I always tell my students that a good poem is an act of discovery—and for that discovery to be emotionally and intellectually honest, then you need to surprise yourself, you need to live in that space of uncertainty—this is part of negative capability, part of duende, part of what Emily Jungmin Yoon describes as poetry’s power to theorize the self.MICHAEL PRIOR
Sophomore efforts are difficult enough, the expectancy, the anticipation, the work itself, and a new publisher (M&S). Especially given this is the follow-up to poet MICHAEL PRIOR‘s immensely satisfying debut, Model Disciple (Signal, 2016). As a poet and bookseller maneuvering these pandemic days, it pains me to see so many spring releases not get nearly the traction/readership they deserved, brilliant case in point, Prior’s devastingly beautiful, Burning Province.
Generous as ever, Michael kindly responds to a few questions here, as well as recommending other current titles not to be missed. Include Michael’s. – Kb
KIRBY: How long has this book been in gestation? When did you decide you could write it?
MICHAEL PRIOR: That’s a great and complicated question. Burning Province coalesced around a series of questions and motifs that seemed to follow me after my grandmother’s death. I love her deeply: she played a large role in my upbringing, and she was also, of course, someone who had lived through the Japanese Canadian internment. Her passing brought to the forefront of my mind a lot of the questions I had been considering about family, memory, and cultural trauma. Many of these questions have been with me for most of my adult life. Practically, though, I don’t think I could have written these poems earlier or later than I did; they’re inextricable from the times and places in which they were written.
In some the luggage lies open / like a mouth mid-sentence. In others, closed zippers grimace: // What would you have brought?
I’m not sure I ever decided I could write the book! “Could” is an interesting auxiliary, because I think it presupposes more choice than I was conscious of in the early stages. I just wrote because I wanted to address my grandmother, myself, the past, in terms I couldn’t quite clarify. Thomas Merton says somewhere that the purpose of an education is to provide one with the means to authentically and spontaneously define oneself in relation to the world—I agree, and would add that if a writer is articulating complex questions that push them toward discomfort, then writing a book becomes an ongoing education for the imagination, a process through which a writer has to confront their own lack of knowing and come up with the forms, the language, and the music that will allow them to interrogate who they are in relation to the places, people, and times that have shaped them. I always tell my students that a good poem is an act of discovery—and for that discovery to be emotionally and intellectually honest, then you need to surprise yourself, you need to live in that space of uncertainty—this is part of negative capability, part of duende, part of what Emily Jungmin Yoon describes as poetry’s power to theorize the self.
I was given forty-eight hours’ notice, twenty-four. / I passed ice and pines and plains. / I rode an iron serpent // into the Interior / beside four hundred others. / It was humid. It was cold.
KIRBY: A story this [painfully] close, one that clearly matters this much to you, how did you find perspective? Make it ”readable?”
MICHAEL: I think one has to be vulnerable when one writes, and one has to account for how one’s writing will make loved ones feel. In terms of perspective, for me this means treating a poem like a framework for self-discovery, a space for difficult questions, rather than a conduit for a particular pre-decided message. In my poems I hope this sort of framing manifests as an attention to the distances between my experiences and those of my parents and grandparents.
In regards to readability, I’m not sure what defines “readab[ility” when it comes to poetry—though it’s an interesting thing to consider. Most people, even other creative writers in prose genres, often struggle with poetry’s formal features, its ways of thinking and moving. So many of my students are afraid of poems, of not “getting it”—they want to read poems as if they might, with the right key, be comprehensively decoded and understood as stable data, which doesn’t take into account that a poem’s language is experiential, rather than informational.
Personally, while I value parseable syntax, clarity in an image, and precision in metaphor, I get told constantly that my poems are dense. This always surprises me because I believe (and I could be fooling myself) that compared to a lot of other poets, especially experimental ones, I write in fairly traditional, recognizable forms–not to mention complete sentences. Maybe this is because I’m not often interested in poems that offer up all they have on the first reading. I want poems that invite, cajole, and lead the reader back to them again and again. I want poems that question rather than explain–poems in which the speaker acknowledges their own fallibility in a way that’s truly vulnerable and not just rhetorical. Illya Kaminsky describes memorable poetry as that which wakes up the language, writing into it, rather than along its surface—if that intensity makes it less readable, well, then, that’s fine with me.
What matters is not what you bring, / but what you keep. / She was there. He was, too.
KIRBY: What’s it like to be on this side of it?
MICHAEL: It’s strange. The book is out there, and it’s going to be whatever it’s going to be. The pandemic has made launching a book very difficult, apart from the problems with distribution, the sort of events and activities that gradually make one feel like one is on the other side of it all understandably haven’t happened!
What I do hope is that between the important activism and change that’s happening right now, people are also going to make time turn to art that re-witnesses and asks complex questions as a way to imagine a more equitable, more caring, and better future–there are so many books of poetry that have come out recently that I wish readers would be able to pick off a shelf or a display in a store: Jihyun Yun’s Some Are Always Hungry; John Elizabeth Stinzi’s Junebat; Sadiqa de Meijer’s Outer Wards, Eduardo C. Corral’s Guillotine; Benjamin Garcia’s Thrown in the Throat; Noor Naga’s Washes, Prays; John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry–to name a few.
In terms of poems, I think there are several that might touch on all of these ideas: “A Hundred and Fifty Pounds,” “In Cloud Country,” “Pastoral,” “My Pronunciation Was Wrong,” “Steveston,” “My Father’s Birthday,” “Wakeful Things,” “Georgic,” and “Minoru” all come to mind.
MICHAEL PRIOR is a writer and a teacher. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous magazines and anthologies across North America and the U.K., including Poetry, The New Republic, Narrative, Ambit, Poetry Northwest, The Margins, PN Review, Verse Daily, Global Poetry Anthology 2015, The Next Wave: An Anthology of 21st Century Canadian Poetry, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. He is a past winner of Magma Poetry’s Editors’ Prize, The Walrus‘s Poetry Prize, and Matrix Magazine‘s Lit POP Award for Poetry. His first full-length book of poems, Model Disciple, was named one of the best books of the year by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Prior holds graduate degrees from the University of Toronto and Cornell University. He divides his time between Saint Paul, M.N. and Vancouver, B.C.