In Conversation: Sina Queyras & Kerry-Lee Powell

SQ: Congratulations. Inheritance is an impressive, powerful first book. It feels quite unlike many Canadian first books in terms of craft, weight, and to some extent tone, if not concerns. Can you tell me how the book came to be?

KLP: The collection centres around a shipwreck endured by my father in the second world war, his subsequent struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide. I wanted the collection to function as both an elegy and a love letter to the world that made and destroyed him. The subject matter imposed a number of constraints and meant that I was working with a subdued palette. Much of the rhetorical flamboyance that I admire in my fellow Canadian poets would have felt out of place. As the book approached publication, I became anxious about the emotional intensity of many of the poems. But it struck me that the forms needed the emotional intensity, would have been just so much dead wood without that heft.

I am a sound-oriented writer, and tend towards rhyme and slant rhyme and hard Anglo-Saxon stresses even in my fiction. I felt that working with older forms suited the outward theme of the collection. But there were other qualities, the doomed logic of the sonnet, the obsessive-compulsive repetitions of the villanelle that seemed ideally suited to the subject of mental trauma.

I don’t necessarily see myself as a formalist. Part of the pleasure of poetry for me, whether it’s free verse or conceptual or formal, is to find the patterns and constraints in any given piece. Are they conceptual, tonal, emotional? Where are the weights and balances? I find it hard to appreciate poetry that is shapeless or has too many false notes. As the collection grew, I became aware of how very austere many of the poems were, and it was a challenge to loosen up and experiment with longer lines. I generally did so in poems about buildings or landscapes, poems that dealt with broader social issues or where I wanted a more multi-faceted texture.

SQ: I see you’ve traveled widely and read Medieval and Renaissance literature. Has your engagement with literature from this period always been part of your reading and writing of contemporary poetry?

KLP: My father was often ill- in addition to post traumatic stress disorder he had a serious heart condition- throughout my childhood, and I lived with various relatives when my father was unable to look after me. Later on, after my father disappeared, I was a rebellious runaway who got expelled from a few schools. I sometimes get far-flung emails from people who knew me back then saying “I can’t believe you’re still alive.”

When you move often, you’re forced to grapple with the tribal prejudices and insecurities of locals, the irksome rituals of establishing your place in any given pecking order. If you move often enough, you become aware of how contingent, how arbitrary and self-serving many value systems are. And of course, you learn even more about humanity as a runaway teenage girl. I would say that these experiences, and growing up with a parent who was profoundly mentally ill, have shaped my world-view more than anything else. I also read a lot. As a teen, it made sleeping behind the furnace in an office building seem more like high adventure than the misery it was. I remember crying my eyes out on the side of the highway because I’d left a copy of Dylan Thomas’s poetry on the eighteen-wheeler that had just deposited me in the middle of nowhere.

My father was from Wales, and I moved there to live with an aunt and uncle after my father committed suicide. I talked my way into university despite never having graduated from high school, and was a reasonably talented student, winning scholarships and prizes in Ancient History and English. I settled on Medieval and Renaissance literature because I had already read a great deal of modern literature, and I had come to really love Anglo-Saxon and Middle English and French poetry.

Cardiff University was then a renowned centre for critical theory, home to luminaries like Catherine Belsey, Christopher Norris, and Terry Hawkes. I was drawn to Marxist and psychoanalytic theory, both of which have had an on-going and productive effect on my engagement with all literature, including my own work. While at university I also read a lot of contemporary British poetry, Gwyneth Lewis and Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell, who, incidentally, is my cousin. I started to write fiction and poetry and had a fair amount of interest from publishers but I balked. I hated my work back then, felt it wasn’t ‘me’, and I still have long stretches where I can’t write or read poetry. It’s odd to confess, but I’m not always interested or able to engage in that kind of intimacy. But you can reach, or at least I occasionally reach, moments of awful emptiness. And then I’ll turn to poetry, fill up the void with echoes. I tend to read American poetry these days, mostly women.

SQ: I really admired the specificity of your poems, both in terms of the content but also the form; they have an inevitable quality about them that of course looks easy from the outside. “The Lifeboat,” for example. It’s ballad, elegy, sonnet… You’ve really turned this tale around and condensed to the musical essentials. It seems to me that the story here has undergone several such revisions and transformations—it’s so beautifully, so utterly wholly conceived. This is a rare achievement. Can you talk about the process with that poem in particular?

KLP: Thank you, Sina. My father hardly ever spoke about the eleven days he spent on a lifeboat in the North Sea during the war, but it was a legend in our family and we had been told the story as children many times by relatives. It was only when I was a little older that I began to understand post-traumatic stress disorder, and felt the impact of those haunting images, the sense of their return being inevitable as a tide. When I wrote “The Lifeboat” I had been more or less bedridden for a couple of years with what later turned out to be a manageable illness. At the time I had no hope of recovering, and I’m convinced it was this despair that allowed me to imaginatively relive my father’s experiences. I understood, fully and with compassion, why he had taken his own life. I was half-asleep with the window open and a notepad beside me when the last line seemed to rise out of my bed sheets like a swelling chorus, drowning out the voices of the children playing in the park across the road. It was a serious moment, perhaps one of the most serious moments I’ve ever had.

My task was then to pare the poem down to its barest elements, try to attain, to borrow a phrase from Plath, ‘the illusion of a Greek necessity.’ I wanted to strip away as much extraneous detail as I could to show that the poem wasn’t only about my father’s tragedy but about how grief is handed down in memories and in song. The poem is a lifeboat, bearing its reader back into the past to relive my father’s terrible experience. It seemed essential to find the music in each line, to ensure that it came as close to embodying its own message as it possibly could. I think, too, that a formal poem engenders its own sense of inevitability. In this poem, I wanted the rhymes to be uncluttered, but at the same time to toll and echo like bells, to resonate the way my father’s traumatic memories and suicide continue to resonate in my life. One of the great things about art is that grief needn’t be banished or ‘cured’ or disavowed, but can instead be given its full due.

SQ: I like that notion of the poem being the lifeboat, and I am not going to tell you how many strands of your life are striking in their resemblance to my own, but I can say that the way you came to poetry resonates with me. Also the way that family and trauma can haunt, not only our lives, but our writing practice. For me form has always been of concern–I mean yes, I can tell this tale, but how? And to what end? We have these family stories that haunt with their potential (and their metaphors) and are of great interest to us of course, but how to make them interesting to readers? This is something we talk about a lot in workshops—yes it happened, but why do we need to write it or read it? I’m keen to get young writers thinking of poetry as a process that happens in stages: the first part is gathering the clay, but that’s not writing a poem: story/narrative has to be shaped and reshaped. Do you feel you got that story, that part of your father’s life? Is that “captured” for you?

KLP: Clay is a good way of putting it. During a manic few months before he disappeared, my father became obsessed with the book Colour Me Beautiful and went around advising people, often complete strangers, about what colours best suited them, or that their lipstick was all wrong. My brother and have only to utter the words ‘light lemon yellow’ to each other and we’re reaching for the vodka. It’s a memory that could certainly be transformed into a poem. But it wasn’t, to my mind, a poem for this collection. Thinking about craft, about considerations of perspective and composition, texture and tone, about whether a particular subject would be better understood through a narrative or as a single, striking image, can help to maintain a sense of objectivity through which one’s own private stories and emotions may become art.

I wrote about my father’s abusiveness towards my brother and I as children for an interview recently and wanted to claw the email back out of the computer as soon as I pressed send. My worry was that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as an artist, that the book would be seen as a kind of therapy. I’m troubled by my instinct to suppress the fact that I was a victim of abuse. I’ve kept it in mind watching the recent Ghomeshi nightmare and the reluctance of women in general to come forward as victims of sexual assault. The sense of diminishment is so powerful. It’s almost as if, once identified as a victim, you become a kind of muse, a canvas upon whom violence and trauma is visited.

And I think there is a real danger, especially for women using biographical material, that your work will be damned to the outer hell of psychological realism. Look at the way the work of Plath or Sexton is typically interpreted. There’s a mind-blowing essay by Elizabeth Hardwick on Billie Holiday, where she talks about Holiday’s “pure style”:

Her talents and the brilliance of her mind contended with the strength of the emptiness. Nothing should degrade this genuine nihilism; and so, in a sense, it is almost a dishonor to imagine that she lived in the lyrics of her songs.

I would never denigrate the authenticity and power of lived experience. But there are so many other conversations, resonances and layers in poetry. It’s just as important to look at ways in which experiences aren’t personal. For my part, I was only able to write meaningfully about my father when I viewed him beyond the confines of my actual relationship with him. I saw him as a mythological being, a muse and a vessel through which I might explore grief and trauma, the beauties and cruelties of the wider culture.

SQ: Yes to all of this. And it’s why I spend so much time trying to find ways to get students to become aware of their process, to use form and constraint, research, conceptual frameworks, anything—to transform the personal, the autobiographical. It is (the feelings more than event perhaps) of course still the force, but I find many women forget (or don’t know how to) protect themselves, and their core, leaving themselves too vulnerable. It’s a delicate balance.

Okay, other poems like “Jig” and “Inheritance” reminded me a little of Mary Dalton’s Merrybegot though I have to say your poems are even more formally astute than Dalton’s. At least in that book, there it’s the trove of language that is so pleasurable, but you have both that fresh language and formal prowess. Can you talk about the relationship of place, story, and form?

KLP: “Inheritance” is the opening poem for which the collection is named. I wanted to widen the parameters of the word, establish that it was both personal and cultural. So there’s my father’s winter coat, but also the figure of King Lear, and a cassette recording of my father reciting poetry. In many respects, my appropriation of formal devices and structures in the collection mirrors wider concerns I have as an artist, and especially as a female artist. Whose voice speaks through me? My interest is not so much to play with words or make an impassioned anti-war plea, but to show how the pageantry and brutality of the past is alive in language. With “Jig”, I used blunt words and primitive imagery, there’s a peasant brutishness to the voice but also jubilant defiance. There are a few poems with witches and women who relish authority, and many of the poems in the book concern power and disobedience. For a book about suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, there’s quite a lot of singing and dancing! I like to think this speaks to my belief in the transformative power of art, its ability to show us the world as created by our own imaginations.

SQ: What kind of a reading practice do you have?

KLP: I have a pile by my bed that I read and a pile by my desk that I ought to read!

SQ: We’ve heard a lot of talk about women and critical writing. Do you think that reviews and/or essay writing about poetry and poetics is in your future?

KLP: I have published two essays on poetics over the last couple of years, one on time and post-traumatic stress disorder in poetry “Negotiating the Past in Poetry,” which was published in The New Quarterly in 2012 and is available on my blog and one on the self in lyric poetry, also published in The New Quarterly.

I’ve been out of academic environments for so long that it’s a real challenge to write critically. I’m hoping I’ll improve over time and that I’ll be able to contribute more. At the moment I’m slammed with fiction edits for a short story collection and trying to finish a novel.

SQ: Novel and short story collection! Impressive. Does that mean that you’ve moved on from poetry?

KLP: I wrote many of the short stories while I was also writing poetry. I value poetry immensely and it both enriches and transforms my fiction. It has made writing short stories a little tortuous, they become like giant, maddening poems. I haven’t had time to write much poetry recently, as both the short fiction collection and the novel were acquired by HarperCollins last year, and so there are serious things like due dates and contracts involved. I’m still scribbling stray lines of poetry down like little S.O.S’s to my future self, so there’s hope.

 Interview conducted via email, December 2014.

You can find several poems from Inheritance on an earlier Lemon Hound post.

Kerry-Lee Powell: Four Poems




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