Metaphor and Momentum: Safiya Hopfe in Conversation with Erin Soros

Erin Soros

Malahat Review Marketing & Promotions Assistant Safiya Hopfe talks with Erin Soros about her 2019 Long Poem Prize-winning piece, “Weight,” which will appear in the 2019 Summer Issue #207. Read an excerpt of "Weight" here.



A settler from Vancouver, Erin Soros has published fiction and nonfiction in international anthologies and journals, including Short Fiction, The Iowa Review, The Indiana Review, ELQ, Geist, Prism, West Coast LineFiddleheadand enRoute.  Her stories have been produced for the CBC and BBC as winners of the CBC Literary Award and the Commonwealth Award for the Short Story.  Articles weaving psychoanalysis, philosophy, oral history, and autobiography have appeared in such journals as differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies and The Canadian Journal of Women and the Law.  New work has appeared in Literatures of Madness and in Women and the Psychosocial Construction of Madness. Soros has been a visiting writer at four universities, most recently the University of Cambridge.  This year she is a postdoctoral fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University.  Throughout her life, people have advised Erin Soros to focus on one thing. 


Read what Long Poem contest judges had to say about Soros's winning poem.

Congratulations on your Long Poem Prize win! You've won numerous awards for your short stories over the years. How did "Weight," a long poem that reads like a lyric essay, come to be? Did you originally write it as a long poem or did it start out as something else? 

To be recognized by these particular judges, with their own attention to form and its histories, is an honour and a delight. And to win together with John Elizabeth Stintzi is such a joyous celebration. Their poem is stunning, brutal yet tender.

In terms of “Weight,” I like your phrasing “a long poem that reads like a lyric essay,” because the simile here implies both identification and difference, a nearing and a veering. I wasn’t sure what form this writing would become. I just knew that the words needed to gather on the page. I could say I’m not interested in literary categorization, or rather that I constantly refuse and betray it, yet I know categories are helpful for libraries and for literary awards, and I’m keen on both of these. Still, I have reservations about our confidence with categories and our declarations of allegiance to them. I didn’t grow up with books in the home, but with storytellers who weaved metaphor and momentum, truth and fiction. Women who sang when they cleaned homes. Men who used words like “widow-maker” and “Molley Hogan Eye” and “nurse stump.” My family’s wit, I think, was a form of poetry—the surprise you immediately recognize but couldn’t expect.

The work I return to again and again is hybrid in form—Ann Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, or WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return or Anne Carson’s Economy of the Unlost, Cameron Awkward-Rich’s Sympathetic Little Monster or Billy-Ray Belcourt’s forthcoming NDN Coping Mechanisms, excerpts of which I’ve had the privilege to hear and to teach. Writers such as these, creating with and against their various traditions, help me see how form is historical and political, how it constrains, what it makes possible. Their work causes me to hesitate, as a white settler, because it teaches me that familiar lyrical structures and narrative drives are never innocent. Their work also grants permission to wait, as I’m writing, to see what my words want to be, how they want to fall.  Usually I write prose, but all my pieces arise first as image and rhythm, and through the pleasure of juxtaposition. I read more poetry than any other form. 

Poetry intimidates me because I love it so much. But with this work I thought I could include my own vocabulary, the voices of the gym, and banter and jokes, mix it up a bit, with intertexts ranging from Jacques Lacan to Laverne and Shirley to Shrek. Could that be a poem? 

As you surmised, “Weight” began as a lyric essay but then I realized that it was too dense, that the reader needed space for the eye to rest and perhaps recover. Sometimes I will fragment an essay into smaller units, paragraphs set apart by an asterisk, but this time I wanted to retain a kind of inescapable propulsion, so I formatted the prose as a column, and as soon as I did that I felt free to intensify the pace of the imagery, to jump cut between associations as one’s mind does while lifting weights.  

I have lifted weights for almost twenty years. I feel confident in gym language and ritual—it’s a culture I know well, within which I am my most confident self.  And somehow that ease translated to the writing. I became immersed in what needed to be said, like a dancer surrendering to the dance, words as corporeal and kinesthetic. I composed this entire piece in four days, one section each day.  

It did not feel like effort to write this thing called a long poem. The way that I have managed to contain traumatic memories—assimilate and hold them, cope with them, remember them whether I want to do so or not—is through the aesthetic hoarding of image and of specifically resonant turns of phrase. I have carried so many images and bits of speech with me for decades. This poem took four days to write, give or take thirty years. To drop these words on the page felt like releasing a great weight.

Did you know from the start that “Weight” would explore so much more than the experience of lifting? How did that metaphor expand as you thought about, outlined, and wrote the piece?

All the themes came at once, in a visceral density I wanted to release. First I scribbled in a notebook by my bed, then on a series of Kleenex stuffed in my sports bra as I did pull-ups and squats and dead lifts, pacing the writing with movement. I began this thing called a long poem while reading Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf. I was studying this book, spending an hour or more on each poem—reading it aloud, typing it out, mapping sentence patterns, examining line breaks. When I love a piece of writing, I want to ink it into my memory like a tattoo. Akbar has spoken in interviews of how poetry has enabled him to sublimate his addiction, but that it is itself an addiction of sorts. Reading and writing poetry is a way to heal from and yet continue his obsession with taking in what is not his own. In his verse, he captures the language of addiction, and addiction as language. So what do we say with that language? Who hears? How do we translate? We who struggle with addiction might be grouped under various distinct umbrellas—whether alcoholism, heroin addiction, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa. And we might recognize collective strategies and rituals, similar ways we numb what we cannot bear, and hide from what we don’t want to be. But we also use these strategies and rituals in our uniquely singular and idiosyncratic ways to say and unsay individual memories and contemporary experiences, related to our specific confrontations with intergenerational violence, misogyny, poverty, racism, ableism, colonialism, anti-queer and anti-trans sentiments and structures. I see addiction simultaneously as repetition of trauma and resistance to it. I wanted to situate my adolescent struggle with self-starvation within the context of familial and sexual violence, a carving of personal history into flesh. How is self-starvation a way to escape the body being punished, being pursued, threatened, and attacked? Or a way to flee gender itself? How does restricting food offer solace even as it becomes its own dangerous punishment? 

Building on Oji-Cree traditions, Joshua Whitehead has spoken recently of how an eating disorder can be kin—just as water or trees or earth are kin. How might he learn to attend to it, listen and care for it, learn from the strange yet familiar habits? Métis scholar Zoe Todd has written of body weight too as a form of kin—for her, fat is a direct placeholder for loved ones who are not there and dearly missed. These theorists are writing out of traditions that are not mine, and their paradigms diverge from my articulation, but their patient and attuned thinking resonates with my curiosity about what states of addiction, and states of madness, are actually trying to express. 

While I was reading Akbar, I thought about how I shifted my self-damaging energies and practices as I began lifting weights. Weightlifting healed me. This regular and shared practice remained a ritual of shaping the body, but in a more supportive way. I don’t think we have access to a body that hasn’t been shaped. It was for me a matter of choosing the practice. I speak specifically about how rest and repair is part of the weightlifting regime. And I suggest that the act of lifting weights unbound me, at least momentarily, from gendered norms, or the ones assumed to apply to my body. I wanted to capture the culture of a gym, the way men speak and move, not just their strength and sometimes menacing presence, but also their vulnerability, which I have come to witness in both banal and dramatic ways. 

I was also circling the weight of grief, the weight of trauma, the weight of language, the weight of madness—and the opposite, how these things can seem unbearably light, to invoke Milan Kundera’s coinage. In a state of psychosis, language can ricochet, words shimmering and seemingly limitless in their associations. And what does a word mean then? At one point in the poem I tried to capture that chaotic texture, word after word, sense unspooling. But when we encounter trauma, language can also fall, as if dropped, a hard heavy thing. To confront these weightless or weighty states head-on in the writing felt overwhelming and amorphous, so the return to weightlifting—both literally in my everyday practice and figuratively as a trope in the poem—was a way to create structure and relief. I like when something physical and sensuous can function as a stabilizing force in a work—Maggie Nelson writing about heartbreak through the colour blue, or Kyo Maclear writing about grief through her observations of birds. The blue and the birds are more than metaphor—they are vividly themselves, drawing the writers and the readers back to the world. 

"Weight" tackles difficult subject matter with grace. Would you consider "Weight" to be a hybrid of poetry and lyrical memoir? How would you describe the process of unraveling such personal experiences on the page, and when do you feel like you have captured a story well enough to tell it?

Eve Tuck’s critique of damage centred research (“Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities”) is one of those works that gave me a theoretical framework for what I have long sensed. She is speaking of the effect of research that focuses exclusively on an Indigenous or other marginalized community’s trauma—the damage from colonialism, the damage from poverty—and she questions the efficacy and ethical status of such investigations. What vision of humanity does it ultimately give us? How can you imagine agency—desire and critique and resistance and renewal—when you are perpetually being narrated solely as victim? I worked in the Downtown Eastside for a decade, my mom grew up in the neighborhood, and I still have familial connections. I’m enraged at reportage and research that narrates the area and the community only as wound. I’m also sensitive to the ways that certain states—addictions, eating disorders, the experience of psychosis—are often presented purely as pathology, as forms of damage. As I try to indicate, these states also serve important functions. My understanding of psychosis, for example, is that it is a form of testifying to what otherwise cannot be spoken. It responds to and in some ways narrates the domino effect of complex trauma, when the violation one encounters in the present hits against those experiences you’ve survived in the past. It articulates the sensory overwhelm and floating fear that attaches to a current interaction and yet that surpasses any contemporary occurrence, when an immediate experience echoes an individual, collective and/or intergenerational past. And as I indicate, psychosis can also provide an urgent escape. The delusionary wedding revealed a profound longing: for another, for wholeness, for a lost beloved and a missed family—an attempt to heal rupture through fantasy. The pathology, what is deemed pathology, itself possessed grace.

For a long time I haven’t spoken of what I have experienced and survived because I don’t feel that diagnostic or other forms of shorthand serve me well. I need to situate suffering within story, so that people see my pain and fear and grief together with buoyant fantasy and stubborn resistance and the commitment to recreate. It is also a risk to be open about madness—not just a risk to my career but to my freedom and bodily autonomy. So after much silence, this thing called a long poem was an entirely satisfying work to create. See this. Listen to this.    

I did need to have these words heard and held almost immediately upon writing them. I read them aloud to Carmel Shalom, my chosen sister. She’s an insightful and compassionate listener and her hearing made these words feel like they make sense, like I make sense, which I don’t always know. I then shared the written work with Dominik Parisien, who was vividly generous in his response and who told me I wrote a poem. Then Sachiko Murakami, Tara McGuire, Ágnes Cserháti, all brilliant writers possessing an emotional wisdom forged through loss and their own recreation. I trust them. I learn from them. And if I did not have these particular people in my life, their care and their thought, I would not have trusted my impulse to create this piece.

The flow of this piece seems very intuitive. Does structure tend to come to you after you have already put your ideas down, or does determining it beforehand help the movement of the thoughts themselves and guide the story as you write it?

I’m not sure how to have ideas independent from structure. I’m not sure how content can exist without form, unless it is delivered intravenously. Everything here arose at once, the two sides that are one side of a twisting Möbius strip. The propulsion as one reads down the column is also itself the meaning of the work, the inescapable force of trauma and resistance to it. The columns can be arms reaching upward, or two bodies side by side, or a body reflected in a mirror. The one delay was my imagining one of the columns as a mirrored text, a palimpsest, like the apparent gibberish of madness that still, in its disconcerting way, signifies: this structure came to me after reading the manuscript for Ágnes Cserháti’s chapbook Unremembered, forthcoming from Frog Hollow Press. In that text one word is mirrored, upside down. I believe it was the editor Shane Neilson’s suggestion to format the word that way. I loved how that risk in form both communicated and disrupted sense. 

What are you reading right now? Do you have any writing projects lined up?

Sometimes I’ll study one poet intensely, but right now you’ve caught me at the Banff Centre and I’m blissfully greedy with a whole stack of poets I requested the library to borrow or buy. I’m  reading and rereading Iya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Chantal Gibson’s How She Read, Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk, Doyali Islam’s heft, Cassidy McFadzean’s Drolleries, Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, and Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro

Another stack of books relates to Indigenous law. I’m trying to determine what it would mean to be a settler living in good relation to the legal orders of this land. I’m consulting John Borrows’s Drawing Out Law, Hadley Friedland’s The Wetiko Legal Principles, Cheryl Suzack’s Indigenous Women’s Writing and the Cultural Study of Law, and Lindsay Keegitah Borrows’s Otter’s Journey: Through Indigenous Language and Law. 

Finally, I’m working on an article that situates Indigenous psychology in tension with psychoanalysis. So I’m reading Sándor Ferenczi’s Clinical Diary together with Dian Million’s Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights. 

I’m here at the Banff Centre for five weeks and feel so contented with these companion books:  this literary abundance, and also the holding mountains and the brilliant company and the decadent amount of food. With my history, I always appreciate food. 

As for writing projects, I had a significant dream on New Year ’s Day. (Hiromi Goto told us on social media to pay attention to our New Year’s dreams.) I was trapped inside a house—since I’ve experienced psychiatric incarceration, I often have dreams of entrapment. I couldn’t find a way to escape. None of the windows opened. Then I realized I had to reach the fourth floor. Only on the fourth floor would I find an open window. I woke with a sense of freedom and a knowledge that I need to work in four forms. I had been writing fiction, nonfiction and scholarly essays. I added poetry. As long as I’m working in one of these forms, I’m okay, even if I’m creating an oddly delayed career as far as publishing a first book goes. But we’ll see. I would like to get something of my own between two covers. I’m in Banff to work on a novel set in a BC logging camp in the 1930s and ‘40s. My mentor is Eden Robinson. Yeah. All I want to do is make her laugh. I could just keep listening to the warm solace of her laugh. The novel-in-progress (which Eden is reading this week! YIKES!) starts off as a rom-com and becomes a critique of settler colonialism. I’m also writing a hybrid memoir on trauma-induced psychosis. It tells a story, and meditates on madness through the lens of psychoanalysis. Trauma plus beauty plus jokes. It will be another work that bothers its categories. 



Safiya Hopfe

Safiya Hopfe

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