Jill Hartman and Brea Burton are authors of the new collaborative book of poetry Booty: Hurricane Jane and Typhoon Mary (Mercury Press). The work is constantly playful, mixing in puns, pirates and language manipulation with an ever-present undercurrent of female sexuality. It is a plundering of language, a text that is challenging the page with every poem, creating amorphous and intriguing pools of phrase and syntax.
AT: While the work is clearly two companion pieces housed in one book, how much of the work was actually done collaboratively?
JH: We were graduate students in a creative writing class at the University of Calgary, along with Cara Hedley. Cara and I were writing creative theses, but there was this rather odd rule that you couldn’t use a creative writing workshop to work on your thesis and
Brea was working on a critical thesis. So each of us had these back-burner kind of projects that we brought to that class to work on. I had about 100 pages of stuff that I thought was all one project, but quickly narrowed it down to 10 or 15 pages that was about belly dance. Brea had a project called S + KIN, and Cara was working on a group of poems about the Lake of the Woods with some hockey thrown in. I think we decided to collaborate after performing once together— it was a very natural progression from working on these projects in class, editing each other’s work, to performing together over a period of months. Our projects grew into each other every time we performed—pirates, burlesque and hockey together made perfect sense to us—we share a sense of humour, we have a similar sense of language and we are all very interested in representations of femininity and feminism.
BB: I had never worked collaboratively before, performance or otherwise, so performing with Jill and Cara was a very generative experience for me. I actually started playing hockey! For me, in some senses, the banter and riffing between us on stage while we were reading gave me permission to be bold, bolder, and boldest. I had always felt somewhat uncomfortable about my inclination to use swearwords and racy references in my poetry, and my desire to be shocking but also to be taken seriously. Here were two really strong, young, and talented women writers who I felt instantly comfortable with and who I instantly adored.
JH: I changed and added to the work after every reading, and planning our performances (usually scrambling to pull it together an hour ahead of time in a cab or in a dark corner of the pub!) was a messy, hilarious, raunchy foray into the language we felt emboldened by each other’s precedent to use. Anyway, that’s how I felt. I truly love these women and their beautiful challenging ideas.
BB: Working with Jill and Cara has definitely strengthened me as a writer and as a person. When Mercury accepted our manuscript the performance process moved more onto the page. We had some very intense editing sessions together but already our work was interacting on and off the page.
JH: When we finished our MAs and Cara moved back to Winnipeg, we stopped generating new work—no performance. Cara ended up completing her novel (Twenty Miles, Coach House 2007) while Brea and I decided to try to shop around for a publisher for our part of the project. And then of course, editing the book with angela rawlings at Mercury this past summer, the collaboration jumped back to the page, much like when we were first editing each other’s work in class.
This collaboration has been very different from any other collaborative projects I’ve done—it was driven by performance, and the experience of performing. We didn’t exactly improvise or break out some scat stylings on stage, but being up on stage and listening to each other, and performing each other’s work and interacting in a
performative space was hugely generative for us.
AT: Within the work, Jill you utilize line breaks as a way to separate thoughts or phrases; Brea, you use the long prose line and tend to pile ideas on top of each other instead of separating them off. Were these different approaches to the page an attempt to translate the experience of performance?
BB: At one point during our editing process, I completely re-formatted my half of Booty. I tried to open up my blocks of text but after some discussion with Angela and Jill I reverted back to the boxy, prosy format. We all really liked the look and implications of the ‘box’ and the idea of the ‘treasure chest’ reflected in the form. We also all really liked the visual contrast between Jill’s writing and mine. Our texts look different and they can definitely stand alone but once you start reading you realize that they are very much connected through language, our word play, and thematically.
JH: I would say the development of our projects into a collaboration was performance-and-orality-based, but the form of the texts on the page were fairly well developed in each project when we began performing. That is, mine was more or less in the form it is in now– short lines running down the left side of the page.
I chose to structure my text that way for a couple of reasons—Hurricane Jane is based heavily on sounds circling, iterating, and repeating to echo the structure of dance—the elements of the text are constantly being re-tasked and repeated to refer to what came before and to expand the possible connotations and meanings. In traditional Middle Eastern dance, (as in a lot of dance forms) there are a set of styles and moves and steps that the dancer puts together as she performs, often in a spontaneous and experiential way. She can be spontaneous within that structure because she has learned to put the pieces together seamlessly.
AT: I’m glad you brought up dancing because what I did find it very interesting that the form in Booty is so physical. There is always a sense of fluidity, a snaking, meandering that is quite hypnotic.
JH: Well the dance is important. So on the page, to do a similar thing and to also represent that kind of movement within a form, I have my lines anchored to the left in what initially can appear to be quite a traditional poetic structure. It’s symbolic to me as an author/performer working within a patriarchal form (poetry, literature, say experimental poetry even) and in a lovely irony, the left is considered the feminine direction to spin in Middle Eastern dance. The form of the work has a direct relationship to the content in that way. I saw an amazing typo the other day which I am going to adopt to describe the effect—Hurricane Jane is illiterative—it uses alliterative iterations to move, letter by letter, sound by sound, to play with and within form—on page 26 for example, “fatl” drifts to “fetal,” to “fatal,” to “feet’ll.” Illiteration rejects one reading (the “illiterate”) in order to embrace multiple readings (the “ill-uminative”) while using a repeated letter (or sound or the left side of the page) to anchor the performance.
AT: It seems then that the illiterative and repetition are very closely linked. Both halves of the work are very flexible in this way and both of you create a fluid quality through repetition. Often within more straight-forward lyrical poetry there is an weighted attention to scene and physical description, than the repetition of sensation. Within both parts of Booty, repetition doesn’t simply re-hash phrases but instead evolves them. How important is it then to stretch language outside the confines of description and the singular reading?
BB: I love sound and word play and I always have. I think it goes back to when I wrote poetry as a kid and I was really into rhyming couplets (at some point I discovered ‘free verse’). I still really enjoy rhyming and alliteration, sometimes so much so that I get lost in the sounds and the rhythm and actual meaning becomes slightly secondary.
I used to write in a style that was less prose and more poetic but I took a class with Fred Wah (might’ve been the same one where Jill and I met) and after that class the form of my poetry morphed. I discovered that I like to build on words and ideas in my writing in a very literal way. Lists, repetition, and alliteration also change the pace of a poem and
sometimes I like to drive language faster and harder. That sounds really cheesy, but I can’t think of another way to put it.
AT: I think the immediate reaction is to read the texts as vastly different because of the form each takes. But what I think “anchors” (ho ho!) the work, both as individual collections and to each other, is this willingness to play with words and language as well as the sense of humour. “Take a larry at the lights” (HJ, 29) and the Moby Dick joke (TM, 28) are really funny and fit well within the theme and aesthetics of the work. How do you see humour working within Booty?
BB: Ah ha ha! You said anchor! For me, humour is a large part of word play and having fun with poetry and language.
JH: It’s tricky. And managing humour is tricky too– sometimes the language is just a bit silly/funny to balance those heavy confrontational moments, to move it all along, because sexuality is also just plain funny sometimes.
BB: I love being sly, clever, and tongue in cheek but at the same time I want to be taken seriously as a writer who has something to say. I also want my writing to be accessible and humour is a good way to achieve that.
JH: I mean, the place, effect, purpose of humour in Booty is a complicated one, for the reasons that Brea mentions– such a big part of Booty is taking slang and dirty jokes and re-purposing or re-contextualizing them in the space that we create in the book. I’m ~pretty~ sure that no one is going to be seriously insulted by a joke like “old enough to go to the store, old enough to get bread/bred” in our book, since we are obviously (is it obvious?) placing that as found language and responding to it. In its original context, it’s acquisitive and objectifying to the point of predation. Laughing at a place like that in the text could be very uncomfortable for the reader or the audience– and it can be uncomfortable for me too, to be confronted about cultural attitudes towards women and girls– we are all complicit to some degree at one time or another. I think humour is a useful way to accomplish confrontation, but I am always a little bit worried that someone in the audience wearing his baseball cap backwards and with a “molesterstache” is just laughing at the joke and missing the new context. And if that happens, then his neighbors might feel like the power balance has shifted a bit, and the space Brea and I are trying to create shrinks a bit again.
AT: As much as Booty reads as one continuous work, the work is actually chunked up into increasingly smaller parts. Obviously the whole book is split into each of your own parts, then those parts are broken into further sections and so on. Why this need for compartmentalization?
BB: I think of TM as containing stand alone poems but also as a long poem of sorts. I guess I do like structure because I seem to write in text boxes, er, I mean treasure chests!
JH: This is an interesting question– I hadn’t thought about the structure of the book in quite this way. I would say that Hurricane Jane is made up of individual poems that can read as a long poem, but were constrained by the page. I find the page-unit to be really appealing for poetry. I would say that each of the organizing compartmentalizations you refer to have their own purpose and history in the text. I must admit I am a bit of a nut for structure and organization– it’s the way I make sense of things when I read, and it’s the way I make sense of a project when I write.
The sections in each of our texts are evidence of collaboration in a very concrete way– we wanted the two sides of the doubloon, so to speak, to resemble each other in terms of design. I had sections, Brea didn’t, and so we worked with angela to come up with a logical and elegant way to maintain my sections and not have the two sides look too different from each other design-wise. I love the solution we came up with– the footers mark the sections on each page, locate you in your progress through the text (I love the experiential aspect that dance and poetry can share) and the repetition is ideal since it is an element that we both use heavily. Also, it gave us an opportunity to use the script font on each page in a way that isn’t overwhelming to the eye (because of the repetition and the uniformity of placement within each text and across the whole book).
AT: Both work effectively I think as long poems as well as in these individual compartments. There is this constant tension then, a question really, as to whether this is one book or two, whether is long work or a set of smaller.
JH: It’s possible to read each of our sections on their own. But they clearly have embedded and braided references to each other, not to mention a shared sensibility in terms of topic, approach to language, etc. So Brea and I really early on thought that publishing the two texts together, but back-to-back, would be an ideal way to present those links and differences. We liked that that kind of binding is one that old pulp novels often employ, and pictured the physical object of the book itself as being a further treatment of representations of women in pop culture– sharing a design feature that in pulp novels is meant to save money and has an effect of de-emphasizing the importance of a single authorial presence– not a bad way to introduce a collaborative book of feminist poetry!
AT: It is impressive that a book so bent on playing with language resists the urge to disembody itself. The book is strongly rooted in female identity, especially within the physical body and sensation. In what ways have the strong female presences and bodies, Typhoon Mary and Hurricane Jane, guided the book?
BB: Personally I’ve always been interested in erotic writing. I’m not sure that TM is erotic, but I do feel that both HJ and TM are rooted in the body and (to borrow from Jill) the bawdy. I find Jill’s poetry to be very sensuous, her images are both tactile and visceral for me. An example is her poem on p. 32 of Booty, “a burn on my arm was dewy/ and now it is shiny/ it is dry.” I love that poem.
JH: I found it really helpful to envision these characters—Hurricane Jane and Typhoon Mary—as bolder, brasher, more extreme than I am. Giving them names really helps us embody those characters in performance, in “acting out” on stage. I love Brea’s line “the masthead come to life” (pg 15) because it describes this surprising manifestation of
something that’s supposed to be symbolic and static, and following this thought, I like to picture Typhoon Mary and Hurricane Jane as characters in the book but also as the book itself. So each time we perform, I can voice the static symbol of the book. And maybe each time someone reads the text themselves, they voice the text and embody the book while reading, because it is tactile and bawdy, and asks questions of the reader (did you expect me to talk about love? etc.) and places the reader in the text as alternately a friend or a foe.
BB: For some reason I find it difficult to speak about Booty in academic terms so I’m not even going to try. Booty is a sexy edgy text. There are moments of sensuality and sexuality that have hints of violence and I hope those moments make people uncomfortable.
You asked about strong female characters and how they drive the text. I haven’t really answered your question. In TM there is a definite ‘she’ who appears over and over again but ‘she’ isn’t always the same.
JH: Well, in both our texts the question of pronouns was one we looked at carefully in the editing stage because the identity of the speaker and the subject is somewhat unfixed. I know Brea has described her text as more narrative, and she has a character for sure, the “lady pirate”—and I took some guidance from that for my text. While mine isn’t narrative, it does have a speaker who is an “I” but that narrator also refers to “she” and “her,” which can be her talking about herself in the third person and/or describing all “shes” and “hers.” Often the speaker refers to “she” (“we know she likes to,” pg 23) in an acting out of another voice— a voice embedded in patriarchy, a violent voice. But the speaker is describing herself and her cohorts— all the women who are implicated in that kind of language. So the female voices “act out”—by repeating language that is used to
denigrate women and re-contextualizing it.
And just to touch on the idea of eroticism that Brea brought up—I don’t think of the text as primarily an erotic one, but I would say that that is not an unreasonable reading of many of the poems individually. The book as a whole can be seen as a treatment of
sexual language and ideas about what is erotic, and so to move through the text is to experience some erotic moments, even though they are usually subverted within the space of a page or two. Rather an uncomfortable way to get off, so I doubt people are going to get the pages all sticky.
BB: Using words like ‘milf,’ ‘beaver,’ ‘hairy camel toes,’ words that imply sex, but are also violent in that they are offensive, creates those moments. Booty is very much a playful text, yet it also bites. I suppose we are playing ‘in’ language, not so much playing ‘with’ language, getting our hands dirty, muddying the water.