Former PRISM poetry editor Rob Taylor sat down with Bren Simmers, whose second poetry book Hastings-Sunrise was published in Spring 2015 by Nightwood Editions, and was recently named a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award.
from Hastings-Sunrise (p. 26) – Bren Simmers
The building next door has bedbugs again. A trio of mattresses by the dumpster. Wide berth as we walk past. Touch wood— though once they’re in, wood won’t stop them. Touch steel then. On the Bedbug Registry, a cluster of red dots surrounds our apartment like front lines or angry bears. Hundreds exterminated this year for being hungry, dumpster diving near suburban homes built for Goldilocks. We, who crave a yard, itch.
(Nightwood Editions, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.
Hastings-Sunrise will be read differently by those who are or are not familiar with the Vancouver neighbourhood. One I suspect will crave some level of accuracy, will want to see themselves and their world in the poems, while the other will be looking to understand, to be “let in”, in a sense. And many, like myself, who know the neighbourhood fairly well, but have never lived in it, will find themselves somewhere in between. Did you consider these various readers while composing the poems? Or perhaps later, during editing? If so, how did it affect the writing and shaping of the book?
While writing Hastings-Sunrise, I tried to capture the feel of the neighbourhood at a particular time. Hastings-Sunrise in 2011 was a different place than it is today. So in a way, the book is a time capsule. Readers who know the neighbourhood might have different experiences than me, but my hope is that something essential about that place is communicated. In the editing process, I did step back and tried to look at it from an outsider’s view. I asked writers from different parts of the country to offer feedback on any contextual gaps that readers familiar with the hood would fill in, but those unfamiliar with Hastings-Sunrise might be left wondering about. Ultimately, I wanted the details to evoke a specific place, but I also wanted there to be enough room for readers to see their own neighbourhoods in these pages.
I think you hit that balance very well. That said, as much as your book explores a specific place, at its core I think of it as exploring the speaker’s (I’m going to go out on a limb here and say “your”) own hopes, fears and desires for the future. Not only do you ask “When will I / belong to the city I was born in?” (p. 25) but in the asking you reveal “the parts of myself / I cover up or reject” (p. 14). On the one hand this is surprising, as the book takes a sometimes near-scientific look at the neighbourhood (logging days; mapping open doors, neighbourhood swings; tracing out walking routes), and on the other it makes perfect sense: you gave yourself enough distance to see the city you were living in, and in the process were able to see yourself from a new, outside perspective. Could you speak a bit about your intentions for this project at its inception? Were you meaning from the beginning to explore yourself as much as you did, or did that element of the book sneak up on you?
I worked on this book for four years, and it evolved continuously. It started out as a much smaller project: to pay attention to seasonal changes in my neighbourhood over the course of a year. I was working in parks at the time, and like a lot of people who work full-time, I felt like I was living weekend to weekend. I wanted to slow my life down and pay the same kind of attention to my urban surroundings that I did to the natural surroundings where I worked. Through observing my life, larger themes of home and belonging became apparent.
I actually wrote an entire draft of the manuscript that was very different from what ended up being published; it was almost completely observational in tone. While working on that manuscript with Barbara Klar through the Banff Wired Writing Studio, she encouraged me to dig deeper and put myself into these poems. I am grateful for that guidance because I think it’s a more personal and a more human book, but I struggled for a long time with finding a balance between being too confessional and being too reticent.
That’s interesting that the book started as a small project tracking seasonal change – it certainly grew from there! One vestigial remnant of that original project, then, seems to be the section openings in Hastings-Sunrise. Each section opens with a series of one-line epigraphs, each labeled with a date, as in a diary. Some of my favourites: “Trees fill in their dance cards / April 7”, “All the leisure a paycheque can afford / July 11”, “Lake chains form in the tennis courts / Nov 6” (Nothing says “Vancouver in November” like lake chains in the tennis courts!). These serve to give the whole book a notebook-like feel, and also to set us in the various seasons (if the dates of the entries are to be trusted, the book was written over a 14-month period). Could you speak about these epigraphs a bit? Are they remnants of that original project, or scraps from unused poems, or (as suggested) actual diary entries, or?
These are phenological entries that I recorded during dozens of neighbourhood walks over the course of a year; phenology is the practice of observing periodically recurring events in the natural world. Over a second year, I revisited these observations to see how accurately they reflected each seasonal moment. Yes, these entries come from my “original project,” my goal being to create a phenology calendar of East Vancouver. These entries also draw inspiration from ancient Chinese calendars that have two-week micro-seasons. I wanted to capture that same kind of detail in an urban neighbourhood.
More generally, do you keep a diary/journal, or have a practice of daily notetaking, or was that special for this project? If you write one, how do you find it influences your poems – both what you write and how you write it?
I do keep a pen and paper journal, though usually its entries are erratic. Sometimes I journal every few days, sometimes an entire month goes by. Writing on paper feels more fluid than typing on a screen. I can’t erase the trajectory of my thoughts with a single click. If I lose the incoming transmission, I can more easily retrace my thoughts back to where I stopped receiving and started over-thinking. Many of my first drafts of poems come from these handwritten scrawls, and it’s only in the editing process that I move to a computer.
“I can’t erase the trajectory of my thoughts with a single click.” Yes – I like that! I’m very much the same. I can’t start anything on the computer, and am usually a number of drafts in before I type a poem up.
In writing about a Vancouver neighbourhood you’ve earned (and well earned!) your “Vancouver Poet” badge, alongside poets like George Bowering (Kerrisdale Elegies), Michael Turner (Kingsway), Daphne Marlatt (Vancouver Poems, Steveston), George Stanley (Vancouver: A Poem), Sachiko Murikami (Rebuild, The Invisibility Exhibit), etc. etc. etc. etc. It’s kind of nuts how many books we’ve written about our city over the years. Which books about Vancouver you drew on for inspiration in your own project? Books about other cities or neighbourhoods?
Let’s get badges made up. That would be fantastic! I have read many of these books over the years and feel proud to be listed as part of that lineage. When I’m working on a project I tend to seek out books that help me to solve specific problems. In this project, the big issue to tackle was form; it’s a book length poem. So, I spent a lot of time studying the long poems of C.D. Wright and re-reading John Steffler’s The Grey Islands and Alayna Munce’s When We Were Young and In Our Prime, two of my favourite books.
I did also feel part of a zeitgeist with visual artists who were capturing similar ideas of changing urban spaces through drawings and photographs. Two books about Toronto that lived on my desk for a while were Full Frontal T.O. by Patrick Cummins and Shawn Micallef and Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes by Michael Cho.
I’m glad you touched on the challenge of writing a book length poem. As such, Hastings-Sunrise is quite a departure from your debut, Night Gears (Wolsak and Wynn, 2010), which was more of a traditional collection of discrete poems. That said, Night Gears included both a long poem (“Northern Postcards”) and a sequence (“Weather Observation Record”) which, in hindsight, hinted at the direction of your second book. When you think of the two books, what do you think of as the major differences and similarities? In approaching Hastings-Sunrise, did you make conscious decisions to do anything differently with Book #2?
Hastings-Sunrise feels like a natural progression from my work in the long poem form of my first book. I think the long poems in Night Gears are especially strong parts of the book because, while each section in the book explores a different place, the long poems allowed me the space and breadth to investigate conflicting ideas. In writing a second book, I wanted to take on the challenge of a book-length sequence in order to tell a story that was sustained and interconnected, not just a collection of individual ideas. Turned out it was a lot harder than I thought! Many poems I wrote didn’t make the cut because they were too similar in theme to another poem or they didn’t fit with the larger themes of seasonal changes, gentrification, belonging, and community that I was working with. I spent a lot of time playing Tetris with poems taped on the wall until the sequence felt right.
Hasting-Sunrise maps out your push-pull desires to live in the city and also get away, to “Go find your cabin in the woods.” (p. 61). A string of poems near the end of the book, for instance, involve your dreaming of the fictional small town “Saska-Wollop”, which is everything Vancouver isn’t. Soon after you finished this book you moved to small (and be-wooded) Squamish, and upon knowing that it’s hard not to read this book as a sort of goodbye letter to Vancouver (one of the “it’s not you, it’s me” variety). If/how did going through the process of writing this book influence your thinking about both Vancouver and its alternatives? Would you have ended up where you did, when you did, without the book?
Sometimes we need to fully embrace a place before we can let go of it. Vancouver is a great city to live in, if you want to live in a city. [Editor’s Note: Nice save, City of Vancouver Book Award Finalist!] And that was the question I was exploring while writing this book. What recipe of family, friends, natural spaces, community, and art did I need to make a home in Vancouver, and in what proportions?
While I was working on revisions, the opportunity to move to Squamish presented itself and I jumped, which made writing the ending for this book tricky. Did I end the book with the move to Saska-Wollup, or did I end the book with trying to make a home in Hastings-Sunrise? I chose to end the book with trying to put down roots in the neighbourhood, which ultimately we do anywhere we live. I also feel it makes for a better story for the reader.
Official ending aside, Squamish seems like the perfect place for the speaker in this book. Close enough to Vancouver that you can dip back in from time to time, but far enough away that you can be away. How are you finding it? Is it everything you hoped it would be? And how long until we get your Squamish collection?
Squamish is a great place to live. I find the quiet and access to natural spaces deeply restorative. There’s a much slower pace here and one that lends itself to holing up in the house in front of the fire and writing. At the same time, I love being able to hop in the car and head into the city for readings or concerts or gallery openings. I have started to write some poems about Howe Sound as I get a better understanding of its history and community, though another book is a long ways off.
We’re officially starting the “Bring Bren Back” campaign – obviously, we’re going to need to raise a lot of dough to get her back in Vancouver. The best way to contribute is to buy a copy of Hastings-Sunrise! You can do so at your local bookstore, or from the Harbour Publishing website, or, if you want to erase the trajectory of your thoughts with a single click, from Amazon.
You can read more of Rob Taylor’s interviews here.