Panicle by Gillian Sze

Gillian Sze is the author of Peeling Rambutan and Redrafting Winter, both of which were finalists for the QWF A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. She studied creative writing and literature and received a PhD in Études anglaises from Université de Montréal. Panicle is her latest book.

Hajer Mirwali: Panicle is separated into four chapters, and in another interview, you describe it as “shooting off in various directions,” much like a botanical panicle. Did you always know the four chapters would become part of the same book?

Gillian Sze: The poems in Panicle were composed at different times over the last nine years while I was studying, teaching, accumulating other poems, or dabbling in other projects. I only know when a book is coming together at the end. When there’s enough material, that’s when I can start seeing a silhouette.

HM: At what point in the writing process did Panicle become a collection that asks readers “to question the process of looking,” as the book description states?

GS: There were longer texts completed early on that made sense together. “Staging Paris” and “Guillemets,” for example, are concerned with the visual, as are the ekphrastic poems. My first book, Fish Bones, was a good exercise in the long and deliberate process of looking. Panicle felt like a natural extension of this.

HM: Would you agree that actively observing the world is a poetic responsibility, and if so, did you become more aware of this when writing Panicle?

GS: I shy from the word “responsibility” (which makes me think of other words that I don’t necessarily associate with my creative process: duty, control, law). Poetry for me is so many things at once: play, experimentation, observation, discovery, confession, desire, celebration, commiseration, storytelling, connection. To be creative, I believe, is to be attentive and antennal to the world around you (and to whatever is salient for you in that world). I observe in hopes that someone else will observe with me. It’s my voice in the poem “Proof” when I write: “Peer in. I carry a pair of suns in my head. Take a look: I want you to go blind. I want something in me to do something irreparable, irreversible in you.”

HM: The precision of language in Panicle is unbelievable, and I’d like to bring attention to a line from “Sound No 2:” “the smell of winter at night has the same crisp scent as the sound of the word biscuit, the touch of velum in your mouth.” The accuracy of this comparison is stunning, and there are more like it: in “Staging Paris; Or, Tableaux Vivants,” one woman is “graceful and moves easily as a scarf dangling from a hook;” another “has an American clumsiness to her and is angled like a floor lamp with a crooked shade.” I’m interested in how these lines came to be. Do the poetic comparisons appear immediately, or does it take time to pinpoint the description?

GS: I jot notes down all of the time and some ideas or perceptions don’t make sense in daylight, while others retain some honesty. Some only make sense later when joined by other words and ideas. It’s a process very much aligned with [T.S.] Eliot: “The poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.”

What collaboration has taught me is that there are endless opportunities and catalysts to write.

HM: I felt a quiet sense of panic in the first two chapters, “Underway” and “Stagings,” as though the speaker was afraid to lose what they were observing and was grappling to make every moment permanent. Does this align with your experience of writing these chapters?

GS: I’m intrigued by your sense of “panic” in Panicle. You may be detecting the undercurrent of my own writerly anxiety (is this the right word? does this line break break well?). This book took some time to write, so perhaps this sense of panic has been diluted in the process.

HM: “Underway” includes five poems titled “Sound No [1-5].” Do you have any favourite sounds?

GS: So many: crinkly brown paper, pencil as it follows a ruler, the way my two-and-a-half-year-old says “Wow,” the plastic jacket that covers library books, a mug filling with tea, live music, someone’s uncontrollable body-shaking laugh.

HM: The third chapter, “Guillemets,” is a response to Pouvoir du Noir by Roland Giguére and includes sketches by Jessica Hiemstra. There are also poetic responses to paintings earlier in the collection. How does visual art influence your work, and has it taught you anything about writing?

GS: My interest in ekphrasis began when I was doing research for Fish Bones (which began as my MA thesis). I was—and still am—drawn to the conversations that take place between various media. A few years ago, I worked with my friend and filmmaker, Sofia Bohdanowicz. We created a short film based on my poem, “Arriving,” and I had the chance to use a bolex and work with expired film. What collaboration has taught me is that there are endless opportunities and catalysts to write. When I was in a museum looking at an artwork and the words were coming in slow drips, I would just simply turn around and look at something else.

To be honest, I can never anticipate the reader’s reactions and experiences when it comes to my work. The poem goes out to find its reader and whatever dialogue they have together is quite separate from me.

HM: My reaction to “Underway” and “Stagings” was complicated by reading “Guillemets” immediately after. I felt like I was doing a full revolution around the theme of the book, like whatever panic or loss I experienced at first was now being subdued and regained. This loss and gain was echoed in Hiemstra’s illustrations of blackness overtaking a white page, then being erased. Is this the response you were hoping to elicit?

GS: To be honest, I can never anticipate the reader’s reactions and experiences when it comes to my work. The poem goes out to find its reader and whatever dialogue they have together is quite separate from me.

HM: The last chapter, a long poem called “Panicle,” ties together many of the threads in the collection. Did you write it last?

GS: I describe the long poem, “Panicle,” as “a draft for two seasons.” It was written slowly and meditatively over eight months and appears in the book in its raw form. It overlapped with other poems so it wasn’t quite written last, but it was definitely finished last.

HM: Do you have any favourite lines from the book?

GS: I don’t know if I have a favourite line. But one that I hope encapsulates the collection: “This is my heart. Look.”

HM: What have you read recently or are currently reading that’s exciting you?

GS: I’ve been treating myself to Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love. I love the energy in her sentences.

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