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Interview With Anita Lahey

Interview With Anita Lahey

The Fredericton-based poet discusses her new collection of poems, the allure of organized fighting and impossibility of escaping catastrophe.

Anita Lahey's second collection of poems, Spinning Side Kick, was released by Véhicule Press in 2011. Her first book, Out to Dry in Cape Breton, was nominated for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and the Ottawa Book Award, and she is a past winner of the Great Blue Heron Poetry Prize and the Ralph Gustafson Prize for Best Poem, among others. Her work has been shortlisted several times for the CBC Literary Award for Poetry. She worked as editor of Arc Poetry Magazine from 2004 to 2011, and is also a journalist who has written for Canadian publications such as Maisonneuve, the Walrus, Cottage Life, Canadian Geographic and Quill & Quire. She lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Deena Kara Shaffer's debut poetry collection, The Grey Tote, will be released by Véhicule Press in Spring 2013. Currently a Learning Specialist at Ryerson University, Deena lives in Toronto.

Deena Kara Shaffer: Through Spinning Side Kick, your readers traverse the combative, the romantic, the quotidian and the ruinous—all expertly woven. Did these threads emerge or had you an intended arc as you began work on the collection?

Anita Lahey: Except for a project I have in mind right now, I don't think in terms of a "collection" so much as a poem or a group of poems. It's surprising and fun to put the poems together and discover the threads, but I guess not all that surprising: they clearly provide a kind of map of my own mental and emotional travels over that time period.

DKS: The front cover—Lahey versus Lahey—invites readers into the ring of an all-out brawl. What drew you to the potent motif of kickboxing?

AL: In short: kickboxing. For about four years in my mid-thirties my main form of exercise was to attend kickboxing classes at a dojo down the street from my home in the fantastic Ottawa neighbourhood of Hintonburg. It was confusing and exhilarating to learn how to move my arms and legs in combinations of offence and defence—as exciting as deciphering the nouns, verbs and grammatical structure of a new language.

The more I learned, the more I couldn't help but think about the actual purpose of what I was learning: to fight. Not just to punch and kick, but to punch and kick someone. As in, if a jab were really thrown at me, could I block it? Would I see it coming in time? Would I remember this duck or sweep? Underneath all this was the question of what is alluring about organized fighting, be it boxing, kickboxing, mixed martial arts or wrestling. What makes the two people involved want to step into the ring and what happens to them in there? Why do we have a history of this kind of structured violence? I began to investigate: Joyce Carol Oates' On Boxing, pieces on Muhammed Ali, a female boxer's memoir, and old bouts on YouTube. The resounding theme is that the fighter, as much as fighting his or her opponent, is fighting him or herself. And that a fighter respects her opponent deeply because she offers this chance for a personal reckoning. For my own personal reckoning, rather than very likely get kicked by a swifter, stronger kickboxer, I wrote. And of course every fighter practices sometimes by shadow-boxing in a mirror, so the fight I imagined begins there. Self vs. self. What emerged in those poems surprised me as much as what would have happened in an actual fight. Though I knew I wanted to focus on the physical movement as well as the mental gymnastics at play in the ring, I didn't know what was coming from one move or poem to the next. In that way it was an honest attempt, as true a parallel to a real fight as possible in words.

DKS: Thoroughout the first sequence, we are at confronted with just how destructive humans can be: we follow you as you kick, bleed, break, confront, defend, face, get even, shatter diplomacy, release and "reassemble." Is the competition ever over? What do we ever really win?

AL: A fight—at least a worthwhile one—is never really over for the two in the ring, and for anyone watching who was affected by it. It is replayed in the mind; its incidents, decisions and crises will spring to life and suggest different ideas or meanings at different times in the lives of those who fought or were there. "What do we ever really win" is probably one of the questions that led me to ask why we fight at all, and of course the answer is that it's not about what we win. It's about the battle itself, about each move and countermove, and even more so about the preparation that preceded the battle. It's a process. It's what we writers tell ourselves every day.

DKS: The fight continues throughout the rest of the book, as in "Man Tearing Down a Chimney"—"Here's a man who broke/ a chimney's back"—or how parking lots "flatten every kind of life."  What are the antidotes to demolishment? Is it romance?  Domestic comforts and the softness of ordinary days—"In the morning we spread the news/ with raspberry jam and bite"? Birth, as with all your mentions of fertility, pregnancy, and motherhood? Life's "little things," like lichen, edible flowers, tea, a glance from a fox or owl?

AL: All these things and more. The antidote is particular and individual—different people will concoct different recipes. These are our stays against our mortality, the real demolition we're trying to postpone. At core, for me, the antidote involves noticing, paying attention and then creating a record—a record or a whole new thing (such as a poem!) that hopefully does it some kind of justice.

DKS: Body parts recur throughout Spinning: bones, marrow, ankle, spine, collar bone, ribs, brow, chin, jaw, feet, temple, tissue, blood, throat, elbow, biceps, "sloping neck", brain. Included, too, are tools (sockets, screwdrivers, sledgehammers) and natural disasters (hurricanes, floods, Katrina, the 2004 tsunami). Anatomies, tools, and catastrophes: how are these connected?

AL: Our bodies, of course, are vulnerable to catastrophes first—the vulnerability of our inner selves follows. So the body is the thing we must protect at all cost, and also learn how to use to its utmost potential—with the aid of other tools, and also with the aid of the inner self. It's all quite circular.

We're vulnerable all the time—potential catastrophe is all around, in so many forms, and it strikes usually without warning. There are times when I feel extra-keenly aware of this, and anxious to know how my defenses are holding up. In that sense, these poems are a kind of inventory. Where do things stand? Are the walls solid? Is the ammunition stocked? Is my survival kit up-to-date? Am I ready? I mean this in both a physical and a psychological sense.

DKS: Can you describe your process—from idea-gathering to word-finding to polishing? As well, how does your work as a journalist and as an editor influence your poem-making?

AL: Ideas happen all the time. I'm both curious to find out why I'm so compelled, and at the same time I don't care why: I'm just happy following my nose. The pursuit, in some cases, involves research—this was definitely the case for the kickboxing poems and the care package poems. Word-finding means starting out usually with notes and lines that I'd never want anyone else to read: sloppy, rough, unpolished, more like placeholders than drafts. Then I write and rewrite—I rewrite endlessly, and I love doing so. My favourite part of making a poem is revising and polishing, especially when you make a small change—a word or punctuation switch, or a shift in the order—that you can feel makes an enormous difference. Sometimes that's when useful double-meanings emerge (and sometimes I don't see that I've found them till someone else points them out). I take the same kind of enjoyment when working as an editor during the editing and polishing process.

My work as a journalist has often led me to poems, and vice versa. Spinning ends with a poem about a seahorse. The research I did for that poem also led to an article for Reader's Digest magazine on seahorses. Somehow, too, the work blends in a daily habits kind of way. I have often found myself, while on a magazine deadline, putting my assignment aside for an hour and working on a poem instead, then returning to the "obligatory" project. Poetry helps unstick me. It's not agonizing or emotionally painful for me to work on a poem, even a deeply sad or troubling one—I'm not that kind of poet. It's a galvanizing and often joyful endeavour.

DKS: Was the experience of writing Out to Dry in Cape Breton different than writing Spinning Side Kick?

AL: The poems in Out to Dry were often written out of a pure spontaneity, and the excitement of realizing that ideas and impulses could be turned into something, something I could actually make. Spinning was written after and during several years of deep involvement in the poetry community, editing Arc, attending and taking part in readings and festivals. I was a different poet, with a larger awareness of the work of my predecessors and my contemporaries, work that I admired and was awed by, and also work that seemed to me cliché or "easy." I was less innocent, armed (and saddled) with a sharper realization of both what is possible with strong poetry and how disappointing a failed or unrealized poem can be.

That said, much of the time I spent working on the new collection I was complaining that I didn't know any better how to write a poem than I had before, and perhaps even less. Working on Arc, reading submissions and being forced to make judgments on others' work definitely fed this uncertainty. But I also think that a nearly hobbling uncertainty is often the very state that precedes a leap in one's craft—I don't know if I made one, but the conditions for it were there.

DKS Describe effects of place and community on your poems. What are you struck by in your surroundings?

AL: From clotheslines to congregations of birds to the industrial pockets that infused my old Ottawa neighbourhood to the items on display at the Redpath Museum in Montreal—I'm struck by what I see when I'm walking. I'm struck by what I find out about the histories of those places. I'm struck by people: how they talk, think, dress, remember, and what they struggle with or obsess over. I'm struck by events and all the questions they raise about how those involved caused, reacted to, and were affected by them. I guess that means I'm struck by settings, characters, plots and stories. Narrative. What I'm working on right now—that is, what I will start to work on as soon as my four-month-old son learns to nap (or I find a babysitter!)—I hope will become a whole book of poems built around a fire that happened in the 1970s in my father's Cape Breton village. The poems will be written in the voices of a cast of characters, mostly fictional, who were there, and they'll delve into—I hope—the actual event and its legacy. So I guess I haven't left the question of catastrophe behind.

DKS: Have you experienced what you call in your poem "The Ring," "the place/ below thought"? And, is this one of the sources of your poems?

AL: I think it is the source of the poems. I think it's also the place you get to when you read a good poem, and what makes reading poetry so wonderful, and explaining its effects so challenging.