Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Paul Vermeersch

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February 22, 2010 -

Open Book: Toronto:

What was your first publication and where was it published?

Paul Vermeersch:

I had a poem published in John Degen’s Ink Magazine in 1996; that was the first. A lot of young poets in the 90s were publishing in Ink; fabulous local poets like Chris Chambers and Alexandra Leggat were publishing alongside established poets like Al Purdy. It was a wonderful little magazine, a real grassroots, community-building endeavor. After that, I began publishing poems in more and more Canadian journals, and my first book was published by ECW Press four years later.

OBT:

Tell us about your latest book, The Reinvention of the Human Hand.

PV:

I’m really proud of this book, and I think it’s definitely my best work to date. The poems are not overtly theoretical – I generally find that kind of writing tedious and affected – but they are very much influenced by contemporary notions of post-humanism and transhumanism as well as older notions of primitivism, particularly where those lines of thinking intersect and, I think, breed something new. But you needn’t be well-read in those fields of contemporary theory to understand my poems. Not at all. A lot of the book is concerned with the body (or the imagery of the body), how it can evolve or be artificially altered or even re-contextualized and re-imagined, and how those things can influence our understanding of what it means to be human. There are plenty of animal poems too, and a few that of a more intimate nature, but they each make their own contributions to the overall themes of the book.

OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

PV:

Not in terms of demographics, no, but I do try to remember that poems are meant to be read by someone. I don’t like poems that seem to be abstruse or difficult for their own sake or perhaps to make their authors appear more erudite or intellectual. That is not to say I am against making poems demanding and challenging to various degrees, but being an effective communicator of ideas is more vital than being an academic show-off.

I also think a poem should be entertaining, and I don’t take that word lightly at all. To entertain is to engage the mind on a powerful level. A great poem works both outside and inside the reader – some poems are impressive on the page, as they should be, but I am equally concerned with how a poem can make an impression viscerally, emotionally, within the reader. Even though I am constantly learning as much as I can about poetics and the craft of writing, there is no theory or technique that can account for that visceral human experience. I try to aim my poems there.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

PV:

In September of 2008 Harbour Publishing asked me to edit The Al Purdy A-frame Anthology. Editing the anthology – which serves as an awareness- and fund-raiser for the The Al Purdy A-frame Trust, an organization that seeks to establish a writing retreat in the house Al Purdy built on Roblin Lake – gave me the opportunity to reexamine some of my poetic roots. When I was still an undergraduate, Purdy was one of the first poets to really encourage me to follow my own path. He was famous for this kind of generosity with younger poets, so I don’t mean to suggest that I stood out from the crowd in any way, but his encouragement meant a lot to me back then, and it still does.

When the anthology finally came out this past fall, I was heartened by the attention and support it received. I think it’s true that Canada is often a country with a short cultural memory, by and large. We tear down historic buildings to build convenient eyesores. We overlook our pioneers, forget our trailblazers; we habitually celebrate the new at the expense of our history, even, sadly, to the point of deriding it. And some in the arts community have this attitude especially when it comes to the arts, as though any little breakthrough must essentially invalidate whatever came before it. I appreciate the advancement of the arts, absolutely, but the cult of the new can be a myopic one.

I think it’s important to appreciate the traditions we are contributing to, even when we are reacting against them. Seeing how much people still appreciate the poetry of Al Purdy was really wonderful to see. I’m not certain that the experience has influenced what I’m writing at the moment, except to say it has revitalized my hope that it might not all be in vain.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

PV:

Not in a coffee shop; i.e., not if I can help it.

Otherwise I think it’s best not to have an ideal for this kind of thing. Reality does not play well with ideals. A writer must be prepared to strike while the iron is hot. If you need a certain chair, or even a certain kind of pen, you won’t get the words down on paper when you need to. I write on the train, in the lunchroom at work, wherever I happen to be, especially when jotting down rough sketches for poems or first drafts. I also find the random characteristics of different places can lend unexpected qualities to the writing, and the unexpected in the writing should always be welcomed. Good ideas are everywhere. You have to be ready for them.

That said, I still do most of the grunt-work at home, at my desk, but it’s more out of convenience than necessity. And more out of familiarity than idealism, I suspect.

OBT:

Is there a book that you think you should have read by now but haven’t?

PV:

There are probably thousands of them. I’ve never read War and Peace, but Martin Levin, the books editor at the Globe and Mail, once told me that people shouldn’t read War and Peace until they’re forty-two years old, so I’m waiting until I’m forty-two.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

PV:

I would give them Rose Murray’s cookbook A Taste of Canada: A Culinary Journey, so they can begin to know our food, and I would give them the brand new anthology Canadian Poetry 1920 to 1960 edited by Brian Trehearne, so they can begin to know our poetry, and finally Will and Ian Ferguson’s book How to Be a Canadian so they can get a handle on the really, really important stuff, like what beer to drink and what to find offensive.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

PV:

Right now I am reading Unincorporated Persons of the Late Honda Empire by Tony Hoagland. And I recommend it.

OBT:

Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published?

PV:

Yes I do. If you want to be a literary writer, don’t worry about getting published. Forget all about it. Getting published is not the objective. Put it out of your mind entirely. If your main concern is getting published, then you are writing for all the wrong reasons. Don’t even think about getting published. Instead, worry about your writing. Is it good? Can it be better? What is it that you are contributing to the literature? Do you know what you are contributing to? Do you need to read more? Maybe you need to rewrite those last seven pages all together…. If you take care of your work on this level, finding a publisher will not be a problem. It will happen. It will practically take care of itself... when the time is right.

OBT:

What's your next project?

PV:

Now that my latest book The Reinvention of the Human Hand is hot off the press, I’m ready for a new project. Since I’ve recently gone back to school to do an MFA in creative writing with the University of Guelph, I have the opportunity to work on something new in a structured writing and learning environment, and I find the process creatively invigorating. Last semester I had a poetry workshop with Toronto Poet Laureate Dionne Brand. In that class I began working on something that brings the idea of an apocalyptic text, for example the Revelation of Saint John or the Prophecies of Nostradamus, and updates the tradition for the modern, secular age. I can see that being the basis for my next book.

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