Doyali Islam: Hello! You’re attending to the Arc Poetry Podcast. I’m Doyali Islam, Poetry Editor of Arc Poetry Magazine.
On this program, we invite one poet from the latest issue of the magazine to read their published poem on air and to engage in a conversation about how their poem came to be in the world – the impulses or creative processes behind it. Despite the fact that a poem’s origins can sometimes, in some ways, be mysterious to its maker (or makers) – we will attempt this discussion.
My guest today is Liz Ross. Liz’s poem, “Feeding Iris Strawberries,” was published in Arc 85, the Winter 2018 issue of the magazine.
Liz Ross is the author of Kingdom (Palimpsest, 2015) and After Birth, a second poetry collection forthcoming in the spring of 2019. Her work has been published in literary magazines across Canada, longlisted for the CBC poetry prize, and selected for inclusion in The Best of the Best Canadian Poetry in English. She grew up in Victoria and now lives in Hamilton, where she’s working on a collection of essays.
Liz Ross: Thank you for having me!
DI: You’re welcome! So I’m wondering if we could jump in and hear your beautiful poem.
LR: Sure. So this is “Feeding Iris Strawberries”:
DI: Thank you! It’s such a wonderful poem.
DI: So I’m wondering: thinking about strawberries, out of what did this poem grow? [Laughs]
LR: [Laughs] Not on a vine per se. Somewhat predictably, I wrote this poem after feeding my then-infant, Iris, strawberries. She was, I think, around 9 or 10 months, just getting into the early stages of eating solid food. She had this very unpredictable and almost rapturous experience eating them. I started recording that, ‘cause I try to record those things when they happen – whether it be with my kids or just other things in my life. Then I decided to write a poem. The poem kind of became – at least in my mind – an exploration of my sort of rapture in her rapture eating the strawberries.
Giving your kids solids for the first time is sort of a position of privilege, in a way. It’s so sensual to have this job where you give someone a substance that they’re gonna smell and taste and ingest and have feelings about, the way we all have feelings about food. And I found in that process… I sort of see my own biases around food. She was just so entranced. I don’t know if it was the flavour or the texture. So I tried to convey that experience. That it’s not just about food and allergies.
When my first child started solids, I was a very by-the-book parent. I was supposed to record what food I had introduced that week, what I had combined with… By the time Iris was born, she was my second, and I was just like, “Oh! You look hungry; I’m going to smash this whatever-it-is with my fork and give it to you.” I think I just kind of relaxed and was able to look at that process of giving a baby food in a different way.
DI: So it wasn’t premeditated to choose strawberries.
LR: No, no. With my first, I will admit I had a chart on the fridge. [Laughs] They put the fear of god into me about allergies and making sure you didn’t give the baby too much of too many new things, because if they have a reaction, of course, it’s hard to go back and see what it was that would have caused it. But with Iris, it was just more operating out of instinct. She was a January baby, so summertime strawberries? Why not!
DI: And when you say you started ‘recording’ those experiences, do you mean writing notes or video or – ?
LR: I certainly do both. I’m guilty of posting a lot of photos and videos on social media. I’m also not great at keeping a traditional baby book. I like to record things that felt significant to me at the time. I have a notebook for each kid. I will write a little note about the date, and what the thing was. Sometimes it’s just a sentence, and that’s that. Other times, it’ll develop into something else, and if it’s something else, I’ll take it into a journal where I actually write for my purposes and see where it heads from there.
DI: So when do you think you’ll show her this poem – or will you show her this poem?
LR: I’m sure she’ll see it. I hope she does. Maybe she’ll be able to relate to it if she has a child; I don’t know. But yeah, I think I will.
DI: And was it strange to be writing it, because unless someone’s a debut author and they don’t have a book out, or they’re not used to publishing, there’s that sense of audience – like who will be listening to this one day, or reading it. I guess as a poet myself, I try to shut that out and just write for me, but it’s hard to do it fully. So when you were writing this, and it’s such a personal poem, with someone so close to you, was it on your mind as you were crafting the poem, that one day she would read this?
LR: I would love to say yes; however, I’m a selfish poet. [Laughs]
No, it really wasn’t. The issue about writing about my kids is something that has really come into my head the last few months. I have this collection coming out next year which is almost exclusively written around my experiences mothering and parenting. I hope there’s nothing too terrifying in there for them. I would never publish something that I wouldn’t share with them anecdotally in other contexts. But yeah, when I write, I write for me. Hopefully it interests someone, but if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
DI: I think ‘selfish’ is a good way to be for a poet. We have to honour our own creative insights and little directions that tug us one way or another.
LR: Totally. I think poetry would be really awful if we wrote for a specific audience.
DI: So speaking of the book, is the poem “Feeding Iris Strawberries” in the collection?
LR: It is.
DI: That’s so exciting. And who is the book coming out with?
LR: With Palimpsest.
DI: Lovely. So, aside from writing, I’m wondering if you could tell us about your life these days?
LR: ‘Aside from writing’ is a good sort of clause. I pick up a lot of socks and little shoes. I do laundry. Yeah, I’m always, I guess, working toward finding a balance, which I say a little bitterly, because of course it doesn’t exist. Even the idea that there should be a balance is, in my mind, unbalanced, if that makes any sense. So, the thing I’m learning about having small kids – I have a 7-year-old, a 3-year-old (That’s Iris’s age now), and a 4-month-old – [is that] there’s weeks where we’ll have a pattern, and then that pattern shifts. I never feel I’m in control the way I was before I had kids. Maybe a better way of framing it is, I’m learning to be adaptable, as opposed to trying to find a balance that will never come out even.
DI: That’s great. I’m wondering if we could close by thinking about the wider landscape of poetry today. Could you mention one contemporary poet whose work really excites you or interests you and a little description of why?
LR: The poet who leaps to mind is Ocean Vuong. I’m really interested in his work on a technical level. I’m always looking at other poets’ technical accomplishments. He’s almost like a technician of intuition or something, where no matter how I consider a poem and think, ‘What if I were to break the line here, or use a different image or something,’ I can’t see a different shape for it. His poetry is just – this is such a corny word to use but it’s – so raw but so accomplished, and so terrifying in its explorations of relationships and trauma. I so admire how he handles the issues that he writes about, and how someone can make art and poetry out of those experiences.
DI: Thank you!
LR: Thank you so much!
DI: So, once again, I’m here with Liz Ross. Her poem was “Feeding Iris Strawberries” from the Winter 2018 issue of Arc Poetry Magazine. Have a great day!