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Last Modified: June 30, 2021
Tell the Birds My Body is Not a Gun book cover with

Award winning author, Rayanne Haines, has released a new poetry collection.  Tell the Birds Your Body is Not a Gun is a non-fiction book of minimalist poetry, prose poems and poetic essays exploring family grief, healing, and intergenerational trauma through the female lens. In this visceral narrative, Haines questions her relationship with religion and challenges how she reflects on her own memories of trauma. As readers look to the past in the manuscript, they are asked to examine how each of them would experience and react to grief. Peter Midgley delved into this work with Rayanne.

How would you describe yourself to readers?

I think I’m a deep thinker, a learner, someone for whom community and the arts and language is embedded in my everyday life. I’m also intensely protective of family and community. Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out who I am. I started writing this poem about myself the other day. Maybe it fits.

Girl of river
and bone. Of tide
and wheat. Woman
of blackberry. Of sky.
Of working and worry.
Of watching.

In writing Tell the Birds Your Body is Not a Gun, where did you start and how did the subject matter take shape? I know it started as a healing project…
My son struggles with depression and anxiety and had been suicidal. I think the grief of not recognizing the symptoms earlier ripped something open in me. His healing journey became mine in many ways. I thought that writing out my grief for his loss of childhood would be a way to support my healing. I gave myself one year to write every emotion that came at me. What happened was opening the door to healing from my own unacknowledged depression, recognizing my PTSD from trauma in my childhood and the loss of my first marriage, and interrogating the loss of broader family identity. In the end, I realized the writing wasn’t about my son at all but had evolved into this breaking apart of layers of grief and saying it all out loud in order to come out the other side of it.

Thank you for that honest response. Throughout your book, there is a tension between the external world and the interior world. In a world where exterior problems loom large and weigh us down, what role do personal narratives and poetry still play?

This is such an interesting question. In the writing of this book, my world became smaller yet also broader. The extra weight of the external world was something I allowed myself not to carry for a while. I focused on only those external things that were relevant to our lives. When your son wants to kill himself, you give yourself permission to say, “I can’t hold everything for everyone.” I feel no guilt over this. I left my job because those external needs became too much, and my mental health demanded it. I focused on my family. Any work I chose to do revolved around mental health and supporting those writing about or moving through trauma. I believe these personal narratives are an internalized expression of external environments or trauma. I feel the poetry and prose I’ve written can now contribute to those external conversations, but I had to find them first. I had to allow myself to be alone with them. However, I also realized while writing that if I never published the work, this personal narrative mattered to me and that was enough. Poetry in this case, changed the trajectory of my life. That’s big enough for me right now.

You structure the work as a miscellany of poetry, prose poems, and poetic essays. The first titled piece is a poem cycle that itemizes the different forms of mourning we will encounter as we progress through the book. The second titled piece, “Matryoshka,” is a poetic essay that unpacks a matrilineal heritage and the trauma visited upon generations of women. And so it continues—readers are constantly faced with a variety of poetic forms. Why this format and this structure?

I intended, when I began writing, that this would be a book of poetry. Very soon, I realized there were some things I wanted to say that I felt I needed to unpack in different form. The poetic essay “Form Letter A” is a real letter that I wrote to my son’s school. I replicated it exactly. “Form Letter B” was what I wished I could’ve said to them. I wasn’t willing to change the structure of those pieces to force them into a poem. I also wanted to mirror the idea of the healing journey as being many things. Some days I wrote a poem with three lines and some days an essay that stretches over a three-year period. I needed to allow the randomness to be a part of the book in the way it was a part of our lives.

Sticking with the idea of grief, trauma, and healing: writing is cathartic, but it can also retraumatize. How do you keep the balance and not get sucked back into that very trauma you’re trying to escape through writing?

Honestly, I didn’t do such a great job all the time. Writing this book was horrible. I cried so much. But it also let me get angry, which I needed. I tried to take breaks. Sometimes I’d go a week without looking at the work. I didn’t enforce the daily writing practice. I wrote fantasy and romance on other days. I wrote love poems to break up the grief. I spent a lot of time outside. I had a cancer scare during the writing of this book. And during the editing my mom was diagnosed with cancer. I became her cancer buddy and went to all her appointments, etc. with her. Being given the gift of watching her strength as she fought and beat cancer helped put things in perspective for me too. I think a lot of the hope in the book comes from watching her and learning from her. Finally, once I was past the most painful part of my healing journey, with everything I wrote, I forced myself to ask, “Is this the truth or are you just wallowing?” That shifted my entire perspective and, I think, shifted the book.

 “Truth” versus “wallowing”—such an important distinction for this kind of work. Let’s move beyond the book briefly. You’re studying arts management in Edinburgh during a pandemic. In a time when we’ve become cloistered physically in a localized world, that same world has also become online and limitless. In such a world, what are the implications for arts management and for local art? Put differently, I have watched the online performance of The Picture of Dorian Gray from Britain, and I have attended book launches and participated in readings as far afield as Nigeria and Australia. Words like “isolation” attain different weight in such a context. How does local art remain relevant in a readily accessible digital world?

I think, the perception of local has changed for me. Perhaps this is because I am in Edinburgh, but it also relates to valuing writing by independent authors from across Canada, and yes, further afield in places like Italy, South Africa, and Scotland. For me, as both a writer and arts manager, I want to focus my energy on indie writers or small presses. I want to work with organizations doing good work in their community—whatever that community looks like to them. I am less interested in mainstream or blockbuster work. By doing this, I can value the digital reach in a way that feels healthy. Independent, local authors are reaching a wider audience, that I believe supports everyone. For example, I might watch a performance based in Nigeria, but also, I know that my local Edmonton artist friends now have opportunities to reach audiences as far away as Nigeria. These are good things. The concern, for me, becomes making sure these artists are being paid for their performances.

The meaning behind isolation has also shifted for me. I’m briefly studying in a different country during a pandemic. I have been completely isolated, yet I’m able to wander the streets of a foreign country to explore new sights and sounds. Other than that, my entire existence has been online. Most of the people in my master’s program are from different parts of the world, so I’m engaging with artists and students in Spain, Japan, England, Canada, etc. Engagement with friends, family, school, work has been online and usually in a different time zone. (I’m launching my book at 7:00pm Edmonton time, which is 2:00am for me). The term of isolation no longer seems to fit. I feel like the language needs to change.

Let’s ease our way back into the book by talking about some of your other projects, like She, The River. It, too, is a collaborative work. The pandemic does seem to have generated more collaborations, and that’s wonderful, but for you, how easy was it to shift between collaborative work such as that production and the intensely interior work of Tell the Birds Your Body is Not a Gun?

It was incredibly important for me to have the collaborations. My life as an artist and arts manager has always been routed in community. Yet, I quit my job and began writing this intensely personal and triggering stuff and was living in a pandemic. Working with empowering, intelligent women on She, the River and on things like the Identities panel I produced brought so much value to my life in a time when I really needed it. These were brilliantly diverse women who I could talk to, and who, as artists, could understand what I was trying to do with the book. I won’t say shifting between the two was easy, but it was necessary.

You describe your podcast, An Eloquent Bitch, as an interview series with “women identifying and non-binary writers, publishers, agents and editors in Canada… With a focus on intersectionality.” How do you foster inclusivity and intersectional approaches to your writing in Tell the Birds Your Body is Not a Gun?

I carry a core belief in the importance of valuing intersectional women’s lived experiences and trying to learn from people with different journeys than my own. That meant recognizing my own privilege even in the midst of my grief, which I tried to acknowledge in the book. I did not devalue my grief or the journey I needed to take as a writer because that would’ve been untruthful. I did allow mental health to be centred in the book while questioning where religion sits in that. I think writing about that and being open about my own struggles with depression and anxiety is opening one more door towards inclusion. Mental health and invisible disabilities are often left out of conversations around inclusion, and this is something I hope changes.

I’m interested in your conception of authority and power in Tell the Birds Your Body is Not a Gun (and elsewhere in your writing). How do you locate power? You say on your website you write about “kick-ass women and the alpha men who love them.” “Alpha” is a term that I hear most in relation to more conservative religious contexts (and this collection is also very much a struggle with religion and faith), and in the view of masculinity advocated by the likes of Jordan Peterson. This definition seems to sit awkwardly with the goals of your podcast, and this collection, which invites us to take a less stereotyped view of gender and sexuality. Can you elaborate on your definition of “alpha male” in the context of this collection?

I wrote that quote in the context of my urban fantasy books and I think at the time, I considered the word to mean, empowered. Even in those books, the term “alpha male” doesn’t do the male characters justice. I do enjoy a good fantasy romance book with an empowered lead character, and I don’t want to devalue that part of my personality.

Maybe this goes to language and the evolution of language or my understanding of it? My understanding of gender has changed since I wrote that as well. So, what does “alpha” even mean to me anymore? I honestly don’t know, and I think it’s the wrong word. I admire emotionally empowered beings. I have never listened to Jordan Peterson or read anything written by this person, so I can’t speak to that part of the question.

For me, the idea of locating power in a person sits within seeing someone who unflinchingly supports all parts of the person and people they love. My husband for example, quite honestly holds up my world. He is a committed father to our children and was with me every step of the way, openly feeling everything I did, as we supported our son as he struggled. He is vastly intelligent and gently ambitious. He is ridiculously corny. He’s open about his own mental health needs and has a deep moral compass. Personal power to me then, in the context of this book, would be someone who is unwilling to let the shattering of their “perfect little world” close their eyes to the pain of others.

I’ll throw you a bone for the last question: What superpower do you most desire?

The ability to heal others, or at the very least, tell a really good joke.

Tell the Birds Your Body is Not a Gun

by Rayanne Haines

Published in April 2021 by Frontenac Books
ISBN 9781989466216

Stained With the Colours of Sunday Morning CoverStained with the Colours of Sunday Morning

by Rayanne Haines

Published in April 2018 by Inanna
ISBN 9781771335256