Even Absurdity Can Take Itself Too Seriously: Pearl Pirie in Conversation

Photo  by Brian Pirie
I first heard Pearl Pirie's voice one warm summer day in a drafty, light-filled barn near Perth, Ontario. A healthy measure of the comical spiked with a pinch of gravitas marks it as hers, whether she's working the Japanese senryu, narrative exploration, lyric snapshot, or any of the many other modes she takes on. We talked about how she does it in a recent email exchange, where poetry may slide or sidle over to prose and back.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry?

PEARL PIRIE: Poetry was always there. Once, I was a wee tobogganer and after a particularly good run down the tractor-made pile of snow in the yard under the basswood, I ran indoors for a pencil stub —too short to be of any use, of which we had a canful— and paper pulled off from the roll of the adding machine, to capture the experience of sledding in free verse. I sat out there at the base of the run on my crazy carpet, mittenless hands stiff with cold, to not lose a thing. When I compiled my best-of the few years I copied it over into my stapled looseleaf book.

Poetry was and is everywhere. Anthologies in the house. In the school curriculum. It is children’s literature. In music. Some of my earliest memories are reading it, memorizing I Think Mice Are Rather Nice in grade 1 and reciting it to the class. And writing my own poems in school, reading them at home from Poems Children Will Sit Still For: A Selection for Primary Grades (Scholastic, 1969) which I bought for myself along with a doll tall as me with elastic bands on her feet so you could dance with her. That was at a yard sale up in some twisty road out by Jasper, or Lombardy.

Apparently my dad wrote poetry which I didn’t know until after he died, being told in the same breath that he had written poems up to the 60s and that he had destroyed them all. Which went to explain what happened a few years earlier when I quoted Purdy to him in conversation and started to explain he was a poet. There, one of the sharpest looks he’d ever thrown as he said, what kind of daft fool do you take me for. I course I know who Purdy is. I can’t remember how much of that was said with the the look and how much with the words.

Not that he’d ever mentioned Purdy or poetry. Robert Service had as permanent of spot on the shelf as the Bible or encyclopedias but I never saw a sign that any of them were opened except by me. My aunt self-published a book of her verses, but so far as Poets Out There there was Anthos magazine eventually. I submitted to that as a 14-or 15-year-old. Got a nice rejection letter back.

SG: You depict a kind of rambunctious attention in that early self. Many of your poems work this way, dancing and sitting still at the same time; they crack the surfaces of their subjects, freeing all kinds of things to jump out. Does your writing process also work this way? And however it works, how or when do you decide "here be poem"?

PP: I've recently thought I could make 2  books by dividing composition by time of day, the dense jumpy poems of the first 4 hours of a day's writing and the smoother simpler ones that tend to come when I'm over hour 6 or 8 for a day.

when is something a poem? devil of a word, poem, but we have to call  things something. capital P poem becomes needlessly contentious, divisive. would it be useful to have more terms? is it a term more useful for marketing?

I suppose i gut know when something "has legs" once it gets to a stage where i know someone who would be amused by it or get it. (mostly the gut goes no, nah, nuh-huh, nope, next.)

when is it useful as a thought? if a poem sticks with you maybe it dazzles but doesn't do work. if it dazzles at first and doesn't unveil more with each subsequent read, maybe it efficiently made its change and propelled you to whatever's next.

I like the extraneous because nothing is as consistent as we think but that's in tension with liking a system that fits together as this utterance might not. feel free to ask where i've left out bridges. Narrative is dishonest with self and disrespectful to the listener. phatic nil content with the illusion of sense. I’d stand behind what Marshall Hryciuk said in petals in the dark (Catkin, 2015) “learn to avoid the cause-effect writing that is the backbone of plot” because such linear development is irrational. even absurdity can take itself too seriously. if you are too chaotic it is stressful but too much order and control is as well. I like devices that add back randomness to counter the automatic story/lie-making mind.

there’s the mind in it’s box. the more you think, the more serious. which is why actions speak stronger than words.

SG: What's inspiring you these days, outside of poetry?

PP: That word inspiring keeps coming. can't make head or tails if it; it comes from breath of god which is magical-thinking.

humhemhaw. downtime, uptime, publishing, radio show and social are all with poets. anything else is out of the top 10. (i clearly need more life balance. )

if we skip that word, inspiring, the question becomes existential or seeks endorsement of something.

inspire. what makes me breathe easier or faster? i get pleasure and anxiety from everything.

let's see. non-poetry. seed catalogues are there. eventually cycling will cycle back. we're browsing the internet for places to travel to. I'm pecking away at French and Mandarin, but again those intersect with poetry. i'm big on the Tang Dynasty this spring.

Pearl Pirie' most recent collection is the pet radish, shrunken (BookThug). Chapbooks include today's woods (above/ground) & polyphonic choral of civet tongues and manna (unarmed). She gives workshops and talks on poetry for various organizations,  hosts Literary Landscape on CKCU radio and has recently become president of KaDo, an national capital area group devoted to haiku and related asian forms.