Poetry Primer #11: Patrick Warner and Shoshanna Wingate

April 21, 2015

Today's poetry primer pick is brought to us by the letter W: W as in Warner, or Patrick Warner, and his choice for an emerging poet to watch: Shoshanna Wingate.

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Today's poetry primer pick is brought to us by the letter W: W as in Warner, or Patrick Warner. Born in Claremorris, Co. Mayo, Ireland, Warner immigrated to Canada in his late teens and called St. John's, Newfoundland (mostly) home since. Twice a winner of the E.J. Pratt Poetry Prize, Warner is author of four collections of poetry: All Manner of Misunderstanding (Killick Press, 2001). There, there (Signal Editions, 2005), Mole (House of Anansi Press, 2009), and Perfection (Goose Lane/Ice House, 2012). When not writing poetry, he is the Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian for Memorial University Libraries.

Patrick's choice for an emerging poet to watch is also brought to us by W: Shoshanna Wingate. Wingate, like Warner, has settled in St. John's Newfoundland. In addition to publishing poetry and fiction in The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, and Arc Poetry Magazine, she has released a chapbook with Frog's Hollow Press and founded the arts and culture journal Riddle Fence. Her collection,  Radio Weather (Vehicule Press), deals with the tensions in our own movements brought about by outside forces: including poverty, decay, or death. It was called "clear-eyed, musical, deeply-considered and deeply-felt" by Warner, who then added, "these are...poems for grown ups."

Read "The Gift" from Radio Weather, below.

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Patrick Warner on why he chose Shoshanna Wingate:

I was first drawn to Shoshanna Wingate’s poems for their easy conversational quality, their alertness to form in language and their interesting subject matter. Here was a poet with something unique to say and with all of the tools to say it uniquely. Much of what Wingate has to say in her poems draws on her family history and personal experience (Wingate grew up in the Southern US, but has lived most of her life away from her first home, spending time in other US locations, in Europe and in Canada). That she makes personal experience the subject of her poems only sharpens her formal skills. AIDS Ward is a poem that deals with the death of her father and the epidemic nature of AIDS in the last decades of the twentieth century. It is a poem that easily could have been derailed by the strong emotions it embodies. The poem dwells on the effects of the disease, placing before the reader the particulars of the AIDS ward and the particular ravages of the disease on the body. Wingate uses rhythm, sharp line breaks and repetition to underscore the relentless forward momentum of the disease, as well as the way it strips its victim of identity. “This is the bed, empty again,/ next to the man dying. This is// the strap that ties down/the man that lies next to the empty bed.// This is the daughter untying the strap/that restrains the man that lies//in an empty room where he is dying/ on a floor full of rooms, emptying.”  A notable insight of this poem is the way in which the virus seems to infect and ravage not only the AIDS sufferer but also the compassion of those whose task it was to care for the afflicted at that time. 

Having moved homes frequently in the first four decades of her life, it should come as no surprise that Wingate has a complicated relationship to place and to the past. In The City Dwellers, she uses black humour to describe her struggle to put down roots in the space between “what we didn’t want and what we could afford,” a struggle that rages right across her excellent debut collection. The first poem in Wingate’s book ends with the lines: “We fear our maps outdated, pencil sketches// on onion skin. Our stories, though,/ tell us who we are” (Radio Weather). It’s a thought she returns to (the battle still raging) near the end of the collection in her poem Living with the Dead: “My house is jammed full/of those who don’t want the door open/who want the world brought in/with little intrusion from strangers./ Where for whom time means nothing/ and living in the mind is more real/than the outside world.” At the heart of Wingate’s poetry is her struggle to engage with experience without betraying it, to articulate its full range of meanings for herself and for the reader. Her storytelling gifts and formal accomplishments allow us a window on this private world without making us feel like intruders; her poems reveal without exposing. Poetry for Wingate is always an act of communication between human beings. Her poems are full of people.

Ultimately, it is the lived-in quality of Wingate’s poems, the authenticity that comes from tough negotiation with experience and with poetic form that makes her work a valuable recent contribution to Canadian poetry, a poetry which, in 2015, is overly-indebted to affected language, to literary theory and to the incomprehensible. Among the wash of contemporary poems, many of which read as non sequitur followed by non sequitur, Wingate’s poems stand out for their realism, for their narrative candor, for their emotional heft, and (contradictory as it may sound) for their restraint.

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Shoshanna Wingate on why she writes poetry, and who her influences are:

When I was in the fifth grade, my father moved in with another man. I thought nothing of it, honestly, even though my father was twice divorced, because I saw that he was happy and because our lives were strange anyway: we lived so outside the cultural norms of our hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, that I just didn’t think to wonder how far outside his latest lifestyle change had taken us. That year, in school, we studied public speaking and were given an assignment to memorize a text for recitation to the class. I was a shy child and panic set in immediately. My father’s boyfriend, however, was a poet and offered me his copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s collected poems; he coached me while I memorized "Annabel Lee." When I say that I lived on the outskirts of the cultural norms of my hometown, I mean that I dressed in hippie clothes and got pulled out of school for anti-nuke demonstrations and did not have electricity or running water for long bouts and my classmates did not know what to make of me in the least. I did not know what to make of myself. So when I took the podium and recited Poe, with his repetitions, his grandiose tale of lost love, his grief, I channeled a power I could never have exhibited in my own voice, and with every stanza I felt it rise in tension and my voice steadied, seemingly outside of me, and the poem carried this power I had not known, except perhaps in odd moments in church, only I was the one wielding it and I was still outside, but I had made everyone turn to face me there and they heard me. Poe’s tale was not my tale, but it was familiar. I did not speak my own words, but still they stirred something in me. 

I write because I find life strange and I find people strange and even though I’ve lived a varied life, I question myself and everyone else obsessively, and poetry is one of the tools, the main tool, I use to examine the world. I don’t want pat answers. I don’t want pretty. I don’t want useful. I don’t want funeral pieces.

In my twenties, I found Paul Celan while living in Berlin. The recognition, the force, carried me for years and I read everyone remotely associated with him. I read whom he read. I read backward in time, to Rilke, to Heine. This is how I fall in love with poets. I consume them and take them into my life stack by stack. In my late twenties, I found Elizabeth Bishop. How does one explain these polar influences? They don’t. Who cares. That’s how it works. In my early thirties, I fell in love with Robert Frost. In my late thirties, I started having babies and we read Shel Silverstein at bedtime, for years. I have contemporary influences too, of course, but these fluctuate depending on what I am writing, what I need, what I am working out. I might need another decade before it’s clear which contemporaries stayed with me. Or else I just don’t want to find myself reading a comparison one day in a review after someone picked out that detail, because then I’d have to stop reading that poet’s work for a while and anyway, influences are secret treasures and it’s important to keep some things for yourself.

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Follow along with our  Poetry Primer series all April long or get the full collection of featured poetry plus a poem from each of our established poets in our new chapbook,  ibid. Get a free ebook copy if you buy a collection of poetry from All Lit Up during National Poetry Month.


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