Conversations, a collection of poetry that won the 1999 Governor General's Award (French Language), is a sequence of 999 numbered fragments that record the essence of verbal interactions between two people. Over a period of a year, Herménégilde Chiasson captured snatches of conversations overheard, conversations he had with other people, even reported conversations. Then he distilled what was said and his observations into a series of single sentences, each attributed to a strangely impersonal He or She. Chiasson has likened his concept to the visual experience of driving: a succession of flashes zooming by, the connections only intuited. The blank spot for entry number 1000 underlines a Zen-like philosophy that suggests that nothing is ever fully completed. In subject matter and technique, Conversations fuses tradition and modernity. Chiasson continues his exploration of the often uncomfortable zone where the mechanical or artificial meets human emotion and spirit. The format participates in the strong and lively Acadian oral tradition, yet the sentences themselves are polished literary jewels, almost epigrammatic in their compactness.
Conversations is at the same time as public as a news broadcast and as private as a lover's unspoken thoughts. With ten personal collections of poetry, Herménégilde Chiasson's body of work is among the most prolific in Acadian poetry. Mourir à Scoudouc was published in 1974 to critical acclaim in Acadie and Quebec. In 1976, he made a radical departure in style with his collection of anti-poetry Rapport sur l'état de mes illusions. Busy with filmmaking, the visual arts, and playwrighting, it was a decade before Chiasson published Prophéties in 1986. The 1990s were a prolific time for Chiasson's poetry. His 1991 collections Vous and Existences, broke new ground in the field of experimental poetry and Vous was nominated for a Governor General's Award. Vermeer and Miniatures continued Chiasson's quest to blend the visual with the oral in a unique poetic style. In 1996, Chiasson produced Climats. It was hailed as one of modern Acadie's strongest poetic works and was the first of his books to be translated into English. Climates brought Chiasson his second Governor General's Award nomination. In 1999, Chiasson won the Governor General's Award for his landmark poetic work Conversations, now available in English from Goose Lane Editions.
About the authors
Herménégilde Chiasson has been called "the spokesperson and conscience of the young Acadian poetry." His poetry has been nominated for and won the Governor General's Award and twice won the Prix France-Acadie. In 1990 the French government named him a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. Herménégilde Chiasson studied visual arts at Mount Allison University, Université de Moncton, and New York University, and received his PhD from the Sorbonne. He has produced some 15 films, written 20 plays, and exhibited his paintings and photographs in galleries in the Maritimes, Toronto, and internationally. In 2001, Chiasson was one of a select group of artists chosen to accompany Governor General Adrienne Clarkson to South America. This special state visit was organized to foster new cultural and social links between Canada, Chile and Argentina.
Jo-Anne Elder was a member of the Romance Languages Department in 1990-1991. Since then, she has taught French part-time and more recently has taught in the Gender Studies Program. Active as a writer, translator, and editor, she wrote Postcards from Ex-Lovers (Broken Jaw Press, 2005) and has translated many works from French into English. Three of her translations — a novel (Tales from Dog Island: St. Pierre et Miquelon, Killick, 2002) and two books of poems (Beatitudes, Goose Lane, 2007, and One, Goose Lane, 2009) — were shortlisted for Governor General's Awards. She is editor of la revue ellipse magazine, a journal devoted to Canadian literature in translation.
Fred Cogswell (1917-2004) grew up in the farming community of East Centreville, New Brunswick, started teaching school when he was sixteen, and served overseas in the Canadian Army during the Second World War. After earning his BA and MA from the University of New Brunswick and his PhD from the University of Edinburgh, he became a professor of English at the University of New Brunswick. In 1954, Cogswell and others involved with the literary journal The Fiddlehead founded Fiddlehead Poetry Books. In 1957, Cogswell became the sole publisher, and by 1958 The Stunted Strong had been followed by two more volumes, one of which was Emu, Remember, by Al Purdy. One of only a few poetry publishers in Canada, Cogswell eventually published books by more than 300 poets. As well as devoting himself to poetry by others, Fred Cogswell left a large body of his own poetry. In his lifetime, he published more than 30 collections, and en route to the hospital just before he died, he and his daughter dropped his final manuscript in the mail. As well, in the 1970s, Cogswell pioneered translating French Canadian poetry into English, and in the 1980s, he began his landmark translations of Acadian poetry, often in collaboration with Jo-Anne Elder.
"Epigrammatic, intense... like time-release capsules, waiting to be felt... The writing builds toward stateliness. Each poem is its own landscape, which makes the implication of the title interesting. Here, the two speakers don't talk to each other, don't answer each other's questions, don't overlap. The layout of the book keeps them in discrete units of type, like paintings hanging opposite each other: a clean look, a cinematographic tone, a controlled direction."
"With a moving and incantatory poetic force, Conversations is rooted in the sonorous rhythmic resources of a language on the verge of ultrasound... An Acadian version of the expression of humanity."
Governor General's Award jury citation
"Intriguing and resonant... worth thinking about."