Toronto poet, Spencer Butt talks to AW’s Emily Cann about his second poetry collection.
EC: Your first poem in this collection poses many questions that interrogate identity. Do you think that the poems that follow this introduction offer answers?
SB: I’m not sure if they offer answers or if they act more like research pieces, attempting to chip away at the puzzle of who we are. While the poem asks “is that me?” over and over again, I think we’ve all run into that big question at times. Whether it’s a moment of disbelief that we’ve accomplished something huge in our life, a pause as we feel disappointed in ourselves, or just catching a glimpse of our reflection in the mirror.
Every poem that comes after that first bombardment of overthinking offers a look at our present being, who we might have been, and what could become of us, wrapped up in a dark sense of humor because a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.
EC: In It Is What It Is, What Is It, you are not afraid to stray from the margins—literally. How do you work with indentation and structure in each poem? What does that kind of movement across the page offer?
SB: I LOVE this question. The creative use of spacing and indentation has always played a few roles for me. First, I tend to avoid the use of punctuation in my poetry. Line breaks and spacing sort of take their place and, in my opinion, are a lot more visually interesting. I like the idea of the poem looking like a map or a pathway that your eyes walk along as you take a little journey.
I also come from a performance poetry background and I tend to pace a lot on stage and get pretty animated. Having the poems emulate that same chaotic energy on the page is an attempt at adding another layer of life to the words without my frantic gestures prancing around in front of the reader.
I also think movement and growth are, thematically, a huge part of my writing. The idea of hopefully “getting better” takes a ton of twists and turns as we look deep within ourselves. These poems crawling up the page like vines are a good representation of both the drive to keep reaching for better days and clinging to our own security blankets.
EC: You write about fatherhood and your son: not wanting to frighten him with heavy metal band t-shirts, grappling with the paranormal, and (my favourite) taking delight in his dislike of your tattoos. When your son appears in the work, he often acts as a signal of hope and/or levity. How do you think your writing has changed/evolved since you’ve become a father?
SB: My son really gave me a purpose in life and continues to do so every single day. It’s very easy for me to dwell on negative things and I struggle with depression, but he’s a funny, sweet little lighthouse. In the past, my poems would often address the bleakness of life or brains spiraling out of control with things like anxiety. Even if it was done in a funny way.
But since Henrik, my son, was born there’s been a new twist on those old feelings. There’s hope! There’s the desire to be the person I always wished I had when I was a kid. There’s a little goofball that I never want to disappoint and always improve myself for. He’s an inspiration. He also helps me look at the way I interact in relationships in general and inspires a massive amount of introspectivity and the want to move past negative traits. Where my poems once ended with a comical “what can you do?” shrug, there’s now a sense of “take a deep breath, you’re gonna be fine.”
EC: What do you intend for the readers to be left with after the final page?
SB: I hope readers walk away from this book with both kinds of tears in their eyes. Tears from laughing and tears from relating to the heavy parts. I hope they walk away feeling less lonely, feeling “normal”, feeling ok about themselves. I hope people find some inspirational quotes and some ridiculous metaphors that they can sprinkle into their everyday lives. I also want people who didn’t think they liked poetry to walk away realizing they were wrong.
EC: Was there a specific incident or experience or series of events that inspired this work? What was the development process for the inspiration to become this newest collection?
SB: The isolation at the beginning of the covid epidemic was a huge source of creative output for me. The first few months, where it felt like you couldn’t really do anything or go anywhere meant I spent a lot of time at home, staring out windows, and thinking way too much. Lots of self-reflection. I was reading a lot of self-help/mental health books, and finding new ways to connect with loved ones. Rambling into a void and hoping it answers you. All of that gave birth to this book.
EC: How do you intend for the value of the work to be assessed – as a piece of work that shares a compelling message or makes a social, political, or practical point or is it to be seen as a cultural event/phenomenon – an object of taste or a statement of your aesthetic?
SB: The best sort of review I ever receive for a poem is a stranger telling me that they related to something and they never thought they’d make that connection over that subject matter. Maybe it brought up old memories, something they’ve been struggling with, a shared nostalgia, or anything in between. I hope this book acts as a connector of emotions and a rescue boat when the reader feels alone on an island.
EC: What memorable or formative experience around learning to write springs to mind?
SB: I remember moving to Toronto from the small farm town that I grew up in and reading my work at poetry nights and open mics for the first time and the crowd giving me very lively reactions. My poems were making people emote! How cool is that?! I couldn’t believe that people other than my pals and family would care. I’m one of those introverts who do ok in public situations and can really come to life on stage, but off-stage I struggle to make connections. Poetry gave me a chance to be confident and fun and, most of all, honest in ways I really needed. 20 years later and that’s still one of my favorite parts of this artform.
EC: What was the most satisfying aspect of your recently completed work?
SB: I know it might sound funny, but the cover design! I worked with my close friend, and one of my favorite visual artists, Daniel Innes, on the cover. He did an incredible job and I just love the colors and fonts he chose. I’m very proud of the words inside the book too, but the fact that it just pops on a bookshelf and looks so beautiful on the outside is such a nice treat and cherry on top of the whole experience.
Look for Daniel’s new book, Denison Avenue, full of his illustrations of Toronto’s Chinatown and words by the amazing Christina Wong, in stores soon!
EC: How is your writing practice informed by a sense of writing to or for others? Do you have an audience in mind when you write?
SB: I group my poems into two different categories. Some are for the world, and some are meant for specific people. The poems meant for everybody are generally written with the idea of being relatable and capable of pulling feelings out of you that didn’t know you needed to unburden yourself from. Or maybe it’s me doing the unburdening and praying that other people make ME feel normal!
The one’s for specific people will sometimes have references that only they would understand and might be confusing for a general audience. Other times they have emotions meant just for them and I want them to know that those words exist only for them. That’s not to say that some of those poems will never make it into a book or something, but they feel more like private conversations.
EC: What emotions do you associate with writing? Or, differently put, how does writing impact your emotional state?
SB: I find writing to be very cathartic. Even the smallest, lightest poem can feel like lifting an incredible amount of weight off of my shoulders. They can be a very effective way of moving past something OR of unpacking a thing and realizing that it’s even more special than you realized. I hope that people who read these poems feel that way too!
Spencer Butt is a Toronto poet, and has featured at events like The Art Gallery of Ontario’s First Thursday’s, The Royal Ontario Museum’s Friday Night Live, Word on the Street, and Long Winter Toronto. His poems have appeared in publications like Poetry is Dead and Filling Station. It Is What It Is, What Is It is his second book. Outside of the poetry world he’s a dad, owns a book themed clothing company called Book Wurm, and is a UX designer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram using @spncrbtt.