Poem as Pop Song: Emma Skagen in Conversation with Steve McOrmond

Steve McOrmond

Malahat volunteer Emma Skagen talks with Steve McOrmond, winner of the 2018 P. K. Page Founders' Award for Poetry for "Proof of Life," which appeared in Issue 201, Winter 2017. Read "Proof of Life" here.


Read what judge Mary Dalton had to say about Steve's winning poem on the 2018 Founders' Award announcement page.

Could you talk a bit about the style in which "Proof of Life" is written? This strikes me as the sort of poem that blurs the line between poetry and prose in a productive way. The language and syntax read quite casually, but the formality of a poem with line breaks creates a rich juxtaposition between form and content. What made you decide to write the poem in this way, and how does its style relate to the meaning you hoped to get across?

My hope is that the poem comes across as effortless and offhand as a pop song. There’s a tension between the simple, straightforward narration, and the events being described in the poem, which are rather odd and surreal. That casualness took some tinkering. Reading the poem aloud, you can hear how the conversational cadences are knitted together through a connective tissue of consonance, assonance and rhyme.

As the title suggests, the poem is about searching for proof of life—what does that phrase mean to you? The speaker goes against his "dutiful angel" to search for "the saddest song ever" and when he finds it, wants to "wear it out." Is this a metaphor for writing poetry? What are the implications of "wearing it out" once you've found what you're looking for?

Proof of life is a phrase borrowed from ransom negotiations to describe evidence – often photographic – that a kidnap victim is still alive. I was thinking about the ways we are held hostage by the lives we construct. Duty, routine, the necessities of making ends meet – these things are often at odds with our inner lives. You might say poetry itself is largely antithetical to these constraints. Poetry’s concerns are seldom practical. In the poem, the mock-quest to find the saddest song ever is existential and absurd, and perhaps that’s what makes it count as proof of life.

That phrase “wear it out” might imply exhaustion through endless repetition (a song in such heavy rotation that you quickly come to hate it), but it could also suggest the peacock strut out of the changing room after finding that perfect item which makes what you were wearing when you entered the store instantly and irrevocably obsolete.

How does Ron Sexsmith, whom apparently you've never met, relate to this idea of the proof of life? Why him? Has he been a significant source of inspiration for you as a poet? The speaker's desire to steal the shirt "off [Ron's] back" indicates some frustration or anxiety about artistic influence, or perhaps just the speaker's discomfort in his own role. A similar feeling is created in the amount of space the poem gives to things Ron says compared to the speaker's own thoughts. Can you say something about this tension?

I’ve never met Ron Sexsmith, but his songs are old friends. Since the mid-90s, his music has been part of the soundtrack of my life, and a source of inspiration for me as a human being. He’s a brilliant singer-songwriter, and one of the qualities that makes his songs so brilliant is his ability to use ordinary language to convey an extraordinary range of ideas and emotions. We come to art – songs, stories, poems, paintings, etc. – with our guard up. We’ve seen and heard it all before. But good artists have the ability to disarm us, to make us understand or feel something when we had no intention of doing so. This is a great gift, but also a fragile one, as Sexsmith suggests with characteristic humbleness in a verse from “This Song”:

I brought a song into this world
Just a melody with words
It trembles here before my eyes
How can this song survive

– Ron Sexsmith, “This Song” lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

In a sense, the poem is simply a piece of fan mail, but I also wanted to write about the music business, celebrity and fame as a way of exploring certain preoccupations with what is real and what is fake, and the difficulties of differentiating between the two. To do this, I needed a dramatic foil, someone whose genuineness seems to set him apart, someone “real” who is in the business, but not of it. Sexsmith fit the bill perfectly.

The Founders' Award judge Mary Dalton's reading (as described here: http://www.malahatreview.ca/pk_page_award/2018_winner.html ) seems bang on. The first time I read this poem, I didn't get it! Why all this "Ron says" and namedropping and opulence? After a few more close reads, though, I noticed there was a huge depth of meaning to be found below the surface, and the poem was completely transformed from my initial reading. Was this your intention, and the reaction you were aiming for? Can you describe the process of creating this complexity?

I’d describe the process as an openness to ambiguity, or a doubleness of mind. It’s a state where I can leave my intentions out of it, and allow the poem to play itself out and reveal what it’s trying to do, which is often different than what I had in mind. The easiest way to ruin a poem is to be too controlling, to try to muscle meaning and “value-added” complexity into a piece. The overburdened scaffolding starts to sway. When I manage to achieve that coveted doubleness of mind, sure, I’m stage directing the action to an extent, and it’s my fingers on the keyboard, but I’m also sitting back, looking, listening, and trusting my “actors” to extemporize and ad lib. Poems are almost always smarter and deeper than their creators.  

The namedropping: I’ve always admired poets like Frank O’Hara (his “I do this, I do that” lunch poems), Ron Padgett, and others who routinely drop the names of friends, fellow poets and artists into their poems. In their work, there’s an honesty and inclusivity to the gesture: these are the people that populate my life; why wouldn’t I include them, and wouldn’t it be more contrived to leave them out?

In “Proof of Life,” I wanted to explore ideas of celebrity, fame and pop culture from the inside out. By casually dropping the names of Elton John, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello, I was  attempting to collapse the distance between their privileged world and ours, and invite the reader into the poem’s off-kilter reality. I also wanted to assert an equivalency, to insist that Sexsmith is – or should be – regarded among the ranks of these musical geniuses.

Tell me about your upcoming poetry collection with Brick Books, Reckon. Can readers expect to find more poems about the search for "proof of life," or does the collection go in a different direction?

The poems in Reckon go off in a few different directions, but a common theme is the distance and discord between our public and inner lives, and between the various competing realities we inhabit in our technologically-dominated present. When a selfie counts as proof of life, what might this tell us about our capacity to participate in a common or shared reality, one that allows for a productive dialogue between differences?

In English pubs, the bill at the end of the night was called the reckoning. Many of the poems in the new collection try to add up the cost of our contemporary way of living and figure out what we owe. And yeah, there is another celebrity sighting in the book: “For the Beauty of Winona Ryder” describes a chance encounter with someone who may or may not be the iconic movie star.

Emma Skagen

Emma Skagen

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