Poetry, Sound, Communication: Amanda Proctor in Conversation with Joan Rivard

Joan Rivard

Joan Rivard, whose poems “[amˈbigyoōəs] [lôs, läs]” and “Prophet” appear in The Malahat Review's spring issue #218, talks with Malahat Review past Editorial Assistant Amanda Proctor about mental health, language as more than rules, and creating a respectful authenticity in her writing.

Read an excerpt of “Prophet” here.


Joan Rivard began her university education studying Biology, but left school to work for a tour organizer on the Amazon River in South America. She still harbours a dislike of ants and a reverent appreciation for indoor plumbing. She was awarded a Canada Graduate Scholarship to complete an MA in English Language and Literature at Carleton University, and will graduate from the University of Oxford’s two-year online Creative Writing program in September 2022. She has two adult children, and lives in Ottawa with her husband and their dog Myles. Joan’s poem “Poached Pears au chocolat” will be published in the upcoming edition of Round Table Literary Journal. She is currently working on a collection of poems, prose and art about dementia and psychosis, subjects dear to her heart.

In “[amˈbigyoōəs] [lôs, läs],” the International Phonetic Alphabet is woven throughout the poem. Reading the poem, I was struck by the connection drawn between poetry, sound, communication, and relational care and understanding. What informed the choice of bringing the International Phonetic Alphabet into the poem, and what was that process like?

I believe most of us now understand language as more than just vocabulary and grammar rules. In this poem, “language” is a stand-in for “world.” When the speaker mourns her loved ones “leaving my language,” it does not mean switching to French, for instance. It means leaving their familiar relationship with the speaker in the known world.

This poem speaks of the period during which my mother developed Alzheimer’s disease and my daughter developed schizophrenia. Their illnesses, and my own fear, badly affected our ability to communicate. My mother lost track of who I was, so our talks became increasingly strained. Talks with my daughter began to hopelessly tangle in my anxiety and her delusions. I tried to find better ways to communicate. This was a difficult period for all concerned, and my heart goes out to anyone else walking through it. I was ably propped up by support groups and I recommend this if possible.

The poem uses International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to symbolize the speaker’s search for aids to help her communicate with her “beloved ladies.” In the first draft, I just placed the IPA “translations” where I thought the repetition would emphasize certain key concepts, especially when spoken aloud. In the second draft I gave the poem an acrostic structure, again representing the search for alternate methods of communication. By the final draft, I forced the reader to learn IPA by increasing its use as the poem progresses. In effect, the reader, too, must leave their language. In the last stanza I removed the comfort of conventional spelling, and the reader is left alone to decide the meaning of the last word, “(sôrō).”

“Prophet” centres on a speaker whose voice moves from using end-stopped lines to lines that flow into each other, and a vocabulary that grows “richer and more opulent by the day.” Can you speak to the ways that you used language and sentence structure to let readers in on the speaker’s inner workings?

Yes, in “Prophet” I tried to use language, formatting and structure to underline the changes in the speaker. She at first uses simple declarative sentences followed by more insightful asides. She is starting fresh after suffering a mental health crisis, now controlled by medication. After deciding to discontinue her medication, she begins to slide into delusion and psychosis. The first indication of this in the poem is “sometimes my fingertips feel electric.” At that point I removed punctuation from her speech, trying to hint at a slippage of boundaries.

As her illness intensifies, I removed capitalization, and added repetition and rhyme. Her language becomes increasingly florid to suggest a kind of mania. Associations crowd her speech, as seen in the parenthetical texts, like “(defy, apply).” Her speech becomes pressured, crowding the margins of full justification. She now speaks in almost-words, “i am illuminated refulginated elucidated ineluctabulated,” which I hope help suggest a break from reality.

The final abrupt series of adjectives prefixed with “un,” including “unbloodied,” ends with a strange word “unman.” This language is meant to give a whiff of menace, spoken by someone in crisis. (I’d just like to state here that I have changed aspects of my daughter’s illness to protect her privacy, so the details here are not hers).

In both of your poems in this issue, themes around mental health are explored with care and restraint. What is the process of exploring these themes for you as a writer; do you begin writing with theme in mind, or does it evolve through the writing process?

Although I do change details, these poems spring directly from my feelings and observations of Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. All of my poems around mental health evolve through the writing process, but I have a pretty clear vision to start. My memories of my mum and daughter run deep. I cry buckets as I write.

My mother and daughter received diagnoses that burdened them with fear and stigma on top of some pretty unpleasant symptoms. Sadly, we probably all know someone with Alzheimer’s these days. Schizophrenia, though, is misunderstood, and terribly misrepresented in popular culture. Both illnesses raise difficult questions around autonomy and treatment. My goal is to create a respectful authenticity to counter sensationalism, and to foster empathy for the real people behind these labels.

How do you sustain your creative life? What do you do to fill your well if you find yourself in a fallow period of creativity?

I’m lucky enough to be part of an online group of new writers around the world as a result of my online writing program at the University of Oxford. So my first impulse in a fallow period is to reach out to these blisteringly talented folks! I also find it really helpful to read new-to-me poetry and short stories, as that often shifts whatever is getting in my way. Finally, I write down whatever I wake up thinking, because sometimes the words that hide in daylight come out to play at night.

What writing projects are you currently working on? Could you tell us about them?

Thank you for asking! These two poems are from an almost-finished collection of poetry, prose and art about my family’s experiences with dementia and psychosis. It’s become a diverse, even jarring, collection, and that pleases me. It’s a far truer testament to those years of family crisis than any smooth-talkin’ page-turnin’ prose memoir could be.

I’m also in the planning stages of a thriller novel set in the Canadian North. Maybe because of my research into this, I’ve just been waylaid by a vain and highly literate polar bear narrating a micro-epic poem about climate change. I loved writing it, but it’s pretty darned quirky!


Amanda Proctor

Amanda Proctor

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