Eve Joseph’s poems have a dreamlike quality, full of bizarre imagery and non sequiturs—but she insists she didn’t make any of them up.
“They all come out of real events,” she says in a phone call to the Georgia Straight. “That’s the key to the book for me—the idea that all we have to do is scratch the surface of our ordinary lives, and the surreal and the strange is there.”
One of her poems begins, “Frogs fell from the sky and landed on the roof of the Citroën.” That actually happened, Joseph recounts, when she was hitchhiking in Quebec at age 18. There was a deluge of rain and frogs all over the road.
“They’re like little parts of me,” she says of the poems. “I feel an affection for these funny little pieces.”
Joseph, originally from North Vancouver and now living in Victoria, recently won the Griffin Poetry Prize for her newest book, Quarrels. The $65,000 award is given to only one Canadian poet a year.
“It’s wildly insane,” she says with a laugh. “I’m glad to have it at this time in my life, not younger, when it might have gone to my head.”
After coming to poetry late in life, Joseph has found intense joy in the prose poem. The pieces in Quarrels are short paragraphs, without metre or rhyme. She says it’s the most difficult form she’s ever written in, because she must find a way to create tension within them. That’s why they’re so abstract, jumping from one idea to another.
“The leaps were crucially important to me,” Joseph explains. “One thing would lead to another, and I trusted that. If you put fragments beside each other, they build a resonance. The fragments create a mosaic, and you trust that that will create meaning.”
Writing like this allows her to play with language, and experiment with new versions of surrealism. The second section of the book is a set of poems describing various images by the American mid-century photographer Diane Arbus, which gave her new spaces to play in.
When she saw them in an exhibition in New York, Joseph was “blown away” by the photos. “They’re these beautiful, strange little outsider worlds,” she says. “I stood in front of each one and I saw them—as these complete, exquisite little prose poems.”
In the third section of Quarrels, Joseph experiments with narrative, in a series of very poignant poems about the last days she spent at her father’s side while he was dying. But she prefers to be unconstrained by any story, favouring the free-association style of most of her poetry.
In one of her poems, which begins “We met at a birthday party,” she describes meeting her husband with lines like “With every gust of wind the little coats raised their arms and waved shyly at us. You were a new music, something I had not heard before.”
“You go from one magic to another magic,” she says of writing this one. “You almost write them with a suspended breath. I couldn’t have come up with that line on its own. That was a line that came out of all the other lines there.”