Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Erin Wunker

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Erin Wunker

It's a fascinating time for Canadian poetry, with conversations about critical dialogues, diversity and innovation becoming more complex and even heated as new forms, voices and traditions emerge. One of the central voices in those conversations is Montreal poet Sina Queyras. Queyras's critical and artistic engagement motivated editor Erin Wunker to work with her on Barking & Biting:The Poetry of Sina Queyras (Wilfrid Laurier University Press).

The collection features an introduction by Erin along with Queyras's poetry, which often engages with themes of gender, genre and identity (she also writes prose and, under her popular Lemon Hound mantle from which the collection's title is taken, literary criticism).

Today we're speaking with Erin as part of our Lucky Seven series, where we talk to authors about their new books. We discuss the experience of working with Queyras on the collection and helping shape the aesthetic, ethical and political conversation of Barking & Biting.

Erin tells us about how the book fits into the Laurier Poetry Series published by Wilfried Laurier University Press, how Queyras's fearless feminist viewpoint inspired her and how the process of selecting poems for the collection worked.

Open Book:

Tell us about the new book you edited, Barking & Biting:The Poetry of Sina Queyras.

Erin Wunker:

Barking & Biting is a selection of Sina Queyras’s poetry which includes an introduction to the selection, my editorial process, some of what I see to be Queyras’s poetic concerns and themes, and an afterword written by Queyras and originally published on the Poetry Foundation’s blog.

The Laurier Poetry Series is aimed an selecting representative works of significant poets in the Canadian context and making them accessible to a wide readership. The process itself was fairly simple: Sina was a keynote speaker at a conference I co-organized with Bart Vautour (& Travis Mason & Christl Verduyn) called Public Poetics: Critical Issues in Canadian Poetry and Poetics. I approached her at the conference and asked if she would be interested in having me pitch a selected works to the Laurier Poetry Series. Frankly, I am a fan of Sina’s work as a writer, as an intellectual who writes and speaks and facilitates public conversations about poetry, feminism and art, and I hugely admire her feminist praxis.

I proposed a selection of Queyras’s work for the series and the series editors accepted my proposal right away. My reasoning for proposing a selected of Queyras’s poems is a bit more complex: not only do I think that Sina is one of the most significant writers, teachers, and community-makers in the Canadian literary scene, I was also acutely aware that the Laurier Poetry Series has published a disproportionate number of selections of male poets. As chair of the board of the national not-for-profit organization Canadian Women in the Literary Arts I felt it was my responsibility to proactively do something to shift those numbers toward equitable representation.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


While I wrote the introduction I wouldn’t consider myself an author here. This is a selection of Sina’s work, and that’s the focus and the reason for the book.

I selected the poems.

To my mind, each of Sina’s collections is a real project — the poems start at one place and, through a huge variety of tactics, end up at a different place by the end of the collection. They are, I feel, books that teach you to think as they (the poems) themselves are thinking and exploring. All of that to say choosing a select few poems from each text is a task that is, in some ways, bound to fail. No selected works will ever take the place of reading an entire collection. I tried to choose poems that 1) demonstrated an evolution of poetic form over time 2) demonstrated the things I mention above (genealogies of literary and artistic influence, experiments at the interstices of lyric and conceptualism) and 3) that gave readers a sample of the different kinds of poetic work that makes up each collection. I knew making the selections that it was an impossible task; my hope is that I have selected poems that will pique readers’ interest and encourage them to go out and read her poetry in its entirety.


Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


It took about two years from pitching the project to getting to the proofs stage, but again, I wasn’t the author on this. I was the editor. I pitched the project knowing most of the poems I planned to include, and with an introduction mostly drafted.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


My partner and I live with a big, wild dog and a small, newly-crawling infant. We are both precariously employed academics, and we don’t have much child care at the moment. So, I need my computer and very little else. I used to need space and expanses of time — I felt like I couldn’t write if I didn’t have a several-hours-long stretch of time. Now, I write when I have ten minutes in a row. This is neither good, nor bad, its just different. My favourite way to write is at our local café — it is less than three blocks from our house, very bright, and bustling without feeling over-crowded. I take my headphones, listen to some music, and work at one of the communal work tables. But if that can’t happen I will type standing up in the kitchen or at the kitchen table while the baby naps.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


Again, for this specific editorial project I didn’t encounter the same kinds of challenges I do when I am writing my own material. I was energized by this project. Thrilled by the thought of helping to introduce new readers to Sina’s poetry. Fuelled by the urgency of the project and sustained by the depth and beauty and complexity of her work.

When I am writing my own material and I get stuck, I walk. Or talk it out. Or both, sometimes at the same time.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


Oof. I don’t like the way this question invites diagnostic assessments, and yet I get where it is coming from and feel compelled to answer. For me, great books teach me things on both an intellectual and affective level, and they stand up to a second (or third, or more) reading.

In addition to Sina’s work — especially MxT and Expressway, for me — the two books that come to mind today as I answer this are The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.


What are you working on now?


A collection on non-fiction essays about being what Sara Ahmed calls a “feminist killjoy” — someone who is constantly working to kill the so-called joys of patriarchal culture. The wonderful people at BookThug are publishing it.

Erin Wunker is the chair of the board of the national non-profit social justice organization Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) and co-founder, writer, and managing editor of the feminist academic blog Hook and Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe. She teaches Canadian literature and culture at Dalhousie University. Her book The Feminist Killjoy Handbook will be published in the fall of 2016.

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