Register Wednesday | March 29 | 2017
Interview With Linda Besner

Interview With Linda Besner

The Toronto poet on Freud, tomfoolery and her new book, The Id Kid.

"Cockamamie," "mischief," "absurdist glee,"—all are apt descriptors of Toronto poet's Linda Besner's debut book, The Id Kid. Yet Besner has much more than wicked style. There is an obsessive bent to her method, especially when she's interrogating language for its blunders (in tongue, in thought), and just how unreliable it really is. From the beginning, it's hard to trust her various speakers—her id kids, you might say. The inanimate objects in the first section, "Knick Knackm," speak to us in a downright creepy fashion. "Eye Exam," in the second section, holds up human perception as a flawed jewel to admire. In the third section, "Great Men," Besner creates portraits of assorted characters. One such man is "Mort Besner"—a parking lot kingpin—and the poem honouring him is a hilarious eulogy. In the fourth section, "Courtly Love," the reader is wooed by cleverly mocked romantic tropes, even a Lothario-like "Leather Jacket." By the time the reader reaches the last poem, "Water Glass," they can "see / how the trick is turned," and it is "thrilling to be fooled so." 

Natalie Thompson: As I read your new book, the id kid, I felt the logic cortex of my brain being boobytrapped, especially in "Matthew J. Trafford." What's the meaning of your tomfoolery?

Linda Besner: In the poem Matthew J. Trafford, the subject writes "gay" on his forehead with a stick of eyeliner, but he does it in the mirror. It appears as "yag" to the speaker and becomes a joke. It's heartbreaking, really. Even your strongest attempts to tell yourself and the world what your identity is can be muffled. This poem works with mirror tricks. Each out-of-place word can be read two ways—the regular left-to-right way and backwards.

In "Mornings with the Ove Glovetm", my attraction to accidental slippages of tongue and hilariously corny wordplay shows. When I find those unintentional language slips I enjoy creating something intentional around them. Like putting something that is broken back together with the half it didn't know it had.

NT: "Joke" caused me to create weird jokes the poem could reference—a strange corner for my mind to be in, but fun. In terms of allusions, what compromises do you make?

LB: I might forever ask myself this question. Frame of reference is a huge issue for poets, more so than visual artists. At galleries, you see a piece of work with a note beside it that might have a synopsis. If there's an audio tour of a gallery, I always take it. Because a poet's medium is words, people expect colloquial clarity. I don't have the luxury of a synopsis; consequently, many poems were axed because their frame of reference was too narrow.

Canon and accessibility questions are tricky. I don't like the idea of excluding difficult things. As a reader, taking apart work that is over my head is what I thrive on. I just finished Ken Babstock's newest book and in the moments where I grasped at meaning, I felt the electricity of the work coursing through my brain. New pathways being explored. Frame of reference will grown the more you read, so read up, not down.

NT: "Courtly Love" is gorgeous. I'm curious to know how you arrived at Latin?

LB: My sister is a lawyer, so I'm drawn to those Latinate legal terms she's so good at using. It's entirely possible that I mispronounce them, but there's something so aurally pleasing about "nolle prosequi" and "eo ipso."

NT: In a recent interview, you said professionalism is "sweating it out with old pieces you just barely care about." Can you talk about how you arrived at this arresting voice—how you sweat it out?

LB: Most of these poems have been through many, many drafts. I don't work in a stream-of-consciousness mode. My first idea is rarely my best. The poem "Joke" probably went through eleven or more drafts.

I liken my method to hanging a picture—you keep stepping back to see if it's right. I constantly try to make sure that the effect of the poem is what I desire it to be. I take notes endlessly. A poem will stay in note form for years before I sit down to compose the piece.

A lot of the old poems were cut at the last minute—you know, the ones that I find deadly boring because I can't remember thinking or caring about their subjects. The oldest poem in here is probably "The Tennis Court."  It's a good six years old or more and I brought it to UBC with me when I started my MFA. It had a bum knee for a long time, has been through many drafts and turned out utterly different than I expected it to. In the end, I make a contract with my reader: I owe them polish, they owe the pieces time.

NT: Speaking of expectations, do you see your work as subverting certain "sentimental" expectations your audience may have?

LB: I didn't set out to subvert expectations but I don't identify with the popular conception of poetry being soft and syrupy, either. I'm interested in poetry as an intellectual exercise—not that there isn't an emotional component, there is. To me, it's about the music of the words, my heart being reached through my head.

Recently my sister said I may as well "blame it on the Romantics" when people are disappointed with a perceived lack of sentimentalism.

NT: when I read your piece "Eye Exam," it struck me as a rebellion/break from the traditional, authoritative poetic "I" found in Romantic works. I love the line, "I could be the key to a false verdict."  Does this poem contain some ideas that are central to your poetics?

LB: I have terrible eyesight, so it's a scary experience when I have my eyes checked—it seems like the doctor will tell me I haven't seen the world properly, that I'm incapable of seeing what others see. Eye exams seem like an imprecise science—they show you different lenses, ask what is better and at some point they're so similar you just don't know. You feel prompted to answer the examiner, not yourself. You second-guess everything. Consequently, my last prescription was awful. After that experience, I questioned perception. Which person's view is the correct measure for what's happened?

I drew on legal language to express my ideas about witnessing. In that examiner's chair, you testify, they look over your records and finally an expert scores your reliability. Whatever the examiner writes down is a truth you may or may not agree with.

NT: I think having "id" in the title permits me one Freudian question. Freud once said, "everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me."  Do you have any grandiose conclusions/delusions on the nature of poetry and the poet? 

LB: What a horrible question. In some ways, I've asked it of myself lately, especially since my first book is out. I think poets are probably the people who believed the after-school specials that preach, "It's okay to pursue your passions!" and "Somehow it'll all work out in the end!" But poetry writing is really a non-transferable skill. The things that poets say about the world are unique to poets. It's not that poetry has cornered the market on truth or that poetry has a higher valence that the other arts. Poetry is a jungle gym for the mind; you can't get this kind of exercise anywhere else. In poetry you have the freedom to think and write about whatever you want. The poet poses questions and forms the poem around them freely. Poetry isn't subject to the question of "what is useful?" I don't expect poetry to be true; I expect it to connect different electrical currents in your brain. When you read poetry, you can make untrue discoveries you can't make anywhere else.

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—On Starnino's Nichol
—Interview With Suzanne Buffman
—Interview With Gail Scott

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