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Last Modified: July 10, 2023
Feature Image with the messaging "Site Orientation and Other Small Talk with Samantha Jones"
Site Orientation and Other Small Talk with Samantha Jones

In April 2022, Samantha Jones published her chapbook Site Orientation with Blasted Tree. Although her individual poems have appeared across different platforms: The poem, “Nannofossil,” which can be read as part of her poetic evocation and planetary commitment on environmental sustainability, was published by the League of Canadian Poets as part of their Poetry Pause series. “En Pointe” is another poem that diverges from that dominant trope that unites her work as she saddles herself with more politics of everydayness. In this conversation, Olajide deliberates on her chapbook Site Orientation, the poem “Ocean Acidification,” and future projects.

Hi Samantha! I cannot recall when I started following your work. But we have been friends on Twitter for a while. I have read some of your individual poems and have much to say about them, but let’s talk about Site Orientation. I think it is my first time coming to a place where poems alert me to ordinary things in my private space. Is there an influence for this work? On which date and what time did you write the first time? Sorry, I really just want to know what the writing process is.

Thank you for these kind words! I’ll start by saying the connections I’ve been able to make over the last few years on social media have been really important to me in building a writing community, expanding my practise, and being introduced to a wide range of creative works and people, so I really appreciate that and I’m thankful that we connected and get to have this conversation. Site Orientation is a collision of a few areas of my life. I’m working on my PhD in geography and part of my research requires water sample analyses in a lab where workplace safety is a significant component of the work. The format of Site Orientation is inspired by Safety Data Sheets (SDSs), which are documents that come with items like purchased lab chemicals and explain hazards, clean-up procedures, disposal requirements, first aid, safe storage, and more. In this case, I’ve created a poetic template that mimics the data sheets. I wanted to communicate how my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) brain processes information about perceived household hazards, and port that procedural lab feeling to the home—a place that is often romanticized as a relaxing haven.

I created Site Orientation in 2021. It came together relatively quickly on the page, but perhaps the writing process started much earlier if you count the cumulative experience captured in the project. I work this way often: I’ll let things stew in my brain for a while when I’m information gathering and imagining how a project could look, and then the writing will come out in a rush. Of course, there is editing afterwards, but for first drafts I often write like a flood. I think this would be a good time to give a shout-out to Kyle Flemmer at the Blasted Tree. Kyle’s design for the chapbook as a print and digital product was perfect. The print copy is like a little flip book with lab manual energy that really brings the project together.

In general, I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, making my own books and zines in my basement and making up additional stories about my favourite kid lit characters (fanfiction?), and more recently in the last decade, trying to get serious about shifting my career in a creative and literary direction.

You rediscover the ordinary, to use Njabulo Ndebele’s phrase for the chapbook. But these ordinary objects, as inanimate as they seem, carry their temperaments that we often dismiss. In one of your descriptions of safety data, you say, “…we can’t leave her like that/all hot tempered and/boiled over.” Who is this “her”? Can we hear more about why you have taken a strong gender angle?

I think a lot of these decisions were subconscious, but upon reflecting, my experience with OCD and working in male-dominated fields and settings has educated me on a special brand of dismissal that I think comes into play. When I’m caught in something like repeated checking or asking for reassurance, being a woman adds another element that facilitates labelling me as irrational as a way to sidestep the root issue. So in the example that you mention, I’m worried about leaving the stovetop in a state that’s unstable, but at the same time, perhaps I’m the one left in that state if I’m unable to complete the checking compulsion that soothes the worry. So in a way, I think personifying the objects to some degree, which may include gendering, is a way to reimagine my relationship with items that both help me in day-to-day living but can also malfunction and, in rare circumstances, be dangerous. I’m tempted to say that the objects take on a bit of me in their lives in my home.

In Ex-Puritan, Andrew McEwan interprets your work as developing “maddeningly internalized logic of obsessive-compulsive experience.” So that in the end, we must follow the data sheet and safety guide of the poem out of this infatuation. But do you agree with this OCD-reading of the work? Do you think the alarm you raise is for those with OCD alone?

I was blown away by Andrew McEwan’s review. It was like, holy crap, someone else has experienced this exact same thing. I’m aware that there are many folks who have a variety of neurodivergences and mental health challenges that likely share elements of my experiences, but I didn’t imagine that someone would describe a perspective so accurate to my individual lived experience. I hope that the chapbook offers something for all readers, but of course there are layers that folks with OCD or anxiety are likely to engage with it on a more personal level. I have been describing the project as a visual OCD poetry chapbook, so the label is out there for people to consider. I hope that anyone who reads the book can reflect on what it’s like to disrupt mainstream expectations of what certain settings should be like—the comfortable, safe home, for example. And I think becoming acquainted with different ways that people process information is for everyone.

Site Orientation provides insights into signs and symptoms of life, relationships, and events of domestic space. What I also believe is that we often take the kind of intimacy you signal at for granted. By intimacy, I mean house objects and tools for social purposes. Most of us go to Walmart, No Frills, or Canadian Superstore to get items, and we believe these items are there to hear our instructions. Sometimes, I feel most artistic projects are almost talking to one another if we listen enough. Do you also believe so? I have said this because of my interest in the horror genre. I feel your work establishes intertextual dialogue to a certain degree with the Final Destination movie series. Are you a cinema lover? Has film as an art influenced your writing?

Oh this is a super interesting question and it’s neat to hear how you have been able to make connections between my work and films. I do like cinema, though I have watched much less after becoming a mom and going back to school. I love thinking about cinematic elements when trying to establish settings in my writing. I particularly like films with harsh, snowy, rainy, or grey environments, and admire how images and music can work together in film to add complexity to a place. I’m one of those people who can’t visualize things in my mind. I close my eyes and nothing! So film as well as other visual art forms help me understand what things could look like and what the big picture might be. On the note of artistic projects talking to one another, I think this is one of the reasons that I really enjoy themed magazine issues or exhibits. I am fascinated by the ways that curators and editors can bring works together into conversation to create a bigger machine out of all of the individual components. So although I don’t know much about the horror genre and horror cinema, I think it’s great that you are making those links based on your interests and knowledge. It’s energizing to think that my work will have a life that’s bigger than just what I put on the page.

This last Saturday, 10 June 2023, I watched the YouTube video of your poem “Ocean Acidification” once again. I became aware of the poem in the event that you and Matthew Weigel had for Canadian Literature Centre sometime back. Powerful, evocative, admonishing, and ominous at the same time. I think what you draw attention to is the planetary challenge of water catalyzed through deleterious activities such as toxic dumping, indiscriminate waste disposal, littoral capitalism, and all sorts. Let’s return to how you instrumentalize visuality in the poem. What informed your choice of this imagery? Do you think it helps the poem’s mental power to evoke environmental consciousness?

Thank you for your interest in “Ocean Acidification.” This piece is very close to my PhD work and explores a phenomenon that I’m familiar with from a science perspective. Ocean acidification (OA) occurs as carbon dioxide is absorbed by the global oceans and lowers the pH of the water. This can stress organisms that live there, particularly those that build shells or exoskeletons out of calcium carbonate. The visuals I wanted to achieve with the poem came to me first, and then I developed the story to fit into the container. I don’t want to dictate how folks should connect with the piece because I think each reader is going to bring their own lens, but I can say that while writing it I wanted the disintegrating or dismantling circle to represent those individual stressed shells, but also the breakdown of bigger systems. I try to incorporate different entry points into my work, so here I wanted to provide visual cues that performed the OA process on the page, but I also wanted the narrative to communicate the key points as a stand-alone story in case someone can’t or wishes not to engage with the printed work. This is something I’m trying to implement in general, so for example when I presented a science-poetry poster at a recent conference, I created an accompanying audio tour and posted it to SoundCloud so folks had the option to listen instead of look.

Your language is another aspect I really think about while watching the poem. For instance, your choice of gerunds and phrasings such as, “dismantling,” “flaring,” “poking,” and “threatening to undermine the system in its entirety.” What do you think we must do to wrestle ourselves from the Capitalocene? How can we save ourselves from great oceanic derangement, to borrow the thinking of the Indian literary ecologist, Amitav Ghosh?

I think the first step is connecting and learning about the ocean and how the ocean is linked to other earth systems vital to life. It’s currently the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, so there are lots of opportunities and resources being made available across the globe for everyone to engage with what our oceans look like today and into the future. I believe artists, writers, and creatives have an important role to play in disseminating knowledge and prompting humanity to reflect, even when it’s hard. I’d be lying if I said I had solutions to the big problems we face, but I will continue to be open to new information, to listen and learn from all types of people, to co-operate, and to pick myself up and try again when I make mistakes.

I want to connect this poem back to the caveat you served earlier about everyday danger in Site Orientation. How can we listen for the understory of horrors below the ocean to allude to Laurie Ricou’s useful framework in Salal?

I think a lot about how human nature often sabotages. Admitting that past or current actions cause harm takes a particular type of emotional intelligence or awareness. We need to get over the guilt hump—work on solutions, make changes, reconnect. As someone with OCD, caution is my default mode. I think perspectives like mine (and those of diverse groups of folks including neurodivergent people) can be a safety that induces pause. I would love to see people take pause more often. In stillness, what’s below the waves may come into view.

Are you working on a new collection?

I am! I’m currently working on edits for my first full-length collection, Attic Rain, which is forthcoming from NeWest Press in 2024. So please stay tuned!

Who are your favourite Canadian poets of 2023?

Ha! This is a hard question. I’m working through Hurricane Watch, which is a large volume of new and collected poems by Toronto-based writer and Poet Laureate of Jamaica, Olive Senior. The coastal settings and ocean language comforts the homesick part of me that misses my birth province of Nova Scotia. In December of last year, I picked up a copy of Where the Sea Kuniks the Land by Inuk writer and artist Ashley Qilavaq-Savard and I’m totally smitten with its holistic strength and stunning imagery. My PhD science is in Nunavut, so this book deepens that connection for me. It’s a beautiful collection—buy one for yourself and another for a friend!

How has Alberta influenced your writings?

Moving to and staying in Alberta has had a big impact on my life in general; I was able to continue my studies and work as a geologist, which provided opportunities for me to travel and learn about the world. This broadened my horizons and had a knock-on effect in developing a foundation for my writing. Alberta has an entrepreneurial spirit and a Don’t-take-no-for-an-answer type of attitude that shows up in the ways that I navigate around barriers or come up with new approaches when something isn’t working. That applies to my writing projects, but also to my life as a writer as I figure out how I want to show up in and contribute to building community. In my opinion, Alberta is an underappreciated literary powerhouse. There is a lot here for creative people, yet the community is more intimate than bigger centres, so it feels like each person has a lot of room to grow.


Headshot: Sam JonesSamantha Jones (she/her) is an earth scientist, writer, and copyeditor based in Moh’kins’tsis (Calgary), Treaty 7 territory. Her words appear in THISGrainCV2RoomGeoHumanities, and elsewhere. She is an alumna of the Banff Centre Spring Writers Retreat and is a PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Calgary. Her visual poetry chapbook, Site Orientation, is available from the Blasted Tree and her debut full-length collection, Attic Rain, will be published by NeWest Press in 2024.


Olajide Salawu headshot.

Olajide Salawu is a PhD student at the University of Alberta. He has published his own creative writing in the Literary Review of CanadaCBCThis Magazine, and is a regular contributor to Olongo Africa. Along with Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, he edited the Olongo Multilingual Anthology.