Interview by Rosie Long Decter

Zach Pearl is an American-Canadian writer, designer, and educator. Born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, his work is often informed by the tensions of city living in farm country and growing up gay in the Bible Belt. Zach originally came to Canada in 2010 to pursue a master’s degree in art criticism and soon after became faculty at the Ontario College of Art and Design, where he continues to teach part-time. Zach is also co-founder and Managing Editor of KAPSULA, a digital publication for experimental arts writing, and sits on the board for Mechademia, a biannual journal for studies in Asian popular cultures. In Fall 2018, Zach will begin his PhD in English at the University of Waterloo. Along with his partner, Chase, they actively span rural and urban—splitting their time between downtown Toronto and the riverside village of Coboconk, Ontario.

Ladybird Bug Boy, the 2018 winner of the Vallum Chapbook Award, is a collection of 17 poems that explore the act of identity-making and play with the line between inner, outer, and other worlds. Pearl’s language is dense yet clear, inviting the reader in. Over the course of the summer, he and I corresponded by email, speaking about his experience writing Ladybird as well as the monsters, creatures, and ghosts that populate its pages. 

Rosie Long Decter (RLD): Ladybird Bug Boy was written over the last year. Can you tell me a bit about the process of putting together these 17 different poems—where did you start? Did you begin with the intention of writing the collection as a whole, or did they come together along the way?

Zach Pearl (ZP): This collection definitely came together organically without the intention of it being a collection in the first place! Prior to last summer, I had been on a long hiatus from creative writing of any kind, so many of these poems document my proverbial climbing back onto the horse—I strove to write in different voices, explore formats that I hadn’t before, and look at a wide range of subjects. Inevitably, though, certain themes emerged that represent recent events—in my life and in others: finding a life partner, leaving a toxic work environment, becoming a homeowner, and various curious encounters with ghosts (spiritual and political). Conceptually, Ladybird is dominated by an urgency to reconnect with self and embrace the fact that one’s identity is a never-ending process.

RLD: That notion of identity as a process comes through with such grace over the course of the collection. There’s a recurring sense of the malleable or changeable self, particularly in relation to the act of performing—several times in the collection you refer to masks and armour, the idea of the body as a costume.

What drew you to that recurring language of performance, and how do you conceptualize the relationship between the “I” and the “act”? Is the costume a burden, or something more freeing?

ZP: I think I’m innately drawn to metaphors of performance because I have a performance background. I was a competitive dancer for many years and did musical theatre in high school. So, the embodiment of being on stage—the dichotomy of feeling physically powerful yet emotionally vulnerable—still influences my daily interactions with people.

In my past work as a curator I’ve also often been drawn to performance art, especially by artists using video and projection to illustrate the complications of the medium: privacy and consent are hugely central to performance yet rarely confronted until there’s a screen or a live feed that makes them too difficult to ignore. But, perhaps there’s no sharper illustration of this push-and-pull relationship than when I’m lecturing to my students, as I encourage them to respect my knowledge and opinions while at the same time learning to actively question them.

Are masks and costumes freeing? My gut response is to say ‘yes’, because it’s allowed me to focus my intentions and to be able to portray aspects of my identity with a degree of clarity. It’s very hard at times to know how much of myself to share with others, and a mask can act as a filter. It also affords some amount of privacy, which is increasingly undergoing a kind of technocultural erosion in our society.

Over time, though, the mask can get heavy. Emotional armour can be too rigid and cumbersome to adapt to new situations. And, the narratives that we’ve performed consistently can start to overtake us. The burden of a good performance is that the performer effaces themselves. So, it can be quite depressing unless you have someone who you trust enough to occasionally let them peak behind that mask. Several of the poems in the collection zero-in on this chronic struggle to know where and when to lift the veil.

RLD: I’m glad you brought up your work in curation and other mediums because I wanted to ask about how your experience as a graphic artist influenced this collection. Several of the poems operate on a visual level as much as a linguistic one; was that something you were conscious of while writing? What was the experience of shifting from graphic art back to creative writing — how do the two inform one another?

ZP: Writing in a visual way has always been important for me, because art was integral to my youth and I’m a textbook visual thinker. My parents have even joked that I could draw before I could talk, which—accuracy aside—speaks to my personal conception of poetry as kind of “painting with words.” For me, visual art and poetry inform each other as studies in human perception. The same principles of Gestalt that are crucial to creating a good composition actually still apply when crafting a good poem. Housing a rich metaphor in a sparse line to amplify its impact is no different than creating emphasis in an image by surrounding the subject in negative space.

Shifting my focus from graphic arts back to creative writing has been challenging, but the limitations of text can also lead to interesting outcomes, if you embrace them. A few of the poems in the collection are attempts in ‘illustrative’ stanza shapes and line breaks that reinforce a central image in an abstract way, and this is something I want to continue exploring.

RLD: You mentioned earlier that the collection was informed by various “encounters with ghosts”—there are many characters and spirits who pop up throughout your poems, some well-known, others more personal. As much as the collection is an interrogation of the self, it also seems to be situating the self in relation to these other figures; can you speak a bit about the ghosts? How did they find their way into your work and what role do they play in the process of identity-shaping?

ZP: I was exposed to death at a young age, and because of that I have a lot of stories about people who are no longer here. My partner is also quite spiritual and actively reads about various mediums and shamans. So, that inevitably works its way into the writing. In other cases, I’ve had what I would consider some very real encounters with the supernatural as well as strange recurring events in my life that can’t be explained, like the frequent appearance of ladybugs in my books and cooking drawers since my father died in 2000. When I say there are ghosts in the poems, there are some pieces that reference legitimate ones (or, at least my perception of ghostly phenomena), but other pieces are meant to resurrect someone as a literary device. I’m telling my story through their story in order to highlight how certain truths transcend time and even circumstance.

RLD: I also found the ghosts highlight how stories are connected or inherited—another person’s story can haunt our own. One of the “legitimate” ghosts in the collection is Mary Shelley, who has a whole poem about her. Frankenstein also makes an appearance in a later poem. Why Mary and Frankenstein? Monsters, ghosts, bugs—is it fair to say your work is interested in the non-human?

ZP: Yes, it’s more than fair to say that I’m interested in the non-human. A lot of my research looking at art and technology has dealt with the concept of posthumanism. Although the term can mean many things, I’m referencing the philosophy of defining human experience in constant relation to non-human forms of life, whether these are plants and animals or machines. This is also the main tenet of “radical ecology”. In either case, I’m just into connectedness and I’ve read too much Donna Haraway.

Haraway herself talked about Frankenstein as a mythical kind of cyborg in the way that the character is an assemblage not only of body parts but of different identities—the fool, the monster, the prodigal son. I think poetry itself can be like this: the stitching together and juxtaposition of words and sounds in order to build a creature of thoughts.

RLD: I love that link between Frankenstein and poetry, creatures of thoughts. Your collection can perhaps be read this way too—stitching together various identities, human or otherwise, as a means of connecting with the self and the world around.

Can you maybe talk a bit more about how this stitching happens—what’s your writing process like?

ZP: My writing process can be pretty non-linear, consisting of a lot of editing-while-writing (poor form, I know) and moving whole stanzas around several times, or gutting them completely and starting over with a few remaining words. In this way, it’s similar to painting or sculpture, where sometimes you’ll do an entire layer of something just to cover it up. But traces of what’s come before tend to shine through.

It’s also rare that I write an entire poem in one sitting. Critical distance was kind of hammered into us in art school, so I like to take breaks from the material. Sometimes, I literally stand several feet back from the computer when opening a document like I would with a canvas, which sounds ridiculous, but helps me to see the poem more easily as a whole. Ironically though, during those breaks I’m being exposed to yet more ideas—radio interviews, subway ads, political conversations. These often creep into whatever’s currently being written. So, most everything I write takes on a kind of hybrid or patchwork perspective.

RLD: Another kind of stitching together. We’ve talked a lot about your relationship to the collection, but I wanted to ask—what do you hope readers will make of it? Or what would you like the collection to do for readers?

ZP: This is by far the hardest question!

If I’m shooting for the moon, I want readers to come away feeling a bit mesmerized. I’d like them to feel immersed in a rich, visual headspace, but also to experience a kind of enigmatic distance from the subjects. Because my poetry is so personal, publishing it can be a vulnerable act. Some of the more obtuse elements in the writing are an intentional kind of safety barrier, and I hope that these moments don’t ultimately deter the reader. Instead, I’d like them to ruminate on paradox—their witnessing of my inner world while still firmly outside the looking glass—and eventually to celebrate it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ladybird Bug Boy will be published this fall through the Vallum Chapbook Series.