Conversations, a collection of poetry that won the 1999 Governor General's Award (French Language), is a sequence of 999 numbered fragments that record the essence of verbal interactions between two people. Over a period of a year, Herménégilde Chiasson captured snatches of conversations overheard, conversations he had with other people, even reported conversations. Then he distilled what was said and his observations into a series of single sentences, each attributed to a strangely impersonal He or She. Chiasson has likened his concept to the visual experience of driving: a succession of flashes zooming by, the connections only intuited. The blank spot for entry number 1000 underlines a Zen-like philosophy that suggests that nothing is ever fully completed. In subject matter and technique, Conversations fuses tradition and modernity. Chiasson continues his exploration of the often uncomfortable zone where the mechanical or artificial meets human emotion and spirit. The format participates in the strong and lively Acadian oral tradition, yet the sentences themselves are polished literary jewels, almost epigrammatic in their compactness.
Conversations is at the same time as public as a news broadcast and as private as a lover's unspoken thoughts. With ten personal collections of poetry, Herménégilde Chiasson's body of work is among the most prolific in Acadian poetry. Mourir à Scoudouc was published in 1974 to critical acclaim in Acadie and Quebec. In 1976, he made a radical departure in style with his collection of anti-poetry Rapport sur l'état de mes illusions. Busy with filmmaking, the visual arts, and playwrighting, it was a decade before Chiasson published Prophéties in 1986. The 1990s were a prolific time for Chiasson's poetry. His 1991 collections Vous and Existences, broke new ground in the field of experimental poetry and Vous was nominated for a Governor General's Award. Vermeer and Miniatures continued Chiasson's quest to blend the visual with the oral in a unique poetic style. In 1996, Chiasson produced Climats. It was hailed as one of modern Acadie's strongest poetic works and was the first of his books to be translated into English. Climates brought Chiasson his second Governor General's Award nomination. In 1999, Chiasson won the Governor General's Award for his landmark poetic work Conversations, now available in English from Goose Lane Editions.
Jo-Anne Elder is the editor of Ellipse. She has translated a dozen novels and poetry collections including Herménégilde Chiasson's Climates and Conversations, both of which were shortlisted for the Atlantic Poetry Prize.
Fred Cogswell was one of the scions of Canadian Poetry. A widely published poet, anthologist, translator, reviewer, and critic, he has been a figurehead on the Canadian literary scene for more than fifty years. He was the recipient of numerous awards and honours ranging from the Bliss Carmen Medal in 1947, to the order of Canada in 1981, to a lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Publishers Association in 2000. He was the founder of Fiddlehead Poetry Books, one of Canada's oldest literary presses and has acted as mentor to several generations of young poets.
"Epigrammatic, intense... like time-release capsules, waiting to be felt... The writing builds toward stateliness. Each poem is its own landscape, which makes the implication of the title interesting. Here, the two speakers don't talk to each other, don't answer each other's questions, don't overlap. The layout of the book keeps them in discrete units of type, like paintings hanging opposite each other: a clean look, a cinematographic tone, a controlled direction." — Georgia Straight
"Intriguing and resonant... worth thinking about." — iToronto Star
Pub date: October 15, 2001