Elise Partridge was born in 1958 and raised near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A dual citizen of Canada and the United States, she has lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, since 1992. She was educated at Harvard University, Cambridge University (where she was a Marshall Scholar), Boston University, and the University of British Columbia. Her first collection, Fielder’s Choice (2002), was a finalist for the Lampert Award for best first book of poems in Canada; her second, Chameleon Hours (2008), was a finalist for the British Columbia Book Prize and won the Canadian Authors Association Poetry Prize. She has taught literature and writing at a number of universities, including Boston, Brandeis, and the University of British Columbia.
This interview was begun on October 13, 2012 and was conducted by e-mail between Manchester, UK, and Vancouver /New York City.
Evan Jones: I want to begin by asking about illness and writing—and more generally about illness and literature. I’m thinking specifically about the poems in section two in Chameleon Hours, the prognosis, the surgery, the side effects, and the questions that you raise and never answer in your own poems about these things.
Elise Partridge: The fiction writer Peter Taylor, among others, said writing is a way of making sense of the world, and it can certainly be a way of making sense of what’s happening to you if you’re undergoing something especially bewildering or overwhelming—a sudden diagnosis with an uncertain prognosis, for example.
If you wonder how much time you have left, or you can be sure you don’t have much time, that might also spur you to write. Walter Jackson Bate has made an eloquent case for Keats’s development having been hastened by his tuberculosis.
I’m not comparing myself to Keats by any means, or Taylor, but the initial drafts of the poems you ask about in Chameleon Hours came rushing out in the first few months after my treatment for cancer. (I wasn’t able to write during treatment because the chemo affected my brain and made me anemic, so I was often foggy and fatigued.) The poems in my first book, Fielder’s Choice, had developed very slowly, over about a decade.
I did revise the ‘cancer’ poems many times before they eventually appeared in Chameleon Hours. Many of them were, I saw in retrospect, a way of trying to make sense of what had been happening to me. The situation did raise a lot of questions which were unanswerable—the inevitable, ‘Why did this happen?’, ‘How long might I survive?’, ‘What will life be like now?’, and so forth. Since my prognosis was uncertain, it made me think about death, of course, and whether or not there was an afterlife. Whitman says in “Goodbye, My Fancy,” a valedictory poem he wrote when he was older, “Strong is thy hold O mortal flesh/ Strong is thy hold, O love.” I think the idea of life being cut short was so painful that it coloured some of what I said in the poems. When I reread these recently, I realized my pictures of an afterlife with my husband, for example, came out of what felt like an almost unbearable grief about and fear of being separated from him through death.
A potentially fatal illness can make you want to use your time more wisely in general, and to keep changing and developing, which gave rise to the title poem in the collection. It’s dedicated to one of my brothers who is extraordinarily energetic and curious about everything. A shift in priorities after cancer is quite common, too. That’s behind the poem “Farewell Desires.” I finally understood more about the freedom and lightness that comes from not clinging to things or feelings or states of mind.
The illness made me very grateful for the many friends and family members who had tried in various ways to help, which is what “Granted a Stay” is partly about. And finally, within a year I saw young women I had met through a group at the BC Cancer Agency, where I was treated, some of whom had better prognoses than I did, suffer recurrences or die of their cancer. It was very difficult. I wrote elegies for my friends.
As I mentioned, the poems rushed out, and I hesitated about publishing the ones that were about me. Isaac Bashevis Singer said that anyone who talks about himself too much is a nudnik. I asked family, friends, mentors, and editors whether the poems seemed too personal. My eventual hope was that some of them (such as my poems about chemotherapy side effects) could even be useful to someone in a similar situation. I’m not sorry I had the chemotherapy, as it was suggested it would help save my life, and it’s not a happy situation for any cancer patient to dread the side effects, but I also found that it helped me to learn more about them from someone who’d experienced them. That provided one possible justification for publishing poems like these.
EJ: What you say about the “rushing out” of poems and about “Farewell Desires” brings me to a line from that poem: “let me be a waterfall/ pouring a heedless mile,” yet as a writer you are anything but heedless, your published poems nothing like an outpouring. Can you say something about this?
EP: The wish I mentioned here was about trying to be authentic, unencumbered and generous—to live headlong without clinging to things I might sometimes think I wanted, much less to the trivial— about life being constantly unpredictable, and wanting to live with as much spontaneity and vitality as possible. The poem did grow out of the illness, though the wish had been there before; I think perhaps the illness made it stronger. After wondering whether or not my life was going to end much earlier than it might have otherwise, naturally, I had to think about how I wanted to live from then on. Things I had wanted to happen were not going to happen because of the cancer, and this at first seemed catastrophic; and yet other things that turned out to be important did happen because of the cancer. This put paid to the idea that one can always trust what one wishes for. Nobody would wish to have cancer, yet it undeniably brought things to my life that were, to my great surprise, valuable. Also, after having been so ill, I found I wanted to be bolder about many experiences. Fearing one might be deprived of chances can of course motivate one to take more chances. The heedlessness was about being freer—not constraining oneself in any defeating way—and simultaneously about being ‘freer’ in the medieval sense of the word: open-handed, generous.
As far as not being heedless in terms of writing poetry, I sometimes wish I could work faster, but most of the poems I eventually publish take me a long time to finish. There are a couple of remarks I keep in mind about being heedful. Szymborska was once asked why she hadn’t published more. She replied, “I have a trashcan in my house.” And then there’s Théophile Gautier: “Anything which is not well-made doesn’t exist.”
EJ: At the end of “For a Father,” the children or perhaps the family itself are “straggling behind, shouting, Wait—.” In “The Runt Lily,” the speaker is, among other things, waiting for a flower to bloom. And in “Since I Last Saw You,” “The crane was waiting in the marsh …/ … [and] carried you away.” Can you say a bit about waiting in these poems?
EP: “For a Father” in the first two stanzas is about children trying to keep up with a youthful and energetic father, asking him to wait as he dashes from one thing to the next. In the third stanza, the father has died and the children are wishing irrationally, as children might after a death, that their father had waited before dashing off and leaving them behind, as they feel, forever.
“The Runt Lily” is partly about a friend who died much too young of cancer. I had met her in a support group at the British Columbia Cancer Agency when we were both going through chemo. After I was first diagnosed, my brother-in-law and my husband planted some beautiful stargazer lilies in our back yard. Most of them kept blooming except for one that really seemed to be struggling. It produced a couple of buds and then was battered by a storm; eventually it did manage one precarious flower. I didn’t know when I started the poem about this hardy lily that it would be about Rhonda, but she quickly became the subject. It’s not useful to make comparisons that are too pointed and that would strain the metaphor; my waiting for the lily to flower doesn’t really correspond directly to my experience with Rhonda in the last year of her life. The similarity lay more in watching her struggle to keep thriving (she was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive cancer and the odds were against her surviving from the start) and in being inspired by how stubbornly she kept her strength until the end.
Those last months were of course agonizing for her, especially because she had young children. The last year of her life was like a vigil for many of us who knew her, and yet she kept going with remarkable energy, courage, and humour. The vibrancy of this afflicted flower must have reminded me of her.
“Since I Last Saw You” is about another friend I met through that cancer support group, Gabi Helms, and for whom there was also a kind of vigil at the end. She originally seemed to have good chances for survival. But her cancer returned a few years after she’d finished her treatment, when she was several months pregnant with her first child. The doctors knew the minute they found the metastases that, barring a miracle, she could die anytime. She desperately wanted to stay alive at least long enough so the child could be born. She suffered horribly for weeks in the hospital as she tried to hang on, through an arduous chemo regimen, till the child came closer to term. The child survived, but Gabi never regained consciousness after her daughter was born. In many Asian works of literature, the crane is a symbol of longevity, and there’s a legend about a crane taking a Taoist immortal to the afterlife. I admired Gabi; she’d led the organization of the first conference in Canada for young women with breast cancer, and I saw her as a kind of immortal.
EJ: All of what you’ve described in those poems connects the notion of waiting to sickness and death. But illness, you’ve said earlier, makes you want to use your time more wisely.
EP: The waiting in “The Runt Lily” is more an anxiety and eagerness to see life flourish against odds. The crane’s waiting in the marsh in “Since I Last Saw You” is, I suppose, an emblem for how difficult it can be to accept a loss; the idea that the crane is on a kind of deathwatch, but so the dying person can be taken to an afterlife, is perhaps one way I was trying to comfort myself about Gabi’s death. I wouldn’t write a similar poem now, as I’ve come to reject the idea of an actual afterlife, though I feel people’s lives continue to some degree through friends and family and through their work. The urging of the father in the poem to “wait” is an urging not to be left behind in all kinds of ways, a plea for companionship.
EJ: To take this a bit further, having read your commentary on those three poems, it seems to me what all three have at their centres is compassion—and part of that is waiting and patience. Can you say something about this compassion?
EP: Funny you should say that, as patience in everyday life has never been one of my virtues. I hate waiting in lines, for example, and always have something to read in case I’m trapped in one. I instinctively associate waiting with passivity and helplessness, not with stoicism, for example, though of course I recognize that many forms of waiting do involve fortitude. But when it comes to waiting in general, I prefer motion, action, progress whenever possible.
These poems are simply about people I knew. To see the tragedy that befell Rhonda and Gabi was searing for everyone around them. Watching how people reacted actually taught me a lot about compassion and love. Homo homini lupus, yes, but after seeing what I saw, I don’t think it’s sentimental to say that humans are also very strongly bound to each other through love and tenderness.
The father in the poem you mention was a person whose sense of fun was contagious and who also died relatively young, though in very different circumstances. I suppose the emotion in that poem is related to how much joy he had taken in life and to the plea not to depart from the children who wanted to go on participating in that joy with him.
EJ: In your “Sisyphus: The Sequel,” the existential struggle comes to an end with the rock stopped at the top of the hill, and the mythical figure laughing, finding a new way to approach his work with a chisel. The meaninglessness and the suffering end, not because of man but because of nature. André Breton argued something similar—that it wasn’t Sisyphus who was worn down by the struggle, but the rock, which wears over time. The notion comes up again later in Chameleon Hours in “Snail Halfway Across the Road,” though this time the pointless struggle for safety lies “ten lifetimes ahead.”
EP: When I wrote “Sisyphus: The Sequel,” I was imagining that the suffering of Sisyphus started to diminish when he accepted his burden more. In that sense, yes, he freed himself somewhat from being constantly worn down by the struggle. He wasn’t so absorbed in the suffering; the experience became part of who he was.
“Snail Halfway Across the Road” centres on a battered-looking snail I watched trying to cross a road on Salt Spring Island off of British Columbia. It seemed like such a quixotic and risky thing for the snail to do, and of course it was taking a long time to accomplish. I guess that poem is about pressing forward in the face of potential or actual suffering, about how safety is always a mirage and the longing for it has to be somewhat ignored.
Your question actually helped me see how many of the poems in my first books are about suffering, explicitly or implicitly—about overcoming suffering or coping with it (“Phoenix,” “Rural Route,” “Farewell Desires”), about suffering in the natural world (“Caught” and “In the Barn”), or suffering brought on by social injustice (“Vuillard Interior” and “1959”) or war (“Two Monuments”). Other poems are about more private suffering (“Childless,” “First Death,” “Chemo Side Effects: Memory”).
EJ: You mentioned earlier that you’ve “come to reject the idea of an actual afterlife.” Can you say something about your belief?
EP: I try to address questions of belief in some of my poems, such as “One Calvinist’s God,” “Crux,” “Gnomic Verses from the Anglo-Saxon,” and “A Valediction.” In “Granted a Stay,” the allusions to various religious traditions refer also to the people who offered to pray for me when I was in cancer treatment. I think my childhood was somewhat unusual for where I grew up and when, in that I had a religious education—my family went to church every Sunday from the time I was very young until the time I went off to college. Our minister was an enthusiastic reader of George Herbert, Robert Browning, and other poets who wrote about religion—I first heard Auden’s name from his pulpit. In college I took a course on the Bible and also fulfilled requirements by taking a course on church history, another on medieval Jewish and Christian thought, and so on. Finally, the biggest literary discovery I made in college was medieval literature; I loved Chaucer and Langland, and of course their work is full of references to religion. Later on, when I began a meditation practice, I started reading up on Buddhism. For many years I really didn’t know what I believed. I’m agnostic now, but I don’t reject what I find wise in the Old and New Testaments and texts of other traditions.
EJ: A number of the poems in your first collection, and I’m thinking especially of “Rural Route,” are rural in their setting. Are you a farm girl?
EP: No, I grew up in a leafy suburb. I was lucky to have a friend who grew up further out in the countryside, and at one point I had family living near a regional park where I saw some of the other things I wrote about in that book. “Rural Route” was about the family of a friend who had grown up quite far out in the country. After I moved to British Columbia, I wanted to learn more about its flora, fauna, and ecology; I also regularly looked after a farmhouse for a friend on Salt Spring Island, and some of what I read, heard, and saw there found its way into poems.
EJ: When and where did you study with Lowell?
EP: In the spring of 1977 I took two courses with Robert Lowell at Harvard, when I was a freshman there. One was a seminar on nineteenth-century English and American poets, the other a writing workshop that also surveyed twentieth-century poets. I took voluminous notes (as was my anxious habit in all my courses). One professor I studied with later at university asked us to try a dramatic monologue; I was having trouble inventing a character and put into blank verse some of the remarks Lowell had made about various poets in those spring 1977 seminars, which the professor, to my surprise, eventually asked to publish. I hesitated about that request, because I wasn’t sure how I felt about it all, or how Lowell would have felt. I consulted with Robert Fitzgerald, who had also been one of my teachers and a close friend of Lowell’s. He said he thought it was fine to go ahead, and I trusted his judgment. I felt grateful to all three teachers. I’ve also published a couple of articles on Lowell’s teaching and will be working on more.
EJ: What brought you to Vancouver in 1992? What did you know about Canadian poetry when you arrived?
EP: I came to Vancouver because my partner had been offered a job there. Before I arrived, I’d been introduced to Canadian poetry mostly through anthologies, which can be useful but which, of course, one has to go beyond. In the anthologies I’d encountered Avison, Atwood, bpNichol, Birney, Klein, Layton, Ondaatje, Ormsby, Purdy, Page, Pratt, MacEwen, Cohen, Nowlan, Waddington, and others. I’d also read some contemporary Canadian poetry via, for example, The Fiddlehead, a journal I’ve respected for a long time for its broadminded approach.
EJ: Do you see yourself as a Canadian poet?
EP: I’m a Canadian citizen and have now lived almost half my life in Canada. I’m grateful to Canada and admire many writers here; both its general and literary culture have influenced me a good deal. The question of a national identity isn’t at the forefront necessarily when I’m sitting at my desk, something I realized when this issue came up with a friend. Recently I’d asked four Canadian poets if they’d be interested in participating in a panel on Canadian poetry that I wanted to organize for a conference in the States. As we were discussing what title to give the panel, one of the poets—someone who’s lived in Canada all her life and written eloquently about Canadian landscapes and art—said, “When I write, I don’t think of myself as a Canadian poet.” Although by having lived in three different cultures I’m very aware of how societies shape their inhabitants, when I’m actually writing I’m also not considering this particular question. I wonder as well if there would be presumption involved in my calling myself a Canadian poet, when I grew up elsewhere. I would say that the categorizations, if they’re an issue, have to be made by others. I’m reminded of a jazz band called the Either/Orchestra and of the suggestive possibilities for me in that name and in what they do (i.e., drawing on various influences in the music they play and the approach they take). Does one have to be either/or in terms of a national identity—or can one be a hybrid making some kind of orchestral noise out of one’s mingled heritages and experiences? Why not?
Evan Jones was born in Weston, Ontario, and has lived in Manchester, UK, since 2005. His most recent book is Paralogues (Carcanet, 2012).