The Glass Age of Isolation, Indeed: Hannah Macready Interviews Curtis LeBlanc

April 18, 2020 at 12:27 pm  •  Posted in blog, Blogs, general, Home Page, interview, Interviews, Issue, Welcome by

Curtis LeBlanc is a poet and fiction writer residing in Vancouver, BC. He is the author of Little Wild (Nightwood, 2018) and Birding in the Glass Age of Isolation (Nightwood, 2020). His work has appeared in Joyland, Geist, Maclean’s, The Malahat Review, EVENT, PRISM International, Prairie Fire, The Fiddlehead, Grain, and elsewhere. Curtis holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. He is the recipient of the Readers’ Choice Award in the Poem of the Year competition by Arc and has been shortlisted for The Walrus Poetry Prize. He’s also the co-founder and Managing Editor of Rahila’s Ghost Press. He is currently at work on his first novel.

Hannah Macready: Curtis! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I’ve been meaning to do this interview for a while now. Two poems from your forthcoming book, “Birding in the Glass Age of Isolation,” were included in EVENT 48/2 and I had the chance to hear you read them at our Words in the Burbs event in the fall. The two poems, “Frankenfish” and “Fair Oaks Summer” really stuck with me after that reading. Maybe it was the nostalgia in your voice when you read; maybe it was my own projections of missing my small-town upbringing. As I read them again, stuck in the isolation of COVID-19, that nostalgia feels more powerful; achier. Can you tell us a bit about these poems? Where did they come from? Who are they for?

Curtis LeBlanc: I’ve always had this intense reverence for the past. I wouldn’t call it a longing, because I’m happier than I’ve ever been, with a truly wonderful cast of people in my life and the absolute privilege to pursue a writing practice. But yes, I revere the past because it’s where I came from and it’s what shaped me. This present I’m so happy in couldn’t have existed without it. I find the best poems I ever write come from ruminating on a past experience, eventually stumbling on some observation or realization that feels to me profound or at least somehow significant. I’m a nostalgic person and I think that’s always been clear in my poetry.

I do often dedicate poems to people, but these two in particular aren’t specifically for anyone. “Fair Oaks Summer” is about this period in my life when I was sixteen, the summer before my final year of high school, and the possibilities of love and human emotion felt truly limitless. For some reason, whenever I think about that time it takes my breath away. There. It just happened as I was typing this. That’s the feeling I was trying to capture. It’s really abstract and elusive for me, so I hope I did a good job of it.

HM: Your new book came out on April 17th, 2020. I’m sure the process of getting this work out has been long and full of emotion for you. Now, as it finally comes to the physical world, it seems the physical world is on hold. Your wife similarly published her book in the midst of this pandemic. Can you speak to how this crisis has affected your book release and those in your surrounding community?

CL: Gathering with the poetry community has always been something I look forward to, so obviously I was going into the launch of this book excited to celebrate it with friends. I think I can say the same for Mallory, though we’re both really happy she got her official launch off at Havana Theatre just before the need for isolation set in. That said, so many in the community are coming up with innovative ways to still enjoy writing together. I’m incredibly thankful for anyone putting together online journals or virtual readings or podcasts or interviews (like you!) at this time.

HM: Well, enough with the doomsday talk. Though the everyday world is currently paused, creativity lives on! Let’s pivot the mood. Birding in the Glass Age of Isolation is your second book of poetry. Your first, Little Wild, came out almost exactly two years ago. Can you tell us how the creation of these two works differed? Or perhaps they came to fruition in similar ways?

CL: Little Wild was the accumulation of a little bit of work from my BFA that I was proud of and a lot of work from my MFA workshops, which were really invaluable to my development as a poet. I got to learn from some of the best poets in Canada and was in class with individuals who I think we’ll all recognize as some of the best poets in Canada very soon—if we aren’t already! 

Birding in the Glass Age of Isolation was the first body of writing I put together outside of that academic setting. It was freeing to no longer be writing for a workshop audience, though I learned some much doing so. I think the book is altogether more intimate, more deeply personal to me. It was a difficult book to write, and that goes beyond the lack of deadlines and structure of the MFA world. I wanted to tackle subjects, like Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder, that I always had a burning desire to but hadn’t yet found the will or words for.

HM: Birding in the Glass Age of Isolation— what a title! This book explores OCD and Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder through poetry. The title itself gives me a feeling of fractured loneliness and internal misunderstanding. Again, my projections. What does this title mean to you? And what makes you choose poetry as the vessel to explore mental illness?

CL: The title was something I pieced together over time. I was writing the titular poem and was more or less done before I actually put the finishing touches on the name for the piece and the book. Loneliness and isolation are everywhere in the book. “The Glass Age” refers to a disdain I maybe have for both the artificial and my reliance on it, but also evokes my experience with derealization, depersonalization and HPPD, which often felt very much like living behind a pane of glass, separated from the rest of the world. For the “Birding” bit, I’m going to make you buy the book and read the poem!

The parameters of mental illness, my experience of it, really craved poetry as a vessel. I knew what I knew from my memory, that imperfect source. I had impressions of what it felt like in my body and my mind. And so poetry, with its near-endless boundaries and delicate nuance, let me get at those little recollections. My experiences didn’t feel tidy enough for prose. I never understood them well enough to put them into that form, though I did take a shot at it in a personal essay for Maclean’s that you can read here. I wrote that article after the book was complete. I think writing the poems in Birding allowed me to put my perception disorder into those terms. 

HM: Gifting poetry to the world can be equal parts masochism and fearless compassion; that is perhaps what makes sharing art so unique. What impact do you hope your book makes on the world? How do you imagine your poems growing and evolving through the eyes of your readers?

CL: Being able to share my writing is all I ever wanted from the “labour” side of my life. It goes back to being young. I was obsessed with music and lyrics and they provided me with so much clarity. Words were a tonic for loneliness. If someone reads this book and it does a little bit of that for them, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to hopefully do.

HM: Thank you again for taking the time to speak with me. I’m thrilled that your book is coming into the world, whether or not the world looks like it used to. We will always need art! Let’s close on a high note: If you could give any advice to authors who, during this time, are unsure of the future, what would you say?

CL: I think it goes back to my last point. We need words and stories more than ever in this age of isolation. We need that tonic for loneliness. So brew your batch, so to speak!

Hannah Macready lives in Vancouver, BC.