First Book Poets in Conversation:
Nyla Matuk & Deena Kara Shaffer

Nyla Matuk is a Canadian poet. She is the author of Sumptuary Laws (2012) and Oneiric, a chapbook (2009). Her poems have appeared in a number of Canadian literary journals such as Maisonneuve, ARC Poetry, The Walrus, Hazlitt, and The Literary Review of Canada, as well as The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012 anthology. Poems were shortlisted for the 2012 Walrus Poetry Prize and Sumptuary Laws was nominated for the League of Canadian Poets' Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for a best first book of poetry. Website:
Deena Kara Shaffer, M.Ed., B.Ed., (Hons) BA is a teacher, strategist, and writer, currently working at Ryerson University. Her poems, articles, and essays have appeared in magazines and anthologies across Canada, including Maisonneuve, The Dalhousie Review, and FreeFall. Her debut poetry collection, The Grey Tote (Véhicule Press), was published in the spring of 2013. She lives in Toronto with her husband and baby daughter.

Nyla Matuk: Although our books are very different stylistically, I sense some similarity of concern. I believe we are both preoccupied by attachment and loss, and I guess I wanted to ask you, as you were working on the poems, if this was a subconscious preoccupation, or was it a theme very much in mind? (That is, assuming I might be right to think you are preoccupied with attachment and loss). And, do you feel differently (now that the book has been published for several months) than you did while writing or editing? Is there a kind of bird's eye view, for you, at this point, and if so, what's it about?
Deena Kara Shaffer: You are right, and indeed, loss was a very conscious, very intentional theme. From the outset, I was writing to put into words and images what it was to lose my father, then my mother, and more broadly to bear witness to diagnoses and dying and death. And, to do so with minimal clutter from cliché or over-sentimentality. Because each day since bereavement allows for a little bit more breathing room, and because it's a long and thoughtful process for a book to debut, there have been a couple of bird's eye moments. The first was in the lead-up to the print date when the final final editing began, having to face choices I'd made months or even a year prior. This meant resituating myself within piercing moments to get back to what I'd sought to articulate by a particular word choice or enjambment. (Perhaps, then, this isn't so much the sight from on high but more of a worm in soil or fish in water, utterly in the thick of it, again.) With this re-viewing came a touch more clarity in seeing and refining phrases, moments, devices. The second shift in perspective came when, book in hand, I was preparing for the Montreal and Toronto launches. To pick and order pieces so as to engage, showcase the collection's variety, and ultimately tell a story, led to a slightly different experience with the book. (It was both sadder and funnier than I'd remembered.) So, despite the time that's passed, from the revisions prior to submitting the manuscript all the way to those of the last proof, my sense is that The Grey Tote is deeply felt, and invites readers and listeners to connect as a community of grievers, in loss, wondering, worrying, and joy.

Nyla, can you describe your use of place in Sumptuary Laws? Would you say that this is a secondary preoccupation or intention? From gardens and parks, to very Toronto scenes, to European travels, physical space is threaded throughout your collection. I'd like to hear more about this, and too whether you write or note-take when you're in that very place, or whether processing and reflection and poem-making comes afterwards, from a distance of kilometers and time. One last and related curiosity is how location factors into how you write; where and when?
NM: I think this dovetails nicely out of my question about time and distance. There is, of course, also space. A handful of poems in Sumptuary Laws date back to about 2004 though the majority of them were written from 2008 onward. I'd visited many of the places mentioned (Italy, Denmark, Germany, Austria) between 1999 and 2006, and then other locations more recently (the commentary and the last poem are both located in the south of France, where I traveled to celebrate a birthday in 2007). I think place is very important to me because my concerns in the book tend to nostalgia and, as an abstract and more pervasive dispensation of that, desire. Sumptuary laws themselves, while put in place in various societies throughout history to maintain a class structure, could not help elicit envy, desire, and longing, for what one could not have (in the case of the laws, what people could not consume). So I tapped that as a metaphor, and using these places in the poems conveyed a sense of otherness--otherness of place and desire or nostalgia for a different place and time. I don't take notes and usually recollect from a distance of time and place when I write, but I do think taking notes may become part of what I do in future. Because I think the internet might be ruining my memory! I sometimes now take notes at the end of a day if some ideas are percolating, but I rarely did that as I was writing the book. I am mostly open to writing when I am looking at images (ekphrastic poetry) or recollecting a place in terms of its images. And I think certain sounds in language may also trigger the writing. I might hear a stimulating set of words, syllables, etc.

I want to ask you about images, because I see you have achieved what you say above you set out to do: to bear witness to dying, and the process of loss, without resorting to clutter or cliché. I think you achieve this with very specific physical detail that you say in a poem that you committed to your memory, e.g., "Pinpoints / of what I miss most; / his scrawl, / being his d.-- / pieces, snipped out / and saved: topical, and / particular." At other times, you are moving away from this kind of concrete detail and into something like a meditation from afar, such as "The Five Stages' Six Losses."

I would like to know if you move between concrete detail and a more distanced psychological reckoning in general, and was that the intent in the book—to move from specific to more distanced meditation?
DKS: Nyla, entirely, yes. Whether a result of my long-ago undergrad in Philosophy, or because I wished to write about my parents in a way that was rooted in and yet not limited to their/our specificities, I sought to crafting broad, inclusive images. I did intend to go from particular and concrete to a from-afar, as you say, reckoning. "FYI", the first poem you mentioned, is about the minutiae of missing—the hand-writing of someone lost, or the nicknames they used—and in "Stages", I am exploring what I see as an additional loss to Kübler-Ross', that of palliating narcotics. In addition to relief, they bring slurred sentences that visiting beloveds might wish were sharp and poignant, doziness that those same visitors might hope were alertly engaging or cathartic or revelatory, and too a distancing wherein the dying are inhabiting their own, very personal experience, separate/separating from those who might so long to share in the final weeks and days of togetherness.

Nyla, I'd like, in a sense, to ask you as well about meditation. Your poems often depict and reference the specific, like croquet-playing in a local park or Mad Men, and simultaneously present transcendent offerings, for example: "Rain sadder than roses by poets, mud running fools. / Too thin women. What was / meant, said, conveyed, reiterated / in a different formula / can only remain, stages of official and secret knowledge" from "The Hashish of 1975". You traverse and interweave the small and the big. So, the first half of my question is whether you're aware of the 'big' idea in the 'small' scene before you begin to write a certain piece or whether it reveals itself in the working through? And, to that end, the second half of my question, there are a number of recurring/recursive images and motifs, such as ermine, chinoiserie, and royalty at court; can you describe your process here, your scattering of these throughout, playing with and teasing out as you thread them through.
NM: I would have to say that a poem like "The Hashish of 1975," which was first published in my chapbook, Oneiric, was written with concrete detail in mind. I was trying to describe an experience of hashish that specifically had me thinking of material items from several decades past—this post-hippie scene of concert parking lots, stadium rock shows, vans, and so on. The poem was really a part of the bigger idea of the chapbook, relating to familiarity/strangeness, and dreamlike (oneiric) experience. I had in fact had some uncanny, strange/familiar experiences with hashish, such that I was transported back to a time when I imagined more people were smoking it (1975 rock concert culture). The poem is included in Sumptuary Laws because of its more sensuous, material detail that describes a kind of dreamlike experience of otherness. And otherness is a significant feature of Sumptuary Laws—that which we can't have or own, for instance.

Speaking of sumptuary laws—one of the most famous laws (and which I comment on in the Commentary section) was that royalty were solely permitted to wear the fur of the ermine. Other laws regulated what other classes could wear, for example a duke or an earl might be able to wear satin, but those occupying a lower social class could not. So you do find ermine mentioned a few times‐as the fur of the stoat, for example in "Petit-mort" which is a poem about orgasm—it is a metaphor for a rarified experience.

My mention of chinoiserie is also related to sumptuousness—it was a style of décor and architecture that became trendy among the moneyed in the 18th century and its ornate, flowery style I thought was a perfect example of the kind of extravagance that sumptuary law would regulate (not that it is likely to have regulated that style, but I doubt the poorer classes could afford to buy the fabrics and tea sets that were decorated thus). I am glad you picked up on the recurrence of these two elements in the book because they are central to the ideas of extravagance, material possession and invidiousness in the book. I guess I wanted to as you say, weave them in and out, and I did that by mentioning them more than once.

I want to ask you about the tote as a presence and an image throughout the book. I see you have the grey tote ascribed to each of your parents, to your grandfather, and to yourself. Could you talk about what the tote means to you—I had read it as a container or a holding place for loss, of course, but why did you decide on its recurrence, and what does it mean—if anything—before and after the deaths occur?
DKS: My father had a drab grey gym bag which was later used as my mum's labour bag, and many years following it truly did go with my grandfather to the hospital visit he never returned from, after which his name was crossed out by my mother and in its place she wrote my father's, along with labeling every item—razor, socks, books—for his own final hospital trip. With so much history, I don't dare throw it out; and, given that very history, I don't much like looking at or using it. It is nothing but fabric, and yet holds so much. When in the throes of the collection's first draft, the tote piece was originally a single poem. But, it became clear that the tote vignettes worked better separately. Over time, edits, and re-workings, they became the skeleton of the book, then the title. The bag also holds the other snippets and stories of the collection, of my family. This tote, especially as imagined on the front cover, unzipped and open, is an invitation, a rummaging, a carrying, and a laying bare.

To circle back to your mention of the Commentary section, I'd like to know more about this—about when your remarks were written (during writing, after, or prior to press?), why you include them, and more largely, about access. As well, reflecting upon my own flipping back and forth between your poems and comments, what kind of experience do you envision or intend or hope for your readers when reading your collection?
NM: I intended the Commentary section to simply be another, 5th part (like parts 1-4 prior) of the book—but it's prose poetry instead of verse poetry. I selected specific lines from poems and wrote an excursus on each of the chosen lines. The commentaries are in fact not meant as endnotes or footnotes. The page references were included just in case someone wanted to read the whole poem from whence a line was extracted. I had envisaged an unreliable narrator resembling the Charles Kinbote character from Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire. This unreliable narrator offers a kind of distance or irony on the body of poems preceding the Commentary. The Commentary section is also a way of anchoring one of the themes of the book, having to do with the opposite poles of distance and attachment, and offers a kind of distance on the poems, as if the poems are in tension with the commentaries (maybe the way material goods, in all their enviable sumptuousness, are in tension with those who can not, according to sumptuary laws, consume them?) I wrote this section quite late in the creation of the book, several months before final drafts were produced (meaning, late in terms of the years it took to write the book, or rather the span of years—roughly 2007 to 2011).

About the tote—that is quite an incredible history (and legacy) and given that, I can also see why you keep it at bay in real life. But it's so appropriate as a symbol and as the central concern in a book about loss and mourning. Thinking again thematically, I want to ask about the first 3 poems in the book, which all pertain to nature. Is there a reason you chose to start off with nature poems? Is there a chronology to the book? I thought perhaps these first poems were set in the future, after the illnesses of your parents, and that as the text progresses, you go into the heart of the illness (then out again at the end). Is this the case? How does the natural world fit into the details of illness and hospitals that come later in the book, if they fit at all?
DKS: Seasons, decay, gorgeous light—the changes and renewal of nature—I turned to this as a solace in both living and in poetry. Right after leaving the hospital after my mother died, knowing what was ahead having been through it with my father— the heartlessly practical 'arrangements', the piercing ache, the lodged flashbacks of suffering—I took a route home through a nearby park. The only sense I could find, make, or feel—that my parents, who were my best friends, had died so brutally and but three years apart—was the cycle that underpins all of our lives. That underneath structures and systems, consensus and decorum, expectations and artifice, we are wholly at the mercy of weather, rocks, seismic shifts, and unfortunate diseases. It was heartening, even if only microscopically at first, that spring would come, that a tornado could undo us all, and the crystalline and simultaneous worry and comfort that we are all close, all of the time, to death.

The three initial nature poems were written between passings; the first two were prior to my mother's illness and diagnosis, and the third, "The Gallons", was sketched as she was dying. (My mum had in fact insisted that my now-husband and I go to Niagara-on-the- Lake for the day, treating us to a compassionate respite lunch as I was her caregiver.) So, nature is the backdrop. And, there is a chronology even though life was lived—and the poems were written—in a slightly different order. Even in the later poems, nature is there; intentionally absent in some moments, turned to in others, and a conspiring element to make things feel worse in others still. I think I've used nature as the context because I am in awe of, inspired by, in some moments freed within, and all the while terrified of nature. In hospitals, the elemental rhythm is harder to perceive—that synchronicity we can tap into as animals in the wide world-and, in my experience, this makes the white-knuckle grip all the more anxious and horrifying. It seemed to me, and seems still, that dying is more tortuous without, say, breezes, rain sounds, peonies, waves.

Nyla, for my last question, I want to ask you to about your love of and play with language, for example in your poem "Vowels." Your precision and care with words is impressive, as is the joy and mischief, as evidenced by riffs and innuendos. What is it about words for you? Why poetry? And, to that end, what are you currently working on?
NM: Thanks for elucidating so beautifully what must be very difficult to put into words even with a time span since these life losses. That goes for the book, as well as your answer above, and I think the book does convey the consciousness of one experiencing all these things, as words in the mind that are never far removed from the tactile noticing associated with grief (which could just be, I suppose, paying close attention to every physical thing around you.)

You asked "why poetry?" In fact I had started out trying to write short fiction for years, and although I published in a few journals, it was when I turned to poetry that I noticed the spark of creative energy. Prior to that, trying to wrestle with narrative and characters and so on, I was less than comfortable and it became clear, quickly on turning to poetry, that I should have been writing poems all along. I didn't have any encouragement, however, and had to find my own way. It's possible that my more playful sense of language comes from having been educated in French, and living with two English as a second language parents, whose mother tongues I did not speak, but heard spoken as a child (these are two different languages, Arabic and Urdu; but we spoke English at home). I think I may have developed my ear to an extent, hearing foreign sounds without attaching meanings to those sounds? I think it's as plausible a reason as any. I also spent a lot of time as a child reading poetry, verse, and so on, and had memorized a lot of T.S. Eliot as a teenager (yet for some reason never thought to try and write my own poetry until almost two decades later).

I am currently working on various poems but I don't have a new manuscript set up with a coherent theme. I must wait to see what rises to the surface, I guess..

Do you have anything new in the works?
DKS: I have two creative projects at the moment. The first is a follow-up collection, which is in the scribbled notes on tattered scraps stage, loosely themed and titled Antidotes. Since the most intense writing of The Grey Tote there have been other losses, but there have also been big blisses as well: my marriage, the birth of our delicious daughter, and a year lived in Valencia, Spain. I'm keen to poetically reflect upon these and other experiences post-, but still in the context of, grief. The second is a book my husband and I are working on, a learning strategy text that we hope will one day be in the hands of all high school and post-secondary students; both educators, we have unending questions and uncertainties about the direction of mainstream education so we've dreamed up and are writing about an alternative approach. Right now the thought and title is something along the lines of How to Learn, a mindfulness- and reflection- based guide for students across the disciplines.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761