The Inside-Out Poet

With Drift, his third collection, Kevin Connolly continues to hone his complex intellect, biting wit, and sense of the absurd.

Summer, 2005 / No. 14
Photograph by Phillip Smith
Phillip Smith

“Gosh, it’s warm up here.”

It’s a Thursday night in early April, and Kevin Connolly has just rushed the stage. He peers out at the crowd, half amused, half ill-at-ease; you’d almost think he’s surprised to be here, in this trendy downtown bar, in front of all these people with artfully messy hair, threadbare cords, the odd powder-blue cardigan.

Clad in basic jeans and windbreaker, with a genial, open face, glasses, and small goatee, Connolly could easily be mistaken for your average sports-stats-readin’ guy’s guy around town. But Kevin Connolly is a poet, and this book launch is where he’s meant to be. He’s about to read from Drift—his third collection—to a packed crowd of poetry fans, and minor stage anxiety aside, he’s clearly eager to get on with it.

He’s the second of three readers, and he starts off in a rush of self-deprecation. He doesn’t know how he’s ever going to follow Act 1, he doesn’t want to take up too much of the audience’s time before Act 3, and he’s gotta spend at least a couple of minutes thanking House of Anansi Press and all the people who helped bring the latest book of Connolly poems to light.

“These people have allowed me to be serious about being whimsical,” he says, smiling, “so I am going to read you a poem based on a typo. The aim is to catch the typo halfway through.” And he’s away, reading from “Calmnesses,” a poem that starts out as a meditation on quiet reveries (pluralized), then spins “calmnesses” into “camelnesses,” a joke about camels, and ends with a send-up of the act of reading such a poem in the first place. “Think of a hump, in the middle of a desert,” he intones gleefully, “with no riddles—not even Nelson Riddle / whose name itself puts the lie back in likeness, / and as you’re no doubt sick of hearing, / I’ve disliked ourselves for some time now.”

Kevin Connolly is an inside-out poet. Somewhere in there is a highly complex intellect, with a lyrical ear, a keen sense of the absurd, and a biting wit.

That guy is kept strictly within, however, expressing himself through reverse-order stanzas, contradictory lyrics, and surreal juxtapositions of images that challenge their audience to even try and make sense of them. On reading Drift, your average reader will be hard-pressed to figure out who, or where, Connolly the poet is, exactly—floating somewhere between a variety of moons (pizza-faced; pale); behind the occasional boarded-up corner store; on a meandering drive-by through sprawl; meditating on the words “tennis,” “lake,” and “Napoleon”; or describing the “manicured hairpiece” that is his suburban lawn; with a dollop of persona-driven free-form sonnets thrown in for good measure. “It’s almost anti-poetry,” says Stuart Ross, Connolly’s friend and a fellow writer. “It’s a real slap in the face to those people who take their poetry incredibly seriously.” Ken Babstock, the poet (and the editor of Drift), concurs: “He’s constantly undercutting his own intelligence. He’s interested in what the mind does when it is having fun.”

“I like being evasive,” admits Connolly, a few days before, during an interview at a determinedly unpretentious coffee shop near Danforth and Coxwell. “Almost like writing backward. The imagery of the poem is upfront and the narrative is something you have to dig a little bit more to put together. That’s…my basic style.”

At forty-three, with three challenging collections under his belt, Connolly might be considered by a callow reader to be an outsider to Canadian poetry. Said reader could be forgiven for thinking that Connolly’s habit of sending up poetry, turning it inside out for the sake of what some call unnerving radiance, and others purposeful absurdity, might have something to do with keeping him on the poetry world’s back burner.

But that reader would be wrong. Connolly is the most generous-minded of writers, both literary enthusiast and idealist. This is a man so committed to letters, he has spent a good chunk of his life publishing and promoting other people’s work. From the fall of 1985, shortly after completing his undergraduate degree in English and creative writing at York University, in Toronto, to the spring of 1994, Connolly published What!, a magazine of Canadian and international writing. He and Jason Sherman, his friend and co-editor (now an award-winning playwright), were fiercely committed to quality, and relied on the kindness of friends as contributors, the odd grant, and their own finances to keep the magazine afloat.

In fact, it could be argued that for the first stretch of his career, Connolly, in publishing What! (and a series of chapbooks under the name Pink Dog), put personal literary ambitions aside to give fellow Canadian writers his own special brand of C.P.R. He was yanking them away from backwoods musings about the inspirational potential of CBC Radio, or drowning maidens in lakes as a metaphor for Canadian culture, and toward the gleam of the Coke machine and the shock of the new—toward a more urbane, internationally minded and entirely contemporary sensibility.

That Connolly is now publishing his third book of poetry, and that it is a poetry so fresh, so surreal, and, on occasion, so powerful (to quote the Globe and Mail columnist Lynn Crosbie: “No one else writes remotely like him”), is something to be celebrated, especially given a measure of witheringly acute self-mockery that would cut a lesser writer off at the first line—or the knees.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Connolly didn’t start out wanting to be a writer. “I grew up in Maple, just north of here,” he explains. “A small town: fifteen-hundred people, feed mill on the corner, candy shop on the other side, surrounded by lots of fields.” Connolly was what he calls a “nature nerd”; he collected bugs and butterflies “until I realized that was a creepy occupation. I wanted to be a zoologist—but of course my way of connecting to nature was putting it in a jar and poisoning it and killing it.” A few clues hinted where his future might lead. His mother loved poetry and read to her three children regularly (Connolly reckons she was impatient to have her kids grow up so she could have an intelligent conversation with them). There was enough poetry lying around that it was definitely something he considered “worthy and grand.” And also, Connolly was, self-described, “a pompous little kid,” reading “like crazy. The whole point for me when I was ten years old was to carry the largest book around.”

Almost on cue, Connolly suffered the standard junior-high treatment meted out to cocksure nerdy types. Determined to avoid an equivalent scenario in high school, he sent himself up instead. “I became one of the troublemakers sitting at the back; I was the class clown. But I never pushed it to the point where I got bad grades,” he says. He was “bored silly” by Grade 13, started at London’s University of Western Ontario, in English and political science, then switched to English and creative writing at York. “There were people I met at York—Lynn Crosbie, Stuart Ross, Jason Sherman, who were a real inspiration to me,” he explains. “That’s probably the line by which I made my way to becoming a writer.”

Connolly started working at York’s student newspaper, Excalibur, along with Ross and Sherman. He also put together a “really horrible” portfolio of poetry and gave it to the head of the creative writing program, Don Coles. “Somehow he let me in, so if anybody saw any ability in me back then, it was probably him,” Connolly says. After completing his undergraduate degree, Connolly moved in with Sherman into “the worst apartment in Toronto,” on Carlaw Avenue. The inaugural issue of What!, published in October, 1985, was just around the corner.

Connolly and Sherman had decided that what Canadian literature really needed was a feisty new magazine to shake things up. “We were young, full of beans—full of ourselves, really. We liked the idea of taking what would be primarily a literary magazine and publishing it as a free paper—sticking it under people’s noses rather than on the back rack of a bookstore,” he says. Canadian writers obviously read international writers, so putting Canadian writing into an international context was, in Connolly’s view, more reflective of Canadian reality than, say, myopically focusing on the bushwhacking antecedents of Susanna Moodie.

After putting out a handful of issues at their own expense, Connolly and Sherman applied for government funding—and discovered the merry world of Canadian grants, literary-periodical style. Because the magazine was free, eligibility rules at the time meant their ability to obtain major funding was limited. However, putting What! on newsstands and charging a cover price meant it was not as accessible as initially envisioned. “We ended up asking a couple of bucks,” Connolly says, “subsidizing readers that way—we were mindful of the fact that if you have a local magazine, people aren’t going to buy it if they can buy the New Yorker for half the price.”

What! published poetry by writers such as Walid Bitar, interviews with everyone from the U.S. poet James Tate to the British novelist A. S. Byatt, and short prose from unknowns who, in the editors’ view, deserved more attention than they were getting from the CanLit establishment. Above all, the magazine took writing seriously. Despite, or perhaps because of this, Connolly and Sherman were never really able to sustain it financially; the magazine published its last issue in early 1994. “I was almost bankrupt,” Connolly recalls. “I remember that very clearly. Then I started working at This Magazine—for free. Nice move there. When I really ran out of money, I worked at Eye magazine.”

In between jobs, Connolly started focusing more seriously on his own writing. In 1995, he published his first collection of poetry, Asphalt Cigar, with Coach House Press. Although released to the loud silence that often accompanies such efforts, the book eventually—a year and a half later—garnered a good review in Books in Canada and a nomination for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, for the best first book of poetry.

One of Asphalt Cigar’s highlights was based on a series of slides of the nineteen-eighties supermodel Monika Schnarre that Connolly stumbled across one day. The resulting series of poems, “A Supermodel’s Story,” was an extended meditation on late-twentieth-century obsessions: style, the collusion between speed and beauty, and the emptiness inherent to a society that gives that quality too much weight. For example, in “Chapter Three: Discourse on Beauty,” Connolly recounts Monika’s claim that she was ugly at school, taller and more awkward than other girls. He also describes one boy who did like her, Bobby Thornton, he of “terrible acne and huge feet”—someone distinctly under the radar of Canada’s future gift to international fashion. Monika forgot all about Bobby, writes Connolly. She maintained her ugly-duckling status to the end. The result is a brilliant send-up of the standard celebrity interview—and the culture that gave us the deification of the supermodel.

Stung by the slow and indifferent reaction to Asphalt Cigar, financially still out of pocket from What!, and suffering a mild case of writers’ block, Connolly began his stint at the Toronto weekly Eye. Bill Reynolds, Eye’s editor at the time, was trying to make the magazine more serious, while retaining its humour. He asked Connolly to review books, gave him a column, Poethead, with a mandate to write about poetry in a popular voice, and eventually hired him on full-time as the arts editor. “He was most interested in spotlighting really interesting unknowns,” Reynolds recalls. “People who were taking chances. He wanted to make sure we were covering more than just mainstream writers and poets.”

It is from Connolly’s journalism career that he may have derived some of his clearest—some reviewers would argue his strongest—work. Toward the end of his time at Eye, he began writing poems again, including one long sequence that used material from an actual event, a 1990 fire that destroyed a New York nightclub, as its basis. The result was Happyland, a more surrealist collection topped off with a documentary poem in nine sections.

Published in 2002, Happyland elicited a strong critical reaction. Ken Babstock gave the book a glowing review in the Globe. To Babstock, the collection was “unbridled invention,” the title poem a real achievement. Other reviewers’ comments were less kind. Christopher Doda, writing in Arc, described the majority of Connolly’s poems as meandering “from idea to idea…without much indication of what holds his thoughts together.” The title sequence, however, he felt was “an excellent example of the documentary poem that stands high above the earlier lyrics.” Doda’s review ended with a prediction that this poem would “set the bar” for Connolly’s future work.

Connolly admits he likes the clarity of “Happyland” but finds criticism that elevates it at the expense of his other poetry is “kind of like, oh, the abstract painter showing he can draw.” He would rather be considered in light of what he is attempting to do as a whole. “My default mode is the more complicated, more evasive style, and that’s the work I am most proud of, and most enjoy writing.” He’s referring to work like Drift’s “Harmless Rituals,” which features, variously, a walk through the woods (“Harmless rituals of summer: / aeronautical canopy of trees / jeered by passing clouds”); a hapless immigrant worker polluting the ground, and quite possibly himself (“Sven, / who speaks the language / but has a weak grasp on / the principles of tanning: / the cramped unsanitary huts, / the toxic runoff into the watershed”); and suddenly discovering Grandma in his pocket (“sharing space with a / bus token and a forgotten / antihistamine”), reminding him to “Watch the ducks,” who see everything. Or perhaps, most poignantly, the title poem, “Drift,” where Connolly muses on “the village of tomorrow undone / almost by accident, a loose coalition / of strip malls and strip malls and strip / malls.”

This is Connolly’s edge city, perhaps his hometown of Maple, now a sprawling bedroom community. It’s his paean to the “lovely glorious emptiness of suburbia,” the endless sameness that makes up so much of North Americans’ mental picture of home. “Drift,” says Connolly, was inspired by a Nestor Kruger painting of a suburban Don Mills, Ontario, bungalow, stretched out so it “looked like this wall of interference, defamiliarizing something that had all kinds of familiar associations.” The poem, he says, is about the “familiarity of surface, and yet the lack of any kind of affect at the same time,” a theme that he returns to constantly in this collection. “We now live in this kind of virtual reality,” he explains, “in which we are constantly bombarded by surfaces—we think we experienced the Iraq war, for example, but ‘we’ didn’t actually experience the Iraq war, only on a virtual level. More and more, our understanding of reality is made up by surfaces.”

Does this work in poetry? Is it enough to critique surface with surface, to jar images arbitrarily, the way they jar in our day-to-day consumption of mediated reality? Perhaps. But with this latest work, critics will continue to be hard-pressed to place Connolly. “He doesn’t really fit in the Canadian canon,” says Crosbie. “That’s his strength—and his problem.” Babstock agrees: “Mostly he’s working in an aesthetic—surrealist, entirely contemporary—that just doesn’t happen that often in this country. There’s a nowness to his work that is gorgeous—and hard for some to really understand.”

Connolly himself doesn’t seem too perturbed. The recipient of a Canada Council grant twice over, he is currently working on his poetry full-time, and his next collection, “an anthology of forty-five distinctly different poetic styles,” promises ever greater heights of experimentation. The aim, he says, is to either disprove the whole idea of poetic voice, “or prove it, I don’t care. The way to keep yourself honest is to make fun of yourself and have fun with what you are doing. For if you aren’t having fun, then really, what’s the point? ”