Word is starting to spread about Kerry-Lee Powell's Inheritance, the searing poetic debut about PTSD and the redemptive power of song by the winner of the 2013 Boston Review Fiction Contest.
Another sign of Powell's rare accomplishment is that Inheritance has won the admiration of award-winning experimental poet and Lemon Hound proprietor Sina Queyras, who has called it one of her favourite books of the year. Canada's leading online magazine of the avant-garde sat down with Kerry-Lee earlier this month, and the resulting conversation between Queyras and Powell is fascinating. Here's a taste:
When I wrote “The Lifeboat” I had been more or less bedridden for a couple of years with what later turned out to be a manageable illness. At the time I had no hope of recovering, and I’m convinced it was this despair that allowed me to imaginatively relive my father’s experiences. I understood, fully and with compassion, why he had taken his own life. I was half-asleep with the window open and a notepad beside me when the last line seemed to rise out of my bed sheets like a swelling chorus, drowning out the voices of the children playing in the park across the road. It was a serious moment, perhaps one of the most serious moments I’ve ever had.
My task was then to pare the poem down to its barest elements, try to attain, to borrow a phrase from Plath, ‘the illusion of a Greek necessity.’ I wanted to strip away as much extraneous detail as I could to show that the poem wasn’t only about my father’s tragedy but about how grief is handed down in memories and in song. The poem is a lifeboat, bearing its reader back into the past to relive my father’s terrible experience. It seemed essential to find the music in each line, to ensure that it came as close to embodying its own message as it possibly could. I think, too, that a formal poem engenders its own sense of inevitability. In this poem, I wanted the rhymes to be uncluttered, but at the same time to toll and echo like bells, to resonate the way my father’s traumatic memories and suicide continue to resonate in my life. One of the great things about art is that grief needn’t be banished or ‘cured’ or disavowed, but can instead be given its full due.
As the interview makes clear, Powell is that rare poet who can talk about her craft with an attention and care that rivals the achievement of her poetry, and I'll leave you with an excerpt from her excellent essay "Falling In Love With Poetry: It's Complicated!" which just recently appeared in The New Quarterly. It discusses how Kerry-Lee's discovery of Leadbelly and Lighting Hopkins provided a lifeline during her "shitty jobs as an underage cocktail waitress, [and] chambermaid at a biker motel," blossoming into a secret love affair with the poetry of John Donne, Plath and others, a veritable crash course on "how to be human." Inheritance is available in better bookstores and online from Biblioasis.
With its roots in the underworld and its high notes in the transcendent realm of the spiritual, the unearthliness of blues music endowed my own lack— of money, an identity, power—with pathos and a borrowed fervour. The lyrics and the music seemed contradictory and oddly complementary: a melancholy voice chronicling the solitudes and transience of human life with a subversive, life-affirming brilliance. I was falling in love with poetry, although I didn’t know it at the time.