Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Larissa Lai

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Larissa Lai

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 and July. In this interview, poet Larissa Lai speaks with students Kristina Hopp and Savanna Spurrell.

Hello Larissa Lai,

We are grade 12 students at Malvern Collegiate enrolled in Mr. Ouzas’ Writers Craft class. We were very fortunate to be able to have you as our poet in this process. Your work has intrigued us and opened up our eyes to all the possibilities and opportunities that writing has to offer. Specifically, your poetry book, Automaton Biographies, fascinated us; therefore, we chose to focus on this particular piece.

Thank you for your time, it is greatly appreciated. We look forward to hearing back from you.

Kristina and Savanna

Savanna asks: When reading your poetry book Automaton Biographies we came across your fourth and final poem, “Auto Matter,” and discovered it was all about you. Instantly we thought it was so unique how you made a poem out of an autobiography and we can’t help but think and ask if this connects and relates to the title of your poetry book, Automaton Biographies? If so, how?

“Auto Matter” is intentionally the fourth and final poem. Like the other three, it queries the stability of selves. While in one sense, it is about me, it actually destabilizes both the idea that poems can and should be about anything, in other words, that they ought to have stable meanings; and the idea of “me-ness”, in other words, the idea the self is a stable and consistent entity. The title of the book, Automaton Biographies, plays with the word “autobiography”, but all of its speakers are subjects whose coherence is one way or another up for grabs. Rachel’s conundrum emerges from the sudden discovery that she is not a human being, but a cyborg, and that the memories she thought defined her are actually those of her maker’s niece. Ham, sent into space for all the ways he is like a human being, but used for this purpose precisely because he is not, is just one of a troupe of chimps trained for the Mercury Redstone Mission and is only the one sent into space by luck of the draw. “Nascent Fashion” is intentionally a cacophony of voices and sounds heard during the second American invasion of Iraq. “Auto Matter”, then, must recognize that its “me” is also unstable– a cacophony of voices, a random assertion of a mimicked self, aping the Enlightenment “I” and produced through its memories, histories and cultural expectations.

bang bang
chop chop chang
haang hui gai bin jup goh chang

Savanna asks: Also, you mention in “Auto Matter” a place called Kowloon just outside of Hong Kong. Online it says you were born in California, and grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and now currently live in British Columbia. So I’m curious of the importance of Kowloon to you?

My dad grew up in Kowloon. But I might turn a question back to you: How do you think online biographies differ– in genre, in content, in social labour– from poems, autobiographies, memoirs, biotexts or other kinds of self-writings?

Kristina asks: In the final poem “Auto Matter” of your poetry book, Automaton Biographies, we noticed a difference in the language that you had used compared to the other poems. It interested us that this poem played on the sounds of the words in Cantonese. These foreign words had no translation, however, with the play on sounds in English, multiple meanings could be assumed based on the sounds and spelling. It was refreshing to read this poem specifically because we personally have never seen anything like it. What was the purpose behind this? Did you want these words to not have just one specific meaning, and leave it to the opinion of each reader?

This is a great question, Kristina. You are right that I am playing with the sounds of words and the possibilities for multiple meanings. I’m also pushing my readers to query what they understand as “foreign.” For those of us who come from Cantonese culture, it’s the English words that are foreign– and yet imposed through British colonialism in the last century and the practice of global business English in this one. Another thing to consider is the fact that I could have used Chinese characters, either traditional or simplified ones, or even some combination of both. But I didn’t. I chose unevenly romanized transliterations. I did this because this is how I learned to notate whatever small amount of Cantonese I can speak. These spellings are thus also traces of my own imperfect assimilation to “white” Canadian culture. In a sense then, the way that I spell Cantonese words is at least as autobiographical as any of the poem’s apparent content.

Savanna asks: When reading your poem “Ham,” we noticed a difference in style and form in comparison to your other three poems in your poetry book Automaton Biographies. Do the formation, spacing and scattering effect which the words seem to capture intend to reflect “Ham”’s rocky space journey? If not, what were your intentions and purposes behind creating your form and style in “Ham”?

The language of “Ham” really moves and scatters for me, and I wanted its visual structure to reflect that. I really like your idea that the spacing and scattering reflect Ham’s rocky space journey. I think that this poem, maybe more than the others, has a kind of monkey-like playfulness to it, even though its subject matter is obviously also quite serious. It’s a poem that swings from the limbs of trees, covers the widest possible terrain with a certain restlessness and rattles the bars of its cage.

Kristina asks: After reading Automaton Biographies we found it fascinating that the overall feel to it was very different than the poetry we have read in the past. The theme and ideas of merging the genealogies of cyborg, animal, war and Asian were extremely captivating. We were curious as to whether or not this is a topic you usually write about when it comes to poetry? Did you have to step out of your comfort zone to write about such bold and interesting topic? Did you purposefully use similar themes in Automaton Biographies to tie the writing together?

Well, It is my first poetry book, so there is no “usually”. I write about, around and through the things that interest me in the moment in which I am living, and all these things seemed important at the time. In terms of theme, yes, I knew that there was a relationship among the various figures in the book– Rachel, Ham, and “me”. I suppose if there is a research question that holds the book together it is something like: How do selves come into being, what holds them together, what makes them fall apart, and when and why do they feel or not feel emotions?

Savanna asks: We noticed that you do not consistently rhyme and this was a neat realization for us and made us think, “Wow, you don’t have to rhyme for it to be poetry” and this pleased us very much! Do you tend to not rhyme when writing poetry or was your book, Automaton Biographies, an exception in the rhyming aspect of poetry?

I inherit so many movements in poetry that have put rhyming aside as a restrictive constraint of the past. Many 19th century poets experimented with free verse (think of Walt Whitman). The modernists of the early 20th century more or less disposed with the convention of rhyming (think of William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, H.D., Ezra Pound). Rhyme has since become interestingly contemporary again in such new/old practices as slam poetry, hip hop, and various reinvigorations of older forms that some poets are taking up again. I don’t understand myself as an exception with regards to rhyming. Most contemporary poetry does not rhyme. Where I innovate is in the use of grammar– intentionally displacing the accepted uses of subjects and objects, nouns and verbs.

Savanna asks: When we were researching you and your poetry we noticed the broad range of categories of literature, which you have produced such as books of poetry, fiction, chapbooks, articles and more. We were intrigued by this for when going into this project; we naively expected to only stumble upon strictly works of poetry. It amazes us how much you’ve written and the broad variety as well. Do you have a passion for a particular category of literature i.e. poetry, fiction etc.? What category did you start writing in when you began writing? What category do you currently tend to write in? And lastly, which category do you wish or expect to write in, in the future?

All of the categories are beautiful and all of them are open, though each category is open in different ways. Poetry is the first genre I wrote in, as a young teenager, though I didn’t write at all well at that time. But perhaps writing well is not what matters at that age. Rather, it is engagement that counts. I developed a love for poetry as a teenager. At present I am working on a novel, which has been sitting on the backburner for about a decade. I am very much looking forward to getting in to it. I just finished a book of criticism. There is no one genre I love more than the others, though they are differently fulfilling. I experience poetry as quick, light, playful and conversational. Novels are much slower, more solitary and more deeply constrained. Criticism is quick, like poetry, and also conversational. It always feels unfinished, but that is good because it means it creates dialogue.

Larissa Lai is the author of two novels, When Fox Is a Thousand and Salt Fish Girl; and two books of poetry, sybil unrest (with Rita Wong) and Automaton Biographies; as well as a chapbook, Eggs in the Basement. A recipient of the Astraea Foundation Emerging Writers’ Award, she has been shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Tiptree Award, the Sunburst Award, the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Award, the bpNichol Chapbook Award and the Dorothy Livesay Prize. She is an Assistant Professor in English at the University of British Columbia.

Kristina Hopp, born in the far away land of California, now lives in Toronto, Ontario. The seventeen-year-old attends Malvern Collegiate, however is anxious to leave her high school life behind her and see what new experiences Wilfred Laurier University has to offer. One day, she hopes to move back to her home land of Malibu, California, where the sun shines everyday. Until then, she will continue her journey of living life with a smile on her face, pestering her older brother, and serving gelato.

Savanna Spurrell is a compassionate female student who attends Malvern Collegiate. She aspires to go through life filled with happiness, love, and travels. Savanna enjoys the company of others, whether it is family, friends, or a significant other; all are important. She can enjoy a fun night out but also a relaxing night in with someone special, snack food, and a movie. The little things in life make Savanna the happiest. All she can ask for is happiness and love in life, and people to enjoy it with.

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.

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