Dawn Muenchrath: How does your work in literary criticism and analysis translate into your own creative practice? Do you see these two kinds of writing as complementary, or, possibly, in tension with one another?
Joanne Leow: Definitely complementary in many ways because when you are doing literary criticism, you have the great honour of being immersed in other people’s amazing and brilliant work. So, you have poetry, for example, from someone like Dionne Brand, but you also have a lot of critical theory, and, in my line of research, archival materials and artist statements too, and this vocabulary and diction influences what goes into my creative work.
I think there is a lot that cannot be said in academic writing, because, in part, there are inherent limitations due to the way it is expected to perform a certain kind of knowledge and power. Also, as a Singaporean academic critiquing a lot of stuff [about my country], I sometimes find myself holding back––I try not to do that––but taking my body and positionality out of the writing. When I write poetry then, I feel a lot freer to express the things that can’t be said, and the emotions that I carry when I am confronted with ecological devastation, or hyper-planning and authoritarian power.
DM: Your new poetry collection Seas Move Away (Turnstone Press 2022), explores questions about displacement, loss and belonging on an intimate, personal scale, and then on a national and even transnational scale––ideas that are linked together with images of water and tides. I’m wondering, did you always know these pieces were going to come together in this way, or, at what moment you decide that?
JL: As I started putting together all this poetry that I was writing in Saskatoon, in the States, in Vancouver, and in Singapore, I started thinking about the metaphor of seas moving away. But then, one of my editors, Joanne Arnott, said, “You know, you are very critical about Singapore, and you’re not as critical of Saskatchewan.” She told me that Saskatchewan used to be an inland sea, and I thought this is too perfect. I did some geological research and found that this used to be the Western Interior Seaway, which is why we have so much oil––why Alberta and Saskatchewan have all these deposits. Literally, seas move away.
I have the poem, “Western Interior Seaway,” and I was thinking, how is this different than the crude oil, the refineries, and the barges that come into Singapore? Both places are essentially petrostates. So, there was that ecological thread, and then I’m always wondering, what does that do to people’s bodies? My grandfather was an employee of Shell and he moved around Southeast Asia to support the drilling, and so there is this familial history there. So much of my life, then, is shaped by travel, diaspora, migration, and extraction.
When I think of the colonization of continents or archipelagos, I also think about the colonization of my own body––my voice, my language, and everything else.
DM: In the third section of your book, “All Submerged Lands,” you are repurposing words and phrases from the statutes of the Republic of Singapore. I’m wondering how the process of using “found language” to write poetry is different from writing other types of poems, and how do you know when that’s the right avenue?
JL: I find that protest poetry or dissident poetry is very hard to write. I spent a long time working as a journalist in Singapore, and when you’re a journalist in Singapore, you’re really a state mouthpiece, and there’s no room to question what’s being said. I was very fascinated with this language [in the statutes] that could be instrumentalized to produce a particular kind of culture and obedience from the population. I was fascinated by the laws themselves because they try to contain everything, to account for every possibility of what could happen in this land. I think that kind of totality needs to be challenged through the language.
Sometimes when you are writing a poem, you are just trying to describe some insight you had, but with these poems, I felt like I was actively fighting with this language that was attempting to reshape reality. I had an adversary. I was very angry when I wrote these poems, but it was very empowering in many ways. It was very creatively productive.
DM: You have a poem titled, “How Not to Settle,” and I was thinking how that idea runs throughout a lot of the book, and I was wondering if you could speak to what that phrase means?
JL: We battled with that poem because I wanted to retain the line length, but it’s hard to retain line length when you have the constraint of book format, so I asked my editor, “Can we turn it on its side?” It’s the only poem in the collection that’s turned on its side. I thought, what will that do? It will unsettle the reader––and that’s exactly what I wanted to do. Visually, the form will speak to its content.
[When I wrote the poem] I had just bought this house that I’m living in, and I wondered, what does it really mean to live here, on Treaty land, on Indigenous land, in this house that was constructed in the 1960s, and is so thoroughly suburban? The previous owner’s point of pride was his immaculate lawn, and I can’t stand grass. I was thinking, what violence do we do to this land? What kind of omissions and lesions are unnecessary for us to settle? I don’t want to settle. I want to be unsettled. Even as a migrant, they talk about settlement when you come here, but if you want to strain, bristle against that, how do you do that? Do you have to listen really carefully? Do you have to be really conscious of what is going on? When I garden and work the land, what are the implications?
DM: Are you working on anything new, and is it related to this collection, or is it something different?
JL: I just wrote a long poem that interrogates settler ownership and naming. It was inspired by a wedding I attended at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The Stoney Peoples were kicked off this beautiful land and here we are dancing and partying on it. What does that even mean?
Then I’m working on a hybrid creative/critical memoir about my time as a journalist in Singapore, and my uneasy relationship with it. So, it’s related to the poetry, but in a more narrative form.
Joanne Leow grew up in Singapore and lives as an uninvited guest on Treaty Six Territory and the homeland of the Métis. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Saskatchewan. Her writing has been published in Brick, Catapult, Evergreen Review, The Goose, Isle, The Kindling, The Town Crier, and Ricepaper Magazine. Seas Move Away (Turnstone, 2022) is her debut collection of poetry.
Dawn Muenchrath is a writer originally from a farm in rural Alberta. She currently lives in Saskatoon where she is completing her MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. Her work has been published by Arc Poetry Magazine, Every Day Fiction, and Grain (forthcoming). She has two cats.