The Chat with John Elizabeth Stintzi

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Stintzi

Writer John Elizabeth Stinzi has the distinction of publishing two fabulous debuts a week apart this past spring. On The Chat this week, we speak to them about their poetry collection Junebat (House of Anansi) as well as what it’s like to publish a pair of books during the pandemic.  

Of the collection, author Billy-Ray Belcourt says, “John Elizabeth Stintzi’s Junebat is a work of immense gentleness. The care shown toward the authorial self, the past, and those within Stintzi’s emotional sphere is like coming up for air from a culture ruled by nihilism.” 

John Elizabeth Stintzi is a non-binary writer who grew up on a cattle farm in northwestern Ontario. In 2019, they were awarded the Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize as well as the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. They are the author of the novel Vanishing Monuments as well as the poetry collection Junebat. Their fiction, poetry, and non-fiction has appeared in the Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Arc Poetry Magazine, and Best Canadian Poetry. They currently live and work in the United States. 

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Trevor Corkum: The poems in Junebat are so many things—visceral, heartbreaking, funereal, transformative, visionary, so tender and hopeful. The collection is such a process of committed exploration and deep metamorphosis. Can you talk briefly about how and when these poems came together as a collection? 

John Elizabeth Stintzi: To many readers’ surprise, I bet, a majority of these poems were written the year after I’d left Jersey City (for context, the narrative the poems address are more-or-less contained in the year I lived in Jersey City after finishing my coursework for grad school). Most of the writing happened while I was taking breaks from drafts of my novel Vanishing Monuments, and the collection started to really coalesce after I decided to invent the Junebat—an amorphous, contradictory creature—as a way of talking about my relationship to queerness. 

TC: Many of the poems are taken up with exploring what a Junebat is (or isn’t). Junebat seems to be shifting and relative and fluid and impossible to pin down in one meaning. You explore this theme explicitly (and implicitly) over much of the work. For anyone who hasn’t read the collection, how do you define or explain the Junebat? 

JES: I bet it’s easier to think you know what a Junebat is before reading it rather than afterwards. Loosely, the Junebat is a multifaceted, fairly fluid, and—most importantly—ever-questioning identity. A review on Goodreads characterized the Junebat as being almost a cryptid, which I think is a wonderful way of putting it.

TC: There are so many gorgeous poems here. One of my favourites is the “Hale-Bopp,” in which the speaker describes “a time of my dying…the time/of an isolation so deep I could barely speak.” Through this dark winter, the speaker is nourished and held by their relationship with a pink cactus. We acutely feel the life-saving and life-giving qualities of the cactus. Can you speak more about the poem and its title?

JES: “Hale-Bopp” is certainly a personal favourite as well, probably in part because of how prickly it feels to me (much in the same way that I say, in the poem: “I liked the tickle sent when numb skin hit them”). The poem makes me remember how difficult that time in my life was, as well as how much I was trying—in very small and somewhat absurd ways—to make myself feel less alone. 

The poem makes me remember how difficult that time in my life was, as well as how much I was trying—in very small and somewhat absurd ways—to make myself feel less alone. 

The poem is about buying this succulent cactus (who is named after a comet, as all my cactuses have been, for no special reason) and my decision to have them be queer and use they/them pronouns. I was hardly using they/them myself at that point, so it was a way to practice and become comfortable with using them, while also feeling like I wasn’t the only creature alive that was doing so. 

“Hale-Bopp” is a poem, mostly, about trying to find a way out of isolation, and it’s unfortunately a tragic story since Hale-Bopp died in the winter while I was away from home, spending time with my partner (because my space heater stopped running). But the poem also, I think, accepts that Hale-Bopp did what they needed to do, and once I started to spend more time with my partner, they weren’t as necessary anymore. 

I actually just the other day went to a greenhouse out here in Kansas City (a safe pandemic activity) and found a bunch of the same kind and colour of cactus for sale. I thought about buying one, but decided against it, because Hale-Bopp can’t really be replaced. But they will always live on in this poem. 

TC: I was also really taken by the formal variation in the poems. They occupy so many spaces on the page. Space itself seems critical in many of the poems—the super-long dashes in “Metamorphose” and the back slashes in “Apophatic Junebat” and “Cataphatic Junebat,” for example. How do you approach and consider the technical aspects of your work—line spacing, punctuation, visual representation on the page? 

JES: I’ve always had a lot of difficulty when it comes to shape in my poems, in that I feel a lot of pressure to find alternating shapes to make them more unique to one another, and also to keep myself from falling into the same rhythms in the writing. Structure is something I consider very consciously with all of my work, and having my poems question the form and shape in a book about a questioning, shapeless creature—the Junebat—felt like a great opportunity to have the form of the book speak directly to its content. 

“Metamorphose”—the five-part prose poem that makes up the middle section (“Body”) of the book—is a great example of this impulse of speaking through form. I consciously increased the amount of dashes in each, increased the width of each part of the poem on the page, as well as slowly introduced line-breaks (making the final part into what is, ostensibly, a lineated poem rather than a prose poem). I wanted to make the poem feel like it was loosening up as the speaker made space for their own identification with that ever-mutable Junebat. Much like the metamorphosis of the moth that the poem uses as a central metaphor, the shape of the poem steadily goes through its own metamorphosis. It breaks out of the tight, puppa-esque prose block to sprawl across the page.

TC: The collection also reads as a love story—both the love the speaker finds for another person in the Hamptons, but also a deeper self-love. So much healing happens through the intimacy of the body, of being witnessed and seen. Was there a certain moment in the creation of the collection when the tone of the work began to shift for you?

JES: I think writing “Hale-Bopp” was actually a turning point in the collection, as it roots both in the isolated, self-obsessed (and self-hate obsessed) poems of the first part of the book, as well as in the more loving space that the book moves into. I think it would be impossible for me to write a book about this time in my life, about my coming to terms with my transness, without addressing the blossoming of my relationship to my partner, since she was so integral to my own survival. 

So much of the ways in which I was able to learn how to love myself was in seeing how my partner—who was really the first person I told, in no minced words, that I was trans—was able to love me. In order to accept love and affection from her, I had to love the person that she did, too. I think when someone reaches that point of no return (that point of no longer being able to go back to thinking I might not be trans) the need for self-love becomes almost life-or-death, and so having someone in my life who saw me and loved me was important in my being able to get to the point where I could achieve that (though self-acceptance is always, to some degree, a work-in-progress).

In order to accept love and affection from her, I had to love the person that she did, too.

TC: Finally, Junebat comes out at the same time as your debut novel Vanishing Monuments (Arsenal). What has it like to have two books come out simultaneously, and during a pandemic to boot?  

JES: Nobody would argue that it’s a good time to publish two books at once—especially if they are both debuts. I’ve gone through all the stages of grief about it, at this point, and have accepted that this is just the hand that I (as many others also have with their own debuts, though not likely with two of them) have been dealt. I certainly am privileged to have a lot of publicity support from Anansi and Arsenal (more than many others publishing on smaller indie presses), and having two books coming out at once certainly doesn’t make it harder to leverage attention, but I have a sinking feeling that publishing a single book (and being able to do some amount of touring) during a non-pandemic year would probably fare better than either will during this. But I hope to be proven wrong.

Pandemic aside, I do think that these books are siblings in interesting ways, and I am glad that they’ve come out at the same time for that reason. I am really proud of both books, and the ways they’ve connected with readers so far—especially queer readers. Also, since they published within the same week as each other, I hope the dual-publication means that people will be unable to box me into the role of being either a “poet who also writes novels” or a “novelist who also writes poetry.” As any reader will discover, should they read Junebat, I’m not particularly comfortable being put into any box at all.

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HALE–BOPP 

I found their ugly pink cactus head on the fringes
     of my commute through Hoboken last September: 
spiny, beside another colourful sibling, and for sale. 
     That was the time of my dying. That was the time 
of an isolation so deep I could barely speak. 
     The third time I walked by, I bought them, 
carried them up those hundreds of steps 
     into my life here, into my horror room. 

I named them Hale-Bopp, decided they were 
     indefinite too. We lived together and I talked 
to them, and for the first time kin-words 
     floated around in this apartment. We were 
similar, Hale-Bopp reflected me back,
     sat alongside my inferno, pricking me. 
I liked the tickle sent when numb skin hit them, 
     how it could pull me back to the present.
I felt close to a nearby thing for the first time 
     in this city, and it was in their orbit that I 
didn’t kill myself, didn’t give in. Outsiders like us 
     have a different gravity. We’re on Jupiter 
while everyone else is on Mars. 

Through fall, we were fragile sisters together. 
     They sat in the room while I borrowed 
their pink-headed bravery to write my novel, 
     until winter came and love started blooming 
on Long Island. Weekends began to keep me 
     away from Hale-Bopp and nearer to her. Winter 
commenced with his yearly killings, but whenever 
     I came back to Jersey I’d always go to them first, 
in their little pot by the bed where I knew 
     a warm square of sun would fall during the day. 

Hale-Bopp was my community, I their mother 
     bird drooling water from my lips onto their dirt 
because I didn’t own a watering can. I worried hard 
     that they’d die over Christmas. Hale-Bopp 
was hardy but slowly they grew ragged, 
     and the day after Valentine’s Day I returned 
from a long stint in the relative bliss of elsewhere 
     and found them crumpled in rot in the cold 
room, my space heater snoring from a bad 
     breaker. Body brown mush, head gone white. 

It’s true, I didn’t learn every cactus was a succulent 
     until Hale-Bopp was already long dead, and it’s true 
I fumbled their pronouns in the same way
     I fumble my own in the privacy of my queerness. 
There’s much we didn’t know about each other 
     and yet all this hurt air we survived through. 
Hale-Bopp was the symbol of the roughest arc 
     of my life, and their leaving told me nothing 
except that leaving was what I needed to do. 

Poetry is the place where I go to be powerless.
     I didn’t get rid of Hale-Bopp’s body for days 
after finding it. I lived with death in the room 
     with me, felt the carbon dioxide they were 
not trying to breathe, felt water pool my cheeks 
     with no thirsty soil to spit in. My love lived 
elsewhere now, in the girl out on Long Island. 
     When I got rid of Hale-Bopp I wanted 
to bury them but the ground was frozen.
     I had no shovel. Grief like that, quiet grief, 
grief for plant-life, grief incomprehensible
     to others, can drive you to do rash, sad things. 

Without a shovel, I found a stone in our tiny garden. 
     I poured Hale-Bopp onto a spot there, 
took up the stone, and beat them flat into lonely 
     and gone soil. 

This is a place, but this place is no longer a place for me. 

 

Excerpted from Junebat by John Elizabeth Stintzi. Copyright © 2020 John E. Stintzi. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. All rights reserved.

July 28, 2020
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