Sylvia Legris is one of the leading Canadian poets of our time. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, she now lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and is the author of five volumes of poetry: Circuitry of Veins (1996), Iridium Seeds (1998), Nerve Squall (2005), Pneumatic Antiphonal (2013) and The Hideous Hidden, which will be published later this year by New Directions. Nerve Squall won the 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize and the 2006 Pat Lowther Award. Her poems have appeared in many periodicals, including The New Yorker, Poetry, and Conjunctions.
I was introduced to Sylvia Legris after we published ‘The Heart Compared to a Seed’ in the latest issue of Granta, but it was not until being approached about this interview that I really sat down properly with her work. I was juggling a few other projects at the time, yet the distractions and frantic pace of activity only enhanced the engrossing qualities of Sylvia’s poetry. As I corresponded with Sylvia by email I began to appreciate the rare and interdisciplinary approach of her poetry, which takes full advantage of the form’s hybridity: image, language, dance, music, drama.
Her poetry stumped me in the best kind of way: I read it aloud and had no idea what it meant, but it sounded fantastic. I then opened five different kinds of dictionaries in my browser. I circled words and parts of words to note their etymologies and connotations, until the margins were full of scribbles.
I learned about how the adrenal gland works. I learned the tremendous word ‘gleeking’. I learned about fluid exchange and sacs and cells. I felt the sensation of having been shrunk and then shown around inside something or someone (both plant and person).
Rob McLennan says Legris’s poems ‘explore the machinery of the body, pinpointing the minutiae of language, and the smallest parcels of physicality. In her poems, big ideas exist in small.’ Legris’s microscopic attention is compelling and seductive, and from that narrow view it unexpectedly expands to tackle past and present, scientific and literary, private and public, and the rich histories that go with these dichotomies. Pulsing with secretions and excretions, her poetry saturates our imagination and invigorates our curiosity.
The tone of this poem is often observational and instructive, akin to research annotations or a task list, yet it manages to establish an intense intimacy. Even though the poem resists clear narrative, I found that the rich and multiple histories behind each word allowed many possible narratives to emerge. Additionally I felt there was an overarching awareness of the narrative of science and issues of historicity, for example through the multiple meanings of ‘Plot, replot’. By what process did you come to this voice?
Someone else recently asked me about the voice in The Hideous Hidden, suggesting that because the poems aren’t in the first person, aren’t ‘confessional’, that they seem clinical and detached, impersonal. As you point out, ‘Part the Second.’, like the entire collection, has a tone that is often observational, and instructive, yes, perhaps even a bit bossy with all those imperatives (do this, do that, cut here). Although the poems are not what we tend to think of as being personal, they do, I think, convey an intimacy – in terms of their substance, in terms of their language, definitely. If I were to characterize this poem in one word, I’d say ‘succulent’, a fleshy water-storing plant. Or ‘glandular’: small but vital cell masses that ooze and secrete.
I came to this voice over a long time, by way of a lot of poems (a lot of failed poems among them). I have found that the more closely – the more objectively – I observe the language, the deeper, the more intimately, I’m able to cut into it, through layers of meaning, of etymology. Adopting what might seem like a detached tone in the poems has resulted in a point of view that to me seems anything but detached. While the ‘tone’ of the data that results from someone observing something through a microscope might be neutral, the type of looking being done is about as close up and personal as you can get. In other words, being as attentive as possible insists, I think, on an openness, even a vulnerability – to the accidental, the unexpected. When I surprise myself with something I’ve written (that came from me?), it’s a wonderful feeling.
As well as widening the poem’s temporal range, the references to Virgil help to situate the poem conceptually. The processes Virgil speaks of in the quoted section of The Georgics include the inoculation and grafting of plants. I think this process is interesting to consider in regards to poetry itself. In general it could be said that the construction of poetry is a piecemeal process, but perhaps that is particularly true of these poems. This botanical process evokes for me the complex and interweaving act of citation that underpins all art. It also points to the similarities between scientific and poetic process – a certain meticulousness is necessary to get closer to the truths, objective or otherwise, that we seek. What role does accepted scientific rhetoric play in your poems?
It’s so fitting that the word ‘graft’, as a noun, was used historically to describe both a tool for cutting and a tool for writing. I think the process of grafting is an ideal analogy for the process of making poems, certainly for how I make and think about poems. I have long been fascinated by those places in language, in systems of knowledge and inquiry, where there are surprising convergences. The language of anatomy ‘inoculating’ that of botany, for example – all that sexy syntax of pistils and stamens, glans and glands. Or the wonderful overlaps between meteorology, neurology and zoology in words like ‘cirrus’ or ‘hippocampus’. I delight in these little collisions, the confusion and mishearings, the misreadings they sometimes engender. This is the stuff of poetry!
I keep a running mental log of things I misread and mishear. For example, several years ago a radio reporter, broadcasting from a university campus, described an incident as taking place near the ‘psychopath’. Remarkable, I immediately thought, that a psychopath would be enough of a fixture on a campus to have become a sort of landmark. Of course, almost simultaneously the word ‘cycle path’ clicked in and knocked the psychopath, so to speak, out of the way.
In terms of the science itself, the ‘accepted scientific rhetoric’, I feel largely fraudulent. I suspect that others don’t share my excitement over such convergences (it’s all old-hat to them) and I have to wonder if my enthusiasm derives from my own naïveté and lack of formal or structured exposure to science. As a poet, I am magpie-like, scavenging – stealing – shiny bits and pieces that catch my attention. I often think I read more for the beauty of the language, for words and fragments that hold poetic possibility than I do for meaning or cohesive narrative. I glean and I graze. I take a weirdly shaped bit here, a glittery nugget there, and I try to crazy-glue them into some wild- and wily-limbed hybrid I’ve never seen. If I can create a creature that shocks and surprises me, that trips trillingly all over the place, I am gleeful.
There’s something about your approach that resonates for me with the work of Juliana Spahr, particularly in her book That Winter the Wolf Came, which makes extensive use of lists. Although your poetics are very different, I feel that perhaps you share an appreciation for the list as a form of information storage, a non-exhaustible way of cataloguing various truths or untruths. Your description of the poem as ‘water-storing’ or responsible for vital cellular processes chimes with this sense of a repository. Did you have this in mind while writing?
Wow, there is so much in your question, I have to break my answer into components. First, aren’t all texts, all books, essentially repositories? Whether you’re writing a grocery list or a story, a poem or a history of anything at all, isn’t it always an attempt to contain something you’re afraid might otherwise be lost or forgotten or ‘mistold’ by someone else (or that someone might beat you to your own earth-shattering idea!)? On some level, I think this is true – maybe not always consciously so. My poems, as I’ve suggested, often emerge out of intersections of seemingly disparate bodies of knowledge or language. The poems in Pneumatic Antiphonal, for example, hover in those interstices between birdsong and the respiratory system. I sometimes wonder if my obsessive ‘researching’ of language is to compensate for my atypically slippery formal education. But I do spend a lot of time exploring the etymology of the language I’m using in a given poem, looking not only at the origins of a word but at how its meaning, usage, application, and context might have evolved, expanded, or diminished over time. Key words and phrases in my poems are, for me at least, small repositories of the varied associations and meanings they still have or might have lost. Again, to refer to Pneumatic Antiphonal, part 6 of ‘Flight Song of the Old World…’ reads as follows:
While the rhyming of ‘Sparrows’ and ‘narrow’ is obvious, when I read this, I also hear the ‘arrow’ embodied in ‘sagittal’ (from Latin sagitta, meaning arrow). Of course, almost nobody else is going to pick up on that, but I love knowing that it’s there. Or, in ‘Part the Second.’, that ‘Sea-wreck’ (a variation of ‘wrack’) is a type of seaweed or kelp. I love the play on tidelines and rack and ruin, on wreckage.
The Hideous Hidden does include a couple of intentionally list-type poems, one in fact titled ‘List of Demonstrations of Different Parts of the Human Body’, but it hadn’t fully clicked in my own head that ‘Part the Second.’ does indeed unfurl like a list. The pacing of the poem is measured, deliberate, even mournful, a ‘fourfold milfoil’d dead march’. I will allow that it’s rather dirge-like, and I wonder if it’s closer to a litany than a list. I’m really attracted to what Spahr says about the list being a kind of lament, ‘a call out of what is becoming lost’ – loss as a gradual, incremental process, rather than, as we tend to think of it, a single devastating blow, or the accumulation of many such blows over a lifetime. I am unfailingly captivated by the unmistakably ritual-like aspect of making poems the way I do, a long-drawn process of puzzling things out into shapes and sounds that make my ears prick up. But every ‘finished’ (they never really feel finished) poem is invariably accompanied by a sense of loss. The more successful (in my own terms) a poem is, the greater this sense of loss. Each poem seems dredged up out of some god-knows-what excruciating process – no matter how much I love it, the poem never fails to sadden me on some level. Possibly it’s just my imagining the poem through other readers’ eyes.
I love your phrase ‘puzzling things out’, as if your poems start and end as different kinds of puzzles, undermining the assumption that a puzzle must be in some way ‘solved’.
I’m interested by the correlation you describe between this sense of loss and the satisfaction you get from private reference. It’s an experience that I’m sure other writers can identify with upon finishing a piece of work. Could you talk about a time when you were confronted with an unexpected interpretation of your work?
The most compelling puzzles are either the ones that seem impossible to solve or the ones you think you’ve solved and then realize you’ve still got leftover pieces. The challenge, the fun of it, is in the puzzling itself.
The sense of loss I spoke of isn’t for the most part related to the work’s reception, it’s more about my having to relinquish something that I’ve lived with and fretted over for a long time, numerous years in the case of a book. Writing is such a solitary, private activity, and while I clearly want my work to be published, it always feels like there’s a bit of a disconnect between the act of writing itself and the final published object – a product, which seems very weird (not that anyone’s buying). Still, to this day, whenever I see my name in a table of contents, I think, ‘Is that me, is that who I am?’ It’s a very strange business, that’s for sure.
I think what’s unexpected for many if not most poets is when their work confronts any interpretation at all. Nerve Squall received a somewhat higher percentage of negative reviews than positive, and while it’s a relief when someone likes your work, I can honestly say I’d rather have a less than favourable review that’s intelligent and thoughtful and well written than a glowing review by someone who seems essentially clueless. Similarly, a negative review by someone who evidently has some sort of grudge or agenda is worthless. Ideal would be a rave review by a brilliant writer.
I agree with you too, regarding less than favourable reviews. During the experiment of writing we are (I hope) always taking risks, asking for engagement or a challenge. Sometimes the last thing we want is praise.
This loss makes more sense to me now. I’m interested in the way you conceive of the relationship between yourself and the reader. While I’m not suggesting what you’ve described at all reflects this kind of embarrassment, I’m reminded of the ‘sharp embarrassment’ Denise Riley talks about when seeing something of hers in print: ‘What a familiar shame, though, is this? It arouses faint thoughts of the sequel to the end of the affair, when you’d far rather not clap eyes again on the lost person who once aroused such devastating emotion.’ I wonder if it’s an interesting contrast to consider?
When I’m fully immersed in writing I have no sense of a reader or an audience, or even of myself – I’m focused solely on the work. When I set out, sit down, to write, I am the only one I’m attempting to engage and challenge. I am, I have no doubt, my hardest critic. When I pull back from something I’ve written and think ‘Ha, I nailed that!’; when I feel genuinely, giddily, excited about a poem, my initial sense is that someone else will share my excitement. I’m not always right about that, but when a poem I love is accepted by a magazine I respect, I am really pleased. That said, there are poems I love that are rejected repeatedly. At times it seems like a crapshoot. Such rejection doesn’t change, deep down, how I feel about a poem, it just makes me realize how subjective our particular likes and dislikes are.
I don’t think I feel embarrassment when my work appears in print. Sometimes I cringe when I think about my early work, but I have to tell myself that’s where and who I was then. My goal is to keep improving, moving forward; if I felt attached to early efforts, I’d be worried. When I read something and think, ‘I wouldn’t do that now,’ that’s a good thing.
I’d like to go back to what you say about making your ‘ears prick up’ during your composing ritual; it’s evident to me that you take a lot of care to consider sound and musicality in your poems. For example, in the first line ‘milfoil’d’ seems among other things to be a condensed echo of ‘mid the fourfold’, combining rhyme and assonance in an effective way. Could you talk a little bit more about this attention to sound?
Hmm. That’s wonderful your observation that ‘milfoil’d’ seems like a condensed echo of ‘mid the fourfold’. Sort of a sonic tautology. The music, yes, is fundamental. I love playing with the language, breaking it down syllable by syllable, disarticulating its multiple meanings and nuances, but the process of building the various components of the language into something that resembles a poem often feels closer to composing an arrangement of notes and sounds than it does to one of words. It’s not that I would privilege music over language, but when the language is functioning at its highest level, it seems inseparable from the music. Of course, this doesn’t always happen.
Typically I start a poem with only a loose notion of subject, usually in the form of images or specific terms I want to incorporate. As I write, I read everything out loud as I go. If I only have three words that seem to work as a sequence, I read them over and over, out loud every single time (it helps if you write in a space in which people can’t hear you through the walls – I’m completely self-conscious if I think my neighbours can hear me). It sounds hokey, I imagine, but I work very associatively, letting each word propel me to the next, through a combination of sound and the many layers of meaning contained in a word. It’s a painstaking process, and the bulk of the work is in the many, many, many (did I say many?) revisions a single piece goes through. I walk a lot, and often when I’m walking I’ll have a rhythm going through my head, the structure of a line in which I can hear the number of words, the beats, the punctuation, but not the words themselves. It feels closer to making a puzzle than solving one. Maybe I have more in common with Will Shortz than I do with any of the poets I read.
I’m also interested in how you use abbreviations (w/o, &c.) and elisions in this poem (the ’d endings). Could you elaborate on why you made these choices?
No doubt they will be seen by some (probably everybody) as pretentious. The apostrophes, the ’d endings, are not meant to be diacritical, denoting an accent or emphasis. Initially, they were a type of cheating, ‘tricking’ the line into carrying a wider-than-would-fit load of words … I wholeheartedly admit it. I first used them in ‘Glandula Botanica’ as a means of compressing the line in cases where it seemed to jut out more than I wanted. I’ve played around with adjusting the kerning, tightening or widening the spacing between letters when I wanted a bit more or less room in a line, but this is fruitless if you want to get the poem published in a journal – that is, no respectable editor would go to such lengths to indulge a poet’s typographical idiosyncrasies (as an editor, I would and have, but I don’t get no respect!). Cheating aside, as I mentioned, the sound of a poem, how it’s being read or heard both on and off the page, is really important. The ’d allows me to add more of a clip, both visually and aurally, in places where I want a faster or choppier pace. In numerous places throughout The Hideous Hidden, I use this contraction to force the sound or pronunciation or even the appearance of a word (like force-blooming a flower … I just thought of that!). ‘Lappeted/lappetted’ to me reads and sounds radically unlike ‘lappet’d’. The extra letters to my ear and eye add an unappealing drawl.
Finally, all of these abbreviations and elisions imbue the poems, I hope, with an archaic or antiquated pitch, which is fitting considering that most of the poems are informed by old or ancient medical writings. Maybe it sounds outlandish, but my aim is not only to write interesting poems, I want them to look interesting, if not beautiful, on the page (beauty’s a dirty word, I know).
I’m not sure about beauty, either, but I do think that visual style and considered use of space play an important role in your poems. Yet the compact, almost taut form of this poem does not impinge on its mobility. When reading it I get the sense of constant subtle shifting, a quiet dynamism rippling along the surface, not unlike how I imagine the invisible process of transudation, which is a core image in the poem. This follows on from what you mentioned earlier about hearing rhythms before finding the words, and the poem having its own rhythm. Could you talk a little bit about your poetry in relation to movement?
I love your suggestion that transudation is analogous to the movement of these poems – ‘quiet dynamism’ seems perfect. In some of my earlier work I was playing more with the expanse of the page, using the white space and gaps to denote pauses and breaks, disjunctions. The negative space often carried as much weight as the text. Increasingly I’ve been trying to ‘work’ the line itself, controlling the pacing, the movement, even the modulation within the line through a combination of extremely precise (granted, often esoteric or dense) language that’s as ‘loaded’ – historically, musically and linguistically – as possible, and a rigorous deployment of punctuation (I want punctuation that can both bench-press and jeté as required). I sometimes imagine the line like a tightrope or tug of war rope where you can control the tension by how much or how little slack you give it; I find I can use punctuation or phraseology to fine-tune this tension. I have been criticized for my fulsome use of punctuation, but, for now at least, I stand by my semicolons. Poems I’ve written without the attention to punctuation feel flabby and out of control, amorphous. Aside from providing the usual grammatical clarity, in my poetry the punctuation at times functions similar to musical notation, indicating shorter or longer rests, speed, etc. The commas, for example, in ‘The jelly’d, the aspic’d, the offal’d bit’ lend a staccato abruptness to the line. Visually and sonically, the punctuation gives the poems more definition – within its constraints, the language, paradoxically, has surprising freedom to ramble and rove in unpredictable ways.
This poem is rich with wordplay that takes advantage of these little collisions you describe. I found the interplay between and around the words ‘excrete’ and ‘secrete’ particularly fascinating, especially considering their meanings are often conflated. This also resonates clearly within the context of the collection, the context of being ‘hidden’. It raises questions of how we hide, and how we are revealed; questions of what we give over freely as waste and what exchanges are mutually beneficial. Could you talk about how this poem might relate to the idea of waste?
I’ve been struggling with this question, flummoxed, I will admit, by what you mean by waste. Like ‘secrete’, ‘waste’ is one of those words that has, or has come to have, a double or double-edged meaning. Waste as what’s discarded, undeniably garbage, but also waste as excess, the stuff that accumulates through constant acquisition, what we desire and aspire to, arguably often garbage by another name.
This poem is lush with botanical references, or, more accurately, defiant or diminishing botanical references, the ‘not-plants’, the ‘unrooted, the resting buds’. I’ve taken up gardening recently, and in the process have developed an appreciation for manure. Shit, the waste we go to great lengths to flush or shovel out of sight, in a horticultural or agricultural context is a substance that enriches, that nourishes the garden plot (there’s that word ‘plot’ again). I was going to say that shit is the ultimate waste, but in thinking about The Hideous Hidden it’s clear that the ultimate waste is the body we leave behind. As a culture, we are simultaneously squeamish about and obsessed with what’s ‘hidden’ inside us. Look at the number of CSI, forensic-focused crime dramas; we have an insatiable appetite for the morbid and the postmortem, yet for many people the option of having one’s organs harvested after death is unthinkable. I’m really curious myself about what state my brain is in, but I think I’d go over the edge if a brain-scan revealed all sorts of dents and dings and damage.
‘Part the Second.’ is an odd poem; formally and subject-wise it has a clear relationship with ‘Glandula Botanica’ (the poem that precedes it) and ‘Part the Third.’ (the poem that follows), yet it is, to me, a sort of self-contained environment, with its own filtration system, its own rules and rhythms (it sort of grafts the phonic with the hydroponic). This poem leaks and seeps and excretes all over the place, yet it feels self-juicing, ‘the guelder-rose-gleeking’ (isn’t that a great word, gleeking?). The poem functions in a way as a circular litany of waxing and waning – ‘the dwindling adenographia’ counterbalanced by the ‘up-sucking succulent’, the ‘watery sac-trap’.
I was also delighted to discover the word ‘gleeking’ – that occasional projectile spit during a yawn has a name!
Indeed waste was a slippery word to use. What you say about the body being the ultimate waste and our fascination with the postmortem relates well to the microscopic focus of your poems, and the word ‘dissection’ comes to mind too. Considering the intimacy we mentioned earlier, I wonder if you could talk more about how these physical dissections via language could relate to a dissection or examination of the self?
Whose self? And which one? The one who writes or the other one? Believe me, my self-examination is not material worthy of poems (at least not ones that won’t put me and you and everyone we know to sleep). As for the self who writes, well, as unpopular an idea as it is, I firmly believe that the principal way to figure out how to write and what sort of writer you might become is by reading. And by reading, I mean reading not just for content and meaning, but reading in order to discover how a piece of writing is put together. Likely the most effective, albeit potentially messiest way to determine how something is constructed is to take it apart, dissect it – as you say – and spend some time fooling around with the pile of bones. When I was a teenager I wanted to learn how to fix a bicycle myself in case, god forbid, my 10-speed were to break down on the side of the highway. First thing I did was to completely dismantle the entire thing. In the process of reassembling it, I figured out not only where every part fit, but how each part functioned not only in relation to the others, but as part of the objective of keeping the bike itself in working order (O to be master of my own spoke wrench domain!).
Crucial to examining and understanding anything in any meaningful, comprehensive way, whether that’s your self, or poetry, or a bike derailleur, is paying close and critical and, as necessary, circumspect attention. Through ‘these physical dissections via language’ I certainly figure out what I can do as a poet, and where I still fall short. In the process do I learn more about myself? Unavoidably.
I’d like to draw particularly attention to the phrase ‘Let slip unmeaning’, as it really struck me as the crux of this poem. Presented as an instruction, it could also be read as a confession, but one that ultimately does not reveal anything. It calls to mind the Heideggerian paradox that ‘language reveals being and Being tells language what to say.’ The moment of utterance, of writing, of naming, is a simultaneous moment of saying and unsaying. As this poem draws links between the language of the body and the language of nature, I wonder if this paradox was on your mind while writing?
Yeah, no kidding, this paradox is always on my mind, period. I’d agree that ‘Let slip unmeaning’ is the crux of the poem, of many of the poems, I think, in the collection. Again, it’s one of those instances of the language being double-sided or double-edged. I hear the ‘let slip’ as meaning to reveal or to uncover, as in to expose the ‘unmeaning’. But I also hear it as to let something go, to loosen your grip on the notion of ‘unmeaning’ (i.e. ‘unmeaning’ might in fact be the same thing as meaning or might simply mean in and of itself.). I tend to agree that the moment of utterance or writing is simultaneously a moment of saying and unsaying. In part because what’s being uttered is always at the expense, for good or for bad, of something else that could have been said. I don’t know if other poets experience this, but I always feel that when I write a poem I’m really happy with, it doesn’t really exist until I’ve read it to someone else. And this isn’t about my trying to fish for compliments, to have someone tell me, ‘Yes, you have written a good poem’ – it’s more like I need to have someone else ‘witness’ the poem’s existence. You wrench these things out of what often seems like a vacuum – it can indeed seem like both a saying and an unsaying.
Indeed. This idea of external witness is so important for writers, I think – we who spend so much time having conversations with ourselves.
Not just having conversations with yourself, but, when the writing’s on a roll, the experience of losing yourself, of emerging from the work and realizing you’ve lost track of several hours … a remarkable feeling when you can be so focused, so engrossed, that everything else falls away. When that happens, I wonder why I can’t get to that place more often, yet also realize that being in a heightened state of consciousness a lot of the time might make you crazy.
Mid the fourfold milfoil’d dead march
to the minor mondo, the lesser garden,
the vesicle’d, the Sea-wreck’d, the not yet
extinct, the cuticle-weary, the carnivorous.
Bud-strange, boggy, Utricularia’s watery
sac-trap. Nip the lymphatic, the nodular
stalk, “cut the knotless bole,” note the not-
cacti, the not-plants, the no-show hormonal.
W/O footstalks, unrooted, the resting buds.
The rest of glands, stipular or unstipulated.
Of the XVth class, the Tetradynamic. Of Fig-
wort, St. John’s-, the wort-unworthy, &c.
“Slit the mid knot.” Let slip unmeaning,
the rind unbleeding, bladder’d and meaty,
the spineless medlar, aloe’d, blister’d, the
drip-shrub, the liquor-secreting fulcres.
The dwindling adenographia. Plot, replot
the pomp-leaf’d, the oblique, the jaded
pancreatic, up-sucking succulent, fat-
lappet’d, adrenal-drain’d, apathy’d—
The jelly’d, the aspic’d, the offal’d bit.
The mid-gut gourd, the guelder-rose-
gleeking. The extant submandibular
excreting. The transitional transudation.
From The Hideous Hidden, copyright © 2016 by Sylvia Legris. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.