Imagining Into Suffering: An Interview With Kevin Spenst about Disability, Mennonite Heritage, and Poetics by Shane Neilson

Post-Mennonite academic Grace Kehler writes in "Transformative Encounters: A Communal Reading of Miriam Toewsís Swing Low" that Toews, one of the most talented writers Canada has ever seen, writes fiction in which her Mennonite characters "turn to one another; they turn over and take up the silences as well as the discourses of the other" (159). In this respect, poet Kevin Spenst is no different: Ignite (Anvil, 2016), his second book, is a poetic engagement and imagining of Kevinís schizophrenic father, Abram Spenst. Throughout Ignite, Abram is seen turning into an ill cipher with various kinds of imposed institutional violence done upon him. Like Toews did in Swing Low with her father Mel Toews, some poems are even written in the voice of Abram, meaning that these poems constitute Kevin turning towards his fatherís subjective experience in order to write the results. Ignite shows how Abe was other to his son, but also other to the world, and yet passionately in love with it; as much as Abe turned from the world, he turned to a version of it, too. Knocked flat by this Toews-like hybrid text, I had to write Kevin and pester him to answer some questions.

Shane Neilson: Ignite strikes me as an attempt to reconstruct a relationship that wasn't; or, a way to grieve that which could never be. As it does these things, it is also compassionate to your father, Abraham, an ill man. Ignite's poems represent Abraham within his framework of belief, deploying religious iconography not as critique but as the materiel of his life. The same goes for Abraham's delusions which your book doesn't legitimate but rather presents as possible points of contact between Abe and the world around him. If I have this correct, then: why did you choose this strategy?

Kevin Spenst: I don't know if I chose this strategy so much as this strategy sprung itself upon me. After five years of writing flash fiction, I entered a Creative Writing program at UBC where I unexpectedly found myself writing poetry about my father. My first effort at a poem about his schizophrenia and our relationship was a sort of surrealist fable stripped of narrative. It didn't really get off the ground. The next poem emerged more from a feeling than an idea and this was where Ignite had one of its starts. In "Dendrites of Passage" I wrote, "Recover Dad's hospital haircut crown / worn from strung-out thoughts pulled / through the top of his head, stranded / nervous tissue that roped his moods royally." The poem imagines him as a kind of top whose spinning days are over; the feeling I was going after was one of dizziness and how off-balance he was through much of his life and how I grew up in a topsy-turvy home. Outside of that confusion, I remember very little and so for the other poems I worked with the scaffolding I could hold onto: religion, his medical records from Riverview, and the handful of stories that I knew about him.

To my thinking, religion is an ornately developed poetics of existence. Religions come from best-selling books of poetry that permeate culture with words, metaphors, and expressions. The King James Bible turned the world upside down. My father grew up in a deeply religious environment and so in writing Ignite I wanted to show respect to something that he took comfort in. A strict interpretation of Christianity was also something that lead to guilt and grief and I believe that is also explored, but yes overall, I'm not burning down any churches. I'd rather celebrate than eviscerate anything or anyone. One of the last poems in Ignite expresses that openness:

Abram Bernhard Spenst
Canby, Oregon, December 4, 2011

In the spirit of my father, a feeling comes cloaked in lambís wool, comes cloaked as a prayer. Itís Sunday morning in America and the price of my familyís stay at my sisterís is that we attend my brother-in-lawís new church. Hear him preach at Bethany Evangelical. A weekend of shopping at outlets redeemed in the blood of the lamb. The songs are familiar and I open my throat to sing. I cough. Unleashed for God, reads a banner on the wall. Educational programs for troubled youth and soup kitchens are explained. The deacons with their ploughshared permits in their wallets allowing them to carry concealed weapons. Their wives raising their hands to the beat of the drummer on stage within a glass sound booth. An entire rock band behind my brother-in-law as he asks us to close our eyes in prayer, tells us how God accepts us for who we are. Blotches and all. I donít believe a word of it, but I hear acceptance in his voice. In the spirit of my father, I let this resonance that must be beating through everyone (even for my mom whoís snoring next to me) be called God.

SN: If poetry, then, is a way of knowing the world and religion is, for you, another poetics in several senses, then did they help you learn something about your father? What did writing a book like this do to you? Did you learn something about yourself? (I ask because Iíve just finished writing a book about my home province, New Brunswick, and the final piece I completed was a corona about my dead father. I learned nothing – all I needed to know was already inside me, as affect. I suppose for some this might seem to be a failure, a traditional catharsis, but for me it served as a poetics of trauma. Just having that poem is evidence of reconstructed vitality.)

KS: While I was touring Ignite, I heard from many people, "Oh, that must have been cathartic to write about your father." I nodded, but inside I wondered why I hadnít achieved what would seem like an inevitable outcome. Over the course of answering your questions, Shane, Iíve started writing another sequence of poems through the layers of trauma around his schizophrenia. It feels more thorough this time, like Iím getting closer to all the moments of my childhood I donít remember. Iím also reading a lot of Don Domanski on the side and marvelling at his metaphorical layering. His surfeit of imagination is spilling into my lines. In the process of editing, Iím asking myself how these new poems stand up to a uniqueness thatís still ringing in my ears.

Ignite was a necessary step in a path towards confidence. I found it difficult at times to read from in public, but then I reminded myself that the readings werenít about me. Many people thanked me for sharing work that touched on a familial tragedy they knew all too well. My appreciation for the ubiquitousness of mental health issues has grown tremendously. Hopefully, I can be a better advocate for people who have lived alongside schizophrenia.

As for my father, I learned a lot about the suffering that he went through. My empathy for him deepened as I imagined my way into his suffering. I also see how hard it was for him in terms of his place in history: he lived through the worst decades of a mental health system that tried to shock him into submission.

straps of roots

Weighted with ancestors
as numerous as the stars
after a shock to the head,

my fatherís first shake
from electroconvulsive
treatment in 1954.

Clinical confidence
swabbed his temples
for a new lineage
             of headlines.

SN: Is there anything you would say to him now? Or write to him? The book strikes me as a sometimes baffled, tremendous loving, if that makes sense. And then it becomes heartbreakingly acute, pain offered up as pain. We can never really know one another, and then to know our parents less than we would like results in a state of perpetual longingness, I think. Maybe all he would want to hear is that youíre okay. That poems are your way.

KS: For whatever reason, I canít imagine saying anything to him other than, Iím sorry for not remembering so many things that you told me. I can, however, imagine asking him questions: What dreams defined you, defied you? What books did you return to? What books turned you into someone new? What was your favourite commandment to break? What was the shape of your anger? Did you ever hate anyone so much you wanted to kill them? What did pacifism look like to you? What was the best advice you ever got? What was the best advice you ever gave me? What did you love most about all the parks you took me to? What did you say while we walked along the river in Port Coquitlam, when we stood at the old ferry crossing from Fort Langley to Maple Ridge, over your sudden appearance at the hopscotch in the school courtyard? How did you feel through those last years half paralyzed from a stroke? Did your tongue feel numb as you tried to talk? Who were you with at the happiest moment of your life?

Dendrites of Passage

Recover Dadís hospital haircut crown,
worn from strung-out thoughts pulled
through the top of his head, stranded
nervous tissue that roped his moods royally.

Touch a second into a hold, a body
whirled again. Dad gave airplane rides
that cost an arm and a leg, a ligature of
laughter over grass, a stump into stars

synapsed into headfuls of touchwood—

Glue huffed in that zip-lock mask: base-
ment dizziness glazed shame over a father
shivering outside the five or six rings
upstairs. But I didnít want to pick it up,


Hardly stayed still long enough
             for me to spell him down.

Then, a turn to an intensive care room: Dad
fallen from a stroke, left half undone.
His face overthrown, his body hollowing
beneath a blanket moss green. To hold his last
hand, broken twigs ending circles of certainty.

His eyes combust blue heat, his head
burns into spikes. Who could dust
fingerprints from these voluted flames?

SN: What's the place of Mennonite faith and culture in your writing?

KS: When I was a teen, I stopped going to church. I couldn't believe that an all-loving God was in the business of sending billions of people to hell. This was one of many points that made Christianity implausible. Having said that, love is still held up as a central message in Christianity and I see that as an ideal central to my life. The Mennonites had their start in the 1500s with a radical understanding of freedom. They broke from established religions at the time by arguing that individuals were morally bound to believe what their heart told them, regardless of King or Queen being a Protestant or Catholic. My grandparents on both sides were Mennonites from Russia who came to Canada after the Soviets came to power. While my parents both went to a high school called MEI (Mennonite Educational Institute) where their annual was bilingual: half-German and half-English, they weren't the horse and buggy brand of Mennonite.

I see myself as an idealist with a firm belief in freedom, love and justice. When I read a magazine like 'Geez (started by progressive Mennonites in Winnipeg, a sort of Adbusters for those more spiritually inclined), I see that it's possible to continue the tradition of radically reimagining faith.

Poetry is a place where I feel at home in that there's often an acknowledgement of the silence at the heart of existence. The unknown. Awe.

SN: And is it a form of faith, a belief in a way of being-with? I think of poetry as relational, as in signs put in relation with other signs but also affects. In this sense – I believe this passionately – we are all in a relationship with one another in the world, directly and indirectly.

KS: Yes, poetry is relational and the relationships we are in with the world are enriched within one of the most powerful of poetic devices: metaphor, a carrying across from one thing to another. Culture is an accumulation of so many accidental conceptions, so it seems to me that itís poetryís job to shake and shimmy our perceptual apparatus. Metaphors really twist the brain. Hereís an example from Don Domanski:

an axe is a piece of wood
with a scream fastened to one end

I love not only the unique feel of this line, but also the way it forces me to look at an axe in action as opposed to how it might be presented in a sales catalogue. With such a wide variety of potential perspectives available in the world, poetry is a helpful reminder that we need to keep pushing back the boundaries of the "strange". Of course, the more accepting we are to non-stereotypical thoughts and behavior, the more accomodating society we will be for everyone.

Is poetry a form of faith…? Here I have to ask myself: whatís the difference between faith and imagination? Isnít there a siamese twin type relationship between the two?

SN: Ignite uses material from Abraham's "real world." It contains several visual poems that take phrases and images from Abraham's medical charts and renders these in abstract, beautiful ways. It also often uses short phrases from his medical chart and allows these to serve as epigraphs to the poems. Why did you do this, and what effect were you going for?

covers of four books being reviewed

KS: Poetry is such a myriad of styles and methods and I wanted Ignite to include as many different poetics as possible. As a teenager in grade nine English (that also happened to be held in a woodworking classroom. Oh, Surrey!), I was underwhelmed by bpNichol's concrete poem Love, but as I read more and more into poetry and poetics I learned to value its uniqueness and perspective. In short, I wanted Ignite to reflect an appreciation for different ways of seeing the world.

The quotes from the medical notes were part of the scaffolding of my dad's world. In other words, other voices. In one poem, there's a line that came from a story my mother told me about one of my father's manic episodes. He'd thrown his clothes outside and opened all the windows and doors of the house. "Everyone is welcome in my house," he shouted. Within the transformative confines of literature, I wanted to write a book that shouted the same invitation.


Kehler, Grace. "Transformative Encounters: A Communal Reading of Miriam Toewsís Swing Low." Encounters with Mennonite Fiction. Ed. Hildi Froese Tiessen. Winnipeg: Manitoba Literary Society, 2017.

Spenst, Kevin. Ignite. Vancouver: Anvil P, 2016.


Shane Neilson is a Canadian poet, physician, and critic from New Brunswick who is completing his PhD in English at McMaster. He published Dysphoria, the final volume in his affect trilogy, with PQL in 2017 and won the Walrus Poetry Prize in the same year.