Beast Jaws Possess Power: An Interview with Conyer Clayton

Conyer Clayton talks trauma, grief, beasts, and poetry with Invisiblog guest editor, Shazia Hafiz Ramji.

Shazia Hafiz Ramji: How did you arrive at the title, Trust Only the Beasts in the Water?

Conyer Clayton: The title comes from a line in the poem “Related.” I wanted to capture the feeling that runs through this collection: fear, suspicion, and the unsettling acceptance of it. A trust in danger. The way we get used to being vigilant against awful potentialities. When things in your life have nearly always been turbulent, you begin to find solace in chaos. To seek it. My life has been very good, settled, and calm overall these past few years. But my dreams still consistently turn to death and violence and reliving of trauma.

All of these poems are based on my dreams, and the first drafts are generally me dictating into the voice memo app on my phone in the middle of the night.

I read somewhere that our subconscious gives us it feels we need via our dreams. Perhaps I will always need a sense of danger or unsteadiness to feel comfortable. Not only that, but as my therapist has reminded me many times, our minds crave re-enactment of trauma as a method of processing, so I am grateful to my dreams for providing that arena, as strange as that probably sounds. It means maybe I am less likely to seek it out, consciously or not, in my actual life (something I have most certainly done in my past, and probably will do again, because, hi, I’m a human).

SHR: Tell us about the cover?

CC: the cover is by the amazing Ottawa artist Kelsea Shore. She did artwork for another chapbook of mine, Undergrowth (bird buried press). Stylistically, I knew I wanted her to do this one as well. There is a lot of foreboding animal and water imagery in this collection.  I wanted that captured.

My partner had an idea for jaws with teeth made of water, and I loved it, so I told mentioned it to Kelsea as inspiration. This is what she came back to me with. I’m so obsessed with it.

I love that the beast’s jaws, even in death, possess power, impending destruction and life, and that the tongue is the vehicle for this force. Ugh. I also love that at first glance, the wave could be seen as a brain, or as Earth itself. A feeling of ambiguity and shiftiness pervades my dreams, and so these poems, and I think it fits perfectly.

SHR: What has been the most life-changing experience for you as a writer?

CC: The recording, creation, and release of my chapbook Mitosis and its sister poetry/music album, If the river stood still, last August.It was a collaboration with two people whom I love and respect so much artistically and personally, and who are my dear friends and partner.

Mitosis was released with In/Words Magazine and Press with Manahil Bandukwala editing, designing, and illustrating, and my album was written and recorded with Nathanael Larochette. It was my first foray into music, something I am continuing to explore now, and it really opened me up to what I can do, what poetry can do, in terms of performance. We performed the album in full at the release, and it was incredibly powerful (for me anyway!).

This project is about family trauma, and my process of closure healing following the death of my mother in 2010. Something felt completed in that cycle upon the release and performance of this project, and it is by far the thing I am most proud of as an artist. My hope is that it can be a gift to others who lost parents early in life, or lost anyone really — an aid in the incredibly messy, confusing, and ongoing grief process we all will inevitably encounter at some point or another.

SHR: What advice would you give to emerging writers who are hoping to put out a chapbook?

CC: My main advice would be to trust your process. Everyone is coming to publishing with different baggage, timelines, history, and goals, so just do you. Maybe you want to be really picky about it and only publish if you get with your dream press? Maybe you just want to get your shit out there? Trust what you need, and just do it. Advice is great, and we all have a lot to learn from each other, but your path isn’t anyone else’s path, and if you try to mimic other people it’ll probably feel gross and wrong.

That being said, try not to stress about rejections. You are 100% going to get rejected, and some will sting more than others, so my best advice would be to be rooted deeply in the why behind your work, because I find that takes the sting out.

SHR: Tell us about the presses you love!

CC: I really love Puddles of Sky Press in Kingston, ON. They put out really visually stunning handcrafted broadsides, postcards, chapbooks, and other interesting poem-objects. There is a starkness but also a kind of sense of humor to a lot of what they choose to publish.

I also love Coven Editions here in Ottawa. All of their publications are so damn beautiful, and they really nail the aesthetic they are after. I’m pretty excited for Emily Erin Ann Vance’s forthcoming chapbook with them, with illustrations by Manahil Bandukwala.

Note: This edit contains minor updates to the original post.

Conyer Clayton is an Ottawa based artist who aims to live with compassion, gratitude, and awe. Her most recent chapbooks are: Trust Only the Beasts in the Water (above/ground press), Undergrowth (bird, buried press), Mitosis (In/Words Magazine and Press), and For the Birds. Her work appears in ARC, Prairie Fire, The Fiddlehead, The Maynard,  Puddles of Sky Press, and others. She won Arc’s 2017 Diana Brebner Prize. Her debut full length collection of poetry, We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite, is forthcoming with Guernica Editions in spring 2020.

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