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?


teabird said...

I can not wait to get a copy of this! I blogged about it here.

Anonymous said...

Great interview and looks like a great villanelle collection. Will have to put it on my list.

Looking up villanelles on the web came across this sandwich villanelle courtesy of the comic "Cat and Girl": http://catandgirl.com/?p=728 Made me hungry.

Rob Taylor said...

It truly is the most restrictive of sandwich forms...

thecanadaproject said...

superb questions; super poets