The Chat with Nolan Natasha

tagged : Poetry, lgbtq
Nolan Natasha

Today we’re chatting with poet Nolan Natasha, who is based in Halifax. His debut collection of poetry, I Can Hear You, Can You Hear Me? came out last fall with Invisible Publishing.

Poet Sue Goyette says, “Nolan Natasha’s collection maps the large cultural shift we’re all feeling about identity, about vulnerability, about body, about community with insight and acuity.” Zoe Whittall, meanwhile, calls Natasha’s writing “clear-eyed, funny, tender, and absorbing.”  

Nolan Natasha is a queer and trans writer from Toronto who lives and writes in Nova Scotia. His poems have appeared in The Puritan, The Stinging Fly, Event, Grain, Prairie Fire, The Fiddlehead and Plenitude. He has been a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize, the Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize, the Geist postcard contest, Room Magazine’s poetry contest, and was the runner-up for the Thomas Morton fiction prize.

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Trevor Corkum: I Can Hear You, Can You Hear Me? is such a great title for a collection. Where did the title come from and what does it mean for you?

Nolan Natasha: It’s actually a reference to a family joke from my childhood. When I was kid in the 80s and 90s, walkie-talkies felt like just about the most miraculous thing you could own. Despite all the potential they seemed to hold, my brother used to joke that the only thing you ever said into them is, “I can hear you, can you hear me?”

A lot of the poems in this collection look back to a queer childhood and its artifact. That phrase resonated with so many of the other themes in the book: failed attempts at communication and recognition—signals both hitting and missing their targets.  

TC: While many of the poems have been published in literary magazines, or been nominated for awards, this is your first collection. How does it feel to have this debut out there in the world?

NN: It feels great to finally have it out there and to read from it. It’s lovely to see the poems assembled together rather than scattered on scraps of paper like they have been for so long. I feel really fortunate to be working with Invisible. They really made the book look so beautiful. It is exactly what I had hoped for and that feels pretty fantastic as well.

I feel really fortunate to be working with Invisible. They really made the book look so beautiful. It is exactly what I had hoped for and that feels pretty fantastic as well.

TC: There are so many great poems here. Many deal with life in-between: travel, in between relationship, lives in all kinds of transition. There’s a rootlessness, but also a sense of deep discovery and homecoming over the course of the work. I’m thinking of the poem “Celebration,” in which the speaker says:

    No wonder we have been
fishes too, in past lives: wings,
gills, webbing. Now
the only slimy thing is my heart,
the way it tries.

TC: In what ways is home tied to place for you, and in what ways is home a sense of other people, experiences, a certain time of life, or something else entirely?

NN: For me, home both is and isn’t tied to place. There is a lot of nostalgia in the book for particular places—cities, but also bars, apartments, and ballfields. These spaces are nostalgic often because of how much they felt like home at a particular time, but a time that is now past. Many of the poems also deal with feeling at home inside a moment, perhaps in the connection between people.  Sometimes the particularity of these spaces and moments disappears as we move away from them, but sometimes whatever it was is still there. Sometimes there is a lasting resonance and this too feels like a kind of home—a home you carry with you.

TC: The collection comes out at a time when writing by trans and queer writers is receiving wider attention across the country, including Gwen Benaway’s historic Governor General’s Award for Poetry this year. Do you feel part of a queer writing community? In what ways does identity (queer, trans, or otherwise) shape your work?

NN: I certainly feel blessed to be able to read all the amazing work coming out by trans writers and feel so excited when that work gets the recognition it deserves. I was so pumped to hear about Gwen Benaway’s GG. Queer community has been such an important part of my life and it has informed my work tremendously. I’ve spent most of my adult life around queers that make stuff (not just writers, but also musicians, theatre, and visual artists) and many of those people have been so encouraging and supportive to the folks around them and I’m so grateful for that.

Making art is so undervalued and I feel like it’s so important to lift each other up and have other people to talk to about it. As for how identity shapes my work, it’s definitely there in the work because it’s who I am; it’s where I’m coming from; it’s my vantage point. I definitely have some work that is explicitly about being queer or trans, but even when I write a poem about fishing with my uncle, it’s a queer kid in the boat.

I definitely have some work that is explicitly about being queer or trans, but even when I write a poem about fishing with my uncle, it’s a queer kid in the boat.

TC: Although a few of the poems pine for your time in Toronto, you’re living now in Halifax. How has that move been for you and how have you adapted to the writing and arts scene there?

NN: I’ve been in Halifax about a decade now. My life is really so different than it was in Toronto where I was working in queer bars and constantly out at shows and parties. In some ways, I’m much less tapped into an art scene now, but I’m also more productive. There are some really great writers out here and their friendship and mentorship has been so meaningful to me.

I still get back to Toronto a fair bit, but I’m not 25 anymore and neither is anyone else. The city feels different and for a while that was sad, which is probably where the pining in the poems comes from. But now I really love connecting with people and the city in new ways. It’s where I grew up and so it will always be home—both my childhood home and the queer home where I discovered who I am. I’ve gotten pretty used to the ocean being right there though, so Nova Scotia may have stolen my heart for the time being.

I’ve gotten pretty used to the ocean being right there though, so Nova Scotia may have stolen my heart for the time being.

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Excerpt

Queer

It’s not just that it means one thing
written in heavy books
from the university press and another in your mouth
as an answer and another on the stall door and another
hurled from a car on that Saturday in the spring,
on posters that grip telephone poles
promising a good party—

it's something that argues with its own construction,
restless and glistening and grimy,
takes issue with the sentences of this poem.
In that bar on Queen Street, words and little pictures
etched by greasy fingers in the red plastic coating
on the candles. Drawings, obscene
and tender decorating the dark tables,
flickering into the establishment turned
home. The living room of our twenties and thirties.
We will dance and be sick,
sweat and stumble into each other’s vacancies.

The way our bathrooms feel dirty is different
than the bars with the big-screen TVs—soccer piss
and sweat is not the same.
Does this recital filter down to our bodily fluids,
or is there some smoke and mirrors
that causes his hands, but not his, to feel that way on my hips?          
I am asking this sincerely.
Does the air only feel this way
because of some lesson in breathing?

Because of some lesson in breathing?
does the air only feel this way
I am asking this sincerely.
That causes his hands, but not his, to feel that way on my hips?  
Or is there some smoke and mirrors,
does this recital filter down to our bodily fluids,
and sweat is not the same.
Than the bars with the big-screen TVs—soccer piss
the way our bathrooms feel dirty is different,

sweat and stumble into each other’s vacancies.
We will dance and be sick,
home. The living room of our twenties and thirties.
Flickering into the establishment turned
and tender decorating the dark tables.
On the candles. Drawings, obscene,
etched by greasy fingers in the red plastic coating
in that bar on Queen Street, words and little pictures

takes issue with the sentences of this poem. 
Restless and glistening and grimy.
It's something that argues with its own construction.
Promising a good party—on posters that grip telephone poles
hurled from a car on that Saturday in the spring,
as an answer and another on the stall door and another
from the university press and another in your mouth
written in heavy books—
it’s not just that it means one thing.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher. 

January 31, 2020
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