“Big cities sometimes have really small dicks.”
That, in microcosm, might sum up the worldview of renegade poet Eva H.D. Now based in Brooklyn, where she decamped to from Toronto, she told fellow poet James Lindsay in 2016 that while it might be fair to suggest she loved the Ontario capital when she published her first collection, 2015’s Rotten Perfect Mouth, she had since become disillusioned by the city. “It washed its face with Javex in a bid to become some cosmo-sipping teenager’s teevee wet dream about an imaginary New York,” she said at the time.
Her feelings about her adopted American home today aren’t any more forgiving. “New York, widely regarded as one of the world’s great cities, is in fact desperately insecure,” she says via email.
The brevity and directness, along with the anatomical reference and subversive humour, are characteristic of the poet and her work. She has published three collections to date: Rotten Perfect Mouth and its 2016 follow-up, Shiner, both with Mansfield Press, and the new volume The Natural Hustle, her first with McClelland & Stewart.
As if to underline her notion of urban centres, the new book contains a poem called “God and the Path Train,” which states plainly: “Here’s what we know about New Jersey … The state’s biggest industry was pages of a dirty book that stick together.” The imagery verges on the pornographic, which can be typical for the poet, though the poem begins with the speaker dozing off while riding the eponymous transit and reading Camus, something about “god and large feelings / I don’t understand.”
The dichotomy between a “dirty book” and the more high-minded philosophy of the late Algerian existentialist provides a nexus point for Eva H.D.’s own verse, which moves in the style and vernacular of the Beats, especially reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg. Not surprisingly, the Howl author is name-checked in “God and the Path Train”: the speaker debarks at Hoboken, where a companion is waiting who wants “to dump sunflowers / all over Allen Ginsberg’s grave.” The speaker may or may not share a similar impulse, but declaims, “I’m here for the ride.”
That is as good a description as any of reading an Eva H.D. poem. Whether it takes you to a bar where an ex-con says of a former cellmate, “He was gay, but boy could he / fight,” or to the corner of Parkside Drive and Bloor Street West in Toronto, where a “footless old sock of a / man’s begging & shuffling” and an SUV is “a humming / tension gushing hot clammyass / rain,” the poet can be depended upon to take you places you may see every day without really noticing them, or at least without seeing them in quite the same way. Her style – vernacular, vulgar, occasionally beautiful in a way that almost, if you squint just right, recalls the Romantics – drives the poems forward; you’re just along for the ride.
This can also describe the experience of interviewing – or attempting to interview – the poet herself. Eva H.D. is notoriously reticent to provide anything in the way of biographical details – even her pen name elides full disclosure. She once lived in Toronto, and there is a detailed and precise description of one specific west-end neighbourhood in “Roncesvalles,” from The Natural Hustle. But ask her whether she thinks moving to Brooklyn has changed her practice as a poet, and the response – “I disagree” – is all brusqueness and vagaries. She’s a bit more responsive when asked what keeps drawing her back to Toronto as a subject: “The Toronto Blue Jays.”
Ask her about the new focus on white space in her latest volume – poems that appear in sections or numbered lists – and she answers cryptically: “Space is not white.” Ask her about how her focus on urban or built environments runs against a traditional CanLit preoccupation with nature and she responds, “I am not aware of this.” Ask her what it is about the season of summer that fires her poetic imagination, and the response is a bit more forthcoming, and certainly funnier: “I regret to hear the news of its firing. I have been fired many times, but this is a first for my poetic imagination.”
The admission that she has lost several jobs is probably as close as she’ll come in interviews to biographical detail. It is left to an interviewer to add salient information from external sources. For example, she won the 2015 Montreal International Poetry Prize for her poem “38 Michigans,” which is included in the new collection. Another poem in the new book, “Bonedog,” was read aloud by actor Jessie Buckley in the film adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things. That film was written for the screen and directed by American filmmaker Charlie Kaufman, who met Eva H.D. while the poet was doing a fellowship at MacDowell, an artists’ residency program in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Eva H.D. refers to MacDowell as “a place that houses artists for free and probably saved my life.” There is, of course, no context or follow-up, though The Natural Hustle is dedicated to Kaufman, “who helped.”
If trying to wrest information from Eva H.D. is akin to trying to draw blood from a desiccated husk, the challenge arguably returns the supplicant to the poetry for answers. It would be wrong to call Eva H.D. a confessional poet, but there is a kind of granular detail in her work that is notably absent in her reactions to questions about herself and her poetics, which is appropriate. The poems speak for themselves, in their aggression, their humour, and their musicality.
It is on the subject of musicality that Eva H.D. is at least willing to throw the struggling interviewer a small tidbit. “I’m not sure if there’s a difference between music and poetry on the page,” she says about her penchant for referencing music – from Mozart to Philip Glass – in her work. But just as soon as you think you’re on solid ground, the cracks appear and you begin to falter. “Unless the Page is Jimmy,” she says. “In which case he should calm down.”