I imagine Suicide Psalms was a difficult book to write, given the nature of the poems. The subject of suicide and its consequences are topics we tend to shy away from, or whisper about in quiet voices. I found that the poems challenge society’s perception of suicide through their written and audible prayer. How did you find yourself writing about suicide? Was it a healing process?
The book came very quickly, but the emotional aftermath lingered—is still lingering. At first I was concerned about “putting it out there,” partly because of the content, and also because it is so different from my previous book, Viral Suite. I was compelled to write the book because my father committed suicide when I was two months old, yet it was never talked about, and I didn’t even know how he died until my late 20s. The book is, in part, an empathetic homage to suicidal friends and strangers—those who succeeded and those who didn’t.
The reason I decided to submit and publish Suicide Psalms is that I believe suicide is the last taboo—the only topic we don’t openly discuss. Support groups aside, you won’t find a TV series on the subject, although we have shows about serial killers, sex addicts, gay morticians, mafia analysands, etc. Yet, in western society it has become an epidemic, particularly among the young and in Aboriginal communities. In Japan, the spectre of suicide clubs is particularly haunting. Young people link up online and then go out and collectively off themselves; and this happens with such frequency that it no longer makes the news. It is also a primarily a first world phenomenon. People in third world counties starve to death before they kill themselves.
And this rash of suicides is not motivated out of any kind of romantic notions of death, in the way that Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther had young men all over Europe wearing yellow waistcoats and killing themselves—ostensibly out of unrequited love. Today’s suicides are motivated by an utter despair and hopelessness with life per se. Existential, psychological, environmental angst. Mixed with some chemical imbalances, yes. But we have to ask, why are so many people on SSRIs? What’s wrong with this picture?
I believe our disconnectedness with nature and our environment is fuelling the disconnection with self and disaffection with others. And I believe the environmental crisis is a form of collective suicide. I hope that these poems help to pay homage to those who have suicided, and help those who have survived to talk about it.
So to the second part of your question: how I came to write the book? In the winter of 2006, while attending the Writers/Artists colony at St. Peters Abby in Muenster, Saskatchewan, I had an incredible and haunting experience. I was staying in a hermitage on the outskirts of the Abby grounds, which was rather daunting as the weather was in the minus twenties, and there was no running water in the cabin, so I had to haul it by sled. The trek back to the Abby for meals and showers was fifteen minutes on snowshoes each way. One night, just as I was drifting off to sleep, a coyote began to howl right outside the thin walls of the cabin. When it finally stopped, the silence was so complete and eerie that it took ages before I managed to fall asleep. And then I had the most horrific dream, which became the poem “God’s Dog Boy.”
A year later, Suicide Psalms began to emerge—a howl that had been building since my father’s suicide. The poems literally insinuated themselves—the first when I was in the middle of writing an article on binary pulsars. The rest of the book came with such speed and ferocity that the writing process was actually euphoric. So yes, writing Suicide Psalms was cathartic, exhilarating, and terrifying. And it took me to a new level of emotional resonance in my work that will be difficult to get back to, I think. Writing the cerebral, sensual, science-based work of Viral Suite felt much safer.
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