Interviewed by Shaun Robinson.
Kevin Shaw, the winner of our 2016 poetry contest, is a poet to watch. Besides winning Arc’s Poem of the Year contest last year, he has recent or forthcoming work in CV2 and Grain. He is currently a PhD candidate in Canadian Literature at Western University, where he’s also at work on the manuscript for his first book. He recently spoke with PRISM‘s poetry editor about historical poetry, contest strategy, gay bars, and obscenity laws. Pick up your copy of PRISM 54.4 to read his winning poem.
“The Flood of ’37” usually refers to a devastating Depression-era flood of the Ohio River, but your poem seems to take place in Toronto. Is the history in your poem based on actual events in Toronto, or have you transposed the historical event to a different setting? More generally, do you think poems need to be loyal to actual events?
I actually set the poem in my hometown of London, ON. The city experienced its worst flood in April of 1937 when the Thames River fell after days of heavy rain, flooding large portions of the city and some of the surrounding towns on the river. It’s interesting you mention the Ohio River flood, though, because when I was doing some research on the London incident I came across a short British Pathé reel on YouTube that reported on both the Ohio River and London floods under the title “Spring Fury in America.” So they were definitely both in the news and on people’s minds around the same time.
In my poem, the flood shifts back and forth between the past and the present.
I’m interested in the way the lyric can time travel and layer multiple eras on top of each other. When I’m in a museum or heritage site I often wonder what the queer people were up to at the time, the places they went to that are now inaccessible to us or left out of the record. For me, a poem can be an attempt at making that visible, or at least thinking about that absence. I don’t think a poem needs to be as loyal to actual events as, say, an essay because the forms have different contracts with the reader. While I have to take some responsibility invoking historical events in a poem, locating that queer past often necessitates an imaginative leap over ‘official’ history.
Are there any specific writers who have been particular influences on your work? Is there anyone whose influence you’re aware of in “The Flood of ‘37”?
I had Hart Crane’s “Voyages” sequence in mind when I was writing the poem. In a very early draft of “The Flood of ’37,” Crane even makes an anachronistic cameo. Crane and his work fascinate (and sometimes rankle) me for many reasons but I’m especially interested in how he found a way to express through metaphor and historical allusion an emergent gay culture in New York City.
I’m not sure about other direct influences, but many of the writers and books I keep coming back to deal with questions about time as it relates to sexuality and gender. Queer theorists like Elizabeth Freeman, Jack Halberstam, and Heather Love have made me think differently about ‘doing’ history. John Barton’s poetry has been very important reading for me. Daphne Marlatt’s novel Ana Historic is another favourite, as are the novels of Alan Hollinghurst. I’m interested in how memory and history work in poems by Bronwen Wallace, Gregory Scofield, Ben Ladouceur, Anne Carson, Shane Rhodes, and Mark Doty, among many others.
Besides winning PRISM’s poetry contest, you recently won Arc Poetry Magazine’s Poem of the Year Contest. Considering that we received nearly 400 entries, you’ve beaten some very long odds. Do you think there’s something specific about your work that makes it stand out in a contest? Do you have any specific strategies for which poems you submit to contests?
I feel very lucky! I’ve been sporadically sending work out for quite a few years with mixed results but more recently I’ve started submitting regularly to contests, using them as deadlines to keep myself writing, revising, and getting poems and essays out the door. I don’t have a set strategy for selecting the poems I submit although I do familiarize myself with the journal and the kinds of poems they publish before entering. The poems I submit are typically ones I’ve lived with for a little while and have gone through several revisions. It’s really easy to second-guess myself trying to predict what an editor or judge will make of the poems. Too regional? Too lyric? Too gay? I think this is where reader friends and workshops can help. I’m fortunate to have found a great community of fellow writers and readers in London.
The bulk of the action in “The Flood of ‘37” tracks the speaker walking home from a bar. I noticed that your Poem of the Year-winning-poem also takes place partly in a bar. Do you think there’s something about bar-based poetry that makes it especially prizeworthy?
I hadn’t thought of that connection before but perhaps it suggests I need to spend less time at the pub! I think the bar keeps coming back in these poems because the gay bar has been so iconic in queer history. There’s the Stonewall Inn, of course, but even the earlier “molly houses” in eighteenth-century England were often taverns.
I remember going to my first gay bar in Montreal alone and wide-eyed at eighteen. It was definitely a transformative experience, especially coming from a smaller, rather conservative city. More generally, bars are fascinating because they can bring together so many different types of people and voices. Lately I’m writing a lot about London’s parks, probably for the same reason: people and histories colliding. I think that’s why I gravitate to bars as locales for poems, although I also love trying a new pilsner.
Are you working on any particular projects at the moment? What’s next for your writing?
At the moment, I’m trying to finish up my PhD dissertation at Western. I’m writing on obscenity law and border-crossings as they relate to queer writing and aesthetics in Canada from about 1967, just before decriminalization, to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Little Sister’s case in 2000 (in regards to Canada Customs blocking shipments of queer materials to Vancouver’s gay and lesbian bookstore.) It’s given me a great respect for the authors, publishers, and booksellers that paved the way.
In addition to some shorter creative nonfiction pieces, I’m also working on a poetry manuscript. It’s been a slow, slow process but I think (hope?) it’s coming together. The PRISM prize has definitely given me a boost to keep going, for which I’m very grateful to the journal and to Kayla Czaga for selecting the poem!
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