Theresa Munoz

An Interview

Greg McCartney

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Theresa Muñoz was born in Vancouver and now lives in Edinburgh. She holds a B.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and a Ph.D. in Scottish Literature from the University of Glasgow where she was Overseas Research Scholar. Her work has appeared in several journals in both Canada and the United Kingdom, including Canadian Literature, The Poetry Review, Scottish Review of Books and Best Scottish Poems. Her debut collection of poems Settle (Vagabond Voices, 2016) was previously shortlisted for the Melita Hume Prize. 

Gregory McCartney: Hi Theresa, Thanks for being in the HU. I really enjoyed your Settle collection particularly as I’m interested in poetic representations of emigration beyond the traditional (and often romanticised) Irish variety as well as I find fascinating how poets adapt (or don’t) to the existence of Google and social media.

So one thing I really enjoyed (if that’s the right word) was how well you articulated the bland but scary red-tape that is the contemporary immigration process. It always struck me as silly asking people the minutiae of British life when most of the people born there couldn’t answer the questions. I don’t know all the English Queens or very much about Haggis or Home Rule. I’m wondering if it was a conscious decision to focus on these elements of migration.

Theresa Munoz: It was, yes. I had to go through years of visas: student visa, the Scotland-specific Fresh Talent visa (when there was one), student visa again, settlement visa, until I reached the level of UK citizen. It’s true that taking the Life in the UK test was quite nerve-wracking. You sit with other candidates in a silent room full of computers. You basically have to learn the book verbatim, and there are about 30 thousand facts!  The facts I chose in my poems – the Iron Age coins, broken fridges, haggis, Ulster Fry –were details that I thought had a lonely air about them, or stood out for their silliness.

It was definitely a conscious decision to include, as you say, the ‘bland and scary red-tape’ of these processes. Much of the immigration process is filling out forms, having the right documents, learning the ‘right’ facts, keeping deadlines in mind. But the minute details of the process fail to mask its own scary consequences of not following it.

GMCC: I like the way you contrast your parents experience in Canada with your arrival in Scotland. Are you maybe trying to find a bridge across the years, to find elements common in both your parents and your own journey?

TH: Yes that’s exactly right. I never fully appreciated what my parents went through in their immigration journey until I did it for myself. However, compared to the many visas I’ve had to acquire, my parents say their immigration process was smoother for them: they moved to Canada in the 1970s during Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s era when immigration was encouraged.

Yet my poems ‘Twenty-two’ and ‘The Way’ for example, are works which contain parallels with my parents that only I realised were there years after I left Canada. ‘Twenty-two’ is the age my mother and I both migrated to another country and ‘The Way’ describes doing menial jobs to get money quickly upon first arriving in a new place, something my dad and I both did. I envisioned them as poems which addressed and shared personal and cultural struggles.

GMCC: In your essay at the end of Settle you mention that Canada is more open to immigrants but there was an element of Canadian life that didn’t seem authentic. I was wondering if you might have subconsciously perhaps still felt like an outsider there? Would that and your parents experience of moving abroad at a relatively young age have prepared you for your arrival in a bloody cold Scottish winter and to ’35 Kelvinhaugh Gate, a flat so damp I slept in a wool hat for months…?

TH: Yes, I mention being uncomfortable with a growing sense of materialism. Though maybe it was just me feeling that way, and I was looking for reasons to escape. I was never conscious of feeling like an outsider in Canada. I was born there and grew up there, and in some ways it is still my home. I suppose I felt more of an observer, as all writers do.

As for the sleeping in a woolly hat, that’s true. The heating was broken a lot during that time. But the memory of feeling cold was really a feeling of loneliness, or the ‘newness’ of being on my own in a new country.

GMCC: Was the racism as described in Ashton Lane and Skin a shock? I wonder if maybe you would have an opinion on being a poet in the post Brexit era? I’m wondering that as we’re supposedly in a ‘post-fact’ society emotion has replaced ‘facts’ what you think the position of the poet is? 

TH: Yes, those racist events were definitely an unpleasant shock. I think it was because they seemed to occur out of nowhere, when I was doing ordinary things like walking to the park or having a few drinks with friends. And I’m not saying that racist episodes don’t happen in Canada, something someone once accused me of when I was talking about this; of course they do. But one never really expects unprovoked attacks to happen while doing ordinary things. Also, these racist episodes reminded me of my Filipino heritage, my skin colour, and cultural prejudices that go along with these things.

In the post-Brexit era poems about immigration seem all the more relevant, since so many more people are going to be affected. Tensions seem to be rising and that’s a sad thing.

GMCC: Maybe an impossible question to answer here, does the shock of new experiences help your writing processes or is it possible to get maybe paralysed by unfamiliar circumstance?

TH: I think the shock of new experiences allows for new thoughts to germinate. It also helps the writing process in terms of finding out about yourself; specifically how you react to adversity and conflict. But these revelations are only after the fact. Those episodes were years ago and it took me a long time to realise what they really meant. And deciding how to present them, i.e. in what voice or form, and at what point, etc. also took me awhile.

GMCC: And talking of ‘post-fact’ I’m very interested in how poets use contemporary (so to speak) language. As I mentioned in a recent HU interview I’ve thought that quite a lot of poetry written recently could have been written fifty years ago. Do you think there will be eventually an evolution that social-media vocabulary or even text speak takes its place in the poetry canon (whatever that is!)?

TH: Yes of course. I think we have hit upon a time when it’s perfectly acceptable to mention your mobile phone or a text in a poem, or to even write poems as if they are texts... these are just everyday means of communication. In my poem ‘How’, I borrow phrases from search engines such as ‘how to find your keys / how to find the courage’ as I feel these phrases say a lot about human vulnerability and desires.

What I find intriguing is how a social-media vocabulary fits, or doesn’t fit, with more traditional poetry forms. Text-speak can be so abrupt and broken up; it’s interesting to play around with spacing and shape in poems about these topics order to get a sense of their bluntness and frenetic delivery.

GMCC: And what exactly is a ‘digital native’ as you’re described on the Settle back-cover? I have a love-hate relationship with the internet. On the one hand I recognise that to be continually connected has lots of advantages such as quickly communicating with people far away but the downside I think that it somehow increases isolation as in maybe Clicksend or Refresh or even like in Wait when emails don’t appear. But that’s maybe because I was in the (maybe last) generation that grew up before the internet!

TH: I definitely see your point about the internet being isolating! I think that’s part of the point though, as I say in poems such as ‘Clicksend’ or ‘Wait’, there is a new kind of anxiety that arises out of waiting for messages, despite phones/emails having immediate contact with someone.

As for the ‘digital native’ term, that was a phrase from my publisher. I think it means that I am part of the Millennial generation that finds using technology and social media to be second nature. But what draws me to writing poems about texts, emails, etc. is that this kind of silent, written communication between people actually has a permanence that contradicts the apparent simplicity and immediacy of the interaction.

GMCC: I read that you have a favourite email rather than letter. I kind of miss hand-written letters though I suppose people complained about the abandonment of the quill and the fountain pen. Is a physical book of poetry in such a technological and ever-changing environment still a valuable thing? Is there something to be said for the tactile pleasure of the book?

TH: Yes, there is definitely something to be said for the tactile pleasure of the book! I don’t read on a kindle or anything, I love the feel of books. I love the paper-like snow and bright red Google maps icon on the cover of my own book, Settle. I too love letters, but I find it takes so long to send one to Canada! So the point of the poem you mention is that we have favourite emails now, not letters. And our phones contain our messages, emails, photos; tiny archives of our lives that we carry around with us at all times.

GMCC: How much does your academic research influence your poetry and what would be your interpretation of digital poetics?

TH: My academic research in contemporary poetry opens my work to new forms and contexts than it did before, and allows me to think of my work from different viewpoints, especially how it is received aesthetically. Digital poetics is the study of electronic poetry, which can be viewed as interactive art written exclusively for the web. I really like John Cayley and Stephanie Strickland’s digital work; it’s intelligent and very exciting visually.

GMCC: Finally what is next for you?

TH: I am still promoting Settle at readings and literature festivals, which has been great. But thankfully, I have starting writing new poems again, though slowly. Lately I’ve been writing a sequence of poems about marriage, having recently gotten hitched. I am also turning my PhD thesis in Scottish Literature into a book. So... onwards!

GMCC: Thanks for being in the HU Theresa!  

TH: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me!