canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Paul Vermeersch
Paul Vermeersch is a Toronto-based poet and editor. He is the author of the The Fat Kid (ECW, 2002). His poems have appeared in journals and magazines in Canada, the U.S., and Europe. His first collection of poems Burn (ECW Press, 2000) was a finalist for the 2001 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for the best English language poetic debut in Canada. In 1998 he founded the I.V. Lounge Reading Series. His anthology the I.V. Lounge Reader (Insomniac Press) was published in 2001. It was reviewed in TDR and solicited a reply from the editor. He is the poetry editor for Insomniac Press. 

Michael Bryson interviewed the author by email in Spring 2002.

Note: In May 2003, Vermeersch handed over responsibilities for the IV Lounge Reading Series to Alex Boyd.

Photo credit: Tony Burgess


TDR: Give us some background about yourself. Where did you spend your childhood? When did your life first intersect with poetry? Why/how did you make the decision to write?

PV: If Canada ever gets an enema, weíll have to stick the hose in Sarnia, Ontario. Per capita, there are more bingo halls, mullets, and Hyundai Ponies with monster truck tires in Sarnia than anywhere else on Earth. Thatís where I grew up. I remember always feeling a little starved for decent art, concerts, and good books...anything. I scoured the local Coles bookstore, which reserved only one shelf for what it called Ďliterature,í for books by authors like Kundera, Calvino, Orwell and the like, but contemporary poetry was nowhere to be foundÖunless you count Maya Angelou, and I donít.

The textbooks we read in high school were my first exposure to actual poetry, but there was little Canadian content and even fewer works published after the 1960s. Iím sure I had a vague idea that poetry was still being written by people somewhere, even in Canada, but I would have been hard-pressed to produce any evidence to support that idea.

I suppose that Sarniaís dearth of viable culture fuelled my hunger for the arts. Creative writing was always a pleasurable activity for me, as was painting. When I finished high school I was planning on a career in the visual arts and had enrolled in a suitable program at the University of Western Ontario. By the time I graduated from UWO, though, I had a degree in English and the foundation for my writing life had been laid. It was at Western where I first met other like-minded aspiring writers, people like Jonathan Bennett and Peter Darbyshire, with whom I could share ideas about writing. It was also at Western where I learned a few tricks about editing from Stan Dragland, one of the founders of Brick Books and the poetry editor for McClelland and Stewart at the time. As time went on my love for, and commitment to, writing and poetry grew stronger and stronger. Being a writer wasnít so much a decision I made as it was an inevitability, and whatís more, Iím not sure I was ever cut-out for anything else.

TDR: Your new book of poetry is called The Fat Kid. Itís a kind of novel-in-poems about the childhood and coming of age of a fat boy. Or is that a too-literal summary? How would you summarize your new book?

PV: So far Iíve been loath to use the term "novel-in-poems" but I can hardly see how I can avoid it--after all, thereís a protagonist, an over-all narrative, and a plot--but I was also careful to make each of the individual poems readable on its own. Itís basically about the childhood and coming-of-age of an overweight boy, but that narrative allowed me explore the themes and issues I was interested in addressingólow self-esteem, poor body image, depression and eating disorders, and our societyís cult of thinnessófrom a male point of view. When I started writing this book, about four years ago, no one was really talking about these things, though now it seems issues concerning the male body are getting more and more attention from the media, the academy, and both the medical and mental health communities. Iím not sure if being timely is going to help my book find a wider readership. We will have to wait and see.

TDR: You are also involved in the publication and promotion of poetry as the poetry editor at Insomniac Press and as the long-time host of the I.V. Lounge Reading Series in Toronto. Your various hats give you a strong vantage point in whoís publishing what in Canadian poetry these days. Whatís your sense of whatís happening out there? Do you see any major trends or issues?

PV: Poetry in Canada is all over the map. Iím not certain there is any one defining trend at the moment; the various schools of style and aesthetics are too fractured. I could start listing the geographical stereotypes, like prairie poets all write endless craft-worthy treatises on rivers and irrigation while Toronto poets are all post-post-modern cleverphiles "mapping out new lexicons" for some inexplicable reason, but what good would it do? Itís simply not true on the whole.

One thing Iíve noticed is that itís relatively easy for a group of like-minded individuals to band together for the sake of touting their own aesthetic agenda at the expense of everything else. Personally, Iím not interested in anyoneís prescriptive definition of poetry. To each his own, I say. Besides, quality is inimitable. You canít plug in a formula and get a good poem. You can use lofty diction, an elementary rhyme scheme, and have all your lines be relatively the same length, but that isnít intrinsically preferable to a free-verse poem written in the vernacular, or one that incorporates a variety of styles, or one composed entirely of the letter O for that matter. I would like to see more camaraderie among disparate groups of poets based on the quality and fullness of their work rather than petty squabbles about stylistic preferences, geographic location, etc., etc.

Other than that, I suppose itís important to acknowledge that our literature is still in its youth. That has its pros and cons. We donít have any foundational traditions to live up to, which gives us a lot of inventive wiggle-room, but by the same token we donít have a preset bar of literary accomplishment that we are all working collectively to raise. I think many people are perhaps too eager to publish without giving much thought about what theyíre contributing, or contributing to. I certainly get a lot of manuscripts submitted to me through Insomniac Press that were clearly written by people with little or no knowledge of poetry, and some of them come with publishing histories. If the situation is going to get any betteróif our juvenile national poetry is going to grow and develop into a big, strong national poetryóthen poets and editors alike are going to have to get more discerning and work a little harder, and I do not exempt myself from this opinion.

TDR: Youíve made no secret that Al Purdy has been a strong precursor for you. Do you find you struggle with writing yourself away from Purdyís influence? Do you find you have what Harold Bloom has called an "anxiety of influence" about Purdy or other poets you admire? If so, how does that manifest itself in your work?

PV: I am a fan of Purdyís work, and yes, I do consider him an influence. But no, I donít have an anxiety of influence regarding Purdy or anyone else I admire, or feel I have to splash cold water on my face to avoid imitating anyone. There were similarities between some of the poems in my first book and the kinds of poems Purdy was known for, and a few kind reviewers made favourable comparisons, but I wouldnít chalk it up to mimicry. I think The Fat Kid will show that Iím hoeing my own row. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak.

TDR: How does living at the "Centre of the Universe" (i.e., Toronto) affect your literary life? Maybe you could name a couple of advantages and disadvantages.

I dislike the term "Centre of the Universe" being applied to Toronto, since itís usually used pejoratively by those who resent it for being Canadaís largest city and resent its inhabitants for living there. But I suppose if Red Deer was Canadaís largest city, then everyone would resent Red Deer, so you can hardly take it personally. I wonder if this is a uniquely Canadian phenomenon; I donít think residents of provincial Bordeaux gripe that they have to go to Paris if they want to visit the Louvre. In most countries, and Canada is no exception, it is the largest city where cultural industries like publishing (or at least the bulk of them) tend to be based (though Iím certainly aware of the terrific publishing happening right across the country), so yes, there is an advantage to living here. The fact that the bulk of Canadaís publishing industry isnít based in Corner Brook, Swift Current, or Salmon Arm isnít meant to be a slap in the face to those communities. For myself, having grown up in the cultural vacuum of Sarnia, I wanted to be somewhere that had a large and vibrant arts scene. 

The plain and simple truth is that living in Toronto affords me the opportunity to participate first-hand in the largest and most active literary community in the country. This doesnít mean I discredit writers who live and work in other parts of the country, or that I donít read their books, or even that I dislike other cities as a matter of course. I have a great fondness for many parts of Canada and for the literature produced therein, but I have chosen to live and work in Toronto because it offers the amenities I enjoy having close at hand, and the opportunities to do what I want to do for a living are simply much harder to come by elsewhere in Canada. Put short, Iím happy here, and thatís the greatest advantage no matter where you live.

And sure, there are disadvantages to living in the big city as well. The bigger the pond, the bigger the predators; there are elements of the rat race that rear their heads in any urban centre. The writing community can be catty and competitive at times, but itís also the largest source of support for many writers. There are other big city problems: rent is usually a bitch, and there are more people applying for the same jobs. But Canada is a vast and varied country and there are advantages and disadvantages to living just about anywhere, depending on who you are what you want to do. For instance, if I wanted to farm Salmon on the open ocean, living in Toronto would suck.

Of course, with Canadian publishing in the state itís in right now, the benefits of living close to the industryís hub may be dwindling, if they still exist at all. Iím thinking about applying for a job in a hardware store.

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.







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