Artist Interview: “Crumby” Poetry With Emily Paquette-Leahy

There’s something about food images in poetry that make me snap to attention. Certain cooking terms possess a magical musicality that can make a stanza hiss and bounce like a flaming pan of peppers. The names of exotic fish and fruit can be like conjuring spells that make lines livid with energy. Though I have many, my favorite “food poem” would have to be Gertrude Stein’s “Breakfast.” Something about the object associations in that piece creates a pleasant paradox, where the poem makes perfect sense because it’s entirely nonsensical (at least on the surface).

I feel like food poems tend to be so enjoyable because they visit scenes such as holiday dinners, where sensations of affection and belonging are hard to dismiss. But all food poems come to an end, as must the meals they depict. So what happens when dinner is over? And what happens when food stops being an act of love, and becomes an act of labor? Well, “crumbs” happen.

Inspired by the crumbs she and her roommates left scattered in their living space, Emily Paquette-Leahy’s poem “crumb” experiments with the same sensations of displacement and melancholy that one might feel when faced with an empty dining room. Additionally, it’s the kind of “food poem” that turns away from the tenderness of eating to face the physical and emotional messes such communions can leave behind. I and my fellow poetry editor were extremely keen on accepting this piece after the first read. Something about the neatly-sectioned stanzas and the repetition of the word “crumb” reminded us of Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It was as though the word itself was being held to a light, and examined from different angles. It was a beautiful exercise in capturing the “what comes after” of every family get-together, and we felt our issue wouldn’t have been complete without it.

Emily Paquette-Leahy is a queer poet who currently resides in Toronto. Her work is notable for its tendency to navigate family, domestic environments and lifestyles, and memory. She has facilitated several workshops for other novice writers, and has studied creative writing at Glendon College, York University and Arizona State University. She is currently a graduate student at the University of Toronto. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in Pro Tem, Mélange, and The Hart House Review. Making and sharing food is one of the ways she shows affection.

(OAR Interviewer): How did you land on the word “crumb” for this piece? How, if at all, do you think the poem’s form was influenced by the “crumb?”

(Emily): To be honest, I’m not sure. I want to say that it was from living in a house with many roommates at the time I wrote this and constantly being surrounded by [my] own and others’ crumbs. I felt like I was often picking up after others – and they probably felt the same way about me. I think of the word partly in terms of […] physical things that remain after a meal or a snack – and then in its lingering, the crumb reminds you of the emotions behind that act of eating and living. It’s bigger than just eating, though.

I see the fragments of the poem as crumbs. They are their own entities. You can almost read each sentence as its own micro-poem – or as something broken off of a whole. So, yes, the poem’s form is influenced by the “crumb.” I want to say that the sentences are also crumbs, but maybe that’s a little on the nose. That’s kind of my style sometimes, though. 

In your piece, the word “crumb” seems to take on a lot of emotional significance and complexity. What does the word mean to you? Do you have a clear idea of what it represents, or is it more of a vague feeling?

I think, to repeat a little of my previous answer, a crumb is something that is leftover or left behind. Like crumbs, emotions linger… They also take on different meanings at different times, which is something I wanted to convey in this poem. I can’t seem to narrow it down to one emotion; instead, the emotions feel complex and changing.

The repetition of the poem’s title throughout the piece is almost hypnotizing. Is repetition something that appears frequently in your work? What are some other aspects of your style, and why do you seek to achieve these in your writing?

Actually, no. I don’t often use repetition in this way – or at all! In fact, the form of this particular poem is also different for me. A lot of my poems are prose-based, often as a single paragraph or two. 

I want my poetry to take the reader to a specific instance and I want them to feel something. Many of my poems are based on intimate moments of my life or people I love, so I don’t expect anyone to feel the same thing as I did at the time of the action or afterward – but I hope I can stop them just for a minute and have them feel or reflect. I would love it if someone read something I wrote and it stopped them just long enough to get them thinking. 

What’s your creative process? Where do you go to get inspiration, and how do you begin channeling that inspiration into writing?

When I wrote this poem, [I’d] had so many ideas of possible “crumbs” swirling around in my head for days. When I finally put pen to paper, things just spilled out of me. I guess I realized that many things [which] had the same lingering quality that I was ascribing to the crumb could maybe go together. I suppose that’s how this poem came to be.

My inspiration comes from the world around me – but less from inanimate things than from people. I like writing about those that I love romantically and platonically (sometimes both at the same time). Essentially, I am inspired by people, their characteristics and emotions. I don’t mean to make this sound corny: I think writing about people is hard because you want to be true to yourself and your perception of things, but you are also cognizant that you are writing about a person with feelings and probably a different view. There is something beautiful and vulnerable in that, but it’s also very scary, too [….] I used to think I wrote about food, which I think I do at the surface –– but below that imagery is people. 

As for my writing process, I do a lot of brainstorming with notes on my phone. I then sit with them –– and a real pen and paper, and try to make them into a cohesive whole. Then, I type them out on my computer and edit a little or a lot. This process generally doesn’t vary much.

Are there any contemporary poets (or writers in general) whose styles inspire your own?

Gosh, I adore Ada Limón. Her poetry guts me completely – and also makes me feel very seen. It feels very raw and genuine, yet also measured. I like that I can picture the moments she writes about. I had the pleasure of meeting her while I was studying at Arizona State and it was so special to me. I was introduced to Limón’s poetry by my professor Natalie Diaz, who lent me Limón’s collection Bright Dead Things

Natalie was my poetry professor at ASU and I admire her so much. Her poetry is devastating and beautiful. She’s also a really talented teacher who gives so much to her students in terms of mentorship[.] I had many important conversations with her about writing during the semester I had her poetry workshop. [In] my first class with her, she asked the class to bring in some recent poems so she could get a feel for our styles. The following week, she proceeded to lend everyone in the class a book of poetry that either reminded her of their style, that she felt they were in conversation with, or that she thought would resonate with them. I think of this act often as one of the most generous and thoughtful I’ve encountered in my education. So much time and thought went into those selections! 

Anyway, I am grateful to that class for many reasons, including Natalie’s teaching – and for discovering Ada Limón. I wanted to pick a favourite poem of Limón’s to share here, but that felt wrong – because they all give me something I need.

 

-Olivia

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