Alex Custodio in Conversation with Esther McPhee

Count by Seasons

So often soft on our tongues: what weather
in our windows; in our chests, this weather.

The map of a day—this line that snakes here,
riverlike, bright split of sun, good weather.

If you talk of dark, rains that never stop,
I know: not just water, more than weather.

I count by seasons: May by lilac, March
rain. I am losing count, shifting weather.

A day made of maps—at every fold you
are mountain, wood, hemispheres of weather.

I want to rely on this. Years that wheel
us through our lives in patterns of weather.

Long time later, will I have forest, sea,
you here? Tell me yes, or not, or whether. 

From the unpublished works of Esther McPhee.


Alex Custodio in Conversation with Esther McPhee

Alex Custodio: You write poetry, creative non-fiction, and fiction for teens and kids. Do you have a preferred genre? Of, if not, which element of each genre are you most drawn to?

Esther McPhee: I love working in different genres and I find that each has so much to offer the others. I love the focus, attention to detail, and pure pleasure in language that poetry provides; the imagination and creation that fiction for young folks requires, especially the part where you get to make up entire people and then watch them interact with each other; and the way that non-fiction calls upon the rigour of memory to generate meaning and some kind of narrative of real life. I hope to always work in multiple genres.

AC: Writing for teens and children can sometimes be dismissed in literary circles, but many of us recall trying to make sense of the world through book as kids. What works do you wish had been around when you were growing up?

EM: So many! I was pretty lucky in that I had a special talent for picking gay books out at random at the library, which I still consider to be one of my superpowers. But queer YA lit is so much bigger and better now than when I was a teen. Unfortunately, some of the books I wish were around when I was growing up haven't been written yet—I'm still waiting for YA lit to get it together around trans stories. I also wish I had had access to poetry by trans and gender-variant writers; THEM is an amazing lit mag that I can't get enough of and I love all of the writers in Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics.

AC: You have a beautiful line on your website: “I like writing that you can't live without: poems that sneak their way into your head like a cat moving in.” What are some of the works that have stuck with you over the years?

EM: I recently reread a book that was my absolute favourite when I was sixteen and was delighted by how much I still love every word of it (At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill, if you're curious). There's a paragraph toward the end of The Hours by Michael Cunningham that always gets stuck rattling around in my head; the book as a whole is very good but even if it weren't, it would be worth reading for that paragraph alone. More recently, I've found myself reciting the final line of my friend Leah Horlick's poem “Liberation,” which reads: “And I want that, with you, the truth / of our bodies, even when we're tired, // before we forget.”

AC: Since January 2013, you and Leah Horlick have been co-organizing REVERB, a quarterly queer reading series in Vancouver. What was the impetus for starting the reading series? What is the biggest challenge you’ve overcome since its establishment?

EM: Leah and I were disappointed with the lack of literary spaces in the city where we could be our wonderful queer selves. We were tired of leaving literary events feeling like the joke was on us and the people we love, so we wanted to create a space on our terms, where we could come to experience writing and then leave feeling filled up instead of depleted. Our biggest ongoing challenge, which sadly we haven't overcome yet, has been the constant quest for funding. We pay everyone else involved in the project (including and especially our writers!) as best as we can, but every event is a scramble to find that money.

AC: REVERB’s website lists the following mandate: “We believe that writing is a radical act that can transform dominant narratives about whose lives and loves are important and valued, and that sharing that writing can empower, inspire and transform ourselves and our communities.” What has been the most empowering, inspiring, or transformative moment you’ve experienced while working on the series?

EM: At every event, I get goosebumps—there are always moments of profound magic that I could never have anticipated, when it feels like something in the fabric of the universe shifts as a result of someone's words. Last spring we hosted the Vancouver launch of Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements and adrienne maree brown, one of the editors, talked a lot about visionary fiction as a technique of storytelling that envisions and thus creates a different, more just world. I'm pretty sure everyone in the room had goosebumps right then.

AC: You also mentor teens in writing projects and have facilitated writing programs for youth in grades 11 and 12. In your experiences, what is the best advice to give aspiring young writers?  Have these experiences been rewarding to you as a writer?

EM: There is nothing more rewarding or inspiring for me than working with teens on their own writing. Every time, I remember what writing's actually for—how the right words can feel life-saving, and sometimes literally are. I don't know if I'm all that good at advice, but one thing I've finally figured out is that everyone has a different way in: some people write every day, some people write when they're feeling it, some people need to be alone and some people don't—but whatever works for you, works. So go with it. Trust your own wisdom. Nobody is ever going to be able to write your stories better than you.

AC: Between co-organizing REVERB and mentoring teens, when do you find time to work on your own writing?  Do you make a point of setting aside a certain amount of time each day, or do you write mostly when inspired?

EM: Time is definitely tight, because I also work a retail job and try to do my dishes and see my friends sometimes. Right now, two days of my week are “writing” days, which actually means that once I'm done emails, admin, sending work out and whatever else comes along with “writing,” I sometimes have a few hours left to write. I work on poetry most often when I feel like it, which sometimes is the middle of the night. But for prose, I do need to set aside dedicated time (ideally an entire afternoon). I feel much better about everything in my life when I have that time.

Author
Esther McPhee is a writer, magic-maker, and collective organizer, who grew up on Stó:lō land and now lives on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land in Vancouver, where they earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Esther's work has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Apeiron Review, Cactus Heart Press, and SAD Mag. They're one half of the organizing team behind REVERB: A Queer Reading Series, and can be visited online at esthermcphee.com

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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