Selina Boan and Molly Cross-Blanchard Shoot the Shit

Over Chinese chicken salad and Yerba Mates on a sweaty afternoon in Kitsilano, Molly and Selina chatted about working together on their debut poetry collections, Exhibitionist (Coach House Books) and Undoing Hours (Nightwood Editions), their favourite and least favourite poems in their own books, and finding the ‘music’ in poetry.

Selina Boan: Why don’t we start off talking about your poem, “How do you suffer” from Exhibitionist? What has always struck me about this poem is there’s a sincerity to it mixed with humor. It’s reflective and very thoughtful; you navigate between different modes of thinking about suffering. It captures how something can feel dramatic but in retrospect is ridiculous or small. It also makes fun of privilege in a playful, direct way.  

This poem also uses brackets. Could you speak about your choice to use brackets in this poem and in “It’s so hard to live in the world”? 

Molly Cross-Blanchard: I suppose they’re ‘asides’ that I want to make that don’t necessarily fit the rhythm I’m aiming for. I approached it pretty pragmatically.

SB: That makes sense. They’re a way to say something else that you want to say, while still doing it with a self-awareness of the spine of the poem.

MCB: Like, I wanted to fit some more meat in the sandwich, but it started spilling out the sides, so to bracket it was a way of containing it within the poem sandwich.

SB: You got your fork in there making it work. You also use ​​onomatopoeia in several of your poems which is not something that I see in contemporary poetry a lot right now, like in “Dear Dolphin” you write out the “Ba-dump chh.” And the hymen poem! The “[shwoop!] // [applause] // [heavy breathing].”

MCB: Yeah, I think that was a Susan Holbrook thing, my editor. She encouraged me to amp up the playfulness, the conceit of putting on a show, or ‘exhibiting.’ So those sounds were additions I made after she had given me that feedback. I made the book more performative in places, to bring those themes forward.

SB: Do you feel like it was successful?

MCB: I think it feels pretty cohesive. Definitely more than I ever thought it would be. I thought this was going to be a complete junk drawer book. Some people write such purposeful books. And I was just like, that’s not me, I would love for that to be me, but it’s just not me. But I think, in the end, it feels like a very all-encompassing timestamp of that point in my life. And even if it’s a little bit all over the place sometimes, I think it comes together to paint a clear picture.

SB: I totally agree. Both of us have seen each other’s manuscripts in varying forms, and rereading your book in the form that it’s in, you tweaked it so that all of those themes thread succinctly throughout in this incredible way. I see that so clearly in the way you start the collection with your title poem, “Exhibitionist,” and in the final stanza write, “I want to feel // like a display model lipstick – dug-at nub / smeared across the mouths of strangers, a much-handled / sample of the real thing.” Immediately you’re signalling performance, and then you get to dive into the world of the collection where you (the speaker) are exploring this idea. I mean, I was joking about this earlier, but I will read some of these poems and I’m like, damn, your poetry is so good. It’s so meaningful to capture these moments in time and these moments of, I don’t know, I’m trying to think of the right word. Maybe you can help me. I don’t want to say vulnerability because it’s not even that.

MCB: Moments of change?

SB: Yeah. It’s really hard to be in those moments where you’re changing and you’re shifting and you’re understanding yourself and how your body works and what that means. Your book also explores the question, what does it mean to be a sexual person in the world? I feel like you capture those moments and crystallize them in this way that is so powerful. Truly.

MCB: You do that!

SB: No, you do it.

MCB: No, you do it!

SB: For example, in “Just a sweet, sweet fantasy baby,” you’re imagining this fantasy with an ex lover and in the second to last stanza you say, “I’ve picked a fight so he tosses me over one wide shoulder, / drops me on the bed, and buries his face in my chest, sighs / You’re killing me.” It’s such an intimate moment. And it just – it feels real. Like, I know that feeling. I remember being on the phone with an ex and saying, ‘I’m imagining us in bed, having a tickle fight with our future kids.’ There’s something about those tiny, human moments that make these fantasies feel more emotional.

MCB: It’s definitely a book full of missing and longing. We have a kinship there.

SB: We both have very different styles of poetry, but I think that’s a link between them. There’s a lot of longing in both of these books, in different realms and in similar realms.

MCB: You have this language element that is carried through the book, learning nêhiyawêwin. And you also do so much with form, like the formal risks you take with your slashes and with your centre justification, and especially in “minimal pairs are words holding hands” which is sideways on the page, with those long lines.

SB: What’s interesting about that poem is, initially, I didn’t imagine it that way but I realized in order to maintain the structure of the poem and to keep it in pairs, to have those long lines, they needed to be sideways on the page. So I was like, can we do it that, is it possible to do it that way?

MCB: Did you get any pushback for any of the formatting in your book?

SB: No. I don’t remember.

MCB: I found that really difficult, actually. That was one of the more difficult parts of the publishing process, having to change so many line breaks so late in the game. You’ve been sitting with them for so long and they just feel cemented in your heart. And it’s just the name of the game. You have to fit it within the print margins.

SB: At the last minute I had to reorder my entire collection, which was extremely stressful. In the end, I’m really happy with the order that the collection ended up in but I can definitely relate to having to re-imagine your work. Changing a line break can really impact the flow of a poem and so if you have to change a word it can break the flow or change the way it reads on the page. 

MCB: Or the meter. All that technical stuff that you learn in undergrad English that you think is never going to be important. Like, oh, real poets don’t think about meter. But actually yes, we think about it constantly!

SB: Yeah. I know. Which is so funny. I’ve joked about this with you and on our book tour with Dallas Hunt – about how ridiculous it is, the amount of time I’ve spent truly agonizing over such a small, small thing. And sometimes I just feel like [laughs] wow, I could be spending my time on much better things. But here we are. 

MCB: What is your poem that you feel the most proud of because you’ve worked it so hard?

SB: “email drafts to nohtâwiy” is one of those poems I struggled with and wasn’t there for me. Both you and Brandi Bird helped me a lot with that poem. Brandi gifted me some of the final lines. Both of you were foundational in reworking some of these poems that I just could not get right and I’m so grateful. I was so frustrated and burnt out and staring at certain poems thinking, this is never going to be where I want it to be. I finally got it to a place where I was like, okay, I’m happy. I feel good. What about you? It is an interesting question because, you know what? There are still poems in my book that just haunt me and I can’t even read them aloud. I haven’t shared them orally with anyone.

MCB: Yes, I have those too. And actually, I don’t think I have a poem that I’m proud of because I’ve worked it really hard. I feel like the ones that are popping out to me in the TOC are the ones that came to me really quickly. I’m proud of them because I think they land. But the ones that I’ve had to work really hard with, I actually resent them. I don’t like those ones and I don’t read them out loud. I perform the ones that came to me in like 10 minutes and then later tweaked some lines and word choices. Those are the ones that feel good.

SB: That’s wild because those are often the ones that, as a reader in my experience – and I’m curious to hear what they are – they hit differently. As a reader, you feel a whoosh; they are felt deeply in a different way. I think it’s because in that moment, your whole self is in it and it just comes out.

MCB: My whoosh poems are “Granville island,” “You think you know your life,” “You have two girlfriends,” “Happy for a time”—

SB: Okay. This is so interesting because I had just gone through and was marking which ones I love the most, because I love them all—

MCB: And it’s those ones?

SB: All those. Literally. Which is wild.

MCB: “Happy for a time” came so fast. Almost exactly the way it appears in the book. I remember I wrote a first draft of that poem and brought it into MFA workshop. And I was feeling good about it, but I also thought, there’s no way this is done. I spent seven minutes on this poem just spitting it out. And then during my workshop with Amber Dawn, she was like, ‘Okay, what do we do when a poem is perfect?’ [Laughs] I don’t think she said it exactly like that. But it was something along those lines.

SB: Just stroking the ego. You can retire now.

MCB: I was like, oh my God, I’m that asshole who brought a completed poem to workshop. Like, yes, it felt good. But I also felt like a complete dick. She didn’t say it was perfect. I think she was like—

SB: It’s already there.

MCB: Yeah.

SB: And that is a danger of editing. You are such an excellent editor.  As an editor, I have to ask myself, am I going to ruin this if I go into it? And if that’s the case, then you say, ‘Hey, this is almost there. Maybe just a tweak here, tweak there.’ But, clearly, Amber Dawn is a genius, and that takes a lot of skill to be able to receive something and just be like ‘This is where it needs to be right now.’

MCB: Yeah, I admire people who can look at their own work and be like, I don’t need to beat the shit out of this.

SB: It’s so hard though. I’m such an overthinker. I overthink everything.

MCB: Okay. I want to know what your least favorite poem is in your book.

SB: Oh my god [laughs].

MCB: Which is the one that you look at and you cringe and you’re like, I can’t believe this is in my book. Because we all have one.

SB: I mean, to be honest, there’s a few. There’s a part of me that wants to list a bunch, but then I also don’t want to draw people’s attention to them.

MCB: Pick one.

SB: I think one of them – Okay, this is the poem that you helped me get to a place that I was somewhat okay with. But it’s “in cree there is no word for half/brother.”

MCB: Okay. Yeah. I remember you were like, ‘I just want to scrap it.’

SB: Yeah. And I realized it was a poem that needed to be in there, but—

MCB: But maybe, do you feel like you weren’t ready to write it yet?

SB: Yeah. That’s exactly what it is. I wasn’t ready. And, to be honest, I still don’t feel like I’m quite ready. I don’t really read that poem or talk about it a lot because it’s personal to me and I just, it’s just not there yet. I think that’s a really great way of phrasing it. It’s a poem that isn’t ready to be out of my body yet. And I had to put it out of my body, like take it out of my body and put it on the page and it just didn’t quite work. I don’t think it’s ever quite worked.

MCB: It’s weird when either the people we’re writing about, or the concepts we’re writing about are still very ‘in limbo’ in our lives. That poem for me is “Let’s talk about it” because I’m still so deep in the shit with confronting my internalized fatphobia. And I don’t think I was ready to write that poem. It’s my cringe poem.

SB: But see, what I love – and this is something I was reflecting on reading your work again, because I’ve read this book a fair number of times and it’s always a wonderful experience – but what I love and what I was thinking about when I was reading this poem today, is where you say, “I don’t know how to write this poem, but to not write this poem / would be cowardly.” What I notice having read various versions of your poems over the course of many years is there is this self-awareness that you’ve included. It’s like, ‘I want to be accountable to things that are potentially problematic that I question in myself, but I don’t know how to do that yet. I don’t know how to talk about it because it’s an ongoing thing and probably will be forever.’ I love that you own that. And I think to be honest, I’m reading this being like, that probably would have helped my poem. To be like, I don’t know how to talk about this yet. I didn’t do that, and in that way, I think I was hiding. And I think that that’s one of the reasons that “in cree there is no word for half/brother” doesn’t work. Because I was hiding a little bit. I wasn’t completely being like, ‘I’m not ready to write this.’ So even though I know you feel like it’s not there, I think that line alone made the poem, because it is that little moment of truth. Like, ‘This has to be in here, this poem does have to be here, but I don’t know how to talk about it yet.’

MCB: You don’t hide a lot in your book, and you do acknowledge at the end that you can’t tell us everything or that you haven’t told us everything: “i’ve decided not to tell / the whole story as i know it.”

SB: Yeah.

MCB: Because that’s not what Undoing Hours is about. It’s not about revealing all your secrets. And I think that’s a very responsible practice to have with yourself as a poet and also with your reader, because you can give them everything, but what is that experience going to be like for them? And is that really the story you’re trying to tell? So as much as we can look back on it and be like, ‘I wish I had done this, or I wish I had included that,’ it’s like, it is what it is in the moment right before it goes to print. You have to accept that no work is ever really complete. I truly believe that. After it goes to print, that doesn’t mean it’s cemented in history. I mean, kind of. [Laughs]

SB: But a story is something that’s flexible and is alive. Especially because both of these books are very much tied to our identities and where we were in a particular place in our lives. To some extent, those stories are still evolving and are still moving around in time and space. So I do like the idea of, if I do a reading, maybe just adding something or changing it. I went back into my editing to change and conjugate verbs that I didn’t know how to do in nêhiyawêwin when I first started writing. I am still continuing to learn. I know Louise Bernice Halfe has talked about that, about reading earlier work or going back in and re-editing the language as she reconnected and re-learned the grammar of the language.

MCB: I think that’s really beautiful. And you have that self-awareness in the poems about being a learner and about – I love the poem “meet cree: a practical guide to language,” where you’re talking about your tongue: “She’s a tongue turned over her desk a muscled red flop half/ nerved not/knowing stumble stutter spill.” Ughhh stop it! Oh my god. That is so genius. The sounds in this poem are just reverberating off of the page from the very beginning: “tires on concrete motorcycle thrum pitch / smack of shoe after shoe after shoe / a podcast plays.” You’re using every tool in your poet’s toolbox, which maybe is the sign of an early poem. Because I feel like when we’re early in our practice, we’re really leaning on those devices that were taught in school. And I almost crave that sometimes, that early process where you’re being less intuitive while you’re writing and more measured.

SB: You’re trying something out.

MCB: You’re trying things out to, like, check boxes on a rubric, which sounds awful, but actually is very useful in your poetic practice.

SB: That’s so interesting. I mean, to be honest, some of those poems for me, they don’t necessarily feel that way. They feel more embodied. I was less concerned about whether something made sense to other people. And just that it made sense to my being and my body, I guess. Whereas, as I’ve moved along in my practice, I’ve gotten better at – and partly based on feedback from folks who are just like, you have to let us in a little bit, I need to know a little bit of the story here in order to grasp onto it – and so I feel like as I’ve moved along, I’ve worked on how to be honest in a different way.  That is something I admire about your work – Shaun Robinson has a great word for it. I can’t remember. It’s just those moments of pure “Here I am, and this is what I think.” And you do it just fucking seamlessly, nobody does it the way you do it. Honestly. That is your voice, you know?

MCB: I don’t do metaphors very often, but I do that. I feel like that’s my thing, and I’m always trying to reach for the metaphor but whenever I do, it just doesn’t come out well for me. So I feel like I just have to give that up and lean into the statement thing, because that does feel like it comes naturally.

SB: You’ll say something like, “Are you the reason they keep trying to scoop out my cervix like pumpkin guts?” Like, come on! That is the feeling! And there’s a simile right there. That is what the body feels like. It just– [shudders] I feel that so intensely. That’s something that I very much admire about your work and something that I’ve really learned from you as a poet, that it’s really important to have those moments when you do allow yourself to be seen because that is what people can hold on to and connect to. And I think, as you know, with my work, I’m very interested in sound. I’m very interested in experimenting with forms and sometimes I’m not as concerned with whether people can hold on. The form or the sound becomes the mode to feel. But I think, as I’ve grown as a writer, and have learned from you and other poets as well, that those moments can be really important too. We’re making something in the hopes that others connect with it and sometimes those moments can be a way to build that relationship. 

MCB: Your work is so, um – not varied, that’s not the word that I’m looking for… Dynamic! Because you do do that. You have those moments in here. And so many of them in the long poem, “all you can is the best you can”: “i once shoved my foot through glass / getting to know my own anger // its patches of stupid / bloody love // stress is just a socially acceptable / word for fear // i’m ashamed of feeling too much.” Wow.

SB: But those have come with time. They weren’t there before.

MCB: I’ve definitely noticed, reading an earlier draft of your book and then reading the printed version, that you really teased those things out. But what I learned from you was to also be beautiful with my language, because every placement of every word, and every place you cut the line is so purposeful. It’s all contributing to the creation of a beautiful piece of art. And I think sometimes I get wrapped up in being jarring maybe? Or like, trying to shock and surprise people.

SB: Which is so exciting to read, though.

MCB: It is. But I think that’s been something that makes me feel a little pissy with my own work, because I admire beautiful poets like you so much who do these acrobatics with language and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is music!’ So in working with you on my book, I was asking myself, ‘Where’s the music, though?’ So I thank you for that. Definitely.

SB: This is so cool. I think what is awesome about this conversation and our work is that we do write very differently, we have totally different styles of work, but it’s so interesting to hear how we learn and have bounced off of each other.

MCB: I think we both needed to be reading each other’s work while we were working on our own books.

SB: Yeah, I do agree. Because, you know, Brandi is someone who I share a bit more of a form kinship with, but there were also times when you would then look at the poem and blow it up in a different way. Sometimes it really does help having a different poetic perspective on something because you can find those little notches where you can turn it a little bit differently. Or, in some ways, interrupt that beauty. Or like ‘You’re talking about messiness, but where is it?’ You know? And you do it too. My favorite poem is – and it’s funny, I didn’t know this was one of yours as well – is “You have two girlfriends.”

MCB: Yeah. I think that is my favorite poem in the book.

SB: It’s so fucking good. There is so much music in that poem. And it’s so interesting you were saying this is a poem that came to you, because I do think, to some extent, training and hard work and having a knowledge of how does a poem work combines with—

MCB: [Laughs] Feelings.

SB: A feeling, an emotion and it just takes hold of you in that beautiful way that doesn’t happen that often. The last lines of this are just – I mean, I want to read the whole poem, but I’ll just read the last lines: “Instagram says your new condo building / is round, overlooks the riverwalk, and you’ve got / a chaise longue for each of your girlfriends. I’ve got / a slipper for each of my feet, and I swish swish / haunt this place.”

MCB: I was really ‘poeming it up,’ as Sheryda Warrener would say.

SB: I’m so curious to know if it was written that way initially. Like, did you have “swish, swish,” and then cut, “haunt this place”? Because that is [chef’s kiss]. Perhaps where poem magic can happen sometimes is when you have the musicality, but you also have the interruption. And Sheryda does talk about that, about interrupting the pattern and keeping people on their feet. I don’t know if I do that.

MCB: You do it with your slashes. It does exactly that, because you maintain the whole rhythm of your – because they’re often prose chunks, right? But you break them up into four or five word chunks.

SB: The slashes are also a stubborn thing. Someone at some point told me I shouldn’t do them. And for a minute, I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t, maybe I’m missing something.’

MCB: I think someone must have also told me that because I don’t do them. I feel like it’s been trained into my brain that it’s a, I don’t know, like a cop-out or something. But then I see you do it, and it’s like, of course! Of course you can do that! You do it so well in “body humor.” And the masturbation poem, “on wanting.” I love that poem.

SB: You’re in that poem.

MCB: Yes! For the readers, I appear TWICE in Undoing Hours.

SB: And one of them is your favorite.

MCB: Yessss! “alter, ego”: “serena watches molly blow pubic hair off the toilet like dandelion seeds.”

SB: You know what I’m really excited about? I am really excited to read your new poems, poems that you produce after this book.

MCB: There are none right now.

SB: Well, there are none for me either, but I’m also really excited to see, like, oh, what does my voice sound like now? Because, as we were saying, these are timestamps of particular moments in our life.

MCB: And now we’re post – well, mid-pandemic. Something has to have changed. [Laughs] I feel changed.

SB: For me, I feel I’m getting more solid in who I am and gaining a lot of strength from my identity as a Cree woman. I think this book really marked an intense time of reconnection and trying to figure out, how do you hold being white and also being Cree? And what does that look like? All those questions. It’s interesting because I just feel much more confident in who I am, and that feels really exciting. It feels exciting to be able to approach new work – and obviously it’s forever evolving – but it does feel exciting to approach work from that place.

MCB: Of more solid ground.

SB: Solid ground! From a solid foundation, as opposed to being like, can I say this thing? Is this okay? I was just finding myself, I think. That sounds so cheesy.

MCB: No, but that’s all that poets are doing, all the time.

SB: We’re so egotistical, really. I really needed a break because I was so tired of writing. I was just like, ‘Ugh, I hate this. I hate myself.’

MCB: Interrogating yourself all the time.

SB: I’m just like blah blah, who cares? There are other things happening in the world that matter so much more that I should be putting my energy into or that other people should be paying attention to. But then I read your book and I’m reminded why art should exist.

MCB: This conversation has reminded me why art should exist.

SB: I know, I’m getting all hyped up!

MCB: I know! POETRY!!! I think I needed this.

SB: Do we want to say any final words? What do you feel like is next for you?

MCB: A novel. So far it’s just been like a year of thinking about it.

SB: That’s huge though. That time is necessary. I’m in the same boat as you. I’m hoping a novel will come out of my body.

MCB: Honestly, I just want to get my life straight right now, and then a novel. And a novel next for you? Y.A.?

SB: That’s the hope. We’ll see. We’ll see how it goes. I mean, to be honest—

MCB: You’re going to be teaching.

SB: I’ll be teaching. But also I do feel like having this conversation is reminding me that I also love poems. And then I’m like, wait, I can write a poem, that could be a thing I do. Which, to be honest, since the book has come out, hasn’t really felt like a thing I can do.

MCB: Me neither.

SB: So I do feel like this is a period of recharging and also focusing on other things that really matter to me, thinking a lot about decolonizing education and what does that look like?

MCB: That’s a big fight.

SB: Yeah. That’s a big one. So, who knows? Maybe we’ll be sitting here again in five years talking about our novels, wouldn’t that be great?

MCB: [Laughs] I hope it’s not five years.

SB: I’m being realistic with myself! You can do it in two, but I’m giving myself five.

MCB: My goal is 2023. I want to be submitting it by then.

SB: Oh, that’s great. I love that. Now it’s on recording so I’m holding you accountable.

MCB: Shit.

SELINA BOAN is a white settler–nehiyaw writer living on the traditional, unceded territories of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), səl̓ílwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), and sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) peoples. Her debut poetry collection, Undoing Hours, was published with Nightwood Editions in Spring 2021. Her work has been published widely, including in The Best Canadian Poetry 2018 and 2020. She has received several honours for her work, including the 2017 National Magazine Award for Poetry, and was a finalist for the 2020 CBC Poetry Prize. She is currently a poetry editor for Rahila’s Ghost Press and a member of The Growing Room Collective.

MOLLY CROSS-BLANCHARD is a white and Métis poet, writer, and editor living on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, cka Vancouver, where she works as the publisher of Room magazine. Molly has a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Her poetry chapbook is I Don’t Want to Tell You (Rahila’s Ghost Press, 2018) and her debut full-length book of poetry is Exhibitionist (Coach House Books, 2021).