2020 Poetry Awards: Interview with Roxanna Bennett

Roxanna Bennett is the author of Unmeaningable (Gordon Hill Press) and the winner of the 2020 Raymond Souster Award by the League of Canadian Poets.

Find out more about Roxanna’s poetry and process below:


LCP: Tell the story of how your collection came to be.

RB: I began gathering and arranging material in different forms in 2015 but when the idea for Unmeaningable arrived in 2017 I realized what I had been working with thus far wanted to be reworked into the larger whole.

The conceit for Unmeaningable is a corona of “crippled” sonnets. It was important to the work to have a conceptual constraint or framework to underpin it as a whole for the poems to exist within a confined space and systematization. And also for my mind, I have a very short attention span and find giving myself constraints to work within helps me focus.

In the first section of the book the poems are written with correct punctuation and traditional line length, and the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the following poem. As the book progresses, the poems become more irregularly punctuated, spaced, more abstract, strange, and subject to interruption. The idea was to mimic my lived experience of disability, continual pain, the sensations of being subjected to interruption, breakdown, to echo mental illness, neurodivergence, the changes in mental states that accompany moods and medications. The book is not divided into sections deliberately, to evoke that powerlessness, the ruthlessness, of disability, of being in a bodymind that is not under control, of never, ever having a pause or break in the experience.

As the work developed I sent samples to a few publishers and had some acceptances but was not ready, physically or emotionally at that time, to have a book in the world. It became increasingly important to me that the work find a home with a publisher who understood and is committed to the work of disabled artists. It’s been my (very limited) experience that publishers will make a point of soliciting work from marginalized groups but when it comes time to publishing and promoting, they are not as accepting or supportive. I think that comes from the publisher themselves not having a lived experience of disability so not understanding the kinds of accommodations that might be necessary.

In 2018, knife fork book published a chapbook of my work, unseen garden, that included poems from the in-progress Unmeaningable. Kirby, as poetry’s fairy godmother, suggested it for reading to Jeremy Luke Hill who liked it enough that when he and Shane Neilson formed Gordon Hill Press, he messaged me that if my book was nearer to completion that I send it to Shane to look at. I had worked very briefly with Shane before when I guest-edited the Mad Pride issue of Matrix Magazine, I had published some of Shane’s work and knew that he was working on a doctoral study of the representation of pain in Canadian literature and since I had written a collection of work about pain and mental illness, no one was more perfectly suited to edit and luckily for me he accepted the work. It was an immense relief to me to know that as a person with lived experience himself, he understood not just the subject matter but what I was attempting to do, technically, which is not something an editor without an admitted lived experience of mental illness or neurodivergence, would grasp as well or quickly.

It was necessary to the integrity of the work and to myself as an artist, and particularly as a disabled artist, that this manuscript was treated with care and attention by someone who is whole-heartedly devoted to giving voice, space and recognition to disabled people. I don’t have the energy it would take to have to explain each reference and choice to a neurotypical editor. Because Shane and I have a commonality of experience I am more able to express myself without fear of shame and disparagement from him. Working with Gordon Hill has been a life-changing positive experience for me. Because I am housebound and don’t use social media, I have no social cachet or capital whatsoever, which is a challenge I’m sure when you want to promote a book. Gordon Hill has never pressured me to do anything I could not do, they have found ways to try to work with me and within my limitations. For instance, when the press first formed, they held a launch party at which I was invited to read. I had a medical procedure scheduled for that day so was unable to attend so we used a designated reader, they asked a poet they knew to read my work at the event. Similarly, when my poem ‘Unmeaningable’ (it was re-named ‘The Trick’ in the published book) won CV2’s Lina B. Chartrand award last year, I was invited to read in Winnipeg and could not attend so we arranged a designated reader as well. (Note to abled-sane publishers and editors: this workaround is not very effortful and is an example of the kind of creativity you can employ to work with disabled people.)

Likewise, I was unable to launch Unmeaningable myself. I was able to attend Gordon Hill’s group launch but unwell enough for an individual launch. A tentatively planned event with a group of designated readers at knife fork book was canceled due to lack of attendance. Despite my total inability to tweet, like, favourite or follow anything, despite my utter inability to be out in public with strangers reading poems out loud with my body, or even launch my own dang book, Gordon Hill has worked their butts off to get this book into the world and have treated me with respect, kindness and consideration. They have been flexible, open-minded and beyond accommodating. It’s been extremely affirming as an artist to be treated so respectfully, especially as a disabled person who is used to being treated as an inconvenient aberration.


LCP: How do you write your first drafts?

RB: It is a rare occasion when I am able to use my eyes, mind, and hands all at the same time to type or write. I have for lack of a more accurate term, carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands/arms, the fingers on my dominant hand occasionally spontaneously dislocate themselves, I have nerve pain in my fingers, it is difficult to grasp or hold anything. It’s also next to impossible for me to find a position to sit in to write, or an angle at which to hold a notebook or laptop. Most furniture is intolerably painful for me and I must change position often so the physical act of writing is very challenging for me.

I have about two hours a day in total if I am very mindful that I can type on a computer or write longhand and it’s still excruciating. (So really I have about an hour but am stubborn). It depends whether or not I am able to hold a pen if I write or type. I do prefer to write longhand because I believe in strengthening the neurological connection to the work by physically shaping each letter but it’s not always possible to do. I have an additional challenge in that my skin is sensitive in a way that doesn’t seem feasible and yet, so that I have to mindful of what kind of paper I am using as some papers cause irritation and micro tears in my skin. So yes, I am usually literally bleeding at least a little when I write.

I am always at home so here is where I write, in the moments that I am able to, and am grateful for every little letter I am able to get out of my bodymind and onto a page and into the world.


LCP: How are you handling pandemic and your poetry work?

RB: I have been housebound and socially isolated for years before the pandemic so the quarantine has not changed my routine at all, I am still spending each day managing my pain with meditation and attempting to write poetry when I can. But I did spend most of the first 40 days of the quarantine in the bathtub with the water running to cover the sound of my weeping and hyperventilating. I had lost a great deal of weight unexpectedly last year and was quite ill, I spent most of 2019 painstakingly trying to regain some weight and feel more robust but it’s more or less melted all away in the quarantine. I’ve made my way out of the bathtub and am working on poetry again but have to be mindful of my health and go very, very slowly, especially as I am unable to access any of my regular medical supports at the moment.

The pandemic has brought me some hope though that now that the whole world has had a brief taste of the disabled experience; isolation, being attentive to germ transmission and personal space, having to follow protocols you don’t want to, being thrown into uncertain circumstances, suddenly finding oneself dependent upon the government or community, having to worry, constantly, about health, now that the whole world has shared this experience perhaps we will treat each other with a bit more compassion and empathy. And maybe we can consider not basing our entire book economy on festivals and social events and promotable personas and refocus on the work. It has never made a lick of sense to me that we sell more books at social events, who goes to a party to read or be read at? Why not lower our expectations and print runs and concentrate on promoting the words inside of the books instead of the introvert who wrote it. It’s probably not in most publisher’s best interests to have their writers wandering around festivals and events getting into trouble, why not keep them at home and hype up the actual work instead?


LCP: Who is an up-and-coming poet that you are excited about?

RB: Dominik Parisien and Khashayar Mohammadi wrote my favourite recently published chapbooks and both have full length collections coming out soon.

Dominik Parisien’s chapbook We, Old, Young Ones is available from the Frog Hollow Press Dis/Ability series and book Side Effects May Include Strangers is forthcoming from McGill-Queen’s University Press. Dominik’s poems are luminous and lucid meditations on the disabled experience and have gracious heart and insight.

Khashayar Mohammadi’s Dear Kestrel was released by knife fork book and his collection You, Me, then Snow is forthcoming in spring 2021 from Gordon Hill. Khashayar is a blisteringly, brilliant poet whose work lifts from the page like fire.


LCP: What does poetry mean to you?

RB: What does breathing mean, what does being alive mean, what does meaning mean?


LCP: What are your next steps?

RB: I take gentle exception with the ableism inherent in this question, it assumes I can walk. But if we mean, what am I working on now, I’m in the midst of finalizing The Untranslatable I, forthcoming from Gordon Hill in spring 2021 and have started working on The Unenabled Form, a book of disabled poetic process and form.