Five CanPo Titles: Alison Pick’s Question & Answer

Question & Answer by Alison Pick
Year: 2003
Publisher: Polestar/Raincoast Books
Province: British Columbia

                                              How,

by the window, the rain is the story
that belongs to you more than any

other.
-from “Is it raining where you are? Are you watching? Is the rain the story now?”

questionandanswer
Question & Answer (Polestar, 2003)

This is one of those first books by a poet that other want-to-be poets take notice of. When this book came out I wasn’t quite at that stage in my own writing yet, but I certainly wanted to see what a first book might look like in case I would later have similar aspirations of my own. Looking at the author bio in the back I was surprised to see that Pick was living in St. John’s. I wasn’t used to seeing new, young poets from this province on bookshelves. What I found as I read through the book was something different from anything I had been reading at the time (Philip Gardener, Al Pittman, E. J. Pratt, Tom Dawe, etc). As someone from Newfoundland with an interest in poetry it seemed right for me to read other Newfoundland poets, but often I found that much (not all) of this poetry available to me was of an older style and time. There was a disconnect between me, the young man reading and attempting to write in the new millenium, and others who had written 10, 20, 30 years in the past. There was so much concern with issues of emigration, the fishery, and what “traditional” Newfoundland was that in the end I became uninterested to a point. The volume of Newfoundland poetry books being produced at the time was also rather dismal (though props have to go out to Breakwater Books for their Newfoundland Poetry Series). I needed something that spoke to a wider experience, something that I could “get” at that stage in my life.

Pick is from Kitchener, Ontario and would have experienced a very different life and culture than I would have growing up in a small town on the south side of Trinity Bay. But man, could she write! Question & Answer is filled with explorations of personal history, cultures, struggles to find a place within a world that experiences flux. And done so with such ability of image and craft. When Pick says the following of her own family ties to Europe, she is touching something universal, but the honesty of her own experience is crushing, powerful:

What They Left Me

A passion for remembrance.

Two names on a monument at the synagogue in Prague.

The date they were deported to the death camp.

Their twenty-year-old daughter who got out.

Her son: my father.

My own small life.

The first light snow of winter, their ashes at my back.

Throughout the book, there is a constant awareness of the natural world and how this knowledge affects us as human beings. The water I grew up next to, the North Atlantic Ocean, became the creeks, rivers, and lakes from across the country that Pick had seen and written about in her own journeys. This more than any other single book I had read to that date imprinted upon my mind the significance of varied experience in a country vast and, at times, harsh as this one. It did not matter that Pick was from Central Canada, or that she was living in St. John’s. It mattered that her poems applied to each of these places and, I would venture to say, many more besides. Her residence in Newfoundland helped to show me that someone living in this place can produce quality work that goes beyond the natural and artificial boundaries of provincial jurisdictions and that these works need to be written and to be read.

There was something immediate and urgent written in the pages of this book which I had to understand and with which I had to come to grips. Something important crafted with skill and competence (as a side note, this book also contains my first reading of a pantoum). This volume, more than any collection I had read in my fledgling state as a writer, altered my opinion of poetry and its purpose, very much for the better.

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