Prose from Poetry Magazine

Q&A: Michael Lista

by Michael Lista

Can you tell us a little about the project these poems are part of?

They’re from something I’m working on called “The Scarborough,” which I’m describing as a book of poems that isn’t about Canada’s most famous rapist and serial killer, Paul Bernardo. He was known as the Scarborough Rapist (Scarborough is an eastern suburb of Toronto, where Bernardo is from). The crimes were committed across the greater Toronto area, from east to west over a number of years in the late eighties and early ninties, while I was growing up. He was convicted on my twelfth birthday, September 1, 1995, while I was having a pool party.

Bernardo was a psychopath, a type of human—it isn’t an illness, and it can’t be treated, never mind cured—that was first described by a Canadian, Robert Hare. Bernardo was good looking; he and his accomplice, his wife Karla Homolka, an equally demented psychopath, were called “the Ken and Barbie killers” by the American press because they were beautiful and charming and ostensibly well put-together. When Bernardo was finally charged, the judge who presided over the case had to rule whether or not the videos of the crimes, which Bernardo had filmed, could be shown in open court. The judge, Patrick LeSage, ruled that Canadians could hear them but they could not see them.

The poems are trying to do two things at once, two things that I can’t disentangle. They need to look like psychopathy — classically proportioned, handsome, manipulative, well-spoken, charming, glib, and ultimately devoid of empathy, uncaring of their true subjects. Underneath them runs a psychotic river, the evil Alph, that they’re able to hide with their public faces. But they also need to look like the dignity that LeSage was trying to safeguard in his ruling on the tapes. You can hear the crimes, the perpetrators and the victims, but you can’t see them. The hell of this all is that after some years of thinking in it, dignity and psychopathy look formally identical to me. The form that lets the Devil sneak in is the same that lets the innocent sneak out. The whole thing is an Orphic struggle, leading something unspeakable out by the wrist into the light, without ever turning to look at it. It takes place on Easter weekend 1992, when his last crime was committed. Early Greek Christians thought of Christ as a new Orpheus. I’m an atheist but I’m afraid I’m a Christian writer.

And “Parkdale, then Princess Street,” how does it fit in?

Parkdale is a neighborhood in Toronto. The first two lines are based on a plaque in Parkdale. The second stanza is in an interrogation room, I think. Bernardo was interrogated countless times before he was charged. The police just couldn’t believe this charming, handsome man was the monster that they were looking for. So they kept let- ting him go. Princess Margaret Hospital is in Toronto. And Princess Street is the main drag in Kingston, where I went to college, where all the shitty bars are. It’s also where the prison Bernardo will die in is.

In “Fowl,” a line says: “If we endure this, it will make us special.” How so?

That’s a line I can’t look back at. Sorry.

Can you relate “Today’s Special,” in particular its rhyming, with the larger theme you’ve described for us?

Today’s Special was a Canadian children’s TV show from the eighties and early nineties. It’s about a mannequin who comes to life at night when the shoppers have gone home to bed. One of his friends is Muffy the mouse. She speaks in rhyme. My little sister and I used to watch it when all of this was going on. There are a lot of Canadians, especially Torontonians, who felt a palpable paranoia in the air at the time that just sort of blanketed daily life, and made everyone and everything feel sinister. The poem follows the intro sequence, which you can find on YouTube. I always liked that they could carry him up an escalator that still worked at night, when everyone was gone.

Where does the old man in “The Scarborough Grace” fit in?

The Scarborough Grace was a hospital in Toronto, but the poem is about an old man who used to live on my street, Grace Street. We used to wave at each other, say hello, and he would flirt with the women who walked by. One summer his memory started to go. He was dressing like two-thirds of the Canadian flag, burgundy pants and a white Molson T-shirt, I swear to God. He stopped saying hello; he looked confused. And he became obsessed with checking the doors of the church I live across from. They were always locked. I don’t know if he was trying to get in or if he was making sure that people stayed out. One day he disappeared.

Originally Published: December 4, 2012

COMMENTS (1)

On August 12, 2013 at 2:46pm Richard Stevenson wrote:
Hi Michael :-)

I was just cruising the Web, looking for publishers that
might look at a collection of poems I've written on
serial killer Clifford Olson, when I came across your
interview and poems. Imagine my delight in finding
another Canadian poet writing on the problem of serial
murder!

I'm from Victoria originally, but was living in Nigeria,
teaching, when the Olson story broke. I new the broad
strokes from letters friends and family wrote while I
was away, but not the details of the story. I picked up
the first journalistic quickie true crime book on the
case when I came back to Canada in 1982, only to
discover the creep had killed one of my first students!

That shocking revelation led to lots of research, and a
long poem sequence I'm calling Rock, Scissors, Paper:
The Clifford Olson Murders. Individual pieces from the
book have appeared in journals and e-zines in seven
countries, but do you think I can find a publisher for
the book?! Most editors reject the ms sight unseen on
subject matter alone. Then there is the little problem
of going hat in hand to a small press sponsored by the
Canada Council and saying, in effect, "Hi. How would you
like to spend some of your CanCow operating grant on a
book about a guy who ripped off the Canadian government
to the tune of 10 grand a body, not to mention the 60 or
80 grand a year to keep the guy on ice it cost to
incarcerate and deal with the guys legal finagling?"

I think you take my point. I'm curious though: Have you
had any luck with your ms, or have any sage opinions of
who might be interested in such an ugly book?

I should mention I'm not a rank amateur, having already
published 27 full-length books and 10 chapbooks ... .
I'd like to think there hasn't been a huge falling off
in quality. :-/

Any comments, observations that might help me in my
quest? I'd be happy to reciprocate with what I've
learned, of course.

Cheers,

Richard Stevenson
Lethbridge, AB

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 Michael  Lista

Biography

Michael Lista is the author of Bloom (House of Anansi Press, 2010). He is poetry editor of the Walrus and poetry columnist for the National Post. He lives in Toronto.

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