Lesley Battler was born in Barrie, Ontario. Her work has been published in a wide range of journals including, Arc, filling Station, Prism International, West Coast Line. Her debut book of poetry, Endangered Hydrocarbons, came out in April 2015. She currently lives in Calgary and no longer works in the petrochemical industry.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book is out in the world now and affecting my life in interesting ways. First of all is the notion that a lot of secret labour has materialized, winkled out of the private into the public. This makes me feel very exposed, especially with social media added to the experience.
I’m also outside my comfort zone, dealing with issues of age, marketability, acceptance, breaking into a new field. I’m starting from the bottom as an “old newbie,” full of life experience but possessing less knowledge about poetry than people 20-30 years younger than I am. I find this an uneasy position, but also dynamic, full of flux.
Another thing that’s different is a sense of optimism and pride. Optimism because in a publishing situation that seems so dire, I sent my ms out and someone (BookThug) accepted it for publication. Pride because i’m a newbie without many connections. The ms was accepted entirely because someone thought it had some merit. That’s huge to me.
I also think publication has given me the confidence to continue pushing my boundaries, and I’m working on new poetry. The book had a tight, cohesive concept, based on the production language of the petrochemical industry. My most recent work is more sound-conscious, less determined in theme and aim.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Reading and writing were just things I always did. I came to everything at once. I wrote stories, poems, satirical pieces, letters, kept journals like Harriet the Spy, created a lot of comic books. Whenever I read something I loved, I would write stories to keep the characters and world of the book alive.
I’ve always love mysteries, detectives, spies, the secret identities of superheros, clues, cyphers, symbols, the underworld, the undersea world. The first book I ever mail-ordered was “The Face on Mars.” I’m thankful I was graced with the love of reading, writing and critical thinking. Otherwise, I might have become a conspiracy theorist.
I’ve also always been drawn to what is considered “difficult,” “experimental” or “unrelatable” literature. Possibly because I considered this kind of work a mystery, something to unravel and gather clues. Poetry became that site for me. It will never stop challenging, frustrating me, leading me to that world beneath the surface.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I take a lot of notes. Eventually, lines, phrases, ideas start forming out of this accretion of seemingly random scribbling. Time constraints make it necessary for me to beg, borrow, steal time. Poems tend to come when i’m focused on other things. When I do get the opportunity to write, it tends to explode on the page. I enjoy working with found texts and my first drafts are basically brainstorming exercises, finding the language, vocabulary I want to work with. My first drafts are long-winded and dense. I have to keep winnowing down until the words connect on a lingual level and a poem appears put of the substrate.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
My writing is always tied to some kind of inquiry: “What would happen if I placed these lines from this discourse with this seemingly opposing discourse?” I’m interested in language that questions, subverts, disrupts specific discourses. I don’t set out to write a book, it’s a more organic process. Usually I start by just wanting to sit down somewhere and play with a line I’ve heard or read, a random sign or image on the street. I’m always focused on the work at hand until I have several fragments that start talking to each other; that’s when the alchemy begins.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I had a speech impediment when I was young, and have never enjoyed public speaking. I’m trying to think of readings as being part of the job, no more out of the ordinary than a departmental presentation, but I haven’t reached the stage where performing in public feels the slightest bit creative.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Oh, just the usual. Who are we? Where did we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going? How did we get like this? Are we really alone in the universe? Do we create the language of our oppression or has the language created our oppression? How and why did we develop metaphors? And what’s up with memory and dream?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I’m not the slightest bit perturbed at the idea of poetry not having a wide audience. To me it’s pure research-and-development, Bletchley Park, the dark ops of language. I think the role of the writer is to be marginal to the culture at large. In marginality lies the ability to look at culture from the outside. As a poet I want to disrupt and subvert; reclaim “the wild” from 24 hour news cycles and the desperate shrieking of advertisements. Jam the algorithms, deflect language from its Q4 goals.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
So far, it’s been a lovely experience, a partnership of respect and courtesy. An editor, or a great reader can present different facets, question your thinking. While I’m in the thick of writing, it can be hard to distance myself and think of new ways to approach the work. Editors, and readers,can open up new possibilities after I feel I’ve come to the end. I have enjoyed the feeling of paring down and completion. My experience with good editors (and readers) also gives me the courage to keep to my true vision, instead of second-guessing myself.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless. … Make an inventory of your pockets, of your bag. … Question your tea spoons.” - Georges Perec, from an essay called “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.”
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a writing routine but the writer in me never really shuts off. I tend to write fast in unexpected corners of the day. I beg, borrow, steal time to write, and this means the poetry steeps for a long time before I can get to it. Meanwhile i’m collecting fragments, headlines, signs, snatches of conversations, meeting notes, Internet memes etc. etc. in a notebook. I write longhand on paper, in food courts, lobbies, cafes, public transit etc. Writing just happens.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’ve learned this is the time of greatest discovery for me. My writing usually stalls when I read something so great I fall into a kind of despair of ever being able to do something like that. Maybe in my case time constraints are helpful as I can’t afford to waste my “poetry time.” Then I just pick up anything at hand, a Metro newspaper, one of zillions of real estate or new age tourist magazines or just go to Google and do exercises. I just write out words and phrases that sound absurd, odd, unintentionally profound and sonically mash them up. It doesn’t matter where any of these words might lead, something always takes over.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Earthworms, berries, mushrooms, rain in the air before a storm. A musty smell may be unromantic but it teleports me home.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Music, conceptual art, philosophy, science, science fiction, technology. Then there are the sites I follow on social media: posts from NASA, Imaginary Cities, Twitter pile-ons. I’m a free-range poet, avidly interested in incorporating and repurposing other fields, disciplines in my writing.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’m a reading omnivore; everything from Edgar Allan Poe to Nancy Drew to Mad Magazine. Some of the writers that have long inspired me are Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Douglas Adams, Jorge Luis Borges, W.G. Sebald, Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau, Rimbaud. Over the last couple of years i’ve re-read some of my favourite critical theorists, Ambigen, Butler, Cixous, Kristeva, Deleuze, Gattari, Foucault, Blanchot. I’ve also re-read Stein and Beckett. Some influences are China Miéville (especially Embassytown), Dennis Lee’s Testament, and a wonderful bilingual book by Gisèle Villeneuve, Visiting Elizabeth.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Time travel. I’d be the most awesome Doctor ever. Maybe I am the Doctor as I’m bigger on the inside than I am on the outside. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to go to Madagascar and the Galapagos Islands. I wish I could become fluently multilingual, or compose ambient music based on the sounds I hear around me, unravel the mysteries of consciousness, answer at least one of my own questions.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
DJ, sound engineer, voice actor, composer of genius computer code, detective, spy. I’ve done all sorts of things occuptation-wise and don’t really consider myself a “writer.” I’m a reader, an information magpie, committed to life-long exploration of ideas. Writing comes as a response to these other elements.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
To me, writing is just something i’ve always done. It’s also cheap, convenient and portable; something I can do at lunch, on weekends, in parks, food courts, hotel lounges, airports, etc. I work in longhand. Have pen and paper will travel. I love things of the mind and the imagination, and writing tethers me to earth as I drift into deep-sea outer space. It’s a way of channeling an overabundance of intuition, and allows me to return from my travels.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I finally read Finnegan’s Wake and wondered what took me so long. Although technically it’s not poetry, I absolutely loved it for the humour, the puns, the Steinisms (she was a huge influence on Joyce), the synthesis of sensations, science, pop culture, business of the time. And it’s a self-generating organism. Any passage, line, stanza or portmanteau word can reform into a completely different creation. James didn’t write a book; he built an infinity-engine.
As for films, I’ve mostly been binge-watching TV shows; Breaking Bad, Carnivale, The Prisoner, The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Twin Peaks, etc.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a group of poems that seem to be forming into a new manuscript, which now even has a working title: “Tomorrowland.” I seem to be addressing the loss of nature, private places, the incursion of technology and velocity. I say “seem” because the work is very much still in experimental phase.
This new work is an attempt to capture through language a sense of loss; the loss of the woods to subdivisions, birdsong to construction zone, memory to commodities on the assembly lines of social media. What did the promise of the future really bring? I’m exploring this sense of alienation using found texts and hewing as close to language as possible. For me, this kind of work is far more powerful than anything I could write based on personal experience.
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