Sachiko Murakami — Wee Interview with Angela Hibbs


This week I had a little chat with Angela Hibbs, the author of the poetry collections Passport (DC Books 2006) and Wanton (Insomniac 2009). Recently moved from Montreal, Hibbs now lives in Toronto.

I sometimes get a little impatient with the lyric narrative; its small questions, its predictable mysteries. Hibbs’ wanderings through the lyric, though, are arresting, estranging. The strangeness of her lines, with their rhythms graceful and inviting, combined with her oddball diction, makes for some chewy verse that rewards the reader’s careful attention.

From the long poem Wanton:

Fern recounts being led into a dark room with more mannequins
than light. Puppets in wood with moveable parts.
Their faces deeply engraved, as with a knife.
Sayers read her “Hansel and Gretel” and said the moral is
every time your parents abandon you, your self-rescue improves.

He arranged her adoption. Benched, tuning fork struck.
No longer a subject.

Mrs. Hill rolls her fists like Tina Turner dancing to “Proud Mary,”
she knows the tuning fork’s sound.

Dr. Sayers described her fishbone braid,
his own poverty-struck (a fork tap withheld) beginning

in a vague year and country.
She mustered courage to dab the keys.
Some were completely detached. A pink sky—elementary.
“I can’t pick the bones out of half of what she tells
you always smells of rat, you,” Mam replies.
The way Fern yawns, she could trap flies.

Tab trails Fern’s eyes in the rear-view mirror.
She who outsmarted the Wanton Doc is rewarded with a
widened berth.

SM: You write primarily in the free verse lyric narrative. Do you feel pressure to move away from that form — either into more structured formalism or experimental practices?

AH: The pressure I feel to move away from my instinctual mode of expression is based mostly in feeling seduced by other forms, other theoretical stances. I’d like to write subversively or using Oulipian constraints. I find that work exciting.

However, I still have goals narratively and narrative is a constraint. Free verse does not mean anything goes any more than experimental writing has a monopoly on experiment. There was a lot cut out of Wanton (the recent long poem) based on constraints that I generated. Structured formalism, when ornate, does not appeal to me at this time.

SM: How has Montreal — both as a location and its writers — shaped and influenced your work?

AH: Montreal is where I started to publish, where I met the editor of my first book, where I found my mentors. I’ll always be discovering new ways that Montreal shapes and influences me and my practice. From writing descriptions of the neighbourhoods I lived in, the apartments I lived in, which appeared to some extent in Passport, to more abstract cues that I got about how to be a writer from going to readings in Montreal. I also did two degrees at Concordia. All those brow-beatings in workshops definitely shaped me, toughened me up. Montreal is a location, but maybe also a way of thinking. I got to have that thing that Stein, as an expatriate liked, about being away from English, not always hearing English, that distance, but also be doing and English degree at an English institution. There’s a lot of boundary breaking going on in Montreal.

SM: Regarding Wanton, the long poem in your latest collection of the same name. What was the motivation for writing it — both in terms of content and form? What’s your take on the long poem as a form?

AH: The long poem for me is on an as needed basis. Passport uses lots of poems to relay one story. For Wanton, the characters kept having more going on, and I followed that. Looking back I see that I was motivated to write another story about leaving home, a story about being drawn back to home, the inextricability of famliy, the inevitability. Wanton is also about legitimacy, about children told they were adopted, who were actually not. Passport: redux, on both counts. Also, the main characters in Wanton live in a swamp, which I later realized is a paen to Jimmy Walker swamp, to Rob Allen and his place in Ayers cliff, location wise at the very least. When
“John D’envers pulls the five black jumbo paper clips off her sheet music and says,
“this seems a bit excessive,” “
That’s something that Rob Allen said when I gave him Passport as a manuscript, with a bunch of jumbo clips on it to make it seem more “bound” like a book. That’s an insider’s interpretation of course. Fern Hill, Wanton’s main character, has a wooden leg. I was attracted to this obvious obstacle, to this throw back image, then made a world where such a leg would exist. Everyone in Wanton is an outsider and formally the poem is an “outsider” long poem, broken up by numbers, most of which function as a poetic unit, a stand alone, a wooden leg. I was and am concerned that Wanton will be read as a misogynist text. The female characters in the poem are strong within the constraints of their imagined world. They have a strong sense of duty. They are working class. Those subjects remain interesting to me. When Fern takes her piano playing abilities and starts a burlesque show/ massage parlour called the “Whorible Wee Piano Show”, it is a troubled victory. It is a triumph of her entrepreneurship and maybe it’s also profiteering on the desperation of unemployed women. It is also a comment on how artists have to do something else to make ends meet and the idea of “selling out”.

SM: What’s next for Angela Hibbs?

AH: I’m working on short stories. I think the collection will be called The Grocer’s Dilemma; I like the grocery store as an arena and I like food stories. Attitudes towards food are very telling and very divisive. My interests in scarcity, money, desire, domestic labour all intersect nicely in food stories. I’m compiling a third poetry manuscript (no long poem foreseen) and am playing at titles, Foiled Again or Catch and Release, which unfortunately is a Jennifer Garner movie.

Sachiko Murakami
writes from Toronto. She wrote The Invisibility Exhibit.

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