I Aim to Work at the Level of Idea: An Interview with Pearl Pirie

by Ryan Pratt

Ryan Pratt lives in Hamilton, Canada. A contributing writer for The Town Crier and Ottawa Poetry Newsletter, Ryan’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Quiddity, Bywords Quarterly Journal, Contemporary Verse 2, and In/Words Magazine, among others.

Pearl Pirie has a forthcoming third collection with BookThug in Spring 2015 called the pet radish, shrunkenShe is the author of been shed bore (2010) and Thirsts (2011), which won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. She has several chapbooks produced in Canada, France and Japan. She has produced two-dozen titles under phafours press. Since 2009 she has managed the Tree Seed Workshop Series. Since 2013 she has hosted Literary Landscape on CKCUfm. Visit her website.

Interviewer’s Note: A feeling of disorientation accompanied my first reading of Vertigoheel for the Dilly (above/ground press, 2014), the lengthy poem that makes up Pearl Pirie’s new chapbook. It begins as though in mid-thought and tramples the line separating concrete environment and playful asides. Lone asterisks provide brief lulls by which we can reflect on the overwhelming variety of non-sequiturs, but they constantly pivot, sometimes making a compound of two otherwise solitary stanzas and other times signaling an entirely new inner monologue.

I came into collision with Vertigoheel by picking a booth in a downtown café and opening its orange jacket. But it was two weeks later, while reading an interview with psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips, that I began to understand why so many of Pirie’s stanzas made contact and lingered. Phillips, while speaking about nineteenth-century essays in the latest Paris Review, said the following:

An essay is a mixture of the conversational and the coherent and has, to me, the advantages of both. There doesn’t have to be a beginning, a middle, and an end, as there tends to be in a short story. Essays can wander, they can meander.

As I discovered over a series of emails with Pirie, my epiphany—that Vertigoheel for the Dilly is a personal essay, touching on interests and frustrations that percolate through her social media outlets—barely skims the surface of this little chapbook’s big ambitions. In the following interview, we also discuss “bastardizing” poetic form, literary community, and new work on the horizon.

This interview resulted from a flurry of emails sent during the last two weeks of May 2014. It has been edited for length and clarity.


Ryan Pratt: The fragmented and stream of consciousness momentum of Vertigoheel for the Dilly suggests a higher degree of risk-taking in your writing. Has this development been nurtured or is it instinctive?

Pearl Pirie: What is risk? It may seem like stream of consciousness, but Vertigoheel is several years in. It has been through prose forms and formal forms, open verse and back again. It started as a model of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life but what it became is a result of clipping out the most potent bits and letting them non sequitur. They form a sort of bastardized, bastard ghazal, diverging from the constraint where and when it makes intuitive sense to do so. I am always doing many poem types in parallel. Some are in projects; some haven’t fit any pattern of style or content yet.

RP: You say the project is several years in. Have you considered a faraway deadline or how you’d like to present it as a whole?

PP: The project in the chapbook is the whole. The end and its false starts were boiled off.

When I have gathered enough poems to start a poem cluster, I have deadlines for it. For example, for grants you have to estimate how far through you are. It is unpredictable. A series of thoughts may need to be torn down and rebuilt, or be realized as unsalvageable for market. That doesn’t mean the process wasn’t valuable. Art is about the exploring and throwing away, not trying to justify each start with a product. There’s a lot of wastage.

RP: Do you feel a responsibility to progress onto new stylistic paths with each project?

PP: Nope. I aim to stay porous and curious. The more skills and the more knowledge, the more options. I have tried emulating and exploring various nodes of aesthetics and world-view models. In 1940, Thomas Merton said, “words have no essential meaning/ They are means of locomotion/ From backward to forward […] Created by the history which they themselves destroy.” What matters isn’t style or skill as much as what the poems do to the writer.

RP: As Vertigoheel deals more in gradual complexity than fixed chronology, you find conflations in societal norms—i.e., awkwardness around neighbours, couples that function as one unit—that enable an “us versus them” mentality. It’s a condition that seems to persist largely unchallenged in urban communities; do you address these conflations out of anxiety? Absurdity?

PP: Supporting “us versus them” in the text—how horrifying. The text, I hope, doesn’t glorify anxiety by giving attention to stressors to the exclusion or imbalance of other parts of life, such as humour and beauty. I want to give equal weight to those and more neutral parts of life. Despite the harsh opening sequence, I hope through the text there is also empathy, tenderness, resilience, and compassion mixed in even when in a state of conflict.

RP: I should’ve been clearer. I didn’t mean to say you were enabling “us versus them” reactions but that you’re shedding light on the feelings of otherness that in turn enable an untrusting fabric of society. Part of the reason I connect with Vertigoheel’s conflations is because, to me, they’re framed as false. Your observations show empathy to insecurities we’re all susceptible to, as in the following section:

in color there are textures that are colours.
this line 10 items or less. are 4 of the same 1?
she looks me in my black of eye and snips syl-
lables, practicing English, “I check

the in.gre.di.ents.” or feeling guilty holding
the family-size tin of moon cakes. or conspicuous
as she sees me see her as other, Chinese
so she proves herself us, English.

From the two spellings (or misspellings?) of colour onward, there’s a clear commentary on the almost imperceptible rules that govern and create divisions. What if you had 13 items in the 10 items or less check-out? There’s a popular Taoist notion that conformity creates aggression, and I think preconceived expectations on an interaction double the odds of a communication breakdown. Or at least make it easier for us all to remain strangers.

PP: Ah, I see. I suppose color versus colour could be taken that way as a deep read. Good idea but it comes from my impatience with spelling and punctuation conventions making any difference. Claims like “it took me out of the poem,” or “it stopped me,” or “it gave me pause” seem lazy. Do we stop dialogue and say I can’t hear your intent because of how you palatalize your J? Some ‘la-la-la-la’ and say get me someone who speaks English to a Bangladeshi person speaking English. So it happens.

Maybe it’s me aging out of anomie (bye-bye existential angst, forget to write!) but I saw the exchange in the poem more as communication than breakdown of it. There being multiple interpretations of what each person meant isn’t a breakdown. Rarely does one mean a singular meaning. Precision can be an excuse for distance or handy mechanism for it. Clarity or complexity, intention or inkblot, aren’t in themselves indicators. People can misspell and mistype and have solid ideas. People can be precisely accurate and typographically beautiful but still wrong.

One can choose to engage or use any element as leverage for distance. It is all constructed. If you stop people from calling people a racial epitaph, or fat, or unintelligent, or sexually attracted wrongly, people will latch onto some other arbitrary or manufactured thing. Deviant shoelaces, shape of anklebone. Star Trek: The Original Series has a scene in which Kirk points out the absurdity of our tyranny of minutiae: the one “race” was black on one side, white on the other, while the ones at war took pains to point out one was black on the left and the other was white on the left! We get caught up in the exteriors. Outward forms are not often relevant.

“Claims like ‘it took me out of the poem,’ or ‘it stopped me,’ or ‘it gave me pause’ seem lazy.”

I want to raise consciousness about false conflations, how categories we make take ridiculous baggage with them, such as females causing temptation or maleness being an inherent cause of violence, instead of recognizing individual instances of communicative channels working, and how we raise each other. I hope the text leads to people thinking about rules. A few people have said I play with language as my tool but I aim to work at the level of idea.

RP: Earlier you described this work as “bastardized, bastard ghazals.” As someone with a lot of experience in writing to form (tanka, haiku, acrostics even!), how would you compare the thrills of bastardizing and adhering to form?

PP: So far as poetic form, I’m generally a fan of constraint. If things are too open-ended, I am too omnidirectional. I spread like a spill of water.

Can form deepen a reader’s relationship to the text? In Shouting Your Name Down the Well, David W. McFadden said, “Form is the signal/ That the content is worthy/ To be cared about.” Sometimes. There are all kinds of models of end-targets, though.

RP: Do you prefer constraint as a reader, too?

PP: What matters is good work, staying in the process, not being slipshod. I don’t seek out form constraints over anything else. We’re always in some constraint.

RP: How important is clarity as the author intends it? Can obfuscation serve to deepen a reader’s relationship to a text?

PP: I never aim to make riddle poetry or put up barricades. I don’t want to obfuscate nor dumb down or sloppily mislead. Who does? If someone wants to be led down a complex garden path, they find that gratifying. Some like to work for it, some like spoons and a straight shot. Some need to be led, some love to explore freely. What kind of ride or rider is on the same wavelength and near enough to hear? It reminds me of when Jay MillAr, on being told that he seeks weird and experimental things, said no, he seeks things that please him, that make sense to him.

RP: In Issue 25: Spring 2014 of The Puritan, a conversation between Anita Lahey and Phoebe Wang explores how certain poems can change with each encounter, unlocking new “entrances” and “paths.” We’ve already touched on one of Vertigoheel’s interpretative alleyways.

PP: I’m skeptical of interpretative alleyways. You want to not miscue, and you can set up crumbs as in a murder mystery to lead forward that signify differently at the end, but that is a different sport than poetry needs to do. It can, but it doesn’t need to be so flirtatious with the sob and dunce of leading a reader through a story with stage directions. In the interview, Phoebe and Anita also talked about the point of communicating, whether to nourish or entertain. They talked about purpose. The way into poetry is, and isn’t, about constructing for a reader. The reader and writer collaborate. You know the saying, “You don’t make friends; you recognize them.” Of course all people are in flux and what we extend ourselves to we grow to, like amoebas.

“We all know that most books fall into the Great Void of Silence”

My comfort threshold with randomness and leap is higher than some, and I’d rather relay things that don’t fit together toward an incontrovertible conclusion. Maybe I am still preoccupied with the mandate of unknowability and taboo on completeness that passed from Christianity to Star Trek to Buddhism. I like the whole world in a poem, like a good renga. Words are about observing what’s worth preserving.

RP: How do these observations play within a loosely autobiographical context?

PP: Poetry is processing, filtering. The tone is informed by how certain friends and family members have had various levels of success for treatment of cancer, and my living in bouts of chronic pain percolate in. I have been coming to terms with the process of learning to accept I am allowed to make healthy boundaries and communicate and walk away if need be. This series is more jaded and more pointed than most of my other work but also accepting of comic turns. I am coming from a culture that blames and creates victims rather than corrects the behaviour of those who cross boundaries. There’s a search for limits of personal culpability and best practice for resilient attitudes. I was picking out of stressors as priorities and coming from a barebones autobiographical text. I have very little memory of before age 20, so part of the process is trying to access and knock loose memories that are almost lost, to catch an edge and speculate on how things fit together.

RP: Questions like these remind me that reception and subjectivity help in keeping language borderless, lawless.

PP: I don’t know about borderless or lawless. All is in flux and most things are negotiable. How about a model of language as dialogue and cooperation?

RP: Speaking of interacting, at pesbo poetry journal you read and review via your annual “95 Books” endeavour. The titles you choose cover a wild range of subjects and genres, and your reviews stretch in length from a few words to several paragraphs. Do you find these contributions echo and lend to a literary discourse?

PP: The owning of the tools of distribution and timing is the advantage of the Internet. Sharing notes is all part of communication and community. Lots of writers post reading lists in other forms. rob mclennan, Catherine Owen, Michael Dennis, Amanda Earl, Cameron Anstee, Brenda Schmidt,Ariel Gordon, and most recently Marilyn Irwin have started.

A little background: Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jonathan Ball started reading 95 books in 2009 as a response to going one better than George Bush’s claim. A whack of people do it under that name on Twitter: Danielle LaFrance, Jacqueline Turner, Mary Kilmer, Nikki Reimer, and Hedley Bontano.

On Twitter, the books list can get a boost by name. The author and press may get a pingback of an acknowledgement. It’s interesting to see where lists overlap; hours apart, Mary Kilmer and I posted we had both just finished Moon Baboon Canoe by Gary Barwin.

We all know that most books fall into the Great Void of Silence. There can be a lag of three to twelve months for a review to go through a magazine route. It is trying to squeeze a buffalo through a keyhole. Admittedly there are hundreds of new books a year, just of poetry, just in Canada—before we even get to international English and French, the zine scene, workshops, things passed hand-to-hand or inbox-to-inbox, open mics or spoken word. Considering how much creativity is made, it is a wonder we can get even a fraction of an impression of what is said.

What makes it to the largest number of eyes is one thing, a thing that will be talked about this fall at Prestige of Literature Conference at Ottawa U., but all a communication needs is one mind, the author’s in the future or someone else’s to go forward and push something else into motion.

I’ve been doing reading lists at pesbo since 2007. With 95books I like to be an information-clearing house to facilitate others in their journeys, but for my purposes, I need to know the name of that thing I read. I can keyword search my own blog; I can’t Google (or preferably DuckDuckGo) the house so easily.

I should say that in 95books, I don’t attempt to review. They are my reading notes on everything I complete, poetry or not. Sometime these notes spur ideas to think about and comparisons to other ideas in other books. Sometimes they are cross connections of things that happened to incidentally cross my desk at the same time.

I started under the #95books header in January 2013, and at the end of that year did an audit of how I was doing in the frame of CWILA numbers. A problem with those numbers is that it assumes a gender binary and that each person is one gender. Any publication comes out of the efforts of dozens of people. On the other hand I’ve gone to the library and done a head count and realized I picked up 14 books and 12 were authored by males. I went back to the shelves because gender bias can only change on the ground in one person’s moment. That said, for 2013, out of 163 books I read, 19 books were collaborations or anthologies by mixed genders—71 by males, 73 by females. Some of those by males were about females, or published by females, and those by females about males, published by males, etc. I also try to pick books from different ages, stages and decades to diversify my head.

What does my tracking it all add up to? Hopefully, a little more exposure. If you don’t have your blurbs in place, people ready to talk it up before it leaves manuscript stage, and you don’t have your act together to send it to a myriad of awards before it hits the page, you’re stymied as a writer. That’s a by-product of the needs of news and magazine media, not something necessary to sharing ideas.

Sales? Who knows what builds sales. You can’t buy things you’ve never heard reference to or seen. How many dozens of exposures before you register having seen something? The nice thing about blogs is that you might expect a more honest review. No cash changes hands. You don’t have copies to sell. You just want to say something citizen-to-citizen. At the same time, English poetry is more like peeing in someone’s bathtub than their pool, so …

When I started I only listed the name and author but, if you haven’t heard of either, that and the cover give you no useable information. What good is a signal boost with no information from which to judge? Now I tend to include a poem or parts from a few poems so people can come to their own conclusions. Sometimes what I’ve said gets found by the publisher and taken as a blurb on their sales site—generally they ask for permission.

RP: As a writer and publisher (of phafours press) how lively do you consider the critical response here in Canada?

PP: I am told that in other times and places, like Ireland and Iran, people engage with literature who are well-informed and do not practice it—like hockey fans who don’t play the sport but know the history, the score, etc. That larger picture and judging it isn’t my concern. My work is to read and learn. Secondarily, it is to pass along what is valuable. Thirdly, it is to thank the makers where and when I can for doing good work.

RP: pet radish, shrunken will be published by BookThug in 2015. Can you give us a glimpse into any themes, forms, or intentions that motivate the manuscript?

PP: Well, let’s see—it has been in queue for over a year, has a year to go and another edit round. I’m not sure how much or little it will flux from here. I’d say at this point I am a happy, happy teasel to get to work with BookThug.

“It has my usual sandbox of found speech and social navigation, how language integrates and disintegrates.”

So, what about the radish. No surprise, it is not a poetry collection as novel/biography/memoir. Is it more elbows than love handles? There are love poems. Some poems are dialogues in harmonious solitude. Death poems. Sense of nationality that includes more than Anglos. It’s more like Vertigoheel for the Dilly than Quebec Passages (Noun Trivet Press), which was also just released. The latter is more straight-up narrative, except for the vispo. But as Carmel Purkis pointed out: when I say these poems are narrative, someone who doesn’t know me doesn’t understand “narrative relative to Pearl” and they are still rather “experimental.” For those who have read my chapbooks and other books, a departure might be that it takes my letter and word play poems and fuses them with the sense of lyric significance more than usual. It does some oulipo sandbox with substitutions in Canadian lesser histories and other things. For example:

how to express a different point of view

Start cold. Make sure never to expose the pov to rapid temperature shifts.
Never put a distinct pov in a hot oven, as it can shatter due to thermal shock.
Placing a frozen point on a pov is almost as likely to result in a shattered view
as placing a cold view in a hot spot.

It can take a little finesse to get used to, but a point paddle is a useful instrument,
especially for transferring the raw point onto the view. Leave the pov
in the hot spot
—at least until it is entirely cool. You do not have to ever remove it. Put other
right on top. It won’t do any harm.

With a clean sponge, wipe away any grime. Do not try to remove any residue
that builds up in use—it is fully unnecessary. Leaving that to accumulate
will help season your pov, turning it into a slicker, more easy-to-use item.

Don’t worry about your views getting stained. Stains are normal,
almost unavoidable.
Moreover, they’re a badge of honor, or experience points—you can point to them
as vindications of your skills.

There’s a joy in it and serious play. It has my usual sandbox of found speech and social navigation, how language integrates and disintegrates. It is about boundaries at the end of a pacing rope of language where we human animals see we’re not that distinct from plants. Despite the title, it is not a biological treat(ises) like Amy Leach’s Things That Are, as delightful as those essays are.

RP: Any last comments?

PP: Yes, thanks for the dialogue, and before we go, I’ll point out a list of tips for giving a reading as well as dos and don’ts of author photos.


Ryan Pratt lives in Hamilton, Canada. A contributing writer for The Town Crier and Ottawa Poetry Newsletter, Ryan’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Quiddity, Bywords Quarterly Journal, Contemporary Verse 2, and In/Words Magazine, among others.