Author spotlight: Nolan Natasha

Nolan Natasha is a queer and trans writer, performer, and filmmaker. Of Faroese and English ancestry, Nolan is a settler living on unceded Mi’Kmaw territory in Kjipuktuk/Halifax, Canada. Nolan has been a finalist for the CBC poetry prize, the Ralph Gustafson poetry prize, the Geist postcard contest, and was the runner-up for the Thomas Morton fiction prize. His debut poetry collection, I Can Hear You, Can You Hear Me? was released in the fall of 2019 with Invisible Publishing. Nolan is currently working on a collection of short stories and a series of video poems.

You’ve lived on both sides of the Atlantic. How do the Faroe Islands compare with Nova Scotia?

I spent multiple summers in the Faroes as a kid. I never lived on the islands full time, but that time in the Faroes was a huge influence on my growing up. I don’t think there is a place where I feel more “at home.” When I’m lucky enough to go back to the Faroes, I always catch myself saying, “I’m going home.” I think that my connection to the Faroes is part of what made Nova Scotia instantly comfortable. I like the grey, the smell of the ocean. There are small overlaps in architecture. Don’t get me wrong, the differences are also stark, but there is a kind of connective tissue that seems to link places on the ocean that also have climates often demanding a good sweater. I don’t doubt that these links are part of what made me feel at home when I first moved here.

Some of the poems in your debut collection I Can Hear You, Can You Hear Me? first appeared in Canadian literary magazines such as Plenitude and CV2. Did you always have this project in mind while submitting individual pieces to journals, or did you reach a critical mass of published work and say “hey, I think I’ve got a book here?”

I think it was more of a critical mass thing. I knew I wanted to have a collection eventually, but at the time of my first journal publication in Event, I was far from having enough material for a book. As I kept writing, themes emerged early on, and I started to have a sense of where the collection was going. That help provide momentum for sure.

Your book is divided into four sections: Signals, Souvenirs, Phenomena, and Devotions. Was it fairly easy to group the pieces together, or were there any poems that you struggled to categorize?

There were a few tricky poems that bounced between sections. But the categories emerged out of themes that occurred naturally as I was writing the work so placing the poems within the collection happened pretty organically for the most part.

Your inclusion of (presumably) autobiographical poetry in this collection is highly engaging. In particular, I was struck by the way you so effectively drop your readers into single moments with each poem, utilizing crisp language and a clear voice to create vivid pictures we can step into alongside you. Can you talk about the role that memory plays in your poetry?

Sure. As for the poems being autobiographical, I won’t deny that in places this is true, but it isn’t always. It’s interesting the way that many of us assume that events in poems are being rendered more-or-less as they happened. I am frequently guilty of this myself, but of course, this isn’t always the case and I do write poems that are entirely works of fiction even if it isn’t my most common mode.

Memory has always played a really central role in what I make and write. I have always been fascinated by the way certain moments of our lives seem to have a kind of resonate glow no matter how much time goes by. These moments often wind up in my work. In a way, this is practical, because it gives you material to work with even if there is nothing in the present moment inspiring you to write. But also, I find these moments create a kind of itch in my life and writing about them is a way of scratching that itch. Many of the poems in this collection reach back, but a good chunk of it was also written very much about the present and I’m also fascinated by the way that writing creates these resonate moments as well, or perhaps captures is a better word. Poetry is at times a bit of a net for me—a way of holding on to bits of resonance that might otherwise slip away or be transformed by time. I recently read somewhere that the first step of making art is to wonder about something, and the second step is to invite other people to wonder with you. I loved that and I think it’s true of where my poetry comes from. I start writing because there is something provoking wonder, the poem is an attempt to hold that wonder out for others to engage with.

Like you, the publisher of I Can Hear You, Can You Hear Me? has roots in both Ontario and Nova Scotia. What was your experience like with the team at Invisible?

I have nothing but wonderful things to say about my experience with Invisible. I felt very supported through the process and was of course thrilled that they were interested it publishing my work.

Recently, you taught a free WFNS workshop series for 2SLGBTQ+ writers that focussed on developing a specific and intentional writing practice. What is one piece of advice that you shared with the participants, and was there anything you took away from the experience as well?

I think I almost certainly got more out of it than the participants, but teaching is like that in my experience. I was so paranoid about not having enough to say that over the weeks of the course I read every note I had ever taken in a writing class or workshop. I also became hyper aware of my own slightly stagnant writing practice. While attempting to help the participants energize their own writing practice, I felt obligated to energize mine and I’m writing more than I have in a long while. I feel like a owe a great deal of this to one piece of advice I encountered. It wasn’t about writing, but was about habit formation generally. The advice was to “lower your standards”. Make the thing you want to be doing as easy as possible and start there. I set a goal to write 300 words a day. That’s the number that is so low and easy to hit that I can literally do it even if it’s 11pm and I’m already half asleep. I’m really happy with the results of the experiment, while there have been a few days that I’ve only written 300 words, there have been many that I’ve written well over a thousand. Writing a tiny bit everyday has completely changed how I feel about writing and those small numbers add up. It really got me unstuck.

You’ve been a finalist for several prestigious writing competitions, including the 2017 CBC Poetry Prize. What do you think makes for a good contest piece in particular?

Ah, the great mystery. I really don’t know, but I feel like these days I just trust my gut. If I feel like I have a piece that I’m truly proud of, then I’ll submit it to contests. If I just really like it, I don’t bother. Every now and then I write something that I’m very excited about and my gut tells me that it has contest potential. If I feel like that then I go with my gut. But sometimes pieces I really love don’t feel like contest winners. Maybe they are too short. Maybe they feel to out there in terms of my voice and style. I feel like you get a feel for this from reading the work that wins contests. Certain trends emerge and you start to get a sense of which of your pieces has the best shot. I also think that if you know who is judging and you know their work and have a feeling they might love your stuff, that is also probably a good time to enter. At the end of the day though, I don’t think contest results are a good metric to judge your own work. Lots of great work is never going to win a contest. I try to just focus on the work and then if something feels like it has a shot I figure, you can’t win if you don’t play, and I submit.

During the pandemic you launched a YouTube channel which you’ve described as a series of “music videos for poems.” I love that! What’s it been like to translate your work into a visual format for a social media audience?

It has been something that I’ve want to do for a long time. I used to do a lot of video work and I had been missing it. I’m often struck by how frustrated young aspiring filmmaker me would be with how little present me takes advance of all the technology I have at my disposal. When I was 17 I would have given anything for the worst camcorder money could buy. Now I carry a shockingly capable camera with me everywhere on my phone and I rarely use it. It has been great to work on the video poems and get back into that visual practice. I have more videos coming soon, both video poems and other short project that I’m working on. 

When you’re not writing, what do you do to relax?

Reading in a hammock is up there for sure. I love to surf despite being worse at it than any other human being alive. I always love a good country drive. And I’m really looking forward to being able to sit around and laugh with more of my favourite people soon.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

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