Editors Michael Prior and Liz Windhorst-Harmer discuss Suzannah Showler's vegetable metaphors, "millennial voice" and the superior entertainment of her debut poetry collection, Failure to Thrive (ECW Press 2014).
Michael: Hi Liz! I’m excited to start discussing Suzannah Showler’s debut poetry collection, Failure to Thrive, with you. Personally, I found the poems incredibly intelligent, memorable, and surprising.
Liz: Hi Michael! It’s very cool to get a chance to reflect on this collection together. Maybe a good place to start would be with some of Showler’s metaphors. At an event we both attended called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry," Jason Guriel said that his ideal for poetry is the desire for striking, novel, and beautiful metaphors. Some of Showler’s metaphors and similes blew me away: “No Frills shoppers tenderly / nosing their way past displays shocking as capped front teeth” and “You can feel the day’s details waiting to pitch towards you like an airbag / deploying an ultra-white, full-frontal bloom of goodness in your face” (“Day for Evasion”); “You are holding a coiled-up shot of luck and prosperity / ready to launch at you like a spring snake from a nut can!” (“I Wish You Luck and Prosperity!”).
Where would you situate these metaphors in relation to other poetry you’ve read? Were you struck by them also?
Michael: I was certainly struck by Showler’s metaphors, and perhaps more generally by the uniqueness and memorability of her language. The first lines of the opening poem in the collection—which I read as an introductory address to the reader, a monologue welcoming us to Showler’s eccentric and acerbic world—yoke a rotting eggplant to a detached fatalism and a sense of performance:
Because you are the kind of person who
lets their perishables expire the way they want to,
from the inside out (say, like an eggplant,
the colour velour was invented to live up to,
rubber-skinned preserving its opaque dignity
until the eleventh hour…
It’s an interesting juxtaposition, laden with defensive irony (perhaps the speaker’s resignation to letting things “expire” is not as detached as it might appear) but there’s also an embedded sincerity. In my reading, the simile pokes fun at its own construction through the mention of “invention” and its accumulating clauses; it makes the reader aware of the work the speaker is performing by creating such an elaborate comparison. I honestly have not read many, if any, tropes that do so much with vegetables.
I think many of the poems’ submerged metaphors function as attempts to come to terms with the titular “failure” of the speaker to connect with others, an inability to reconcile an innate sense of self with the exterior actions and accomplishments that become our identity in the external world. This disconnect between what we hoped to be and what we become is present, for example, in the ending of “Stop Hitting Yourself” with its clever lineation: “Regret has a nasty habit of going / straight to the face.” Or “Seasonal Regrets,” wherein the speaker laments, “I’ll admit I was looking to feel synchronicity // blooming underfoot like a small rampage / of low-grade earthquakes…” The language here points to a division between what was wanted by the speaker and what has actually occurred. In a more direct way, the title of the book’s third section, “What You See Is What You Get,” asks the reader to consider the divide between what is perceived and what is believed, evoking the comic “opaque dignity” of that eggplant concealing its rotten insides, or the regret that the speaker worries might be “going straight” to our faces—a regret that actually only manifests itself in the mirror.
Liz: I love that interpretation. As I read your analysis here, I am thinking about one of my favourite poems in the collection,“Why Don’t You Go Home and Cry About It,” where the speaker opens with a bizarre apocalyptic vision “where we are all drawn / back to our hometowns by something / like a magnet that attracts whatever / inside us is most mediocre and true.” From there we are moved into funny, angry rant from the speaker demanding that her lover give her all the ugly details about the beautiful women s/he’s “fucked.” The sarcasm, anger and defeatism—the speaker is going home to cry about it, and the taunt is self-directed—are cannily mixed. You can see how a person might think of the connotative link between “Failure to Thrive” and “Failure to Launch,” that issue of the boomerang millennial. I was also thinking about the collection’s title in another way: I had a family member diagnosed with “failure to thrive” as a baby, which meant she kept losing weight until she was put on a banana-based formula.
Michael: I think that an interest in various imbalances—whether they be insufficient or excessive—permeates a lot of these poems. What deviations from the norm are acceptable? What is too much and what is too little in regards to mental health, physical health, sociality? This becomes especially apparent, as you mentioned, in the poems in the second section of the book that take their names from playground taunts: “I Know You Are, But What Am I?” “Takes One to Know One,” etc.
As for where would I situate Showler’s poems in terms of other poetry I’ve read: I certainly recognize some of Natalie Shapero’s hard-headed sincerity (that we’re often tempted to misread as opaque irony) as well as Kevin Connolly’s recognition of the surreal incongruity at the core of metaphor-making. I’m also reminded of some of the speakers in Karen Solie’s poems, and Ken Babstock’s dense lyricism. For an example of the latter, see “Flare” which begins the third section of the book: “Bengal light shot up, blue beamed into all nothing / flung out like a limb in first morning’s muscle reach / a precedent still being set...”
However, this is all not to say that Showler’s influences are near the surface. In my opinion, she brings a very original voice and acute perceptiveness to this collection.
What sort of writers or writing does the collection bring to mind for you, Liz? You spoke a little about what you identified as Showler’s millennial voice, something that I also felt: can you speak a bit to that identification? As well, I was wondering what were some of the emotions you experienced most strongly while reading the book?
Liz: I too love those lines from “Flare.” I really like your description of Natalie Shapero; the idea that hard-headed sincerity can be misread as opaque irony gets deeply at what I think Showler is doing in these poems. In fact, it is maybe what art ought to be doing “post-irony,” if that’s a thing. There’s a knowingness that’s not disengaged.
I’d like to leap to comparisons with (fiction) writers like Lorrie Moore and Heather O’Neill, both of whom balance sorrow with hilarity and both of whom have a knack for the shocking and sometimes over-the-top image or simile. I am a huge fan of Sheila Heti’s “novel from life” How Should a Person Be?, which is often compared to Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls. I could see how you might, if you were a publicist looking for an angle, pitch Suzannah Showler as the poetic voice to complement Heti and Dunham. (Incidentally, Showler wrote an article for Hazlitt about housesitting for Heti (http://www.randomhouse.ca/hazlitt/feature/how-should-person-house-sit). Much of that has to do with, as you say, her millennial voice.
But what is the millennial and what makes her voice? Digital life is fully enmeshed in her collection, such as in the found poems from Wikipedia and monster jobs, and the epigraphs in “Rapture Begets Sweater Begets Rapture” from raptureready.com and Wikipedia. Lines like “I was going to say something crucial. / But I forget what” (“Notes on Integrity”) and pretty much all of “Day of Evasion” seem millennial to me in attitude and concern: I’m not sure what I’m doing here, and I’m not sure whether it matters, and I want to do something meaningful, but I don’t know who I am. Is the writing young because it is cheeky, because of the ready availability of appropriate slang?
Which leads, finally, to my feelings about the poems, which were, in the main, that I felt understood by them. I am unapologetically naive in my reading of poetry, and I want to like what I read. There were some really wise and surprising moments (“most things are a trick of the light”), and I was moved by “Rapture Begets Sweater Begets Rapture” as well as by “Dread for Something Useful.” I thought that they did what the best poems should do, which is to arrange words in such a way that is both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually interesting.
Michael: Your comment about a “knowingness that’s not disengaged” connects with another thing you've brought up that I wanted to talk about, which was how these poems really entertain; they are more than willing to meet the reader in unexpected ways without being facile. And I don’t mean “entertain” to imply any sense of vapidity or distraction, but rather to emphasize that for me these poems were undoubtedly experiences—and furthermore, experiences that I was eager to re-experience. They’re complex, packed with allusiveness and levels of meaning that I've yet to untangle, but they also didn't feel difficult to get through; they didn't showily strain to hold my attention but earned it almost immediately with their intelligence, humor, and at points, unapologetic affect.
Before we started this conversation I did a little googling and I found Showler’s interview with the Toronto Quarterly. In the interview, Showler responds to a question about what she looks for in a poem by stating that “what constitutes a poem that I greatly like, or that’s great for me, is a poem that delights… I want to be entertained in some way. Even if (especially if) there’s a sad or bleak or depressing edge to that entertainment.” This resonates with T.S. Eliot’s maxim that poetry should be a “superior entertainment,” a sentiment which Jason Guriel advocates for (in a slightly different way) throughout his collection of criticism, The Pig-Headed Soul. I find this really refreshing: it acknowledges the reader’s relationship to the poems.
Liz: As an example of how a poem might entertain or what a poem can do, “Rapture Begets Sweater Begets Rapture” plays on the different meanings of the word rapture. The world is ending and “our own rapture was more pressing.” But it doesn’t settle there. It goes on to give these perfect little images for how it feels when the day gets too long—apocalyptically long—
Time slowed like a game show wheel ticking down,
each moment lingering a little longer, threatening
to be the last stop.
No one could say when the sun had last set.
One long day spread like a bleeding stain.
A poem like that doesn’t seem merely involved with language for its own sake, nor is it uninterested in language and what language can do.
These poems entertain without, as you say, becoming facile. One of the other pleasures in this collection is the element of surprise: the speaker’s finding meaning in a fire in a No Frills dumpster, I wonder what it will be?! Also, I love the way she treats those little clichés people use (the true taunts, for example) like rocks which you might lift up to see what’s crawling underneath.
Did you read the explanations about the poems included at the back of the book? “Dread for Something Useful” is dedicated to Andrew F. Sullivan. Both he and Showler attended the Creative Writing program that you and I are currently attending. Sullivan is also a talented, successful writer, and seeing that their connection in the program bore fruit in a poem really added, for me, to the workshop mystique. I’m currently reading MFA vs. NYC, which considers, among many other complicated things, the problems of too many MFA programs, one of which is that work is (allegedly) worked to death—well-crafted but dead. I wondered if you had any thoughts about this.
Michael: That’s really interesting. I certainly didn’t find Showler’s poems too clean or workshopped. As I understand it, one of the main risks when workshopping, is that it’s generally a process of pruning rather than growing, and consequently the poems or stories might end up devoid of any of the eccentricities that make them unique and memorable. Showler’s work, for me at least, avoids this sort of pitfall. When she writes in “Good Thing,”
...As for my face, I’m just
a little worried about the aperture that lets
amazement in. Good thing I have an insider
view of the weather. Good thing I’m in a mood
I’m amazed and intrigued by the clever embedded metaphor between camera lens and expression (another play on the discrepancy between picture and event, outside and in) as well as the “a” alliteration, and the anaphora of “Good thing.” I could easily imagine any of those rhetorical devices being pared down by a workshop. This isn’t to say that workshops aren’t helpful or that there aren’t a wide variety of workshops with different aesthetics and aims, but rather, that I think Showler’s been careful to preserve her own unique diction, syntax, and fascinations.
Liz: I find myself curious about the one thing that does seem to happen in workshops, or at least happened to our workshop this year, I think, is that we become deeply invested in other people’s projects. So that the poets had something to give the prose-writers and, I think, vice versa, that went beyond cutting or suggesting and became moments of inspiration and creative near-collaboration. I would be very interested to know more about how that went down in Showler’s “group of seven”, even though I think that the intimacy of workshop is part of its power.
Michael: Thank you for taking the time to talk about this book with me Liz!
Liz: It was great! Thanks.
Suzannah Showler's writing has appeared places, including The Walrus, Hazlitt, The Puritan, and Joyland. In 2013, she was a finalist for both the National Magazine Award for Best New Writer in non-fiction and the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers in poetry. In 2012, she was the winner of the Matrix LitPOP Award for Poetry. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto and will soon begin an MFA in Creative Writing at the Ohio State University. Her first collection of poems, Failure to Thrive, was released April 2014 from ECW Press.