I first encountered the work of Nikki Reimer when she read her poems at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, Canada in 2011. Invited by Prince George poet and professor Rob Budde, Reimer had traveled from Vancouver, and was then reading poems from her first book, [sic], and what would become her second book, DOWNVERSE. She delighted the crowd with her combination of self-aware, brilliant wit and humour; depth and breadth in avant-gardes past, present, and to come; sudden vulnerability and refusal to flinch. She read a longish piece consisting of brutally ugly comments the public had made on the CBC website, collaged into a portrait of the reactionary, misogynist Canada I knew all too well from my own corner of the hinterland.
Against the arc of the world’s too-often profoundly sad course over these 8 years, I have been glad of the chance to follow her work, right up to this dazzling third book, My Heart is a Rose Manhattan. To the reader, I say: read this book for its wicked laughs, smarts, and survivor’s courage. To Nikki, I say: 90s kids know the void is afraid of being laughed at.
Jeremy Stewart: Thanks for accepting my request for an interview. In the name of not increasing misery, there is no deadline and no questions are mandatory, and please trash the whole thing if it makes you feel miserable.
Nikki Reimer: Thanks. But I love misery?
JS: In your 2019 book, My Heart is a Rose Manhattan, “A Rose is a Rose is a Rose Manhattan” begins by announcing that it is “apolitical!” or seems to regret that it will in some way fail to be political, and then proceeds to unfold a powerfully political program, layered with feminist, decolonial, anti-capitalist themes. Should we read this poem as a challenge to the notion that grief is apolitical? Or in how many ways are we being asked to read the relationship between grief and politics?
NR: How much time do we have? (If we had but world enough…) As many ways as we could both itemize, multiplied to the outskirts of town, multiplied past the productivity imperative, multiplied to a power of infinite grief. If the personal that was political in the 1970s has in the year of our lord 2019 been re-absorbed reinterpreted repackaged and sold back at a premium, if the memes get exhausted before the bodies make it to the morgue, if we are standing at the precipice at the beginning of the end of the Anthropocene, if the coffee shop where I am typing these words is playing the Wolf Parade song that I rewrote in the last two poems of the book, if what is grievable is always already political even when the wound is intensely personal, if guilt, if grief, if recognizing one’s own privileged complicity in the wound that is a world (vis a vis Billy Ray Belcourt) does or does not give way to new worlds, if it’s time to vacate, if my world is a wound, if I am the wound, if I’m unable to find sources that describe the grieving rites of my ancestors, if we bury our dead in stolen land, if we can’t afford to live here, if there are simultaneously a hundred thousand fractured communities and no longer a “we” to speak of them.
JS: By aestheticizing grief’s politics, or by politicizing grief’s aesthetics, or by grieving the politico-aesthetic, etc., are you asking us to remember or to notice that Gertrude Stein is still radical as fuck?
NR: I mean, her poetics are, but I’m not 100% sure of her praxis. Have you read the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, with the maid and the cook and all the salons? Christ, I too could craft an entirely new mode of literature too if I didn’t have to work for a living or get up on a Monday or worry about the worldwide rise of fascism. (Yes, I know she did some service during the war don’t @ me).
JS: In the next section, “Oh. So. Fucking. Provincial.,” grief is raised explicitly again, and again with a dismissal, this time perhaps angry in tone. Political calls to action often seem to rely on an emotional appeal, and there is the sense, culturally, that we should have an emotional response to the political horrors perpetrated by settler Canada (e.g.). Some responses are more acceptable than others, depending on whether you’re in Vancouver or Calgary, say, and quite apart from what concrete arguments may arise from one’s experience of affect. To what extent is the policing and disciplining of emotion and of expressed sentiment a theme in this text?
NR: I mean, the policing is constant, but just as a response to what happens when you suffer catastrophic personal loss and then have to return to the world, and the world is all, “Aren’t you over that yet?” One intimate personal tragedy is allowed as origin story for every superhero / antihero / violent beloved vigilante on Netflix, but in meatspace there’s a bizarre parochial pressure to be stiff upper lipped about it. It’s completely absurd. I wanted to crush people like Jessica Jones, but I was supposed to go to work and smile for eight hours. This grief tries to contain itself, but it erupts, shatters, ruptures.
The speed of political horrors that arrive to our eyeballs via the internet is unsustainable and unhealthy and any thinking person should be horrified, but then what? And the work to heal the world is endless, unending. And then what? My doctor (raised in Africa and Europe by ethnic East Asian parents) laughed at me for admitting to struggling with white guilt. And then what? What do you do with it?
JS: Does every poem have bad politics, as the speaker says in “alberta?” Or is there a “when,” a particular time when that is true? Or which poems or body of poetry are we to imagine here? “A horse poem?” Why does fucking poetry suck? Why does Canada suck?
NR: I’ve attempted to research the exact number of horse statues in the city of Calgary but run into some dead ends. I might need to do the work myself to get an accurate count. The city has suspended its public art program until further notice. Poetry sucks because it imagines itself apart from capitalist economies when much of it operates on the same assumptions, the same scarcity, the same fetishizations as any market commodity. Poetry builds worlds but it also destroys them. Canada sucks because it is pervasively anti-intellectual everywhere but within the most specialized fields, or the in certain places within the big three cities, and these spaces are elitist and inaccessible. Canada sucks because it’s a violent, colonial settler state with a grandiose self-image as a nice, tolerant place. Canada sucks because it’s too fucking cold in the winter and too fucking smoky in the summer. Canada sucks because we have eleven years to make the kinds of drastic changes that will lessen the coming climate changes, and our elected officials are either weak and ineffectual or outright resistant to reality. Ha! I wrote this in the spring and now, returning to it in the summer, it seems that it’s more like 18 months for drastic societal change, but we keep electing right-wing climate change deniers? Neat!
JS: A Manhattan is of course a drink and a (n impossibly remote) city; a rose is a plant, and it is also Alberta, wild rose country. You raise (arose) a network of pointed entanglements around these images without seeming to approach them programmatically (of course, this program could have been effaced, the reader thinks), accepting–celebrating–ludic results and theory-laced results, in terms of the connections between different modes of rose and Manhattan, with what seems to coalesce in places as a kind of skepticism or defeatism about Alberta’s cities as such. In your conception of this work, does this constitute a politico-aesthetic interreading of Calgary, a sensually embodied urbanism?
NR: I wouldn’t go so far as to add sensual into that statement, but yes? This book was my attempt to write myself out of trauma, out of the shock of sudden death and the shock at my having uprooted my entire life in response. I was trying to rework lines that could be a tow-rope for my journey back to the land of the living. Yes a politico-aesthetic interreading of Calgary, but also an interreading of my life, my brain, my anxieties.
JS: What is the alluded-to difference between poetry and theory in this book, and does it have anything to do with the Young-Girl being “a bitch”?
NR: “Society’s final moment of socialization, Empire, is thus also the moment when each person is called upon to relate to themselves as value, that is, according to the central mediation of a series of controlled abstractions. The Young-Girl would thus be the being that no longer has any intimacy with herself except as value, and whose every activity, in every detail, is directed towards self-valorization. At each moment, she affirms herself as the sovereign subject of her own reification.”
— Tiqqun, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl
And/or, my work is always too stuffy for Instagram but too stupid for the academy. It fits nowhere. It’s an aging Young-Girl, it’s a bitch.
JS: “Self-Actualization” and some of the poems in the latter half of the book seem to re-present some of the issues and ideas from earlier sections, but in a more “transparent” language, or in a more vulnerable mode or mood; in contrast with a typical ‘rigourous’ dude-poetry vibe, this also seems to be about unpacking and mobilizing the theory that is positioned differently in other parts of the text. How would you account for the intersection of affect and accessibility in this book? Does access have a feminist valence for you?
NR: I hope you are not suggesting that I am not (also) a dude, or that vulnerability cannot (also) be rigorous. May we be rigorously vulnerable in our middle age. May we rigorously embody our emotions. May my soft vulnerable grief-flesh break new person-sized holes in the walls erected by man-theory.
JS: Do I dare ask about Vancouver?
NR: Sometimes she’s just not that into you.
JS: Irony is often opposed to sincerity in traditional discussions about affect, and it’s still a common-enough complaint among a certain generation of Canadian poets and poetry readers, that irony has had a ‘corrosive’ effect on the maintenance of the relationship between affect and politics, in our generation’s writing and in our activism. However, I would suggest that anyone who fails to read irony in this text first of all through affect, for affect, will have perceived very little of its emotional landscape. All of this to ask: how/do you deploy irony as estranging strategy and irony as bonding strategy with the reader, irony as affective complicity with a suffering reader?
NR: TBH I just write the way I need to write. Gallows humour keeps me alive. I wish there were more carefully-honed strategy there, but there’s not.
Jeremy Stewart is a writer and musician residing in unceded SEMYOME territory/Vancouver, Canada with his partner and two children. Stewart won the 2014 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry for Hidden City (Invisible). He is also the author of (flood basement (Caitlin). His writing has appeared in Canadian Literature, Geist, Lemon Hound, Open Letter, and elsewhere. Stewart is a PhD student in the English and Creative Writing Department by distance at Lancaster University, working on eschatology in Derrida’s “Envois.” He once dropped a piano off a building.