A Conversation with Kerry-Lee Powell, Winner of the Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest
Part of the fun of adjudicating TNQ’s writing contests is that the process is completely anonymous. Each entry is given a number, and the writer behind the words remains a mystery until after the winner has been chosen. Now that we’ve named our winners, however, we’d like to get to know the writers a little better. A number of the judges of both contests have interviewed the winners and runners-up, so you can become better acquainted with both writer and adjudicator as well. This first interview, with OV Contest winner Kerry-Lee Powell, was conducted by OV judge Carey Anne Jernigan.
At the “envelope, please” moment, after the judges of our Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest had debated the merits of the score or so of poems on their short list and chosen a winner and some runners up, they were astonished to discover that the same poet, Kerry-Lee Powell, had written both their winner, “The Lifeboat,” and “The Emperor,” one of two second place poems. Kerry-Lee graciously responded to my questions about the composition of these poems, which commemorate the life and death of her father, via email on November 15th, 2011.
—Carey Anne Jernigan
What gets me most about the poems is how they both address the slow and steady process by which a person who has suffered moves forward. But they do so very differently. As if to say that what haunts someone is inextricably linked to what cheers them up (at least somewhat): songs sung in shipwreck, in dreams, in loved cars on ratty highways.
It seems to me that each is a kind of tribute to hardship and to the things that a person loves or becomes loved for afterward (things so intimately intertwined that to look at one is to wonder about the other.)
Difficult question! Music is used in these poems as a kind of ‘amulet’ against an otherwise grim or horrifying situation (poverty and war), and speaks of the enormous pleasures that music—and art in general—afford us. I listened to Beethoven’s Emperor concerto in the car the other day, and it was just as I remembered, the maniacal bombast diminishing into moments of almost unbearable gentleness. It is the dialogue, or subtle commentary, if you like, between the two that makes it so compelling. To me, a poem becomes interesting when it moves beyond its own conventions to create its own latent critique, and it is in the acknowledgment of its own inadequacy that a poem often becomes more poignant or ‘human.’ This sense of inadequacy is the subject of both of these poems. They are ‘haunted’ as you put it, by human conditions of failure, mortality, poverty, imperfection, etc.
On a less serious note, I hope the poems also betray the embarrassingly huge love of music our father bestowed upon us. My brother is a wonderful guitarist with, as far as I can tell, an encyclopedic knowledge of music. I am a fervent listener who forces my dinner guests to listen, as if at gunpoint, to my latest craze—be it freak folk or old school hip-hop. I am pitiless!
In what way do you see the poems as occasional verse?
I came across the contest just as I was starting to submit my work to Canadian magazines—I was in fact looking up the TNQ address on your website. I was intrigued—my exposure to occasional verse rests on some marvelous translations of Statius by my friend, the English poet Anthony Howell, and of course the occasional verse written by John Donne and other poets of that era. I selected “The Emperor” as it was written to commemorate the anniversary of my father’s death. I selected “The Lifeboat” as it also, more obliquely, commemorated an event—the sinking of a ship in the North Sea during WW2. My father survived the incident, and was on a lifeboat for 11 days before he drifted onto the Scottish coast. His best friend, whom he had run away with at sixteen to join the merchant navy, died. They were both communists at the time, incidentally, and joined the merchant navy as they did not want to kill fellow comrades! My father never recovered from this incident, or from the many traumas that followed in that long war. I have always been haunted by the image of him on that lifeboat, and so have many others. Nicholas Monserrat dated one of my aunts after the war ended and it is thought that he used many of the stories my father told him in his 1951 book The Cruel Sea.
Have you written about your father often?
These two poems are part of a collection I’m just finishing up that explores issues of legacy and inheritance, both cultural and personal. My father, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and who handed down to me his own troubled patrimony, is a central muse.
What are the moments or occasions that remind you most of your dad?
My brother and I regularly dream about him. Male Welsh voice choirs. Also, horribly, the sound of ambulances. He was an older single parent and an invalid for most of my life—always going to the hospital with heart attacks or angina in the middle of the night. My father’s extended family, whom I lived amongst for many years in the UK after he died. Music—especially classical but also some really random stuff—crazy thirties hits, elevator music, Sinatra and Johnny Horton. My brother and I know all the words to “North to Alaska!” and many other goofy songs. The Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz is a dead ringer for him. I came upon this fact via the amazing poster art of Waldemar Swierzy. I had a copy of the Gombrowicz poster for a while (which eerily portrays a colorful Gombrowicz with his own black and white doppelganger tucked under his arm) but it got lost during a move.
Did there come a point when visiting that experience seemed right?
Absolutely. PJ Harvey’s marvelous album “Let England Shake” is a good example of how one can struggle to find the right voice for a particular subject. Harvey conducted hundreds of interviews with combatants and researched and wrote many, many songs before she found exactly the right singing voice she needed—crisp, childlike, haunting but strangely matter-of-fact—to counteract her weighty subject matter. Likewise, tone is everything in a poem—readers of poetry tend to have an incredibly sophisticated ‘inner’ ear and easily balk at a false note. I used the nursery rhyme tone in “The Lifeboat” to counteract the horror as well as to reinforce the sense of doomed, inevitable return. We can’t escape our past! “The Lifeboat” was written while I was horribly sick with a disease that left me bed-ridden for a couple of years—I was in fact lying in bed when I wrote it. Perhaps I needed to experience a certain level of anguish before I could touch upon my father’s own tragedy. I remember very clearly putting the pen down and knowing that I was going to get better, and so the lifeboat is to me a symbol of my own recovery, as it was the very first poem I had written since becoming ill a few years previously. As bad as a lifeboat might seem, it’s better than the alternative!
I cannot help but be curious … what did that old car look like? Were there coffee cups and tattered books on the dash? Did your friends shoot amused looks at you when he dropped you off somewhere in it?
Great question! We lived in one of the very poorest areas of Montreal’s West Island, in a little town called Ste. Anne de Bellevue. Snazzy cars on our street were likely to be firebirds or vans with wall-to-wall carpets and wizards or wolves painted on the side. Our car was a Dodge Aspen sedan in a sensible brown colour with a light beige leatherette interior. He bought it new with the last of his savings and it was a lemon—two of the four doors stopped opening within weeks, and the car rapidly decayed in all other respects soon afterwards. I went to school in a wealthier suburb, and many of our car trips involved my father shunting me or my brother in his ramshackle Aspen to school events or to the homes of our far richer friends. As far as dog-eared volumes on the dashboard are concerned—alas no. We weren’t poor in that lovely louche bohemian way some bookish people are. Ours was an austere, furtive poverty rather like the lower middle class families struggling to maintain a veneer of respectability that George Orwell wrote so chillingly about in The Road to Wigan Pier. But we all read constantly, and I’m grateful to my father for not allowing us to grow up on a diet of Charlie’s Angels and the Dukes of Hazzard. That’s not to say we didn’t immediately sneak over to the TV and sit open-mouthed for hours on his rare evenings out.
Thank you! (And lastly, a question from my Can Lit mother): How do you find the literary culture of Canada in comparison to that of the UK?
I’ve been out of the loop for a while so it’s hard for me to make a comparison between the two scenes. Generally, I’m just amazed by the sheer amount of poetry being produced on both sides of the Atlantic—people complain that it is a dying art and yet surely there are more people reading and writing poetry than ever before. Now that I’m submitting poetry to magazines (and subscribing to and reading them!), I’m getting to know the work of some wonderful new Canadian poets.
I used to organize poetry events in the UK that were very well-attended. I had the honour of working with poets like Glyn Maxwell, Robin Robertson, Gwyneth Lewis, Simon Armitage and Anthony Howell, as well as with more experimental poets like Aaron Williamson, Lloyd Robson and an unforgettable duo called “The Naked Russian Poets.” The poetry scene in general was really exciting. But I haven’t lived in the UK for a number of years, and I don’t know many poets personally in Canada, but I was in Montreal for a couple of weeks this summer and it seems like they have a pretty nifty scene!