The Next Chapter·Poetry Month

Why Paul Vermeersch thinks of poetry as a form of spell-casting and self defence

The Toronto-based poet talks to Shelagh Rogers about his new collection of futuristic poetry, Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy.
Paul Vermeersch's collection Self Defence for the Brave and Happy tackles futurism, optimism and the prophetic power of poetry. (CBC/Sinisa Jolic)

Poetry and futurism are both visionary genres, but they don't often go hand in hand. Unless you're Paul Vermeersch. In his new collection, Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy, Vermeersch imagines the world of tomorrow. And while some of the scenarios he presents are bleak and post-apocalyptic, his writing also offers hope that we can use our capacity for imagination to dream up a better future. 

Vermeersch spoke with Shelagh Rogers about his sixth book of poetry.

Once upon a time, when the future was optimistic

"I have a great nostalgia for the kind of futurism of the space age, when people looked forward to the world of tomorrow and technological progress seemed like a world of wonder. It seems to me that in the last 20 to 30 years, most of the imagery and iconography our culture has been generating about the future is pretty desolate — post-apocalyptic, dystopian visions of the future. And I miss that kind of Walt Disney's Tomorrowland or Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek — hopeful vision of the future. I wanted to be able to tap into that hopefulness while still writing about some pretty dark things. 

"I wish I knew what turned the flower power generation into the 'me generation.' I wish I knew what turns the starship from Enterprise into the Nostromo from Alien. I wish I knew where that hopeful vision of the future went. It might have something to do with social inequality and economic inequality and people feeling disenfranchised from political power and, therefore, their ability to shape the future they would like for themselves." 

The fear and the promise of technology 

"I think that fear has been with us, culturally, since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein... Certainly in the 1950s, at the height of the atomic age, pop culture was rife with monster movies and alien invasion movies. All of these things were symbolic of the fear of the atom bomb and the [notion] that science would be our doom.

"I think we can be deeply symbolic creatures. And the monsters that we live in fear of are often just reflections of our own anxieties or societal anxieties. In the Victorian Age, vampires were symbolic of a kind of repressed sexuality and social and moral mores. And these days vampires are more symbolic of a fear of growing old or getting ugly or not being sexually attractive enough — because we have this new, glamorous, attractive, charming iteration of the vampire that seems different than the traditional form." 

Poetry as a form of self defence

"When we name something we exert a power over it. I'm interested in this idea of incantatory magic. That you say the word and the thing happens. I think in no other endeavour is that made real, more than in poetry. Poetry is a form of spell-casting. We say the words and the thing happens. By naming things, by calling them forth, we're able to use them. And it's through language that we can exert that power over things. It's important to name our fears, to name our anxieties or else we can't do anything with them; they just take over." 

When disastrous things happen, people turn to poetry for solace. When times of celebration happen, people turn to poetry to express their joy.- Paul Vermeersch

"I think poetry is a form of self defence. I think art in general — storytelling, being creative — is a form of self defence. I think when disastrous things happen in the word people turn to poetry for solace. When times of celebration happen, people turn to poetry to express their joy. I think people write poetry to protect themselves. It's a cliché but it's true that a lot of young people begin to write poetry to deal with their anxieties and to deal with their sorrows and we call in 'teen angst' but we know it runs much deeper than that. It evolves and it changes and it moves on from that point, but poetry certainly is a form of self defence. The title is Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy because once you defend yourself you can be those things." 

Paul Vermeersch's comments have been edited and condensed.