Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Q & A with Poet Angela Szczepaniak

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A doctoral candidate at the University at Buffalo, Angela Szczepaniak is neck-deep in a dissertation on innovative poetry, detective fiction, and comic books. Her first book is a novel-in-poems, called Unisex Love Poems. In addition to publishing poetry and critical essays, she recently participated in a hygiene themed poetry-art project with LOCCAL, and as a result her visual poetry can be found on placards in some of the finest public restrooms in Seattle. At the moment, she lives in Toronto, where she thinks about being ravaged by time’s withered claw. Angela will be reading with Gillian Sze and Philip Quinn at Pivot Readings at The Press Club tomorrow night.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009
8 p.m. at the Press Club
850 Dundas Street West
Hosted by Carey Toane

1. Your first book, Unisex Love Poems, is a novel-in-poems. What's it about?

It has a loose premise, rather than a cohesive plot… It begins with Slug, who wakes up with a skin rash shaped like the letter h. He becomes obsessed with finding the cause, which he believes is somewhere in his apartment building. He meets Butterfingers, his neighbour, who is a tightrope walker with a series of dating misadventures that she recounts during Slug’s rash excursions in her apartment. Slug is also harassed by Spitz & Spatz, a pair of 3 1/2 inch high vaudevillian lawyers who, against his better judgment, reopen his divorce case (settled years prior), and end up losing his accent to the ex-wife. All of this is intercut with illustrated recipes for sweetbreads and chunks of courtship advice from his-and-her etiquette manual writers.

2. How did you decide to write a novel in poems?

It wasn’t a concrete decision, it’s more just how everything fell together eventually. I don’t really consider genre primarily when I’m writing individual pieces, so whatever form something takes is just what it is. Generally, I’m interested in poetry, narrative, character, language, and images, so the result in this book is a weaving together of many different genres that eventually build toward things like character driven prose-poetry vignettes. I’m not sure what to call that, but “novel-in-poems” seemed like the most concise way to describe what it is. I also like “novular poetry,” but it hasn’t really caught on.

3. Many of the poems in Unisex Love Poems deal with bodies, food, and etiquette. Did the subject matter come to you organically or did you have a concept at the outset?

It was more organic than planned. I find all of those subjects fascinating and after a while of writing bits here and there it started to look like a concept or theme building… When I had a few pieces of each genre in the book written it began to look like there was a concept to shape, so I worked on the cartography of it as a book and wrote the rest from there.

4. You're a doctoral candidate at the University at Buffalo, writing about innovative poetry, detective fiction, and comic books. How have comic books influenced your own writing?

Most directly, there are comic strips in the book, which comes from an appreciation for the medium. But comics also influence how I conceive of a page—I see it as a visual space, a whole field to lay out, rather than focusing just on the words without imagining how it will look on the page. Even when I’m working on a piece that doesn’t have images, I feel like the way a text looks on the page needs to be arranged in a specific way because it affects how it’s read. Then, of course there’s the fusion of text and image, how they work together, each contributing a different aspect of a whole piece, which helps for the poems that I actually illustrate.
And there are a lot of specific artists I feel influenced by, even though most of what I do doesn’t really look like comics—it’s more like sharing a sensibility or having an affinity for certain artists.

5. Your poems have a tangible and visceral quality to them - they feel like I can almost pick them up and put them in my pocket. How do you think of words as you combine them?

It varies, depending on the work I’m doing. I often start with how words sound together, their rhythm. And how they’ll look together printed. Then I consider what the words mean, and how one word changes the character of another. I think of words as being very precise—every word has a very specific kind of character, not just different meanings or connotations. “Slab” brings a different visceral quality than “piece” even though both could be used in basically the same circumstances. If you’re given a “slab” of meat, you’re going to feel differently than if you’re given a “piece” of meat.

7. I can sometimes be a purist, so I'll ask the question. Do you read only poetry when you're writing poetry?

No, I read and write promiscuously all the time. Formal boundaries are such artificial distinctions, arbitrary in a lot of ways, that I don’t really find it helpful to isolate them. Dashiell Hammett’s prose looks a lot different from Gertrude Stein’s poetry, but Hammett’s writing also looks a lot different from Raymond Chandler’s… I’m more interested the way different writers handle language. To see different possibilities for what language can do, I read everything—fiction, poetry, comics, plays, essays, instruction manuals, street signs, product packaging… I also watch a lot of film and some TV—hearing language is important. I’m more discriminating about specific artists than about genre or form.

8. What advice would you give young poets looking to get published?

Find journals you share a sensibility with, and submit. If you can’t find any, make your own.

9. What are you reading right now?

Mostly dissertation stuff right now, so it’s a lot of re-reading… Chris Ware’s ACME comics, Art Spiegelman’s 70s comics, David Antin’s talk poems, Leslie Scalapino’s comics and detective writing, Ann Quin’s fiction… stuff like that.

10. Who are your top three pop cultural icons?

I’m not sure if they’re icons, but I love Armando Iannucci, Chris Morris, and Matt Berry.

11. What are you working on right now?

I’m squeezing in work on two manuscripts, while doing academic writing. One is kind of a suite of fiction pieces about a typologist and an archivist with a parasite, intercut with gag comic strips. And the other is a novular poetry book about an apocalyptic hotel’s lounge singer and a bureaucratic noir detective.

Click here to read a sample of Angela's work.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Lauren Kirshner

Lauren Kirshner is the author of the novel Where We Have to Go (McClelland & Stewart, 2009). Her short stories, arts reviews, interviews and poetry have appeared in newspapers and literary journals such as The Toronto Star, Now, The Hart House Review and Exile.

Go to Lauren Kirshner’s Author Page