Born in Vancouver, Stephanie Bolster teaches in and coordinates the creative writing program at Concordia University in Montreal. Her first book, White Stone: The Alice Poems, won the Governor General’s Award and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her fourth and most recent book of poetry, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, while an excerpt from her current manuscript was a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. Her interests include perception and representation, with a particular focus on the visual arts, domestic spaces, “ruin porn,” theme parks, and the “middle landscape” of zoos and gardens.
Initially, I read only the poetry assigned to me in English classes, most of which was not particularly compelling. I do remember being left wordless by Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz — ,” a poem that continues to leave me with the sensation she described as the epitome of poetry’s impact: “If I physically feel as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
So Dickinson found me in a classroom anthology, and then, when I was sixteen, I found Sylvia Plath through a pen-pal (yes, this was a long time ago) and never quite got the top of my head back. I had been writing stories and, sometimes, poems, since early childhood, but Plath was the first writer who made poetry feel urgent and vital, the first writer who made me fall in love not only with the impact but with the work of writing. Discovering her work meant discovering myself. Or, this part of myself. The impression of her work was more cumulative than rooted in individual poems, though her “Blackberrying” led, years later, to a poem of my own, and the last line of it — “Beating and beating at an intractable metal” — has never left me.
I started several times, really — writing a haiku in Grade 2 that I still remember, silly rhymes about stuffed animals, lovestruck poems about pop stars — but that encounter with Plath’s work when I was sixteen was the start with the most momentum, the one that precipitated my present identity as a poet. Looking back, I would say that I began to think of myself as a poet then, in the summer of 1986. I claimed the identity then more easily than I claim it now, in many ways; it was not at all connected to others’ expectations or notions of career, but driven entirely by my own insistent need to write.
I’m in a transitional state with respect to that question. I believe each poet makes their own job description. In my case, I felt, until very recently, that my job was simply to express, by which I mean think and feel and experience through writing — not write a poem that is a distillation of a previous experience but one that is itself an experience, and a risky one. (So I guess I don’t mean “simply to express.” There is nothing simple about it.) I still believe that, but increasingly I feel that the best poetry also arises from some social calling, or fulfills some social need. This is not to say that I’m a fan of agenda-driven poetry, as I’m generally not. And I don’t believe a poet needs to have any designs on their audience. But they shouldn’t go easy on themselves. The work that reaches me most deeply interrogates more than presents; there is something at stake beyond the need to write a “good poem,” whatever that is. There is so much in this world that could be better. Poetry can be a relief from those issues, but it’s more potent when it’s an engagement with them, however oblique. Even a haiku can be political.
I’m vaguely embarrassed to speak about that poem in light of what I’ve just said, as the spark that lit it was the sonic resonance between “Alice” and “Elvis.” The slant rhyme got the poem going. Also, on a conceptual level, the fact that both familiar figures are icons about whom many of us know very little interested me, and made me feel that this exploration would bring something new to the manuscript of Alice poems I was writing. Sound and concept were the ways into that poem, but once I began to write it, it was the process of imagining the two as thinking, feeling beings that moved the poem forward. I didn’t anticipate the ending until I got there.
I’ve already memorized Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover,” out of sheer love, so I’ll make myself choose something else. There are so many I could choose, and my reasons for each would be very different. I was going to say Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” which has long been a favourite of mine — its journey from rambling first draft to tone-shifting, tricky villanelle is one I love to share with students, and one that affirms my own long and messy practice — but I think I’d opt for a poem farther outside my own aesthetic: Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado.” The less evident meaning the text holds, the more challenging to memorize, and being called away from sense and toward sound would open me up to embody the poem, as I feel one must when memorizing, rather than simply holding it in one’s head. I am drawn to Stein but can rarely articulate the impact of her work on me without resorting to clichés and vague generalities. Coming to know even one of her poems from inside would nurture a deeper understanding. And just saying those words aloud — so playfully provocative — would be so much fun.