Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Shane Neilson

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Shane Neilson

What represents a person's identity more strongly and fundamentally than his or her face? This idea of the face as the inescapable representation of a person is explored in Shane Neilson's evocatively titled On Shaving Off His Face (Porcupine's Quill). Shane delves into the experience of pain and illness, both physical and mental, through the image of the face.

Today Shane tells Open Book about the inspiration behind the collection, including his experience as the parent of an ill child, his work as a physician and its influence on his writing process, and seeing himself in the faces (and experiences) of others.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, On Shaving Off His Face.

Shane Neilson:

As a poetic facing of mental illness, On Shaving is the kind of book I only want to write once. I don’t mean thematically, structurally, etc.: I mean, it had to hurt to get to a place to write a book like this one and I don’t want to have to do that kind of homework again. I think of On Shaving as the one of my offerings that only I could write. As such, I only have one of them in me. I took all the pain I’d ever endured in my life and gave it expression.

On Shaving has a tripartite structure. The first section considers the human face in terms of affect theory. I consider my own face and check in with it in a series of poem-photographs, albeit at various points in my life. The poems are both retrospective and prospective, but they are also an accounting of the present moment. I witness myself and all the things I’ve ever loved. The message — Love! — is written on my face. This framing idea is loose... I do not insist, as some do, on double-digit conceits to carry my work. Instead, I create intensity through fixity on the face and its guises, its mistaking and its blankness, its misread ferocity.

The second section is a fictional conference proceedings held out of time. My idea was to hold an impossible conference in which Charles Darwin’s ideas about the expression of affect were developed by various presenters. These people, drawn from the history of psychiatry, loosely respond to Darwin’s ideas. Very loosely. In this way, I present the faces of mental illness to one of the major historical theorists of emotion. At bottom, I wished to write poems that are designed to be as emotionally powerful as possible, but contained within an overarching structure that reflects careful conceptual planning. I wanted to bring avant garde ideas into the realm of affect. I wanted to show the avant garde (I construct them as monolithic enterprise here, sorry) that the true moment of distinction and innovation will always remain in creating and translating emotion. Equally, I wanted to show lyric poets (similarly epic monolith) that they are missing out on a source of power. In A Lover’s Quarrel, Carmine Starnino has remarked that poetry is a “fight with form” and I tried to settle the score with form itself.

The third section is an awful cry from hell — a narration of the illness of my son, written in an array of forms that scramble sense in the fire.


How did the idea of the face come to fascinate you in this way? And how important is the face to our concept of identity?


I have had to look at my face in the mirror and ponder how that face could ever have been mistaken for the face it was. As for identity, I want my poems to be the lasting one, but I fear that, in corporeal terms, I am shackled to this face.


As a physician, you have a unique experience of and approach to pain and health. How does this influence your writing process, particularly in this book?


I find pain to be the most baffling problem I face as a physician. Human behavior is of course another strange galaxy, but it’s too big a category to consider in bulk. Pain is something specific, but also mysterious. Doctors are okay at treating acute pain, but chronic pain remains a frontier. Our focus is on identification, imaging, and pharmacology. But the person? The pace of acquiring medical knowledge in other branches creates a terrible illusion. Medicine is increasingly able to cure forms of cancer, for example, but pain remains a quagmire. Yet pain is designated as a medical problem, so people place trust in physicians to cure their pain. But . . . we largely can’t.

Me? I sing the pain. This is my poetic method. And I will sing it until I die, but the song will not stop. Mine is not a medical technique, but I am sure my way is superior to an opiate prescription. Taking one or giving one.


You include several voices in the book, some of which come with heavy context, including a school shooter and a grieving father. What is your approach to crafting these voices and getting them to ring true?


Simple: the voices are me. I am true, to myself and to pain. I invoke Whitman here. I know what happened to Ashley Smith; I know what happened to Clifford Beers; I know the acts of Jared Loughner. As do we all, should we be honest. If not the specific acts, then the implication that any of us could be the ones with the ligatures around our necks or the guns in our hand. The real provocation comes in trying to understand. I denounce the acts of a James Holmes whilst also closely reading his face and seeing myself in it.

I am privileged to understand mental illness through personal and professional experience. It was important for me in one poem to have the faces of murderers speak for themselves. After all, those images have spoken so often, or rather been made to misspeak, through media. We all want to feel better by calling someone crazy, as if that is an explanation. Look at their face! See how insane they are! This is the contemporary freak show with attached mayhem narrative. But the freeze-frame or mug shot faces of these murderers is only part of the tale. I suggest that showing their crazy faces with the intended implication that facial expressions are equivalent to motive, or culpability, is part of the tale too.


Tell us a little bit about your writing space. What do you need, in terms of tools and rituals, in order to write?


I wrote in hospitals, when my son was postictal. (The hospitals that haunt my poems are the Guelph General Hospital, the Health Sciences Centre of McMaster University in Hamilton, and Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, New York. I hate each one, but it’s not their fault.) I wrote in a cottage off Anstruther Lake, with my best friend Jim Johnstone. I wrote on Powell St. West in Guelph, Ontario. I wrote next to my mother’s ICU bed at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton, New Brunswick. My face was everywhere and nowhere, staring at a screen, mistaken and mistook. I wrote in my clinic in Guelph, too.


What where you reading while working on On Shaving Off His Face? And what is next on your to-read list?


The list of texts I consumed during the five-year period of construction of On Shaving is quite large and I wouldn’t know where to begin, so I’ll provide the content of my Glossolalias section from On Shaving here as provisional answer to your question.

—The Complete Works of Milton Acorn (finished)
—The Complete Works of Wayne Clifford (unfinished)
—Davenport, Andrew. In the Night Garden. BBC Television
—The Complete Works of Fervourist Marc di Saverio (unfinished)
—Dowbiggin, Ian. The Quest For Mental Health: A Tale of Science, Medicine, Scandal, 6. Sorrow, and Mass Society
—The Complete Works of Jim Johnstone (unfinished)
—Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain
—Raffi. Singable Songs for the Very Young
—Ropper, Allan and Martin Samuels. Adams and Victor’s Principles of Neurology, 9th ed.
—The Complete Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt (finished)
—Whybrow, Ian. The Tickle Book
The King James Bible (1769 version)


What are you working on now?


Right now I am writing a book-length long poem about the death of my mother as it is intertwined with the poverty and violence of my birthplace, the province of New Brunswick. The wild and Whitmanesque first section of this long poem has had success with The Capilano Review, winning their Robin Blaser Award this year. The second section of the book follows the course of the Saint John River as it winds from the northeastern part of the province down to the mouth at the city of Saint John.

I also have a book of nonfiction composed about the mutual illnesses of my son and daughter, about the struggle to escape the constricting rings of physical and mental illness in genetic and social terms, about the look of love and the persistent threat of death, but I don’t know what I’ll do with it yet, where to send it. I’ve titled it Saving.

Shane Neilson is a family physician who published his first trade book of poems, Meniscus, with Biblioasis in 2009. In addition to several collections of poetry, Neilson has published in the genre of memoir, short fiction, biography and literary criticism, and his work has been widely anthologized in poetry, nonfiction, and medical journals. In his medical doctor and writing practices, he focuses on mental illness, pain, and disability. He currently acts as editor for Victoria, B.C. publisher Frog Hollow Press. Though he currently lives in Oakville, Ontario, all of his work is rooted in rural New Brunswick.

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