Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Daniel Scott Tysdal

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Daniel Scott Tysdal

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Daniel Scott Tysdal was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and raised on a farm. He received a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Regina in 2003, an M.A. (English) from Acadia University in 2006, and an M.A. (English in the Field of Creative Writing) from the University of Toronto in 2008. He is the author of The Mourner’s Book of Albums (Tightrope Books, 2010). His first book of poetry, Predicting the Next Big Advertising Breakthrough Using a Potentially Dangerous Method (Coteau, 2006), received the ReLit Award for Poetry (2007) and the Anne Szumigalski Poetry Award (2006). He currently lives in Toronto and teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Tysdal’s The Mourner’s Book of Albums dares to take his readers out of their comfort zone, and instead sends them on a journey whereby the difficult and harsh realities of life are confronted head on. His collection has a cathartic feel to it, broaching on subjects from a best friend’s suicide to the war in Afghanistan. Tysdal is a talented and dynamic voice that represents a new direction for experimental poetry in Canada, concentrating less on the pre-manufactured style of writing poetry and more on an original narrative form that flourishes on the macabre.


A week before this book went to press, I spoke
to Dahlia’s mom. I told her about the poems.
She asked me to include a story I’d never heard.
As a child, Dahlia nurtured obituaries in place
of pets. She fabricated death notices for birds
and beasts she never in the first place possessed
to lose. She invented a sophisticated cockatiel
who chirped her name when it was time
to rise for school, a border collie who saved her
from slipping through cracked sheets
of frozen water. As a favour to circling vultures,
and to expose the promiscuity of skins in their decay,
she pretended her imaginary dead pets
remained carcasses unburied at the edge
of the garden rather than buried bones,
the breadth of the backyard’s burgeoning life
pierced with a stillness so singular it defied
what the siding and shingles asserted to be
the nascent relation of divided hides.
If lightning were to have struck her fantastical pile
of remains, she had known that none of the paws
and fins and wings decomposing into this dreary
chimera would have twitched awake, but in one obit
a newt taken too soon to the pile startled the sky
when parrying thunder slithered from its slender throat.


TTQ- What was the concept or inspiration behind your latest book of poetry, The Mourner's Book of Albums? Do you consider yourself an experimental poet in regards to your writing style and the sometimes unorthodox structure to many of your poems?

DST- The inspiration for Mourner’s was a suicide. This was in February of 2005. My first book of poems had just been accepted for publication and I had started exploring the Internet’s insides and underbellies, thinking I was going to write a novel. It was on a shock website, Stileproject, where I saw the video that stopped me. The police walk a man into an interrogation room, leave, return to bring the man water, leave again, and then it happens. The man grabs one last swig of water, draws a gun from his belt, and takes his own life.

A few hours later, the computer still shut down, I started writing a poem, searching for a shred of mental and emotional steadiness. As I’ve said in previous interviews, I had been rereading Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” earlier that day and I thought, “Rilke, we are a million miles from your torso’s ‘legendary head,’ from its star-bursting borders, and yet, at the same time, we haven’t moved an inch.” I wrote for three days straight and finished “How We Know We Are Being Addressed by the Man Who Shot Himself Online.” This poem ended up in my first book, but that experience inspired The Mourner’s Book of Albums.

The concept for Mourner’s didn’t really take a solid shape until the manuscript was half-finished. I was looking over the poems I had written and I realized that what linked them was the elegiac tradition. Each poem, in its way, explored the changing nature of what and how we mourn. What is the elegy in the age of Photoshop and reality hunger? How do we mourn in, to borrow Sontag’s phrase, “the age of genocide” or, to turn to Baudrillard, amid the e-fuelled “ecstasy of communication”?

The experiences these questions engendered, the moments of inspiration they opened up, are what led to the choral quality of the book, to its formal variety. In this attempt to be true to our times, to find fidelity with what I felt, I was drawn to a spectrum of genres and modes and mediums: lyric poems, love poems, graphic poems, country ballads, drawings, newspapers, comics, photography, artifacts, and on and on. The “unorthodox structure” of the book thus results from one of the most traditional, conservative impulses, one of the most basic ends of art and literature: to find a form for what is gone.

TTQ- In the opening pages of your book you quote Freud: "We find a place for what we lose." Would it be fair to say that in the writing of The Mourner's Book of Albums you have now found a place for those close to you in your life that you have lost too soon? Was it difficult for you to write about death and suicide?

DST- The Freud quote serves as the book’s epigraph because it sums up, in one line, what the book is about. Each of the poems, in its own way, is a testament to this act of finding a place for what we lose. The hope Freud points to, and the hope you address in your question, is that in finding this place we will heal. We will “come to terms” with the loss, as the saying goes, we will “move on.” The truth, of course, is that those we lose, no matter what we write, will endure in and around us in ways we might not like. The feelings of guilt or longing or helplessness will remain.

Freud’s assertion especially strikes this darker note in relation to our larger communal-cultural losses, when this “finding” takes the form of unjust and violent acts of collective displacement and repression. Take your pick. In both cases, whether exploring the personal or the public, the writing is difficult, but it is also — in a sense — liberating. When you are inspired to write a poem, it is usually because you have glimpsed a sliver of something that connects you to the world beyond yourself. Something that is more than you shakes you, and you meet it in form, you converse with it in form, the page and the words and the images is where the meeting between what is here and what is gone can take place.

TTQ- You write about one of the G20 rally’s held in Queen's Park this past June in your poem "Videos for Children":

Harper is the new Christo is Kat's theory. "The People want to reclaim the seat of power," she says, "so Harper lets them live it. Walk in a big expensive circle, change nothing. Repeat."

What are your thoughts on what's happened post-G20, the lack of an independent public inquiry into the actions of police, and do you think poets in general should be more apt to write and/or protest more about socio-political issues in their communities and around the world?

DST- I would share my post-G20 thoughts but I’m afraid they always take the form of a Burroughs cut-up mashed up with a Dadaist sound poem: “Owe-paw-less-owe-paw-forch-ange. Billion $$$ truncheon lake swim. Aw, aw, aw, Officer Bubbles, don’t be sad. Those tears in your eyes are Sunlight” and so on. Really, these days, being a poet is, in itself, an accidental form of protest: politically, culturally, economically, epistemologically and aesthetically. The patience and discipline and attention and intellectual rigour and emotional expansiveness that reading and writing a poem demands and inspires runs counter to the “ACT! MORE! NOW! PAY! (Dispose and Repeat)” ethos of the cultural and political mainstream. The change that needs to happen is far bigger than the change anyone up top is willing to make. So I think it’s for the greater good that, for the time being, us poets lay back in the cut and take it all in and (“God forbid!” (crosses self)) think.

TTQ- What is your opinion of the current state of poetry in both Canada and around the world? Do you think poetry is everlasting or in a serious state of flux?

DST- I am probably the most poorly equipped person to answer any question about the current state of poetry. I’m just not wired that way. Some people are colour blind. I’m aesthetico-critical blind. I find it hard to answer the critic’s question — “Why this one thing over that other thing?” — because the question that’s got hold of me is, “Why is there something rather than everything?” This makes me, like a lot of poets and artists, more of a grease monkey than a critic. Give me a poem and I can’t wait to take it apart and figure out how it works. So, as far as Canadian poetry goes, maybe you could complain that we produce too many of the same makes and models, but, for the most part, Canadian poems run smoothly and there are some real modern marvels and world-class wonders of poetical engineering.

The second question is easier to answer. The answer is the question itself. Do I think poetry is everlasting or in a serious state of flux? Both. Poetry is that which is everlasting, cast in that which is in a serious state of flux.

TTQ- What words of advice do you often give your students when it comes to creative writing, and who are some of the writers/poets you encourage them to read and why?

DST- I teach the 3 L’s, which are (in no particular order): listen, learn, love.

* * *

This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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