The Pitch: Natalee Caple

Carmine Starnino talks to Natalee Caple

WELCOME TO THE Pitch, a series on Partisan in which writers come clean about their works-in-progress—and share an exclusive excerpt. This week, Carmine Starnino talks to Natalee Caple about her new poetry collection, Eyes.

CARMINE STARNINO: What’s the new book about?

NATALEE CAPLE: It’s about community and friendship. A writer’s greatest resource is their community and the histories of writing that surround their work, so I’ve decided to write a series of poetic portraits that respond to works by Canadian poets. The poems are meant to be gifts that explore the productivity of friendship, community, and context—what new works learn from other works. The book will also explore what creative relationships can be created through embracing influence as an act of recognition, of experimentation, of love. My hope is that over the course of researching and revisiting the work of least 100 authors (and I expect the project to remain ongoing after this book), I can create a reflection of that poetry world as it appears in me. Overall, this project is a way of considering the arts as a lively interactive body and not the product of isolated genius.

STARNINO: Can you go into a bit of detail about how these “portraits” work? How do you select the poets and and what’s your process of creating that “reflection.”

CAPLE: The whole idea came about in the first place joking around with Greg Betts and Gary Barwin that I was going to rewrite all their poetry my way and start publishing it using their actual names as my pseudonyms. And then I thought, why not?

So I started with my friends, people I missed and wanted to think about. This includes some of the women I used to be involved in a writing salon with: Sonnet L’Abbé, Kaz Connelly, Ann Shin, Priscila Uppal, and Diana Fitzgerald Brydon. I always start by asking myself what haven’t I done yet. How can I change myself to see what my changed self would write? How can this book give me something that I want in my life right now?  As a feminist writer I have obvious interests in deconstructing the value of canons and in promoting a broad understanding of who belongs. And I mobilize my feminism through writing in different ways at different times; in this case I am careful not to promote this book or any book, as a guide to comprehensive understanding—instead, it is an illustration of seeing and being.

Also, because I wanted the process of making the book to begin with social engagement, I’ve asked people in the community for recommendations. I’m already close to buying a hundred or so books of poetry! I hate money (my novel on counterfeiting should have made that clear) but I think part of supporting community is contributing to economies around Canlit. That means buying books and not always asking for review copies.  

STARNINO: Are there poets whose work has proven a bad fit for you? What do you need to find in the source material?

CAPLE: I have gone back three times to Paul Vermeersch and I haven’t found quite the right fit yet, but I will. I like challenges like that, where I don’t know how to break my own voice to make it new. I think that has a lot to do with Paul’s line, he has a very specific quotidian directness that I love. But I haven’t quite captured where that effect exists in my range. I want to try techniques from dub and spoken word—both are outside of my wheelhouse, which is sort of the point. I am a feminist writer who loves forms and enjoys change. So, for me, writing is very much a social activity that has political purpose and contributes to my life. Figuring out how each other person in the poetry world can matter to me is the trick. Not everyone makes sense to me, I can’t hear every work the way it deserves to be heard. So putting in the time to actively read and respond in the present to the present is the kind of failure I am hoping for. By failure I mean I will find my limits and work at them but what those limits will be and what they will come to mean to me—how they will help me redefine myself and my context—is a beautiful unknown.

STARNINO: The act of repurposing other poetry is having a moment right now. I think of Mary Dalton’s book of centos, Hooking or Ken Babstock’s On Malice. Why do you think that’s so?

CAPLE: The cento absolutely is having a revival. I’ll add Paul Vermeersch’s decadent wonder Don’t Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something to that list. Repurposing text is a tradition in and of itself. In my earliest poetry community, back when I had a small press (Tortoiseshell & Black) with Brian Panhuyzen, it was Nancy Dembowski who was doing the heavy lifting with her feminist repurposing of Ezra Pound's Cantos. Those poems became our second proper bound book when we published Ninety-Seven Posts with the Heads of Dead Men in 1998. That book needs to live again. I think poets love forms and we think about time a lot, so that means wondering what has been done and how we might fit into a trajectory of historical aesthetic experimentation.

But the repurposing aesthetic also relates to my distaste for canons and immortality, which itself relates to my current lifestyle as a mom. Having kids changed my perspective on time and what matters. I think about time as something that seems to be moving very fast and change as something that is happening all around me at a cellular level—teeth are falling out, arms and legs are busting through clothing, and on the other end people that I haven’t made enough time for are disappearing. Having children made clear to me how fleeting the present is, how we need each other and learn from each other minute by minute, how intertwined living and thinking are. The future belongs to my children and their children, future poetries should occupy their own present and not be concerned with the deification of previous poetries. The present is mine; I want to see it for the everything it is. This is not the same as saying I don’t care about the future or disposing of memory but immortality is about intactness, this idea of freezing the genius, and so it is an additional death. I’d like my work to be cut up, remade, responded to, interpreted, sure. But I’d like to see it happen. I want to be at the party that gets thrown for me. I don’t need to remain intact; I want to be broken open and made new.

Excerpt from Eyes:


For Jake Kennedy

We      are for draining the sun
            For extinguishing light
            For craning for pleasure
            For looking directly into release
            For coming
            For tugging robins through exits
            For the now-world
            For sci-fi films and Paradise
            For shopping with spirit animals
            For painting embarrassing objects red
            For children in general and those in the wheat field
            For liberating the cuckoo from the clock
            For hooks but not in eyes
            For gallows in public squares
            For splitting the atom apple
            For living in madness

So yes, we can have a party. We are all celebrations


For Nicole Markotic

In August it rains and rains

I slosh more wine into my brains

until I breathe wine

You lick the back of my knees

I touch your fingers

propose we build a bridge

be minotaurs in alphabets

sew triangles over scars

knit hymens for all kinds of birds

I will write you a slim letter



Motions of Confession
For Nancy Dembowski

We spent years on our futures
trying on colours
our neighbours were lovers

We orphaned texts
wrote long etceteras
drank and danced

I trace you
between paragraphs
your children too

the drawl in your reading voice
that crushed velvet dress
bill and Mitch play chess

as if it never ended
I never moved West
you never moved East

stopped writing
am I wrong?
I’d like to be

O Nancy when you feel wicked
wait for me

Sonnet for Sonnet

I’ll begin here
one arm reaches
after night
thug weight
still dumb, numbed
waves above the lightened
gaze on sleeping bodies
my sister and I

Born looking for
arboreal truth
okay, for a kind of comfort
tell me again about the
budded off my ribs like roses

NATALEE CAPLE is the author of four books and the co-editor of an anthology of contemporary fiction, The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writers. Her most recent book is Mackerel Sky, a novel about a mother/daughter counterfeiting team in the Upper Laurentians.

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