Erasures/Extractions: James Kendrick in Conversation with Kevin Irie

Kevin Irie

Kevin Irie, whose poem "Blasphemies: Erasures/ Extractions from John Thompson's Stilt Jack" appears in the Malahat's Autumn 2018 issue, discusses Canadian poetry, erasure as curation, and how sometimes a book chooses you in his Q&A with Malahat volunteer James Kendrick.


Kevin Irie is a Japanese-Canadian poet who has published poetry in Canada, the States, Australia, and England and been translated into Spanish, French and Japanese. His book, Viewing Tom Thomson, A Minority Report (Frontenac House), was a finalist for The Acorn-Plantos People’s Poetry Award as well as The Toronto Book Award. He lives in Toronto.

“Blasphemies” is an erasure poem however, looking back at some of your earlier poems, I saw that they were composed in a different style. How long have you been writing erasure poems and why did you start doing this?

Looking back, I was first made aware of erasure poems upon reading The Place of Scraps by Jordan Abel, which was, for me, a literary landmark that almost makes one afraid to try erasures since it sets the bar so high at so many levels—artistically, poetically, politically and visually. Absolutely inspiring but equally intimidating! It was only after reading Sue Sinclair’s erasure poems of Kant in Heaven’s Thieves, several years later, that I tried it while working on poems inspired by John Thompson’s literary depiction of the Tantramar Marsh. I found that erasure poems offered an alternative means of exploring and understanding Stilt Jack, its themes, its persona; of distilling a text that seemed to defy divination. Less subversive than subservient in service of the poetry. Moreover, since Stilt Jack is often discussed as one long poem composed of ghazals, extracting words is less restrictive than if one was dealing with just a single poem on a page.

There is also the creative excitement of using language in a hitherto unexplored way; the energy generated by that impetus should not be underestimated either.   

Could you say a little about why you’ve chosen John Thompson and Stilt Jack as the subject of these poems?

Some poetry books you read and then put on the shelf; some you go back to again and again. Stilt Jack has become one of those for me—and there is no way of knowing at the time which books you will carry further into your life ahead or which books are chosen, or choose you. I have read and re-read Stilt Jack for, literally, decades now since its initial publication in 1978. Through it, I became engaged with other Canadian books influenced by its ghazal form. This includes Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti-Ghazals, by Phyllis Webb; A Linen Crow, A Caftan Magpie by Patrick Lane; Bones in Their Wings by Lorna Crozier; The Chimney Stone by Rob Winger; The Good News About Armageddon by Steve McOrmond; Marrow, Willow by Maureen Hynes; the Abattoir Ghazals in Jim Johnstone’s Patternicity, and Two Minds by Harold Rhenisch. Equally influential were Leaflets and The Will To Change by Adrienne Rich, who honed her ghazals down to aphoristic acuity. And Stilt Jack certainly influenced the format of the title poem sequence from my own book, Viewing Tom Thomson, A Minority Report. So, Thompson has had a long and lingering literary influence on me.

Another reason is the setting of Stilt Jack. The Tantramar Marsh is not vast kilometres away from urban conveniences, and the dichotomy of the natural world surviving so close to a larger urban environment has always interested me. My hometown of Toronto is threaded with rivers, creeks, and ravines literally steps away from offices and condos and subway stations, so that tangential similarity in setting was a common entry point for my poems. However, the philosophy and persona in Stilt Jack invited so much more, hence, the erasures /extractions which seems to have unintentionally reinforced a perspective of Thompson described by poet Peter Sanger as Biblical: the questioning and presence of God. Which is another reason why I called the sequence Blasphemies.

Coupled with this is Stilt Jack’s apparent inaccessibility, its refusal to easily yield all of its mysteries, its literary depths of connections, despite being written in a seemingly straightforward, even austere and stark, manner. It makes one ask: how did Thompson do this?  Mystery is its own magnetism. Writing may open the mystery. Stilt Jack’s strengths lay not in the fact that it is so hermetically sealed but that it is so open—to interpretation, to allusion, to the personal and natural. Much like Ariel by Sylvia Plath, another poet who is read through the scrim of early death, Stilt Jack relies heavily on archetypes—the moon, horses, stars, fire, whiteness—to create a literary landscape centered in the physical world but ethereal at its perimeters, where despair awaits, evoked in the line, so reminiscent of Plath: “the slow sky shuts. Heaven goes on without us.”

Then again, despite the fact that Thompson never refers to Canada (but does mention America), Stilt Jack is distinctly Canadian with its references to Tantramar locales, porcupines, hockey, and beer, archetypes notwithstanding. On a writing level, Stilt Jack is both a national source and a conventionally literary source, which is what writers use and react to in their own work.

The numbering of the stanzas of “Blasphemies” seems to follow a rather erratic pattern. Why is this? How does it correspond to Stilt Jack?

The numbering of the stanzas in “Blasphemies” reflects the specific ghazal from which an erasure was made. Stilt Jack consists of thirty-eight numbered ghazals. The total number of ghazals also equals the total number of years of John Thompson’s life, as critics have noted. I included the number of each ghazal from where an erasure was made as a signpost back to its original source.

Not every ghazal resulted in an erasure. The erasures (or extractions as I called it since it is, for me, blasphemous to think of erasing a poem by John Thompson) came quickly or not at all. They were either easily extracted or absolutely resistant. Poet Donato Mancini equated erasures with curating, which seems apt since it involves conscious decisions unconsciously influenced by personal insight, education, and experience. 

My one consistent practice was to always keep the order of the words as they appeared in the ghazal. Punctuation and spacing may have been added for ease of reading. I did wonder if I should change the order of the ghazals to serve as better thematic flow but adhering to the original sequence seems to be one convention of erasures that has to be followed—for now.

Is there any extent to which you think erasure poetry is a Canadian genre?

You know, until you asked that question, I was never aware of just how much I personally associate erasure poetry with Canadian poetry. Though I read American and English poetry, generally I do not associate erasure poems with either. When I come across an erasure poem in American poetry, such as in Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed, it seems a poetic anomaly, whereas in Canada, right away, I think of Jordan Abel, Sue Sinclair, Garry Thomas Morse’s Safety Sand, and the ongoing exploration with the form, such as Matt Robinson’s chapbook, The Telephone Game, where poems are erased and then re-absorbed to create longer new poems that only seem conventional in form if one did not know their origins. There is also Billy-Ray Belcourt’s EXCERPT FROM TREATY 8: AN ERASURE POEM, where the visual contrast between the erased text depicted intact with dominating bars of blacked out lines amplifies the poignancy and importance of the smaller text remaining, the vulnerable words defiantly peering out through slats of darkness. So, I do think of erasure poetry as a Canadian genre. 

Are you working on more poems like this, or perhaps a collection of erasure poems based on Stilt Jack?

I am still working on poems reflecting Thompson’s own but Blasphemies is one of a kind. I have made some other erasure poems from Stilt Jack but they are not enough to constitute a book, unless it’s a chapbook, and as I said earlier, I did not approach every ghazal with the deliberate intention of ending up with an erasure. Stilt Jack has the lines, “the woods/point one way…” Who knows where they will lead?


James Kendrick

James Kendrick

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