The Monastery of Poetry: An Interview with Evelyn Lau

The following interview is the seventh in a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2020. All seven interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca. This was the second year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here).

January - Evelyn Lau

These are the days of not writing.
January, the month of no words.

Wine tastes watered down, food
so flavourless I gnaw a hole

in the side of my mouth,
mining the salt crystal of blood,

its candy tang. The fog again,
shrink-wrapping trees and buildings,

erasing the bay. The opposite shore
a leaf etching under wax paper,

milk glass, the faint sketch
of a fossil in stone. It’s not

the light, or lack of it. Small birds
rustle in the bare trees,

searching for winter berries.
Nothing’s missing. What’s not here?

Reprinted with permission from 
Pineapple Express by Evelyn Lau
(Anvil Press, 2020).

Rob Taylor: “These are the days of not writing… Nothing’s missing. What’s not here?” feels like a good summary, for many, of our current COVID-19 moment. A major theme in Pineapple Express is isolation (in “Disturbances” you write “For months you haven’t seen your neighbours,” which also strikes home right now). A common joke these days is that self-isolation is something poets have been training for their whole lives. Could you talk a little about the knife-edge of isolation for writers — that need for solitude in order to be able to write, and the negative consequences that can come with it? Do you have any advice for people — writers or otherwise — in this time of externally-imposed isolation?

Evelyn Lau: Solitude is bliss for introverts, and most poets would agree that they crave time, space and isolation in order to write and think. I’ve lived alone since I was sixteen, and the challenges inherent in that have always been practical — i.e. financial — rather than emotional. My partner and I have been together for two decades, but we’ve never lived under the same roof. What some people would find painful — coming home to an empty apartment — is the greatest source of solace for me. Is that strange? It feels so essential that anything else is unimaginable. The easy explanation is to say that I need solitude to write, but really it’s just to stay sane.

The danger is that isolation leads to rumination, which can lead to depression. Those of us who need very little social interaction to feel fulfilled definitely have an advantage over the extroverts right now. My advice isn’t original: establish a structure to the day, get out of your head by getting into your body (exercise), find beauty and wonder in small things.

Rob: Yes, yes, excellent advice (the good advice doesn’t always have to be novel — it usually isn’t)!

Speaking of changes brought on by COVID-19, you’ve traditionally avoided work on computers (I seem to recall that you didn’t have an email address until you took on the role of Vancouver poet laureate in 2011, a position which required one). Could you talk about that choice to stay “offline” as much as possible? How are you finding life now that you’re forced to use the internet for work, etc? Is it affecting your capacity to write?

Evelyn: AARGGH! Right now I’m sprawled on the floor outside my building lounge, using my partner’s laptop to pick up on the WiFi signal. This pandemic has yanked me into the 21st century!

Normally I maintain a distraction-free zone by not having WiFi or a modern computer at home, and not having a cellphone. It might be odd to hear this from a writer, but writing doesn’t come “naturally” — it’s often very painstaking, and so much time and creative effort are wasted in email correspondence.

Rob: Pineapple Express opens with poems about your family members. As we’re all partially reflected in our family members, I’m curious: did thinking and writing so closely about your relatives have any effect on how you see and understand yourself?

Evelyn: I’ve been estranged from my immediate family since leaving home at fourteen, so the parental figures have remained distorted in my psychological landscape. Of course, as we age we see patterns more clearly, and how things like personality traits and mental illness are passed along to us.

Rob: On this theme of seeing family patterns more clearly, in “Kate Braid’s Salon: the role of the poet” you write “Families, lovers / were scraps caught up in the storms / of creativity… collateral damage / in the cause of poetry.” As much as writing about family can lend clarity to the self, to what extent do you think writing about family alters or distorts how you see and remember your family?

Evelyn: Writing about anything fixes it in place, doesn’t it? What we choose to emphasize, what we don’t. The stories we tell ourselves, the scabs we pick at, the memories we excavate. This is true of any experience or relationship, not just familial ones.

Rob: “Earthworms,” the second section of Pineapple Express, “excavates” relationships beyond the familial. It contains a number of poems about social gatherings with other poets, one of which is about Elise Partridge’s funeral service (“Yellow Melons”). I think Elise would have particularly enjoyed the ten-line stanza you devote entirely to considering whether or not to eat a granola bar — how small and precise and human and funny!

Could you talk about that poem, and about what drew you to Elise, the person and the poet? More generally, why do you think it’s important for poets to memorialize other poets, and moments between poets, in this way?

Evelyn: I’m happy to hear you think Elise would have enjoyed the granola bar moment. Yes, the demands of the body don’t evaporate just because one is at a funeral! I didn’t know Elise Partridge personally, only through poetry events, but her warmth and humility endeared her to everyone. The poems she wrote during her cancer treatment were breathtaking.

I love when poets pay tribute to other poets in their work; those moments of grace are a small acknowledgment of what writers have given to us through their words.

Rob: In many of the poems in Pineapple Express, you talk explicitly about the effects anti-depressant medications have on dreams, appetite, energy, etc. In “Depression in Summer” you note “You’ve grown immune to plenitude.” Thank you so much for writing openly about mental health — it will be a great help to many people. I’m curious specifically about the relationship between anti-depressants and writing: have anti-depressants helped or hindered your writing, or both, and in what ways?

Evelyn: For years I resisted antidepressants out of concern for how they might affect the writing process. Frankly, though, I haven’t noticed a difference. There’s less attachment to outcome, to how the work is received — but that’s likely due more to age (and an acceptance of poetry’s limited audience) than medication.

Rob: Shaking off attachment to outcome is so valuable, and often elusive for writers (it’s certainly elusive for me) — I’m glad you found your way there one way or another. Speaking of “you,” many of the poems in Pineapple Express are written in the second-person, the “you” usually referring back to the speaker (though not always). What draws you to the second-person address?

Evelyn: I’m drawn to the inclusiveness of the “you,” how the second person voice pulls the reader into the poem and creates a common experience.

Rob: One physical gathering place for common experiences that is feature prominently is Pineapple Express is the seawall around Vancouver’s False Creek. Could you talk about the role of walking in your writing practice?

Evelyn: Writing prose seems to involve keeping one’s butt in the chair, while most of the work of writing poetry doesn’t involve sitting at all — it’s the hours/days/weeks of wrestling with a line break or image or metaphor while shopping, watching TV, washing dishes. Most poets find a walking practice essential to their craft. I’m usually so deep in thought while walking in circles that it’s a disaster if someone stops me to ask for directions or, God help them, spare change!

Rob: Ha! Your deep-in-thought wandering spills out across the continent in the book’s fifth section. “Sunset Boulevard” features a series of travel poems which often explore the big choices we make in life. In “Paradise Tours (or, “I’m in Miami Bitch!”),” for instance, you write “Was it wrong to have stopped wanting / the world’s glamour, to have disappeared // into the monastery of poetry?” What is it, for you, about travel that induces such considerations?

Evelyn: I’ve always been fascinated by America’s contradictions — its glamour and seediness, how its citizens can be so open-hearted yet closed-minded. Travel demands our attention at every moment, and it can be physically or psychologically uncomfortable. If nothing else, it takes us out of our routines and our comfort zone, and allows us to look at our lives from the outside.

Rob: Keeping on this idea of disappearing into the “monastery of poetry,” at the beginning of your writing career you published three books of poetry in four years. Following that you published a novel and a collection of short stories, but it would take eleven years until your next collection of poetry, Treble, was published in 2005. Since then you’ve exclusively published poetry books, with four in the last decade. Could you talk about this journey — both the time away from, and the return to, the monastery?

Evelyn: It was a lawsuit from another writer, after I published a personal essay about our relationship that led me to abandon prose and return exclusively to poetry. The reaction to that essay, by him and others, basically shut me down for years. There’s nothing more stifling to creativity than starting to think like a libel lawyer — analyzing every line for its potential to cause offence — and I developed an antipathy to prose. Poetry saved me from shutting down entirely; its limited audience, its lack of public scrutiny, was a gift.

Rob: I hadn’t realized the lawsuit had kept you from prose all this time. I’m very sorry to hear that. Do you think there’s any chance you might find your way back to it in the future? You mentioned earlier that writing doesn’t come “naturally” to you, but at the same time there must be something — some unavoidable, necessary impulse — that keeps you writing, and that makes it important you don’t “shut down entirely.” If that’s true, is it just for poetry, or also prose? If it’s true for prose, has it been difficult to suppress that impulse all these years?

Evelyn: At this point it’s doubtful there’s any chance I’ll find my way back to prose, but this isn’t something I mourn. I spent years mulling over my relationship to non-fiction after the lawsuit, which happened in my mid-twenties — still a very formative time, both as a person and as a writer. My urgent need to expose the ugliness in relationships, to push the boundaries of personal revelation, had been slapped down, and I lost momentum and trajectory. Fortunately poetry was there, and I could explore some of the same territory in a form that held little interest for lawyers or the public.

That “necessary impulse” once existed both for prose and poetry, but I managed to channel it entirely into poetry and found a kind of purity in the process that was compelling. The idea of writing prose is repellent now. Weirdly, though, in dreams I’m always working on a novel or short stories — never poetry!

Rob: Nightmares are on the rise in this stressful time, I’ve heard. That might explain it!

The publication of Pineapple Express comes 30 years after the publication of your debut collection, You Are Not Who You Claim (which won the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award). That book was preceded a year earlier by your best-selling memoir Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid and followed two years later by Oedipal Dreams, which was a Governor General’s Award finalist. All this by the age of 21! Needless to say, your writing career had a rather rocket-fueled start. How do you think that early success shaped your writing in the years that followed?

Evelyn: Ha! Well, it’s all been downhill ever since. The downside of early success is that sometimes “serious” writers dismiss your work, and don’t believe you’re in it for the long haul. Now that I’ve gone from a national bestseller to writing poetry collections that sell 300 copies each, I guess I showed them!

Rob: Evelyn! This is very much not true, five straight poetry books means your career is heading in exactly the right direction. Though I suppose as an unabashed poetry lover, I’m biased. Does that make me a “serious” writer? Oh God, I hope not…

Speaking of new directions taken in your writing, the back-cover copy for your 2010 collection Living Under Plastic notes that the book,

“represents a major departure from the author’s previous poetry books. Instead of the obsessive focus on relationships and emotional damage that has characterized much of her earlier work, this book opens up to explore new subjects: family history, illness, death and dying, consumerism, and the natural world.”

Those sentences jumped out at me as it seemed like a reviewer had written then, not your own publisher! That said, I definitely see the mix outlined above present in Pineapple Express and your other more recent books (though emotional damage is in there, too!). Looking back, do you think Living Under Plastic marked a turning point in your writing? And if so, what caused the shift at that time?

Evelyn: Most of my thirties, when Living Under Plastic came out, was basically spent in hibernation. I had stopped writing prose, and couldn’t find enough work to sustain myself; rather than admit my increasingly dire circumstances, I hunkered down and went through my savings as slowly as possible. When your external life shrinks, your interior life opens up — something to remember, perhaps, in these current times.

Rob: Those lines about entering the “monastery of poetry” resonate more and more with me as we talk. What an experience it must have been to leave whole genres behind and to find new ways to communicate your world.

That leads me to thinking about “truth,” both seeing and speaking it. We’ve discussed how your first book was non-fiction. Your fiction, too, feels “truthful” — a Globe & Mail review of your first short story collection, Fresh Girls and Other Stories, described your writing as “blend[ing] startling prose talent with a fierce determination to be true.” Your poetry carries similar characteristics. How do you think about “truth” in your writing? Are you, as the reviewer described, “fiercely determined”?

Evelyn: I love how poetry can often blaze a more direct path to emotional truth than prose. Yes, it has always felt necessary to strive for that emotional honesty, no matter the cost.

Rob: Following the lawsuit and your move away from non-fiction, did your thinking about being “truthful” in your poetry shift at all? Is the “truth” you go after in poetry the same as non-fiction’s “truth”?

Evelyn: Well, for years after the lawsuit I was overthinking everything. I’d want to dedicate a poem to someone, or use someone’s name in a poem, and I’d worry that would open up another can of worms. You can never predict how someone will react to seeing themself in your work – whether they’ll feel honoured or offended, exposed or betrayed. The truth in poetry is an emotional truth, not a journalistic one, so maybe that’s what I’d been seeking all along.

Since his death, I’ve been revisiting the relationship that led to the lawsuit, this time in poetry. I still make desperate attempts to understand that whole mess. “Gagged,” in Pineapple Express, touches on one aspect of that experience.

Rob: Do you approach the writing of poetry, at the level of the sentence, in the same way you once approached prose? Do you put different pressures, or pay different forms of attention, to a sentence you write in a story compared to a line you write in a poem?

Evelyn: There’s far more attention paid to each line in poetry than in prose — each word, each bloody comma and period! That distillation and compression is why it takes so long. There’s no room for sloppiness when there are so few words on the page. That process of carving away the fat is hugely satisfying, but it also takes a punishing degree of focus.

Rob: If someone asked me how long an Evelyn Lau poem was, I would say “Around a page-and-a-half.” Obviously, there are many exceptions to this “rule,” but it does seem to be your “home base” of sorts. Is that length something you pursue consciously, or do you innately get itchy around line 35 or 40 and start looking for an exit? Is it, in one way or another, the length of your thoughts?

Evelyn: Ha, that’s funny! I guess we all have our “set point”, in poetry as in — well, weight for example? We gain a few pounds, lose a few pounds, the body eventually returns to where it feels right.

Rob: Yes, I guess that’s true. I see poets putting their poems on diets all the time, or sending them to the gym for weight training!

You twice quote John Updike in the epigraphs to poems in Pineapple Express, and you read his poetry and spoke about his influence on your writing at a 2012 Dead Poets Reading Series event. For those who missed that, could you talk a little about the role Updike’s writing played in the development of your own? What is it in his writing that keeps you returning to it, year after year?

Evelyn: What I loved most about Updike’s work, aside from the masterful crafting of his sentences, was his commitment to writing about those moments we’d rather overlook — either because they’re shameful, or because they’re too plain and ordinary. He could write in such loving detail about the littlest thing. And nothing was too embarrassing for him to write about; not in a gesture of self-display, or to shock, but just to acknowledge that it was all part of the human experience.

Rob: Speaking of learning from beloved writers: you’ve been just that beloved writer for many people in Vancouver, where you’ve taught creative writing for many years. That experience is reflected in poems like “Earthworms.” How, if at all, has your teaching made you think differently about your own writing?

Evelyn: I avoided teaching for a long time, because with my Grade Nine education I had zero confidence that I had anything to give in this area. I still have a hard time using the word “teach” to describe my workshops and consults at SFU Continuing Studies. I’m very fortunate to have worked with talented students who have also been smart, interesting, wonderful people. But as any writer knows, it can be difficult to have anything left over for your own writing when you are immersed in other people’s work.

Evelyn Lau is the Vancouver author of thirteen books, including eight volumes of poetry. Her memoir Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (HarperCollins, 1989), published when she was eighteen, was made into a CBC movie starring Sandra Oh in her first major role. Evelyn’s prose books have been translated into a dozen languages; her poetry has received the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award, the Pat Lowther Award for best book of poetry by a Canadian woman, and a National Magazine Award, as well as nominations for a BC Book Prize and a Governor-General’s Award. Her poems have been chosen numerous times for inclusion in the Best Canadian Poetry series, and she has been writer-in-residence at UBC, Kwantlen and VCC as well as Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Calgary. From 2011-2014, Evelyn served as Poet Laureate for the City of Vancouver.

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