A child of Halifax, Nova Scotia, David Huebert came to London three years ago to begin his PhD in English at Western University.
A writer of poetry, fiction, and critical prose, David published his first poetry collection--We Are No Longer The Smart Kids In Class--with Guernica Editions in 2015. In 2016, his story, "Enigma," won the CBC Short Story Prize.
David has published creative work in journals such as Event, CV2, Matrix, The Antigonish Review, Prairie Fire, and The Puritan.
His short fiction collection, Peninsula Sinking, was published by Biblioasis in 2017.
Your closet is the same size as mine,
which neither of us thinks is fair.
The catreposes in yours, shed fur
turning that black backpack into
a hairy critter. Knapsacklesloth.
Mine holds hockey skates,
drying from last night’sshinny.
You don’t like the smell.
But this isn’t about my feet--
it’s about your closet, our cat.
What I’m trying to say is something
about the feel of your kimono, how
it only excites me when your skin’s
underneath. The strings of your
dresses dangle, little girl legs
on buses, and the cat swats.
No doubt I’m projecting (the right
word must start with anthropo)
but I insist she paws those dangly
bits because she misses you.
What I’m trying to say has something
to do with the way your closet looks
the same when you’re not here—
how that’s scary and comforting,
how I went in there for the first time
and just sniffed, conjuring the chimp
in me to smell the bonobo in you.
How maybe that was weird butat
least I didn’t try on your clothes.
Or did I? Would you mind?
*This poem originally appeared in EVENT 44.2.
Wild in Me*
How to recall this wild in me?
My toes have forgotten how to grasp:
Now pallid feet push pedals, deaf
To strut of songs from time before.
My toes have forgotten how to grasp,
This mouthy mind won’t let me hear
The strut of songs from time before,
When hand steps whispered, soft as rain.
This mouthy mind won’t let me hear
The time before this motor roar,
When hand steps whispered soft as rain
(Each murmur hummed and purred in me).
The time before this motor roar:
Each blade of grass a lilting tongue,
Each murmur hummed and purred in me:
Each colour pealed, and death was young.
Each blade of grass a lilting tongue,
Teeth wandering from bite to song:
Each colour pealed, and death was young,
And life was heaving, mending, gone.
Now pallid feet push petals, deaf
And charging through explosive truth:
There’s no such time as time before,
But I recalled this wild, this me.
*This poem originally appeared in The Dalhousie Review 95.1
Excerpt from “Bellyflop*”
What if it was you, now, alone in the middle of the stark night sky, clinging to those shuddering rungs, hot terror searing like cobra venom? What if a dry panic clutched your throat and your bones went jittery and you both knew and didn’t know what was going on? What if you heard that same pool echo from that day on the five-metre but this time you knew it was just your own warbling ears? What if there was a smell like burning hair and you saw the Aquafit ladies flying through the night sky, riding huge blue lightsabers and jabbing vibrating wands in your direction, and you couldn’t tell if they were trying to save you or hurl you into an angry electric abyss? What if the charge was still building and all your muscles were twitching and the ladder was starting to char and every nerve and muscle was urging you to flee? What if the sky, then, turned unspeakably clear and lovely and the Aquafit angels were beckoning and a soft breeze soothed the burn and you were sure, for a moment, you could ride the wind? Wouldn’t you dive towards the Northwest Arm, shooting for the glittering black pool? Wouldn’t you think that maybe the cool water could save you, that once you landed safely Tessa would run down to the water, tearing off her clothes, and jump in beside you? Wouldn’t you be astonished as you found yourself soaring not towards the Northwest Arm but straight for a leafy elm that made you think of Nancy reading in her shady backyard? Wouldn’t you go full reverential when as some small branches broke your fall you heard a voice lilting from the core of the tree, sounding just like Nancy, pleading for you to come closer? What would you do if when you landed between two large but merciful branches you heard that same silky voice saying you could forget all about Blue Velvet and the apology letter you never wrote? What if, as you lay there, wheezing in the tree’s embrace, you ceased to wonder about life and death, ceased to pine over Tessa Brown? What if, when everything else was gone, you apologized and meant it and knew, more than you would ever know anything again, that Nancy understood?
*“Bellyflop” originally appears in The Puritan 28.
In “Enigma”, the sort of somnolent synthesis of the story’s two non-human mammals––a horse dying of lamintitis and a whale gently plummeting towards and rebounding upon contact with the ocean’s floor while asleep––suggest a writer whose craft is perhaps both near in proximity and apt to defer to the luxurious metaphors one finds soughing just behind one’s vision on waking. Another, less recent piece of yours, “Fingernail Clippings”, owes, by your account, a debt to an inchworm which liked “to dangle from [your] reading lamp in Victoria...” and so found itself in “remnants and offshoots of dreams.”
I wonder if you’d offer a bit about how your experience of dreaming influences your work in both prose and poetry. Have you ever seen or generated texts in a dream and been able to transcribe them? Do you ever sort of cinematically replay your dreams on waking in the interest of future writing?
Thanks for this reading Kevin—it’s one of the most profound stories I’ve ever been told about my work.
This is far from an original thought but I believe attunement to the world of story and poetic imagination takes place somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, or between the conscious and unconscious mind. We like stories and poems because they offer truths that unsettle the banalities of the quotidian.
Sleep and near-sleep is a natural place for the writer to forage. I don’t rehearse my dreams but I do always sleep with a notebook beside my bed. It is often in a state of near-sleep that a gestating idea will surface or offer itself. I never wake from sleep with a line or a story idea; the inspiration is more likely to hit when I’m falling, drifting down through the murk.
It is also here, in the rind of consciousness, that lines of poetry and (more rarely) fiction emerge totally unexpected. Such lines often form the core image-world of a poem. I try to be open to these encounters, to welcome the unexpected.
When I'm writing fiction well it is also a kind of somnambulism. After two or three hours confined to the imagination, I begin to get delirious, to see unexpected visions.
Do you ever feel compelled to moralize through your stories? Are you ever suspicious or ambivalent about a writer's doing so?
I think fiction is a realm for curiosity and question-asking. A good story might illuminate a moral or ethical dilemma in all its complexity, but it shouldn’t reduce that complexity to an easy or obvious takeaway.
I do think there’s an important difference between a story that moralizes and one that has morality. The latter is acceptable, even admirable.
Describe, if you would, the place in which you’re sitting at this moment.
An upstairs apartment facing a window looking out over a residential street. The view mostly filtered by a young poplar where, on fortunate occasions, a pair of cardinals flirts. A stack of books beside my left hand and an empty coffee mug beside my right. Behind me a chair, a carpet, more books. In the next room, the sound of a woman sniffling. A woman fighting off a cold.
The care with which you crafted “Wild in Me” seems to be, in a strong field, amongst its most moving elements.
I wonder if you’d riff on an important quality of the often exacting metrical execution of the poetry you’ve written.
With “Wild in Me,” I had to write and write and internalize the iambic tetrameter rhythm to the point where I hardly recognized it as such. Then words started to come in clusters, already forming around that pulse. All poems have a pulse but when you’re composing with metre the line becomes more important as a unit. There’s no saying, “maybe I’ll break the line here or there.” The line comes to you as a whole and you can edit within it but the line is the line. I like lines. I think (following James Longenbach) that they’re what makes poetry poetry.
Did you choose to internalize iambic tetrameter to write “Wild in Me”, to get a post-human narrative (yes?) into poetry––if so, why this metre?––or did the poem happen as a result of that internalization?
I didn’t really choose the meter. The line came to me—“How to recall the wild in me”—and I liked it and realized that it’s rhythm was what it was. It probably came out in part as a response to reading a lot of Milton and other metrical verse at the time. Certain poems I write simply seem to want to surf the wake of traditional formal structures and I try to go with that, to let that happen.
I wouldn’t say “Wild in Me” aims for a posthuman narrative; I think if anything it's striving for a kind of prehumanism or unhumanism.
I think beyond the initial aural impulse I stayed with the iambic rhythm and the pantoum form because this is a poem about recollection. In the nineteenthcentury, they had a concept of deep memory or “racial memory” where they thought you could recall your distant evolutionary past. So the poem is a kind of thought experiment, trying to explore that mnemonic realm through lyric poetry.
In my capacity as an interviewer, and with respect to your having been exposed to more seasoned interlocutors after your recent successes, I wonder what you hope for, or most appreciate, from a listening catalyst.
Is there a particular question or theme you wish to be evoked in a reader of your work?
There is no particular question I’m looking for or theme I’m trying to explore. What I like best is when someone reads something into my work that I didn’t consciously realize was there and I can then say, “Yes, that’s right, that was there all along.” As you can probably tell from the rest of my comments, my work doesn’t really have a thematic agenda. It’s more like a constellation of curiosities, a rhizome of images.
How do you find your academic work––which I understand generally has to do with representations of non-human animals in American fiction––influences or shapes your “extra-curricular” writing. By theme, by tone, by subject matter, by a seeking refuge from "the labyrinth of fruitful pain"?
My creative writing has a lot to do with animals, and many of those ideas are generated by my academic research. It’s a lovely symbiosis! I’ve had to read widely as part of the program and that has certainly generated a lot of good material. I really like cross-pollination, and I think exposure to different types of research and thinking at Western has been perhaps more productive than just hanging out with other writers might have been. I’ve also connected with a great community of writer-scholars at Western--Andy Verboom, Kevin Shaw, Madeline Bassnett, Tom Cull, Joshua Schuster, and many more. At the heart of it, I think creative thinking in all its guises is a great inspiration for a writer.
I was talking to an actor the other day who said he developed and (with occasional mania) listened to a carefully collated playlist to get into a particular character––that this playlist affected the way he walked, spoke, thought, felt, associated.
Is music important in any way to your work? Are the characters you develop ever associated in your mind with a particular song (or dish, orcolour, or object, or memory)?
Music is important to my process; I often listen to classical music when I write. I tend to listen to a lot of movie soundtracks, most frequently the soundtrack to Jane Eyre. I really just listen to this stuff because the soothing tones relax me, but even that is interesting--the music works as a kind of narcotic that enables me to weave through waking dreams.
When I reflect back on the characters I write, I tend to think of the most striking images from the stories themselves. So yes, I suppose, some of my characters end up being conflated in my mind with animals. For example, Vince is a Jellyfish and Sam Hoffman is a lobster. Dante from "Without Seeing" is a half-blind man roaming the streets of Toronto with the corpse of a dog in his arms.
Sorkin, Aaron Sorkin has said that he looks upon plot as a kind of grudging requirement, that dialogue is what he loves to write.
Where do you come down on this point? Is it character, or dialogue, or description, or plot––is it theme or tone or the momentum of sentences chasing each other––that you prefer? Is preference dependent on the piece you’re writing? Is your experience of these elements of prose synthetic, or ever tugged at and wrestled as means to ends?
Funny you ask; I've been thinking about dialogue a lot lately. I've mostly been purging it from my writing and finding that my stories don't need much of it, that they only get stronger when it's culled. This might be because I’m not good at writing dialogue. But it might also be because as a fiction reader I don't particularly like dialogue—I find it has a tendency to become vacuous or cliché. Nothing makes me want to put down a book more than long stretches of flat dialogue. Good dialogue is, of course, really energizing for the reader. But I find it’s best used sparingly.
In my fiction I'm trying to portray the vividness of a scene in active, resonant, and, when possible, unexpected language. For me, the confrontation of character and story is the most important thing (and story is not necessarily plot).
Your short fiction collection, Peninsula Sinking, is now under contract with Biblioasis.
Can you tell us a bit about this collection––the compulsion behind it, the experience of writing it, how you think of this collection as indicative of another stage of your growth as a writer? What has it taught you?
Admittedly, the very first compulsion behind PS was to throw my best stories together and try to make a book. Then I did a long-form mentorship with David Layton through Diaspora Dialogues and we talked a lot about the collection’s larger themes. David helped me listen to the stories, find what they were about, and exhume some of the buried threads between them. So I can now say with confidence that this is a collection about human love for nonhuman life and the reciprocation of that love; it’s about struggling young people in Nova Scotia; it’s about the lure of Toronto; it’s about dealing with the thought of the cities and worlds we know, sinking; and it’s about finding joy in the horror of a precarious, melting life.
John Metcalf will work with you to sequence the stories in Peninsula Sinking, yes?
Would you offer a few words about what an editor as remarkable as Metcalf can bring to the experience of putting a book together, of finding the way in which the pieces want to align with one another?
I've been privileged, already, to work with great mentors and editors such as David Layton and Elana Wolff, who runs the hugely vital first poets series at Guernica Editions. I’ll add that the individual stories in PS have already benefited a fair bit from encounters with literary journal editors such as Tyler Willis at The Puritan, and from the readings of many generous friends and companions (thanks, Aaron and Natasha). The process of finding your themes and your subjects is a long and arduous one. It’s a thing you can’t go looking for, a thing you have to find by stooping in the mire and wrangling sentence after sentence until those sentences break and confess why you’ve made them. So many people have helped along the way.
John Metcalf will be the editor of the book. We’ve had some correspondence, but haven’t yet gotten into the tangle of sentence and story. So all I can say at this point is that I’m a great admirer of Metcalf’s work as a writer and an editor. The books he’s edited most recently (Kevin Hardcastle’s Debris and Kathy Page’s The Two of Us) both demonstrate what story collections can achieve in terms of sustenance of vision; I can only hope my collection achieves a fraction of the robustness of these works.
I recently learned that Metcalf worked 18 years without pay as an editor for The Porcupine’s Quill. Need I say more?