The Chat: Trevor Corkum Interviews Karen Solie

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Today on The Chat, I’m pleased to speak with Karen Solie. Her collection The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out was published last year by House of Anansi Press.

These are taut, haunting, shape-shifting poems. Writing in The Globe and Mail, Emma Healey says “Karen Solie’s superpower has always been in her ability to make complex feats of association seem easy ... the feeling of reading Solie at her best is like moving through a maze on a retractable leash. You weave your way through image and theory, vernacular and high diction, concrete particulars and sprawling philosophy, at what feels like your own pace—and then when the turn comes you’re reeled back, swiftly, toward the idea that’s been controlling things all along.”

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Karen Solie is the author of five collections of poems including Pigeon, which won the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Pat Lowther Award, and the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. She was International Writer-in-Residence at the University of St. Andrews in 2011, and is an Associate Director for the Banff Centre’s Writing Studio program. Her poems have been published in the US, the UK, and Europe, and have been translated into French, German, Korean, and Dutch. Her first U.K. edition, The Living Option: Selected Poems, was published in 2013. Karen lives in Toronto. [Photo credit: James Langer]

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THE CHAT WITH KAREN SOLIE

Trevor Corkum: The title poem of the collection is one of my favourites. The speaker recounts a voyage to a desert canyon this is simultaneously literal, allegorical, mythical—full of heart-stopping tension and fear. It includes these gorgeous lines:

An inaudible catastrophic orchestra
is tuning, we feel it in the air
impelled before it, as a pressure
on the brain.

Can you talk about why you chose to this title for the collection as a whole? Was this an early or late poem in the evolution of the collection?

Karen Solie: The poem was written early on, one of the first dozen for sure. But it presented itself as a possible title for the collection only at the 11th hour, after I'd posed a few others to friends who pronounced them all utterly reprehensible. When I suggested this poem's title, some of these same friends had a great time proving to me it was cumbersome and impossible to remember by misquoting it in various hilarious ways.

It presented itself as a possible title for the collection only at the 11th hour, after I'd posed a few others to friends who pronounced them all utterly reprehensible.

I did have reservations about it myself, given how it had come to mean something different for me in the passage of time. In this difference, though, it also seemed the poem could be a sort of hinge in the book. Not only in the sense that it might suggest a transition content-wise between the first and second half, but in how it broaches philosophies and experiences of perspective that intensify, perhaps, or complicate, as the book progresses. It's always strange to talk about these things so long after the fact, since I can't be sure if I really thought this through at the time, or if it's a way to answer the question now.

Anyway, I presented the title to Anansi and FSG in a shortened form, and they said okay, but I couldn't let go of the sentence in its entirety. One of my editors asked me around the final manuscript submission stage what had happened to the full sentence. He liked it better. That decided it. I'm terrible with titles, as no doubt is obvious in the number of borrowed ones in the book. As it turns out, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out is misquoted fairly regularly, but I don't mind. The variable misrememberings suit how I feel about many things in the book.  

TC: In your work, you masterfully evoke the minutiae of place, elevating day-to-day storefronts and dusty city corners to their rightful place in the good heaven of memory. I’m thinking of “The Corners,” an ode to a neighbourhood that has witnessed “years of gentrification”—which, incidentally, reminded me of Roncesvalles Village in Toronto, close to where I live.

Does place in your work announce itself first through concrete, sensual detail—the “Hasty Mart in its collar of pigeons spikes—or through the symbolic or emotive—the “deep sighs” of laundromats, for example, “belying with the state of their drains their adjectives”? How has your relationship to place informed your development as a writer?

KS: Thanks for your kind words! I'm asked quite often about how my relationship to place influences what I write, and it's always been a tough question. When one works out of certain inclinations or habits of perception, it's difficult to imagine how it might be otherwise. I've never thought of physical detail as a defining feature of my work, or that I use it differently than any other writer does. But this assumption is exactly why it's an important question to consider.

The details I notice and how I evaluate and deploy them, the symbolic weight I assign them, my status as an observer moving through a landscape, my relative freedoms and obstacles in a situation, depend to varying degrees on the demographic to which I belong. None of us is a universal interpreter. Though I do believe people who've had to pretty much constantly take everybody else's bullshit into account in order to survive see things through a sharper and more complex lens. It can only enrich work to recognize the context influencing what we perceive and how it's imaginatively cast.

I find it difficult to separate concrete detail from the symbolic or emotive, especially in terms of its appearance in a poem. I suppose I have always burdened things with my emotional life. Have always been better at writing about things than people. Probably because they're so much easier to understand. "The Corners" was written out of many walks down Dundas West and into Parkdale or Roncesvalles, neighbourhoods where I lived. Just a couple or three years ago I counted the sports bars between Dovercourt and Lansdowne and there were 13. Some are craft beer cool bars now, but a few of the old places are still left.

Have always been better at writing about things than people. Probably because they're so much easier to understand.

TC: I also love how you mine the mythology of human relationships, unearthing, like an archeologist, confusing and often seemingly contradictory emotional artifacts from the debris pile of the human heart. In “I Let Love In,” another favourite, you open with:

When they were together she thought it God’s punishment.
When he left she thought it God’s punishment.

Which seems to me the perfect way to describe the particular existential conundrum of certain relationships—the fear of staying put, the fear of leaving.
Would you describe yourself as an optimist/romantic when it comes to love and relationships, or more of a realist/pragmatist? Or some hybrid?

KS: Are emotional artifacts ever not confusing and contradictory? Some clarity would be great, but I have my doubts.

"I Let Love In" began in irritation at human efforts to explain outcomes by attributing them to an outside force. A number of poems in the book began in irritation, actually. But the poem changed, at least I hope it did, into a more complicated engagement with blame and responsibility. When it's not totally loathsome it can be poignant, the imaginative lengths to which we go to avoid being crushed by the recognition of our own bad choices. Admitting we've hurt someone, damaged something beautiful, or fucked up our lives. And sometimes a person has to laugh, however bleakly, at how absurd we can be. Hence the Nick Cave title.

I honestly don't know how to describe myself when it comes to love and relationships. Every time I think I'm one thing, I turn out also to be another, whether I know it at the time or not.

TC: Turning to the act of writing, do you have any rituals or superstitions involved in your writing process? Do you generally follow a fixed writing routine?
    
KS: My work life and home life aren't consistent, so establishing a routine can be difficult. At times I work a number of temporary contracts requiring that most of my attention and energy is spent on other people's work. Other times there's a scary absence of contracts, but then I can get some of my own writing done. So, like many writers, I do my own work when a window opens for it. I'm terribly slow, though, at all kinds of writing. I wish I were someone who could brainstorm or freewrite, do stream-of-consciousness or automatic writing, or even draft a piece without editing as I go, but I am not. I inch along. Though I find writing a compelling problem, and fatally interesting, it is not cathartic for me, or freeing. It doesn't necessarily make me feel good. Consequently, I am a terrible procrastinator, will grab at anything to keep from doing it.

Though I find writing a compelling problem, and fatally interesting, it is not cathartic for me, or freeing.

I'm not superstitious, but there are elements of the process I enjoy. I like to walk when I'm thinking about something, look at other things with that thing in mind. It doesn't really matter where, or what. I need to read when I'm writing—poetry, essays, philosophy, fiction—so I don't get too enamoured of my feelings, my ideas, my little anecdotes, my vocabulary. I love research, and note-taking.

I'd say less than five percent of what I note during research makes it directly, or literally, into a poem or prose—it's often more about atmosphere, hearing the tone that might direct the composition, or simply knowing what I'm talking about. Because I like to take notes, I like good pens and pencils. And inks. And writing books. Not expensive ones, just those that function well, are plain and nice.

I like good pens and pencils. And inks. And writing books. Not expensive ones, just those that function well, are plain and nice.

TC: Finally, what's your own litmus test for good poetry? Are there particular writers or works that have influenced your own development as a poet? Can you comment on what you’re seeing these days in the work of contemporary Canadian poetry?

A good poem is an event. Not only because it doesn't happen very often, but in terms of its immediacy. A good poem is a first-hand experience for the reader, not simply someone else telling a reader about their experience or idea. It communicates significance with which the reader engages intellectually and emotionally. It activates intuition, generating meaning, feeling, suggestion, implication, that may not be stated. A good poem can come in any form, style, mode, and from any method.

I'm influenced by many writers, in every genre. A list would be quite long. C.D. Wright, who passed away recently, will always be very important to me for her poetry and for her writing on poetry. I was reading her for the first time when I started work on Pigeon, and her work changed not only how I thought about form and syntax, but also about the complications and responsibilities of selfhood, a poetics of constant revision. She continues to teach me about bravery, humility, and humour.

I see in contemporary Canadian poetry a lot of wonderful young writers working in many different modes, and making gorgeous weird hybrids. I'm as influenced by their work as I am by older writers, and by my contemporaries. My jobs often involve working with writers early in their careers—who are not necessarily younger—and I've been bowled over by the smart, passionate, skillful, and compassionate work I've seen. Things look pretty good.

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"Man Is a Rational Animal"

It was the same life, more or less,
 yet suddenly a flight itinerary represented
the most tangible indication of my fate.
 From the air I saw mountains, forest, 
lakes in which dissolved the notion 
of ownership, and the sweet little Beechcraft
 wagged its tail on landing 
in a crosswind. My fellow passengers 
claimed their long guns, carried them in cases 
like guitars out of the terminal.

Darkness accompanied the second segment,
 the Dash 8 traversing the southwest
in high cloud and swinging out over 
the Atlantic. Lights might have been 
ships, or islands, towns someone 
from there could identify. But I wasn’t from there.
 Where land ended 
and the water began was indiscernible, 
though I was not afraid. Because I didn’t know
 what I was seeing.

"Man Is a Rational Animal" is taken from The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, copyright © 2015 by Karen Solie. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press.

February 24, 2016
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