an interview w/
DESSA BAYROCK & KATIE STOBBART
This summer Coven Editions published Dessa Bayrock and Katie Stobbart's chapbook, The Trick to Feeling Safe at Home. Since we couldn't actually sit down with them (covid, long distances, etc...) to discuss their chapbook and the creative process of working collaboratively on a collection of poetic work, they've kindly answered some of our questions.
The Trick to Feeling Safe at Home is a collaborative project. What drew you to working together?
Katie Stobbart: It helps that we’ve been friends for such a long time. I think starting the poetry collaboration was Dessa’s idea, after a while of being poetry buddies, passing our work back and forth and giving feedback on it. The next step that kind of naturally emerged was sending poems in conversation with each other.
Dessa Bayrock: And, at least at first, I don’t think we intended it to necessarily shape up into an actual manuscript. We’ve always loved reading each other’s work and emailing or texting our poems back and forth, so this idea felt less like completing a project and more like introducing our poems to each other so they could become pals. And then they did become pals, which we were absolutely hoping for, but which was exciting anyway when it happened.
Have you worked together on other projects? If so, how did this one differ from your previous collaborations? If not, how did you find the process? Would you collaborate again in the future?
DB: We actually met working for the student newspaper at our university, which meant that our relationship was always, first and foremost, about making something together. It’s a cool vibe. It’s a cool tone to start a friendship with. And then we kept making things: we resuscitated the English Students Association at our school, and then later Katie founded an arts and culture magazine and I immediately jumped on board. We fell into doing this poetry project without thinking about it too much, which is -- I think -- kind of best-case scenario for creative projects. It felt natural.
KS: Natural is exactly how I would describe the process of collaborating on these poems. While the poems don’t necessarily address each other, it felt so conversational to read Dessa’s most recent poem, really get to the heart of my interpretation of it, and then respond with an echo or reverberation of that feeling in the next poem.
DB: Reverberation. Damn. That should have been the title. That sums this project up beautifully -- the convergence of strange little ripples in a pond, echoing into and over each other.
Although each poem holds their own, they flow together like a conversation. Was this your original intent? How were you able to develop this idea of working collaboratively and manifest it into being?
DB: Honestly, I think it was mostly a very happy accident. Part of the reason this collection is so dear to me is because we didn’t really know what we were going to make out of it. We thought of it more as a workshop space, than anything, or maybe like correspondence. I’ve always loved writing letters and sending mail, and building this cycle of poems felt uncannily like writing letters back and forth: not a conversation, per se, as much as a series of missives or love notes. Because the space belonged just to the two of us, it was a safe space to work through some of the anxieties and obstacles in my own life -- and it turned out Katie was going through some similar struggles. Our poems let us share with and affirm one another without having to say anything out loud.
KS: It’s a little like writing diary entries to each other-- an intimate form of letter-writing. In some ways, as Dessa said, this was accidental; in others, it’s built on a deep, intentional, intimate friendship that I’m not sure it would have been the same without.
Your poems explore the differences between physical and metaphorical homes. What does home mean to you? Do you think you’ve found your home?
KS: I’ve had weird experiences of home. I think the physical homes I’ve had as an adult, and that largely feature in the poems in the collection, are haunted by my experiences of home as a child. I grew up with a parent who hoarded, so home felt like this cluttered, private thing I didn’t want to share. As a teenager home was even less stable-- we kept the clutter and the shame but moved from space to space: a friend’s trailer, a transition house, a string of different rental houses. Home was my city, my community, my friends-- not the place I went at the end of the day. Now that I’m an adult and steering my own life, home is more stable.
In some ways I think we’ve had similar experiences in discovering what home means. We both grew up in the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, we both moved across the country and had to redefine home for ourselves, or at least interrogate what home really meant. Speaking for myself at least, home has come to mean each other-- we have a strong found family that stretches across wide distances, so home is in the spaces--like this collection, even--that we create together, even as it is the spaces we create alone (apartment jungles or houseplant graveyards, our little rituals and ghosts). Home is a shifting being like Howl’s Moving Castle; it has doors that lead to many dimensions, it has a warm and sassy fire in the hearth, it has claws.
DB: And you never know when one of the doors is going to open onto a field full of bluebells.
What aspect of writing poetry do you find most frustrating? Most worthwhile?
DB: I think the thing that I both love and hate best about poetry is that it refuses to be pinned down, temporally. Poetry has its own sense of time. I’m torn about it; on one hand, I fervently believe that “writing every day,” like so many old pros recommend, is the surest path to producing good work. It’s something I tell myself all the time: if you sit at the desk, at least the muse knows where to find you, which I think is a Ray Bradbury-ism. On the other hand, some of my best writing happens when I give it space to breathe, to figure out what it wants to be -- time to sit inside my chest for a little while, to incubate and grow the limbs it needs. It feels like another heart beating beside my heart; it feels like a thunderstorm beginning to roll over the city. Writing is something I can feel building inside of me like a weather system, the same way some people get headaches when the air pressure changes too rapidly; writing is always a relief, even when it’s a slog, which is the thing I find both most frustrating and most worthwhile about it.
How are you adapting to writing in the midst of quarantine? Has it been challenging to find inspiration or the motivation to write? What keeps you going?
DB: Writing has become unruly in quarantine. Half of what I’ve written since March has been Dungeons & Dragons fan fiction; twenty-five percent has been creative-writing-adjacent work, like book reviews; of the other twenty-five percent of writing I’ve accomplished, I think most of it has been in the second poem collaboration Katie and I are working on, slowly, when we can, in the same way we made this chap: writing back and forth, like love letters, postcards, journal entries about our anxiety and rage.
It’s hard to make work right now. It’s a lot of hunkering down and surviving. If my brain wants to write Dungeons and Dragons fan fiction and nothing else, I’m just going to be glad that there’s something it wants to write.
KS: The nice thing has been having lots of time to write, which is also the worst thing. Little motivation and lots of time makes for a rough day. I leapt onto the Dungeons and Dragons fanfiction boat too, so I’ve got a few little stories underway. I think the hardest part for me writing poetry during the pandemic has been avoiding ruminating. Poetry is all about ruminating, mulling, settling into a thing and swimming around in it until you’re one with it. That is the last thing I want to be doing right now. That said, there have been a few “coping with the pandemic” themed poems. I think my current challenge and goal is to read more, to go for more walks, and to rest, so I can feel readier to write again.
How long does it take to start writing? Do you find it a quick or a slow process? How do your first drafts compare to the final project ready for publishing?
KS: It takes me longer than it used to to start writing, but a lot of my first drafts are last drafts. It depends on the poem-- sometimes one will come out fully formed, sometimes it’ll take several iterations before I’m happy with it. But more often than not these days I’ve been editing as I write, letting lines reform and shift as I go.
DB: Poems have their own timeline, and I don’t always get to know what it is. I’ll spend a couple
hours working on a poem, and then I’ll usually come back the next day after a little distance and spend that much longer on it again. If it’s still not sitting right, I give it more space -- sometimes weeks or months, and sometimes a year or two. Especially when I was new to publishing poetry, I let some poems go out into the world before they were really fully formed. It’s a hard lesson to learn, because once they’re out there, poems are no longer really yours. Now I’m producing less and publishing less, but it feels more solid -- just foundationally more solid. It sucks, sometimes, but I keep learning over and over that words need their own space.
Are there any other writers you would like to shout out?
DB: I jokingly call myself the official Conyer Clayton reviewer, because I feel like I’ve written… a lot of reviews of her work. But that’s because I honestly can’t get enough of it; every time I return to it, I find something new. Her poems are unabashedly honest and sharp enough to cut, and everyone should read them.
KS: Recently I read Hannah V Warren’s [re]construction of the necromancer, with Sundress Publications. It’s the kind of deliciously dark fairytale poetry I would love to have written myself. I’m a big fan of the Canadian Emma Healey’s poetry as well.
DB: And Kayla Czaga!
KS: Yes, I think we can both safely say we have the biggest poet crush on Kayla Czaga.
DB: God, I once ran into her in a bar after a reading and blurted out something like “YOU’RE MY FAVOURITE LIVING POET” and then I actually legally died from embarrassment. But I stand by it.
For the longest time I thought Katie introduced me to Czaga’s work, but it turned out that I actually found some of her poems on StumbleUpon years and years ago. When I found them the first time, through this weird magic of a random internet generator showing me pages it thought I might like, they didn’t have her name on them; I remember reading her first collection five years later and seeing a poem on the page that I had loved for so long and never been able to find -- it was magic.
KS: Sometimes Dessa sends me poems in the mail, and one of the ones she’d sent me was Czaga’s “Poem for Jeff” which I kept pinned to the office bulletin board forever before I looked into the rest of her work.
DB: It was up on the bulletin board in our newspaper office! I loved when new visitors walked in so I could watch them experience the poem: “Oh, how nice, a poem” turning to “HOW MANY SWEAR WORDS ARE IN THIS POEM??”
KS: It remains one of my favourite poems to show new poetry lovers.
DB: I actually read it out loud to my students in first-year creative writing tutorials. They always look so shaken afterwards -- but at least thirty percent of them get this wicked gleam in their eye when they hear it, and you can almost hear them thinking it: Poetry can be like THIS?
What are you currently working on?
KS: Right now we have a couple of projects on the go: a poetry oracle deck, and another collaboration-- I won’t say like this one, though it has the same format. We’re playing with some themes that are a little weirder, a little less easily pinned down.
DB: Definitely weirder. More visceral. More ghosts, more anxiety, but more rage, too. And I think these poems have had more time to steep; we’ve been working on this new collaboration twice as long as we worked on the one that became The Trick to Feeling Safe at Home, but it still doesn’t feel satisfied, if that makes sense. The end of Safe at Home felt like watching a sunset: warm, and twice as lovely because it was shared, and something we could see coming, distantly. I’m not sure when we’ll find the end of this one or what it will feel like, but hopefully we’ll know it when we see it.
KS: I’m glad you said more rage, because I was thinking this collection has a bit more anger in it than the Trick to Feeling Safe at Home-- at least an undercurrent of it. We were more intentional about the theme, we knew we were safe with each other, so harder emotions were allowed to come out. It’s less about feeling safe and more about feeling unsafe. At home, in the world, in our bodies.
Is there a cause or organisation you support or are involved with that you would like to share with our readers?
DB: Right now, organizations like Black Lives Matter are more important than ever; the nearest chapter to me is in Toronto, and they do a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of vital work. I’m also a huge fan of the Okra Project, which aids Black trans folks experiencing food insecurity. The older I get, the more vital community care feels. We have to take care of one another and level the playing field in any way we can.
Another way I enact care in my community is through post ghost press, a micropress I founded in 2018 which makes pocket-sized poetry zines in full colour. It’s been a wild ride and an honour to publish so many amazing poets, to rep their work and mail their poems all over the world. It’s something I love doing, and something I pour a lot of myself into.
KS: I personally have devoted myself to Raspberry magazine, a regional, volunteer-run arts and culture magazine based in BC’s Fraser Valley. We publish a range of arts content and feature journalism that fits under a broad and ever-shifting umbrella of what culture means.
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