In Conversation with MEDRIE PURDHAM

A small, smoky basement cafe (in the not-so-distant past when cafes could be smoky). Singing (Esma, Queen of the Gypsies) and poetry (various, with throat-clearing and shouts and whispers). I was introduced to a quiet young woman along the back wall, whose smile made me feel I could say anything. I'd heard about her poems -- luminous, resonant -- but hadn't read any. And I wasn't going to hear any that night, because she was there to listen. That's Medrie. She really listens. And when she speaks, in poetry or conversation, the most wonderful things come out.

SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry in the first place?

MEDRIE PURDHAM: When I was eleven, I got a daily paper route. It had to be completed by 7 a.m., which meant that for the greater part of the year, it had to be done in the pre-dawn dark, in the long shadows of our quiet suburban streets. My mother let me do this route only as long as I didn't come home through the park, even though it was a shortcut, which persuaded me that I was doing something totally hazardous every day. I had bought myself an old anthology of poetry from the used bookstore near our house, and I read it from cover to cover, mainly because it smelled amazing: I have never known paper to decay more sweetly. I started deliberately memorizing poems that I could recite to myself on my paper route, for no other reason than to keep myself company in the morning and to give myself something to think about other than what was lurking in the park. By the time I gave up my route (at thirteen), I had an enormous repertoire of memorized poems, and, looking back, I think that somewhere in my mind there was an association consolidated in my mind between reading a poem and walking out into the wide and dangerous world. I still make an effort to learn my favourite poems by heart because I feel that internalizing poetry completely is what made me want to write in the first place.

SG: The rhythms and feel of poetic language--it seems you internalized
these, by memorizing and reciting, and externalized them, as you
walked your paper route. In fact, paper itself seems to carry some
weight in your poetic engagement. Reading your poems I often hear a careful,
thoughtful calibration as they develop. Could you talk about structure
and pacing in your work—how you approach it, how conscious you are of
it, whether it’s something you feel your way through or deliberately
engineer, and/or any other thoughts on the subject?

MP: Thank you for that observation. Your question has got me thinking
that I should start taking poems for walks again for rhythmic control or
respectable leash-training. I do really appreciate fine rhythms and
sonic effects in the poetry I read, because poetic rhythms and other
internal patterns underline that poetry is a temporal and moving thing.
That's how these effects help us love and mourn what the poem wants us
to love and mourn. Sound is where the intuition of the poet meets with
the body and life of the reader. For me, achieving a suitable sound
and pacing is the hardest part of poetic composition, and I have to do
it both by "feeling my way through" and by conscious arrangement after
the fact.

SG: What's inspiring you these days?

MP: There's a particularly random antique store here in town where a
person can get lots of inspiration and up to three accordions.

Medrie Purdham is a former Montrealer who lives and writes in Regina. Read her poem "You Call Your Next Child" here.