Saturday, February 11, 2006

Type Cast 4

Writers are naturally counter-intuitive people. With all that thinking time on their hands, the bounty of options grows hourly. It’s maddening, but it makes for good plot twists. And unusual career choices.

Take the case of Emily Pohl-Weary. The Parkdale born and bred 32 year old novelist, anthologist, biographer (her book Better To Have Loved, a biography of her grandmother, the prolific science fiction author Judith Meril, was a Toronto Book Award finalist and winner of a 2003 Hugo Award) former Broken Pencil editor, and all-around literary starling has, for some inexplicable reason, decided to endanger a thriving career by publishing her first book of poetry, Iron-On Constellations.

Poetry? She might as well take up model trains or start writing for the International Socialist newspaper (actually, both hobbies undoubtedly have larger followings). Writing poetry is the one sure way to literary obscurity and pennilessness. Not even poets write poetry anymore. All the poets I know are busy preparing non-fiction manuscripts, histories of podiatry and monographs on degu husbandry - i.e. something that will sell.

Oh well, at least the poetry is beautiful. Pohl-Weary is a natural poet with a sharp set of observation skills. Her poems are succinct narratives, tiny novellas that detail the easy (and sometimes very uneasy) exchanges that pass between lovers, friends, familiar strangers and everyone in-between. Her poetry is hardly shy, and does not seek to cloak raw drama (sexual, emotional, or her own unflattering ego melodramas) in flower-stuck metaphor.

When Pohl-Weary does venture into more flighty terrain, she makes sure the reader is with her for the ride by couching her more fanciful extensions of imagination in plain and often rough language. The trade in poetic obscurities and intentional opaqueness that plagues so much Canadian poetry, particularly the more academic brands, makes Pohl-Weary testy.

“I am an anti-academic in everything I do, especially in poetry,” Pohl-Weary tells me over the phone as a video game twitters along in the background.

“I think there’s something morally wrong about writing that makes people feel stupid. Plus, it’s boring. I’d rather read a mystery novel than some puzzling academic text.”

What’s the game in the background?

“Oh, how embarrassing! I’m playing Civilization. Do you know it? The goal is to conquer the world.”

So much for all that democratic talk.

“Yes, yes, I know. What can I tell you? It’s soothing. I got addicted to games at the same time I was writing Iron-On, when I was stuck at home for months with an illness. Between 1998 and 2000, when I was quite sick, I found it was easier to focus on writing for shorter periods of time, so it just seemed natural to write short poems. But I kept going over the poems again and again, writing and re-writing, so I didn’t really make good time in any business model sense.”

Are you a compulsive rewriter?

“Yes, I can’t even read stuff once it’s published because I want to rewrite the sentences right there on the page.”

Or, one might guess after reading the very personal subject matter divulged in Iron-On, scratch out the words altogether.

“I was pretty scared to publish this book at first, because it’s so personal, and I deep-sixed it for a few years before I showed it to my publisher. And now that it’s out, I’m kind of hesitant about the kinds of questions people ask me. Whenever I give a reading, people come up to me and ask me really, really personal questions and I have to find a way to politely deflect them.”

“I realize that when you dig into someone’s brain by reading their book, you want to find out from the author what’s true or not true – but sometimes people lose any sense of boundaries.”

Given that Pohl-Weary comes from a family of public people – her mother Ann Pohl is a prominent leftist activist, her grandmother Judith was nicknamed “the little mother of science fiction” by her mid-century peers, and Pohl-Weary’s grandfather is the iconic speculative fiction author Frederick Pohl – you’d think she’d be more than used to living in a fishbowl.

“I grew up in Parkdale fending off the johns and the junkies like every other little girl, and at the same time I had an activist, very social family that was in the public eye. I didn’t grow up with polite society rules. My grandmother’s dildo was auctioned off for charity after she died! So, I don’t have those appropriate/inappropriate filters that other people have.”

“The result of this strange childhood is that I just want to stay honest, and honesty requires a kind of innocence. If you allow yourself to experience the world you’ll see the ugly, the gorgeous and the unusual all at once. It’s sort of like having two voices inside my head.”

Perfect for a poet.