Neil Surkan is the author of On High (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2018) and the chapbooks Their Queer Tenderness (Knife-Fork-Book, 2020) and Super, Natural (Anstruther Press, 2017). A new poetry collection, Unbecoming, is forthcoming from McGill-Queen's University Press (2021). He is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at the University of Calgary, where he is writing a creative dissertation (comprising a collection of poems and a theoretical essay) that explores the relationship between poetry and activism: In what ways do poems inspire change? How might poems go on the offensive? Must a poem be provocative to be proactive?
Neil loves poems that make the world feel unfamiliar and, therefore, more precious — poems that merge vibrant descriptions, startling observations and intimations, and bewildering approaches to form. Poets who're influencing him right now include Ange Mlinko, Mark Ford, Sarah Howe, Michael Hofmann, Durs Grunbein, Tess Liem, A.E. Stallings, Tomas Tranströmer, Eduardo C. Corral, Natalie Diaz, Bill Knott, Natalie Shapero, Wendy Xu, Lisa Robertson, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Not really. I was obsessed with playing in a band. We wrote our own songs — earnest pop horrors — and performed offensively long sets in creepy little cafes around the Okanagan Valley. I sang and played piano. Ocassionally, one of us would perform a spoken word poem while the others noodled around. I hope no recordings survive.
I started thinking about poems — about how hard writing poetry is, how poems are like nesting dolls — in my first year as an undergraduate. Around that time, I gave some poems to the professor of a Modernist Poetry course. He said, very generously, "I would wait to publish."
I never refer to myself as a poet, but I think about writing poems all the time and have since I was twenty or so.
Make everything in the world feel even more precious.
The first line [of "On High"] whizzed into my head and then I started thinking about how continuous, how whole, things (bodies, trees, rocks, lakes, etc.) appear to be. And yet, there is so much space in everything.
Matthew Zapruder's "Sun Bear." The first time I read it I felt astonished by how conversational it is, and yet how subtlely it moves from one subject to the next: the poem seems seductively easy to read, until you realize it's actually very weird and disorienting. It's like getting in an elevator only to exit into a different city. Or, like, finding out your airplane is a submarine. Especially because the poem isn't punctuated — and because it has no stanza breaks — I also feel very satsified by how amorphous it appears, on the one hand, and yet how clearly a particular line of thinking delineates (due to excellent line breaks) on the other.