Under Pressure: Jody Chan

Jody Chan is a writer, drummer, organizer, and politicized healer based in Toronto. They are the author of haunt (Damaged Goods Press), all our futures (PANK), and sick, winner of the 2018 St. Lawrence Book Award. They can be found online and offline in bookstores or dog parks.

Here, Gabriella Graceffo talks with Jody Chan on the push/pull of language, Taiko drumming, chosen communities, and the mentors behind her debut collection.


Gabriella Graceffo: How long did working on sick take, from conception to publication? Is there a reason you don’t capitalize your titles?

Jody Chan: The experiences I had that made it possible to write sick span from my birth until the point at which I finished drafting the manuscript itself, which took somewhere around a year and a half, between 2016 and 2017. I won Black Lawrence Press’ St. Lawrence Book Award in December 2018, and the book is coming out in August 2020 — so all in all, between four and 26 years, depending on how you look at it! I don’t capitalize titles because I like the ability to choose which conventions in English to adopt and which to reject; some of these conventions are arbitrary, just as the global domination of English over other languages is arbitrary. I tend to play with punctuation and sentence structure in my writing for this same reason.

GG: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

JC: Deadlines are a gift! Accountability to myself and to others — when it’s wanted, and chosen — gets my ideas in motion, and helps me break out of endless self-critique. 

GG: sick features a wide range of styles and forms. When you begin to write a poem, do you feel a particular form is right for it or does it take shape further into the writing process? 

JC: For me, form and content generally emerge in conversation with one another, but I do often find received forms really helpful as a starting place, especially when I’m trying to write something I’m afraid of. Structure gives me safety and freedom, rules to push up against and to fall back on, an inherent rhythm to draw out the specific music of the new poem. 

GG: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

JC: I cook (sometimes), I read, I turn my attention to the outside world, I move my body, I love my friends. I create in community. My chosen kin — the ones who check in on me, send me food and poems, help me hold myself accountable to the person I want to be — are what make everything possible in my life, and that includes my writing.

GG: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

JC: In January of last year, I took a poetry workshop with Erica Dawson; she also reviewed sick’s manuscript and gave me generous, incisive feedback. One thing she told me (I’m paraphrasing from memory) was to honour the growth and transformation in my life that makes growth in my craft possible, and vice versa. That means not pushing myself to write what I’m not ready to, if it will hurt me in the process, or if I’m not at the point yet where I can write it well; and at the same time, learning how to take risks and trust in what I do have to offer.

GG: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night? Do you find that it comes more in one language than another? Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

JC: I tend to do a lot of drafting in phone notes. Lines, words, phrases can arrive while I’m taking the subway, participating in a protest, making dinner with a friend — especially when there’s a poem I’m actively working on, it tends to take over all the background space in my head — and my phone is one thing I almost always keep nearby.

GG: What are some things you learned from creating this debut book? Did you approach making it differently to that of your earlier chapbook, all our futures? Do you have some advice for writers putting together a first collection?

JC: I wrote almost the entirety of all our futures over a span of two weeks, during an artist residency on the Toronto Islands, about two years after I finished the manuscript for sick. It’s kind of disorienting to have sick come out later, actually, when the poems themselves feel so much more distant from me in time and orientation. 

I don’t know if I’m in a position to pass on advice to other writers — I feel perpetually like a beginner, and I like it that way — but I did learn some things myself. When I first started writing the words that eventually ended up in sick, I felt like I had to lay my whole entire self out on the page. I was so terrified that a reader might find fault with me if my politics weren’t laid out enough — critically enough, radically enough, insightfully enough, movingly enough — in every single poem.

I had to learn to trust that I didn’t have to say everything I would ever want to say in my first collection, let alone in every poem. And I can’t write myself beyond critique, in some kind of radical perfectionism. I can’t edit my past self out of my poems, a self that I’m ashamed of because they weren’t far enough along on their political journey. It’s not possible. I keep learning (hopefully), I keep trying to stay grounded in the movements and communities I come from, and so I keep coming across new thoughts to explore, new feelings to feel.

In part, this is why the long poem appeals to me as a form, and why I wrote all our futures that way. It gave me more space in which to explore connections, contradictions, and questions clustered around a set of themes (in this case, disability, eugenics, climate change, and reproductive justice), without the pressure of needing to come to a quick and tidy conclusion — a pressure that shorter poems sometimes exert on me. 

GG: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?

JC: With an audience? This is kind of a terrifying (but fun) question. The first thing that comes to mind is Taiko drumming, like a participatory piece where people are free to join for any amount of time, and to leave. Maybe this is my imagination’s way of reminding me that I’ve been really, really missing drumming with others during the pandemic. Typically, I drum with a group called Raging Asian Womxn Taiko Drummers twice a week; it’s the place I’ve learned the most about what joy and freedom truly feel like in my body. 

GG: If you could describe sick in three words, what would they be? Why?

JC: Longing, grief, obsession. I think these are basically the three drives of my life, so it’s fitting. I’ve been trying to notice their energy, the information they give me about what’s important to me and where I want to go, without letting them make my decisions for me.

Order sick here!