Tyler Pennock is a Two-Spirit adoptee from a Cree and Métis family around the Lesser Slave Lake region of Alberta and is a member of Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation. They are a Toronto based writer with an MFA from Guelph University’s Creative Writing program. Their first poetry collection, Bones, was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Indigenous Voices Award for Poetry.
Blood is Tyler’s second poetry collection but set in the same world as their debut collection, Bones. It follows the Two-Spirit Indigenous narrator as they navigate urbanity, queerness, memories, dreams, history, and their future. Beautifully written, this is a poetry collection you can’t put down.
Tyler was interviewed by Brianna Bock.
Brianna Bock (BB): When I was reading Blood for the second time, I immediately noticed “if we think the air’s capacity constant and perception implies existence”, and it served for me as a framing device for the entire book. When writing a narrative poem that takes up 118 pages, how do you decide what to set up for the reader in the first page/poem?
Tyler Pennock (TP): The framing you’re referring to evolved over time as I was writing. For Blood, I was more concerned about how to follow Bones. The concerns there were static things, including memory, beliefs, one’s experiences looking back, etc. Initially I’d conceived of the book in relation to the changes we perceive in seasons. As people we often fail to see how events in winter influence and guide what happens in the spring. The water droplets came out in a second or third draft, when I realized that the unseen impacts that come before / behind what we see goes well beyond seasons, past experiences, anything linear and simple.
BB: When I want to read a text closely, I start underlining passages and making notes in the margins. Reading Blood, my notes began to feel like I was having a conversation with your poetry. Would you describe poetry as a conversation, or is that grossly simplifying the experience?
TP: The poetry I’m writing now seems more like a conversation, yes. In my writing practice (indeed, in many of the poems), I’m referring / recalling memories, experiences, conversations, including poetry readings I’ve had, moments in class, etc. As much as possible I want to diffuse the boundaries between all these things – including how people read my poetry. For example, I really like mixing up the poetry I read publicly, between books, published and unpublished things. I mix them with remembered events, stories I can tell. The whole point is to tease out a different story than could be understood by reading it alone. I try to weave that instability into the structure and language of the poetry itself as well. In that, it is a conversation, but we often take for granted our facility with English. All conversations are deeply complex. In speaking we navigate context, body language, shared histories, shared assumptions, etc. We also have to navigate the differences we harbour in perspectives. When you add our differences in culture, language, land, etc. it becomes even more complex. It’s a reminder of our diversity in perception. So, no – it’s not oversimplifying at all.
BB: I’m always fascinated by how poets format their poems. I found that your fragmented sentences forced me to slow down and pay attention to what was and wasn’t being said, and I read faster in paragraph formatted sentences. As a poet, how do you decide the formatting for your poetry?
TP: Yes – and there’s more. It’s like creating or reaching toward a 3D space in a 2 dimensional representation for me, which literature does anyway. Once I started conceiving of greater variation in word placement, it opened more things. Such as words in one column taking on a quality of their own within the poem itself. I have a couple poems that are perfect mirrors for previous poems in other collections. In a specific sense, when you look at the OCD poems (pp 69 and 85), you can see that I wanted to represent how OCD skewers recollection, that looking back over a moment repeatedly (the compulsion) can deconstruct the reality of it. That peace of mind is impossible once the OCD brain takes hold. I described that process on p 50.
BB: For some narrative-book long poems, some poets section the poems into essentially book chapters while others keep the single poem for as long as they want. Why did you fragment your poems into two-pages tops?
TP: This one is interesting – as the publisher uses a dot to represent the end of a poem. Most of my poems are one page. But they end up being two in printed version. I was taught by someone who told me that poetry is a moment, distilled. This influences me in that I like to keep the moment of each poem slow, tiny, a single voice in a chorus.
BB: Following up from the previous question, for Blood, why did you end up focusing on short fragmented poems? What made you want to construct the narrative of Blood this way? Were longer poems ever in consideration when writing Blood?
TP: I also had another teacher who encouraged us to study oral legends and stories. Oral traditions and legends didn’t have, as Craig Womack puts it in the book (Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism), the “dominant paradigm’s expectations of fuller explanations.” (1999:99). That the audience “already knows so much.” It’s why there is a Whiskey Jack on the cover – I envisioned the poems themselves as the audience, and that they were speaking to each other (I had some help from my editor on that last part). That like people in oral cultures, understanding a poem becomes much easier when you connect it to another. This is how I tried to represent ways that metonymy (and paratextuality) operates differently in oral traditions.
BB: I’ve recently read some poetry collectives as opposed to a longer narrative poem. The collections usually have a theme to tie everything together, but sometimes you can tell that one came from a different source, so to speak. Speaking as someone who has only read Blood, was this decision unique to the story you wanted to tell, or is this a focus of your writing?
TP: I will mention that the context and experiences of the voice in Blood are connected to the events in Bones. A kind of maturation. The theme of Blood being spring, was how thawing might change the physical nature of water, but what emerges is often determined by the nature of the ice before it. There are several references to marrow, and this really made me think of lava, melting ice, etc. What the previous collection represented or called out as static, cold, and difficult things (trauma, violence, oppression etc.), this collection softens and re-incorporates. This is of course, told through the personal experiences of the protagonist.
BB: The times I read Blood, I was motivated to finish the whole thing in one sitting each time I read it. It felt like if I left the reading for another day, I would lose a thread of the narrative. I’ve mentioned this before, but the formatting really made me pay attention to the writing, and I would often mumble the poems out loud as I read. It really felt like I was physically listening to it, like someone was reading out loud. As a poet, how do you capture the oral into a very static, amber-like medium, in your experience?
TP: I’m obsessed with oral represented as text! This was part of what I wanted to build on in Blood, the sense that an orality could be represented in text – and how placement of words, similar poems, identical structures could mimic the multivalent world of oral tradition and even every day conversation.
BB: The further I read through Blood, the more I found myself returning to earlier passages in the book and marking/underlining/circling the repeating motifs. Blood felt circular, repetitive, as the poems deal with the enormity of personal and intergenerational trauma (and how connected they are). When you wrote Blood, how did you pace those moments?
TP: I didn’t really think about pacing, though I understood that trauma, violence, and oppression are very much cyclical, just as anything is in human environments. Everything changes slightly when it is experienced by a different person, by the same person in a different time, etc. It seemed to me that the context has a lot of power over an idea or event because of how that person perceives the relationship between that original event and their present (or future) situation. It’s a useful way to frame adapting to and resolving (and eventually reconnecting, or reincorporating) and original trauma.
BB: On page 77, you bring up the concept of words as preserving a moment in amber, and how something is missing when nothing changes (the words). My reading of that theme at the end of Blood was that relationships and experiences to the words change, but the words continue to stay the same. And of course, everyone’s reading/ perception/ definition is going to be different. Looking back on Blood now that it’s been published for a year, what are your thoughts on the words you wrote?
TP: Amber is such a fascinating thing! Like rock, ice, flesh etc. amber can also melt. The fun part of that poem is the assumption that once a thing is hard, it stays so forever. But given the other theme of thawing and melting, and the world in which we live, the assumption that static or hard things remain so permanently is (hopefully) discarded. Like the assumption, inherent hardness is an illusion – a projection of sorts. That all things are made to soften or melt, just as “blood’s purpose is to rebuild,” or that “we aren’t made for stillness.”I like the collection even more now. I was quite proud of it when it came out, because I’d grown so much as a poet. People’s reactions to it make me want to continue this story.
BB: Blood grapples with a lot of interconnecting/conflicting themes and ideas that all come together beautifully (there’s a couple notes in the margins I made in all caps for certain beats when I spotted them). When you create poetry, are those connections something carefully planned for, or something that sprang out in the moment from instinct from your experiences?
TP: Hard to say. I have a preference for multiple interconnected – and conflicting themes and ideas, as well as very thick, intertextual metaphors that cycle through different lenses. It’s one of the things I adore about Indigenous story work. I also love how (polysynthetic) Indigenous languages such as Cree and Ojibwe require so much more than objective, disembodied explanations or descriptions to convey meaning.