Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth
An Interview with Priscila Uppal
Priscila Uppal is a Toronto poet, novelist, and the first CAN Fund Olympic poet-in-residence at the 2010 Vancouver and 2012 London Games. Dubbed "Canada's coolest poet" by Time Out London, Uppal is a professor of Humanities and English at York University.
She is the author of nine books of poetry: Summer Sport: Poems (2013), Winter Sport: Poems (2010), Successful Tragedies: Selected Poems 1998-2010 (2010), Traumatology (2010), Ontological Necessities (2006), Live Coverage (2003), Pretending to Die (2001),Confessions for a Fertility Expert (1999), and How to Draw Blood From a Stone (1998); the novels To Whom It May Concern (2009), and The Divine Economy of Salvation (2002); and a critical study on elegies, We Are What We Mourn (2009). Her work has been published internationally and translated into Croatian, Dutch, French, Greek, Italian, Korean and Latvian.
Mackinac: We're fascinated by process and workspace and how important or inconsequential they may be to a writer. Can you tell us about your own methods and routines?
Priscila Uppal: Because my schedule changes every week—due to readings, meetings, public events—and because I travel a lot, I’ve been very conscious of the fact that to remain productive, I need to be very flexible about the conditions under which I write. I can write almost anywhere, and I have: trains, planes, buses, intermissions at hockey games and at the opera, in cafes and bars and restaurants, in hospital waiting rooms. I always have a notebook on hand for lines and ideas. But, of course, I do have my preferences. I’ve noticed that I’m partial to being warm with my legs raised while I write: either at home in bed or on the couch with a blanket underneath my laptop, or on a lounger beachside in Barbados. I design my own personal writing, reading, and sports retreats in Barbados, and I can get a ton of work accomplished there, away from meetings and the telephone and a fairly relentless artistic schedule of readings, theatre, and music events. While I do have an office in my home, I associate the office with my “other” computer and with administrative paperwork, so I prefer to haunt other areas of the house with my characters and metaphors. In the summer, I have a wonderful piece of patio furniture called as “orbitor” where I write with my youngest cat, Vergil, at my side on his leash.
M: What are you working on right now?
PU: Right now I am finishing up a new poetry manuscript, Sabotage. I am also preparing for the release of two books: Summer Sport: Poems (March 2013), and Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother (September 2013), a memoir about reuniting with my runaway mother after twenty years of not knowing where she was, Brazil, and the movies. I am also actively working on plays, which is a genre that I am love. I am part of a playwriting group at the Factory Theatre in Toronto and I work with a genius dramaturge, Iris Turcott, who also has the mouth of sailor. I love when she reads a section and says, “This is a piece of **@!!! What the ***@!!! were you thinking?” but then follows that up with, “Now this part is **@!!! gold. Pure **@!! gold.” I don’t have time for pampering. I like her no-bullshit approach.
M: Do you feel that there is a strong writing community in Toronto and/or Canada?
PU: There is a very strong writing community in Toronto and in Canada. One of the biggest eye-openers of editing the 2011 Best Canadian Poetry anthology, which requires the reading of thousands and thousands of poems published across Canada in magazines over the course of a year, is how many enclaves of poetic output actually exist in all areas and regions of our country. Also, how there are many poets following vastly different poetic traditions, schools, and styles. There are a ton of regular reading series and poetry competitions and then yearly festivals. Housing the Griffin Poetry Prize for Excellence in Poetry, the largest poetry prize for a single collection of poetry in the world (there is an international category as well as a national category—each winner receives $75,000; I was honoured to be shortlisted for this prize in 2007), certainly helps too, as it gives some mainstream media attention to living poets.
M: What makes Canadian voices distinct? Do you think your own work is inherently Canadian or not?
PU: I think Canadian voices are distinct in their variety—in the fact that the poetic traditions here have grown out of influences from global traditions. There is no distinct poetic voice. Notwithstanding this claim, which is a true one, we to have critical tendencies. The work that tends to be rewarded and recognized in Canada does sometimes give the illusion that there is a predominance of anecdotal-based lyric poetry, environmental lyric poetry, identity-focussed lyric poetry and language-school experimental poetry. Nevertheless, there are far more categories of poets and poetry than these and Canadians work in nearly all genres. Personally, I think my work is only “Canadian” in that my work does not sound like other Canadian poets. Wherever I go, people tend to compare my work to their own traditions, but then claim I’m doing something quite different from that, bolder, stranger, a little darker.
M: During the 2010 Winter and 2012 Summer Olympic Games, you were the poet-in-residence for Canadian Athletes Now. Do you foresee positions such as this catching on in other sporting events in other countries? How do you see physical, athletic endeavors relating to artistic, creative endeavors? Is it important to you to highlight that relationship?
PU: I hope these positions catch on—it’s the reason I started designing them! That’s the main thing. I saw an opportunity to bring together my two loves—poetry and sport—in a unique and challenging and exciting way, and to build bridges between these two worlds, and brings sports and art appreciation to different demographics—and so I took the initiative to make it happen. Then the excitement snowballed. My hope is that these positions will grow in number and will no longer be understood as anomalies but as part of regular events and daily life.
It’s been extremely important for me to add the phrase “creative health” to discussions of physical and mental health and how to create vibrant, healthy, engaged, and compassionate communities. The sports and arts worlds are frequently pitted against each other, but athletes and artists have more in common than many think. I like to point out that we are both determined, passionate, innovative, risk-takers, boundary-pushers, concerned with aesthetics, precision, efficiency, and perhaps most interestingly, we are both extremely gifted managers of pain. This is all worth celebrating and studying.
M: You have spoken in past interviews about the rich language that arises for sports jargon and have employed those terms this in your writing. What other areas of everyday life do you think has untapped potential for similarly rich language?
PU: I think that every body of knowledge has the potential for rich poetic metaphors and language. I ask each of my students to make a list of all the jobs they’ve held in their lives, all the hobbies they’ve had, as well as anything else they’ve grown up with (such as parents’ hobbies or occupations) that they’ve learned quite a bit about. Everyone usually ends up with at least a half a dozen, if not more, subjects they’ve never considered tapping into for poetic inspiration, terminology, or metaphysical consideration. It’s so exciting then to receive poems about being a bug exterminator or collecting tea cups or different kinds of whales after a writer has opened up to these new possibilities.
M: What are you reading these days? And - the question of the hour: book or Kindle?
PU: I just returned from one of my retreats where I read Freud’s book on Jokes and the Unconscious, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (which, I have come to discover, are actually the same book). Right now, I’m prepping for a book tour in the U.K., so I am discovering the poetry of some of my fellow tour companions, including Tishani Doshi and Valzhyna Mort. Travelling is such a great way to find out about new voices and essential books. And I do mean books, even though it means lugging more about in your luggage. I just can’t get into screens for reading. I love the heft of a book. Even when it hits you in the face like a brick on the beach when you’ve dozed off in the sun, as happened to me several times while reading Infinite Jest.