Vincent Colistro poems have appeared in The Walrus, Hazlitt, Geist and Arc. He was a prize-winner in the 2012 Short Grain contest, and was nominated for National Magazine Award for Poetry in 2014. He lives in Toronto. Late Victorians, his first book of poetry, was published this month by Vehicule Press.
Carmine Starnino: What is a "Late Victorian"?
Vincent Colistro: In Victoria, where I’m from, you can still see the Victorian era’s colonial thumb (skeletal as it is) wiped over everything. There are teahouses that sell expensive doilies and china, sweet shops that continue to import spotted dick and canned treacle, pubs that will pull you a warm bitter as you sit under a portrait of one of the queens. Oh, and gardens. Many many gardens. Then there’s the Empress Hotel, this Edwardian testament to opulence standing over the Inner Harbour. There’s actually a room in there called the Bengal Lounge, which is pretty much a fetish shop for colonialists. It has a tiger’s skin mounted on the wall and steam trays of mild curry to eat with your cocktails.
Anyways, I think I got a little off track. A Late Victorian is equal measures reputable and degenerate. I’m drawn to the idea of crumbling opulence, and, to me, that’s what a Late Victorian is.
It’s also, literally, a dead person from Victoria. So there’s that too.
CS: The middle of the book is given over to the eponymous verse play. What do you like about the form?
VC: I’ve always been more comfortable in mimicry. The book has a lot of first-person poems and most of them are not meant to be your author speaking. Even some of the poems in the third person rely so heavily on free indirect speech they might as well be a monologue. Earlier versions of the play were written like a normal poem, but I thought, why not push this chatter, this plurality of voices into its rightful form? For Plato, that kind of poetry was problematic ethically—it flew in the face of the unified life, its multiplicity somehow nefarious. So… I guess the verse poem is also my way of sticking it to Plato.
CS: The poems are filled with grim, often apocalyptic hints: funerals, massive meteors, city-destroying storms. Are you worried about the future?
VC: Change is coming down the pipe, of that much we can all be sure. But that’s not to say all these characters dread the future. The apocalypse loops back to the "late Victorian." An era of order giving way to era of chaos. All these safe, bourgeois institutions we’ve built can’t save us from what’s about to happen. Some of these characters are too comfortable, and so the threat is enormous. Other characters see the coming storm as transformative in a positive way. One of the characters, hemmed in by order, relishes the opportunity to just bleed everywhere. Myself, I think I’ve felt each of those feelings.