When the world stopped for Canadian poet Jana Prikryl, she quietly dove into an experiment with form she had been thinking about prepandemic: writing shorter poems with longer lines.
The results form her new collection, Midwood, is coming on on Aug. 9. The poems – never longer than a page, often much shorter – evoke nature and reflect the midlife experience. They deal with the comfort and the challenges of a long-term relationship, motherhood and domesticity.
“I hope it feels like there’s a very, very thin membrane between the writer and the reader,” Prikryl says in an interview. “That you feel like you’re in someone’s thoughts.”
The world stopped for Prikryl, who lives in New York, a little earlier than it did for most North Americans. She became quite ill in late February, 2020; she’s sure it was COVID-19, but tests weren’t yet available. Her son, then 3 1/2, got sick too, with a fever that lasted for 15 days. “It started to get a little scary,” she says. He recovered, and was fine.
But Prikryl’s life was forever changed. “It was the longest that an illness had ever kept me away from work,” says Prikryl, whose day job is executive editor of The New York Review of Books. By the time she was able to go back about three weeks later, the office had shut down. She never returned. “My cubicle looks like Pompeii,” she says. “The calendar is still on February, 2020.”
The upside was being “liberated” from her onerous commute – about an hour each way from her apartment in Brooklyn to her office in Manhattan.
“It paradoxically created happy circumstances for writing, because there was this intense need to create a zone of experience that was entirely my own, aside from my family and my work for the Review, since outside those two realms, very little was happening in my life,” says Prikryl, 47.
The pandemic felt like a distillation of the midlife predicament. “Because one was married with a toddler and suddenly the whole world shrank to only that.”
She set a task for herself: to write a poem every day. Exhausted from her illness, she started going to bed early and waking up early. Even once she recovered, that’s when she wrote – until her son got up. Sometimes she would be up at 5 a.m. and had an hour or two to work. Sometimes she had much less.
“There were mornings when I had just five or six minutes before my son woke up,” she says over a Zoom call from her kitchen. Her idea to write short poems with long lines fit into this new imposed schedule. “I was racing – racing to write them every morning before work and child care flooded in.”
In those little pockets of time, she tapped the poems out in bed using the Notes app on her iPhone, afraid to get up and possibly wake her son. Even if she tiptoed successfully into the living room, she could not use her laptop – too loud. The results are poems written in those first few moments of wakefulness, still in a bit of a fog, often influenced by the dreams she had just had.
Later in the day she would move to the fire escape, where she would write more, or revise. “That became my one safe way to be outside that year,” she says. Revisions often took place at night. Longer days, shorter windows.
Prikryl’s fire escape overlooks a ravine; on the other side of the trees is the south-central Brooklyn neighbourhood called Midwood.
In 2019, this ravine provided one of her first impulses about what her next book would be. “Which was that there was something in this ravine, something growing near the ground. I absolutely could not put this into words – in prose, at any rate. But it’s one of the central problems these poems are trying to work out.”
The poems in this collection are intimate and often intensely personal. A couple communicates silently among others by tracing words on each other’s bodies. A four-year-old gets his parents up early; they experience the sunrise in their living room.
Several poems deal with Prikryl’s fertility struggles: “...not having a child / the worst thing that nearly happened to me,” she writes in Alma Mater.
“Before I became pregnant with our son, I was not able to talk to anyone about it, certainly not write about it,” she says during the interview. “And then after he was born, I suddenly felt free to discuss it, but even then I couldn’t imagine how I might convey the experience in poems.” The idea of thinking of a subject and consciously deciding to write a poem about it was a non-starter.
“At some point as I was writing these poems, I grasped what this book was about,” she says, putting “about” in air quotes. “Motherhood and midlife and the longing for all kinds of connection. And I thought, I should at least try to see if I can write about that” – the fertility issue. “And at first, all my attempts were fruitless, no pun intended. I just couldn’t make myself generate a poem about this.”
Noodling around, as she tells it, she used the method of collaging – braiding lines from poems that weren’t working into parts of others that were already finished. “And suddenly it seemed like it worked.”
There’s something about writing poems on demand and on schedule that feels different from what one might think about the act of writing poetry: as something that happens in moments of inspiration. “Long ago, I generally agreed with the idea that poetry should just happen to you, and you should only be jotting it down when it occurs to you in some organic way. But that’s why my first book took about 15 years to write,” Prikryl says with a laugh.
“In the end, you have to force poetry as well. You have to sit down and disregard whether you’re inspired or not. And I think if you sit long enough, something can happen that gets you into a dynamic with the page, making what you’re writing itself become the form of inspiration.”
Prikryl was born in Ostrava, in what is now the Czech Republic. Her family escaped when she was 5, driving across Yugoslavia, then to Austria, where her father had an old friend. There was no guarantee they’d make it over the Austrian border, but the guards waved them through. They stayed for eight months while her father, an engineer, applied for jobs in North America. He landed one in Canada. Jana was 6, her son’s current age, when they arrived in Dundas, Ont. They later moved to nearby Ancaster.
She did her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto and then, chasing a dream to be a writer, moved to Dublin. “I thought somehow it would be much easier to do this some place where I knew absolutely no one and couldn’t embarrass myself,” she says. She stayed for a year and a half, working part-time as a typist for a law firm and writing in her off-hours. Later, she completed a master’s degree in cultural criticism at New York University.
Her first book of poems, The After Party, was published in 2016. No Matter followed in 2019, written during a fellowship at Radcliffe. “I had this insane luxury of entire work days just to write poems,” Prikryl says. In 2020, she received a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship. As for her day job, she began work as an editorial intern for the New York Review of Books in 2005, and was hired as an editorial assistant a few months later. After further promotions, she became executive editor in February, 2021.
Even with everyone healthy and her son back in school, life remains a giant juggling act. On the Zoom call, Prikryl discusses the challenges of writing with a young child and a day job. And the benefits.
“I wouldn’t have access to the perceptions and ideas that are in the book without my son, without this relationship with him. But at the same time, just as with anything else, with my day job, it’s something that takes time away. Similarly I wouldn’t be the writer I am without my day job. I think it has sort of organized my brain and changed my relationship to language, being an editor. But it absolutely keeps me from writing, in a very practical way. It just eats up time,” she says.
“I think of it as an irresolvable conflict that is necessary.” She compares writing poetry with going for a swim in the evening. “It’s play. And it feels very different from working.”
She is still Canadian, but also American now – she applied for citizenship after her son was born; it felt wrong to have different citizenship from him. Her husband, Colin Gee – a performer, choreographer, librettist and video artist – is also American. But the politics of the place, most recently the overturning of Roe v. Wade, make her wary of her current home.
“I think about Canada every day,” she says. “The fact that we have a young child, the daily sense of being battered by the news, and this feeling of political paralysis here. But at the same time, I love my job. And it’s hard to imagine leaving that.”
Jana Prikryl will launch Midwood at Flying Books in Toronto on Aug. 9.
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