juggled casually in with the ordinary messy rest of it - "The Fire Extinguisher" by Miranda Pearson

Cagliari - Miranda Pearson

In Cagliari we walked along alleys
through the thick, foreign air. Ate spaghetti
and clams, cheese and salami. Drank
a bottle of local wine. I was happy.
Everything was a mess, my luggage lost,
my father dying. At dinner the lights flickered
off, the waitress brought candles to the tables,
all around: warmth, darkness.

We walked to the fortress above the city;
the young girls were out in their short dresses,
parading their gold, smoking cigarettes.
It was a blessed night and in the morning
the kindness of the people, a group
cooing over a pram, the sweetness of the orange juice—

from The Fire Extinguisher
(Oolichan, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.


Early on in The Fire Extinguisher (Oolichan Books, 2015) Miranda Pearson writes: "Here I am no one, / which is how it should be." (p. 16) Has a truer statement from a poet ever been said? I think League of Canadian Poets membership should include a button with that quote on it.

But in the world of Canadian poetry, such anonymity is not (or at least should not) be the case for Miranda. The Fire Extinguisher, her fourth poetry collection, was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (as was her third, Harbour). And, goodness, the nod was well earned. The Fire Extinguisher is a wide-ranging, moving, often harrowing book, which spans continents and repeatedly takes us to (if not beyond) the precipice of great losses, most notably the death of the poet's father, and her own diagnosis and treatment for cancer.

As the book goes along, then, that early statement: "Here I am no one, / which is how it should be" takes on deeper and deeper resonance. It deepens, too, as you come to see Miranda for the careful watcher that she is, on the edge of things (even while participating in them), looking in on foreign cities, family, love and decline - even in on herself on the operating table: "a runway. Bisected and branded" (p. 85).

All those carefully witnessed and considered scenes are presented in one striking stanza after another - reading the book, I began thinking about how different poets write with different "units" of primary (or default) consideration: some sound-driven poets (and all of us, ultimately) operate by the syllable or word, some experimental or narrative-driven poets think in terms of the book as a whole, while others work with a primary focus on the line, or the sentence, or the poem, or the chapbook-length section. In The Fire Extinguisher, Miranda is a master of the well-wrought, often ghazal-like stanza: couplet or tercet or (occasional) quatrain, standing at once independent and yet closely bound to the stanzas around it. Each stanza a someone, and at the same time nothing without those around it. As we are; as we should be.

Miranda and I exchanged emails over the summer - I was traveling throughout Europe at the time, and her poems felt particularly pertinent to me because of it. I finally settled back in Vancouver and we finished the interview earlier this month. I think it was worth the wait, and I hope you enjoy!

Miranda Pearson. That's two straight interviews with
dog-inclusive author photosFingers crossed that it becomes a trend!


Rob: "Cagliari" is part of the opening section of poems in The Fire Extinguisher, which is made up of European travel poems. These poems feel stretched between two worlds - a Europe of both your past and your immediate moment, and your home here in Canada (one is even called "Five Postcards", and could very well have been five postcards you sent back to Canada). Could you speak a bit about that poem, and how it fits into the book as a whole?

Miranda: This poem comes near the beginning of the book; on one level it’s a straight forward poem of place, imagistic and descriptive. Poem as still-life, where familiar, domestic objects (food and jewelry for instance) are zoomed in on and become an arranged composition, perhaps allegorical or symbolic. I was thinking of John Steffler’s poem “I Didn’t Know This Would Happen”, a liminal moment on a plane where the line “my / broken marriage” is juggled casually in with the ordinary messy rest of it, which is more or less how life is. Cagliari is a coastal town in Sardinia; my partner and I had arranged to meet up there and travel across the island to Alghero. My father was very ill – I was torn as to whether to make the trip and in fact that first night he died at, we think, approximately the same time as the power cut mentioned in the poem. So the poem is a “momenti mori” where an imagistic tableau (the dinner, wine, candlelight etc.) illustrate both impermanence and comfort. I’m trying to capture a chaos-magic, where life and death are compressed, and the sensual beauty and richness of living is somehow magnified and made acute.

Much of the The Fire Extinguisher is concerned with this brink, the sometimes perilous balancing place between safety and disaster. The title itself contains both danger and antidote. When I was thinking about structuring the book I realized that fire imagery recurs, bodies ignite, overspill their boundaries, are radiated and cremated, volcanoes erupt, fire alarms go off and so on. I’m exploring meeting points, confluence. Adrienne Rich’s poem "Power" speaks of this: “her wounds came from the same source as her power”, and I call radiation treatment “this toxic cure” in my poem "Radiant".

Elemental themes have shown up in my previous books – water, air, earth… and the themes of thresholds and conflations appear repeatedly in my poetry too; both in terms of low/high cultural references that I find interesting and entertaining, but also more seriously as a sense that so much in life is contradictory. As you suggest, perhaps this sense of “between-ity” comes from spending my life in two different sides of the world – half in the UK and half in Canada, and that spanning and reaching across of place and cultures certainly occurs in all my books. But also I’ve worked for many years in mental health care and we have to hold dialectical contradictions in that work all the time in ways that are often difficult – impossible – to make much sense of, but can be apertures between people that lead to more compassion and understanding, or at least acceptance.

Rob: Well, that line "my father dying" certainly leaps out like Steffler's "broken marriage" - once it's read, the whole poem tips towards it. Continuing with what you were just touching on, how has working in Psychiatry affected your poetry?

Miranda: Having spent a long time working in that field does inform my poetry—not directly but in my abiding fascination with what makes us tick, what is said and un-said, what connects us and the spaces between people. Being a deep listener and an observer, often of sub-text. Participating in the writing life – teaching, editing, reviewing, attending readings and so on is another life again. I suppose to me it’s become normal to compartmentalize and live several lives simultaneously, though as I’ve got older I have begun to see these as less fragmented and more linked, with creative overlap and interplay.

I started writing late, after I moved to Canada from England when I was 29, and since then poetry and books have been my consistent home, a nest of words that I have built myself.

Rob: Could you talk a bit about how you chose to sequence the book, and how you hoped for the various sections to speak to one another?

Miranda: In terms of shaping this manuscript, my friend Aislinn Hunter helped me with the order, which was invaluable, as with this particular body of work I couldn’t see clearly how the poems could work together. I trusted her and hoped for the best, and often with a piece of art it only emerges after you’re done making it, and it turns out to be quite different from The Plan. It has its own life. Not to mention how the reader brings their own experience to the poem. I think now that the book’s too long; I wish I had cut about 20 pages.

Rob: I do like the idea of shorter books, but goodness, what would you have cut? I'm definitely glad you kept your section of cancer poems. Like few poems I've read in quite some time, they give off a visceral sense of having been not only lived, but "live-recorded" in those moments, transformed into metaphors and similes on the spot - as if the turning to metaphor were a way of remembering, and processing, what was happening. I'm thinking of lines like "Meticulous rummagers, miners or tailors" ("Surgery", p. 82) and "You are a runway. Bisected and branded you / keep still." ("Radiant", p. 85). Were you writing throughout your diagnosis and treatment? Taking notes? Or did the poems come later? What role, if any, did poetry play in helping you through that time?

Miranda: I see art and life as corresponding, interdependent. Aside from writing and my work in health care, I’m very interested in visual and material art. This is frequently referred to in The Fire Extinguisher. I draw, paint, knit, sew and have just started learning to throw pots. I love animals, especially dogs. Gardening, being outside, preferably by water, rivers, lakes, sea… walking and swimming. I think I’m more of a physical person than an intellectual, but these things serve each other. I write of the body quite often. I’ve also been a single parent for two decades, which obviously has shaped things massively.

Miranda with the Fire Extinguisher
My first book Prime started out as my Master’s thesis. It was mainly concerned with sex, pregnancy, birth and becoming a parent. It birthed the other books. Children still show up constantly – even in The Fire Extinguisher. The heart remains a child, and the poems are often written from a child’s perspective. “Blizzard” and “Short Flight” for example. And in the title poem of The Fire Extinguisher, where all the teenagers are lounging around and the mother fantasizes about lying unconscious in a glass casket like Snow White. Children use play and fantasy to cope and escape; as adults we use drugs, alcohol, and so on for similar reasons. I think writing poetry has served a function for me in that way, a way both of controlling and structuring experience but also distancing and disassociating from it. The cancer poems particularly. I often refer to Fairy Tales and nursery rhymes — Lewis Caroll, nonsense verse — they are the source for me, the building blocks. Along with the Bible – or more accurately, hymns (thanks to the School for Religious Maniacs I attended). And Shakespeare, unavoidably.

I really only started reading contemporary poetry after I came to Canada. Canadian and American poetry has influenced me far more than British. Phyllis Webb, Sharon Thesen, Daphne Marlatt, Don McKay, Robert Kroetsch, Erin Moure. Raymond Carver, Louise Gluck, Sharon Olds, Mark Doty. I don’t see myself as cool – I don’t try and copy anyone or follow poetry trends, I just follow whatever thread is showing up, and see where it goes. If people like the poems of course I’m pleased but I read and like all sorts so have never particularly attached myself to a “school” – aside from definitely having a feminist lens. I don’t think I would have become a poet if I’d stayed in the UK; the Canadian poetry tribe has been incredibly welcoming and supportive. And there’s space to breathe.

As to the question of my process, yes, I tend to write scraps and notes towards poems more or less constantly, as if catching fragments floating by in the air. Gradually ideas and lines cohere. Then every few years take myself off to a retreat setting and try and make something of them. I think all my books have come together this way. I have tended to write when going through something painful – it’s comforting, a way of calming myself. It provides witness, a sense of order, much as a child would enact trauma through play. But it doesn’t have to be through crisis; Too much crisis is just distracting and bad for your health! Political events, weather, a change in the light—anything can trigger a poem. Reading certain writers often does it, or finding a poet that I haven’t read before. I get ideas from other disciplines – science, history, architecture, anything. The element of surprise is important, something unplanned; but it can be a tiny thing, a shift or shadow just caught in the corner of your eye. Sometimes nothing happens for a long time, at least consciously. I’m ok with that – I just get on with something else and wait.

Rob: Speaking of being "cool", and poetry trends, it seems increasingly popular these days for poets to write poems in single stanzas - long, and often intimidatingly dense, blocks of text. The poems in The Fire Extinguisher were a refreshing change for me as a reader - most poems were written in couplets or tercets, with each poem giving the reader plenty of time to breathe ("Cagliari" - a loose sonnet - being one of the most "dense" in the collection). Could you speak a little to your attraction to shorter stanzas, especially couplets? When you're writing the first drafts of a poem, are you already thinking about spacing and shape? Do the thoughts come out as couplets, or do you let them wander the yard a while before you pair them up?

Miranda: Yes, many of the poems are short spare couplets, as in "Belvedere" or "Nil by Mouth". I like to see how a couplet or tercet can work on its own, like a ghazel, as well as part of a larger piece, and how space and pause effect meaning. How couplets can be linked or separated by tone and nuance. I like the openness on the page, the clarity and breath and the way the couplets create their own collage. In this book the poems employ various forms of rhyme, most frequently in internal or slant form, and sometimes end-rhyme – as in "Small Town" or "Tudeley Church". Using rhyme so extensively is new for me, but I like the musicality and look on the page, and it happened spontaneously in this work.

Rob: The fourth and fifth section of The Fire Extinguisher - the emotional heart (and, often, gut-punch) of the book - focus on your father's illness and death, and your own diagnosis and treatment for cancer, respectively. In many ways the spaces in which these poems take place - doctors’ offices, hospitals and operating rooms - seem as alien, or more so, than foreign countries. It's compelling to me, then, that the book opens and closes with poems very consciously set in Europe, which allowed a theme of "reporting from abroad" to weave its way through the entire book. I realise, of course, that as a native of England, what's "abroad" and what's "home" is very different for you, so I wonder if you had this in mind at all. Do you see it as a theme of the book?

Miranda: The Fire Extinguisher is structured by five sections: In the first, the poems ask questions of attachment; erotic desire and appetite — both destructive and creative. Painting and visual art are invoked, as well as food and the materials of travel. Animals and birds feature, both free and in captivity. In the second section the poems move from the exotic to the more interior and domestic: Children and office work, a circling back to an English childhood home — actual and remembered — foreshadowing those in the next section in their recognition of aging and loss: “How the body / is a new sort of friend, flawed / unreliable”. Sections 3 and 4 combine in their close-up examination of illness. Yes, my own and my father’s though I hope these resonate for anyone who’s felt held captive in the body, or witnessed this. How physical illness is both intimate and distancing.

I was consciously seeking an alternative, more honest discourse rather than the militaristic language of cancer usually available – that didn’t seem to fit with my experience which felt more like a careful navigation through danger, and feeling bewildered and rather embarrassed by it. “Winning” or “losing” isn’t all that relevant in a situation where we have so little control. And actually being a patient is to be quite passive. I suppose writing this book was a way of fighting back, wrestling back some control. Me holding a fire extinguisher of poems up against all that, saying “get back!”

In the final section of the book many of the poems are set in Scotland, particularly the land and sea of Shetland. I was introduced to this part of the world quite recently, so it’s been a homecoming to Britain but via a new direction. Scotland is so different from the South of England where I was brought up. Getting to know the North has been like finding a whole new country.

Rob: Touching on the Scotland poems, there's a powerful moment in that section where you write "I wanted to stay. Last year that's all I wanted, / to curl upon the straw and wait" ("Shetland Broch", p. 90). Then again, in "Year's End, Scotland" (p. 94) you write "Last year we walked out across ice, / not knowing if it would bear us or if we'd go through. // At the time we hardly cared." For me, both lines capture that feeling, which resonates throughout the book, of "coming through" great loss or difficulty. I'm wondering if that journey, and exploring that journey through poetry, changed or reaffirmed in some way your sense of poetry - why you write it, read it, its "function" in the world? Has it helped show you a path to what you might write next?

Miranda: Has this book changed my sense of poetry? It’s quite a dense, dramatic book, elaborate. It took a lot out of me. Next time I think I might move towards the more spare, the more minimal. I’m also thinking about a Selected. At the moment I’m writing notes about sea, and ice. And I’m looking at the work of a young poet I worked with who very tragically took his own life last year – Alex Winstanley. I would like to write in response to some of his poems. I think about short fiction or memoir – but for now poetry continues to be the medium I swim through, with its beautiful hocus-pocus and infinite possibility.


Now, poetry lovers, let's not go losing Miranda to fiction and memoir, ok? You can encourage her to stick to her beautiful hocus-pocus by picking up a copy of The Fire Extinguisher at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the Oolichan website. Or, if you prefer your possibilities finite, from Amazon.


Unknown said...

Finally,some of the recognition you so rightly deserve!
Gillie T.

theresa said...

Lovely interview, wonderful book.