Andrea Actis was born in Toronto but for most of her life has lived in Vancouver on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. She teaches writing and literature at Capilano University and from 2015 to 2017 edited The Capilano Review. Grey All Over is her first book.
Late in the evening of December 13, 2007, Andrea Actis found her father, Jeff, facedown dead in her East Vancouver apartment. So began her passage through grief, self-reckoning, and graduate school in Providence, Rhode Island, where the poetics she studied (and sometimes repudiated) became integral to her gradual reconstruction of wholeness. An assemblage of “evidence” recovered from emails about paranormal encounters sent and received by Jeff (firstname.lastname@example.org), junk mail from false prophets, an annotated excerpt from Laura (Riding) Jackson’s “The Serious Angels: A True Story,” and transcripts of Actis’ dreams, conversations, and messages to the dead, Grey All Over not only celebrates a rare, close, complicated father-daughter bond, it also boldly expands the empathetic and critical capacities of poetry itself. In pulling us outside the comfort zones of received aesthetics and social norms, Actis asks us to embrace with whole seriousness “the pragmatics of intuition” in all the ways we read, live, and love.
Interviewed by Mieke de Vries
Mieke de Vries (MDV): In Grey All Over, poems are nestled between your father’s driver’s log, emails between your father and his childhood best friend, pages from his journal, a transcription of a conversation between you and your mother, photographs, receipts, and many other found materials. Why did you choose to create a hybrid work?
Andrea Actis (AA): Although I don’t see hybridity as an end-in-itself or good-in-itself for poetry or any other art form, there was no other way for me to do the particular grief-work of this book than through the loving accommodation of many different materials and modes. Hybridity wasn’t an aesthetic choice, in this case, but the effect of looking and listening outside the promises of genre to the secrets my family trauma tells. I ended up with hybridity in the same way someone ends up on the other side of years of at least semi-successful integrative therapy.
MDV: What was the process of writing and editing Grey All Over like for you? What was the first step in your process? How did the work change over subsequent revisions and time?
AA: My original manuscript came together very quickly, a few summers ago, in what felt like a kind of spiritual fever. In order to write the book I’d needed to write after years of fearing and avoiding it, I proceeded as though I weren’t writing a book at all but instead urgently tasked with assembling texts and objects for a memorial event—not only for my dad but for all the ways I’d tried to be alive that had never worked. Unlike most memorial events, its one requirement was that it had to be throbbingly honest, totally non-committed to redemption in its particular activations of love.
It was a joy to write a book without necessarily believing I was writing a book. It was a different joy to be guided later on by my publisher and by my editor, John Barton, into a validation of its specific and shareable bookness. The revision process involved expansion and amplification—the book grew substantially as I was encouraged to keep reaching into my archives—but there were almost no line edits. I think the whole point of the Grey All Over is to see what happens when you don’t tamper at all with the evidence of your life.
MDV: It was a delight to observe you playing with poetic form in your book. In “Description of a Struggle,” you braid sections of Kafka’s short story with handwritten sections from your father’s journal. Where did this poem begin? Why did you choose to use found language to write this poem?
AA: This is “that one erasure poem-thing” I mention later in the book, in the section called “Testing Testing,” where I’m telling my dad on the one-year anniversary of his death that I’ve recently combined “a few parts of your journal and that Kafka story” for an art show (“I hope that’s okay”). The piece had originally been printed on sheets of transparencies and mounted at an exhibit at SFU Art Gallery in 2008 that I never actually saw in person. It was then published in The Capilano Review with a note on the text that I still sort of stand by—something about how Kafka’s description of intersubjective, existential-cosmic struggle is obviously just as much about the struggle of description. In re-reading my dad’s “detox diary,” as he called it, in the immediate wake of his death, I’d kept thinking it did the same kind of thing as Kafka’s story: set out to describe a certain set of struggles and end up disclosing the struggle of description instead. In being totally pulverized by grief at the time, I guess the more practical reason I resorted to using found materials in my first post-dad-death attempt at poetry was because I simply wasn’t ready to attempt description yet.
MDV: In “Soul Ash,” you write “if you want to have the ritual of how to cook the grief quickly instead of doing things piecemeal finding within yourself some type of like whole ghost gesture might be important.” Was the writing of this book a “whole ghost gesture”? Has the concept of “how to cook the grief quickly” changed for you as time has passed?
AA: In a word, yes—the writing of this book was exactly a “whole ghost gesture”! That’s actually one of my favourite lines in the book and now you’ve helped me see why.
I deliberately don’t say much about “Soul Ash” in the notes at the back of Grey All Over, but this piece is a semi-scrambled internet-generated transcription of an audio recording of four people (I’m one of them) arguing about what and what not to do with ashes, with remains, after a person dies. We disagree intensely about what is necessary and serious and holy—religious tradition vs. “the pragmatics of intuition”—in honouring and keeping dialogue with the dead, but one of the more foundational things we disagree about is the “definition of wholeness” itself. I see Grey All Over as an enactment of whatever version of wholeness I believe in—whichever one works against those versions of wholeness impervious to meaningful disintegration. But no, there’s never been any “cooking the grief quickly” for me. I want it to take forever.
MDV: It feels like the questions (on page 25) “what is the most effective means of finding closure?” and “How about opening?” resonate thematically throughout the book. Did the writing of this book bring you any closer to an answer? Does Grey All Over feel like an answer itself?
AA: In leaving the material of grief fully and whole-hauntingly intact, Grey All Over does give itself, and I hope its readers, permission to let go of any idea of the “right” way to mourn or to learn from one’s mourning. Closure has its limitations and opening has its limitations. What I hope my book offers is a form of solidarity to others who have needed to ignore what everyone else has tried to tell them about what to do with their pain.