Emma Healey is the poetry critic for the Globe and Mail. Her book, Begin With the End in Mind, is a witty collection of prose poetry, a sort of Young Urbanist’s Guide to being Canadian, a 21st century Lunch Poems. Breezy and conversational, her work is able to touch on national politics and intimate relationships in close motions. I wanted to ask her about poetry criticism and how the Internet has affected it.
James Lindsay: What is it about a book of poetry that draws you to write about it? And how do you start? What's your entry point to writing about poetry?
Emma Healey: I’m interested in a lot of different books for a lot of different reasons, but I think in general I’m most naturally drawn to poems where you can tell the poet was just totally, unhealthily obsessed with whatever it was they were writing about. Books where you’re peeking into a part of someone’s brain that looks like Rust Cohle’s storage locker, but better-organized. Obsession looks different on everyone; the word has that manic/urgent quality but the actual state, in writing, can manifest just as easily as meticulousness or preciousness or stillness or remove. Sometimes you can just sense it in the style or structure of a thing; other times it’s right there in the language. But in general I think you can feel it when you see it. It’s what makes a poem ring.
The nicest thing about writing poetry reviews for the Globe is that they don’t assign books to me; as long as it’s Canadian and from the current season’s crop I get to pick what I write about. I have a lot of room to just go on my nerve, which is nice because I think I’d be pretty useless in this particular position if I was being asked to write about poetry I didn’t feel excited or freaked out by in some way. To be clear, I’m absolutely not a person who thinks that all criticism should be positive, and my answer to this question would probably be different if I wrote the bulk of my poetry reviews for a literary magazine or my own blog or whatever. But as it stands, I am keenly aware of the strange split audience that ends up reading a poetry review in a national newspaper: some people get there on purpose, and some of them are there by accident, and either way I think it’s really important not to take anyone’s time and attention for granted. The only real way to do right by everyone in this particular context is to do what you can to meet the work you’re writing about on its own terms. So that’s how I tend to write about poetry, at least right now; I look for stuff that strikes me, and then I do my best to figure out exactly what it’s trying to do, and if it’s doing that thing and how (or how it’s failing).
JL: I love that you bring up this idea of poetry as obsession, especially as the investigator's storage locker. I've always pictured it as the inevitable point in a mystery-thriller where the protagonist covers their wall in photographs and newspaper clippings and literally makes the connections with red string. So what's in your storage locker? What obsessions have driven your poetry?
EH: Oh boy, I was gonna make a dumb joke about how my storage locker would be full of pictures of Drake or something, but I realized that lately, as I’ve been working on this big sprawling series of poems, I've been thumbtacking colour-coded index cards to the wall above my desk to keep their contents straight. So I’m pretty much there already; I just need some good thread and a spookier, more meaningful thousand-yard stare.
Anyway, I think I’m most consistently obsessed with loneliness! That’s a fun answer, right? Loneliness and identity and projection. I’m really interested in how a person builds their sense of self, what they take from the world around them in the process and what they project back out into it. A lot of the poems in my first book were about individuals interacting with the cities they lived in, or with corporations, or with concepts, and the borders between person and entity getting all porous and shifty.
But also, there are the obsessions you’re aware of and then the ones you’re not, right? I was in undergrad when I wrote Begin With the End in Mind, and the poems in it are the first ones I’d written as a (semi-) adult human. Without being particularly aware of it, I think I was also pretty obsessed with conveying the impression that I knew EXACTLY WHAT I WAS DOING AT ALL TIMES, because I was secretly convinced I had no clue. I don’t think the poems in that book are bad, but they all have a kind of arms’-length remove to them – like, there’s no real speaker anywhere, just a lot of voice . It's sort of nuts to be writing a bunch of poems about identity without any real traces of self in them.
There was a pretty gendered aspect to all of this, too – like, I never would have articulated it this way at the time, but I didn’t even think about writing poems in the first person (not even “about myself”! Just “in the first person”!) because I didn’t want to seem like a narcissist. Or a mess, or a bummer, or someone who wasn’t 100% in control of herself. I wanted to be a good writer instead. One does not have to be Rust Cohle to tease out the assumptions about value that underlie that distinction.
The new poems I’m working on share a lot of thematic fixations with the ones in that first book – I’m really interested in how you make your self, how it shifts – but now I'm obsessed with not falling back on voices or themes or patterns or states of remove that feel safe or riskless to write. There’s a lot of first-person in my new stuff, there’s a lot of sex and sadness. The poems aren't, like, relentlessly bleak or artlessly confessional, because those things aren’t me either. But I think my new obsession might be with turning all my old instincts inside-out.
JL: Some critics have observed that the first person voice seems to be on the rise as of late, especially with younger writers. Do you think this is a new thing? And is the first person voice always the confessional voice?
EH: Oh boy! I'm assuming that you are referring to Jason Guriel's recent essay in the Walrus, and maybe this Slate piece from a few months back. Here's my thing about arguments re: the value of "the first person." If you have read more than one essay or poem or story or novel in your life, then I'm pretty sure you don't need me (or anyone!) to remind you how important it is to listen to voices that describe lived experiences and encounters with culture that differ from your own. And (particularly if you are a critic of any kind) you certainly don't need to be reminded that people with power often drown out the voices of people with less of it by crying narcissism and frivolity , by plugging their ears and humming not serious not serious until whatever they don't want to hear goes away. You don't need to be reminded that the first person isn't always confessional, and that writing that appears to be confessional isn't always just about one person—just as you don't need anyone to tell you that the third person isn't always necessarily cold and distant, or that criticism isn't always about evaluating the worth of a piece of art, or that, I dunno, poems don't always rhyme. These forms are malleable; their nature and their effectiveness depend entirely on who's using them and how.
But if your day-to-day life involves even the smallest measure of Reading Stuff on the Internet, even on a good day it is very easy to feel as though you are barely treading water in a relentless churn of words and data that just wants to swallow and shred your attention and your patience and your empathy and sense of nuance until you don't have any left to give. Or read with. It is very easy to get exhausted this way, and everyone is entitled to their exhaustions; my best-faith reading of Guriel's essay is that lately he has been clicking on a lot of links expecting to read one kind of writing and finding one he likes less in its place. That's a frustrating feeling! I feel it too, often. But there is also a quick fix, and it's not for everyone to start writing their essays the way you like the most.
Thing is, I don't even think that's what Guriel actually wants, and this is where I risk looking like a hypocrite by invoking my own personal threshold for exhaustion. His essay is framed all Hot-Take-y, but once you get into it, it's plain that doesn't actually want to, like, eliminate the presence of the first person in contemporary critical prose; he just wants other critics to be wary of "the zeitgeist," of cliché. In the end, his point is just that good writing is good and bad writing is bad, and that if you are a writer you would do well to write good essays instead of bad ones. That's hard to argue with! But it's also not a point you need to travel 1800 words to reach. These days I find I am tired out faster than anything by the unnecessarily hot take; the way the pace and pitch of the content economy turns every thought into an ASSERTION and every stray idea into ARGUMENT. It makes even the best writing kinda bad, it makes reading really hard, it sucks the nuance and fun and complexity out of everything.
I think there is a really important conversation to be had about some other aspects of the content economy. It seems increasingly crucial to think long and hard about what it means to live and work and think and argue on the internet, about what it means to spend every day reforming your worldview within the confines of a machine that uses people's experiences for pageviews. It seems important to consider what it means to get your news and your philosophy from a system that only generates profit for its owners by making lots of people feel really angry or agreed with. It's important to think about value, what it means and how we measure it. But I don't think arguments about whether the first-person is "good" are what will get us there.
JL: So then what does get us there? Part of this problem seems to be that we lack a grammar of manners when engaging with the Internet: an agreed upon social code that gives our impulses pause. "In real life," day-to-day, most don't go around screaming at strangers they disagree with, or casually threatening others, but on the internet this is common behaviour. There's something innate in it that affects our social interactions. Do you think people will become more empathetic as we spend more time with the internet, or is it destined to be a chaotic place that will always take a lot of work to deal with?
EH: This is a very tough question and I have no idea! I think a lot about the idea of the internet as an outer district of your consciousness, how especially when you have your phone with you 24/7 you end up using it in a pretty dreamily reflexive way - without even really thinking about it, you fill out a train of thought by Googling stuff as it pops into your head, or you remember someone you haven't thought of in years and look them up on Instagram and see all the most important things about their life in five minutes, etc. Pre-internet, pre-smartphone, all that stuff would happen within the confines of your own mind, and you could only go so far with it - you could want to communicate with someone, but there were all these other external steps you had to take to actually do it. Having Twitter or Facebook or even text messaging literally at your fingertips makes communication this sort of expansive, endless thing; there's pretty much no barrier between a private thought and an outwardly directed impulse. It's all just one clean loop. You can see something someone's written, feel it spark something in you, and then TELL THE OTHER PERSON ABOUT THAT FEELING, all without ever opening your mouth or moving your head. There's so much nerve and reflex in all of it. And in a way that's very lovely, the idea that you can perform all these social gestures from a place that's not weighed down by all the normal stuff that usually gets in the way, like bodies or access. In the best-case scenarios, people use that power for good. But it also means that it's so much easier for people to broadcast all kinds of anger and sadness that otherwise they might be forced to, like, deal with on their own, instead of hurling it at someone you disagree with or whatever. That's the darkness that makes being online feel so dangerous - you're just roaming around in the swamp of everyone's strongest emotional impulses, totally uncut by concerns of politeness or consideration. I'm not sure what to do about this; on good days it feels magic and on bad ones I want to throw my computer in a lake. But maybe keeping the strangeness of the form in mind while you move around the internet is a start; remembering that when you work and think and write and communicate online, you're playing in very weird, murky, liminal territory. And so is everyone else.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.