Monday 11 July 2022

P.W. Bridgman

Canadian writer P.W. Bridgman’s third and fourth books—Idiolect (poetry) and The Four-Faced Liar (short fiction)—were published in 2021 by Ekstasis Editions. His writing has appeared (or is forthcoming) in, among others, Moth Magazine, The Antigonish Review, Glasgow Review of Books, Grain, The Honest Ulsterman, The Galway Review, The High Window, The Maynard and Skylight 47. Bridgman has given live readings in Vancouver, Victoria, Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow and Melbourne.

Twitter: @PWB_writer1

What book(s) are you reading right now?

As always, I have at least two books on the go at any given time. Usually this means a book of fiction and a book of poems. My reading always takes me to both realms and, if anything, poetry has lately overtaken fiction. Writers from Canada (where I live) and writers from Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK (to which I have ancestral ties) generally tend to dominate and this is no different at the present.

I have just finished reading Louise Kennedy’s brilliant novel, Trespasses, published this past April. It lingers persistently and pleasingly in my mind. The stock of superlatives available to reviewers and commentators is badly depleted (like an overdrawn line of credit) thanks to Kennedy’s fine writing in Trespasses. One is thus challenged to find a way to praise the book that sounds even remotely original. Let me just say that the novel offers a very vivid, credible and nuanced treatment of a relationship that develops, inconveniently, in a small town near Belfast in the heat of the Troubles. Cushla is a Catholic teacher of young children and part-time barmaid; Michael is a prominent Protestant barrister who makes himself unpopular with unionists and the British security apparatus by representing some clients, mainly youth from the nationalist side, who are charged with terrorist offences. (Some parallels between Michael and the murdered solicitor, Patrick Finucane, can be discerned.) Against the backdrop of the violence of the time and the political, religious and sectarian divisions that fuelled it, this fraught relationship provides Kennedy with plenty to work with in developing both character and plot. Her writing is artful and carefully nuanced. The tender humanity that Cushla displays toward the family of one of her pupils “caught in the middle” is cast in stark relief against some of the harsh and unforgiving tribalism displayed by other characters in the novel who are blessed with little humanity and distressingly unsubtle minds. The writing in this regard is uplifting without being marred by sentimentality. Alas, kindness toward the hapless family that Cushla takes under her wing is, ultimately, her undoing. I will stop there and say no more for fear of adding more “spoilers” to the many that have, regrettably, already been set loose in some of the reviews of Trespasses that have recently been published. Factional conflict of varying kinds plagues our world and so any contemporary explorations of richly human but fraught relationships contextualised by such conflicts seem not only relevant but necessary reading. My guess is that when I cast my eye back over fiction published in 2022, Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses will remain securely at the top of my list and be my “novel of the year”.

On the poetry side of the ledger, I have finally gotten down to a deep dive into Canadian poet Kayla Czaga’s 2019 title, Dunk Tank. Czaga burst onto the Canadian poetry scene in 2014 with her first collection, For Your Safety Please Hold On—a bravura literary debut that propelled her quickly to the forefront of the young, new poets to watch in this country. Dunk Tank confirms the depth and breadth of Czaga’s talents. Her poetry is rich with similes and metaphors. People once close to one another gently but inexorably “drift apart like lily pads”. She wrestles with identity, the immigrant experience, early success and the doubts it inevitably spawns, the vexing questions Canadians face in relation to the colonisation of Indigenous peoples—all the big contemporary issues, in other words—but she does so in a strikingly disarming way, viz:

        “I love Superstore. I got
        so happy I nearly died
        at a food court in Honolulu.
        Is that enough affect
        theory for you? Halfway
        through a book gala
        I realized my dress
        was on backwards.

        I am still writing this cliché
        Canadian shit. I am writing
        dogwood and diaspora
        along the lonely shoulders
        of Coastal mountains.
        Sorry I’m so boring.
        Does what sustains me
        have to be invasive
        as blackberries choking
        out native species?
        Does it have to come
        wrapped in so much

Name a book you have given as a gift/recommended to a friend.

That’s easy: Jude Nutter’s 2021 title, Dead Reckoning. I first came upon Jude Nutter’s poetry when I read her intriguingly titled “Disco Jesus and the Wavering Virgins in Berlin, 2011”—a poem that was shortlisted for The Moth Magazine’s Ballymaloe Poetry Prize in 2015. Some sense of its genius is evidenced by the fact that it was chosen for inclusion in the Forward Book of Poetry, 2022. “Disco Jesus” is one of those poems that will provoke an audible gasp on the first reading. It certainly did for me. A genuine tour de force, it repays repeated readings. “Disco Jesus” set me on a path to find more of Nutter’s work and when I did so I could quickly see that the gifts revealed by my first encounter were at work in her several collections. Dead Reckoning is Jude Nutter’s most recent title. I also think it is her best. I had the pleasure of writing an extensive assessment of the book for The High Window where, earlier this year, Nutter was selected as that journal’s Featured UK Poet. You can access that assessment via this link. Dead Reckoning is this outstanding poet’s strongest and most compelling title to date. You will have to look long and hard to find anyone writing today capable of conjuring lines like this:

        “…the heart, believing it will find
        what it came for, is one step ahead
        of reason…”

I have given copies of Dead Reckoning as gifts to numerous friends and recommended it to many others. I daresay that if you seize the opportunity to read this latest sampling of Nutter’s richly expressive and at times unsettling poems, you will do the same.

Name a book you have read more than once.

That’s also an easy one. I hesitate to mention it, though, because my choice may be seen by some to be snobbish or self-congratulatory. The book is Joyce’s Ulysses.

Many are justly fearful of approaching Ulysses. It is, after all, an intimidating and heavily freighted colossus of a novel. But we ought not shrink from reading it, provided we also understand that we must read Ulysses differently from the way we read most any other prose. The novel is so richly replete with obscure cultural, Biblical, classical, political, linguistic, historical and mythological references—often rendered that much more challenging by Joyce’s endless punning and other expressive gymnastics—that the temptation to try to run each and every one of them to ground must be resisted. (If the temptation is not resisted, the true experience of the novel will be lost and it would take several lifetimes to complete the reading.) What I have learned is that one reads Ulysses for more than just sense. The prose is musical and, in places, almost nothing more. Thus, the ear is as important to the appreciation of Joyce’s idiosyncratic and prosodic writing as is the eye and Wernicke’s area of the cerebral cortex. Indeed, one can safely glide gently over the surface of some of the more challenging passages in Ulysses without doing violence to the overall experience of the novel. To do so enables the preservation of an essential momentum. The book does not require to be understood fully on any reading. Thus, one reads Ulysses humbly but with determination, knowing that on every subsequent reading more will be revealed. I go back to this humbling masterwork every few years and I am greeted with new revelations on each rereading. I also know that however many times I return to Ulysses, much of it will still escape me; this is an inescapable truth that I have taught myself to accept. Ulysses is a bountiful ocean of a novel, rightly praised as a transformative force in modern fictional prose. Its humour, its rich sarcasm, its tenderness, its sometimes-unbridled lasciviousness, above all its joyous abandon and heady celebration of language itself—all  of these things are unparalleled in any other work I have ever encountered. But when tackling it, I do humbly suggest, again, that you do turn off your devices and resist the temptation to make regular detours to Google every few paragraphs. Trust the flow of Joyce’s writing to carry you along and past the shoals. The exhilaration it generates will not be compromised by a failure to disentangle and solve all of its many mysteries.

Name a book you have started but never finished.

Finnegans Wake. This is a difficult admission. It might be thought that everything I have said above about reading Joyce’s Ulysses would apply equally to the unlocking of Finnegans Wake. Some of it undoubtedly does. But despite several attempts, I have found Finnegans Wake mostly impenetrable. I would like to think that as I mature as a reader, that might change. But the clock is ticking, alas, and this just might be a challenge to which I will never successfully rise. More’s the pity, but there it is.

Name your favourite anthology.

Biblioasis brings out Best Canadian Poetry anthologies annually and in 2019 it published what I consider was the best of these to date. Credit is due largely to editor Rob Taylor for his discerning approach to selection. As it should, the anthology strikes a judicious balance between featuring established and emerging Canadian poets. Indigenous writers are very much in the ascendancy in Canada and it is evident that their writing is now disproportionately enriching the literary landscape. Owing to the pernicious effects of colonialism, such voices have, historically, been denied the attention they deserve. That is changing however, and rapidly, and Indigenous poets have now become a powerful force in contemporary Canadian literature. This reality is reflected in the appearances of writers like Billy-Ray Belcourt and Katherena Vermette (among others) in this prestigious collection. For a fuller account of my thoughts about Best Canadian Poetry, 2019, you can read a review I wrote of it here.

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