Liz Howard

Liz Howard

The spectre of The Next Thing has grown its own unique form of anticipatory horror in me.
I had the awesome pleasure of conversing with Liz Howard, one of my favourites. Liz is just, well, the best. Her debut collection of poetry Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent very deservedly won the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize, the first time the prize has been awarded to a debut collection. It was also a finalist for the 2015 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, was longlisted for the 2015 Type Book Award, and received an honourable mention for the Alanna Bondar Memorial Book Prize. Her chapbook Skullambient (Ferno House, 2011) was shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Award. Born and raised in northern Ontario, Howard received an Honours Bachelor of Science with High Distinction from the University of Toronto, and an MFA in Creative Writing through the University of Guelph. She now lives in Toronto where she assists with neurocognitive aging research. See? THE BEST.

SACHIKO MURAKAMI: So, Liz. What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?

LIZ HOWARD:  I’ve taken a lot (perhaps too much) time mulling over this question. It is no small thing to reiterate that the writing life is difficult in so many ways. I’ve also felt sheepish about being seen as “complaining” given that the circumstances of my day-to-day are changing and I’ll be able to devote more emotional/cognitive/temporal resources to my writing. That being said I’ve had a lot of difficulty dealing with a question that I’ve been increasingly been asked since the acceptance of my book for publication: “What’s next?!” This question fills me with even more dread than, “We need to talk” and its variants. I’ve had to stop myself from replying, “Death, eventually.” I know full well that the question is likely more often than not posed in a spirit of interest/excitement/engagement but I find it paralyzing. I never know what an acceptable response is.

INTERLUDE:

[Early after I shared the fact that my first book had been accepted for publication I encountered an older poet acquaintance while on my bike. He approached from the opposite direction on his bike, stopped and shouted at me, Congrats on the book!

Thank you! I replied.

So when is your next book coming out?

What? I said watching his stern mouth. You mean the one after this one that won’t be published for six months?

Yes, he said and proceeded to mansplain that this how publishing works; you must have one work after the other ready as it can take years for publication.

Oh … thanks for the advice, I said cordially, no doubt with an expression that was once cruelly described as a “desperate smile.”

And then I went on my way in a sort of fuming panic.]

FINI.

I try to write when I can and the writing on any given day might exist in the world of one more projects (as outlined in grant applications or otherwise ambitious delusions) but will “the writing” culminate into The Next Thing? The spectre of The Next Thing has grown its own unique form of anticipatory horror in me. Firstly because it necessarily haunts the shadowy territory of The Previous Thing. And so then this is where the problem of The Next Thing bifurcates into two related anxieties: 1) being tired of my own ‘voice”, and 2) feeling dissociated from the present because I am always in my head “writing,” on the search for a new rabbit hole to tumble through.

I started writing intentionally again about seven years ago and I feel that all I read + experienced in that time—books, workshops, crises, psychoanalysis, friendships, doing an MFA—contributed to “the voice” of my poetry. Sometimes I am so sick of her. There is a sameness of voice that had taken over; flashy with the same vocabulary, themes and traumas, tacit recriminations that I wrote of before. I think that the issue is possibly the fact that my book came out so hot-on-the-heels of completing the MFA that I’ve had to remain in the world of the book in order to give readings, interviews, write essays and so on. I had to stay in that work and be its emissary in addition to its author. In thinking back I am reminded of 2011 when I took a workshop with Erin Moure wherein she made a perfect analogy of what I’ll call “down time;” the time spent reading, reflecting, engaging, not necessarily writing. She said something to the effect of you need to take time with the aforementioned things in order to “water your garden.” In my notebook I drew an arrow between READING and a kindergarten-ish drawing of rain falling on a crop of erratically petalled flowers. In her essay “Lastingness: Réage, Lucrèce, Arendt,” Lisa Robertson wrote, “I am only certain that I think insofar as I read.” Between day jobs and dealing with the (wonderful) stuff my book has engendered and the messiness, inevitable, of living a colonially-inflected life, I have not been able to find space enough to read deeply, explicitly, wantonly. I desperately (with my necessary smile intact) need to “recharge my batteries.” I know too well that my lack of time can also be perceived as an “embarrassment of riches” but down time for me is essential to my process. So, to the chagrin of the-more-responsibles who love me, I’ve resigned from one of my day jobs to read and write and maybe even “get over myself” as it were for two days a week in the coming months.

One of my childhood nicknames was “space cadet,” telling as I have always been given to daydreaming. Now that daydreaming is under the spectre of The Next Thing I seem to spend more and more time in this state between dream and non-confirmation. I am always at a remove from my own life, am I really living, and where does this concern emerge from? In addition to reading I have made goals to be healthier, more embodied, more engaged in a sociopolitical way. It is difficult to have so many good intentions while having access to the track record of your never really following through (inertia being a powerful, if seemingly paradoxical force).

SM: The Next Thing is a horrible spectre. I think it is especially hard after the first book, especially if that first book is well-received. Your first book very deservedly won the Griffin. Prize culture can be a mindfuck, though. I had a horrible time writing my second book after the first was on a few shortlists. The pressure to produce The Next (Bigger, Better) Thing – to prove that wasn’t a fluke, that I’m interesting and deserved and worthy – it was paralyzing. Two books away from my first book, I feel a little less worried about re-proving myself. It sounds like you’re doing good things, to make time for the reading that waters the writing mind-field. Can you talk about what it’s been like to write post-Griffin?

LH: I’ve learned some hard lessons in the midst of this experience of being nominated for such a big prize. People will question your worthiness, your behaviour, your gratitude, your whatever-it-is and find it lacking. These negative gestures drowned out the majority of the positive ones I was lucky to receive. This of course left me feeling doubly shitty; I focused on the negative when so much good was coming my way. So, I’ve been trying to write in the aftermath of all that. I don’t ask for any sympathy. If I was smarter maybe I wouldn’t complain at all but here is a reality. I don’t feel any more confident in my writing than before I won the prize. I feel as though I have to “prove my worth” which is nonsense but I’m a human and this is what it is like right now. Indeterminate couplets and complaints and a desire for escape. I am not ungrateful but all the weirdness this has created has been difficult.

SM: I think you know I think that Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent was one of the most remarkable books – let alone first books – that I’ve ever read. Your lines shake my consciousness and body in the best possible poetry-way. I am so grateful you wrote that book because I use it very often to get myself revved up to write. So this is the heart of the thing: despite you having written a fucking amazing book that very deservedly won a major prize, the brain latches onto the (I hope very few) negative gestures. I hear this, I feel this – my self-doubt wants affirmation more desperately than my confidence does. And, also, people are dicks. So I say to you what I would say to myself: to hell with The Next Thing and the haters and the need to ‘prove your worth’. Whatever comes and whenever it comes next will be just as it should be.

Do you have anything final you might want to say to the writer who is receiving external praise and recognition but might be inwardly overwhelmed by the one-negative-thing?

LH: I worry sometimes that I fall into a melancholy at the slightest suggestion of criticism (constructive or no). In fact I recall this as being an issue from a young age, i.e., getting a low “score” on the “accepts criticism well” section of my early grade school report cards. I accept that my experience might have more to do with my own sensitivity than the intention of others to make me feel bad. But, you know, it’s a thing. And like with so much I’ve experience, what I’ve written about, I can’t possibly believe I am alone. What I want to say is that it’s okay to feel awkward, tentative, nervous, bleeding-heart-on-one’s-sleeve about even the positive things. In some cases being recognized in a certain way makes you reevaluate who you are. I held fast, I think, to this identity I had as a relative “outsider”, experimental, feminist poet. Every rejection letter and longlist I failed to make strengthened this notion of myself as “being outside the accepted” (Kathy Acker), and that was a beautiful, anarchical place. There was a comfort I found in being a “beautiful loser.” I wanted to be heard, I wanted to be understood, but in contrast to other aspects of my life, I wanted to write on my own terms, full stop. So then what happens when you erupt into “the accepted”? That’s still something I’m grappling with. What I would say to other writers who achieve success…enjoy it, of course, thank your mentors, your elders, the people who got you by, and when the stardust and champagne settles, get weird again and get to work.


You have your marching orders, people: Get weird, and get to work.

I’m tired, people. 2016 has been super trying. I have three beautiful, thoughtful conversations in the bag and will be posting them in the new year, which will hopefully have fewer community meltdowns, beloved celebrity deaths, and apocalyptic politics. I’ve been granted some reprieve on my nonstop non-writing work-hustle so I will have more time to lovingly post (rather than hide in my bed wrestling with cookie crumbs).

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