Medicine - Glen Downie
I have travelled in cities of the East & held out my paper token The black-suited subway man bites a neat piece of it with his metal punch & in between passengers his tic tic tic continues The tiny jaws continue tic tic tic In Seoul's medicine shops are glass bottles where herbalists display unusual growths of ginseng shaped like people All this beneath the city – trains worm their way through cold tunnels & the ginseng sellers advise on the endless complaints of middle-age while at produce stalls I hear the nervous tic tic tic of the vendor's trimming shears And I have travelled in cities of the West where radioactive cobalt must be replaced in the machines before reaching its half-life A patient gingerly fingers the bulge of his cancer & calculates whether he's too young to die or too old to be tortured on the slim chance of cure No one is sure Even the doctor speaks as if ticking down a list of well-practised evasions Experience tells him that truth is too potent & must be replaced with half-truth as a dose of radiation is dispensed in fractions although hope too is an old & unusual growth often strong as the roots of stones & human-shaped
(Wolsak & Wynn, 1999). Reprinted with permission.
Glen Downie's "Medicine" is one of the many standout poems included in Leaf Press' new anthology The Bright Well: Contemporary Canadian Poems about Facing Cancer. Featuring contributions from twenty Canadian poets, including Lorna Crozier, Michael Harris, Maureen Hynes and Anne Simpson, the anthology launches in Vancouver on October 26th. The details:
Wednesday, October 26th, 7:30 PM
People's Co-op Books
1391 Commercial Drive
Featuring: Elise Partridge, Miranda Pearson, Rachel Rose, and Betsy Warland
The anthology is a very good one, and rarely if ever depressing, despite the subject matter. It's even (dare I say it?) inspirational at times. I hesitate in saying that only because "inspirational" has gotten a bad wrap in our current popular culture (made-for-TV movies on the Lifetime Network, anyone?). This isn't that kind of inspirational. This is the real deal, the kind that's earned through attention and honesty and persistence.
I had the opportunity to correspond via email with anthology editor Fiona Tinwei Lam.
|Fiona, eagerly anticipating our email correspondance
Rob: You've mentioned in a past interview how much losing your father to cancer at a young age shaped your life. Was that the primary inspiration for your taking on this anthology? Can you tell me a bit more about how the project came together?
Fiona: There were a variety of factors that led me to initiate this project. I'd had my first experience editing an anthology with Cathy Stonehouse and Shannon Cowan putting together Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood (McGill-Queen's University, 2008), an anthology of creative non-fiction, Cathy convinced me that such a book could become a valuable resource to the many writers who were struggling to juggle parenthood with writing. As we gathered the material, I was moved by the way the contributors wrote so compellingly about their frustrations and their triumphs, and wanted to do what I could to ensure their voices and stories would be heard. This same impetus lay behind The Bright Well.
Canada has such a wealth of extraordinary poetic talent, a wealth I feel is taken for granted and undervalued. Poetry, like other art forms, has the potential to communicate ideas, feelings, experiences, and insights very powerfully, deeply and concisely. People often turn to poetry during the most important transitional periods in their lives (graduations, births, deaths, weddings, funerals), but they can be intimidated by poetry outside of those occasions. I believe that poetry can lead to a deeper understanding and connection within ourselves as well as on a broader scale between individuals across the borders and boundaries that can divide us.
But because Double Lives ended up being a huge amount of work over three years trying to solicit, select and edit the essays, as well as pitch publishers and then market the book, I hesitated to jump into another anthology project again. However, after publishing my second book of poems, I decided that I was ready for a defined, small-scale project collecting work by other authors.
I wanted to reach readers by delving into a significant life challenge and by offering poems that they would find moving, meaningful, and accessible. A collection of poems about cancer was the first thing that came to mind. My father died of cancer when he was almost forty-two years old and when I was eleven years old. He died very quickly after his diagnosis, about three months later. As an adult, I felt some of that same helplessness, turmoil and shock when a poet friend was diagnosed with cancer, and later, a family member. When I had to undergo ultrasound testing and a needle biopsy myself, I finally very concretely, if briefly, experienced a small portion of the terror that so many others have gone through.
I consulted Elise Partridge (who had published some superb poems about her experience of breast cancer in her book, Chameleon Hours) about the possibility of putting together a chapbook of poems by Canadian poets on the subject. Elise’s encouragement and feedback were invaluable to me as I gradually gathered poems. I already knew about poems written on the subject by a few other poets, such as Mari-Lou Rowley, Maureen Hynes, Rachel Rose, and Anne Simpson. In a few cases I contacted poets directly whom I had heard or known had had cancer. But in most cases, by word of mouth and by email enquiries, I gathered names, requested more books from the library, read through them carefully. When I found the kind of poems I wanted — beautifully crafted poems that had a first person perspective of cancer that offered kernels of hard-won insight, wisdom, beauty, self-awareness, or truth - I contacted the poets in question to tell them about the project and ask them if they would be interested in having their work included in a chapbook, the proceeds of which would be put toward cancer research and/or treatment.
I also ran a short writing workshop at InspireHealth for cancer patients, and got a sense of the kinds of poems that moved them, and read through a number of chapbooks produced by the non-profit Callanish Society that holds retreats for cancer patients and their families. It was pretty clear what kind of poems appealed and what kind were upsetting. Cancer patients and their families understand suffering, discomfort, pain and the fear of death intimately — they might be experiencing these things daily. So poems of witness by outsiders observing family members’ or friends’ suffering or pain, let alone poems of mourning and loss, didn’t seem appropriate. For this reason, I decided to choose poems with a first person perspective.
I had to winnow out many very fine elegies, even ones written by established or well-known poets, which reduced my file by half. I also left out several poems that focused on describing pain without providing other layers of feeling or context. I narrowed the poems down to those which cancer patients and their caregivers would most identify with and not turn away from, that were about their own experience from their own perspective, and ultimately about trying to stay alive and survive in the face of death. I wanted to put together a book that would honestly reflect the experiences of those who have faced cancer so that readers who are facing or who have faced cancer would feel understood, and less isolated. My aim was also to help family members, friends and medical professionals understand those experiences that are often challenging to convey.
Ursula Vaira of Leaf Press, a press that has produced wonderful high quality poetry chapbooks over the years, expressed interest in my project early on. My file of poems eventually turned out to be a slim volume rather than a chapbook, but I chose to stay with Leaf Press because of Ursula’s commitment to poetry and to this project.
Rob: In the introduction to The Bright Well, you note that the book is "a way to name the unnameable, stripping away platitudes, clichés, and new age pseudo-spiritualism." This reminded me of an essay by Joshua Mehigan in which he noted that "Two-thirds [of readers] think I’m repugnant for suggesting that poetry isn’t soul magic." But isn't it the spiritual, or pseudo-spiritual, or "magical" that some (many?) people who are facing cancer turn to, and that some would expect (or even hope for) in picking up your book?
Did you find it a tricky line to walk as an editor: to gather together poems that were both honest and unflinching, and yet still hopeful? That contained the soul-lifting without being "soul magic"? How do you think the best poems in the book accomplished this?
Fiona: In my introduction I was trying to distinguish between a true spiritual, soulful quality and the pseudo-spiritualism of some new age writing that relies on clichés and abstract sentiment (.e.g poor modern imitations of Rumi). Contemporary poetry can be very spiritual and soulful, yet remain quite concrete and specific. Many of the poems in The Bright Well are about the experience of facing death, and these poems not only depict or name an experience, but transform or transcend it through original, startling imagery or other poetic means. For example, Sue Downe’s poem, “Little Horse”, which in a few short phrases transforms a tumour by way of a metaphor into the symbol of a complex and unexpected journey. Sue Wheeler’s “The Sound of No Shore” is but one example of a poem that shows the kind of gut-wrenching life/death questioning that goes on during treatment. There are also other poems where the imagery plays an alchemical or a connective role - transforming painful experiences or imbedding them in a meaningful context. I think of Sandra Dunn’s pantoum, with its rounds of repeated lines about her grandmother’s words and protective presence during a childhood swimming lesson alleviating the terror of going under anaesthetic. Or the use of wool and thread images in Lois Lorimer’s poem, “Knitting”, to depict that basic need for connection and comfort from family while recovering from surgery. I chose the poems in the collection because they were deeply heartfelt and very much from the soul, as well as well-written. And yes it was a difficult process — that’s why the process took so long and why the book is as slim as it is.
Rob: When I heard about your book, I immediately thought of Elise Partridge's Chameleon Hours, specifically her two standout "Chemo Side Effects" poems (one of which, "Memory", is in The Bright Well). In first considering the anthology, did you have certain "must include" poems that immediately stuck out in your mind? Were there any poems you very much wanted to include but, for whatever reason, could not?
Fiona: A number of contributors had written entire books or long sequences of poems about the experience of cancer (e.g. Michael Harris, Susan Wheeler, Susan Downe, Richard Sommer, Luciano Iacobelli, Betsy Warland, Elise Partridge, Marianne Bluger). By selecting individual poems or excerpts, an editor is bound to lose the overall impact or effect of a series of poems by one author on one subject. The way the poems will play off each other or accumulate cannot be captured. Instead, an editor has to choose individual works by individual authors that will work as a cohesive whole, playing off each other and accumulating in a different way. In the end I chose a representative excerpt or sampling from those sequences or books that would cover various stages and aspects of the cancer experience.
One of my key objectives was that this book would whet readers’ appetite for more, hence the list of titles at the back of the book and the contributors’ comments and statements to readers that accompany their bios. I wanted to ensure that the important work of the contributors on this subject would not be forgotten. The Bright Well does not pretend to be a comprehensive compendium of cancer poems: rather it is a selection of fine poems by twenty accomplished Canadian poets about aspects of facing cancer. It might very well lead to more such collections — I hope so!
The Bright Well can be ordered from the Leaf Press website, or, if you're in Vancouver, in person at the launch on October 26th. See you there?