Eve Joseph is the author of Quarrels which won the prestigious 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize and shortlisted for Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize 2019, beautifully show her poetic play in tension with truths unravelling in unlikely images and re-forming insight and being. She also won the Huber Evans Non-Fiction Prize, BC Book Prizes for In The Slender Margin, 2015 and Nine Bouquets for Nine Sailors was shortlisted for Prism International Nonfiction prize, in 2013.
Here is Eve interviewed by Victoria poet Wendy Donawa, author of Thin Air of the Knowable (Brick, 2017) and The Gorge: A Cartography of Sorrows (JackPine, 2015).
Wendy Donawa: Quarrels’ prose poems seem a marked departure from the lyricism of The Secret Signature of Things, of a liminal world and its tensions “casting a net around the dead, pulling them closer”. And yet it seems that moving into a new form, your prose poems also reach back to those creative tensions. Would you say how this shift has informed your process and practice? What is new; what remains?
Eve Joseph: Different forms allow for different kinds of play. I love how “form” can dictate content. One of the biggest challenges of writing prose poetry, for me, is how to create tension without the traditional poetic tools of enjambment, end-rhyme, metrical structure and rhythm. Form opens the door to new thinking, to new ways of working with language. I’m reading James Tate’s last book right now – a collection of prose poetry. On the back cover Matthew Zapruder theorizes that, in these late poems, Tate was stripping away the accepted signifiers of free verse in order to see what remains “when all the things that usually tell us we are reading poetry are gone.” When one writes prose poetry, one must engage with this question. In answer to “what remains?” I would say “everything.” I am still the same writer wrestling with poetry – whether it’s traditional verse or prose.
WD: You are not a traditional “nature poet”, yet many of your poems evoke some aspect of our salty West Coast, its smoke, light, wind, rain, gulls “magi of the rooftops”. How does your openness to the natural world inform your poems’ sense of the life cycle, its variability, its mortality?
EJ: It’s funny, we don’t see what is in our own work. I am not aware of consciously or intentionally writing about the natural world. I try to pay close attention to things, to name the world as best I can and, in this way, the natural world is a part of my work. If by “the life cycle” you mean life and death, beginnings and endings, then I would say these themes occupy me as a writer.
WD: Part One’s narrative “I” implies autobiography, but the reader is delighted and astonished by the poet’s mosaic of brief, intense, mysterious, illogically-linkedperceptions which somehow hang together as a dream does. Not without its moments of hilarity, the exploding pressure cooker propels a capon through the ceiling, frogs rain on the Citroën. Ghosts and angels appear; a magician fills the narrator’s yard with owls. A gentler sense of Yeats’ “quarrel with ourselves” pervades, yet a Holocaust survivor haunts, and “darkness arrives without drawing attention to itself”.
My question is both technical and metaphysical: how on earth did you structure such an eclectic group of poems into such a luminous and satisfying whole?
EJ: I was intentionally looking for the surreal in everyday experience. Many of the poems come out of real events in my life. The washing machine in my childhood home did bark like a baby seal and when a woman showed up with a fish, wrapped in newspaper, for the seal, my mother accepted it. This went on for weeks. The poem started with the strange event and I followed where it wanted to go. It happened to end up with Gandhi swimming in Burrard Inlet. There are “levels” of sense…sometimes things that seem nonsensical are true in other ways. The more I “entered” the poems, the more I wanted to write toward the edge of things.
WD: Part Two’s ekphrastic poems contemplate Diane Arbus’ stark photo-portraits of flawed humanity with tenderness and compassion.
Would you tell us what drew you to Arbus’ work?
EJ: Her deep humanity. Her compassion toward the marginalized. And, I would probably say I was drawn to her gaze in the world. To seeing the world through her eyes.
WD: Although mortality is a given throughout the book, Part Three’s grave and lovely elegies focus on life’s inevitable end; they chart the very specific grief and perceptions of the poet keeping watch over her dying father. In a most perfect final poem, she tells her grief to old horses whose “long heads bow in consolation”.
Your many years in hospice work have given you a more-than-usual familiarity with and knowledge of death in its many guises. Is that knowledge in any way a matrix or consolation in the deep grief for loss of a particular loved one, or the way you would write about that loss?
EJ: I’m not sure I know the full impact working with death for so many years had on me. It has probably allowed me to enter death in a more intimate way than I might have otherwise been able to. Whatever knowledge I may have of death, and the dying process, doesn’t give me any kind of “pass” in regard to feelings of deep grief. When Denise Levertov referred to “the poet being brought to speech” I would probably say that sorrow is one of the things that moves me to write.