Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

"POEMS ARE NEITHER TRUE NOR FALSE; THEY ARE SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY"

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Yesterday I received an email from a high school student in Peterborough who is analyzing my poem "Shadowing the Medivac" (from my first book) for an assignment in his English class. He wanted to know where the idea for the poem came from, and he also asked questions about the creative process in general.

I find these kinds of questions to be extremely valuable. Articulating your opinions, especially about your own work, for someone else can bring them into sharper focus, or even lead to surprising conclusions you hadn't considered before. I want to share with you my response to this student because I feel it expresses a great deal about what I think about my poetry and about artistic practice overall.

Dear C,

Thank you for writing. I am very happy to hear you like my poem "Shadowing the Medivac" enough to use it for your English assignment.

The poem was inspired by something that happened in real life. My niece was born with some urgent medical needs and had to be airlifted to Sick Kids hospital in Toronto. Her parents had to drive for almost two hours to get there, and I wanted to capture the desperation of that trip in a poem, if for no other reason than because I felt strongly about it. I didn't experience this event first hand, so my poem was based on the stories I'd heard from members of my family, and it is important to remember that the poem is also heavily dramatized, so it shouldn't be taken as memoir or as a report of facts, even though there is a strong connection to real life. It is a poem, and you shouldn't ask a poem whether or not it is true. Poems are neither true nor false; they are something else entirely.

Your second line of questioning about the creative process is more difficult to answer. How does art happen? Well, to begin with, artists must try to learn as much as they possibly can about the art form they wish to practice: the techniques, the theories, the history. Those things are vital. And I think an artist should have an idea about what sort of artist he or she wishes to be. Will you be serious? Will you be funny? Will you be unconventional? Still, in the art making process, there is always some mystery. Art happens despite all the things that conspire to suppress it. Somehow, it needs to happen, and if people truly have an artistic nature, they simply cannot help themselves. They will do it. They will work at it and work at it. They will practice and practice and practice. They will try to make themselves experts about their art, and still, usually, there is some sense that they're not doing it right, that they're not good enough, not yet, and this is what drives them, the desire to be better, the desire to earn the privilege of working on their art. And despite all the practice and study and hard work, there is still that sense of mystery. How does it happen?

I think when someone believes they know the answer to that question, how art happens, that is when art suffers. An artist who thinks he has mastered his art form, who thinks he has conquered it and has nothing left to learn, well, that artist no longer has humility before his art, and rather than that sense of mystery I was talking about, there is the artist's ego instead. It is absolutely the wrong ingredient. So here is what I do know about the creative process as I understand it. Artists take what they can from life, from imagination, from science, from play, from the universe as they find it, and they try to make something interesting out of it. Sometimes it ends up being interesting enough to be art. But how exactly that happens, I hope I never really know. Not exactly, anyway. I'd rather have the hard work and the mystery.

I hope this helps with your project.

All best,
Paul Vermeersch

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Paul Vermeersch

Paul Vermeersch is the author of The Reinvention of the Human Hand (McClelland & Stewart, 2010) and three other collections of poetry. He is also the editor of The I.V. Lounge Reader and The Al Purdy A-frame Anthology.

Go to Paul Vermeersch’s Author Page