the empathic poetry of 'sometimes-surrealist' Jen Currin
by Maria Feldman
Jen Currin's poetry is often erratic; the words are like irregular heartbeats running along an isoelectric line. Her 2010 Lambda-nominated work, The Inquisition Yours, is no different in its chaotic landscape, as it's replete with enigmatic signifiers beckoning for interpretation.
"I call myself a 'sometimes-surrealist'," Currin says with a giggle as she sips her first cup of morning coffee from the comfort of her home in Vancouver. "It's hard to find labels for one's work."
Reluctant to fully align herself with the 1920s Parisian surrealist tradition, Currin professes an admiration for certain surrealist elements, such as stream of consciousness and juxtaposition. Other aspects of surrealism, however, need not apply.
"The tradition of surrealism in its roots, I find really problematic; just the sexist, racist founders — how they wrote about women," she says. "All of that I'm not interested in, and I disavow it."
Unlike the Dickensian realism to which she is likely alluding, Currin's poetry strives to be all-inclusive and relatable through the use of varied points of view. In certain snippets of The Inquisition Yours, Currin adopts the voice of a concerned parent, divorcée or soldier; at other times the identity of the narrator is altogether ambiguous.
"I don't want to assume I can speak for everyone or anyone — I don't think I can — but (I’m) trying to have an understanding, for example, of what it would be like living somewhere where you are bombed every day, or having your child die... and having empathy for and feel that," she explains.
In addition to exploring her interaction with the “other” throughout her poetry, Currin ponders her ambivalent relation to technology.
"I don't own a cell phone. I'm not on Facebook, " says Currin. "Life is too fast. There is too much going on and it's really overwhelming. It's hard to write from a grounded place and to respond to other human beings from a grounded place."
Currin perceives technology as a hindrance to forming meaningful connections in one's daily interactions. She often catches her creative writing students at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and Simon Fraser University using social media to relate to the outside world, while ignoring chances to socialize with peers in real time. But, she also recognizes the positive uses for online social networking tools, such as the potential to rapidly ignite social change.
Still, like so many poets that came before her, Currin attests one must live (presumably outside of cyber reality) to be able to write. Her inspiration is derived from commonplace tasks like breathing-in the metropolitan air, riding the local bus or gardening in her backyard.
"I'm just an old man — you know? — hanging out as a sort of young woman,” Currin muses.
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