Evelyn Lau is the Vancouver author of thirteen books, including eight volumes of poetry. Her poetry has received the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award, the Pat Lowther Award for best book of poetry by a Canadian woman, and nominations for a BC Book Prize and a Governor-General’s Award. From 2011-2014, Evelyn served as Vancouver’s Poet Laureate. Her most recent poetry collection, Pineapple Express, will be featured in VFA2020.
Evelyn is interviewed by Martin Bauman
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Martin Bauman (MB): How did Pineapple Express come to be?
Evelyn Lau (EL): It’s always difficult for me to talk about a book of poems as a collection, because I think with poetry, you spend so much time agonizing over each poem. And each poem is like its own little world. So to then kind of step back at some point and think of, you know, how the poems connect to each other, the themes that might suit the collection, it’s still difficult for me to do.
I think part of the impetus was my previous book of poetry (Tumour) was largely about the body. Many of the poems were about physical aspects of the body. So in this one, I wanted to turn more towards the mind. And after working on a number of poems individually, certainly, the theme of depression and medication was one of the stronger ones to emerge. And I was interested in exploring mental health disorders from a poetic, rather than a nonfiction or memoir point of view — which, I mean, there has been a lot of good writing out there. But in poetry, where you’re trying to make the language as sharp and as original as possible, that was a challenge for me: to write about the flatness of depression in a way that was somehow invigorating, or not flattening the reader. Not muddy.
MB: You write about mental illness, medication, and mid-life. How does the name Pineapple Express fit into that?
EL: In Vancouver, we have all these weather systems from the tropics, and increasingly, you hear about the Pineapple Express coming in. It wouldn’t be that dark, gloomy rain; it would be almost like a bright, tropical kind of rain. It has a light to it, but it’s also intense and passing. So I was thinking of emotional weather systems moving through. Only afterwards did I discover that it’s a strain of pot, so if you look up Pineapple Express, that’s all you see [laughs]. Pages and pages.
MB: In a lot of these poems, you take on the second-person format. The reader becomes “you.” And at times, that “you” changes, but the second-person continues. How did you land on the format for these poems?
EL: I’ve always used that quite liberally in poetry. I like the way it kind of pulls the reader in; it implicates the reader in the experience. It seems to be a way of opening up the poem. And it comes to me fairly naturally. I mean, there are times when I’ve tried different points of view, but the “you” seems to be a natural fit.
MB: There’s an element of inheritance in these poems — of the things we pass on, intentionally or not, through genes and family ties. In “Family News,” you (or the narrator) wonder if your nephew will be spared from your family’s history with mental illness. What do you make of this kind of inheritance? How much of our lives are predetermined by family history?
EL: Maybe more than we would like to think when we’re younger. As we get older, we become more cautious, typically. There are certain shifts. And I think also when you’re younger, you feel like you’re unique [laughs], before you realize you’re not. You don’t necessarily see those patterns, or you don’t want to believe that there are patterns in that kind of inheritance of mental illness, and [that those] behavioural patterns and personality disorders and so forth run through the family.
One of my aunts is schizophrenic, and she lived with our family for a period of time when I was a child. And watching her have episodes when her medication wasn’t working was terrifying. I conflated mental illness with schizophrenia, as if there were no other form of mental illness, so I was always trying to tell people I’m not crazy, because I don’t hear voices, and I’m not seeing demons. It was very black-and-white to me.
But of course, that meant denying a whole bunch of other issues that were going on. And of course, that was back in the seventies, the eighties, where a lot of people were just not educated. Mental health was literally psychosis; it wasn’t depression; it wasn’t anxiety; it wasn’t all these other things that can be equally as crippling.
MB: How much of that early impression of mental illness was in your mind as you began to experience depression later on? You know, this worry of “am I going to be heading down this same road?”
EL: I think it was more drug use in my teens where I had some of that fear. Because of course, with psychedelic drugs, you are bringing on hallucinations, right? And of course, my life as a teenager — and even into my twenties — had a lot of upheaval, so definitely the emotional stress that I went into at times was extreme.
And you wonder how much of that also is being a writer: being overly sensitive to everything and feeling everything at a pitch that isn’t normal. So yeah, you don’t know. We’re a mix of so many things, right? How do you separate the person from the person who writes and observes, and who immerses themselves in things that maybe somebody who’s setting out to be an accountant would not [laughs]. Because of course, there is that desire to experience everything. And for me, it’s always been more emotional rather than something like traveling the world. People hunger for experience in different ways, and for me, the most interesting things have always been the emotional experience.
MB: Do you think that’s natural for writers: to experience things — emotions or moods — more intensely? To be more sensitive to things?
EL: I think it’s probably likely in any sort of artistic personality. You do have this kind of appreciation, or this ability, to open yourself up to sensory experiences, whether it’s beauty or whether it’s ugliness. You take it in and embody it in ways that perhaps other people don’t, or other people dismiss, [because] part of the work of being a writer is sitting with those moments and interrogating them, going down into them as deeply as you can — which, of course, only magnifies it further.
You’ve probably read about depression and how the best thing to do is distract yourself, and you can’t do that when you’re trying to write about it. There’s a kind of inherent danger to it: in going deeply into any experience.
MB: Leanne Betasamosake Simpson has written about depression as being like “drowning in your own head.” You describe a similar feeling in “Plunge,” of “looking up from the bottom of the lake.” What does depression feel like to you?
EL: I don’t know that I can answer that simply. Of course, the flatness. That grey landscape. And the fear that kind of beats underneath that. For me, it’s really infused with anxiety — and so it’s not necessarily a kind of numbness, although there are phases like that, but there’s that pulsing terror underneath it. It’s difficult to put into words, of course.
But again, I think depression became [part] of the conversation [earlier]. Anxiety [has] only recently been talked about and kind of paired with depression. For years, since I was a child, I would lie awake all night with thoughts racing and stomach clenching, and all those things: headaches; constant, chronic headaches. We didn’t even call it anxiety. People would just say, “oh, you’re a worrywort.” They didn’t understand how paralyzing it became. So I’m glad that kind of thing is talked about more. It’s still really difficult, because oddly enough, I am kind of a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” sort of person. I hate to sound like I’m weak, and there still is that kind of shame around it — as opposed to having a broken leg or something physical that people can see.
I’m glad the conversation is changing, but it’s like trying to explain a panic attack to somebody who’s never had one. I remember a friend of mine saying she was secretly thrilled the day that her husband had a panic attack, because he’d been dismissing hers for years [laughs]. And then he had one, and he thought he was having a heart attack. It’s difficult to convey unless somebody experiences the same thing.
MB: You write about Vancouver in November as a place where “survival depends on finding caches of colour,” where the sky is “the slime of shucked oysters.” The city comes to embody depression, in a way. And yet it’s home. What’s your relationship like with Vancouver?
EL: Most of the time, I’m enormously grateful to be here. In terms of its physical beauty, in terms of its relative safety, its government… so many things. Vancouver has so much that the rest of the world doesn’t have. But it has changed enormously since the time I was a child, when it was this kind of provincial place that people hadn’t heard of — you’d mention Vancouver, and [people would say,] “Vancouver, Washington?” — to now, this desirable, glossy, ridiculously expensive place to live. In that transition, there have been things that have been lost along the way, and certainly, I wouldn’t have anticipated how difficult it would be just to maintain a foothold in this city as somebody who was born here. But you know, estranged from family and so forth, it seems like so much of my working life has been just trying to keep a roof over my head. And in other places, that wouldn’t have been such a challenge — and such a distraction from writing.
So there is a bit of a love-hate thing. I think at the end of the day, definitely gratitude more than anything — for living here, for the diversity, for so many reasons. But it has been a challenge, and of course, it’s morphed in some ways that have not been ideal either.
MB: You begin “Sunset Boulevard” with a quote from John Updike’s New Yorker essay, “How to love America and leave it at the same time”: “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” What speaks to you about that quote?
EL: I have always had a kind of love affair with the States, and that has never been popular — as a Canadian, and particularly as somebody in the arts. I remember even just starting out in the arts, and I would be writing about wanting to go and live in California, and writing about the States, and it was always as if America was the “evil empire.” Everybody in the arts, they worshipped anything European, or anything Asian, but god forbid America.
I’ve always been fascinated by the States and its contradictions. And its literature. Updike has always been my favourite writer, and the work that he’s produced about just ordinary life: being a husband, a father, growing up in a small town, living in various places in the States. I’ve just always worshipped his way of looking at the world and being able to describe the ordinary world around us.
I mean, my poem, “Sunset Boulevard,” is not about how wonderful America is. A lot of it is seedy and grimy, and it’s the opposite of the Hollywood dream that we’re fed. Most people are living fairly desperate lives in this land of plenty. So those contradictions in my travels, I’ve always been really interested in and have written about quite a bit in poetry.
MB: In “Nightfall,” you share a quote: “anything can be a burden if you let it.” What significance does that quote have to you?
EL: I do think about that quote quite a bit. My friend who’s a psychiatrist, he was the one who said it; the book is dedicated to him. I’m fascinated by endurance and drive, whether it’s physical or mental. For him, the things that he had accomplished in his life with his career, with his family and so forth, and with acquiring a certain degree of wealth, the thought of all that is exhausting. The thought of even one of those things is exhausting. For me, I guess I’m comfortable with living a small life, if I can have a life of the mind, if I can have time to myself to read and think and stare out the window.
And I do tend to experience a lot of things as a burden. I mean, all the things that tend to give people joy — like exercise, or having kids, or I don’t know … having a lot of friends, or having a busy social life. Being busy at work. All of those things are just horrifying to me [laughs]. But of course, it’s all attitude. And I do think it’s partly sort of the introvert-extrovert thing. If you’re an extrovert, you’re energized by other people. It’s just different personalities.
MB: These poems were written before the coronavirus pandemic hit. And yet, to read them, they capture the times quite well: these days of distance, of the hours stretching, of watching the world, of feeling flat. What have you made of these last number of months?
EL: You know, so much has been written and said about it that it’s difficult to say anything new. Again, as an introvert, and with my friends who are introverts, they’re like, “well, life hasn’t changed that much.” They’re accustomed to spending more time alone. And there were a number of gifts in it for me in that… I do unfortunately experience social obligations as obligations, so all of a sudden, to no longer have them was like this weight was lifted. I’m on the CERB, and that is more money than I make — so on a craft level, I’m like, this is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life [laughs].
Not to minimize, of course, the incredible anxiety and grief and so forth that other people are feeling. But it’s also interesting. I mean, there were times, especially at the beginning, where everybody… I’d walk outside, and people would look so grim. And of course, I don’t know if it’s because I’m Chinese — I definitely got a lot of glowering or yelling anytime I got within slightly under six feet of another person — but I also weirdly felt a kind of lifting of anxiety, because it’s like this crushing anxiety that has been with me for so long, everybody else was feeling it. And it was almost as if that took some of the burden off of me in a strange way. For once, I didn’t feel so different from everybody else. It’s kind of a terrible thing to say, but you know? It was like everybody was feeling it for a change.
MB: I think it does, in some ways, boil down to that: so much of the experience of any kind of mental illness is not wanting to feel alone in whatever you’re feeling.
EL: Well, that’s what we turn to literature for, in part. Because the writer will capture or mirror an experience that we thought nobody else could articulate. And we haven’t even been able to articulate it to ourselves. But when we see somebody else doing it for us, I think that is a real gift.