Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Shane Neilson

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Shane Neilson

Open Book is celebrating National Poetry Month with daily profiles of today's "unacknowledged legislators of the world." Find out what inspires, confounds and delights the poets behind this spring's new releases by following our series.

Shane Neilson is a family physician who has written numerous books of poetry, all of which show fealty to his rural New Brunswick origins. The poems in his newest collection, Complete Physical (Porcupine's Quill), address the most important question that the physical begs: How are we to live in this world? Neilson writes, "The poems make that question tangential, they throw in details to make the poem fastenable…but they are always answering in earnest."

"Doctors share one important thing with poets: an obsession with death," observes Carmine Starnino. "Shane Neilson has turned that obsession — and the special death-watching vantage of his medical trade — into a collection of poems as beguiling and as brave as any I have recently read. In a clinical universe where suffering is distanced by language, Complete Physical becomes a kind of extraordinary talking cure. The human predicament has rarely found itself in such good hands."

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Shane Neilson:

My favourite anecdote about poet-ness, or lack thereof, involves my wife. But at the time the anecdote happened, she was my future wife. I had finished medical school and had just started residency in Newfoundland, travelling around the island, living from month to month, from hospital to hospital. Our wedding was to take place in Halifax, where we met, and we had to get a marriage license. We braved the Armdale Rotary (sadly neutered now, alas) and stopped at the government office. The registrar filled out the marriage certificate, stopping to ask what our occupations were.

This was an important, defining moment. And I blew it. I looked at my wife, and said, “Um, doctor?”

My wife brightly looked at the registrar and said, “Scientist.”

Now I ask you: which answer is cooler? I could have said “Poet” and totally won. But I didn’t. And my wife, who over the years could be said to have kept up her winning streak, still looks back on this episode with glee. Especially since she has now entered into a residency in Veterinary Medicine with the plan of doing research of the rest of her life.

I am going to write poetry for the rest of mine.

OB:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

SN:

This is a difficult question to answer, as poetry is really read to us from birth. I know that’s an obnoxious point to bring up, but we sing to our children in poetry: the strongly metered stuff is a bracing tonic for little minds. If the question is, What was the first poem I appreciated for aesthetic and thematic and rhetorical reasons? I’d have to say Theodore Roethke’s “Wish for a Young Wife.”

It is, not coincidentally, strongly metrical. It’s short. It brings to mind my first real love, especially the focus on what I can only believe is red hair. And I’ve memorized it, the first poem I memorized without being forced by failed writers. Plus it’s great at weddings — people tend to be shocked by poetry when they hear it instead of funny or compromising tales about the bride and groom.

OB:

What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?

SN:

Pick a poem from Philip Larkin’s Collected, and any of those will do.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

SN:

I’m not sure. I am certain that you get the “anything can be the source of my inspiration” answer, probably all the time. Perhaps I can answer this one oppositely: I primarily write about love and pain, using family as the stage for these two great abstracts. But I have written a poem about how God is a busted coffee machine. And a poem about Britney Spears. So I guess anything goes, really.

OB:

What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?

SN:

I know some poets who very, very rarely dispense with poems that flounder helplessly. They work diligently to resuscitate these beasts to the point where the poem eventually satisfies them. I do not endorse the necromancy method. I don’t mean to espouse a “first thought, best thought” policy either. I mean instead that laboriously slaving over a dead poem might make it better, but might not make it good; and if inspiration — God or Brits — takes you elsewhere, then go elsewhere.

My own practice is to finish a poem to the point where I think it’s serviceable, and then to move on to something else, and when there is no something else, I switch into editing mode. If I don’t get the necessary feeling from a poem, that low register “ne’er so well expressed” ring, then I scrap it and will, inevitably, doggedly, return to the sponsoring idea, event or image sometime later and write a different poem. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t ever scrap parts! Some of my darlings have been created, Frankenstein-like, from the pieces of failed predecessors.

OB:

What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?

SN:

This one is easy. Jim Johnstone’s Patternicity (Nightwood Editions, 2010). It’s shameful that it hasn’t garnered more attention.

OB:

What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?

SN:

The best thing about being a poet for me is the power, and responsibility, to wring beauty out of everyday experience. If one is doing things right, then the power — I mean exactly what I say — affects the reader. They feel the poem. And they therefore trust it. Sentimentality is the risk, of course, but like Peter Parker said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” So, when I write, for example, about my son’s grave illness, I know that, as best as I am able, I need to write something that preserves his spirit. Melodrama does injury to memory, right? I think any poet worth the appellation has to be out to break hearts.

I don’t know what I can cite as the bad news of poetry. One won’t make money, but I never got into it for the money. I chose medicine as a career so that I wouldn’t have to play the grant game and be beholden to idiots. Maybe the lack of attention provided to poetry? But, again, I look at the most prominent poets Canada boasts and there is a reason I chose the word “prominent” and not “best.” Even the small amount of attention placed on these elite seems illegitimate. No — I don’t think there’s anything bad about being a poet. As Al Moritz said to me once, a piece of advice I cherish, “the only reason to write poems is the feeling one gets from them.” And this is the real recommendation of poetry. The refinement, even the purification, of feeling. And making that communicable.

Shane Neilson is a family physician who published his first book of poems, Exterminate My Heart, with Frog Hollow Press in 2008. He published Meniscus with Biblioasis in 2009, and Alice and George is forthcoming from Goose Lane Editions. He also published a memoir about his training as a physician called Call Me Doctor. Neilson has been anthologized in The New Canon (Signature, 2005) and In Fine Form (Polestar, 2005.) He has edited Alden Nowlan and Illness, a book collecting all of Alden Nowlan’s medical poems, and the anthology Approaches To Poetry, a book collecting the work of 27 poets who write about what moves them (Frog Hollow Press, 2009).

For more information about Complete Physical please visit the Porcupine's Quill website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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