Voice and Character Peeing in Adjacent Stalls: An Interview with Dina Del Bucchia, author of It’s a Big Deal!

Dina Del Bucchia needs no introduction. She is the lifeblood of poetry across the country. She is the flora in every Mazzy Star track. She is your slumber party bff and that distinctive, funny voice on Can’t Lit, a podcast, which she co-hosts with Jen Sookfong-Lee. In this interview, Del Bucchia chats with Invisiblog guest editor, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, about her fifth book, It’s a Big Deal!, which deals in all manner of big deals: personal turmoils, megafauna, the ever-changing political landscape, and of course, a little bit of Dina herself!

How long did it take to write It’s a Big Deal?

About 5 years. I started working on the manuscript in 2013 and continued until the edits were finished at the end of 2018. I had just published my first book and throughout the writing of It’s a Big Deal! also worked on three other books, that were published during that time. 

Three books! Was one of them your book of stories, Don’t Tell Me What to Do? How do you manage shifting between genres when writing? Do you write more than one book at a time?

Yes, one of those was that very book. And one of them I co-wrote with Daniel, so I had incentive and the desire to not disappoint him and co-writing support and also that was very fun. I had also written a lot of the other poetry book and had a contract to publish it already, so I was working through revisions and adding some new poems. It sounds much more intense than it was. 

Right now I am currently writing zero books, and part of me thinks this is because I’m not working on multiple projects at once so I can’t write anything at all. I’m stuck because I need many ideas to live, to thrive, to strive! I feel stumped because I finished It’s a Big Deal! and didn’t have overlapping projects to look forward to, sustain my creative brain. So here I am, aimless and weird. Just a few scraps that I am not that invested it. It’s not my favourite state to be in.

The oldest stories in Don’t Tell Me What to Do go back to 2001, but they sat around for a long while before I could come back to them. And I did go back and forth between genres, and I love doing that. Even though it’s still writing, it always feels like a break to go into poetry from fiction and vice versa. 

And the genres compliment each other, in my opinion. As I write fiction I’m reminded to think of language and poetry as I plow through drafts, struggle with dialogue or to show movement through scene instead of the laziest exposition I’ve left as a placeholder. And when I switch from that to poetry I’m reminded of narrative and character and and the whole thing of making stuff up, fictionalizing. I dip in, work on a story, write some poems, go out with friends, eat a snack, watch TV, read. Writing is another part of life that I fit into the other stuff I do to sustain myself and the stuff I enjoy and the stuff I have to do. Like I need to socialize or read or experience art to create, I think I need to create multiple projects in multiple genres to create in others. 

When we read together at Hasan Namir’s book launch at VPL, you said that your poems begin when you find the voices for them. What is “voice” for you and how do you find it?

I look at voice as both coming from the character (or speaker) of the poem and my own authorial voice as well. Oddly, I worry that my work is both too much artifice or hiding of my real self, and also too much of myself, as in too much of the voice I use in daily life is present. What a specifically absurd poet anxiety. People I know often say they hear my voice in my writing, which is cool and also makes me worry I am bad at writing and only have this one trick. And maybe that’s okay. I hope the voice isn’t too boring or annoying.

I need to know who’s speaking, who’s telling the story or poem. What’s their deal? What’s up with them? How are they feeling? And that’s how I approach the poem, through them and the language choices and their investment in the subject or situation and all of it. I pretend I am that speaker or character, work through it, say things out loud, ask questions about them, the specifics of why they’re even hanging out in this poem. Though sometimes that “them” is more me than others. With fiction it’s different, but with poetry I’m walking that line of some version of me and non-me speakers.

The voices in your poems read the same as your voice when we speak in real life, but I think that’s what makes your voice distinct and inimitable. What’s the difference between the voice of a persona for a poem and the voice of a character for a story? Is your approach to story driven by voice too?

This is a great question. And I know what it’s like when I’m doing it, but sometimes explaining these things is hard. This is why teaching writing can be hard. You want to explain this way of creating that to you is part of you, it’s like peeing, you just know how to do it and know you have to do it. Sorry I brought up peeing. 

Fiction is definitely driven by voice too. Because voice and character are hanging out together, peeing in adjacent stalls. They’re close. In a poem the persona hasn’t gone through a whole character profile development, like I would in fiction. With fiction I’m thinking so much about who the character is, asking so many questions about them, thinking through actions they are taking, wondering about their deepest fears, their most petty issues, what they truly love or hate in the world. I do less of that with poetry, though I’m still considering some questions, some pettiness, some fears, some hate and some love. And I try to make those fiction voices more fiction-y, even though I know they often have my voice in them. Poetry has more me, fiction I hope has less. This whole interview is gonna be me thinking I’m bad at craft. LOL.

You’re good at craft! But also, no one can do what you do, because your voice is yours. I love that you admitted it’s hard to discuss and teach things like craft and voice because it’s like peeing! Ha! Can you tell me more about the craft workshop you’re giving for the CNFC conference? How are you going to teach the craft of the “funny” poem and humour in poetry? 

Not only can it be hard to talk about the specifics of craft, but I think everyone has different craft tools that work for them, or open up their work, and not all things will work for all writers. Sure, we can get technical, analyze structure, practice those things, but often writers want to know how to make magic with words and you can’t easily teach that. 

At the CNFC conference the master class on humour writing will focus on a few things. Joke structure for one. Jokes and poetry are similar to me; the economy of language, the beats, the rhythm, how the turn in a poem is sort of like the moment the set up twists into the punch line. And then build up from there into how and where humour can work in a piece. To me, humour in writing isn’t something that you just slot in so that parts of the writing are funny. The humour should be integral to the piece, not something you think up later to make it more fun. The comedic effect should reflect the subject, the theme, the tone, the narrative, you know that stuff we are supposed to do in writing.  And not all writing that’s humorous has to be LOLs on LOLs. Different works require different levels, different tones, different types of humour.

Honestly, I’m still working out exactly what this will look like as I prepare. I like to revise a lot when planning a class.

“Marketing” from TIPS in It’s a Big Deal!

Did you or do you ever see yourself as a “funny poet”? What do you think is the funniest poem from your latest?

I see myself as a funny person, a funny poet, a writer who writes with humour and is funny. I embrace that part of my work. I used to try to only be serious and it made my work less interesting. Having the breadth of emotions, the comedic mixed with the depressing or the stressful or any of the other anxiety-inducing emotions works better. 

I think the “Tips” section is probably the funniest. Maybe “Diet” is the funniest. There is a steak wearing a small basketball jersey in that one and in light of the Raptors championship it feels right. And dinosaurs and extinct megafauna fit together in some way. And this is how poems happen. Making weird connections until you have a bunch of weird connections and a whole poem carcass is just waiting for you give it flesh or to taxidermize it. Whichever you choose.

Thank you for sharing your poetry knowledge of weird connections so generously, Dina! 

Dina Del Bucchia is an otter and dress enthusiast living in Vancouver on unceded Coast Salish territory. She is the author of the short story collection, Don’t Tell Me What to Do, and four collections of poetry: Coping with Emotions and Otters, Blind Items, Rom Com, written with Daniel Zomparelli, and the newly released, It’s a Big Deal! She is a senior editor of Poetry Is Dead magazine, the Artistic Director of the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series and hosts the podcast, Can’t Lit, with Jen Sookfong Lee. Find out more about her at dinadelbucchia.com

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