Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Paul Vermeersch

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Paul Vermeersch

Poet and editor Paul Vermeersch has a lot to celebrate lately. His fifth collection, Don’t Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something (ECW Press), was recently published to widespread acclaim, with praise for its "hallucinatory aesthetic" and "paradoxical mix of cynicism and hope". Then just the other day, one of the poems it contains was nominated for a prestigious Pushcart Prize. The books he edits for indie publisher Wolsak & Wynn, where he serves as Senior Editor, by literary luminaries such as Catherine Graham and Tanis Rideout, have been widely praised.

With all these good things happening, we're excited to speak to Paul today as part of our Poets in Profile series. He tells Open Book about a lost manifesto, the forgotten Canadian poet we should all be reading and how pessimism can risk the joy of the reading experience.

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Paul Vermeersch:

In grade ten I wrote something called “A Manifesto for the Science of Ludicrous Things” or something like that (and no, I don’t still have a copy); I was dabbling in metafiction and Absurdism without even knowing it! I showed it to my science teacher who grimaced and talked to me about the scientific method. Then I showed it to my art teacher who asked me to make images based on what I had written. I have always enjoyed drawing and painting, but eventually the time I spent writing took precedence over the time I spent making images. Perhaps that began my apprenticeship as a poet.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


My high school English anthology had a poem in it called “Alice in Bluebeardland” by the Canadian poet Gwladys Downes. It was scary and surreal at once, and it made reference to popular culture. I’d never read anything like it, and I wanted to write like that. I couldn’t, of course. Not then. But it became one of the many poems that propelled me along this path. It seems people have largely forgotten Gwladys Downes now. I wish she were better known.


What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?


I think James Dickey’s “May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County by a Lady Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church” is a masterpiece. I’m not sure I’d want to claim it as my own, but I’d be proud to write something during my lifetime that could stand as its equal.


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


I don’t believe there are unlikely sources of inspiration. The spark can come from anywhere at any time, but the poet has to make the language do its job.


What do you do when a poem is not working?


Sometimes it is simply lost to the aether, or else I use it for spare parts. But sometimes I come across a long-abandoned poem, and I try to completely repurpose it. The new version can end up being far more interesting once I finally figure out what to do with it. Repurposing something adds a whole new texture to a poem, too. It’s not something you can do when you’re just starting out because everything you write is new, but I’ve been at this long enough that I have lots of abandoned poems. When I don’t know what to write, I try to salvage an old one, and if that doesn’t work, it just goes back to the bottom of the scrap heap again.


What was the last book of poetry that really knocked your socks off?


I read a lot of poetry, so it’s hard to keep track, and it might be unfair to name just one recent book. I could mention YAW by Dani Couture, or [Sharps] by Stevie Howell, or Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower by Sarah Lindsay, or People Who Like Meatballs by Selima Hill. I could go on and on and on, really. But for a book to really knock your socks off, I find it helps to be open to the experience. I encounter a lot of pessimistic readers; they approach books expecting to hate them — they make a big show of it — and they don’t appear to like very much of what they read at all. I’m not talking about reluctant readers here. I’m talking about academics, other writers, very bookish people. It’s all a posture, of course, but maintaining that posture means missing out on the pleasure of reading. Or at least denying it. And why? In order to appear more discerning, or more intellectual? I don’t get it. The truth is we live in remarkable times for poetry. Never has so much interesting poetry been written as there is at this moment. Great work is all around us, and I feel incredibly lucky as a reader.


What is the best thing about being a poet….and what is the worst?


The best part is having written. The worst part is writing.

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). Vermeersch holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph for which he received the Governor General's Gold Medal. His poems have been translated into Polish, German and French and have appeared in international anthologies. He has taught creative writing at the University of Guelph and Sheridan College, and currently teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies. He was, from 2001 to 2012, the Poetry Editor for Insomniac Press, and he is now Senior Editor for Wolsak & Wynn Publishers Ltd. He lives in Toronto.

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