This month BookThug is launching two chapbooks by poet Helen Guri.
Of her poetry chapbook Here Come the Waterworks, Helen writes, “Here come the waterworks” is in most contexts an accusation that someone is about to cry profusely in order to manipulate people. But since anyone who is paying attention ought to be crying profusely all the time, I do not believe this kind of manipulation exists, and so, contrary to appearances, I am not accusing anyone of anything by using this phrase, least of all myself. Rather, I have written a series of works about water, and I wish to present them straightforwardly.
Illustrated throughout with diagrams both helpful and fanciful, Microphone Lessons for Poets is partly real instructions about microphones that people can use, and partly a feminist manifesto that people can’t.
BookThug intern Emma Hambly recently interviewed Helen about her striking new collection, Here Come the Waterworks, and the engaging and informative Microphone Lessons for Poets.
Helen will be reading from Here Come the Waterworks and Microphone Lessons for Poets in one week at the BookThug Summer Chapbook Launch Party. The event takes place Wednesday June 10, 2015, at Videofag (187 Augusta Avenue, Toronto), and will feature additional readings by Robert Anderson, Lisa Gordon, and a video reading by Rachel Rose. The event will run from 7:00-10:00 PM. For more information, or to RSVP, please visit the FB page here.
If you find yourself in the Kingston area this Saturday, June 6, don’t miss Helen at the Wolfe Island Literary Festival. For more information visit here.
EH: The title of your collection, Here Come the Waterworks, signals readers to its sustained water imagery—rain, showers, tears, washing, cooking, oozing. What drew you to this motif?
HG: The liquid imagery happened in part because I was reading about crowd behaviour. Theories of it have changed lots over time but one thing that has stayed pretty constant is a metaphoric connection between crowds and liquid—water imagery is what we reach for to describe how people move when they’re together, as in “a sea of people,” or “a turbulent uprising.” Lately there has even been some research suggesting the connection is literal. Bodies are made up largely of water. Crowds on sidewalks have roughly the same patterns of flow and counter-flow as streams and tides. And when crowd deaths happen, it tends to be because of “wave action” against a hard barrier like a fence, or an “undertow,” the same way you might die swimming.
EH: Your sense of character is strong in “Quikrete Self-Levelling Cement Compound: Consumer Feedback” and “Some Containers and Ways to Make Them Spill.” Do you enjoy inventing and inhabiting different perspectives, or are these speakers in some way extensions of yourself?
HG: I do enjoy making characters sometimes, but the “I” in both of those poems is me, more or less. “Quikrete” came about one day when I was taking a nap while my now-ex began to pour cement in our then-yard. It was supposed to be the foundation for a shed but neither of us knew anything about cement and it went everywhere. At some point I woke up and ran outside to “help” and we spent a really tense half hour or so making a kind of sculpture. It’s still there. “Look upon my works, ye mighty…” and all that.
EH: Your poem “Kettle” is a fascinating experiment in collage, as it creates a new work and new meanings out of quotations from Tamar Adler’s cookbook An Everlasting Meal and the Ontario Provincial Police Crowd Control Manual (1970). Did you find setting these guidelines for yourself restrictive or freeing?
HG: Both! Composing and revising with those texts meant I had to more or less memorize them (in the case of the Crowd Control Manual, which is fairly short, cover to cover), so I could speak in their voices. But when I did manage to put a pair of lines together, I was free to appreciate the result without the angst that usually accompanies my composition process. Basically I spent several months laughing at my own jokes, which I reasoned was socially acceptable, since they weren’t really mine.
EH: Throughout your work and especially in “Quikrete Self-Levelling Cement Compound: Consumer Feedback” I noticed a good deal of true rhyme, slant rhyme, eye rhyme, and assonance. What place do you think rhyme has in contemporary, free verse poetry?
HG: I’m getting a bit of a “painting is dead so why are you painting” vibe from this question, which in my mind is a false premise. All the art modes that have ever existed continue. We’re free to use any of them at any point, and if we use them, they’re alive. In the case of rhyme specifically there are lots of reasons a person might want to—pleasure, the way it can create connections between words that aren’t logical or grammatical, referencing hip hop, making fun of Dylan Thomas, whatever.
EH: You end “Kettle” with the line, “If there is anything you can learn from what is happening, learn it.” Has this kind of approach played a role in your life? Does any situation have the potential to inspire your poetry?
I would really like to learn from what is happening. There is still time. I am still trying.
EH: Microphone Lessons for Poets manages to be both very funny and genuinely helpful. Did any disastrous past experiences with microphones prompt the creation of this handy guide?
HG: The short answer is no. The long answer is that in the lead-up to the launch of my first book of poetry, Match, which is about a sex doll, I was inordinately nervous about reading on stage into a microphone in front of people. I worried about feedback, literally. I worried about the fact that I knew nothing about microphones or sound systems.
Now, I don’t think you have to be a Freudian analyst to connect my fear of microphones to a fear of the audience, and more specifically, male members thereof. Basically I was worried about poetry dicks. I didn’t know what to do with them, and still don’t, but one small consolation is that I have learned what to do with a microphone.
EH: I loved the line “You are a poet, not a motivational speaker.” Are there any other poetry reading faux pas you can warn us about?
HG: The book isn’t intended to be an etiquette guide, though I see how that line kind of sounds like it belongs in one. I would love to see poets don trainers and hop around on stage inspiring people, but in order to do that they’d need headset mics, which is not one of the kinds I discuss, so really that line is about the limitations of form.
Auden famously wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen,” which is kind of a whiny thing to say when you think about it, though apparently he had his reasons (the line is less irritating in context than out of context). Sometimes I try to make hummus with a fork, because I recently moved and don’t own a masher, and when I do I feel like screaming “forks make nothing happen!” and it’s true. But the hardware store isn’t really that far. One day I’ll go. I believe in action. I think for the most part Auden did too.
EH: Your sister Cara Guri provided the whimsical illustrations for this text. What was it like collaborating? And have you worked on anything together in the past?
HG: My sister and I have collaborated lots since childhood but never publicly. Previous projects include interviewing hamsters for radio and cutting up our mom’s house coat to make hobby horses. She’s normally a painter—she makes incredibly gorgeous photorealistic canvases of things like her own face covered in post-it notes, or people flicking the kitchen light switch. She doesn’t normally illustrate things or work in pen/pencil, so this was a huge favour. Basically I guilted her into it by drawing the diagrams first myself and threatening to publish them.
Helen Guri is the author of Match, published by Coach House Books, and shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Her poems and essays have been published widely in Canada, as well as in the U.S. and Australia. She currently works as a freelance editor of fiction and nonfiction for various large and small presses, and edits poetry for Brick Books. She lives in Toronto.
Emma Hambly is a Master’s student in the Literatures of Modernity
program at Ryerson, with a degree in English Literature from McGill.
It is rare to find her without a book.