between wanting and not having - "This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For" by Al Rempel

Have a Bath - Al Rempel

anxiety fills up the bathtub. in the water-throated gurgle,
children’s voices — something’s wrong for sure —
it all starts with what if and ends up with someone dead.
the same kind of worry
as a paring knife buried under soap suds.
we put our hand in tentatively, over and again, 
this searching out of the unwanted. 
what isn’t a question of risk management? we send
our children off in automobiles and buses.
one minute, their smiles bobbing in the window —
but we mustn’t think of it, mustn’t imagine
gasoline tankers or ditches. we’re not sure
how much reality we make with our minds.
turn off the water. listen carefully. see?
it’s safe for now. a delicious inch of hot water on top
to stir in the suds. fingertip the black plastic handle,
draw the knife out, blade dripping. with the tip
puncture bubble after bubble. wait for the phone to ring
from This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For
(Caitlin Press, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

Al Rempel, framed.
Photo Credit: Jayson Hencheroff
Though I've only met Prince George poet Al Rempel once, briefly, I've known him through his work for quite some time. I was introduced to Al's writing first in Rocksalt: An Anthology of BC Poetry (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2008) and then in the subsequent Mother Tongue anthology 4 Poets (2009). Al's first full collection of poems, Understories, came out in 2010 from Caitlin Press. In all three books, Al's poems stood out for their clarity of language and depth of meaning (or, as Sharon Thesen put it in her back-cover blurb, for his "spare, unpreachy, and premonitory lyrics").

Despite the quality of his work, I suspect few people outside of BC knew much about Al (in part because of his choice to publish with small, local BC presses). That slowly started to change in 2011 with the inclusion of one of his poems, "We Like Bananas" in The Best Canadian Poetry Anthology 2011 [you can read the poem, in a Word Document, here]. Since then, the poem has proved very popular (by poetry standards, in case that needs to be emphasised). It has been highlighted as a "stand out" of the anthology in the Winnipeg Free Press, and my link to it last year has been lighting up my Stat Tracker ever since. I also had the rather humbling experience of reading it at the Vancouver launch of BCP 2011 and receiving a better response than I've ever gotten for any of my own poems.

So I was excited to get my hands on Al's new collection, This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For (Caitlin Press, 2013), which features "We Love Bananas", to see if it was the exception or the rule. It turns out it was both. In terms of phallic innuendo it was a bit of an outlier, but in its sharpness of language and line, and its way of subtly unsettling you, it was right at home. This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For is entertaining, disquieting and (and this isn't a word I use often to describe poetry books) persuasive in its considerations of the apocalypse of stuff that we have unleashed upon the world, and upon ourselves.

I e-sat down with Al earlier this month and discussed our oncoming apocalypse, hoarders, garbage islands, list poems, and other such cheery subjects. It was much more fun than I just made it sound. No, really. And don't take my word for it - Al says as much at the end. Take a read, and I hope you find that you agree with us!

Rob:This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For is obviously a themed book - it's no random assortment of poems. Could you discuss the themes that came together to create the particular "Apocalypse" your book explores?

Al: One of the threads running through this book is our consumption and the anxiety it produces, that is, the "apocalypse" we’ve created — not the Hollywood, 3D version — isn’t healthy for us, and it’s coming out of our pores as anxiety and stress and accumulation, and this is obvious in everything from the garbage island in the North Pacific to our driving to our food culture, with its fast food joints and out of season imported fruits (like bananas). I’m glad you chose to feature the poem, “Have a Bath”, because it captures something of the personal anxiety we face in our everyday lives, in this instance, simply by being a parent.

The other two threads in my book deal with 1) our desire to find belonging and meaning in this world, either through a lover, a home, or in a spiritual journey, and 2) a wrestling with our own mortality and limitations.

Rob: I found This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For to be outwardly focused. Instead of plumbing the depths of personal emotion, it's looking out at the world. Where human complexity is explored, it is usually done through an examination of external forces - the natural world we inhabit, the mechanical world we construct, and the commercial "stuff" we fill our lives with. When humans are considered it is usually as part of a wider landscape, or as a collective of people ("we" is a dominant pronoun in the book). This seems to be done intentionally as a reminder of how peripheral we are in the world, both collectively as a species and as individuals. We don't run the show. We may hope for a certain type of apocalypse, but it isn't the one we're going to get.

Does any of this ring true to you? If so, was it a conscious effort for you and/or your editor to focus the collection on these types of poems?

Al: Well, I deliberately chose to use ‘we’ for a lot of the poems, since I’m part of the community. I’m not the poet standing on the outside pointing my finger saying “you you you – you gotta clean this mess up”, I’m the poet that ducks into McDonalds because I’m running late and my daughter is hungry. I’m the poet that looks around at my house wondering how did we manage to accumulate this much stuff and where in the world will I put it? Sometimes this requires a ‘we’ and sometimes an ‘I’, but either way, I’m implicated. And while a large part of it seems out of our control, we are the ones who created the mess, who decided we want bananas anytime of the year, or oranges, or carrots. We’re the ones who thought, “Since we’re driving around in cars so much, we should be able to pick up food at a window and scarf it down in less than 5 minutes, and why not do our banking and dry cleaning that way too?”

Rob: Considering this theme of collective and personal responsibility for the world's problems, your choice of the closing poem for the book is quite striking. "On the Porch" is a rather conventional love lyric, which closes

if I can find you here
then what's outside
won't even matter

This seems to challenge the position argued by the rest of the collection. Or refocus it somewhat, at least. Could you speak a bit about why you chose to end the book with this poem?

Al: Here the 3 threads I discussed earlier — our anxiety borne out the world we’ve constructed, our angst over our own eventual death, and our desire to belong — meet and collide. Of course, we’ll never get to a point where “what’s outside / won’t even matter”. These are the words of a poet who wants it, who desires it, even if for a moment, or a night — but knows it’s not ultimately possible. We are caught between longing and reality, between wanting and not having.

Rob: A few of these poems, such as "Bring Me My Sky Canoe" and "Blind Bird", seem very connected to First Nations spirituality and myths. How has First Nations culture influenced your writing?

Al: I have been fascinated with the cultures and stories of First Nations right from very young. One of the things their teachings offer is how to live on this land/earth, and I believe it’s critical we listen closely, before we completely sever our own connection to the land. In “Table Setting for Six” there’s a line “we’ll get up from our places unable/ to remember why we were here”, and I mean that in a very deep way – if we forget why we are here on this earth, if we destroy the land under our feet that feeds us, then we will cease to exist. But it’s important that we don’t just take their stories and use them the way we want. There has to be respect. We are a long way off from a true conversation of cultures, where we all sit around the same circle. I hope that changes soon, before people lose their language, their land, and their ways of being.

"Bring Me My Sky Canoe" is, in part, about that journey, and it was carved into a Coleman canoe by the sculptor Phil Morrison. Last summer we took it to a lake and ‘launched’ it, and the underwater footage of it was made into a videopoem called "Sky Canoe":

Rob: In the poem "Survival Kit", you write:

here's something: every poem written
is a list; and then something happens —
something breaks, something needs
building; this, that and the other
become necessity

Is this poem a glimpse into your writing style? Many of the poems in This Isn't the Apocalypse We Hoped For are, in fact, list poems. And many others seem borne out of lists. If you do start poems as lists, what causes some of them to stay lists and others to "break"?

Al: I don’t start poems by thinking in terms of lists, but sometimes they end up being one. And when I was writing this poem, the thought occurred to me that everything we ever write is merely a list, even if it’s a list of words, strung out together. The list form tries to get at the complexity of things: one idea is powerful and simple, but is it too simplistic? Two things gives choice, but it makes a binary, so maybe our listing is a way of breaking out of the simplistic and dualistic ideas we have of the world. Maybe a ‘spilling over’ of words more closely represents the reality we’re faced with. What haven’t we accumulated as a North American culture?

Rob: Yes, exactly my thought. "Survival Kit" seems to equate poets with hoarders. Do you think this is true? Is there some parallel that can be drawn between how a poet hoards images, words, lines, etc. and how someone might hoard magazines or knick-knacks in case they might be "useful" one day? In our over-consumptive society, are poets part of the solution or part the problem?

Al: Poets are thieves. Poets are crows and ravens and magpies. Poets pick over the scraps of human consumption. We can look at all the stuff we’ve created as garbage, we can look at it as something to hoard, we can look at it as something to reuse.

I grew up on a farm with parents that lived through the depression. They were recycling before it became popular term in the ‘70s with its energy crisis. You can’t run a farm if you have to drive to town for every little nail or screw or bolt or piece of wood. My mother kept any old loose leaf that had one side still blank; I could dig down through the pile and find my grade 4 work, and my siblings’ university and high school assignments. But farmers aren’t hoarders. We’ve created the notion of ‘hoarders’ by tracking them down and sensationalizing them and tripping through their houses with TV cameras, but the answer is always more complex, isn’t it? Poets, farmers — everyone — are both part of the solution and the problem. We have to come to the tipping point where we all realize that our way of doing things isn’t working. There are still people who firmly believe the earth is doing ok, that climate change isn’t a reality or a real problem. There are still people who think the best economy is the one with the greatest increase in financial wealth. “More is better” has been hardwired into most of our country’s DNA. This isn’t the apocalypse we hoped for.

Rob: Your conspicuous product placement has been noted, there, Al. We'll make an ad man of you yet!

Maybe that's a good transition to thinking about the book as a commercial product (well, as much as poetry can be considered "commercial"), and how it took its final shape.

In its consideration of disposable suburban culture, This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For reminded me of Elizabeth Bachinsky's Home of Sudden Service. I wasn't too surprised, then, to find that Bachinsky edited your collection. How did Bachinsky come to edit your book? Can you speak a bit about her role in shaping the book's final form?

Al: Well, I just asked her and she said yes! I thought that our writing styles and the concerns of our work had enough overlap that we could work together, and I’m very grateful for her input. Liz took the manuscript I had and converted it into an aerodynamic vehicle: tight and streamlined. She was able to take apart the three main threads of it and braid it together in a way that made it a “book”. I’m also grateful for Vici Johnstone of Caitlin Press, who not only literally made it into a book, but also chose and designed the fantastic cover for it.

Rob: Ok, I have to close with a question about the bananas. People seem to really love your poem "We Love Bananas", which is very fittingly included in This Isn't the Apocalypse We Hoped For. What kind of a reception have you had for it when you've read it at readings? Did you expect it would be popular when you wrote it?

Al: Yeah, I always get a lot of laughs with that one. It’s one of the few poems that fell out onto my lap when I was writing it, and all I had to do was to pick it up before it slid onto the floor. I knew it was cheeky but I didn’t know it’d be a ‘hit’. I was happy to see it included in Tightrope’s The Best Canadian Poetry Anthology 2011 .

Thanks again, Rob, for these questions; it’s been fun.

You can buy a copy of Al Rempel's This Isn't the Apocalypse We Hoped For from your local bookstore, or from Amazon. I don't have any info for you hoarders out there, but if you want to buy - say - 30 copies to stack on your dining room table or scatter about the floor of your bedroom, it may be possible to place a bulk order with the publisher.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

what's dry cleaning?