7/30/2014

there is always someone who can be those things

It's important to me not to make my background or my gender a thing to sell. It's important to me but I don't want it to be sold. I think if you make those things a selling point, you'll be replaced sooner or later. There is always someone who can be those things.

I was once asked to be on a panel for a particular reason and I said no - and they got another writer to replace me who was more willing to please, to sell those things I refuse. Then I saw that the invitation was not about the quality of the work but about the image they wanted to have. I want to be a writer you can't replace and I don't think I can be those things if you sell me on a point someone else can take. When Small Arguments was first published I was young. I like that [my publisher] Beth [Follett] never made it a selling point. That was important to me because I intended to get old.

- Souvankham Thammavongsa, in interview with Quentin Mills-Fenn in the Summer 2014 issue of CV2.

7/29/2014

Kate Braid Interview

I recently interviewed Kate Braid about her poem "I Seem to Have Come to the Start of Something But I Don’t Know What", which appears in PRISM international 52.4. The issue (on which I worked as an Associate Editor) is just hitting bookstands this week.

The interview started with the poem, and then wandered a bit (as these things do). It can be read here:

An Interview with Kate Braid

If you're interested in reading the poem itself, you're going to have to pick up a copy!

6/30/2014

where the world's weirdest people congregate - "Canoodlers" by andrea bennett

There’s a story - andrea bennett
and it happens when I am twelve. There’s the back seat of a car, where my best friend Jane is sitting — I can see her in the rearview. Outside it’s a zoo, according to my mum. Rolling through downtown Hamilton, she says, Some of these people truly belong in cages. She points out the driver’s side window, flicks her fingers at a woman walking. Wouldja look at that, she says, and so I look — crunchy blonde hair, crop top, too-short cut-offs.

Then I say one of those things that emerges from your mouth like a just-born giraffe learning to walk immediately on whatever legs it’s got. It’s just a hop and skip, I say to my mum, between you and her.

In the rearview, a hyena. To my left, a lioness stalking, deciding if now is the time to pounce. That’s the thing, I say to myself. The thing about cages. I get it now.
from Canoodlers
(Nightwood Editions, 2014).
Reprinted with permission.


I've known andrea bennett through her writing for a long time now. Poets of the same age working in the same city tend to bump into one another (and one another's work) every once in a while. Still, we'd only ever exchanged a few words in person. Since lining up this interview, I've gotten to know andrea better through my new job as Poetry Editor at PRISM international, where andrea works as the designer (and where she was once Poetry Editor herself). So my interview with a relative stranger has turned into yet another insider-y interview between colleagues. Bah... you win this round, Jason Guriel!

New Technology #1:
iPhone Mirror Selfie.
None of this, of course, has any relevance to a discussion of andrea's debut poetry collection, Canoodlers (Nightwood Editions, 2014), which is lovely and weird and delightful and sad and sharply written all around. It turns out she answers interview questions with as much skill as she writes poems, and I very much enjoyed our exchange.

andrea has been embracing new technologies of late, as you can see from the two author photos she contributed, so we chatted via hologram (I was Narendra Modi, she was Tupac). Ok, we just emailed each other, but a boy can dream...

Our conversation covered a few of andrea's preoccupations: prose poems, Florida, food, and keeping it real. Jar-sharks, crocodile backscratchers and James Frey all make cameos. And andrea makes "a confession a poet probably shouldn't make" in her opening reply. What more could you want from us, people? Right, holograms. Next time, I promise. Until then: get reading!

New Technology #2: Obama Spy Drone.
Taken as andrea forded a creek in Utah.

Rob: The majority of the poems in Canoodlers are prose poems - to the point where I was a bit thrown off each time I encountered a line break. What is it about prose poems that you are drawn to? When writing do you find you have a default style/shape that all your poems start in (i.e. everything starts as a prose poem, but some change, or?), and if so, has that default changed over the years?

andrea: I used to write tiny opaque little poems. One of the first poems I ever had published, in The Antigonish Review, was maybe 20 words. I had a habit of writing song poems too, not because I have any musical talent whatsoever, but because I lived for awhile in Guelph, and my friends there were mostly musicians - I used to be very involved with the Kazoo! collective, and I loved those people and that time in my life.

Prose poetry became my metier when I started grad school. This was partially because what I wanted to do with my poetry was capture the rhythm and cadence of the way people spoke in my hometown, and partially because I wanted the interconnections between the words and the images in the poems to be subtle and embedded, rather than polished bright at the beginning or end of a line.

Here's a confession a poet probably shouldn't make: I can't hear metre the way that some people are able to hear metre. It's not a black and white thing to me. I talk funny, slow and clipped, and my family is from England and Jamaica, and I grew up in Hamilton, and to me, the way people speak is so variable that I don't get standard metre. So every time I try to write a sonnet sequence, it ends up morphing into prose poetry. ("A Week in the House of What Repute" started off as a seven-sonnet sequence, for example, and turned into a long prose-poem during the editing process because it worked better, and was easier to edit, that way.) I don't have the gall to fail at formal poetry anywhere past the first draft stage. Occasionally I'll write a poem that works best with line breaks, but I'm never 100% sure about it.


Rob: It's always good to get those big confessions out of the way right off the bat, isn't it? Now we can take a deep breath and move on to the really serious topics, like Florida. Florida plays a prominent role in a number of these poems. What is your personal relationship to the place, and when you think about it now, does it resonate for you more as a symbol/idea, or as a real, tangible place? What does writing about Florida allow you to talk about in your poems, which would otherwise remain inaccessible?

andrea: Just yesterday, my partner Will and I were watching some TV show about people who purchase their own islands, and there was a couple who bought a house on stilts on a small island off Florida for a super-reasonable price - like $400,000 or something. (Living in Vancouver makes that seem like a steal, no?). Will said, when I was visibly excited about mimicking this couple's choices, that there was no way he'd live in a red state. I corrected him: Florida is a swing state. Florida is a wild card. It's a Swiss-cheese sinkhole. It can be a violent, and awful, and racist place - and I personally feel like Disneyworld is the most depressing place on earth - but it is also a place where the world's weirdest people can congregate and feel okay about themselves. Example: the last time I visited my snowbird Nana in Port Charlotte, Florida, I was training for a half-marathon. I went to a gym for my long run and my gym-mates that day included an 80-year-old man in a three-piece suit on a treadmill, a 50-year-old bodybuilder woman with a full-face snake tattoo, and a young man with a rainbow mohawk wearing a vintage weight belt.

My personal relationship to Florida is that my grandparents bought a manufactured house in a gated park for old people in Port Charlotte when I was a kid. My nuclear family did not have a lot of money, but my grandparents did help us fly or drive down to Florida to visit in the winter. My grandparents were a very, very important part of my young life, so being in their home was a reminder for me that I was loved, and that everything would be okay. On top of that, Florida was so different than Ontario - like someone had turned the colour dial up on the TV that was my life. Hot-pink ibises, green crocodiles, turquoise water, trees and vines and creatures everywhere. Giant flea markets. Baby sharks in jars. Crocodile backscratchers. Weird, simultaneous reminders of life and death, just everywhere. I'm not sure, exactly, if that comes through in the poems, but that sums up the practical and symbolic backdrop of the poems set in Florida.

"All you need to know about gators" also deals with a different kind of (in)accessibility. I'm estranged from my mother, and we always had an intense and fraught relationship, and I spent much of the first part of my life just trying to understand who she was. One way I did this was to surreptitiously interrogate my grandparents, when I had them to myself. "All you need to know about gators" takes place after my grandfather passed away; it was probably the last time, and the most straightforward time, I tried to press my Nana for information.


Rob: Yes, that all comes through (though I could have used a few more jar-shark references throughout). Another dominant theme in Canoodlers is food, though it dominates from the periphery. Food and the making of food sneaks in as simile ("You can put your fingers on the feelings // like you can put your fingers into the cake", p. 52), and metaphor ("I am baking, says summer", p. 18), and background noise ("Meanwhile we're watching a marathon special of the celebrity chef cooking show", p. 51), while most often not being the the central theme of the poem. The food that sneaks in is most often of the fast and commercial variety - Waffle Cones and Cracker Jacks and "eating only pizza every meal" (49). All of this seems to align very well with North American food culture, where food is in many ways our obsession, but at the same time is not given due attention or care (and skyrocketing-off go our obesity rates): food is everywhere and nowhere; it's all we care about and it's not worth our time.

Could you speak a bit about the role of food in the book, and its connection with the emotional themes in Canoodlers? Similar to my question about Florida, what did talking about food allow you to get at that you couldn't address directly?

andrea: Appetite, consumption, compulsion, shame, desire - all of these things are wrapped up in food, for me, and food is a way to get at these things sideways. North American food culture is such a complex thing. Quinoa and soy versus Oreo and hot dogs - whether you're a Whole Foods-shopping vegan or a vegetable-eschewing McDonald's eater, you probably can't avoid making some ethically dicey choices, and your choices are also, probably, bound up in your class position. Moreover, we have a tendency to equate food with bodies, in the sense that your body is a physical manifestation of your choices. If you're fat, especially if you're a fat woman, it's hard not to internalize that as some kind of moral failing. The food-themed poems are, I think, a way for me to get at who I am, and where I'm at, and what undercurrents are pulling me out to sea. Sometimes I make the poems first-person plural, or a cheeky second-person, because I think these feelings are somewhat common.



Rob: The back cover of Canoodlers features three blurbs, and two of them make a common observation. Rhea Tregebov suggests the poems in the book "carry an absolute authenticity", while John Paul Fiorentino says "There is an impressive authenticity... in these poems." "Authentic" is not a word I've seen used to describe poetry books too often, and there it is - back to back - on your book jacket!

It got me thinking, what does "authentic" mean? Is it simply a code for "non-fiction", assessed at the Oprah Winfrey/James Frey level? Is it about having a voice that sounds "real," regardless of the subject matter? Or does it necessarily have to be both, the alignment of "truth" and a "real" voice? And then on top of that there is the whole hornets nest of felt truth v. literal truth. My point being: the word confounded me, even while at the same time instinctually feeling accurate in regards to your collection.

I wonder then how you feel when you hear people describe your book as "authentic". What do you interpret it to mean? How do you think telling people your book is "authentic" might affect how it's read and received? Does it matter to you if people think the poems in the book are "true" or not?

andrea: Ooh, all good questions. I wonder if "authentic" has something to do with class? Like some of the poems are quite blunt and straightforward on the surface, and I've consciously incorporated colloquialisms. Maybe that's the "real" voice you're mentioning. Maybe it is a nice way of saying "unsophisticated" :).

The poems in Canoodlers are mostly non-fiction, but they play a little fast and loose in the way that I probably wouldn't in a prose memoir - a few characters are composite characters, a few names have been changed. (Nothing approaching the James Frey variety of truth-stretching.) Most everything in the book comes directly from my life, and I've tried to be honest about myself as a character and a narrator.

I think people approach non-fiction with a different set of expectations than fiction, so in that way I'd prefer that readers have a sense that the events in the poems are "true." I think Fred Wah's Diamond Grill plays with these expectations of truth and autobiography in a super-interesting way, and that book, as well as the film True Stories, were both methods of story-telling I had in mind when I was writing Canoodlers.

When people describe my book as "authentic," I guess, overall, I accept that description. Like oh, okay, if there are a handful of people saying that, then that's a reader reception I should pay some attention to.


Rob: As a younger writer who both has her first book out and is active in the publishing world (through your work with PRISM international, Geist, CWILA and more), you seem to be in a prime position to give younger writers advice about navigating their way to their first book. If you had one piece of advice to give an aspiring young poet about that journey, what would it be? Are there any common pieces of advice out there that you think aren't actually that helpful, or perhaps that have become irrelevant as technology has altered the publishing world?

andrea: Ha ha. I'm turning thirty this year, so I guess I am a youngish writer, but as a human being I'm finally seriously considering a lot of life choice things like marriage and kids and financial responsibility. (I tried out taking on more financial responsibility this year, in the form of owning a car and living in a nice, spacious apartment, and it was not a fit.) That comprises my first point of advice to young writers: prioritize your writing, and understand that that might be somewhat painful on the "life" front: maybe your childhood and university friends will be buying houses, and celebrating career milestones, and you'll be like, "What's a career?" and "How am I scraping rent together next month?"

Maybe you have rich/supportive parents, and all the power to you. Maybe you don't. It's still worth taking the risk. You're a smart person. If the writing thing doesn't work out, you can always take some college classes that focus on concrete skills and insert yourself into some kind of profession where people get health benefits. (Is this depressing? Sorry. I have a friend who is a doctor and a poet. If you can balance a career you love with your poetry-writing, you are amazing!)

I think the journey to a first poetry book is in some ways the same as it has always been: work hard on your writing and find your community. In some ways it's easier now, because you can make friends with writers you admire on Twitter, rather than just reading their work from afar and hoping to maybe run into them at a conference or a festival. Also, it has been helpful for me to be knowledgeable about my field. It has definitely been helpful to be involved with magazines and literary journals - you get to see a side of the process you wouldn't see otherwise, and you get to feel truly connected to publishing. Lastly, introduce yourself to writers whose work you admire in respect, either over email, or in person. Be a little gutsy about it.


Be gutsy. Follow andrea on Twitter. And pick up a copy of Canoodlers from your local bookstore, or from the Nightwood Editions website or Amazon. You won't be disappointed.

6/28/2014

critics + community

John Oliver: As a comedian, you should not be in rooms where the people you're making fun of also are, because you'll realize at the end of the day, they're just people. You can't risk having that kind of compassion infect your mission to attack. So no, yeah - so my solution to that is not to curb my jokes. It's to not put myself in the same room as the consequences of those jokes.

Terry Gross: But that means with every year that you're doing satirical comedy, there are fewer rooms you can enter.

John Oliver: Yeah, but that's what you're supposed to be. A comedian is supposed to be an outsider. You're supposed to be outside, looking in. I don't want to be at parties in D.C. with politicians. The comedians shouldn't be there. If you feel comfortable in a room like that, there's a big problem.

That's what's so concerning about when you see journalists so comfortable around politicians. That's a red flag. There should be a kind of awkward tension whenever a journalist walks into a room that politicians are in, 'cause you should have done things that have annoyed them in the past. And the same as a comedian - you're no one's friend. You should be no one's friend, other than other comedians.

- Comedian John Oliver, in coversation with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. You can read the whole transcript here.



Jason Guriel: I was never much for readings and launches. To the extent I take part in a “literary community,” it’s usually in the manner of the catapult: fiery, I hope, but from afar.

The very first book I ever received to review felt like an affront. Before I realized it, I’d filed some pretty tough prose. Was this a choice? I’m pretty sure I couldn’t help myself; I’m pretty sure I still can’t. Chris Wiman, who used to edit Poetry, said somewhere that young reviewers will shoot blindly from the hip for awhile, before they realize the damage they’re doing to themselves professionally. “[S]weet’s the air with curling smoke/ From all my burning bridges,” is how Dorothy Parker put it. But “damage” is probably an overstatement. Unless they have their sights set on tenure or some other prize, poetry reviewers hardly need worry about a track record; they’re not Supreme Court nominees, whose least opinion might come back to haunt them.

They should be worried about being unduly influenced. Once, at a launch, I met a guy whose book I was set to review. The guy was alright. Turns out the book wasn’t. Needless to say, that was a hard review to write.

Don’t get me wrong; I have a few friends who happen to be writers, and I do make it to the odd reading. But I’m not sure I understand what people hope to get from participating in a “literary community.” I’m not sure “community” is even an inherently positive goal. Like the buzz word “dialogue,” it’s often an excuse for groupthink. Writers should be focused on their work, on impressing editors and netting readers—not networking with their peers.

- Poet and Critic Jason Guriel, in conversation with Jess Taylor over at The Town Crier. You can read the whole thing here.



IN SUMMARY:




6/27/2014

poets with stuff

If it's not desks or cats or sex memes, it's trees, apparently. Behold:

Poets Touching Trees

In the battle for which is weirder: poets or the internet, I'm calling this one a draw.

6/20/2014

Matthew Zapruder's advice to young writers

Stick together. Surround yourself with others who read and write and are serious about their work. Talk about what you are writing, and reading, not about superficialities. Beware of business language (network, project), those things are inimical to true creative work. Be as kind and honest as possible to your peers, and generous and respectful with your elders, who have been through more than you know, though you will. Behave with dignity. Support each other in your inevitable struggles. Go deep into your books, and emerge with something we need to read.

- Matthew Zapruder, in conversation with Bükem Reitmayer over at the Pop Montreal website. You can read the whole thing here.

6/16/2014

not opinions but conclusions - "Night Vision" by Christopher Levenson

An die Musik (excerpt from "Vox Humana") - Christopher Levenson

On the overnight express from Helsinki to Rovaniemi the engine’s smoke tangled in moonlight, billowing over half-seen forests and meadows, the train’s steady sway and shudder accompanied by a crescendo of women’s voices from the next coach, singing hymns to ward off the darkness. A church choir maybe, or some evangelical group. I never saw them but this, my first night in Finland, not knowing the language I let their harmonies bear me along to my unknown destination. So too, near Sarajevo, sitting alone under shade trees in a beer garden with a sucking pig roasting over an open pit and a tankard to hand, I heard a folk singer, her voice rising above the hubbub of traffic, small talk at the neighbouring tables with sounds I had never imagined before, a voice distilled from mute centuries of hidden suffering and hints of a darkness about to begin again. And fifteen years back in Jaiselmer, at the edge of the Thar desert, a wizened cross-legged man coaxed from his one-string fiddle for me, sole auditor, a far, unheard of music, his cracked voice singing along. Wherever I go, Romania, Hungary the music follows. These moments lodge in unexplored reaches of memory, mingle with the citizens’ choruses in Boris Gudonov, plainchant at Tewkesbury Abbey, campfire songs after the floods in Zeeland, everywhere we sense them, these subterranean wells. It is the human voice claims us, world music telling us we are one beyond language, and for a while at least, can abandon our sadness for joy.
from Night Vision
(Quattro Books, 2014).
Reprinted with permission.

You know your interview series has made it when you start interviewing people with their own Wikipedia pages. And just as surely, you know you've made it as a poet when T.S. Eliot, Henry Moore, and Bonamy Dobrée award a prize to your first book. That's what happened to Christopher Levenson's debut In Transit (Eyre & Spottiswoode), which won the Eric Gregory Award in 1959. At 25, still living in his homeland of England, Christopher's career was officially launched, and he hasn't slowed down since.

In the intervening 65 years, Christopher has published ten more books, including Archibald Lampman award winner Arriving at Night (Mosaic Press, 1986), and two chapbooks. He's also studied at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, moved to Canada, taught at Carleton University in Ottawa, founded the Harbinger Poetry Series (an imprint of Carleton University Press), and published poems in just about every magazine on god's green earth.

Oh, and in 1978 he co-founded a little magazine called Arc Poetry Magazine. Ever heard of it? If not, I can show you a few dozen rejection slips sent straight from the CanPo mothership to my mailbox.

Lastly, Christopher is now working with me as one of the co-coordinators of Vancouver's Dead Poets Reading Series. I assume he lists this as his greatest accomplishment.

Christopher's latest (eleventh) book is Night Vision, which was published earlier this year by Quattro Books. His launch in May including a fascinating Q+A with Ken Klonsky, from whom I stole a number of top-notch questions for this interview.

I electronically sat down with Christopher and we chatted about Night Vision, political poetry, place names, and why continental Europe is way more interesting than England. I hope you enjoy!

Christopher Levenson, giving you some privacy
while you drool over his exquisite library.

Rob: "An die Musik," titled after the Schubert song of the same name, is one of four parts of the long poem, "Vox Humana", which is one of my favourite poems in Night Vision. The poem in its entirety feels like a world tour of song, and through that, an exploration of our common human voice (hence the title, I suspect!). Could you speak a bit about the composition of the poem? Had you always envisioned it as one poem in four parts, or did you stitch the four parts together later in the process, or? Did you widen the scope of the poem as you wrote it out?

Christopher: I'm glad you like "Vox Humana": it's one of the most positive poems in a book that my publishers decided was 'too dark' to be released, as originally planned, before Christmas. The title originated many years ago when I saw a stop on an organ named Vox Humana because that pipe allegedly sounds like the human voice.

As for the four parts, I wrote the first, "The Rehearsal," after the League of Canadian Poets AGM in Winnipeg, where one of the League's founders, Gerald Lampert, died of a massive heart attack during the weekend. A friend, the originally-US poet, Claude Liman, who lived at that time in Thunder Bay and taught at Lakehead U., drove myself and two others back from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay where I stayed with him for another day or two. The second section, "Venasque", was also originally a separate poem. It was written after a visit (from Bristol, England) to Blauvac, a tiny village in Provence, either in 1962 or '63. The third section,"Fado" was originally a separate poem, written long after a visit (from Germany, where I was then working) to Portugal in 1960.

It was years later that I thought of combining these three poems under its present title and wrote the concluding section, "An die Musik," tying them together. So yes, I did widen the scope of the poem as I realized what they all had in common. For the record, I cannot, alas, read music or play a musical instrument, though since coming to Vancouver I have joined two choirs and, as one or two other poems in the book (e.g. "Tafelmusik" and the basic reference in "One Fine Day") suggest, music, especially classical and folk music, has become increasingly important to me as an emotional resource.



Rob: Ha! I wouldn't classify the book as "too dark", but I can see how a few of the poems might not mesh with "Christmas cheer". Most of these would be the "political" poems from the first two sections of Night Vision (poems on war, our current environmental destruction, the state of our modern media, etc.). I've found, speaking very generally here, that such themes are out of fashion these days among lyric poets (though the number of poets grappling with climate change does seem to be rising sharply with the sea level), and it was refreshing to see you taking them on here. Would you classify many of the poems in Night Vision as "political poems"?

Christopher: I have long been interested in the whole concept of political poetry, and I would certainly agree that many of the poems, especially in the first two sections of Night Vision, are what I would call political poems. And yes, these poems do attempt subjects that have fallen out of favour either with poets or with editors, or maybe both. Two at least of my three favourite poets, Yeats and Robert Lowell, wrote many poems that could be called political, and the third, Andrew Marvell, in his Horatian Ode on Cromwell, wrote one of the best political poems ever.

I am intermittently in the throes of writing an article on "political" poetry which, I agree with you, involves war, environmental destruction, privacy vs security, etc. - in short all those issues in which an individual is reacting as an individual not to another single individual but to some sort of collective body: a tribe, a village, a government (though as Margaret Atwood shows in her early book Power Politics, the term can of course be extended also to personal relations).


Rob: What do you think that it takes to make a political poem successful? A successful environmental poem?

Christopher: For me the crux of the matter is in Yeats' dictum "Out of my argument with others, I create rhetoric; out of my argument with myself, poetry." When you argue with others, it is in order to persuade them of the rightness of your own views, judgements, etc. You know at the start what you believe or "know." But, to quote my other favourite dictum from Roethke, "I learn by going where I have to go." Poetry implies searching, discovery, and the problem with most would-be political poetry is that it is politics before it is poetry: the poet knows in advance where s/he wants to go, so there is no discovery, no surprise.

There is tremendous pressure on poets at times like, say, the Vietnam war, to speak out, in favour of, or against certain policies, but these should be resisted. Poetry does not comment. Sometimes in the context of the whole poem, it can affirm something, as the result of a personal individualized experience. This is what Auden does in "Refugee Blues" (where he adopts the persona of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany) or "September 1st, 1939" or best of all in "The Shield of Achilles". He describes, evokes a situation, but lets the facts speak for themselves.

So here, as in Yeats' "Easter 1916" and in the later Yeats, poems such as "Meditations in Time of Civil War", "A Prayer for my Daughter", or "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen", it all starts from, and carries conviction because of, the personal experience, the individual perspective. And the same is true of Lowell's "For the Union Dead".

Poetry precludes slogans and any kind of formula, so that what emerges from the poems are not opinions but conclusions, "findings", arrived at over the course of a lifetime and thus carrying more weight than an opinion, which could be just a momentary thing.

As for the environment, I am reminded of a cartoon I once saw: two politicians gazing out of a window at a political rally, being addressed by a candidate, with a banner behind him saying "Save the Planet". One of the politicians is saying "I can't stand these single issue candidates." We have enough photojournalists and political commentators. The destruction of our habitat, our world, cannot simply be catalogued and condemned, it must be imagined if worthwhile poetry is to result.


Rob: The eponymous first section of Night Vision deals with war, both past and present. A consistent theme throughout that section is a focus on saying and listing out place names: repeating and repeating and turning over the names of sites of violence. Could you speak a bit about what the names of these places mean for you? What is contained in the names? What isn't?

Christopher: The main point of the plethora of names, which are of course drawn from widely different periods of history and geographical regions, is to stress the pervasiveness and continuity of such violence, and so to give equal time to the atrocities we have committed against others (Hiroshima, Dresden, My Lai) as to the atrocities "we" have suffered.

In the third stanza of "Stations" the twelve stations mentioned could also be seen as the Stations of the Cross, which would then link up with the Ash Wednesday ash rising from the crematoria at Auschwitz in the last line. And I would like it if the occasional reader were to ask, "What happened at Sakriet? Or at Babi Yar?"

We tend to remember only our own wars. Maybe I overdo it? I don't know. But I do feel strongly that poets need to be aware of such things even if they never write a poem about them or allude to them in imagery.


Rob: No, you don't overdo it at all! As a poet with a BA in History and Geography, I found it to be a very valuable element of the book! Keeping on a geographic theme: a number of poems near the end of the book are about your returning to your childhood home of England after many years away (46, by my count, since you left England for Canada). During your most recent visit, what stood out for you as the most profound change the country has experienced during your absence? What most stayed the same?

Christopher: Although I have a strong sense of attachment to Lancaster and to the countryside around it where I spent three crucial (for me) years during WWII, and likewise to Bristol, which is my favourite English city, where I lived also for three years (1961-1964), I don't think I am sentimental about English life as such. Early on, perhaps because we had a number of foreign friends, some of them refugees, and because my father was born in France, I was painfully conscious of, and annoyed by, the insularity of most of my fellow countrymen. Thanks to the EU, the Channel Tunnel and easier, cheaper travel abroad this is much less true now. Anyway, what I miss most is Europe as a whole rather than specifically Britain. Ideally, if I had the money I would spend five months every year in Europe, probably based in Amsterdam or Berlin, and the remaining seven months in Canada, but that's not going to happen.

What I miss is the haphazard way villages, towns and cities grew and acquired a patina over centuries. One finds this only very seldom in North America in places like Quebec City or Santa Fe: most North American cities did not just happen over time but were planned, organized, not organic - this is part of the point of the long poem "Habitat". And although I would have been among the downtrodden peasants, I do like castles and Country Houses, as well as stone walls and old stone bridges. So, getting back to England, the aspects that have not changed are mainly rural, the villages and small towns, but with the advent of the motorways in the 1970s came a homogenization that I can't relate to. The trouble is with the exception of three weeks in 2005, our visits to England nowadays are mostly brief stopovers en route to or from Europe, so it's difficult to form more than fleeting impressions.


Rob: Similar to that last question, I wonder if your return to England, where you developed your original style as a writer and had early success, caused you to reflect on the development of your own poetry? How has your writing style (and subject matter) changed in the 46 years you've spent living in Canada? And how much of that do you attribute to your continental shift?

Christopher: The main change to my poetry came not in Canada, but in the four years preceding (1964-68) when I was at the Iowa Writers Workshop. With people like Donald Justice as my mentors, my poetry gradually became less formal both metrically and in terms of diction. For the first time since adolescence, I was able to use "I" unselfconsciously and without Yeatsian posturing. I felt I could be myself in my poetry. This sense was increased but not initiated when I came to Canada and got to know the poetry of Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy, Alden Nowlan, Miriam Waddington, John Thompson and Pat Lowther. Editing Arc, running the Arc reading series in Ottawa, and becoming series editor for the Harbinger imprint (for first books of poetry) of the late Carleton University Press also contributed to my sense of becoming a Canadian poet, not an ex-pat Brit.

I've always been concerned about the way a poem sounds, but recently I have become more conscious of assonance and internal rhymes and breaking away from the iambic line. As for thematic changes, the examples of Williams' Paterson and Dennis Lee's Civil Elegies have focused my mind on ideas of what a city and being a citizen of a city mean, at least in part as a positive against the negative forces of chaos and violence. And then of course over the last ten years or so I have naturally become more conscious of what aging entails.


If you want to prove to Christopher that one of the things aging entails is increased book sales, you can pick up a copy of Night Vision from your local bookstore, or from the Quattro Books website or Amazon.

6/14/2014

the creative imagination is survival equipment

I’d say that most people would probably agree that language is two-sided. It helps human beings perform feats of creative consciousness; it also sets them apart from the natural world, licences them to condescend to nature. As an imaginative involvement in language as opposed to a utilitarian exploitation of language, poetry plays a magical role in ushering people into their bodies and, at the same time, into the spiritual realm. It can put the rational analytical ego in abeyance and re-align human beings with nature. I’d say that the creative imagination is survival equipment — biological and spiritual. It appears that intelligence alone hasn’t stopped human beings from ruining the natural world. The language of great poetry enacts and embodies a vision that mends the rifts between human consciousness and nature — rifts that, paradoxically and tragically, humanity has set up with the aid of language that sustains the dominance of the ego.

What is the purpose of literature anyway? I ask myself: Doesn’t it define the ongoing human relationship with nature, the cosmos, the other-than-the-ego? To mention again the Prometheus myth: it’s one of the earliest stories, yet it functions as powerfully today as it must have in Greece in 500 B.C.: as a precise imaginative comment on human hubris. For me, it’s the same hubris that may allow the Canadian government to send immense tankers full of bitumen down the BC coast when Enbridge admits that there’s a 10% chance of tanker accidents that will result in spills. And bitumen, unlike oil and gas, cannot be cleaned up. The authentic poet, for me, puts him or herself on a cross, so to speak, at the juncture of different discourses, the rational and the imaginative, to illuminate the human predicament.

- Russell Thornton, in conversation with Elena E. Johnson over at Event Magazine. You can read the whole thing here.

July Dead Poets Reading Series Lineup Announced

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch on July 13th, 2014, from 3-5 PM. It will feature:

Hart Crane (1899 - 1932), read by Mariner Janes
Norman MacCaig (1910 - 1996), read by Christopher Levenson
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950), read by Jennica Harper
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 - 1926), read by Jeff Steudel
George Whipple (1927 - 2014), read by Eileen Kernaghan

It's a heckuva lineup on all fronts, and I'm sorry that I'll have to miss it (but traveling in Europe will have to do as consolation).

Attendance is free, and the reading will start more-or-less promptly (hard to believe, I know!). You can get more information on the DPRS website.

6/04/2014

this may wind up ruining the earth

Samantha Ainsworth: Your writing surprises the reader with visceral, gritty elements and is non-apologetic to the squeamish. Can you speak about this aspect of truth-telling, and the importance of being true to oneself?

A.F. Moritz: It’s good of you to take such a golden attitude towards this aspect. I often find myself glancing ahead through a poem I’m planning to read to an audience, and thinking, “Uh oh, maybe I’d better turn the page, or at least give an advance warning: X-rated”. There’s a poem of Hardy’s in which he’s responding to the charge of pessimism he always received, and he says that to see the best “exacts a full look at the worst.” Czeslaw Milosz says in one of his poems, “What has no shadow has no strength to live.” Well, everything has shadow, but human cussedness can and does try to eliminate it from the things under our control, and succeeds in doing so, for a time and to the extent possible.

This may wind up ruining the earth. At the very least, one can get a bowdlerized life. In the streets: death hidden away behind walls or moved to elsewhere. But everyone will have to face it. The only choice is whether you do it willingly or you refuse until dragged to it by time and events, and even then closing your eyes. This is a choice between living your existence and trying not to.

In books: the evil and the problematic can be left out, or, more frequently, changed into a cartoon reduction, and one result of this is a picture of human triumph that is a joke, because everyone can see that the resolutions come against paper tigers and straw men. The other result, which culturally we suffer from very badly today, is a constant fishtailing between ridiculous extremes. First, a reduced art that only pretends to address reality. Then, in reaction, an enraged art so hungry to shout sex and violence that it thinks that’s enough. Then, back to the cute and clean. And so it goes.


- A.F. Moritz, in interview with Samantha Ainsworth for The Malahat Review. You can read the full interview here.