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Poetry Month Q&A: Emily Pohl-Weary on poetry of witness and her new collection, Ghost Sick

Ghost-SickMemories of a Christmas Eve shooting in Emily Pohl-Weary’s neighbourhood are the starting point for her second poetry collection, Ghost Sick (Tightrope Books). The Toronto author – who has a passionate affinity for the Parkdale community where the violent crime occurred (and where she grew up) – refers to the collection as “poetry of witness,” a type of personal testimonial that follows a tragedy or an act of injustice.

Pohl-Weary spoke to Q&Q about the collection.

Did you consider writing about this experience in another form? When I started processing the experiences in Ghost Sick, poetry was what I could manage. It doesn’t take me long to scribble out the first draft of a poem (most of the work involved in poetry is revision and crafting), and each of these focuses on a part of the picture through concepts, images, feelings, and people.

I didn’t have enough strength to look at the whole picture, so I broke it down into manageable chunks, and filtered/re-filtered, wrote/rewrote, and fictionalized parts of it. Poetry allowed me to burrow down into the experiences. That said, some of the things I explore directly in this collection have definitely infiltrated my other writing – like my young-adult novels – in less obvious ways.

Was it a challenging experience to return to these memories? Very challenging. It took nine years to get these poems out of me. Ghost Sick is the most difficult thing I’ve ever written. There’s a David Foster Wallace quote from Infinite Jest that’s making the rounds as a meme: “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.” That applies to the work in this book. The poems are incredibly difficult to discuss and read aloud.

For people who aren’t familiar, how would you describe “poetry of witness”? We are all observers, in the sense that living is a process of witnessing. As a writer, I’ve always had an insatiable need to understand the why of situations that might seem senseless. The first time I encountered the term was in the work of human-rights activist and poet Carolyn Forché, whose brave and beautiful collection The Country Between Us inspired me at a critical time. It was recommended by my editor Carolyn Smart during a workshop she led at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

Forché compiled an anthology called Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, which contained writing by poets who had experienced “conditions of social and historical extremity.” She advocates that, essentially, a writer should be honest about where she’s situated in relation to her work and that where you locate yourself in your writing is a political act. Forché goes so far as to assert that the poem itself is a form of witnessing, and “might be our only evidence that an event has occurred: it exists for us as the sole trace of an occurrence.”

While writing Ghost Sick, I was living proof of how painful it is to bear witness to violence that is happening around us, in front of us, and to those we love. A quote from bell hook’s Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black also kept coming to mind: “I write these words to bear witness to the primacy of resistance struggle in any situation of domination (even within family life); to the strength and power that emerges from sustained resistance and the profound conviction that these forces can be healing, can protect us from dehumanization and despair.” Part of that quote is my epigraph in Ghost Sick.

How does this collection tie in to the Parkdale community work you’ve been so active with? Inextricably. I grew up in the neighbourhood. My parents are activists. It might be odd to say this, given the content of the poems, but this collection is a (somewhat depressing) love song to Parkdale and the people who lived there. It’s a changing, gentrifying part of the Toronto, so I use the past tense purposefully.

Despite the themes you’re dealing with, there’s still a sense of hope or optimism or maybe solidarity. Was that intentional? I wrote these poems though the lens of overwhelming love. It might be impossible for hope and optimism and solidarity to not bubble up when you start there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.