Queers Fail Better – Q / A with Ben Rawluk

Queers Fail Better – Q / A with Ben Rawluk

In her book ‘The Queer Art of Failure’ Judith Halberstam offers alternative ways of knowing and becoming. Instead of valuing the conventional paths of belonging, achievement and completion, she thinks about and champions the ways of “failure”: losing your way, giving in, being excluded, forgetting, awkwardness, coming apart. Not just rejecting the “normal,” Halberstam shows alternatives to success as paths that have always been there, moving away from mastery and coherence. In this series of Q&A’s with contributors to our upcoming Queer issue, we play with these ideas. When we aren’t trying to finish first (or finish anything) where do we end up?

First up, firebrand Vancouver poet and prose writer Ben Rawluk tells us about dead weight from writing, his big spreadsheet of failure and that some writing should be killed with fire.

Think back to when you started writing. What’s an earlier influence you outgrew, abandoned, or turned against?

I went and filled out all the other questions and came back to this one because it made me feel weird and boring. I can't think of a specific older influence that I've outgrown, but it might be that I just end up absorbing everything and even when I turn away from someone's work, they've still worked their way under my skin. I tend to absorb and rework things that frustrate me—a lot of my favourite genres delve too deep into straight white cismale narratives, for example, and I'm usually all about queering those, or complicating them. I have trouble with the notion of "abandoning" because there's always  debris, splinters, bits left over.

I don't feel like I'm really answering the question. Atwood? I could say Atwood. I find her too crystalline, I like messy and organic and sloppy. I have trouble remembering people I've abandoned because I'm too prone to annihilation.

When a piece of writing doesn’t work out, what do you do with it? Discard? Fold it into another project? Salvage parts?

I have an infinite number of false starts on most projects that I begin, so a lot of stuff gets reused and folded into other things. I salvage what I can.  Most of my work feels like Frankensteining, melding together shit, which has previously not worked, hoping to fire it up with lightning. Some things I just abandon, but even then they haunt me, and elements crop up, no matter how deep down in the archives I leave the original corpses. It's often not intentional, it's often simply a result of obsessive thinking. I fail at leaving things behind, I guess, as much as I try to be the one who can walk away. I can fail at life and relationships and friendships and family, but I tend to walk around with a lot of dead weight from writing.

What do you do with your rejection letters?

I feel awful all day and then I chuck them. I give myself permission to engage in a few bad behaviours. I know a lot of people keep theirs, collect them, but I have no such impulse. I make note of the failure in my publication spreadsheet—my big spreadsheet of failure, because I have spreadsheets for everything now—and chuck the letter in the trash.  Delete the email.  Ignore Submishmash.

Do you plan out the piece beforehand or find your way as you go along? A combination of both?

Both. I have a rough idea and then I outline after I've started. More so with prose. With poetry it usually gallops out of me, and it either works or it doesn't.  For poetry I burp the whole thing and then spend hours reassembling it in different combinations and working with different images, seeing if they clash right. Poetry and fiction work differently, for me, I guess. Poetry is really about puzzles, and failure is more about abandoning an incomplete picture. Fiction involves far more outlining, even when it ends up killing it. Outlining is still a new thing for me, as well.

When a project is finished, how do you start the next one? Or do your projects overlap?

I am notorious for having a short attention span, and I am notorious for breeding projects like tropical fish. I usually have several on the go, but there's almost always a primary one. I get bored, though, I need to take a break from one but refuse to lose momentum. Part of it is that I become quite depressed when I'm not writing. Writing is one of the only sections of my life where I live without anxiety, where stress is good and healthy and is about strength training and mental muscle building. Everything else I do tends to involve a great deal of anxiety, often paralyzing anxiety, and so I have to have more than one project to give myself something to do when a primary one is slowing down or giving me grief.  I need to keep moving at all times.

Have you ever not sent a piece of writing somewhere because it seemed “too gay/queer” for that publication?

Yes. I am less prone to this now, but certainly there have been times. Once, someone in a workshop—who was an asshole anyway, but it was early on in the workshop before people really got to know each other—said that my including queer characters was for "shock value." Several people have admonished me at different points to avoid putting myself in the "Gay Literary Ghetto," which I used to worry about more than I do now. I write a variety of different kinds of characters, but there's almost always a queer aesthetic at play, and I feel like my style is too anarchic or nerdy for the "straight" mainstream “Gay Literary Ghetto” anyway.

What do you do to procrastinate?

Tetris. Masturbation. Endless hours on Tumblr. Batman. Outlining. Outlining can be a positive thing for me, but sometimes it's about avoiding the actual act, for some reason.

Has anyone ever said something completely discouraging to you as an artist? Did it take the wind out of your sails or did it drive you forward? Or both?

I can't think of anything off the top of my head, but sure. The "shock value" comment I mentioned above really hit me hard for a brief moment and then I got angry. There have been times, but I've matured a lot in how I approach workshopping and criticism and I know that when people say things about my work that piss me off or miss the point I just move forward. Not everyone will understand.  There's good criticism and bad criticism, and I'm capable of ignoring the bad.

Can a piece of writing fail, or is that a bullshit notion?

There's the fluffy day-glo part of me that wants to talk about "feelings" and how no writing can't be salvaged, but I know that I do actually believe that writing can fail. Some writing is terrible and should be killed with fire, because afterwards you can push through the wreckage and find that little thimble's worth that worked. So I guess I believe both? Simultaneously?

Ben Rawluk graduated from the UBC MFA program and writes both poetry and fiction. Mostly he spends his time sending things out to agents and wondering why nobody gets back to him.