Destruction and Renewal: An Interview with Conyer Clayton

by Kate Finegan

Kate Finegan is editor-in-chief of Longleaf Review, novel/novella editor at Split/Lip Press, and author of the chapbooks The Size of Texas (2018) and Ablaze (forthcoming). Her work has appeared in PRISM international, The Puritan, The Fiddlehead, SmokeLongQuarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Toronto. Find her online at http://katefinegan.ink and on Twitter @kehfinegan.

Conyer Clayton’s debut full-length poetry collection, We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite, employs dream logic and seemingly disparate images to explore loss and addiction.

Clayton’s imagination is visceral and surprising, with lines such as “What a beautiful centrepiece I make. What a rotting / heap of once living sinew.” By rejecting obvious connotations and connections, these poems make space for the complexities and (dis)comforts of struggling to control ourselves within this world.

In the midst of COVID-19, Conyer and I connected over Zoom to discuss her work.


Kate Finegan: What kinds of discoveries did you make in putting together your debut collection—in terms of both yourself as a poet and the craft of poetry?

Conyer Clayton: The biggest one is that I really, really struggle to remove myself from chronology when I am putting together manuscripts, so some of the first drafts of this manuscript were very much rooted in my own sense of responsibility to tell my “story” by leaning into the truth of the chronology. It was actually making the manuscript weaker. My editor at Guernica, Elana Wolff, helped me see the collection more as art rather than a chronicle of my life. With her help, I was able to rearrange things and add new poems. It grew as a collection of poetry rather than a creative nonfiction piece told through poetry.

KF: That’s interesting because when I approached Cho Min at The Puritan about this interview, she noted that the collection is steeped in affect, experience, and fleeting movements, rather than narrative, diagnosis, or conclusion.

CC: I was really trying to get away from narrative, and focus more on impression.

KF: Often, repetition within a poem ties the end back to the beginning, lending a sense of stasis.

CC: I lean towards repetition in my daily rituals, in my thinking patterns, and in music. It’s a bit reflective of how I relieve anxiety; if I can repeat something enough to lessen its impact, it’s easier to digest somehow. It becomes more integrated into my experience. I use repetition in poetry on purpose because that’s how I deal with things. I also find it sonically satisfying.

I lean towards repetition in my daily rituals, in my thinking patterns, and in music. It’s a bit reflective of how I relieve anxiety; if I can repeat something enough to lessen its impact, it’s easier to digest somehow.

KF: How do you resist coming to a diagnosis or conclusion within a piece?

CC: I’m weirdly comfortable with that in my own thinking, I don’t like big generalizations. I tend to veer away from them. Most things aren’t that clean; things are really messy, and I get some solace from leaning into that messiness. There is definitely a human tendency to find comfort in conclusion, in tidy boxes, but I really find comfort in knowing the box is ripped apart and that there are too many boxes for me to ever truly understand.

KF: Going back to repetition, you write a lot about nature, which itself is cyclical. At the same time, we have a lot of myths about nature—that it’s orderly and peaceful. You write about nature in a way that doesn’t fall into these predictable clichés. What is your relationship to nature, and what sort of experiences were you drawing on?

CC: You’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head there about cycles. I’m kind of obsessed with cycles. I don’t really love the word spirituality, but—for lack of a better word—a lot of my spirituality is based on the comfort of cycles and the destruction and renewal within our own lives, in nature, in the world, and in our human nature. The inevitability of these cycles can be scary, but also somehow beautiful.

For example, the poem “Home” is about my mom’s death and her ashes being integrated with the world through a bird eating her and then shitting her out and someone scrubbing her off of a windshield. That sounds really like, “Oh my god, like why would you?” I also like the idea that nature isn’t always this idyllic thing; it is a bird shitting on a windshield. I find comfort in that when I’m in a hard time because these natural cycles will hopefully lead to something beautiful again, even if it’s not right now. 

I also like the idea that nature isn’t always this idyllic thing; it is a bird shitting on a windshield. I find comfort in that when I’m in a hard time because these natural cycles will hopefully lead to something beautiful again, even if it’s not right now.

KF: I love that poem. There’s so much surprise in this collection. Kiki Petrosino speaks to this in her blurb, which says that your poems “construct a world by colliding its sharpest angles.” How do surprise and sharpness help you create meaning within poems about cycles? What happens when sharpness and surprise collide with repetition?

CC: I was really happy with that blurb. Kiki is incredible, by the way. She was my master’s thesis advisor. She has written several incredible books with Sarabande Press.

To your question, I don’t think I crafted that intentionally. I think that’s just how my brain works. I definitely have a very image-based way of thinking, so I feel like my writing is about interpreting the random images that pop into my head and trying to put them into words. Maybe that’s why they’re surprising. I do like to think of the links between seemingly disparate things—two images that seem starkly unrelated but have this intuitive connection. Sometimes I really can’t explain beyond putting them next to each other on the page. But, kind of like I was saying before, the repetition of sharp things can dull their edges.

KF: You have spoken in other interviews about the power of dreams as an inspiration for your poetry. Dreams are obviously rich with imagery, but they also have a logic all their own. How much are you working with dream logic when you craft your poems?

CC: I’ve always called it intuitive logic, but I think dream logic is almost a better way of putting it. I almost feel like using my dreams as inspiration is cheating sometimes because they’re so rich with symbolism already, you don’t even have to try. It’s just there. But I do think that that sense of surrealism lends itself to poetry super well. I even want the poems that aren’t based on dreams to recall that sort of dream logic. There is such truth in it.

KF: I’m personally not someone who’s super in touch with my dreams. I tend to forget them. Has your relationship with dreams always been quite deep or did you have to train yourself to tap into your dreams as a creative well?

CC: I’m definitely the kind of person who remembers my dreams. I’ve had instances where I truly thought a dream was real, and then I was talking about it and realized in the middle of my story that that did not actually happen. I’ve always been really in touch with them, but deliberately writing them down after waking up has deepened that connection a lot. It’s almost like I set an intention when I go to sleep that my body and subconscious remember, so I do remember them more. I’ve gotten out of it a little bit over the past month or so, with all that’s going on. But I would recommend if you want to get more in touch with them, writing them down can help with recall. It can help to set that intention. Honestly, I wake up in the middle of night sometimes and voice memo them on my phone, which gives them a different quality than when I put them on the page because you speak differently than you write. That’s how my most recent chapbook, Trust Only the Beasts in the Water (above/ground press), came about. That project still continues, and I hope one day it will be a full-length.

KF: I actually wanted to talk about how sound informs what you put on the page because for your chapbook Mitosis, you recorded an album with Nathanael Larochette, If the river stood still. You’re also part of a sound poetry group. How do those experiences inform the work that you do on the page?

CC: When I started writing, I was more sound-based. The poems I wrote as a teenager have very little sense to them; they’re pretty much completely sound-based. That experience made my joining Quatuor Gualuor, the sound poetry group, feel like it made sense. It is such fun and so freeing. I don’t write quite like that anymore, but I’ve always been somewhat rooted in that way of thinking. For a while, I shifted to more narrative work, but now I feel I have struck a decent balance.

Sound informs my editing process more than my actual drafting process. When I’m first drafting, I don’t really pay attention to sound, but when I edit, I read my work aloud a lot. If I catch myself on a sound, it has to go. It has to sound good, or I hate it. Sometimes more than sound, it’s about rhythm. It has to have a specific rhythm. I can’t describe what it is, but I know it when I hear it. I think that also comes down to my love of music, which inspires me so much. I love prog, jazz, ambient, post-rock, metal, all kinds of things, and I really aim for my poems to have a certain musicality, which is why it was such a pleasure, but also so natural, to collaborate with Nathanael on If the river stood still. I am dabbling in music a bit solo now, which is new, and scary, but something that also feels natural and inevitable.

If I catch myself on a sound, it has to go. It has to sound good, or I hate it. Sometimes more than sound, it’s about rhythm. It has to have a specific rhythm. I can’t describe what it is, but I know it when I hear it.

KF: Sound is a physical experience, and there’s such a physicality to this collection. The title itself is an example—We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite. There’s a sense of the body as part of nature and the body as unruly. I’m wondering about your process of exploring physical experience in these poems.

CC: I’ve always been super rooted in my experience of my body because I grew up as a gymnast, as an athlete. So, my body’s experience is very important to me. I am still a full-time gymnastics coach, so I’m very aware of movement and how things feel.

Secondary to that, my focus on the body also comes from experiences of sexual assault and addiction because those are manifested in the body and the way you deal with stress. I may almost be more comfortable talking about the way that those experiences affect my body versus the way they affect my psyche, not that you can really put a clear line between those two things. The line between mind and body is a lot thinner than most people think it is, at least in my experience. But I do have an easier time expressing how my body feels than how my mind feels. 

KF: I’m thinking about the poem “Recurrent,” where you explore mimicry and use the phrase “we too” to blur the line between the human and the natural. Sometimes we as people like to deny our bodies’ unruliness and tell ourselves that our minds are in control. How much human effort is put into trying to deny that we are pulled by instincts and that we’re all creatures?

CC: We’re driven by bodily instincts much more than we want to give credit to. I think that’s because we want to feel in control. We also want to control nature, so we make these tidy little parks and box everything in so we can experience nature in this neat and orderly way. We stay on the trail and don’t stray into the branches. It’s the same with our bodies: If I’m working out, my body will be like this; if I eat this, my body will be like that. But it’s not that simple.

I’ve had a hard time listening to my body. I’m 31 and I just started figuring out how to actually listen to my body so that I don’t get hurt. It’s a work in progress. I’ve been sober now for about two-and-a-half years, and that was a practice of finally listening to my body and finally actually letting myself have control. Addiction tells you you’re in control, but obviously you’re not. I think it all comes back to control.

We also want to control nature, so we make these tidy little parks and box everything in so we can experience nature in this neat and orderly way. We stay on the trail and don’t stray into the branches. It’s the same with our bodies: If I’m working out, my body will be like this; if I eat this, my body will be like that. But it’s not that simple.

KF: We have such a need, like you said, to want to try and control nature.

CC: My chapbook with battleaxe press, For the Birds, For the Humans, is about how we try to control nature, and we try to experience things in these tidy doses. But that’s not the way things work. And then we’re really denying ourselves true experiences.

KF: You’re from Louisville, originally, and I’m from right around Nashville. I was thinking about how often the efforts to control nature go completely awry and end up screwing up nature—like kudzu.

CC: Oh my god, kudzu is everywhere. There’s no controlling kudzu.

KF: Last question: we’re in a weird time right now. What’s inspiring you these days?

CC: Collaboration is the only way I’m able to write at the moment. I did a big collaborative project with Manahil Bandukwala last week, where we wrote an entire chapbook together, which was really great, and I am so proud of it. She and I really understand each other’s work, so it felt very easy to work together. We worked together on Mitosis before. I’ve been writing some collaborative poems with a variety of other people using different methods, including emilie kneifel, whose work I just love, and with a new collective I am excited to be a part of. We (Helen Robertson, nina jane drystek, Manahil Bandukwala, Ellen Chang-Richardson, Margo LaPierre, Chris Johnson, and myself) call ourselves VII. That’s been keeping my creative process in line. I’ve been working on a musical EP of vibraphone, marimba, and voice. Also, since I can’t write anything on my own right now, I’ve been editing my next full-length collection, which is nearing the end of its process.

KF: Can you tell me about that collection?

CC: It’s a kind of extension of my current one, in that my current book was written “during” and in the weeds of certain experiences, and this new manuscript is more the debrief with myself, the aftermath. We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite was written over a huge span of time, from 2009 to 2017, with a big gap in there. This one has all been written in the past two to three years. Where We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite deals with the grit of toxic relationships, the loss of my mother, and addictions, this one is more about my realizations of what I’ve inherited, internalized, and the ways my experiences continue to affect me and my current relationships, for better and worse. It’s actually more focused on the body than this last one. It’s more rooted in my process of recovery and getting sober, and everything that manifests in that process. It talks about my older sister’s bad car accident that happened a few years ago, the kind of rippling fear that lingers after someone you love is seriously hurt, some personal health issues, how stress and trauma manifest themselves bodily … so I’d say it’s even more rooted in the body but also in dreams than We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite.


Conyer Clayton is an Ottawa-based artist and gymnastics coach, originally from Louisville, Kentucky. She has six chapbooks, most recently Trust Only the Beasts in the Water (above/ground press, 2019). In 2018, she released a collaborative album with Nathanael Larochette, If the river stood still. She is the winner of Arc’s 2017 Diana Brebner Prize and The Capilano Review’s 2019 Robin Blaser Poetry Contest, and writes reviews for Canthius. Her debut full-length collection of poetry, We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite (Guernica Editions), is forthcoming May 2020.


Kate Finegan is editor-in-chief of Longleaf Review, novel/novella editor at Split/Lip Press, and author of the chapbooks The Size of Texas (2018) and Ablaze (forthcoming). Her work has appeared in PRISM international, The Puritan, The Fiddlehead, SmokeLongQuarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Toronto. Find her online at http://katefinegan.ink and on Twitter @kehfinegan.

☝ BACK TO TOP