Emma Healey Sees the World Beneath the World
Emma Healey is a Toronto-based poet and essayist whose second book, Stereoblind, is a collection of prose poems “where the past, present, and future overlap, facts are not always true, borders are not always solid, and events seem to write themselves into being.” She’s a National Magazine Award nominee, and is Open Book’s writer in residence for April—National Poetry Month. We spoke with her about obsession, how time can fold in on itself, and the world not everyone sees while she was at Banff Centre for the Literary Arts program, 2018 Winter Writers Retreat.
Obsession comes up for you a lot. What are you obsessed with these days?
In my personal life, in my day to day, I’m obsessed with reading the Reddit relationships forum. I feel like the amazing thing about it is each one is a little writing lesson. Within two sentences you understand exactly what the problem is going to be, what kind of person this person is, what their blind spots are going to be. The voice is so clear. You’re always seeing people at their craziest boiling point in their relationship—watching them tip over into madness. There’s also a lot of very sad shit there.
In my writing lately, the things that I end up thinking about all the time are the sort of bizarre symmetries that happen in your life. I started thinking about it a couple of years ago when I moved back to Toronto because I was living in a neighbourhood that was pretty close to where I grew up, and a lot of the things there were exactly the same and a lot of things there were completely different. And I would walk around kind of feeling like time was folding over on itself a little bit. Like, there would be periods where everything would be so much the same that I would be like “oh, no time has passed. I could be any age. This could be any year. I’m just floating untethered in time.” Which is super freaky. And then other things are very different, and that’s jarring in its own way.
The thing about obsession is once one idea is fascinating to you, you start seeing it everywhere.
Rereading your Hairpin essay, which I hadn’t read since it first came out, I realized you reference being at Banff Centre, and here you are again four years later and it’s back in the news cycle. It’s a strange parallel.
It’s very interesting, and very cool, and very frustrating at the same time. The thing about that essay that is very upsetting is that it never stopped being relevant. It comes up all the time for different reasons and every time people’s response to it is, “wow, I identify with this. I recognize this.” And it’s very upsetting that you can you just apply it to any situation and think “oh, she wrote this two days ago.”
Remember when everyone was quoting The Argonauts all the time? There’s this one quote that was really going around in my peer group, especially, where she talks about how she always believed that she was writing the same book over and over again, but now that she’s older she realizes that that’s what a career is, or what a body of work is. Just writing the same book over and over again. And I’m interested in that because it seems both very liberating as an idea—“oh I just get to be obsessed with the same things forever and let that interest transform constantly over time"—but it also seems like a terrible prison.
I’ve been thinking about it in the context of writing about assault and abuse and all these things that are not fun to think or to write about. You retraumatize yourself a little bit every time you dig into them, and also you experience it over and over again the same way. And everyone experiences it the same way all the time, forever. It’s almost like another one of those topics, or spaces, or situations where time bends in on itself or doubles over. It doesn’t matter where you are or who you are or what the context is. It happens the same way again and again.
Which is frustrating, because I feel like there’s a certain level of catharsis that’s expected when you make something. But maybe there’s certain topics for which that’s just never true.
Yeah, it really does seem like a strange double bind. I’ve been thinking a lot while I’ve been here about, what is the point of me writing about this, especially if it’s very draining? There’s a part of me that’s like, it does change things to write about it and put it out in the world. I wrote that essay in 2014 and now it’s back. Things are happening. It took a long time, and they’re happening in a messy and painful and horrible and gross way, but something is happening, maybe, for a minute. And also I feel like I only understand what I think about things when I write about them. You do sort of exorcise a bit of what’s obsessing you about something.
But I find that often when I write about something I think it’s like the end of my thinking about it. I’m like, “well, I reached this conclusion after a lot of deliberation, and this is my position. Now that I’ve put it out in the world it’s done, and I can move on to other things.” And usually what it is instead is the very beginning of my relationship with that idea. I’m under the mistaken impression that just because I thought about it and I wrote an essay, now it’s going to be sort of gone from my life. But usually that essay ends up being the foundation upon which a bunch of other shit ends up getting built.
I feel like that essay from The Hairpin is the most literal example of the way that happens in my life. When I wrote it, I was like “I’m finally ready to write about this and take a stand, and make my conclusion and then bow out of the conversation.” Instead both in my personal life and my career it ended up being the very beginning of my involvement with those ideas.
And also, probably, the way in which a lot of people came to know you to begin with. Their foundational understanding of you is from that piece.
It’s so unspeakably fortunate to be known by anyone for a thing that I’ve written. Especially to have written something that connected with a lot of people—what more could you possibly want? In that sense, if people read it and then that’s how they know me, I’m not complaining. But I’d like to do more wide ranging and complicated shit. It does strike me as a bit of a prison.
Anyone who writes about this stuff, I guarantee you, there are a lot of other things they’re more interested in. But they end up writing about it because it makes them angry, it makes them upset and they want to address it. Or they feel like they have to write it out to sort of make some peace with it. I don’t know that it’s anyone’s first choice to just go over this one problem over and over again. Everyone is bigger and more complicated than that. You want to be bigger and more complicated than that.
One of the great indigities of the patriarchy is that it forces you into a position where you just have to constantly be reiterating what it’s done to you and what it does to the people around you. You don’t get to live outside of it, even if you never want to write about this, you still end up doing so much work, fending off so much dumb bullshit and teaching people things that are like air to you.
Let’s talk about writing that you love to do. You said, becoming a poet was almost accidental. So what do you love about poetry?
Poetry is so fucking fun. It’s just so fun. It’s so cool and weird. You grow up learning that you can use [language] one or two ways, basically. And then when a poem first really speaks to you, language just opens up and you’re just like “wow, you can do literally anything with this!” When you meet a poem that means something to you, it’s like someone speaking to you in a language that you didn’t know that you knew until you heard it.
It both makes your world bigger, because it makes your ideas about what language can do bigger and more complicated, but it also helps you understand the world in front of you clearer and sharper. I keep using different versions of this metaphor, but it’s like you see a colour that you couldn’t see before and then you’re like “oh, I guess that’s always been there! Cool!”
That reminds me of an obsession of mine: YouTube videos of babies learning to hear for the first time, or people who are colourblind putting on those glasses and seeing colours for the first time.
My new book of poetry is called Stereoblind. Stereoblindness is the inability to perceive depth, which is what I have. I’m blind in one eye and I have been since birth. What happens is that you see 3D because your two eyes put two images together and convert them into one image that has dimension, basically. But because one of my eyes didn’t really work when I was born, that part of my brain didn’t develop. So everyone looks, to me, the way that TV or photographs look to normal people—just flat on flat, a big jumble of lines. So it’s weird, because I can’t perceive that thing about the world that everyone else has, but instead I get a slightly different version of everything.
But there’s also a version of the world that I can see that everyone else can’t—or doesn’t. Billy-Ray [Belcourt] talks about this. He used a phrase in his workshop that I use all the time when I’m trying to explain this to people and I was like Yes! “The world underneath the world.” I feel like there’s so many different versions of that in everyone’s lived experience. There’s an almost political version of it, which is like, if you are a person with any kind of marginalized identity that you sort of feel like you’re living in the world that runs underneath the real world. Or you feel like you have access to the world under this world, by virtue of your being sort of different from what the norm is supposed to be. But then also there are other dimensions to the world that you can see but not access.
And as hard as that can be, there’s something really beautiful about it, too. Because you’re working in this underneath dimension, you have the ability to consider even more dimensions that maybe other people don’t. People who live in the one, regular world who don’t look at it any other way don’t imagine that things could be any other way. And probably you can imagine many realities that they can’t.
Totally. And it also makes you very aware of your own blind spots. As a white woman, for example, it’s very interesting to consider how much of the world seems plain and obvious to you but escapes the men that you know. Probably the people of colour in your life feel the same way when they look at you.
I feel like the more you understand that about your own lived experience, the more sympathetic you can be about other people’s experiences.
Who is Stereoblind for?
It’s a hard question to answer. Everyone who loves prose poetry about time folding in on itself? Which is, you know, a wide audience. It’s funny because it took me probably six, seven years to write this book, and I only finished very recently. It was right down to the wire because I can only write under a panicky deadline, really. And I had a lot of notes and material that had been piling up for a long time, and just assembling it and putting it all together was just such an agonizing, endless process. But I just worked on it by myself for so long.
I just had this idea that I was obsessed with—the world under the world—and I was seeing it everywhere, and I was trying to express it and articulate it, and I was writing sort of the same few poems over and over and over again. And feeling like a total crazy person, because I was. I felt like either the serial killer or the person tracking the serial killer. I had stuff up on my wall, index cards and notes. So it was impossible to imagine who this might be for, besides me. I had no audience in mind because I didn’t think there would be an audience, I just felt like I had to do it, or like...die trying—not to be dramatic about it.
So when is a poem done?
Never! At least, for me.
Then how do you let it go?
I have a deadline, that’s usually it. That’s the only way that I do it. I think this kind of ties back into what I was saying earlier about closure and how you think a thing is done once you’ve written it and then it just keeps happening to you. I can only speak for how this manifests in me but I think everyone I know has it, regardless of whether they make art or not—I almost feel like the idea hooks into you because it’s important to you and it matters that you see it in your life. There’s a reason why it occurs to you and why you can’t get rid of it. But there’s always a weird lag between when you start thinking about it and when you feel like you really understand what you have to do with this idea now. Or what its relevance is to you.
You've infused so much of yourself into this work. I remember reading something about how you didn’t used to write in the first person because you thought it was narcissistic (or were taught that it was). Do you find that further into your career you’ve embraced that style more?
It’s really funny. That’s a big part of this essay I’ve been working on while I’ve been here. Trying to think about where those ideas come from—this weird idea that if you write in the first person, you’re writing about yourself only. Or that it’s navel-gazey to really consider your experience of the world. When instead it’s the most effective way to begin to understand how much bigger than you the world is. I grew up in a culture, and then I went to a school where writing in the first person was sort of automatically classed as a little bit artless, or a little bit almost vulgar or childish.
And then the sort of implicit thing in that it was what women I knew were doing, and then it was what was being looked down on by a lot of these men that were teaching me how to write, ostensibly. Even though I don’t think I was aware of it at the time, I think I absorbed a lot of those ideas.
So, how has your idea of speaker versus voice evolved over time? What’s your relationship to the first person these days?
I think my poetry wouldn’t have evolved at all if I hadn’t started writing essays.
Writing essays kind of taught me about what you can do with voice and speaker in tandem. And the sort of tension between those things. I had this idea that when you write in the first person, you’re just talking about yourself and trying to sound as much like yourself as possible, and that’s it. And it kind of makes you vulnerable, it kind of makes you boring, it kind of makes you a narcissist. But there’s so much more you can do with the first person and with your own perspective because no person is ever just one way. My voice isn’t the same when I speak to you, when I’m writing in my notebook, when I’m writing an opinion piece for the newspaper, when I’m writing a poem. You don’t behave the same way in every situation.
I don’t know anybody who feels like a solid, coherent self all of the time. Most of the time you feel like 25 different things at once, revolving around. So that’s what’s interesting to me about the idea of writing in the first person and having there be this assumption that this one coherent voice is speaking to you. Because it’s a trick, it’s an illusion. No one is that way. No speaker is that way. And so I think once you get comfortable with that idea, then you can do all kinds of fun fucking around.
[Writing is] the only place where I get to say exactly the thing that I mean without mediating it for people. You get to be the best, clearest you. There’s nowhere else in your life that you get to do that.
Emma Healey's book, Stereoblind, is available from House of Anansi Press.