By Robert J. Wiersema • Photos by Belle White
Victoria poet Eve Joseph weaves truth with fiction in her award-winning poetry that crystallizes the human experience.
Early on April 9, 2019, Victoria writer Eve Joseph tried to give up poetry. The universe, however, had other plans.
It began in bed that morning, with her husband, Patrick Friesen, also a poet.
“Patrick and I always talk in the morning, wake up and talk. And that morning I said to him, ‘My writing life is probably over,’” she tells me over coffee in an increasingly noisy corner of Habit on Lower Pandora.
It wasn’t a new sentiment for Joseph; for many writers, deciding to give up writing is part of their routine. But retirement wouldn’t have been a shocking choice either. Joseph was in her mid-60s, and her career had been — by any definition — a success. Her debut collection, The Startled Heart, was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2005, as was The Secret Signature of Things in 2010.
That book was also nominated for the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. Her poetic exploration of death and grief, In the Slender Margin, won the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize and was a Globe and Mail Best Book in 2014. Her most recent collection of poetry, Quarrels, was also shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize earlier this year.
Retirement from writing didn’t seem outlandish, and Patrick didn’t disagree.
“God love him, that he’s a writer, because it wasn’t ‘Honey, you’ll be fine, you go through this,’” she says. “He didn’t do any of that. He said, ‘You could be a dog-walker. You’d be good at it. You know, you’ve been there, done that.’”
Everything changed, though, when the couple got out of bed.
“We got up, and Patrick went to his study, and I opened my laptop and there were all of these emails: congratulations, woo-hoo, congratulations,” she says. “So, you know, I wondered what was going on. I opened one from Hal Wake [former artistic director of the Vancouver Writers Festival], and I saw my name with the Griffin.”
The Griffin Poetry Prize is the richest award for poetry in the world. Funded by businessperson and philanthropist Scott Griffin, the prize awards $65,000 each to the best Canadian and international book of poetry each year. The judges for 2019 read over 500 books; it is, as they say, an honour just to be nominated.
“I closed the email and went to the gym,” she says. “I don’t know what that says about me. I was so stunned, and thrilled at the same time, and needing just to be alone.”
“A long line of hungry people gathered outside to hear her play.” — from Quarrels
Joseph was born in North Vancouver in the 1950s, when it was still virtually a small town.
“The streets weren’t paved,” she recalls. Her father left the family when Joseph was five years old, leaving “just mom and I.”
“I remember, right after dad left, she’d take me babysitting,” Joseph says. “We’d catch the bus because we had no car. She had pampas grass in the backyard, and she’d cut that and sell that. I had no idea that we were poor, because she made the world an interesting, safe place for me.”
Joseph’s mother immigrated to Canada from England in 1946, following the harrowing events of the German bombing campaign known as the Blitz. The man she had come to be with died a year later, perpetuating a cycle of loss and tragedy that continued through the dissolution of her second marriage and, later, the death of her son, Joseph’s older brother, when Eve was 11 years old.
“I grew up in a home of incredible loss,” Joseph says, but also describes it as a home of deep compassion.
“I grew up with a woman who was full of surprises,” she says. “She welcomed the world into our house out of a kind of need. She had massive loss in her life, and so when I was growing up, we had draft dodgers staying with us. Any wounded person in the world ended up on our doorstep. It was a difficult childhood, an interesting childhood.”
Her unusual upbringing shaped the sensibility that led to Joseph’s work as a poet. “There’s a delight in surprise,” she says “and that came from, I think, the surprises that I lived with growing up. And also in my marriage.”
Her first marriage, to a First Nations man, introduced her to an entirely different culture. “It’s not just a predictable course,” she says. “The line between what was real and what was unreal, the line between magic … you know, magic is fraught, don’t get me wrong. But it’s a little bit addictive too.”
“She began with the idea that little is known and much is troubling.”
— from Quarrels
Joseph loved poetry from an early age and was active as a writer through her school years and into her early 20s.
Then, she didn’t write poetry for almost three decades.
“I could give you reasons, but I don’t know really why,” she says. “Having returned to it, I’ve thought things to myself, like ‘If you were a real writer, you couldn’t have left it,’ but what I did was — and I’m grateful for this —
I took a detour, and I didn’t realize this until I came back to it, but the whole time of not writing was a way of seeing, that I knew the world, that I saw the world.”
In the time she wasn’t actively writing, Joseph earned a degree in social work and a masters in counselling, raised three children and worked, among other things, as a sailor on freighters for five years.
She moved to Victoria in 1974 with her family. She laughs as she diplomatically explains, “We came over, actually, to escape a bit of a crazy lifestyle.”
It was the early 70s, after all.
“We came to try to make a life here,” she says. “And I stayed.”
Key to both Joseph’s life and work are the more than two decades she spent working with Victoria hospice. As she writes in In the Slender Margin, “When I returned to poetry, having worked with the dying for many years, I realized how the two things were twinned … The borders between the two are blurred: The language of both is metaphor. Mythology, legend, imagination and poetry grow out of the same black soil as death.”
“The capon exploded out of the pressure cooker and stuck in the kitchen ceiling.” — from Quarrels
Quarrels is the first volume of poetry Joseph has written since a stroke in 2013 left her unable to write poetry for more than two years. It also marks a change in form, a first approach to prose poetry. In fact, the book came about “through the form,” Joseph says.
“I love prose poetry. I started reading the French poets, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, onto contemporary poets, Charles Simic, Tomas Transömer. I would go into a bookstore and I would look at the poetry books and I would go like this” — she raises her hands and mimes flipping quickly through a book — “and look for a square. Regular verse was not interesting me.”
It is the element of surprise that draws Joseph to prose poetry. “It is delightful in how it turns things on its head,” she says. “The experimentation started with In the Slender Margin — what I wanted to do there was place fragments beside each other and see what happened. Those kinds of little explosions are what interested me.
“I’m drawn to the edge of enchantment — the prose poems I love enchant me. If you just scratch the surface of our lives, any of our lives, the surreal is right there. That’s what interested me. In the majority of the poems, it comes out of real events. So the capon exploding was a real event. We were poor, mom would leave a meal on [in a pressure cooker], she would go hairdressing, so it would be ready when we got home.”
She laughs at the memory, as do readers of the poetic version in Quarrels, of the pressure-cooker exploding. “Of course, it just hung in the ceiling.” And then the poem does its work, scratching away at the surface and finding, in this case, the divine.
“You follow the image where it goes. And it ended up that our home was a holy place, because the pope had declared that a cock would be at the top of every church steeple in Europe.”
Her passion for the form, for the approach, is palpable in the way she leans across the narrow table.
“I like that something new is created. It’s neither one nor the other — it’s a new thing.”
And on June 6, 2019, that new thing was awarded the Griffin Prize for Poetry. Of Quarrels, the jury wrote, “The poet has surrendered herself to the realm of the illogical, trusting that it has a logic of its own, and the outcome is, indeed, a new music. These poems are intriguing spaces and moments defeating the boundaries of the real, but rest assured, Joseph leads you by the hand with warmth, wit and empathy.”
“I rarely leave my room by the sea.” — from Quarrels
“So,” I ask, finally, “Have you decided that your writing career isn’t at an end?”
Joseph laughs. “It sounds so shallow,” she says. “I’ve thought about that — a lot. Why would being nominated for a prize infuse something again? Why should that matter? But it did. It made me look at the book again, and it’s far from perfect. I didn’t do in the book what I wanted to do. I haven’t nailed the form. But it made me see that it had done maybe more than I had thought. It was encouraging.”
She leans back in her chair.
“Winning did something different. It made me feel almost the opposite. It made me feel peaceful. It humbled me. And there’s a sweetness to that.”