“I Never Used to Write About Anything Close to Home”: An Interview with Chris Bailey

Poet, fisherman, and author of What Your Hands Have Done (Nightwood Editions, 2018) Chris Bailey speaks with Invisiblog guest editor Amanda Ghazale Aziz about obligations, family, and writing in second person.

Amanda Ghazale Aziz: How was the move back to Prince Edward Island?

Chris Bailey: It’s always strange coming back. I remember hearing it takes someone three weeks to settle into a place so I’m still very much settling, I suppose. Since I went originally went to Ontario to do my MFA in 2015, I’ve been back and forth. I’ve never not been a PEI resident, and I’ve come back for some holidays, funerals, weddings, and lobster fishing since I left. But it’s weird being back-back, and knowing I’m here for a possibly lengthy amount of time. I grew up here and didn’t want to come back, but sometimes there are things you have to do or should do, and that’s all there is to it.

Will you be fishing again?

Yes, I will be. I was told by my father a couple months back I would be needed in the boat. I can’t really say no to the money and it’s hard to say no if the help is needed. So I’ll be fishing lobster with him and my older brother in the spring.

In What Your Hands Have Done, as well as in your recent essay for Brick, “Nothing but Water,” you’ve written about the ruthlessness that comes with fishing as a job and industry; family is also a parallel to fishing in your writing, so what compelled you to feature the two in your work?

Well the two have always been connected, in my head and where I grew up. My father’s told me stories about starting out, getting his own fishing fleet in the 80s (a fleet here means the boat, the license, and the lobster gear) and the stuff that went on was more aggressive than the romantic notion some folks have of the east coast or fishing or working with family. So much of my writing is me trying to make sense of my family, the work, the people I love and the world around me. And I don’t think very many people were writing about fishing or PEI like that, at least not the ones doing that sort of work.

The point of view in the poems of WYHHD vary from first, second, to third person (eg. “When it Rains”), as does the autobiographical and fictional elements of its content. How was the process like in exercising point of view, autofiction, and poetry together for this collection?

I never used to write about anything close to home. One of the best pieces of writing advice I got very very early on, that I gleefully ignored, was to keep writing about fishing and small town life and family. I didn’t put much thought into the exercise of it, or I didn’t reflect much on the act. I wrote “my uncle the fisherman” because I thought it was funny, back when I first started. It was funny and it was true, and people liked it. When my grandmother, my father’s mother, was dying I started writing “A Slow Process”, the middle section of the book. I wrote it on pieces of computer paper as things happened, and used initials instead of names. That year I got to go to Banff and work with Lorna Crozier, and she said to me, “Read this but with the names,” then, “isn’t that much better?” She was right.

At the time no one in the family cared about what I wrote, outside of them being puzzled someone would want to read anything about our uncle Michael. When the book was coming out that’s when they took interest and there was some hurt. Some siblings were worried about how they looked, how they came off. Hurt can come from unexpected places and it’s the unexpected that hurts most. This bothered me in that the book heavily deals with the relationship between the narrator and their father, and there was some stuff going on at the time, and the ones upset didn’t think to assess their own relationship with our father. It was a weird time, that. People went from not caring or not thinking much of me writing to the idea it could be damaging in someway, when those who care about you already know exactly who you are. I like to think there’s a roundness to every real person mentioned. But not everyone was upset. A friend’s wife texted me after she read the poem written about him, crying and saying she loved it. I don’t know precisely how selfish of me it was to write about anyone I know, or if I should’ve given more thought to feelings that could’ve been hurt. I didn’t expect anyone who didn’t take an interest in reading before I had a book coming out to take such a keen interest as to be hurt or have suggestions on how to better write a poem. So I could’ve been more thoughtful, more considerate.

A thing I remember and think of sometimes when people ask about the family side of things, is Warren Zevon said in an interview once there’s no “fiction” or “nonfiction” section in the music aisle, or something to that effect. I think the same thing could be said about poetry.

When you write prose, then, how is your approach?

Lately, I’ve been trying to move my fictional “I” closer to the poetic “I” that I use. Fortunately or unfortunately, people tend to be more interested in my writing if it’s related to fishing, to the Island, to my life in some way. There’s more interest in stories from my actual life than things I can make up. So that’s what I’m doing now. I’m working on the first draft of my novel trying to shape bits of my life into story shape, and am doing edits on a short fiction manuscript that does a lot of that with the same narrator as the novel, and ends with something more that I would like to write, in that it brings in some genre elements to pieces of things taken from my life and things taken from PEI history and the narrator is at a much healthier distance from me. I’d much rather be writing a crime novel set on PEI, which I’ll try next. There’s some room to move and do things here in that vein, I think.

What’s a healthy, or healthier, distance in writing like for you?

It’s a couple degrees from myself, I guess. There’s things gone on that really clearly didn’t happen to me if the reader knows me even loosely, but done right it will all seem like it did or could’ve happened so maybe the distance is just there to trick myself and I’m the only one seeing it. Admittedly, I’m most comfortable writing in the third person. A lot of fiction I am doing right now has been first person just to shorten the perceived distance between myself and the narrator. A decent number of poems in the collection were second person to give me that distance when writing them, or a sense of distance, and for the “you” to act as an alienation device, a lack of comfort for the narrator.

There’s an obligatory sense that comes from using the second person, and “you.” Second person is imperative.

That’s true, yes, and not something I really thought of. Which is funny to me: at bars in Ontario I’ve described my work on the boat as doing what I’m told. The second person lends itself to being didactic.

Chris Bailey is a commercial fisherman from North Lake, Prince Edward Island. He got his MFA from the University of Guelph and is a past recipient of the Milton Acorn Award for Poetry. His writing has appeared in GrainBrickThe Buzz, The Town CrierFreeFall, and on CBC’s Mainstreet PEI. Chris’ debut poetry collection, What Your Hands Have Done, is available from Nightwood Editions.

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