Andy Verboom, a 27 year old PhD student (English) at Western, is deep into his second year comprehensive exams. When our managing editor, Vera DeWaard, called him yesterday morning to tell him he’s won the prestigious Winston Collins/Descant Best Canadian Poem Prize, he was gobsmacked.
We can understand why. Last year, John B. Lee won, for his poem “Bringing the Farmhouse Down.” The contest is judged by Mark Kingwell, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor to Descant and Harper’s Magazine, and the Toronto-born New Yorker, Leanne Shapton, an artist illustrator and writer who has contributed to The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, Jane, Seventeen, Saturday Night, and Maclean’s.
Andy Verboom spoke to me last night, from a pub in London, Ontario, where his friends were treating him to celebratory libations.
Andy Verboom, celebrating his Winston Collins/Descant poetry prize win in a time- honoured tradition. Photo credit Meghan O’Hara.
LK: First of all, congratulations! I read your account of the events this morning, on your blog, about when you got the call. How are you feeling about it now that you’ve had time to digest the news?
AV: Well, my surprise turned more to shock when I realized how established all the previous winners are. I’ve been writing for at least a decade, but I didn’t have any publications for the first few years. Honestly, I’ve been very lax about submitting for publication. I haven’t taken myself seriously as a writer. I always enjoyed the writing process more than sharing my work or seeing it in print, so I focused on that, perfecting and revising. Last September or October, after a year of my PhD, my time committed to my own writing had eroded so much. So I blitzed a bunch of competitions.
LK: Who was the first person you told about this prize?
AV: I called my partner Emily, first. Her response helped, it was very convincing, I mean, her lack of surprise. She’s been a great supporter of my writing.
LK: What does this public recognition mean for you?
AV: This means I really need to get my act together and write! It’s just so hard when you’re doing it yourself, for so long. But now I feel like I have an excuse to dedicate my time to my writing.
I’ve been doing it wrong for a long time. I mean, I haven’t been making any time to write and submit, and I regret that. It’s hard to put the effort in when, for so long, you’re doing it for yourself, without any significant feedback. But winning this award is immense feedback. It means I really need to get my act together and write! Now I feel like I have an excuse.
LK: Can you tell us about that, something about your writing process?
AV: I had a conversation with a friend the other day whose student is considering a creative writing degree. She asked the student if he wrote every day and he said no. For her, this meant he wasn’t capable of being a writer, because he didn’t have a daily impulsion to write. But writing is not an impulsion. It’s an issue of time management. You put in blocks of time on a regular basis, and those blocks will prime you for that so-called inspiration, as it comes and goes. And, realistically, there’s always time. Work expands to fit the time we allow for it. If I have two weeks to write a paper, I will take two weeks to write the paper. We can always fit one more thing in. I’ll just spend less time on Facebook!
I’ve been most productive when I’ve worked at boring menial jobs that give me bits of time to write now and then… When I have too much time, I get too obsessed with form or writing sequences. I’m terrible. I plot out an arc and the more labour and infrastructure I put around it the worse it becomes.
LK: Can you tell us about your winning poem, “Rite”?
AV: I first wrote it in 2010, I think, and although I’ve gone back to it, to tweak it, it hasn’t changed significantly since then. I really appreciated what the judges had to say about it. In fact, they reminded me of the gleeful aspects of the poem. I think that I began to write it with a great concern for detail but also with a sort of irony, with a kind of anti-nostalgia or quasi-nostalgia, so I forgot the simple glee it communicates.
LK: Can you give our readers an idea of what it’s about?
AV: I grew up in Nova Scotia, and at the end of every school year, my friends and I got together to burn our notes from the year, in a fire pit in my parents’ backyard. It didn’t start out as a self-conscious rite, but isn’t that always the case? When you’re performing a ritual, when you’re seeing it from inside, you don’t see it as a ritual but as a simple action or community practice. But that’s sort of what it became, in retrospect. Each year the group got larger.
“According to custom, beginning with the softer subjects
they burn everything. Thin dossiers of home ec, of gym,
of experimental courses in career and life management
torn from binders with calculated glee, filed into a pit.
Illumination by BBQ lighter, match, or cigarette
indicts suspect recipes, exotic laws of movement,
pamphlets urging C A L M .”
LK: How would you describe “Rite,” stylistically?
AV: That’s not easy to answer. Style is a pretty overdetermined word. I don’t really follow any particular form in “Rite.” Usually I develop a form for a poem as I write it, giving the inventiveness of the poem something to push against, but also letting it break that form when the poem is being held back.
LK: But would you say it’s lyrical, or-
AV: I can see why it might be called lyrical, despite my deliberate absenting of an I, yes, but I have to say that it’s more auto-ethnographic narrative. This shouldn’t really apply to poets, who should excel at talking about their craft, but you know how horrible it can be to read visual artists’ statements, right? I don’t know what it is, I just made it, but I don’t know what it is! [laughs]
LK: That sounds kind of Warholian.
AV: Okay, I’ll take that. It’s just that – the original events just have their own power when described in enough detail. Whatever rhetorical tricks I had, whatever irony or critical distance I slapped on, like a poor coat of paint, the original still has an emanation that I couldn’t really disrupt, even if I wanted to.
“Flies lifting off the heap of black fruit
occasional lit pages ride the updrafts, twirl and fist
on strings far above them, creep along night’s rafters,
snag on bright nailheads. In the cool beds of nearby
fields or woods, one or two land, the twinkle of maggots
still cruising along its edges. Leaves’ cheeks moon
LK: Who are your favourite poets, the ones who have influenced you the most?
AV: I’m not so much influenced by particular poets. At least, I’m not conscious of their influence, which I think is both a good thing and a typical thing. I tend to be repelled by individual poems and write against them. I’m hyper conscious about the way I reject poems.
LK: But which poets do you turn to, more often?
AV: [pause] That’s hard to say.
LK: [After several failed attempts, trying, for our readers, to get a straight answer, I pulled out my secret "spectrum" weapon...] Well, for example, from Bukowski to-
AV: I hate Bukowski! In fact I loathe him. He’s too easy! His affect is too easy. There’s a very long history, thousands of years, of poets writing in that drunken poet genre, and all of them do it better.
LK: And instead, you prefer-?
AV: Well, I guess if I were to wish myself into being a particular poet, it would be [Joseph] Brodsky, probably. Who is it that grouped Brodsky, Heaney and Walcott together as the three great masters of English verse? Well, I’ve always found [Seamus] Heaney a bit boring. I took a poetry class with [Derek] Walcott, but we were not on very good terms in the class and I’m afraid this has always affected my reading of him. Brodsky is the only one who consistently takes my breath away. I also like the British poet, Mark Haddon, right now, for his lyrical inventiveness, but I’m a fickle reader. My love affairs with poets are short.
LK: As well as getting your poem published in Descant, the cash prize that goes with this award is $1,000. May we be so rude as to ask what plans you have for the money?
[To be completely honest, for the next few minutes, Andy Verboom and I discussed what to do first with the cheque: take a picture of it? scan it? use the image as desktop wallpaper for daily inspiration?]
AV: This summer my partner is travelling in Europe and teaching in the UK, in sussex, and I’m tagging along. Now I can use this money to finance a bit of a writing retreat there.
All of us at Descant congratulate Andy Verboom and look forward to meeting him in person at our next launch, where he will recite his winning poem, “Rite,” excerpted above.
When I checked his blog yesterday, he’d written that, come the launch, “the drinks are on me.” When I asked him about this, he said he meant only drinks for his close friends. I pointed out that, as a wordsmith, he should know better and shouldn’t be surprised when all assembled for the launch slap him on the back in thanks for their drinks. (I don’t think he realizes just how many people come out for our launches, and I could see that $1,000 disappearing over the bar rather quickly.)
But serious poets are not the dreamy, ephemeral type. Andy Verboom pointed out to me that his blog has an edit function and he would be using it after our interview. Yet another kind of incineration.