A Young Poet Comes of Age
When I first met Emma Healey over Skype this past winter, she had been struggling for more than six months to describe a single character. That character is The Work, one of the only concrete characters to appear in her forthcoming prose poetry collection, Begin with The End In Mind, slated for release from Winnipeg’s Arbeiter Ring Publishing this July. Healey describes The Work as an overbearing shadow entity permanently conjoined, it seems, to the second-person subject of her nine-part poem, “Work Suite.” Most days, The Work is obnoxious and proprietary. It perches on top of the stove and heckles, eats tuna from the can and chews with its mouth open. The Work “gets weird if you bring other people home.” On other days, it’s a comfort, both of you putzing around the house in your underwear, eating cereal from the box. And on rare, beautiful days, Healey writes, you are “un-alone, like two people who have actually defeated loneliness by the sheer force of your will.”
“I don’t usually visualize the characters,” Healey says, “but this time it really bothered me that I couldn’t figure out what The Work looked like; is it a fat, blobby, irritating character? Sometimes it’s relentlessly positive, and beautiful and kind. But then I’ll get really cynical and that will change it. I try not to make it about me, but obviously that leaks in.” Her bi-coloured eyes search for more words somewhere off her computer screen — they lend the odd impression that she is looking in two different directions at once — and I realize she is struggling to define an imaginary friend who never dissolved away, her oldest, closest companion.
Though she’s just 21, Healey has already spent a significant chunk of her life defining, and being defined by, her work. At 14, she was playwright-in-residence for Toronto’s Paprika Festival and at 17, her short story “Last Winter Here” was anthologized in Can’tLit: Fearless Fiction from Broken Pencil. She won the Irving Layton Award for Poetry in 2010 (and was shortlisted in 2011 and 2012), she founded and edits the online literary magazine Incongruous Quarterly and in July she’s releasing her first book of poetry. Add to that her course load as a third-year English and Creative Writing major at Concordia and she had so much work that last year, she hired an assistant.
From her apartment in Ireland, where she’s spending an exchange year at University College Cork, Healey speaks in excited, unbroken paragraphs about her many ongoing projects with a zeal that belies the sheer amount of work that goes into them. “I agonize over my writing,” she says. “I’ll literally write 10 pages of solid, unbroken words, grab two lines out of that, write another 10 pages, grab another two lines and keep going until I have enough that I can actually start to knit an idea together.” She used the same distillation process in almost all of the 17 poems that make up Begin with the End in Mind, and the resulting pieces, ranging from a short paragraph to just over 10 pages in length, are both airy and difficult, leaving only remnants of facts to anchor them to the reality of a somewhat reclusive twenty-something living in a crappy apartment, returning and returning to memories of years and weeks earlier. Objects are not always static, characters are not always solid, facts are not always true. Anchored details slip away, and the lessons learned are the only truths remaining.
Take, for example, “Everything Is Glass,” a seemingly autobiographical poem that begins: “My full name is Emma Flannery Lawrence Healey. There’s a reason. I tell this story a lot. My mother went into labour with me during a screening of Edward Scissorhands in Toronto, January 1991. It was snowing.” Quickly, the poem devolves, however, into a series of false starts. “How about this,” it begins again. ”My mother went into labour with me in Vancouver, September of 1989, the same day the Monkees disbanded.” Further down: “When I was born, ’92 in the Peterborough general hospital my father who didn’t know this was going to happen picked pieces of glass from the treads of his shoes.”
In fact, Emma Flannery Lawrence Healey was born on January 10, 1991 to a pair of Toronto actors/playwrights, and named after Jane Austen’s Emma and Flannery O’Connor. At 13, she toured the Maritimes with the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus, performing as a ballet dancing spider and goblin in an operatic version of The Hobbit. She loved singing, but a cataract she developed at birth had blinded her in her right eye, turning it from green-brown to grey-blue and altering her depth perception. It made her, she says, a shy and clumsy actor. “Which is probably why I ended up being the kid who reads books on the playground,” she adds.
In fall, 2003, Healey happened upon her first prose poem. Listening to the CBC in her West Toronto kitchen, she heard a song by Winnipeg band The Weakerthans. “They were playing something off of Reconstruction Site — it had just come out — and I ran out to [Toronto record store] Soundscapes, bought the CD and listened to that first track [“Manifest”] on repeat for weeks,” she remembers. “In the booklet it was printed like a paragraph of prose, but then it was a sonnet, and that just killed me, that you could do that; that you could weave those forms together.”
Healey sought out more writers who played with form, and discovered Frank O’Hara, whose poetry she read for its conversational, prose-y style, and Donald Barthelme, whose short stories she loved for their ability to stick to a moment and describe it in vivid, sometimes surreal detail. More than that, though, she admired the ability that both shared, to come at a thing “sincerely but sideways. You read them and think you’re having a genuine emotional experience. You feel something is being spoken to you that is incredibly personal and secret and important but is also never necessarily somber. I think it’s dangerous to get too serious about yourself.”
It’s a theory of poetics that Montreal writer Jon Paul Fiorentino, who first read her poetry as a judge for the Irving Layton Award, says she takes to heart. “In many ways, she resembles her poetic voice: funny, charismatic, odd, trustworthy,” he says. But what sets her poetry apart is “her ability to build something indisputably important out of a small moment.”
Fiorentino, an ex-Winnipegger, recommended Healey to his friend, Weakerthans’ frontman and co-founder of Arbeiter Ring Publishing, John K. Samson. Though the publisher generally sticks to political and activist books, Samson says Healey’s poetry “made its way through the editorial collective like an electrical charge,” and within the month, he offered her a book deal.
However, Healey is not entirely a stranger to rejection. In the summer after high school she interned at a small press, mostly writing rejection letters to aspiring writers that were, she says, “many of them, better than me.” But the work she was turning away was not always rejected because it was bad, but simply because it didn’t conform to any recognizable style. Halfway through her first year at Concordia, she and fellow creative writing student Mike Chaulk solicited submissions of rejection letters, odd poetry, hyperlink fiction and anything that had been turned away from larger publishers, and compiled them into Incongruous Quarterly: an online magazine dedicated to “publishing the unpublishable.”
In the first three issues, they’ve published a treatise by a Toronto Western Hospital surgeon on the ethics of flatulence in the operating room, a series of dialogues from the fictional Canadian Civil War, and pieces that were killed at the last minute by The Globe and Mail, The New York Times Magazine and Spin, among others. As the Quarterly’s slush pile grows, so does the work, and in early January, Healey broke down and hired a part-time assistant with grant money she received in 2012. “It’s the coolest thing,” she says, “and weird and surreal because that’s ridiculous, you know, hiring an assistant. I was 20. That’s silly. But at the same time, I needed one. I couldn’t keep up with it on my own anymore.”
And then there’s The Work. The pure writing — its constant demands and cans of tuna — but also its promise and possibility to defeat loneliness. “The Quarterly’s an antidote to being in your room all day. But don’t forget,” she says, “it’s adding a social dimension to something that is inherently anti-social. At the end of the day, you’re still going to have to go home and sit by yourself in your room with your work. And work.”
(photo by Martin McKenna)