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"I Like to Be Surrounded by Objects with a Past": Meet Our Poetry Month Writer-in-Residence, Emma Healey!

Emma Healey

Emma Healey is without a doubt one of the most exciting young poets in Canada. Her first collection Begin With the End in Mind earned her a reputation as a brainy, frank, innovative writer with charm to spare. Her surreal humour, balanced with raw honesty, has marked a writer to watch since her days at Concordia, where she won the prestigious Irving Layton Award for Creative Writing not once but twice. 

She's a vital new voice, and the publication of her second collection of prose poems, Stereoblind (House of Anansi Press) marks a writer in top form. Unsettling and entrancing, it's a book readers will not be able to put down.

So, we could not be more excited to announce that Emma is our April 2018 writer-in-residence! We're celebrating National Poetry Month by bringing Emma to you here on Open Book (plus stay tuned for more poetic celebration throughout April) and you do not want to miss it. You can check out the WIR page starting at the beginning of April to get all the Emma-y goodness. 

Today you can get to know Emma by touring her writing space in her west end Toronto home. It's an amazing glimpse into the reality of the writing life, not to mention a cute (if not issue-free, as you'll read) apartment. Emma tells us about the art on the cover of Stereoblind, the importance of soft pants and ugly chairs, and the fancy Korean wrist rest we're now sharing her desire for. 

At the Desk: Emma Healey

These days I work from home, which is in Toronto, in a two-bedroom apartment on the border between the Junction and Roncesvalles. The other bedroom belongs to my friend Layne Hinton, a gifted artist and curator who drew the beautiful image on the cover of my new book.

We moved to this place after being evicted from our old home – an enormous, crumbling mansion our landlord sold back in 2016. The new owners kicked us out as fast as they could and then just let the place stand empty. Actually, it’s still unoccupied to this day – I walk by it sometimes on my way to the library, and time feels eerily frozen around it. Layne’s patio lights are still strung up across her balcony; our mail is still accruing in the front hall. A lot of the poems in Stereoblind take place in or around that house, and sometimes it feels like I accidentally cast a spell over the property by writing about it too much. Our new apartment, which took me 3 frantic weeks and 30 rental applications to find, is lovely and well-located and ancient and tiny and falling apart and the rent, which is low for this city, is on the upper limit of what I can afford.

My office is also my bedroom, so I spend a lot of time in here. About once a week I’ll go to a coffee shop or the Reference Library for a change, but the truth is I’m most comfortable in my own space, surrounded by my own things. I like to work in my soft pants and my big ugly desk chair; I like to talk to myself and play records and make tea and watch TV and do chores and read books if the work isn’t coming so easy.

I’m a little… particular about neatness. If stuff’s not where it’s supposed to be I have a hard time focusing. I think I developed this princess-and-the-pea quality as kind of corrective to my more chaotic habits. I spend a ton of time at thrift stores and yard sales, and my space always feels about two Value Village hauls away from total chaos. If I don’t stay on top of it, who will?

About 90% of the stuff I own is secondhand. I like to be surrounded by objects with a past. I think it makes even small rooms feel expansive, like they’re linked up to a broader narrative about the fullness of time or the world of other humans or whatever. Plus, collecting things, even in a small way, turns the tedious process of moving through the world into a low-stakes treasure hunt. It gives you a way to enjoy uncertainty and incompleteness. You never know what you didn’t know you needed until you trip over it in the wild.

I have a lot of plants. I used to think I had the houseplant-killing curse – for years, everything I touched seemed to instantly wilt and die. It was really troubling, like when a cat hisses at you for no reason – you can’t help but worry there’s some flaw coded deep in your soul that, like, repels the living world. A few years ago I got fed up and googled "hardest plants to kill," bought a pothos and just tried to be cool about it. Now I have way too many.

I fucking hate my desk. I’ve hated it for years and with each passing day the feeling grows stronger. Does anyone have a better desk they want to give me? The legs aren’t even bolted to the tabletop! In the summer, I have to move the whole dumb thing aside about ten times a day to open and close my window, and every time I do it I nearly break my computer. I yearn for the day I get to light it on fire.

The chair, on the other hand, is an expensive piece of ugly furniture that works perfectly. Getting my ergonomic situation right was the smartest thing I ever did for myself as a young writer. Once I’ve fully emerged, I’m gonna get one of these freezeable Korean wrist rests. It’s important to have dreams!

This window gets endless sun and I love it so much!! Our house is close to where everyone in the neighbourhood walks their dogs, so in the mornings and evenings this spot is prime real estate for puppy-watching. Right now the structure of my days is pretty loose, but in general I try to be up and near the desk in time to catch the morning dogs, and when the evening shift starts going by I know it’s probably time to stop working, or at least eat a snack.

In this photo you can also see the plastic I use to weatherproof my window, and the crack in the glass that some adorable past tenant tried to cover over with scotch tape. (?!) We don’t control the heat in our apartment, and our landlord keeps it below the legal minimum in the winter. In the worst months, it is difficult to work at this desk without a couple blankets and a space heater. Every Toronto apartment I’ve ever lived in has problems like this. Sometimes, like every other poor person in every other gentrifying city, I dream about buying a big farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere, or moving to the desert, or having an office that isn’t also my bedroom. Right now, at least, I feel lucky to have this space: above ground, sun-filled, dog-adjacent, getting warmer every day.

- Emma Healey, March 2018

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Emma Healey’s first book of poems, Begin with the End in Mind, was published by ARP Books in 2012. Her poems and essays have been featured in places like the Los Angeles Review of Books, the FADER, the HairpinReal Life, the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the WalrusToronto Life, and Canadian Art. She was poetry critic at the Globe and Mail (2014–2016) and is a regular contributor to the music blog Said the Gramophone. She was the recipient of the Irving Layton Award for Creative Writing in both 2010 and 2013, a National Magazine Award nominee in 2015, and a finalist for the K.M. Hunter award in 2016.

Buy the Book

Stereoblind

In Stereoblind, no single thing is ever perceived in just one way. Shot through with asymmetry and misconception, the prose poems in Emma Healey’s second collection describe a world that’s anxious and skewed, but still somehow familiar — where the past, present, and future overlap, facts are not always true, borders are not always solid, and events seem to write themselves into being. An on-again, off-again real estate sale nudges a quartet of millennial renters into an alternate universe of multiplying signs and wonders; an art show at Ontario Place may or may not be as strange and complex (or even as “real”) as described; the collusion of a hangover and a blizzard carry our narrator on a trancelike odyssey through Bed Bath & Beyond. Using a diverse range of subjects — from pharmaceutical research testing to Tinder — to form an inventory of ontological disturbance, Healey delves moments when the differences between things disappear, and life exceeds its limits.

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