THE TESS LIEM INTERVIEW

Tess-Liem

I recently reviewed Obits. here. In this interview with Tess Liem, we talk about the tension between revision and erasure as well the liberation coming from the manipulation of literary forms.

Throughout Obits. there is a tension between revision and erasure. Can you tell us more about how your personal experiences went into the process of creation of Obits.?

One of the main drivers of the book is an insistence that how one lives their life day-to-day must be connected to collective experiences whether those are of mourning or of reading or anything in between. I meant to ask the question of how to hold space for one’s personal despair with the despair of a world on fire—a phrase that is now devastatingly literal. It was about asking the question how do you fight for life to continue when often you find yourself not wanting to live. These questions are informed by experience but also the desire to reconcile theories of grief as well as literary theories with one’s own living conditions. It was inevitable and necessary to include a speaker who would share personal experiences.

 

In the text, several poems challenge and manipulate forms. How can form be both liberating and constraining?

Having parameters to work within, especially if those parameters are a received form, can take away some of the fear of a blank page, for me, especially if I approach them as exercise. Of course a constraint can be generative that way. But it was more important to me in this book to respond to forms themselves and the ways they are read. Part of this book is about how I was taught to read and analyze literature so trying to write in conversation with form was imperative.

 

How was it working with Coach House Books?

My editor, Susan Holbrook, was great. We had a few conversations over almost year, which really helped me re-structure the book and understand how the arcs of each section connected. Beyond that, I feel lucky to have been accepted to a publisher with an established platform and catalogue. I was not prepared to sell my book, and having access to a supportive team that advised with every step of publishing and promotion feels like it helped the book find its audience, which I’m really grateful for.

 

Who are some other poets worth looking into? (Canadian or otherwise)

There are so many, I don’t know where to start or stop! I like the chapbooks that House House Press has been releasing and Metatron Press’ catalogue is always worth checking out. Shazia Hafiz Ramji is doing all kinds of amazing work. Look out for Lauren Turner’s debut as well as David Ly’s. I’m also hoping to see more from Faith Arkoful, Eli Tareq Lynch, Manahil Bandukwala, Rebecca Salazar Leon, and Brandi Bird. Some of my favourite books from the past few years are by Canisia Lubrin, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Phoebe Wang, Gwen Benaway, and Doyali Islam. I could go on…

 

Do you have any words of advice to aspiring poets and writers?

Try to write every day, but don’t feel bad if you don’t. Same for reading. Leave yourself prompts for another day if you feel stuck. Have books or texts around that make your brain tingle and don’t take any advice that doesn’t makes sense for your life. At this stage, I don’t think I have any special insight about how to approach trying to start or maintain a literary career. There are all sorts of formulas for being a writer and after having been involved with editorial decisions—if this advice is meant to be about publishing—the only thing I can say is follow your interests and write in a way that is exciting to you because it’s not worth doing otherwise.  

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