Michael Prior does not want to have his picture taken.
In spite of this, he politely smiles through the experience, leaning on the air conditioning unit in his office as instructed by the photographer. Under his breath, he comments laughingly, “This is the weirdest thing.”
A few weeks ago, The Walrus announced that Prior had won both their poetry prize and Reader’s Choice Award for his poem “Ventriloquism for Dummies.” The poem will be published in the December issue of the magazine.
An MA student in English with a creative thesis program at the University of Toronto, Prior’s work has been published in several literary journals. He has both a forthcoming collection of poetry with Vehicule Press in 2016 and a chapbook with Frog Hollow Press coming out “in a month or so.”
Before coming to Toronto for the master’s program, Prior completed his bachelor of arts in literature at the University of British Columbia — he had never taken a creative writing class before. U of T’s creative writing program accepts only seven students, who engage in course work in their first year and in writing a manuscript in their second under the guidance of a mentor. Now in his second year, Prior’s mentor is Carmine Starnino, a Montréal-based poet and critic and a publisher at Signal Editions.
“It’s very intimate, it’s nice,” Prior says of the program, adding, “It’s actually a very heavily academic program compared to a lot of other programs… It’s been a really good experience.”
The ventriloquest poet
Prior is currently putting together a thesis for his master’s, which will take the form of a book of poetry. “[T]he heart of the book is about my grandparents’ internment as Japanese Canadians 70 years ago,” he explains.
Family history is a major inspiration for Prior, who notes that this is common amongst Canadian poetry debuts.
“It’s kind of hard to escape,” he says of the topic, continuing, “I don’t want to write about internment in the ways it’s been written about before… Joy Kogawa’s written about it, Roy Miki… I’m trying to talk about it through the distance of intergenerational inheritance — what it means to acquire memories, inherit memories across a family lineage… [E]verything is very indirect. I write through a lot of different voices and… a lot of different artifacts of Japanese Canadian culture.”
In “Ventriloquism for Dummies,” Prior experiments with this notion of speaking indirectly through others and objects.
“[L]ots of things I’m working through in this book are ideas of masks and ideas of persona and ideas of writing through intermediaries, so it seemed natural to take on ventriloquism, which is the ultimate kind of obvious mask or persona,” he says.
The poem contains lines from Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Prior notes that he adopted the poet’s persona in the work, as well as that of a ventriloquist dummy.
Following up over email after our conversation, he adds, “[T]he poem, with all its ventriloquism, was a way of working through some of the issues of voice and appropriation that I deal with in the book, especially my grandparents’ voices.”
“Being a good reader”
“This is cruel,” laughs Prior, when asked what his favourite books are.
In addition to his writing, Prior is also a poetry editor at Echolocation, U of T’s graduate-level literary journal, and an associate editor at Anstruther Press, which prints chapbooks.
Prior emphasizes that reading is integral to producing good poetry.
“I see hundreds of poems for both the chapbook press and for [Echolocation] — it’s important to read and to read widely… not only your contemporaries… but you should also be reading all the dead people too,” he says, adding, “I think that’s the most important thing — being a good reader is integral to being a good writer.”
Prior suggests carrying around a notebook at all times for those who are seeking inspiration. “The reason being is that, if something strikes you enough in this world today where we are bombarded by stimuli… to want to write it down, it generally means there’s something more there, something deeper that you can mine,” he explains.
The experience of poetry
When asked what makes a poem work, Prior is quick to add the caveat that there are many types of poems. Still, he is able to lay out some criteria for the sort of poetry he, at least, is interested in.
“I think a poem needs to have something at stake. It can’t just be about language, it has to have something at stake whether something emotional or something political,” he says, adding, “It has to surprise and… it should be entertaining… I think when we think of entertainment nowadays, we think of things that distract us, things that take us away from our lives, but a poem should be a pleasurable experience… That doesn’t mean it’s an easy experience, it can be a very difficult experience, it can be an experience that makes you think very hard — but it should be entertaining on that level.”
Prior also stresses that describing what a poem is about is itself a tenuous task, and that no interpretation of “Ventriloquism for Dummies” — or perhaps any poem — is the “ultimate” explanation.
As we begin our interview, it strikes me as rather fitting that Prior does not want to have his photo taken, because his winning poem is so wrapped up in the idea of hiding; of being seen only through a mediator — but, of course, that’s only my take on it.
“A poem is what it is,” he says, adding, “The poem is your experience of reading it, regardless of what that is.”
Correction (April 19, 2015, 10:54 am): A previous version of this article referred to Prior’s program as an MA in creative writing; in fact, he is enrolled in an MA in English with a creative thesis. The article has been updated to reflect this. The Varsity regrets the error.