Interviews

The Arleen Paré Interview

This conversation took place on December 18th, 2023, between Victoria, Canada and São Sebastião, Brazil via Zoom. It has been edited for clarity.

Arleen Paré: So where are you right now, Kevin?

Kevin Andrew Heslop: I’m just west of São Sebastião, about a seven-minute bike ride from the coast.

That’s wonderful, and so unusual.

It’s not unusual at all, because of course we live a life of one kismet coincidence conceding to the next, and this one conspired by fates greater than ours to ensure that I would be speaking to you about a book which was written to mythologize—shall we say?—someone from São Paulo.

São Paulo, yes.

Which is only like this far away from where I am right now.

I know! Amazing? When you wrote and said you were so close, I thought, Unbelievable.

Very nearly.

Have you been to São Paulo?

I flew into São Paulo and spent an afternoon, an evening, and a morning there before I went to a place called Ilhabela, which is off the coast between São Paulo and Rio. Have you been to São Paulo? Did you go?

I have not. My sister has been, of course, a couple of times. I have only heard about it.

That’s the thing, being chief confidant. And there are details about the place in Absence of Wings that felt accurately descriptive to what it was like (during the brief time I was there).

Uh-huh.

You perform a bit of an act of ventriloquy in a way, no?

That’s true. I’d not even thought about it, but in a way, I think that’s right. Meanwhile you’re performing an act of I don’t know what. Change artist. Very nice.

*tying mane* I mean, we are participant to a cosmos which is itself always in the midst of fluctuant change, which is why we need to meditate in the midst of it, because there’s sometimes a lot going on.

There is an awful lot going on and it’s good to slow down.

Can we start by talking about slowing down? Was it ’98 that you started the meditation practice? I think that there’s real significance to an understanding of your work through an understanding of your meditation practice. I saw so much pleasure that you were taking in your craft in this book—but I see that in all of your works, really—and you didn’t start writing until about a decade after you started the meditation practice? Is that about right?

In terms of a concerted act of writing, yes, but I had started writing around the same time as I started meditating. Meditation in ’98, writing in ’95, ’96, something like that. And it’s true that I do take an awful lot of pleasure in writing. I wouldn’t do it unless I was taking pleasure.

Mm.

But yes, we can talk about meditation, because it’s extremely important.

Well, yeah, let’s start there, because I do already have a number of questions in response to what you just said there, because I think that in addition to taking pleasure, there’s this sense of enacting the ennoblement of lived life into the realm of myth. You do this transmutation of lived reality—and I think increasingly personal work. You’re like, Earle Street can equally be a side-street in Olympus.

That’s right. There is that, and a hook at the end of the street that leads to the ocean.

But yeah, meditation. Why?

Why? Oh, very clearly to avoid torture.

I think when we were together in Victoria, you had said that you started meditating so that you could survive being tortured.

Yes, that’s what I mean by “avoid torture,” yes, that has always been the cause. And also, I think this other thing that happened when I was working decades in bureaucracy—which was its own form of torment—and it took over more and more of my life—I felt I could never slow down. Even sleeping I would wake up middle of the night, several times, thinking about what I had to do the next day. It was overwhelming. I had to find a way to calm down, to manage the torment, so that was the immediate cause.

I’m imagining that that took place in crescendo from a young age. I don’t imagine you being a tranquil or subdued five-year-old but rather very energetic and bustling and very curious, no?

Yes, very bustly. Very fast. As Chris would point out, I have Mercury close to my sun sign. If that’s of any import.

And I think that that translates to a pace and an agility on the page. I was thinking about how you use spaces rather than punctuation—sometimes punctuation just to guide the reader, as I’ve seen you say in a past interview—and I wonder whether that has to do with rendering the pacy-ness of experience. That the ideal Arleen Paré poem would be unpunctuated because the syntax and spacing would be such that it could be read in one go without the intrusion of a comma.

You’re quite right. So if I do ever use punctuation, it’s because I want to formalize the poem, bring more formal attention to the poem. But I prefer no punctuation. I prefer that readers can just breathe, as Betsy Warland would say, breathe the page. Keep reading and breathing and stopping and in and out, just like that. When I first started writing, my first teacher was Betsy Warland, so I learned that spaces on the page were as important as the words on the page.  It suited me.

I’ve just written a poem about my grandfather, who was born in County Antrim, Ireland, out of wedlock in 1872. You can imagine the almost-life he had. The poem is called, The Poet Keeps a Basket of Gaps On Her Desk. The gaps, the gaps, the gaps—because of course I don’t know his whole life, so the gaps are more than just the page gaps, but also historical gaps. 

A Poet Keeps Baskets of Gaps in Her Desk

She sprinkles gaps   two or three   down a line 

each one the size of a   breath   a gasp

a short intake   of    a daisy chain of spaced blanks

in the barn   among the new lambs  

                                    space   space    space   knowing how

crowded   a barn of livestock   can feel     

in a line of unrhyming   short line   or long line 

before inhalation   exhalation   the pulses inside the barn   

where the boy   sleeps  

he is a six-year-old child  

despite the ache

in the place  

where his heart   and where his neck

meets his spine

she arranges her spaces

unspoken   commemorations    each one   

nothing but   moonless  

what does she know 

no periods   caps   no commas at all

each blank  

withholds

respiring out   backwards   into the past

where the fissures   where the gaps

once   began  

what remains is a   fiction

the child   Thomas   might not be

not be   quite   acceptable   the way   removing her hat

in a church was not   sanctioned  

not quite   a sin

but still   not approved

using holes   enough for whole generations  

to look back   peer through   beyond  

blue eyes   or brown eyes

where words

might try   might have already dropped

into the slant human genes

peering into that old Rasharkin barn  

full of chinks   where the stories   where the drystones  

don’t quite   measure or meet   in the north-facing wall   where the wind  

spills through   in winter  

a space might be   a thin opening   a window 

to peer into the past   might be a   portal  

a slight tear in the fabric of the eternal  

an artifice of the imperfect now

each space   a self-serving   

the way a creek holds

together 

its two facing banks   

and the boy   who is only a boy  

breathing into the straw   fistfuls  

the spot   where he sleeps

in his stall just inside the wide door

his place there   a small child-sized hollow

one pillow   the straw-strewn floor  

one newborn lamb  

these linears   these subsequent   breaks 

my inherited   loneliness  

my inherent fear of the dark

he made a life of it

life choosing life

there was always   the sky

I’m also thinking about that rhythm of breathing in and breathing out, and how there’s an oscillation between forms in Absence of Wings. Would you go so far as to think of the difference in textures of metre or lines—one italicized and maybe more personal and the other a more mythologic voice? Did you think of those as in-breath and an out-breath or is that just something that you encourage the reader to be doing from page to page?

I want the reader to understand what I’m saying, and how I’m saying it.  I’m thinking, how best can I convey this page? That page? This piece of writing? And breathing is part of it. Writing can be hard to convey. Especially poetic form: poets leave out a ton of information, hoping the reader can come along with you.  For me, the spacing or punctuation or italics all signal something that readers can then take in as communication, as understanding. 

I’ve invoked this quote a number of times in interviews that I’ve conducted recently, but I’ve heard that a haiku of which we understand 70% is good haiku; a haiku of which we understand 40% is great haiku.

*laughs* I like that. I have to say: it’s awfully good to see you, Kevin.

Oh my god, I can’t even tell you. How quickly I just became a professional nonsense as if this interview was taking place as opposed to a hello how are you?

No, no, it’s completely a hello hi how are you, and I’m so glad to see you thriving. I always imagine you thriving wherever you are. And when do you come back to us?

I don’t intend to return to Canada until April.

Goodness gracious. Well, we’ll all wear black until you return.

*laughs* You know, it’s funny: when I left for Europe earlier this year, I think it was two weeks after I had arrived in Serbia that the wildfires broke out on the east coast and in Ontario and a friend of mine was saying that the country had decided to immolate itself; and then when it found out that I booked my return ticket, things started to quiet down; and now the whole country is ensnarled in black awaiting my return.

Yes, we are. I’ll go and change right now. I’m wearing much too fancy a colour for your absence.

Only in public—I thought that was the decree. Private colours are fine.

Okay, I can handle that.

I mean I’m compelled to ask something like “how have you been” but I also feel like this work is a testament to how you’ve been; and it’s not that we haven’t seen each other since the book—I think you had written the book since last we saw each other.

That’s right.

Alright, well dare I ask, How are things? May I? Is that too banal?

Yes, you definitely may. Things are fine. I’m getting older, and noticeably. I’m now 77, and, somehow,  turning 77—as opposed to what, 75? 70?—made me think, whoa, how many years are left? These years are numbered. If I live ten years, I’ll be lucky. Ten years. It is sobering.  So yes, I’m well, but sober.

Right.

And yet at the same time, it’s freeing.

Tell me about the freeing.

There’s something about life that’s a burden. I know we are happy about life and the gift of it; at the same time, it’s a burden.

Mm.

There is suffering and as I’ve said, that’s why meditate.

It has been a theme of your work of late, grief and its transmutation.

We hope.

We hope.

We do.

As the lotus flower converts the swamp to many-petalled radiance and light, the petals of the lotus not unlike pages of poetry penned by one Arleen Paré.

*chuckling*

Did Patrick—I think Patrick Lane said that you are a gift the world has given us.

Yes. Patrick would say that. He did. What a lovely thing to say.

Very sweet.

Very sweet. Patrick had a certain wonderful sweetness. I should ask how you are doing.

I am … You know, speaking of suffering, there’s this trope of course that the poet has to be, or the artist has to be, wounded and staggering and holding their bloody intestines back from slithering and tripping them like festooned—

*chuckling*

—Skipping ropes. And sure, sure, I don’t want to take away from that. Lovely. Wonderful. Whatever floats your boat. But if you’re sufficiently empathic, then there’s plenty of suffering in the world for you to feel.

Really. It’s almost unbearable. Bearable, but very upsetting.

I mean, I’m four weeks into five months in Brazil and Costa Rica, the first three weeks here at a writers’ retreat; and I’ve been working on a book of poems that I started in Finland this year.

That’s so great. Kevin is a gift to the world *chuckling*.

Thanks for saying so. I mean, on that topic, I do think about—if this is not a phrase that Henry Ford has had too much to do with—output, as a poet. And I think my first full-length book will be followed by my second by something like four years. And maybe the next book of poems might not come out until 2026, 2027—and I don’t have a publisher for it, alas, yet.

               But you strike me as vivacious and prolific and I wonder, returning to the context, say, of the trajectory of your practice, whether an early retirement and the energy that had maybe built up working in a bureaucracy being canalized into these various books—It seems like there are always two or three on the go at a time. One on the recesses of the stove, one on simmer, and one on the boil.

Indeed.  

Talk to me a little bit about maintaining multiple projects simultaneously, the energy you bring to them, how you choose the projects, when you know. I think falling in love has a lot to do with it for you.

True, and it’s also true the way that you describe my practice as having something on the back burner, something that’s about to be published, and something I’m writing right now. It pleases me. To have all of them happening at once is delightful.

               There were four years between my first book, Kevin, and my second book—just to say. And four years after that, so my beginning was a little more tempered, and then things started taking off as I understood what the projects could be. I write mostly thematically: I find a project and then know what my poetic focus will be and I write to that focus. I’m not generally writing occasional poems. During the years I wrote about Earle Street, I sometimes would just look out my Earle Street window—and I write a poem. 

               But perhaps, like Phyllis Webb, I will run out of things to say. That’s reasonable. And why would I keep writing just stuff if I didn’t have something to say or a reason to write? Well, except for the pleasure. I have now written ten books. I have another one coming out at the end of ’24, beginning of ’25, about my grandson. It’s called Encrypted. The trilogy of back burner, front burner, and off the stove is happening right now. Then I sort of ran into my grandfather and that became back burner and has since been brought to the front.

               I don’t know what’s going to happen for any more projects. I do have some, of course—and a ton of occasional poems that could go into a book. And I also have a plan for a book called Fallacies Logical and Otherwise. I can’t remember what you asked. Did you ask me something?

My questions are less important than your responses in the same way that, you know, it’s the consequence of a catalyst that gives a catalyst its meaning.

*laughs* Right. I just say, Right.

*laughing* Right.

No, I had asked also how you were doing—true. So it sounds like you’re away for a while writing, writing, and you have another book coming along. And I think the publishers will be at your doorstep once they hear from you.

I have no doubt.

Do you have a title for it?

There are a few different books that are on the go at the moment, but—

He confesses.

—He confesses, but—

*laughs*

—The one that I like is, mango gelato¹ Pangea²—

*laughs*

—Which is perfectly nonsensical and would also have superscript—a superscript one after the phrase mango gelato and then Pangea, two—because the entire book is found poetry collage. So, since the residency in Finland, I’ve just been kind of devouring libraries wherever I’ve been and then—

Oh, ho.

—Taking words and phrases from the books and making poems out of the words and phrases—

Yes! So great.

—And so “mango gelato” is one such phrase, and “Pangea,” likewise. And everything’s footnoted to the bottom of the page.

It does sound pleasurable *laughing*.

You’ll be the first to receive a copy.

Thank you. But I hold you not to it. So when you were in Finland, were you in English libraries, then?

At the residency itself, I think like 94% of the books were in English. There were a few in Finnish; and I’m not sure that there were any other languages there—maybe the occasional European language. You can find English texts almost everywhere. In the library that I’m sitting in in the moment there are probably thirty books in English of maybe three hundred in Portuguese. But I would even use newspapers at a café.

Yeah, yeah. Okay. Excellent.

But I’m feeling good. And I think a lot of it—and informed by a meditation practice—has a lot to do with not being too actively online.

Yeah.

I do spend a lot of time on the internet, but I do feel like a body in space. And just today I was staggered in gratitude for being able to be here and feeling super present and that’s not an unfamiliar state of affairs, so.

That’s so fabulous. Congratulations.

It’s an ongoing thing.

Daily.

And in Brazil, and not so very far from São Paulo, which is where Absence of Wings begins, in some ways.

Yes.

from Absence of Wings

A. is a whole other language   Brazilian Portuguese

is what she translates

knowing nothing about this new English tongue  

its strange arrangements of sounds

time is not simply a clock   not always a friend 

nor does it spiral or pivot   counter or spin  

it simply moves on   as if it knows where it’s going  

entering whole other places   each minute in a deft row

nor is each minute always a friend

in the driver’s seat the woman’s friend drives the car through the blur of traffic and snow

the sky still falling out of itself   soft pieces of cloud

the windshield fogs time to time as if mist   a miasma

time to time the new mother swivels her head   looks back to check A. and the dog.

are they getting along  

the dog is getting along  

not so much A. jammed as she is against the solid

the bitter cold door

the plastic bag now empty in her purple wool lap.

Let me see if I can ask a question here. I think this brings together some of we’ve already been discussing. I wanted to ask you about how you thought about and enacted how to position yourself as the poet in relation to the story of Absence of Wings.

               I mean, we used the word ventriloquy, and also the phrase “basket of gaps.” And I’m noticing for instance the phrase from the preface, “A’s story, partial and partially fictionalized,” as well as lines from the opening stanzas, “I could call this mythology   authentic in part / as mythology sometimes begins in partial truth.” and the couplet, “I know so much / I know so little” and uncertainty about whether your sister had shown or described to you a small headshot of A, again bringing to the reader’s mind the speaker’s subjectivity.

               And I’m thinking about how you thought about yourself and your position as the poet in relation to the subject and what your responsibility was, maybe.

This is an important question. There are lots of levels of responsibility here. One, of course, is to my sister, and to the memory of A, but the other is that I’m a little out of my depth: I’m writing about a culture I don’t understand. A. is from Brazil. I’m writing about adoption that I haven’t personally experienced, serious mental illness that I know only from distance. Racism that doesn’t necessarily apply to me in person.

               I used C.D. Wright’s One with Others as a model when writing this book, but I had to consult with a number of different people to make it work in this context, and I learned that I needed to write the book with me inside this story. So I inserted myself everywhere, as, of course, I had been inserted for years into my sister’s life and in A’s life. As I did this, the book started to take a more compelling shape. I talked much more to my sister about things I didn’t understand and asked her to send me documents, which she did so generously. This book wouldn’t have happened without her. And as I mention in the book, she has published her own memoir, which is unbelievably heartbreaking and flawlessly written, a very beautiful book.

               As I received the documents from her, asking her then more questions more deeply, really it broke my heart, and so the book itself kind of broke open a little bit more. It was a huge learning experience. Inserting me was really important, which I did not because I was the center of the story—at all—but because the story needed me in there.

               I think it was Grace Paley who once said—quoted by Carolyn Forché—You can write about anything as long as you put yourself inside of it.

I mean, one of the sort of happy coincidences of doing that and sort of admitting your own subjectivity in the voice of the poet is that you have these sorts of coincidences of the fallibility of memory combined with the of baskets of gaps that you mentioned earlier and how that then invites the reader’s subjectivity.

Yeah, I think that’s true—and I think that the reader then better trusts the author, because, if you assume literary authority, the reader will likely trust you; but if you assume that authority and then note that it might also be fallible, that is even more convincing. 

And thinking of C.D. Wright’s example, One Among Others, and how that was maybe more journalistic than Absence of Wings, I found myself beginning to ask you a question which was so reductively statistical, like, A. is born December 8th, 1976 in São Paulo, abandoned in 1980, and adopted on January 16th, 1985.

               And I had written that sentence to prepare a second sentence and then a question, but I was just staggered with grief at how a sentence of that kind, full of bare facts and dehumanized, misrepresents the story. And I wonder if you could say a word about that tension between poetry and journalism.

C.D. Wright’s book is beautifully poetic, written from the perspective of poetic witness—about her best friend. And although I would love to write like C.D. Wright—I admire her writing very much—some of it seemed a little bit journalistic, a little tiny bit, but never entirely at all. And it’s true that all the statistics around a life are important enough because it situates the life, but the life that’s lived between the numbers is so different than the numbers themselves.

               Right now, with my grandfather, born in 1872, baptized in the same year—Nobody knows the actual date of his birth: it hasn’t been recorded or the recordings were burned, as in Ireland there were a number of archival records that burned. So I have his life also in numbers and places but then I have to invent much of his life from memories, from imagination. I’m really fabricating huge amounts. But that is all distant history.

So, one’s license to invent increases in proportion to the distance from the life? I think an actor might say something similar.

Perhaps. But still, in the case of my grandfather, I could offend some cousins perhaps. 

I think this brings up the question of genre. And work that appears to be part-memoir, and I’m thinking about a recent conversation with the poet Tara McGowan-Ross who had just written, a few years before, her memoir, and published it, and had noticed the way in which the text remained static while she continued to change.

Right.

I’m not sure whether Absence of Wings is far enough in the rearview mirror, so to speak, for you to have undergone changes significant enough to make the text feel incomplete or unfamiliar or—I wonder about that distance as you move away from the writing of the book. And this question could be with regard to any number of books that you’ve written—the text remaining static and you changing.

When I talk about having to place myself inside that story, Absence of Wings—I call it a story—that did change me because the latter information I received from Donna. I had had plenty of  information over the phone and from visits, but there were more issues I needed to pursue, to ask her about: school records, hospital records, the fact that she had attended so many meetings in so much pain because of her position, as she says, at the end of the table in a school meeting and being a single mother. How the authorities talked to her so that she felt positioned as one-down. That made her suffer. And then she talks about when she would get home and have to be upbeat for the children. Although she and I talked on the phone so much, the written detail changed me.

“I[3]  have left A. in the hospital too many times.  A desolate feeling, missing someone who should be at home, and so often walking out of a hospital, a wind comes from around a corner of the building. Makes me lonely.” – from Falling Together by Donna McCart Sharkey

I’m thinking about this scene of her being so carefully watched during the layover in the States coming from São Paulo to Canada by the border guard or someone in a military or paramilitary position just to make sure that they—I don’t know—didn’t try to make a run for it or something like this, and of the gravity of that maybe first exposure to systemic racism.

That’s right and shocking. Arriving at that New York airport and realizing the guard was always there was her first experience, and her first measure of racism—and it didn’t stop, of course.

And returning to you, I think about the way in which this book, in ways in which, perhaps a little different from previous books of yours, could have fostered a synthesis of parts of yourself: the social worker observing in slow-moving detail an international adoption and this systemic racism we’re discussing; the sister and confidant part of yourself; and the poet enacting the story into the realm of myth. Did this experience serve to personalize the experience of interacting with bureaucracies like those you wrote about in Paper Trail?

               But in terms of the institutions or the bureaucracy of social work, there are so many different ways that social work performs in society. But when I first met my partner, Chris, she said, I hate social work. Because she had been on the other end of social work. And I said, that’s going to be tricky.

               And so I think, as they say, the person dignifies the job. And although many jobs, many workers, including social workers, are required to observe relevant laws, bylaws, policies,  individual workers have their own ways of enacting all of those policies, et cetera. I do think there are too many policies that injure people, but I also think that there are lots of ways that workers who are decent can maneuver around them. That’s why we meditate too.

And that has to do with maximizing the agency of those that one comes into contact within that line of work, yeah?

Yes. We would hope. Yes.

You’d mentioned Chris and it seems to me that many of the books of poetry that you’ve written have been precipitated by a falling in love. With the lake and with the girls with stone faces and with A. and with Pat Hurdle.

True.

And I wonder if you’d say a few words about that.

Mhm. Yeah. Falling in love with a project: that theme with the girls, falling in love with their statues, their sculptures in the National Art Gallery; falling in love with Etel Adnan when I first read about her life, when I read her poetry. Of course, falling in love with the lake happened before I could even speak. Pat Hurdle, yes, when I was about five years old, falling in love with her and her friendship. The appeal that has. Some glimmer or spark in the universe there for you. And by writing about it, making it  your own. But applying poetic language to whatever project is the biggest gift. I love using language, finding best words, best order. The way that you found language in books and now are using it. That’s so appealing. Its own divine delight.

I think that part of the pleasure I see you taking in your work—and maybe, again, particularly this book—is the orchestration of the polyrhythms of sentences. And I wonder whether—Were you particularly musical as a kid? Did that musicality come from the study of poetry and metre a little later in life? How did you get to be so musical *laughs*?

I’m not at all musical and I can’t sing worth a damn. But I do love dancing. And I also love patterns. I’m a patterner. Mostly I think it’s how much I love patterns.

                I attend aerobics classes, and there’s so much patterning there, following the instructor.  I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I think that it contributes to the way that a rhythm might happen across a page or pages, that patterning and rhythm and poetry all go together, for me. But no, I don’t sing.

I mean, I don’t think there’s anything keeping you from singing, but there might be, as a result of singing, something keeping people from being in your immediate proximity *laughs*.

There is that, yeah.

I think about patterning as a way into your appreciation of science and your fascination with Hawking and with the cosmos.

Yes.

I think that love was more apparent in First and Last. How to formulate this as a question? Um.

Um.

So what about that? *laughing*

Absolutely. Patterning. I mean, as spiritual people, we want to know about ourselves, of course, but also about the cosmos. And, I know this is not exactly what I’m supposed to pursue in terms of Buddhism, struggling with these massive questions, but I would love to get some answers.  Once you give up the answers, I imagine you’re left just with mystery, and I know we’re supposed to respect the mystery. I personally would rather have answers.

               You know, the scientists are now down to the first three minutes of the—we’ll call it the Big Bang; whatever it is—and so I think, Wow, imagine that. And praise that. Praise those people. I just love that Einstein and Planck and all were curious. I love that. So I am always, always looking for answers. Maybe there aren’t any. I’m coming to terms with some of it. But boy. If someone ever came closer to two minutes. Oh. Two, one.

*chuckling*

So, patterning. We also know that there is quite a bit of patterning in the cosmos, but quite a bit of chaos, too. My life challenge is to come to terms with chaos and mystery and the fear of all those things, like chaos and mystery. And the fear of being with myself in terms of chaos and mystery. These are my challenges.

Mm. I think about the metaphor of—well, it’s not a metaphor—the atom with clasped proton and neutron in the midst of a sphere of swirling electrons, not unlike a Buddhist sitting in lotus, hands clasped, in the midst of the inevitable chaos of their own thoughts.

*laughing* So true. Scary, eh? *chuckling* It’s so scary.

I mean, at the risk of taking an opportunity to make some kind of proselytizing public service announcement, I do think about Pema Chödrön, a number of whose books, as I recall, I saw on your shelves—

Yeah.

—Talking about how the Buddhist sitting in meditation seems like the picture of peace and calm but if only you could hear what was going on inside, it would be, Sit straight. Straight!

*laughing*

No, stop thinking. Stop thinking. Gently. More compassionately dismiss the thought as it’s—

That’s right. Gently, gently—I know. And when you go on retreat and everybody’s sitting that way and everybody’s so quiet and silent and pretty much not disturbed but inside seething mad.

Someone shifts their chair and then you immediately think, You idiot, why would you—Don’t think that—Don’t think—Why are you thinking at all?

*laughing* I know. Lately I went on retreat with Howard Cohen, who’s a California teacher. And he said, Just notice. Just notice.

It was a retreat with the Victoria Insight Meditation Society that we took a weekend with Chris.

Yeah.

You’ve been there several times, is that right?

Numbers of times. And longer retreats at a retreat centre called Bethlehem.

Is it a silent one?

Yeah. Just silence.

Is writing breaking the silence?

It would be.

*chuckling*

*chuckling* Alright, we won’t pursue any further opportunity for indictment.

*laughing*

*chuckling* That’s very good. I reached out, presumptuously, to Vici Johnstone to ask whether she might have a question for you given how significant Caitlin Press has been in marshalling your work for the benefit of all humanity. And thank you Caitlin for the—is it?—four collections that they’ve published of yours.

Four collections, that’s right.

And Vici asks, In my publishing experience with Arleen, all of her work has focussed on exceptional women. Some of the stories are personal but some are not. I’ve always been curious about where her inspiration for these stories comes from.

I’m not sure: it seems so natural to me. When I’m falling in love with a subject, it is completely organic. At the same time, I’m a huge feminist. And I’m a lesbian. Feminism is really important to me; it continues to be a guiding force in my life. Even as you ask the question, I think, Oh that’s interesting that Vici would even think that. It’s so much at a cellular level. I became a feminist when I was in my early twenties, having emerged from Catholicism. When I became a feminist, it supplanted Catholicism. And until everything’s just even-even for women and men, I’m sticking with it.

In an earlier interview, you had identified something like the three facts to know about Arleen Paré as being, first, the handshake with Fidel Castro when you were ten or eleven.

That’s right *chuckles*.

The Women’s Movement of the 70s, which “changed [your] life entirely,” you say, “and for that I am grateful. I know I’m not alone in that, but the Women’s Movement shook us all up, a whole generation. Nothing was ever the same for me. And I’ve just returned,” you’d said in this interview then, “from a five-day meditation retreat. I have been practicing insight meditation since 1998. It has calmed my mind, though I have miles to go.”

               I wonder if you’d say a few more words about the Women’s Movement and its significance for you as a human being and also as it relates to your work.

It was a huge. I had just been married and my husband Peter was working. He was becoming a doctor. Very important—there was no argument about the importance of his work. But I also wanted to work and it was 1970 and that wasn’t going to happen easily. I wanted to go back to school and become a social worker.  I was a mother at home with a couple of babies with nothing I had actually planned for.   That’s just where I had landed.  When a group of friends decided to get together try women’s liberation consciousness raising—which we had read about in one of the newspapers—consciousness raising was big..

               We met for a couple of years and read important feminist books. It all fit for me. I didn’t have an argument with any of it.  My mind changed. I’ve just re-read Steve Biko’s words: The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. And I think, in that same way, as soon as whole groups of women change their minds, those minds are no longer there to be oppressed in the same way.

James Joyce says somewhere that if you describe the intersection in your hometown with sufficient detail and care, then it will be recognized by the reader as the intersection of their hometown too.

Uh-huh.

And I’m thinking about that in the context of your having just said that I realized that I wanted that for me, and then you’re like, Oh, it’s also a generation that’s feeling the same sort of thing right now.

               And I think about how, through Absence of Wings, say—the end of the preface: she was one child in a world of so many. The time we had with her opened the world to us—and I imagine you have done something similar with the forthcoming book Encrypted, where one addresses the aperture of their own life to talk about something like video-game addiction that’s very nearly universal, the universal through the personal. Earle Street, likewise, I think in a way could be about any street that one could see out of one’s window.

               Is there a question here about the local aperture, the availability of the aperture, and how to speak to the universal through the personal?

I think you’re right. Although the initial impetus never comes from pursuit; it just comes. For instance, Encrypted came from the fact that my grandson—fabulous, beautiful, beautiful—now 23-year-old young man who came to live with us because he needed a place to stay for a few weeks while he was finding an apartment to live in while he attended university. And he never found another permanent place to stay. He’s depressed and anxious and he games most of the night.

               And so when he first came, my initial impetus was to just fix him. Like, Okay, now what can we do? Can we all have meals together? Can we go for a walk together? Can this work? No. There was no fixing. And once I realized that—and that took me at least a couple of weeks—but when it really dawned on me that there was not a way of fixing this easily, at all, I woke up one night and I thought, I have to stop perseverating and decided instead to write a poem about it.  That was the first. And then after that, I thought, Oh, you’re not stopping at one poem. There’s a lot more here. So I just started writing Encrypted and stopped so much fretting. I just kept writing.

                I would describe the project about my grandson to friends, and they would say, Oh, yeah, my nephew is depressed too. And, Oh, yeah, my son games all night too. So there was practically never a conversation when I would bring up my situation where somebody didn’t say, Oh, that’s exactly the same as—And I know a couple of other people. And it seems it’s generational, beyond an individual situation. This has more importance than just me trying to get over my profound sadness. So it happens and the same was true of Absence of Wings. It was immediate, I knew A. was not the only child adopted or in big trouble if she hadn’t been adopted, that the world is unjust. We know refugee camps, we know all sorts of horror, and these are defenceless, unprotected, vulnerable children. It’s overwhelming.

I remember in highschool we were asked what comfort might be available in a book by Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle.

Mm.

In which, you know, Ice-nine freezes the world—a metaphor for nuclear war—and I remember having responded to the question, That the book could have been written. That this book was written in response to that.

               And I’m also thinking about a book by Susan Elmslie called Museum of Kindness, which transmutes an experience of having been in a school in which there was an active shooter. And although you would never wish that experience on anybody, you’re grateful there was a poet there to document it; and similarly, I can’t help but feel great gratitude for you to have been where you have been to transmute the experiences that you’ve transmuted into poetry which I have already in print adorned with superlatives so I don’t need to do so again in conversation. But for the poets to be present to these griefs is a great gift.

I think it is, although I’m also very aware that very few people read poetry.

Well, to encourage readership is part of the goal of these conversations, in a way. We’re eight minutes over one hour and I wonder how you’re doing for time.

I’m doing fine for time. How are you doing for time?

Fantastic. Long may this dialogue persist. Maybe we could go for another twenty minutes or so if that’s okay.

I’m totally fine with that. Yeah. Thank you for asking.

Um.

There’s a quote by Philip Larkin about news and poetry, but I can’t bring it to mind right now.

People die in want of …

Yeah, that’s right. Poetry doesn’t make the news but we all die and need it. I don’t remember but it’s a good one. You can lookup Philip Larkin right now and—

—He does say it so exactingly that it’s worth—

He does. I love Philip Larkin.

People die every day for lack of what is found there. Nearly that.

I knew you with your mind like a steel trap would know that.

Well, I better not consult the Googled phrase, then.

*chuckling* No, it’s very like that. It’s almost that, yeah.

Let’s see.

In 2015, you gave the following advice. I wonder whether youd now care to supplement it at all or whether how dare you Kevin assume that I pronounced upon a matter and that wasnt the end of it.

*laughs* It could be the end of it but what was it?

Learn the craft. Join a writing group. Attend classes. Attend writing retreats. Read poetry. Read fiction and nonfiction. Read more poetry. Study one poet you admire–their whole opus even. Use this poet as a model–for a while. Write poetry. Write more poetry. Take another class. Attend another workshop. Prepare a chapbook. Keep learning the craft.

No, I would add nothing to that except read more poetry, read more poetry, read more poetry.  It’s hugely valuable. Huge. So read poetry and read widely.

I wonder about this business of leading horses to water, how it is that one can induce in another the spiritual conversation to the vastly enlightened plains that people like you and I inhabit.

Yeah, well. I know *laughs*.

I think one of the reasons that people are suspicious of poetry is that it just brings to mind the couplet they were expected to read in class and then someone three seats behind them went to the bathroom, which meant that the couplet they were preparing to read is no longer the one—And now they have to—And they also have to pee, and there’s somebody they have a crush on that’s three rows up, and are they going to notice that my voice is going to crack? And that’s their whole experience of poetry.

Yeah *chuckles*.

A place to start. That’s my question for you. Where to start?

Where to start. I think writing poetry is a place to start. I, personally—I may have confessed it to you before—I didn’t read poetry or even admire it until I started writing. I may appear self-centred, but I wonder if others may not have the same sort of experience. Nor did I care about children until I had my own children. Okay, I am self-referential.

               When I started writing poetry I realized, Wait a minute, I don’t know what I’m doing.  Chris was in English Literature Studies and she would bring me poets. In my experience, reading and writing go hand in hand. Often people who read poetry and go to poetry readings are people who write poetry. I just think that more people should be writing poetry, at least writing for themselves. I don’t know more than that. What about you, Kevin?

Advice to start?

Yeah.

I think that’s great advice. I think writing first is a great way to go, but don’t neglect the reading after that.

No, no. That’s right.

And also, only read what—I think there’s a wonderful riff by Dylan Thomas where he says something like, Only read what sets your soul on fire and curls your hair and if it’s not the best thing you’ve ever read, in the middle of a sentence, stop reading it—because there is stuff that will do that to you.

I agree with that entirely and I think partly the reason some people don’t like poetry is that they’ve been made to read poetry that doesn’t curl their toes and set their hair on fire and that’s really unfortunate. That’s all they get. And a lot of what I was reading in highschool, it would have had a lot of antiquated language that people—Dead poets, all of that. It didn’t set my hair on fire at all and I wasn’t interested. But there are poets that can do it. And there are poems—never mind a whole opus by a poet—there are some of those poets’ poems that will.

Also, all poetry textbooks are published backwards. Every one should begin with poems of today and then invite you backwards—and the farther you progress, that’s great. There’s also so much variety on any page laterally in time.

Truly. It’s amazing. So which poets would you say set your hair on fire?

I mean, apart from present company, of course—both of us included *laughs*.

Yes *laughs*.

I mean, I have a perennial sense of being the inheritor of Robert Hass. I really respond to his syntax.

Yeah, yeah.

Miłosz, in that line, too. I love Li-Young Lee.

[Audio cuts out]

There we go.

There we go. There are so many. Yeah.

Sorry, my headphones predeceased me.

That’s a lucky break *laughs*.

I want to ask you about being 77. Does it heighten or intensify emotion? I often feel like reality is so often so moving because of our awareness of its transience and ephemerality. Do you feel like emotions intensify as one progresses through life? Has that been your experience as a poet, too?

I don’t know if that’s true for me. I am just so aware of endings at this point. I’m just so aware of time. Friends are dying, of course. I hear about it all the time. At 77, I’m very, very aware of time and I’m very aware of death. Death’s the thing right now. Thinking about it, knowing it’s about to happen. It could happen to me; it could happen to Chris. And my sister, who’s younger than I am. And Pat Hurdle, for instance, my first best friend. At 74, she dies. That’s the emotion that’s predominant for me in my life right now, you could call it something like grief. The endings, the endings, the endings. And noticing changes. All things are impermanent. The impermanence of things. I’m much more interested in impermanence and I’m more aware of it. Death and impermanence.

               Emotions … You know, what can I say? I’m not a very emotional person. I’m more contained; I write poetry, mostly about sadness. When once upon a time my sister-in-law said, You’re quite a vivacious person, she said, but you always write about dark things. How is that? Maybe the poetry is my emotion.

It’s said that happiness writes white. I’m sure that there are happy poems, and I’m only a humble thirty-one years old, diligent though I have been in reading poetry over the past twelve or fourteen—I’m not sure that I’ve found a happy poem.

*chuckles* No, I know.

If you’re happy, you’re doing other things.

Perhaps. I wrote a haiku about my poetry once, and it went like this—it was the syllabic kind of haiku.

I can dress you up

but when we go out you take

me to the graveyards.

That’s beautiful.

The graveyards, yeah.

You know, I wonder whether there’s a Buddhist flavour that we could introduce here, having to do with death and the possibility of rebirth. And I think about this having thought lately, over the last year or so, of the idea of making a product, making a thing and how to do that in a way that’s kind of biomimetic, so that you don’t have this thing called “garbage” at the end, that after you’ve extracted some utility from something you don’t throw the husk away.

               And I think about how that iterative waste-making is maybe reflective of the way that we think about the human body: that there’s something you can throw away at the end, as opposed to a community—perhaps not far from where I am now—which would cremate a body and then work the ashes into a stew that would then be eaten by the community—

Wow.

—In celebration of the life of that person. And so what about all this reincarnation business? What do we think?

Oh, I don’t subscribe, myself. I think, If I’m not going to believe in Jesus Christ, no. So no, that doesn’t work for me. And some people say, What do you want to come back as. And I think I’m not coming back. I’m putting in for the not-coming-back category. No, that’s never been for me. But I like the idea of putting the ashes into the stew. That’s a good one. Lots of calcium. Fabulous *chuckles*. How do you feel about it, Kevin?

About the death business?

Well, about the reincarnation.

I like this line that, when at Thanksgivings or family gatherings of one kind or another, I was a Buddhist, I was absolutely insufferable; but then I decided to become a Buddha and everything was fine.

*laughs*

The buddhist in me wants to say something like, Well, of course, if you identify the self as being the temporary, individualized, gelatinous ego that we seem now to be instantiated as, then of course you die; but you are not that, you are the larger, all-encompassing self which never dies or is constantly dying and being reborn constantly. Which is just obnoxious.

*laughs loudly*

I mean, would one be reanimated as a gazelle or as a blade of grass? I remember asking the senior-most monk at a monastery that I was installed at last year whether, because we had to observe the prohibition on killing while we were there—and therefore couldn’t kill mosquitoes, of which there were a great number—whether killing a mosquito wasn’t providing an opportunity—

On to a better life.

—Maybe a lawyer who had been, you know—I’m sorry lawyers—so they could reanimate into a higher life form. Like a toad or something like that.

Oh.

I had to re-explain my point, of course.

I thought Buddhists thought everything was funny, but maybe not.

He asked me at one point, Are you winning? We just happened to pass one another on a path. And I said, There is no winning; there is no losing; there is only being.

*laughs*

And he kind of chortled.

He laughed?

He’s like an 87-year-old who’s written twelve books of buddhist—No, there’s no winning. Come on. Please.

*chuckling* Yeah.

I think that I’m maybe more agnostic than you are. I think that you contain multitudes, but I also feel like you’re more of a sort of scientific materialist than I am. I feel sometimes the presence of the dead and I feel interventions that are inexplicable. And of course reconciliation with the absence of the living is what gave birth to what Larkin calls “that vast, moth-eaten musical brocade / invented to pretend we never die.”

Well I’m with you on all of that. Writing poetry has allowed me to take in some of those mysteries, those things that happen that are inexplicable. The fact that you’re so near São Paulo. Yeah, that’s possible. Maybe agnostic could apply, but if I have to lean one way, I suppose I could be more scientific-materialist.  I think humour is like that too: it is so inexplicable, in its way, and so bubbly. Those things in poetry bubble up; and in humour things bubble up. I don’t have explanations. I only want to know about the origins. Everything else *shrugs, chuckles*.

I think you remind us with this collection that even with the absence of wings, there can be angels of earth.

Lovely.  And that comes from Lucille Clifton, whom I admire so much.

“the angels have no wings / they come to you wearing / their own clothes” and then we have the first section, “She Arrives Wearing a Wide Purple Coat.”

Yeah.

I mean, I guess endings are also always beginnings, but I appreciate that we’re approaching that which is both ending and beginning simultaneously.

*chuckling*

And what to say? I mean, I revere you as a poet and love you dearly as a friend and I’m so grateful for your having taken time today to speak with the sunburned doofus that I am.

Nonsense. I revere you and admire you and am so grateful for the fact of you in this world with me, even if it’s over Zoom.  You’re marvellous. And I’m looking forward to your next book of poetry. Get that published, Kevin. And you’re doing wonders! You’re amazing! *chuckles*

The feeling is mutual. Staggering cosmos, you know I think the world of you and more.

Likewise, likewise, likewise. A colossus and a—Remember that word that we both admired so much? Auxesis? Auxsessis? A-U-X-E-S-I-S—something like that.

Auxesis, yes. I’m looking for it in our correspondence.

It’s hyperbole on steroids, or something like that.

“Overstatement or hyperbole especially arranged in a sequence of increasing intensity.”

Of increasing intensity *laughing*. I love that. I think of our relationship a little bit like that *laughs*.

Well long may the auxesis persist.

Indeed. Thank you, Kevin. That was lovely. Lovely to see you. Take care of yourself.

I will and you too.

Of Danish and Scottish ancestry, Canadian citizenship, and Nichiren Buddhist faith, Kevin Andrew Heslop lives at artist residencies around the world, most recently in Costa Rica, Serbia, Finland, France, and (currently) Brazil, with Denmark and Japan on the horizon in 2024.

As he travels, Heslop facilitates in-depth dialogue with leading artists, most recently Canadian playwright Camille Intson, Brazilian performance artist Guta Galli, Brazilian artist Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Canadian poet Arleen Paré, Italian installation artist Remi Picó, Maltesian photographer David Pisani, Canadian Mi'kmaw writer Tara McGowan-Ross, Canadian poet Benjamin Robinson.

Heslop is also the author of the correct fury of your why is a mountain (Gordon Hill Press, 2021); curator of six feet | between us (McIntosh Gallery, 2022) and in medias res (Westland Gallery, 2023); director-producer of mo(u)vements. (Astoria Pictures, Rose Garden Press, 2023); co-author, with Roxanna Bennett, of the rules of grammar will save you at the hour of your death (Baseline Press, 2024); co-author, with P. F. Tego and Taylor Marie Graham, of Human Voices Wake Us (Rose Garden Press, 2024); and writer-director of Some Things Are Too Important to Take Seriously and Art Is One of Those Things (Astoria Pictures, 2024).

Kevin Andrew Heslop

Of Danish and Scottish ancestry, Canadian citizenship, and Nichiren Buddhist faith, Kevin Andrew Heslop lives at artist residencies around the world, most recently in Costa Rica, Serbia, Finland, France, and (currently) Brazil, with Denmark and Japan on the horizon in 2024.As he travels, Heslop facilitates in-depth dialogue with leading artists, most recently Canadian playwright Camille Intson, Brazilian performance artist Guta Galli, Brazilian artist Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Canadian poet Arleen Paré, Italian installation artist Remi Picó, Maltesian photographer David Pisani, Canadian Mi'kmaw writer Tara McGowan-Ross, Canadian poet Benjamin Robinson.Heslop is also the author of the correct fury of your why is a mountain (Gordon Hill Press, 2021); curator of six feet | between us (McIntosh Gallery, 2022) and in medias res (Westland Gallery, 2023); director-producer of mo(u)vements. (Astoria Pictures, Rose Garden Press, 2023); co-author, with Roxanna Bennett, of the rules of grammar will save you at the hour of your death (Baseline Press, 2024); co-author, with P. F. Tego and Taylor Marie Graham, of Human Voices Wake Us (Rose Garden Press, 2024); and writer-director of Some Things Are Too Important to Take Seriously and Art Is One of Those Things (Astoria Pictures, 2024).