Pierre Nepveu taught literature at Université de Montréal for thirty years. Poet, novelist, and essay writer, Professor Nepveu has published well over twenty books, including several collections of poetry and essays, three of which earned Governor General’s Literary Awards. He is also the author, with Laurent Mailhot, of La poésie québécoise des origines à nos jours, a much-loved Quebec poetry anthology, which was reprinted in 2007. Pierre Nepveu was involved in collecting the scattered works of poet Gaston Miron and is also the author of Miron’s biography, Gaston Miron. La vie d’un homme, published in 2011. Pierre Nepveu has received both the Athanase-David prize in Quebec and the Order of Canada for his life’s work and in 2015 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Did you read poetry when you were in school? Is there a particular poem that you loved or that you remember well?
We read little poetry in elementary school. I only remember La Fontaine’s fables, and the best-known ones: « La cigale et la fourmi » [“The Cicada and the Ant”] or « Le corbeau et le renard » [“The Raven and the Fox”]. Once, in what would be today middle and high school, poetry took a much more important place. I remember two poems in particular that I had learnt by heart and had made a strong impression on me, for different reasons. The first one is « La conscience » [“The Conscience”] by Victor Hugo. It is terribly tragic: Cain, who just killed his brother, Abel, roams through the world feeling guilty for murdering his brother. Everywhere he goes, everywhere he hides, an implacable eye observes and accuses him. It is the eye of his conscience and most likely the eye of God as well. He never escapes from it. The other poem is very different, but just as tragic. It is by André Chénier. In « La jeune Tarentine » [“The Young Tarentine”], a young woman named Myrto travels by boat to find her lover, but she accidentally falls in the water and dies, drowned. Mythological figures, nymphs, take her body back on the land. Never will she marry the lover waiting for her. These two poems are now in Les voix de la poésie’s anthology, thus proving that I never forgot them.
When did you first start writing poetry? And then when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
I started writing poems around 16. I was a very secretive teenager, I didn’t talk much. Poetry allowed me to find a language in which I could express my emotions. At 23 years old, I published my first poems in a journal and at 25, my first volume. Did I start thinking of myself as a poet then? It is hard to tell. On one side, yes, I felt that poetry was and would be my preferred means of expression (even if I wrote other types of books, novels, and essays.) On the other side, you are never certain that you’ll be a poet forever. For each book, and each day even, you must become poet again, you must find the spark to create. Will I still be a poet tomorrow? I believe and hope so, but can’t be certain. At one point of my life, I didn’t write poems for a few years. You don’t really know why it stops, nor do you know why it comes back.
What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
It is to work on yourself, a question of attitude, receptiveness, before being a question of writing, per se. To write poetry, I must look, listen and feel the world surrounding me, the people I encounter or spend time with, the places and landscapes I go through or live in. I would also say: listening to words, to sentences that I hear around me, or that I read on posters and in books. It is all about being available to what exists and happens. That, however, is insufficient. You must immerse yourself in poetry, read poems, as many as possible, from all times and countries. It is true for poetry as well as for all arts: a music composer must have listened to a lot of music, a movie director, seen many films, etc. For the poet, it is with this background of experiences and reading that poetry can emerge. Then another work becomes necessary: writing. Simply, every day preferably, let the words pour out, without trying to convey a message. After that, reread what you wrote, cross out what doesn’t make sense, what doesn’t sound good to the ear, replace this word by another more accurate, etc. Gaston Miron, a poet from Quebec, used to compare the poet’s work to the carpenter’s or cabinetmaker’s, building a piece of furniture. The worker needs to polish each piece, adjust mouldings, straighten up boards to, finally, create a whole that holds together, that has a shape and beauty. The poet does the same work on language, sentences and words.
What inspired you to write « Dernière visite » [translated into “Last Visit”]?
« Dernière visite » is the last poem in the section « Belle-Rivière » of my volume Lignes aériennes [Mirabel, translated by Judith Cowan], published in 2002. This volume is a series of poems telling the story of the Mirabel airport, from its inception to its closing down. The section « Belle-Rivière », however, doesn’t feature the airport itself, but the surrounding region, that I frequented as a child. Its rural landscapes, farms, and forests are inhabited by memories: a half-indigenous great-aunt, my father on summer vacations, a village church, etc. “Last Visit” is the conclusion of this section: because of the airport, the landscape is wrecked, there is violence in the development, barbed wire on top of fences. This “last visit” is my farewell to an entire world that had been inhabited, especially, by my paternal grandmother. She was the teacher of a rural school, before she immigrated to Montreal. At the very end of the poem, “the lost wild geese … on the empty runway” reveal this enterprise’s nonsense: the airport is closed, and there are no planes. It is thus a poem full of melancholia, with a sense of absurdity and even some anger.
If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology, which one would it be?
I think my choice would change depending on the day and my state of mind. But if I have to answer now, I will choose Frankétienne’s poem « Je m’envertige ». With other writers, I once met this poet who lives in Haiti. Did I choose the poem because of a memorable night? Probably, but it is mostly because of the exceptional power of the poem—the madness, chaos, all of the urban energy of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s great capital. Frankétienne’s language is frenetic, chanted, marked by strong images. To learn it by heart and recite it out loud would mean to let this energy flow into me, to make it mine, to feel my voice and body beat to the music of these words and this city.