Suzanna Derewicz: Your first collection of poetry Rotten Perfect Mouth came out with Mansfield Press last year, and Shiner is your second published collection with them. Could you talk a little bit about how you discovered Mansfield, or did they discover you?
Eva HD: When I wrote the pieces in the first book, I never imagined that they would ever become a book, I didn’t write them with the intent of publication. I didn’t write them deliberately. Some people started telling me that I should consider submitting my work. I thought, well, I don’t really know how to do that. I put it off for a long time. They said I should create a manuscript, I was like, really? You just do that? You send the things you wrote on the back of napkins to these people?
One day I finally sat down and googled presses. There were many who said that you had to be published already. To get published you had to be published which sounded like some sort of Kafkaesque practical joke to me.
A buddy of mine who owns a bar asked me one day while we were having coffee why I didn’t apply for a grant. I explained that I didn’t qualify for a grant. He asked how much money I would theoretically ask for. I said, I don’t know, a grand? He laughed. I lose more than that in a night out drinking, he said. I’ll give you a grand, easy. No problem. If anything comes of this, I said, I will put an acknowledgement in pretending you’re an artistic council. Deal, he said.
SD: Experience before you can get experience.
HD: Exactly. But then, Mansfield wrote on their website that they strongly suggested you didn’t submit without previous publication, but they didn’t explicitly say you weren’t allowed to. So, I thought, ok. I dropped it off at their house, literally on Mansfield Avenue. I rode my bike there and left it on their stoop.
SD: What it was like preparing this consecutive collection in such a short period of time? Was it always on the horizon for you?
HD: Honestly, not at all. Mansfield wanted a second collection and—I didn’t, I felt that one was maybe enough. But Denis De Klerck, the publisher, wanted more. I thought he was joking but then discovered much too late in the process how serious he was.
I wrote most of Shiner this past year. Denis threw in some older poems. I don’t think I can tell when something is a poem. A lot of what I gave him, he baptized as poems some email I wrote to my friend ten years ago is now a poem.
SD: Something I noticed in Shiner is how often the speaker(s) call out to history. The real prominent ones for me as a reader (being of Eastern European descent) are the old USSR references: drinking Krupnik, Perestroika, little boys holding Kalashnikov rifles. In the poem “On the Anniversary of the Bombing of Guernica” we see a speaker situating themselves in relation to a catastrophic historical event. The desire to call out to that which preceded you, where does that live in you?
HD: I guess I feel like it’s doing the same to me, so I feel like I’m responding. In today’s world, it feels sometimes like everyone has the memory of a goldfish, but history and context are very clearly present in everything we experience, though some of it might be willfully passed over. I find it difficult to write anything that is disassociated from it.
SD: Like we’re tethered to it.
HD: More like it’s a palimpsest—most of it has not been erased or covered up very well and I’m constantly stumbling upon it. Your question is a very good one. And people are shouting out to history all the time, whether intentionally or otherwise. The term Puritan, for example, is something I can’t really hear without thinking about the ethnic cleansings of Ireland and North America. We contend daily with the consequences of history, which manifest themselves more obviously for some of us than for others. Try telling some kids in Attawapiskat that history doesn’t matter. I think a person would have to live in a peculiar state of privilege to imagine that they lived outside of history.
“You cannot pretend you are without context.”
SD: What really strikes me about this collection is how wonderfully relatable it is to a person living their day-to-day lives in Toronto. Through its specificity, the poems that reference Toronto are so personal, but because they’re personal, I’m right there with you. There are poems that are so distinctly placed in Toronto, “Neighbourhood,” “Dear West End,” “Baseball on the Radio at Night.” It’s as though the voice and its living in the city cannot be separated. Can you speak a little to this?
HD: I don’t know what else I would write about. To have this idea, that a lack of bias exists—again, you have to be a very specific kind of privileged person to imagine that who is speaking and where they are speaking from doesn’t matter. There is universality, but that doesn’t come from pretending to be nowhere. You cannot pretend you are without context. That Dostoevsky is Russian is not an easy fact to hide and there would be no purpose to hiding that. Or, maybe if I was trying harder I’d expand out a little bit in my content but I prefer to be like—oh look at that thing I saw.
SD: Well, I think the best work comes from authenticity. I began in theatre, and much if not all of my own writing has a character in a place for a reason. When that isn’t obvious to me in the work I read, I’m not as present. With Shiner I’m present because I have those street names, those landmarks, those talismans that allow me to imagine myself in the speaker’s shoes.
HD: Maybe I’m just the same as you. And I like theatre; it’s one of my preferred art forms.
SD: Well, it’s immediate in the sense that you’re asking an audience to sit there and you need to give them a reason to. They can’t turn the channel, pause the film, put the book away and come back to it later.
HD: Like Michel Tremblay for example, his plays are written in joual. They are very Québécois. I was listening to the radio one time and Robert Lepage was speaking about Tremblay, about why his plays have been translated into 34 languages. They’re written about a specific group, but for everyone.
SD: They’re accessible not despite they’re specificity, but because of it.
HD: Yes, so why would I not? Only somebody who believes in the utter fallacy of their own neutrality would think they could write completely disconnected to their own experience.
SD: Letter-writing is a theme in this collection, calling out to people—be they figures of the past or the speakers’ friends, people they are familiar with. Is poetry for you a way to communicate with people that you would not be able to in other ways?
HD: I’m just a bit of an incurable corresponder. I’ve always written letters. It’s a natural expression for me, the postcard poems in the collection were actual postcards before they were poems. Once I was in The 3 Speed and writing a haiku to a friend of mine on a post card. J.P., The guy working at the bar asked, “Oh where’s that going?” I said “I’m writing a postcard to my friend at Dupont and Ossington.” He started laughing, probably thought I was a lunatic. It hadn’t occurred to me that it might be seen as a ridiculous thing to do.
SD: Do you have a particular writing process? Is there something you have to have with you or be doing while writing a poem?
“It hadn’t occurred to me that it might be seen as a ridiculous thing to do.”
HD: Not really. Often I’ll be scrawling down words while doing something else. One of the things that appears in the book was something I wrote on the back of a napkin at La Palette. I write on the back of receipts at work. I guess if I was setting out to write poetry, it wouldn’t really come out. Some of those emails I sent I went through later and thought—oh that could work. I pretend to text when walking down the street and don’t feel like being sexually harassed. I’ll send text messages to myself that become poems.
SD: Often when I see a finished product, a finished piece of work, I’m interested in discovering where the blood and sweat fell hardest, so to speak. What were some of the more challenging aspects of putting this collection together?
HD: The challenging part was acknowledging that it wasn’t a joke—they really were going to publish this. I kind of left putting it together to chance. Mansfield asked if I had an opinion on its sequencing. I was at a bit of an impasse with them because to me it was like asking what order I wanted to place my various bins of garbage and recycling in. We bickered about it for a while. Finally I printed out the whole manuscript and each different poem on a back of a stack of my best friend’s old resumes. I threw them on the floor, and picked them up. That’s the order they’re in now. That was probably the closest thing to literal sweat I came to.
SD: What’s next for you, in poetry or in life, what are you excited about?
HD: I’m excited for the Raptors game! Game five!
SD: Can we expect a Raptors poem to accompany the Jays poem and the Leafs poem?
HD: I don’t know. This book is the result of me trying to quit writing poetry and in a way represents my failure to do that. I tried last year to stop, to quit doing it to myself. I suppose that I was completely unsuccessful. I feel like if I claim I’ll be able to stop, I won’t be able to. What the hell, maybe I will write a poem about game five. Though, I’ve really been enjoying Cathal Kelly’s coverage of the games, it’s been hilarious. He’s a really good sports writer; you don’t have to know who any of the players are to be entertained. I don’t think I could write about the Raptors better than that guy. Maybe only if they win.
Eva HD lives in Toronto, where she works at your favourite bar. She wrote Rotten Perfect Mouth and Shiner, published by Mansfield Press.