In grade twelve when I was just
falling in love with my first lover
we borrowed a video camera
from our high school and bought
a Canon mini-DV tape.
At first we recorded each other
in the tall grasses off the Marleau
Connector, its golden stocks rubbing past
the camera lens until one of us
appears, long-haired, serious
about wanting to be artists.
If he suggested it I was thinking
it too when we removed our clothes
one afternoon alone on a PD day
in my parents’ house and had sex
Watching it after
was less exciting than the first time
which tells you we were teens
who were narcissistic
only to a point.
Michael V. Smith is a writer, performer, and filmmaker who teaches creative writing at UBC Okanagan.
Questions and Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
I started writing poetry in earnest when my grade 10 English teacher, Ms. MacDonald (Elaine), gave me a lousy grade on a poetry assignment. I’d actually written two different essays on poetry, because I wasn’t confident with the first. Elaine gave both of those essays a grade of 50%.
“Can we add those totals together to get a 100?” I asked.
She said no, but I could try it again, now that she’d explained what I was doing wrong. I think the third essay earned a 90.
During that meeting, I told her I was super disappointed in myself because I wrote poems. I didn’t understand how I couldn’t analyze one better.
Elaine asked if she could see some of these poems, did I want to share them? Nobody had yet to read anything I’d written; Elaine was my first reader.
All through my remaining years of high school, Elaine read anything I gave her, making notes, offering suggestions and encouragement. She sent me invites for high school writing contests, one of which I won, and signed me up for workshops with visiting artists Mary di Michele and Gary Geddes, the first poets I ever met.
Just last week I was talking with celebrated filmmaker John Greyson, who mentioned he’d reconnected with a teacher he had had in grade 5 (in 1971, the year I was born). By the weird magic of the world, Elaine MacDonald had taught him too, in a different city, in the early days of her career. I dedicated my last poetry book to Elaine, who well earned it.
How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit, and refine it?
I write longhand. I’ve a journal where I start all my poems. The idea for this one came as a sort of extra—it was part of another poem about my first lover, but that poem didn’t need this little story in it, so I pulled this bit out as a stand-alone. I’m mostly a storyteller, so my poems are a manifestation of that. They lean heavy on narrative. But, I love how the line of poetry creates emphasis. Where do you cut and start the next line? How can you make the line and shape of a poem capture voice? Press here, highlight that, breath now, pause.
I love the measure of a line, what it can contain, often in tension with what will follow that might alter or add to the larger meaning. Sentences with smaller thoughts rolled in. All writing works like a mystery, because we read to find out what’s going to happen next. Poetry has the delicious thrill of giving us opportunity for mysteries within the phrasing itself. Enjambment makes us wonder what will happen next within the sentence. And then those multiple meanings add up, the sum greater than its parts.
Often I think my poems sound better than they look, because the music is in the phrasing. I’m very conscious of the line, the rhythm, the emphasis, the beat, the reader’s expectation, how to turn it, to titillate. I like the tension in language that isn’t fancy, but the shape of the poem layers in more-ness, a fuller sense. I like the fun in this poem, that comes from our anticipation of what the scene might deliver. That is achieved as much in the measure of the line—its own suspense—as in the events that unfold.