luscious each tongue
liquorice all warmth
shakes tail or twelve
quirt ends slap clotted
cream into muscle light
bagpipe leather hails
hectic bellow and wheeze
spit soak astringent
tartan braided handle
uneven falls crave
gut shovelled lung power
holler diaphragm deep
split goatskin baited
squid whip: therapy
corset stitched doctor
fat knotted tongues
chuckle black neoprene
Jungian dervish swoops
flawless catharsis unclogs
anxiety to glutted scream
Thumbscrews Natalie Zina Walschots
The 2007 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry Winner
Natalie Zina Walschots recently completed her MA in Creative Writing at the University of Calgary. She serves as the Managing Editor for filling Station and is the co-organizer of the Flywheel reading series. She has also served as the Managing Editor for dANDelion. Her work has recently appeared in Matrix and The Capilano Review. Sections of Thumbscrews have appeared as the No Press chapbooks Passion Play and Christening. The following conversation occurred over email.
LH: Was this ms. part of your dissertation?
NW: No; this was a project I started in the poetry manuscript course I took with Christian Bok in the first year of my MA (2004-2005). My MA thesis is an entirely different project, called Tonsil Hockey, an imagined extension of bpNichol’s poetry in Arts Facts/Love/Truth/Zygal and The M, in the vein of Darren Wershler-Henry’s Nicholodeon (but textual rather than visual).
LH: Is this found text?
NW: This section: yes and no. A few of the titles are based on the nicknames a Canadian fetish /toy company called Leatherbeaten gave to a few of their pieces. However, most of them are odes to specific implements and the sensations they create. One of my friends asked me, when I first started working on the project, if the subject of pain in particular would get boring after a while. I remember her asking “Isn’t being hit with something a lot like being hit with any other thing?” The answer is, of course, absolutely not, so in Toy catalogue I really made en effort to try and represent the very different and specific sensations the objects implied.
LH: Were you working with a constraint? Can you elaborate on that process?
NW: I worked with a general sound-based constraint in this section: to represent either how each object sounded when it was used (specifically, the percussive sounds against the body), and/or the sounds made by a person either wearing the object or having it used on them. For example, I wanted ‘hobbles’ to sound like the slightly off-balance gait of a shambling, restricted walk. I wanted ‘ballgag’ to sound like the effort of speaking and drooling around a rubber ball.
LH: Your work, like the work of Rachel Zolf, Margaret Christakos, and others–Dennis Lee for example–privileges sound over meaning. i love the word “flogger” and “lammy” and of course their sound suggests meaning to me, but what do you say to readers who are looking for more representative imagery, more meaning?
NW: While I certainly privilege sound over meaning, I would not say that ‘Thumbscrews’ lacks any gesture towards representation. The piece you brought up, “flogger: lammy,” can certainly be read for sound alone, but it can also be read as a descriptive ode to a lambskin flogger, a description of the character and sensation of a specific implement — and, by extension, the how it feels to both wield that implement and how it feels when inflicted on the body.
LH: Yes, I guess what I meant by representation is really more conventional, or more “lyric” meaning. I’m always imagining the uninitiated reader, or the common reader as Woolf says, is a person on the threshold of the poem, looking for a way in… Will you outline your project in the text itself?
NW: Of course. Thumbscrews is, essentially, an extended comparison between constraint-based poetry and S&M. Why would you hobble a poem by employing so many restrictions upon the language? For the same reason that you’d tie someone up in the bedroom. It’s exciting, it makes you have to think much harder about what you’re doing, and the results can be exhilarating. Every poem refers to about what is happening to the poem itself (Thumbscrews is really a self-reflexive work), using the language of sadomasochism to do so. I chose sadomasochism both because the images were appropriate and the vocabulary was extremely exciting. Throughout Thumscrews, I am really using the language of S&M to talk about poetry, to use it as a new vocabulary to discuss what happens to langauge when you place it under constraint.
LH: Who are you influenced by?
NW: You’re absolutely right to mention Rachel Zolf and particularly Margaret Christakos (I love her cheekiness, a kinf of simultaneously winsome and gruesome, use of language) . I’d also add Suszanne Zelazo
— her use of associate leaps in logic, particularly in Parlance, affected the way I wrote Thumbscrews, as did her diction (particularly the impulse to unite words from disparate discursive regiusters). Christian Bok also greatly influenced my work, especially the way I’ve some to work with language under constraint. He also also imparted a sense of how tight and lean good poetry should be.
LH: Parlance is a wonderful book, and those prose poems in particular are stunning in their leaps, Steinian, but original. And yes, the leanness is there, and tightness: the syllabic rumbling. Was this text “bigger”? I mean to say was it built word up, chiseled down, or, or??
NW: I would have to say both. Most often, I started with much larger pieces and distilled them until they were as tight as I needed them to be; a few pieces, however, function as poetic additive scupture. The vast majority, I must say, were winnowed down from larger, wordier texts.
LH: Who do you most want to read your book?
NW: Everyone. =)
I am not sure that I have any one particular audience in mind, though I find myself particularly happy when young women read and enjoy my work. I want to write about things that are dangerous, things I find frightening, subjects that carry associated risks just for engaging with them. I think anyone who found my work a little less than safe should definitely read it.