Home > Interviews > The Long Route to Expression: An Interview with Jeff Steudel

Former PRISM poetry editor Rob Taylor sat down with Vancouver poet Jeff Steudel, whose debut collection Foreign Park was published in Spring 2015 by Anvil Press. 

Postcard – Jeff Steudel

He steps over the iridescent puddle by the white van.
The storm-drains overflow. A motorboat explodes
by the cannery. The rink’s ice melts. Paint burbles
in the creek. A man accused of murder on the island
releases the hold on his scow, so does the family sailing
off the point. An expired bottle of Warfarin. Boat fuel
drizzles. Fish mill at the mouth. Fertilizers and pesticides
reach the river’s plume. The horizontal stack discharges
chlorides, sulfides, copper, zinc, and arsenic. Inspectors
cattle-prodded out of the budget, heavy metal thunder.
Trucks as big as Edmontosauruses come to repair
the mine. The creeks and the rivers? The mountain is
a reflection on Berg Lake. Toxins in the glacier. Canada
is everywhere. The Fraser, the Nile, and the Gomati.

from Foreign Park
(Anvil Press, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.
Jeff Steudel’s smoulder cuts like a pipeline through your heart.

“Postcard” seems to be the “cover poem” of the book, as the cover of Foreign Park is a postcard of Mt. Robson and Berg Lake. I was quite drawn to the poem and the cover image, in part because I’ve hiked to Berg Lake myself, and been struck by both the mountain and that incredible reflection in the lake (I, too, wrote a poem while hiking at Berg, and a couple lines in the poem are devoted to the mountain’s reflection).

I was also struck at Berg Lake by how managed/manicured the park was – how for somewhere supposedly in the “middle of nowhere” human influences were everywhere: crushed gravel trails, pit toilets complete with hand sanitizer pumps, campers with cellphones and boomboxes, rangers policing the campgrounds like den mothers. I feel like you capture most every part of my experience of Berg in that poem – so congrats, and thanks! Could you speak a little about its composition?

“Postcard” is the precipitate of many things I was thinking about. It is connected to the idea held by many people, myself included when I was growing up, that the Rockies are a pristine wilderness. Certainly, the Rockies seem to be emblematic of what we sell to tourists, and emblematic of the thinking that we have unlimited natural wealth; of course, we are obviously completely connected to all parts of the world. The mountain’s reflection on the lake got me thinking about the perceptions Canadians may have of their country, and the message, or the ‘postcards’ we would like others to have of us. When one first sees Mt. Robson, it is hard not to be impressed by its enormity, by the way it takes up so much space compared to the mountains around it, by its magic. The same goes for the magical reflection on the lake. Unfortunately, we have sullied so much of the ecosystem. Several years ago I read about scientists who discovered traces of DDT in The Rockies’ glaciers, and this was also on my mind as I was writing the poem.

More generally, what role has hiking played in your writing process? Do you write a lot during hiking trips, or after the fact?

Most of the time I write at my desk or at the library. I sometimes take notes while I’m hiking or walking in the woods, but I spend a lot of time outdoors thinking through ideas for poems. I haven’t been to Berg Lake since I was a kid, and at that time my perception was that it was perfect in its natural beauty. I spent a lot of time looking at photos of Mt. Robson Park, but then eventually I had to head up there to see it, breath the air, touch the water, and attempt to capture something authentic.

You made a return trip, then? Can you tell us a bit about the trip? Did you take it just to do research for Foreign Park? Did you find what you expected to find?

I took a road trip with my dog up to Prince George and then over to Mount Robson Provincial Park, a route that roughly follows the Fraser. I stopped a lot to walk along the river. It really is a grand river, so much spectacular scenery, so much volume and force. However, there are a lot of pollutants dumped into it, some of which can be seen and many of which cannot. I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular on the trip. I wanted to take in details and a get a better feeling of the geography. I grew up close to the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton, and I think I get a feeling of home just being near a river. It’s not a good feeling to see industrial effluent discharged into the water. It seems to disappear into the silt, the big mud, but it’s still there.

On the subject of the Fraser, Foreign Park‘s five sections travel the length of the river, from “Headwaters” through “Hell’s Gate” (everyone’s favourite Lower Mainland tourist trap. Yeah, I said it, Capilano Suspension Bridge…) and finishing in Vancouver with “Mouth”. Each section opens with a corresponding “river” themed poem, set aside from the others and italicized. What inspired this structure? Did structuring the book in this way affect which poems made it into the book?

I wrote “Headwaters” many years ago, and “Confluence”, not long after, so this idea of river has been with me for a while. It made sense to me to have the theme of the physical body and physical environment run its course. I hesitated to use the idea of river as a structural theme because it has been done many times, but then, of course, so has falling in love. In the end it felt right because so many of the poems are set along the river. I decided to use the river poems as sections while thinking of an arc, a natural movement for the poems. The poems I cut out didn’t match the style I was going for, and in some cases, they just weren’t very good. At one point, pretty late in the stages of writing the book, I had all the poems that are now italicized in one section, but after some thought, I decided to italicize the poems quite simply to make them stand out from the rest, to say, in effect, that these poems belong together, even though they do not follow one right after the other.

Continuing on the theme of “structure,” the shape of your individual poems seems important to you, too – particularly the consistency of stanza and line length within a poem: a page of couplets gives way to a page of tercets, gives way to a poem which looks less controlled, but then you count the lines and, yes indeed, each stanza has thirteen lines. The book includes many exceptions to this rule, but still it jumped out at me often enough.

At what point in the process of crafting a poem do you start considering shape? Do you find yourself sometimes thinking in couplets or quatrains, or does that sort of thing usually come later, in the editing room?

I think of form as inextricably linked to rhythm, to cadence, and so, I usually begin thinking about a poem’s form after the first line. I stay with what my instinct tells me, and then I see how it works from there. I’m also interested in how a poem looks on the page, and so, even though, some poems lack a formal structure, I shape the poem to represent the idea. “Confluence”’s short last line “a shallow pool”, is just that: a shallow pool, a mess of mud and water. “Qualifying Heat,” a villanelle, came about while I was reading In Fine Form, so the process of composing that poem was a little different. Certainly, form is often a result of massive edits. This kind of change happened with the prose poem “The Accident.” Initially it was in couplets and that meant some of the lines were different. I am happy with the way the block turned out: an accidental prose poem in a poetry book with a lot of short poems. It’s like a pipeline through a forest.

Speaking of pipelines, in reading Foreign Park I found myself wondering about the timeline of its composition, specifically how far you were into the writing of the book when the Northern Gateway Pipeline came along. Poems like “The Accident” speak directly of the pipeline, while other seem to reference it less directly (“The Oil Slick Approaches” with its lines “The pipeline’s terminus lies beyond a dead-end / bridge”, which I can’t help but read as “A Dead Enbridge”). How did that project, and the opposition to it, affect the focus of your writing, and the ultimate shape of Foreign Park?

I had a visceral reaction to The Northern Gateway Pipeline and Harper’s clear endorsement of it. Years ago, after I had protested things like highway expansion and supported politicians like Stephan Dion because of his a solid environmental plan, I decided that I would respond to issues through writing. At first I wrote letters to politicians, to newspapers; then it just felt natural to write poems about the issues, because, like I said before, it was, and is what I think about. I think many people do. The people in Likely, B.C. after the Mount Polley mine disaster and the Athabasca Chipewan First Nations who live near the tar sands must think about the environment. They might even feel like they are in a foreign park.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about Foreign Park, and which we’ve touched on a bit above, was the mixing of the environmental, the political and the personal. I developed the sense that I was reading the straight goods from the author – both his opinions on the world and the life he’s lived in it, each leaning against, and strengthening the other. Often in themed “project” books I find you get one or the other – the political or the personal – and the book is weaker for it. Where did you start as a poet, with nature poems, or love poems, or political poems? Or were they always mixed together?

I started with love poems, for sure, really bad ones, I think, but the long route to expression can be, and probably should be a messy one. I write where I feel the energy is in my life, and that has been in the last several years, kids, marriage, the environment and my own personal challenges.

Was writing and publishing this book useful for you in thinking about the vital and challenging parts of your life? Do you have any thoughts yet on book number two, both on what it might focus on, and on what you hope to gain from it?

Writing and publishing the book definitely made me think about my life and my relationships in a deeper way. I have become more honest about how I was treating my own body, in particular how much and often I drink. The idea is totally connected to my environmental view. My next book is underway, and some of the poems will continue to be distillations of life experiences. At this point, though, many of the poems deal with the idea of consent, as it pertains to sex and other personal boundaries.

Why not brighten up someone’s holiday season by hiking out and picking up a copy of Foreign Park? You can do so at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the Anvil press website. Or, if you want to further sully our ecosystem, from Amazon.

You can read more of Rob Taylor’s interviews here.