Michael Prior is a writer and teacher. His most recent book of poems, Burning Province (McClelland & Stewart/Penguin Random House, 2020), won the Canada-Japan Literary Award and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize from the BC and Yukon Book Prizes. He is also the author of Model Disciple (Signal Editions/Véhicule Press, 2016), which was named one of the best books of the year by the CBC.
Michael is the recipient of fellowships from the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, the Jerome Foundation, and Hawthornden Literary Retreat. His poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies across North America and the UK, including Poetry, The New Republic, Narrative Magazine, Kenyon Review, the Asian American Writers' Workshop's The Margins, PN Review, Global Poetry Anthology (2015 and 2020), and the Academy of American Poets' Poem-A-Day series.
Michael holds graduate degrees from the University of Toronto and Cornell University. He teaches at Macalester College.
I was introduced to poetry when I was in high school, and, luckily, I had a wonderful series of teachers who taught me to focus on a poem as a complex experience in language, rather than as something to be "decoded." The first poem I memorized for a class was Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night." But later I fell in love with and memorized poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Thomas Hardy, and Emily Dickinson.
I didn't start writing poetry until about halfway through my undergraduate degree; I was a literature major and never took a creative writing workshop until graduate school; I just read voraciously, scribbled in notebooks, and had the good fortune to be encouraged by some of my professors. I think I first started thinking of myself as a poet when I realized that the poems I admired, the poems I wanted to write, were built on questions, rather than answers, and that, to me, was a revelation: that my own uncertainties about my self, the intersections I inhabited in the world, could be explored, complicated, deepened, and sometimes even ephemerally clarified (though never resolved), through the making of poems.
I think there are as many ways of conceptualizing what a poet's "job" is as there are ways of writing a memorable and moving poem. For me, it's a multitude of things: to pay attention and bear witness, to discover how I might honestly define myself in relation to the world, to follow the music of language, to speak to the dead and the unborn, to unsettle and console.
The poem is an ekphrastic poem--that is, it responds to a piece of visual art. In this case, a series of haunting photographs by the Japanese Canadian visual artist Kayla Isomura. The poem explores the forced dispossession and displacement of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War (my grandparents and their families were sent to an internment camp). I think the poem also gestures to how legacies of racism and prejudice persist in the present.
"Nocturne for a Moving Train" by Valzhyna Mort.