Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Beatriz Hausner

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Beatriz Hausner

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 Talene Francis-Prettie and Candice Leung speak with writer and librarian Beatriz Hausner (Enter the Raccoon, BookThug, 2012).

Talene Francis-Prettie:

Hi Beatriz. My name is Talene and my partner’s name is Candice. We are both thrilled to be interviewing you and look forward to your responses. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to be interviewed. Enjoy!

Beatriz Hausner:

How very nice to meet you both, Talene and Candice! I have to say that I am thrilled with the questions that my poems have elicited from you. So, here, and hoping to do justice to your queries, are my answers:

Candice Leung:

“And, just now, into my study has walked a human-sized raccoon. He greets me and seems kind, despite the threatening teeth” (Enter the Raccoon 8). This line is used to introduce the plot to one of your most famous pieces, Enter the Raccoon. The poem goes on to explain the relationship between a woman and a raccoon. Although you are well recognized in the Toronto poetry community, I found that you are not originally Canadian. It seems that you have immigrated to Toronto during your adolescent years with no prior education of the English language. This is something we have in common, and I personally find it extremely remarkable that over the time of your life, you have been able to master the language and literature of Canada in a way that is so poetically beautiful. In a previous interview by BookThug, you explained that you had always had an interest in raccoons ever since seeing them for the first time in Canada. Please explain how being a Canadian immigrant has affected your work as a Canadian poet.


It is true that I am an immigrant like you, Candice. My family came to Canada when I was 12 years old. My mother, Susana Wald, is a visual artist and my stepfather, Ludwig Zeller, is a poet and a collage artist. Both are well known for their contribution to international Surrealism. Because of their life experience, attitude and worldview my parents were not conventional even in my country of origin, Chile, so that the normal feeling of being marginal that most immigrants experience was kind of amplified for me: I felt completely outside of the life of my peers; I didn’t have a typically North American adolescence. I spoke no English when we came in 1971, and there were no services to help immigrants like me to integrate to high school with ESL classes and the like. It was a struggle to learn English so quickly, but human beings are made of language and I did learn English fast (though not very well). That it would become my tool for artistic expression is something I never imagined, not in my wildest dreams.

Here is the thing about poetry: It kind of happens to you. It’s like life itself. Poetry is becoming. In other words, poetry offers the possibility of transformation, of creation. The Chilean cubist poet, Vicente Huidobro believed that human beings are the ultimate creators and he has a statement, an aphorism, which I saw when I was a child, because my step-dad had made it into a calligram cut out in paper: “El hombre es un pequeño dios” (Man [woman] is a little god). To the surrealists, poetry/art/creation is about perceiving reality in ALL its dimensions: the visible, the invisible, the imagined, what we dream, what we touch and see. There are not limitations for the surrealist: everything is at the poet’s disposal as tools for change, from the so-called mundane, to the sacred. Reality is multidimensional and polyphonic. The first text I ever translated was an essay by the Argentine surrealist Aldo Pellegrini, titled “Poesía es todo aquello que cierra la puerta a los imbéciles.” He expands on the concept that expression, once it goes through the medium that is the poet (or artist), becomes something else. I agree with Pellegrini that poetry is about transformation, about becoming, about change, that to settle for anything less, is to settle for mere a snapshot of reality. It is not a new concept. The Classics already expressed it. Witness the Latin poet Ovid’s masterpiece Metamorphosis.

Please excuse this seemingly roundabout preamble to get to your point, namely the idea of a raccoon as a subject, and also as a device, a means for getting to aspects of self, of reality, the poetic. It is true that raccoons do not exist in South America. The first time I saw a raccoon from up close it was night, and I was at my closet (all of existence seems to take place in the proximity of the wardrobe!), which faced a landing outside; I turned my gaze and there, as if caught in the light that emanated from the room I was in, I came face to face with a raccoon’s big shiny yellow eyes.

Fast forward 30 years, and I am sitting at my computer in my study, yet another attempt at breaking block and moving away from a manner of writing I felt I needed to break away from… I suddenly turned my gaze towards the corner of the tiny room and there, sitting on the chair I used for reading, was this human-sized raccoon. It appeared to me, just like that. I began by transcribing that vision into a text in prose, writing almost automatically, letting the imagery flow out of me, as though I were a kind of conduit. I suppose the strangeness of the character that was born there, its anthropomorphic quality, it shook something loose inside me. If freed me from whatever was constraining me. Over the following months, other images superimposed themselves, so that this character became a kind of companion, a lover I could manipulate, imbue with all manner of concepts that were floating around in my head.


I have noticed throughout your works that there is a common theme of female roles. This is seen in Enter the Raccoon as the female role shows to lead and control the sexual relation between herself and the raccoon. This is a very modern style of writing and contrasts with poetic tradition. As seen in most traditional poetry, the love story is graceful and romantic as the male leads the relationship on, however it seems that you view the love story between the woman and the raccoon to be rather rough and realistic. Can you explain the reasoning behind having such a strong female role in your poetry?


I see what you mean by “romantic” love, Candice. Historically, especially since the establishment of Christianity in Western culture, much of love poetry has been the territory of men, so that the dominant point of view is that of a man in love with a woman, usually following a specific model, or convention, like gracefulness and romance. I see myself as a romantic, in the sense that I believe and feel that love is among the strongest energy there is for changing oneself and changing the world. The point about poetic expression is that it allows one to explore with complete freedom aspects of existence, in this case aspects of erotic love. There are no limits to what one can imagine. In Enter the Raccoon there is often a preoccupation with a reversal of roles, an exploration of the woman being dominant. I don’t really know “how” this came about, honestly. It just did, and I allowed myself to explore its expression fully.


In the poems “The Wardrobe Mistress” and “The Byzantine Date” it appears that your female characters have aged before the reader’s eyes. The characters’ lives have quietly dissolved and unraveled leaving empty shells of what these women once were. Although their lives are quite different both women have had their lives revolve around and wasted on a man. Do you think that women waste their lives trying to please a man? What influenced the writing of these two different but similar poems? Do you think that women waste their best years being subservient to a man?


“The Wardrobe Mistress” and “Byzantine Date” are poems that explore many aspects of love, including facets that are closely related to loss, to melancholy. Love is full of mysterious colorations and I wanted to understand it through the viewpoint of clothing. Clothes and Eros are closely related, as far as I am concerned. Connecting the two, in “The Wardrobe Mistress” proved a perfect means of expressing the moods, the textures inherent in the notion of love. I tried to experiment freely with the terminology around sewing, in order to create a kind of layering of meanings. The poem can be read from many points of view. I am very moved to see that you, Talene, have picked up so strongly on this notion of love and loss.

As far as “subservience” goes, no, I don’t think that women, nor men, need be subservient one to the other. I do feel, however, that there is a kind of surrender that accompanies the idea of love. The important thing to remember is that poetry offers a space where one can explore all the facets of life in complete freedom. My poetry is not a reproduction of my life, although “Byzantine Date” is a poem about heartbreak, only written about twenty-five years after the fact. Hence the images of wearing, of aging, of time passing that you remark on.


Your breadth of poetry appears to be similar in that the characters seem to be quite lonely and disconnected from reality. There is darkness and undercurrents of almost despair. However what is interesting is that the women have hope and have tried to find relationships and love in whatever surrounds them. This is definitely illustrated in “The Wardrobe Mistress,” “Byzantine Date” and “Enter the Raccoon.” All of the characters in the poems revolve their lives around relationships and love, whether the character is being stood up on a date, reminiscing about a former flame or falling in love with an animal. Are your poems ultimately about hope or despair? Is hope or is despair the motivating element… your motive to write poetry? Do you feel hopeful or do you feel desperate? Why is that?


You’ve hit on an important question, namely what it is that motivates one to write poetry. I can say, honestly, that it isn’t always one thing, or another. Sometimes it’s an emotion. Other times it’s an image. Often for me it’s sound. Many of my poems, though not necessarily the ones you mention, were written when I was feeling angry. Rage at the injustices and humiliations one has to witness, sometimes even endure. The stupidity of people, the insistence on profit-making, on violence, which results in unnecessary and random destruction, is something that I feel I must fight against. I have tried many things in my life, including political action. In the end, the only way I have found to fight back, to resist, is to express and explore ideas through artistic expression.

I don’t think much of the concept of “hope.” I don’t really understand it. I do feel optimistic though, because I believe that people, when allowed to think freely, to become what they want to become, people can change the world, be it through poetry, or through sewing, or studying, or caring for others, caring for the environment, whatever.


In a BookThug interview (January 9th, 2013) you stated that you love clothing, how it can be freeing and constricting at the same time. Would you say that you personally are a slave to fashion? Are women kept submissive to the dominance of the fashion industry? Since you state you love clothing are you personally a slave to the industry? Why or why not?


It’s a tough one… I associate clothes with pleasure, with beauty, with decoration. I wrestle with the idea of being “a slave to fashion,” as you say. I don’t think I am, because I dress in a way that expresses me, in colors and textures I like. What I do find incredibly troubling is this insistence on thinness that has completely taken over. I don’t understand why this huge and powerful industry is so fixated on the skeleton, which is closer to the image of death than that of life; and clothes for me are about being alive, about pleasing myself (and hopefully others too!). I blame this whole problem on money. If the world weren’t ruled by money, clothes would not be associated with exploitation.


Whilst studying poetry and poets’ lives I’ve found that alcohol and other stimulants have played a key part in one’s inspiration. Personally, I’ve found it easiest to write about love because it is something that I’ve experienced. What would you consider to be your main source of inspiration?


I’m with you on this one, Candice: L.O.V.E.: the most powerful drug of all. However, it’s not the only source of inspiration. I find inspiration in the most unexpected things and places. The strongest, most powerful sources of inspiration for me are music and the visual. These two seemingly separate forces merge themselves in my writing, which is imagistic, but also language-based. Of course emotions, whether positive or negative, emotions are an essential engine of my poetic drive.


In the future would you ever contemplate writing poetry from a male perspective? As a consumer it would be very interesting to see how you would approach erotica from a male’s perspective. Would you classify your pieces of poetry as erotica? How do you think it would differ?


What obsesses me is writing about men. I am fascinated by the way men think, the way men move in space, the way a man’s gaze shifts from one object to another. I observe men and the way in which they relate to the world. A lot of my poetry is erotic, it’s true, though it is, strictly-speaking from a female point of view. I can’t see myself writing about Eros from a man’s perspective.

Beatriz Hausner’s poetry books include: The Wardrobe Mistress (2003), Sew Him Up (2010), Enter the Raccoon (2012), La costurera y el muñeco viviente / The Seamstress and the Living Doll (Spanish translation by Julio César Aguilar, 2012) and these chapbooks: Poetisa con balcón y vista al mar (1984), The Walking Suitcase Poems (1986), Towards the Ideal Man Poems (2003), The Stitched Heart (2004), The Archival Stone (2005) and De ideale man gedichten (Dutch translation by Laurens Vancrevel, 2010). Beatriz Hausner is a prolific translator of many works of literature, including the poetry of César Moro, Rosamel del Valle, Mandrágora, Olga Orozco, Enrique Molina, Abigael Bohórquez, the prose of Alvaro Mutis and Aldo Pellegrini, among others. She lives in Toronto, where she works as a public librarian.

A person is made up of more than one thing. They cannot be confined to being just a student, an athlete or a family girl. Instead, Candice Leung is a compilation of all those things. She is a high school student, looking forward to future years of study at university gaining a Bachelors of Art and an Urban Planning degree. She is a competitive athlete that plays volleyball and rugby. Sports have been a strong influence in her life as she dedicates her summer and school year to training and playing rugby. When she isn’t playing sports she confines herself to social media and Netflix. Her favorite thing to do is spend time with her family and friends. As uneventful as it seems, this is what makes her happy.

Quirky, comedic and talented would be fitting words to describe 18-year-old student, Talene Francis-Prettie. Pronounced Tuh-Leen. Talene is looking forward to her future next year studying Radio and Television Arts. Between singing gigs, studying and eating sushi with her closest friends, Talene enjoys writing in her spare time whether it’s poetry, short stories, or song lyrics. She is thrilled to say that she will have a piece of her work finally published! Stay on the look out for this rising star on your local television and radio stations!

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