January 6, 2015

In Conversation with Paul Vermeersch

Photo by Kristin Foster
What's that bright streak in the sky? Isn't it that comet what's-it-called? Or -- Hey, it's Paul Vermeersch! Paul dropped in recently for a brief chat about poems and his new book. What he doesn't say is that he's recently taken up the colouring again. Check it out at paulvermeersch.ca. Thanks for stopping by, Paul!

SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry? Or, if you prefer, what brought poetry to you?

PAUL VERMEERSCH: I think it starts with colouring books. I always hated colouring books. Blank paper was always better. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was draw, to create my own images. Colouring books demanded orthodoxy, an adherence to a prescribed pattern and colour palette. But I wanted to play, to explore! When I got older I discovered that you can make art using language instead of crayons or paint. I tried writing songs. I tried writing stories. They didn't seem to fit, but eventually you just grow into things. I think I grew into poetry the same way I grew into my father's hand-me-down leather jacket. I started writing poems because they fit me best, and I discovered that I liked reading them best, too. All art forms are a kind of hand-me-down, I think. They come from the past. They are given to us, and they have traditions associated with them, but we have to decide what to do with them next.

SG: From colouring books to dad’s leather jacket—you’re describing an arc that goes from the blank page to the material object. The poems in your new book mess with pages that are anything but blank when you start out. Could you talk about that process, how you decide what to do with them next?
 PV: When I started this book, I wanted to do things I'd never done before. I wanted to challenge myself, to be adventurous. I thought of all the ways I could to make new poems out of existing texts: homage, erasure, glosas, centos, approaches to conceptualism, etc. I wanted to take all these cultural hand-me-downs and make something with them that was essentially my own voice, something lyrical, something unified. It wasn't easy, but the process involved a lot of trial and error, trusting my instincts, and taking risks.
 
SG: What’s inspiring you these days?
PV: I recently published a column in the National Post about this. I mentioned Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, and Devo. I'll try not to repeat myself too much. To put it bluntly, the planet and our civilization upon it are in danger. That inspires me. Extinction, mutation, and ruin are inevitable. I feel the need to find different ways to discuss this, to pose questions, to imagine the consequences of human greed and stupidity. I hope this doesn't make me sound too dour. I've learned how to be a very happy person. And regardless of the things I'm writing about, I think my writing is learning how to be happier, too.  

Paul Vermeersch is the author of several poetry collections, including the Trillium–award nominated The Reinvention of the Human Hand (M&S, 2010) and Don't Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something (ECW, 2014). His poems have been translated into Polish, German and French and have appeared in international anthologies. He teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies, has worked as Poetry Editor for Insomniac Press, and is now Senior Editor for Wolsak & Wynn. He lives in Toronto. Read his poem "Balustrade" here.

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