Interview with Andrea Perry

Sheri Doyle, Director of Communications for Friends of Vocamus Press, had a chance to ask some questions of Guelph poet Andrea Perry, author of Rise (Vocamus Press, 2016)

sd: How did this collection begin? Was it a single poem, a spark of thought, an incident, or a few things all at once?

AP: The collection began as an opportunity, really. I had written a number of poems for myself and as part of a poetry class I took during my MFA at the University of Guelph, with no intention (or belief that it was possible) to publish a full collection.

Last fall – quite serendipitously from my point of view – I was approached by Jeremy Luke Hill of Vocamus Press. Luke had seen and appreciated a few of my poems and asked whether I had enough for a whole collection. I said “Yes,” of course, not wanting to pass up the chance, though the total page count of my existing poems was probably about 30. I think my full response to Luke was actually something like, “Yes, I have enough…just give me a few weeks to tidy the poems up.” Then I retreated to the woods to write furiously and nervously, thinking I had lied about having a full collection; but when I sat down with my pencil and stack of loose-leaf paper, I discovered that I did, in fact, have a book of poetry ready to go.

The poems came out one after the other, mostly cohesively. It felt like a purge of head and heart. As I hope you can feel from the collection, I am deeply passionate about the subject matter of these poems. They present the core of my view of and belief in humanity and humanity’s journey on and with Earth. The poems are thoughts, feelings, and knowings that I have carried with me for a long, long time; I’ve expressed them in bits throughout my life, through conversations with friends, debates on politics, appreciations of the natural world, and in my own life choices, but this collection really gave me the opportunity put it all together and put it out there – fully – for others to read and experience. Seeing how the form and content came together in Rise, I don’t think it would have been possible for me to lay myself all out so wholly in any way other than poetry.
sd: What, if anything, does your experience as an Intelligence Officer in the Canadian Army bring to your poetry and/or this collection?

AP: I think the biggest influence from my time in the Canadian Armed Forces that you will see in the collection is my ability and willingness to hold both the best and worst of humanity side by side. Ultimately, Rise is about hope; it presents firmly the knowing that human beings will to come together to lift the trajectory that we have be on thus far, but it does so without sugar-coating the current state of affairs or the history of where we have been – namely the gross violence toward each other and toward the planet, and a deep forgetting of who we really are. I have always been an extraordinarily love-filled, peace-oriented person (I often joke that I came out of the womb, fists raised, chanting ‘Peace on Earth’), but I am also someone who is not afraid to really look at people and the world and to engage. I do not enjoy being a side-line commentator; I am someone who wants to enter human existence completely, in light and in dark, and to come out with as full a vision as possible.

In a purely practical sense, my time in the Army also helped prepare me for the physical task of writing. I work well under pressure and have quite a tremendous amount of discipline. It comes in handy when you’ve just got to get the writing done, no matter what.

Oh, and in an even more practical sense, my Army-time has funded my poetry writing. I worked for ten years and lived well under my means while I was working. I was able to save enough money to allow me to return to school for creative writing and to continue taking time to write once school was done. I recognize that it is a great privilege to be able to hide in the woods for weeks or months at a time to write, and I am extremely grateful for the freedom I have, both time and money-wise, to do so.
sd: What does it mean that the collection has two beginnings?

AP: The double beginning has two meanings. First, it is an acknowledgement of the cyclical/spherical nature of the Universe. I think part of what has gotten human beings into trouble, especially in Western Civilization, is the tendency to view everything as linear, advancing forever forward and with consistent growth. Look at the way we’ve designed the global economy – it cannot function unless it keeps growing, which just doesn’t match the resources available; so you see us pillaging the planet, pillaging time… which means the earth is dying, people are working more and living less, etc, etc. You also see the obsession with linearity in people’s great fear of death, though death itself is simply a cycle of renewal. So, although Rise is a clear movement upward, I wanted to make sure the collection was still ‘round.’ Structuring the sections as ‘Beginning’, ‘Intermission,’ and ‘Beginning’ allowed me to maintain this roundness, or acknowledgement of the circle/sphere.

The double beginning is also meant to represent a new start. Rise envisions the end of the world as we know it (one of my favourite lines in the collection is “imperceptible apocalypse”, on the second-last page); but, though it is envisioning an end, it is more so a new beginning. A transformation to something else, something higher.
sd: Some of the poems share the rediscovery of a lost knowledge. Answers come from various sources—through a tree, a ladybug, the Sun, and The Master, to name just a few. Do the poems suggest that the answers to some mysteries and codes are easier to solve than we might think?

AP: Absolutely. I think the answers are often right in plain sight. And, if not in front of you externally, the answers would be sitting quietly in your heart, waiting to be heard. We may miss the answers for a variety of reasons: we could be moving so fast that we pass them by; talking too much that we miss the words on the lips of a friend or a stranger; too detached from nature to hear the trees, and the ladybugs; too sure of ourselves that we don’t even realize we are missing the basic truth; too un-sure of ourselves that we don’t trust our own heart and intuitive knowledge; too trapped by our egos that we are unwilling to accept the answers, even when they are given to us. The answers are always in the present moment, either around us or inside of us. We won’t get every piece of the puzzle all at once, but we can gather each piece, step by step, moment to moment. The beauty of this is that, not only can we solve the mystery, but we can live so fully as we do it, by being present to all.

sd: Several of the poems are comprised of couplets that seem to give opportunity for pause and yet they function together to build up a momentum. How do you decide the length of your lines and stanzas? Is it the voice of the poem that directs your stanza and line breaks? Or do you find that these decisions are often made during the process of revision?

AP: Most of the poems dictated their own form as they came out. I could sense the places where there should be pauses or places at which the momentum needed to pick up as the words were coming out. Often, it was the atmosphere of the poem that determined the form. ‘Particular Impact’ for example, came out in couplets because it needed to deliver the feel of tight packets (atoms) separated by a fair amount of space. On the other hand, ‘Multi-Dimensional’ came out as stream of lines without separation because it needed to capture the feeling of simultaneously occupying more than one space, with some confusion as to where one reality begins and ends, or where one dimension bleeds into another.

After I had the general form, I could tweak the line length and move words around as required. Generally, my structural revisions had to do mostly with image and comprehension; I like to leave images intact, if I can, without breaking the line or stanza, so that they settle in the reader’s mind before the reader moves on to the next visual package.

Overall, the variety of form and voice in Rise developed naturally and was a surprise to me. I didn’t set out with the intention of having so many different structures and speakers; but each poem demanded its own shape and voice, and I listened.
sd: Like so many of the poems, the final poem offers a hopeful perspective. It offers an interesting resolve with which to view “…the system constructed / to keep us contained” or the “…geometric / YouTube representations.” What do you think social media has done for literature or poetry specifically? (What has it done for writers?)

AP: I love social media for two reasons. One, it gives everyone a voice. Two, it creates a space for all of the unique voices to connect and come together. Both of these are a requirement for human beings to make meaningful change on a global scale: we must be empowered, each and every one of us; and we must have the means to connect and come together. Of course, not everyone has access to social media or the ability to participate in it, but social media does cover a good swath of the planet and can get us moving in a positive direction.

For writers specifically, I think social media promotes access and community. More writers can get their work out – you can tweet lines of poetry, start a blog, self-publish, promote your reading events, etc, etc. You can also join a Facebook group with thousands of writers from all over the planet. In the group forum, you can discuss the writing world, ask for or offer support, or simply be with others (as writing is often a very isolating activity). So, social media empowers the individual writer through access and extension of reach, and it creates the opportunity to bring those individuals together in meaningful connection.

sd: Which poets and authors have influenced you most?

AP: There are so many. I’ll just give one name for each. For authors, I would say Kurt Vonnegut. I love his ability to use humour to tell stories that address serious moral issues. He is hilarious, yet there is so much clarity and heart in his writing. I endeavor to use humour in the same way. My style is often a bit tongue-in-cheek, though underneath I am deeply sincere. I am the same in real life – I never take anything too seriously, including myself, yet I engage with everything full-heartedly, and I am forever preoccupied with the big, big picture. You know, like the transformation of humanity.

For poets, I have to say Canadian poet Kevin Connolly. For one, he was the instructor of the poetry class that launched me on this poetic journey. He is so good at what he does, yet so humble and authentic that he is able to pass on his expertise in such a way that truly empowers you. With him, I got a solid foundation in poetry fundamentals and the boost to make it my own and really trust myself. I have grown rapidly since starting with Kevin, and hope to continue to do so. As a reader, I love Kevin’s poetry for its technical prowess, quirky authenticity, and wicked sense of humour.
sd: What are you working on now?

AP: Right now I’m looking for an agent for a novel that I wrote about Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan. Mostly, I’m writing cover letters and synopses, and waiting for the right person to meet up with the manuscript (if such a person exists). Rise happened naturally, so my approach to the novel is that, if there is a need for it or a place for it in the world, it will be published. And, if not, that’s okay, too.

I’ve also written some new poems that may become part of a larger collection. They have mostly to do with depicting high-level spiritual beings in their every-day human existences. There’s one about Archangel Michael, hanging out on the couch watching horror movies on Netflix. And one with Mary Magdalene as a young painter in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Her dating life isn’t working out so well because her true partner is up in outer-space.

sd: Thank you so much, Andrea, for your inspiring answers and for your gorgeous book of poems, Rise. We look forward to reading more of your work in the future.