Sharon Berg interviews poet Conyer Clayton

1. As a musician and a writer, clearly you understand the collaborative process. You released an album called If the river stood still with Nathanael Larochette in 2018. Then in 2020, you wrote Sprawl | the time it took us to forget with Manahil Bandukwala. Can you speak to how the moments of conception for various poems in While We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite (Guernica Editions, 2020), a solitary work, were different from collaborative pieces you’ve worked on? Please provide an example from a poem or two in the book.

My solo writing practice is completely spontaneous and unplanned, whereas when I work in collaboration, whether with Nathanael, Manahil, or VII, it’s (usually) a bit more structured or thought out. For example, when I wrote Home, I was coaching a gymnastics competition (my day job) near Toronto. I’d moved to Ottawa recently and was very homesick. I sat crying in my hotel room and wrote Home in one stream of consciousness spurt. The finished product doesn’t look much different from what was drafted that day. The lack of editing was unusual for me, but the impetus for beginning the poem is somewhat standard. Whereas, when Nathanael and I adapted Home to be included in our album, we rehearsed and rehearsed. The timing of the words in relation to the music is carefully thought-out and tended to.

2. Some writers have literary heroes, others see themself as rule-breakers, then there are those seeking a path toward personal transcendence in a way that defies the notion of literary heritage. How do you understand your relationship with the writers who came before you? Also, which came first? The tune or the lyric? Were you already a musician, or did your talents develop together? Did something specific put you on the path toward writing books?

While I have authors I admire, I don’t see myself attempting to imitate or aspire to anyone else’s creative path. I’m comfortable just doing my own thing, staying true to what I like to write, because that’s what is important to me, frankly: I really like to write, and I want to keep it that way.

Both music and writing are something I’ve done since I was a kid: singing in choirs for years, taking piano lessons and music theory classes, writing poems and stories, editing my high school’s literary journal, etc. However, writing always felt as though it came with less baggage, and felt more natural, so my confidence really blossomed from a young age. Whereas with music, I always felt like I was the worst of my peers, and though I loved it, I was not (and frankly am still not) confident in my abilities. But still, I love it and want to keep loving it. That’s my biggest priority in creation.

When I moved to Ottawa in 2016, I decided to get serious about publishing books. I had a decade of material backlogged. Much of my chapbooks, and of We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite contain that backlog, though my book contains poems from 2016 to 2018 also. I think this impulse has to do with putting my work into the world in order to move forward. In my life, I’d been so stuck for so long. I finally felt somewhat free. I think publishing some of the work from those tough years was an important part of moving forward for me.

3. In her review of We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite (Guernica Editions, 2020), Kim Fahner suggests you rise phoenix-like from the ashes with “a voice that longs for transformation, even if it means destruction first.” Indeed, you present poems suggesting brutal honesty about bad relationships, addiction, and striving for recovery. Yet, while your poems seem to speak of lived experience, they’re created from oblique angles of thought and observation, suggestive shadows rather than revealed truths. Can you speak to why you pull the curtain back to reveal the ugly side of the struggle to survive addiction and progress? How does articulating these clashing images or moments of observation assist you in achieving your personal transformation?

To be honest, I never really know what my poems are doing until years later. I can say now that many of the poems in We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite are oblique because I was in a state of not yet being able to fully face the truth of my addictions, the way my relationships with others and sex were failing or harming me. That book reveals the beginning of those realizations, the shadows of them, as you say, but not the readiness to fully turn towards something better for me. I see my past self more clearly through my poetry. I’ve seen myself more clearly through other writers’ work as well. Witnessing other artists facing their struggles with substance use, sexual trauma, and grief has helped me feel less alone on many occasions. One of my biggest hopes is that my work might do the same for others. I think writing these topics, wherever you’re currently situated within them, can reduce stigmatization.

4. In thinking of this work, please name a source that served as inspiration during earlier stages that’s no longer an inspiration. Perhaps it’s something you’re currently conflicted with or even hostile towards, that you’ve discarded between drafts.

In my initial draft for many of these poems, I viewed drugs and alcohol as a source of inspiration. While true at that time, in the later stages of bringing this book together, I worried about glorifying substance use. I tinkered with and pulled a few poems out in early drafts, and I’m glad I did. While it’s true books are a snapshot of a specific time, that was a picture of myself I didn’t want everyone to keep looking at. It was a destructive lie I told myself for years. I didn’t want to tell my readers that lie for all eternity as well.

5. What do you intend for the readers to be left with after the final page?

Questions. For themselves.

6. If this book was translated to another language, what would your advice for the translator be? What aspect of the original work would you most care to preserve?

It would be important that the musicality and rhythmic concerns were tended to. Often, the sound is more important than clear ‘meaning’ to me, by which I mean to say the sound is a primary meaning-maker in my poetry. If I had to choose between a literal translation that sounded bad and a slight change in meaning that sounded incredible, I would go with what sounds right to my ear 100% of the time.

7. How did you arrive at the title? What was your intention for it?

I actually didn’t arrive at this title! My editor, Elana Wolff, pulled it from the poem Reach into the Hollows and suggested it. At first, I wasn’t sure, but the longer I sat with it, the more perfect I realized it was. I want a title that captures the overall vibe of the book: something dark, volatile, changing, in flux, and unpredictable.

8. Are any aspects of the book autobiographical? How did you deal with your intimate material (i.e., experiences – emotional and physical) in a way that avoids the dangers of straight autobiography?

All of the book is drawn from direct experience, so in that way, it’s completely autobiographical, but at the same time, not everything in the book actually happened. It depends on the subject matter. For some subjects, I feel a duty to myself to stick to facts (usually in instances where I’ve coped by lying to myself or others). In other instances, the truth is revealed more clearly when facts stop mattering. I think this aspect to my writing is highlighted even more sharply in my forthcoming book of surrealist prose poems.

9. What was the most satisfying aspect of writing this book (other than finishing it)?

Since most of this book was originally written between 2009 and 2013, the most satisfying part was working with Elana to update and make it feel fresh to me. We brought in a lot of work from 2016-to 2018. That created renewed excitement for its publication. I felt it reflected both where I was as a writer at the time, and where I’d started.

10. What are you trying to achieve with this book in terms of your literary career?

To be honest, I had few goals for my “career.” I was new and unknown in Canadian literature. I wouldn’t have had it any other way though, as this book’s publication has been immensely satisfying. It’s connected me with so many people, and I’m grateful for its reception. I can only hope for the same experience with my forthcoming book!

As for my continued literary goals, the main one is to keep enjoying writing. If I like what I’m writing, that fulfills me. If other people like it, all the better. I want to write books I like to read. The rest is a bonus!

Conyer Clayton is a writer, musician, editor, and gymnastics coach living on unceded Algonquin Anishinaabe land. Her debut full-length collection, We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite (Guernica Editions, 2020), won a 2021 Ottawa Book Award, and was a 2020 Relit finalist. She won The Capilano Review’s 2019 Robin Blaser Poetry Prize and Arc Poetry Magazine’s 2017 Diana Brebner Prize. She’s released 2 albums and many chapbooks, most recently: Sprawl | the time it took us to forget (Collusion Books, 2020), written with Manahil Bandukwala, which was short-listed for the bpNichol award, and Towers (Collusion Books, 2021) by VII, of which she is a member. Her second book, But the sun, and the ships, and the fish, and the waves (A Feed Dog Book from Anvil Press) is forthcoming Spring 2022.