A short interview with Liz Howard

Liz Howard was born and raised in rural Northern Ontario and is currently a poet and cognition research officer in Toronto. She is co-curator of the feminist reading series AvantGarden and graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing from The University of Guelph. Her chapbook Skullambient (Ferno House Press) was shortlisted for the 2012 bpNichol Chapbook Award. In 2014 she was invited to read at Princeton University as part of The Rhythm Party, a colloquium organized by the poet Lisa Robertson and the Department of English. Her first full-length collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, is forthcoming from McClelland & Stewart in April 2015.

Q: Tell me about your book Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent.

A: The constituents of this request have fascinated me for some time now. This call to “tell about” what I have written, to tell, so, in some way to provide an account of the book, and then also an account “about” it which is a spatial consideration. It is tellingly apt because I am always circling my experience, a pack of cognitive wolves circumventing the mossy territory of my frontal lobes. Always I am situating this undefined wilderness of what constitutes the known, the present, or what “makes sense”. A deep concern in my writing and thinking is that of “the other.” The other is such a delicious promise, an extrapolation. To “tell about” one’s work is to perform an ecstatic operation that attempts to enter the minds of possible others, and in foreseeing them, provide an account that is at once convivial and intelligible. It is a call I will do my best to answer, travelling not only along the outside, as the etymology of “about” offers, but with eyes on the interior as well, that most formidable of warrants. 

In an attempt to provide a dancing account, I proffer this: my book is a decolonial feminist document. It arrived out of a silence I fought all my life to disclose. That I am inheritance’s assimilate, that I don’t talk like my ancestors, that I was meant for the office of methadone or welfare but here I am instead. Here I am instead with a book and a space in which to explicate. It is an impossibility, all of this is, but here it is; a revenant consciousness.

Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent is a text that has taken the entirety of one meagre lifetime to write, what book hasn’t? It is an extensive rewriting of the thesis that awarded me the tenuous title of Master and an edited revisitation of earlier work. It is a book, a unit, although it appears to be composed of individual poems, evidenced by unique titles, I intend for it to be experienced as a cohesive work. There is generous crosstalk between “poems,” recombination, ideas/words/phrases coming back from the death bed of prior reading. This is intended to highlight the phenomenological aspect of reading; it is so multiple. Delicately, the reader has an exquisite charge to answer: what is the nature of this cross-contamination? Here, this here where all are invited, contains the urban, the boreal forest, Descartes, Wittgenstein, Plath, Stein, Keats, Anishnaabe cosmology, lumberjacks, punk rock, autobiography, the tension between unintelligiblity and TMI, poverty and science. It’s a party, a séance, a powwow, a wake. It is the most earnest and joyful thing I have ever done.

Q: The book feels very much an exploration, articulation and wrestling with points-of-origin, specifically your Northern Ontario, a geographic root you share with Toronto poet Margaret Christakos. I’ve had the sense that Christakos has been critical for you as a writer, both for her as a poet and for her Influency Salon (which is, incidentally, where I was first made aware of you and your work). How important has Christakos been to you as an influence and a mentor, and what, specifically, do you think her influence has allowed you?

A: When I graduated from UofT there was a perk offered to recent graduates, one could take almost any Continuing Studies course for free. I had just completed a degree in science and I saw this as an opportunity to take a poetry course. I have written poetry since I was very young but I did not pursue it in my undergraduate studies for a complicated set of reasons. Even so, I continued to write and even gave a few quivering open mic readings. This free course presented me with an opportunity to learn more about the craft and receive feedback on my writing. Once I signed up for Poetry II at the School of Continuing Studies I learned that Margaret Christakos was to be the instructor. That she was also from northern Ontario seemed a most auspicious omen. One month before the class began I was in Sudbury briefly and found her What Stirs in a book store. I bought it and devoured it on the drive north to Chapleau, my hometown. That reading was a quake in my being. I had no idea that such writing was possible. It sang all along my nerves and it presented me with new possibilities in my own work. I studied under Margaret in this course and learned about bpNichol, Gertrude Stein, Erin Moure, M NourbeSe Philip and others. I continued on as a student in several of her Influency Salons and was even appointed as co-editor of two issues of the Influency Salon Magazine. Margaret served as the supervisor of my master’s thesis. Her influence on me has and continues to be immense. Her drive, innovation, generosity, and brilliance have been an incalculable inspiration. I am very grateful to have been mentored by Margaret. I urge everyone to read her. She is absolutely singular in her writing as there is no one that does what she does, so exquisitely, and she is also community-minded and an absolute force for poetry in general. Her work and kind attention has allowed me all of this, whatever this is or wherever it goes, and I am eternally grateful.

Q: This community-minded approach, I suspect, led directly to the founding of the AvantGarden readings, co-hosted and co-founded with poet Shannon Maguire. How did the series first originate, and how did it impact upon your writing?

A: AvantGarden originated late 2009 when I approached Shannon Maguire after a reading and spoke with her about starting a feminist reading series. I had heard her read before and knew her intentionality was kindred to my own. This was post-summer in which I was audience to a panel formed of Margaret Christakos, Barbara Godard, and others discussing a recent issue of the now (sadly) defunct journal Open Letter titled Beyond Stasis: Poetics and Feminism Today as part of the Scream Literary Festival. This panel proved formative in my thinking around creating a public, social feminist space in the Toronto poetry scene. The fall of 2009 also saw the publication of the anthology Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics (Coach House Press), an anthology that both Shannon and I felt deeply compelling and informative. We were also both aware and desirous toward the Belladonna Reading Series ran by Rachel Levitsky in New York. I approached Shannon that night in 2009 because I had already felt the neural tube of a virulent feminist poetics forming within me and I intuited this was the case for her as well. I had been attending readings in Toronto and grew tired of waiting to hear poets I was interested in in; namely “experimental” women poets. In a small way it was selfish, but I knew I was not alone and that fact was confirmed when Shannon agreed to be co-Shepard in this ecstatic enterprise. I further learned we had a community as many people attended our evenings, participated, and entered into dialogue. I want to say, cite here, also that Fenn Stewart was an integral part, facilitator, warrior for the series and that now Jenny Sampirisi has joined our motley sisterhood and we hope to have events organized for this year. We want to be ever more welcoming, hospitable, and give space, sound, stage to voices little or as yet unheard.

Q: What do you feel AvantGarden has been able to accomplish over its first few years? What, for you, have been the highlights of the series, and what are your hopes for it over the next year or two?

A: I wish I had a complete and up-to-date archive of all the events we’ve had over the years. We hosted so many exceptional poets and performers. It was one extended highlight or a discrete series, each a highlight. I look forward to launching out from the current hiatus and discussing with people what resonated with them previously and what they’d like to see in the future. At present Shannon Maguire, Jenny Sampirisi, and I are thinking of ways to broaden the conversation around what constitutes “innovation” and how to create an even more convivial and inclusive space for gathering, performing, and discussing.

Q: There’s a verbal gymnastics in the poems that make up Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent that is quite striking, one rich with argument, criticism and activism. Lisa Robertson describes the book as “Shot through too with urban furor, forest, dioxin, tern, and sulphur are syllabic elements in a passionate argument for pleasure, where pleasure is one name for a principled refusal of the colonizing machinations of the current regime.” What are your thoughts on utilizing social and political critique in poetry and their possibilities for engaging and enacting change?

A: There are times I wonder whether endeavouring to create at all, under the current stricture of this ever more pernicious inequality machine of capitalism, is a socio-political gesture. There is also the call toward direct action and community mobilization wherein poetry can be viewed as something less vital in comparison. The call that I have felt most apt to answer is that of poetry and necessarily my poetry is rooted, cultivated out of the conditions of assimilation and poverty. It is my sense that to generate so much “illustriously useless poesis,” to borrow a phrase from Lisa Robertson, out of lack, silence and suppression is an inherently radical act. Art has been a driving and unifying force for humanity for millennia and I see no reason why it should fail to function as such now.

Q: You recently co-edited, with Aisha Sasha John, a section of the new issue of The Capilano Review on exactly that, the “illustriously useless poesis” you reference from Lisa Roberston. How did the section first come about, and what did you learn through the process?

A: The Rhythm Party Folio came about as a result of a colloquium organized by Lisa Robertson and her graduate students at Princeton University last spring. Four Toronto Poets and three New York poets were hosted by graduate students and we all participated in several events exploring the relationship between rhythm, hospitality, and poetry. Guided by Georges Bataille’s The Accused Share we discussed poetry as a luxurious diffusion of excess energy, as a libidinal economy, as a limitless potlatch. We also read works by Emile Benveniste, Jacques Derrida, and Henri Meschonnic. That following fall Lisa spoke of the colloquium with Brook Houglum, editor of TCR, and she proposed that a folio could be created containing works composed by the Rhythm Party participants. Aisha and I were appointed editors of the folio and we sent out a call for work. We were astonished by the vivacity and intelligence of the submissions. I learned the same lesson I always learn; I am more capable and others are more generous and understanding than I often give credit.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your writing? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: My reading practice tends to be erratic. On any given day, feeling the need to be reinvigorated, I might chase whatever my current obsessions are whether its prehistoric burial practices, functions of the cortical frontal pole, or the influence of Wittgenstein on modern poetry. I have also found that any sentence I read/hear from philosopher Avital Ronell is likely to be a sufficient narcotic. Works I consistently return to are Ariel by Sylvia Plath, Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein, What Stirs by Margaret Christakos, Furious by Erin Moure, The Cow by Ariana Reines and all of Lisa Robertson.