Part 4 of The Puritan‘s Summer 2016 Omnibus
In the final installment of this epic Omnibus Interview, The Puritan editorial staff catches up with Kilby Smith-McGregor, Michael Prior, and Ashley-Elizabeth Best.
“Overt, Covert, and Subverted Associations”: E Martin Nolan Interviews Kilby Smith-McGregor
E Martin Nolan: If Kids in Triage was an exhibit of paintings, it’d be dominated by vibrant reds and blues, and would become bluer as you move through it. We go from heat, light, fire, and lava to tears, rivers, showers, and bruising. I wouldn’t say this constitutes a clash, though, as much as a mash. The blue evoked by “the swelling that anticipates a bruise” is blood, just as “red carries blood on its back through the snow.” The final poem, “Of Water,” seems to deny the symbolic power of colour, instead claiming “all my blue is not/ transferable.” Unsettling the expected literary resonance of these colours allows you to deploy them, perhaps, with more abandon. With that in mind, I’m curious to know how the colour palate of the book emerged. Was the red-to-blue a movement you designed into the book? Or, how did that movement emerge?
Kilby Smith-McGregor is the author of Kids in Triage
Kilby Smith-McGregor: In the final stretch of writing and editing Kids in Triage I realized parts of my life I’d never connected to writing—a background in theatre, my work as a graphic designer—have had more influence on my literary expression than I’d previously considered. Colour is both visual and visceral. It has a performative quality; it’s also highly emotional. And there is a wealth of cultural association to mine. I enjoy holding as many of those overt, covert, and subverted associations in play as possible. As you note, the blue of black-and-blue, of a bruise, is also the red of blood, but one degree removed.
In taking stock of the initial 40 pages of poems from which the collection developed, the red/blue thing was immediately evident. Then it was a matter of determining where I could push it. “The Blue,” for example—a poem inspired by William H Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry—was one of the last pieces I wrote before publication … partly in response to a gut instinct that the collection needed more blue. I’m hugely interested in form and structure. In poetry, I’m keen on principles of composition that serve (or supplant) the function narrative might in prose—I am always looking for ways to effect transformation, as well as tension and release. Once I hit on it, the movement from red into blue provided a key to ordering the collection. At first blush it offers an emotional arc that tracks from hot to cold, but that’s also a false narrative. The term triage indicates a process of ordering, of ranking levels of “emergency,” but classification is always shaded by context and bias. Like language, it’s a troubled approximation of experience.
I was in my 30s when I put this collection together and I harboured an idea of myself as having developed nuanced, sophisticated literary preoccupations over many years of writing. Then I actually looked at core tropes that surfaced in these poems—red/blue; fire/water; apples/oranges—and was sort of mortified. I’ve embraced it now. It’s not subtlety, exactly, that’s my strong point, but the ability to perhaps complicate and destabilize received symbolism.
Kilby Smith-McGregor has contributed writing across genres to Brick, Conjunctions, The Kenyon Review, The Malahat Review, Best Canadian Essays, Best Canadian Poetry, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Guelph and was recognized with the 2010 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award. Kids in Triage, her debut poetry collection, was released by Wolsak & Wynn in May 2016.
“Fragments, Silences, and Substitutions”: Catriona Wright Talks to Michael Prior
Catriona Wright: The title Model Disciple suggests some intriguing ideas about creativity and authorship. It reminds me of TS Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in which Eliot argues that poets should be mediums channelling tradition. I frequently sense that the speakers in your poems are struggling to pay homage to yet overcome a rigid literary lineage, flattered by but still resisting the designation of “model disciple.” This tension is perhaps most apparent in “Ventriloquism for Dummies” which expresses the idea through content (the speaker is a dummy forced to parrot someone else’s words yet possessing a rich interior life of his own) and form (the poem adopts and deviates from Robert Browning’s metre). I suspect, though I could be wrong, that this apprehension/confusion stems from trying to reconcile your desire to write about your mixed Japanese-Canadian background (which you sometimes refer to as your half-ness) with your admiration of the English literary canon, traditionally the bastion of privileged white males. How did your ideas about poetic influence/inheritance change or evolve while writing this collection?
Michael Prior is currently an MFA candidate at Cornell University
Michael Prior: I think you’ve definitely identified several of the book’s central tensions! And while I hesitate to agree with all of Eliot’s claims in that essay, his observations about the intricate dialectic between past and present texts resonates with Model Disciple. The book’s speakers struggle with issues of inheritance—literary, cultural, familial—that are inseparable from issues of identity; in doing so, the speakers often attempt to access, balance, and even (re)define the lineages they’ve been told are theirs, and those they’ve been told aren’t, but which still have a strong hold on them.
Maybe the tension between lineages is epitomized by my own relation to the “English Canon,” where the fine line between apprehension and appreciation, often seems less a line than a series of ellipses. So, to partially answer your question, while writing Model Disciple I came to see the book’s central “discipleship” as situated among these ellipses, fragments, silences, and substitutions, where the aesthetic, historical, and psychological contours of the Canon cannot quite accommodate (but certainly still shape) my experience of my own half-ness and my relationship with my grandparents, who were forced into an internment camp during the Second World War. On one hand, my speakers question what they can steal and what they can adopt; on the other, they wonder what they need to discard and what they need to challenge, resulting in mutable identities and plenty of masks (like that of a ventriloquist’s dummy).
I’m not sure my ideas about influence and inheritance underwent major changes during this book’s composition, but, without a doubt, they became more complicated: this might be reflected in the way in which my editor and I eventually chose to arrange Model Disciple, so that the order of poems hopefully suggests a progression in the speakers’ strategies and tone. Personally, I’d say that over the course of the collection, the speakers grow increasingly direct, more—and I don’t really like this term—“autobiographical,” leading to the last poem, an 18-page, blank verse road trip, wherein the speaker and his grandfather visit internment camp sites throughout British Columbia, which was the most difficult part of the book to write.
Michael Prior’s first chapbook, Swan Dive, was published by Frog Hollow Press in late 2014. His first full-length collection, Model Disciple, was published by Véhicule Press’s Signal Editions in 2016. Michael holds an MA in English from the University of Toronto and is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Cornell University.
“I refuse to resist the ‘I’”: Domenica Martinello Talks to Ashley-Elizabeth Best
Domenica Martinello: While reading Slow States of Collapse—its lyrical movement, the intimate voice, and personal subject matter—I was reminded of some comments that Ariana Reines makes about the ‘I’ or the confessional mode being denigrated as a lesser form poetry. She says that “there’s always an ‘I’ when it has to do with someone who is oppressed … if you imagine yourself in some kind of desperation where the world is bearing down on you, on your physical person as well as [ontologically] … it becomes necessary to speak—to make an account of yourself.” She posits that the ability to move beyond the ‘I,’ or the belief that moving beyond the ‘I’ is a more valuable and challenging poetic space, is ultimately a flawed and privileged position.
I’m wondering if you could speak on what the poetic ‘I’ means to you. Is it a skilled performance of proximity (constructed) or is it a vital way of expressing your personhood and subjectivity (intuitive)? Is there something scary or vulnerable about working in the lyrical mode of ‘I’ poetry?
Ashley-Elizabeth Best is the author of Slow States of Collapse
Ashley-Elizabeth Best: Writing in the ‘I’ for me often is enacting suffering, dredging up purposely misplaced memories or thoughts for whatever I am working on. I’m not sure it will always be this way, but whenever I think I have finished writing about family, addiction, or abuse, they creep up in a personal way I cannot ignore or put into the mouth of another persona. It always comes from me as me and I wouldn’t and couldn’t change that. I try to suspend any sophistication from the process and allow the words to come as they are. I’ve been quoted before saying poetry is an open ended dialogue, and the ‘I,’ whether you call it confessional, self-interrogation, or self-laceration, I think speaks to the endlessness of literature, of our stories, of the possibilities of difference and diversity. As Michael Silverblatt said in his interview with Ariana Reines on Bookworm (I’m paraphrasing), there’s no way to avoid the consequences of one’s hurt feelings. I guess maybe I thrive on self-revelation, some constant state of discomfort, depending on the revelation of course. Some discoveries can be enlightening in a positive way.
I have an allegiance to the rural settings I come from, just as I do the poverty I’ve come through. Slow States of Collapse was my way of moving away from, but also making an account of my difficult upbringing. I like to think of what I do as self-interrogation against a backdrop of nature. My nature is dangerous and unforgiving, a far cry from the idealized bucolic image of nature. It is beautiful and indifferent, it is never a controlled atmosphere and I think that is why I lean so heavily on it as a backdrop, because the poem is then painted on this backsplash of uncertainty.
The only time I’ve been nervous about working in the lyrical mode of ‘I’ is when my family reads my work. Otherwise I long ago gave up any fear of what people may think of me based on what I’ve written. Also I will rarely speak to the true facts of any of my poems. I refuse to resist the ‘I,’ and will endure it as long as it will have me.
Ashley-Elizabeth Best is from Cobourg, Ontario, and lives and writes in Kingston. Her work has been published in Fjords, CV2, Berfrois, Grist and Ambit Magazine, among other publications. She was recently shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Her first collection of poems, Slow States of Collapse, is out with ECW Press.