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Sharon Thesen has published seven books of poetry, most recently A Pair of Scissors, which won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Her newest book, The Good Bacteria, will be published by House of Anansi Press in 2006. Her work has been short-listed twice for the Governor General’s Award for poetry, and she was one of the judges of the 2003 Griffin Prize. She lives in Kelowna and Vancouver, British Columbia, where she is an instructor at Capilano College.

Nancy Holmes has published three books of poetry, most recently The Adultery Poems. Her fourth poetry collection, Mandorla, will be published in September 2005. She lives in Summerland, B.C., and teaches at the University of British Columbia Okanagan.

 


Excerpts from a conversation between Nancy Holmes and Sharon Thesen

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July 10, 2004

Nancy Holmes: I thought I’d start off our online discussion with some general questions to you about reading poetry and audience and then move into more particular questions about your work, form, poetics, etc. I have known and admired your work for almost 20 years. When I ran a reading series in Calgary, I chose readers by looking at the list of finalists for the Governor General’s awards reading their work, and then inviting my favourite or favourites from the list . . . . Which is how I got to know your work and when you came to read in Calgary I was impressed and continued to read your poetry when it came out, if I could find it or if I heard about it. Sometimes I would find a book of yours and look at the list of publications at the front of the book and realize I’d missed a huge chunk of your life’s work.

So, for me, my "discovery" of your work . . . illustrates some interesting facts about being a poet in Canada – the neglectful nature of book store economy when it comes to poetry (now I order almost all my poetry online), the value of awards like the GG, and the hidden and small audience of poetry – you might not even know a single poetry lover in Penticton exists, but there she is, having found a new Sharon Thesen in the college library, lying in bed late at night, reading, reading, thinking, "Yes, this poet speaks something for me, fills my mouth with language that is meant for me even though she knows nothing about me" – how you speak of domestic damage and ordinary passions that sweep through houses and hearts, and speak with a kind of authority, wryness and genuineness. (From "Libretto:" One goes mad with it. / The cat dragging in birds, etc." – the passionate misery reflected in the everyday incident of the cat’s birding, and the "etc." underscoring the relentless dailiness of emotion, and at the same time delivering a Canadian and female voice with that "etc" . . .) For a poor, single mother lying in bed in Penticton reading, raked by fears and miseries, your poems launched me into the centre of my own life. A fleeting experience, perhaps, but how private a force is a poem.

So, can you tell me what matters to you when it comes to poetry and audience, or what the problems are, or if there are any in your mind? How do you hear about new voices and new poets? Has this changed over time? How important is it to you to consider audience and who reads you? You’ve been involved in awards – GG nominations, judging the Griffin prize – what do you see as their function? Can poetry broaden its base – should it? Are there all kinds of other single moms out there who just might need, want and relish Sharon Thesen’s langauge but just have no idea such a thing exists?

I guess all these questions are about that usual poet’s anxiety – audience development and audience atrophy. Who reads the stuff and why do we send it out there into the utterly tiny patch of public space that poetry occupies? Do you care about this issue at all? Or is writing and love of poetry beyond such considerations? Is poetry invisible and meant to be so, but for a tiny thread of readers that carry it through time. Does this matter? Is there something wonderfully anti-consumer-culture about poetry – no one will ever make a movie based on a slim volume of poetry (The Iliad excepted) – or is this very quality deadening and worrisome? I know this is a tired topic in some ways, but your poems are so grounded in everyday life, I wonder how your poetics is affected by poetry’s seeming inconsequentiality . . . in everyday life.

 

August 6, 2004

Sharon Thesen: Just got back from the Queen Charlottes, but, of course, it took a week to get ready and I’m three days into the unpacking process, finding myself standing beside the dryer reading Robert Bringhurst’s translation of the Haida myths.

Nancy: Your image of yourself standing beside the dryer reading nicely captures something about your work for me – the domestic life and the intellectual life side by side, but also the contemporary urban, mechanical life alongside the natural world, especially its west coast incarnations. This intersection of nature and urban/technological is a particularly interesting subject to me these days, and to many poets it seems – Don McKay, Jan Zwicky, Tim Lilburn, if we want to just start at the far edge of the country in Victoria . . .

How do we understand or live beside or not destroy the natural world in such a highly technological, urban, human-made environment, and what possible connections are there between nature and art? Like reading Bringhurst’s book beside the dryer – does art mediate for some [of] us those two natural/urban worlds? If so, and art is such an "elite" arena, how meaningful or effective is art – or, at least, poetry? At least a landscape painter can try to make people love a landscape – see it fresh. Can poets? You seem to long for the natural world, but you also move so easily between the two – you really do braid the two worlds together somehow. (That last image of the flashlight and the night braided together at the end of "A Pair of Scissors" fuses for me technology and urban with wild and nature.) Yet, does your lovely conversational tone mask (as so much conversation does) deep feelings of loss and alienation, or is it true that you can fuse and unite, beautifully slide in and weave through, the urban/domestic and the natural/wild?

 

August 14, 2004

Sharon: I’m very excited about something that sort of gelled for me in the Queen Charlottes and then in reading Bringhurst’s book. Although I am an "aboutist" (i.e. I believe in content), or "Aboutiste du Nord," I have a sort of aversion to writing "about" nature. I can sort of see what Tim [Lilburn} is doing (informed by his study of mysticisms) when he puts language into nature or the landscape while leaving, or trying to, himself out of it. You don’t see many "I"s in Tim’s work. And Don, with the birds – his awe, his joy in them. I envy that ability to lose oneself in a putative otherness – which is at once completely inaccessible and yet sympathetically imaginable. Maybe the latter is actually true. We’ll never know. Patrick Lane is another one who writes "about" nature – animals, birds, trees, various taxonomies – but, I think, Romantically, and with a view to illustrating the inhumanity of man to man, woman, bird and tree; the pointless cruelty toward and destruction of nature pointing to some ghastly flaw or fallenness of the human (i.e. violence) (the conscious violence of the human and the unconscious violence of nature). He writes these poems, I gather from The Globe and Mail, in his garden, or with his garden nearby.

As I go about my dailinesses, I’m always noticing the weeds and the dragonflies and the trees and etc. and I know I have an almost religious feeling about them. But so what? Who among us with any brains or imagination doesn’t? And why has it all evidently fallen on deaf ears, as far as the real world of conservation, etc. goes? Flowers
figure largely in my earlier work, something that was pointed out to me and I didn’t even realize it. I have a poem coming out in The Walrus in a couple of months called "Lyrical Ballad" after the Coleridge/Wordsworth project. (Wordsworth would handle "nature,"
Coleridge the "supernatural" – that was the deal. W has way way more poems in the volume than C!) Coleridge, by the way, was the subject of my Master’s thesis – I was trying to read his poetics through his criticism of Shakespeare.

Going to the Queen Charlottes, where my mother grew up (I do believe in the power of matrices), improbably, in Masset, and feeling what it was like there, and then reading Bringhurst’s book (which I’m still studying) upon return has inspired some writing that I think is kind of interesting vis-à-vis the human/nonhuman deal. I don’t want to say anything more about it right now (you know how that is) but for me it’s a departure. Also, there are images and incidents I’d like to tease out in a prose or performative work – someday . . . .

 

August 20, 2004

Nancy: That feeling you get from the weeds and trees and dragonflies (or I often think of sunsets and all that religious light pouring out of the sky) is about as spiritual as I get, and I agree that feeling is so common as to seem almost trivial or inconsequential, but maybe its commonality is its importance. I suppose that feeling of awe or delight is spiritual, a connection to something wholly outside ourselves, yet that we are part of, if we can define spirituality as awareness of the sacred as opposed to a belief in the supernatural (I wonder if Coleridge had the raw end of the Lyrical Ballads deal. Hard for me not to see the supernatural as silly, and empirical nature as so important.) Do you think "nature" poetry in its recent incarnations, or since Wordsworth, takes us back to poetry’s roots as a religious art?

Though, of course, Coleridge wrote great supernatural poems, too . . . . The supernatural makes for great stories, though, because isn’t that what the supernatural is, really: narrative (hard to imagine a genuine ballad about the River Wye unless mythologized)?

Does post-Enlightenment Nature suit the lyric better – the form is a fit for the content of sacred but de-magicalized and de-narratived . . . physicality and latent, ever-present metaphor? [Is] the lyric particularly suited to experience gutted of belief in myths or narratives in this postmodern world? With or without the "I" that Tim Lilburn eschews (I like the "I" in a poem, construct or not).

I like very much how you have developed a personality in your poems – a wry, witty, moved, flip yet decent, serious yet light-handed and hearted. I can see that some of that is you or your public self. But your voice also feels like an artful construction or performative aspect of your work, too. Do you feel that you have created a persona for your lyric "I?" How is that persona going to fit in with your new nature poems?

I am particularly interested in these questions of the "human/ nonhuman deal," as I, too, am trying to write some "nature" poems about Okanagan plants and animals and I am wondering what to do with the self, that appendage, that jester in the background.

 

August 24, 2004

Sharon: I’ve been thinking about your . . . comments about lyric vs. narrative . . . and where one goes when thinking or writing nature in this godforsaken time. One is probably better off reading Sartre than watching the sunset or the dragonflies, and it seems odd to observe and describe nature when that very same habit of mind is the one responsible for the mistreatment, the (mis)management, the folly, etc. And, yet, there is that habit, that compulsion, almost, that you describe so vividly as "latent, ever-present metaphor." I think that is precisely the use that poets have made, that I have made, of "nature" in poems – not even consciously. There is some sense of outsideness that I need to get into the poem, and there’s a hummingbird or some cloud or tree that articulates that precise moment (a graciousness), but also articulates an essential silence or refusal of the very discourse we attempt to engage it in. "Nature" is the foil; there’s something essentially comedic about its company (in lives, in poems); and, of course, death, being nature at its most irreducible, hops and giggles in the shadows all the time.

I believe in anthropomorphism. Therefore, without embarrassment, I devise humanish lives for plants and animals. At the same time, I can hardly bear to read Ted Hughes’ poems about animals, fantastic as they are, because I do feel he trespasses, not so much into the animals’ consciousness as into the reader’s. It’s torture. I could never make something in nature the subject of a poem or attempt to write from the point of view of a fish (Bishop) or an eagle . . . Inasmuch as a lot of poetry is fundamentally apostrophe, this could be a technique, but my own sense of realism forbids much more than nature supplying tropes. Now, if I could just cast off the chains of Error, I could write language poetry and avoid the whole problem of otherness and exploitation. But I can’t read that stuff with any pleasure at all. It seems to me that without the image (and how do you have images without nature) you wind up with some form of verbal calculus (despite Williams’ scorn for les Imagistes, he’d be nowhere without his twigs and puddles), not a living, breathing thing.

I was really convinced by Coleridge (via Schlegel et al.) of "organic form" – and, later, of course, Pound and Williams, and then Olson, particularly in his essay "Human Universe," where he says we have to reconfigure the whole us-and-it thing – the anguish of that relationship he sees hugely in Melville’s work, and he’s very interested in the Mayans and their cosmology and so on. Well, we can’t go back to being Mayans, or go back to being anything, or pretend to be Indians, or drown our Westernness (separateness) in vats of booze and drugs forever. How to close the gap, as it were, between us and nature, or between the human and nonhuman realms, without imposition – or is it even desirable?

It seems to me there are two issues: one is the "role" of "nature" in poetry; the other is what I call natural poetry. Natural poetry is what I aspire to and it is what is natural for me to write; [and,] likewise, what is natural for you or Jane Munro or Amiri Baraka to write. This may seem a little esoteric, or Zen or subjective or even Romantic, but, in the end, when I find a poem I really like, it feels totally natural. In other words, "nature" has already done her work in the production of the art form by allowing its uncanny perfection to be present in voice or rhythm. This is what I trust in a work of art or a poem; this is its true genius – not its powers of invention, or [the] muscularity of its protest against the status quo, or its indignation or sensuality or virtuousness or avant-gardism. Moreover, I regard this presence (of naturalness) as feminine, in that it expresses and contains both the involutional and the projective (birth, intention, etc.); perhaps the Muse. Maybe it finally does come down to inspiration and breath, but I’d somehow be disappointed in that. It’s too airy.

I’m trying to learn from the noetics of the Haida myths, via the poets Ghandl and Skaay, translated by Bringhurst, certain ways of seeing things and ways of narrative. I have to translate myself back to those towns. Towns are full of stories, i.e. lusts. The Masset that my mother grew up in was once a Haida metropolis of 2,400 hunter-gatherers, but by 1870 or so was reduced to around 400, maybe fewer.

 

Undated, 2004

Nancy: Your comment that "It seems odd to observe and describe nature when that very same habit of mind is the one responsible for the mistreatment, the mismanagement and folly" is one that struck me, in particular. Maybe the tendency to observe and describe has just become distorted; once it was our most important survival technique (the women notice the berries and plants and [the] spiders creeping up to the campfire and the sleeping babies, and the men notice the rustle in the woods, the animal tracks, the wind-shifts as they hunt). We have just gone extreme – looking in the bowels of the earth for oil instead of [in] the wilderness for mastodons, into . . . genes for medicines instead of into the woods for obscure bark chips. Not that I mean to be nostalgic about a former relationship to nature – I guess I don’t really believe we had a former different relationship to nature – it has always been observed to exploit, and I think that is probably true of preliterate societies, aboriginal societies, Cro-Magnons and the lot. We live in it and exploit it and marvel at it. Or, if we don’t marvel at it (and this is where art and religion come in, maybe, or where the West has failed and become pathological), that’s where we have lost something. Grand Myths and focussing afresh on a flower could both be strategies of reminder of our interconnection. And, thus, as John Burnside says, art is an ecological discipline – as mythology might once have been . . . . Maybe [this] takes us back to audience and poetry’s loss of public space. Who is poetry for?

If we make medicines and meals out of nature, of course we make poems out of it, too. I agree with you that language poets are just boring. It’s a focus on the tools of poetry instead of the whole experience of poetry. It’s like playing with your forks and knives and fingers instead of using them to eat your dinner. It’s fun to do when you’re two years old and sometimes it’s fun to look at your face upside down in a spoon, but, really, it palls. And, thinking [of] audience and accessibility, some reader somewhere has to enjoy reading/hearing it or it’s just useless – how puritan of me. Use and art? Is there a connection? . . .

I wish you luck in your immersion in the Haida art . . . . You say you want to "translate" yourself back into those towns. What do you mean by that? Another "loss" in the West may be that reverence not only for nature but also for tribal past and ancestors. I wonder if, just as we saw with the Romantics a whole series of generations trying to re-evaluate nature and human life, that we have a whole new series of generations of poets and fiction writers trying to re-evaluate our relationship to our human past – not political or social histories so much as preservation of family, locales, the romance of archive and photograph and anecdote. Are you interested in delving into these places? This is a whole other realm of the gaps between us and them, then and now, here and there. Language again tries to mediate between these gaps. I find it interesting to think about preliterate societies and people’s relationships to objects that communicate over space and time (wampum, totem poles, furniture, pottery, textiles). Do you think literate societies like ours have a curious inferiority/superiority complex about using language in the place of so many other human-made things? [Is it] why poets, and maybe even fiction writers, now agonize over the worth of their art? Even a poem is too "thing-y." My kids prefer electronic everything . . . .

But, what do you write for? Is it just something you innocently started because you loved reading (as it was for me) and now you continue? But for what reason? I sometimes fear [that, for me] it is just because I got a job, because I’d published a book and now I have to keep doing it . . . . I still like to read and write and putter about with words and stories and images. A mere hobby, perhaps, but not in a bad way – those marvellous quilters and blanket weavers and gardeners are hobbyists, but also people engaged in the pleasure of gaining and show[ing] off skills, and acts of love, too.

 

August 27, 2004

Sharon: The questions you raise are fundamental, often coming back to the "Whither poetry?" Why write it? What is the point? Why do we bother? Variety. Believe me, they are questions that haunt me all the time, except, interestingly enough, when I am engaged in writing a poem; I mean really engaged . . . . Do you think the angst is suffered proportionately more by poets than by fiction writers, and more by writers than by painters or sculptors? Visual artists seem to have more legitimacy as artists in the public mind; poets in particular to be subject more to eye-rolling and snickers. How far barddom has sunk in the public estimation since some nostalgic time of my own imagining. At least, since the beginning of widespread literacy. And now into the postliterate 21st century. Poetry, at least on this continent, has taken a big sucker punch from poststructuralism, and it’s still staggering around winded. 

I know young people who began as poets and are now writing fiction, and who are, in the main, hugely relieved to be "out of" the poetry world, though most of them don’t discount another poetry book in their future. It’s as if they have left the playpen or the loony bin and arrived into the real, adult world where folks take you seriously (including the six-figure advances, etc.). But I enjoy less and less fiction, too. Maybe I’m just getting old and cranky. And I’d be heartbroken if my favourite poets, the ones I absolutely count on to write books of poetry that can restore me to my soul, a bit like the Lord in a Psalm, were to either stop writing or start writing fiction.

One thing we maybe are apt to forget in this lousy world is that it’s really difficult to write a good poem. That good poem begins in the joy you took in your childhood reading and books and the gift of a certain kind of imagination you were born with. I was a serious kid, always aware of trees, wind, light, etc., etc., and of language. I used to listen avidly to what adults said, to how they talked. There were not many articulate people in my family, or among their friends and relatives, so to listen to something serious being discussed on the radio or TV (that was a lot later), or even a well-composed Sunday school lesson, or, of course, to read prose that was strongly voiced – I remember just loving Mark Twain because I could hear his voice on the page, and also some of the philosophers I read later had those credible voices, too. But, really, it wasn’t until I was 16 or so and discovered, by myself, in the school library, Louis MacNiece, TS Eliot, and then, wonder of wonders, Allen Ginsberg, that I threw away philosophy and came to poetry, [and] started writing stuff (derivative) pretty soon after that. I was always after a certain feeling of truth, I guess, and, though I could find it discursively in philosophy, I felt its vitality in poetry. But all my early poetry loves were guys – I was reading John Newlove, for heaven’s sake, at 18, and loved his stuff. Also, I think my mother’s sort of odd and irritating voice, with its inflections of Irish (from her grandparents, who raised her), and my father’s fondness for singing and joke telling (proper joke telling being a serious business requiring much attention to timing; I think a sense of timing is also really important in line) also formed my "voice," poetically speaking, as well.

One can hardly deny the art form one is attracted to, even if it is unpopular. Of all the ways you, Nancy, could have spent your time, you chose to spend it writing poems, and still do. It’s not easy, it’s not lucrative, it’s not useful in any plausible way, it’s not a quilt or a batch of jam or a garden, though those are aesthetic acts as well, and it’s not particularly accorded much interest or respect in small towns in western Canada, or even large ones (you can be a poet with no embarrassment whatsoever in Paris, even Montreal), and, yet, when or if things hit the wall, or when anything really important needs to be said, or when some truth is necessary, only poetry will do. I think poetry is the ur-art, the most utterly human expression of human consciousness. But I also think there’s an overproduction of human consciousness in language, which has had a numbing effect.

As for "nature," I’ve been dealing with her less theoretical side (who was it said "Nature is really beautiful from a distance. Close up it’s a horror show.") the past two days, as it has become evident my dear kittycat Stella has been killed by coyotes – Stella who every night of every summer hunted ruthlessly mice, whose entrails I found every morning scattered across the driveway; Stella who’d lie purring on my chest in the morning. Every night she went out I’d say, "Be careful little sister." And every morning at 3:00 or so when she came back in, I’d be relieved. But she’s never been gone this long before, and I sense a real absence . . . .


August 30, 2004

Sharon: Do you think the "mythopoetic" as a ground for writing and thinking about poetry is totally passé, if not suspect (same thing, these days)? I find myself returning to it (via Northrop Frye, e.g.) as to a sort of home. I don’t mean "myth" as referring to myths, but more from its roots, muthos, a telling – which does imply voice, indeed. Of course, one wants to appreciate, read, work with vanguardist writing that rejects (and probably for some very good reasons) the "mythopoetic," and I do, and resist "home" as a mere nostalgia or even intellectual laziness. Bringhurst . . . writes about the poet/storyteller Skaay:

"Skaay’s stories are addressed to other human beings. They are spoken, nonetheless, in the knowledge that the animals and plants and killer whales are listening. His earthy, wary, sly, patrician voice and narrative demeanour are not those of a poet cut adrift from the urgent march of history . . . . It is the voice of one who knows that the living world as a whole . . . . hears and weighs his every word."

What a concept – the listening, rather than the seeing, of an omniscience that is anything but monolithic. Whereas we’re starting to resemble our own representations of aliens (all eyes and head, no ears or body) as we shape ourselves to the demands of postindustrial capitalism – the very conditions language and other vanguardist poetries and theor[ies] claim by their methods to critique, and even to resist, despite their being totally uninspiring if not impenetrable . . . Another major problem is the appropriation by the academy of vanguardist theory and practice – the (some of [the], anyway) creative writing departments and the English departments as guardians and promoters of the avant-garde, rather than of the tradition that an avant-garde changes and batters at from the outside. There’s something disabling about the whole notion of the institutionalization of dissent. I remember in the sixties at Simon Fraser University, which was a pretty radical place then, that there were a few teachers who were teaching contemporary and vanguardist poetics (then, The New American Poetry, Black Mountain Poetry, etc.), but they were very much in the minority, and, as apprentice writers and small magazine publishers, etc., we operated on our own, got our own things going, found our mentors or didn’t, etc. (Actually, I suspect that these sorts of teachers are still in the minority – but that the theory being discussed in the late sixties by a few mavericks is now the jargon and outlook of the whole discipline. And, also, the world has changed.)

I was thinking about this translation of self as an exercise, not quite a persona thing, but as a sort of visitor to a different mindset – one, say, in which transformation is an everyday occurrence, in fact, an epistemology. So, for example, I take a duck as husband/wife and we live together for a while under the lake (which has a chimney opening to the smoke bush in my yard) and then I drive home in the car. Or I am the
fairy on a pear-leaf but also myself at the same time. Hard to describe, but it feels like the way into some writing (and it isn’t likely to be poems) about the Masset my mother grew up in [in] the twenties and thirties. Bringhurst points out that Masset was a "Haida
metropolis" before smallpox and measles reduced the population by 90 percent. My mother’s grandparents first settled in what is now Port Clements in 1895. What on Earth brought them there, I have yet to find out. But it has only been Bringhurst’s book that has felt to me to be a proper link to that world, the way in. My appropriations are meant to be laughable and incompetent within that realm, because they are.

 

September 6, 2004

Nancy: I have been thinking a great deal about myth and nature as the great listener to our stories. What a beautiful image – Bringhurst on Skaay. It will haunt me, I think. I, too, have been a bit hesitant about embracing the mythopoetic, and much of that has to do with the weird (when you think about it) notion that it is passé . . . .

I started out in English with starry-eyed notions that I was entering the bastion of tradition, that I would be initiated into the great rites of Milton and Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Shelley, that my own personal adolescent reading – Austen, Bronte, L.M. Montgomery, horse stories, Anne Sexton and the Imagist poets (a friend of the family gave me a Sexton collection and an Imagist anthology when I was 16, a gift that profoundly affected me), Conrad and Zola and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm – was pure, unadulterated chaos in the ransacking of the book mobile, and that I would be taken in hand, disciplined in the best meaning of the word (the discipline) and made to understand the Truth about greatness and literature and life. And, perhaps as an undergraduate, I learned a bit, but never in the way I thought I would. How could anything live up to adolescent ideals?

I returned to graduate school after several years of marriage and parenthood, now a single mom, and the starry-eyed notions were finally and forever knocked out of me. I remember sitting at my desk in the shared graduate office at the University of Calgary (which was much later than SFU, converting to the trendy – this was [the] late eighties) and a woman running into the room after her theory class, flinging herself at her desk, head on the table, weeping, "I don’t understand Derrida." Suddenly there was no Grand Tradition, and the professors expected something new of you that I didn’t really understand, because I never expected universities, as you so nicely put it, to be the "guardians and protectors of the avant-garde." That theory was, in itself, the thing to read, not literature. I, too, thought the avant-garde happened in the little magazine, in the cafes of Berlin, getting stoned with young men who wore a lot of black (another of my starry-idea-ed notions, I guess), etc. And theory, well, [it was] interesting up to a point, but what about Shakespeare, Milton and Life? . . . Professor as coconspirator and fellow absinthe drinker and discipline cross-dresser is not for me. Even as a teacher, I hate the role of mentor or lifestyle cheerleader. "Let me show you some scansion or tell you what I think Lear is going on about, but then off you go, dear, and read your own books and found your own little magazine." I’m not that great a teacher, I think. Off-putting and cold. Unlovable . . . . In my turn, I too shall stamp out the starry-eyed. Still, I believe I never really read my way into the "canon" until I had to teach it. I remember being startled by so much: Spenser’s sonnets, Chaucer, Tennyson’s "In Memorium," Keats – where had these been all my life? Why hadn’t I noticed them in school?

I know so little about First Nations myths, but the myths I do know in the Western tradition seem to be a collection of perceptions about our relation to the natural world, and so much of that involves, as I think, now, after your comments, listening to each other’s suffering. So, we have Syrinx, who is a spirit of nature, pressured into what we can only see now as genetic mutation through nature’s cruelty – Pan is nature, and nature red in tooth and claw. Syrinx’s motion and drive become, for survival, cold root and bloodlessness. Turned into reeds, she is heard by us always, we listen to rustling and whistling and hear nature’s pain. And nature hears ours. "Nature groaned." So many of the Greek myths are about nature listening to our pain, as Bringhurst reminds us – Procne and Philomela suffer at the hands of human beings, men and each other, and after the two women speak to each other through art, nature hears them, takes them in, turns them in to the consolation of birds. All of Ovid is about how metamorphosis happens through suffering, isn’t it? . . . . So Darwinian and so "human nature." So, of course, myth matters to us.

Yet, maybe this takes us back to the sense of legitimacy of nature poems nowadays. Is our pain relevant when nature is in such agony and we are the torturers? (I think of Don McKay’s essay "Baler Twine: Thoughts on Ravens, Home, and Nature Poetry." That essay comes at this same idea, I think.) I’m pretty sure nature will "win," will throw us off, no matter how "alien" we become. But, meanwhile, it is hard to speak of our pain in the face of nature’s great pain. The Haida and the Greeks could speak with authority of their pain and feel that nature listened. How can we do anything but be humble? In fact, we almost have to avoid talking about our pain, in the same way you avoid mentioning your own fear of death to someone who has cancer, or you bite your tongue before you mention your longing for your travelling lover to a grieving widow . . . . So I like your domestic and humble duck spouse and pear-leaf sprite, because how can we approach the grandeur of mythic response these days? How can we pit our suffering against the natural world’s? What narrative of suffering or lyric of pain is strong enough to be heard over nature’s groans? I’m sure we can – or, at least, some of us can – there are certain human sufferings so immense they can be the equivalent [to] cataclysmic natural catastrophe – the genocide of the aboriginal people around the world, the Holocaust, Rwanda. But what form of language could contain such suffering? Nothing that I could ever possibly do or write. Let’s live under the smoke bush and see . . . how we can live our small lives and what we can do. Step in and out of nature and human life, small steps, cautious, strange, laughable. Thank goodness you said "laughable"– earnestness is kind of a fake authority, isn’t it?

Earnestness – fake authority – seems to me to be one of the great dangers of the line and the image: so hard to reveal or recognize the genuine. You mentioned a while ago that you wanted to write and read a "natural" poetry. As a writer, finding what is truly natural is stupendously hard, isn’t it? Are you always conscious of limitation when you write, or are you pushing against, weaving in and out of expectation, convention, fakery, cleverness, posing, waste, slipperiness? What’s the hardest thing for you about writing a poem? What limitations do you come up against in yourself? . . . .

 

September 8, 2004

Nancy: Thought I’d throw in a few thoughts about your comments about fiction and your parents’ voices and the line and timing, not to mention your cat. I’m so sorry about your cat’s disappearance, by the way . . . .

Like you, I am less and less satisfied with fiction. About ten years ago, I started being far more picky. There have been certain books I’ve loved recently – Life of Pi, books (who can call them novels?) by WG Sebald, Bohumil Hrabal, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, for fun: good murder mysteries by Reginald Hill and Michael Dibdin, and once a year I read a Dickens – . . . I can’t get over how wonderful Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorrit are. No matter what anyone says or how unfashionable it is, the best novels in English were written in the 19th century.

But, all in all, most novels disappoint me. Maybe this is partly what you said about young people starting out as poets and [who] are now writing fiction. I read a book like Elle by Douglas Glover (I’m only picking on him because I read the book this week, not to hold him up specifically– I find Ondaatje and Anne Michaels and many, many others the same), and I have no idea if Glover is a closet poet, but I think this was a novel that was meant to be a poem or an essay. It is beautiful in its pieces, but it doesn’t work for me as a novel. The set pieces, the great visual scenes, the lovely language, the conceit, all are dazzling in themselves, but there is no storytelling happening. These novels are often filled with a breathless aura, an awareness of their own scope and beauty – a self-consciousness about their material that deadens narrative somehow. Maybe the poetic novel is a dead end, with a few beautiful exceptions (I love By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, for example – it’s beyond self-consciousness, leaps into genuine histrionics, maybe). And the edgy, urban Dave Eggers types can’t keep it up or say anything interesting (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has the most brilliant opening chapters and then just disintegrates), and the more traditional novel of plot and character seems to suffer from lack of confidence (though I liked Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections). I understand the critic James Wood says all this better than I can (though I’ve not read him, I’ve read about him, a critic – typical three-times-removed intellectual life of the average 21st-[century] person.) Perhaps fiction has taken a bigger sucker punch from poststructuralism and trendy fashions than poetry has, in a way, because poetry has always had play as one of its tools. The novel, ah, I don’t think so. Jokes, yes. Maybe even fairy tales. But not novels. Still, in spite of all of this, I do write fiction from time to time, am trying to find my way into it.

But, more interestingly, your comments about how your parents’ voice formed your poetic voice intrigued me. "Irritating with inflections of Irish" – I liked that. It does capture something about your voice; not that it is irritating – I think "irritated" is a better word. A poem of yours I really like is "Night Falling" from A Pair of Scissors, which has a tone of voice in it that I find simply likeable, a voice that fits its line perfectly:

Night Falling

Familiar light of quarter to eight
in blue September

Walking home after supper at Maria’s

Our sons are men

Our dogs plod slowly on uncertain hips

Our mother need to move from one sort of place
to another

I feel I’ve failed, have not
looked through the coupon books enough
for a deal on a case of soup

. . . . etc

The poem begins in a wash of familiarity – supper, friend, looking at a watch, yeah, it’s September, moody blue – and then you insert the huge themes of life: children, aging, nature, parents (and how gently and easily that line breaks in the act of moving from one "place / to another," enacting the mother’s seemingly passive being moved and the hips of the dog at the same time) and, then, wham, that irritation comes in: those damn coupons and flyers, why are they here intruding into life when we have other, more important things to do – the friend, the dog, the mother. There they are, friend, dog and mother, left hanging out on their single lines, almost neglected in their white space, while the coupons and pension plans are all cluttery and big in their chunky stanzas. The poem ends with your thought of missing your faraway friend, who is also distracted by the trivial, the burdens of money and all that. This poem has the irritated quality of voice you mention, and it is delivered in a lovely craft of line and stanza. This gives me such great pleasure. It takes me to what you were saying about poetry, how hard it is. What makes your poems work so well is that they seem effortless and yet are artful. You do the complex work of poetry – the poem is a word machine (the lines, the voice churning meaning out [like jokes?]) and, at the same time, it is an intimate utterance spoken in a public place (like your mother talking to you in front of others). Your poetic voice has developed this double nature beautifully – I feel spoken to and I am intellectually rewarded by looking carefully at the machine.

 

September 9, 2004

Sharon: I’m glad you brought up the irritated tone. I feel it overtook too much of Scissors, perhaps adding to the slightly threatening aspect of sharp implements. And, yet, I also feel there has to be a place for irritation, complaint, etc., in poetry. Which is a far cry from one of the most important bardic tasks in the Celtic world – to curse the king’s enemies (not one’s own) (the other being to praise the king’s friends) – and a far cry also from license to rant and rave. Ed Dorn’s last book, before he died of pancreatic cancer, was Abhorrences, a very painful book to read because he took on all the ugliness, social, geographical, civic, poetic, in those poems. Nevertheless, a place, a time, has an effect on a person; how to calibrate that effect, if it is irritated or whatever, so that it doesn’t take on the mantle of righteousness or superiority? Barry McKinnon, one of my favorite Canadian poets, does that so well, interrogates it so minutely, in his work. George Stanley, also – more the effect of the city, the bus, the students, etc. – basically quite good-natured and generous, but a querulousness will occasionally emerge, well-earned, usually. And not against them (unlike Cavafy, e.g.) but against it, what we used to call "the system." 

Whatever happened to "political" poetry? Is it now the bailiwick of slam and spoken word events? Content-based poetry is considered a big no-no in the academy, whence most of the young poets pass their days, and so they just continue to whack away at the chains of syntax, thinking that the ultimate political statement. At the other extreme,
the School of Quietude, as Ron Silliman refers to it, continues its search for epiphanies. It’s enough to make a guy switch to fiction!


[I] agree with your assessment of self-conscious, image-drunk, look-at-how-sensitive-I-am (or clever, or adorable) fiction, which is almost all of it, these days. Someone lent me something called The Time Traveller’s Wife and I could not continue to the third page. Another attractive, well-publicized product from the publishing industry, one of thousands, maybe even millions, of book-widgets. I find myself agreeing with the occasional spasm of grief for the novel that The Atlantic Magazine publishes, then agreeing with the critics of the article the next month who point to this and that and the quantity of books being published and, presumably, read. But I can’t discount the hollow, exhausted feeling I get in bookstores, the sense of overproduction and waste. And the alarming sensation of either not being interested, or expecting to be disappointed. Like you, I prefer 19th-century novels, absolutely love them, and earlier stuff, too. I mean, George Eliot; Thomas Hardy; Chekhov, even. Not to mention Dickens, or even Henry James. James Wood, as you say, is the great reader of that canon, and defender of its ways – his essays are always a great pleasure to me. As you say, what seems to be missing from all this gas that passes for fiction nowadays is story and characters (and some indefinable quality of truth.) That’s probably why I gravitate to the more old-fashioned realist novelists like Philip Roth, David Lodge, A.S. Byatt, and some of the Australians and Europeans (Ivan Klima, etc.). I loved JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. And one of my very favourites is John Berger. If you haven’t read To the Wedding (which isn’t really in the realist tradition, but is an absolute stunner of a novel) yet, run, don’t walk, to the bookstore. And I feel guilty for not reading much Canadian fiction (other than the Grandees of the Canadian canon, both modern and contemporary), such as Ann-Marie MacDonald, whom I just don’t trust for some reason. I’m told I should read Andre Alexis and David Adams Richards . . . I was even disappointed in Barbara Gowdy’s The Romantic – after Mr. Sandman it was a letdown.

I don’t believe these are small matters. I remember reading a book by a former Yugoslavian that claimed that bad literature was the real reason his country was destroyed.

Perhaps the "problem" of nature can be placed into the category of the sublime, where it can remain in its vast otherness and mysteriousness and terror and, as you put it, "black song." Duende, as Lorca said. Its beauty, as well, which it is given to us, by some miracle, to enjoy, appreciate, feel spiritual about, destroy. Nature’s pain – yes, in Ovid, those agonizing, terrifying transformations, described so effectively by Ted Hughes in [those] marvellous translations of Ovid’s tales . . .

Transformation being at the root of metaphor, no wonder poetry has a particular relationship to the sublime. But, to be less ooga-booga about it, August Kleinzahler talks in a recent interview about how he sees nature in the city, snow falling on buildings, etc., flowers and trees in the boulevards, the rain, the mountain backdrop, etc., as a constant source of wonder and of imagery, even content, in his poems . . . .

In more recent stuff, nature and the domestic slide and collide, maybe because in Kelowna I’m not as overwhelmed by the cityscape as I am in Vancouver. I want to hold some of the magic of this in the poems by foregrounding transformation rather than suggesting it . . . . I’m going to have to move into a more theatrical or cinematic mode for the Charlottes project, but that is still a long way off.



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