TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: NASHIRA DERNESCH

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Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Nashira Dernesch studied Creative Writing at York University where she co-edited the literary journal Existere for three years. In 2006 she won the Art Bar Poetry Series’ Annual Discovery Night. Her first chapbook, It’s No Secret You’ll Feel Better (believe your own press), sold out within two days of publication and is now in its second printing. This Snowing Under, her newest chapbook, was recently published by The Emergency Response Unit. Her poems have also appeared in Prism International and Misunderstandings Magazine. She lives in Toronto and is currently at work on a full-length collection of poetry.

TTQ- You have said that the goal of your poetry is "to make a feast of all your losses." When did you come to this conclusion, and do you find that writing poetry for you has been somewhat cathartic or therapeutic in many ways concerning how you deal with the struggles of everyday life?

ND- I know many poets will cringe at the idea of "poetry as therapy." It raises the specter of one's 14-year-old self, flagellating her soul onto paper in a heady cloud of African Violet incense. I admit that my adolescent catalogue includes poems titled with the likes of "Immaculate Sorrow" or various synonyms for the moon. Angst begs for creative expression; there's a consuming energy there entirely different from the energy of happiness and contentment, for me anyway. That said, I believe poetry is inherently cathartic; that moment where what has been distilled by the poem's language and structure reacts with the emotional chemistry of the reader.

When I read a good poem, I feel that moment in my gut. It's physical. A less successful poem might appeal intellectually, but it won't transform me. The idea of "making a feast" of one's losses speaks to me as a human being who is, like other human beings, trying to make sense of what she has experienced, to find use in it, to figure out what the point was. And the thing about asking "why" is that you get to decide your own answer. You decide, whether you want to admit this or not, if you are the victim or the heroine, powerless or powerful. I am grateful and blessed by every last thing that has happened in my life because of what I do with it. One of the things I do with it is make poems.

TTQ- Do you think that growing up in St. Jacobs, Ontario, a relatively small community, helped or hindered your growth as a poet, and in what ways has living in Toronto inspired or changed you as a writer?

ND- Growing up in St. Jacobs, I wasn't aware of a community of poets, writers or artists. I didn't know of anyone reading poetry, let alone writing it. That was my impression. Much of my early experience of poetry came from reading the Songs of Solomon and Psalms in the bible, and from going to our tiny but wonderful public library. My parents and grandmothers were readers, and my Grampa Dernesch was a closet songwriter who encouraged me to write lyrics. My mom gave me my first real journal when I was nine, but I had been making books earlier than that, which she would bind for me with her sewing machine. My dad had a library of classic texts about astronomy, philosophy, physics and evolution. Words, reading and self-expression were and are a huge part of my family's life, and that has shaped me as a poet and person. But, St. Jacobs is a small town, and in many ways I feel my family didn't fit in with the community. My parents didn't go to the Mennonite church I went to with my Grama, whose husband likewise stayed at home. My parents later divorced.

Additionally, we were a working-class family in a solidly middle-class town. This isn't something my parents suggested — I'm not sure how they feel, as they both, though remarried, still live there. But as a child I felt alienated by that community, and knew I would move somewhere metropolitan, where difference would be the norm. I feel like poetry allows me to say things that would be unacceptable to say in St. Jacobs, and at the same time, coming from there helps my poetry stay grounded. I have no desire to write what will only be appreciated by PhD candidates. My primary motivation as a poet is to be honest, not clever, and I feel like a big part of that is informed by where I'm from. On the other hand, Toronto has educated me, both formally and informally, and has helped me craft better writing, especially from the point of revision. I have a network of writers, editors and publishers here, which affords me the assistance and opportunity that St. Jacobs didn't.

TTQ- Do you feel that it is important for a poet to get out and read their work to a live audience, and what benefits do you feel that you receive personally from reading your poetry live? Do you still get nervous before a reading?

ND- I do think it's essential to share your work if you want to grow as a poet, but I don't think it's necessary to read it in front of an audience per se. But it can help. By gauging the attention of the audience, you can see when you're doing something right in the poem, and when you've faltered. You have to read your poems aloud to hear the rhythm, how it's flowing, where the line breaks really are. At the same time, it's important to read your work to an audience after you've really worked on it. I'm not a big fan of open mic nights where a person gets up and says "I wrote this five minutes ago and it's probably not very good." Why then are you wasting our time? Revision is an essential part of writing, and I feel it's disrespecting the reader/listener when a writer doesn't take the time to do it.

I love giving readings, and while I might come across as confident and composed, I do get insanely nervous before I read. It doesn't matter how many times I've done it. I'm in the bathroom every five minutes before I take the stage, but when I'm on stage, I'm fine. It's like acting. These are my poems talking, not me, in a way. I can hide behind the voice of the work.

TTQ- Do you make a concerted effort to incorporate socio-political issues into your poetry, and do you find today that most poets are more apathetic in terms of their involvement in the community at large?

ND- - I make a concerted effort to write as truthfully as I can, and to do it to the best of my ability. The socio-political issues I have written about, such as class, gender, sexual identity and division of labour, arose out of the details of my life, and weren't something that I was consciously trying to write about. There are other issues I'm passionate about, like eradicating homophobia and racism, that I've never written about, perhaps in part because I feel that as a straight white woman I might be perceived as a fraud, or worse, that I'm appropriating someone else's experience. I'm absolutely not saying that someone outside of that experience can't write about these issues and effect change. But I personally have trepidation about how to handle it in my own work, and haven't figured it out yet.

In terms of poets today being more apathetic to the community at large, or towards socio-political issues, I don't think that's true at all. Dani Couture, Michael Fraser, Jacob Scheier, and Priscila Uppal are all poets who engage deeply with socio-political issues and the community, and that's only looking as far as my address book.

TTQ- You worked for a time as a co-editor for Existere for three years. How important is the survival of literary journals in Canada, and do you think it's vital that the Canadian government step up to the plate and help assure their survival?

ND- How shall I say this without being crucified? I do believe it's extremely important that our government financially encourage the production of our literary journals. I hate having our arts funding cut, and stood among my striking teachers way back when Bill 160 was being passed. At the same time, I don't feel hopeless in the face of funding cuts to literary journals. Many are going online, like The Toronto Quarterly, and many other small presses are springing up that are financed by the meagre livelihood of their excellent editors. It seems like almost everyone has a zine or a blog or both. I feel that the arts community is incredibly resilient and will withstand a lack of funding.

Of course I hate seeing our indie bookstores close, or our small magazines go under. But, after an evening at one of our fabulous poetry reading series, when I'm walking home past our many, many homeless, I am worried, but not about the fate of our literary journals.

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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