Interview with Michael Prior

Michael Prior’s first full-length collection, Model Disciple, was published by Véhicule Press in March 2016 and is already in its second printing. His work has been published widely in literary magazines in Canada and abroad. He is currently completing an MFA in Creative Writing at Cornell University.
The poems in the first half of Model Disciple often confuse the human and the animal: poems about the speaker or others are entitled “The Fisher” or “Hermit Crab,” and humans are often presented—in a rather dark manner—as invaded by, or like, creatures: “The impossibility of disembarking / stirred an eel in my throat,” “You kicked / and brayed and snuffed.” For me, these poems worked to prefigure the last section of the book, which explores the internment—and subsequent dehumanization—of Japanese-Canadians in our country during WWII. In the book's final poem, the speaker and his grandfather travel to British Columbia to visit the site of the internment camp where his grandfather grew up, and the grandfather himself makes this connection explicit: “We’d been kept / locked up near the fairground in livestock stalls.” I'm curious about how you think of the animals and creatures in the first half of the book, and what motivated their inclusion in the first place. How did you arrive at cuttlefish and lampreys and fishers?

Thank you for such an insightful question, Katherine! In my own thinking, many of the poems that comprise the first half of the book function as uneasy masks, resisting, complicating, and even at points finding themselves complicit with conventions of anthropomorphic metaphor. I’d also like to think that these poems’ speakers occasionally allow their masks to slip, revealing the concerns at the heart of the collection: my grandparents’ internment as Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, the slippery processes of inter-generational memory, and the confusion I’ve felt at various points about my own half-ness. Animal-related conceits always cut both ways, humanizing the inhuman and dehumanizing the human, though, the latter probably figures more strongly throughout the collection in light of the ways Japanese Canadians were troublingly and painfully othered by both the language of the interment (after Pearl Harbour, Japanese Canadians were forced to register with the Registrar of Enemy Aliens) and the often harsh physical conditions they endured (many Japanese Canadians were kept in stalls that had once housed cattle and horses near the Pacific National Exhibition before being sent to camps in the interior of the province). 
When I first started writing the “animal” poems, I wasn’t sure why I was writing them, or how they would serve in the book’s overall structure. The book is, after all, meant to be more of a collection, rather than a conceptual project. But the more I wrote (and discarded) the more my editor and I saw them as having a role to play in the book’s progression. As you thoughtfully suggest, in a strange way, the poems in the first half echo the more direct poems that come later. My editor often says that an engaging book is one that teaches its readers how to read it, and I feel like the decision to place those poems in the first half originates in that guiding principle. Accordingly, some of the poems in the first half of the book are more tangentially related to the internment than others, but almost all of them have something to do with the ways in which the more fluid aspects of identity are both dependent upon and in tension with the more rigid categories and identities formed by our relationships to family and culture (ethnic, literary, and otherwise). Of course, what ends up being mutable and not can be surprising, and poems like “Cuttlefish,” and “Hinny” attempt to grapple with such questions.
I really do feel those initial poems guide you in how to read the book, so it's interesting you didn't at first exactly know why you were writing them. You say you wanted the book to be more a collection than a conceptual project, and I'm curious about that, especially because there is such a strong concept at its centre — are you wary of books that begin as conceptual projects?
I wouldn't exactly say I'm wary about books that begin as conceptual projects (there are so many excellent, conceptually focused or "project"-based books) but in general, I tend to prefer a collection’s eclectic approach, its arbitrary, temporal origins (a poet’s most engaging poems written during a given period). I like to see a mind’s motifs and predilections not only in conversation, but also in heated argument—and in my experience, this seems to happen more surprisingly when a poet hasn’t set out to write a “project,” but rather, when individual poems, written without pretense of future assembly, end up in restless dialogue. Of course, I’m being a little facile: the boundaries between collection and project are undeniably porous: where does one end and the other begin? I very well may have written a book that could be categorized as a project, but while drafting the poems in Model Disciple, I avoided thinking of the book that way because I was worried that a conscious conceptual focus might influence the sort of poems I was writing, or, ultimately, which poems made it into the book: I was afraid that if I were writing toward a set of thematic and theoretical end goals, I would distract myself from saying what I needed to, in the way I needed to.
Maybe what I’m trying to get at is that I’ve always felt most invested in the individual poem, the singular experience on the page. With Model Disciple, I was worried that if I were thinking about the manuscript as a project—especially in the early drafts—then I might make decisions that prioritized the book’s broader ideas before the emotional resonance and craft of individual poems. It's true that when a poem is published and read alongside others it’s impossible for it to ever truly stand alone, but I wanted to honour my original impulse, my preference for the single poem. That being said, the book did end up containing several thematic and aesthetic through lines, and for that I’m grateful. 
The last poem in the book , "Tashme," spans more than fifteen pagesit's a unique ending to a book full of shorter poems. Why did you decide on this format for the final poem and what were the challenges you faced while writing it?
“Tashme,” is written in an idiosyncratic blank verse that often veers closer to syllabic than accentual-syllabic metre, though the iambic pulse occasionally resurfaces: an internal tension that seemed appropriate to the speaker’s relationship with his grandfather and his mixed heritage. One reason I chose blank verse was because it seemed on some level to suggest, or even enact the pace and progression of the speaker’s road trip through the Kootenay region of British Columbia, where the internment camps that held thousands of Japanese Canadians once stood. Frost, that cranky proponent of the pentameter line, once described the abstract sound of sense, as “voices behind a door that cuts off the words” and perhaps, in some way, I wanted my poem to pit the narrative and physical movement of the characters against the metrical movement of the poem overall: the highway—the wordless thrum of the car tires over asphalt—as the connective tissue between the speaker, his grandfather and the muted voices in museums, memorials, old wooden shacks, and only apparently empty spaces. On a related note, another reason I employed blank verse was because I’m interested in what could be done with a form whose history and conventions come with assumptions about subject and subjectivity (I’m thinking of the sort of meditative expansiveness, the narrative possibilities, and the monologic potential we often associate with the form); I was thinking about how I could steal from and renovate a capital “E” English literary inheritance to express my speaker’s confused positon, while still resisting certain conventions and connotations that come with this theft. Elsewhere, I’ve mentioned that blank verse, like other inherited verse-forms, calls attention to itself so readily, and in that sense, it’s ripe for subtle subversion—expectations can be warped rather than broken, the poem can walk the wavering line between appreciation and apprehension. 
Writing "Tashme" was a challenge for many reasons. On a technical level, I had never written anything of that length or, I suppose, scope—especially with such formal strictures. Getting to the point where I could write the poem, or at least come up with a serviceable draft, was a year-long process: I immersed myself in my notes from the actual trip with my grandfather and read as much blank verse as I could, and then let it all percolate into my subconscious. “Tashme” required the most editing, the most drafts of anything I’ve ever written: it started as twenty five pages and over the course of many months was completely re-worked and eventually pared down to eighteen. 
The most difficult part of writing “Tashme,” though, was deciding what to keep in and what to keep out: I wanted the poem to be as raw and moving as possible, while still suggesting the often ineffable processes (and failures) of intergenerational memory. Accordingly, the poem is filled with silences, implied ellipses. Early on, however, I decided that even though the poem is steeped in historical loss, I couldn’t write it unless it was ultimately an act of love: love for my grandparents, my parents, my family. There were discussions, occurrences, and personal thoughts from that trip that might have been too difficult or painful for my grandfather to see on the page: his understandings don’t always align with my own, and I need to acknowledge that—more importantly, the poem needs to acknowledge that, so I made compositional choices with that in the forefront of my mind.

Interview conducted by Katherine Leyton
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