It's no surprise Vincent Pagé's debut collection has an eye-catching title - with work published in journals across the country and a National Magazine Award nomination under his belt, Pagé's witty and incisive style, including titles that evoke that "I've got to stop and read this" effect, has been gaining him widespread acclaim.
This is the Emergency Present (Coach House Books) is one of the fall's highly anticipated collections, exploring modern romance through lenses as varied as chemistry, abstract language, and the works of Pablo Neruda. These smart and finely rendered poems announce an exciting new voice in Canadian poetry.
We're excited to welcome Vincent to Open Book today to talk about his new book and about the power of titles for readers and writers, through our Entitled interview series. He tells us about the unexpected way in which This is the Emergency Present got its name, how studying the chemical details of fire became unexpected inspiration for poetry titles, and how one particularly memorable title led him from contemplating thermometers to imagining a bath with Serge Gainsbourg.
Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.
This Is the Emergency Present was for the longest time just a line in one of my poems. The line itself actually came from a longwinded Facebook post a friend of mine made a few years ago while going through some things, and that sentence was just kind of plugged in the middle of the post. I couldn’t get the line out of my head so I wrote a poem around it.
After editing the book and winnowing down poems and finding a theme, it kind of just felt right as the title. Nothing else was working, and the more I thought about it the more it fit. There are a lot of poems in the collection focusing on absence and a kind of manic and confused energy about its relationship with presence.
Where is the most unexpected place you've ever found inspiration for a title?
There’s an entire section in the book where each title is just a sentence fragment pulled from a physics and chemistry textbook that firefighters have to read before they can graduate. I didn’t really understand what fire was on a physical and chemical level and I wanted to know. When I was reading the textbook these bits of sentences just kind of glowed and I would pull them out word for word, sometimes writing poems around the titles or sometimes just finding titles for poems already on the go. It doesn’t hurt that a majority of the poems in that section are about a house fire. Reappropriating text and using them as titles I think is a great way to recycle words, ideas, syntax and give them new life and new ways to function in people’s brains.
What, in your opinion, is most important function of a title?
I think there is as much difficulty in finding the proper title for a poem as there is in writing the poem itself. When I feel that a poem’s title fails it is when it only describes what the poem is about. What I like in a title is that it almost has a poetic life of its own. That it not only informs the reader, but it kind of nudges the reader's brain in a direction so that they interpret and experience the poem with it in mind, with the lens of the title. I think that’s why I have a slight obsession with very long titles. They allow the poet a little bit more of an influence on how the poem will be taken in and experienced. Also when they are long I feel like there’s more of a breakdown of the wall between writer and reader, like "hey here I am writing a poem and this is what it’s about and how I feel about it I hope you like it xoxo."
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What is your favourite title that you've ever come up with and why? (For any kind of piece, short or long.)
My favourite title I have is one that I didn’t really "come up with" more so as just found and reappropriated from the physics and chemistry textbook. It is heads are just sealed glass bulbs full of liquid and there’s no way I would have come up with something so surprisingly insightful and refreshing on my own. I think the whole sentence was describing how a mercury-based thermometer works and the "bulb" it’s referring to is the glass bulb full of mercury that expands when heated. But it’s also just incredibly true about our own heads full of electric goop sloshing around in a relatively fragile bulb so I wrote a poem about taking a bath with Serge Gainsbourg.
What quality in a title will consistently make you pick up an unfamiliar book?
It’s about surprise for me. Does the language of the title tilt and surprise and do something new to my brain, and does it indicate how the book will function? There are just so many titles listed along book-spines in libraries and bookstores and it’s so easy to read and forget them almost instantly. I want to read a combination of words I’ve never heard or seen before, that’ll get me to pull it down from the shelf.
Vincent Pagé has had work published in Prism, Geist, The Malahat Review, Metatron, Event, The Puritan, and Vallum, among other journals. He was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2015. He lives in Toronto.