This interview is following John Vardon’s poetry review of Alyda Faber’s Poisonous If Eaten Raw.
John Vardon: An online image of your collection is still advertised as Rain, In All the Ways It Falls, your original title for the book before Poisonous If Eaten Raw, which suggests that the change may have been relatively last minute. What prompted the change?
Alyda Faber: You’re right—we didn’t discuss the title until very late in the editing process. I assumed that Ross Leckie liked the title because, while editing my first book, that was one of the first things he talked about—the title (Leeuwarden Train Station) wouldn’t work for a North American audience. We were almost done editing this book; I happened to refer to the title, and Ross replied, “It’s got to go.” I don’t remember the details, but I think it had to do with his perception that the title was “too romantic” and didn’t suit the tonal panoply of the book.
JV: One of the delights of this collection is the way you use ekphrasis to comment on familiar works of art and help readers see them in new ways. But it strikes me that it is also a way to reinterpret the “portrait” of your mother, allowing you to see things in your mother that two decades of reflection have brought to mind. Is this a fair observation?
AF: Thank you for this intricate question. The attempt to say something about a work of art is a fool’s errand and the same is true of my efforts to say something true about my mother. Both are laced with invention. And there’s pleasure in trying. In the years since my mother’s death, I have been searching for ways to understand her life, her choices, her character—but I’m curious about something more elusive—what was the “between” us like? What were we as mother and daughter? Of course, I had static interpretations of my mother, but these lived within a visceral sense of her that persists. In P. D. Eastman’s book, Are You My Mother? [the subject of one of the mother portraits], a bird falls out of a nest and walks, then runs around looking for his mother. He approaches animals and objects, who either answer “no” or remain silent. Each of the portraits began with an encounter much like this, either in the present or in memory. And whether it was a quince, a painting, a photograph, a sculpture, and so on, the encounter animated a sense of possibility—something here might relate to my mother—as if the artwork or object or person answered yes/no to the question the bird asks with growing desperation.
JV: One of my favourite poems is “Portrait of My Mother as Two Hot-Water Bottles,” one of these objects being made of traditional rubber and the other a “repurposed artillery shell.” To me, these objects suggest the warmth of both affection and anger, one that burns and the other that comforts, both unpredictable but preferable to extended coldness. This is the kind of speculation that your portrait poems draw from the reader, but then I recall the words of the mother in a poem about a Salvador Dali painting: “Do I give myself away in what I see?” This is a long-winded way of asking how deliberately inexplicit these varied likenesses are.
AF: The “varied likenesses” are as explicit as I can make them in my attempt to remain true to the relationship. The inexplicitness says that I can never say “finis” in the search for my mother; I don’t get dropped into the nest at the end to find my mother looking back at me, as in the P.D. Eastman story. I keep searching for her in un-likenesses, yet it’s there that I perceive a fleeting satisfactory and jarring likeness.
JV: I also appreciated the three poems devoted to the band members of Rush: Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart (the poem about the latter being made all the more poignant by his death last year). The choice of the group seems apt because its musical identity changed over the years, perhaps in keeping with your book’s purpose. However, the attention lavished on these figures, based on extensive research, suggests more than a casual acquaintance with their music. Why was this group so much closer to your heart, if you will forgive the cheesy allusion?
AF: As a teenager, I used to spend a lot of time listening to my older brothers’ records, and of those, I played Rush’s 2112 the most often. Looking back, I could invent reasons for my connection with this album: the orchestral virtuosity, the expression of defiance, the possibilities of art… All of this may be true, but less articulable is how I was caught by the music’s open and wide-ranging emotional expression— “There’s something here as strong as life. I know it will reach you.” And it did reach me. Living in a household where emotion was usually either suppressed or aggressively acted out, I found that this openness of expression gave me a sense “there is a world elsewhere” as Shakespeare’s Coriolanus says while banishing those who banish him. As for the “extensive research,” I used it as a way to immerse myself in the work of the band, in hopes that poems would emerge.
After writing the Peart and Lee poems, I was left with what felt like the near impossibility of the Lifeson poem. Referring to Lee’s love of “ballady” songs, Lifeson calls himself the “dirty, gritty guy” in the band: he was harder for me to get to know both musically and otherwise, so I was at a loss as to how a Lifeson mother portrait might develop. Despite the harried difficulty, I was also strongly motivated, by a scene in the documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, not to leave him out: a waitress approaches Geddy Lee for his autograph, ignoring Lifeson, sitting right next to him.
JV: I sense that the language in these poems is not only meticulously chosen but also rigorously self-edited. But I wonder too about the input of third parties, for example, poet Ross Leckie, whom you thank in your acknowledgments for his attention to “the tonal resonances of the book as a whole.” Can you elaborate?
AF: Other people are crucial to my writing process. I’ve learned to become a much better self-editor from various poets I’ve worked with, including John Barton, Sue Goyette, Steven Heighton, and the extensive editing process with Ross Leckie on both books. For Poisonous If Eaten Raw, in Dalhousie University writing workshops Sue encouraged me to take more risks and to invent; her precision editing and comments suggested ways to do this. The early unfolding of the book came from her suggestion that I consider writing more poems “like this one” when she read “Portrait of My Mother as Pope Innocent X.” At Sage Hill poetry workshops, Steve offered two critical interventions: his ability to teach how the sound “makes things more visible,” and his suggestion that I cut two sections from the omnibus manuscript I was working on (mother portraits, other portraits, testament).
I met regularly with the Dublin Street Poets (Rose Adams, Brian Bartlett, Jeri Brown, Maryann Martin, John McLeod, Marilynn Rudi), whose comments on punctuation, diction, syntax, line breaks, and overall impressions of the poems gave me a sense of which poems were working, and how, and which were not. A welter of voices before Ross worked on each poem in the book, sometimes with a very light editorial touch, other times with his sleeves rolled up. He’s a great teacher of poetics during the editing process! In his consideration of the manuscript as a whole, he cautioned me against an unrelenting grimness, like hitting the same note over and over again on the piano. My compass needle all too easily vibrates toward the negative; sometimes I need other people to alert me when I’m finding perverse safety there (again).