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In Disorder, Concetta Principe Explores the Metaphorical Relationship Between the Home and the Mind

Interview with Concetta Principe banner. Background of blue-green with solid section of dark blue to the centre right with text and Open Book logo overlaid, and image of book cover to right with the title, Disorder, and the author's name in stylized layout over blue-green.

Home is the focus of the new poetry collection by Concetta Principe, an author who deftly handles sensitive topics with great intelligence and nuance.

In Disorder (Gordon Hill Press), Principe explores what it means when a place that should be sanctuary is made unstable by mental illness, delving into the relationship between home and the mind. And, in all of these poems, the author's compassion and subtlety are always on full display.

We've got a riveting Line and Lyric Interview with the author, right here on Open Book:


Open Book:

Tell us about this collection and how it came to be. 

Concetta Principe:

I usually write prose poems but at one point several years ago I started writing line poems. I was playing with the slippage of meaning by thinking about how line endings can foil making meaning; the line ends on one idea and the next line shifts coordinates simply by changing a word. In the end, the poem has made many turns, shifts, of half-completed ideas. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) that I realized the poems reflected disordered thinking. 

People with BPD have a bad rap. They are thought of as manipulative, attention seeking drama queens, who are notoriously difficult to treat. They are known to have dysregulated emotions, they self-harm as a means of coping with the emotional rollercoaster, have anger problems and find it difficult to trust people. As well, because they suffer paranoia at times, or, in their states of crises, may hallucinate, they are seen as being at the border between neurosis and psychosis. Those with the disorder may also experience depression and anxiety and eating disorders. I did. 

In the poems I’d been writing, I could see paranoia. I could see indications of a problematic sense of identity— a sign of BPD. I was aware of the emotional rollercoaster running through some poems. The depression and anger and my eating disorder were all present, in one way or another, in the poems. On seeing how the poems worked together to show BPD, I realized I had a collection that reflected my condition without my being aware of it. By way of explaining how the collection came into shape retroactively, I wrote an essay about living with undiagnosed BPD and placed this at the end of the book. This is how the project came together.  


Can you tell us a bit about how you chose your title? If it’s a title of one of the poems, how does that piece fit into the collection? If it’s not a poem title, how does it encapsulate the collection as a whole? 


The title accounts for disorder in a subjectivity that is controlled by disordered thinking. Sometimes I am cranky and bitchy; sometimes I am overwhelmed by childish whining; sometimes I am so very low and depressed; sometimes I seem to see things clearly. These different subject ‘voices’ reflect what I would say is a BPD problem with identity. In that sense, the title reflects the disorder not just of the condition that inspires me to write, but also the poetic self.  


What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?


I can’t imagine a poem worth reading if it doesn’t open in a way that ‘hooks’ me with the message. I mean, we need to have some connection to the poem at the opening. And if the end is weak, then the poem is missing a bottom. I’m thinking now that the poem is a vase. If it doesn’t have an opening, then there’s no looking inside it, no way to put flowers in it. Nothing to see. If the vase doesn’t have a bottom, then anything put inside it falls through. So, I’d say both beginnings and endings are equally important, if not necessary.  


What advice would you give to an emerging or aspiring poet? 


Trust yourself. Trust yourself to be guided by a part of yourself that knows things you don’t realize you know. Listen to feedback but don’t take the critique as gospel—it could be way off. Just keep plugging away and one day what you’re working on will take shape, come into focus, and you’ll realize “this is what I meant all along.” And you found it by trusting yourself.  


Was there a question or questions that you were exploring, consciously from the beginning or unconsciously and which becoming clear to you later, in this collection? 


Poems relating to my food disorder (“Cake as Paradigm” and “Kitchen”) or childhood crises (“Basement”) were efforts to free myself from trying to make meaning or find meaning in situations that were a mystery to me. Inspired by Gertrude Stein and Lynn Hejinian, I let objects and sounds guide me through the emotional turmoil or numbness that drove a given poem. I felt liberated by making meaning by resisting meaning, by going for cryptic instead of crystal clear. It wasn’t until I had been diagnosed that I recognized the significance to this breaking apart of meaning: the poems signified disordered thinking. So, in an unconscious way, I was articulating my condition before I knew I had it.  


For you, is form freedom or constraint in poetry? 


There are stanzas, line endings of various lengths; there is the prose poem and its prosaic rules; there is rhythm and there are rhyme patterns that are triggered by the sounds almost too fluid in free verse. And through all this structure, language overflows like a waterfall. 

Without form, there would be no waterfall. Without gravity, nothing would fall. Without a word for water, we’d have nothing to play with. I’d say form is the constraint necessary for poetry. And it’s this constraint that allows me to free myself from making sense of what is senseless. 


What are you working on next? 


I’ve got a few projects happening. I’m working on a hybrid (poetry/cnf) dialogue with fellow poet/doctor on the benefits and hazards of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), a method for treating people with disorders. As someone with DBT, I’m critiquing CBT from a feminist disabilities studies perspective. 

I’ve also drafted poems on the war in Gaza. I have been compelled to document what I see, to take up the ethical obligation to witness the genocide happening. I keep writing despite the fact that I don’t write from a position of privilege: I am not Palestinian nor am I Jewish. Because I have no privilege, I may never have an audience for this work. But that doesn’t stop me from being a witness. 


Concetta Principe is a writer of poetry and creative non-fiction, and scholarship on the impact of the secular unconscious on culture and political thought. Her recent collection, This Real (Pedlar Press 2017) was long-listed for the League of Canadian Poet’s Raymond Souster Award. Her essays, “Who Shot Meriwether Lewis?” was long-listed for the 2019 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Award at The New Quarterly, and “I Title it ‘Suicide Letter’” was short-listed for The Malahat Review 2019 Constance Rooke award. Her poetry and creative non-fiction has appeared in Canadian and American journals including The Malahat Review, The Capilano Review, experiment-o, and Hamilton Arts and Literature. Her collection, Stars Need Counting: Essays on Suicide, is available from Gordon Hill Press. Her academic monograph exploring trauma in contemporary secular thought, Secular Messiahs and the Return to Paul’s Real: A Lacanian Approach, came out with Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. She teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at Trent University, Durham.

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Disorder, the newest collection of poetry from Concetta Principe, explores the metaphorical relationship between the home and the mind, where a home should be place of sanctuary but can have its safe borders destabilized by mental illness. The poems work through these questions with Principe's characteristic subtlety, intelligence – a nuanced and compassionate meditation on what it means to be at home.