Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Natalie Zina Walschots

Share |
Natalie Zina Walschots

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Isaac Heron:

I’ve read that you were raised, or at least educated, in Calgary, which is, from what I understand, a little more culturally conservative than Toronto is, where you live now. I also know that, alongside your writing career, you are very involved with heavy metal culture. Have the cities you’ve lived in, and their responses to your interests, at all affected or influenced your writing?

Natalie Zina Walschots:

I actually grew up in a very small town in Southern Ontario, called Amherstburg. I also did my undergraduate degree in Windsor, Ontario, before leaving to do my Master’s in Calgary.

Each place that I have lived, and the people who have resided there, have reacted differently to my writing. Windsor, for instance, has the most strip clubs per capita of any city in North America (including Las Vegas), so writing about S&M culture there was not exactly a scandalous proposition. I can’t say that I have ever received any great (or at least direct) censure for the subject matter of my writing and what interests me, though perhaps people in different cities have displayed various degrees of comfort when handling it.

When it comes to influence, I don’t think it is possible to fully remove artistic output from geography. Where I am located always changes what I write, though it certainly does not censor it. When I lived in Calgary, I wrote all of Thumbscrews (though I had been doing research long before), and the conservativeness of the city’s politics did nothing to defray the depth (or depravity) of that piece. However, I was far away from my family, my partner and the landscape is harsh at times, stark and strange and very changeable. My loneliness and discomfort definitely changed the way that book was ultimately written.


Your work tends to deviate from traditional poetry, both in structure and themes present. As I mentioned earlier, your book Thumbscrews features poems about S&M, your upcoming book will feature love poems about supervillains, and you’ve said on your blog you also write about video games, gastroporn and heavy metal. Given this eclectic range of topic, how have you found your poems are received? What is the most memorable praise, or criticism, you’ve gotten?


The vast majority of the criticism I have received has been overwhelmingly positive. I think this is a product of poets and literary critics generally being to nice, but there you go. I think that people are bored of most of the topics generally considered “poetic” — at least, I certainly am. I am also very tired of poetry that takes itself too seriously. My work is, at its very worst, different, cheeky sexy, and fun, which can be refreshing. I simply don’t want to read another poem about the Canadian landscape and sense of place, and I sure don’t want to write one!

In terms of memorable criticism, I have definitely received a lot. Christian Bök is particularly notorious for saying exactly the right thing at the right moment and changing the course of a project or helping me make a critical decision. He is responsible for drilling the adage “form = content” into my brain for all eternity. I am also terrible at coming up with titles, and he will always point out a bad one and lead me to something better.

I also have to thank Dani Couture for passing along the best piece of editing advice ever. I tend to pick at projects long after they are actually done. She once told me to “stop editing — that is what an editor is for.” As someone who tends to over-edit, this was extremely freeing and useful.


You’ve said in interviews that you enjoy performing your poetry to an audience. Likewise, I find some of your poems pay meticulous attention to the sounds words make, and not just their meaning. Do you write poetry with the intention of it being performed in mind, or does that just come naturally?


I absolutely do write with performance in mind. I frequently “talk out” a poem, turning sounds over in my mouth, making sure I like the way it feels on the tongue as much as I like the way it looks on the page.


I found a lot of the poems from your book Thumbscrews follow a beautifully cacophonic rhythm (notably, “corded”), which, given the theme of the book, evoked a sort of sinister effect. This style follows through into some of your more recent poems about supervillains, sampled from your upcoming book of the same name. Did you use this effect specifically to create a feeling of uneasiness associated with the themes of these two books, or is it something that comes out in all of your work?


Once again, absolutely. Cacophony is a great way to create a sense of unease, while simultaneously maintaining a sense of playfulness. I want my readers to enjoy themselves, but also to be disturbed and discomfited, to find themselves ill at ease with the language. I have always been drawn to villains, to “the dark side” (if you’ll permit me to be very nerdy for a moment), and I find the experience to be simultaneously thrilling and distressing. I hope to bring a bit of that across in the writing.


It’s easy to tell from your work that you have a strong affinity for words. Your poems often omit conjunctions in lieu of more sophisticated words, which, I’m ashamed to admit, I repeatedly found myself having to look up definitions for. These words span from all different origins, sometimes including slang and scientific terms. What in your life influences this vocabulary? Do you go out of your way to find new words, or do they come to you through reading?


While I would love to tell you that I just happen to have a vast vocabulary to effortlessly draw upon at will, I do a lot of looking things up as well. Especially for the Supervillains project, I do extensive research for each piece.

Each supervillain has a back story and a suite of super powers that define who they are, and also define the language that I use. I use their powers and their characters to inform the words that appear in their poems. For example, Penance’s powers all have to do with control through pain and physical discomfort, so the vocabulary for his poems come from the language of migraine headaches and cluster headaches (the most uncomfortable, least pleasurable pain in all the world, in my opinion).

I also just love words, and constantly strive to add new language and information into my lexicon. I read extensively (both print and online) and voraciously research anything that interests me. The language in my poems can be summed up as a product of insatiable curiosity.


Thanks a bunch for taking your time to answer this!

For those of you who interested, some samples from her upcoming book can be found here, alongside illustrations as fitting as one can expect for supervillain love poems. I love ‘em.

Natalie Zina Walschots’ first book of poetry, Thumbscrews, was published by Snare Books in 2007. Her newest manuscript, Supervillains, is nearly complete. Her work has recently appeared in Carousel, broken pencil, The Peter F. Yacht Club, dANDelion, ditch, Last Supper, Misunderstandings Magazine, Open Letter and Rampike. Natalie completed her MA in English/Creative Writing at the University of Calgary. She has served as the Managing Editor of both filling Station and dANDelion magazines. She also co-curated the Flywheel reading series from 2005 to 2008. She currently serves on the executive board of the Scream Literary Festival as the Volunteer Coordinator. She was recently employed as a writer-in-residence through the NOW HEAR THIS!/S.W.A.T. Program, the literacy outreach arm of the Descant Arts & Letters Foundation. She spends the rest of her time permanently damaging her liver and her hearing, attending metal shows and writing concert reviews for and Metallus Maximus. She also contributes guest reviews to Alternative Matter, and is a music writer for Canada Arts Connect Magazine. Her base of operations is located in Toronto. She lives in a beach cave with two psycho jungle cats and a BearShark.

Isaac is the collective ghost of a sunken transport vessel and its crew, who can now be found as a pile of sodden wood pulp and bones off the coast of Newfoundland. The crew, overwhelmed by the changing world around them, spend most of their time inside, learning endlessly useless information from the internet, comic books and sometimes real books. They also enjoy Earl Grey tea, Thai food and thinking up silly, improbable situations. Sometimes they write them down. They don’t much approve of Isaac’s hairstyle, but their captain survived the crash, and the rest were never very good at diplomatic resolution, so it stays. Isaac will probably go into film someday.

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.

Related item from our archives

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