What poem isn't a travel poem? - "The Rapids" by Susan Gillis

The Auction - Susan Gillis

I stood on his left, holding up my key.
The auctioneer was a pink-skinned man
in tightly belted trousers and short sleeves
with a microphone clipped to his collar. 
He had a way, he entertained the bids
gesturing toward me with his clipboard.

The key was hot in my hand, it glowed.
He droned through the bids in his flowered muumuu—
I wondered about that muumuu,
and the budding rhinoceros horn in his forehead—
I didn't feel very visible up there beside him,
which was both reassuring and disconcerting.

I have felt this kind of erasure
now and then on certain small-pebbled beaches
on my hands and knees sifting the grain-pebbles 
for perfect round rice-pearls, the hard 
glowing kernels, geology's sleep-dust—

The auctioneer stomped up and down, snorting.
The Scandinavian passenger freighter nodded its head
and bid with crafty eyes; the three-kids-
and-attractive-net-worth husband shot up its arm;
a furnished apartment overlooking the Seine

bent its elbow and flapped its wrist; the membership 
in an organisation of cheerful people 
with adherents all over the world 
whose sole mission was to grow its franchise 
jerked its whole eager body
up and down. Yet those bids and others like them 

lost to the calm persistent smile 
of the small house whose windows look out to the sea
a little walk down from the road,
wild roses hugging the side, and endless
food in its cupboards, whatever I want, whenever.
from The Rapids
(Brick Books, 2012).
Reprinted with permission.

Montreal-based poet Susan Gillis is coming to BC soon to do a couple readings, one in Vancouver and one in Victoria. As I mentioned previously, I have the good fortune of going along with her for both. Those reading dates, again:

It Must Be April - 4 Poets. 4 Books. One Night.
Thursday, April 18th, 2013, 7:30 PM
People's Co-op Books
1391 Commercial Dr, Vancouver
Featuring: Susan Gillis, Marita Dachsel, Brad Cran and Rob Taylor

Planet Earth Reading Series
Friday, April 19th, 2013, 7:30 PM
The Moka House
#103-1633 Hillside Avenue, Victoria
Featuring: Susan Gillis, Marita Dachsel and Rob Taylor

Despite the familiarity suggested by these readings, prior to their being assembled I'd never met Susan or read much of her work. How does one end up doing back-to-back readings in two cities with a stranger from the other side of the country? It's a long story, but like so many things in Canadian poetry it involves coincidence and government grants and Brick Books' Kitty Lewis.

Figuring I should get to know Susan a little better, I picked up her new book, The Rapids (Brick Books, 2012), offered to do an interview with her, and hoped to high heaven that I liked what I read. Within a few pages, I knew I was in safe hands.

The Rapids is one of those books where you start dog-earring poems you like until you give up, realizing you'll be left with a book more dog-eared than not. Skilfully crafted, the poems are both beautiful and unnerving, sometimes simultaneously. As Mark Lavorato (read my interview with him here) put it in his recent review of The Rapids:

"the most powerful aspects of the collection are the precarious glimpses, peppered throughout, and often offered up in relatively plain language, that allude to a frightening, jarring misapprehension of reality."

Susan, precariously glimpsing (through venetian blinds?)
In thinking I could conduct a simple Q+A with Susan, however, I had my own jarring misapprehension of reality. I hadn't even finished my first question before Susan began taking over (granted, it takes me a long time to get to my point). So what follows is less an interview and more a conversation with Susan about intimacy, metaphor and "travel" in poetry. Oh, and exclamation marks! I hope you enjoy!

Rob: The Rapids contains a number of poems which offer glimpses into the speaker's (and, inevitably in the mind of most readers, your) personal life. Poems like "Into the Storm" and "Intimacies" feel downright, well, intimate. Yet after finishing the book I returned to "The Auction", with its surreal and (in its listing of bidders) constraining elements, feeling as if it was the most autobiographical poem in the collection, and in an odd way the most revealing. It got me thinking about surreal and constrained/formal writing, and their relationships with the lyric "I" and how the reader interprets it all and takes it in (and other nonsense like that).

Susan: That’s an intriguing path you’re following there.

Rob: Flattery before I even get to a question... This will go well, I can tell. Continuing down my intriguing path, I was wondering how you see "The Auction" relating to all of that - did it seem more intimate than most of your poems when you wrote it? Does it now? If so, why do you think that is? Was it your conscious intention from the beginning, or did the poem work its way there on its own?

Susan: This is one of the oldest poems in the book — I wrote it so long ago I can barely remember the impulse — but I do remember the dream I woke from of walking down a path to the little house that shows up at the poem’s end. At the time, I’d been feeling some despair around ever finding a serene place, I mean in real life, not dream life; I couldn’t figure out how to bring the various parts of my life into balance, and that little dream-house (!) offered a solution. Inside, it was all open space and light... The poem’s story was not part of the dream but invented to give the house a reason to be. In the sense that it works out something that was going on in my subconscious, I guess it is pretty intimate. The dreamy story probably gave me the distance I needed to write it. I mean, who wants to read about somebody else’s dreams? Intimacy is tricky. I notice you manage it quite well in poems like “Wait,” and “Rejection Slips” — so direct and clear. What about you; is intimacy (of tone, of subject) something you aim for or rather something you find?

Rob: I'm losing control of this interview, aren't I? That's ok - I can handle this!

I seek intimacy of tone, in the sense that I seek to write more or less "accessibly". I want my reader to feel welcomed, and to sense that I am trying to make a connection with them, ideally on both an emotional and an intellectual level. In terms of subject matter, no I'm not particularly interested in laying my life out there - in writing "confessionally". That comes out when needed in the service of an emotional truth. I try to be honest and vulnerable emotionally - to get the poems to "feel" my life, without "saying" my life - and if bringing out my personal biography a bit will help with that, I don't resist it. But less comes out than most assume, I find. The Other Side of Ourselves is less autobiographical than most readers I've spoken with seem to have assumed. "Wait" and "Rejection Slips" are both almost entirely fictional (the man in the canary yellow suit in "Wait" is real, as is my wife's singing in "Rejection Slips", but that's about it). The feelings in them - of loss, of love, of abandon - are the "true" parts of the poems, the thing I'm trying to get as intimately accurate as possible.

Does that often happen for you, having people read biography into your poems where you didn't intentionally put it? More generally, how do you feel when you hear peoples' interpretations of your poems that don't mesh with your own? Is there a part of you that desires to control others' reading of your work? If so, how does that manifest in the choices you make when writing?

Susan: I haven’t often had that experience, hearing people’s interpretations I mean. I guess when I’m writing I do hope for a kind of clarity, though clarity isn’t everything. Propulsion, maybe, is more like it. If people feel moved to respond where I’ve felt propelled, or compelled, in the writing, that seems pretty good. I do enjoy hearing what parts of which poems stick with people. Sometimes it’s surprising, and sometimes it satisfies whatever impulse in me wanted to make something particular happen in a poem.

Rob: Maybe because of my own recent travels, I found myself reading "The Auction" as a travel poem: that thrill when you travel of being awash with options, a thrill which usually fades if you travel long enough, leading you back to a place you already know (and, it turns out, desire most of all). From that perspective, it makes sense that the poem was included in the second section of The Rapids ("Neruda's Rain"), many of whose poems are travel poems about leaving behind and finding (such as "Anchor", with its closing lines: "there's never been any other / than this now: the manifold earth, / the constant, replenishing sea.")

I was wondering if you could speak a little about the "Neruda's Rain" section and "The Auction"'s place in it. Were all the poems in the section composed during your own travels, or at least collectively inspired by them, or were they pulled together later? Was "The Auction" always at home in the section, or was it adopted at some point in the editing process? And if the latter, how did the decision to put it in this section come about?

Susan: Travel poems — I’m never sure exactly how to think about that. In your book, there are clearly domestic poems, and clearly elsewhere poems, and I guess you could say the elsewhere ones are travel poems in a sense — but in that other sense, your questions captures something essential: what poem ISN’T in some way a travel poem? The poems in that section gathered in a slightly different way. They began as a series called Intimacies; they were negotiations with some of the poems in Neruda’s Residence on Earth. "The Auction" was actually at that time grouped (in my mental storage vault) with the Habitat 67 poems, for some reason, I guess having to do with buildings. The Neruda’s Rain poems didn’t begin particularly as travel poems, but when John (Barton, my editor) suggested grouping the ones about other places together like that it was like a little light flashing on.

Rob: Speaking of the other sections in the book, "Neruda's Rain" isn't the only notable one - all four of the sections that make up The Rapids are distinct, and each could be a stand-alone themed chapbook. The two most clearly "themed" sections are "Twenty-two Views of the Lachine Rapids" which centres around Montreal's Lachine Rapids (and much of which was, in fact, published as a chapbook by Gaspereau Press in 2012) and the aforementioned "Habitat", which centres around another Montreal landmark - Habitat 67.

I was wondering if you could talk about the points of overlap that exist between these two sections (beyond the geographic proximity, of course). Were the conditions under which you wrote them similar? The amount of time you devoted to the projects? The degree to which you considered them "projects" in the first place?

Susan: The Habitat poems began before the Rapids poems, which arose as I was wrestling with what I wanted to explore in Habitat (the brilliant failure, the distorted dreams, the ambition that partly succeeds and partly festers). As I’m finding tends to happen in my process, the other series sort of wrote itself behind my back, while I was thinking I was focused on something else. Isn’t that every magician’s great trick? Come to that, isn’t it every politician’s? Oh sh*t — I may just have aligned myself with politics.

Rob: But you're tricking yourself (or the poems are tricking you), while the magician/politician is tricking others, no? Seems more like you inflicted politics on yourself than aligned yourself with them - you poor thing!

How do you think your various approaches to writing the sections influenced their particular shapes?

Susan: Writing the Rapids poems was a joy. Writing the Neruda poems was a discipline and a joy. Writing the Habitat poems was a challenge I set myself, and I don’t feel I’ve done enough with it, but I’m not sure I’ll go back to it. Architecture is always somewhere underneath my subjects, at least in my own mind, and the Safdie-Habitat issues still prod at me, so who knows. The poems of Bloodroot, the first section, are poems that well up in that way they do, you know it from many of the poems in The Other Side of Ourselves.

Rob: More than any collection I've read in quite a while, the poems in The Rapids appear to be driven by metaphor. In service of it, often. Poems such as "View at Dawn" seem designed almost entirely to build to a particular metaphor. Others contain a metaphor or simile that is so striking (like "Picnic" with its river noise "soft as paper towels being crushed") that the rest of the poem takes on the role of enabling or adorning it. How many of your poems are actually written in this way - starting with a great metaphor and building out - and how many of them instead find their way to this destination more circuitously, the metaphor coming at some point in the drafting/editing process?

Susan: Oh gee I don’t have a clue. I don’t think of myself as a particularly metaphor-driven poet. (I’m thinking here of poets like Sue Goyette — okay, no one is quite like Sue Goyette — who seem to live and breathe metaphor, in a way I admire) [Editor's Note: You can read an interview by Sina Queyras with both Susan and Sue Goyette here]. But language is metaphor; it’s inescapable. Maybe for this reason I’m sometimes suspicious of metaphor in my own work — it can seem ‘easy’ as I’m writing, automatic, too simply ‘there’; I want to know what underlies whatever it is I’m thinking about (I realize there’s a danger of the ‘nested dolls’ effect here). Metaphor is transformation; I want to know what I’m writing about. I don’t really know how to talk about this — if something fits, fits the transformation I see happening, or want to make happen, then it feels right, but if it doesn’t fit then I want to excise it. So I think I’d hesitate to say that I ever start with a metaphor. Usually I don’t know what the ‘things’ of the poem are going to be.

Rob: Speaking of things that writers are sometimes suspicious of - The Rapids is filled with exclamation marks! I've heard a few people mention that they find exclamation marks to be "un-Canadian" - an acquired taste or, worse, a (write it!) American import. To be a Canadian poet, then, is to whisper and meditate amidst the leaf-fall, or something along those lines. You're obviously comfortable exclaiming in your poems, but I was wondering if that was always the case - has your use of the exclamation mark changed over the years? If so, how? Do you see yourself quieting down in the future? Getting louder!?

Susan: Haha! It’s part of playing with voice and tone. Tonal distinctions are really important to me, and I can argue for days over a dash or a question mark or whatever, and probably there are more versatile ways to manipulate tone, but punctuation is one of them and dammit I’m going to use it! I remember good advice from various poets and editors concerning keeping punctuation standard, getting other elements of language to do the work. And I think that is very important, and I’ll continue to do that, but also to use the full range. The bigger question is that of tone. As I’ve discovered mostly through things other people have said, there’s often the sense that there’s more than one speaking voice in my poems. That probably isn’t going to change much, though I’ve tried to learn how to write from just one perspective, so in order to make that a strength rather than a source of confusion (though it’s probably always going to be both) I’ve needed to develop ways of making clear tonal shifts. Is that loud? I don’t know. If it is, then yes, I’ll probably get louder. I’ve always felt kind of quiet, though, really.

In your poems, your voice is very measured. You’ve obviously read and enjoyed Purdy well, and lots of others, but I wouldn’t say your tone borrows much from Purdy. Maybe in the ease he gave poetry, the ease of vernacular; your diction is precise but always easeful. I think of my favorite Purdy poems as rather loud. I can’t help hearing him read them, and he was always a pretty loud — or let’s say, engaged — reader. I don’t think of my style as loud in that way. What about yours? Do you feel any of that loudness in yours?

Rob: As you suggest, I wonder re: Purdy how much our sense of the "loudness" of his poems is biased by having heard that booming voice of his. He'd died a year before I found his books, so my early readings of his work were much quieter than they are now. I remember the first time I heard a recording of him reading - I was flabbergasted. It's a disorienting voice and it seemed very much out of keeping with the voice that was in my head when I originally read poems like "On Being Human". He has some obvious "loud" poems and lines, which would be loud regardless of his actual voice ("Keep your ass out of my beer!" comes to mind), but usually that's not the case (and rarely when he's at his best).

As for me, no I don't think there's much loudness there. If my voice is modeled after anyone (and it isn't, at least not intentionally) it would probably be my father, who was a United Church minister. He'd get animated when he needed to, but mostly he wanted to connect with you, and calm or comfort you when that was needed (and lets face it, for most people most of the time, it is). I think I've taken that forward into my writing and performing life.

Which brings us to your upcoming performing life, with readings this week in Vancouver and Victoria. How long has it been since you were last in the region? What are you most looking forward to coming back to?

Susan: SPRING! It’s still winter here. It’s been a few years now since I’ve been out west, and more like five or six since I was back specifically with poetry. I’m looking forward to connecting with you Westies — poets and people I like and admire, my sister, old friends and new ones like you. And I’m looking forward to seeing those big trees again and the lovely Pacific and my dear longtime friends on the island... and maybe to finding my younger self turning a corner in downtown Victoria and letting her know things will be okay. But then that might make her stop looking... So, SPRING!

If you're in Vancouver or Victoria, you can pick up a copy of The Rapids at our upcoming readings. If you're somewhere else, you can grab a copy at your local bookstore, or (if you hate bookstores and want to seem them die) on Amazon!

No comments: