Here at Poetry we often think of T.S. Eliot’s notion that “poetry can communicate before it is understood.” We might go even further and say that to enjoy a poem in this sense—to respond bodily to its formal movement and sounds, the shape it cuts in the mind’s ear—is to understand it in some primary way. Some poems exist wholly on this plane, poems that seem not so much hostile to meaning as beautifully immune to it. In editorial meetings, after our initial recognition and appreciation of the formal values of a poem, we often find ourselves wondering about particular lines or stanzas in just the same way that our readers do. But one of the great perks we have here is that when we find ourselves puzzling over something in a poem, we can go straight to the source. This month, as part of our “Q & A Issue,” we’ve asked the award-winning Canadian poet (and 2010 Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere), Sina Queryas about her work.
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Q & A
Tell us about the title of the sequence, “Euphoria.” What feels like euphoria to you? How is the poem a meditation on the word—if it is.
The title comes from a video my sister was working on in the final months of her life. After years of struggling with her art, and years of battling cancer, she began a project that she described as “reasons for euphoria.” In this work she allowed herself to move toward joy, toward the beautiful, in a simple way, when so little about her life was simple.
She didn’t finish the project and left me the footage. My sister engaged with life voraciously, and in the end she was quite euphoric. I plan on transcribing, or describing, as much of this footage as I can for these poems. The sites she documented were sites we often walked in and around together, or in fact documented together, so the images she collected blend in with my own catalogue of images, as well as my way of seeing. These poems chronicle, and in a way meditate on, my sister, the city, her love affair with the city, and with life, as much as they explore grief.
Can you say a few things about the forms of address used in the poem: “Dear Regret,” “Dear Skin,” “Dear Aging,” “Dear Time,” and so on? What does it mean to you — what’s it like to you — to address abstractions and even a part of the body? Is the poem itself addressed to Euphoria? If so, how do these others fit into the scheme of things?
The poem is much bigger than the selection here, and this selection is likely not the beginning, though it is subtitled 1–5. I tend to work in sections and then rework those into a larger canvas. This means that the poems often change form, and these poems are no exception—though I’m happy with the way they are now and don’t see that changing further.
As far as the direct address goes, in this section everything is being intimately addressed because there is a stage of grieving when everything in view becomes folded into the process of grieving. Objects, feelings, memories, become heightened, and in a way that makes them very solid. Even the attitude we bring to grieving becomes very solid, very tangible; at least temporarily. So, relentlessness is addressed and regret addressed, etc.
How do some of the site-specific references work in the poem, e.g., Zeppelins over Piccadilly, Jericho, English Bay? Where does the poem take place, if it can be said to take place anywhere?
These poems could be laid over a map of Vancouver. That doesn’t mean they reflect only the surface of a given location, or even one experience of a location. One’s presence in a landscape, even if one makes a conscious effort to be “in” that space and “in” that moment, is always mixed with what one knows of the history of that place, and then one’s history in or with that place (conversations, walks with others, other representations). More directly, can one be in a space alone? Can I be in Vancouver and not be “with” my sister?
What do you, what does the poem, make of “Newton/Of the original apple, all of these clones since”? Elegy attempts to get at something original about loss. Our pain is always unique. It’s always more serious somehow than others’ pain. And it’s often impossible to recognize others’ pain, even when we’re our most empathic. On the most simplistic level one can say that each apple is both unique and a replication—and now even more complexly so — of the original. The image is also laden with the laws of motion /emotion, the relation between the bite and life. It makes me consider how entrenched narrative gestures can be. There is some connection between the apple and grief for me.
The poem asks a number of questions: “Why is pain so much better than nothing?” “Why is saying nothing so much better?” These occur right in the middle of the poem; are they pivotal? Are they rhetorical questions?
I like questions. Questions in poetry often seem to be thought of as lazy, an “easy way out.” I don’t experience them that way. I find them expansive. If I ask a question I generally have my answers, and I hope those answers resonate or are suggested between the lines, but I don’t want to overdetermine the poems. I would like the reader’s answers to take precedence.
I can say here, outside of the poem, that to me the questions speak of propriety. How we are told we should grieve, how we are told to be, or act, in the face of loss. In general, my family seems to be the silent type, so where does the grieving go? It is internalized, and it becomes something else. I’m tempted to wail, to let my body feel the loss and track the physical as well as psychological journey of grieving.
So yes, they are pivotal, almost an about-face: the poem, the thought, the subject at the core are moving forward and then, wham: she must consider the baggage around a given phrase, a given belief.
The poem is very sensuous, that is to say, its language sounds intimate; and the poem addresses, in some sense, love. Is this in some way a love poem? If so, how do you feel it might be different from other love poems?
I’m thinking of how we provide evidence of love. Is declaring it enough, or is it more, as Sartre and others have suggested, that there is no love but in deeds or acts? I am wowed by conceptual art’s doing more than simply expressing, collecting, or reframing. So I want to consider elegy as a potential monument: a big, abstract piece, more like dance, or sculpture, “silent and explosive,” descending “like waves,” or “built of straw with outlook points like peaks of meringue,” as I described in my piece on elegy for Harriet earlier this year.
My poetry edges further toward an experience of total immersion: I envy artists like Bill Viola or Jenny Holzer who can create a physical space one can enter into, even if it is virtual (or the transcription of their direct engagement?). I wouldn’t mind creating a surround-sound poem.
What is the game you will not concede?
My poems tend to respond simultaneously to contemporary poetics—conceptualism, for example—as well as historical or formal concern. I want to do all of this, but still create a poetry that the uninitiated can enter into.