Leah Horlick is not your typical prairie poet from Saskatchewan that writes about wheat. Her poems are graceful, yet potent, ruminations on the shadow side of human nature. Her new book For Your Own Good (Caitlin Press Inc., 2015) grew wings during her 2012 Lambda Literary Fellowship but the essence of this collection of poems—and their gravitational pull on the reader—germinates from a perceptive mind that can distill something as complex as partner violence in an intimate relationship into a powerful lesson, for our own good.
In this third article in our series on Canadian queer writers, Bi Magazine caught up with Horlick while on her west coast tour with Amber Dawn and Vivek Shraya. Her responses, much like her poetry, reveal what is sure to be one of the most important voices in literature in the years to come.
Bi Magazine: Your work is primarily referenced as “feminist” and “lesbian” poetry. Indeed, feminist and lesbian writers have influenced you the most. But how do you want to be known? For whom do you write?
Leah Horlick: It is important for me to choose my labels myself before other folks choose them for me. Using labels like feminist, or lesbian, or saying that I’m non-Zionist and Jewish, or as a strongly femme identified person and a person with a complex racial identity, these labels help me to situate myself. But I also don’t want to be limited. It’s important for me that I write from that identity and that I’m clear about it, but I wouldn’t say that it’s the crux of my work. My content or my voice is not limited to queer communities.
Just having grown up in a place where we had a very small queer community—I’m from northern Saskatchewan—it was very common to go to a feminist event or rally and run into your hockey playing lesbian friends there, and then everyone would go to one or two of the gay bars afterwards because it was the only place we could go. When I moved to Vancouver, I faced a segregated community: the West End with mostly queer men, Commercial Drive where it’s mostly queer women, and then there’s the rad queer group that does a lot of political organizing and never the twain shall overlap. So, I still keep my small town experience in my heart and I think about it a lot when I’m writing to make sure I’m not gentrifying a genre as well.
BM: What was the first book that had a profound impact on you?
LH: I remember being terrifically influenced by Zoe Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Hearts. In Canada we are so surrounded by American media and writing. Growing up on the prairie, so much of what I read was down home colonial, racist, pioneer stuff. But there are certain stories that are told for reasons that are very much about power and history, and I remember Whittall’s book was the first to talk about the urban Canada that I wanted to live in, that I felt more of a part of and that wasn’t about a separate reality in a rural place.
BM: Spaces, both geographic and internal, are significant in your poems. Describe the internal spaces that you go to find the language and the rhythm for your poetry?
LH: I find that I’m a very auditory writer so I do a lot of reading aloud. I read from a sound space starting with maybe one or two bits of language that really resonate or are fun to play with as far as sound goes. A lot of my work is also imagistic or related to symbolism so, it’s usually a combination of some sort of visual symbol and a sound that I start with and then tease out and see internally if this is connected to a memory or a feeling.
BM: You have said that lately you have been moving away from your earlier confessional slam poetry influences. How do you see the ‘confessional’ evolving in your work over time?
LH: I don’t think I’ll ever abandon the confessional because I feel like there is a lot of possibility. Also, as a feminist I feel like I’m attached to a medium that has got such a bad rap and suffered from misogyny in the way that we talk about, or think about, confessional writing. I think there’s something powerful about reclaiming the idea of the confession from its more oppressive or Judeo-Christian roots in particular. What I moved away from—when I left the spoken word and slam set—is the competitive. I started out doing slam poetry as a challenge to myself. A number of my friends who were young women and writers at the time were tired of being yelled at by men in our lives, and from microphones, so we thought that if someone can be lauded for some terrifically patriarchal slam poem then I would like to talk about something very vulnerable and very relatable to my experiences. It was very exciting for a while and then it became very exhausting. I really respect women who have carried on doing that, especially queer and racialized folks who, I know, suffer so much micro-aggression in those competitive arenas. It was a real challenge for me with For Your Own Good to see if I could retain that confessional quality and also make it a healthier creative process for myself. I’ve spoken a lot from the “I” and I would love to play more with language, zoom out a little bit, use different perspectives but still have it be confessional.
BM: What is your advice to young writers, caught in the daily hustle of paying rent and putting food on their table, about the business of writing?
LH: I have a full-time job, with benefits, at a women’s center. But I was unemployed for almost a year. I have a terrific amount of privilege in that I have a very supportive family. But I also remember how horrible it felt. I also fell prey to a lot of “manarchism” where there were a lot of people telling me that it was shameful to work, that I was buying into some capitalist system, that I should just be able to do my writing and people should inherently value me for that. I feel like there’s a lot of misogyny in there, that things that are nice, good, safe, keep you warm and fed are somehow effeminate, unnecessary, or excessive. It has taken me a long time to take apart those messages. It’s okay for me to do things that will pay my rent and keep food in my fridge, those are also part of wellness for queer people and it doesn’t have to become this thing that I can only feel complete and sustained by having a book published, that if I want other things out of my life—that’s okay.