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Crow Reads is a podcast series by Rayanne Haines, in which she interviews intersectional women, LGBTQ+, and non-binary authors, publishers, editors, agents, booksellers and more working and living in Alberta about the current state of the publishing industry. In this episode Rayanne talks with Jason Purcell, a writer and musician from amiskwaciwâskahikan, Treaty 6 (Edmonton, Alberta), where they are also the co-owner of Glass Bookshop. As a chronically ill writer, Jason writes at the intersection of queerness and illness and is the author of the chapbook, A Place More Hospitable (Anstruther Press). Swollening (Arsenal Pulp Press) is their first full-length collection.
What does it mean to be queer and sick in a sick world? In Swollening, Jason Purcell surgically interrogates their own experiences while creating a collection that equally haunts and harrows the undiagnosable body. In this conversation, Jason discusses teasing out metaphorical spaces, writing the external and internal violence in the body, and the parameters of giving and hiding/revealing. They achieve this within the practice of understanding their vulnerability as a queer writer, looking for the beats of the narrative in poem placement to orient the reader and to signal underlying currents in the collection, and to reveal how being sick in a sick world may be the only reasonable response to a sick world.
If our bodies are community then what happens when our body is sick? Or to look at it another way, how does the sickness of the world affect our bodies? This is a question Jason Purcell interrogates in the writing of Swollening. Referencing Susan Sontag, they wonder if using metaphors for sickness disempowers and shames sick folks, while also being drawn to the connections between the emotional and psychological conditions of their youth and the sickness they feel today. Maybe being sick in a sick world is a reasonable response? Says Purcell, “If everything around you is also in these varying degrees of sickness, then for your body to assume that position seems reasonable to me. I’m a poet who wants to tease out this medical metaphorical space.”
Men in the Gut
Scrape the inside of sleep the belly wall
tasting like yoghurt cooked broccoli
its emptiness leaving something
on the tongue. Escaping the body
that wants to quit from the inside.
It unlaces you all the tethers sliced
away. When I dream of this body ending
of opening the germ of the pain
I am on the side of the road. My hands
hold out my stomach my second brain
to the men who already want me to die.
This failing organ with a ruby wound
kissing the place it is so easy to be
stabbed or shot. A punch to the gut
I anticipate violence here one cell layer
deep shallow spreading roots
a memory system in my body.
(an excerpt from Prayer)
The collection also offered Purcell a chance to consider the external and internal violence of the body, and how the limitations of the body become the level at which they live as a queer and sick writer. Rather than consider their work navel-gazing or confessional poetry (as so many poets who write personal reflection are labelled), Purcell talks about how the writing itself became a form of shaping and attuning to the body: “When you consider that so much of my fixation is on the stomach, navel gazing, I mean, for me to take that term and to say, yeah, it’s attuned to the stomach, and the rest of my body but I’m attuning myself to myself, and paying attention to myself, as a way of taking inventory of my life and the conditions of it and the way that I’ve been shaped. I think it became very conscious for me to continue to follow that line in my work, and have my writing live in the body.”
Purcell has a BA in Comparative Literature, an MA in English and is part owner of Glass Bookshop in Edmonton. Their commitment to understanding the nuances of play with poetry and weaving language to signal underlying currents also informed this collection. The book is broken into three sections:
- Things swallowed.
- Sickness is not a metaphor.
- If I had a window it would be open.
Purcell worked with editor Joshua Whitehead to uncover the beats of narrative in the poems and reveal placement in the collection. This allowed them to orient the reader and signal underlying currents in the collection. This process informed a shifting of movement and discovery. Purcell made the decision to end the collection on a note of hope, or in his words, a form of queer utopia: “And then I felt the final six poems kind of felt like a way of saying what if we (this is a queer and sick, disabled, many gendered we that I’m talking about here), built our own world, or within this world? You know, because we’ve always just been building our own worlds. In this moment, where it just seems like everything is kind of collapsing, what would it mean to love and live intensely and care intensely, and nurture, in a way that doesn’t align with what the rest of the world asks of us? Like white hetero, capitalist, patriarchal world, like, what if we just said, Fuck those rules? And we had our own space? What would that kind of care look like? What that nurturing look like?”
You can listen to the full episode here:
Rayanne Haines’s writing has appeared in Prairie Fire, Fiddlehead, Funicular, and Indefinite Space, among others. She is the 2022 Metro Edmonton Federation of Libraries Writer in Residence, Vice President for the League of Canadian Poets, and a 2019 Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund Award recipient. Her current work focuses on mental health and intergenerational female trauma. Tell the Birds your Body is Not a Gun (her third poetry collection) is shortlisted for the 2022 Stephan G. Stephansson poetry award.
Tell the Birds Your Body is Not a Gun
by Rayanne Haines
Published in April 2021 by Frontenac House
Jason Purcell is a writer and musician from amiskwaciwâskahikan, Treaty 6 (Edmonton, Alberta), where they are also the co-owner of Glass Bookshop. As a chronically ill writer, Jason writes at the intersection of queerness and illness and is the author of the chapbook, A Place More Hospitable (Anstruther Press). Swollening (Arsenal Pulp Press) is their first full-length collection.