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The Ecology of Grief.

Nikki Reimer and I met where many writers do: at the school of Twitter. Over the years I've appreciated her musings on CanLit, on life at large, on being a Not-Fun Poet and on grief. When her third and latest poetry book, My Heart Is a Rose Manhattan, was released with Talonbooks last year, my mother had recently passed away and I was working through my own experience of mourning.

I looked forward to Reimer's words on the topic, having heard her talk about her brother, Chris Reimer, a Calgary musician who died suddenly in 2012 from a suspected heart condition, and some of the work she's done to commemorate him. I spoke to Reimer about the theme of grief: writing about it, what's expected of grieving women and grief as a feminist issue.

HERIZONS: Your book begins with an apology--do you think there's pressure to apologize for the way we express or take up space with our grief?

NIKKI REIMER: Yes, and the pressure often comes in the guise of offering sympathy--what has been called the "Hallmarkification" of grieving. I think that there are organizations and individuals working to normalize grief and death/grief talk--shout out to Lennon Flowers and The Dinner Party crew, Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner of the Modern Loss website and book, and Caitlin Doughty and The Order of the Good Death--but much of mainstream society is in no way comfortable with the messy, ugly realities of grief, or with how long the grieving process can be, or with the fact that with many significant losses, there is no "return to normal." Death is still very much a taboo. People don't know how to react to the mourner; they want you to progress tidily through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages--which, it can't be said enough, was meant to be a model for terminal illness, rather than for five chronological stages of mourning--and be done with it.

HERIZONS: Likewise, do you think there's pressure to be likeable while sorting through rough times and topics? Is this part of the idea of what makes a palatable poet?

NIKKI REIMER: I think so. I think people want a redemption narrative, a triumphant return to living, a tidy, happy character arc. I think we're living in a real period of artist-as-celebrity, magnified by social media's algorithms and measurements of engagement. You can be honest about your suffering but make it cute. Or show how you've become shinier and happier as a result of having suffered. And suffering doesn't always lead to growth, or it doesn't lead to growth without a ton of ugly wounds and scarring and maladaptive coping mechanisms.

And of course, women and femmes are judged more harshly for displaying any signs of unlikability or unfemininity. Be productive! Be prolific! Be positive! My day job/career is in digital communications, and I'm all too cognizant of the tension between what I know would be an industry "best practice" persona to adopt--who I should be on Twitter, what I should talk about, the ways I should frame the things I say--and the topics that I actually want to explore, as a poet and a feminist and a person concerned with speaking truth.

HERIZONS: Obviously there are poems here about loss itself, but in a lot of ways this book feels more like you writing from a place of grieving than about grief Is there anything you want to say about that experience or how the two differ?

NIKKI REIMER: I genuinely didn't realize this book was so heavily infused with grief till I saw that it had been tagged by online booksellers as a grief book. I do have a few works in progress (poems, art, memoir) that directly confront and narrate death and grief, whereas My Heart Is a Rose Manhattan comes, as you say, from the grieving place. My life fell apart when my brother Chris died and it continued to fall apart in a hundred different ways for years afterwards. Throughout, I continued to write poems as a way of trying to write myself back to solid ground or craft a new poetics that would allow my life to make sense. This book was actually supposed to be the distraction project from the real grief project, but the grief seeps through and seasons everything it touches.

HERIZONS: Tell me about, or even what you mean by, "trying to be a person." This is another thing that resonated with me.

NIKKI REIMER: Broader than grief, I'm nearly 40 and still trying to figure it out! But in the context of the grief project, it's about trying to be a person rather than a weeping homunculus. Trying to pull the molecules of the grief body back into solid form in order to endure the minutiae of a day and speak a relatable and believable person-language to persons in a way that doesn't make them suspect that you are not a fellow person.

I listened to nothing but The National for months on end after Chris died and there's one line from the song "Start a War" that goes "You were always weird but I never had to hold you/ By the edges, like I do now." The line made me imagine a person so spiritually broken that the speaker has to hold them together to prevent physical disintegration. That's how I felt, like a collection of body parts badly taped together by really old Scotch tape. And it's the continual disintegration, and the unhinged grief behaviours, that set you apart from "normal" society, mark you as alien to yourself and everyone around you.

I did manic, boundary-crushing things trying to pull any sliver of my brother out of people who may have known him. I interrogated a Giller-winner and music writer at a party to see if he'd ever written about my brother's former band, whose name was Women. He thought I was trying to give him a Bechdel test. Another time, I brazenly walked into a singer's dressing room after a concert because his music had been an anchor in my grief, and because I thought they might have been in the same place at the same time. This singer had in fact met my brother, and he was very kind to me, but he also could have rightfully had me arrested for trespassing. I'd just become completely unable to operate according to the rules of polite society.

I read a book about mourning rituals over time and in different cultures, and I hope I'm remembering this right: one of the reasons the Victorians proscribed mourning dress was for the safety of the public, so you could see the black garb and know to stay away. They thought that in the early period after a death, those in mourning would be closer to the veil between life and death, and that there was danger in the proximity to the liminal state. I believe this to be true.

HERIZONS: Do you think there's an idea that women need to be quiet about grief and loss? I feel like women default to caregivers in crisis times, even if they're also experiencing the crisis. But I also think there's almost a suggestion that one needs to be gracious despite how often things like "everyone processes grief in their own way" get said.

NIKKI REIMER: If I can come at this a bit sideways, I feel like women are doing a lot of work in the grief space right now. Yes, women are usually caregivers in times of crisis, and in caring for ailing family members, but I also see women doing a lot of the hard work to provide a space for discourse and to memorialize those who are gone. I've already mentioned them, but there are the individuals behind The Dinner Party, a peer grief network of mostly women for 20- and 30-somethings. There is the Modern Loss website, and there is Caitlin Doughty, a female mortician, writer and vlogger who advocates for the de-medicalization and demystification of death. The growing field of death doulas is primarily made up of women.

There are the many grief memoirs written by women (I'm working on my own). Canadian poets Catherine Owen and Elee Kraljii Gardiner have both recently edited anthologies about grief and death (disclosure: I have pieces in both). So while true expressions of grief can be unseemly, ugly and "unfeminine" in intensity and volume, and while traditionally we may have been encouraged to mourn privately, quietly and tidily, I have witnessed so many women being leaders in this space and saying, "no, this is vitally important. We need to discuss this, and we need to make space for it and it's ok if we're ugly and loud and we make you uncomfortable."

HERIZONS: I felt like your book kept coming around to this idea of waiting out a thing that never really ends.

NIKKI REIMER: You are absolutely interpreting that right, thank you. The pain never ends. There are days, weeks, even months when it recedes to a whisper, but it never ends. I'd still throw away everything I have to bring him back tomorrow. That's maybe part of the waiting, too. Perhaps if you wait long enough, if you process your grief and live your life right, maybe your loved one will return. And they don't, and you keep waiting. You never stop waiting.

HERIZONS: Part of grieving, for lots of people, is cycling through phases of anger. I've been noticing a lot of writing about women and anger for the first time since maybe the late '90s and thinking about the various contexts for this.

NIKKI REIMER: Women have always had their anger curtailed. Though, let's be clear about the ways that white women's anger has been used as a cudgel against POC, and let's also be clear about the harmful trope of the angry black woman.

But I think you're right that women's anger is emerging right now. I think that, with everything that's gone on in the world the past several years, we're done being nice. We're done swallowing our anger. We're seeing our reproductive and bodily rights rolled back and threatened. We're seeing #MeToo stories come to light with no real reckoning by perpetrators, with no true justice. We're dealing with serial abusers in our artistic and activist communities. There are human rights abuses at the American border. There are thousands of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada. It's a cliche, but if you're not angry right now, you're not paying attention. We have a lot to be justifiably angry about.

Calgary artist Karen Klassen had a recent show featuring a series of portraits of women and of women's hands in which every subject is wearing a gold ring stamped with FUCK YOU in a script font. I can't think of anything more appropriate for the present moment.

Unfortunately, the cycles of grief-anger aren't always so justified, at least for me they weren't. Holidays and Hallmark holidays made me furious. Watching siblings post pictures together on social media for "National Siblings Day" made me apoplectic with jealous rage. Many days I thought my own anger would devour me.

HERIZONS: I think grief plays into lots of things women get the brunt of: ideas of being "too much," or imposing, bringing people down, needing to employ subdued coping mechanisms. I mention this in the context of living grief but also writing it--I'm wondering if this is something you agree with.

NIKKI REIMER: I think there are definite parallels. In both living grief/writing grief and living as woman/writing as woman, a certain bravery is necessary if you are going to say the things that "must not be said." You have to expect blowback, criticism and censure. But things won't change if no one is willing to be too much. We have to be too much.

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Author:Ziniuk, Tara-Michelle
Date:Jan 1, 2020
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