Today, I am joined by the beaming and brilliant Dina Del Bucchia, author of three collections of poetry, Coping with Emotions and Otters (Talonbooks, 2013), Blind Items (Insomniac Press, 2014), and Rom Com (Talonbooks, 2015), written with poet Daniel Zomparelli. Her debut collection of short stories Don’t Tell Me What To Do is forthcoming with Arsenal Pulp Press Fall 2017. Dina is known in the Vancouver literary community for her energy, engagement and enthusiasm.
We meet at The Narrow Lounge, which everyone knows for its hip minimalism, limited seating and good speak-easy vibe. But not everyone knows about the hidden garden patio in the back. Colourful picnic tables, vines, flowers and gnomes. Yes, gnomes. We snag a great spot by a trellis with lots of sun peeking through.
This is where I will say Dina is a vegetarian and because caesars sketchily involve the juice of a sea creature, I ordered the caesar and she ordered a whisky sour!
My caesar came with a homemade ribboned pickle, two olives and was muddy with horseradish. It was decadent, spicy but maintained a refreshing quality.
Dina, we are on a rainforest picnic in the middle of Vancouver! It’s an oasis! Your whisky sour looks good too.
It’s super lovely. All manner of beauty in here.
This caesar is great. Great like—hmm…check out this segue–Can’t Lit, your awesome podcast you created with Daniel Zomparelli!
Thank you. We’ve been doing it 3 years. We have around 45 episodes so far!
How do you solicit which writers to have conversations with on Can’t Lit?
We weigh in what representation and voices we want to hear. That takes the most precedence. We want people who understand our presented comedic tone (we go on a lot of tangents) while still chatting about the Canadian literary scene. The podcast is for people’s entertainment but the conversation is also important and we prioritize diversity.
You and Daniel light up a room. I imagine being interviewed by you two in a podcast format would be a really warm, comfortable experience for your guests.
Working with Daniel is great because he is super open, extremely organized, nice, fun and I could not imagine a better person to collaborate with on any project.
Yes, and you wrote a book together! Rom Com is a really punctuated, sharp, sardonic, energetic read. My favourite poem is the Kate poem. How was writing a book collaboratively?
We acknowledge all the poems in the book were written collaboratively but some poems are more obviously by one of us based on the subject matter or who they’re dedicated to. But we really wanted to combine our voices. When we were writing it, sometimes we couldn’t tell in the draft stage who wrote what! There was one point where I told Daniel it was his turn to write a poem and continue the thread and he said, “No, that’s my poem. It’s your turn.” And we debated this and completely couldn’t tell who wrote the last one. It took several days to sort out. It was amazing!
Would you write another book together?
I want to! I want to work with him every day and always.
How did you meet?
I met him at the first Real Vancouver Writers’ Series at the 2010 Olympics that Sean Cranbury had asked me to read at it. I had just graduated from my MFA from UBC. It was a really pivotal moment in feeling invited into a literary community with writers I admired outside of grad school.
It’s amazing how friendships form in this community. I’ve gotten to see that because I’ve worked in many facets of the literary world. Book-selling, writing, publishing. So I met Daniel at that reading. I read a poem at that event about my boyfriend having sex with Pamela Anderson and Daniel loved it! He told me about his magazine, Poetry Is Dead, and solicited me for their TV and Video Games issue. Then slowly over the next couple years, we became really close.
And when did you first collaborate your writing?
For Rom Com. I was guest-editing an issue of Poetry is Dead and Daniel came up to me and asked if I wanted to work on a book together. I said 100% I do. We wrote a draft in one year. We went hard on the roms, the coms, and did a bunch of editing after.
I love puns and word-play so that book really tickles me pink!
Puns are under-appreciated.
You have great seasonal Twitter handles with puns. Dina Del Boo-cchia in the Fall was my personal fav.
Dina Del Biscotti was a recent one! How is your boozy soup?
Boozy gazpacho. In a good way. Thick with horseradish. A liquor aquarium. I will share an olive with you!
So let’s chat rom coms, the inspiration for your and Daniel’s book. There are a lot of reasons to criticize early 90s-to-millennial rom coms as far as their outdated jokes pertaining to sexism, racism and homophobia.
So you satirized and unpeeled the layers of that movie genre.
Rom coms are something Daniel and I both spent a lot of time watching and still do. They’re problematic but they’re also a source of comfort. And we wanted to pay tribute to the good parts of rom coms but then also address the fucked up parts of them. And love in general is a very complicated feeling and we tried to narrow in on love and rom-coms to occupy and fuel individual poems. But my favourite part of the writing process was critiquing rom coms.
Using comedy and poetry to explore a problem.
Some criticism we received from the book was that it lacked me and Daniel narratively and on a personal level. And that is a form of criticism that is really common with collections of poetry. No one tells a novelist to put more of themselves in their work. It can belittle what poetry can do and what it can mean to people. I also really respect and love autobiographical poetry and there are snippets of that in our book.
But you weren’t approaching the book in a confessional way.
We’re writing about love, relationships and intimacy which are things all people associate with the personal. And they are. But we wanted to look at those themes philosophically and critically, which poetry lends itself to really well. Our personal psyches didn’t colour the book enough for some readers.
Well, long-live the smoke screen of poetry. It’s comprised of a voice—or voices—and it doesn’t need to be journalistic or overly transparent. I think of Canadian poets such as Stephanie Bolster, whose third collection White Stone: The Alice Poems is all about Alice in Wonderland.
Yes and Blind Items, my previous book, is entirely about celebrities. I created a persona throughout the book narrated with an “I” but it isn’t me.
Wait, but the one poem about having sex with Lindsay Lohan in a pick-up! That was autobiographical, right?
Yep! That one was me !!! No, it wasn’t, and I didn’t get criticism for it not being autobiographical like we did with Rom Com. I think explicitly writing about love prompts those kinds of responses or critiques. We wanted to write and explore a cultural element without it being entirely about us and our experiences.
Also, you were collaborating and you wanted your voices to meld together seamlessly. You didn’t want it to be a seesaw approach, passing the baton poem to poem the whole way through.
And when the book came out in 2015 you got to tour together. How much fun was that?
Very fun. We travel well together. And I think more and more we see more awesome literary relationships in our Can Lit community. How great is it to see people who you admire and they’re being decent and being social and bringing their work to other people?! Tours are amazing in that way.
And I still see that book everywhere. It’s done very well!
It’s amazing with a small-press poetry book how you never know what’s going to happen. Anytime you publish a book it’s exciting and fun and people get to read the words that you worked really hard on. And disappointments and failures are also bound to happen.
With our podcast, we don’t aim to squish any one writer’s big exciting writing dreams but we do talk about how every writer experiences doubt, writer’s block or a hard time with publications. We need to talk about that more.
Wait are you saying that even if you publish a book you’ll still see rejection??? WHAT? I thought I’d be immune!
Well, you get a special inoculation and then you get to forget about rejections! But they still happen!
In all seriousness, it’s the life of an artist. Sometimes you feel like lying on the floor for 2-3 hours after disappointment and it’s totally okay. Or maybe you need to have fun after a rejection and cheer yourself up so you persevere. When I learned that disappointment will happen and I could bounce back, I felt a lot better about being a writer.
I have a confession. I need to buy another copy of Rom Com because I spilt coffee on mine.
That totally adds to the cultural cachet of your book. Another poet spilt on our book. That’s great. And yes, coping with failure is something we could all talk about more. Writing failure. Not coffee spillage failure.
Do you think sometimes we are too proud to share when we have upsets or aren’t doing well? That’s a generalization and I’m sure some writers are open about it but I personally struggle with that.
I think there are people who share via social media and express their various struggles in writing.
It’s healthy to open yourself up to support and solidarity like that so other writers have the opportunity to relate and reach out.
Yes, and social media a good tool to provide us with agency to share and open ourselves up to new conversations.
And social media isn’t the only place we can do that.
Right, think about events and readings. Something is going on in the Canadian literary scene that’s shitty. What do we do? We flock to each other and talk it through because we need other people around to help us process ideas or feelings or comfort each other.
And we have a rich community that comprises a lot of my friendships. Strangely enough, a friend of mine’s agent advised her not to talk about work with friends. She thought, well, I am writer and my work and my social life are too hard to separate to take that advice.
Yeah, my writer friends help me with my work and my life!
Yes, they’re the ones who are going to bring boozy soup to you if you’re sick!
And people at other workplaces talk about their work so why can’t we? We don’t chat Excel numbers and spreadsheets like office-dudes, but office-dudes go for an afterwork drink with each other or some team-building shenanigan sports stuff. So we as writers don’t need to escape combining friendship and our work! We need other writers to talk to! And for me personally, I don’t have a lot of past trauma to work through so I try to reach my full capacity for holding others up and being open to them.
Right. Because writing is a lot of making sense of trauma or personal issues. It’s an art-form for healing.
Yes, and I’m open to friendship and listening and having those conversations.
Yes, you do put yourself out there for other writers.
And whether it’s enough or not, I am trying. I am hopefully putting that out there. All people have different capacities and for some writers, certain conversations or spaces are triggering, difficult. And we are all going to have times in our lives during our writing careers where we want to roll up in a human blanket burrito and eat and sob into a burrito and then feel sick. So it’s good to be aware of our own capacities. I want to be there for people as much as possible but I also need to gauge where I’m at too.
And you’re an extrovert in the writing world—a world where many people are more introverted. I get my energy from people. But I don’t mind being alone.
Me neither. And writing is one of the only acts where I truly get to be alone. For my other alone time, I am binge watching television or buying dresses online.
That’s cooler than me. My alone time is spent windexing. I windex everything.
I used to bake all the time! In the winter, I love baking. I have a Kitchen Aid mixer. But for the most part, writing is my favourite alone time.
Cookies and poems are a good combo. Tell me about your work with Real Vancouver Writers’ Series. You’re the artistic director. Who else is on the staff?
It’s me and Sean Cranbury and we have an amazing board of directors comprised of writers, librarians, and tons of great people. I joined in 2011 when Sean was asked to do the Giller Light Bash in Vancouver. There were just 4 of us on the staff at the time then it slowly formed into more of an organization. We’ve only been an official nonprofit society for a couple years now. We got our first grant for this season and hopefully we will able to build on this more. We all have full-time jobs and other artistic endeavours so it can be hard to make time. But from revenue alone, we are able to pay our writers.
I think that’s really nice. Payment is not typically why writers do readings but it’s a good way to thank them for their time and words.
There aren’t a ton of reading series in Vancouver that are able to pay so it’s great we can. We also do the series quarterly so it’s manageable time-wise.
Quarterly is good. Did that help increase attendance? Those events are always very well attended.
Yes, when it’s only 4 times a year, people try to come out and make the effort. We also don’t have a set venue. We had some events at the Anza Club but we don’t anymore because it’s not an accessible venue. It has steep stairs up the front and all the washrooms are downstairs. The Anza Club, I hope and assume, is a venue that will put in effort to change their venue and make it more accessible. Other older venues like The Wise Hall have renovated to become accessible.
I haven’t thought of that angle on the issue. I always think of organizations and magazines needing to seek out accessible venues and making that change for their community and patronage. I hadn’t even thought that, really, it’s also the responsibility for those inaccessible venues to make the change too.
I think about that all the time. Are there ways we can encourage this venue to be accessible? Sometimes that’s a daunting conversation to have. There are grants to help with upgrades for these venues. Saying to venues more often why we can’t use their space is important. Tell them the reason you can’t host or pay for the rental for your event. I want venues to be able to make money and have community events—that’s important, but accessibility is more important.
The weight of that responsibility needs to be balanced. Both the venues and the organization have the obligation to provide safety and accessibility.
As artists, we need to keep community strong and healthy and allow others to enter in this inclusive dialogue with us. I think there are ways we can communicate more. This city is expensive and if you want to get an accessible venue, it can be really difficult with small organization budgets. Vancouver is really a stressful place to organize.
Slash live. But I don’t want anyone else to leave!
Staying strong. You can’t keep me away from the ocean. I’m not leaving. I live in it like a sea otter.
I was thinking about renting myself a small patch in the ocean and giving up my apartment.
Some friends and I went in on an affordable plot in a community garden! We got our first tomato. Green, shiny, beautiful. We do joke that it’s the most expensive farmland in the country! You can’t live on it but it’s expensive real estate though we don’t actually pay that much annually. A rent-controlled community garden.
We almost charged the chickadee in our birdhouse rent. They haven’t come back since we broke the news to them.
We have raccoons around my apartment. I think their family clan has lived there since 1915 when the apartment was built. One burst into my kitchen at 3am and stole a bag of brown sugar. I caught it and said, Hey, drop it on the ground! They have perfect human hands and they come into people’s houses so why don’t they pay rent?
You’re right. I feel like this interview is touching on some really important raccoon issues which is a testament to how funny you are! You taught a comedy writing course at UBC this year. What was your experience teaching that course?
The most stressful part was guiding new writers to navigate appropriate means of humour. I felt a huge sense of responsibility to teach the craft of creative writing, joke-writing, and political correctness. There are terms and concepts that used to be thought of as funny that are extremely harmful, really damaging and cause people trauma. Trigger warnings aren’t a joke.
I dislike how the term triggered has become satirized and stretched from its original meaning.
And I try to use the history of comedy in my course to teach the power of language.
But in teaching that, do you have to touch on those harmful terms or outdated humour? Is there a risk involved in that?
That class had over 100 students and I wanted to teach students, especially cisgender white male students who often don’t get their humour criticized, that some things are not appropriate and the origins of why that is. Get them to understand that that level of comedy is lazy. Maybe some of these students will go on to write in the comedic form, do stand-up or have comedy play a huge role in their careers, so they need to learn this early.
And humour is a really valuable skill to have in all aspects of life.
It is. Comedy has literary, conversational, and diffusing power. Comedy can be used for social justice. So teaching students about appropriate, politically correct humour was the most stressful part for me. And there was work handed in that was inappropriate. I was constantly telling my students—after you write a joke, ask yourself why and how is that funny and ask it again and again and again. As writers, we need to do that—ask ourselves why. It’s not just for comedy. It’s an overall literary skill.
Did you cover punching up and punching down with them? How do you define those concepts?
An issue with punching up and punching down is getting people to determine where they fit in the social, power hierarchy of the world. That’s the hardest part to teach. It involves getting students to understand the level or privilege they may or may not have. If we don’t acknowledge or understand that about ourselves, a wall goes up. And that’s a much larger problem beyond this class. It’s a world problem.
And there was inappropriate, tasteless humour from writers in the class, and I am not talking about potty humour. Fart jokes are fine.
Right. The problem is when comedy is being used at other groups’ expenses.
Trying to explain that in class, a lot of free speech defensiveness comes up. But there were lots of students who used comedy to write about issues that were important to them, which was great!
It’s a learning trajectory, learning the power of words and the power you have in using them. And you got to see that grow and move in so many students!
We can all always improve. Whether I’m writing a book, teaching or enacting any positive action, I hope I improve more each time.
What current projects are you working on?
I’m actually in a funny place right now where I’ve just finished a book of fiction coming out this Fall and have a poetry manuscript with a publisher right now so I’m not currently working on anything new. Usually, I’m the kind of person who likes to have at least three projects on the go at once so this has been strange for me. I usually like to have one project I am deeply in, one I’m slowly dipping into and one on the back-burner developing in the back of my mind.
It’s been 2 months. I haven’t written that much, but I’m okay with it. We’re sold a lot of the time this magical, writerly narrative that we should all wake up in the morning, write for x amount of time, then go to work. That can’t always happen for people.
I’ve never done that in my life! I don’t write if I have any other activity that day!
And hearing people admit stuff like that is so refreshing. This idea of extreme diligence and that level of constant devotion to your work is a narrative that really gets pushed on us. There’s not one, sole type of writer and what their practice can look like, but there’s this very strong, male-author myth that’s been propagated—not having another job and having the freedom to be able to write all the time.
Totally, a man in slacks with a dark coffee by a window chain-smoking through an idea of a character-man in slacks. In front of a typewriter.
Yeah, never a computer! And that to me is a misogynistic angle of what writing looks like. Women were constantly caregivers for their families and/or communities. And there are degrees of opportunity and poverty—all sorts of factors shape what a writer’s life and capacity look like.
And it’s okay to not write sometimes.
I think people worry if they’re not constantly writing they’ll forget how. The lie we are told about having to write all the time is a stressful concept.
And if writing is a craft you’re committed to and you listen to other writers, read lots and often, you won’t forget it!
Right. And it might take longer to sink back into it after a breather, but that’s fine. There’s so much going on in the world and being able to take a break is good.
Setting a project aside and letting it steep a little bit can also be super helpful.
Put it in the drawer method! Works well for me!
Changing gears, you’re such an energetic, strong public speaker.
I’m a Leo and I really do act like a Leo. You know, big hair, loud voice!
Were you always good at public speaking?
Not at all! As a little kid, I was very performative and silly and I liked entertaining adults. But I remember in kindergarten, with my own peers, I was very shy.
I also remember doing a reading earlier on in my writing career and I wasn’t that great because I was so nervous. I think what changed is that I was so worried about being really good at everything and wanting my work to be so meaningful and beautiful. I think learning that I could have my own unique performance style really clicked for me. I didn’t need to have angst for the sake of it or carve out something beautiful for the sake of it.
Figuring out what works for you as a reader is so important. And how you feel comfortable presenting yourself. If you’re super earnest, go in that direction. If you’re super quiet and take everything in and don’t want to preamble and just read your work, that’s great too! I think it’s important for people to read and perform in a way that feels true to them and their work. And we don’t need to have the same styles to connect to the performance.
Right and it’s in the same vein that we don’t read only books that sound like our work. Most writers read from a variety of genres and voices. For example, with Rahila’s Ghost Press, the new chapbook press I started with some friends, I’m not seeking to publish poets who sound the same as me! That would be so strange.
I am so excited for that project. I love the name of the press.
It’s named after my great great grandmother in Saskatchewan. In her town’s parish registry, her death was described as “extraordinary” and no one knows where her body is!
Oh my goodness—I just told someone a ghost story today that I experienced. It was 1998 during “The Gold Fever Follies.” which is a (somewhat) historical musical that we performed twice a day at my summer job in the old miner’s hall is Rossland, BC.
That is scary!
Right? So one day, I was changing into my every day old-timey costume. The miner’s hall is super old from the 1870s. No ventilation. Also, I’m doing theatre so all the windows are blacked out and it’s hot. We were wearing polyester of course because that’s what your costumes are made out of when you’re a teen. And I felt super cold all of a sudden. A cold wind blew over me which we all know means a ghost is around! In the middle of July in sweltering southern BC heat. Then this old-timey woman suddenly flew by. And it was pitch-black but I could see her. Then I had to go back onstage and sing about how I love the gold rush!
And also cool. And I wasn’t the only one with stories from that mining hall!
Oh my god, I don’t doubt that! So you’re originally from Fruitvale, BC?
Yes and I went to high school outside the town in Trail, BC so it’s funny because I know rural living, urban living but nothing about the suburbs. I don’t know them at all! My parents and aunt and uncle still live in the area. Smelter industry. So yeah, I saw a ghost one summer job and drove a Bobcat in a indium-germanium plant the next!
When did you start writing poetry? Were you writing poems on the Bobcat?
Yeah, and I read a lot on the night shifts and kept a notebook with me in my lunch bucket. I was around 21 years old then. I started writing poetry more seriously in high school but I loved writing even before that. Younger than that, I would make kids in my neighbourhood perform the plays I wrote. I was very bossy.
Well you’re not bossy now. But you are a do-er!
So are you. I am so excited about RG Press and your author line-up.
Me too. We have 3 amazing authors ready to go with gorgeous work.
And it’s difficult and daunting to start any new project. I’m happy to chat and help with new writers in any way I can about the process because I’ve been through it and I’m still going through it. Publishing is intense. And it’s amazing to seize those opportunities and have your work out there!
Also, I had this great idea for a beachside book stand or wagon.
We’d make money off our books and we’d get to be at the beach!? I’m in!
And someone can sell ice cream beside us. Bring books to where the people are! There aren’t many bookstores near the beach in Vancouver.
Let’s fill that need! Also, I was thinking you did your MFA almost a decade a part from me and it’s amazing we’ve gotten to connect in this community at various events and now maybe go into a roadside hipster book business.
Totally. I love meeting writers younger than me. I love to learn from them and get excited about a new wave of work breaching this community!
Interesting you say that because I think over this past year, we’ve encountered a lot of online friction between emerging and established writers and the divide in space and opinion.
Am I established? Sure okay, I’ll take it. Well, I hate that friction with every fibre of my being. If I could set a bonfire to it I would! I want to make s’mores off it.
Ah–I don’t want to ingest that friction though!
Well we can shit it out and that’s what it deserves! If established writers don’t think they can learn from emerging writers, they’re making a terrible mistake. I remember being asked to read at Real Vancouver like I mentioned before and how great it felt to be reading among writers with books before I was in that stage, how special and empowering and fun it was!
And Real Vancouver always has emerging writers unpublished in book form reading with established writers. It’s important to show every stage and everyone should have the opportunity to read their work and have a chance to share it. And readings gave me a lot of confidence to help me get published and find my voice. It was really integral for me to be in front of an audience starting out. And that should be exciting for both parties—emerging and established.
I agree and well said. What’s on the horizon for you this summer?
It’s my favourite season. I take time to enjoy the sun and the beach and patios and decompress. I still work full-time but my downtime is well spent. It’s a grounding time. During the rest of the year, I work almost seven days a week.
So you’re recharging. Good! We don’t want a Dina that’s burnt out! In the spirit of that, let’s bring all our friends here at 5pm another day, take the whole secret garden patio over, drink all night, end of story!
Yes, we can be those people! It would be so great!
Happy hour is almost over so we sneak in one last whiskey sour and enjoy the sun. So there you have it—my caesar journey with the amazing Dina—a member of the Vancouver literary scene whose dedication, kindness, hugs and puns will fill you up more than any boozy soup!
After our chat, we walked together to a new bookstore, Massy Books, with a rare books reading room behind a secret bookshelf door! Today was all about accessing sneaky patios and sneaky bookstores!
My Narrow Lounge caesar rating:
Dina’s rating of my ratings (The official Glamato vegetarian rating system):
Flavour: 5/5 -Mallory seemed really happy and satisfied.
Garnish: 5/5 – The one olive I ate was plump and delicious and had not touched any gross clam juice.
Rim: 0/5 – I really didn’t look!
Patio/Atmosphere: 7/5 – MAGICAL!
Dina Del Bucchia is the author of three collections of poetry, Coping with Emotions and Otters (Talonbooks, 2013), Blind Items (Insomniac Press, 2014), and Rom Com (Talonbooks, 2015), written with Daniel Zomparelli. She also hosts Can’t Lit, a podcast on Canadian literature and culture, with Zomparelli. Her short story, “Under the ‘I’,” was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust RBC Bronwen Wallace Award in 2012. Her first collection of short stories, Don’t Tell Me What to Do, will be published in fall 2017 by Arsenal Pulp Press. She is a senior editor of Poetry Is Dead magazine and is the Artistic Director of the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, where she currently is an instructor.
Her debut collection of short stories Don’t Tell Me What To Do is forthcoming with Arsenal Pulp Press Fall 2017.