Luke Hathaway is a trans poet who teaches English and Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s University in Kjipuktuk/Halifax. He is the author of four collections of poems, and of many works in other genres (essays, playscripts, libretti …); his most recent book, The Affirmations, is available from Biblioasis. (Photo Credit: James MacLean)
Your latest poetry collection came out in the spring. Can you speak about the significance of its title, The Affirmations?
The book’s title is at least on one level an allusion to the Christian/mystic tradition in which the Way of Affirmation is one of two ways in which the human soul may come to God. The other is the Way of Rejection. In the latter Way, God appears to us in negative terms: no earthly thing resembles Them; we are called, therefore, to withdraw from the world, in order to prepare ourselves for an encounter with the divine. But in the former way, the Way of Affirmation, everything commands our love: everything in this world is an image, albeit an imperfect one, of the divine; we are called therefore not to withdraw from the world, but to embrace it. The poet John Heath-Stubbs writes — piercingly and, I think, truly — ‘[The Way of Affirmation], lived to the full, is not necessarily less hard than the Way of Rejection, for it will, sooner or later, involve the affirmation of the images of suffering and loss, along with the others.’
The Halifax launch of your book took place at the Writers’ Fed on May 26. I’d imagine the pandemic has led to a number of cancelled or virtual events for you. What was it like to connect with an audience in person again?
It was heaven. Really and truly: it felt like having made it through to the other side — not simply of pandemic lockdowns, but of a period of great tumult in my personal life. And to have found there, on the other side, so many of my near and dear ones — and so many people too who are walking towards me, even as I walk towards them … what bliss.
The Halifax launch was also a chance for me to share the stage with some of my great artist friends (great friends/great artists, both): Alexander MacLeod, Raymond Sewell, Colleen (Coco) Collins, Jon Claytor. Each of these artists has, in their way, had a great influence on my life and work in these past few years — teaching me things, keeping me afloat, drawing me into community.
If you had absolute free rein to organize your ideal evening of poetry readings, who would you want to share the lectern with?
See above! (Alexander MacLeod, Raymond Sewell, Colleen (Coco) Collins, Jon Claytor.… If my friend and collaborator Daniel Cabena had been there, too, my joy would have been complete. [Dan’s Guelph-based, and was unable to travel to be with us, in the event.])
You’re a librettist and theatre maker as well as a poet. The Affirmations’ audio book contains elements of performance and musicality I found quite beautiful, and I’d love to hear more about the ways you weave other art forms into your poetry.
That’s such a nice question. The weaving of art forms for me has very much to do with friendship, love, collaboration, community …: marrying words to music (as, in earlier books, marrying words to images), I enter into conversation with friends and fellow makers — an extraordinarily subtle and intimate kind of conversation, in which form and content take equal part, in which meaning can be manifest in ways that are not only verbal but also melodic, rhythmic, gestural, visual, sculptural….
Writing can sometimes be a solitary act, but that’s not necessarily the case with your own work. Daniel Cabena is a frequent artistic partner of yours, and many of your poems reference or dialogue with poets and people from the past. What role does collaboration play in your poetic practice?
When I was coming of age as an artist, I was meaningfully mentored not only by individual artists but by collaborating pairs: the poet Richard Outram and his wife, the artist Barbara Howard; the photographer Thaddeus Holownia and his friend, the poet Peter Sanger. These artists modelled for me visions of art-making as eros and philia, respectively: both those visions are central to how — and also why — I work.
Daniel Cabena’s collaboration has been extraordinary. Shortly after I met him I had a powerful dream in which we were standing face to face, unclothed — though it wasn’t a sexual dream. It was a dream about gender, I think, about my sense of him as this person with — as he had put it to me then — a woman’s voice in a man’s body (Dan is a countertenor); and of myself as a person with a man’s spirit in a woman body: really the only language I had for transness at that time. (I was raised in an extremely straight/binary environment; it took me a long long time to discover contemporary languages of queerness.) It was Dan who introduced me to the music of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, with its profound recombinative textures, in which the secular and the sacred, the masculine and the feminine, are always getting productively mixed up in one another — in which folks were living queerness in all kinds of ways familiar and unfamiliar to us now. It changed my life, even as it also transfigured my poetry.
I asked Dan to make the audio book with me, because so many of the poems had been written for him and for music. As we worked on it, I realized that even poems not originally written for music had musical gestures written into them: inherent elements of counterpoint, antiphone, polyphony. Dan saw this, too, and drew out the musical elements, lending his voice(s) and his compositional talents, sometimes adding melodic gestures …: it’s very beautiful.
You’re also part of the team behind the Amadeus Choir’s Choral Creation Lab. For those of us who are unfamiliar with choral music, why is it important to foster opportunities for poets and composers to co-create new works? What do you most enjoy about mentoring other poets in this creative endeavour?
Collective singing is an ancient artform and healing technology, and it is one of the time-honoured homes of poetry amid our daily lives. I think some contemporary poets are unaware of this, or have forgotten. They (we??? I am speaking for myself here — my own blinkered perceptions) associate choral singing with stodgy old European music, or with a colonially weaponized religious life….
But we shouldn’t let choral singing be co-opted, in our own perceptions, in this way. We need to take it back.
And there are so many amazing choral conductors, composers, and performers who are working to bridge the gap here — to find new texts and soundworlds, to bring old works to life in new ways, to expand the popular sense of what choral singing is. There’s so much room for fertile cross-pollination, restoration, renovation.
(And soooo much more to choral singing beyond what had an airing on the risers of the Kiwanis Music Festival when I was a kid.…)
The first iteration of the Choral Creation Lab ran in 2020/21. The composer Andrew Balfour (hear, here: http://cameratanova.com/16/about-us/artistic-director/) and I served as faculty-mentors, but our participants all brought so much to the process — it felt deeply collaborative / non-hierarchical. We hope to run the Lab again…. It went on temporary hiatus through 2021/22, as the choir dealt with the on-again/off-again complications of the pandemic.
Biblioasis refers to one of your previous collections, Years, Months, and Days, as “[a] transfiguration of Mennonite hymns” rather than a strict translation. The book reminded me of Di Brandt’s Glitter & fall, as she calls her poems transinhalations of the Dao De Jing. Whatever terminology we might employ, how would you describe the process you used to engage with your source text?
In the afterword to Years, Months, and Days, I call its poems ‘expressions of both intimacy and disorientation’, vis-à-vis that source text — an 1836 Mennonite hymnal entitled Die Gemeinschaftliche Liedersammlung, which was printed in the area where I grew up. ‘They are not translations,’ I wrote, ‘so much as they are meditations on the possibility of translation’:
What can be carried across the boundary between languages? And — perhaps a more pressing question in my time and place — what can be carried across the boundary between religions, or between religion and secularity; between a world defined by the presence of God, and a world defined by His absence — or perhaps by other sorts of presences and Presences?
I was speaking to my status as an outsider to these hymns: to the language of their presentation (German), to the community whose worship life they were compiled to articulate and reinforce (the 19th c. Mennonite community that had settled on the so-called Haldimand Tract, in what is colonially called southwestern Ontario …), to the Christian faith….
What I found, in my meditations, is that what could be carried across these boundaries was … really only me: in order to come to even a provisional understanding of these hymns, I couldn’t bring them out … I had to somehow bring myself in.
These are complicated passages. I am not, and will likely never be, a Mennonite (though nothing is impossible in God!); I will never be a native speaker of the hymns’ German language, able to understand their lyrics in my bones and blood, the same way I can understand my English…. But I did rerelation, in some way (to use a beautiful word I learned from waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy), with the Christian faith, in the process of ‘translating’ these poems. As I tried to understand them, I took the Christian story down from off of the cross to which I’d pinned it (eager to dissociate myself from the power-structures to which it had, in my mind, become attached), and began to think about its simplest images: light and darkness, birth and death, the cycles of seasons…. I noticed these images beginning to do their work on me, moving me through a space of darkness (I was in a terribly depressed place when I began to work on those poems, a fact to which the book only glancingly makes reference), and towards a space of light.
As someone who grew up in a Mennonite community and has written about Mennonites myself, I was curious, what drew you towards the hymns of this group in particular?
I think it was the fascination of what’s difficult. I grew up the child of liberal, atheist, urban/American parents — in this conservative, religious, rural/Ontario place. I was queer and trans in a place where it felt like that could get you killed — though I didn’t have the language to come out, until much later (a distinctly mixed blessing). I was never made to feel that the religious life might be for me.
Only much much later did I come to discover in myself what Philip Larkin calls a hunger to be more serious: and at that point, it was actually much much more difficult — in the progressive artsworld with which I’d surrounded myself — to come out as a religious person, than it was to come out as trans and queer! So, the book was — on some subconscious level, I think — an attempt to tackle head on some stuff, both in myself and in my world, I’d always shied away from. I was encouraged in this direction by Isabella Stefanescu, a beautifully uncompromising artist and arts-organizer from Kitchener, Ontario, who saw me shying away, and was wise enough to realize that this signalled a direction in which — for artistic reasons as well as, perhaps, for personal reasons — I had to go.
I should note that of the many Christian denominations that had a presence in the community where I grew up, the Mennonite denomination felt most approachable to me — perhaps because of the faith’s pacifist emphasis; perhaps because of its connection, through the agrarian life, to natural cycles (there’s an animistic part of me that responds to that, in any faith); also perhaps because of the proliferation in that area of different sub-denominations, some quite politically progressive — though it is the (relatively conservative) Old Order community that still uses the Liedersammlung in its daily/weekly worship.
My own family roots are Catholic and Lutheran on my dad’s size / loosely Episcopalian on my mom’s — though my parents broke from all these traditions, once they were out in the world on their own. And the roots-web is complex: various animistic traditions percolating down, reflected & refracted in the languages of the Christian faiths.… And things move laterally, also, and beyond the boundaries of bloodlines: that’s an article of trans and queer faith for me, even acknowledging all the difficulties of movement/transition/conversion — of translation, in the largest sense.
Poems from Years, Months, and Days have now been set to music by two different composers, Colin Labadie and James Rolfe. Labadie’s setting was premiered in Kitchener, Ontario, by Menno Singers, a community-based choir that sings mostly sacred music rooted in a Mennonite tradition. The collaboration of that choir completed the work for me, bringing the words back into the embodied presence of the community where I had found them — and where they had found me. (Many of the choristers had themselves gone through journeys of departure and/or return vis-à-vis their Mennonite roots, and some of them spoke to me about that, very movingly.)
Both Labadie and Rolfe are people who, like me, have made reckonings with familial faiths in adulthood (Catholicism, Judaism, respectively), moving towards and/or away, depending. Each of them brings that to the work, though in very different ways — even as they also bring their own, very different musical idioms. (Plans for a premiere of Rolfe’s setting are underway, in collaboration with the Winnipeg choir Canzona.)
How will you be spending your summer now that another teaching year at SMU is behind you?
Godwilling: kidcare,* dogcare,** love,*** and music.****
* With my former partner, John Haney, I parent two awesome kids, Anson and Ethan: they live with me most of the time during their school year.
** I have an aging dog who is on her vulnerable last legs this summer: such a humbling thing, to be intimate with a creature who is coming to the end of their life.
**** With Dan Cabena and three other wonderful musician-collaborators, I am preparing a program of music rooted in the Burgundian chansons tradition (queer/polyphonic/courtly) — with contemporary texts — to tour out here on the east coast in the fall.
Other projects: the sign of jonas, a new folk opera (with Benton Roark), the opera Eurydice Fragments (with re:naissance opera), the audio-visual album Ghosts (with the art collective thirtyminutes), and an art something with Melissa Marr.
—Questions by K.R. Byggdin