In fall 2016, Ben Ladouceur, who is prose editor at Arc, interviewed Jan Zwicky as part of a feature on her work. Zwicky wanted to know what Ladouceur thought about some of the issues that came up — millennials shrugging over climate change, self-promotion through social media — and they began a conversation in the margins of the interview. That discussion got interesting enough that they decided to pursue it as a separate project. The following conversation is the result.
Jan Zwicky: You said that you became frustrated during a discussion at the Kingston WritersFest this year. What was that discussion about? What frustrated you?
Ben Ladouceur: It was a wonderful reading — Jacob McArthur Mooney, Laurie Graham, Matt Rader and Tim Lilburn. After the readings, the moderator did that thing moderators do, where you find a shared theme between all the writers. If memory serves correctly, he settled on the idea of apocalypse. This led to a discussion about how, when you’re young, you write about yourself, and then, as you mature and publish more books, you look more critically at the world beyond. You move outward, you get less personal and more political. All of these authors have written at least two books, and so they all had multiple reference points with which to track the development of their outputs.
The discussion frustrated me for a reason I couldn’t immediately place, but now I think I’ve gotten to the bottom of it. The authors were discussing the personal and the political as though there was much of a difference, and that has not been my experience of things. Kissing the person you love goodbye at a train, for instance, is not an automatically political gesture, but when you and the person you love are the same gender, it is. Even if, to you, it’s just an expression of a very human emotion — I love you, I’m going to miss you — there are people around you who politicize that moment. Perhaps their response is positive: approving looks, smiles. Perhaps negative. But the occupants of the train station will not be wholly indifferent. More so than any modern age before now, but not wholly.
I’ve only written the one book, and like me, the book is openly gay. I was surprised to see it characterized, in a few reviews and event listings and the like, as a brave or political book. It confirmed something a friend once told me, about how any queer act is necessarily political. Well, for me, all acts are queer. And so all my poems are queer. Importantly, this has not always been an issue for all queer poets, many of whom historically have kept the genders of their beloveds ambiguous for the sake of their careers, their lives, their freedom, their necessarily heterosexual marriages, etc. But I do not think that I could write a poem that was both honest and personal. When I write about my own experience, the poems get politicized, they get drawn into the world beyond.
JZ: In the ’70s and ’80s, women — including many hetero, white women — worked hard to raise their own consciousness of the ways in which the personal was political. They were trying collectively to grasp that what their husbands, lovers and co-workers were doing to them wasn’t the result of shameful personal failings that they ought to keep private and try to overcome; it was the result of a gendered cultural dynamic. One feature of patriarchal oppression was understood to be its denial that what occurred in private was shaped by political forces. Are you saying that for gays — or for all who identify as LGBTQ2 — the slogan needs to be altered: the personal isn’t always political? That heteronormative culture is oppressive because it won’t let anything LGBTQ2 be straightforwardly personal?
BL: What is my personal life? Does my being queer shine through its every aspect? It does when I kiss my lover goodbye, but what about when I brush my teeth, or fall asleep? Does it show in all of my writing, every last poem? I suppose that if I wrote predominantly about, let’s say, outer space, it wouldn’t. If the poems were about planets and scientific principles, and there were no personal prefixes and no personalities and no genitals, a reader would be hard-pressed to call the poems queer. Maybe I would make the artistic decision to call them queer, but I’d be using the word differently now — not to denote same-sex love, but to denote a differentness I find in my own writing and hold dear. I have friends who identify as queer artists, but who do not practice gay love. I am not bothered by this, by them.
But love is the stick in the mud. When a queer person loves openly, politics infest. Just by using a queer dating app or entering a gay bar, just by clarifying that the “I” and the “you” in your story or poem are the same gender, there’s this threshold you cross. New optics and new susceptibilities. Part of me would encourage altering the old slogan, as you suggest. If the world let the personal stay personal, I’d learn so much about how it is most commonly experienced. I’d also feel safer and less interesting. But this must be a very small part of me — I just to have look at my own choices, my own writing, to determine that. If it were so important to me for queerness to be less interesting, I’d probably refuse to participate in this interview, of which queerness is the crux.