Hannah Green: Jen Sookfong Lee recently wrote a powerful essay* about the state of CanLit. She writes that “CanLit has always been heavily weighted to a certain kind of author writing a certain kind of narrative” and “CanLit has never been about the diversity of voices.” Your work doesn’t fit into the “certain type of narrative” Sookfong Lee describes as being popular in CanLit, and your voice is a diverse one. In Model Disciple you explore many themes, including the Japanese internment camps your grandparents were forced into during World War II, and the effect of these camps on younger generations. I’m curious, how do you feel your work—specifically its subject matter—has been received by the traditionally privileged canon?
Michael Prior: Jen is a fantastic writer and thinker, and I completely agree: CanLit has historically celebrated and discouraged certain types of voices, narratives, and even poetic modes: intersections of race and ethnicity, regionalism and cosmopolitanism, fashion and tradition inform this, often in complicated ways. We live in an exciting literary era: there are more diverse books by diverse authors being published every year, but even so, it’s important that we continually strive to improve the institutions and diversify the sorts of gatekeepers in the publishing world. I try not to worry about what CanLit might want or expect of me: the formal techniques and approaches that interest me, even the poets that interest me, are not ones that I feel interest a lot of my peers—writers of colour or not—and that’s fine. Eduardo C. Corral, a poet I greatly admire, once spoke in an interview about his appreciation for Robert Hayden, a writer who highly informs Corral’s own poetics and sense of literary lineage:
“[Hayden] taught me the supreme importance of craft. He also taught me a poet of color doesn’t need to explain his art to anyone — not even to his community. This realization was a breakthrough for me: it freed me from worrying if I was too Latino or not Latino enough. It freed me to write the poems I needed to write.”
Corral’s observations about Hayden cohere for me as a sustainable modus operandi for writers of colour — it’s not the only possible practice, of course, but it seems a generous and generative one.
As for how Model Disciple has been received, I’m not sure I can speak with any sort of acuity about the book’s reception in regard to any canon — anthologized, destabilized, fossilized, living, or dead. To be honest, I’m not particularly interested in thinking about how I may or may not be attached to, or claimed by certain schools, communities. Most of that stuff happens retrospectively and has little to do with that concerns me the most: writing the best poems I can at a given moment. What I can say is that I’m very grateful for all the people and organizations that have shown generosity toward the book and tried to engage with it on its own terms: the book has received more thoughtful and kind responses than I could have ever anticipated.
* “Open Letters and Closed Doors” by Jen Sookfong Lee, published in The Humber Literary Review. http://humberliteraryreview.com/jen-sookfong-lee-essay-open-letters-and-closed-doors/