Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Angela Szczepaniak

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Angela Szczepaniak

This spring, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer's Craft class conducted interviews with Canadian poets as part of a class project. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book throughout June. In this interview, Malvern Collegiate students Emma Hampson and Kelsea Walker speak with writer and professor Angela Szczepaniak (The QWERTY Institute (annual report), BookThug, 2012).

Emma Hampson and Kelsea Walker:

Hi Angela, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. We very much enjoyed reading your poetry in preparation for this assignment and found that it really did open us up to the possibilities (and in some cases, inanities) of language. We look forward to receiving your responses and learning more about your work and your writing process. Cheers, Kelsea and Emma.

Angela Szczepaniak:

Thanks so much for these questions, Kelsea and Emma — and for your careful attention to my books!


In your interview with BookThug, you talked about how your main trigger for writing your most recent work, The QWERTY Institute, came while trying to deal with the bureaucratic nonsense involved in studying in the United States, and you were told that bank statements from the future were what were really necessary. Did you have a similar real-life event that spurred the creation of Unisex Love Poems? Are there any aspects of the book or the characters that are autobiographical?


Not one specific inspirational incident, really, but I guess you could say that waiting rooms played a part — for the magazines, which I never read unless I’m stuck somewhere that supplies them. I was reading proper “conduct books” at the time I was starting to write ULP — etiquette instructions written in the late 1930s, whose codes of behaviour appeared unbelievably outdated, very dusty (especially considering that they’re from the twentieth century!?! not Victorian, like most of my readers have assumed). And it struck me, in my brief flicking through magazines, that things like Cosmo and Elle do essentially the same job as those (not so) historical conduct books. From there, I wanted to write my own “lessons” in response to all of this literature (past and present) that attempts to dictate our interactions with one another and the world at large. So that was one stream — the etiquette lessons. Then the other parts worked themselves in, in their own ways (a small step, really, to anatomically correct illustrated recipes for sweetbreads).


After reading QWERTY, I get the impression that due to the innovative nature of your poetry, poetic tradition doesn’t play a huge role in your writing. The anxiety of influence suggests a conscious effort to avoid being overly influenced by traditional works. Do you deliberately write unconventional poetry, or is your writing simply the product of your literary and artistic influences?


I’m all over literary traditions! I study and read obsessively — I have a PhD in lit and am a professor now, so I force others to be obsessed with all kinds of literary traditions too. The traditions I favour tend to foreground form and language, but I’m invested in all kinds of writing and art, from all periods. Writing the way I do isn’t deliberate in the sense that I set out specifically to write things that look “different” from other writing — that would be so lonely! There are plenty of influences ghosting around my writing…. I don’t associate this with the anxiety of influence — it’s more like exhilaration. Not a product of these influences, exactly, but a conversation with them.


In The QWERTY Institute (annual report), “Back On Top” tells the story of the letter K in its comedic endeavors. What inspired you to give specific stories and personalities to specific letters?


It’s the font. Fonts are used to give a specific “personality” to a text which tells us how to engage with it (like how the text on Horror movie posters looks different than text on Romantic Comedy posters, and that communicates a difference in genre and audience, etc). So I took that principle to its logical extreme to consider what would happen if fonts actually had those personalities, and had minds and lives of their own. So “K” from “Back on Top” starts out in Comic Sans font (what better font for a comedian), then, as his life takes a bad turn, he becomes Sand font (decrepit and lacking solid ground to stand on).


The aspect of Unisex Love Poems that fascinated me the most was the degree to which the visual manifestation of your poems worked to characterize the people that were speaking them (particularly Butterfinger’s halting, ethereal poems with their drifting structure as compared with Slug’s dense monologues). This is evident throughout the book, but first appears in the contrast between 4f corridor slug straightens shirt smoothes hair with a palm refers to notecards levels three sharp knocks and “open house” featuring butterfingers, our plucky tightrope walking heroine, and later when they speak together in “diagnostic” featuring a weft rapport. I know you talked about the physical and visual nature of the book and the poems themselves and how you envisioned it as part of your writing process in your interview with BookThug in terms of The QWERTY Institute, but I wondered if you could further discuss how you used the structure of Butterfinger’s and Slug’s poems to create their characters.


It was mostly an organic process. I started writing bits for each of those characters separately, without thinking much about how they may be related (I didn’t even think of them as being part of the same story at first). Then the more I wrote, the more they seemed to be dealing with similar things in their own ways so I thought they should start speaking to each other. It’s similar to QWERTY, I think, in the way the language has a visual shape on the page that corresponds to their characters and the way they use language and speech. All written language has a visual dimension — even this interview — but we often think of reading as looking through that dimension to distill words for their meaning apart from it. I wanted to read with it, rather than through it. For slug, he’s effusive and exasperated and part of that comes through what he says, and part comes through how it looks on the page. Same deal with butterfingers — she’s a butterfingers tightrope walker, and I imagined her speech matching her movement. I like that tightrope walkers are often thought of as being graceful and seamless and quickfooted like ballerinas, but tightrope walkers are much slower on the wire, and often look halting as they try to keep it together to make it to the other side. And they don’t always make it! Sometimes they fall. And there’s a kind of beauty in that ambition that tumbles down from the wire. I wanted the reading experience to match that kind of breath of physical movement.


Satirical examination of language is an obvious theme in both Unisex Love Poems and The QWERTY Institute. In ULP you included an insert that featured an AlphabeTics comic strip that is very similar format-wise to sections of The QWERTY Institute. Was the AlphabeTics comic included in ULP something that you enjoyed doing and decided to explore further in your next work? Also, visuals seem to be a pretty unique and important feature of most of your poetry, so much that it’s difficult to describe your work to someone who hasn’t seen it firsthand. Can you discuss how the comics, diagrams of sweet meats etc. aided your storytelling process and why you chose to include them?


I loved doing the AlphabeTics strips in ULP. Totally loved it! I hadn’t originally planned to include them in the book. My editor, Jason Camlot, has an amazing way of pulling the best out of a writer — right near the end of the editing process he said he thought the manuscript needed one more genre and instructed me to come up with a totally new genre that’s never been seen before (!?!). After panicking for a while about how I could possibly pull that off, I caught myself doodling AlphabeTics cartoons (which I had been doing for a long time, with no intention of developing it further) and thought they could actually become something bigger. So although I didn’t totally meet the challenge of inventing a genre that’s “never been seen before,” I thought it worked on the level that it was related to the way I use language in the book but looked completely different from the other parts. I liked the AlphabeTics form as a cartoony interlude between “Acts” in ULP, so it didn’t seem right to do much more than the few pages that are there. But I liked working with typeface cartoons so much that I picked up with QWERTY from there.


Many of your characters’ poems in Unisex Love Poems are spoken as one-sided dialogue, even if the audience of another character is implied. This occurs, for example, in Slug’s opening monologue, and later in “light layers”: call featuring slug, not inflecting as he’s used to in which he says,

"Look, let’s just go. You know? We’ll have to live on our wits and keep moving and it will all be… amazing. Astral. Cosmological. Astrophysical. Whatever you want. We’ll pack light and wear layers. Bring a sweater. A really nice one. With pearl buttons."

and to which Butterfingers replies in her subsequent poem a few pages following —

"it would be a grand life probably but for the farming issue
And what it leads to."

Did you go about presenting the characters in turn like that so that the reader was forced to focus on them singularly, or to preserve their unique tones? What was your reasoning there?


Well, partly it’s concerned with the visual shape of each character’s words on the page. I was also interested in conversation and dialogue throughout the book, and presenting short one-sided conversations was a good way of exploring the role of speakers and how they may (or not) interact — in contrast with the actual multi-speaker conversations, like the ones with spitz and spatz. ULP is very invested in how readers may work with the pieces and characters, so the reader is the ultimate interlocutor, regardless of which characters are the represented or implied audience.


Both Unisex Love Poems and The QWERTY Institute exhibit poetry in a narrative-like form. In the future, would you ever consider writing a conventional novel?


I’ve always had a novelistic (or at least a narrative) streak — I think of ULP as a novel-in-poems and QWERTY as visual fictions. So novels are definitely a possibility. I’m not sure about conventional or not though…. I like conventions of “open works” and “critifiction.” But how to class writing in terms of being conventional (conventional vs innovative, experimental, etc) is a bigger, thornier issue. I tend not to think of things as either conventional or not — it can be limiting to divide books and authors so sharply. I prefer to take all writing (from Dickens to Tomasula) as sui generis. So maybe it’s better to say that I’ll keep writing things that I find fun to write — and I had a blast writing both ULP and QWERTY — but that’s not to say I won’t find other forms fun, too.

Angela Szczepaniak writes fiction, poetry, cartoons and critical essays, and is a Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University. One of her early career highlights was participating in LOCCAL’s first hygiene themed poetry-art project — traces of her visual poetry may still be found on placards in some of the finest public restrooms in Seattle. Her first book is a novel-in-poems called Unisex Love Poems (DC Books), and her typeface-cartoon extravaganza, The QWERTY Institute (annual report), was released in 2012 (BookThug). She’s currently writing a short story collection and a novel-in-rubble-with-songs.

Emma Hampson is a long-time resident of Toronto with a love for Netflix and a hatred for olives. She moonlights as a volunteer teenage-angst consultant to her friends and her sister and hopes to one day make a career of it. She has dedicated a good portion of her last year of high school to attempting to ameliorate her community with her school’s United Way Club, which she is Vice President of. With a passion for arguing that she translates into activism, feminism and the environment are very important to her.

Kelsea Walker is a young and restless teenage idealist who gets her geek on over quotes, kayaking and getting as far away as possible. She currently resides in Toronto where she reads, writes, consumes copious amounts of caffeine and keeps a running tally chart until the next time she can take off into the great blue yonder.

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.

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page