Brent Chappell comes from Saskatoon in the Canadian province, Saskatchewan. He’s a radiologist by day and poet by night. This week our Patrick Ohslund steps up to the plate to ask him 5 Questions…
Your poems about father-daughter relationships have a striking level of transparency and emotional vulnerability. Have you ever performed this work for your daughters? If so, what was the emotional landscape like with this? and how did it effect your relationship with them?
One of the many reasons I am happy I have been writing poetry is that the writing process clarifies and illuminates my thoughts and feelings. That has certainly been true of writing about my daughters. I have never had any doubts about my love for my girls but even I was amazed at the intensity and depth of the love that I found as I poked around within me while writing about them. I have performed the poems about them to my daughters both in private and when they were part of a larger audience and it has been very emotional for me and for them. I think it has brought us closer. I am always telling my girls I love them, but I don’t think I show them that love as well or as often as I might. I think taking the time and energy to write these poems and then openly sharing them with the world is one pretty good way of showing that love. It is frustrating though that I can never get the words to do justice to the feelings. Poetry has particularly brought me closer to my middle daughter Adrian because it was she who turned me on to spoken word in the first place. I often speak a new poem to her first and she gives me great feedback or we will just enjoy together the laughter or tears the words may bring.
The fact that you work in the medical field sets you apart from most other artists as the scientific/creative processes seem to be dialectically opposed in a few aspects. How do these two intellectual processes illuminate each other in your experience as writer and medical professional?
In the original Hippocratic oath Hippocrates repeatedly referred to medicine as an art. Einstein said “After a certain level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.” Modern western medicine has largely forgotten these truths. We have forgotten that each blood test and X ray has a person attached to it and that the spirit of that person is intimately intertwined with the functioning of his or her molecules and tissues. Reawakening the poet in me has helped me remember these things; has made me a better doctor. I have no doubt that my best moments as a radiologist are when the scientist in me studies carefully the shadows on a patient’s X ray, while the artist in me studies carefully their eyes and touches their hand. I suppose my life in medicine has probably also made me a better poet. Being with people in their illness and death teaches you some things about the human condition; about life. Some of that must seep into my poetry.
You recently competed in the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word on a team that progressed to the final stage of the competition. How did the experience of performing along side 350 other poets from across Canada effect you and your outlook on spoken word?
I am pretty new to spoken word so I am still learning about it. I guess that’s a silly thing to say. Of course I could have been involved with spoken word my whole life and still be learning about it. But being part of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word the past two years has taught me a lot. I have learned that spoken word poets are insightful, deep thinking, caring, passionate, funny, cynical, infuriating, tortured maniacs. I love them all with all my heart. They feel as close to “my people” as I have found in this life and to my joy and amazement they have welcomed this old fart into their fold. Best of all has been the chance to get to know the other members of the Saskatoon slam team during the festival and our preparations in the months leading up to it. It is rare in life to have the chance to develop truly deep friendships with such amazing people. It may sound corny but being involved in CFSW and spoken word in general really has given me a renewed enthusiasm for people and life.
The poetry community that you are based out of in Saskatoon strikes me as different from the art scenes in other cities in that Saskatoon quite remote from other urban areas. I have heard that the local Slam there, ‘Tonight its Poetry,’ has roughly 100 attendees every week, how do you think the geographical location of Saskatoon effects the climate of the spoken word scene?
To be honest I haven’t done much “poetry travelling” so it’s hard for me to compare the poetry scene in my home of Saskatoon to that in other places. I have a feeling though, that our relative isolation (nearest other slam is a 3 hour drive away) does make a difference. People have told me that Saskatoon poets tend to have a different and refreshing style. Maybe because we are somewhat secluded protects us from the trap of copying other poets, of getting stuck in the usual tropes and cliches. Also, being the only game in town probably contributes to our good turnouts. More importantly, I think where we are helps form the really good vibe in our poetry scene; very friendly, welcoming and supportive. It really does feel like a family and maybe that’s because we know we only have each other.
Your poetry strikes me as drawing heavily on a transparent exhibition of your psychological state. How does this element of your work effect your connection with the audience?
The poets I most enjoy myself are those who seem to be truly giving some deep and true thing within them to the audience. Listening to these poets I feel as if I have been offered a window into what makes them human, what makes us all human. That is what I try to do in my poems. I try to say “Here is a real piece of me; this is how I really feel, what I really care about, what I’m really afraid of. What do you think?” I think when I am able to connect with audiences it’s because they sense and appreciate my attempt to give honestly and deeply of myself. Maybe they also sense that it is not easy or natural for me to share my emotions and they get caught up in supporting my efforts to do so.