from Poetics.ca #4...
A Time and a Place: an Interview with Jonathan Bennett
Stephen Brockwell: Jonathan, I want to get a couple of obvious questions out of the way. Having had success with fiction, why publish a book of poems? What, for you, is the compelling difference between good poetry and good fiction?
Jonathan Bennett: I began the poems as a kind of escape. I'd just published my first novel (After Battersea Park. Raincoast Books. Vancouver, 2001.) and I was facing some criticism -- both in private from friends and in reviews -- that the book swung (more like an unlatched gate in the wind than jazz) from plotted, garden-variety prose, to whole scenes written in a far denser way: prose poems, almost. Some loved this versatility and savoured, as they saw it, my demand that they work hard, while others felt that the lyrical passages held back too much overt meaning. Through this ongoing conversation (mostly with myself), I began to come to terms with the fact that the prose style I'd worked on for years might not work for every reader.
The problem, as I now see it, was not a problem at all. It was just my own inexperience. I was so bloody worried about my voice and if it sounded Australian or Canadian, that I never thought to consider that I might have multiple urges, that is, not just to write novels and stories, but poems, too. Since this time, I've been working on better identifying if the project I'm at does, indeed, belong to the mode I'm writing it in -- if you follow. The poems were a breakthrough for me. They gave me a place -- an appropriate place, at that -- to put those novel-clogging urges . . . I've always considered myself a short story writer first, but I do also see novelist and poet as a part of who I am and what I do.
The compelling difference between good poetry and good fiction is the same as the compelling difference between good food and good wine.
Stephen: Let's pursue the difference between poetry and prose. For example, you mention voice. The plurality of voices in Here is my street, this tree I planted (ECW Press. Toronto, 2004.), I think, makes the work interesting. The reader's left trying to situate themselves, too. How does a particular voice work itself into a poem? Is there a favourite example of this in your book?
Jonathan: Ah, I was trying to duck the question. You're so dogged, Brockwell. First, there is -- as I know you know -- a difference between Voice and using multiple voices. The former, I guess, refers to a kind of clarity or surety of tone, or just plain confidence, whereas the second speaks to point of view. Much lyrical poetry is written as essentially non-fiction. In other words, the "I" of the poem is the author. Possibly because I write fiction, I have no difficulty fictionalizing the poem's voice, or imagining a point of view that is not my own. The title poem in my book, for example, is not my voice, but it is, hopefully, my Voice. An even better example -- yes, my favourite -- might be my poem "Last Stand of the Wollemi Pine," which speaks from several different points of view (including from the perspective of a chorus of trees), but, again, I do hope that I've achieved some overreaching design that imprints the poem with my Voice.
Stephen: "Where Seagulls are Local" works through and with voice/Voice challenges too. I enjoy its fluid lingo. The first line puts you right there: "More cakey snow down my jumper." Jumpers are used to start cars with dead batteries up here. Having lived now in both places for a long time, would you say that a particular choice of word or turn of phrase comes to you naturally or accidentally? Do you feel it, hear it or think it?
Jonathan: That poem is a long meditation on place and age. In the past, in my fiction, I have written about the moments of change or transition as they occurred to characters, i.e., living in one place then moving to another. This poem is quieter and more contemplative. It's about getting older (without being about death), as much as it is about being transitory. It's less formal than are many of the poems in the book. In this case, the "I" is indeed me, but some of the poem is set in the future yet is written in a retrospective tone. So, that is a kind of fictional "I." There is also a directly addressed "you," which cuts into the certainty of the voice. And, yes, "jumper." Well, when it comes to individual words or phrases, I look for what fits, I guess is all. I have my own bastard idiom and, naturally, I try to use it as a bastard would.
Stephen: But isn't that bastard idiom at the heart of what we do as poets? In my dogged way, I'd like to push this. Isn't such an idiom generally a literary one that, even if discovered, we shape and hone? Or has yours adapted to you as part of the way you speak? Awareness of our linguistic heritage isn't always something that's in the foreground when we write. I've had a sometimes shady awareness of my Quebecois and Anglo roots. But it's bringing new possibilities into the work. I'm particularly interested in your perspective, because, at least as far as the spoken word is concerned, Australian and Canadian English seem to be substantially different. An awareness of that difference might hamper you because there are too many uncertainties, too many choices. If you think about audience, you might have concerns about losing the reader with a too-personal idiom. Conversely, such awareness might up-size your verbal sandbox to give you more room for word play. Consider Robert Frost's example: a plainspoken, New England idiom from a guy born and bred in San Francisco. You've talked previously about Les Murray. Can you talk about your idiom and, if you don't mind, some idiomatic poets you've learned from?
Jonathan: Okay, I see you're a bastard's bastard. Let me start with this, from "To My Cultured Critics" by Australian bush balladeer Henry Lawson:
In Murray's collection of prose, Working Forest (Duffy and Sellgrove. Potts Point, Australia, 1997.), in his long piece on 19th-century Australian poetry, "A Narrow-Columned Middle Ground," he rummages through his ideas on bush verse and ballads. He gets right into the squatters' muck and Irish luck and dark, Australian humour (iambs intended). He talks labour politics and class in Australian verse and how and where it manifested itself. He says towards the end, "The struggle to naturalize our language and adapt it to the literary needs of Australia has been a long one, and continues to a degree even today." And, later on, "No poem is free of all conditioning of the time and the milieu in which it was made, but we still rightly treasure the ways in which good poems transcend these things, to attain a timeless inexhaustibility."
While parts of this piece, published in 1986, have already begun to sound a touch too quaint to my ear (surely, surely, but perhaps not at all, he'd no longer write, "I'm not sure I understand post-modernism") he gets at the guts of the historical Australian poetic problem, namely, you may write about the country, but first you'll have to -- to pilfer from Al Purdy -- not just say the names, but provide the names.
Let me get at this in another way. Ken Babstock has this line I love in Days into Flatspin (House of Anansi Press. Toronto, 2001.): "the vandals make use of the ruins." When the whites arrived in Australia there were, as they could understand it, no ruins of which to make use -- so to speak. It was a land devoid of history, and peculiar. Australian English at any given moment became a fleeting, toey thing, naming names as it went, borrowing mistranslations from Aboriginals and, to this day, slang-drunk.
Moreover, because Australian life and, therefore, Australian poetry has this, now well-discussed, history of being anti-English and anti-intellectual -- and from this come some of its greatest cultural assets and greatest moments in poetry, but, if not kept in check, these urges breed the also well-discussed xenophobia and boorishness -- the poets had an added obstacle. I tried to get at this obstacle in my first novel. It is, for sake of ease here, summed up by Dennis Lee's quotation that I used at the novel's outset. Taken from "Cadence, Country, Silence," Lee writes, "The words I knew said America and they said Britain they did not say my home, they were always and only about someone else's life."
So, understandably enough, Australians wanted to write about where they lived, in an authentic way using their own words to tell about their own life. Sounds simple, but it has taken years to get the guts to use home-grown (I began to write "indigenous" but thought better of it) words and idioms. But let me stop because I am not an "Australian Poet." I am only an Australian who lives in Canada and writes poetry here under the sometimes influence of Australia and its poets. If you are interested in further reading about Australian poetry today, I recommend the essays of John Kinsella. Heck, I recommend his poems, too.
Surely by now, if you're still with me, you are saying to yourself, but you are using Canadian poets, foreigners, to help get at what you mean by explaining Australian poetry. This is, I think, where I begin as a poet, because my words, idioms, if you like, ideas, are a blend of an Australian and Canadian mind. I see the contrast, the similarities and differences, between the two languages and cultures, and their relationship to America and Britain -- indeed with the rest of the world, too, as well as their own regional preoccupations and other private distinctions. Somewhere, caught up in this, I situate my Voice: which is ultimately part neither, part both. True, speaking two, secondary Englishes that don't have a great deal of direct literary contact makes for a strange vernacular in my writing, but it is not something I resist. Honestly, I taunt it rather greedily. Perhaps anticipating this from me, "what of readers," you asked? Well, I'm forging this new mid-Pacific school of poets. It's going to be huge once I find other members.
Stephen: How long do I have to live down under before I can join? Seriously, I'm with you and I find no paradox in your thinking. If I'm not mistaken, Sappho, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Sidney, Wordsworth, Whitman, Yeats, W.C. Williams, Acorn, Mary Dalton (Merrybegot) -- let's stop there: there's a long list of poets who've had vernacular idioms at the centre of their poetic projects. The Québecois poet Gaston Miron makes a similar, if more acute and politically charged, claim in his essays and in the short poem "Le Québécanthrope" from L'homme rapaillé (University of Montreal Press. Montreal, 1970.):
On the other hand, there's another long list of poets that avoid the vernacular like the plague, finding their idiom in history, art, politics, sex, science -- you name it. Why not simply write in American or English and reach the widest possible audience? Many do.
Jonathan: Because, you dogged dawg, for me that would be bulldoggerel. Besides, I'm not many. I write the way I do, I reckon, because it sounds like me. Simple. Were I to do something other, it would feel forced and somehow insincere. So, at times I sound Canadian, other times Australian, and still other times I sound like a foreigner to both because the influence of the other is too great. I'm rooted in other words.
Stephen: OK. Good, playful, definitive answer. Let's move on to ideas about poetic form. Here is my street, this tree I planted has fairly wide range of formal elements: sonnets, long lines, short lines. What kind of thinking or feeling guides your formal choices?
Jonathan: I'm no great crank about one kind of form's, or even school's, inherent worth over another. Yawn. Whatever floats your boat, mate. I'd just hope for a poet to be as bloody demanding of a poem as he or she can. As a reader, personally, I'm drawn to strange energy and clear-headed density. So, in writing these poems, as it was, and is still, early days for poetry and I, I took advantage of this being a first book and flailed about in the muck happy as that proverbial pig. I do lean toward more formal verse, but I don't go all the way. I like trying to get out of tight spaces, and, when it appears that I've done it without breaking a sweat, then I stop. I come at it simply, letting the poem take the shape of the ideas I'm exploring or story I'm telling. I don't sit down and think, right, Bennett, this is going to be a sonnet. I'm not interested in making poems that way. As I mentioned earlier, I get urges to write about something. My next step it to circle it for a bit and decide if this thing belongs to a short story, novel or poem. So, by the time I'm writing a poem, I'm just at it for a bit, playing, until I figure out just what shape it's going to take. After that, I noodle and hope for really good accidental rhymes that smash into a gorgeous cascade of coincidental meanings, all the while trying to make it appear as if these words arrived as casually as they do when we are in conversation with an old friend.
Stephen: Two things. What's clear-headed density? I like the way you put that, but I'd like to hear a little more about it. Second: isn't there a slight conflict between noodling and making it appear as if the words were casually arrived at? That's at the heart of William Butler Yeats' "Adam's Curse," of course. I wish it were easy to find beautiful accidents. It seems to me like a lot of hard work.
Jonathan: Clear-headed density. Yes, ah, I was trying to describe my desire for arranging words that are simple, obvious and concrete but, for whatever strange reason, when ordered in certain ways attain an unexpected density when required. Not of meaning, necessarily, although hopefully sometimes, but of sound, cadence, rhythm, etc. -- at the syllabic level. My two August poems (especially "August Afternoon") do this in a way I find particularly pleasing. Put another way, I like my poems to dictate the speed at which they are read. One of the ways I do this is by matching the weight of meaning to the way the words run together (or smack into one another). The trick is when you are grinding a reader to a near stop to achieve a purpose not to muddy up what you are saying: hence, clear density. To answer your second question, yes, beautiful accidents are hard work, but I always seek them. How often they lift a rather decent poem into something that exists in a state of perpetual irresolution. Poems I like most always have something more for me, cannot be reduced to their parts or summed up in prosaic terms. I see these beautiful accidents as the source and cause of something as a reader I prize in poems by others, and that I hunt for in my own work, which is, ultimately, I suppose, excess.
Stephen: John Keats expresses similar ideas in one of his letters, and I hope you don't mind if I quote the passage in full:
I have difficulty with the last of these axioms. I wonder if Keats even takes it seriously -- although, with his talent and velocity, perhaps he wrote in earnest. Does poetry come to you easily? Do you simply sit at your desk and write? How many notebooks do you go through in a year?
Jonathan: Let me step away from this a bit. Verandah People (Raincoast Books. Vancouver, 2003.) was a book of stories I built on an idea I'd forged of the post-colonial sublime. It's an imaginary parallel life of sorts, a dream of a simultaneous version of life unfolding as it might well have if one had not left one's home. As such, it's a book of abrupt comings and goings, of risks and regrets. The desire to exist in both lives, that unachievable median, is where the rather romantic notion of the sublime comes into that work. Not here in these poems, though. They are a kind of letting go of this. They are confrontational in that their fuel is not longing but admission of fact after having longed. In this, let it be said, I guess, that a full-scale demarcation between my poetry and my fiction will, in the end, give less understanding of my work, not more (in case that might matter to anyone other than me?). The two books do know each other.
So, given this, let me move to the Keats. The axioms that you quote above are romantic in a way that we are, today, too sullied and sharp, too ironic and polyphonic, too inclusive and grimly aware, to ever enjoy again. You're right, on the surface it sounds not dissimilar to what I was saying, but when I say I hope for beautiful accidents that produce excesses in poetry, I do not mean I long for them because they summon the sublime or a platonic ideal or some quasi-religious transmogrification. I do so because, like a satellite in a night sky filled not with stars but light pollution, they seem both excessive (in every way) and beautiful to me, and shine over me, and vanish between blinks in a shudder of disquietude.
Does poetry come to me easily? No. I work at my poems for months, usually. Do I simply sit at my desk and write? Yes, but for whom? How many notebooks do I go through in a year? None. First I daydream. Then I think. Then I type.
Stephen: Can you finish by giving me some background on "The Otonabee Poems?" The cycle seems to encompass the sympathy between a species and it's geography and history (the sections are titled "Salamander," "Coyote," "Deer," "Great Blue Heron" and "Small Canadian Boy"). I find it quite a challenging piece: it seems concrete but decentred.
Jonathan: It began as a commissioned piece. About four years ago I was asked, by the then curator of the Lonsdale Gallery in Toronto, if I'd be interested in writing a creative accompanying piece for a visual artist's catalogue. The artist, Jim Reid, was hanging a huge show and already had a more academic/curatorial overview of the show in hand as the primary text, but wanted something different to round the publication out. I visited Jim's house and studio out in Terra Cotta, Ontario, and got to know him and his work. What I came up with was a series of prose poems. In its initial incarnation it was called "Terraversions," to go along with Jim's mixed media paintings, the group of which was called "Terraforms." Jim's pieces were, to summarize, massive, fibreglass casts of different parts of various forest floors, or Canadian Shield, etc., and then he'd reconstruct them, in an almost hyperrealistic way, using paint and other synthetic objects. My prose poems leap from Jim's art as imaginative habitations of the pieces. Each piece makes a character of an animal that would have called Jim's art "home." It was the first time I wrote about Canada from the ground up. Finally, I felt as if I inhabited the place the way I did when I wrote about Australia.
When it came to Here is my street, this tree I planted, I knew I wanted to revisit "Terraversions," as it fit thematically with the book. So, I recast and rewrote the pieces as poems proper. By this time, in my mind, the anthropomorphic voices hailed not so much from Jim's paintings but from the area near my wife's family's cottage in the Kawartha Lakes region. So, once rewritten, it got a new name, "The Ottonabee Poems" -- after the river that runs through Peterborough.
The sequence is decentred, yes. It reflects variations on indigenousness that are outside our normal understanding of that word. It is an environmentalist poem of a sort, but it's not really political (unlike, say, "Last Stand of the Wollemi Pine," which is overtly political). The sequence just looks at the slippery facts of land occupation, and lumps humans in with animals as equals -- and each tells a story of their occupation of it. The last part, "Small Canadian Boy," is the most egregious piece of Canlit I'm ever likely to write. It was meant to feel so familiar and beg the question that were the reader, say, a Salamander or Heron, he'd feel much the same way and feel just as entitled to call that bit of land "home." Beyond that, I had a fair bit of fun with the anthropomorphising, and really did attempt to brush on the language as if paint.
Funny you asked me about these poems, as, this summer, Jim called and invited me to do a follow up piece for a forthcoming show he's having. I've just finished it. It's a sonnet.
Jonathan Bennett is the author of the novel After Battersea Park (Raincoast Books. Vancouver, 2001.), a collection of poetry, Here is my street, this tree I planted (ECW Press. Toronto, 2004.), and a collection of short stories, Verandah People (Raincoast Books. Vancouver, 2003.), which was runner up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, given for the best first English-language collection of short fiction by a Canadian author published in 2003.
Jonathan's writing has appeared in many periodicals and journals, including: The Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire, Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature, and Descant. He teaches writing at George Brown College in Toronto. Originally from Sydney, Australia, Jonathan now lives and writes in Port Hope, Ontario, where he is working on a new novel.
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