Content warning: the following interview includes a discussion of the author's experience with mental illness and hospitalization
In his newest collection
Is This Scary? (ECW Press) Jacob Scheier articulates experiences of psychiatric institutionalization, and the internal landscapes of depression and anxiety, and chronic illness. In these poems, he challenges our collective desire for stories of triumph over mental illness and disability, and instead offers an honest, unflinching exploration of a chronic state of being.
Below Jacob talks to us about a major depressive episode that led to writing his book, how a literal approach to poetry has been useful for revising his poems, poetry as an act of resistance, and more. Plus, read the poem "My Last Depression" and get 15% off Is This Scary? until April 30th.
During the month of April, you can buy any of our featured Poetry Express books for 15% off + free shipping in Canada. Just use promo code NPMexpress at checkout. Or you can find it at your
local independent bookstore.
All Lit Up: Can you tell us a bit about your collection and how it came to be?
Jacob Scheier: Many of the poems in this book were written during a severe and lengthy major depressive episode a few years ago, which included a three-week period as an inpatient in the psychiatric ward in Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital. I honestly didn’t set out to write a book. At the time of the depressive episode I was working on essays. But the only thing I could write, once the episode started, were poems and it became an act of necessity for me. I felt I needed to attempt to articulate a subjective and terrifying experience—if only to myself so I wouldn’t feel entirely lost in it. Poetry was the only way I felt able to do this. As I recovered, I turned my attention to other subjects including chronic physical illness—as I realized that I also needed to try to communicate that experience.
Photo of Jacob Scheier (Credit: Julia Viskov)
[Image Description: A front facing photo of the author cropped above his waist. The author looks directly into the camera. He is light-skinned, has greying hair, blue eyes, and a beard. He is wearing an olive green shirt beneath a black jacket. The photo is taken against a red brick wall.]
ALU: What has been your most unlikely source of writing inspiration?
JS: I suppose my most unlikely source of inspiration was a friendship I made in the psych-ward. He was a fascinating and generous man—who inspired a few poems in the book.
ALU: Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
JS: I would say my ideas of poetry have evolved over time. I recently read Matthew Zapruder’s book on "craft’"—Why Poetry? It seems simple, but one of his focuses is on the literal meaning of poems as an initial approach to reading poetry. I’ve found this concept useful not only for teaching poetry but for revising my own poems—asking myself, as I revise, what do the words I wrote literally say? And from there perhaps enter into a more “symbolic” realm.
ALU: What are you most in the mood to read these days? Any poets you’re especially enjoying?
JS: In these dark and absurd times, I find myself returning to John Ashbery. The dreamlike and sometimes absurd quality of his poems has been fitting for my moods. I also got very interested, because of the pandemic, in the poetry that came out of New York during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. I was only familiar with some of the more famous poets of that time, like Thom Gunn. But I then discovered or took a much more in-depth look at the poems of Paul Monette and Tim Dlugos, who is now amongst my favourite poets. I’ve become really interested in how the poets responded to that crisis—it certainly was very different situation they were engaging than our public health crisis (the politics of AIDS are obviously quite different than those of COVID-19). However, I was really inspired by how art flourished as an act of resistance and healing in that community.
ALU: Describe your ideal escape.
JS: The fact I have a lot of trouble answering this question is perhaps something I should examine more—perhaps with my therapist. I’m embarrassed to report that I “escape” a lot of the times these days by listening to American left-wing podcasts. As far as an ideal escape goes, I find myself, in this moment, thinking of the Chagall painting “I and the Village.” I would like to escape into that painting.
by which I mean yes,
the previous & yes,
the definitive. I plan
not to have another one
no matter what. I wanted to tell you
in a poem, so you would worry
less. Is this scary? I fell
from poetry. I mean all/this
that’s here, so fleeting
seems to require us. I couldn’t bear
Everything fell with intent then.
Gravity, my one god. Agency,
a side effect. Leaves leapt
on mass. A star had it
with the sky.
My first depression
offered suspense. A narrator
for later. In the ER planless,
a kid with a fake ID.
I worked on the craft.
Method acted till meta-ness dropped
away & now
—the method is the method—
I explain each time
& am admitted. I feel
(like)/I can’t again.
Is this scary? Or boring?
& what’s worse?
Perhaps that’s why
poems exist. Attempts
to say a goodbye to all/this
perfectly. Never finished,
only abandoned. Every poem,
about suicide & love
unfulfilled. I’m sorry/I’ve failed again.
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Jacob Scheier is a Toronto-based poet, essayist, and journalist. He is the author of two previous poetry collections, including the Governor General’s Award–winning More to Keep Us Warm (ECW, 2007). His poems, articles, and essays have appeared in journals, magazines, and anthologies across North America.
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During the month of April, you can buy
Is This Scary? and any one of our other featured Poetry Express books for 15% off + free shipping in Canada with promo code NPMexpress.Or find them at your
local independent bookstore!
All Lit Up is produced by the Literary Press Group and LitDistCo. LPG and LitDistCo acknowledge the financial support of the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Ontario Arts Council.
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