Rasiqra Revulva is a multi-media artist, writer, poet, editor, musician, performer with the electronic duo The Databats, and sci-com (science-communication) advocate. She is the co-creator, developer and editor for The Puritan’s new Hybrid, an experimental new section. Her poetry has multiple dimensions across multiple art forms and various poetic forms. She has published two chapbooks, including Cephalopography. Cephalopography 2.0 is her debut collection, which has been long listed for the 2021 Laurel Prize. The title comes from the combination of Cephalopods and their environments, hence cephalopods and topography. The collection has roughly 25 different poetic forms and techniques.
This interview process mirrors the way that Rasiqra works and the way that she writes, because she thinks in a more lateral way. As she put it, “It’s a little difficult sometimes to condense all that plurality into an answer that’s easy to parse, which is where maybe some of the draw towards poetry comes, because those leaps and those juxtapositions, and the little interplay, it’s a little bit easier to mash those ideas together into something that really communicates and synthesizes more clearly perhaps more than I’m able to do as a speaker.”
Rasiqra is being interviewed by Brianna Bock.
Brianna Bock (BB): What made you want to explore human identity through cephalopods in the first place? What is it about cephalopods for you that make them so ripe for exploration/fascinating?
Rasiqra Revulva (RR): I was first really captivated by cephalopods when I was watching the Deep-Sea episode of the original Planet Earth series, and that was where I was introduced to the Vampire Squid from Hell. Vampyroteuthis Infernalis. It was such an interesting creature, it had morphology that I had never seen before. I wasn’t familiar with [unclear] cephalopods, which have tissue spines on their arms as opposed to suckers. I didn’t even know that was a thing. And seeing how slow they were, but also mobile, agile, turning themselves inside out, and being so unique. They’re very small and cute in real life, but when you first see it on a screen its quite fearsome in a way but also compelling. Their eyes work very differently from other cephalopods, they’re the only species left in their order, all the rest are extinct. We call them “Vampire Squid from Hell” but they’re actually not squid, they’re Vampiric Morphitic, they’re a separate, no longer existing part of cephalopods. That really spoke to me, that liminality, but also these ideas of the limitations of nomenclature, of naming. When we sometimes name based on what is familiar and we miss the what is unique, what is exciting, what is very alive. That really spoke to me. A little bit later on I saw a video of a Veined Octopus, Amphioctopus marginatus, interacting with a coconut shell, and it was said to be one of the first examples of tool use in a non-mammalian ocean creature, because we’ve seen that with dolphins and other Cetaceans, whales, and so on. And it just, my entire brain just completely lit up. I imagine if you were to take a look at it, there would be an octopus living there and being “Hey man, can you shut that, this is very bright I don’t like it.” And you know, just like continually feeding me that same impulse, that same energy. I was in a poetry class in undergrad in the Creative Writing Program, and we had the chance to write a monologue as one of our assignments for the week, and I chose to write the monologue from the perspective of the Octopus engaging with the coconut shell. And that’s the first poem that I wrote for any Cephalopod poems, and it’s one of the first ones in the book, called Tool Use. What really struck me the most was the way that the Octopus moved when it was engaging with the coconut shell. At one point it climbs in, it’s a spilt shell, and so it climbs into the bottom half and grips it with the upper arms and uses the lower parts of the arms to kind of run along the surface while holding the shell at the same time. And I have this kind of backwards, bobbing locomotion that I associated really strongly with the Chambered Nautilus because they swim in that way, they’re pelagic, in the water as opposed to benthic, which is on the ocean floor regardless of depth. There’s benthos, all the way through, which is also extremely cool, and comes up in the book! I was really excited by the way that it kind of echoed this motion which is completely different from how an Octopus typically moves or typically swims, and I was thinking about how these two species, these two creatures, Octopus and Nautilus, they split very early in evolutionary history, and I started thinking of this evolutionary branching kind of operates as a function of diaspora. I was writing thinking about my grandmother and other relatives, some of whom live closer but some live further away in places I’ve never been able to visit or not be able to in future, we’ll see how the world continues, and also divisions of language. I primarily speak English, there’s a lot of gaps in our ability to communicate and be present with each other, and I thought about the way this octopus could be engaging with the coconut shell as a means of trying to connect with their lineage, their genealogy, their history, and that’s where it all began. This understanding of something that’s very personal to me, that I don’t even think I really was able to understand until I saw it in the octopus. And in this way, I said earlier that Cephalopography is cephalopods and topography, as I was working through the collection, I started to realise that it was also cephalopod and biography. And as much as I was exploring humanity and these animals, I was also exploring myself. That still remains the case as I continue to research and write more poems about the ocean and cephalopods in particular.
BB: For this collection, did you write all these poems with this collection in mind? I got the impression through some of your notes that they all came from a variety of different origins, spread out over years and collections. What made you select these poems for this collection specifically?
RR: All starting back in undergrad, writing this first poem (“Tool Use”), the next week I wrote a ghazal from the perspective of the Nautilus that allowed me to play with form and consider also that a lot about those forms were communicating with the intention and also the animal, the meaning, all of these things having a really beautiful dialogue together. I was originally, back, back, I want to say something like 2007 or 2008, this book took me roughly ten years to complete. It was accepted for publication by Wolsak, I believe in 2018 and it came out in 2020. A lot of prolonged work, a lot of prolonged consideration. But back in undergrad I had this idea that my first collection was going to be called The Poem. I felt very audacious also kind of shitty in a way I appreciated. It was going to have different series, one of which was going to be Cephalopography. Through working on that I ended up making a chapbook, which was published in 2016 called Cephalopography, which is also why this book is called Cephalopography 2.0. Because it’s not just revisiting but continuing and fleshing it out. Lot of new patches, lot of new updates and new content. It also speaks to a little bit of a retro vibe that I enjoy sometimes, aesthetically, and intentionally in some of the more visual work with Tape Fuzz and rasterizing and stuff like that. I would write pieces thinking loosely about where they might belong, but I was always open to the idea that I need to write what I need to write, I need to write what comes, what inspires. Some of the poems in this collection took years to complete, some of them happened in a matter of days. There’s one in particular which was written over the span of fifteen minutes. I was doing a podcast and one of the modes of the podcast was that we all take a break and that we all take a quick writing exercise, and we share those pieces. That poem was Vulgaris, which is a Latin form of ‘common’. You’ll see a lot of different species called Ex-Vulgaris, it’s the common whatever. It gives a little bit of license to play with vulgarity and what that means in a sort of embodied way as well as a conceptual way. I feel like those two things, the embodied and the conceptual, are always merging and playing with each other in my work.
BB: I can only speak anecdotally and to my own experiences, but Queer people seem fascinated with the idea/concept of transformations and viscerality of it, as well as it being explored through the inhuman. “Submarine Reflection” tickled this itch for me in all the right ways (I do love me some diagrams) with the contrast between horror and inspiration as an example. What is it about transformation as a theme that appeals to you as a writer?
RR: I think in some ways it speaks to this fluid and plastic nature of reality, of experience, of body, of organs, even just in the way that our selves are shedding and changing. We’re never static, we’re always in flux and our understanding of different concepts and also our understanding of science is in flux in similar ways. Science is something where the things that we know are returned too regularly to see where our understanding of truth is now, with new information, with new understanding. I really do think of science much like poetry as something that is very living, very breathing. I think for Queer people sometimes we, it’s a difficult thing but it’s also an incredible freedom we have the opportunity to discover ourselves and our understanding and our worlds in ways that exist outside of what is prescribed, what the systems and also models that we may be raised with. It is difficult to find them insufficient but it’s also incredibly liberating to move beyond them or through them or completely outside of them in a lot of ways. I think sometimes the non-human can speak to us for a lot of reasons but also, not to be too negative, but in some ways the human systems and societies have failed us in ways that feel limiting. I don’t know if that’s necessarily something that drives me. I know I’ve always had an easier time understanding myself and the world through metaphor than through what I’ve been thought. I suppose that passion for life, life that is not my own but in which I see myself reflected, that’s a big part of both queerness and my artistic practice, and my draw towards animal and transformation. I think it also plays into the idea of artistic adaptation, where I don’t really feel like a poem is necessarily ever complete because it can exist in so many different forms. Some of the pieces in the collection are part of songs, they become videos, they become visual poems or maybe three-dimensional pieces of art, all kinds of different ideas. The delicious challenge of adapting a piece that is visual into a piece that is purely sonic or vice versa, that’s something that, always thinking about that, adaptation as transformation and where it retains elements of what it originally was but speaks in a different voice because of the fact that it’s in a different medium. I definitely think that queerness and writing practice and creative practice are not extricable from each other. They both really inform the way that I think and the way that I move through the world and the way that the world moves back or perhaps against but also with me. What buoys me and what gives me air. There aren’t the same rules for [Queer people] in a way, there are things that are enforced upon us but they’re not necessarily the things that dictate internally even as they may be very strong external impositions. We are developing our own bodily languages for how we engage with each other, how we identify each other, all of this, is like the way we build community is so often through our bodies, how our bodies and our beings and our queerness are really, so deeply interconnected. It provides a lot of connection, such a really wide, varied, not at all homogonous kind of community and experience. Very much we all experience the world in different ways, but there’s that frequency that’s running through it all, that electricity that we can all connect to.
BB: As well as exploring human identity through cephalopods, there are a few poems that stand out because the narrators reject being interpreted in a certain way. “Free the Niqabi!” and “Octopolios”, to me, are about the damage of a reading being forced on the narrator and rejecting human interpretation respectively. In an art medium as subjective and open to interpretation as poetry is, why was it important to include these poems with these specific messages behind them in the collection?
RR: I think in a lot of ways I want to, while these are meanings that I find and meanings that I feel to be completely true, one of the best things about poetry is that there are a lot of different ways to tell the truth, and those truths don’t have to necessarily cohere with one another or coalesce into some greater realization. It’s very important to me to resist prescriptivism in some ways and with those particular pieces and also there’s Twisted Squidster, which is very specifically about attempting to identify, about attempting to understand a species, a being, a phenomenon which is not familiar. I was really interested in this because I do a lot of research by watching livestreams of marine biology expeditions and dives with ROVs, which remote operated vehicles, they have cameras attached to them, and you can also hear the various scientists onboard, geologists and biologists usually, but sometimes some other scientists as well, discussing what they’re seeing. You have people on the boat talking about this and people who are on the shore also calling in. There was this one particular, really just strange, a very contorted looking squid, drifting, very difficult to identify, and I saw a lot of popular science articles picking this up as a Vampyroteuthis. It drove me crazy, because it was so clearly not Vampyroteuthis! It was lacking multiple qualities that would be necessary and it did not move the same way, it was in the entirely wrong part of the ocean, nothing about it, I think it ended up being Discoteuthis, but I’m not 100% sure about that. A scientist who I really admire who works at the Smithsonian, Michael Vecchione (who has the same name as a minor hockey league player and that makes me really happy), he wrote an article for the NOAA (National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) about the difficulty of making these identifications and then the way that they get picked up in popular science, not to the level and degree that I was irritated with but in a really interesting way, so I used that article as the base for the found material, picking out lines and words and overlapping them quite a bit to distort but also to create new meaning, which was maybe being lost and bring back in imagination. Which is really one of the most important things in poetry and art, and also for science. We need imagination as well as prior knowledge to be able make inferences, to be able look at what we believe that we know and have the space to take in the new information of what we’re seeing that doesn’t match those things that is providing more questions than answers. Science is really, really about questioning, and so is poetry, I feel. We ask a lot of questions, we say a lot of things, but for me anyway, poetry is not about telling like it is. I really appreciate a lot of poetry that works that way, mine doesn’t. My mind doesn’t work that way. Thinking a lot about how we come to information and how we can recognize when it’s our own lens that is dictating the way that we understand that information and move beyond that at the same time. Not lose yourself, but be able to not be limited by yourself. With “Free the Niqabi!” I really enjoy performing that one because the way it’s done, the lines in quotation marks I use a hard tune, which is like autotuning, so they come through very locked out, just one note across the entirety as opposed to being a little more expressive and reflective during the non-quotation lines which are coming more from the Spirula Spirula, the ram’s horn squid itself. Which, by the way, there was observation of in Situ a couple of years ago, I think from Schmidt Ocean. If you look it up, it’s so stunning, so beautiful. It’s also so lovely to hear how excited the scientists get when they see it. I was watching the dive, doing some stretches after exercising and I almost threw my phone across the room. I was like “Is that really what I think I’m seeing?! God, it’s so gorgeous.” They have retained an internal, functional shell, which is shaped like a ram’s horn. It’s very small. You can find it on the beach sometimes, but you have to be really looking. I was thinking about, I used to loosely work in medical research, doing cataloguing and reception, stuff like that. When I was working at a particular hospital, because of renovations, they had like a rotating chapel, and I found that really interesting. Some of my co-workers, when they needed to pray, usually about three times a day, we just blocked off an area in the back so they could do so without having to leave and trace wherever it was they were meant to be, and I was thinking about how this animal carries this shell within it. It’s almost like carrying this space within itself. Taking that requirement for what is holy, what is the active practice and combining that with the cloak of green light, they have a photophore that puts out a beautiful shade of green, and how these are active choices. It’s very common to consider women who veil as not agents or subjects in their own life, in their own religious practice as well. I hate that idea so much that I had to write a poem about it.
BB: You play around a lot with the format of poetry in this collection. A simple but effective example of this is Breeding Grounds: The Stairway in each section is aligned in different positions to hammer home the journey of time in the poem, as well as the space in ‘in the now’ section between the lines explores the space the narrator now has when compared to the tight confinement of the beginning section. It adds a lot to the poem and is really effective to make the reader pay attention to the words as well as what isn’t said. What makes you want to use format as another layer to your storytelling?
RR: I am a huge fan of form, I love the more formless forms and the very rigorous, lot of rules, lot of structure type forms, and a lot of combinations and experiments within and across, any of those ideas. One thing, often when I’m working on a poem, I might begin believing that it’s meant to be in a certain form, and through the act of writing, and drafting, and researching and note taking, and experimenting, I often end up shifting the poem across multiple forms until I find what it wants to be, where it’s vibrating with the proper frequency, where everything, the intention and the form really need to be lined up. The poem, what is, what it wants, what it is discussing, what it wants to do, all of this needs to exist in a way that is enriched by the form, they inform each other. With regards to spacing sometimes, I really like this idea, I think a lot of formatting poetry as something that relates to plating a dish of food, in the sense that it gives you the visual that celebrates all the ingredients and at the same time, plating is really important because it tells you how to eat it. It tells you what to do, how to move through it, where these things are supposed to be connecting or where they’re not, and you get that chance to really explore negative space, as something that is a vital part of the page, a really vital part of the art piece. I love form! It’s so great! Very frequently I would work on a piece and I would really try to get it into a “villanelle form because blah blah blah” and then I’d go to sleep and then I’d wake up and be “this is absolutely a free verse poem, I was wrong.” It kept working while I was dormant, and it became revealed to me. Sometimes it takes a really long time. With this collection in particular I felt very encouraged to play, to not be needing to find a harmony of forms where there’s a real narrative where I’m sitting with a lot of the same forms or using that same form in a prolonged, consideration to explore the same idea, in part because cephalopods themselves are so heterogeneous when it comes to form. You can get all kinds of possibilities, colours, textures, sizes, shapes, capacity for transformation with respect to colour, bioluminescence, texture, extant shells, no shells. The possibilities are endless. I felt really encouraged to use that as my guiding principle, formerly, for this project. That whatever the form of the poem is, it’s the same as how that particular cephalopod has evolved, it’s particular considerations because that’s what it needs to survive. That was really a huge guiding principle for me that really allowed me to play and experiment, but not restrict myself to any one thing because it would always be honouring the formal complexity and amazingness of my imaginary best friends. The animals themselves are not imaginary, but our relationship is one of imagination. That’s where it lives. It’s similar to how if a cephalopod is trying to feed on a particularly very tough bivalve, crustacean, shell they’ll have to turn it around a lot, hit it against objects, keep trying to bite until you get purchase and it opens, and there’s a delicious meal or delicious poem in store for all. It’s a lot of work, a lot of thinking, a lot of craft. I take my craft very seriously but at the same time I think play and experimentation and fun and humour, are essential for me from a writing and art perspective.
BB: To Represent a Constant and Breeding Grounds: Spy-Hopping are great examples of poems that makes the reader focus on the individual words and their relationship to the order they are presented in. Why this focus on just individual words instead of prose in these cases? Why is it important to focus on the words themselves in these contexts?
RR: I think in some ways it’s really playing with the freedom of poetry, the possibility of poetry. Where meaning is communicated in ways that are still lexical, but in a sentence in prose. While just as in poetry, every word is essential to the sentence, every word is there to convey the meaning. You don’t need to abide by grammatical structures to get that same impression or something quite different. I think, going back to this idea of negative space, and what is the relationship between the emptiness and the world, what is the relationship between all these works themselves it gives you the reader a chance to create that meaning and a chance to really think in a very different way. Is this simply a list of words? What would that list be, why would this list be or is this something that’s meant to be read vertically or something wherein, what if I wanted to represent constant, what if I were to treat this poem like a Mad magazine fold in and switch the words around, in what way would that change the meaning? Why are the shapes the way that they are? I really like to ask questions, even if I know my personal answer to, but there’s a lot of freedom of asking those questions and giving your reader, basically inviting them to do that thinking themselves. To not be limited by what I’m saying. My work is my work, absolutely, but your ideas are your own and I am not trying to dictate them in any way, regardless of my intention and my idea are. In regards to spacing and these, there’s a lot of sentence work in poetry, especially in modernist poetry of course, and I do love that kind of thing, but there’s something so fascinating in having the words themselves, hearing the sounds themselves, and even maybe imagining what the words that might have connected them would be. Whether those are words that speak to you or whether they end up being more of like a connective tissue. Sometimes we dissect, and we look at the pieces individually, and yet those pieces are always echoing their context of the body from which they were removed.
BB: I really like your writing’s physicality, especially around identity, transformation, and sex in your poems. Even though the themes of identity are explored through cephalopods, the focus on the physicality makes it feel more grounded, more relatable in a sense in exploring these themes. It makes the reader see the connections of humanity explored through the inhuman. It also leads to visceral images in your poetry that I greatly enjoy. What makes you as a writer focus on that physicality in your writing?
RR: I love to recoil back and between a piece of text, it’s a wonderful feeling. It’s a lot smoother than the feeling of whiplash but also a lot more disgusting. You don’t have that snap where with whiplash there’s always that possibility where you lose meaning briefly, that concussing, your brain bouncing and hitting your skull. Whereas the recoil of disgust, I think sometimes disgust and fascination are very much sisters, and they like to hold hands, skipping down the lane, making garlands of flowers. Disgust and fascination. And that viserality, I feel with art and also with the way I experience the world, and I think a lot of people and a lot of disabled people as well, the way that we experience the world is very much through our body chemistry, our physicality, our capacities, our energies, and thinking about art is very much the same way. I read poetry aloud a lot when I’m working on drafts, so poetry lives in the mind which is part of the body, it lives in the hands where the poem enters the page or space or different dimension, it lives in the lungs and the throat and the mouth very, very much. It lives in the eyes where it passes through and returns back to the ears. Everything. All the holes, basically. All very involved in poetry. You have sex, you have form, you have audio, taste, the shapes that a word makes, the way that in order to produce the sounds that are correct, you have to change your internal structures in order to realize them. Art and poetry, music and performance are very, very embodied practices for me and really connected to the embodied elements of living. I don’t see a huge divide between the cerebral and the body. In many ways, scientifically speaking at this point, where we are, they are pretty much inextricable from each other. We aren’t at the brain-in-a-jar, that engages with the world kind of phase of life at this point. Maybe it will happen at some point, I don’t know. But I don’t know, because the consciousness is still contained within the brain, and the thoughts in the brain, and the brain is still the body. I don’t know. Even our ability to think in certain ways is so impacted by our body and our bodily experience. Things like heat, or pain, or exhaustion, they all really impact the way, the resources you can apply towards thinking and the way that, the types of thoughts that you’re open to receiving, and transmitting. They need to be together for me, it really speaks to being a Queer artist, being a disabled artist. Queerness doesn’t just live in the mind, it’s in the body. Same with disability. They are so complex and are all these potentially living systems and they really impact our thinking, and as such creativity, and our creative practice and what we produce. How we interpret the work of others and also bring that into our own understanding. How we can use these challenges and opportunities to enrich our imagination, which allows us to perceive of different worlds and make them real.
BB: I also liked your inclusion of the Notes section at the end of the collection. What made you want to include these notes in the collection as opposed to letting the poems stand alone? What made you want to include context/inspiration for some poems, but not others?
RR: I think for me a really big challenge was making the notes section not basically the entire length of the entire collection. I love talking about the inspiration and the choices and the craft, and the very specific decisions, what they mean to me, why I would make those choices, how I arrived at them. I try to instead provide notation that would give a sense of how the science and the animals come to be in the poems. Why this poem and this animal and this meaning. And give more jumping off points for research or for consideration when looking back on the poem with those kinds of eyes. Personally, I love reading the notes sections of other people’s work. I love hearing people talking about their craft and learning from them but also seeing things that I might never have understood otherwise, there’s so much knowledge in the world and so much of it I don’t have. I really appreciate when people share their own, as well as sharing the finished product. I also like that the notes are spilt into multiple sections so that there’s also one section that gives you a source for the found and interpolated text because I really like to work with found text. Not exclusively but, it something that I find satisfying and really creatively stimulating. With those, I was a little bit lighter about giving my intentions and inspirations because I thought it would be interesting to give the reader a chance to consider them just based on what the sources are and the way that they’re being expressed. There have been times where I have been reading a found piece, or often, like looking at modern art and I will be like “oh, this is really compelling but I’m not sure what to make of it” and then looking at the artist’s statement, returning to the piece, it gives me so much more to consider. New colours, new contexts and understandings, historical context and like artistic practices and then things that exist completely out of the poem. You mentioned ‘Submarine Reflection’ and it’s important to me that is a Sailor Moon poem, but it’s very easy to miss that it’s a Sailor moon poem if you don’t know the reference for ‘Submarine Reflection’. My editor and I, Canisia Lubrin, who is one of the best living poets in my opinion, she is unbelievably phenomenal, absolutely check out her work. She really helped me with working through this because I used to have so much over explanation, and a lot of epigraphs and very frequently, she would be sending me notes back like ‘No, cut this. Who is this, Mike? No. This is you, this is not other people. We don’t need that, put it in the notes if you really need it.’ And it really, really, really helped me edit that down and curb that impulse to, I get so excited to be like ‘All these different things went into it!’ but ultimately that doesn’t matter. What matters is the finished product. She was really, really helpful. I have maximalist impulses, and her editing was just perfectly communication. It helped me see how much potential there was in the work that I already saw. I’m disgustingly obsessed with my work, I think it’s so great! But then to be able to see that it can be so much more and I can give it permission to stand on its own, but I can also provide helpful context for people to see a little bit more of the why and the what. It’s also a fun way for me to not provide a glossary but still provide a chance to share some really interesting ideas about cephalopods that are not really needed in poetry but are still really cool and I wanted people to know about that. In some ways I ended up having to treat the notes like a poem as well. What are the details that the notes need to exist, which are these extra little poetic tendrils that can reach back toward the book and curl around the poem itself and reveal new things. A lot of times with poems we think of ‘economy of language’, and what are the necessary details? Not just the ones that I want. Absolutely poetry can be a super indulgent practice, but in this book, I really was trying to curb some of those indulgences and make sure that they were refined to where they needed to be. Not just my celebration of it. Sometimes when I’m doing a piece in its early stages of publication, it might be a lot more, not ridiculous, but unbridled and maximalist and just full of so many things. Because it’s only sitting by itself, but once it’s in the book, I love repetition but I get bored very easily, so I’m weary of redundancy. Making sure that where the repetition exists there is some enriching, extra, new, interestingness occurring as opposed to ‘right, we did that again’, which was also another helpful thing from my editor because I had a few pieces where she was like ‘this idea you have in this poem and its better, so we don’t need this one. Save it, rework it, do whatever you want with it, it doesn’t belong here.’ That’s really helpful because it can be really hard when you’re in the middle of it, to see the full structure. I respect editors so much. They give really, really invaluable skill because it’s very hard to edit your own work because you know, already what it is you want to say, you know what you want to achieve. It’s easy to fill in this those gaps without realizing that that’s what you’re doing. Massive respect to editors and specifically Canisia.
BB: The interactive poetry section was especially interesting. What made you want to turn the reader into a more active participant in the act of reading your poems? With yourself through the books you had in your personal library?
RR: I really, really loved doing the interactive work. Back when I mentioned when I was imagining what my first collection would be, many years ago, I was thinking of something called The Poem and one of the sections was going to be purely interactive. I love poetry, I think poetry is amazing and challenging and complex and sometimes very devastating but also fun! I want people to play! I recognize that some of the work, my work is not particularly broad, it has sometimes niche language and niche subject matter. But regardless of that, I want it to be invitational. I want people to feel welcomed into poetry, even if it’s not something they’ve really thought about, or they’ll always thought about as something arcane or hyper specific or exclusionary. This is many of the ways I do poetry, so here, you can take these and feel welcome to mess around with them. I’ve used all these texts, that is showing love and respect to those texts there’s nothing that is stopping you from doing that with stuff that speaks to you or stuff that doesn’t. You can make something that speaks to you out of something that you find abhorrent. There are so many different ways to tell the truth. I really, really wanted people to have fun. To think differently about poetry in a way that felt more expansive, and they felt included in. Also I really love puzzles. I think they’re really fun and it was a really cool challenge to try develop these different ones, and sometimes be a little tongue and cheek with it, like in the Squidoku, I think I final instruction gather your friends and like-minded individuals and have a rousing debate on whether or not this constitutes poetry. Because I think that’s funny, it makes me laugh, but also in a way where I’m like ‘Yep, that’s true.’ And sometimes I kind of have to take the piss. Because I can be, not serious exactly, but I take my work so seriously, but at the same time it brings me so much joy and humour. I wanted people to feel like this can be a jumping off point for whatever they want it to be. Learning more about the ocean, or writing a weird poem, or doing cross word or a word search and seeing what comes out of it. I’m also really glad my copyeditor, Ashley Hisson, recommended that we put the answer key into the book, because I was originally not intending to do that, and she was like ‘No that’s a terrible idea. We need to give people that framework because some of the puzzles are not as intuitive as you think they are.’ And I was like ‘Okay, that’s fair.’ And it gives you a chance to, you can write in this book, you can annotate it, you can dogear the pages. One of things that I was so excited about working with Wolsak and Wynn is that they need put such exceptional focus on design. I’ve been an admirer of theirs for such a long time, but I would not have been able to imagine that the book could be this beautiful. That it could be so perfectly considered, and the designer’s name is Kilby Smith-McGregor, she’s really incredible and I’m so amazed by what she did here and how overall Buck Writer and Wynn, they really considered the books as art objects in and of themselves, but I like it when you can touch the art. I tend to walk through galleries with my hands very tightly laced because I need to curb that impulse not to touch everything. I always want to touch it! You can touch this! You can mess with it. You can revere it as something beautiful, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be, it doesn’t need to stop you from that tactility. Particularly with the final exercise, which is the Rasiqra Remixed, there’s a gallery in Toronto called the Plum Gallery where I’ll be doing a small installation inspired by this with cards, with all of the 80 words that appear most frequently. The Rasiqra Remixed, it manifests as a word cloud, with the 80 most commonly occurring words in the collection and the invitation is for readers to take these words and use whichever ones, however many, play with them however you want and generate your own poem. We’ll be having wall space where people can stick those cards and then blank cards where they can write their own words and play with the order and create something new. Each person that comes through will be really welcome to do that. We’re going to be having many versions of each card, so in theory I won’t be running back and forth to refresh them. But I’m really excited about being able to bring it into a more dynamic space where people can really play and hopefully get a bunch of new ideas and enjoy themselves. I did a digital speaking at UT Scarborough for a contemporary Canadian poetry class, and some of the students, because they read my book the week before, they presented poems they created inspired by the book and it was the best feeling. Their work was really interesting too, the way that they took it and the way they brought themselves to it, very inspiring, an incredible moment.
BB: There are several pieces in this collection with found and interpolated text taken from their original context into a new interpretation through your poetry. The reader is then reinterpreting your interpretation of this context, different from another reader’s interpretation. What does it mean to be reinterpreted in a new context? What does it mean to use someone else’s words to say something new?
RR: For me, for Submarine Reflection in particular, this was my attempt to answer the question: Why cephalopods? Why do they continue to come up for you? What is that fascination? The ability to be able to take, this is one of the few poems where not only kept one of the epigraphs, but two epigraphs. The After Jacqueline Valencia epigraph because we’re using every italicized line is actually from a poem from her’s, from her Miracle Miracle chapbook, called the Octopus Complex, which is really fantastic, and if you’re not familiar with Miracle Miracle, I recommend checking them out. They repurpose old hardcover books to create new chapbooks, it’s super cool. She’s a really interesting artist and poet and thinker as well, but I also recommend people check out, but it’s also why the epigraph from Zoolander is there: ‘Why male models?’ ‘Why the octopus?’ All of these things, craft and science, beauty and transformation, horror and inspiration, they all create these quadrants but the totality, which can’t even be contained is really all of those things, but all of those things are essential. They’re all things that needed to be named, even if they’re not everything that’s there. Submarine Reflection, Sailor Neptune, it’s one of her attacks, one of her moves once she has the mirror which is her heart’s talisman, the talisman of her pure heart. It’s from Sailor Moon S, for context. The way that I phrase it in the notes is that this move channels flooding and/or revelation. It illuminates something that might be missed or might be hidden, like a weak spot on the enemy perhaps, but it also channels the ocean in a way that can be really overwhelming. But it’s also, I was watching dive, and there was a beautiful, beautiful muse octopus, which used to be called benthoctopus, but has since been amended, and it was hanging upside down from some rocks and the ARO, the explorer, was close enough to it that in the eyes of the octopus that you could see reflected the multiple lights creating this really beautiful pattern, and that’s what gave me the ‘Oh my god, it’s a literal submarine reflection!’ That’s where the poem started, it was so exciting to be able to see that kind of stuff. Okeanos, Nautilus Live, and Schmidt Ocean are three places that are really good resources if you’re interested in seeing more of these dives. They tend to run a lot through the warmer parts of the year, so please feel encouraged to check them out there. Incredible, and you can also ask a lot of questions to the scientists, which is great. Working with found text, it’s some ways I think for me, a way to play with my complete discomfort with being perceived. I’m a performer, I’m out here, I’m putting my work out here, I’m putting myself out here, but also, don’t look at me, I hate it. Not just don’t look at me, don’t apply a discreet understanding onto me. I never know how to react to that. It’s something that I find very uncomfortable. In part because I think in this really pluralistic way, where it’s very hard for me to picture something as one discreet thing and that’s equally true of myself. Sometimes as a means of poking at myself for that reaction, I like to play with other texts. It’s not even to say ‘oh, it’s not so bad, relax’ it’s more like a reminder that especially with poetry the reader is the lens through you read the poem. When you read a poem, you read it through yourself, there’s no way not to do that. Reminding myself that the reader, the lens, the vision, that’s all that matters here. It’s not a solid, immutable meaning to be branded onto something. That’s something that really means a lot to me, in terms of allowing me to have the freedom of doing the work I want to do without being inhibited by this aversion by having that same sort of meaning imprinted back on me.
BB: You yourself are a multimedia artist. When you create art, be it a poem or a song or digital glitch art, where does instinct come from to combine multiple forms of art? Why is it important to combine different mediums together for you as an artist?
RR: I think about this a lot. When I first started writing and wanting to perform, do live readings of my poems, I would get stuck because, I use a lot of typography and a lot of different voices or sometimes languages or overlapping or things like that. It seems so insufficient to read them, and you lose so much of what’s actually on the page. For me, sonic explorations really started with wanting to give a listener the experience of a reader so that everything that’s happening on the page is happening for you when you’re hearing it as well. Sometimes pieces end up developing into something that’s more purely performance, sometimes they are purely visual, but that’s rare for me, it’s very difficult to consider something finished or complete, those ideas can always be adapted or further explored in a way that brings me closer to my initial meaning or sometimes takes me somewhere very new that just adds a lot of different contexts and possibilities. It brings in different ways to communicate, these concepts and these ideas. Language is visually beautiful. Language is aurally and orally beautiful. It’s something very alive and sometimes it tells you that it wants to be something more or something different. Sometimes I really like the way something sounds or looks and I want to take that element and put it into something else and see what happens. I want to take some of these lines and stick them into music and see how that changes from the way I’ve been reading it or the way I’ve written it. I want to take this visual and make some sort of three-dimensional art out of it, or I want to draw it. There’s an illustrative series in the collection as well. The pieces correspond each to a specific poem. The methodologies are in the notes as well. But I would start by taking an element of or the creature itself, that’s really being explored in the poem, and I would draw it out. I’d keep them black and white. I love colour, but for publishing, you have to stick to what can be printed, what can actually be done without bankrupting your press. I would use black and white, watercolour and ink, and then I would scan them or photograph them digitally, so I could get a digital version that was a pretty big file size and then I would open up that image in a program that would let me play with the hex coding of the image, so one side subtractive and the other side is additive. I usually stick to the additive, but occasionally do a bit of subtractive. Then in the additive side I would take excerpts, words, or lines or combination thereof from the poem and stick them in the code and that’s what gives the glitch art the resulting final product. It’s a piece of art but it is the poem and it’s kind of like a reverse ekphrasis, where a ekphrasis is poetry about art, and this is art about poetry, but it still contains the poetry and it can be read in multiple ways. It can be read as poem on its own, and can be read as an ekphrasis in reverse, it can be read as a piece of art. But it is all of those things and perhaps many more that I haven’t even mentioned yet. Glitch art in particular, I really love the fact that using multiple different techniques of glitch art give you all kind of different results but also there’s this thing with glitch where you release some of the control over the image. This particular method that I use, I really like because it lets me be really intentional and theorical, but I still don’t have control over what it’s going to look when it’s done. I love that idea that the noise comes in and I aim to create a lot with this Islamic Artwork Principle of including deliberate imperfection into the work. The idea being that nothing that’s mortal, nothing on this world is perfect. Only Allah is perfect. When you create artwork, you make sure to do something that isn’t perfect, that doesn’t fit. There’s a lot of math in Islamic art, so you need to mess with it or else it will be technically perfect. It allows me a lot of freedom that I can release myself from perfectionist impulses which as noble as they may be, they tend to function as a silencing, then anything else. Glitch gives me the chance to explore that in a way that is spiritually very compelling but also creatively thrilling and it opens me up to a lot more possibility and to giving the art a chance to explore, explode, implode, do what it wants to do, whatever it needs to do. I think that glitches is a huge part of my artist practice, I use it a lot in my visuals, I use it a lot in poetry, and I use it my music as well.