what time does to things - "Waking in the Tree House" Launch

Moth - Michael Lithgow

Every few days another moth appears.
I hear them rattling between the window
and rice paper taped across the glass
to hinder the curiosity of addicts. These large

cigarillo-thick animals bang the walls
with their eccentricity and fur, eventually
bumping into the light over my desk where
dust falls from their wings onto the backs

of my hands. I suppose they come
from some crack in the floor, larvae
transformed into an air-borne cigar
so unlike a butterfly’s flying scrap of silk.

I feel less lonely when they come. I imagine
they are asking for help, and I am a hero.
I catch them in a plastic cup and toss them
into the night air from my doorstep.

But then one night it occurred to me
that maybe it’s the same moth over and over,
and I am not understanding
what keeps happening, here, at all.
from Waking in the Tree House
(Cormorant Books, 2012).
Reprinted with permission.

My latest Vancouver book launch interview is a homecoming of sorts. Michael Lithgow was born in Ottawa, then moved throughout North America (Halifax, Memphis, Edmonton...) before arriving in Vancouver in the mid-80s. He stayed in Vancouver for almost twenty years before moving on to Montreal and then Chelsea, Quebec. Throughout much of that time, Michael was writing, and his poems reflect that journey.

Michael's work has been published in Arc, The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead and CV2, and a selection of his poetry was included in Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry. It was through Undercurrents, released by Cormorant Books at the same time as The Other Side of Ourselves, that I got to know Michael and his work. In it, I was struck by his deep consideration of both language and subject matter in poems like "Roofing" and "Cradle and light".

Michael's first book, Waking in the Tree House, contains these poems from Undercurrents and many more. That said, it's a slim volume (as I think most should be) - fifty-one poems over fifty-four pages.

Michael will be in Vancouver on May 19th to launch Waking in the Tree House:

A Night of Interdisciplinary Performance
Saturday, May 19th, 8 PM (Doors 7:30)
Gallery Gachet
88 East Cordova Street, Vancouver
Featuring: Readings by poets Michael Lithgow and Rodney DeCroo. Music by Torsten Muller, Leonard Pennifold, Shiloh Lindsey and Christie Rose

In anticipation of the launch, Michael and I corresponded over email about Vancouver, language, and the dark matter at the heart of his book:

Michael, looking west
Rob: A significant number of the poems in Waking in the Tree House grapple with the conflicting, and sometimes complimentary, relationship between the "natural" world (hawks, worms, bones, tufts of grass, etc.) and the "unnatural" urban environment (concrete landscapes, electric lighting, technology, city noise, etc.). "Moth" is in many ways an example of this. I was wondering if you think of the consideration of "urban ecology" as the (or one of the) central theme(s) of the book. And if you do think it is, did you plan on this as you wrote the poems, or was it a theme you only realized you were writing to in hindsight, while you were compiling and editing the manuscript?

Michael: That’s an interesting observation and something that I hadn't really considered before… In thinking about your question, I can see that many of the poems are sensitive to drama in the natural world (or as I suggest in "Too busy for death", that the natural world is at least amenable to me imposing this or that meaning and metaphor on it for my own purposes). A central theme to my mind in the book is the beauty of "dark matter", so to speak; the beauty of decay, of what time does to things, of difficulty and sorrow; of how ravaging (in the sense that an old fencepost is ravaged by time) can be beautiful. But as I think about your question, it occurs to me that what gets decayed is always in the urban setting, and what does the decaying is nature. The dichotomy of course is problematic as many have pointed out (Zizek has this wonderful segment in a documentary where he is walking through a garbage dump condemning the environmental movement in his enigmatic way and arguing that it is our perception of the human/nature divide that is killing the planet, and that we have to learn to love our garbage!). I am both drawn to and repelled by rural areas and wilderness. I have recently moved to the country and discovered that I dislike it as a place to live; there are few people here; my existence now depends on cars and petroleum; public spaces are empty, filled with trees, everyone stays in their yards and cars (unlike Montreal, for example, where the streets and parks are filled with Montrealers reveling and enjoying and living). Here, we see our neighbours drive by in their trucks and minivans…

I digress, but your question raises a theme that is on my mind just now. I think in terms of these poems, the feral quality of the natural world provides ballast to my own more constrained imaginings. The poems that address “nature” directly, are almost always about reconciliation between this wild force and the humble goings on of the human – "Moth", "Because of the light", "Under the Granville Street Bridge", "Jellyfish", "Spanish Banks". Even "Rat hole" exists somewhere within the liminal imaginary between human and nature. I am drawn to the way nature resists human meaning and control; and I am drawn to its feral qualities in terms of what will inform my own myth-making.

Rob: You're in the country now, eh? You always seem to be on the move - from Ottawa to Vancouver to Montreal and on, with many stops in between. A good number of these moves are mapped out in Waking in the Tree House, the poems seeming to more or less follow the path of your travels, with the Vancouver poems early on and the Montreal poems nearer to the end. Are the poems, then, loosely organized chronologically in the order you wrote them, or the order you lived them, or both? Neither? More generally, do you find you write about a place more while you are living there, or in hindsight? And which type of writing - in the moment or in hindsight - do you find produces the better poems?

Michael: Robyn Sarah, my editor, arranged the poems and they did emerge in a loosely chronological order, although not entirely. The order is a mix of geography, chronology and theme. Robyn is a wonderful and perceptive editor, and she found a way to arrange these poems so that they did not bog down in the heavier emotional textures… the arrangement, at least to my mind, helps to let light and lightness in…

These poems were written “in the moment” as you say. Of course, even before they are written they are already an element of hindsight (in the sense that all experience is a form of hindsight, even the act of looking at something - our perception hindsight from the thing itself), but I do tend to write into my life, to make sense of my life, to pull meaning from it or impose it as it is happening. But even so, some of these poems have been worked on for more than a decade. "The incident", for example, was an extremely difficult poem to write, and I almost did not want it included in the manuscript. It was only after stepping away from it for a while, and seeing it in situ with the other poems that I could let it go. Writing poems – writing these poems – was a dwelling in memory, so even though first drafts almost always come “in the moment” the final drafts almost always find their form much later, and I think this process of dragging experience and images through time with language and finding and making sense describes just exactly what I like about writing poetry.

Rob: Beyond the specific poems and references about Vancouver, how do you think the time you spent living in Vancouver shaped Tree House? How would the book have been different had you skipped over Vancouver in your travels?

Michael: Vancouver is a complex city – on the frontier, such a young city, and still reverberating in colonial legacies. First Nations cultural presence in British Columbia is so much more than in eastern Canada, or so it seems to me. And more so than in many cities. The politics are more raw, and the city still feels like it is in the wilderness. I’ve seen coyotes and eagle nests in Strathcona, seals at New Brighton Park, bears in North Vancouver.

Vancouver can be a mean city. Much of my time I was there was spent in and around the Downtown East Side – working in community radio and television as an activist. I lived further east, near Commercial Drive, but the DTES was my center of gravity, in a way. You can’t be in that neighbourhood day in and day out for that many years and come away unchanged. I suppose one way I have been changed is understanding poverty as a kind of crisis, an ongoing crisis that penalizes and damages vulnerable people, and basically traps them. It crushes potential. And also learning to appreciate the profound resiliency of the human spirit.

I can’t imagine my life without my Vancouver experiences...

Rob: You use the word "beautiful" a number of times in Tree House. For many writers, words like that are curse words, viewed as being over-used to the point of meaninglessness (I used it once in my book, and am glad I did, but agonized over it a bit at the time). Some editors, I'm sure, would have asked you to cut it out entirely. Your editor (and mine), Robyn Sarah, has a different take on these "curse words", though. I was wondering if the two of you spoke at all about the use of the word "beautiful" in Tree House? Did you hesitate in using it, or any other similar words? What makes you comfortable using a word like "beautiful" where others might shy away?

Michael: I guess I don’t have the same sensitivity to the banality of the word “beautiful”, or more to the point I hope that I have not resorted to banality in using it. I guess there are other words that I might have this response to… It all depends on the poem, for me. So maybe in that sense I agree with Robyn. Rarely does a word in and of itself become obsolete, because words don’t really mean anything without their games, "language games" as Wittgenstein called them, their contexts and invitations to meaning. Showing telling simplicity familiarity obscurity abstraction … what works is what works in the poem, and what we think works is more often than not a deeply personal response to language. My hope is that if I have used a dangerous word like “beautiful” I’ve added something to its aura, to the connotative meanings and associations that shroud it in the minds and imaginations of readers. I also think that rifling the thesaurus just for the sake of avoiding simplicity doesn’t necessarily make for good poetry, so I agree with Robyn in that way, too.

Waking in the Tree House can be ordered online from the usual suspects, or you can pick up a copy at Michael's launch on the 19th!


daniela elza said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
daniela elza said...

Thanks for the interview, Rob.
Lots of good stuff in here.
"I am drawn to the way nature resists human meaning and control; and I am drawn to its feral qualities in terms of what will inform my own myth-making."

And the discussion on "beautiful" and other dangerous words.

daniela elza said...

PS sorry for the thing that appeared as "comment removal". was just trying to fix a typo. did not say anything *beautiful*, honest.