25th Trillium Award

Profile on Peter Norman, with a few questions

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Peter Norman

By rob mclennan

On April 3, 2013, Toronto-based writer and editor Peter Norman performed with 18 other poets as part of the 5th annual Poetry NOW competition. The judges for the event were current Toronto Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke, and Authors at Harbourfront Centre Director Geoffrey Taylor and Artistic Associate Jen Tindall. The event was near-capacity, and Toronto publisher Mansfield Press was well-represented, with authors Jim Smith and Lillian Necakov on the bill alongside Peter Norman, and Mansfield Press Editor Stuart Ross had even made the trip in from Cobourg, Ontario. The following morning, it was announced that Norman had won the top slot of the evening, which includes an invitation to read this fall at the 34th annual International Festival of Authors (which runs from October 24 to November 3, 2022), as well as an ad for his book in NOW Magazine. Four runners-up were also selected to be invited to the festival: Warren Clements, Christine McNair, Beatriz Hausner and Mathew Henderson.

His first poetry collection, At the Gates of the Theme Park (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2010), was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and a second, Water Damage (Mansfield Press, 2013), was recently described by NOW Magazine as an ?alternatively humorous and bleak collection of sonnets, prose poems, found poems and other forms of experimental story-telling.? As part of an interview he conducted with Norman in Torontist, Jacob McArthur Mooney described At the Gates of the Theme Park as ?a variegated and exceptionally dexterous first collection, using landscapes real and imagined to stage dramas that concern romance, history, work, identity, and more.?

Norman is also author of the chapbook After Stillness (above/ground press, 2003) and co-author (with Stephen Brockwell) of the sonnet-collaboration Wild Clover Honey and the Beehive: 28 Sonnets on the Sonnet (Ottawa ON: The Rideau Review Press, 2004), and his poems have appeared in the anthologies Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets (Biblioasis) and the 2008 and 2009 editions of Tightrope Books? Best Canadian Poetry in English. In an interview conducted by Winnipeg poet, filmmaker and critic Jonathan Ball for his blog (posted July 22, 2023), Norman said:

I like projects that come out of the blue and blindside me, things I never would have imagined I?d be doing. One day, the poet Stephen Brockwell told me he didn?t think sonnets were relevant anymore. An ardent sonneteer, I disagreed. Stephen hatched a plan: he?d write a sonnet lambasting the form, and I could reply with a sonnet in the sonnet?s defense. We swapped our poems, then he wrote another, and I replied, and on we went, fourteen times. We published our battle as a chapbook, read it on CBC Radio and at the Ottawa Writers Festival. This totally unexpected and wonderful thing turned into the most successful publication that?s had my name on the cover. (Which is, admittedly, a bit like saying Ashley is the brainiest Olsen twin.)

Originally from Vancouver, Peter Norman has lived and worked in Victoria, Ottawa, Calgary, Halifax and Dartmouth, moving around the country following writing and other opportunities with his wife, the writer and editor Melanie Little, before settling finally in Toronto. A novel, Emberton, is perpetually forthcoming with Douglas & McIntyre, hopefully out sometime in 2014.

rob mclennan: How do you think your new book compares to the previous? What do you see as the trajectory of your work so far?

Peter Norman: The new book is perhaps a bit more playful than the first one. I tried out a few new things — my first attempts at prose poetry and found poetry are included, for example — and I was willing to work with sillier subject matter; one poem is paean to cellphone manufacturers, another to the Staples outlet in downtown Halifax. I might have been wary of putting such seemingly trite material into a debut, but readers were supportive enough of the first book that I felt emboldened to give it a shot this time. I became less worried about embarrassing myself.

It?s hard to identify any trajectory to my work, because I tend to dabble in a bunch of different forms, topics, approaches etc. I get quickly bored with one particular type of thing and, after making a few attempts at it, I itch to move on to something else. But then, years later, I may return to that particular sandbox and play in it again. So my poetry is just a jumble of stuff, and I?ve been very fortunate to have Stuart Ross, a judicious editor, willing to sift through it and find books amid the rubble.

rm: In his piece on The Globe and Mail book blog, Jesse Patrick Ferguson suggests your poetry is about residues, specifically citing the piece ?Playground Incident? from your first collection. He writes that ?Playground Incident is about residues: the residues of terror, of vulnerability, and perhaps of kindness (in the care provided by adults). Though these residues may fade from consciousness, as the boy?s lost mitt gradually unravels and decays, those moments of heightened awareness and emotion (what Virginia Woolf calls "moments of being") shape who we become, and are worthy of the respectful consideration Norman displays in this poem.? How do you feel about this assessment, and how does it echo, if at all, into the larger scope of your work?

PN: That?s a great analysis of what some lyric poems, ?Playground Incident? included, set out to do. I have a third book forthcoming from Icehouse, the new Goose Lane imprint, which will lean a bit more in this direction — ?Playground Incident? is likely to be included (it actually wasn?t in my first or second book).

This isn?t to say I?ve suddenly started writing more lyrically. The way I?ve been published is a bit unusual: the first book represented Stuart Ross?s favourite poems from a bunch I?d written between 1998 and 2009; the second represented work from the subsequent three years, with a few older ones mixed in; and the forthcoming collection will probably span 1998 to 2012, with a bit more of a formal and lyric focus. So the third book may give the impression that I?ve changed aesthetic tack, but in fact it will show another side of what I?ve been up to all this time.

rm: In an interview you did with Jacob McArthur Mooney for Torontist, you said that ?Memory is deceptive; I imagine we all rearrange our histories to fit some sort of narrative.? How important is memory, of any sort, for the kinds of stories your poems work to explore?

PN: I don?t have much interest in using poetry to accurately report things I remember — or, worse yet, remember feeling. I?m not generally an autobiographical or confessional poet.

Obviously, though, without memory none of us would have anything at all to base our writing on. At the very least, we need to remember our vocabulary and what we know about syntax (though I imagine that as I type this, someone out there is enacting an experiment where they try to work outside even that level of memory; if so, I?ll be interested to see the results). And without our memory of events, experiences, sensations (and, yes, emotions), we have no material with which to build our fantasies or narratives or autobiographies.

I realize I?m being a bit disingenuously literal with your question, but from this standpoint memory is, of course, utterly essential to what any poet does. Beyond that, I don?t really care about ?getting it right? or ?telling it like it was?; as the interview quote above suggests, I don?t entirely trust the spin my memory puts on things anyway.

Here?s what interests me more: Why do we remember certain things so vividly? Why and how does our memory distort things? What is the work that our brain is doing by obsessing over certain memories or editing others?

rm: How do you feel about the Poetry NOW win? What do you think such a competition actually means?

PN: Competition in literature is a huge topic that many people have examined incisively. Arc Poetry recently devoted a whole issue to the subject, and that contained some interesting analysis. I could talk your ear off with my opinions on ?prize culture? and its effect on our literature, but I won?t go there right now — you?re not asking about big book prizes or competition in general. You?re asking about a small event that sends the winner not laughing to the bank but climbing onto a Harbourfront stage.

The result needs to be taken with all kinds of grains of salt, because it tests poets on a single five-minute reading. I?ve attended the ?Battle? as an audience member and as a participant, and each time there have been several great readers, any one of whom would have been a deserving winner. That said, it was nice to get the approbation of a panel of judges that included George Elliott Clarke, whose work I greatly admire — if I win something, the biggest significance to me derives from who made the decision and how much I respect their judgment. It?s satisfying to perform under pressure and feel that one has done okay. And I do have some slam experience, so I?m not totally allergic to the competitive aspect.

rm: What is the status of your perpetually forthcoming novel? I know more than a couple of people who are looking forward to seeing it.

PN: The novel was slated for release in spring of 2014, and was in the late stages of its editorial process when the publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, went under. Since then, Howard White has heroically stepped in to purchase D&M. I have yet to learn the specific fate of my own novel — if and when it?s expected to appear, if and how the editorial process will be finished, etc. That saga is still to be continued.

Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than 20 trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.

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