A personified Death captains a ship “dressed as a dancing girl” while demons turn up in sinks and on bridges — apt visual disturbances to occur during the lives of saints. But Jen Currin’s Hagiography doesn’t focus on saints’ biographies alone.
“I was interested in that idea of a biography that wasn’t really a true biography, you know, that was false or elevated in some way, not completely real,” she explains.
Hagiography, Currin’s second book of poetry, was supposed to be released in 2006 after winning the 2005 Winnow Press Open Book Award. At the time, Currin was elated. Anvil Press had just released her first book, The Sleep of Four Cities, when news arrived that the small American publishing company had accepted Hagiography.
“Unfortunately, like many small presses, it’s mostly run by one woman, with a few other people, and she fell sick,” Currin recounts. “A year passed and by then I just said, ‘You know, I want to break contract because, eventually something’s going to happen, but I don’t want to keep waiting.'”
Winnow Press allowed Currin to pull Hagiography and by then she was talking with Coach House about her third book.
“[Coach House] said, ‘But we hear you have this other one, what’s up with that? Send us that.’ So they took them both. So one’s waiting in the wings and it’s nice to know that they have a home,” Currin says.
The self-described surrealist peppers her poetry with haunting images. In ‘The Bird,’ the speaker asks you to “leave your face in the mirror by the front door” — providing the reader with an eerie vision of a ghostly reflection.
A bald rat eating fire in the title poem, “Hagiography,” appears as a symbol of disturbing machismo in a poem about a lesbian and her curious, but heterosexual, and possibly dead, lover.
There are other sets of lovers too. In “We All Drive Such Cars,” distance and technology are explored with references to instant messaging and how that accents the analysis of each other’s words.
“I’ve always been queer, even before I was queer,” Currin jokes, reflecting on how her sexuality displays itself in her poetry. “Relationships are such a big school, they’re such a big part of how we learn. It’s a big part of what I write about. I love women, so those are the relationships I’m writing about, so the sexual content in my poems will usually be lesbian or queer. Sometimes not; I mean, I’m interested in having other voices, so there’s poems in there where people are referred to as ‘husband’ or ‘husband/wife’ and that’s interesting to me too, but that’s also queer,” she says.
The speakers in Hagiography tell their stories through seemingly disjointed sentences. Trees, mountains, fish and other figures appear throughout the collection, hinting at a common thread. But whether the lives and stories presented here are interconnected is up to the reader, which is just fine with Currin. “Out of love for the reader, I would say, whatever she or he believes or encounters is their own. It is true too,” she explains.
But some critics, like Hannah Main-Van der Kamp of BC Bookworld and Zachariah Wells of Quill and Quire, see Currin’s work as “elusive” and incoherent.
“I know from what I read [that] I feel comfortable with a lot of leaps on the page and a lot of mystery and not necessarily having things spelled out,” Currin responds. “I’m comfortable with not always understanding intellectually what’s happening. If I get it on some kind of intuitive level that’s enough for me, and I think that probably shows up in my own writing.”
Currin’s love for writing burgeoned early in life. “From a young age I had the idea that I might like to be a writer. I mean I don’t know if I ever said, ‘I want to be a writer,’ but I’d make up little titles for books and novels I never wrote, obviously. But I was always really into language,” Currin says.
Her affinity for words veered her away from her initial foray into public relations at university. “I just realized that’s crazy! I want to write. So I changed my major to creative writing,” Currin explains. She soon received her Master of Fine Arts from Arizona State University and now teaches writing at Langara College and the Vancouver Film School.
Shortly after moving to Vancouver in 2002 to be with her now wife, Christine Leclerc, Currin attended Poetry Matters, a festival organized by Canadian writer, Dionne Brand. The festival was Currin’s introduction to many of Canada’s women poets as well as the jumpstart for Vertigo West, the poetry collective Currin co-founded.
“One woman [at the ‘Poetry Matters’ festival] took an email list and said we should keep meeting,” Currin relates. “It kind of just boiled down to this core four women, which was Kim Minkus, Colette Gagnon, and Brook Houglum and myself.” Vertigo West later expanded to include Meliz Ergin, Helen Kuk, Emilie O’Brian and cristina i viviani.
“We’ve been working together almost six years, which is my second longest [long-]term relationship,” Currin says.
The women of Vertigo West share artistic sensibilities. “There’s definitely a range, but there is an aesthetic commonality in some way,” Currin comments on the group’s work. “[There’s] definitely a bend toward the more ‘experimental,’ which is a hard to use and loosey-goosey term.”
Currin could apply a similar description to her own writing.
“I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older and continued to write that [my] work has gotten even more splintered, more fragmented, not even trying necessarily to make it a story; beginning, middle, end. Sometimes it’s a series of fragments and that is a story,” she says.
Perhaps this is a clue. There are lots of bits of biographies in Hagiography — maybe some are missing or they’re in an unexpected order, but if there’s an overarching story it’s up to each reader to piece it together for themselves.