“Portrait of My Body As a Crime I’m Still Committing” Interview with Topaz Winters

Topaz Winters (they/she) is a poet, essayist, editor, creative director, speaker, scholar, actress, & multidisciplinary artist working with a foundation in literature.

They were gracious enough to give us an ARC of their upcoming poetry collection, “Potrait of My Body As a Crime I’m Still Committing” that you can pre-order here.

We were able to interview her about the book and the process of writing it.


  • I want to start off by saying thank you so much for interviewing with us. You’ll be turning twenty this year and have already accomplished so much. Did you ever envision this would be your life?

 

It’s truly my pleasure; thank you so much for having me! I can’t begin to explain how lucky I feel that this is my life. It’s a dream in every sense of the word, & each new daybreak holds a fresh definition of warmth. I certainly knew (or at least hoped) since I was a child that I would end up as a writer of some sort, but I never imagined it would happen like this—with a blog I began as a hobby that slowly gained an audience of thousands, a poetry chapbook published online that went viral at age 16, a publishing house that was never supposed to survive for more than a few years & somehow became a fixture of the independent literature scene, a group of readers who are my greatest cheerleaders & truest moral compasses, & so many more shades of blossoming daybreak. Every day when I wake up & go to work I’m just trying to honour the child I was at five years old who knew in her deepest marrow she wanted to be a writer, & who would’ve done anything to spin that wish into truth. I like to think she’s proud of me.

 

  • What makes Portrait of My Body as a Crime I’m Still Committing different from your first three books?

This book explores positions of the body in a way that’s incredibly visceral & immediate, & dissects what it means to move through the world—in a queer body, in a chronically ill body, in a female body, in a broken body, in a corporeal body—in much sharper focus than any of my previous books. It’s a collection about hunger in every definition, at once my most personal & most detached, my most curated & most disjointed book yet. If that sounds like a contradiction, that is I think part of the point. I’m learning to embrace those in-betweens in my quest to make something lasting & true.

  • The book has such a powerful title, and it’s also a name of one of the pieces in the book. Can you tell us how the title came about for that particular piece and how you knew you wanted that to be the name of the book?

The poem “Portrait of My Body as a Crime I’m Still Committing” came about fairly early in the drafting process—I wrote it on the plane ride home from one of the most beautiful trips of my life, a week of poetry & art during which I met old friends in person for the first time & made new friends I will keep for the rest of my life. One of the final interactions before I left is shared in the poem: “I let it slip / once, by accident, to friends—I hate my body, meaning empty but not empty enough, meaning my presence in these / bird bones is hostile territory”.

That conversation was the first time I articulated in frank & unflinching terms what I felt about my body, that I truly, genuinely despised it with every fiber of myself. My body felt, figuratively, like a crime I was constantly in the process of committing—& the more I thought about that, the more I realised how literal that metaphor stretched. I’m a queer, chronically ill woman of colour living in a country where the very fact of my body is policed every day, no matter where I am, what I’m doing, overtly or covertly. It was incredibly scary to realise that my body had no allies, whether in myself or in the outside world, & I think that fear & my search for its resolution forms the heart of the collection as a whole.

 

  • You are very vocal about your mental illnesses and as someone with mental illnesses, it’s refreshing to see positive conversation surrounding it. There is still a lot of work to do and your piece “When My First Boyfriend Learned I Was on Anti-Psychotics, He Laughed & Told Me He Always Suspected I Was Crazier Than I Let On” touches on the work we have left to do. How has being open about your mental illness helped in your healing process?

I felt so much shame around my mental illnesses upon my first diagnoses—which looking back was mostly a product of my own fears juxtaposed alongside growing up in a family culture that prized positivity & mental strength & silenced any whisperings that all might not be well. But speaking about my illnesses openly & honestly was one of the most gorgeous, empowering things I ever could have done. That act took back the fear, reclaimed the hurt. By speaking out about mental illness I reestablish over & over again that I have done nothing wrong. That it’s not my fault. That my existence is an act of courage. These days more than anything I am trying to heal loudly—not for anyone else but myself, as a constant flagpost, an onslaught of spring, a reminder that I am here, I am alive, I am growing towards the light. I’m learning to call that enough.  

 

  • Were there any writers that influenced how this book was written?

So many! First & foremost, the writers who were kind enough to provide blurbs for the book—Blythe Baird, Logan February, Caitlin Conlon, & Caitlyn Siehl—are all dear friends who inspire me daily with their drive & heart. Cyril Wong (who also wrote a blurb) is a great mentor who read each draft of Portrait from the very beginning, took me out for coffee & let me cry to him when I was completely certain the book would never sell, & provided so much support both tangible & not that I will never be able to repay. Apart from them, Portrait draws many of its influences from contemporary poets like Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith, Richard Siken, & Kaveh Akbar. Without these writers, the collection undoubtedly would not be what it is today—&, perhaps more importantly, I wouldn’t be the person or artist I am today. I’m so grateful for their luminous, unswerving art.

 

  • Do you find the writing process easier with each new book or are there different challenges you face?

If I’m doing it right, there is definitely a different challenge with each new book! Part of the reason I am still so in love with the writing process is because each release presents something bold & bright & new to unearth (about myself & the world). I perch upon & drink in those challenges. They’re a sign that this stunning field I’ve chosen is precisely the right one for me, a sign that I’m becoming better with each new creation, giving voice to previously unspoken revelations, & making something exciting, something readers need to hear.

 

  • Can you talk to us about the piece “Trigger” and how repeating the phrase “I love the girl” help reinforce the message you’re portraying?

 “Trigger” was originally published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, & was one of those poems that initially felt far too raw to ever share with any wider audience than my own notebook. The piece is obsessive-compulsive in a way—it fixates & repeats & cycles back in on itself in a fashion that feels desperate, haphazard. I think the repetition of “I love the girl” (along with all its variations—”I love the girl matchstick & gasoline, / something fierce. Something holy.”) helps add to that sense of spiraling. Being a girl who falls in love with other girls feels so often like an interrogation, one in which the speaker is constantly “on my back & / shotgun to my chest”, a question she can’t escape, an answer she can’t stop repeating. I shied away from the power of that repetition upon first writing this piece but I refuse to do so anymore. “I love the girl” is, in the world of “Trigger”, an intonation, a cardinal truth. It cannot be run from. It cannot be denied.

 

  • Do you think you have a writing signature, like someone can read a piece of yours and immediately know it was written by you?

 In no particular order, the elements I’m told over & over again mark my work in general & this book in particular: girlhood as violence; unrequited longing; shifting concepts of tenderness, holiness, & light; the body (of course!); the movement of water as death & rebirth; rabbits & wolves; hands & heartbeats; illness as a vehicle of monstrosity & miracle; a search for healing even when warmth feels entirely out of reach.

 

  • What pieces do you think readers will resonate with the most?

 I don’t think it’s necessarily up to me to say, but the pieces that feel the most personally fulfilling are those like “Still”, “Panic Attack as Airplane Departure Time”, “Pandora”, “Event Horizon”, “This is a Story About Mourning”, & “July”. At the end of the day, though, this book doesn’t belong to me anymore—it belongs to the readers who have been so fathomlessly kind to let it into their lives & spend even a bit of time with it. If they find what they need between these pages, I can’t ask for anything more.

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