Suspension, Some Dread, A Lifeline: Rob Taylor Interviews Neil Surkan
Reservoir – Neil Surkan
Carp lurk through suburbs
when runoff jumps the dam, sucks
manhole covers up like corks, slops
wallpaper with septic hands.
I mostly keep my body close – rove,
but rarely quit, its cul-de-sacs –
save in, say, a dense flicking
stand of thin birches, their tigered
stalks quivered by the spring
wind, cool light trickling
through the tossing stems.
Then, if lifted, if moved
to swim among the future
sprigs, balled now in burgundy-
armoured buds like tiny
minarets, I see it all
without me – abandoned nests,
old anthill pocks – and am re-
minded that the verb to be
gears down but never loses speed
completely. I am not undying,
nor ever pre-bloom, just
a reservoir of energies
that pour in, spool around me, stream
in floods of words that,
like fish scales on furniture,
cling for a while and shine
the dull way dried tears shine.
(McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021).
Reprinted with permission.
Neil Surkan was born in Penticton, BC. He is the author of the poetry collections Unbecoming (Fall 2021) and On High (2018), both from McGill-Queen’s University Press, and the chapbooks Their Queer Tenderness (Knife | Fork | Book, 2020) and Super, Natural (Anstruther Press, 2017). Neil earned a PhD in English from the University of Calgary in 2021. He currently lives and teaches in Nanaimo, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, with Luca, Edi, and Lloyd.
Rob Taylor: Unbecoming opens with a wonderful epigraph:
To be coming apart.
To be, coming apart.
To becoming, apart.
To becoming a part.
This speaks so well to many of the poems in the book, including “Reservoir,” where you use a first-person narrative to question the self, the ego to take the piss out of the ego. This theme was also present in your first collection, On High (its cover an ant towering like royalty on top of a thimble), but it felt less central. Could you talk a little about this theme of “coming apart” in order to become “a part,” and how your thinking on it may have shifted or expanded between books one and two?
Neil Surkan: When I was in my early twenties I drew a comic for a friend of a dejected, ovular guy. It was captioned, “All his life he strived to be well-rounded. Now he never has an edge.” The comic was, up to that point, the truest thing I’d ever written about myself. Likeability was a very important trait to my parents, and I was raised to be obedient, competent, and extremely extrinsically motivated. When I started reading poems in earnest at nineteen, I was inspired and flummoxed by the way original language diverges from likeability: the poems that drew (and still draw) me refused acquiescence and revealed how disingenuous obedience can be.
At that same time, I was starting to figure out I was queer and punishing myself for it because I was worried the people I’d grown up with would reject me or only see me as queer (like it’d explain everything). On High pokes around in that substrate, but it wasn’t until I learned I was going to be a dad midway through writing Unbecoming that I truly stopped aiming to “please,” both in my life and in my poems (there’s no distinction—ha), and started interrogating the beliefs I’d perhaps misunderstood about what it means to be a community member. How might I contribute by being myself, instead of who I think people want me to be? I love On High and I love how in love with poetry (and invested in pleasing the poets I love) it is, but I think that Unbecoming is my first unapologetic collection—the one that affirms the ego before playing around with (and sometimes shattering) it.
RT: I love that you start from a place of honesty, acknowledging the ego. Elizabeth Bishop once did the same, saying “there must be an awful core of ego somewhere for you to set yourself up to write poetry.” The tension between the ego-stripping desire to “unbecome” and the ego-preserving instinct to write poems (“Gather round, I have something to say!”) is present in a many of your poems.
NS: It’s funny that you’ve quoted Bishop to opens a discussion on ego and permanence, because I have her face tattooed on my leg.
RT: What? Ok, I’m going to need a photo…
RT: Ha! Amazing! If only Elizabeth could have seen that tattoo—how her awful core of ego would have swelled! How do you reconcile your “awful core’s” desire to last with your desire to “unbecome”? Does your thinking along these lines ever tip you toward writing less? To silence?
NS: I try to write with the poem’s (and my own) inevitable collapse into silence in sight, and some days I choose silence (or, I get so overwhelmed by trying to write something perfect that silence chooses me). Bishop is one of my favourite poets so I feel weird saying this, but I’d quibble with her word choice in that quote: to “write” poetry can be, I think, a kind of prayer—a rummaging through one’s experience of the world via language’s precarious, imperfect, evasive scratching. Publishing poetry, on the other hand: yeah. That’s an ego imbalance, especially when it comes to questions of audience (I often write to poets I’ve never met, for instance: the gall!).
That said, I can’t help but believe that publishing writing isn’t just ego-stroking: practicing relinquishment of a finished creation can be a valuable way to live, no? Likewise, surely it’s reasonable to do something with intention and extreme attention while accepting its imperfection. That’s my justification, anyway, and it’s why I choose poetry over, like, Twitter: to me, poetry is the most demanding genre in terms of how many times one agonizes over punctuation, or rhythm, or suggestion. People who Tweet in a diary-like fashion terrify me (except for Henri Cole: Henri Cole’s tweets are the most generous, gorgeous hymns to life) because I find it almost impossible to trust someone who can rattle off words on their phone without suffering over every syllable (and savouring the suffering).
Bishop’s ending to her elegy “North Haven,” for Robert Lowell (who was a perpetual reviser), speaks to the interplay of futility and hope I feel when I’m writing: “Sad friend, you cannot change.” Language is imperfect, its exact effect on another human can never be absolutely confirmed, and yet to publish, in particular, is to accept that something that could have probably been made better will persist so long as someone has the book. I often choose silence, but I also try to remind myself that it’s okay to make mistakes, or at least missteps, while working through an idea, if only because the associative, generative time of writing poetry is also, for me, the time when I feel consistent astonishment. Rummaging through lines until something unexpected happens may be a sign of ego imbalance, but it can also be a relegation of the ego to the backseat.
RT: That’s a wonderful way to put it. I like the idea of moving deeply into a poem as involving the steady demotion of the ego: from the driver’s seat, to the passenger seat, to the back seat, until you ditch it at a gas station (to be picked up again, soon enough).
Now that you’re a dad, you’ll soon have lots of practice dealing with someone who won’t shut up in the backseat! The third poem in Unbecoming is about becoming a parent, and is delightfully titled, “My Favourite Death Sentence.” In “Shore,” you write about an ultrasound: “I’ve a new, / unfurling sense… of the sounds under silence.” You mentioned that becoming a dad caused you to stop aiming to please. Could you expand on that? How has parenting helped you “unbecome” and “become a part”?
NS: I think the stakes of the poems in Unbecoming got higher when I learned I was going to be a father. In reflecting on the morality of bringing another life into the Anthropocene (or, more aptly, the Necropastoral), I was forced to directly confront comforts and complicities I had downplayed all my life. The selfish act of creating another human inspired me to consider the possibility of self-less nurturance. Suddenly having a significant stake in the generation to come meant imagining the world beyond my lifetime—no matter my idiosyncratic beliefs and oft-insular routines—and so a newfound sense of accountability awoke.
The collection’s opening long poem, “The Minimum,” explores both the optimism and complicity I felt when I became a father by inhabiting the space between becoming a part of my father’s family line and breaking apart from our family. In particular, I wanted the poem to examine, rather than condemn, the patriarchal family structure in which my father and I were raised. “The Minimum” is a poem that struggles with the interplays of complicity and loyalty, conscience and tradition, and, thereafter, the rest of the collection expands around its (implied) question: what beliefs will my son one day critique me for upholding due to my own failures of self-reflexivity?
RT: Themes of conscience and tradition also come up in your poems on religion and religious doubt, which appear in both your books, but feel more pronounced in Unbecoming. “Faith,” for instance, has its speaker on the lawn in search of a sprinkler head: “Even as the clouds give and drops / of doubt accumulate, / I can’t stop crawling.”
I’m a minister’s son and I’ve come to learn that PK (“Preacher’s kid”) poets, and other poets who were raised in a church, are a common phenomenon. You make this connection, too: in a poem in On High, the religion and poetry sections share an aisle in the library. Could you talk about the interconnections between poetry and religion in your life? Does faith in one compensate for your doubts in the other? Or are the doubts shared around more evenly?
NS: After my MA at the University of Toronto, I seriously considered becoming a minister. The job seemed marvellous in the way it combines performance, careful reading, community building, and spiritual accompaniment. The only problem was (and is) that I don’t (can’t?) believe. Faith evades me. Most of the meaningful experiences in my life have been ineffable, so The Word can’t do the heavy lifting, but it’s my hunch that if a minster were to begin with a preamble about how incredible it is that words almost exclusively fail us, the majority of their congregation would boo and depart. On the contrary, I love poetry precisely because the art form depends on the acknowledgement of the imperfection (and failure) of its medium. A poem that doesn’t attempt to adjust for its patchy communication, and for the problem of speaking to and for others, usually devolves into assertions and truisms (which is what I’ve experienced preaching as, mostly). Or, more simply put, a poem that lets an acceptable amount of wonder in gets productively blown open by a whopping dose of doubt.
RT: My father worked in the United Church, and talking with a number of his colleagues I came to the conclusion that the ministers had more doubts than their congregants. You might be right about the booing, but you probably could have bluffed and gotten away with it! “Bluffs” of all sorts abound in Unbecoming: both hill cliffs and the fakes and feints of animals and people. You even have poems entitled “Bluff (I)” and “Bluff (II)”! Seeing through one’s own “bluffs” to reveal the true self seems to naturally fit within the book’s themes. Was this something you planned, or a surprise you came upon in pulling the manuscript together?
NS: When I put the first “full” draft of a new manuscript together, I love to spread all the pages out on the floor (and surrounding furniture) and then physically move the poems around. That moment marks the break from “writing poems” to “making a book,” and it’s a ritual I adore specifically because it draws my focus upward/outward—toward the sleight of hand that can be done in sequencing. I really appreciate that you pointed out the “Bluff” poems because their separation in Unbecoming (they were written back-to-back but appear quite far apart in the book) marked an important shift in the ordering of the collection: placing them apart felt a little sly, a little playful, as though I was giving myself permission to bluff on the level of organization.
Rae Armantrout’s collection Versed does this feinting echo chamber trick I really admire and often return to, where in one poem there’s a buzz and then a few poems later BEES appear. The first time I read Versed, I felt both inspired and overwhelmed by the possibilities of organizing a collection as a series of ripples and echoes that exist without being explicitly articulated, like a mind not wholly made up, or a cluster of evidence with its purpose unstated.
RT: Yes! Robyn Sarah once told me, “sequencing a collection is like writing one last poem, which is the book itself,” but I think she undersold her case. The sequencing in a well-wrought book like yours is worth, hell, at least five poems!
The attention you give to sequencing is exceeded only by the attention you give to your individual poems. I love especially how many of your poems end. Jack Gilbert once said, “If I’m writing well [a poem] comes to an end with an almost-audible click.” Your “click” often comes with a rhyme, rarely a perfect end-rhyme like the rhyming couplet that closes a Shakespearean sonnet, but something that’s a bit more ragged, reaching back maybe two or three lines to some unexpected word. What draws you to this type of ending? Did writing in this style come naturally to you, or was it something you saw in others and wished to emulate?
NS: When I was 12 or so, my dad took me up to a half-finished house being built on our crescent so we could check out the floor plan. The insulation hadn’t been inserted, so the walls were just studs. We walked down a hallway and I stepped into the hole where the staircase to the basement was going to go. My dad caught my elbow as I hung over the void. That’s what a good ending to a poem feels like: suspension, some dread, and a lifeline.
I love poems that end with a near-resolution, or a statement that makes sense in a “peripheral vision” sort of way (like, if you look a little to the left you can almost glean the rationale). Gilbert is a good example: so often, the thrust of his poetry verges on familiar sentimentality, but then he frays convention to its limit. His speaker’s personal grief transforms into sprawling, savoury, wonderful existential terror. In line with Gilbert, I try to make my poems’ music resonate in the holes left by withheld pieces. Micro-devastations. Clapper-less bells. The “click,” for me, happens when I get a hunch that the last line couldn’t be anything other than what it is, even though I never saw it coming: half-confusion, half-satisfaction, a distant cousin of comfort.
RT: “A distant cousin of comfort”—oh, I love that! I’m reminded of Philip Larkin’s “almost-instinct almost true” that “What will survive of us is love” in “An Arundel Tomb.” Reaching for something we can’t quite reach, and the music we make in trying.
You talked there about “the holes left by withheld pieces.” Earlier you spoke of how it was in Unbecoming that you became more confident writing about being queer. A year before Unbecoming was published, you released a chapbook with knife|fork|book called Their Queer Tenderness—I suspect that was part of that process! How did preparing the chapbook, and working with Kirby at knife|fork|book, help you think about the larger collection to come?
NS: Their Queer Tenderness was originally titled Desire Path. Kirby, a dear friend, contacted me shortly before the collection headed to press with word that another Canadian press was publishing a poetry collection titled Desire Path in the same season. When Kirby suggested we revise the title to Their Queer Tenderness (a line from my poem “Outposts”), I felt the world swoop in—part of me screamed FUCK NO: if we call it that…strangers will…know I’m queer. I am forever grateful to Kirby for myriad reasons, but the title change suggestion is right at the top: Kirby made space for me to be seen as I see myself at a time when my queerness felt like an ice cube that had melted almost to nothing. Parenthood, living in Calgary—it was becoming easier and easier for me to appear as a straight dad. And until the chapbook came out, I hadn’t realized how stifling that felt. The way desire works in my poems makes a lot more sense, I think, now that Their Queer Tenderness exists.
RT: “Yes, as is often the case with desire, / it swerves suddenly, / got shy,” you write in “Desire Path.” I wouldn’t say that that poem, and others in Unbecoming, are “shy” about your queerness, but they are subtle. That said, so are most of your poems about parenthood, religion, etc. —as you say, they withhold pieces. To what extent would you say the subtleness of the queer themes in your poems is tied to that “FUCK NO” instinct? To what extent is it a manifestation of your general aesthetic leanings towards subtlety?
NS: At this point in my life, poems that contain the “FUCK NO” instinct are memory-poems that meditate on past shame and fear, rather than on the way I feel about my queerness presently. However, in my poems I generally prefer suggestion, and the way suggestion can elevate attention. In turn, I’m interested in the ways queerness can inflect, rather than direct, description or intimation: for instance, how desire can recalibrate the depiction of a friendship without overtaking it. Or how being bisexual, in my own life, makes quiet alienation creep into a poem’s scenes of communal space or collective action. Some of Carl Phillips’s poems have been a huge influence in this regard (although celebrations of physicality are also an important part of his poetics). Julie Joosten, too: she is, in my opinion, the most undercelebrated living poet (I am repeatedly agog at both Light Light and Nought). Other influences include Mark Strand’s prose poems, early Daphne Marlatt, and Mary Jean Chan.
RT: Does it get any better than Carl Phillips? And I’ll need to check out Julie Joosten! Has how, and how openly, you’ve written about your queerness continued to evolve since the publication of Their Queer Tenderness and Unbecoming?
NS: Majorly. The longer I live, the more in love I feel with the life I chose to make from the materials I was given. The tenderness keeps expanding!
But that’s also why, I think, my poems keep getting sadder and, probably, sourer. I’m increasingly heartbroken by disparities of all kinds, but especially the disparities of tenderness I witness around me every day.
RT: Sadder, maybe, but I wouldn’t say sour. More open and honest.
We’ve been talking about influences and editors. You’ve been lucky to work with a number of talented writers, including your editor for both books, Carolyn Smart, and fellow BC-turned-Calgary-poet Larissa Lai. I once heard you say that Lai convinced you to move “The Minimum” up to the front of the book (long poems more traditionally being tucked further back in a book, to not intimidate readers!). I thought that was a wonderful decision, as it set up these two pillars—your grandfather’s death and your child’s birth—that hold up everything that follows. Could you talk about the role of editors and readers in your creative process? How have they helped you see your poems and books in new ways?
NS: When I get the opportunity to share my poems-in-progress with someone I truly admire—like Larissa, like Carolyn, and like the friends I feel safe to request feedback from—I get overwhelmed with gratitude for their attention. Attention is a precious, finite resource, and I try to always remind myself that if another poet spends their attention reading my poems, they’re reducing the amount of time they get to work on their own. That’s huge, and immensely humbling, and I do everything in my power to not take it for granted. I’ve learned so much from mentors, editors, and close poet-friends alike about both the possibilities of poetry and the complexities of relation: to edit someone else’s poem with the intention of helping it be itself more clearly, rather than with the intention of making it do what it “should,” involves deep, active listening and observation.
When Larissa suggested I move “The Minimum” to the front of Unbecoming, for instance, I felt heard and cared for in a rare and energizing way: she’d not only engaged with my poems so actively that she’d noticed resonances I might never have arrived at on my own, but she’d also invested herself in supporting my work to such an extent that she’d seen a better version of “my” book! That “my” is really important, there, because it’s a misnomer: the book is ours, now. Unbecoming would have been something different without Larissa (and Carolyn, and the myriad friends who added their input throughout the process). For me, collaboration is a sacred part of writing.
RT: Unbecoming’s dedication page features an epigraph from our pal Jack Gilbert: “The painful love of being permanently unhoused.” In comparing your two-book, On High felt very firmly grounded in the Okanagan, while Unbecoming‘s connection to place feels looser, broader. A sense of feeling “unhoused” seems to speak to so much of what we’ve already been discussing, but on a more basic level, also simply about your moving about (from the Okanagan, to Calgary, and now Nanaimo). Has your sense of “home,” both what it is and how to write about it, evolved over the years? In what ways is it connected to your broader considerations of the self?
NS: I find it almost impossible to write about where I am living. Instead, I usually wind up writing about places in retrospect: it’s often as though old homes, or at least places where my body was, take a long time for the associative parts of my mind to process. Especially because I often begin a poem with a phrase or image knocking around, the place fills in around the phrase or image, adding details and fragments of memory until I get a better sense of what the poem is getting at.
Take the title poem in Unbecoming: the first line, “Night advances like molasses,” started clacking around my head, and then a few weeks later I saw that creeping darkness from the vantage point of Munson Mountain in Penticton, looking across to what used to be the Peter Brothers gravel pit. When a poem appears in this way, questions of accountability sometimes sharpen into focus, too: I wind up thinking about how I behaved in a given situation (or how I heard someone else behaved—I love bringing in snippets of gossip). Then I pose it (as question, as posture) in the poem.
Presently, what I really want is a community to get invested in long-term, so that writing and living synch up a little more (though it’s possible I’ll keep writing about places I used to call home instead, as they glimmer more and more faintly in the past). I deeply admire how someone like Alex Coleville stayed mostly in one place and made place-specific art all his life.
RT: In your books the Okanagan comes across as a place of collective embarrassment and personal significance. Rich and tender and humiliating all at once. Having now lived in Alberta and on the coast, it seems like you’ve experienced two extremes (of culture, climate, politics, etc.) which converge in the Okanagan, both metaphorically and literally: the main sources of the vacationers who pour in each year! How do you feel about Penticton and the Okanagan now?
NS: I was born in Penticton because my grandparents on my mom’s side moved there: they thought the Okanagan was Heaven on Earth. My parents followed because they agreed. Yes, the Okanagan is Canada’s Florida (in the worst ways), but whenever I feel disdain for, like, the fact that you are still very likely to hear Eminem’s “Without Me” blaring unironically from a car down by the beach, I remind myself of how my grandfather, in particular, would treat every moment he ate a peach in the summer, or every moment he sat out front of his Scamper camper by the channel in Oliver, like the best scenario available to him in the entire world. His certainty was justified: he’d grown up brutally poor on the prairies, worked doggedly all his life, and now had made it. I try to splice my own oft-painful memories and sardonic observations of Penticton with vignettes of him feeling unabashed satisfaction because I respected him so much.
RT: Your grandfather is quite present in Unbecoming, most notably in the aforementioned long poem, “The Minimum.” Could you tell us a little more about him, and how his life and death shaped your thinking in the book?
NS: There are actually two grandfathers in Unbecoming: my father’s father, the focus of “The Minimum,” and my mother’s father, who played a much larger part in raising me, who was incredibly kind, and whom I found it very difficult to relate to because he never seemed interested at all in art (he was a practical and dependable former railway supervisor). I let them blur together across the poems, but I want to acknowledge that they’re both a part of the book. My father’s father, the focus of “The Minimum,” wrote his autobiography by hand (in a frenetic, near-impenetrable scrawl) in the months before he died. Typed out, it’s about one and a half pages long, and mostly lists his achievements as a physician. It does, however, reference the brutal poverty of his upbringing, and the fact that he became a doctor much later in life because of the war and his responsibilities on the family farm. As a child, I admired his matter-of-factness, though I found him intimidating and perplexing—except for when we were trolling for pike on Waskesiu Lake. I’m pretty sure we both enjoyed that. Troll fishing aptly illustrates our relationship: I felt like I was constantly towing a hook through the water, waiting for it to snag something definitive I’d be able to engage with. I also have a distinct memory of him looking extremely disappointed when I gagged while gutting my first fish.
RT: In a poem in On High, “Ars Poetica,” you compare poems to terrariums in which the speaker tried to “[make] creatures thrive.” In your first book you play with a number of personae and voices—little terrarium worlds, in a sense—while the poems in Unbecoming feel more in the shared voice of one speaker (Neil Surkan himself!). These new poems feel less constructed in the head than written from the gut (and, presumably, they were written more quickly, as your books come only three years apart). Would you say there’s something to that assessment? If you wrote your “Ars Poetica” today, how might it be different?
NS: I think that’s true. Maybe put even more frankly, I felt more confident writing Unbecoming. And I guess that’s how my “Ars Poetica” has changed, too: I think of poems now as my best crack at communication, rather than as intricate arrangements or sleight-of-hand suggestions. The poems I’m writing now, and the poems I want to keep writing (for the time being), brush aside the instability of language instead of obsessing over it. They still posit the precarity of speaking about anything, but there’s also an element of, “Ya ya, sure, language is ‘faulty.’ I still really want to tell you this.”