BT: Michael, in 2014 you released your first chapbook, Swan Dive, with Frog Hollow Press. Of course, before that chapbook was even published you were already a well-known, well-respected poet in the Canadian Poetry community, partially because you seemed to win every contest that you entered. You work hard, and you don’t seem to stop. In fact, after finishing your MA in English with a Creative Thesis at University of Toronto, you recently moved to Ithaca, New York where you’re now completing your MFA in creative writing at Cornell University.
Tell us about what you’ve been doing since you abandoned us here in Toronto. Tell us why you decided to pursue your MFA after already finishing an MA. What’s coming next for Michael Prior? More importantly, tell us about your debut, full-length collection that’s coming out next year. What can we look forward to?
MP: Thank you so much for the kind words, Blair! Initially, I had no plans to pursue a stateside MFA after the MA, although I was aware of other writers who were following that trajectory (one being the very talented Suzannah Showler, who’s now at Ohio State). The program at U of T was wonderful but heavily academic (the writers do pretty much the same coursework as the strictly academic MAs and the first-year PhDs), and it didn’t take me long to realize that being a full-fledged academic wasn’t for me. I went to U of T having never taken a creative writing class, and I graduated wanting more time to write and more time to work in a close-knit writing community before entering the job market.
I applied selectively to a few MFA programs with no expectations, thinking I would probably have to move back to Vancouver or start looking for work in Toronto (at one point I was convinced I would become a dog-walker because a friend of mine in Vancouver was walking dogs in Yaletown and making more in a week than I had ever made in a month). I was thrilled to be accepted into the program at Cornell, and even more thrilled to work with Alice Fulton and Ishion Hutchinson. For me, Cornell has been challenging, rewarding, and, I think, good for the poems.
My debut, Model Disciple, will be published by Véhicule Press’s Signal Editions this spring (2016). The book has been in a constant state of evolution since Carmine Starnino accepted the manuscript a couple years ago (all I remember of our first meeting is eating slices of celebratory pizza somewhere on Queen Street). Carmine has been wonderfully generous with his time and insight, and over the last two years the book has gradually found its final shape.
When people ask me what Model Disciple is about, I always get a little uneasy. I wanted to make Model Disciple a collection of individual poems first and foremost, but a thematic framework for the book arose organically: as with most writers, I kept returning to the same subject matter. At the core of the collection are my maternal grandparents’ experiences as Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Like thousands of other Canadians of Japanese descent, they were forced into internment camps after Pearl Harbour, while their families’ properties and possessions were auctioned off to pay for their own internment.
Accordingly, the book often deals with issues of intergenerational memory, cultural inheritance, and my own experience of growing up half (“halves?” “halfed?”) and still not really knowing what that means. The collection has a lot to do with my troubled relationship to the writers I love and the implications of stealing from the traditionally privileged canon to express my own confused position. But of course, there are also VHS tapes, guinea pigs, Tamagotchis, Boromir, and Pat Morita thrown in for good measure.
BT: Thanks so much Michael. And thank you for sharing this poem:
I am all that is wrong with the Old World,
and half of what troubles the New.
I have not seen Spain or the Philippines,
Holland or Indonesia. In the other room,
my grandfather nods off in front
of Wheel of Fortune. I have seen his Japan
in photos—the last good suit he wore,
grey, tailored in Kyushu. Believe
Pat Sajak is a saviour: he divines new riches
like water hidden from a dowser’s
willow switch, trembling through
unfamiliar territories, proffered
like a makeshift cross. The same faith
should be proof enough
of my current crisis. There was a game
we once played. I’m in it now.
The wheel turns, strobes its starlight
across another centrifuge, that spinning globe,
a kid’s finger skimming its surface,
waiting for it to stop. This is where I’ll live.
-From the 2015 Global Poetry Anthology (Véhicule Press)
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.