reality is just a menace

Curtis Fox: Was [writing the poem “Having My Cards Read”] a conscious attempt to go capture a very particular experience?

W.S. Di Piero: Sure. It’s just that a “particular experience” for me is always complicated, and usually conflicted. I guess my dream experience would be a pure, unconflicted tonality.

CF: “A pure, unconflicted tonality”. What do you mean by that?

WSDP: I keep aspiring toward a certain type of simplicity that I seem never quite able to achieve.

CF: Because reality intrudes?

WSDP: Reality is just a menace. And to honour experience, to honour the real, means to constantly allow that menace into my consciousness when I’m making poems.

- W.S. Di Piero, in interview with Curtis Fox for the Poetry Off the Shelf podcast. You can listen to the whole thing here.


TOSOO Photo Contest - Week 8, "Computer Monitor Ekphrasis"

"Abstract" by © David Jez

Results are in from the eighth (and final) week of the TOSOO photo contest are in. I suspected the photos from this week, inspired by my poem "Computer Monitor Ekphrasis", to be a little weird - but I didn't expect them to be weird in almost exactly the same way, as demonstrated by these two really cool photos by David Jez (above) and Carissa D'andrade (below).

"Archetypes stay few….Red and green and blue" by © Carissa D'Andrade

That's it! Thank you so much to everyone who submitted photos over the last two months. We're now less than 24 hrs away from the big event where we'll be discussing TOSOO, celebrating all of these photos, and awarding prizes to the winners!

The poster, in case you've somehow missed it so far:

You can RSVP here. I hope to see you tomorrow!


wordworks interview

I'm thrilled to have been interviewed by Daniela Elza for the latest issue of the Federation of BC Writers' Wordworks magazine. The e-issue, completely devoted to BC poetry, is a first for Wordworks as they move the magazine from the print world to the digital one. The issue features interviews with, and writing by, Evelyn Lau, Heidi Greco, Tom Wayman, Sean Arthur Joyce, Christine Leclerc, Renee Saklikar, Bonnie Nish, Gillian Wigmore, Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Kim Goldberg, and more!

The whole thing can be downloaded as a PDF file here (my interview is on pages 30-33). It may take a couple minutes to download, but it's worth the wait.

If you're too damn impatient for that (and yet patient enough to read my interview?), I've copied my contribution below. But please do read through the full issue when you get the chance.

Thanks to Daniela for the interview, and to Daniela, Margo Lamont and Susan Greig for editing, compiling and designing the issue. One must be a cat-herder par excellence to pull together an all-poetry issue of anything - so congrats, you three!

Where the Any-Angled Light Congregates - An interview with Rob Taylor

Daniela Elza: What started you writing?

Rob Taylor: I certainly didn’t choose it consciously. I wanted to be a politician, but questioned how much of myself I’d have to sacrifice to fit the role. A similar logic nixed any chance of following in my father’s footsteps as a United Church minister. Then I spent a good while (and a Bachelor’s Degree) deciding not to be a historian, at least not directly. Through it all, poems and poets began accumulating in my mind: Al Purdy, WC Williams, Jack Gilbert, John Newlove. My own poems followed, fairly naturally. Then one day I had a book. In hindsight it seems like a natural progression – my political, spiritual, and historical concerns have all found a place of congregation, and articulation, in poetry.

DE: Who are your mentors, inspiration?

RT: My mother has taught me the most, followed closely by my wife. My father is in there too, though he died when I was only 12, so his lessons have become mythologized, for better or worse.

Aislinn Hunter has had the greatest influence on my writing, both via her own work (especially her 2006 collection The Possible Past) and her personal advice and guidance. A number of other writers have generously granted me some of their time and insight at one point or another along the way, and I am grateful to them all.

As for inspirations, the list would be hopelessly long and convoluted. Let’s just summarize it as “everything I can remember.” Oh, and the things I’ve forgotten. They’re probably in there somehow, too.

DE: How long have you been writing?

RT: The first poems in my notebooks date from late 2000, though I didn’t publish anything until 2004 and didn’t have the guts to introduce myself as a writer until my book came out in 2011.

DE: In her book Little Eurekas, when talking about teaching poetry, Robyn Sarah says: “It's as if poetry were a virus, and school exposure a mass vaccination program. A small dose in elementary school, a booster in high school, and you're immune for life. The tiny minority who contract the virus from the vaccine can go onto university programs and learn, from senior fellow-carriers, how to keep it under control through a regimen of critical theory.” What part did school play in your relationship with poetry?

RT: More-or-less the virus scenario as described by Robyn — Little Eurekas is an excellent book, by the way. I did have one fantastic poetry teacher in high school though: Marja Van Gaalen. I still left high school with no serious interest in poetry, but she helped ensure I was receptive enough to poetry that it might have a chance to influence my life further down the road. I owe her a great deal for that.

I wasn’t part of the “tiny minority” that took English or Creative Writing at university. I was, however, negatively affected by starting to write while on campus (pursuing my History degree). I developed an “academic” understanding of the writing community, filled with structures and hierarchies, and based upon advancement through intellectual competition. Thank goodness I eventually graduated and came to my senses.

DE: What is your writing process? Where do you write best?

RT: I write out my first few drafts by hand in a notebook, until I feel like I’ve made most of the major edits and the poem’s general structure is set. Then I type it up on the computer for the endless punctuation-enjambment-word-choice fiddling that inevitably follows.
I write more during the day and edit more at night, though if I’m really chasing down a poem I’ll do it all in one go. For me, it doesn’t matter so much where I write as where my mind is when I write. I need to be focused and clear-headed. I find this incredibly hard to do living in the middle of an easily-distracted and easily-distracting city and culture. I think this is part of the reason why I find myself writing less, and reading, editing, blogging, etc. more, as those are creative enterprises I can undertake while partially distracted.

The more I think about it, the more I realise I should probably move. Or unplug my router, at least.

DE: Is there something about your writing process that you think is unique?

RT: No, though I haven’t spied on enough writers to have a good representative sample.

DE: What is your favourite word?

RT: I use “perhaps” a lot. Poetry is all “perhaps,” isn’t it? I don’t think I have a favourite word, though. I have writer’s block these days, and the words aren’t getting along with one another. Why pick a favourite and risk having jealousy drive them further apart?

DE: What inspired your book?

RT: My poems kept looking up at me like prisoners in isolation cells. They’d rattle tin cups back and forth on the metal bars. I told them that there were many others just like them, but they didn’t believe me. To prove it, I set them all loose in a manuscript, which is sort of like an exercise yard for poems. That manuscript eventually became The Other Side of Ourselves. I check in on them from time to time – they seem much happier now that they have company. I think they might be putting together a baseball team.

DE: In an interview with Michael Hingston (Too Many Books in the Kitchen blog) you said, on writing poems: “But if you keep at it this, miraculous things happen: people read your work, take it into themselves, and turn it into something more beautiful and mysterious than you ever could have imagined on your own.” I have often been surprised with the way my poems speak to others, which has made me think a lot about how a poem means. What does a poem say? And who is it saying it to?

RT: When I think about the question of what a poem says, and to who, and how it transforms itself from reader to reader, I always return to those lines from Larkin’s poem, “Water” -- “And I should raise in the east / A glass of water / Where any-angled light / Would congregate endlessly.” I think of how the light is both gathering in the glass from all directions, and also refracting through the glass in all directions (one such direction being towards the eye of the speaker). Poems function much the same way, and I think that’s part of what Larkin was getting at. I write a poem with myriad intentions, and a reader comes to a poem with myriad expectations. Reading a poem involves a constant shaping and reshaping of those expectations. It’s a process that is partly in the author’s control, partly in the readers’, and partly hidden away in their individual subconsciouses. Personal history, familiarity with references and language, mood, breadth of previous reading, etc., etc., all modify the experience on both ends.

What’s really wonderful to me about Larkin’s particular metaphor is that the “things” doing all the work are light and water – these fundamental elements we so often take for granted because of their simplicity, or “obviousness.” I feel the same is true for poetry, that those subjects in poems that are the most basic are also the most resonant (cast off the most “many angled” light).

I can’t tell you with certainty, then, what one of my poems says, or to whom it might reach. All I can do is craft the glass, pour in the water, hold it up to the light, and hope a ray or two flash out all the way to the reader.

DE: Words are inadequate to translate being. When we lend ourselves to work on a poem what are we hoping for?

RT: That this compromise with our limitations still fosters enough of a connection to justify the effort. Writing a poem is an attempt to create an intimate connection (via a “mass” medium) with someone, or many someones, the author has never met. In other words, it’s an attempt to push one’s circle of communion beyond the normal limits of one’s partner, family, close friends. An attempt to widen empathy and pathos, not only among people, but across time. To bridge generations, centuries. Shakespeare’s sonnets are still busily at work doing just that.

DE: Which word do you most overuse?

RT: “Perhaps” (see above). I’ve been accused of liking the run-on sentence too much (many of my poems are one long sentence), so maybe “and” as well.

DE: What pet peeves do you have regarding writing, revising, publishing?

RT: How long it takes for a poem to go from composition to publication; publishers whose catalogues are full for three-plus years; and magazines that take 18-plus months to reply to a submission. The internet is slowly changing this via online submission forms and *gasp* self-publishing.

I should add, though—in order to undercut everything I just said—that I do think there is value to the slowness.

It sets the appropriate tone: poetry isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme, and writing shouldn’t be a passing whim: you better be ready to commit to drudgery and heartache, and still love it so much that it’s worth it, or you shouldn’t bother starting out.

As the internet makes the submission and publication processes faster, I won’t be surprised to see a “slow publishing” backlash. I’ve heard of a magazine, for instance, that moved to an electronic submission system but later abandoned it because of the amount of really terrible poetry they began receiving. Still, a world without SASEs sounds pretty wonderful to me.

DE: What keeps you awake at night?

RT: Thinking up answers to Q+As. My neighbour’s metronomic dog. Generic existential dread.

DE: Now that the book has been out for a year and you have sold out of the first print run and have unleashed the second run on the world—looking back on the past year, what thoughts, concerns, dreads, joys, anxieties, celebrations are you co-habiting with?

RT: Well, I love my book. I see its flaws, a little more with every reading. But more so, every reading I see anew those things I truly love about it, which is always a pleasant surprise.

After a year of external feedback on the book, I’ve come away with the sense that there is only a small overlap between your work and what is said about it: the hype, the reviews (good or bad), the comments from readers and listeners, etc. The noise that comes with a book is as much about the reader as it is the writer (Larkin’s any-angled light, again), and is often a repetition or amplification of the noise someone else made, instead of deriving from a close engagement with the text. This isn’t always the case, thank goodness.

Realizing that my book, and all books, are consumed and discussed this way was a bit disorienting (What is that person talking about? Did I say/do that, or is that just them? Can I really take credit for that?), but it also came as a relief. The book is out in the world, and the world is doing its strange thing to it. It’s out of my hands now.

The main lesson that I took from that is to make sure that I love and believe entirely in whatever I put out in the world (inevitable unforeseen imperfections and all). That way I’m tethered, and I can enjoy swaying around in the weird breeze of book noise, instead of being knocked over by it.

DE: Where do you see yourself going in the next year with your writing?

RT: Nowhere fast. But somewhere, slow. Hopefully I’ll look back into the distance and be amazed by how everything I once knew now looks so small.

DE: Which one of your skills as a writer/editor do you find most useful in life?

RT: Is empathy a “skill?” If so, I’ll say the empathy that comes with learning how hard it is to communicate with other human beings, especially when it comes to the soft, vital stuff that rests at the centre of our lives. It’s the knowledge that most of what we do and say with and to one another is some type of failure, and that that’s okay. We edit. We try again. Every once in a while we get something right despite it all.

DE: What was the question you wished I had asked, but I did not?

RT: This one, until you asked it. Now I’m too flustered to think of anything.


read all over

In the lead-up to Sunday's book club event, my promotional takeover of the Vancouver is Awesome blog continues. Today it's a short interview with me about my reading habits: what, where, how, etc. Ethel the Aardvark gets in there somehow, too. You can read the whole thing here.

The interview also shows off some of Marta and my bookshelves (as posted above) and my reorganized-bookshelf-poem "Reconciliation During The Great Fires".

Thanks, ViA and The Vancouver Book Club!


TOSOO Photo Contest - Week 7, "You Can't Lead a Horse"

© David Jez

We're in the home stretch now! Results from the second-to-last week of the TOSOO photo contest are in. This week's batch, inspired by my poem "You Can't Lead a Horse", includes the above photo by David Jez and the below photo by Liisa Hannus.

"Light will dance with many partners, but none like water", © Liisa Hannus

The last poem of the series takes things in a different direction - no more water or horses! Instead, we're getting meta with "Computer Monitor Ekphrasis". I'm more curious than ever about what/if this poem will inspire. Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page for the poem and the guidelines - submissions are due in by Wednesday at 6 PM.

And (in case you've lost track) the book club event that this is all leading up to is less that a week away!

All of the photos (from all eight weeks of the contest) will be shown in a slideshow during the TOSOO book club event on Sunday. The event is free and open to everyone - you can RSVP here.


chris hutchinson book launch

Chris Hutchinson is launching his third collection of poems, A Brief History of the Short-Lived, this Thursday at Cafe Montmartre. The details:

A Brief History of the Short-Lived Book Launch
Thursday, April 19th, 7:00 PM
Cafe Montmartre
4362 Main Street, Vancouver
Featuring: Chris Hutchinson

No word yet if the launch itself will be brief or short-lived. I'm hoping to make it out to see for myself. Maybe you'll be there, too?


TOSOO Photo Contest - Week 6, "Advent"

"To Open", © Tara Lowry
I keep expecting (pessimist that I am) that the submissions to the TOSOO photo contest will slow down, but to my delight they keep coming in! This weeks batch, inspired by my poem "Advent", is as strong as any, including the above photo by Tara Lowry and the below photo by Alais Mara.

© Alais Mara
Thank you, as always, to everyone who contributed.

This week's poem, "You Can't Lead a Horse", is a quasi-ghazal, so it offers up a number of largely disconnected little images. I'm excited to see which of the stanzas spark photos. Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page for the poem and the guidelines - submissions are due in by next Wednesday!

And remember, it's only two weeks now until the big event!

All of the photos (from all eight weeks of the contest) will be shown in a slideshow during the TOSOO book club event at the end of the month. The event is free and open to everyone - you can RSVP here.


reading at poetic justice this sunday

I'm reading in New Westminster this Sunday for the Poetic Justice reading series. I'm part of a packed line-up, along with Daniela Elza, Jeff Park and Timothy Shay. The details:

Poetic Justice
Sunday, April 15th, 2:00 PM
The Heritage Grill
447 Columbia Street, New Westminster
Featuring: Rob Taylor, Daniela Elza, Jeff Park and Timothy Shay

Click here for bios of all of the features. I believe there will be an open mic, as well. I hope to see you there!

p.s. Reminder: the Vancouver launch of Villanelles is this Friday!


oh yes we love bananas

Based on the keyword searches that have been leading to this post of mine, it seems that folks on the internet are hungry for Al Rempel's bananas. And by that I mean, of course, for an electronic version of Al Rempel's poem from the Best Canadian Poetry 2011 anthology, "we love bananas".

Search no longer, humble Googlers! Al has just set up a personal website, which includes a Word document of his banana poem. You can download the poem here.

He has a number of other poems up there as well, both older poems from understories and newer poems not yet published in book form, so be sure to poke around the website while you're there.

You're welcome, internet!


do you get the urge when winter comes?

I recently came across this video, which features Dave Bidini talking about Al Purdy + hockey, and reading some of Al's poems while being ignored by hockey-playing kids. Oh, it hemorrhages CanCon!

The neat part for me is that it was shot in Ameliasburgh, so you get to see the A-frame and Roblin Lake.

Thanks to Dave (and whoever else was behind this) for putting it together. And while I'm on the subject, can we finally save the Purdy A-frame already?


TOSOO Photo Contest - Week 5, "The Horse Grazes"

"Grazing Shadows", © Tara Lowry

The latest batch of photos submitted for the TOSOO photo contest have been posted. Taking in the weekly post has quickly become the highlight of my week - I'm not sure what I'm going to do with myself when they stop (only 3 weeks until the book club event!). I am especially fond of the trend that's developed to title the photos after pull-quotes from the poems - it makes me a little dizzy with happiness to see the work of different artists mix and mingle in that way.

The photos for this round were inspired by my short poem "The Horse Grazes", including the above photo by Tara Lowry and the below photo by David Jez:

"Endless Rope", © David Jez

This week's poem, "Advent", brings the focus back into Vancouver. It came out of a time when I worked at the Vancouver Maritime Museum and was daily taking the 22 bus from Kitsilano, through downtown and into the East Side. So it covers a good swath of the city, and hopefully will inspire some great local photos. Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page for the poem and the guidelines - submissions are due in by next Wednesday!

And as a reminder, these photo posts are leading up to the big Vancouver Book Club event at the end of the month:

All of the photos will be shown in a slideshow during the event. The book club event is free and open to everyone - you can RSVP here.


9. Not every poet is a dedicated obscurantist who won’t just say what they mean. Poets are just gifted at the art of euphemism—of being able to call two readings in two coffee houses a “book tour,” of being able to declare a reluctance to wake up before noon a “vocation,” of being able to conjure up an adept comparison of the moon to “a pie plate of wonder.”

10. Poets are very attractive. This is just true. No misconception there. It is, in fact, the preternatural attractiveness of poets that allows them to thrive, despite society’s doubts, and to go on and continue drinking some weird homemade broth out of a thermos and to continue using the word "akimbo" any damn chance they get.

- David McGimpsey, reading my mind (and diary... and notebook...) while lampooning poets in his "10 myths about poets" over at the Canada Writes site. You can read all ten of McGimpsey's myths here.


play the one people can dance or sing along to

I began to be asked to read poems at rallies and demonstrations. Now, there’s no reason to assume you have to “dumb down” or change the way you write for such occasions, but I felt this sense of publicness to what I was writing generally since beginning to blog for the movement, the sense of writing not out of “my own” practice and position, but out of the movement, collectively, and I really didn’t mind writing and reading “topical” poems for specific occasions/causes. I’m not sure these are poems that will find their way into books I publish, but I’m glad to have done them, and to have read them to large and affected audiences of “non-poetry” people. It’s a crossing over into a neighbouring zone—one maybe we don’t frequent as poets, but one in which musicians feel comfortable. Play the hit. Play the pop song. Play the one people can dance or sing along to.

It comes down to contexts I guess. And a revolution is a different context than an avant-garde, though they can overlap once in a while.

- Stephen Collis, talking about his involvement working and writing with the Occupy Vancouver movement, over on the Harriet blog. You can read the whole thing here.


to give a form's refrains / a fighting chance - "Villanelles" Book Launch

Change - Sandy Shreve

(for Molly Peacock)

Something has to happen
as we sit inside my car waiting out a downpour.
A stranger’s hand

starts tapping at the window
where we talk of triolets and villanelles,
how something has to happen

to give a form’s refrains
a fighting chance. More irritating tapping interrupts;
our hands begin

to fumble for some coin,
the windows fogging up with our talk of variations
making something happen.

He’s talking at my window –
another version of the stranded tourist scam.
His palsied hand

reaches in
so he can take the change that changes nothing
from our hands.
Something has to happen.

from Villanelles
(Everyman's Pocket Library Series, Knopf, 2012).
Reprinted with permission.

Why am I taking time to write about Villanelles (an aptly named international anthology of villanelles) here on my Vancouver-focused poetry blog? Well, it's the same reason why we have poems on our buses, and why I know anything about madrigals or rondeaus or pantoums: Sandy Shreve. Yes, the woman who brought BC the Poetry in Transit program and followed that up by literally writing the book on Canadian form poetry, In Fine Form (with Kate Braid), is now bringing Vancouver a buffet-load of villanelles. Ok, this time she's just a humble contributor (one of only a handful from Canada), but let the woman take a break every once in a while, ok?

Though she is the lone Vancouver-based contributor to the anthology, Sandy has convinced a couple American poets (and her partner-in-crime Kate Braid) to join her in reading at a Vancouver launch on April 13th:

Villanelles Book Launch

Friday, April 13th, 7:00 PM
People's Co-op Bookstore
1391 Commercial Drive, Vancouver
Featuring: Readings by Sandy Shreve, Kate Braid, Sharmagne Leland-St. John and Ellaraine Lockie

Sandy was generous enough to offer me a bit of time between book signings for a Q+A about the anthology, the launch, and the villanelle form. Oh, and also about form poetry in general, and editing, and the anthology. And Elizabeth Bishop, and Molly Peacock, and the villanelle form. And defibrilators, and voice mail, and the anthology. And ambassadors, and nibblies, and the villanelle form. And ridiculous interview introductions, and how glad we both are that they're almost over, and the anthology, and (Write it!) the villanelle form. I hope you enjoy!

Sorry to interrupt you, Sandy, but I have a few questions. (Photo by Heather Rhodes)
Rob: I’ve got to say that it’s intimidating to talk about a book of form poetry with one of the editors of In Fine Form. In it you have a section for villanelles (in fact, one of the poems from that section, Molly Peacock’s “Little Miracle”, is also published in Villanelles), so you probably know better than almost anyone the amount of work required for a book of this type. What did you find to be the greatest challenge in assembling In Fine Form? How do you think your experience might (or might not) have resembled that of Annie Finch and Marie-Elizabeth Mali for Villanelles?

Sandy: Rob, judging from your book, you’re no slouch yourself when it comes to form. So, no need to feel intimidated! [Editor's Note #1: Flattery will get you everywhere here at silaron]

I think these two anthologies are quite different, in that In Fine Form features many forms with examples from one country, while Villanelles focuses on one form with examples from various countries. That said, putting together any anthology is a ton of work. I’ve no way of knowing how doing their anthology affected the breadth and depth of what Finch and Mali knew about villanelles at the outset – but I’d guess there were at least a few surprises along the way. I know that Kate and I learned hand over fist when we did In Fine Form. There were lots of challenges in that project – probably enough for an entirely separate interview – but for sure, a big one was figuring out forms that were new to us (not to mention finding our way through contradictory descriptions of various elements of prosody) and then transforming what we’d learned into clear but brief explanations. And there’s always more to learn! In Villanelles, I found Finch’s introduction and Julie Kane’s history of the form fascinating, full of tidbits I hadn’t known.

One similarity I am sure of, though – and that’s the heartbreak of having to exclude poems that deserve to be in the anthology. On the Villanelles Facebook page, Finch and Mali wrote, “We ended up cutting the index in order to save as many poems as possible, but still had to cut more poems than we wanted to”. Kate and I also had to cut poems at the last minute to meet the publisher’s page limit – decisions like this are agony for editors.

Rob: Speaking of the Molly Peacock poem, looking through the index I only spotted two Canadian poets, yourself and Molly (though, granted, my knowledge is far from encyclopedic, and I probably missed a few). This led me to wonder: how did the editors find out about you in the first place, writing away up here in the frigid north? If given the opportunity to pitch a few Canadian poets to be considered for a second volume of Villanelles, who would you suggest?

Sandy: Well, most people count Elizabeth Bishop as Canadian [Editor's Note #2: Apologies in advance to Zach Wells for my oversight], so that makes three of us; and I’m pretty sure a fourth is Sadiqa de Meier – but I didn’t recognize any of the other names as Canadian. As for me, the poet Alexandra Oliver sent me a message via Facebook in December 2010, telling me about the anthology and that the editors were still looking for Canadian and British villanelles. I passed the word along, but for whatever reason, I gather the editors still didn’t get a lot of Canadian submissions.

As to poems I’d pitch for another collection like this – in addition to the ones in In Fine Form, three I’ve run across since then, and that stand out for me, are Adam Sol’s “Villanelle For Jeremiah’s Son” from Jeremiah, Ohio; Steven Price's “XLIV .ii” from Anatomy of Keys; and David O’Meara’s “Ever” from Noble Gas, Penny Black. But I’m sure there are many more out there…

Rob: In her introduction to Villanelles, Annie Finch states that “Most poets write only one or two villanelles in a lifetime, and when they do so, it’s for a good reason.” Is this true in your case? Is the villanelle a form that you turn to regularly? Have you fulfilled your “one or two” quota yet?

Sandy: “Change” was my second villanelle, but not my last – I wrote another five which I included in a sequence of 22 found-poems I crafted using fragments from a journal my father kept while working on a freighter in 1936. (I’ll leave it to others to decide if I’ve overstayed my welcome in this form.) That sequence also includes a terzanelle (a variant of the villanelle), a pantoum and a bunch of triolets – all forms featuring refrains, which I wanted to use because they seemed to me to reflect the recurring routines of life on a freighter and thus, the repetitions in Dad’s journal. I also wrote a stand-alone terzanelle after Steven Heighton commented during a reading that he thought most poets would want to add to the list Borges started in his poem “The Just”. (Steven was introducing his own list poem in that regard, “Some Other Just Ones”.) In this instance, I wanted the terzanelle’s particular pattern of repetition (which I find is a bit more flexible than the villanelle’s) so I could revisit and expand on some of “the just” in my list.

Rob: Now that you’ve brought it up, let’s take a minute to talk about “Change”. Was it written as a villanelle for, as Annie Finch put it, “a good reason”? Was the first draft of the poem written in free verse, or a different form, or was it designed to be a villanelle from the beginning? More broadly, what would you say “drove” the creation of this poem more, the form or the content?

Sandy: I’d have to say the content did the driving. “Change” is based on something that happened when Molly Peacock was in Vancouver to launch The Paper Garden (a wonderful book, by the way). She was on a whirlwind tour and didn’t have much spare time, but we managed to grab an hour or so to chat. It turned out we were both in the midst of writing triolets – so we talked a lot about repetition in forms. A few weeks later, in an e-mail, referring to what took place while we were talking in my car, Molly remarked that “…something HAS to happen to that hand through the car window…”. I’d been thinking a lot about the incident, and wanted to write about it but had yet to find a way in; her comment opened the door, giving me the central image (hands) and the key refrain (something has to happen).

The poem started out as a villanelle, largely because, even as I tweaked it, I intended the pattern to act as a metaphor for how as a society we keep spinning our wheels when it comes to making meaningful and lasting social change.

Rob: I wonder a bit about how forms like the villanelle function for modern writers and readers. Specifically, I wonder about repetitive forms that were historically structured around sung refrains. It’s my sense that while rhyme (full and slant), rhythm, metre, etc. are all alive and well in modern poetry, the idea of a written refrain – of repeated, unchanged lines appearing at more-or-less consistent intervals throughout the poem – is all but dead. What I mean is that the modern poet needs to manipulate a refrain to make it palatable for the reader – either slowly change its wording from repetition to repetition, or alter its punctuation, or insert a phrase (a la Bishop’s “Write it!” or Peacock’s “we’re here”) – and that any time the lines are exactly duplicated, the poet is likely to bore or frustrate the reader. In other words, the “resting state” for the refrain is one of dullness, and the poet needs to shock the line back into vibrancy with his or her “defibrillating” tricks. Would you agree with this? And if so, what does that say about the modern poetry reader? About the distance that now exists between poetry and music, where a rarely-changing, oft-repeated chorus still anchors most pop songs? More broadly, what does it say about the distance between modern page poetry and poetry as an oral/aural medium?

Sandy: And yet, it’s the repetition in traditional forms that most appeals to me! I pretty much ignore end-rhyme and metre (when I do get around to writing in metre, it’s usually accentual, not the more typical accentual-syllabic). So it’s unlikely I represent any current trend.

What a great phrase, ‘“defibrillating” tricks’. [Editor's Note #3: See Editor's Note #1] But I’m not so sure varying repeated lines necessarily says anything about the modern poetry reader. Or that it’s even essential for any given poem. I like what Annie Finch says in her preface to Villanelles, “Dancing With The Villanelle”, about this form’s refrains: “The key to a good villanelle is to come up with two lines that are genuinely attracted to each other but also wholly independent of each other, so that their final coupling will feel both inevitable and surprising.”

Then again, as you know, I really enjoy shaking up traditional forms; am much less hesitant about ‘breaking the rules’ than I was when I first tried writing them. But whether or how much I play around depends on the poem. Lots of villanelles that repeat the refrains exactly feel natural, even seamless (at least, they do to me) – and, by the very nature of their sameness, they can make that necessary something happen. Just one fine example of this in the Villanelles anthology is Dan Skwire’s very contemporary “Voice Mail Villanelle” where not altering the refrains is essential to the poem. At the same time, refrains are tweaked in some of the earliest villanelles in this anthology – Emily Pfeiffer’s, for instance, or John Davidson’s, both from the 1800s.

Is there a distance between poetry and music? I’m not so sure, because to me, the best poetry is inherently musical – not just in terms of refrains, but in the use of all the sound and rhythmic devices poets have in our tool kits. I don’t tend to make a huge distinction, in that regard, between poetry as an oral or written art form. And even though I think there are poems that work better read aloud than on the page, and vice versa, I still want poetry to sing.

Rob: When I thought of the idea of an anthology of villanelles, the two poems that first jumped to my mind were Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” and Dylan Thomas' “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”. I was tickled, then, to see the two poems displayed on facing pages, fairly near the front of the book. While I know the poems were sorted chronologically, it still felt as if Finch and Mali were saying “Okay, we know you’re waiting for these, so let’s get it over with!” I wonder how you feel about these “star” villanelles – do you think they are good “ambassadors” for the form, or do their individual statures and verve overshadow a broader consideration of the form? If you had to choose new “ambassadorial” poems for the villanelle, which poems would you choose?

Sandy: Another very well-known villanelle is Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking”, which comes right before Bishop’s “One Art”. I adore all of these – and many more besides. In a recent conversation, though, I discovered that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for these poems. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise, really – but still, it did; it never crossed my mind that anyone could find Thomas’ refrains, for instance, boring or annoying. So, maybe the fact that preferences and aesthetics vary greatly from one person to the next is as good a reason as any to avoid selecting stars in the first place.

Rob: What can people expect to see and hear if they come out to the launch on the 13th?

Sandy: Mostly we’re going to celebrate poems! The four of us will read for 10 to 15 minutes each – starting with several villanelles from the anthology, and then finishing up with a few poems from our own collections. People’s Co-op has ordered in Villanelles, so they’ll be available for all who’d like to buy their own copy. Our individual books, as well as In Fine Form, will be available, too. Plus, I’m hoping we’ll manage to have some kind of nibblies on hand for the occasion…

Villanelles can be purchased online or in your local bookstore. One bookstore that certainly has it shelved is People's Co-op, where the launch is taking place on April 13th. Why not get one there?


what and why

There are really only two questions: What and why. Poetry’s never answered either one to the extent that people’s imaginations would be quelled by it. I don’t think the questions change: who we are in time and space changes, generations change, fashions change, but poetry’s really only after two things. I once thought the list also included who, but I came to realize that’s not important.

- D.A. Powell, in interview with rob mclennan for his "12 or 20 questions" series. You can read the whole thing here.