Amphetamine Heart is brazen, raunchy, honest, bold and covered in leather. I want to describe it the way Eve Ensler describes the vagina: what would Liz Worth’s poetry wear? A leather jacket, red and black polka dots, beer can labels. This poetry is gritty and beautiful, a strong collection from a bold writer who takes what we may find uncomfortable and shows us the beauty that is within it. You can hit Worth’s poetry with a stick and it will fight back.
Liz Worth is the author of two books, Amphetamine Heart and Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond. She has also written three chapbooks, Eleven: Eleven, Manifestations, and Arik’s Dream. She lives in Toronto.
The Erotic and the Vulgar: Liz Worth on her Amphetamine Heart
What is it about punk and party culture that excites and inspires you?
When I was a teenager, my first true understanding of punk was its empowering effect. I was always into 1970s punk, so that’s what I’m talking about here, though of course the genre’s had that effect on kids no matter what kind of punk they’ve been listening to. At the time I was discovering older bands like the Damned and the Clash, Rancid, Pennywise, and Gob were just a few of the newer punk bands to choose from, but I was attracted to the ’77 stuff.
The loudest message I got from punk was one of self-acceptance: be the person you need to be and everything else will fall into place from there.
As I got deeper into it and started learning about punk history, I was really inspired to learn that the original punk movement wasn’t only about music. Those early punk scenes were circles made up of clothing designers, poets, zinesters, journalists, photographers, filmmakers, all breaking different barriers. It wasn’t just about one type of sound or style. It was very open to interpretation and I’ve always been attracted to that sense of freedom.
Partying used to be a big priority for me, possibly my Number One priority for a while, actually. At the end of every weekend I would start to think about plans for the next. It’s funny remembering that now because my priorities have changed so much, where now I worry about when I’m going to find time to write next.
But even when it might have looked like me and my friends were having a lot of fun, I could never get away from a sense of sadness that surrounded it all. My teenage years were not unusual in that I spent many Friday nights drinking outside, but even back then – and maybe I was being overly sensitive but I don’t think so – I couldn’t help but be aware that there was a very sad side to what we were doing. Partying is supposed to be fun, right? But really, we were binge drinking to the point of blacking out. People would cry, or they would fight. It all seemed very self-destructive to me, to be spending weekend after weekend like this. And for me personally, drinking was self-destructive. I often felt like it too me to a dark place, and I was still only in high school.
When I started to hang out in bars and hang out with an older crowd, I found the same thing there, too. Everyone’s out on Friday night to have a good time, but after you get to know some of the regulars at a club you start to see how sad and lonely they are. And you start to realize that the friends you have in certain circles are only your friends for a few hours a week, because you don’t know each other outside of a certain bar and never will.
And then you might start to notice that some people have stopped coming around, and you find out that they died, or that they finally maxed out their bar tab and are no longer welcome by the bouncers, but you never had any idea that they were so hard up for cash.
I’ve always been fascinated affected by that dichotomy of destructive behaviour against an atmosphere that’s supposed to be all about fun, and I wanted to channel that for the Amphetamine Heart poems.
Your mom once told you “that poets don’t make any money until after they’re dead.” Most writers and poets I know don’t do it for the money. Why do you do it?
Yeah, I was 13 when she told me that and it took me many, many years still to learn that getting a book published does not mean getting a paycheque. But even after I found that out, I still wanted to write. Why? I have no idea. There are days that I love it, but there are also days when I wish I didn’t care. It would be a lot easier to just go to work every day, come home, veg out on the couch, and spend all my free time at the mall or something. I find it challenging to find time to write. Time is probably my biggest stressor.
But still, ideas keep crawling into my head. I don’t know where they come from sometimes, but I can’t let them go until they’re written down. I write because I feel anxious if I don’t, and I write to get those rare rewards – the days when it feels exciting are pretty good. The days when I get a little note from someone saying that they really enjoyed something I wrote are even better.
What can be said for finding the beautiful in the grotesque?
I have never been attracted to conventional beauty. It gets boring so quickly. Surrealism holds your attention because there is so much to look at, so many questions. Asymmetry is attractive to me because imbalance is interesting. It’s unpredictable. There is no easy pattern for your brain to trace so it makes you take a longer look. It makes you wait for the right angle to show itself before everything lines up.
Finding beauty in the grotesque is exciting, too, but in different ways. The grotesque has character. It has flaws, but it’s not trying to hide them. They’re out there and you have to look at them and accept them and if you don’t like what you see that’s too bad because you’re just going to have to live with it.
So many things in our day to lives strive for perfection. Even the fruit you buy at a grocery store is waxed and polished to make it shine. Why? It’s not going to taste any better. The grotesque is untouched. It’s honest.
Some of your poems in Amphetamine Heart are graphic like in M. when the subject “stop[s] fingering long enough to / write on a napkin” that is then “perfumed / with milky discharge.” Some would think this poem is highly erotic and others would think it vulgar. How would you describe or defend a poem like this?
If someone called “M.” or any of my other poems vulgar I don’t think I would feel I had to defend them at all, although where that criticism came from might depend on the reader’s own feelings towards the body and sexuality. People might also think that certain aspects of my lifestyle, past or present, are unacceptable, but those people tend to be pretty boring and uptight so I don’t worry about them too much.
In the mainstream, sex and bodies are often depicted as perfect, easy, and beautiful. And they can be those things, but not in the way that they are typically portrayed. There are odours. There are secretions. There is pain and there awkwardness and discomfort, sometimes.
My poetry isn’t meant to be pretty. I wanted it to speak truths, but because I can only speak for myself, these poems document what I know, and for me, sex contains elements that can turn you on or turn you off – the erotic and the vulgar.
There’s a cacophony to your poetry, a discomfort that tweaks the readers’ interest as if they’re attracted to something inappropriate. How important is it for you, us, to accept the unsettled and uncomfortable in our own lives?
If anyone goes a lifetime without discomfort they would have be pretty unaware of themselves, I would think, which is what it all comes down to, really.
I am extremely self-aware. I notice everything about my body, and how things around me are impacting how I think and feel. Even though it bothers me sometimes, I don’t know if I would want to be out of so out of touch with myself.
But being tuned in does mean accepting discomfort. If you don’t, then it’s harder to connect the dots, and it’s harder to understand what you’re feeling and why. I also wonder if you can truly appreciate comfort if you don’t embrace its flipside.
Got any recommendations for Book Fridge readers?
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich, Cherry by Chandra Mayor, Kiss Painting by Sandra Sandra Jeppesen, and 1978 by Daniel Jones. All are beautiful in their own raw, weird way.