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Interview with Hannah Karpinski

Hannah Karpinski is a queer writer based in Tio’tia:ke/Montreal. Her work has appeared in Bad NudesLemon Hound, and Commo Magazine, among others. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @yer_dog.

Photo credit: Keira Kenny

Hannah Karpinski looks remarkably put-together for someone whose life is changing around them. She gives a disclaimer that she might burst into tears at some point during the interview, but never does. She is an Aries. 

That’s not an official Writing Beyond the Room question, but I just had to ask, since I am impressed that Karpinski, despite the recent heartbreak in her life, is sitting with me out in the cold. She certifies her Concordia student status by suggesting we conduct the interview at Cafe Myriade—the one on Mackay street feels like one of those small coffeeshops fighting the good fight against the Starbucks and Hortons of the world. Both of us say hello to several people we know while in line. This is Karpinski’s first time being interviewed. 

One of Karpinski’s part-time jobs is with Metatron Press, an independent Montreal book publisher founded in 2014. She has a ten-month contract working as a Publishing Assistant for and with press founder Ashley Obscura, a “total powerhouse.” 

HK: Right now we’re in the process of launching a new digital platform, GLYPHÖRIA, which is very exciting because print publication can be limiting in terms of what kind of interdisciplinarity you can bring into it. Maybe you could have a little bit of visual poetry, but for the most part it’s just the printed word, and this new platform is going to open the doors onto sound poetry, video poetry, and interactive poetry. 

Writing’s migration to digital spaces can sometimes feel a little disorienting, or even sad. However, Karpinski is right to point out that it does enable new avenues and the possibility of existence for work that otherwise could not be shared (if that applies to you, click here to submit to GLYPHÖRIA). I ask her if she’s interested in those hybrid forms.

HK: I am. I have an ongoing collaboration with my best friend, Tamar Tabori, whom I met on the first day of high school. We moved to Montreal and lived together for many years. She’s a dancer, and at one point in our relationship we decided to merge our crafts, starting this series called First Drafts. The idea was that I would bring the first draft of a poem to her, read it, and then she would improvise a dance to it. We would do that again and again and again until we could see how we fed off each other, and how my voice might change depending on her body, or her movement might change depending on what I’m speaking, or what I’m emphasizing.   Whenever we see each other, we try to make videos together, and even during the pandemic we created a few long distance. That was a way of staying connected. When we could no longer be in the same physical space, we could still be together on the screen.

Here is a link to one such performance. The artistic collaboration and the mediation of friendship is definitely something many could regard as a time-bomb. Karpinski, however, sees it as a way to strengthen their relationship and experiences it as play.

HK: It’s so exciting getting to play together because it just makes me feel like a kid again. I’m messing around with my friend, we’re coming together over something that is deeply creative and deeply spontaneous as well, and it can go in so many directions. It’s just full of laughter and joy. Even scouting spots is fun, you know? I remember visiting our families in Toronto. We met up, smoked a joint, and walked into a ravine, where we found a tree that had fallen down, which became the site for a First Draft. Moments like that punctuate the day with delight and pleasure and joy, and then we have a recording that is now part of our collective archive that we can look back on and remember who and where we were that day—like tattoos, like poems. 

Karpinski, by virtue of her youth, shares a struggle with me. I bring it up. When you’re young and trying to make it as an artist, there’s a strange tension between wanting to take yourself seriously and wanting others to take you seriously, while also sort of laughing at yourself for the whole dilemma. Joy seems like a good remedy to this paradox.

HK: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s such a good way of putting it too. But at the end of the day, no one really knows what they’re doing! I personally, definitely don’t. And I think it’s boring to know. It’s more exciting to be in that place of wondering and uncertainty—I’m thinking of Keats here, of negative capability. Being in that place of doubts, uncertainties, mysteries, whereas when you have certainty—or you think you have certainty—you preclude the possibility of wonder and curiosity. Unfulfillment and illusion can be generative…I’m obsessed with Keats and Fanny’s love letters, and I think about this line I wrote about their correspondence, that dwelling in unfulfillment keeps desire alive. In the face of all the shit going on in the world, how do we make each other laugh? How do we make ourselves laugh? And how do we not take ourselves so seriously but take what we care about seriously, regardless? I think that’s a fine balance, to take our matters seriously but not ourselves.

We go on a Keats tangent for a bit, and then re-route to Virginia Woolf. She speaks of her love of Orlando, and her experience with A Room of One’s Own. Karpinski started it at the beginning of the pandemic, when she “was totally boxed into [her] own room and when we were all thinking about rooms and spaces and confinement, and what is and isn’t accessible.” She mentions a bad habit of not finishing books, and how in this instance, her bedtime book was greeting her in the morning (on her face). She vows to finish it, particularly after the interview. It will be interesting, she thinks, to see how it reads in the context of changing relationships to space.

Has Karpinski managed to find a room of her own since reading it?

HK: That’s a beautiful question. From the beginning of the pandemic to now, well, I moved in with my partner, into her old apartment. Then we moved into a new space together, which—I love this apartment so much. It’s not a typical Montreal railroad apartment that goes front to back. It’s very much circular. You walk in and there’s a main space, it’s open concept, it’s old and the floors are falling apart and there’s mold under the fridge, but the kitchen is across from the living room, and there’s an island in the middle—and a skylight. And so it enables a different way of relating to space and to each other. You’re constantly touching all of it, there’s no part of the space that isn’t either in view or that you don’t move through every day. It keeps the energies circulating. 

Even though Karpinski’s love for the place pours out from her sentences, she doesn’t actually write in this apartment.

HK: I mostly write on the go. I have scoliosis, so I bought myself a proper desk chair, but I find myself resisting it. I was like, “Amazing! I’m going to write, I’m going to feel good in my body,” and then I’ll write cross legged on the floor in the library. I have this little notebook in my purse that I only allow myself to write lines in for poems, and I bring it with me everywhere. I’ll be squatting on one knee as I’m walking over the mountain and my hands are shaking from the cold…I’ve written a lot of poems on the VIA train, actually. Every time I take the VIA train, I think about Erín Moure and how she worked for VIA for twenty years, which allowed her to write poetry…so the space of the train is a space of poetry for me, and I’ve ended up writing a lot while going back and forth to visit my loved ones.

The sense Karpinski gives off is that of the body as a room, regardless of where one is. Contorting her knees and spine to scribble down a line. It all sounds very corporeal. Is that accurate?

HK: Poetry is totally embodied for me, and I think that’s because a lot of my poems happen outside, in the sense that they’re summer poems, out in the world poems. We’re moving through a space and it’s juicy, and so I think of the room as like, the sky is my ceiling. I’ve inhabited some more precarious spaces and have always found that…well, the way that the mountain changes is reliable, I know that today it’s going to be there, I know when the leaves are changing, I know that I know what I know. You can count on it in a way that internal spaces with others are not similarly predictable. Maybe outside is not exactly reliable either right now—it’s snowing in Vancouver, it was twenty degrees here yesterday—but I find such comfort in being outside because there’s no ceiling on my thoughts.

Karpinski could write from any corner in the world, but who does she write for? With? To?

HK: I write with queer people in mind, I write for queer people. Growing up, I was always looking for myself in books. When you find yourself, when you recognize yourself, it’s just so life affirming, and it opened up the world for me. Over the summer I went to Poland to do semi-structured interviews, both in person and online, with queer people there. My parents immigrated in ’89, and I’m the first one in my family born in Canada, but most of my relatives are in Poland. I was partly there for my research, but partly there from my grandma, who is one of the people who raised me. I don’t feel capital P Polish, but I feel a sense of responsibility as somebody who, I think, in another lifetime could have very easily been born there. I could have been my queer self in a space that is so hostile to queer people. It’s the worst country in the EU for LGBTQ+ rights, for a lot of human rights. It’s devastating and oppressive, and there’s basically a media monopoly in Poland now, too. My babcia’s TV only gets the free public channels, and every channel is the same—it’s all owned by the same company, controlled by the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS).

Googling PiS + media control leads to some terrifying results. There have been unlawful attempts to shut down channels like the US-owned TVN, which have been critical of the current government. As Karpinski points out, one must pay for the privilege of dissent. 

HK: To bring it back to wanting to be recognized in books, in media, and my poetry being deeply hopeful…it’s kind of saccharine but my poetry is about loving. I want to write queer poetry for other queer people in which they can recognize themselves and find some joy and some sort of truth about their experience, and just see themselves, hopefully, as I have felt seen by other queer writers.

More on technology. 

HK: Actually, a lot of Poland’s queer community can be found online. So I posted in Facebook groups and on Reddit forums, and had people responding from small mining towns and all of these places which I never would have been able to reach. A lot of the people who chose to share their stories were minors. Minors on computers who either aren’t out to their families or who are out and are waiting to get out or they can’t get out because they can’t afford to. They don’t know anyone else who is queer in real life or they know one person. In that sense technology has been amazing in creating a bridge between queer spaces that are so—I don’t want to say inaccessible or obfuscated, but diffuse, and in giving me the ability to reach them as a person moving around in the world.

It’s very cold. Hannah Karpinski and I are both trembling, somewhat. For the past half hour I have been clutching my mug of ginger tea like it has all the answers in the world. I pull out my coffee thermos, and also my water bottle, and Karpinski is nice about the balancing act I’m doing with all these beverages. We have a human moment.

HK: Right now I’m sitting here at a very difficult emotional moment of loss, and also, it’s cold. But I know that the poems I’m writing now are so tactile and hot, and I know that I’ll return to them and be transported to this space where I’m alive in my body in a way that brings me pleasure and activates my spirit.

We have another kind of human moment. We discuss money.

HK: Well, I’m very lucky because I’m SSHRC funded [Social Science and Humanities Research Council], so that is a huge weight lifted off my shoulders this year. It definitely gives me more time to write without the acute anxiety of like, “Oh I have to pay for my apartment and my bills and also do six assignments and write my thesis”… I’m also very lucky because I have two-part time jobs that I actually enjoy. My restaurant job gives me health care, which is so rare. Yeah, I’m just lucky all around. But being a writer in general is an incredibly precarious position when you have to rely on government funding like Canada Council, or apply for grants that you and twenty of your friends and fifty of your classmates are competing for. There’s only so much funding to go around and it’s unsustainable. Also, writers are incredibly undervalued in terms of how much time and effort it takes to produce work for the market, like writing a grant application or even a bio for somebody. Right now I have my SSHRC, but next year, what? Who knows? I better start applying for new grants right now. I have friends who have salaries and I don’t think I will ever have a salary, which is a scary reality to face.

Speaking of scary realities, we turn to political activism and its relationship to writing.

HK: This makes me think about Solmaz Sharif. At her virtual launch for Customs in March, she recognized that to be a poet or to be an educator is to be in service of the state, whether you want to or not. Whether you think you are or not. In some ways it’s true, right, especially when I think about the university, and how we inhabit this space, studying something like creative writing. People are going into lifelong debt to be a part of this institution, which, at the same time, is also chewing up and spitting out its teachers. I think it’s impossible to conceive of poetry beyond that relationship of upholding, in my case, the university. I’m thinking about it in the shadow of the library building, next to this old brutalist structure towering over us. But I also think that writing does open up the space of critique of the systems that prevent us from thriving. The most engaged poetry has a relationship between internal and external, where analysis of systems is filtered through a person’s subjectivity and singularity.

It’s time for our last question. Are we, in fact, in a post-patriarchal literary landscape?

HK: No. I think that’s embedded in, for example, syllabi, which are getting better and better—depending on the professors—but no. I think about the people in positions of power, like CEOs of publishing companies and the prizes that are being awarded…but then again I do think that now is a better time than ever. We talked about the prize landscape this year, like Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch’s Grand Prix win for The Good Arabs, and Avery Lake’s Horrible Dance, which is up for a Governor General’s. In terms of literary political representation, I think there are more and more trans writers getting published, more women writers, queer writers, more writers of color. Little by little that is happening. When I read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House—oh my god, it just exploded my life. It is the first of its kind, right, it’s this brilliant hybrid memoir, so difficult to read, and it’s really affecting to be pulled into that downward spiral of gaslighting and queer-on-queer abuse. It was also incredibly reassuring and liberating to be able to read that experience, which so many of us can identify with, and to know that this is a new book in the world and that there are more coming. It gives me a lot of hope.

At this point, I ask Hannah Karpinski what her sign is.

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