Anne-Marie Turza is the author of two collections of poetry, The Quiet (Anansi, 2014), Fugue with Bedbug (Anansi, 2022), and the chapbook Slip Minute (Baseline, 2018). She was a finalist for the Bronwen Wallace Award and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her debut collection, a Globe and Mail Top 100 book, was released to critical acclaim. She holds an MFA from the University of Victoria and a Bachelor of Nursing Science from Queen’s University. She lives in the territory of the lək̓ʷəŋən, the Songhees, Esquimalt and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples.
In a series of uncanny poems attending to time and mortality, poet Anne-Marie Turza uses the fugue form as a foil and a quiet compositional strategy, arguing in favour of a non-rational basis for a sense of purpose and meaning. The mission in Fugue with Bedbug: “in afterthought, was jello,” writes Turza, “a salad of delicate intent and shimmy…”
Interviewed by Barbara Pelman
Barbara Pelman (BP): I love the cover of your book, and the general layout of the book—the way the poems are clustered in threes, the triangular pattern between them, the paper. I guess you’re pleased too! How much involvement did you have in the design of your book, the choice of cover?
Anne-Marie Turza (AMT): I’m glad you like it! Laura Brady at Anansi designed the text, and Alysia Shewchuk designed the cover. In both cases I could not be more happy. I was very involved in the design choices, and chose the cover image, an allegorical tapestry from the 1400s called The Unicorn Defends Himself. Nonlinear time is a major theme in the book, and I like the way the image displaces the viewer in time. It’s an image from the realm of myth, where time functions very differently and human activity has an impractical aim. Being impractical was one of my central projects in Fugue with Bedbug. I wanted to use a fanciful organizing principle, the fugue, to see what kind of meaning I could build with musicality and repetition and surreal images. I like poetry best when the meaning it’s aiming for is very fluid. For me, this is part of a queer poetics.
The triangular pattern you’re referring to is a typographic symbol called an asterism, three asterisks in a pyramid shape. It’s not much in use anymore, which is too bad because it’s gorgeous and it has such a great purpose—to indicate time, a small break in the text where time is passing. Clustering the poems in threes and using the asterism for section breaks—these are parallel moves that are part of my attempt to represent the fugue form in a literary medium. With the asterism, there’s a suggestion of multiple dimensions or planes, a kind of layering that also happens in a musical fugue, the idea of counterpoint and multiplicity, subject and countersubject.
BP: From this, it suggests that the book was designed as an intact whole, from the beginning. Is that right, or did you gather previous poems together then work out an organizational pattern? How did your organization of poems evolve?
AMT: Some of the poems in Fugue with Bedbug appeared first in a chapbook called Slip Minute, published by Baseline Press. Slip Minute is very much about disarranging linear time. I wanted a bigger project where I could work out some ideas I have about the purpose of life, an anti-narrative, nonrational, fantastic purpose made out of language at its most musical, where the signposts are surreal images. An alternative to a fact-based obituary, in a sense. I used the fugue form as an organizing principle first in a single poem, “Down the Corridor a Chair with Wheels Rolls,” and then realized that what I was trying to work out was much bigger than a single poem. The fugue form and all the terms that work to define it are so suggestive. There are mirror fugues, for example, where the melodic line is inverted so that it’s occurring backwards, or upside down. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to represent that idea in poetic images. Using the asterism and grouping the poems in threes came much later.
BP: I’m always interested in process, how the poem moves from the recesses of your brain to the page, and how it changes there. Can you talk a bit about what your process is? Do the surreal and quirky transformations of language happen in the first draft, or during the editing process? And (this is always a question of mine) when do you know the poem is finished?
AMT: This is a great question. I started working on the poems in this book while I was a nursing student (eight years ago, now). Nursing language is very utilitarian, very repetitive and jargon-filled. My nursing specialization is psychiatry, and the language of psychiatric nursing is particularly deadening. I spend a lot of my working life documenting whether someone’s thought content is reality-based, and whether their thought processes are linear, and if they are, this is considered to be a positive indication about the person’s mental health status. The way nursing language relates to time is also deadening. There’s an obligation and expectation that everything will be documented exactly, pinpointed exactly in time. A certain medication was administered at 0812 hours, that kind of thing. This relationship to language and to time is so vastly different from poetry, where metaphor and simile, image and tangential thinking are the very engines of meaning. Fugue with Bedbug started as an informal reaction and rejection of nursing language—I felt I was trying to save myself from this very utilitarian, non-elastic way of thinking and seeing. In my development of the poems, I was deliberately playful and worked to push the syntax into a shifting and uncertain terrain. I was happy with the poems once I felt they were at the edge or border of being evidence-based (being evidence-based is also very, very big in nursing). Meaning is still the point and the aim, but we get there in these poems through playfulness, elasticity, and fluidity.
BP: It’s evident from your books that you are a wide reader. Which writers affect you most? Who are your poetic influences? Which poets, living or not, do you turn to, and which poets got you going in the first place?
AMT: Erín Moure is my hero. She is so brave, intelligent, and imaginative in her practice of poetry. When I was starting out, I carried her book Little Theatres around with me for courage and for pleasure. It accomplishes so much in such slender spaces. It attaches the mind to the material world through velocity and humour and gentleness. Ferocious gentleness.
BP: What is your daily practise? Are you a disciplined everyday-routine kind of writer, or one who writes in inspired spurts? Do you set yourself deadlines or ‘go with the flow’?
AMT: I’m a writer who doesn’t have a daily practice. I get swallowed by my full-time nursing work, sometimes for months and months, and then it’s like I wake up and rediscover that art was the whole point, all this time. Then I’m a happy person who seems distracted, but who is actually intensely focused on saving their own life and who is hoping to save other people’s lives as well, only with poetic ideas instead of with nursing interventions. I go back and forth between these two modes.
BP: Have you written, or plan to write, in different genres—fiction, essays, memoir? Or do you intend to continue to stretch the boundaries of free verse, as you are doing?
AMT: I’d like to write a libretto, and to work with musicians and artists in other disciplines. There’s a musical score composed by my brother at the very end of Fugue with Bedbug, based on one of the poems in the book. It’s set to be performed in the coming year by Fugatonale, a choral ensemble in Berlin. It’s an incredible experience to have another artist, someone you admire, take your work, interpret it, and lift it into a further art form. Poetry can be so lonely and insular. In the past, I’ve liked this about poetry. But I feel now that I would like it to be noisier and more collaborative. I would like to make art that requires the work of other artists in order to be fully realized, and vice versa.
BP: What are you working on now?
AMT: I’m working on a book of poetry called Heliko. It’s a series of prose poems, conceptual artworks about snails and Esperanto.
Interviewer Barbara Pelman is a retired high school English teacher, and poet, who lives in Victoria BC, on the territory of the Esquimalt Nation. She is one of the assistants at Planet Earth Poetry Reading Series, as workshop coordinator and as a featured reader. Her glossa “Nevertheless” won the Malahat Review Open Season Contest in 2018. She has three books of poetry: One Stone (Ekstasis Editions 2005), Borrowed Rooms (Ronsdale Press 2008) and Narrow Bridge (Ronsdale Press 2017), and a chapbook Aubade Amalfi (Rubicon Press 2016). Her fourth book is coming out in the spring with Caitlin Press. It was her great pleasure to exchange ideas about poetry and books and fugues and non-linear time with Anne-Marie. Her book is a marvel you will return to again and again.