Landscape as Mindscape: A Conversation with Michael Prior
The title of Michael Prior’s first book of poetry, Model Disciple, is apt description for the writer himself: Prior is a disciplined student of the poetic tradition, adept in sonnets, elegies, villanelles and blank verse. His talents have not gone unnoticed: he has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including, most recently, the prestigious Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship, and his work has been published in Poetry, The New Republic, Ambit, and as part of the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series.
If his first collection is a bestiary or Wunderkammer, full of humor and curiosities, his follow-up, Burning Province, finds him studying history and family. The two subjects are painfully intertwined, as they are for most Japanese Canadians: during World War II, Prior’s grandparents were stripped of their property and sent to internment camps far from their homes. That generational trauma, as his crystalline poems make clear, continues to resonate to this day, not only shaping the lives of the aging survivors, but of their descendants. This gives Burning Province, released in March of 2020 from Penguin Random House, a real urgency. But I admire, too, how honest and searching the collection is—how Prior uses the tools of lyric poetry not only to redress historical wrongs, but to reflect on doing so, and on the challenges of such a monumental project.
This winter, I talked with him over Zoom about the legacy of internment, the power of poetic restraint, and the dark secret of one Canadian RV park.
The Rumpus: I wanted to start with the first poem in the new book, “One Hundred and Fifty Pounds,” which I love. It’s more directly documentary than the rest of the book. But the last poem in your first book—if you’re reading the Michael Prior oeuvre from start to finish—is also very directly documentary. It’s titled “Tashme,” which several of the poems in this book are also titled. I was struck by that resonance, that continuity. With this book, what were you trying to bring with you from your earlier work? What were you trying to leave behind?
Michael Prior: I think there’s a sensory grammar that bridges the books. The last few poems in my first book, especially that last long poem, suggested metaphors that I wanted to bring with me into the new book. Around the same time as I was writing these pieces, my grandmother passed away. We were very close. She lived through being incarcerated during the War. She was an orphan—one family gave her to another in the camp. She spent the years [after the war], working in various white households as a nanny and the cleaning lady for room and board, so she could finish high school. She and my grandfather played a large role in raising my sister and me when we were young, and when she died, it certainly made me think a lot about what it meant to bear witness or to reimagine things—how one can still write about these histories while figuring out the metaphors, the forms, the language that will allow you to acknowledge the distance between your own experience and someone else’s, like hers.
So, the book is oftentimes an elegy for various forms of memory. With her passing, with her generation’s passing, the camps cease to exist in the memories of living individuals and become part of a greater communal memory—something that needs to be imaginatively engaged with by younger generations.
When she died in 2015, there were a lot of forest fires in British Columbia, the province I’m from, and I remember being in her room on the sixteenth floor of Vancouver General, and watching these huge clouds of yellow smoke billowing out through the city across the bay, and the sky was a strange orange color. That became a very important palette for the book. I felt that this particular palette, these images of fire, smoke, and ash, might be a way to explore these stories, to talk about my grandmother, my grandfather, to pose questions of intergenerational memory, to consider how memory degrades and remakes itself over time.
Rumpus: Some of these themes and approaches are articulated in this first poem. The third stanza has hypotheses in it, right? The first is that “thinking can be things,” which brings to mind, for me, William Carlos Williams—”no ideas but in things.” Part of your poetic strategy is using that landscape not only to think through, but also to restrain. Compression is part of that, too, which is the second hypothesis: “each decision shrinks the pained mind to the space inside a suitcase.” I’m thinking about those choices—to focus on things, on landscape, to compress, to restrain. I’m curious about how conscious that was, and how that relates to what you’re writing about—to this subject?
Prior: One of the legacies of a certain strand of modernism is the idea of the image being what Pound calls an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. That’s certainly something I’m interested in. Someone else who read the book said that the poems function like suitcases packed with things. And from these things, we have to infer the narrative. I think that’s probably true.
People I’ve met, my family—they’re very interesting, but I’m not sure I am. So, while there is an “I” in a lot of these poems, I try and make that “I” a more diminutive presence, self-critical presence, and perhaps sometimes more restrained, because that’s what I’m interested in. I feel like there’s a lot of lyric poetry right now that’s very self-assured. My experience is never of certainty, so I think the poems hold back because they’re confused—like I am.
On the other side of that, in terms of craft, what draws me to a poem is often the way it moves between images, between things. I’m much more often interested in that movement and creating it than in coming up with some kind of thesis or a cohesive sense of an “I.”
Rumpus: Form is another kind of restraint, another way of organizing and processing experience. The second poem in the book, “Self-Portrait as a Portrait of My Grandfather,” is one of several sonnets. Another is a partner to it, “Portrait of My Grandmother as the Burning Province.” And then there’s a later sonnet, “Pastoral,” which is named for a genre—another kind of mediation. Do you want to talk about the appeal of the sonnet as part of the restraint? Why do you return to the sonnet?
Prior: I love the sonnet. It’s one of the most enduring forms, and there’s a reason for that. There’s something so compelling about the way it contains these asymmetries nested in an overall symmetry—the way its ratios work. It forces one to develop the poem in directions one might not have anticipated.
I have my students often take the same experience and slot it into different forms to see what becomes emphasized about it, or how it changes. You know, write this as a sonnet, write this as a villanelle, write this as a sestina. What’s the difference? What happens? What changes about this poem as an experience?
A sonnet to me often feels like a rhetorical snapshot in many ways—there’s an argument, an observation, but the frame is clear. I’m drawn to the way that it’s such a small frame: we can see it all on one page, like a photograph.
Rumpus: It’s also a way of managing something that’s big: we put it into a sort of smaller container. And yet that smallness sort of emphasizes at the same time the uncontainability of that thing.
Prior: Right? I mean, what we have as poets is form. Form is ultimately metaphor. There are dueling sets of rhymes in all the sonnets in the book. There are strong internal rhymes that go through the middle of lines, and then there are end rhymes that are sonically weaker. So there’s this pull between different forms of rhyme, which mirrors the tensions the speaker’s experiencing, between different cultures, different times. That’s something I was initially very interested in and pulled back from more as the book went. But it’s something I do want to work on in future things—using inherited verse forms to suggest the psychological and physical constraints of the camps.
Rumpus: The “Pastoral” sonnet seems like it speaks directly to that. It puts the speaker in this sort of bucolic, even idyllic setting in the octave, but by the end, we get a reminder of racial difference and, really, the legacy of the camps, almost directly out of World War II propaganda.
Prior: My teacher Ishion Hutchinson always used to tell us that one thing we always have as poets is place. You can’t ever get away from where you’re born. Perhaps as a way of acknowledging this, the book deals a lot with different overlays of landscape. Landscape becomes mindscape at different points in the book, and the pastoral felt like genre in which there were these interesting tropes that could facilitate or complicate that and help me think through some of the intergenerational legacies of the internment, of being mixed race. The pastoral is often interested in this idea of Arcadia—that there is this idyllic space where man and nature were in harmony, and we’re always trying to return to that: we’ve been exiled from it or cast out from it. And so I thought: what happens if you replace Arcadia with the very non-ideal space of the camps? This place that the speaker in these poems is trying to investigate, trying to approach imaginatively, lyrically, through these poems, but of course, can’t ever quite get there. Arcadia is a place one wants to return to. The camps are a place one certainly does not want to return to, but they’re also places that seem difficult to leave.
Rumpus: That seems, again, to fit with this particular sonnet. “Pastoral” inverts the pattern: if the speaker in a lot of the other poems is trying to reckon with the camps, then here, we see them not thinking about them, and being rudely reminded of them.
Prior: Yep. And I mean, the name itself “Pastoral.” Past oral. These are stories that have been told by my grandparents to me, which is how I inherit them as memories. Their stories are what define this space for me. And, like Arcadia, these camps no longer exist. You can go back to where they were, but the camps are gone. The camp where my grandparents were is now an RV park and summer cottage community.
Rumpus: One of the things you’re emphasizing is a continuity with poetic traditions—with the pastoral as a genre, with the tools that the sonnet provides. But I don’t think you necessarily have to focus on the continuity—there’s also collisions, breakages in these poems. Like the end of “Pastoral”: “for every measure, an equal and opposite erasure.” The word measure to me, in the sonnet context, makes me think about the poetic tradition. The line before that cues that up—we’ve got Shakespeare, we have “new worlds forever measured by the old.” I sense resistance to these traditions here: why does the new world have to be measured by the old?
Prior: I’m interested in the ways in which we can remake the old forms to bear the weight of our own experience. That’s what the book tries to do—sometimes successfully, perhaps sometimes not. This wasn’t specifically in my mind when I was writing “Pastoral,” but I love the Patrick Kavanagh poem “Epic,” which takes the sonnet form and applies the epic label to it—another sort of genre. It’s a poem that’s a paean to place, a poem that celebrates the local and says it has the same import as the international or the national. It begins with a squabble between farmers in rural Ireland but goes on to say, “Look this may seem like an insignificant event, but this is actually the stuff of myth. This is of great importance for understanding who we are.” The end of the poem goes, “I made the Iliad from such a local row”—this is Homer’s voice speaking—”Gods make their own importance.” And that rhyme: importance and Gortin! If rhymes are sonic metaphors, it’s a wonderful pairing, because it suggests the resonance of such a specific Irish place name. So I think there’s certainly that poem haunts “Pastoral,” both in its ideas and in the way the sonnet is titled for a genre.
Rumpus: “Georgic,” the next-to-last poem in the book, begins: “This was the landscape I was made for.” In another later poem, “The Light from Canada,” Canadian-ness is part of what’s being thought through, and Japanese Canadian-ness, that hyphenated identity. It’s a poem about first things, the influence of those, right? I was curious how you think your poetry is Canadian.
Prior: Part of the book is interested in the parameters of Japanese Canadian-ness. Japanese Canadians have one of the highest intermarriage rates of any ethnic group in North America. This, to me seems a direct result of the internment and all the things that happened after: the enforced diaspora (people weren’t allowed to return to the Coast directly after the war), the racism, the way in which people’s entire livelihoods were destroyed, how everyone’s property was sold at auction to pay for their own incarceration.
I guess the book is very interested who gets to define what a culture is, especially when it’s a diasporic culture with a lot of mixed-race people—a culture whose defining event, the thing that many families share a link to, is a trauma. That to me, growing up was an interesting and sometimes troubling thing. Not a source of anger or upset so much as confusion—not really knowing where I fit in or what it meant to be Japanese Canadian. Because I didn’t speak the language. We didn’t eat the food all the time. We didn’t know a lot of other Japanese Canadian people.
Rumpus: And it was repressed! That what some of these poems are about.
Prior: Yes—this deliberate repression of the culture in order to do what people thought best, to, in the American ethos, assimilate, even if Canada’s official approach to immigration is viewed through a “kaleidoscope” or multiculturalist lens. My grandparents adopted English names after the war and didn’t really speak Japanese in front of us.
And, of course, I grew up in Canada. I feel very much out of place in America and American poetry at times, even though I’ve lived here for a while. I think that certainly shapes the poems.
Rumpus: Do you want to throw down about that? You want to talk about how American poetry makes you feel out of place?
Prior: No! Because I want to be a part of it!
That said, America is a strange place. I think it looms large in the Canadian imagination. Most of our media comes from America. So much so that there are Canadian content laws, which mandate that a certain percentage of songs and television shows in Canada either represent Canada, or have been created by Canadian artists. On the other hand, I don’t think Canada interests Americans very much. I don’t think most Americans know that the Japanese Canadian incarceration was a thing, and that in some ways it was reified because of what America had decided. The Canadian government followed FDR’s lead.
Rumpus: One last question. I see some of the poems later in the book—”Minoru” might be a good example—as acts of recuperation. ”Minoru,” for instance, traces a different heritage, a more celebratory legacy. Is that where you locate hopefulness in this book?
Prior: Hopefulness is located in these acts of reclamation, as much as it can be harrowing or difficult. I think you’re right: there’s a kind of a joy in “Minoru” that emerges as the poem attempts to reimagine a story that many people might know about, or that many people might not associate with that particular statue, that park, that name. But it’s also a way for me to reflect on the relationship I have with my mother, which is a great relationship (though, as she likes to remind me, she’s always right). More broadly, I hope the book finds joy in family. I would like to think it’s a book that’s written out of love before anything else. And that, to me, is hopeful.
Photograph of Michael Prior by Rocio Anica.