“…these conversations surrounding generational trauma, mental health, and substance use are important…” – An Interview With Jenny Boychuk

A lot begins with mothers— both; as metaphor and lived experience. Antonyms for Daughter (Vehicule Press, 2021) engages the complexity of addiction, memory, elegy, and healing. There is a perineal conjunction with landscape and the materiality of certain experiences. There is an interconnected semblance of grief in working through our personal narratives with the most vulnerable and fierce ligaments. I conversed with Jenny about grief, form, landscape, nonfiction, changes she would like to witness in Canadian publishing, and more.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

Congratulations on the publication of Antonyms for Daughter (Vehicule Press, 2021). How have you been, Jenny, and has the experience of a book release during the pandemic brought any particular thoughts?

 

JENNY BOYCHUK

Thank you! I’ve been well. I’m not a summer person, so the arrival of fall feels like a relief.
In some ways, I have actually loved the experience of releasing a book during a pandemic. Of course, I wish it were under different circumstances, and I wish I could travel—but I recently had a virtual book launch and I loved being able to celebrate with friends and family who are both near and far. Pre-pandemic, the launch would have likely been held in a bookstore, and only those in my local community would have been able to attend. Instead, I got to launch the book from my parents’ house (I was visiting for Thanksgiving), which felt really meaningful considering the subject matter.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

Antonyms for Daughter begins with the haunting poem “Antonym For Lullaby”. The poem begins: “Three nights I’ve dreamed you dead: / once in the bath, twice in your bed. / Once the sting of cinnamon / in the kitchen; / once the waft / of honey bread—”
There is a visceral element to these lines, where the haunting turns inward to the daughter, where the death of her mother lingers as not just phobia but possibility. These images are a way of the mind to imagine the worst that may happen. What was the process of putting together this book, writing about complexities and your mother’s addiction? I’m also interested in how you decided the order of these poems?

 

JENNY BOYCHUK

The book really evolved over the course of about eight years. When I first starting writing it, my mother was still alive and wrestling with her mental health and substance use. My family and I were living day by day in a lot of ways, and I was always waiting for the call in which someone would tell me she was gone. It’s a nightmarish way to live—for those in the grip of substance use, and for their loved ones who are helpless to do anything but watch. The imagination takes over. Our minds try to prepare us for the worst, as though that might somehow lessen the devastation. At that time, I was writing a book about that grey area—the fear of her dying.
When my mother passed away in January 2017, the book shifted to try to account for the loss. I entered the strange realm of grief, and the book followed me. I felt haunted by my mother when she was alive, but it didn’t compare to the way I felt when she died. I slept with the light on for weeks. I heard her voice in my head all the time. In death, I felt like she was capable of anything. The book wrestles with that feeling of being haunted, as well as the immense grief a daughter feels when her mother is gone. I didn’t know how to separate myself from her, and that became the central question I tried to answer in the book.
I don’t know how many times I changed the order of the poems—so many! I finally sent the manuscript to a friend who had offered to take a look. He arranged it in a way that really brought the book into focus, and he gave me a foundation to work from. I am so grateful for that. Afterwards, I found that once I knew where to put the antonym poems, the rest of the book snapped into place.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

In writing about addiction and parental abuse, you also engage intergenerational trauma, and how it may continue through the family. This manifests concretely through form in your book. Some of the poems that carry these are “Degrees Of Duality” through the erasure and cancellation, the sectional “Antonyms For Mother”, “Antonym For Inheritance” in chronological syntax, the question and answer format of “Doctor’s Appointment, After Her Death”, and “Antonym For Funeral”, an elegy.
What is the relationship between form and narrative for you— and in what ways does the juxtaposition take place as a writer for you?

 

JENNY BOYCHUK

That’s an interesting question. I always think of the lyric and narrative as being opposite, though they can also coexist in a poem. I think of both narrative and form as vehicles to propel a poem forward. For me, the difference is in the predictability. Narrative seems more straightforward, whereas I always arrive at some kind of surprise when I work in form. The limits of form force me into unexpected places, and I sometimes find myself arriving at deeper truths. In a villanelle, for example, you have to return to the same two refrains over and over again. You would almost never do that with straight narrative. The villanelle feels cyclical in a way that mirrors grief perfectly—and, eventually, the poem elevates itself through those refrains in a way narrative can’t.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

In your poem “After We Fight About Suicide”, there is an amalgam of the body as landscape. It is intriguing that material references such as “sheath of fog”, “neck of the woods”, “fireweed / embalmed by hands of snow”, “a cold egg from its cardboard / nest” and “dense orb” convene to layer these thoughts. There’s also the incessant nudge to get the first try right. What attributes do landscape, geography, a small and fierce violence— and even dialogue take in your poems?

 

JENNY BOYCHUK

Landscape and geography definitely play a large role in my writing. I grew up in rural British Columbia, surrounded by the Columbia River, lakes, colossal mountains, and so many trees. The winters were often brutal, and it was all anyone talked about if they had to drive anywhere on the highway—which was harrowing. These landscapes defined my childhood. I’m an imagist at my core, and it’s just where my mind goes when I try to settle into a poem. I think it’s an ancient practice for humans to understand and relate to the landscape, weather, geography, etc. by attempting to humanize it. Sometimes all we need to know is that the snow won’t quit.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

There are two not-necessarily antonym poems, “Elegy For What Doesn’t Come” and “Elegy For What Does Come” in your book.
In “Elegy For What Doesn’t Come”, there is “horrific joy” at the idea “to have shown up once again / on the nightmare’s front porch / only to be turned away.”, at the realization of “(alive-alive-alive!)”. In “Elegy For What Does Come”, the poem ends with “if you’re not going to leave, why / don’t you just come inside; // here, I’ve made a pot of coffee; // we’re all still alive.”
These poems remind me of how often we underestimate how much we can hold, both; as metaphor and literal personification. Would you please elaborate on how you write about grief as meditation? To be more precise, I’m asking of how you interweave grief as you speak of continuum, wholly illustrated in your poem “Antonyms For Mother” as “You say the worm is just fine; / each half will grow into a new whole, two hearts, / as though the inevitable will always be denied.”

 

JENNY BOYCHUK

I don’t know that I’ve actually thought about grief as a form of meditation. To me, it feels too unsettling to feel meditative. That said, they both share a particular kind of quiet, and sometimes solitude. I think of meditation as a sort of emptying, and I’m sure that would resonate with a lot of people who have experienced grief. The emptiness of it. But that wasn’t how grief was for me—it was everything rushing in. All the memories, and trying to make sense of them as something whole. There are some kinds of grief that are consuming and permeate every part of life. The grief of losing my mother was that kind of grief, and it really was everywhere, which meant that it found its way into my poems too. Honestly, it was just intuitive.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

You won the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Slow Violence. You also spoke of the importance of breaking “the cycles of generational violence and trauma, and how it truly can affect anyone”. For those of us writing against violence propagated by generational cycles, familial or societal, there is a certain vulnerability we put out in the world. Writing is also not a substitute for having worked through those issues internally first, and healing is non-linear. What was your experience of having worked through grief, writing about your mother’s work as a nurse, her addiction, and death? What is your advice for our readers writing through similar circumstances?

 

JENNY BOYCHUK

I think I’m still working through my grief, though it doesn’t consume me in the same way anymore. It’s almost been five years since my mother died, and the grief is more of a sediment at the bottom of a river that gets disturbed every now and then. Like you said, healing is non-linear. No one wants to hear this, but time is really what helps everything settle—though never completely. Therapy helps too.
I have a lot of complicated feelings about writing about my mother, her struggles, and my relationship with her. It’s difficult to write about someone you love and protect them at the same time. Slow Violence felt incredibly revealing, and it triggered some difficult but necessary conversations with my family. That said, I’m grateful to have done that work, and I try to keep the dialogue open as much as possible with them. I try to be transparent. I think these conversations surrounding generational trauma, mental health, and substance use are important—vital, even—and we just have to remain open and course-correct when necessary.
I don’t know if this is good advice, but my approach has always been to write to answer my own questions. I write for myself, and worry about how to handle the reception of the work later. I don’t think we have much control over what haunts us, and we all deserve to pursue the truth in whatever form we choose. We also don’t have much control over how our work is received. I write about my mother, but it’s my story too. The ethics there can be tricky, but I navigate them by trying to always portray her as a whole, complex person who could be both loving and hurtful—which is true for all of us, though not necessarily to same degree.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

What are the changes you’d like to see in contemporary Canadian publishing?

 

JENNY BOYCHUK

There’s always so much work to be done, and many opportunities for Canadian publishing to break out of its comfort zone. As someone who did an undergraduate degree in Canada, and a graduate degree in the United States, I’d love to see less of a disconnect between the two literary worlds. I think there are exciting (literary) things happening on both sides of the border, but little awareness on either side unless major awards are involved. I also really didn’t understand what diversity looked like in publishing until I entered an American MFA program. Improvements are being made in Canada, but there’s a lot of work left to do.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

Thank you for this conversation and your insightful references, Jenny. It has been wonderful engaging with Antonyms For Daughter.

 

JENNY BOYCHUK

Thank you for your thoughtful questions.

Jenny Boychuk

Jenny Boychuk is a poet, writer, and educator. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Walrus, CBC Books, and elsewhere. She is the winner of the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize. Her first collection of poetry, Antonyms for Daughter is published by Véhicule Press. Jenny holds a BA from the University of Victoria’s Department of Writing, and an MFA from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writer’s Program, where she taught creative writing and won Hopwood Awards in both poetry and nonfiction. She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia, where she teaches writing workshops and is at work on a memoir.

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