Interview with Erin Robinsong

Erin Robinsong is a poet and interdisciplinary artist working with ecological imagination. Her debut collection of poetry, Rag Cosmology, won the 2017 A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry, and she is the author of Liquidity (House House Press, 2020) and Wet Dream (Brick Books, 2022). A PhD student at Concordia University, Erin’s research-creation work focuses on ecological imagination in contemporary poetry.

            Imagine my surprise when Erin Robinsong offers up her home for our interview, or when she shortens “evening” to “eve” in our email chain. Wednesday eve I stand outside a beautiful home and imposing stairs in Mile End. I won’t describe Mile End to you. Just know it is autumn in Montreal, and the ground is orange and crunchy. The texture of the season.

            Erin Robinsong answers the door with an easy smile. Her apartment consists of a long hallway, leading to a variety of rooms. We start in the kitchen. There is a big pot brewing. So far, I’ve found Montreal pleasantries involve a lot of culinary discovery. I try pea milk and reishi mushroom tea. It’s delicious. Robinsong seems to fit perfectly into the scene. She tells me she always loved making potions.

            This isn’t surprising. There is an entrancing quality to conversing with Erin Robinsong. Over the next hour, I attribute it to both her soft voice and those searching eyes. Robinsong does not shy away from the eye contact I insist on. In fact, her eyes move through my face, enough that at first I wondered if the new exfoliator I tried the night before had broken me out or something. This woman is reading me, I think. Like a paragraph. It is lovely.

            When had she encountered A Room of One’s Own? Erin Robinsong was about nineteen or twenty, taking a class on women’s literature. She was studying on creative writing and anthropology, and defines detailed attention to Woolf as an “opening up.”

            ER: It was a kind of opening up of what I understood as literature, the conditions under which literature is made… as a first year student it just completely opened up my brain. I don’t think I’d thought that much about gender and writing until that point.

            Robinsong remembers the genre-bending, rhetorical style the most. Content-wise, we touch on Woolf’s claim that a woman needed five hundred pounds a year and a private space in order to write. In the front room of Robinsong’s apartment, I ask her to tell me about her writing room, halfway down the hallway.

            ER: I would first of all say my writing rooms- they change a lot. For instance the room here, that is my quite opulent room at the moment. Opulent because it’s so huge. For years it has been my roommate’s room; I’ve been writing in there since I haven’t had a roommate. Which of course is a money thing, which is also what that book [A Room of One’s Own] is about, that £500 a year. It’s the most bare room in the house and there’s something about that I really love. It almost feels like stepping out of my house when I go in because I haven’t put my things in there, I haven’t kind of claimed it. It’s sometimes rented to other people. So I love writing in there for its spaciousness.

            We abandon our mugs of steaming mushroom tea to go take a look. Robinsong’s description is accurate. There is a desk by the window, facing the door. A mirror. A plant. It’s remarkably devoid. She continues, as we move through other rooms, including a cluttered small study with a balcony that couldn’t be more unlike the last room.

            ER: The quality of my thinking changes depending where I work and that’s one of the reasons I like to change locations, I think. I’m not like, ‘oh I must work somewhere else’ – circumstance means that I end up working in different spaces depending on, you know, if that room is rented out or where I am. I spend a lot of time in London because my partner lives there. So when I was there I wrote a lot at in British Library or the Wellcome Collection reading room.

            Robinsong seems to think about physical spaces a lot. Originally from Cortes Island, I ask about the Geopoetics Symposium she organized there.

            ER: The Geopoetics Symposium was a symposium and then a residency that brought a bunch of scholars and writers, mostly poets, activists, place-based educators together to think about what it means to create and think with the more than human, in the context of settler colonialism and the sixth extinction – very much engaged with the kind of conditions under which we find ourselves ecologically. That was an amazing experiment, bringing people together from quite different communities. There were a bunch of poets living on the West Coast like Rita Wong, Stephen Collis, Cecily Nicholson, Sonnet L’Abbé, Hari Alluri… They’re incredible poets who are also community activists, anti-pipeline activists. It’s something I really notice and admire about many west-coast poets, all the way down the coast, is their commitment to activism. A number of Montreal poets and artists were there as well, David Bradford, Michael Nardone, Megan Gnanasihamany, Nadia Chaney, and many others, and place-based educators from all over (I could go on – take a look here to learn more about the symposium). At the core of the gathering was the place itself, what the land, the water, the creatures, the weather, had to teach us. So much more than just being inside, listening to lectures… That’s why we did it on Cortes because it’s just an incredibly wild and alive place and it’s also where I’m from, so I had connections to Hollyhock where we put it on. It was an amazing gathering for sharing knowledge, giving workshops, talks, walking, being down by the ocean. A lot of meetings, a lot of fertile meetings.

            Talking to people has a way of expanding the definition of a room. It used to be four walls and a lock. But Erin Robinsong uses the word “fertile” to describe oral exchanges. Erin Robinsong is barefoot, like the first time I saw her read at Anteism Books. Erin Robinsong’s plant brushes my shoulder the entirety of the time we spend on her couch. I tell her, what she’s saying incorporates nature and community into conceptualizations of what a room or a space is.

            ER: That’s really beautifully put because I think that’s a big part of my practice, being outside, and engaging with the city, with birds, whatever. Often I’m interested in something in particular –  for a bunch of poems in my last book, for instance, I gathered material very early in the morning outside, in my alley, and sitting on my porch, writing with birds, bird utterance. To your point about these different kinds of rooms, the trees are part of that room with no roof, you know. So I would gather all this material outside and then come in, into the room with a roof, and then I have a different kind of focus. It’s like an aperture. I think that spaces and rooms affect so much what can be thought for me, and so I engage with that. That’s why I can only gather certain things when I’m outside, where unexpected encounters are more possible, and then bring them inside to think them differently. That movement is compelled by which kind of thinking space I’m ready for.

            You may have noticed the phrase “ecological imagination” in Robinsong’s blurb. Maybe hearing her speak, like me, you’re starting to understand what that means.

            ER: I’m really interested in the ways we conceive of ecology. Obviously how we conceive of the world shapes the world, we can see that so clearly with what’s happened to the natural world, the social world, since the Enlightenment. We’ve completely changed the weather and the climate, through many other forms of violence that both enacts and comes out of the idea that you can separate spirit and matter, that you could have a hierarchy of being which allows for some people to be more or less human than others, so you can have slavery, so you can have extraction. In this imaginary based on separation and hierarchy, animals are separated from humans, sentient from insentient matter, all this separation; that’s a certain ecological imagination that has gotten us to where we are now.

And although this way of imaging the world casts itself as universal, of course it’s not. Among traditional cultures the world over, white Eurocentric vision is the anomaly. And even then, in Europe there were, and are, lots of earth based knowledges, traditional knowledges, that were also subsumed by that Enlightenment imagination of the world: scientific empiricism, survival of the fittest… these imaginaries that we end up living inside of whether we want to or not. So I’m really interested in how, especially in poetry, other kinds of imaginations come forth. I’m also studying a lot of feminist environmental philosophy, but I’m ultimately really interested in how ecological imagination shows up in poetry because of the way language can be bent, remade and intuited there. Poetry is a space where language can have more creative freedom, to be as animate as it is, and not beholden to “Truth” or backing up statements with facts and bibliographies… it has a different ethics, a different logic that has more to do with magic and resonance. I’m deeply interested in what other conceptions of ecology there are than the ones I’ve inherited, that emerge from poets, especially poets inside empire, and my research is about that.

            Erin Robinsong has thought-out answers to my questions, and the eloquence to communicate them elegantly. It produces the sense that she’s someone with a lot to say, which is good for a poet, but also, I’m guessing, difficult. I’ve always admired how poets cut down their meaning to the barest of bone. How does that work with what Robinsong just said to me, activism, and the political power of poetry?

            ER: On the one hand I think that poetry can seem, in this capitalist context, almost the farthest thing from the political realm. And yet, there’s a lot of very political poets, I think most poets are very political…There’s so much resistance there, often through naming and reimagining of the situation we find ourselves in, which is untenable. Untenable in so many ways, but usually stemming from the same source – colonialism, imperialism, extraction, and so on.

One of poetry’s powers is that it’s so outside to mainstream culture that there’s a lot of intellectual freedom on the margins, where most people aren’t really policing or paying attention to poets. Especially within capitalism, which really wants to capture our attention and propose certain kind of life – a consumer’s life – it’s political to be a poet, if you’re really thinking and working, because in my experience at least, you come up against all the places where you have to liberate yourself in order to just think and write something that feels true, because there’s so much recycled rhetoric. So I think that poetry is a practice of political freedom whether or not it actually achieves political power. But it definitely can!

Poetry has been hugely mobilizing in other places and times. I haven’t lived in those cultures, but I know for instance in Latin America, maybe you know more about this, I’ve heard stories of poets speaking to stadiums of a hundred thousand people, having that kind of political power. So this is a long answer to say that I think poetry has – in an imaginative sense, which has the power to transform everything – immense latent political power, which at this point in time feels almost like mythical lore. But it’s happened! And at the same time, most people who are not ‘in poetry’ these days and can hardly find it… I remember having a conversation with a cab driver in London about poetry, and he was just like, ‘Tell me five books of poetry that will change my life, I don’t know anything about poetry’ and I was like ‘wow OK.’ Poetry has political power but also it needs to be findable to be part of the culture.

            I have a lot to say about this. I’m from Argentina, and Erin Robinsong is making me think about something I hadn’t before. There are whole generations where “censorship” and “exile” are almost synonyms to “poet.” I had somewhat assumed poetry had that gravity everywhere else. I’m reminded of being fourteen, at customs in California, worrying about whether they’d let me in the country because I was carrying Neruda’s autobiography in my backpack.

            ER: It’s dangerous to write in many countries, as we know. It can get you killed or imprisoned. But I was just thinking, in North American capitalist culture, instead of being killed or disappeared, which speaks to poetry’s power to incite revolution and change, the way that that this culture deals with it is just by almost disappearing poetry, burying it, making it so hard to find. Sometimes I look at a bookstore website, and you can’t even find poetry. It’s not even a section. I was looking for a wedding gift recently in Vancouver and I went into an Indigo – massive, multi-level Indigo– and I went looking for the poetry section, and there was no poetry section… Eventually I did find a shelf of poetry, it just wasn’t marked ‘Poetry’ – it was called ‘Arts & Letters’. I’m not saying it’s some big conspiracy, but I am saying that just as some regimes deal with the poetry’s disruptive powers by assassinating poets or locking them up, I think this culture deals with it by making it so poets and poetry almost can’t exist. It’s a different approach, and I would say it’s probably more effective than assassinating poets in certain regimes, because then everyone knows how actually powerful it is. We get this message that poetry doesn’t matter and that it’s totally ineffectual if you want to incite change, and almost laughable as a career and I think that is another way of hiding its power.

            A fair point. And a perfect transition into talking about money.

            ER: I think the material reality of poetry is such an important thing to talk about. I sustain myself by, let’s see, first, doing a lot of freelance editing work. Before that, I taught composition for five years in a college. I also make performance, often funded by grants. And grants for writing are wonderful when they come in. So I’ve patchworked a living from many different sources. It’s often been very stressful. I’ve been pretty broke most of my adult life and I think if I had children or dependents, it would have been a million times more stressful. Swinging from branch to branch, is how it’s felt. I think that I’m able to do that because if I ever fell, I’m lucky to have a family who would catch me. I think it’d be very hard to live such a precarious financial life if I didn’t have a supportive family. Not that they’ve had to bail me out very often, but just knowing they were there is a certain kind of privilege that enabled me to take risks I guess. At the moment, I’m a PhD student and have funding for a few years and honestly, after being freelance for so long, that’s been amazing. It’s given me space in my own brain because navigating all of the, you know, waiting for this cheque to come in, waiting to get paid from this thing, waiting to hear about grants, all of this kind of constant negotiation just to do what I do.

Money can help or hinder an artist. I think if I always had money I wouldn’t have learned certain things. I learned a lot about the shoddiness of capitalism and that is a pretty important thing to know in this world. It’s a shitty thing to learn about but this is the situation! But I also don’t subscribe to the starving artist trope, like if you’re a poet you have to be poor. In my 30s, I went the route of centering my creative work, and it meant that all my other jobs kind of supported that even if it meant I was broke. So that’s one model.

            The other part that makes up the material reality of poetry is community. I ask Erin Robinsong about any groups she belongs to, and it’s hard to keep track of all she mentions. Several writing communities, artists of many disciplines (especially dance) in Montreal, a collective of poets in London. Mentors like Lisa Robertson and this project’s own Sina Queyras. In her hometown on Cortes: lifelong friends, family and lovers of that place. The one constant is that they are all inter-disciplinary. Robinsong is thinking alongside dancers, cultural theorists, artists, poets.

            ER: In my chosen communities, it’s so much about how are people thinking and how are they working with form, rather than disciplinary enclaves. That’s what really excites me and interests me. A lot of my community has to do with conversations around ecology, around justice, and around art and collaboration… I really like moving between communities as much as really belonging in them, I would say.

            In so many spaces and between so many people, there must be different ways of relating to each other. Has Robinsong seen or experienced any power dynamics?

            ER: Yes! I often work collaboratively, especially on dance projects, and I don’t think you can collaborate without power dynamics being present. Especially when there are roles – like, choreographers and dancers. So I’m interested in how you work with these dynamics to create an environment where everyone feels empowered. Collaboration is an opportunity to create a mini-culture together, to try and have a truly collaborative space where we make something together, and what we make depends on the relational space we’re making at the same time. Working with dancer/choreographer Hanna Sybille Müller for several years now, I learned from her that one way to address power dynamics, in really practical terms, is to just pay everybody the same amount of money. Nobody gets paid less. The dancers make the same per hour as the choreographer and the lighting designer, which is not how it’s traditionally been. That’s one of the ways that we’ve tried to address power dynamics, fully acknowledging that they are going to exist. We also have a lot of discussion, and if the dancers are not into what we’re proposing, we change it, or they change it, we change it together. It works best when working with people who are alive and awake and responsible to power dynamics, because egos need to be flexible. The best collaborations I’ve been part of are where people have clear roles, but no hierarchy… how do we create a culture that feels good? And you can feel it, right? I’ve been in other pieces where you feel that people are unhappy and you feel that too. I’ve of course encountered very toxic power relations too, mostly in institutions – classic stuff where the white men have all of the power, the publications, and abuse it. And as much as that hasn’t changed in some ways, we’ve all seen how fast it can shift in recent years too.

            Coming from someone responsible for the building of an environment, the acknowledgment of power dynamics, and the conscious treatment of them, are welcome words. It has me thinking about the mental space of collaboration, where Robinsong seems firmly rooted and most comfortable in.

            My last question is almost antithetical to everything I know about her. What does technology have to do with this woman, so down to earth, speaking so respectfully about nature and people?

            ER: I’m sure that social media is shaping my attention, my desires, in ways that are making it hard for me to read a book from start to finish. It’s definitely attention fracturing. In terms of poetry… We’re swimming in technology. So I don’t think that’s a problem, really, in poetry, except for when I’m distracted for so long that I’m not writing it…Maybe what I’ll say is one of the ways in my practice that I’ve really found to work, that is maybe similar to the movement between working outside and working inside I described earlier, is that I do a similar thing in moving between my notebooks and writing on computer. I think differently when I’m typing. That might have less to do with the computer and more because I’m using both my hands and all my fingers, and can write faster, but again, I see these as different compositional tools that I really rely on to shift states of mind, to think different thoughts. I think if I had my computer taken away and I had to write everything by hand, I would have to adapt, I would have to find new ways, because writing poetry is so physical. And one of things I always think about computers is we can actually write with all of our fingers. Right and left at the same time. That is pretty wild compared to, you know, this little claw we’re writing with the rest of the time. Obviously writing with a pen and a book is another kind of technology, literacy is technology. I’m interested in what each of these technologies allow me to do, allow me to think, and how combining them affords more range of motion for thinking. I mean, I’m not making VR poems at this moment but maybe I will. Despite what I was saying earlier about how no one can find poetry, a lot of people are finding poetry on Instagram and that is a really amazing way, besides buying books, that poetry can move. Not only people posting their poems on Instagram, but also posting old poems, all kinds of poems, circulating, being shared. It’s an incredible medium for the virality of poetry. The popular surge in poetry is not because of social media, I think it’s because people will always need poetry, especially when the world makes completely no fucking sense. When things make no fucking sense, you’re like ‘I need poetry.’ I don’t know what the statistics are, but I know interest in poetry from ten years ago to now is hugely significant. People ascribe that to Instagram and stuff but I think it’s because Instagram is facilitating a way that people have needed, you know, before social media, to find what speaks to them.

            I stand corrected. Then I pull out my phone, and take pictures of Erin Robinsong moving her arms. She relaxes as soon as she’s in motion, fluid. She smiles. I thank her for her time, inviting me into her home, her thoughtful responses. She thanks me too.  Asks for just one more thing to be added.

            ER: A room is an atmosphere. Montreal is a room. A wide room. I can only write what I write because I’m living here.

Interview with Sallie Fullerton

Sallie Fullerton is the recipient of a Fulbright Study/Research grant in Creative Writing, which has led them to develop their project in Montreal. It involves documentary poetry, focusing on the shifting lesbian scene in the city through the decades. They received an MFA Poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2021. Their poems have been published in several online publications, including Frontier Poetry, Vagabond City Lit, and Slanted House Collective.

It’s my third time meeting Sallie Fullerton. It’s my first time meeting them without anyone else there. Facing the Second Cup Coffee menu, I somewhat peer-pressure them into getting a dirty chai with me. We’re steps away form Concordia’s Loyola Campus, where we will head after the interview for the Feminist Media Studio open house. This is one of the several labs Fullerton is associated with during their stay in Montreal.

The interview starts with me learning something new. Apparently Stevia is natural, as opposed to the two Splenda packets I’ve ripped apart on top my latte, like a sacrifice. In a bit, Fullerton will tell me about how they work as a barista at times, and I will realize none of my choices in that coffeeshop so far must have been read as neutral. It’s hard to feel judged by Sallie Fullerton, due to a very considerate disposition, but it’s also easy to pick up on that fact that they could put that consideration to use and write a devastating poem. It’s intimidating in the way the poets you trust to be poets are.

I ask them if they’ve read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

SF: A teacher in high school gave me a copy. I never gave it back, I don’t know if I was supposed to. But I read it in high school and not since then… I think I was excited for reading something that felt really grown up, maybe. I don’t remember detailed impressions but I think I remember being excited by it, whether or not that’s because it was a gift, or because I felt, like, important that a teacher gave me something, or because it was the subject, I don’t know. But I do love Virginia Woolf, I found out later.

Turns out their favorite Woolf book is Mrs. Dalloway. We stray from the interview questions a bit, discussing Woolf as a whole. Namely, the toughness it can ask from its reader. Fullerton clarifies that they find Woolf brilliant, and the cult of personality intriguing, but a windy one-page sentence can be dense to get through, and actually get.

SF: I love the modernist writers but I assume it’s its own kind of weird rabbit hole you can go into, and you start reading Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf, and you do need to be feel strong enough to do it. You can’t like– it’s not casual. These books need a class or a professor behind them or someone to light the fire under you a bit.

It’s the second time Fullerton has brought up a teacher or a professor in our conversation, so I move up my question about mentorship.

SF: I lean heavily on it. Almost– to the point where I sometimes have trouble writing outside of writing community, or outside of an institution, outside of proximity to other writers or, like, being kind of seen. It’s unfortunate but I think that I do have trouble existing alone in writing, you know. In some ways that’s really good because it’s nice to have a communal writing project or practice, but it doesn’t feel like a real artist artist, the one that’s, like, alone in their head and kind of crazy and ripping their hair out, writing all night. I don’t have that. I think my mentors have been hugely important and the only reason I did this is, keep writing poetry I mean, is because of a string of one person to another that encouraged me to do it. If just at any point that string was broken, I don’t know that I would have.

We turn our attention to non-academic writing communities. Fullerton shares that even inside academia, when they taught creative writing, it seemed that students took those courses seeking a space that allowed them to step out of their scholarship and their lives, and into a more direct relationship with their writing and other people. I point out that even then at the end of the term there is a grade, and throughout, the idea of an instructor among the group is very much felt.

SF: I’m actually just remembering that that’s how I got into it. In college I wasn’t a creative writing major. I think I tried to be one and my thesis got rejected because I got a B in a class and also I was trying some crazy thesis that was like, I made a handmade book and they were not OK with it. So I wasn’t a creative writing major, I only took about two or three creative writing classes in all of undergrad, But I did meet with this group, I think was called Writers Block, and it was like student-run. You’d meet terribly hungover, it was like on a Sunday morning, so you know. And then you just kind of sit into a self-directed– we’d all just write together in a room and then share and that was that. Sometimes there were problems but sometimes it was totally just… we’re just all safe together writing, and then whoever wants to can say what they just wrote, and it was all different genres, it wasn’t genre-specific, and that was my writing practice. I don’t even know how I ended up there. I don’t think I even had friends that were doing it.

For a while we reflect on how nice it can be to share and not be workshopped, to have writing “just kind of be.” In a way, to not invite anyone to have the power of opinion over it. This, of course, leads us to power imbalances in writing communities.

SF: I’ve definitely been in workshops in grad school that I’ve felt like super weird in. There’s a professor that will go in with a set of things that they like and a very specific style of writing that works for them and then kind of put that onto the class… and they’re really bad at hiding their favorites, so you just end up feeling like you’re in a room full of people just trying to get this professor to say one nice thing. Everyone’s writing is shifting towards… this felt like something that would definitely homogenize an entire classroom, right, to all have the same voice and same style. And because you start to feel– I was one that he did not like, he definitely didn’t like my style. I remember kind of going insane thinking “how do I get him to like anything I like?” Not that I have to write for someone but at a certain point just feels brutal to go in all the time and have your stuff ripped apart, so I was like ‘OK so this one I’m really gonna try and have it not be ripped apart’ and then, not even kind of realizing it, I’m writing for one specific person in a style I don’t even really like…because I just didn’t want to leave crestfallen, I just wanted to feel good. That was a bummer.

We arrive to what I think of as the meat of the interview. I ask Sallie Fullerton if they have a room of their own.

SF: OK, I have tons of rooms for the first time. I’m living in my own apartment and it’s a big apartment; it’s got a front room, a little tiny bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and then you can go back through. It’s five rooms I can just move from, and of course I stay in one of the rooms all the time. I could keep moving around and theoretically each room is for a different state and then you can move through space in a way that structures your time, but that’s very… with wonderful poetry, you have a good desk room which is never where it’s gonna happen. The people I’m renting from thought ‘oh you’re coming here to study, you need a desk.’ I’m like, poetry is gonna happen in the windowless kitchen. The worst room of the bunch, really, is kind of where I’ve camped out to do all my stuff… I could be given this huge beautiful mansion and I will find the small, tiny airless closet that will feel good.

I simply have to ask why.

SF: I don’t know. I think it’s not very distracting. Maybe it’s cozy. I like being contained. My last place, I was sharing a very small apartment with my partner. I didn’t really have a room, I had a desk that just facing a wall in the corner of our living room and I wrote nothing there at all. Because it was too public. So I think you just kind of end up somewhere and then you can’t– it’s like when you sit in your seat on the first day of class, you know, and then you keep sitting there. I sat down in the kitchen and felt better and so I stayed there.

Fullerton’s current work has to do with a documentary poetry project centering on the lesbian social scene in Montreal. They state it being so community specific is somewhat unusual for them, often producing insular work. Using oral histories and archives, Fullerton’s research spans the last five or more decades. They describe it as a collage. From different passages and interview, they pick out parts to weave together into a narrative that evokes a more immediate sense of lived experience. They list ethical considerations on writing with many voices, such as fabrication or decontextualization. I hear them speak, and I’m struck by how much it reminds me of Sina Queyras’ objective with Writing Beyond The Room. I do my best to articulate this to Sallie Fullerton, and we have a “delightfully vague” aside about digging into the past and communicating about it as Frankenstein-like reconstruction. They bring up a good point about documentary poetry.

SF: It’s all constructed history…I think documentary poetry is interested in not pretending like this isn’t a construction. Even a photograph is framed. It’s not– you’re not in a total 360 degrees experience.

Which is something to think about, particularly when you write about encounters with people. We talk about bars next.

SF: They are really important historically, in the struggle to meet safely…I mean, a lot of organizing happened in bars… It’s very linked to any of the political and social projects of lesbian, in this case, or queer community, especially at the time I’m mostly writing about. The 70s or 80s but even I think, now. Bars are usually first adopted as the main space because it’s easy to run them in a looser way, and people can make a community space. Really, you can kind of fill in whatever you want after “bar”, but it makes it a little more fun.

Fullerton informs me of the devastating news that there are no official lesbian bars in Montreal. Their project’s importance seems to have an amplified magnitude.

SF: I think there’s a lot of work being done with lesbian bars right now, in gay bars, for that reason, because they’re disappearing across North America. This is not a Montreal specific turn. Almost every city gets a rapid decline in gated spaces and I think that there’s a really good bunch of reasons, not all of them even bad, but still I think it’s important to try and keep something tapped in of what– of what allowed this kind of more loosely affiliated queer socializing that we see now, that’s like pop-ups and all these things that are maybe less constructed… It was just that one room and now we have a way of life that flows a little more freely and sometimes that’s frustrating, too. You really do want that room, you really wanna go back into, you know, that dark little kitchen. But in another way it’s nice to be able to walk outside.

Eventually, I have to ask the poet how they make a living.

SF: Money helps, definitely, because I need to live. Usually the way I’ve supported myself it’s been either being a part of institution; my MFA was funded so I didn’t have to pay for it, and they paid me and I’d be teaching during that time. Or the year after that I continue teaching or I’m a barista. It’s either– I want a job that’s totally linked to poetry, very involved in my own practice, or something that has nothing to do with it. You can totally leave it at the door, it will not impede on my thoughts too much working as a barista, as opposed to working in a nonprofit, like a desk job nine-to-five…Right now I’m on a full break. Fulbright is this U,S. government grant. They support you for nine months while you do your research and they’re really very hands off about it. So no one’s really watching me. They don’t give you a ton of money and they they give the same amount of money to wherever you go, so it doesn’t go as far in Canada as it might somewhere else. It’s livable and I’ve been able to live alone here, which is… I mean, I don’t know if I’ll ever do that again. Probably not. Anyway. I think that’s been kind of huge, getting supported in a way that I get to live alone and not be constantly working…when I do work I like when it’s something that’s pretty separate from writing unless it’s teaching. I like teaching because that feels like yours, it helps rather than hinders. Expands on things. Best of all is to be on the ground. The one downside of a grant like this is I can’t work. I don’t have a work permit, only for this specific thing. So I usually would prefer to have some kind of other thing to be occupied, ideally just a few days a week at a coffee shop, but I can’t. There’s nowhere to turn besides your research and your writing… I think I just contradicted myself saying the best of all is not to work but really it’s– there’s a certain point when free time becomes a problem.

The rest of our conversation is political. We start on the topic of how all writing is.

SF: Writing is communication. Writing is needed to disseminate information that you communicate across large numbers, so in that way it’s one of the most basic possible means of organizing… I also think that we talk about documentary poetry, that genre, as fundamentally an activist political genre. It’s intended to elevate or draw attention to often marginalized voices, so in that way writing allows you to take information and get it around and that feels very political and intentional… I mean, obviously there’s some poetry that’s more overtly political or activist-based. Especially the trend of the most popular approach books right now are taking, that focus on a particular issue or are made with some important, deeper message in mind. It always is, but there it’s coming closer and closer to the surface. It feels like that it would have been maybe like– you know Sylvia Plath, you have to dig a little bit…

Sallie Fullerton has two more of my existential questions to untangle. When I ask them if they think they have intellectual freedom, they pause for a while, which I appreciate.

SF: I immediately wanted to say ‘of course’ but then that feels like a question you have to think about. I think when I was proposing this project I felt limited in how I had to set it up because it is a U.S. state department funded program. So, I mean, talk about writing as political. It’s like a diplomacy project that they’re trying to further their political agenda in different countries in certain ways or at least signal that they’re interested in certain things, or I don’t know, but I did feel a little bit trapped trying to figure out a way to describe this project that would appeal to the U.S. state department. Which is a position I never want to be in again… I felt, like, dirty. That didn’t feel very free. Now that I’m here and they’ve stopped looking, I do. We’ll see in nine months when they pop their heads back in…My partner is doing this project on censorship and writing in Romania, so I’m hearing a lot about dictator censorship. Comparatively, very free. I don’t know. Do you feel that way?

Even though the whole interview has felt like a conversation, this moment sticks out to me as the prime example of it. I disclose my thoughts on my own intellectual freedom. Mainly, about how I’m not particularly interested in writing things that are easy to swallow, so I don’t, perhaps to my detriment. Fullerton sympathizes, sharing how it felt to write overtly queer poetry in workshops.

SF: I think I do best when I can work with other queer authors or queer readers. I would write these things and either people would think it was so crazy and zany or gross… to be fair I did use intense, visceral language… or they would just be so totally lost. It was like mind-boggling to me, like ‘wow, no one no one picked up on that’. So I wasn’t told I couldn’t write about these things, but sometimes it was that kind of thing…You’re just looking for your readers. I remember a professor saying that the real purpose of this program is to find one or two people that you like and you respect and who are aligned with your work, and then have lifelong readers. One or two people that the rest of your life you can send work to and get feedback from, and that makes sense to me. Honest review for grad school. I think I got even more than one or two, so I was lucky.

On the topic of queerness and gender, I throw my final question at Sallie Fullerton. Are we in a post-patriarchal literary landscape?

SF: Jeez Louise.

PO’F: I know, I’m sorry.

SF: I think we’re still in a pretty decently gendered literary landscape. I see it most clearly marked in book reviews, in the kind of coded language which can feel at times dismissive. Like calling certain writers like ‘overly confessional,’ you know, the classic critique of the confessional female poet, is still around I think. Now we just say it’s ‘too Tumblr’ or something like that. Maybe that’s what they mean. It’s the same as people critiquing Sylvia Plath for writing about her internal landscape, maybe a little more heavily coated. You have to like dig a little bit more but I think it’s still there, just dismissing certain writing as less important, using a subscript of words that feel gendered and sad.

Our dirty chais long gone, five minutes after 1 PM, Sallie Fullerton and I stand up, and head to the Feminist Media Studio, where we drink even coffee and talk some more about rooms, books, community, and quite importantly, approaches.

Interview with Paloma Dawkins

Paloma Dawkins is the co-founder of Apocablyss Studios, behind games such as Oceanarium (beta), Songs of the Lost, Museum of Symmetry, Palmystery, Alea, and Gardenarium. Dawkins’ games are praised for being digital spaces that celebrate natural life and rhythms. The worlds and spaces she creates in her games incite creative thinking and wonder, and help expand the medium in a time of great innovation. Dawkins won awards at the Canadian Screen Academy Awards, Fantasia, FIVARS, Cinekid, NUMIX, and North Bend Festival, and exhibited at Festivals, Museums and Galleries around the world including Siggraph, MIF, V&A, MAAM, LikeLike, Garage Museum, Babycastles, and many more.

Find her @mysssterious999 or @apocablyss.

After Paloma Dawkins and I say hello to each other at the Plateau’s Cafe Myriade, she tells me about the nice coat she’s put on for our meeting and about how that morning she got up at 4AM, unwillingly. She is immediately warm and reassuring to be around. We wait for our respective oat milk lattes as Dawkins tells me about her post-interview plans to go visit the Insectarium, and I wonder if most people who own a video game company are this chill.

Dawkins handles the code and visuals, while co-founder Ashley Opheim takes care of the writing. On their symbiotic relationship, Dawkins says, “She’s a Capricorn and I’m a Cancer, so we’re in the very opposites of the spectrum, it’s perfect…I’m almost just trying to impress Ashley and Ashley is trying to understand me.” They had called that very morning, and Dawkins expresses gratitude for the way their interpretations inspires the other. It’s interesting for me to undertake this interview for Writing Beyond The Room with Dawkins rather than the person who wrote the poems featured in their latest game, but it feels appropriate. Our conversation’s objective is to explore the idea of a virtual room, and to examine the power behind the ability to build it. Hearing Dawkins speak convinces me code is its own kind of writing, and it is the intent behind this writing that really structures the spaces people inhabit online.

For one, Dawkins begins by stressing that spirituality is the answer. This is not what many, myself included, expect from someone in the tech sector. But we met at a tarot deck launch, so maybe I should have known better. Dawkins tells me about a conversation she had with a friend the previous night, on how spirituality, or maybe something more akin to faith, was relinquished in favor of a new alternative reality. She brings up The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace by Margaret Wertheim.

PD: Yeah, it’s really cool. She argues that church was a spiritual space that kind of, like– organized religion was a place for us to experiment with a different version of ourselves. Like a spiritual realm. And then she argues that now we use the Internet to do that. The Internet is the only place that we have to explore our spiritual selves.

Our conversation gets even more spiritual. Dawkins explains that the studio’s name, Apocablyss, is no coincidence. That the apocalypse isn’t a sudden event, but that it’s happening right now, slowly. A mundane thing. Dawkins echoes the Jungian idea that we are born with all the information we need to die, and so as a species, we have an apocalyptic vision in us. It is tech companies, with an insatiable drive for development and a tendency to burn out, that are unconsciously manifesting this, Dawkins says.

PD: What if we, like, had a great experience while we were building technology, you know? Then we would be creating blessed technologies. We’re basically creating spaces for people to go and explore this new version of themselves. Instagram is your avatar, it’s kind of like your spiritual counterpart in a way, right, but we just don’t have faith in that reality. Imagine if it was like… like, I love DND [Dungeons & Dragons]. It’s so cool. Imagine it’s like that’s how we treated our social media. It’d be so nice, we’re questing out there in the digital space to beat this, you know, instead of it being like ‘oh, I just do this for likes, now I’ll show my house for comments.” Couldn’t it be good deeds? I don’t know, could be anything. But yeah, I just want to see a reality where we believe a little bit more that our technology could be good for us.

Dawkins makes games that advocate for the ludic exploration of the self. It’s both profound and light, spiritual and impressively down-to-earth. Most importantly, it’s an alternative to the narratives we have been presented on the virtual composition of spaces and personas. On the website, Apocablyss’ products are described as “transmedia, meditative, and transformative.” I ask for an example, and how, exactly one can build such a place.

` PD: We wanted to create a space that made you feel refreshed after, and so the way that we did that is we wanted you to experience all of your emotions. This took us years. Basically, we just wanted to wash you with colors and poetry that was designed to make you feel a certain way. And so the first level we wanted you to feel scared. The color was red…you kind of walked around really scared because we thought it’s scary to be in VR for the first time…. and then you get over your fear and, look, the poetry is like stepping over your fear. And then the next level is like OK, now you’re out of your fear now, it’s kind of chaotic, you know, it’s yellow. There’s character that’s like just like going off, on, off, saying random stuff but it’s kind of cool because Ashley’s poetry is amazing. You’re getting diamonds and stuff, and so, cool, you’ve gotten into that chaotic but fun, interesting realm. And then you go into the green and green is a little bit more- it’s a little bit more like reality. And so we explored how you got in trouble and then you got out of the trouble and then you were made to help some people. This is the longest area because green is the color we see the most…green can make it through the atmosphere like way better than any other color and so our eyes everything is made out of more green than anything else…so we got to explore, what does that mean in the story? You’re watering flowers and then this character kindly tells you to stop. Stop watering the flowers. We wanted the player to have the sense of empowerment to do what they wanted to do. Subvert the expectations at this time. By doing that you didn’t make this other character happy, but you did what you had to do. We’re trying to make people think for themselves. That’s something I love doing in my games. Don’t do it because you’re being told to do it cause it’s almost always gonna be wrong…Then we kind of like put the character in the ocean. Like a washing experience, like you’re gonna be reborn…there’s this amazing poem for the end and it’s just like it’s such a crazy moment. If you go through the whole experience it just feels like such a release at this moment, you know…I’ve seen some people really like respond strongly to it and I think that’s kind of a success for us. It was our first time trying really meticulous storytelling with the space and the emotions and shapes and the sounds, all of these things combined. We wanted to make sure the sound went with the frequency of the color that it was, you know, like yellow has a frequency, right?

I nod, like I know all about yellow’s frequency. I’m taken aback by the level of attention to the crafting of each digital space in Gardenarium. The notion of player empowerment also sticks out to me. As a creator of these places, of the design and rules of the game, Dawkins is not interested in constraining or defining the player. Her earlier words on self-discovery ring truer. It’s built into these rooms’ code.

These rooms are also strikingly natural, for a video game. There’s the ocean, the importance of green. My chat with Paloma Dawkins, in a similar fashion, keeps coming back to her admiration for nature.

PD: Technology reflects natural patterns completely. Like the way that a flower grows. There’s so much we can be inspired by…because it’s so elegant so simple and it’s so strong…so satisfying look at. Yeah, that’s that’s what I want to bring into my games. That satisfaction of seeing stuff bloom.

I then learn about Wampum, all the while being reminded of the night I met Dawkins a week earlier, digital flowers being watered on the wall to our right. That was the night of the tarot deck launch. Amidst all this talk of abstract spaces, I ask Dawkins about the tangible products Apocablyss makes.

PD: There’s a limitation to like what I can do online and it’s not very satisfying for me to only do things online. Community is such an important part of the whole equation for me, and so I really want to bridge that gap between digital space and real space.

I ask what that looks like.

Dawkins mentions her love of events, and that’s how we get to the start of her career.

PD: My friends would throw raves and then I’d be like ‘hey can I like make a dumb game and like put it in the corner’ and then I would watch drunk people playing my games and it was really good feedback. They’d be like ‘woo!’ or ‘I don’t know where to go’…It’s really fun, it was just the best way to do it because I’m working with my friends to make the game and it’s just such a better process. Sometimes now I’m at home, slogging away by myself. I miss that time. I need human feedback in order to do this. I’m not existing in a vacuum, you know, like some games designers think that they can. I don’t know, I guess they like that. I can’t.

Human feedback takes us to mentorship, a topic Dawkins has already alluded to.

PD: I wouldn’t be able to do anything I’m doing without mentorship. Especially being a woman, I got a lot of support from people just being like ‘Oh my God, yeah, you got it.’ It’s helpful but then as I progressed I needed heavier and heavier help because I didn’t go to school for anything. That’s a huge part of the problem. I mean, I didn’t have the right credits to go to like, the right school to learn. Because I was like- I always thought I was… I was girl from the 90s or whatever, you know, they were like ‘oh girls aren’t good enough’ or I don’t know what it was, maybe just me stuck in that, but I didn’t have the credits… So I had to do it on my own. It was probably better because then I got really tailored help. The first thing I did was something called the Artsy Games Incubator at the Hand Eye Society in Toronto, like a six week course, intensive. Every week we would just meet up with out piece, kind of like build on it, and that was really cool because I had animation experience but not game experience. It’s really good transitioning. Then after I finished that one take some time with NSP; that felt like an internship to me, honestly. Then after that to start my own company, it’s a whole other can of worms. You need specific training for that and I’m so grateful Dames Making Games helped me with that part. They have this social impact investment readiness course and they select some women and LGBTQ folks and every minority in the game industry to prepare them… That was really cool and they helped me open my company, like the LLC. They got me a lawyer, they got me an accountant, all these things. It just goes show how much gatekeeping there is because that’s such specific knowledge. It’s not something you can just casually share, you know, it’s like– some guys are just raised with that…The rest of us just don’t even know how it’s actually quite simple, you just have to have the savvy, you just have to have that confidence, you have to know the terminology. The same goes for coding…as long as you have the help, if you have the energy, the eagerness, you could do anything.

We talk about support in the industry, and the big factor money is. Dawkins shares an anecdote with me. Living in Montreal, paying around two hundred a month for rent, “[e]ating…I don’t even know what I was eating,” she posted a listing on Bunz. A comic for a meal. The post blew up.

PD: It was really fun. I went around town with a bag of comics and just got meals all day. People would pack a little meal, all these really interesting folks, and I kind of missed those times. I would get into these really creative ways of making money and that’s around the time when I started doing games at like festivals and raves…I feel like that was a huge part of my process to get to where I am.

She shares her excitement at being paid 750 CAD for her first comic, and over time, seeing it grow for a thousand a game, two thousand, four thousand, twenty thousand. I bring up a link I noticed on Apocablyss’ page, one leading to the entirety of her games on Itch.io. for free. She nods fervently.

PD: I want my games to be free. It feels like they should be free.

Dawkins is only back in Montreal for a couple of days, before heading back to her home in Nova Scotia. I ask her the million dollar question: if she has a room of her own. She does. It’s full of Tatami mats. She lists the things the can do in them: sleep, stretch, yoga, get cozy, watch a movie, have tea. She tells me she loves being in this room, and I believe her. She attributes it to the texture of the mats. I tell her, that it sounds like the sort of meditative space she’s creating for others in her games. She agrees with a smile.

PD: Our environment really inspires who we become. That’s something in nature. If there’s this kind of plant, then the creatures around are gonna be eating them, right, like they’re gonna be evolving with that plant in mind. So if I have a chill room with Tatami mats, I’m gonna become a chill, close to the ground person.

I am curious about the video game industry as an environment, and a space for a woman to move in. I ask Dawkins about any power dynamics or situations she may have encountered. She comes up blank.

PD: I guess I’m a little oblivious sometimes. Others will say ‘oh, that person was doing this’ or whatever, and I’m like ‘oh really, I didn’t notice.’ I guess I’m kind of naive. I expect the best of people but I think that works in my advantage, honestly, because most people wanna be their best. If I don’t give them a chance to be a terrible, cringy person, then they won’t. That’s my hope anyway. It just hasn’t really happened to me…I think I’ve just been really lucky to been working with the NFB [National Film Board of Canada], they’re mostly like asking me about the VR world, you know, but that’s good…I think I’m going to come into maybe some more of those spaces now that I’m on my own and trying to get in the door a bit. So I might have to do some, like, weird hoops and get some weird power dynamics but I don’t know, I feel pretty confident about myself.

What about confidence in the space itself? I ask Dawkins if she’d consider us to be in a post—patriarchal media landscape.

PD: Yeah, that’s cool. Yeah, post patriarchal, let’s go, let’s go. I’m all about it. I do believe that, yeah. I feel like it’s not working anymore, you know, that like… hyperfocused, masculine, nine to five, we need all hands on deck for this… I don’t think it’s gonna become like matriarchy but I think that we can abolish that entire idea altogether, that whole gender binary. We’re just here for humanity, we’re here for creatures, we’re here for plants, we’re here for all the players. Fuck gender because it doesn’t matter, right, we’re inter species. I feel like you can’t expect your people to be kind to each other if they can’t even be kind to animals, they can’t even be kind to their computers. We need to be kind to everything, all otherness, period.

I thank Dawkins for her time and end the recording before she says the rawest thing I have heard all week. I scribble it down furiously.

PD: Defining a space is so anti-nature. What is indoors versus outdoors? We’re in nature all the time. A digital space is nature.