The Hub On poetry, the ‘ordinary apocalypse,’ and how melancholia can be a source of hope

On poetry, the ‘ordinary apocalypse,’ and how melancholia can be a source of hope

By: Dr. Evelyne Gagnon and Dr. Michael Lithgow

Q&A with Athabasca University’s Dr. Evelyne Gagnon and Dr. Michael Lithgow

Dr. Evelyne Gagnon, an associate professor of French literature at Athabasca University (AU), recently published her first collection of poetry, Incidents (and other rumors of the century).

Gagnon recently discussed the book and her work in a wide-ranging interview with Dr. Michael Lithgow, an associate professor of communication and media studies. They talk about the role of poetry in creating a dialogue of intimacy around the human condition, and ideas such as the “ordinary apocalypse”—that catastrophe is encountered in the ordinary and everyday. Gagnon also shares why melancholia features so prominently in her works and why it can become a space of hope, inspiration, and creativity.

Dr. Michael Lithgow

The book is organized into 4 sections. Can you talk a little about why you made this choice and the significance of each section?

I have published many suites poétiques—a series of poems about a single theme—in literary journals in recent years. These became the core of the collection, to which I added other poems. I worked carefully on rewriting and reassembling the poems. It was like a puzzle, where you try every possible combination to find a wider cohesive movement, a trajectory to organize the collection.

The reader will follow a journey through various incidents in a world on the verge of wavering. The 4 sections are titled: Geometry of sadness, Hunting, Fallen (the many uses of a lasso), and Compendium for some difficult hours

In each section, I am presenting a series of scenes and “tableaux” that depict vulnerabilities and concerns that one can feel when in relationships with our tumultuous and precarious world. It’s a world particularly marked by the collapse of many founding ideologies, and threatened by economic and social instability and ecological challenges. In that sense, the poems are creating a dialogue between the intimate experiences of the speaker (often here it is a “we”/ “nous” who is the enunciator) and the collective. This dialogue is crucial to me: by exploring these vulnerabilities we can all feel sometimes, the poems are building spaces where we can connect to our common humanity.

Dr. Evelyne Gagnon

Dr. Michael Lithgow

This idea of “common humanity” and the role of poetry in creating a dialogue of intimacy around difficult aspects of the human condition is intriguing. This could also be a good description for all forms of art, or at least the potential of all art to make these kinds of connections. What is it about poetry in particular that draws you to the form? And why was poetry the best approach for you in this book to address such difficult issues? For example, why not an academic essay, etc.?

Poetry is a peculiar and wonderful material, because it is made of language, and we all use language in trivial and practical forms every day. When these same words are used in a poem, they can suddenly feature in an unexpected sequence and musicality, like making a sculpture with words which conveys emotions and ideas: you open the semantic, the imaginary, and this new space of understanding and feeling to new perspectives.

The evocative scope of poetry allows the reader to insert all their subjectivity in the poem, and to enter into a dialogue with the common humanity of the speaker. As I write in the collection, we can all relate to some of these experiences of vulnerabilities, “car nous sommes malhabiles” (because we are maladroit).

I like to compare contemporary poetry to an abstract painting, where you do not have a clear narrative or story to guide your eye in a specific way (as opposed to a traditional painting featuring a landscape, for example). In the poem, the colours, textures, and movements are the words, and it becomes a space of conversation between the reader and these evocations.

Dr. Evelyne Gagnon

Dr. Michael Lithgow

The role of language in the trivial and the profound that you describe, make me think of another theme that emerges in this collection, that of the “ordinary apocalypse.It’s this idea of catastrophe encountered in the ordinary and everyday. Can you talk about this idea?

In my research and in my creative writing, I am very interested in contemporary melancholia and by poetics which explore various forms of “ordinary apocalypses,” or what writer France Daigle calls “petites difficultés d’existence” (little existential difficulties). To me, they also reflect the precariousness of the present time in a unique and relatable manner.

I organized the collection around a main theme: this strange and persistent feeling we can encounter presently of a “sentiment de la fin” a sense of the end (the expression is from poet and philosopher Paul Chamberland).

In one poem, I am mentioning the fact that every day we seem to be grasping at “les contours de notre extinction” (the contours of our extinction). Indeed, we are overwhelmed daily by images and discourses about the catastrophes surrounding us or happening around the world. And we can feel some sort of quiet anxiety or sadness toward all of this, even without noticing anymore.

Many experienced the pandemic in this languishing mode too. We were mourning the life we had before, we were lost in a space of anguish and lassitude. More precisely, melancholia is defined by a diffuse feeling of sadness or despair, but without a specific object. Melancholia therefore encompasses many sub-categories such as nostalgia (which refer to a specific time or object that was lost), languishing, grief, some forms of depression and anxiety, amongst others.

If we think of how eco-anxiety can affect us today (environmental philosophy and psychology is also calling eco-anxiety solastalgia”), we will find another great example of contemporary melancholia’s iteration: not one specific fact or climatic catastrophe will be the only source of us feeling sad or powerless. It is the constant rumours (these rumeurs du siècle evoked in the title of the collection) of catastrophes we are receiving that are creating this melancholic space within us.

In my poetry, I am exploring these melancholic spaces, intertwined by everyday experiences of losses, mourning and anxiety, but also a great desire for connections and compassion. Consequently, we must recognize that melancholia can also become a space of hope, inspiration, and creativity.

Dr. Evelyne Gagnon

Dr. Michael Lithgow

Melancholia as hope and inspiration; what a fascinating possibility. This eco-anxiety is of course so prevalent now, especially among the young who tend to be so much more sensitive to these wider sensibilities of crisis than the weary and burdened middle-aged and elderly. Slavov Žižeck has written about capitalism’s affective disciplines, in particular a capitalist/neoliberal duty to be happy. How would you describe melancholy’s relevance in a culture hyper-driven to be happy? 

This is a very interesting point indeed. Melancholic works are always reflecting—directly or indirectly—on their own tumultuous times, as they express some sense of historical loss, the mourning of collective ideals or forms of anxiety that shaped different epochs and cultural contexts. In my research, I study many writers practising—with sobriety—a philosophical doubt that puts into conversation the melancholic sorrows of the self and the melancholia of our disarrayed times. Literature is always an act of resistance, and maybe in melancholic works we are finding a fertile dissonance in response to this obligation, or illusion, of perfect happiness, which has become a lucrative industry to many extents.

I think that we are now in a new melancholic era, where contemporary Canadian and Québécois literatures portray the vulnerability and challenges of our tumultuous and globalized world. Through an intimate lens, poetics of humility, and a rhetoric of amused despair, we can see how recent works with melancholic iterations. For example, the poetry of Louise Dupré, Paul Chanel Malenfant, Carole David, Nicole Brossard, Hélène Dorion, Katherena Vermette or Dionne Brand, to name a few. Their work offers surprising and unexpected solidarities of inquietude that offers alternatives to any “rhetoric of ruins.”

In my poetry, I am also trying to create spaces of conversation, where my apprehensions and uneasiness about our world can meet those of the reader. We also find in the collection some humour, playfulness, and a call for openness. Therefore, the poems are also expressing a desire for dialogue by trying to recreate concerned and lucid solidarities in order to face our tumultuous present times.

Dr. Evelyne Gagnon

Dr. Michael Lithgow

The poems straddle the difficult and yet compelling tension between personal and sociological philosophy. How do intimate vulnerabilities help to shape and challenge sociological ideas?

That is a great and complex question. It seems to me that, again, poetry as the language of the essential can bring us to our common fragilities as human beings. In that sense, delving into melancholic territories can be a powerful tool. There are tremendous creative energies which are at the core of contemporary melancholia, and we can explore these using literary forms.

The very definition of mourning implies that the subject keeps reaching—directly or indirectly—toward the lost object, and within that memory process can find new paths to redefine a relationship to that object. Now that we are subjected to new losses, doubts, ironies, and critical distances, we must question and face these with new perspectives.

Paul Chamberland argues that the only way of overtaking our “depressive era,” as defined by French art historian Denys Riout 2005), is to nurture an enlightened intellectual humility and a critical distance. This will allow us to rebuild a fertile dialogue with the greatness of knowledge that shapes humanity. I do not pretend that my poetry is actively succeeding at this difficult task, but what I am saying is that I try to inhabit this posture of humility when I am writing. This is my way of resisting to this “Géométrie de la tristesse,” (geometry of sadness) by building a modest “Compendium pour les heures difficiles” (shelter for these difficult times) and inviting others to do the same.

Dr. Evelyne Gagnon

Evelyne’s Gagnon’s Incidents is available through and in Edmonton at Glass Bookshop.

Dr. Evelyne Gagnon is an associate professor at Athabasca University. Her research focuses on poetry and the artistic iterations of melancholia in Québécois and Canadian literatures. She holds a PhD in Québécois literature from Université du Québec à Montréal. She previously held a CRILCQ postdoctoral fellowship at the Université de Montréal, and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded postdoctoral fellowship at the Canadian Literature Centre. She has lived and worked in Edmonton since 2014.

  • March 8, 2023
Tagged In:
French literature, poetry,
Guest Blog from:
Dr. Evelyne Gagnon and Dr. Michael Lithgow