The following interview is part seven of an eight-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2021. All eight interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca. This was the third year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here, and the 2020 interviews here).
12 (Door) - Barbara Nickel
To let you find another place and shadow,
hollow in my old backyard, before
the summer’s gone, let’s set out before dawn
to get the sun and mist past Hope. I know
the route. You whistle, off and on. Hours
allow us the braided streams and blackbird, ditch garbage, wet faces
of rock, paintbrush, wild vetch and, after a day, a glacial
snout too far away, discharging milky water. Rock flour
I say as if I still know more than you.
Doritos on the floor. Even at night the wheat
stays waiting near where your grandpa hated
picking rocks from the soil and now he’s moving
toward the door to us—
I wish. We can’t. Too dangerous.
September 10, 2020
Excerpt from the long poem “Corona.”
Reprinted with permission
from Essential Tremor
(Caitlin Press, 2021).
Rob Taylor: Your last poetry collection, 2007’s Domain, was structured around a house – each section opened with a sonnet named after a different room (“Master Bedroom, ” “Utility Room,” “Storage Room” etc.) It seems telling that your new book, Essential Tremor, opens with a poem about an abandoned house, “seen-through, its thin frame all pane-/less windows.” Then we continue into a book which seems to have left the house behind and moved into a more fundamental vessel: the body.
Essential Tremor features long sequences on body parts (scientific, biblical), poems on autopsies and accidents, and of course the long poem on COVID-19, “Corona,” of which “12 (Door)” is one part: our bodies as sites of disease and distance. The book’s title, too, is drawn from the quavering of a body breaking down.
Could you talk a bit about this focus on the body in Essential Tremor? Did you intentionally frame this book in response to Domain, or was this just where your writing naturally took you in your more recent writing?
That’s an insightful perception—what you say about the house focus and structure of Domain
connected to Essential Tremor
’s opening poem, “Saskatoon to Coaldale, July, Highway”—leaving behind an old house and moving on. I wish I could claim your insight as being part of my master plan, but it absolutely wasn’t! Yes, to your second question, though, about the body being where my writing has naturally taken me in the last thirteen years.
That opening poem is set on a road trip. I still can’t explain it and it keeps changing on re-readings, a bit like when you’re in the car and looking out at a landscape in flux. Now that I think of it, exploring the body in its various forms (i.e. human body, world, divine) in this manuscript happened in a road trip sort of way. I remember reading “Onychomycosis”—a poem inspired by my infected fungal toenail—at the Vancouver Writers Fest in 2007, only months after Domain’s release. During the reading I was only able to stand straight because I was on morphine to kill the pain from a herniated disc for which I later had surgery (that occasioned the poem “Hospital Room”). Since that time, poem projects about the body in its various forms just seem to have arisen, even as late as November 2020, right down to the wire a few days before I had to submit the final manuscript to Caitlin.
Over the years my feelings about the body have intensified. For instance, Essential Tremor contains two poems of that name: the first was written as a portrait/tribute to the caregiving of my father-in-law for his wife, while the second was written years later for my husband, who’d been diagnosed with an illness. So the tremor moved as it were from an earthquake happening at a distance, to occurring in the body of my own spouse, a major disruption within my own family. The title Essential Tremor was a working one (interchanged with other possible titles) long before the second poem was even written. I was thinking about the body in a general sense all along, but specific outside events kept intensifying over the years of the manuscript’s journey.
RT: Looking back, can you see other broad changes between your three books?
BN: In my first book, The Gladys Elegies, I was taken up with family history—stories of aunts and uncles and distant ancestors in events such as the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression in Saskatchewan. Domain, as you mention focussed on a house in the past—more specifically, concerns of my childhood home and what branched from it. I’d say Essential Tremor is much more concerned than the other two with the present—what’s happening in the body (be it planet, spouse, family, friend) I’m living and breathing in now, although in many poems obviously I draw from the past.
RT: The book is concerned with the present, no doubt! I’m not sure I’ve encountered a book that was so current: Essential Tremor contains a long poem on Coronavirus (a “Corona corona”), a poem on Donald Trump’s election defeat, and more (some of them are tagged as having been written mere weeks before I received my electronic review copy!). On the other hand, as you say, some of the poems are quite old, dating back to just after the publication of Domain. This results in some significant chronological leaps in the book.
It feels like you had this “body” (Sorry! Couldn’t help myself!) of writing you’d accumulated slowly over more than a decade, and then the “outside events” of 2020 crashed in and shifted everything about (even after, I assume, you’d signed your book contract with Caitlin Press!). My guess is that you usually work slowly and methodically, and writing so much new content in the months before publication was unusual.
Could you talk about the slow-fast way the book came into being? Did bringing together the book’s old and new parts give you insight into how your writing style (or substance) has shifted within the relatively large span of time in which this book was written?
BN: If you can believe it, I’m grateful in this case for rejections. I thought the manuscript was ready years ago. This was just under a decade past Domain’s publication; I admit I’m a slow cooker writer at the best of times. But this time around, placing the manuscript was much more difficult than placing my first two collections. The reasons for this are many and varied and complicated—the current publishing climate, time and place and circumstance, manuscript queues and less availability—everyone is booked; the wait times can be years.
But perhaps also, Essential Tremor simply wasn’t ready when I thought it was. After some rejections occurring over a span of years, I began to look at it carefully and as objectively as I could. I took out poems and even sequences I thought weren’t working anymore. When the pandemic hit last spring, I began the “Corona” series and although it was still in process, I included most of that sequence in the full manuscript I sent to Caitlin in early June. After I received Caitlin’s book offer in late summer 2020, I was still finishing the “Corona” series and added a few new poems in the fall while working to prepare the manuscript for publication.
As a result, you have these bizarre juxtapositions in time: old poems that I felt had staying power alongside new responses to what was happening in the world out my window at a very specific and disruptive time. This unusual, often really discouraging and sometimes exhilarating timeline in the evolution of a manuscript was such a gift in the end.
Essential Tremor wouldn’t be complete without the “Corona” series. I’m grateful to Caitlin for taking the risk of accepting a book that was in flux right down to the final deadline. “From Beethoven’s Autopsy” was published in CV2 in the spring of 2014; its companion poem, “Beethoven’s Ninth (Finale),” which is partly a response to Trump’s election defeat, was completed a few days before I turned in the final manuscript in mid-November! As I write this, I’ve just posted a tribute poem on my website for a musician and friend who died suddenly last week after complications from brain cancer surgery. If it weren’t so late in the game, I’d probably want to include that poem as well.
RT: Writers seemed to divide into two camps during the first year of COVID-19. One group wrote prodigiously while the other wrote little or nothing. You’re certainly in the former group, writing all these new poems (especially, of course, your thirteen-part crown sonnet, “Corona”). What drew you to writing about COVID-19 head-on and with such energy?
BN: The “Corona” sequence was the main work I completed during the first part of the pandemic. With the exception of four other poems written in 2020, most of the book had been written years before.
Maybe I was poetically prepared for the series when COVID-19 came along because I’d already written a sonnet corona for Domain; the “room” sonnets you’ve mentioned formed a sort of circular foundation to my book about the reach of my childhood home. Like so many households across the planet at the start of the pandemic, ours was stressful and chaotic. Suddenly everyone was home at the same time and space felt limited. Computers (including mine) were in high demand. I was constantly washing my hands and reading the news and stressing about it.
The idea of writing a “corona for the Corona” had been simmering for a little while. Looking at images of the spherical virus with its spiky crown, I knew that these physical and poetic shapes would need to merge; how couldn’t they? Then late one night I couldn’t sleep for desperately itchy hands (from all that washing), and I decided enough is enough, this project needs to begin.
I stayed up all night and emerged in the morning with a draft of the first sonnet. From then on, you could say that I’d found a container for all the stress and overwhelm, but also for the current events daily grabbing my attention. My “new” office was the walk-in closet, a fitting space to write in the sonnet form at a time of isolation and fear. It felt safe in there, even with the smell of dirty laundry wafting up. Every week or two, I’d start with a page, blank except for the last line of the previous sonnet. Potential topics abounded; everything was new. Should I write about those one-on-one classical music concerts taking place in airports in Germany (I never did), or that tragedy at the Cargill meat-processing plant in Alberta, the queen’s speech in green, Dr. Bonnie Henry’s latest stats, or Trump rejecting the WHO?
Tied to this current was the current of how I was publishing the work. Having spent years sending only very polished and long-worked-over poems to journals, waiting sometimes for the good part of a year to hear back and then, if accepted, possibly another several months before a poem would appear in print, I’d decided at the project’s conception that I would publish on my website each sonnet as soon as it was “finished,” then send out an email alert to my subscribers. It felt momentous at first, to press “Send” on MailChimp, watch the chimp’s big hands applauding, know that within seconds people would be reading my poem. (I’ve taken all the sonnets down now because of the book, though the first five sonnets have just appeared in subTerrain.)
Rob, I also want to say that in the midst of this I had to think of your book The News and its tying together of news and the body, and the inspiring Pound quote (“news that stays news”). That led me to an article I found online in NiemanReports, “Poetry: The News that Stays News,” by Stephanie Burt, where she discusses a long tradition of poetry, and sonnets in particular, being used to react to the news. She writes that the “supposed oppositions between poems and news just dissolve on scrutiny…” I kept all that in mind when the content of my project wanted to stray from the virus to, say, Black Lives Matter (“8 (Ghost)”), or the environment (“13 (Smoke)”). It gave me assurance that it was okay to go beyond the confines of COVID-19.
RT: Oh! Well, I’m glad I could be of help, though I think Pound and Burt did the heavy lifting in this case. I wonder, also, if your pre-existing theme of “the body” (and captivity, in the “Anchoress” poems) helped make the transition to writing about the virus feel more natural?
BN: It never felt like a transition but more an inevitability, a natural extension of the work I was already doing. For instance, long after I’d finished the series and was working with my editor, David O’Meara, on order and rewriting, I discovered the connections between the “Anchoress” series—poems about a medieval sister who sealed herself because of religious conviction into a cell for life—and the themes of isolation, desire and the body present in “Corona.” That felt like a surprise gift.
RT: In 2004, Books in Canada published a discussion between you and Elise Partridge about the poetry of Margaret Avison. In it, Partridge expressed gladness that Avison avoided writing in a confessional mode, and you replied that “A voice that avoids the “I” can take on an authority it otherwise wouldn’t,” and you go on to say that:
“Part of the reason I’m convinced by the voice [in Avison’s poems] is because it’s not trying to support [its] observations… with personal experiences, emotions, and anecdotes… the distant, omniscient narrator can become a presence for the reader over a space of many poems. You come to simply accept that there is no poetic “I” here – and with that, after reading many poems, comes an acceptance of the authority of the all-knowing voice.”
I know—egads—that that was 17 years ago, but I wonder to what extent you currently aspire to Avison’s all-knowing voice in your own writing, and to what extent you might resist it. I wonder because certain sections of Essential Tremor seem to be channeling personal experience and emotion (and often the lyric “I”), while others present an all-knowing voice of sorts (the “Anchoress” poems, the Haydn sequence, etc.).
Could you talk about the role of the “I” in this book? Did you feel it particularly necessary, or unavoidable, in the “Corona” sequence? What effect do you think this mix of the personal voice and the more “distant, omniscient narrator” has on the way the book operates as a whole?
BN: That’s such an interesting and important question. What’s present but not stated in that interview with Elise is a piece of information given by Avison at the end of her Foreword to Always Now, the first volume of her Collected. She mentions her debt to Gladys Story, a teacher she only knew for one term in grade nine. Avison writes, “It was she who…gave me this valuable counsel: ‘For the next ten years do not use the first person in any poem you write.’ The impact of that advice is likely perceptible down through the years.”
It’s timely to think about Avison and voice just now because only a short time ago, I “attended” an extraordinary reading at Concordia in Montreal, part of their “Ghost Reading Series,” where a group of people on Zoom listened, on January 27, 2021, to a recording of a reading given by Avison in Montreal on January 27, 1967. As you can imagine, the juxtapositions, questions of present or absent, time and place, here or there, especially as listened to remotely, loomed eerily and thought-provokingly and might require an essay! In the recording, Avison read “Thaw,” one of my favourite poems and a classic example in her work of the absent “I.” I was surprised by her deadpan, casual voice that was somehow disappointing but at the same time highlighted the music of her lines, the articulation of her consonants. I feel the absent “I” gives her voice a kind of neutrality that allows you to hear the music better than you would otherwise.
Avison is a huge influence, and I’m sure that counsel from Story via Avison stuck with me as well, even long before the publication of Domain. I think in poems like “Passport,” “Nickel Mines,” “Essential Tremor (Her shaking),” even “Hospital Room,” my intent was to become so absorbed in the presentation, observation and reflection of the subject so as to lose the surface self, the “I,” entirely. (In “Hospital Room,” the “I” appears but only at the end, in a statement about Avison.)
I’m realizing just from thinking about it now that Elise also influenced me in this regard. Consider “Everglades,” the first poem of her first book, Fielder’s Choice. The “I” is invisible and yet we learn so much about the “I” because of the choice of diction and detail of observation. Christopher Patton, Stephanie Bolster and I talked about this poem, its great seeing, at length in the opening of “For Elise,” our conversation about Elise published in CV2 (Fall, 2015). Paging through her Collected Poems now, I see poem after poem about other people or even things (“If Clouds Had Strings”) that use this “I-less” sensibility to render poems filled with close-seeing.
I can’t leave this question without talking about Elizabeth Bishop, who I know was a huge influence for Elise and whose Complete Poems are never far away. I find it’s difficult sometimes to avoid the “I,” and obviously some of the poems in Essential Tremor absolutely need it. But then there’s the option of using the “we,” this sort of collective consciousness you find all over the place in Bishop. I’m thinking of a poem like “The Moose” (“Moonlight as we enter/the New Brunswick woods”) or “Questions of Travel.” What is it about the “we” in these poems? Somehow it allows the poet to travel as an “I” but to lose oneself in the crowd and give voice perhaps to the concerns of the collective. That’s a comfort, sort of like the moment I discovered that I could hide “Self View” on Zoom and still speak and be seen by others. A self-consciousness, all those awkwardnesses, can be lost although the voice is still there.
And then there’s the address to a “you” found in, for example, “12 (Door),” the poem you’ve published here. And a different use of “you,” the second-person, where the “I” is the “you” but somehow more distant, in “The Milk River.” And the persona poems, taking on an “I” for another in “Onychomycosis” and the “Anchoress” poems. All these ways of getting around the “I”! But really, it’s not so much avoiding the “I” as simply finding the voice that the poem needs. Perhaps all along, unconsciously, I wanted the book to speak from a lot of different angles, to resonate with da Vinci’s voice from his anatomical manuscript in the found sequence “Body in a Mirror”: “I have looked/from/outside from inside/
from/ outside from/behind…” I wanted that prism of perspectives.
RT: That prism of perspectives spreads out over the book’s various themes, too. In addition to the body, Essential Tremor is also concerned with the spirit. Two longer sequences are built out of/around biblical passages, most notably the sequence which looks at references to body parts in the Gospels. How did thinking about the spirit shape how you thought about the body, and vice-versa?
BN: By “spirit,” I’m assuming you mean a divine spirit (as opposed to the human spirit, poetic spirit, etc.), since you mention the sequence referencing body parts in the Gospels?
RT: Yes, though I think those other “spirits” are in there, too.
BN: It’s interesting, when I was writing a book description for Caitlin, I wrote about the spirit as a body I was exploring in the book, along with the body of the world and the human body: “…and the divine body, questioned, encountered and not, sought by people from the margins in the body of a biblical palimpsest.”
I hope that readings of this sequence (previously titled “Consider the Ear,” though it’s now untitled) and other poems in Essential Tremor might render body and spirit not as separate themes but as inextricably entwined and even as one.
“Consider the Ear” was a response, years ago, to a poem I heard at a reading that seemed, at least to me, to mock what I hold sacred. As a person of faith, I wasn’t so much offended as thinking there’s more to it than that, layers beneath the laughter in the room. In the weeks and months and years following that experience, I was drawn to stories from the Gospels about marginalized people—women, a servant, a blind homeless person—whose encounter with the divine occurred in a part of their body—ear, eye, hair, uterus. In trying to discover the poem, I’d zone in on the word for a particular body part—say “hair”—and research its etymology. This, in turn, called up a palette of possibilities in terms of narrative, diction and tone. In addition, a new form for these poems emerged, giving me a poetic body for this confluence of body and spirit.
In my previous books, not wanting to be misunderstood or boxed in, I think I’ve tried to hide my thirst for the spirit inside music or my Mennonite family history or even in the sometimes convenient obscurity of language. In these poems—even visually there’s a lot of bare space—there’s really no place to hide, and so I suppose it’s no surprise that I tried to sequester “Consider the Ear” in the manuscript when trying to find a publisher, maybe hoping editors wouldn’t notice and therefore (I imagined) I’d have a better chance of acceptance. Yet I couldn’t take the sequence out. In the end, David came up with the excellent suggestion of nesting them within the “Anchoress” series; I felt suddenly they’d found a place to be unashamedly themselves, I like to think perhaps part of this woman’s lifetime of meditation in her cell on scripture and spirit not bound by time or place.
RT: I share your frustration with how some writers, and publishers, treat religious themes: as though all religious thoughts and beliefs are of a kind and easily dismissed. So much richness is discarded in the process, richness you’ve explored with great success in Essential Tremor. I’m sorry you felt a need to hide it away. But, as is often the case for you, form offered a solution!
Like your previous books, Essential Tremor features a wide range of poetic forms, both traditional and of your own devising. You’ve spoken about how you decided to write a “Corona corona” in advance of any of the poems being written – to what extent is that your standard approach? Do you more often say “I’m going to write a [insert form here],” or do you start writing and somewhere along the way the content moves into a pre-established shape?
BN: Most often I start writing and find a form along the way. My poems usually begin with images and ideas and maybe a kind of tone, and after I’ve been playing around with these for a while, a voice will emerge that seems to reach out for a form. For example, “Cyclist Killed in Collision on Highway 22” was conceived at a time when I was emotionally distraught at the sudden loss of a very close friend. It was inspired in part by a newspaper article and photo of his accident. A reporter’s voice that holds emotion at a distance emerged and needed a container. Years before, I’d been reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and thought after the accident that the numbered, prose poem-like sequence that she uses might be a way forward for this poem. I tried it and knew that the form was serving the voice; it felt right. The voice seems to know if it will need an expansive container or a tight one, one that uses meter or if things can be looser.
In a number of poems in Essential Tremor, I believe I started out writing a sonnet and then found that I needed shorter lines—iambic pentameter roughly cut in half—to get key images and verbs on the ends of lines. So these “thin poems” emerged, still roughly metered but with only two or three beats per line. Somehow these poems seemed to let the voice out of a container so that it could almost float down the page.
RT: I love that idea—building containers so you can later release your poems from them. I sense an increase in this kind of formal experimentation—making new shapes out of, or in response to, traditional ones—in Essential Tremor. It feels like something that comes with time and experience writing formal verse (knowing the rules to break them, knowing the container to throw it open, etc.). Do you think that’s true? Have you sensed your relationship with form shifting over the years?
BN: I’d definitely say that I feel more free and confident formally since my first two books. As I mentioned earlier, there was this new form that emerged with the “Consider the Ear” sequence. I call it “sound scaffolding.” I was choosing from word hoards I’d developed where consonance seemed important. Take a word like “plucks,” that opens the poem “Hair.” That word got me “chicken,” followed by “lily” then “hair, fear, guitar.” It was a stanza—k, k, l, r, r, r; all the little words in between didn’t count. That set the stanza pattern I’d follow for the rest of the poem. Those poems probably come across as loose and free, spatially on the page as well, but actually they’re sonically very tightly structured.
I like your word “experimentation.” I think even with the sonnets, I felt bolder in Essential Tremor to play with the form, to trespass against the rules. I felt free to relax the voice and vary the pentameter, let a line find hexameter or tetrameter or even trimeter if I felt the poem needed it, especially in the “Corona” series but even, when I look now, in the “Anchoress” poems. If you look at the line that ends “Anchoress (2)”—“Kneel for lauds. Confess.” I wouldn’t have tried that in previous books, especially for the last line! But I wanted it short and terse to reflect the anchoress’s sparse conditions, the way she’d stripped down her life to the bare bones.
Same thing with rhyme. I’ve always been drawn to slant rhyme but sometimes, at least in the “Corona” sonnets, there was something that I wanted to say and the “right” rhyme just wasn’t available to me, so I pulled in what I could at the time. I’m looking at “6 (Doctor)” in “Corona”—I mean, really!—“foil” and “circles” as rhyming pair? But then, I’d used “frail” (with “until”!) earlier in the sonnet so maybe I argued with myself that the echo counted for something, especially in such a small space.
I think back to an essay that was formative for me—“The Triggering Town,” by Richard Hugo. It explores the question: what comes first, the truth or the music? He answered—and I wholeheartedly agreed—that the music should lead the way. And that’s how it’s always been for me, especially at the start. I’d agonize for weeks over a single syllable or rhyme and somehow that would lead me to what I wanted to say. It’s still like that to some extent but I think mixed in with that now—especially with “Corona”—is a need to say something, and I was just reaching into a bag and pulling out what I required to say it right. Maybe as a result the newer poems don’t take themselves as seriously although they are still serious poems, if that makes any sense.
RT: Yes, entirely. I love that Zach Wells’ book of Canadian sonnets was entitled Jailbreaks. Some level of trespass is almost required these days. I suspect few contemporary Canadian poets have thought about the constraints and opportunities of the sonnet as much as you do: I did the math, and one-quarter of the poems in Domain, and almost half of Essential Tremor, are sonnets and sonnet sequences. And as mentioned above, sonnets make up the foundation of your book on houses, and the spine of your book on the body!
What is it about the sonnet that keeps you returning to it? The shape, the structure, the tradition, the length-of-thought?
Your mention of Jailbreaks
takes us back to Avison, as Zach titled that anthology after a word from her sonnet “Snow”! It’s probably telling that The Gladys Elegies
—the title of my first book—is also the title of its opening sonnet sequence; there are a lot of sonnets in that book as well. I started writing sonnets almost at the same time that I started writing poetry, inspired by a sonnet sequence published in PRISM international
by the British poet Selima Hill. As a musician, I resonated with the form; the sonnet gave me a very tight structure to follow and was so closely tied to music—the word comes from the Italian sonetto
meaning “little song.” I could let music lead the way and because I was just starting out, I could let the form shape a voice that wasn’t very confident at the time. I needed something tangible to hang on to, and found the dissonance of slant rhyme energizing—I remember the satisfaction of coming up with “ice” and “face” for a couplet in my first book, for instance.
The sonnet’s brevity has always challenged me to work for every syllable; the form itself is a kind of editor. And a sonnet’s sensibility seems to embody many of the themes I’ve been drawn to—restriction and release in music and faith, family, the body, love, death, travel, landscapes, time and its various puzzles. The sonnet allows me to explore these things from the outside in and the inside out; it’s a form equally suited to inward and outward moments, and it allows the poet to move between the two. There’s enough space to do this, but not so much that the move gets old after a while. It’s really marvelously flexible and versatile.
I spoke earlier of current events in the “Corona” series, how the form became a medium for the news that always seemed to be breaking in the early stage of the pandemic. They were a bit like news shorts with some reflection and observation twisted in. Burt, in the article I mentioned earlier, says “The form of the sonnet, so often associated with erotic love, has become so prominent in English in part because poets use it to react to the news…” and then goes on to mention Milton, Wordsworth, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others. Without meaning to, I’d fallen into a tradition that was somehow risky and stable at the same time. Which again reflects the pandemic—the humdrum activity of going to the store or staying at home suddenly felt new and dangerous.
New—I think in the end that’s what keeps me coming back to the sonnet. It’s like writing on those old chalkboard school slates—you can erase it and come up with something entirely different every time, but always within the same small frame. In the “Corona” series, inspired by Donne’s “La Corona,” I switched from the Shakespearean sonnet that I’d used exclusively since the start, to the Italian form. It was really refreshing—suddenly I had this new shape to work with. I could play with the octave and the sestet, and use the “gulf” of a stanza break between octave and sestet to evoke different worlds (the world of the family, the world of the news). And the “new” rhyme pattern was liberating as well—the freedom suddenly of a rhyming pair in consecutive lines!
RT: Are there particular subjects that you find you can’t quite fit into the little slate of a sonnet?
BN: Yes, for example the poem about the cyclist friend, which I mentioned earlier. I had this garbage bag full of his bike parts that had been strewn all over the ditch, which a bunch of us had collected in grief a week after his accident. It all was much too raw and sprawling for a sonnet, at least that’s how it felt at the time.
RT: A form that makes a small, but powerful, presence in both of your last two books is the triolet, a dense and twisting French form. With rigorous rhyme and repetition requirements, most notably that the same line is repeated three times over a mere eight lines, it’s a form I suspect is rarely attempted and even more rarely satisfactorily completed. And yet here you are, writing them so very well! The triolet “Five Years” in Essential Tremor closes the book. It’s in response, and tribute, to Elise Partridge’s “Vuillard Interior,” which is the finest triolet I’ve ever read. You’ve touched upon Elise’s influence on your writing already, but could you talk particularly about her effect on your thinking about form, and specifically the triolet?
BN: In that conversation about Elise in CV2 with Christopher and Stephanie, we talked at length about “Vuillard Interior,” Chris quoting the poem in full. I noted at the time that it’s the only triolet in Elise’s oeuvre, and called it “a form that seems to circle endlessly like the ouroboros eating its tail…” I mentioned Elise’s masterful rhyme and meter, the way it all blends so seamlessly as to make the poem’s subject, the servant, vanish, and yet this very success ensures she’ll never disappear—it seems no one can forget this poem.
And sure enough, here she is showing up in “Five Years.” As with so many occurrences in the process of bringing this book together, it wasn’t something I planned. After years of indecision about what the last poem in the collection should be, this poem came as a gift shortly after the fifth anniversary of Elise’s death.
Elise was a dear friend. We met decades ago at the Vancouver Poetry Dogs, a group of mostly scholars and poets devoted to reading and discussing poetry not our own. She gave so much of herself to everyone she knew; she was a formidable scholar as well as a great poet, and tirelessly shared her wisdom with others. Writing in form was such a huge part of her work, and she was devotedly interested in my sonnets and other work in meter and rhyme. When I was working this past fall on editing the book, I came across lengthy comments she’d given on two of the “Anchoress” sonnets. What a treasure trove! There was her voice in my ear—praising, questioning, drawing connections and highlighting allusions I’d forgotten. I made some late changes to the poems based on comments she’d given years earlier! She also suggested that I consult her husband, Steve, so I did; he offered valuable help as well.
I’ve never stopped learning from Elise; hearing her voice, reading her essays and looking up words I don’t know, puzzling over the intricacies, subtleties and images in her work. The “stone in your book on my desk” in the last line of “Five Years” refers to “Algaed Stones: Prayer” in the Uncollected and Unpublished section of her Collected Poems. Elise’s stone is both ancient and currently alive, an observation I used in my triolet to try to get at both my grief for her absence and wonder at her ongoing presence.
I listened to an amazing podcast “at” the Vancouver Writers Fest this past fall, a conversation between Marilynne Robinson and Ian Williams. Robinson near the end says, “I believe in the reality of dead people.” For me this both startled and resonated, especially in the context of Elise and her work.
RT: Oh wow, what a gift to find those notes on your poems! I wish I could stumble upon the same from Elise—few things lifted me as a writer more than a note from her on some poem of mine.
Two other poets who have profoundly influenced your writing life are Stephanie Bolster and Christopher Patton, who we’ve referred to at various times throughout this interview. The second-to-last poem in Essential Tremor is dedicated to them, and you thank them in your acknowledgments for their “decade plus years of sustained dedication to these poems.” Flip open Domain to its Acknowledgments page and there they are again, similarly being thanked for “a decade of commitment to these poems.” That’s 23 years of commitment, Barbara! These two are in it for the long haul! Could you talk a little about your triangular friendship? What role have they played in making your books happen?
BN: Chris, Stephanie and I met in my first poetry workshop, with George McWhirter in UBC’s Creative Writing Program. For me it was an incredibly formative class; friendships I made with several of its members have lasted for years afterwards. At first, the triangular friendship you mention wasn’t as prominent; it was more like three strongly bonded pairs. Then at some point along the way—I’m not sure how or when—this “we three” thing happened. We worked together to give presentations at several conferences and maybe that helped to solidify it. Chris and I launched books together in 2007 and Stephanie was there to give an introduction. In it she said something jokingly about the three of us starting a school, which of course couldn’t happen because our work is so vastly different. And yet there’s a common sensibility, a deep understanding about where the other is coming from and what they’re trying to do.
These two friends have always been my first and last and everything-in-between readers, and I’ve been the same—in different ways—for them. You can’t measure the kind of trust that develops over years of this kind of working relationship. And we’ve rarely lived in proximity to each other, so it’s formed over decades of email correspondence along with those rare times we can actually meet in person. Just the other day, something came up with a line break when I was going over the page proofs for Essential Tremor. I immediately emailed the two of them with the small dilemma. Within hours, I’d received responses—of course they had different opinions, that always happens, and that’s part of the strength of it.
And it’s not just about the work—all of those crises and joys life tosses at you through the seasons and years—Chris and Stephanie are there. How to express gratitude for this ineffable thing? A gift poem for them, about the gift of the body of a book, is what I can offer.
Essential Tremor is Barbara Nickel’s third collection of poetry. Her first, The Gladys Elegies, won the Pat Lowther Award. Her work has appeared in many publications including The Walrus and Poetry Ireland Review. Barbara is also an award-winning author of books for young people. She lives and writes in Yarrow, BC.