Interview by Natalie Podaima
Gwen Benaway is a trans girl of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. She has published three collections of poetry, Ceremonies for the Dead, Passage, and Holy Wild, and was the editor for an anthology of fantasy short stories, Maiden Mother and Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes. Her writing has been critically acclaimed and widely published in Canada. She was a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ writers from the Writer’s Trust of Canada, the Lambda Literary Award for Trans Poetry, and the National Magazine Awards and Digital Publishing Awards for her personal essay, “A Body Like A Home.” Her fourth collection of poetry, Aperture, is forthcoming from Book*hug in Spring 2020. She is also currently editing a book of creative non-fiction, trans girl in love, forthcoming from Strange Light in 2020. She lives in Toronto, Ontario and is a Ph.D student at the University of Toronto in the Women and Gender Studies Institute.
Gwen Benaway is the judge for the 2019 Vallum Award for Poetry. With the deadline for this year’s competition fast approaching, we asked Gwen to tell us about her own writing process and share some advice for those submitting.
How does a new work begin to take root for you? Do you start immediately with pen to paper, or does your process include a degree of pre-meditation, coaxing-out phrases, collecting images?
New work starts for me when I sit down to write it. Often certain images or ideas will begin the process for me but they don’t determine the final product. Writing is how I uncover what I’ m working with/through, I think of writing as a practice, almost like a physical act that opens up possibilities for beauty.
With three collections of poetry and another forthcoming (Aperature, Book*hug, 2020), I’ve heard that you’re also editing a collection of essays to be released next year (trans girl in love, Strange Light, 2020). What is your relationship to non-fiction versus poetry? In what ways do you feel that the format informs the content of your work, if at all?
I love creative non-fiction and in some ways, I feel more skilled as a non-fiction writer than as a poet. Poetry and prose are equally demanding to write and read, but I think they do different things in the world. There is overlap between the skills, but they are distinct mediums. Content and form are the same thing to me, but intention matters greatly in writing. What am I trying to create in the world and why? Those are essential questions for me that fuel my writing.
What are you reading right now?
I just read Ocean Vuong’s new novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I’m currently reading Billy Ray Belcourt’s new book of poetry, NDN Coping Mechanisms, and a trashy werewolf fantasy book by Patricia Briggs.
Pick one: Write what you know, write what you love, write for yourself.
I pick none of those options! What do we mean when we say “writing”? Writing as an industry? Writing as an artistic practice? Writing as truth telling? Writing as healing? Writing is synonymous with life for me. What are you living for? What do you want? What compels you in daily life? These questions are the ones which should animate your writing because the notion that there is any one guiding principle for literary production is a deeply naive one. Some writers write for money or fame. Others for recognition or praise. And some write for themselves or their communities. These choices are related and none are mutually exclusive, but they often do different things in the world and demand a different set of ethics and relationality.
Do you have any advice for poets wanting to submit their work to the Vallum Award for Poetry 2019? Any advice for poets in general?
I am drawn to poetic honesty and a generosity of self. In other words, poetry that knows the “small mechanics”, to quote Lorna Crozier. My advice for poets is always the same: who are you? what do you want? what images captivate you? what stories are yours? Look for the answers in a poem. Don’t perform poetry. Just embody it.
Don’t forget to submit to the Vallum Award for Poetry 2019! First place receive $750 and publication in the upcoming issue of Vallum.
Deadline: July 15th, 2019
For more information and to enter online today, visit our website.