JULIE PAUL: It’s an honour to converse with Cornelia, an accomplished poet and sister BC coast-dweller. Hello!
CORNELIA HOOGLAND: Hello Julie. Well done, little first book of poems! It’s a great pleasure to talk with you.
JP: It is a strange thing to say that one enjoys a book—a long poem in this case—that explores grief and loss, but for me, Trailer Park Elegy allowed me to feel a myriad of emotions, including enjoyment, sadness, awe and gratitude. It’s a beautiful book. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Raymond Souster award.
The choice to write about the loss of your brother in the form of a long poem is something you’ve talked about in other interviews (https://bcbooklook.com/2018/02/01/a-brotherly-love-revisited/, https://www.eventmagazine.ca/2017/11/an-imbalanced-world-nathaniel-g-moore-interviews-cornelia-hoogland/ ) The long poem form seems to echo a life itself, with breaks, sections, sequences, parts of a greater whole. Was this your intention?
CH: The long poem emulates life as you describe, and particularly grief. I discovered the long poem as a way of exploring my serious concerns about the immense and unknowable nature of both death and life. I characterize that unknowning as a tiny rip in the world’s seam where it escapes into darkness; as noise pollution deep in the ocean; and in a long view of the history of the area in which the poem is located. I required the large associations and metaphors associated with the long poem to support my study of my brother’s passage into death. Similar to life, long poems work with contingency; they keep the poem active by presenting problems or a context to work through and within. In Trailer Park Elegy, I purposefully wrote the same idea from multiple angles, and consciously sought out the different ways I could arrange those angles or points of view. Also as in life, there was the question of courage. I wanted to take greater risks, but in doing so, I risked disturbing my reader. Death is brutal. Had I shown that? Had I entered the unknown? How did I become darkness; what was the darkness that I claimed? I needed windows of improvisation that could allow for exploration.
Here’s my first question for you, Julie. Although it’s composed of discrete lyrics, divided into sections, the book cycles through themes and specific images in ways similar to the long poem. There are two that greatly interest me: namely, the theme of claiming: “I claim it, finally—” which is, I suggest, a kind of entry. Not just into your story of origin, but into a poetic task. The other theme is the opposite of entering, namely, leaving or wanting ‘out,’ as in “I wanted out before I knew what out meant.” This movement between entering and leaving occurs in the gravel trucks that “came and went” through the village; in the daughter buying fake jewels for her mother in order to enter into a new relationship with the mother; also the way “those Catholic years gave me metaphors, another way out of the village.” Please talk about how this tension informed the writing process.
JP: Thank you, Cornelia. What fun to talk with you about poetry and writing.
Tension always informs the writing process for me; whether it’s an actual problem I’m hoping to work out or tease apart like a knotted necklace, or the exploration of personal history and the natural tension within families, or the tension between lived experiences and the limitations of words in trying to capture them on the page.
I have struggled with the notions of belonging and leaving most of my life—from a rather privileged point of view, since, unlike so many, I have never been under duress to stay or go or abandon home. But these feelings are real to me, all the same. My Canadian ancestry reaches back hundreds of years, all within a small geographical range in Eastern Ontario, “this country—that let their families, in, encouraging them to tame stolen corners of it, back and back” (“Antecedents, p. 29”); my blood and perhaps even my spirit feels tethered to that place. I call it my blood home, and in fact I used this term as an early title for a group of these “home” poems.
A large part of this collection explores the tension in leaving the village I grew up in, and also finally claiming where I’ve come from, and loving it, and recognizing it as unique and valuable. So yes, at the same time I claim my leaving, I claim my love for the place and people I’ve left behind, a place I will always refer to as home.
Now, another question for you. You are much more experienced in the long poem form than me. I have dabbled in longer poems, with two in my collection (ironically, one deals with a loss to the road as well, but in my case, it’s a dog) and most recently, a six-thousand word long poem I’m hoping to publish someday as a chapbook or as part of a second collection. For me, when I intentionally write a long poem, it feels like it’s coming from another part of my brain—from somewhere I rarely tap into, a place I can’t approach directly. In fact, in the draft stage, it almost feels like another type of writing altogether, where I have little control or knowledge of what I’m writing about. Is this familiar to you? Is there a difference in the process for you between longer forms and short ones?
CH: There’s a world of difference between short and long poems. I have just completed a manuscript of sixty-four, six line poems, based on the I Ching, a book of ancient Chinese wisdom. They were a joy to write! I wrote upon waking in the morning, and got into and out of the poems seemingly without effort. By contrast, the long poem was, well, long. Writing about family has often alluded me; closeness to family members makes writing about them difficult. How did I feel about my brother? What did he mean to me? What did he mean to me in death? What was the nature of his death, and how did he feel about it? Difficult questions––I stumbled around them for three years. A breakthrough occurred when I realized I had to attend to mundane details, such as letting my reader know I was writing from a particular place; the trailer park at Deep Bay where my brother had spent summers. I saw the book as a conversation––the only one possible, since it was an imaginative effort for me to hear him. I parked my car outside the locked gates of a trailer park in winter, my dog beside me. Sometimes we sat in the car and sometimes we walked along the ocean. Trailer Park Elegy has been without doubt my most difficult writing challenge. A huge part of the work lay in the editing. That’s where I found the narrative of the story I was trying to tell and the voice to tell it.
So here’s my next question for you, Julie. Because this is first book of poems, they may have a long writing trajectory. So I’m curious; which came first? The poems in the last sections, for instance, contrast in their subject matter and writing style. In those, you write about sex––and certainly these are sexy poems. I think sex is present but subverted in the family story poems; those urgent teenagers who begin their family with you. It’s also in the character of the eldest daughter as a young girl, who longs for intimacy, contact, connection in contrast to her instruction: “the one, basic command: don’t do it.” These are, I think, precursors for the fully sexual self the narrator assumes in the last part of the book. So I’m asking you about writing sex, about allowing it into your poems. Even when the narrator writes about her daughter, sex is “jiggly or wiggly up there” in the amazingly beautiful poem “Astrology Gets You Off The Hook.” I’m again interested in how the diction, imagery and energy of sex infuse your writing process. Which writers do you look to for example, or, said otherwise, who is writing sex in Canada?
JP: Thanks for your careful reading of these poems!
The poems in The Rules of the Kingdom have varied histories and pedigrees, you’re right. But they were not written in an orderly fashion, as the book’s trajectory might suggest. Although the oldest poem in here is about being the eldest daughter of four children (“Cat Got My Tongue”), the second oldest (“Earth Girl Tells All”—naughty sibling!) is one about comparing a lover to an astronaut.
I think like most writers I have been writing about the same subjects all my writing life, wrestling with the same themes, trying to find new ways of expressing the same old thing. Fire is one element that I explore in multiple sections of the book, as is the body, and home, and love. Although I didn’t set out to write a lot of sexy poems, on purpose anyway, I’m glad they’re in this collection, and in me. And I like what you say about sex being in there, even in the family poems, subverted—as it must be—in a Catholic upbringing!
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the American poet Sharon Olds was one of my first poetic influences. The intimacy and bravery of her narrative poems were revelatory when I first encountered her work, and she remains an inspiration today. Canadian poets writing sexy? Michael Ondaatje’s poem “The Cinnamon Peeler” is one sensual favourite. A few poets I admire who’re not afraid to get erotic: Rachel Rose, Jane Eaton Hamilton, Billeh Nickerson, Lorna Crozier. Patricia Young has a whole collection, An Auto-Erotic History of Swings. Erin Robinsong’s recent debut, Rag Cosmology, is another.
One poem in the collection, “The World’s Smallest Republic,” a lover’s genitalia becomes a mythical country, and it’s a fun one to read aloud, to slowly feel the comprehension enter the audience. I don’t always stick to “fun” subjects, but I like to have fun on the page, to play around, and sometimes even make people laugh. (P.S. It’s okay to laugh at a literary reading!)
But I’ll get serious for a moment here. Cornelia, one of the sections in Trailer Park Elegy that feels like its nexus to me is where you explore the idea of black ice. As you write, “Before 1962, black ice / didn’t exist. Historically unknown / to the Innu, expert / cataloguers of ice and snow.” This book is about your brother’s early death to a road accident, but you also explore environmental degradation and loss, sound pollution in the ocean, tanker traffic. You mourn, and we mourn along with you, but you also present urban realities, a subway train rumbling beneath your apartment: “Every half-hour it rattled / me, then became me.” You trace an old subway map’s route, miss the coffee that was nearby. To me, this book could have veered into elegy for the planet, or the people on it, but it doesn’t read that way: there is still hope within. Even though, for your mother, “His absence is a room / she walks into. / Every / day,” on the facing page, “She works at being cheerful,” by tending to her chores and having an ongoing conversation with your brother’s photograph. Were you aware of how successful you’ve been in not assigning blame or being too heavy-handed? How did you manage to keep that balance?
CH: Thanks Julie for your question that captures what I’ve tried to do in Trailer Park Elegy. A brother’s death is personal, but death itself is impersonal, is universal. I’m as interested in the fact of death as I am in my brother’s death. As much as I loved my brother, life is bigger than his death, and far bigger than my sorrow. There’s a song about how life goes on after the beloved dies, “I wake up in the morning and I wonder / Why everything’s the same as it was. / And I can’t understand, no I can’t understand / Why life goes on the way it does.” I don’t feel that way. Life and death are a thick soup––their flavors, textures, intermingle. You can’t spoon the broth without tasting both. That might not be the best analogy (!) but it captures something of my experience in grief. I didn’t become a different person when my brother died, I continued to be concerned about tanker traffic, seismic oil exploration in the sea, and the effect of sound pollution on whales and indeed all sea creatures. Regarding the question of blame, well, we call highway mishaps like my brother’s––freak accidents. Black ice caused my brother’s truck to spin off the road, but there was no traffic alert to warn him of the dangers of that stretch of highway, so he went to his death in complete ignorance of the dangers. But maybe death is always freaky, even anticipated deaths are shocking and abrupt.
I can easily ask the same question of you: were you aware of how successful you’ve been in not assigning blame or being too heavy-handed? How did you manage to keep that balance? In what I’ve been calling the family story poems, you blame neither the mother or father, or even show up their shortcomings except in the most subtle ways. In “Suffer No Fools” may I suggest that you resist the heavy hand by focusing entirely on the young girl’s perspective? Also in “The Cat Got My Tongue” you keep a tight rein on the telling; in fact, you start the poem with a stunning image: “the tire swing rubs circles into a small wind.” I would further inquire, however, whether this aesthetic distance concerns only poets for whom narrative provides at least part of the impetus for the poem. What is it about a situation taken from daily life that compels writers to present it fairly or democratically as possible. Are those the words you would use, ie fair or democratic, or would you use something else?
JP: I am a narrative poet, through and through—I guess that’s no surprise given that I also write short and long fiction and personal essays. And yet it is to poetry that I turn when I want to explore the more intimate details of life, to praise, to question, to investigate, to illuminate. This collection has been likened to a memoir in poetic form, and for the most part, that rings true. For me, writing truth in poetry allows for more obliquity, a gentler hand. Or at least that’s one of my aspirations!
I don’t tend to think of poems or their focuses as fair or democratic, but perhaps you’re right—neither of us assign much blame to the people within our poems. Maybe that’s love. Or maybe it’s generosity. Or is that curation—surely we both have written poems that might veer off that more temperate course?
Aesthetic distance usually only comes after many years and much mulling, and a more balanced perspective seems to naturally follow. This is not to say that all the poems within the collection are praise poems; although there are many that include wonder and joy, organized religion gets a less democratic treatment. But as I imply in some poems, being raised Catholic surely had its benefits, too—the Bible is filled with powerful tales, metaphors, symbols, all important fodder for a writer’s imagination.
Then again, as we both illustrate in our books, fodder for poetry can also include dogs, rain, ultrasounds, burning villages, subway maps, bad knees, café customers, broken hearts and wild strawberries.
Thank you to the League of Canadian Poets for featuring this conversation and supporting poetry in Canada.
Cornelia Hoogland’s Trailer Park Elegy is shortlisted for the 2018 Raymond Souster Award.
Julie Paul’s collection The Rules of the Kingdom is shortlisted for the 2018 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award.
See the full shortlists here.