“I Am Scorching Air”: A Conversation with Sina Queyras




SINA QUEYRAS IS a Montreal-based writer, professor, editor, and literary organizer. They are the author of seven poetry collections, a novel, and a book of essays, as well as the founder of the blog Lemon Hound, which was for many years the digital hub of the Canadian poetry scene. Their latest collection, My Ariel (Coach House, 2017), riffs on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, reimagining, queering, and inhabiting its iconic poems. It exploded into the world in a venomous rage with lines like “I am no lady. I am scorching air. / You can eat my genius, rare.” My Ariel arrived at the same moment as the #MeToo movement, and it is surely no coincidence that it shares its themes: sexual violence, male gatekeeping, the negation of the woman artist. But there’s another important thematic strand in My Ariel: a new parent themselves, Sina was drawn to Plath for her insights about motherhood, insights that they question and consider in the light of their evolving understanding of their own gender. 

My Ariel is Sina’s rawest, most exposed collection to date, and yet it was met with a notable critical silence when it appeared. With the benefit of a little hindsight, I wanted to ask if they thought they’d gotten blowback for unpulled punches, and to probe Sina’s relationship to the confessional more broadly. Does the genre that Plath pioneered over half a century ago remain vital and emancipatory for writers in the age of self-disclosure? For Sina, the question is not so much how to “write what you know” (“A trap,” they say) but instead to ask, “How do you witness?”

We started this conversation at Sina’s flat in Montreal in August 2019, and then continued it in writing.

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MYRA BLOOM: Your latest book, My Ariel, rewrites and engages with Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and with Plath’s life and afterlife more broadly. You’ve stated previously that Plath was never a particularly significant poet for you. Was it having kids that pushed you toward the book?

SINA QUEYRAS: Yes. Becoming a parent completely threw me.

Did reading it in the light of your own motherhood change the meaning of Ariel for you or make it resonate in a way that it hadn’t before?

At first, I thought that I was just going to do conceptual playthings with the poems and sort of rewrite them — part of what was compelling to me was the raging musicality of the poems. I would literally be laying in between two cribs with two babies and singing a Daddy dirge (and lord, I hope they don’t feel that in their body years later). The project changed over time.

Over what period was the book written?

It was over a long period I realize in retrospect, because I began writing these poems while I was writing MxT back in 2012 and 2013. It was a few years before I decided to do the whole book, and then I wrote one draft over a summer. I believe that was 2015. Then there were multiple drafts and a lot of struggling.

It was a side project you had going?

Yeah, while I was writing MxT I had two side projects concerning motherhood. One was the Ariel poems, the other was a more conceptual project that I was calling The Endurance that was an exploration of the experience of mothers and the state of motherhood as a rogue mobile state.

The year we had the twins I took on the Writers Read series at Concordia as well as the transformation of Lemon Hound from blog to magazine, and the pace hasn’t let up since. In all of this I was trying to figure out my relationship to my gender — that felt weird suddenly. I have always been misgendered, now I had strange interactions where people couldn’t figure out “what I was” in relation to the stroller I was pushing. But the whole project of My Ariel was not conceived until much later, when the kids were three-and-a-half.

It’s very rare to encounter a collection that’s as well researched as My Ariel. From what I gather, you not only read Plath’s books and secondary criticism, but you also went to her archives to look at original documents and letters. How did you go about researching My Ariel,and why was research so important? Were you researching as you were writing, or did you do it beforehand? In what way did the research inform or change your writing?

I wrote one draft where I didn’t know anything and didn’t want to know anything. I wasn’t concerned with trying to articulate her arc, or account for the provenance of the poems.

Then I began to wonder what was going on behind the poems. I began to read around, and the more I did the angrier I became and the more I read. Once I started reading the biographies, I realized I had to read all of them because they were fascinating, and they also enraged me. As did much of the criticism, and the way her work is presented and discussed. Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman is my favorite.

Which archives did you visit?

I went to Smith College and to the British Library. The Smith archives were really helpful and moving: her work ethic is apparent everywhere. She worked hard and pushed herself hard and documented all of that effort.

I want to ask you about confession in your work. At the time that Plath was writing, a woman speaking her truth in such a brazen way was a very radical gesture. Today, in this digital, hyper-confessional era, we’re surrounded by a whole economy of women telling their stories. I’m wondering how you see the role of confession in poetry today, and how you approach this question of disclosure in your own work.

This question has been at the core of my being since I began to write. From the outset it has been write what you know, write what you’ve experienced, but it seems to me to be a trap. I am interested in writing as witness. So that’s how I prefer to think about it. The question is, then, how do you witness? If we read Plath’s Colossus, we read about Plath’s life, but the intention in Colossus is to speak to a different audience — a formal, largely male poet audience — versus Ariel’s urgency. The body of Plath is there, her voice is direct: This is my fucking life and I’ve come awake to it right now and here’s the pulsing heart of it. I love the rawness.

I’m interested in the way that you use persona, and in particular, the persona of Plath. I was listening to an interview you did with Jacket2 a couple years ago where you were asked about the persona of the Lemon Hound, which was the title of your third book and then your blog. You said then that the Lemon Hound persona was like a veil that you could speak behind. Would you say that you are using Plath as a springboard — for your truth, your biography, your witnessing — or as a veil that you’re hiding behind?

That’s a good question. I have been consistently killing Lemon Hound off for several years now. As for Plath, I’m not intentionally using her as a springboard, but she did come to me in a dream after a reading I did on Wolfe Island. There were three very powerful men who read as well, men who are comfortable taking up a lot of space, and whom the audience was there to hear, not me. It was one of the first times I read the Plath poems, and I had to really bolster myself not to be swamped by all that male energy. I woke in the middle of the night quite shaken: Plath had burst through my ribs like they were storm doors. She was attached to me, towering over me, gigantic and angry. She came at my face so fast I thought she was going to devour me, or tear my head off, but no, she was there to warn me: You think this is a game? You see what I was up against. If you step in, you better step up. And so I did. By the way, my throat hurts trying to replicate the roar she delivered those lines with.

Yes, I’m wondering why you decided, in a book that’s ostensibly a conceptual rewriting of Ariel, to insert the autobiographical.

I realized when I finished the first draft that it wasn’t enough for me to simply do a conceptual response to Plath. Conceptual poetry’s failure to speak to me about the experience of motherhood is what brought me to Plath in the first place. I spent time with conceptual projects (Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, for example, or Margaret Christakos’s Excessive Love Prostheses), and while I love this work, it did not ignite me and/or my experience. The dream helped me realize that I couldn’t take on a book like Ariel and a figure like Plath and not actually look at the parts of my own life that are emotionally terrifying.

So you weren’t in that first draft as much?

No, I wasn’t really. I was aware that one of the things that the work on Plath was making me do was to confront my own discomfort, my own unresolved “daddy issues” among other things. As well, she was making me confront heterosexuality but still at a distance. The poem “Years” was originally six pages. I published the short version in Jordan Davis’s Ladowich. It offers a snapshot of “domestic temperature.” It’s bare bones. Reading Plath made me confront the horrible power dynamics of the literary world, which were heating up all around me at the time of my writing. I realized I hadn’t really been honest about the degree to which sexual violence had been playing out over the course of my own life, and the degree to which it was present all around me and directly impacting me and my students.

You talk about daddy issues, but the poem “Years” centers on your relationship with your mother. Why was it important to add her experience to the constellation of mothers the book examines?

Yes, the poem does center around the relationship with my mother, but also around my father, and the bizarre triangulation that occurred between the three of us. Of the two, I am not sure who was more inappropriate and damaging for me. The Plath-Hughes marriage took me right back into that hell. Similar to Hughes, my father was seen as the innocent, aggrieved party, and my mother, with her unreasonable demands and her narcissism, was seen as the monstrous figure.

In My Ariel, you have some poems that actually call people out for some of the sexism you alluded to above and connect that to the treatment Plath herself endured. In “Years,” your persona throws out her manuscript after the director of the Banff writing program tells her that it’s self-indulgent. This event, drawn from your life, echoes the many voices that were pathologizing and criticizing Plath for a kind of similar self-absorption. I’m wondering about the extent to which you’re aware of the political work your poems are doing: is that how you see them?

In general, I prefer to present the material rather than make the argument. Also, for the record, the persona does not throw out the manuscript, she tries to understand what is being criticized.

Have you suffered any blowback for anything that’s in that collection?

[Laughs.] I think that the collection offended people, but I haven’t heard directly. There’s been more silence around this collection than any of the other books I’ve published.

Why do you think that is?

[Laughs.] I think it offended people.

Maybe it cut too close to home.

Maybe, but it’s interesting because it was Plath’s affect that people seemed to have the most difficulty with. I was aware of that. I think similarly the book’s affect puts people off.

How would you characterize that affect?

I try to explore that in the book, the question of how unfair it is that being focused, or ambitious, is so often read as narcissistic in women. In my book, I think the relentlessness of the anger is hard. I didn’t let myself have enough fun or range — my daddy dirge doesn’t appear! The anger was top of mind though. I didn’t want anyone to miss it.

I wanted to get you to talk about the book a little bit in the context of lyric conceptualism. In “Lyric Conceptualism, A Manifesto in Progress,” you wrote, “The Lyric Conceptualist is not necessarily a feminine body but it has the stink of the impure, a certain irreverence for the master and therefore it is by default feminine in construction.” Can you talk about how some of the formal decisions that you made in My Ariel turned lyric and conceptual modes to feminist ends?

This is a dirty or a failed conceptual project for sure — it’s damaged, it’s flawed, it’s a bastardized undertaking, but it is certainly feminist witnessing. Beyond that, I am interested in creating movement in the work as opposed to some kind of narrative or some kind of purely aesthetic, formal, structural project. Not that I’m not admiring of those. I mean, I think the formal properties of Lisa Robertson’s three Virgil rewrites are some of the highest level of achievement in recent contemporary poetry. The elegance is something I admire, but I am more interested in rawness. The naked voice standing in the shards of formal structures.

Does that relate also to this question of witnessing?

It relates to witnessing, yes. My experience of both feminism and gender is “off” and it always has been. I’m currently editing a Nicole Brossard reader, and her work, to me, is all about the differing reality of perceptions of those “whom the conquest of personal emotional territory has been precluded politically and patriarchally.” To Brossard, “identity is simultaneously a quest for and conquest of meaning.” I think this gets at the issue for me. I am always trying to find the appropriate vessel through which I can witness my situation. To me, inner and outer realities rarely match. I think becoming a parent was shocking because it revealed the distance I had yet to go to hear, to witness, my own self.

Are you saying that you need more than the entrenched tools of formalism or lyricism to get at that alternative representation of gender and sexuality? Connect those dots for me in terms of how your experience relates to your formal concerns.

Yes, I need something more. I like the idea of lyric conceptualism because it makes room for the body but not the etiquette of formalism. Put another way, I’m interested in a kind of poetics of collision, where multiple inquiries can be alive in a way that isn’t obvious or logical: they can be held aloft. Conceptualism offers tools for me to think of making my reality quantifiable and material. So too, the illogical pairing: why would a queer person in a queer relationship having babies in the way that I have, try to fit into or see myself in relation to Plath and parenting? It doesn’t make any sense. And yet, it did. It forced me to look back to my mother’s experience, and thus reassess my own body coming into this new identity, and simultaneously to investigate form as a kind of self-censor. I don’t really find a corollary in the world for my experience of myself and my body and my gender and my sexuality or my poetics. It feels very connected on the surface, but also adjacent to the moment.

Do you see My Ariel as in some ways more conceptual because it scaffolds itself on Ariel? At the same time, it’s such a personal book. How do you see it?

I feel like it’s kind of a monstrous monstrosity. But I feel like it’s an appropriate monstrosity for the moment. Ariel seems very accessible to us now, but it really wasn’t. I mean, those poems that she was reading and writing were quite out there for her time. Ariel is a burst, it bursts out of its own constraints (in Plath’s case, propriety, and the formal poem that refines the personal to a distant object), and that’s my favorite kind of poetry. So perhaps it was inevitable that my version of Ariel burst out of its own constraints and with a kind of ugly affect. And yes, to ping back to your last question, I guess both on the level of my work and also my body: I’m often “too much” for people. My person is too intense, I often speak too directly. My body doesn’t read appropriately. Nor does my work. Or my relationship to my work: my story is too messy to be contained — too inconsistent for certain channels.

You once said that we “needed to do less griping and more celebrating of women’s writing.” You wrote, “Don’t invite me to your bitch session, invite me to the launch.” I love that line. I wanted to end on a positive note by asking you just kind of who or what you’re excited about right now. 

I’m still waiting for more celebrations and invitations to such. Meanwhile I’m revisiting a lot of writing that I read in my 20s: Ursula K. Le Guin, Monique Wittig, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Marge Piercy, Elizabeth Smart — that’s been really exciting. I’m also coming back to Plath and motherhood so I’m reading Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, Annie Ernaux, Jamaica Kincaid, Deborah Levy, Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood — also the new Duras, Me & Other Writing, and Corina Copp’s translation of Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs.

Do you feel more optimistic lately? Do you feel things are moving in a good direction, or is there a reason to celebrate?

Very much so. I just wish I was taking part in it.

Well, you are.

Yes, I suppose I am.

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Myra Bloom is an assistant professor in the English Department at York University, Glendon campus. Her areas of research are late 20th- and 21st-century Canadian and Québécois literature.

 

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