A short interview with Nikki Reimer
Nikki Reimer is a writer concerned with emotional ecology. She has published books of poetry (DOWNVERSE and [sic]), chapbooks and essays. She also edits, including special issues of The Incongruous Quarterly and Poetry is Dead. Reimer is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, a past member of KSW, a contributing editor to Poetry is Dead, and a founding director of the Chris Reimer Legacy Fund Society. Visit her website (reimerwrites.com), or Calgary, where she lives.
Q: Tell me about the collection DOWNVERSE.
A: DOWNVERSE was gestated in Vancouver circa 2006-2011. The poems appropriate and outright steal from the Vancouver socio-political landscape / the digital landscape / the poems are under their own erasure. DOWNVERSE records and responds to every anonymous shitty thing you’ve ever posted online. Topics taken up by the poems in the book include: gender identity, the global economic downturn of ought-eight, the Occupy movement, reading the comments, the tasering death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski in the Vancouver airport on October 14, 2007, the impossibility of the un-precarious existence, Lacanian theory, the vanishing middle class, arts funding cuts, pop culture, the oil industry, dead bears, dead brothers, and job posting rhetoric. DOWNVERSE is anxiety / is resistance / is disjunction / is dissonance.
Q: Your bio states that you are concerned with “emotional ecology,” and the subject material you draw upon for the new collection seems extremely concerned with the erosion of a number of emotional states. Would you consider your compositional process one that attempts to process a variety of information, or are you aiming more for a call to attention? What are you hoping to achieve for yourself through the process? And what, exactly, are you seeking as far as response (from that possibly-fictional “ideal reader”)?
A: First, I would like to note, with thanks: the term “emotional ecology” was gifted to me by Elee Kraljii Gardiner, after I’d posted on social media that my bio needed a rewrite, but I would say that it is an apt description of what I’m doing, or trying to do. To your first question: yes. My compositional process first and foremost is an attempt to process a bewildering array of “content,” and second, it attempts to uncover value systems that are embedded in discourse. As writer I am seeking some kind of catharsis, or impossible resolution. For example, in the suite of poems written in response to the tasering death of Robert Dziekanski, I wish to make a statement that his death was an injustice, point to the problematic language surrounding the reporting of the incident / inquest, honour him as a human being, and be truthful that writing a poem as response is about as socially useful as shouting into the ethernet. The ideal reader is most definitely a fiction – to be honest I probably consider the reader less than I should. But I suppose I want to suggest that the reader also interrogate language and see how it might operate in different spheres.
Q: How does this approach feel different from the work contained in [sic]? Or do you see the poems in DOWNVERSE as more of an extension of that earlier book?
A: [sic] is younger, angrier, messier, and political, but myopically so. The approach in DOWNVERSE is similar but the scope is wider. In [sic] I play around a little bit with found, overheard, stolen, or borrowed lyrics / phrases, in DOWNVERSE I pull in other people’s voices whole cloth and attempt to cut them into my own garments. [sic] skulks around in and tries to make sense of the city; DOWNVERSE skulks around in and tries to make sense of the city and the internet.
Q: To specify in such a way, “the city and the internet,” and, given that you explore both via poetry as social/political spaces, do you see them as binaries, opposites or points on a grid? I suspect you see poetry as having a great deal of responsibility, but what of the possibilities of “social usefulness?” Can there be any?
A: I’d suggest that the city and the internet are parallel universes which inform and infringe upon each other but which maintain separate spatial realities. Each space has slightly different rules but the same types of vile bullies. The psychogeography of the street vs. the psychogeography of the internet, perhaps.
I will continue to argue for poetry as socially useful and as more wide-ranging than we think it is. I firmly believe in the potential of poetry as speech act, as transcendence, and as agent of social change / social justice. Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” for example, is a well-written narrative poem about a personal / political issue, which also incited discussion and conversation. Or creative writing workshops for marginalized individuals – I’m thinking here of the Thursdays Writing Collective (http://www.thursdayswritingcollective.ca/). Poetry as community, poetry as reaction and response, poetry as possibility and play.
Q: Where do you feel you and your work fit, in terms of these wider communities?
A: On the outskirts, throwing beer bottles at the productive and healthy.
Q: In 2013, you had work posted on two digital billboards in Calgary as part of Wordfest. How did that come to be, and how did you feel about your work appearing in such a format? Did the billboard change or enhance the piece at all? And what, if any, response did your billboards receive?
A: Jo Steffens, Director of Wordfest, approached me and asked if I would be interested in producing a piece for the festival’s “Word Powered Art,” a project sponsored by Pattinson that placed digital billboards around Calgary, as you noted. I chose to create a piece for the billboard project that was an adaptation of my ongoing digital elegaic project, “Let’s Improvise a Bone Graft.” I’d already been working on and thinking about ways to balance text and image in that project, so it was a generative departure for me to have the opportunity to create something large-scale – poets typically think in terms of the 6-by-9 inch book, or if we’re creating something in the online digital space, we’re considering a 15 to 17 to 22 inch screen, or a 1000-1200 pixel width. 10-by-12 feet is a kind of scale we don’t every get to play with, and it was a very fun challenge. For the Word Powered Art project, I pulled lines from my elegies and set them against concrete poems that I made using lines and words from the same project in the shape of a skull. Because the original digital project is a tribute to my brother, it was also very important and meaningful to me that it was able to be displayed on the streets of Calgary, where he lived.
The feedback I personally heard from the project was limited – a few people that I know from the tech community noticed and commented on it, but working in poetry I take any recognition or criticism as a happy surprise; it’s certainly not something I expect or anticipate!
One note about my project: I’d been working with the image of the sugar skull, or calavera, a traditional object from the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. I’ve been drawn to death imagery in my digital project for obvious reasons: memento mori, iconography, and objects left behind. I’d attended an Altar de Muertos celebration put on by the former MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary) in conunjunction with the local Mexican consulate in 2012, the fall after Chris died, and I’d found the sugar skull very beautiful and very comforting as an object. It felt natural for me to incorporate this imagery, which also appears in my “Bone Graft” project, into the WordFest billboards. Since then, I’ve had the chance to read and reflect some more about white appropriation of Dia de los Muertos and sugar skulls, and I feel that it is not appropriate for me as a person who strives to be an ally, and as a settler to North America, to use that imagery. I have recently been working on some artwork which I plan to use to replace the sugar skulls that currently appear on my elegy project site. I regret this error in judgement, and I will try to do better in future.
Q: DOWNVERSE opens with a quote credited to an “inebriated audience member at a poetry reading:” “I hated your poem. / Your poem was so boring.” One could say that, as much as anything else, this is a book of tensions. Was this something that was deliberate from the beginning, or did they simply evolve as you worked through the poems?
A: I initially had the idea of dueling binaries as an organizing concept for the manuscript – an early working title was “us vs. them.” I wanted to explore, initially, online discourse, which to my reading seemed to morph into rigid subject positions and acrimony as often as lead to productive conversation. “Don’t read the comments.” Everyone knows this. But for a period of time in 2009-10, I was reading all of the comments on all of the stories and message boards, and I was fascinated by how people could use, misuse, and abuse language. This gradually formed a collection-process that structures many of the poems. The underlying tensions are the same as for any artist: What is integrity? How do I live in a world that hates me? (“Me” as in artist-subject, I mean, not as in a persecution-complex. Me as affect-alien c.f. Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness. The artist as killjoy. Though it is possible that the drunk fellow after the reading that time truly did hate me, hate my boring poem, at least in that moment.) “How should a person be?,” with apologies to Sheila Heti. How do I structure my material world in a way that allows me space, time, energy to create? And the answer is that it’s impossible, it’s consistently impossible, but you keep doing it anyway. So yes, the tension was deliberate, and ongoing, and maybe even necessary.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
Gail Scott’s poetic prose works. Thalia Field’s poetry. Aisha Sasha John’s Thou blew me away. Sommer Browning’s particular brand of humourous poetry. A suite of grief books that have become very important to me: Catherine Owen’s Designated Mourner, Helen Humphrey’s Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother. Sina Queyras’ MxT, Katherine Ashenburg’s The Mourner’s Dance. And, really, too many of my friends and contemporaries to name. Sometimes I’ll read a stellar poem by a friend that will make me jealous in its awesomeness, but then the envy mutates into renewed energy towards my own work. So it’s all good.