Big congratulations to alumni Shane Neilson on his recent Walrus Poetry Prize win for his prose poem, "Epistemology." The sixth annual instalment of the award was judged by Margaret Atwood, Jordan Abel, and Walrus deputy editor Carmine Starnino. It will be published in the Jan/Feb 2018 print edition of the magazine.
We asked Shane to share some background on how "Epistemology" came to be:
“Epistemology” is a conceptual poem that haunted me on and off for a few years before its eventual composition earlier this spring. For quite some time, I’ve suffered the idea of a poem that asked everything of me while it also existed as an archive of questions. The formal challenge to the piece is: can I sustain a poem comprised entirely of questions? Yet the “me” of the poem is not me as author or speaker, but rather the me inherent in all pronoun use. The idea was that all pronouns are relational and so I wanted to write a poem about intersubjectivity. But that idea struck me as distressingly academic, and so I dismissed the nagging urge over and over again. Fortunately for my bank account today, I have a troublesome habit that prevented me from completely forgetting about the nascent poem.
As a child, I was compelled to answer every question put to me by anyone who asked me one. I suspect this habit stems from a somewhat terrifying childhood, but this isn’t the place to go into that. Suffice to say that I could easily be asked questions for which I had no defensive strategies in place. Because I would answer such questions honestly and fully, I found myself in all kinds of difficulty — think Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar without the origin story of shameless duplicity. Repetitively, as if by ritual, I still found myself answering questions I should have learned by long experience to be silent about.
When a moment of realization happened answering one of those questions I should have ducked, the idea of “Epistemology” would once again leap to the front of my mind and I’d strain to not answer its question, “Why not write me?” That process wore me down, so I finally wrote it in the prose poem form with a different relational pronoun use in each paragraph. With each question, I tried to break my own heart, thinking of the times a question like the one I was writing out had either gotten me into trouble or had signalled that trouble was coming. (There has been a lot of trouble.)
I wrote out a sublimated narrative as basic poem program, one involving my father and the pain he had caused me, but surrounded that smaller skewed story with an attempt to try to discover or divine the nature of knowledge itself. What is knowledge? How do I know a thing? How do I know that I know? The more days I’m given to live, the more such questions compel me to answer them. And a poem seems so much more of an actual, concrete answer than a shrug or a desolate feeling that passes after a suitable distraction. At least to me — poems are my most cherished ways of knowing.
Writing this explanation out, I am a bit wary of dictating to anyone what the poem is or how they should know it. I’m not quite sure what it is myself, for it came as a visitation independent of me at least as plausibly as “I knew what I was doing the whole time, I know everything, I know I know I know...” One thing I do know is that form is all and it knows more than I do. So I tried to write a poem I’d never read before and see what form would teach me. I’ll keep that knowledge to myself for now :)
Shane Neilson is a poet, physician, and critic who completed his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph in 2013. He was shortlisted for the Trillium Poetry Prize in 2011, won Arc’s Poem of the Year contest in 2010 and 2013, won the Robin Blaser Award for a long work in 2015, and was included in Best of the Best Canadian Poetry (Tightrope, 2017). He currently splits his time between working as a doctor at his clinic in Guelph and as a Vanier scholar researching the representations of pain at McMaster University. He self-identifies as dis/abled cis white male Maritimer. His most recent book is Dysphoria (PQL, 2017).