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  • Rachel Shabalin

Issue 80 Sneak Peek: An Interview with katie o'brien

On Cursed Texts & Collaborating with Younger Selves

Zalgo text is cursed text that will make your words glitch and scratch. Zalgo is also found in internet memes and is associated with surrealist horror. “two ten six” is a series that uses the zalgo text generator to translate excerpts from a poetry manuscript katie o’brien wrote in their late teens/early twenties. katie describes the original poems as oozing with “a teenage earnestness that hurts your teeth.” This series plays with repetition, glitch, blurring, and gut feelings.

The visual translations provoke chaotic, unnameable feelings that exist in a liminal space. The viewer may experience both horror and humour as they engage with this series and try to “read” and establish meaning. The illegible haunted translations are a way to share truths about adolescence that might otherwise be too vulnerable to say out loud. katie defines this project as a reclaiming.

Below is a sneak peek interview with katie o'brien from our Issue 80 that will be released Winter 2023! Read katie o'brien's full interview with Rachel Shabalin below.


RS: This project's source material has a “found” quality in that it manipulates and extracts from another text. What makes this project so interesting is that the found text is your own. Can you speak to the experience of re-encountering this older work/younger self? What about this experience made you want to work with these poems again and translate them into a different medium?

kb: one of the things that I find really interesting is overlapping or camouflaging texts, be they musical notation, or sketches, or ‘legible’ poetry as we know it. I don’t know that I can pinpoint what made me want to re-encounter these texts, other than saying that this manuscript was the first collection that I put together as a baby poet, and at the time I was utterly convinced that I would be, you know, the next Button Poetry sensation [laughs]. so the collection has a really special place for me when it comes to my writing, even though re-reading the actual words was quite uncomfortable. one of the things that I find interesting about layering and overlapping and making obscure what was once legible is that it feels like a collaboration – in this case with my younger self, but in some cases with others, or with emotions.

RS: As a writer and artist, do you see value in returning to older work and younger selves? Is letting a piece "sit" or giving a piece "space" part of your process at all? Can you tell us more about your process and what themes interest you?

kb: I definitely think there is value in returning and collaborating with older texts – both previous versions of my own work, and the work of others. honestly, I'm a bit impatient when I write, so often, I will sit down and bang out a poem or a handful of pieces in one sitting. I won’t really come back to them until much later, when I'm thinking about a collection or a publication. when I work on multi-piece projects (which seems to be more and more interesting to me as of late), those often require space in between spurts of productivity.

RS: Can you tell us more about what drew you to the zalgo text generator? Zalgo text is also known as “cursed text.” Does this have any significance to this project and its themes?

kb: zalgo definitely has significance to this product in particular. reading some of the earnestness and vulnerability of my younger self felt, in some ways, like engaging with some kind of ghost, or cursed or haunted thing [laughs]. it was a different way of layering, which I usually will do manually, and it was interesting to me to tinker with a more mechanical or automated technique.

RS: What makes this project a reclaiming? What does reclaiming mean to you as an artist and poet?

kb: something about talking about my personal definition of reclamation as a white settler poet with lots of unearned privilege feels awkward and strange to me – there are so many more knowledgeable folks out there who have spent time crafting beautiful understandings of this term! my wife is a biologist, and she has done a lot of work in environmental reclamation. as a poet I resonate with that in some ways, where reclaiming is about reinvigorating or making new what was sullied. part of the vulnerability and challenge in returning to these poems is that I was writing through a lot of pain and angst and growing up. being able to return to these sputtering, bubbling, roiling poems, and to make something that I feel proud of sharing, that feels healed and ironic and satirically funny, and feels like a reclaiming to me.

RS: This project takes language and makes it indecipherable. It’s a visceral transformation. What about this project made you want to take language and transform it into a visual medium that is “unspeakable?”

kb: as I mentioned earlier, this is a recurring theme in my work, something that I find endlessly interesting. I think I’ve spoken to rob mclennan (who was the first to publish one of the pieces from this collection – thanks pal!) about this in previous interviews, but one of the earlier ways that I came to this style was when I was a teenager and coming into my queerness, I would doodle the names of my crushes or feelings or thoughts that I had, like many kids do. but I was so nervous about anyone reading these thoughts that I would write the sentiment over and over on top of itself, blurring it out through repetition, so it would become illegible. the repetition was a big part of me coming to terms with my queerness, I think – coming to terms with the feelings that I was putting on the page. it’s a bit of a plus side that it ends up looking interesting and not hollow or ashamed.

RS: Can you speak to the significance of the project title, and the titles of each piece? Was there anything that influenced the way you visually manipulated the use of space on the page?

kb: the project title is really quite functional, and the piece titles are also quite functional in that I took the original titles and broke them down into the number of characters of each word. it’s a way of acknowledging where the pieces came from, and also acknowledging that these poems are no longer the poems in the collection that I had originally created, and that they’re their own thing. when it comes to the use of space on the page, I wanted to constrain each piece to a square, which means that original poems that were shorter are completely visible with plenty of white space, and the longer poems look almost entirely opaque, à la Black Square #1 by derek beaulieu. in my 2022 Blasted Tree chapbook of this series, Kyle Flemmer did a beautiful job of arranging pieces from lightest/emptiest to darkest/fullest – thanks so much for your care, friend.

RS: Can you share with us anything that is inspiring you right now – writing, music, places, art? Any projects or pieces in the works or rumination stage?

kb: I'm really in love with Stromae’s 2022 album Multitude. one of the things I adore about Stromae is his layered use of intriguing samples. really stunning, really beautiful, really inspiring work. I also can’t stop recommending Akwaeke Emezi’s YA novel Bitter to everyone lately – they have a mind-blowing way of dreaming and communicating new worlds.

one of the things that I’m currently playing around with is tracing and re-sketching some drawings that my aunt Rosemary Ind made, and layering those in a way where they become new poems, or ‘etchings,’ which is one of the terms that I first used to describe this work. it feels like I’m able to collaborate with her in this really special way, even after she passed away in February 2022.

(Image Titles in order of appearance: 4.4, 9.6.6, and 5.1.4.)


A bit about katie: katie o’brien (they/them) is a white settler community worker and poet originally from St. John’s, Ktaqmkuk, on the unceded territory of the Beothuk. They currently live in Mohkínstsis. katie dislikes lying, sings a lot, and doesn’t kill bugs.

Purchase katie o'brien's chapbooks from The Blasted Tree.


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