From "Arterial Grey"
Those of us just passing through panhandle for anything loud enough to taste. Our hands stretch into the city's exhales. We get first choice of breaths at this hour. But after a while, everyone hungry craves the flavour of asphyxiation. We buy white noise on street corners, fill our lungs with a buzz, drown in the resonance of traffic.
Excerpted from Jenny Smart, Headlight Anthology, Issue 17.
Alex Custodio in Conversation with Jenny Smart
Alex Custodio: Your poem “The Iron Garden” is forthcoming in Soliloquies Anthology 20.1, which will launch on December 8th. Can you tell us a bit about how this poem came about and when you knew it was ready to submit to a literary journal?
Jenny Smart: “The Iron Garden” started out as a writing exercise for one of my poetry classes at Concordia. I edit my poetry extensively (sometimes too much), so almost none of the original lines are in the current version. I feel like my poems are ready to submit when I can read all the way through them without getting the impulse to stop and change a line. I try to leave my maybe-final-drafts out of sight for at least a few weeks between edits. I know I like a poem enough to submit if it gets stuck in my head like a song.
AC: In addition to being published by Soliloquies Anthology, you were also a Poetry Editor for previous issues 18.1, 18.2, 19.1, and 19.2. Has the process of selecting and editing other poets’ work changed how you write?
JS: My experience as an editor for Soliloquies Anthology has definitely affected my poetry, especially how I choose pieces to submit to journals. My most important realization was that writing a poem that is “very good” isn’t enough. When we were selecting work to print in Soliloquies Anthology, there was a huge variety in taste; everyone had different criteria and different favourites. The one consistency was that none of us brought pieces to the table simply for the reason of having nothing wrong with them. We all picked the pieces that stuck out to us as different; they were the ones we remembered after reading though 200 other poems.
AC: Alongside writing poetry for the page, you have also participated in Canadian national poetry slam championships, representing both Montreal and London. How does your creative process differ depending on what medium you’re writing for? Which comes first for you: the content of a poem or its form?
JS: I try to blur the line between page and performance poetry as much as possible. I believe that any poem can be a performance piece if the reader is invested enough to embody the words in a way that enhances them. For me, performance is part of the writing process. I speak out loud while I write, not just listening for the sounds of the lines but noticing how it feels to say them. Part of my writing process is to perform half finished work from memory; the lines I keep forgetting get cut, the ones I keep stumbling over get reworded. There are differences between my slam poems and the ones I don’t intend to compete with, but I don’t think I’ve ever written a piece that wasn’t meant to be read aloud.
AC: Soliloquies Anthology has been talking a lot about where writers find their inspiration. What would you say your strongest sources of inspiration have been over the years? Are there particular poets you return to time and time again?
JS: My biggest inspirations are the things people say by accident, when they aren’t trying to be poetic. I’m interested in the way unique phrases come up naturally in conversation, but slip past unnoticed unless they’re taken out of context. The inspiration for most of my poems could be traced back to punchlines to jokes I didn’t hear, misspelled signs in the grocery store, puns my roommate made, quotes from kids I babysit, etc. Those are the kinds of phrases that become inside jokes—single words you can say that will make your friends burst out laughing, not because of the words themselves, but because of what they refer to. I think good poems operate in the same way as inside jokes, using key words to trigger emotional responses from elsewhere in the reader’s life.
AC: You’re currently completing your final year of an undergraduate degree at Concordia University. What comes next?
JS: Job? Aimless wanderings? Eternal void of post-graduation unemployment and a slow-release existential crisis? Who can say? I do know I intend to keep writing; that’s the one thing I am ready for. I’d love to take part in creative writing workshops for the rest of my life—and probably will in some form—but I don’t depend on classes for ideas or progress any more. I’ve met a lot of amazing writers both through Concordia and the slam scene in Montreal, so I’ll continue to participate in those communities and see where I end up.
Jenny Smart's past poetry exploits include co-founding Discordia Poetry Collective, being a poetry editor for Soliloquies Anthology, and representing both Montreal and London in Canadian national poetry slam championships. Her work has appeared in The New Quarterly, Headlight Anthology, What If? Magazine, and Live Lines. Jenny hopes to be a plant when she grows up and would like to be your imaginary friend.
This interview has been edited for clarity.