The telephone conversations are what I remember best.
Hold an ear next to an oscine-inhabited lung and hear an / antiphonal calling, the advance and recession of ocean, birds / in a burble of aqueous suspension.
“Lore: 4 (swoop)” in Pneumatic Antiphonal
In autumn 2010, my landline rung: a deep and well-projected voice came through, introducing herself as Sylvia Legris, the editor of Grain.
At 25, I had, over the past spring and summer, begun to send my poems out into the world. Although my book-length manuscript, Yusuf and the Lotus Flower, had recently been picked up by BuschekBooks, I had otherwise been met largely with rejection. I had received replies to the effect of, “Your work is beautiful, but there’s no place for you in mainstream Canadian literature” – yet here was a stranger saying that she wanted to publish my poetry.
After that first call, I Googled Sylvia to put a face to the voice and became an instant admirer of her black-and-white author’s portrait: the cat-eye glasses, the intent mouth. Here is a poet rigorous about her work, I thought. Somehow, Yeats’ verse about Maud Gonne echoed in my mind: “beauty like a tightened bow / […] / high and solitary and most stern.”
During a subsequent phone call, we went over the poems selected for Grain, attending to matters of lineation and spacing. She told me where she felt the line breaks were working, and where they weren’t. She never made me feel like a novice, although I now realize how much of one I was. And to my great surprise, she offered to read over the manuscript of Yusuf as an external editor. I welcomed the opportunity to have such a seasoned and conscious poet attend to it.
If time and attention are one’s greatest resources – which I believe they are – it meant and still means a great deal that she took the time she did with me and my poems. There was nothing in it for her; she had nothing to gain.
Over the weeks and months that followed, there were e-mails and more telephone calls as we discussed Yusuf. Sometimes we veered off course, talking about apple cake and salmon and the precarious economics of being a poet. Another time, she mentioned one of her own early mentors – Di Brandt – and the pearls of advice she had received from her, which she passed down to me. Listening, I felt a fierce protectiveness coming through: she actually cared about me and my current work, and she was excited to see where my craft would take me in five years’ time.
My only regret is that I told her I didn’t have any material to send her when she later asked me to contribute to an issue of Cerise Press that she was guest-editing. It hadn’t entered my brain, then, that if someone you respect asks you for new material, you take a full breath and begin.
As the editor of Grain, she had a capacious and discerning spirit. Work fresh and diverse can be found in those issues, with no singular style taking precedence over any other. The mash-up was dynamic. And I know that she has been a significant figure not just for me, but for other women poets who I now consider both literary contemporaries and friends: Kim Trainor and Teresa Yang. (!A little flock of birds?)
The right lung partitions into upper, / middle, and lower lobes, each with enough space to accom- / modate numerous cavity-nesting birds.
“Lore: 4 (swoop)”
While her own poems are rigorous and meticulous, her sense of humour and play is equally keen – both as an artist and as a human being. I remember her delight over a Simpsons episode that involved the word perspicacity! (I think it was “The PTA Disbands,” in Season 6: Lisa: “Relax? I can't relax! Nor can I yield, relent, or – Only two synonyms? Oh my God: I'm losing my perspicacity!” Homer: “Well it’s always in the last place you look.”)
However, the music within her work is what I love above all. Rhythm meets image and feels embodied.
The theory of corpuscular flight is the cardinal premise of red / birds carrying song-particles carrying oxygen. Erythrocytic. / Sticky. Five quarts of migration.
“Lore: 1 (premise)”
And speaking of the body:
What is boil-lancing? What is bone-setting? What is the music of / hands-on manipulation? The internal apparatus a rhythm section / for canopic jars and humor-decanting Tupperware.
“Vitals” in The Hideous Hidden
I finally met Sylvia in person this past November, after her IFOA readings at Harbourfront – where she read from this latest book, The Hideous Hidden. (I attended both evening readings: rare chances to witness the bird whole, instead of just hearing her song.) Although brief, that time face to face refreshed my spirit. It was magnificent to hear the work live, and the whole room seemed entranced.
Despite her literary achievements and prominence, Sylvia Legris remains the most humble poet I know. “Down with posturing!” she exclaims, and it is not a false humility. She understands, as she articulated for me very plainly in those early conversations, that the work comes first – not thoughts of awards, or even publications. The work itself is what matters.
At 32, I am still uncovering what Sylvia’s early support meant to me in energetic, technical, and emotional terms – gaining a deeper appreciation of her extraordinary generosity and humanness.
In the future, during moments when I doubt myself and my poems – come as they inevitably will – may she remain the voice inside my head – resonant and clear as the first time I received her call.
Doyali Islam’s poetry can be found in Kenyon Review Online, The Puritan, Pelorus Press, Grain, The Fiddlehead, and Canthius. She has an essay, “A Private Architecture of Resistance,” in The Manifesto Project (University of Akron Press, 2017). Her poem – “site” – was named Arc’s 2016 Poem of the Year, and another poem – “two burials” – won CV2’s 2015 Young Buck Poetry Prize. Her poem – “cat and door” – just won League of Canadian Poets’ inaugural National Broadsheet Contest. Her current poetry manuscript is heft and sing, which you can read about in her 12 or 20 responses. She lives in Toronto.
Facebook: Doyali Islam
Facebook: Doyali Islam