An interview with Erin Russell

Erin Russell @etcall is a writer from Calgary living in Amsterdam. Winner of the 2019 Patricia Goedicke Prize for Poetry and the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College Poetry Award, her work has appeared or is upcoming in CutBank, Burning House Press, Train, Black Bough, Scrivener, Talking About Strawberries, Time Out, and The Holland Times, a.o. and has been translated into French and Chinese. She lectures in literature and writing at Amsterdam University College.

How did you begin writing, and what keeps you going?

I had written professionally for most of my adult life before my first child was born, but a shift occurred after that point. I was alone all day in this damp dark Amsterdam house caring for this new little body, this new person, as well as my own recovering body. There were songs and rituals and tactile learning toys and gender-stereotyping plush animals—and so much silence. And I was having these dreams at night of the peculiar alien-planet-like rock formations of the Alberta badlands near where I grew up. Surreal stuff, really: I’d dream there were tiny, flinty bits of stone just under my skin—with different points and facets pushing outward under the surface.  

And so, during my daughter’s naptimes, I found myself greedily researching all these fantastic geological terms and then building poems from topologies in my memory. Usually they’d tie in somehow with news items about women’s bodies and political maneuvers to control them by fundamentalist religious politicians back home—things I had been rant-y about in my early days as a journalist and editor.

But rant-y in prose differs from rant-y in poetry—it was like my body itself was asking me to put words around my protest but using a sideways (or landscape :)) approach—employing the stark rocky terrain of my childhood as metaphor, if that makes sense. I was imagining new landscapes as well as a more empowered embodiment for my child to grow up in/to, I suppose.

You’ve published in a number of journals. How do you decide which journals to send to?

Because I myself am obsessed with the embodied experience and types of political control exerted on bodies, I get excited by editors who challenge the contours of lyric body—journals that push the definitions of genre and form, publishing hybrid works that don’t sit easily inside traditional expectations and that, in turn, approach our body-experience without normative strictures – I especially love those that cripqueer this dialogue. I adore what PANK, Verity La, The Rumpus and Cutbank are doing for these reasons. And I was therefore deeply honoured when Cutbank awarded me with their Patricia Goedicke Prize for Poetry for 2019 – they are publishing really brilliant stuff.

I am also hugely interested in the historical development of political-poetic voices in Canada and so am a fan of journals that tap into the freshest voices here. I was thrilled for instance to be published (way back when) in Scrivener, the mag that ran early poems by Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen. And there are some simply brilliant champions of Canadian small presses out there—publisher-poets like rob mclennan (@robmclennanblog) who seem to have their finger on the pulse of everything that’s new and relevant.

Have you noticed any repeated themes or repeated subject matter in your work?

Those geological formations and landscapes that I grew up with. I miss the harshness of that terrain, the extreme conditions. And I miss cliffs. I’m drawn to places where one terrain meets another and there is shift, ending, fault line, blending, hybridity. What happens at the edge of prairie, a sinkhole, a rainforest, when land runs out? What happens at the edges of other things—cliffs and ridges, but also sustainabilities, national borders, and more abstractly, the end of ideologies, the anthropocene, even a cellphone screen. It’s like we’re everyday all of us on the edge in so many ways, and there’s that sense of falling and what to do with the legs and the arms and the centre of ourselves at the end of a thing.

There’s this place in Southeastern Alberta near where I grew up called Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump, where hunters would literally run the bison over the edge of the land in these roaring stampedes. There are bits of bison skull and bones still stuck in the sides of the ridge. The image of it plays in my mind. Always I’m asking, how do we drive other beings and ourselves over edges and why?

What are you currently working towards?

Carrying my interest in bodies, terrain and edge-ness further, lately I’m interested in line drawings, boundaries, contours of shape—where does a body begin and end? What is and isn’t bod(il)y experience? I seem to keep ending up in sci-fi a lot these days. And in my exploration of places of extremity of the body, I keep returning to fingertips—as metaphor: as places of possibility, alternative (read queer?) power, ending, and refusal.

Furthermore, having grown up in a repressively fundamentalist tradition and with literal interpretation applied to (scriptural) text, I am obsessed with the question of authoritative readings, interpretations. As a queer single parent I am vested in the question of who in society is afforded authority to read a life/text, my life and body and texts: which hermeneutics gets applied to which texts/bodies, who gets the final say, and who/what gets left out of this process. So as I write, I’m always thinking about what I’ve read, who I’ve read, and how I’ve read it—how to understand what people are saying and what generosity I can hold out in this act of reading, and then in turn, in the act of holding out my own writing for others to read and interpret.

What poets have influenced the ways in which you write?

H.D., Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot, whom I love as an academic. But also: Elizabeth Bishop, Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, and Anne Carson. William Blake and his Proverbs of Hell always loom large. Additionally, Anne Boyer (@anne_boyer), Billy-Ray Belcourt (@BillyRayB) and C.A. Conrad (@CAConrad88) are perhaps my most favourite poets at the moment.

How important has mentorship been to your work? Is there anyone who specifically assisted your development as a writer?

I used to teach poetry to people with eating disorders and a few students came regularly for further one-on-one mentoring. Their poems were brilliant and visceral, often very raw. I was honoured by how they shared their process so openly with me and was in turn inspired in my own work and my own thought around bodies and restriction.

I am also appreciative of a wry sort of co-mentor friend with whom I do edit sprints and relay poems here in Amsterdam. We recently did some experimental ekphrasis duo pieces working with exhibits at the Stedelijk. I am likewise grateful for a quirky ex-priest I’ve known since my days at McGill—not a poet mentor per se, but a former civil rights activist from the States who entered Canada illegally to dodge the draft, became an Anglican minister, then retired to teach Buddhist meditation. He taught me to hold tight and let go—of the right things. A skill for both editing poetry and maintaining sanity, I think.

Can you name a poet you think should be receiving more attention?

Lydia Unsworth (@lydiowanie) writes this brilliantly intuitive prose poetry that explores the embodied experience in surprising ways—it really deserves more attention. Other fantastic prose poets I’ve been enjoying lately include Ian Seed (@shadow2train), Kate Feld (@katefeld), Julia Webb (@Julwe1), and Heidi Williamson (@heidiwilliamson). Finally, Belly-Ray Belcourt, Elizabeth Horan (@ehoranpoet), and William Brewer (@WilliamCBrewer) are all putting startlingly fresh language around pain, difference, otherness, and trauma.

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