Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Priscila Uppal

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Priscila Uppal (photo credit: Daniel Ehrenworth)

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Priscila Uppal

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.

Priscila Uppal is a Toronto poet, fiction writer and York University professor. Among her publications are eight collections of poetry, most recently, Ontological Necessities (2006; shortlisted for the $50,000 Griffin Poetry Prize), Traumatology (Exile Editions, 2010), Successful Tragedies: Poems 1998-2010 (Bloodaxe Books, U.K.) and Winter Sport: Poems (Mansfield Press, 2010).

She is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Divine Economy of Salvation (Anchor Canada, 2002) and To Whom It May Concern (Doubleday Canada, 2009) and the study We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009). Her work has been published internationally and translated into Croatian, Dutch, French, Greek, Italian, Korean and Latvian. She was poet-in-residence for Canadian Athletes Now during the 2010 Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic games. Time Out London recently dubbed her “Canada’s coolest poet.” For more information please visit her website.

Priscila Uppal’s sixth collection of poetry, Traumatology, has been described as a playful, satirical, surreal yet unflinchingly humane in its examination of our peculiar states of being. Uppal dares us to laugh at ourselves and the realities of our world. This collection is superbly written and reinforces to all who read her that Priscila Uppal is indeed a major voice in the world of poetry today.

Restraining Order

My soul is forbidden to be
within 50 metres of my brain,
so it has purchased powerful
binoculars and hides
in bushes;
    sends email spam
and candygrams.

My brain crouches and cries —
once it had trusted my soul
and they’d led a peaceful,
even pleasant, co-existence.

But the soul’s blunt teeth
started to show;
    jealousy, rage, of all non-
spiritual thoughts and plights.

My brain is afraid to cross
in front of windows;
    rarely picks up
the phone — the familiar
breathing too upsetting — plus

there are times old memories
are tricky to taunt.
    Tonight it suspects
my soul is lurking by the water
fountain. It even has a poodle

in tow. My brain is lonely,
excruciatingly lonely, but
knows, at least, how to pleasure itself.
The restraining order pertains

    to the soul, not
the body.


TTQ - How would you best describe the poems contained within Traumatology (Exile Editions, 2010)? Is there a common theme or message in this collection of poems that you were hoping readers could relate to? Do you have a favourite poem from the collection that stands out to you?

PU - Traumatology is my examination of notions of health (of body, mind and spirit). The title signals that I concentrate mostly on the trauma of health debates, discussions and experiences — those that contribute to increasingly high levels of anxiety. Many of the poems reflect an uncanny, absurdist or surrealist experience of health in our contemporary world where food is the enemy, the body a test tube of chemicals, notions of the afterlife uninspiring. Readers have really been relating to the poems where health industry “experts” and common health theories are critiqued or satirized.

I think my favourite poem is “I Know My Uncle is Dead, But Why Isn’t He Taking Out the Garbage,” a poem that attempts to describe the uncanny experience of seeing a dead loved one performing their normal day-to-day actions, our inability to fully register the finality of death. This poem was included in the Translation Slam, the culminating event of the Montreal International literary festival Blue Metropolis, last year. Two French-Canadian writers translated the poem into French, and we discussed the choices each made as part of a very vibrant panel (I’ve discovered that the translation community in Canada is vocal, energetic and thrives off debate).

What I found fascinating was that each of the two translators, Hélène Rioux and Eric Dupont, tackled the poem by falling to one side of its emotional and generic spectrum: Rioux decided to stick close to the melancholic, mourning emotions of the poem, the elegy tradition, and Dupont decided to play off of the dark humour, absurdist elements of the poem, the satirical tradition. Dupont even set the poem to music, and his performance stressed buffoonery and melodrama. I loved both versions. Both understood the piece profoundly.

TTQ - Some have stated that you have brought a brand new voice to poetry. Would you concur with that assessment, and do you feel it's imperative that poetry find "new voices" in order for it to regain some of its lost lustre over the years?

PU - I suppose it’s difficult to concur with a statement about the uniqueness of one’s voice, when it is your voice, not something you’ve consciously cultivated, but I am aware, sometimes painfully, that my poems do not fit neatly into any of our usual poetic categories for Canadian poets (for example, I’m not a nature poet, or an overtly feminist or multicultural poet — although I am both — or a language poet, or a concrete poet, or a regional poet, or a meditative poet or a spoken word poet). I’ve often been told that my voice is global, and would be welcomed by European audiences.

I’ve been very privileged that the prestigious press Bloodaxe Books in the U.K. released Successful Tragedies: Selected Poems 1998-2010 this past year, and I can report that the reviews have been absolutely rave, stressing the uniqueness of my voice and perspective, Time Out London even dubbing me “Canada’s coolest poet.” It has been satisfying to find such an appreciative audience in the U.K. for my work, especially since readers would likely never have read one of my poems before and are experiencing my body of work to-date as a whole. I think it’s important for readers to be able to access diverse poetry from a variety of traditions, in a variety of genres and from a variety of nations, for poetry to remain a vibrant, controversial and relevant art.

TTQ - What was your experience like at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver? What should readers expect from your Winter Sport: Poems (Mansfield Press, 2010)? Do you have a favourite moment from the Vancouver Olympics that has stuck with you?

PU - The book Winter Sport: Poems includes poems written as part of my self-designed gig as Canadian Athletes Now’s poet-in-residence during the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. It also includes some poems focusing on aboriginal sport written at the 2010 Arctic Winter Games in Grande Prairie, Alberta, in between the two competitions. All experiences were unique, invigorating and truly inspiring. Essays about each of the games are included in the book. I was so privileged to be able to be with the athletes, their families and friends, and, as an artist, even more privileged to be welcomed to read poetry about winter sport and the games to this community who possess the most expert knowledge of all about the subject. The athletes loved the nightly poem recitals, and frequently asked me for copies of poems to give to friends and family and to teammates.

The summer Olympians in the house were adamant that I accompany them to London in 2012 to write the summer poem companion, and I plan on it. For me, it is especially satisfying to support a group of very talented, extremely disciplined young people work tirelessly towards realizing their dreams. It was also extremely satisfying to introduce poetry to athletes and to bring sport poetry to the general public. I really feel I have made a significant contribution to sports and literary culture, and I can’t wait to do more to bridge the worlds of sport and art with future projects. I would love to be involved in the PanAm Games in 2015 to be held in Toronto.

TTQ - What is your opinion on the current state of poetry in Toronto? Who would be some of the Toronto poets that have caught your attention of late and that you would recommend that people read?

PU - I think the poetry scene is quite healthy in Toronto. We have a lot of reading series that either focus exclusively on poetry or include poetry in their programming. We have a lot of graduate and undergraduate programs in creative writing with poetry workshops at York University (where I teach), University of Toronto, University of Guelph, Humber College and elsewhere. There are a number of literary festivals, writing workshops and community groups or organizations dedicated to promoting poetry and writers — I should mention one of my absolute favourites, a real model I think that other cities might want to emulate, Diaspora Dialogues, which offers free mentorship to emerging artists and mounts dozens of creative and unique multidisciplinary events per year. I can also tell you that, in my capacity as guest editor for the Best Canadian Poetry 2011 anthology, I have read hundreds and hundreds of poems published this year by Toronto-based poets. We occupy a significant place in the output of this country.

We do have one very specific void in Toronto, as far as I’m concerned, though: we are not doing enough in our school systems to cultivate the love of reading and writing poetry in elementary and secondary schools. The way that poetry is currently taught in the majority of our schools is, as is conveyed to me by students and teachers alike, uninspiring. I wish more teachers would make use of the writers-in-the-schools programs, as well as any writing workshops available to students, and that programming in our schools were more interdisciplinary and inventive. For instance, the vast majority of writers, when they are accessed by schools, are invited to read almost exclusively in English or Creative Writing classes. This conveys to students that literature has its place in a literature class and that’s it. I advocate the use of arts (all arts, but poetry as well), in all subject areas (science, math, geography, psychology, social studies, etc.), as this more accurately reflects why art is produced — to engage with all human modes of inquiry and experience.

In terms of specific people, there are a lot of amazing poets in Toronto: Gil Adamson, Ken Babstock, Kevin Connolly, Christopher Doda, Bill Kennedy, David Seymour, Karen Solie, Stuart Ross, Meaghan Strimas and more. As for young poets just entering the poetry scene, I would recommend Leigh Nash and Andrew Faulkner, who run the chapbook press The Emergency Response Unit, as both poets to watch. Leigh Nash just released her first book of poetry, Goodbye, Ukulele, and Andrew Faulkner has published extensively in journals in the past year. There is also Abede De Rango-Adem, whose first collection of poetry, Ex Nihilo, was nominated for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the largest prize in the world for writers under thirty. She is a very socially-conscious poet, who has also co-edited the recently-released anthology Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out.

Ten Part Question — The Pivot Questionnaire

TTQ - What is your favourite word?

PU - Sabbatical.

TTQ - What is your least favourite word?

PU - Barrier.

TTQ - What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

PU - Motion.

TTQ - What turns you off?

PU - Pettiness.

TTQ - What is your favourite curse word?

PU - Asshole. I use it often. And well.

TTQ - What sound or noise do you love?

Priscila - Purring.

TTQ - What sound or noise do you hate?

PU - Ring tones. Message alerts.

TTQ - What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

PU - Pole-vaulter.

TTQ - What profession would you not like to do?

PU - Toronto Maple Leafs complaints department.

TTQ - If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

PU - “You told me so.”

* * *

This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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