Live at York: Priscila Uppal

On Nov. 10, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented fiction writer and poet Priscila Uppal. Teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

In 1992, Social Services
sent a worker to the household of Agamemnon…

from Live Coverage by Priscila Uppal

Priscila Uppal (left), the latest writer to appear for the Canadian Writers in Person series, considers herself to be a poetic reporter. It was this approach that led to her latest collection of poetry, Live Coverage (2003), a sharp-eyed work that reflects on current events both locally and globally. Even though this is a response to the bombardment of modern media, she draws her inspiration from the classics. Homer and Virgil were the reporters of their day and Uppal draws from their stories and makes them new.

Ever the professor, (Uppal teaches in the Division of Humanities in York’s Faculty of Arts), she illustrated her point by reading her literal translation of “The Wanderer”, an Old English poem from 975 AD. She explained that she was attracted to the poem because of the narrator’s melancholy voice that gave the impression of someone who did not know who or where he is. It was a voice that seemed somehow familiar, 1,000 years later in the 21st century, said Uppal, who noted that “despite our advanced network of communication technology, we’re still as lost and melancholy as that early wanderer. It seems the more plugged in or connected we are, the more isolated we become.” This led her to write a less literal translation of the poem that takes the same issues and looks at them through the present.

In Live Coverage, themes of war, violence and abuse are deliberately handled in un-flowery language. Because her subject matter is so dark, she was careful not to romanticize her themes: “You can’t make child abuse pretty.” Her approach was to write in the language of the news. However, her work transcends that of the average CNN reporter because she offers her reader a way to encounter the news meditatively, rather than as unfiltered information.

An interesting “special effect” of Uppal’s book is the newscrawl that appears along the bottom of each page. This text is a combination of lines from Homer’s The Odyssey and actual news headlines. When asked about this kind of “found poetry” here and elsewhere in her book, she responded that “when we have language in front of us that’s vibrant, funny, or ironical, it’s the poet’s job to point it out and make us think about it.” She described finding poetry in things as varied as prescription labels and exit signs, seeing things that nobody else was looking at. “Poets are not prophetic,” said Uppal. “You can see the seeds of things that are going to happen, if you look.”

Uppal’s work is not all dark. Considering poems such as “God’s Sister” and “Good Things”, there are many humourous moments and signs of optimism. Also woven into her poetry are subtle tributes to her father, a man she considers as heroic as any mythic being. Perhaps the strongest sign of hope is the book’s dedication to the goddess Athena: “When war raged in Ithaca upon the return of Odysseus, Athena descended and simply commanded ‘Stop Now!’ and remarkably…they did.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series presented acclaimed novelist Shyam Selvadurai, who read from Swimming in the Monsoon Sea on Nov. 24. On Dec. 1, York Professor Caitlin Fisher will read from her award-winning 2001 hypermedia novella, These Waves of Girls. The Canadian Writers in Person reading series is generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Writers’ Union of Canada.