Middle Ground: Sonnet L'Abbé in Conversation with Sylvia Legris

Sylvia Legris

Canadian poet and professor Sonnet L'Abbé recently spoke with 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize winner Sylvia Legris, whose poem “Recto: The Bladder. / Verso: The Lungs, c. 1508” appears in the latest Spring issue of the Malahat. Sylvia Legris’ next book of poems, The Hideous Hidden, is forthcoming from New Directions this fall. She lives in Saskatoon.


So, recently, another poet said to me, “Hey, like, Sylvia Legris is in the New Yorker. Doesn’t she live in Saskatoon? Do you know how she did that?” I speculated that after you won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2006, you made U.S. connections fairly easily; and that working with New Directions and getting a poem in the New Yorker flowed quite naturally from there. Is that even remotely true? Can you talk a bit about what it’s been like for you to write post-Griffin-win and what it’s like to be navigating an international profile from a Saskatoon home base?

My fallback over the years, both pre- and post-Griffin, has been doing private and contract cleaning jobs. It's true that sometimes when I'm craning my neck behind someone's toilet, trying to clean the congealed splash-spatter off the wall, I marvel at my international profile. How did I get here? This is not my beautiful house...

I had started getting poems accepted by US journals prior to winning the Griffin (in such places as Mid-American Review and Hayden's Ferry Review). Since winning that prize, almost without exception every poem I've had published in the States had been previously rejected several times by Canadian publications. Same with Pneumatic Antiphonal (ultimately published by New Directions in 2013 as part of their revived Poetry Pamphlet Series)—this collection was rejected a bunch of times in Canada. After a bout of feeling stymied, discouraged, and depressed (and on the verge of giving up altogether), instead of lowering my sights, I decided, as counterintuitive as it might seem, that (what have I got to lose?) I might as well raise them. In other words, my sending work to the US was initially out of frustration at being by and large unable to place work in Canada (at least outside of Winnipeg, my hometown, where the editors of CV2 and Prairie Fire—god love 'em!—have consistently supported my writing).

While it's highly unlikely the New Directions connection would have happened if I hadn't won the Griffin, I have worked exceedingly hard on my writing in the years (a decade!) since that win, trying to push the work, the language, to challenge myself, to make poems that seem like they are mine and mine alone. What does that mean, “navigating an international profile”? I don't tweet, I don't blog, I'm not on Facebook, I don't have a website (I've met poets who have business cards that say “Joe Fabuloso, Poet.” Who on earth could you give such a thing to with a straight face, another poet?). Constitutionally I am not suited to schmoozing (the word, fittingly, always sounds to my ear like a mingling of boozing and shitting...bad combo...). I've spent a lot of time scrambling, trying to piece together enough of a living in order to write; when I do I have the time to focus primarily on writing, I aim to keep my head down, put my energy into the work, and try to be as systematic and unemotional as possible about the so-called “business” side of it all. I send the work out, apply for everything I can apply for, and when I get rejected (which I do, a lot, a hell of a lot), I feel briefly humiliated, and then I hammer the work right back out there. When I pay attention to all the noise in the wider “poetry scene” about the wretched state of poetry reviewing, the seemingly incessant gripes about who's overrated, who's overlooked, who has undeservedly won a prize this time, etc., I feel paralysed. The only way I can get any writing done that I feel pleased with is if I shut all that out. When I'm deep into my poetry, I have no profile—thank goodness! And when I'm not deep into my poetry, I garner accolades for how sparkling I make the bathroom fixtures (I really do!).

In your earlier work, your poems achieve an effect of clinical hyper intimacy, a heartbeat-paced intensity, where a human body/mind engages with itself. There is a sense of the personal and confessional in your previous books. In The Hideous Hidden, you seem to move outside the “I,” to inhabit a fleshly-feely, yet still distanced, scientific gaze. The sense of the personal is gone. Can you talk about that shift in your voice?

This shift of voice in fact started in Nerve Squall in which most of the poems are in 2nd person. There are no pronouns at all in Pneumatic Antiphonal, so I had moved outside the “I,” as you put it, prior to The Hideous Hidden. This shift is certainly intentional, but I don't think it makes the poems less personal (unless one mistakes personal for autobiographical), just the opposite, I'd argue. There was a period when I spent a lot of time thinking about how the “I,” the 1st-person voice, functions in terms of what's become the typical “personal” essay, that is, some variation of an extended diary entry, often a self-exposé or tell-all. The essay is such an adaptable form, and I was trying to find an approach to this form that would feel intimate, but not written in the 1st person. In the end, all this thinking about point of view informed how I approached my recent poetry. What I'm attempting with the poems in The Hideous Hidden is to convey an intimacy, a closeness to the material, through extremely focused observation. I liken them to someone having their eyeball really up close to something and making notes—the perspective is so extreme, even magnified, but when you pull back, there is indeed a person there doing the looking.

There is almost no narration in The Hideous Hidden; your anatomies hang in a kind of eternal present. The human body is approached with a diagnostic, cartographic tone. Where there are verbs, they are declarative. “Mention the mesenteric, the renal, the axillary. … Note the glands like copious clouds,” for example, or later, “Cut off the ears and remove the head from the heart.” At whom do these poems direct their commands?

I like your phrase “anatomies hang in a kind of eternal present”—as if on meat hooks! Are they, though, in a kind of eternal present? There are so many historical references in these poems that I think (I hope) they have more movement than that. One of my “Hippocrates” poems mentions canopic jars and Tupperware in the same line. How did we go from storing entrails in stone jars to storing leftovers in plastic containers? Is it possible, for example, to read of ancient medical treatments and not reflect on current medical practice?

At whom do these poems direct their commands? One of my “da Vinci” poems is called “Perficio”: in effect, Leo's To-Do list. When I write myself a list I don't say “I better do this” or even “You better do this.” I simply write: Go to bank, return library books. They are effectively self-commands. In the “da Vinci” poems I imagine some bearded guy in a lab or studio either documenting his observations in a notebook, or writing notes to himself about how to proceed with the next drawing or dissection, e.g., Sketch three views of the full-blown bladder...

Your poems return often to showing how our names for the internal and external shapes of the human body echo our names for shapes of landscape, flora and fauna. This sensitivity in your work to rhymes of physical form, especially in The Hideous Hidden, reminds me in many ways of Ronald Johnson’s: Johnson wrote about brains and lungs and nerves being like branches and leaves and rivers, and he was gesturing to Thoreau, and Thoreau was getting his ideas from Goethean naturphilosophie. The Germans got their vitalist ideas from the classical humoralism you work with so much in this book. Do you like the idea of being read in such a lineage, or in any kind of lineage of poetic or philosophic influence? What feels important to you about extending these ideas into contemporary poetry?

I am completely unfamiliar with Ronald Johnson, but now that I've just looked him up, I am intrigued. I have no control over how my work is read. I usually find other people's takes on my writing both surprising and fascinating (with Nerve Squall, the more conventional, lyrical poets identified me as “experimental”; the self-described innovative, language-type poets slotted me closer to the conventional camp). I don't think of my poetry as being part of any particular lineage...if I did, I suspect I'd start to feel trapped or boxed in pretty quickly. Apropos to your final question, people who at best have had only a brief or superficial encounter with me tend to think I'm either extremely shy or obnoxiously outgoing, perpetually goofy or always furrowed-brow serious, friendly or hostile, appallingly stupid or unexpectedly bright. Likewise with my writing there is rarely any middle ground, people either vehemently hate it or they unabashedly love it. I've gotten the sense many times that readers (often other poets) seem vexed because they don't quite know where to place my work...or me. And I'm fine with that.

What do you like most about being a poet? And what’s the hardest thing?

When I'm immersed in working on my poetry (even when it's not going well, which is often), I feel like I belong somewhere. I consider writing or making art of any kind a hopeful act. For someone like myself who is prone to feeling chronically and utterly hopeless, I have to remind myself that the very fact that I have something in my life that I love doing, that I am fully committed to—making poems of all things—is remarkable. The hardest thing, of course, is the invariable self-doubt, the insecurity, worrying all the time about money, worrying that people hate what you're doing (and of course when someone hates your poetry you assume that means they hate you as a person). I have no academic credentials and limited marketable skills. I'm frankly astounded, and always grateful, that I've had as much “success” as I have had doing this. If you'd asked me years ago where I saw myself in the future, I would have drawn a blank. I told someone several years ago that it was only when I started to envision and plan writing projects that require several years to complete that I could imagine myself in the future.

I read all the books of yours I could get my hands on before sending you these questions. The voice of both circuitry of veins and iridium seeds was tender, fierce, raw, mournful. The voice of Nerve Squall was nervous, terrifying, terrified! When I heard your voice for the first time recently, in the New Yorker’s audio clip of you reading “Thymus,” the poem they published, I actually startled at the forcefulness of your voice! I guess always imagined your speaking voice to be … more that of “a resident in the state of fidgety fretfulness.”  Of course, that’s a silly assumption; I go back now and read forcefulness in everything you’ve written—or wait, is it silly? I vaguely remember once talking to you on the phone, years ago, trying to invite you to a reading, and it was as rob mclennan describes it: “Her breath was palpable. She preferred to remain on the opposite end of the phone line, where she was most comfortable. There was something about the body.” So my question is, does the change in voice in your books, and especially this shift to declamation and celebration in The Hideous Hidden, reflect a change in how easily you breathe lately?

I've always had a strong reading voice—I don't think that's changed. As I suggested above, how I am perceived at any given moment isn't necessarily representative of who I am. We're all mixed and changing bags of emotion. Some days I'm inexplicably confident, other days...Well, as my anxiety counselor likes to say, “No matter how high your anxiety goes, it will always come down.” Or was it Blood, Sweat & Tears who said that?


Sonnet L'Abbe

Sonnet L'Abbé

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