Michael Prior is a writer and a teacher whose poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies in North America and the U.K. He is a past winner of Magma Poetry’s Editors’ Prize, The Walrus’s Poetry Prize, and Matrix Magazine’s Lit POP Award for Poetry. The poet has graduate degrees from the University of Toronto and Cornell University.
His first book, Model Discipline, was named one of the best books of the year by the CBC. Prior’s new collection of poems, Burning Province, explores family, identity, history and language through a personal lens, as well as through the eyes of his parents and grandparents.
“Haunted by the exigencies of humans and planet, Prior’s elegiac lyric narratives are as beautiful as they are necessary,” writes poet Alice Fulton about Burning Province.
Michael Prior is interviewed by Alli Vail.
Alli Vail (AV): Why is it so important for you to write about identity and family, which you do extensively in Burning Province and in your previous collection, Model Disciple?
Michael Prior (MP): A large part of why I write is to articulate how I might define myself in relation to the world. I think both books focus on family, race, ethnicity, and, by extension, history, in an attempt to pose questions about how such inheritances have shaped me. Emily Jungmin Yoon has said that poetry is a way to theorize who we are. Thom Gunn argues that a poem is an act of exploration, a means of discovery. I agree with both of them.
AV: How do you prepare yourself to explore and write about the past, like you do in “A Hundred and Fifty Pounds,” and in the snippets of memory you share about your parents and grandparents and their experiences?
MP: I try to write from and through my love for my family. I’m also trying to write toward the truth of my experience, which means I’m usually starting from a place of confusion or inquiry, rather than certainty.
In terms of craft, I look for the metaphors that are going to help guide my approach to language throughout a book. These may change in the process of writing, and may not even be noticeable to the reader in the poems’ final form, but they feel like an important part of figuring out how the poems I’m writing might stand on their own, while also resonating with each other.
AV: Your poetry explores historical facts and specific places, ‘Minoru’ and ‘A Hundred and Fifty Pounds’ being good examples. Do you need to do research for your poems, and how do you go about separating ‘facts’ into poetry?
MP: I do research for poems, yes — though I think “research” has broader parameters for creative writers than, say, for scholars. If one is looking for language that is informational, one might turn to biographies, histories, and archives. If one is looking for language that is experiential — memorable and affecting — then a poem, a short story, or a novel has that capability.
In the process of writing Model Disciple and Burning Province, I visited museums and cultural centers and read critical texts and historical documents because I wanted to render those events faithfully, but what initiated and frames the poems are mostly my relationships with my family, their memories and my own. Being attentive to them and to various sorts of remembrance is an equally important form of research.
These two sorts of inquiry often overlap: for example, I learned the convoluted story behind the statue of the horse in the poem, ‘Minoru,’ after having a disagreement with my mother. Writing the poem forced me to reexamine our relationship, my own assumptions, and to think more about her experience as a woman of colour.
AV: Your poetry deals in details like “She liked / pickled shiso, Sir Roger Moore / and Hallmark Christmas ornaments,” in ‘My Pronunciation Was Wrong,’ or a reference to lemon jello in another piece. What is it about certain details that attract you as a writer?
MP: Every writer has their own set of obsessions, and the result is a distinct way of seeing the world. And I think that for a lot of poets, seeing is a way of thinking: that’s a writer’s vision.
I’m interested in trying to come up with a figurative and sensory grammar over the course of a collection of poems — a grammar which not only becomes inextricable from a book’s central questions, but which also pushes back against them at times, creating tensions and paradoxes.
AV: You write about misinterpreting language, or the inability to understand or communicate in Japanese — In the first ‘Tashme’, you write “At ten, I thought it sounded Japanese—”; there is a poem titled ‘My Pronunciation Was Wrong.’ In ‘Minoru’ you write “She used a name I can’t pronounce—” and in ‘Georgic’ you write “a name I couldn’t say / without having heard it / said first.” As a poet, you provide beautiful cadence and melodic written construction. Readers tend to think of poets as being highly connected to language. Why do you think this separation to language appears as a theme in your work?
MP: That’s a great question, and a tough one to answer! I have a deep love for the English language, but I’m also cognizant of the hate, fear, and oppression that are part of its history: like any language, it has the potential to be (and certainly has been) a tool of imperialism and prejudice. For me, just as often as it is a reservoir of history, English is also a solace and a joy, a means of introspection, connection, music.
My relationship with Japanese is very different: my grandparents wanted my mother and her brother to be “assimilated Canadians” and so they never made any significant effort to teach them Japanese. Growing up, I only heard scraps of Japanese, though sometimes my grandparents would speak it behind closed doors, or when they thought no one else was listening. The absence of the language in later generations of my family, the end of that cultural tie, is a direct result of the internment camps; I’m interested in and saddened by that sort of erasure.
AV: Much of your work in Burning Province is linked to nature: birds, landscapes, farms, animals, beaches — but then you slip in technology, like “We put too much trust in Google Maps” in ‘Never Been Better’ and “the searchbar’s scroll / of strangers and estranged” in ‘Salamander.’ How, or why, do you marry cold technology with natural explorations in your poetry?
MP: You’re identifying something important to the book. While the Internet and Google weren’t present through many of the years that the book re-imagines, they underlay the contemporary experience. Certainly, they inflect my own sense of time and place and sometimes even lead to a feeling of temporal and spatial collapse: I can visit where Tashme* was on Google Maps — I can even get a panoramic view as if I were there, able to look around. A little over a decade ago, I would have to drive two and a half hours from Vancouver to see it, and take photos myself.
I think this sort of collapse is present in many of the poems as they quickly shift between times and places. Derek Walcott writes about a poetry that simultaneously conjugates past and present in order to deal with complex overlays of history, place, and the personal; I hope that some of the poems in Burning Province attempt something similar.
I think your question also highlights the book’s interest in the pastoral genre — a genre with a long, rich, and often problematic lineage. What happens when you write a pastoral poem that explores intergenerational memory in the context of dispossession, detention, and displacement? What happens to pastoral conventions like retreat and return, idyll and Arcadia, when they’ve been put into conversation with my family’s experiences and my own?
*Interviewer’s note: Tashme is the name of a Japanese internment camp that operated in B.C. from 1942 to 1946.