Alex Custodio in Conversation with Karissa LaRocque


Pt. II Sincerity

You’re so careful:
neat handwriting
stopping and starting
exactly at the margins

I’m swimming in excesses:
writing the same sentence
every seven minutes

An encyclopaedia
of synonyms:
this feeling is like
that one I used to have
though neither word comes to me

A poet said in an interview
she wanted to think about
wars, the earth dying,
how children wake up like clocks:
the critics still read every poem
looking for an affair,
their armchair diagnoses
of trauma

I keep making the same bad first impression
like clockwork—
          I can’t help but feel
          so inside myself
          so uninterested in wars,
          the earth dying,
          how children wake up
          like clocks

From the unpublished works of Karissa LaRocque.

Alex Custodio in Conversation with Karissa LaRocque

Alex Custodio: Without giving too much away, your poem “tuesday aubade,” forthcoming in Soliloquies Anthology 20.2, maps the simultaneously tender and fraught relationships women have with their bodies and with other women. What was your process like when writing this poem? How long did it take before you felt ready to let this poem out into the world?

Karissa LaRocque: I actually wrote “tuesday aubade” by accident, while trying to write another poem about something else entirely—I think it was about eating in food courts? I couldn’t stop thinking about this moment where I literally mistook an old dirty brick wall for a stormy sky because I didn’t have my glasses on and my eyesight is SO BAD. It was that kind of anticipatory grey/purple sky where you can actually physically feel the rain about to break. I had ascribed all these feelings of trepidation and desire to this moment, but it was literally just a wall. The poem felt ready very soon because I had been thinking about it for a long time without writing it—I’m definitely not into shying away from talking about UTIs, and I spent a lot of time not talking/writing about queerness, so I think I’m tired of not talking about it.

AC: Throughout the year, Soliloquies Writes has been trying to figure out what inspires our writers, what other works out there have had an indelible influence on the words we feature in our anthology. Now I turn the question to you: what poetry or prose—confessional or otherwise—has inspired your own work? What piece of literature do you find yourself returning to again and again?

KL: During the school year, I feel like I have no time to read what I actually want to be reading, though I’m lucky enough to study lots of things that I admire. Recently I’ve been really attached to this piece by Leslie Jamison, on narratives of female trauma. Their lyric scholarship and critical but open heart are really intriguing to me. A huge poetry influence on me has always been Jenny Zhang. She has this line from her poem, “I write a million poems a day like Frank O Hara multiplied into fifty Frank O Haras,” which I never forget: she asks, “can’t I be my own dream?” Another poet I love to read and think about is Sue Goyette, and especially her collection Ocean—there’s this line I always say to people and I’m sure they think it’s annoying by now: “Life, we voted, would be easier/ if we knew what was going to happen” (“Nineteen” 7-8).

AC: As an MA candidate at Concordia University, would you say that there is a strong relationship between what you learn in the classroom and your work as a poet? And do you believe that an academic background is an important tool to have as a writer?

KL: I definitely try to engage with work and writers in my graduate program that I find important or otherwise relevant to the actual everyday things happening around me. I’m often thinking about my schoolwork and readings in a way that isn’t really translatable into traditional academic work, so I think those thoughts and feelings and frustrations come out in my poems. I definitely don’t believe an academic background is essential to being a good or relatable writer—actually it probably has the opposite effect in many cases, because academia can be so exclusionary and caught up in itself. Though I’m very grateful for everything I’m exposed to and taught about by people much wiser than me, and I bet it helps me be a more careful and thoughtful writer.

AC: At Concordia’s graduate colloquium at the beginning of March, you presented a brilliant and thought-provoking paper on Sad Girl Theory, which later got me wondering about the intersection of feminism and academia. Do you find it difficult to navigate the enacting of feminist work in a setting where the canon remains so obviously male? Is there a worry that studying women’s confessional writing will ultimately harm your prospective career opportunities and, if so, how do you deal with this divide between career and feminism? 

KL: Yes, yes to all of that. I find it difficult to engage in feminist work focused around the work of female-identified “confessional” and lyric writers, and to still be taken seriously and given credit. I find it difficult to do work on feminist or queer writing using the very formal academic training I’ve had and still be questioned. I find it difficult to continue to do that work while fully expecting to be scoffed at, fully expecting to be told I don’t know what I’m doing. I do worry about “harming” a potential “career,” but I also worry about everything all the time and also I can’t shut up about the heinous and insidious sexism of publishing and academia, because it is all around me. These towers protect predatory and manipulative men. I want to be ambitious but I also want to be honest and open to those who these structures hurt, which sometimes includes me. I find it all very distressing at the best of times.

AC: In addition to being a graduate student, you’re also the Editor-in-Chief of Headlight Anthology and a member of the Spectra Journal editorial collective. Have your experiences editing other peoples’ work affected the way in which you approach and critique your own writing? If so, how?

KL: I’ve been working as a student editor since my undergrad degree, and it’s something I really love and am grateful to have the opportunity to do. I think it’s helped me be more generous and thoughtful as a reader—it’s actually so rare for someone to write something they care about on a piece of paper and let you look at it and decide if it’s “good.” I love seeing people’s thoughts through the strange, mediated medium of poetry—poems have this reputation of being so manipulated, but I really think they can be so much more direct and affecting than talking is.

AC: The Off the Page panel you co-curated and moderated with Kailey Havelock in March featured four women in the publishing and editing industry. Talk to me about the importance of having a panel of women discuss their experiences in this field.

KL: I think it’s important to be transparent about issues of sexism and racism in academia and publishing, as well as to acknowledge how issues like homophobia, transphobia, and ableism are often barely on the table, even during panels like the one we held. A vital way for women to communicate about their experiences in these fields is so-called “gossip,” but by gossip I mean the casual conversations that happen in hallways between classes, or that happen after panels like the one Kailey so brilliantly conceived of. These conversations get dismissed as hearsay and gossip and libel, but I don’t know how else we can survive and protect each-other while still being ambitious and supporting ourselves. I think gossip is vital, I think transparency is vital; I wish the discussions like the ones at Off the Page happened more often.

Photograph by Surah Field-Green

Photograph by Surah Field-Green

Karissa LaRocque received her BA in English from Mount Allison University. She is currently an MA candidate in English at Concordia University, where she studies confessional poetics, teenage poetry, and anything queer. Her work has been published in The Dalhousie Review, GUTS Magazine, 7Mondays, Zettel, and elsewhere.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

For more content from Soliloquies Anthology, visit soliloquies.caJoin us on April 14th at McKibbens on Bishop for Soliloquies Anthology 20.2's launch party to hear poetry by Karissa LaRocque and many other contributors.