Michael Prior: Burning Province
I remember how she rewound the VHS
each time I pleaded to see the Falcon
sail free from a dead star’s fiery pointillism.
Or, how he leaned back, answered, We waited for it to end,
when I asked, What did you do in the camp?
Years later, it’s difficult to say who
first described the midnight funerals,
the way rows of tarpaper shacks roiled
in recollection like sap boiling beneath its grain,
the black hole of a body unbodied by heat.
Neither knew the names of the deceased.
What did they feel, then, watching again and again
while the sky bowed its damp forehead
to the flames’ wind unfurling birchbark
in striated swathes of white.
– from Light and Years
Excerpted from Burning Province by Michael Prior. Published by McClelland & Stewart, 2020. All rights reserved.
A copy of Burning Province, Michael Prior’s latest book of poetry, appeared in my mailbox several month’s back, accompanied by two green HB pencils stamped with the name Mitsu-bishi. The pencils, as the accompanying note explained, are the author’s favourite for editing his work. It was a thoughtful gesture that is reflected in the thoughtfulness of the writing contained in Burning Province.
The poems in Burning Province speak to the memories embedded in landscapes, sometimes addressing them head-on and other times from an oblique angle. The poems are visceral and multi-layered, filled with textural references, akin to an abstract painting or a collage, with fragments of images and text sitting atop and beside each other to create a richly-textured whole.
Raised partly by his maternal grandparents, Prior’s affection for family shines through, even as the poems themselves address loss, empty spaces, the unspoken. Beautiful metaphors, couched in organic language, make for an immersive reading experience. In reading the book, I sometimes find meaning dangling tantalizingly out of reach, yet there is something there that makes me keep reaching. At the same time, there is a yearning in the poetry, as if the author himself is reaching back to a nearly forgotten/half-remembered time.
I spoke by email with Michael Prior, an Assistant Professor of English and Mellon ACM Faculty Fellow at Macalester College in Minneapolis.
Bulletin Interview: Michael Prior
Your book is so beautifully written, I fell in love with the poems at first reading, even though I can’t pretend to have more than a superficial appreciation of them after one time through the book. What compelled you to string these poems together, to create this book?
Thank you for the kind words, John. The questions that guide Burning Province grew out those that I had started trying to articulate in my first book, Model Disciple—questions about how the internment’s myriad legacies and traumas have directly and indirectly affected my family and me.
One salient event that shaped how I wrote the first poems in the manuscript was my grandmother’s passing in 2015. It was unexpected and personally devastating—both she and my grandfather played such large roles in my upbringing—and it forced me to reckon with the fact that someday, the last generation of nikkei who experienced the internment will all have passed, and their experiences will only exist in the shared spaces of intergenerational memory, archive, and art.
I tell my students that a poem is an act of discovery, that you need to write into spaces of uncertainty and unknowing (I think of Keats’s negative capability, Lorca’s duende) in order to articulate, with humility and honesty, the questions you need to ask yourself and the world. While writing Burning Province, I tried to follow a certain set of personal questions as far as I could at this point in my life. Of course, I only ended up with more questions, but I think the process has helped me better understand how I and the people I love have been shaped by larger forces of history and culture.
The book is primarily concerned with your maternal (Japanese) grandparents, I presume. Tell me about them, their history in Canada.
My grandparents were born and grew up on neighbouring strawberry farms in Haney, B.C.; after Pearl Harbor the farms were seized and their families were interned in Tashme for the duration of the War. My grandmother’s biological parents actually gave her to another couple in the camp, who never officially adopted her. As a teenager, my grandmother worked as a domestic servant for various families (some of whom treated her quite poorly) in B.C. in order to have somewhere to stay while she completed school. Later, she trained to be a psychiatric nurse (one of the few professional schools that offered room and board to their students).
My grandfather’s family moved to the interior of B.C. after the War, where he worked with his stepfather at a sawmill. Eventually, the family made their way back to the coast. Later, my grandfather recognized my grandmother at a party—I don’t think she remembered him! They were married and lived in Coquitlam, Richmond, and Surrey, where my grandfather still resides.
What was your relationship with your grandparents?
Growing up, I was very close to them. They were always around, as my parents both worked full time, and were really wonderful to my sister and me. My grandfather was an athlete in his younger days—he played on a baseball team based in Penticton after the War, and was even scouted by the Red Sox—so he was always happy to help out with practices for my and my sister’s baseball teams. My grandmother was an avid reader and a movie-lover and she shared that with us; I even have a poem in the collection about watching Return of the Jedi with my grandparents and realizing in retrospect how much of the film’s imagery and optics, especially Darth Vader’s funeral, had been cribbed from Japanese cinema and culture.
Were you brought up “knowing” about the internment or was it something that you had to piece together yourself?
I wasn’t brought up explicitly knowing about it, but in our family—as I’m sure is the case in many Japanese Canadian families—it was always circling around the peripheries of my experience: a sort of mythology embedded in old photos and occasional, hushed conversations between the adults.
I remember the first time my grandparents, my sister, and I drove by where Tashme used to be on our way into the interior to visit my father’s parents and someone pointed it out. I remember, too, distinctly thinking that “Tashme,” was a Japanese word, another undecipherable part of the language my grandparents sometimes spoke to each other when they didn’t want my sister or I to understand what they were saying. Much later, when I learned it was an acronym, I was shocked. Around nine or ten, I began to ask questions, and while they were initially resistant, my grandfather did let me interview him about the experience for a school project; it was the first time I had a more comprehensive sense of the event. I can only imagine what it was like for him to try and explain it to someone so young.
Your grandparents were interned in Tashme. I’m sure you’ve stood on that ground, in the shadow of those looming mountains, in the smaller shadow of the red-roofed barn. I wonder how it felt, to be there, in this place so laden with memory?
It’s heartbreaking. As your description of the location suggests, there’s a strange sublimity to the space: it’s a beautiful landscape overlain with brutal histories ranging from the internment camp to the fact that most of us who grew up in southern and southern-interior B.C. are settlers on traditional and unceeded Coast Salish land.
The last time I was there, the museum wasn’t yet open: there were no markers, but certain older buildings dated back to the camp. There was a sense of erasure, and of cruel irony: Sunshine Valley is a cottage community/RV park, and I remember the rows of recreational vehicles—people were vacationing here. My first book ends with a long poem, based on a road trip my grandfather and I made: we visited pretty much every internment camp site in British Columbia, starting with Tashme, and I remember him walking around the cottages, across the creek, and pointing out where things had been. I also remember the white teenagers who followed us at a distance on their ATVS.
Your poetry, in this book at least, is very much rooted in the earth, in the topography of the country that your grandparents travelled in the course of their journey through their lives. Did you feel compelled to trace that journey yourself as you set out to write these poems? Did you visit Steveston and Tashme as part of your research or were you were familiar with already?
I grew up not far from Steveston, actually, and used to walk along the boardwalk past the canneries and shipyards and old bunkhouses. That particular sensory experience of walking along the river estuary—seeing the mud and rushes, smelling the mingling freshwater and saltwater—permeated the book and became a significant part of the figurative grammar of the poems. So, too, does the valley where Tashme was.
I really like that you use the word “topography,” John. I’ve been describing the book as being interested in the topography of memory, the ways in which imagined and lived experiences and places overlay.
I’ve moved around a fair amount in the last six years for school and work. In doing so, I’ve been struck by the ways in which, at certain moments, somewhere far from where I was born can seem so close, or vice versa: I see the Pacific Northwest in other places, and other places in it. My friend and teacher Ishion Hutchinson once told me that, as a poets, we always have place: what he meant, I think, is that writing about a particular space, as it exists and as it is remade in the imagination, can become a way to excavate the self. Where we are is inextricable from who we are—born to a place, exiled from it, returning to it, or just passing through.
The question that arises for me, then, is what happens when a place like Tashme no longer physically exists but persists in various forms of memory (personal, communal) and imagination. One of the ways I tried to grapple with this question in Burning Province is through the pastoral genre of poetry—taking its tropes of exile and return, Arcadia and idyll, and renovating them. The pastoral’s emphasis on an idyllic Arcadia one can’t return to seemed like an interesting schema to turn on its head with regard to the internment camps—a way to acknowledge the distance between my experience and my grandparents’.
Tell me something about your own journey. Where were you born and raised? Have you always worked with words? What set the stage for you becoming a writer?
I was born and raised in the Vancouver area. I have always loved to read and loved to write—impulses encouraged by my parents and my grandparents. But I didn’t start writing poetry until late in my undergrad. It was around then I discovered that a rigorous poem, a poem that was pushing toward surprise and insight, was a sort of education in and of itself. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after my undergrad, so I applied to a graduate program in Toronto, and I was lucky enough to get in. That kind of community the program afforded, and the great mentorship of my professors and advisors, really encouraged me. In the last year of the program I signed the contract for my first book and decided to do another graduate degree because I wanted more time to work on my writing. I felt I needed to move to the States because there are so few (and poorly-funded) creative writing programs in Canada, and very few creative writing jobs.
How does your mixed-race identity factor into your poetry, and into your sense of yourself? You make references to it here and there throughout the book.
It’s an important part of my identity, and something I think about a lot. In The Face: A Time Code, Ruth Ozeki describes how being mixed-race leads to a particular sort of double-consciousness borne of the way people often react to a mixed-race face with confusion or even unease (the question “what are you?” comes to mind). For me, it’s easy to trace how my own biracial identity is linked to the internment, the ensuing diaspora, pressures to assimilate, the myth of the model minority.
The poems are very much rooted in the Japanese Canadian experience, or at least the experience of your family. I’m wondering if Japanese Canadians (or Americans) have a different understanding of the poems than others.
Living in the U.S. for the last while, I’ve learned that many Americans (even some Japanese Americans) have no idea that an internment occured in Canada, too! A few might have been assigned Joy Kogawa’s Obasan in an Asian American literature class, but for the most part they think of the internment as an American thing.
As for whether Japanese Canadians have a different understanding of the poems than others, I think they do—how could they not? Most Canadians probably haven’t heard a grandparent or parent say shikata ga nai. Many haven’t tasted the astringent flavor of shiso. But at the same time, those particular elements of my experience as a Japanese Canadian are by no means universal. We all have unique families and experiences.
To be honest, I also am not sure if many Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans have read or will read Burning Province, or books by nikkei poets in Canada and the States like David Mura, Roy Miki, Joy Kogawa, Lawson Inada, Sally Ito, and Kevin Irie—unlike a play or a novel, a book of poems doesn’t often have a general audience. Many people are afraid of—or don’t have the patience for—poetry. I think a lot of us were taught in high school that you needed to find the one metaphor, the idea, the word that would “unlock” or “decode” a poem in order to “get it,” which presupposes that poems are locked or coded things. I think this sort of pedagogy has played a large role in the people’s wariness toward the genre. Poems should be read slowly and savoured. Their language is experiential, rather than purely informational. They intensify language in order to make it commensurate to the intensities of lived experience. I think it’s helpful to approach them with a mindset not dissimilar from that with which you would approach a painting, or listen to a song. Poems communicate. Poems evoke. A good poem should make you feel the world a little differently for a while.
The title of your book refers to the forest fires that ravaged British Columbia over several summers. How do you relate those summers to the experience of Japanese Canadians that permeates the book?
The fires displaced a large number of people; for me, this metaphorically conjures the Second World War’s fires across the Pacific, and the ways in which the War forcibly displaced and dispossessed so many people both overseas and here in North America.
I think for me, though, the resonance of the title is just as much a personal one: during the fires of 2015, my grandmother was dying. From her 16th floor room in the palliative care ward at Vancouver General, I remember watching the orange-tinted sky and all the smoke drifting through the city toward the sea. It felt oneiric—as if the world were grieving her passing. That particular set of images, as you know, recurs throughout the collection and so the fires became inextricable from our family’s loss.
I was particularly taken by the reference in one of your poems to the cremations in the camp. So many people, old and young, died while incarcerated, yet we don’t hear much about how the dead were dealt with. What do you know about this aspect of the internment experience?
The cremation on a wooden pyre is an image from stories both my grandparents told me about their time in Tashme. At first, I wondered if this actually happened—it’s fantastical, though it was in line with some Japanese funerary traditions—but they both remembered it so clearly, so I included it in the book.
This summer, I was generously invited to read at an event organized by the Toronto chapter of the NAJC, which also included Julie Tamiko Manning and Matt Miwa, the writers and performers of The Tashme Project. They kindly sent me the script for the Project, and I discovered some of the nikkei they interviewed also remembered the cremations! It was a wonderful moment where something I had linked so closely to my family mythology suddenly opened up into a shared experience.
by Michael Prior
Penguin Random House
available at Nikkei National Museum + Cultural Centre,
at other outlets, and online