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Q&A: Poet Ali Blythe’s debut collection, Twoism

Ali Blythe

(illustration: Rachel Idzerda)

How do we stay true to ourselves in a world that seems bent on forcing us to conform to the expectations of others? Victoria poet Ali Blythe investigates this question in Twoism, publishing in September with Fredericton’s Goose Lane Editions.

While the book addresses themes of gender, sexuality, Greek mythology, love, art, and the vastness of the universe, Blythe admits to not knowing “how to manage the complexities” of today’s identity politics.

In Twoism, Blythe – who has published work in literary journals and anthologies in Canada and Germany – suggests that “the pain of being alive in a body is overwhelming,” with poetry and nature offering something of an escape.

Many of the poems in this, your debut collection, are named after numbers, and then there’s the title. What is the meaning behind that? Many of the characters are two things in one: half god and half human, half animal and half god, half woman and half man.

I guess love is another form of twoism. All these creatures, like the Minotaur and Hermaphroditus, whom the world find so disgusting, to me are gorgeous.

Why did you return to classical references, such as Ovid and Greek mythology? I wanted to re-imagine Hermaphroditus as someone who entered the pool and became whole. When Hermaphroditus twins with Salmacis it’s believed that the two turn into a monster – a half-woman/half-man creature – but I like to imagine them becoming fully themselves.

It goes back to twoism. I think of all the intersex people in the world and all those knives that have cut them and made them into something else.

Does your queer identity affect your writing? Do you consider yourself a “queer poet”? It just sneaks in. I can’t have it not surface. Look at all the queer people in this book. I actually Googled  “What do you say when someone asks if you are a queer poet?” because this year I was asked to be on queer panels and on a women’s panel. I didn’t know what to say about that.

It’s interesting being asked all these things about yourself instead of about your work. But I love the queer community so much. It means the world to me. I want to do right by it.

The poem “A Small Dress” features someone literally trying on their lover like a dress. Do you think two people really can become one? Do we go about fitting in with our lovers the wrong way? Well, right or wrong, we do go about trying to become one, don’t we? And damage is done almost every time. I guess the answer for this book is probably no, you can’t. That’s a sad thing to say, but I don’t think so. In the poem, the lovers know what happened last time. They’ve been taking all this time to put each other back together and they’re going to do it all over again.

Why is visual art so important to your work? I wish I could do in a poem what people do in visual art, where you can just take it all in at once. I think some poets get close. You can just sit there and it comes at you, instead of having to trace the narrative or what’s happening. A few of these poems were based on looking at art that I love for a really long time and connecting with it sensually.

Is the Pacific Northwest, where you live, important as a setting for your poems? I recognized a lot of the animals referenced in your book from living in the same part of the world myself.

I wouldn’t say it’s a setting by any means, but the particularities of the environment do creep into my being and into the poetry. Whether it be animals or a parking lot at dusk, it’s all in there.

Some of the poems, “Roden Crater” in particular, remind me of that feeling when you look up at the sky and and have this realization of how vast everything is and you feel so small in comparison. That’s totally true – just like our small human enterprise is so absurd and ridiculous and attractive, especially in the face of all that immensity.

I was in Sedona in Arizona just a few weeks ago and I tried to find Roden Crater. It was fun. I was with my mom walking along these dusty roads with these barbed-wire fences that we weren’t supposed to cross, trying to find the crater. We never found it, though.

Who do you imagine as the readers for this collection? I really don’t imagine the reader at all, but secretly I just hope it’s this fair-sized crowd of heartbreakingly unique people.  – Casey Stepaniuk