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The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Paul Vermeersch

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Paul Vermeersch

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Carina Raymond:

Hi. How are you Mr. Vermeersch? It is an honour to interview you, read what you’re reading and read what you’re writing. Thank you for the opportunity.

So far, you have published four collections of poetry books, edited and contributed to several others and founded the IV Lounge Reading Series. Currently you are the poetry editor for Insomniac Press, are taking your MFA for creative writing at Guelph University and are teaching at Sheridan College. Outside of your busy work schedule, what sorts of activities do you enjoy in your free time?

In an interview with Jon Chapman, you said you liked to draw and paint and you pursued a BA in visual art. You also said that visual art eventually took a backseat to your poetry. Do you still draw and paint?

You mentioned that upon arriving in Toronto, you decided to enter the poetry community with both feet. Are the activities you mentioned mostly related to writing?

Paul Vermeersch:

Unfortunately, I don’t paint anymore. I often think that I would like to take it up again, but I just don’t have the time or space I would like to devote to it. Perhaps I will someday. I don’t feel that I need to paint as a creative outlet — writing gives me that — but it would certainly be fun.

In my free time, I like to read and get together with friends. I enjoy cooking and films. I’ve recently taken up jogging. It’s all very ordinary, but I live a happy life.


Who are some of your favourite canonical poets? Can you name a trait that you most admire? Though you mentioned you do not worry about preventing your poems from expressing the influence of the poets you admire, such as Al Purdy, what sorts of techniques, if any, do you use to make them as original as they are?


Some of my favourite poets are James Dickey, Peter Redgrove and Ted Hughes. It’s hard to explain what I like about them, because what I like about them is inimitable, though I will say all three poets have a facility for capturing the spooky power of nature, and I mean that in an expansive, all-encompassing way: not just the “nature” of green trees and furry things, but of the dizzying universe in all its hoary dominion. Poems can only tackle this power a little piece at a time, but poets like the ones I’ve mentioned are masters at it. I love the chill that runs up the spine when a poem succeeds in capturing that power; by capturing it, it seems to make the universe larger. I realize all this sounds quite ineffable, but I’m not certain how else to explain it. I think if it were easy to explain, we wouldn’t need poetry. It’s something I strive for in my own writing, but I don’t employ any particular techniques to achieve it. I think it’s important for any artist to be well-versed in a wide variety techniques. I let the poems tell me how they need to be written, and I apply writerly techniques as the need for them arises.


Calvin rarely talks throughout all of The Fat Kid, but it was particularly noticeable to me in “They Speak of Their Little Brother.” When his sisters are trying to improve his appearance, openly saying that it is hopeless, he says nothing, but is thinking about it all later on while alone. Was this intended to show that when criticized, he has no voice? If not, what were your intentions? Is there any other significance?


I think your reading of this poem is spot on. When other people describe him, Calvin has no voice. Their descriptions create his reality. He feels hopeless because of that.


The Fat Kid investigates many different situations where Calvin’s self-esteem could drop. It appears to have explored nearly every possible situation. Why did you focus the book on Calvin’s entire young life rather than a few scenes through one or two years? And why did you choose to end it with hope?


I hadn’t conceived the entire book from the beginning. I wasn’t aware that I was writing a book that had a sustained narrative and central character until I had already written a handful of poems. By that time, the episodic nature of the book was already well underway. If the book ends with hope, I think it’s an ambiguous hope, one that goes hand in hand with the potential for doom as well. Life doesn’t have easy or convenient resolutions, so I try to avoid them in my writing when I can.


You said in an interview with Michael Bryson for the Danforth Review that you enjoy the literary community in Toronto, but believe that certain types of meetings and conversations, such as the ones defining poetry, only result in stifling creativity. What sorts of topics do you then enjoy to discuss? Are there any recent discussions or ideas you would share?


My favourite conversations as far as literature goes are when people are talking about books that they love — an impassioned recommendation of a favourite book does more to excite me about reading than debates over literary fashions. But there are those who bang the drum of their own poetic fashions a little too loudly, in an attempt to drown out a different poetics, but I feel that this is not a productive discourse at all. Some discourses have built in to them the idea that other poetics are invalid or obsolete. I find this notion foolish, but artists can be fragile things, and sometimes they need the reassurance that comes with believing such things. I could go on at length about this, but I already have on my own blog. Here’s a link.


Last year, you published your fourth and best poetry collection to date, The Reinvention of the Human Hand. Do you intend to outdo yourself soon or perhaps after you have completed your MFA? You mentioned the beginnings of an apocalyptic book with Open Book: Toronto. Can you elaborate on the topic of your next book?


That apocalyptic book is my creative thesis for me MFA. I foresee that when I am finished the degree, the thesis will become my next book. It’s still taking shape, so I can’t say too much about it now. I think it’s my most creatively ambitious project to date. Perhaps I’ll leave it at that.

Paul Vermeersch’s new collection of poems is The Reinvention of the Human Hand, published by McClelland & Stewart in March 2010. He is also the author of the poetry collections Burn (ECW Press, 2000), a finalist for the 2001 Gerald Lampert Award, The Fat Kid (ECW Press, 2002), and Between the Walls (McClelland & Stewart, 2005). His poems have been translated into Polish, German and French. He is the also the editor of The Al Purdy A-frame Anthology, published in fall 2009 by Harbour Publishing. He lives in Toronto where he currently teaches at Sheridan College, studies at the University of Guelph, and works as poetry editor for Insomniac Press.

Carina is an affectionate linguist from Urban Ontario. Raised in the 3rd pew of a Christian church, she exhales spirited song. She is often found trying act studious while surrounded by a large and entertaining St. Lucian-Canadian family. The morsels of essays, stories, poems and songs she has written are untasted, incomplete and unpublished, with the exception of an oral essay about “la thérapie musicale” which she presented in 2008. Carina dreams of combining everything she has ever loved by teaching children French in Costa Rica and mashing dozens of aborted musical, athletic and mathematical passions into the career. At present, Carina secretly and quietly enjoys metastability with friends at her local high school.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page