An interview with Méira Cook

Clarise Foster: A Walker in the City, your fourth collection of poetry, takes the reader on a wild jaunt in the company of some rather intriguing characters — a young walker/poet, Em, a crusty old poet, Kulperstein, the alter ego/creation of a deceased poet, Felix Kaye, and there is the poet narrator. I know this might seem an odd question to start, but how did you come up with names for your characters?

Méira Cook: The idea of the fortunate fall — the felix culpa, has always engaged me. The fall from grace being not quite the disaster it appears to be, in fact turning out to be quite a good thing in the end because of the potential for renewal and forgiveness it offers. I’m sure I’m getting the theology all wrong but poetically it’s a splendid conceit. So the names of at least two of my characters — Kulperstein and Felix Kaye — play off that. They’re all fallen grouches in A Walker, not so much losers as lost, thrifty sinners.

As for Em, her name stands for something, holds the place of someone. (But who?) Mostly she’s real though, a real person in a real poem. Striding through a real city, our Winnipeg, that gritty, glittery city of the mind.

CF: The characters in this collection are like nesting dolls, one containing the other in the poetic world, Em created by Kulperstein and Kulperstein by Kaye. Somewhere in the middle is a murder and underneath it all or perhaps through it — poetry. It is a complex and multi-layered creation sustained by walking — why walking?

MC: You’re absolutely right, Clarise. Walking was the beginning. I wanted to write a book about walking, to find a way of translating the act of walking into language. Walking, ambling, striding, strolling, getting lost and making detours — all these perambulations have an inner tempo and I wanted to discover their approximations in language.

What’s the connection between metrical rhythm and pacing, between run-on lines and the momentum of hurrying through a winter city, between internal rhyme and external tread, between metaphoric junctions and traffic conjunctions? A walker in the city is a loiterer and ambler, a flâneur. She measures distance in feet and time in pages; she shares a passing glance with a stranger but follows herself like a lover through all the real streets of an imaginary city. In A Walker I wanted to chart the waywardness and astonishment of her journey.

And then historically there are all these characters and their writers who’ve tried to walk themselves into a version of sanity or poetry or ease in the world. Dickens on his night walks, poor stumbling Leopold Bloom, Dante who wore out countless pairs of shoes while pacing out the cantos of The Divine Comedy. “I have to keep walking to wear out my pain,” Alphonse Daudet wrote to Goncourt in 1884. So — walking to solve the world, walking as a way to drain off some of the poison.

CF: Personalities certainly appear in your earlier collections, but they appear in quite difficult circumstances and do not sustain through the entire collection as they do in A Walker in the City. For example, Heraclitus occupies a section in your previous book, Slovenly Love, but in this most recent book the characters are key to the momentum of the entire work. At what point in the writing process did these characters “take over”?

MC: Well this is a crackerjack question, Clarise. Not least because I don’t quite understand the answer. It’s just that one day during the early writing process a young girl strolled towards me across the page. Hands in her pockets, her jacket half unbuttoned, she was jaunty and singular and simply would not walk on the right side of the street or keep between the lines I was trying to write for her. After an initial struggle — after all I was the writer, wasn’t I? — I let her set off on her detours and tangents, deciding to follow close behind to see where she led.

I think the other character originated in this restraining impulse. He’s a cranky old bloke, a failing poet who seems to be coming to the end of his craft. Intrigued by the young woman, he begins to follow her about the city — in his imagination at least — the pace of thoughts mimicking the rhythm of the walker. So A Walker in the City is a long narrative poem in seven parts populated by real and imagined characters. Also some ghosts, a decomposing body, a murderer, and the city in winter. I loved the freedom that the drama of narrative and character allowed me — mainly the freedom from pronouns, pesky things. I’m not sure why pronouns have conspired to torment me these days. But concentrating on voice, character and drama allowed me to escape the self-consciousness of the first-person.

CF: A Walker seems to be set in Winnipeg — there is mention of distinct prairie cold and McMillan Street makes an appearance — but in actual fact there are few direct references to location. What role did the city have in shaping this work?

MC: Yes, in Winnipeg, certainly. The city that my walkers follow one another through is Winnipeg. It’s interesting to hear you say that I wasn’t being particularly explicit, geographically, because I thought I was being almost cartographically precise. But that’s poets for you. Show ’em a map and they say “close enough.”

Actually, I was trying to do two things with location. The first was to write an urban poem. I grew up in a dense urban centre and cities are what excite and inspire me. The other effect I wanted to create was that feeling you have of bone-knowingness: the way a city rubs against the skin when you’ve scraped your knees against its sidewalks and measured your height against the arches of its buildings. Sort of thing. I can’t remember who said it about Leopold Bloom — that Joyce had written a hero who had knocked his elbows and knees against every corner of Dublin. That’s what I had in mind for my hero, that sense of having grown up in a city and walked past versions of your various homes, histories, memories, your selves, wherever you go. In his wanderings he strolls past the house on McMillan and the child who comes to the door in his striped pajamas might very well be his own yawning, long-ago five-year-old self.

At the same time, Clarise, your insight about the wavering-ness of my idea of where precisely “here” might be is very helpful. I came here as an immigrant, perhaps that’s why the city has always seemed such a glamorous and unresolved place. Mythic. An imaginary, impossible, willful and unruly city that I’ve learned to live in as if it was home. A place of confusing corners and forking rivers, of boulevards and bridges and train tracks and sleepwalkers who seem to be forever shuffling along cracked sidewalks while snow shores up the collapsing scaffold of winter. The position of the artist is always a little at odds though, isn’t it, traditionally with society and propriety and, in my case, with landscape and vernacular, weather, falling down, looking up, memory, amnesia, longing and belonging. And to return to Winnipeg, my home now, A Walker is the declaration of that homecoming.

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.

Méira Cook is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently A Walker in the City (Brick). Poems from A Walker in the City won first prize in the 2006 CBC Literary Awards and “The Beautiful Assassin” garnered a Manitoba Publishing Award (a “Maggie”). Her first novel, The House on Sugarbush Road, has been published by Enfield & Wizenty. Méira lives, writes and walks in Winnipeg.