Women Asking Women: Carol Harvey Steski and Manahil Bandukwala
For today’s Women Asking Women series Manahil Bandukwala author of MONUMENT (Brick Books) and Carol Harvey Steski author of rump + flank (NeWest Press) interview each other about both of their poetry collections. They touch on body politics and aesthetic choices, and share some of their favourite poets—read more below.See more details below
In honour of Women's History Month, we asked women writers from across the country to pair up and interview each other on all kinds of things: their processes, their inspirations, their thoughts on WWW (writing while women). We can't wait to share these conversations with you.
Interview: Manahil Bandukwala ( MONUMENT with Brick Books) and Carol Harvey Steski ( rump + flank with NeWest Press)
Manahil Bandukwala: Congratulations on rump + flank! Debuts are exciting—and scary. Your book is described as unapologetic, which I find is a descriptor that often applies to writing that refuses to sanitise “controversial” topics. I put controversial in quotation marks because it feels like these themes shouldn’t be controversial. I definitely felt this way when writing MONUMENT. How do you arrive at creating a collection that is unapologetic and free of the tension between external “appropriateness” and what you want to write?
Carol Harvey Steski: I love this question! When I first saw “unapologetic” used to describe rump + flank, my reaction was, “oh lordy, what have I done…??” I approached the writing of these poems with a sense of curiosity, and that playful mindset empowered me to write freely about the ideas I wanted, and needed, to explore. For me, tension developed later, as the book was nearing launch. It suddenly hit home that my sexy, bold, bloody, angry little poems – and my “naughty” mind that conjured them – were about to be exposed for all to see. Like coming out of the shower and having your towel fall off in front of a window. The fear of being publicly judged with an “appropriateness meter” was paralyzing. Women writing about sex, sensuality and the female body – with all its messy traumas and truths – still rings “controversial” it would seem. The patriarchy runs deep. Shame runs deep. And that’s precisely why we need to keep hurling our ideas into the world. That’s our agency.
Carol Harvey Steski: Congratulations on your poetry collection, MONUMENT! It’s especially relevant in the context of Women’s History Month. In it, you write to Mumtaz Mahal who died in 1631 giving birth to her 14th child. Sadly, the patriarchy continues today, and women throughout the world are still dying in childbirth and still face restricted access to birth control, abortion and general autonomy over our bodies. Do you think women poets have a special role/responsibility to illuminate the female experience and/or the injustices inherent in being female in this world?
Manahil Bandukwala: Thank you so much! What you noted — about women today having restricted abortion access and autonomy — is exactly why I was drawn to Mumtaz Mahal. The question of whether women poets have a special role or responsibility is tricky. I do think our experiences mean that we are inherently concerned with that in our work, especially in a medium as intimate and personal as poetry. But does “special role / responsibility” mean that people who don’t have this experience are absolved of addressing it in their work, even though the issues of abortion and bodily autonomy ultimately affect everyone?
What I think is most important about this role / responsibility is the value that all our voices add to this chorus of illumination or injustice. There’s no one book that can accurately capture an entire experience of being a woman, especially because that looks so different for each person. We produce a collective body of work that tackle the weight and breadth of what we’re facing.
Manahil Bandukwala: Discussions about the body are often wrapped up with discussions about appearances. In the middle section of your book, “typefacing,” you take this to another level and consider the relationship between a font body and the body of a poem. How do you imagine the relationship of “the body” with other kinds of bodies?
Carol Harvey Steski: In rump + flank I define “the body” broadly: body as place, as a landscape to be inhabited or a destination, as a dwelling, a home; body as language, body as food. A recurring theme in my work is the body represented as disease and its relationship to the body as a place. In one suite of poems, I created a character, called “clog,” who is cancer, personified. He inhabits the city of a body (“blows into town”) and causes the progressive destruction of that urban landscape and its inhabitants as he accelerates through the process of cancer. In another, endometriosis drinks whisky and shoots off gunfire in the “Wild West” of a woman’s body (my body, actually). The body represented in both the character of disease and in the landscape it seeks to overtake. In another poem, disease takes the form of fish-missiles spawning in the body’s river-veins. Again, the embodiment of disease and place. Interestingly, these connections weren’t written intentionally; they developed organically, showing the power of the subconscious at work.
Carol Harvey Steski: You write beautifully about bodies. What is it about poetry as an art form that lends itself to depicting the body, in particular women’s bodies?
Manahil Bandukwala: Beauty and aesthetic is likely a huge part of it. Depicting the body isn’t limited to poetry — I’m thinking about the long history of depicting the body in visual art as well. I think your first question and this one are related; when the question of bodily autonomy is integral to our very safety, we’re naturally drawn to bodies as an image or motif to craft a poem around. The vagueness of the word “body” also lends itself well to its appearance in poetry. In MONUMENT, for example, the architectural body sits in tension with the human body, which in turn is in tension with the non-corporeal spirit or soul. There’s the sensual experience of the body interacting with other bodies, of intimacy and touch. Or, reckoning with violence enacted on our bodies (or even violence occurring from our bodies, as you write in “dear uterus”). The body has endless possibilities, and we have an endless amount of reckoning to do with how our bodies have been treated and depicted. At least this way, we can control the ways our body is depicted.
Manahil Bandukwala: Writing a book can be a private experience, but once the book is out in the world, it enters into conversations with other works. What books do you think rump + flank is in conversation with?
Carol Harvey Steski: I see rump + flank in conversation with other books that share a common “unapologetic” sensibility, that are evocative, unflinching and don’t shy away from discomfort, but also carry a sense of playfulness and humour. Along these lines, I had the privilege of being on a Word on the Street panel with two remarkable poets, tenille k campbell (nedi nezu) and Therese Estacion (Phantompains), for a powerful and revealing discussion about poetry and the body. We tackled body politics, the female experience, and the role that poetry can play in organizing chaos within the body, healing from trauma and repairing the distrust that can manifest in a failing body. I see our books continuing that important conversation.
Also, I secretly wish for rump + flank to be in conversation with any of Lorna Crozier’s incredible collections, but especially The Garden Going on Without Us. That book was my gateway drug into poetry!
Carol Harvey Steski: Who are some of your favourite women poets? Are there commonalities women bring to the craft that you’re drawn to, in terms of theme, aesthetic, etc.?
Manahil Bandukwala: There’s no way to capture all of my favourites, but some that have been inspiring me lately are: Selina Boan, Ellen Bass, and Noor Naga are ones that come to mind in the context of this entire interview. And always my friends — ones with recent books out are Conyer Clayton, Sanna Wani, natalie hanna, and Sheniz Janmohamed. All these poets are incredibly varied in terms of craft, form, and thematic concerns, but there is a deep engagement with language that makes reading these poets an involved experience. And in the midst of it all, these poets all write about love in different forms: for beloveds, for family, for friends, and having this love present is what invites me into their works.
Manahil Bandukwala: Going back to “appearances,” I love how sensual the cover of rump + flank is, from the shine on the fruit to the contrast between the peach and the deeper red. How do you imagine the relationship between the cover and the poems inside?
Carol Harvey Steski: I was thrilled with the cover (huge props to Natalie Olsen!) and was drawn to exactly those things – the juicy, sensual fruit and delicious colour palette. I love the cover’s visual impact, but also how it connects so effectively to the themes and imagery of the poems – luscious, cheeky, provocative and a bit mysterious. (Is that skin the fruit is laying on? And why? Are those drops of juice or blood? What caused them?) The cover and poems work in close partnership – they serve each other. I view the physical book much like a body. The poems are the various intricate internal systems that churn away, each unique but integral to each other and to the whole. And the cover acts as skin that not only holds everything together in a protective way, but also conveys and communicates critical information. Skin reveals traits about the organism and serves as a harbinger of what’s to come, much like the cover of a book reveals a sense of what the reader is about to experience. This relationship could be described, then, as homeostatic.
Carol Harvey Steski: The cover of MONUMENT is so striking; spare yet reverberates with meaning and movement. It was designed by the talented Natalie Olsen of Kisscut Design (who also designed my book, rump + flank). How important was design in the process of publishing your book?
Manahil Bandukwala: The overall aesthetic and design was incredibly important to me for MONUMENT, and Natalie Olsen captured that so perfectly. In addition to being a poet, I’m a visual artist, and those two mediums of making art constantly intersected in this book. The visual of crumbling is subtle, especially against a sunset-toned background, yet it suggests an act of destruction. Designing the book cover is one of the last parts of the process of the editorial journey, and acts as a sort of culmination for the words we’ve been sitting with for so long. MONUMENT is full of oppositions, so that tension was important to capture: the monument crumbling downwards while the gradient suggests an upward lift to the sky, or the conversation happening between the words “monument” and “moment.”
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Carol Harvey Steski grew up under the wide Winnipeg sky. Her poems have been published in the poetry anthology Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology, and literary magazines including Room, Prairie Fire, FreeFall, untethered, Contemporary Verse 2, and CAROUSEL. Her work was featured in Winnipeg Transit's "Poetry in Motion" program and tootled around town on buses. Twice she was a finalist in FreeFall's annual poetry contest. As a young-adult survivor of melanoma she has been a guest on CBC Radio-Manitoba speaking about the therapeutic benefits of writing through disease. She lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter, working in corporate communications. rump + flank is her debut poetry collection. Visit her website: carolharveysteski.com. Connect with her on Twitter: @charveysteski and Instagram: @carolharveysteski.
Manahil Bandukwala is a writer and visual artist originally from Pakistan and now settled in Canada. In 2021, she was shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Award. She works as Coordinating Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine, and is Digital Content Editor for Canthius. She is a member of Ottawa-based collaborative writing group VII. MONUMENT is her first book.
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Catch up on the Women asking Women series here.
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