Pearl Pirie talks to Sharon Berg

1. Reviews of your previous work by Rob McLennan and the late Michael Dennis suggest you were playful and attentive as you grew into your mature voice as a poet. What you seem to offer the reader in your fourth book, footlights, is a challenge to read carefully. A quick reading offers what can appear to be an angry or bitter voice, someone who hasn’t forgotten they’ve been betrayed. Indeed, in ‘let us make’ you say: “myths of ourselves instead of the usual/ fools. Let’s see those teeth”.  Yet, there is an undertone to footlights that reveals a gentle and thoughtful soul who is asserting themself. In ‘weed trees’ you say: “are we not most like those/ whom we don’t understand?” Are you aware of both voices in these poems? Can you comment on this contrast, as both of them seem authentic?

PP: Some poems are more light, others grave, yes. One can be gentle and call boundaries, or speak sharply but play. Variation in poetry reflect life proportionally and avoids monotony.

I want to read, and make, poems that let in the full gamut. Gamut, incidentally, is a word derived from gamma ut, the lowest note in the medieval musical scale. To run the gamut was the full vocal range of pitches.

re: poem. I see it as self-deprecation, we fool-humans are nonsense sausages, but we might transcend that. That said, poems are completed by their reader.

I stumble on the word ‘authentic’. What’s the opposite? Dismissed as contrived? B.S.? Machine-generated? Any poem is a white grass blade trying to crawl out from under a board towards sunlight.

2. A number of your poems hold a shock value in their images or ideas. Some use descriptions of domestic violence, as in to slap upside the head this hard would be/ injurious to hand” in ‘aging fast past some tipping point I didn’t see’. Yet, you also parallel human memory to forest growth (e.g. ‘the forest behind’), and you openly speak your judgement against age inappropriate sharing” from adult to child in another poem (i.e. ‘momsense’). This book seems to weave a variety of voices as response to a multitude of pains. Can you speak to this? Do you identify with one of those voices more than another? 

PP: Negatives are part of the same exquisitely beautiful world. We can’t close our eyes. We can challenge thought patterns and dig deeper. I aim to wisely discern. I honour that anger is allowed, and sadness, silliness, and that the vast majority, neutrality.

Pain is a coming out, an admission and a permission to say: unaddressed things causes repercussions. A book closes a casket. It moves past the body to examine reactions and understandings. Growing up, guns were pulled, fearful people without agency or autonomy had grudges simmering. The head gets partitioned against trauma, but the body responds, knowing what is in locked rooms… I want to grasp the particulars of these.

Voice. Hm. If you say something, it’s your voice. If you say the same thing repeatedly in the same way, it’s a self-imposed constraint. Do you risk self-satirizing? Or repeat because you don’t trust you’ve been heard? Or market a message in Carnegie-speech style?

If patterns improve, futures can aggregate to a tipping point of a better humanity. Call me an optimist but futures are built by the syllable, and choice by choice. This requires compassion and pattern recognition of larger forces at play outwardly and within.

3. In his review of footlights, Mark Grenon points to your inclusion of both urban and rural poems. You clearly make astute observations about people. Yet, Grenon refers to something said in an interview with Amanda Earl, where you admitted you didn’t use to like rural poems. You display such a wonderful facility for writing about nature it makes me curious about what has shifted for you in respect to recording your insights about flora, fauna, and landscape? Have you decided you like rural poems now?

PP: Thanks. I’m glad to hear you say astute observations. I want to perceive well.  Glad you liked those poems. footlights has rural & urban frames because I lived in both. In the previous books, I was in urban spaces and in urban speeds of overstimulation.

btw, Amanda Earl has a large archive now of interviews with poets. Look for ‘small machine talks’ wherever you download your podcasts.

As a practice, I joined #FaunaWatch on Twitter, a hashtag by Tanis Macdonald, the result of which her book of essays, Straggle. I began writing pre-teenage years about forests. I have written of nature continually in haiku and other forms. But nature poems (and poems generally, and people generally) can make me grumpy.

What frustrated me about nature poems was opportunities lost. Cosmic poems invoke bird, green, sky, and observe no particulars. A list poem of plant species names is as hollow. What I found billed as ‘nature poems’ don’t feed me. (It’s of course different priorities in those poems, not poor execution of what I want, but another poet doesn’t .)

There’s too much at play to ‘go on about’ clouds: what has been developing for millions of years can be wiped out by us over dozens or hundreds of years. People need to understand and appreciate the hundreds of thousands of individuals that are and are not human. To respectfully learn seems so basic. To care is an imperative. The alternative is isolation, cataracts & callouses that impede making 7-generation-choices.

4. What was your intention in writing this book?

PP: Writing is what I do, (full time for over 20 years and seriously for 40). It is how I process the world. I was lucky enough that the folks at Radiant took a chance on it, & arranged for an audiobook.

I want to say with it that people (and I) can have agency, can refuse, can choose, and do not need to accept all uncritically as inalterable.

Its values are humanist and Buddhist (staying alert in the moment, whether hard or beautiful, extending empathy for people & other creatures, a practice of awareness of our effect on others and sensitivity to their effects on us to draw gentle but firm boundaries and to appreciate beauty as medicine).

These I want to promote against daily defaults in our immersed media/ideological world (conflict glorification, petroleum, sexism, zero-sum games, ableism, casual violence, irony, disposable capitalism).

5. How do you intend for the value of the work to be assessed?

PP: A conversation offered.

6. What would you say is the most fundamental difference between your earlier work and this new collection?

PP: Risk is new compared to the oblique capering avoidance of my previous books. Previous served to give me confidence to speak, and to exercise language tools. They seemed a pass key to meet like-minds who also preoccupied with this notion of making ideas in poetry.

7. How did you arrive at the title? What was your intention for the title to do?

PP: The title footlights was the editor’s idea. It’s from a poem of how a forest has seedlings. In the case of maples the seedlings may wait with two leaves for 25 years, for a large tree to die and open the canopy. In certain lighting, this understory of hope glows, like footlights on a stage, but humans are not the lead actors. What do you see? Hints of poetry equals performance?

8. Are there poems/ideas that were originally intended but ultimately not included in the collection? How did you determine what to keep and what not to keep in the collection?

PP: There were poems that were too fluffy, zany, short, outliers in theme, etc. My editor, gillian harding-russell, had a keen eye for catching these. Others were substantially edited to have close to the same weight and density of the others. We communicated easily. A joy.

9. In pushing your work beyond your first title what were you most conscious of? What were/are you trying to achieve with this book in terms of your literary career?

PP: Poetry was the only thing that made sense so I’d see where it led. Once you make the poems, they might be of use to others. As Randy Brooks says of kukai, a poem “does not exist until it finds a reader who loves it.” (That quote from his excellent book, The Art of Reading & Writing Haiku, 2019)

I had hoped this book would resonate with new people and reach wider readership being more straightforward. Earlier on I hoped it would be my internally consistent project book but it still is a catch-all for the best not siphoned to other manuscripts at various stages; minimalist, love poetry, haiku, chronic illness, mother, surreal. (And now, the local family history poems for which I just received a grant to further research.) The next books, whichever they will be, are bound to be more thematic than any of my previous.

Pearl Pirie is a queer concussed writer living in rural Quebec. Her poetry collection, the pet radish, shrunken (Book*hug, 2015) won the Archibald Lampman Award. Her manuscript Thirsts won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and was published in 2011. Her first trade collection was been shed bore (Chaudiere Books, 2010). Her poems have been included in Best Canadian Poetry in English twice, and have appeared in various anthologies. Her newest chapbooks are Call Down the Walls (Frog Hollow Press, 2019), Eldon, letters (above/ground, 2019), Not Quite Dawn (Éditions des petits nuages, 2020) and forthcoming, Water loves its bridges: Letters to the dead (The Alfred Gustav Press, 2020). She runs phafours press, Chalkpaths manuscript editing service, and Studio Nouveau workshops. Pearl lives in Wakefield, Quebec.

Listen to Pearl Pirie Reading “Before You Smell Ozone” from Footlights