Episode 2 | Paul Vermeersch

Paul Vermeersch (00:00):
When someone commits to being an artist of any kind, they are also committing to a lifelong process of learning. I want to always be a student of the craft of writing, even when my job is to teach it. Uh, as Mr. Miyagi told Daniel in The Karate Kid, someone always knows more karate. And I want to learn all the karate I can when it comes to writing poetry.

Claire Tacon (00:25):
You’re listening to parallel careers where writers who also teach show the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
Paul Vermeersch (00:36):
My name is Paul Vermeersch and I’m a poet, multimedia artist, literary editor, and professor. I teach in the creative writing and publishing program at Sheridan College. My latest book is Shared Universe: New and Selected poems, 1995 to 2020, where I collect my favorite poems from the last 25 years of my career.

I’ve reached a point where writing my own work and editing other’s work and teaching others about writing have all become, I think, sort of the same thing in my mind. They’re all the work of the poet. My job as a poet is to write poems, but it is also to engage with other writers and their work. And I do this by working as an editor and I do this by working as a teacher. And I learn more about writing by editing others because I learned how they write. And I have to understand how they write in order to edit them properly.

And I learn more about writing by teaching it because in order to teach it, I have to think about it very deeply. So teaching and editing and writing all exist on a sort of a continuum to me. I don’t think that teaching takes away from the time that I have to write. And I don’t think that editing takes away from the time that I have to teach. And I don’t think that writing takes away from the time that I have to edit, because they’re all the same thing to me.

Paul Vermeersch (02:08):
Being born in 1973–I don’t mind saying–I was born into a world that was largely designed in the 1950s and 60s. And so Atomic Age design and Space Age design was the world I was born into. So I suppose there is some element of nostalgia, uh, but I think it goes beyond that. It goes beyond mere nostalgia. And I think the Space Age, in particular, represented a time of great optimism. And I think that that optimism was reflected in the design of the era.
And of course we’re talking about Googie architecture and the swooping lines and geometric shapes of the design of that period. And we’re talking about things like Buckminster Fuller’s architecture or the design of Tomorrow Land at Disney World.
And even sort of the mid-century modernist architects who were less interested in glass boxes and Brutalism, and were more interested in capturing that sort of sense of freedom.

It’s a physical expression of looking forward to a future that was a better world for everyone. Looking forward to a time when technology would provide the answers to problems. Looking forward to a time when technology and, and design and science would feed the hungry and house the homeless and clothe the naked. And create that future utopia, that Tomorrow Land that we looked forward to. That the space age would usher in a kind of era of peace for humanity.

And somewhere along the line that optimism got crushed and the world of tomorrow gave way to dystopia. I love reading a dystopian story as much as the next person. I love watching a dystopian film as much as the next person, but I miss that quality of Futurism that looked forward to a better world rather than imagining a worse one.
I would like to find our way back to imagining a better world, because I don’t think we can have a better world unless we first imagine it.

Excerpt from Shared Universe: New and Selected poems, 1995 to 2020

Suburban Hauntology:
Kitchen wallpaper
The kitchen wallpaper has large yellow flowers
and small brown ones, yellow and brown
like margarine and pennies. But the colours
are washed out because they are old, or
because there is too much sunlight, or
because my eyes have not yet adjusted to
the year. I eat my cereal at the table. I am
only little and the only sorrow I have known
arrives and departs like a penny-coloured
sparrow at a margarine-coloured bird feeder;
my tiny unmet desires are its favorite seed.
The flowers spread into the air like dust motes
hovering in milky shafts of sunlight. Their area
is converted to volume. They scattered their pollen
like the powdered milk of milkweed so the
whole kitchen is grainy with it. I breathe it in.
The avocado green wall-mounted telephone
is breathing it, too. An invasive species, it rings
and rings to call for its mate, but nothing comes.
And sometimes the wallpapers skips because
the vertical hold is malfunctioning; the floral
shapes throb and fluctuate because they have
not yet adjusted to the year. The food we eat
is made with yellow margarine and white milk
and a bright orange powder that repels sparrows.
You must understand that this is what it was like—
it was like this—but this is not how it was.

Paul Vermeersch (06:15):
An interesting, and maybe a contradictory thing about poetry is that people are at once attracted to it and repulsed by it. And what I mean by that is that everyone sort of has a natural affinity for poetry, for the music of language and for the expression of thought. And in times of celebration, of course, and in times of grief, people often turn to poetry to find ways of channelling their emotions. Poetry as a sort of professional art form becomes intimidating.

And I think because a lot of it isn’t sort of hospitable to the reader right away. It can be, it can be challenging and requires thought and sort of more effort on the part of the reader to sort of engage with it.

Certainly no, no trainer or coach will start a runner off with a marathon. Marathons are difficult. And sometimes a book of poetry is difficult in a similar way. There is a kind of order in which we might expect people coming to poetry early on to engage with it. And when preparing reading lists, I have found it has been a good idea to start people who are new to poetry with poems that won’t make them feel shut out. And by degrees, they can be brought to more difficult stuff as their understanding grows.
And not just reading, but also discussing what is it about this poem that works?
We don’t ask the question what does this poem saying? That’s a, that’s a very simple question. We have to ask what is this poem doing? When we begin to discuss what poetry is doing, we can think about how it works. Its techniques, its ways of meaning. And if we begin with poems that are more readily understood in those terms, and then gradually work our way towards more complex and sort of more challenging poems, I think at the end of that process, students are much more prepared to engage with poems that sort of demand that they work, almost collaboratively as readers, with the person that wrote the poem or with the poem itself.
Paul Vermeersch (08:26):
A lot of people and especially students who are just figuring things out, come to writing and poetry with a lot of preconceived notions of what their writing can be. And a big part of being a teacher and even being an editor is getting students and getting writers to open up their thinking about the possibilities of their own work.

Certainly as a teacher, often teaching a class, that’s an introduction to creative writing, you’ll encounter early on a lot of rhyming, A B A B kind of poems. It can be quite exciting to broaden those horizons and watch aspiring writers, emerging writers sort of blossom into sort of more nuanced and complex artists as their own thinking about the possibilities of their work grows. There’s ways of accomplishing this, but encouraging reading, providing opportunities for thought, engaging with constructive feedback. Maybe just finding the kernel of something that’s special about what they’re working on and guiding them towards expanding on that special thing.

It’s a series of unlocking doors and each new door opens into a wider, more open space that allows for a range of ideas to blossom into new ways of thinking. And then you open the next door and it happens again. And it becomes very difficult to imagine fitting oneself back into the first room with that AB AB rhyming poem.

Excerpt from Shared Universe: New and Selected poems, 1995 to 2020

You and the ice cream truck and the King
Cobra all exist in the same universe
as the two-legged tortoise, the Star Queen Nebula,
and me. Eventually, there must be a story
that involves all six of us: you will be driving
the ice cream truck among the farthest stars
in search of His Majesty King Cobra, despite
his famous venom, despite his propensity
to strike, and I will follow behind you riding
the wounded tortoise, the front wheels
of a plastic Batmobile glued to her shell
as prostheses. These are the forms we will take
when we encounter the Star Queen in her home,
the pillars of creation billowing from her head.

And there is King Cobra, coiling his long body
around the pillars, emanating from her third eye
as Uraeus from the forehead of a pharaoh.
“You have come here,” he says, “to learn
what you already know: that you exist
in the same universe as ice cream, Batmobiles,
and the act of mutilation.” New stars are fusing
within the pillars, and within the stars, new-born
elements: hydrogen, beryllium, carbon, iron..
“Use these to make an apple,” the serpent says.
“Or make it out of gold, it’s all the same.” And now
a blind donkey arrives behind us, and a slivery
porpoise, and an immense hypothetical mountain,
and we all nod knowingly, knowing what we know.

Paul Vermeersch (11:44):
A lot of writing, and a lot of art, exists in conversation with other writing and other art. I approached this kind of dialogue, more or less haphazardly for probably the first three books that I wrote. As my writing developed, I became more thoughtful about it.

When I did my MFA studies, I focused on how to generate new works, new texts from the bits and pieces of other texts. I think once you’ve gone that deep into the dialogue with other texts and other art forms, it’s not easy to extract yourself from it. And it left an imprint on my work ever since.

At the same time, my own artistic practice is continuing to evolve beyond writing poems. I make visual art, I write songs and the division between these practices is becoming less and less important as they kind of all merge into one, one way of thinking, and one way of working, and sort of one ongoing project.

There are pitfalls when dealing with writing or making art or writing poems that are about other works. And I think primarily the main pitfall is relying so much on the piece of art or the text that you were writing about to supply the meaning and the quality of the work that you are creating.

So rather than entering into a dialogue with it, you end up just sort of creating a cheap knockoff or merely a clever description of something else. I’ve seen a lot of ekphrastic poems that sort of describe a painting and do little else than describe it. And whatever is special about your work just comes from something else.

Paul Vermeersch (13:38):
One of the courses I teach in the creative writing and publishing program at Sheridan College is called Self-Publishing. And when I was first asked to develop and teach this class, I was a little reticent to it because my first image of self-publishing in my head is all these sort of terribly edited and terribly designed and terribly produced books from the vanity press that I’ve seen.

But the longer I thought about it, and the more I realized there was so much more to self-publishing that I could teach. First of all, I started thinking about historical context for self-publishing, sort of from Gutenberg to the present. Pamphleteers of the French revolution. People like Benjamin Franklin that not only printed, but also wrote and produced their own magazines and almanacs and pamphlets. And then moving into ways in which self publishing became the way in which marginalized communities circumvented the gatekeeping of traditional publishing that wouldn’t recognize the quality of their work or the marketplace potential of their work. And how self-publishing in these situations evolves into community publishing. And community publishing evolves into an established alternate press that fills in the gaps that exist in the sort of traditional publishing world. And suddenly it became one of my favorite classes to teach, because I think all these things are very important to talk about.

But I also wanted this class to engage in experiential learning and the final project for the self-publishing classes is that students have to self-publish something. And so they have to make, they have to write and edit and produce a chapbook. But not just one copy of a book, they have to create a run of 10 of them. What I want them to take away from this experience is the fact that they have not just produced an individual work of art, but they have prepared a work for multiple readers and that it’s going to go out into the world and they’re going to lose control over it.

And at the end of the course, we have a little marketplace in class where peers, classmates, can trade, share, buy, sell their chapbooks with one another. And I want them to, I want them to feel that uncertainty about their work sort of being made available.

Even if we start very small, because 10 copies, isn’t very much, you can still feel that thing leaving you and going out into the world and having its own life. And I think that’s a very important experience to have.

Excerpt from Shared Universe: New and Selected poems, 1995 to 2020

The Birthday Chamber
To mark the passage of time, the child
is taken to the Birthday Chamber—
subterranean walls glazed with small
golden m’s. M for meat. M for mortal.
How well the child knows these words.

How well he knows the hard, sculpted
seats bolted to the tables, and the tables
bolted to thick metal beams embedded
in the cold concrete floor. The archetypes
here are different than in other stories:

the clown, the policemen, the shapeless
humanoid. They are meant to console him
with the notion that the world isn’t real.
But the graffiti in the bathroom says,
“The economy is an ambush predator,”

in gold magic marker, and then in black ink,
underneath it, someone has written,
“Dystopias are scary because you can see
people struggling, but utopias are scarier
because you can see that they stopped.”

Paul Vermeersch (17:10):

I think one of the reasons why I write frequently about alternate or, or different futures is as a reminder that the future is not yet written. It can still be shaped. And if, if we can shape it in a poem, if we can shape it in a novel, if we can shape it in a, in a painting or a song, then we can shape it in the world. We can shape it in reality.

One of the reasons to write about a better future is to inspire us to achieve it. One of the reasons to write about a terrible future is to inspire us to avoid it. That’s one of the great things that works of the imagination are capable of. To show us the way forward. Or to warn us away from a path of destruction.

Excerpt from Shared Universe: New and Selected poems, 1995 to 2020

Hush, little planet,
nothing to fear.
Papa’s going to buy you
an atmosphere.

And if that atmosphere
has costs,
Papa’s going to buy you
a Holocaust.

And if nothto fear.
an atmosphere.
an atmosphere.
Papa’s going to buy you

Papa’s going to buy you
an atmosphere.
Papa’s going to buy you
an atmosphere.

Claire Tacon (18:26):
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com

Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Paul’s work, including his collection Shared Universe: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.


Paul Vermeersch discusses how, to become an artist, you must commit to a life-long process of learning. He discusses:

00:40 | His recent collection Shared Universe: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020
02:08 | The optimism of the atomic age and our current fixation with dystopia
08:26 | Helping students expand their work past preconceived boundaries of poetic form
11:44 | Ekphrastic poetry and its pitfalls
13:38 | Teaching a course on Self-Publishing at Sheridan College 
17:10 | How literature can help shape the future


  More About Paul

PAUL VERMEERSCH is a poet, multimedia artist, creative writing professor, and literary editor. He is the author of several poetry collections, including the Trillium–award nominated The Reinvention of the Human Hand and, most recently, Shared Universe: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph for which he received the Governor General’s Gold Medal. He teaches in the Creative Writing & Publishing program at Sheridan College and is the founding editor of Buckrider Books, an imprint of Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. He lives in Toronto.