The Transmutation of Fire: An Interview with Michael Prior – curated by Wendy Chen

Michael Prior is the author of Burning Province (McClelland & Stewart/Penguin Random House, 2020) and Model Disciple (Véhicule Press, 2016). His poems have appeared in The New RepublicPOETRYNarrative, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day series, Poetry Northwest, and The Margins, among other magazines and anthologies. Michael holds graduate degrees from the University of Toronto and Cornell University.


Wendy Chen: The title Burning Province is amazing on its own, but also it speaks on so many levels to the collection and its various themes. Not only does it refer to the particular wildfires of British Columbia, but also, it seems to me, speaks to a particular inhospitableness of landscape and place. For example, in many poems you touch on the hostility of the internment camps in Canada toward Japanese-Canadians. What does the title of the collection mean to you and how did you come to choose this title? 

Michael Prior: When I started writing the first poems in this book, my grandmother—who was interned in one of the largest camps called Tashme—fell ill and passed away. We were very close; losing her was like losing a mother. That summer, while she was in the hospital, there were a number of forest fires in the interior of British Columbia. Tens of thousands of people were displaced, the air quality was so bad that the sky looked orange, and there were health warnings asking people to stay inside. 

My grandmother’s room was on the 16th floor of Vancouver General Hospital, and I remember looking out the window at these clouds of smoke rolling through the city toward the sea; it all felt very oneiric, like the world was mourning her. 

That particular sensory palette became the palette for the book: the fires, the smoke, the ways in which the landscape itself can be transformed by the mind through projection, extension—the pathetic fallacy (which is, experientially, hardly a fallacy). A large part of the book is in some ways an attempt to elegize that last generation of Nikkei who lived through the internment: as they, like my grandmother, pass away, the internment begins to only exists in communal memory, historical record, acts of artistic re-witnessing. 

While writing, I was drawn to the pastoral genre. I was interested in how, historically, imaginatively, the pastoral treats place and landscape. I began to wonder what would happen to certain pastoral tropes—the eclogue, the georgic, Arcadia, retreat and return—if they were displaced into the traumatic spaces of the camps—places that existed but are no longer as they were (the camp where my grandparents were held is now a RV Park/summer cottage community). Spaces that, because of my generational remove from the internment, are also imaginative for me; I know them only through family stories, archival documents, and art. 

WC: So many of those ideas of transformation and the landscape comes through in the title, and one of the parts I love most about this book is the sensory detail and the language. It’s really inspiring to me as a writer. 

You touch on this idea of transformation, and I think of the way that images transform from poem to poem. For example, the image of burning provinces and cities transforms into this more ambiguous image of flickering fireflies and bonfires in the rain with one’s grandfather. In particular, I’m really fascinated by the way that fire and light transform and undergo a metamorphosis within and across your poems. Does fire and light hold a particular meaning for you? 

MP:  I think that’s a great reading of how fire works in the book—fire is transformative, and, as an image, it’s also amorphous. It seems to me an apt metaphor for intergenerational memory and cultural trauma. Fire proliferates, too. I wanted it to spread throughout the book as if various things were bursting into flame—as if the speaker’s sorrow over the loss of their grandmother and their confusion about their identity were flaring up in unexpected places and ways. 

Another sort of transformation is how each act of remembering reshapes the original memory. This is where the motif of Theseus’ ship comes from in the book: if you replace every board in a ship, is it still the same ship? 

As for the fireflies, I grew up on the west coast of Canada, and when I moved to New York for grad school, I saw fireflies for the first time in my life—something I had only read about was suddenly reified. In Upstate New York, of all places!

WC: Many of these poems in this collection feel like a return—a return to place, family, memory. Memory—and the journeys one takes to memory—feels vital to the formation of the book. One of the most striking focuses is not only the transformation, but also the deterioration and inheritance of memory. That’s something I’m also very interested in as a writer. 

Is there one particular memory that was the seed for this collection? Was there one particular poem that was the beginning of the book? 

MP: There may be a few. There was certainly the memory of watching my grandmother die. That was a very difficult experience—watching parts of her slip away or become no longer communicable. There are a few specific inherited memories that the collection focuses on, too. One is, again, related to fire: when I was young, my grandparents barely mentioned the internment. But around age eight or nine, I heard them talking with my parents about how when people passed away in the camps they were often given a traditional funeral, the body cremated on a pyre. My mind strangely connected their experience to the final scene in Return of the Jedi, which was one of my favorite movies at the time, and which I used to watch (repeatedly) at my grandparents’ house. This strange conflation eventually became the basis for one of the early poems in the book.

WC: You can absolutely sense the thought process and the transformation of development of thought across the poems, and so much of the book is a journey for the reader as well. I’m always so interested in how writers put together their collections, as it’s as much an editorial process as editing a poem. 

You’ve divided this book into two sections. For me, one of the most distinct differences is how the sections end. “Grandfathers’ Axes,” which ends Part I, descends inwards and looks toward the past, while “Wakeful Things,” which ends Part II, seems to gesture more outwards in a very striking manner. How did you conceive of the two sections of the book? What was the editorial process like?

MP: The books I am drawn to often are ones that immerse the reader in a specific grammar of image, metaphor, and linguistic texture, which the book then complicates as it progresses. Tension between immersion and displacement occurs. That was something I was conscious of when writing the book—and, you’re right, so much of it comes together in that process of arranging things.

Having two sections was a decision that came very late in the process. I originally wanted it to be one section. But a friend read the book and made the smart suggestion to have it be two, not only to give the reader a break, but also to emphasize certain structural parallels. 

You’ve articulated it so generously—the inward and outward focuses those poems have. The book begins looking toward the past and ends looking more hopefully toward the future. Originally, “Wakeful Things” was buried in the middle of the second section, and the book ended with “The Light from Canada,” which is a much less hopeful or optimistic poem. I ended up putting “Wakeful Things at the end: I thought the image of the antlers and the transmutation of fire into both elegy and aubade seemed a good place to leave the reader. 

WC: I think “Wakeful Things is a brilliant last poem, so I’m glad it ended up being the last poem. It stood out to me so much because of that more hopeful tone and the way that longing transforms throughout the poem. It does what I like last poems of collections to do, which is to touch on the themes of the book but also gesture outwards. And the last sentence of “Wakeful Things” ends on a question, throwing the gaze back onto the reader. I thought that was so brilliant. 

MP: Thank you! There’s something about first and last poems where they require a certain indexicality. 

WC: The first poem, “A Hundred and Fifty Pounds,” was also extremely moving. Did you always know this was going to be the first poem, or was it like “Wakeful Things” where you were moving things around?

MP: I was looking for a first poem, and I didn’t have one that I thought would work well. There were others I had chosen—which are actually the next poems in the book—and they felt a little too enigmatic and brief. 

I was back home visiting my grandfather after my grandmother’s passing, and we went to the Nikkei Centre in Burnaby. There was an art exhibition there: Kayla Isomura’s The Suitcase Project—I was just so struck by it. Isomura went up and down the west coast of Canada and America and asked Yonsei and Gosei (fourth and fifth generation Nikkei) to reenact what happened in 1942. She presented them with the original internment orders and said, “You have 48 hours. You can take this amount—150 pounds per adult or 75 pounds per child—in your luggage. What would you bring?” And then she photographed what they had packed. Derek Walcott describes a poetry that conjugates the past and present tense simultaneously. And Kayla’s images felt like they did that. I wrote “A Hundred and Fifty Pounds” after seeing her exhibition. As soon I had the first draft, I thought, “this should probably go first.” Indexical—as we were saying.

WC: Are there any other visual artists that inspired certain poems in the collection?

MP:  That’s great question. I’m not sure. I love the work of Roger Deakins, a British cinematographer. He’s done a lot of movies over a very long career; I like to think there are a few moments when the book’s optics are inspired by him. There are also probably cues from some of JMW Turner’s work scattered throughout. And the poem that includes the cremations and Star Wars—“Light and Years”—references Georges Seurat. 

WC: Who are some of the poets then that influenced this collection?

MP: A poet I admire told me that, as writers, we should read widely of our contemporaries, while having our most meaningful conversations with the dead. I suppose, then, Burning Province converses with Gwendolyn Brooks, John Clare, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, and Thom Gunn, among others. 

In terms of the living, I’ve been recently returning to books I admire by Nyla Matuk, Ishion Hutchinson, Valzyhna Mort, and Sally Wen Mao. 

WC: What projects are you working on next, and do any of them jump off of Burning Province?

MP: I’m not working on anything specific yet! I have a few new drafts that seem connected to certain poems in Burning Province, but it’s too soon to see where else they might lead.