For me, poetry works best when it’s not only emotional but open and honest, even raw. Which is why I got especially excited to read Jason Purcell’s new poetry collection, Swollening (paperback, Kindle) when, in the following email interview, they said these poems, “…can potentially be challenging for some folks.”
Photo Credit: Zachary Ayotte
To start, is there a theme to the poems in Swollening?
As a whole, Swollening is interested in the intersection of queerness and sickness, and the poems in it explore homophobia (internalized and externalized), masculinity, gender, and other forces that I may have “swallowed” in my childhood and adolescence and that may have come to live in the body, manifesting as sickness.
I think the poems also suggest that being sick in a world that is also sick is a reasonable way to react to the extractive conditions of the world.
Unless I’m mistaken, all of the poems are free verse. What is it about that form that you think just works for what you want to say?
I felt, when writing about being sick, that formal restrictions suggested a sort of logic to the experience, a way of organizing an idea into something that made aesthetic sense, and what I hoped to say with these poems is that being sick defies sense and logic. It doesn’t fit comfortably into life, but instead can disorder and fragment life. Free verse, then, allowed me to say at a formal level what I hoped the poems were also saying at the level of content, which is that sickness does not take on the form of life and instead makes life bend to its own shape.
Are there any writers — poetic or otherwise — who you feel had a big influence on the poems in Swollening?
Yes, so many! I have been influenced and inspired by the writing of Joshua Whitehead, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Ocean Vuong, Anne-Marie Turza, Anne Boyer, Anne Carson, among many others. These writers in particular have such a knack of breaking straight through the structures of the world to the quick of life underneath.
I also found myself in conversation with a few theorists in this collection, like Ann Cvetkovich and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who were so influential during the time of writing this collection.
What about such non-literary influences as music or visual art; were any of the poems in Swollening influenced any of those things? Because in addition to being a writer you’re also a musician.
I am a musician, but for whatever reason, my music and poetry have (so far) kept themselves apart, like oil and water. I wasn’t all that influenced by music when writing this collection.
Visual art, however, has been a huge source of inspiration for me. I’m inspired by its immediacy and the different tools visual artists have at their disposal. I always wish I had a visual arts practice for this reason.
Specifically, a handful of the poems were inspired by Kyle Terrence’s exhibition “‘Berta Boys” that I caught at Edmonton’s Latitude 53 in 2019. In this show, he’s teasing out the aesthetics and contradictions of masculinity in Alberta, Canada’s petrostate, that spoke so directly to many of the themes that interested me in the writing I was doing. Many of the poems in this collection are in conversation with that show and Kyle’s work, and I’m so grateful for the dialogue that’s possible between art forms.
Some poets read their stuff aloud, either alone or at readings, as a way of working out the kinks. Is this something you do as well?
Some of the poems in Swollening had lives before being published in the book, and so did get a little audience airtime at readings, but I’m not sure that’s how I personally work out a poem’s flow. I’m not sure I hear where a poem is dragging, or if I do, I’m not sure I know why or how to fix it at that stage. I think I’m more concerned or interested in how the lines land on the page more than how it sounds when read aloud (perhaps this is a side effect of being conscious of fewer opportunities to read in person).
Some of the poems in Swollening previously appeared in such journals as The Malahat Review, PRISM International, and Glass Buffalo. Are the versions in Swollening the same as the ones in those journals or did you change them in any way?
I think most of the poems changed. I was so fortunate to work with Joshua Whitehead as editor on this collection, and he really helped me find the places where I was hiding from myself or from the truth of the poem, where I would obscure the real with poeticism, and helped walk me back to a place of vulnerability and honesty. I think, with such personal poems about heavy subject matter, I felt the risk of putting myself out there too much — which is real! — but the result ended up being a half-baked poem, one that was afraid of saying what it needed to say and therefore wasn’t very effective. Some of the poems just didn’t land. With Josh’s help I was able to find that space of ownership over the experience I was trying to think through in the poem and claim it while also still feeling safe and protected.
Seven of the poems in Swollening also appeared in a chapbook you put out in 2019, A Place More Hospitable. Did you rework these poems or are they the same in Swollening as they were in Hospitable?
I reworked everything that came from the chapbook into Swollening. Josh and I did such a deep, close reading of everything in the manuscript that it was clear that in the chapbook I hadn’t pushed myself or my poetics as far as I could two or three years later. I had come to understand myself and what it is I was trying to express in that span of time, and my poetics had developed in such a way that I could get closer to the heart of each poem. I think I’d done the best I was able to at the time with A Place More Hospitable, but there was something incomplete about those poems. Maybe there always will be.
So if someone wanted to read the earlier versions in A Place More Hospitable, can they get a copy from Glass Bookshop in Edmonton, Canada, the bookstore you co-own?
Alas, I’m afraid A Place More Hospitable, which I had the great privilege of publishing through Anstruther Press, is out of print.
So, is there anything else you think someone should know about Swollening before deciding whether to buy a copy or not?
I’d want to say that this poetry collection does veer toward difficult territory when it comes to queerness, the body, health, and that can potentially be challenging for some folks.
Finally, if someone enjoys Swollening, what poetry collection of someone else’s would you recommend they read next?
So many! If they haven’t yet read the work of Billy-Ray Belcourt or Ocean Vuong, I’d urge them in those directions. They write so powerfully and skilfully about queerness and the racialized queer body in Canada and the United States respectively. I always try to shout out Anne-Marie Turza’s books whenever possible, as she writes these stunning worlds underneath the world that we live in now that I aspire to in my own writing.