In the Poetry Pavilion

In The Poetry Pavilion

Published on April 1, 2002

Stephanie Bolster

McClelland & Stewart

One might as well get this out of the way, not to whet some crass appetite for hype, but simply to face the fact of it: Stephanie Bolster, 32, is one of our winningest poets. The Bronwen Wallace Award, the Malahat Long Poem Prize, the Norma Epstein Award, and first prize in the (m)Other Tongue Press chapbook competition are among her top honours. Her career shot into immediate, prestige-powered orbit with a Governor General’s Award in 1997 for her debut White Stone. The collection also quietly picked up the Gerald Lampert Prize. Add to the shelf two more trophies – a Trillium nomination and the Archibald Lampman Award, both for her second volume, Two Bowls of Milk, published in 1998 – and what you have is likely the most triumphant start in recent Canadian literature. She has been widely profiled, is aggressively sought for readings and workshops, and her books enjoy robust sales; both have brimmed over into second print runs. Early acclaim, however inspires suspicion – we expect writers to find favour after a decently long, humiliation-ridden interval. But while Bolster has had her detractors (Ian Higgins, Katherine Govier), her reputation continues to pick up speed, and her third collection, Pavilion, can’t help but serve as the newest accelerant.

The fact of it though, begs the question, why? What do readers, near unanimously, find in the work? “I don’t know,” Bolster answers with a shy laugh during a recent interview from her office at Concordia University where she teaches creative writing. “I’m still rather surprised by the whole thing myself. Though you can’t help but wonder about it. Certainly the subject matter in White Stone caught people’s attention, I think. And critics often comment approvingly on the craft.” It’s true that Bolster’s poems express a rare technical rigour. They aren’t streetwise and don’t strike raw, instinctive poses, They aren’t improvisingly intuited into shape and they don’t sprawl. They are – if you believe those same critics – parcels of cool, heightened ruefulness. But for all the sophisticated affectlessness of her craft, Bolster (and this, I think, is what finally lures us to the poems) always seems to write scared, as is she were under investigation, with every line being marshalled in fraught defence. “I’d call it a self-investigation,” Bolster quickly counters. “One where a part of my consciousness, the part I’ve separated off, is being interrogated.” An answer that rings reminiscently like a passage from a short essay Bolster wrote called “Through the Looking Glass“:

As a person, I’ve felt, since childhood, a painful self-consciousness, a sense of being watched through a critical eye. As a writer, again since a very early age, I’ve watched others through eyes at once generous and harsh. One of my deepest fears is of being watched from a perspective exactly like my own, by someone who “sees through me” as I sometimes feel I see through others. This happens every time I look into the mirror.

Living like this – with an imagination constantly under the watchful eye of its own perspicacity – has created, in Bolster’s poems, a flinched-from sense of self. It’s also given Bolster her one major theme: the struggle to come to terms with, as she writes in Pavilion, “the gaze I’ll have//when I spin around to meet myself.” Which is a predicament that can be anxious-making for the reader as well. “Yes, I do think it can have an unsettling effect on some readers,” admits Bolster, “because they soon realize that whoever it is the poems are speaking to, it isn’t them. The process is almost entirely interior for me. Which is to say, the voice in the poems is a voice that’s intimate with itself rather than the reader.” This inwardness also made her less interested in crafting a physical, scent-and-sound purchase on the world, and has driven her toward the counter-realities and alternative perspectives created by windows, mirrors, paintings, and various objets d’art. But what makes Bolster’s work so unique among the large crew of Canadian poets who write about art is that her “painful self-consciousness” is always being brought into relationship with something that is sympathetic to it. Bolster does her best work, in other words, when in the presence of images she finds very alienating.

“I’m forced to assert myself as a presence in the poem to a greater extent when I’m in some kind of battle with – or backed into a corner by – a difficult painting. I like that. If all I have to do is to describe the painting or honour what the original artist has done, there’d be little interest for me in writing it and I would imagine little interest for the reader, because they’d just become these lovely little set pieces.”

If her books have been, in one way or another, commentaries on selfhood, one of the governing influences on that subject has been the itinerant condition of her life. Bolster once praised Lewis Carroll’s imagination for its “time-shifting, place-shattering spirit,” and herself owns an identity that (to use the convention of biography blurbs) “divides its time” between certain locations. She is a poet of exile, a Vancouverite who – after moving to Quebec, then Ottawa, then finally packing off to Montreal for a position at Concordia – can’t seem to keep the ghost of that native city out of her poems. “I wonder if it’s just an automatic connection that I make during seasonal transitions or in moments of melancholy. If I had stayed in Vancouver I would probably hook that sense of loss onto something else. There’s an essay Sylvia Plath wrote about her childhood years near the ocean, and how, when the family moved inland, it was as if that childhood was just sealed up in a jar. Nostalgia is obviously easier to muster up when you leave a place. It at once preserves that period of time and removes you from it so you can look at it. When I go back to Vancouver it’s as though my childhood is still living there somehow. I don’t know if I would have been able to experience it that way if I had never left.”

Not a jar, but a looking glass (something she pinched from the experience of working on her first book) is what Bolster has taken along with her during her peripatetic adventures, and it has granted her a kind of double vision: detached but deeply observing, separate, but always involved. The temperature of her self-speculations has stayed so constant, in fact, that one begins to treat her collections – and the decorously apprehensive poems inside them – less as independent episodes than as contributions to an unfolding argument, an argument that’s been given its newest, and possibly bravest, manifestation in Pavilion: a nervy compilation of poems on mortality where the elegiac temperament is sedimented with divided-against-oneself doubts, omens, and late-at-night terrors. A collection which, linguistically, appears to have little intention of staying true to the melodic poise of Bolster’s previous, and much-laurelled, felicities (the poems are written in a regret-scoured simplicity that stresses itself with all manner of thwarts.) So much so, in fact, one can’t help wonder whether, given all her successes, Bolster still worries about making sure her poems continue to stand her in good stead.

“It’s not something I try to think about too often, though it still comes back to me sometimes how astounding it was that all of that happened. I guess what it’s done is allow me to worry less about the poems succeeding on other people’s terms and allow me to worry more about them succeeding on my terms, or on their own terms. Thinking less about whether Pavilion is going to be good enough to win this prize or that prize, and more about whether it’s a book I wanted to write, whether there’s something meaningful for me in its publication. Not to be depressing about it, but there’s only so far one can go in terms of external achievement. So there has to be something else. As an undergraduate and a graduate student I was very concerned with trying to build a career. I achieved many of the goals I set for myself, and now it’s only right that I start looking at what I’m actually doing as a poet and why I’m doing it.” mRb

Carmine Starnino is a Montreal poet whose latest book of poems is "With English Subtitles" (Gaspereau 2004).



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