I recently interviewed poet Jon Boisvert about his new collection of poems, BORN (Airlie Press). The juxtaposition of fantasy and the rawness of the poet’s grief create an energy that drive forward a narrative both strange and familiar. Strange because these poems create a fantastical world were people become triangles, breath is a blanket and grass sings. Familiar because these images make perfect sense in a landscape where loss is everywhere and the object of love unlocatable.
Your poems encounter experiences of loss in a dream-like landscape. Tell me about the role of imagination and dreams in your poem making?
It is a great relief for me to write in a space that’s distinctly not real. And the freedom that comes with, for example, labeling a poem a dream and including a talking bear in it, works on me as a kind of invitation, as if anything is now okay to write into the poem.
I also try to express emotion honestly, and think that feelings are often singular and strange. So if I can create stories or landscapes that are, to my ear, aligned in that way with the feelings I am trying to express, that is very satisfying.
And I think experiencing a great loss can damage, sometimes permanently, our ability to “make sense” of our lives. Suddenly our story doesn’t sound like the stories we’re used to, or perhaps had planned. Writing in a surreal or dream-like way helps me to turn that damage around. I may have a story that doesn’t make sense, but I can control and be nourished by it, also.
Grief can be a solitary experience and many of your poems feel very solitary, as if the speaker is suspended in both space and time. What can you say about the felt experience of writing these poems?
The speaker in this book is often at the mercy of their environment and unable to effectively act upon things. Occasionally the speaker is a participant, but usually they just watch as beautiful or frightening things happen around them.
This directly reflects many of the real-life moments I was trying to write about, especially that of being a parent grieving a new baby. It’s so hard to act, to change the course of things, when we’re in positions like these. Writing these poems felt like giving up and letting that tide take me away. Sometimes I’d know what topic I wanted to begin with, but I never had any idea where a poem would go or how it would conclude.
Questions like “is this really happening?” or “what unbearable thing will come next?” also persisted throughout my grief experience and made their way into the book. These questions are so vulnerable and lonely. And I’d ask them again and again as I wrote.
Though your poems feel very personal, they also speak to something important about the state of the world. In the poem “FAWNS,” you write, "There are no seers in/town anymore, though, so we stand with/our heads turned up while the morning sunrise fills with more & more fawns.” What is the relevance of poetry in speaking to the suffering of the world?
I think poetry must be necessary, or else why would every human culture have it? Maybe because it can always sneak into our times of isolation or pain and cause us to explore, to document, and to produce art about our experience, which will help us reconnect with others when we are ready. It’s not the way out, but reading it speaks to all our suffering and feeds our sameness and connection with each other. And writing it helps us identify and demystify our own personal suffering.
Are you any different after having written these poems?
Absolutely. I can’t guess how different I might be now if I didn’t have poetry as a tool to let out what I had going on inside during those times. Poems like “DIAGNOSIS” and “CROWS” were driven by some very deep anger and mistrust I felt toward doctors and hospitals. I don’t have those feelings anymore, but I hope the poems somehow serve those who still may.
I also feel different after having the book published and doing readings and other events to promote it. People have been so willing to share their own stories and to ask very direct questions. Having these intimate, intense conversations with strangers in public has been so heartening. It’s helped me to feel reconnected to the world around me.
The prosody of speech in the therapeutic dialogue is always fascinating to me; tonal shifts and rhythmic changes reveal a lot about how someone is feeling and can also function as therapeutic interventions. Where do you hear poetic language alive in the world?
Lately I hear it most from my thirteen-year-old stepdaughter. Her mind is developing so rapidly right now. Her thoughts are getting really sophisticated, and I can hear her vocabulary growing and adapting under this new strain. It’s so cool to hear her problem-solve in her speech, and sometimes this natural struggle produces really original ways of looking at and phrasing things.
Therapy and poetry have something in common in that they both gaze into states, experiences and feelings that we are often enculturated to avoid. Do you see poem writing as a form of therapy?
Yes! I think poetry always invites us deeper into ourselves, and is a natural platform for expressing things we ordinarily don’t. And when we call something a “poem,” we are, in part, saying it’s a special occasion, that we’re taking some kind of break. So in these ways I find it very much like talk therapy as well as meditation.