Jana Prikryl on Creating Home in Poetry, Even in Trump’s America

Jana Prikryl, author of No Matter, Crown/Archetype. Photo by Juliana Sohn/Willy SommaJana Prikryl, author of No Matter, Crown/Archetype. Photo by Juliana Sohn/Willy Somma
The Toronto Star
July 11, 2019
By Nathan Whitlock

“It feels like a blow to the head, over and over, when I realize that ideas we’ve long assumed were self-evident will have to be fought over again.” – Poet Jana Prikryl on living through the reality of Trump’s America

Poet Jana Prikryl has seen a lot. Born in the former Czechoslovakia, Prikryl lived in Austria before coming to Canada as a refugee at the age of 6. After growing up in Hamilton and Toronto, she moved to New York City, where she is currently a senior editor at The New York Review of Books. Prikryl’s poetry has received widespread praise, with The New Yorker’s James Wood calling her “one of the most original voices of her generation.” Her newest collection, No Matter (Tim Duggan Books), is restless, unsettled, elusive and dark — exactly the kind of poetry to read while watching empires tear themselves apart.

You once said in an interview: “I don’t feel I can call any one place home, unless home is the odd-shaped constellation of writers I love.” Is that still the case?

Yeah, I think I’ll always feel a bit displaced. Having lived outside of Canada since 2003, my Canadianness feels a bit remote, and right now I hate so much of what counts for normal in the United States. But since I had a child, my sense of “home” has become very pointed, so that the actual rooms I share with my husband and son now feel grafted to me. And I do feel more tied to this deeply upsetting society because my son is growing up in it.

No Matter is filled with references to the various places you’ve called home, and parts of your previous collection explored the southern Ontario of your childhood. Is that your way of creating a home for yourself, by exploring them in poetry?

That’s a helpful way to think of it. But it’s also just a case of necessity: These are the places I’ve known, so they’re the material I have to work with. They also tend to dramatize memory for me. My past is boldly striped by these residences in different places, and since I write a lot about memory, it’s oddly helpful to find my own memory animated in this way, or activated by the distinctness of the different places I’ve lived.

Your first collection, The After Party (2016), was published when you were in your early 40s. Your second has now arrived just three years later. What has changed to make you so prolific all of a sudden?

Old age! I’d spent my 20s and 30s in this state of paradox: convinced I was a writer even when I wasn’t writing or publishing, just sort of accruing the conviction that I had a right to put a book together. The main thing is that after my first book came out, I got a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (at Harvard), so for nine months I could write and revise five days a week — and, crucially, my generous spouse helped clear that time for me by relocating our household to Cambridge and taking on more than his share of child care and chores.

There is a great line in “2016,” a poem from the new collection: “My memories all feel like news.” Is that what it feels like to be living through this particular moment in American history?

I think so; it feels like a blow to the head, over and over, when I realize that ideas we’ve long assumed were self-evident will have to be fought over again — are actually being violently contested now. So I look back at personal, innocuous memories and start to count all the assumptions underpinning them, which were, it turns out, not shared as widely as I’d thought.

Given that you became a mother in the same year as Trump’s election — something you allude to in that same poem — do you actually remember anything from that year?

I remember too much! On election night, my husband happened to be working abroad, and while he was away our 3-month-old would only go to sleep if I nursed him in bed and lay there motionless with him all night. So on election night, I was immobilized in our pitch-black bedroom, updating the results on my phone. At a certain point I turned off the phone and went to sleep — well before the election was called — because I knew I couldn’t absorb that awfulness alone, with the most vulnerable human in my life lying beside me. Becoming a parent just as the American government officially, openly started terrorizing the most vulnerable people in this country has been hair-raising.

Does having been a child who escaped (with your family) a tyrannical regime make you more sensitive to the current global drift toward authoritarianism?

I wouldn’t claim it makes me more sensitive to this, but it probably makes me more incredulous, more exasperated, more angry. It’s been especially depressing to watch the most powerful personalities and corporations of the American media cruising on autopilot toward the iceberg; the president is bragging about his brutal abuse of babies and children at the border, he venerates Putin and Kim Jong-un while stirring up lethal violence against reporters, and these same reporters defer to him and every other Republican as if this were the Eisenhower era. If the postwar order has a death wish, you can see it in action every day on CNN.

There is an apocalyptic undercurrent to many of the poems in No Matter: explosions, doomsday preppers and calamities happening just out of view. There are even poems in which New York City is drowned by rising ocean tides. Are you an anxious person?

I feel perfectly calm about the approaching catastrophes.

Nathan Whitlock’s most recent novel is Congratulations On Everything (ECW Press).

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