By Natalie Zina Walschots
On the 13th of October, 2011, Liz Worth launched her new book of poetry, Amphetamine Heart, recently published by Guernica Editions as part of their First Poets series. The event included performances by garage rock / pop-punk troublemakers the Weirdies, a reading by the prolific Jim Johnstone and freak-show stunts by performance group Triage. Liz herself performed on theremin. Amidst all the brilliant multi-arts shenanigans, I had the opportunity to interview Liz on stage. I was deeply impressed by the depth, sensitivity and intelligence of her answers. Liz generously agreed to take the time to expand the interview into a more in-depth piece for Northern Poetry Review.
Liz Worth is the author of Amphetamine Heart (Guernica Editions) and Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond (Bongo Beat/ECW). She is also the author of three chapbooks, Eleven: Eleven, Manifestations, and Arik’s Dream. She lives in Toronto and can be reached at www.lizworth.com.
Why Amphetamines? Why the heart?
The title poem in Amphetamine Heart was one of the first pieces of this collection that I wrote, and is the poem that most closely captures how I felt at the time these were written.
I was experiencing a great deal of insomnia and anxiety then. I used to take a lot of sleeping pills and drink a lot, and when you do that it wears you down pretty fast. You feel like your body is really pushing through the waking hours, and it probably is. When you combine sleeping pills with alcohol, you can reach unconsciousness for a while, but it’s not quality sleep — you’re not truly rested. You also develop a tolerance to this over time, so you have all these depressants running through your body every night and you’re laying there awake with your nightmares, worries and paranoia, and it’s not a good feeling.
My heart would pound so hard sometimes I could see it through my shirt; I could feel it. I had a boyfriend at the time who would notice it, too, just sitting beside me on the couch. My body was speeding up from emotional tension and I was trying to slow it all down. Everything was in conflict and I was feeling every second of it.
I was struck by the rawness and intimacy of the pieces in Amphetamine Heart. The voice is very near the surface, often without guile or pretence — no polish, nothing to hide behind. Is this catharsis?
I didn’t approach any of these poems with the intention of working anything out; I don’t think I was searching for catharsis. Actually, there was a long, long time where I believed I would never be able to feel any differently. I was holding onto depression and holding onto things that had hurt me in the past. But after I’d pulled from those feelings for Amphetamine Heart, I found that there was a distance between me and those emotions that I’d never had before. At the end of the three years it took to write these poems, I did feel like I’d moved on and I felt like I was ready for new experiences and feelings.
What is the relationship between the speaker(s) and the audience?
It’s an intimate one, but not intended to be one-sided. Yes, there are many confessions and truths, but they are meant to be related to and they are meant to connect. I feel like there is a waking voice and, for lack of a better term, a sleeping voice. The waking voice is frantic and bloody, and rules over Winter Hunger and Oral Fixations. The sleeping voice is calmer and larger, and rules Lowered Inhibitions and Before the Thaw. What is the relationship between activity / energy / panic and calm / sleep / unconsciousness / power? That’s such an interesting observation because those extremes, like unconsciousness and panic, were what I felt I bounced between in the time these poems were written. There wasn’t a lot of middle ground then, mentally or physically, because I was searching for calm in all aspects of my life, but feeling like it was very far away. I didn’t realize those two voices would come out like that in the collection; it wasn’t intentional, but it makes sense that it’s there because that’s what I was living.
This book is very much about the body and the poems are very physical. The language often anchors itself in the flesh and the weakness and corruptibility of it. Was there a poetics of the body you were going for?
A lot of my writing gravitates towards the physical, but I feel like that’s natural. We’re in our bodies for our entire lives, so we should be aware of them; they’re what attracts us to each other. The body is both fascinating and repulsive. I’m always amazed that our bodies react to certain viruses by vomiting. Vomit is a natural immune response that’s just so disgusting, but also makes me so curious.
Sex is the same: it can be beautiful, but repulsive. In the right moments it can feel perfect, but do it with the wrong person, or at the wrong time in your life, and it’s a totally different experience. Do it with someone you don’t even want to be close to and it can be nauseating.
I feel like I’m particularly sensitive to what’s happening in my body. I’m always aware of it; I feel every inch of it all day every day. I feel every little change, for better or for worse. It makes me uncomfortable a lot of the time, but I don’t think I would trade it. I wanted to capture all of that — the ugly discomforts and attractive flaws — in Amphetamine Heart.
Are these poems wounds?
I hadn’t really thought of them in that way, but I think some of them must be. There are certain pieces in here — “Frantic,” “Amphetamine Heart,” “Definitions” — that immediately make me think of scars left over from self-harm and abusive, addictive behaviour.
Because of the intimacy of this book, were they any pieces that were particularly difficult to write?
I wanted to push myself to use language and imagery differently than I had before — before I started writing a lot of these poems, much of my writing had been journalistic — so that was more of a challenge. I didn’t really have any difficulty getting into personal territory because I’d already written about struggles with self-harm and depression in other avenues, so that part of my story had been out in the world for a while already. I figure if people can’t handle the truth then it’s their problem — that’s their discomfort they have to deal with, not mine.
About your practice and process: recently, you spent a month at Open Book as their blogger in residence, where you talked extensively about your schedule, work ethic and writing relationships. How/when/where do you write?
I write whenever I can, but I do make sure that I leave time to write. I think that’s really important, especially because I work a day job, and if you have to work, it’s key to carve out time for yourself to be creative. If you don’t, the work isn’t going to do itself. I never let a whole week book up with plans. There have to be at least two days — could be evenings or weekend afternoons or whatever — that are all mine.
I usually write at home, but sometimes I’ll go to a coffee shop or something; it depends on the time, though. I don’t like crowded places, so if there are too many people around, I’ll just go back to my living room. Bars can be good places to write, too, if they’re not too loud.
You have written in many modes and genres. Your first book was an oral history of punk in Toronto, put out by a record label turned press. Before that, you were a music writer. Now, you have a book of poetry published by a literary press out in the world. Next, I hear you are working on a novel.
Yeah, I have to go where my head and heart want me to. I’ve noticed I tend to follow my ideas rather than follow what I want. I didn’t say, “I really want to write a novel next, so that’s what I’m going to do.” Instead, it was, “I have a lot of ideas and I could do a lot of things, but ideas, lines and images for this novel keep coming to me, so I guess this is what I’m supposed to be working on.”
Also, I get bored easily; I don’t think I could ever only write poetry, journalism or fiction. To stay engaged and interested in one thing, I have to have room to play with others.
How do the various types of writing you work in feed each other?
My poetry is very influenced by music and so is my fiction. I’ve always taken a lot of inspiration from the original punk movement, which wasn’t only about music, but poetry, journalism, fashion, photography, art and zines. There were a lot of different creative people hanging out as one community. And journalism can be very influential on a person because you’re meeting new people all the time and learning about new things constantly. That leads to a very healthy creative mind, if you let it.
What are your writing ambitions? Have these ambitions changed over time?
At this point, I’m not sure what’s next after the novel. Of course, I’d love to get it published, but outside of that I don’t really know what my writing ambitions are. Some people have tangible goals, like win an award or publish a certain number of novels, but I don’t have that. I would just like to keep doing what feels right.