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