in the collection. Writing about these women was my way to consume the news while thinking and caring about it. I did have concerns. But letting those absences stay absent when the whole tragedy of this story was a public dismissal of many women’s worth would not have been possible.