11/14/2018

Interview with Read Local BC


Thank you to Read Local BC for this interview about editing What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation:

WHAT ARE THOSE CANADIAN POETS DOING, ROB TAYLOR?

Monica at Read Local BC asked so many thoughtful questions that this interview covers my thinking behind the book and how it came together more thoroughly than the book's introduction (which includes more jokes about shipping heiresses and ulcers, but less about cat cafes).

If you're interested in the book and you live in Victoria or Vancouver, please do come out to one of our launches this weekend!

11/12/2018

Victoria Launch of What the Poets Are Doing


The evening before the Vancouver launch, we will be launching What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation in Victoria! The event will be a co-launch with Best Canadian Poetry 2018.

The launch will feature Yvonne Blomer, Kayla Czaga, Amanda Jernigan, Sonnet L’Abbé, Anita Lahey, waaseyaa’sin christine sy, and me. It will take place at the Bent Mast restaurant.

The event's full details:

Awash in Poetry: Best Canadian Poetry 2018 and What the Poets Are Doing Victoria Co-LaunchSaturday, November 17th, 2018, 7 PM (Doors 6:30 PM)
The Bent Mast Restaurant and Lounge
512 Simcoe Street, Victoria
Featuring: Yvonne Blomer, Kayla Czaga, Amanda Jernigan, Sonnet L’Abbé, Anita Lahey, waaseyaa’sin christine sy, and Rob Taylor.
Free! Books for sale.

You can RSVP for the event via Facebook here.

If you're in Victoria, I'd love to see you on the 17th!

10/21/2018

Vancouver Launch of "What The Poets Are Doing"


Come join me in celebrating the release of What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation!

The Vancouver launch will feature readings and discussion with four of the book's contributors: Elizabeth Bachinsky, Raoul Fernandes, Amanda Jernigan and Russell Thornton. Hosted by your truly.

The launch will take place in the brand new Montalbano Family Theatre, which is part of the newly redesigned top floors of the Vancouver Public Library'sCentral Branch (8th Floor). Space will be limited, so come early.

The event's full details:

What the Poets Are Doing Vancouver Launch
Sunday, November 18th, 2018, 1:00 PM
Vancouver Public Library Central Branch
Montalbano Family Theatre, 8th Floor
Featuring: Elizabeth Bachinsky, Raoul Fernandes, Amanda Jernigan and Russell Thornton. Hosted by Rob Taylor.
Free! Books for sale.

And stick around after the reading for the Dead Poets Reading Series' November reading, which will take place in the same venue at 3 PM.

You can RSVP for the event via Facebook here. If you can't make it, you can still participate in the afternoon's events by tweeting your questions for the poets to #WhatThePoets!

And if you're not in Vancouver - we might be coming your way soon. Launches in other parts of the country are being organized as we speak. Stay tuned. For now, you can always pre-order the book via your local book store, or Chapters or Amazon.

I'd love to see you on the 18th!

10/20/2018

November Dead Poets Lineup

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch on November 18th, 2018, from 3-4:30 PM. The reading will be hosted in the Montalbano Family Theatre, a brand new theatre space on the library's 8th floor (learn more about our venue here).

It will feature:

June Jordan (1936 - 2002), read by Phanuel Antwi
Audre Lorde (1934 - 1992), read by Bibiana Tomasic
Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941 - 1987), read by Carleigh Baker
Richard Outram (1930 - 2005), read by Amanda Jernigan

Attendance is free. For more info visit the DPRS website.

This event will be a double-bill with the Vancouver launch of What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation, which will take place at 1 PM in the same space.

I hope to see you on November 18th!

9/29/2018

an entire page of words about one damn thing: "Little Wild" by Curtis LeBlanc


Sonnet for the Driveways of Our Childish Years - Curtis LeBlanc

All the tennis balls that our Gretzky curves
couldn't guide past the taut rubber screen
of a Shooter Tutor cratered garage doors.
Personal moons for the parties we missed,
where some young men made the porch-like climb
to violence. For instance: I knew a kid
who got pushed to bite the curb, lost his two
front teeth on the concrete foot of his own front lawn.
We heard stories like that everyday, dribbled down
the driveways of this Northern-most America.
Shaq's hand burned into our basketballs, dishing
high-fives to the pavement, eclipsing our palms.
Forced outdoors by our fathers and mothers,
we learned to forget each other and be alone.

from Little Wild
(Nightwood Editions, 2018).
Reprinted with permission.


---

"Don't tell me what the poets are doing / Don't tell me that they're talking tough / Don't tell me that they're anti-social / Somehow not anti-social enough, all right." Those lines, from the song "Poets" by The Tragically Hip, have looped in my mind for the last few months, in part because I've titled my forthcoming book of poetry conversations after it, but also because I've been reading and rereading Curtis Leblanc's debut poetry collection, Little Wild (Nightwood Editions, 2018).

Little Wild
The book is a traditional "first collection" in that its content, speaker and style shift from poem to poem, section to section. Yet at the book's core is a consistent study of the socialization (or lack thereof) of the young Canadian male (perhaps specifically the young Albertan male). Nightwood's description of the book sums this up as "explor[ing] the performance of masculinity in contemporary Canada, with a focus on how toxic masculinity relates to mental health, aggression, substance abuse and crises of identity."

The characters in the poems, who participate in destructive (and self-destructive) activities while also longing for liberation from those same actions, take us right to the heart of the term "anti-social" (which means both "contrary to the laws and customs of society" and "not wanting the company of others"): the simultaneous desires to belong and to be apart; to follow the expectations of society and to upend them. As the book advances, these tensions make room for tender poems on family and new love (two of the later poems are dedicated to Mallory Tater, fellow poet and Curtis' fiancée - you can read my interview with Mallory about her debut collection here), without ever fulling dissipating their nervous energy.

There is a good deal of tough talking in Little Wild, and plenty of anti-social behaviour. But also the best kind of "anti-social" behaviour, which is often in short supply: the eye that sees, and the mind that questions, the customs around how we engender young boys. And the voice that offers an alternative.

I had the pleasure of getting to ask Curtis a few questions about, among other things, his new book, his unexpected rhymes, Kelly Buchburger, milk separators, and releasing his debut collection at the same time as his fiancée. I hope you enjoy!

Curtis LeBlanc, being anti-social enough, alone in a garage.
---
Rob: The promotional copy for your book says that Little Wild "focus[es] on how toxic masculinity relates to mental health, aggression, substance abuse and crises of identity." Indeed, the characters in these poems drink, steal, and burn their way through their teenage years - never more harrowingly than in "An Outdoor Education", in which the speaker is tied to a birch tree and set on fire by "Those other kids--friends of mine, I'd say still" (a scene hinted at in the cover image). There appears to be a gulf, needless to say, between the people you describe in the book and the man you are now (running a poetry chapbook press and a reading series, and also teaching youth). Could you talk a little about your youth, how it informed the writing of these poems?

Curtis: I think I’ve always been interested in characters who are at odds with the world around them, struggling with how people expect them to be. A lot of the speakers in Little Wild—and they are definitely not all ‘me’ per se—feel this way. Growing up, and still to this day, I’ve always pushed back against the kinds of behaviours and beliefs that are so often celebrated in men—the recklessness, the violence and aggression, the one-upmanship.

When I was younger and really struggling with the cognitive dissonance of wanting to be better than the person I was expected to be—to be a different kind of ‘good’ than what the world around me defined in a ‘good man’—I anticipated a great deal of shame in the words and actions some of my peers took pride in. I’ve never been a reckless person. In fact, a big facet of my mental illness (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) compels me to be extremely careful. But when I was a kid I took risks in exchange for laughs and high fives from friends, and it tore me apart mentally and emotionally and even sometimes physically. In the book, I tried to make sense of some of that dissonance, to illuminate it for readers through the retelling of stories and past experiences. Some of the good I wanted to do with these poems was to give a window for other men to look into and see themselves and maybe realize that that resentment they feel and felt towards the way they were expected to be wasn’t misplaced. That it was and is very real and very valid.

Vivek Shraya recently wrote a piece for Vice explaining how the term “Toxic Masculinity” should probably be retired because there isn’t really any kind of masculinity that isn’t toxic. I think she’s probably right and if I could go back in time I would erase the word “toxic” from the promo copy you quoted above.


Rob: Though you grew up in Alberta, you’ve spent the last few years here in Vancouver, completing your MFA at UBC. Two of the "blurbers" on the back of Little Wild - Kayla Czaga and Raoul Fernandes - also lived in Vancouver with you while you were writing much of your book. I see so many ways in which your themes align with theirs - suburban teen years (yours in St. Albert, Raoul's in Tsawwassen), 90s pop-culture nostalgia (Kayla's VCR tapes, your basketball with Shaq's palm print), etc. Can you speak of the influence those two, and their writing, has had on yours? Can you suggest a few others who have shaped your writing, or in some way shown you the way?

Curtis: The first time I met Raoul was at a reading for my first ever undergraduate poetry workshop organized by our professor, Rachel Rose. All the students in the class read a handful of poems and Rachel invited a few local poets to headline the night. Raoul was one of them. He read a number of poems that ended up in his Nightwood collection, Transmitter and Receiver, and I was just blown away by the tenderness of the work and how it dealt with the everyday. I was still in the process of learning that I could write about the commonplace aspects of my own life and Raoul was one of the poets that showed me how to find significance in those things. He approached me after the reading and we started a bit of a correspondence. He would pass along opportunities he thought I might be interested in, offered to read some of my poems, and I thanked him endlessly—and still do. His encouragement was a big push for me early on.

Fast forward to my first MFA poetry workshop and that’s where I met Kayla. For Your Safety Please Hold On was published during the course of that workshop and I was so in awe. I absolutely adore that book—the similarities you mention probably weren’t even present in my own writing until after I’d encountered Kayla’s work—and there I was in a class with the person who wrote it. She’s incredibly kind, generous and sharp with her feedback. Overall she’s just the best person.

In terms of other poets who have helped shape my writing, I’m so fortunate—ridiculously so, it feels—to be part of a community that is so nurturing and supportive. We’re always reading each other’s work, listening to each other at readings and events or sometimes just around the campfire, and in that way I’m constantly surrounded by inspiration and also getting useful feedback on my work.


Rob: I very much enjoyed your occasional use of rhyme in Little Wild. A reader might go for pages without the hint of a rhyme, and then all of a sudden you'll drop a delightful one (say, "stripped down to briefs..." / "reconstructed streets" midway through "Public Works", or "chrome machine" / "heavy cream" to open "Milk Separator") and just as quickly you move on with the rest of the unrhymed poem, as if tricking the rhyme-averse reader into thinking nothing had happened at all - but an energy has been shot into the poem, nonetheless. In this way, rhyme feels at once of minor importance to most of your individual poems and vital to the larger energy of the book. What is your thinking on if/how/how best to deploy rhyme in contemporary poetry? Has your thinking changed over time? And did pulling this manuscript together make you think about the use of rhyme in your poems in a new light?

Curtis: Before I ever wrote a poem, I was writing song lyrics in my teens. That’s probably the real reason for the presence of those occasional rhymes. I’ll be writing a poem and all of the sudden find myself driven by the sound and rhythm of work in progress, sometimes even more so than the content. I’ll find the perfect word contextually but scrap it because it doesn’t land the way I want it to sonically. I can’t say there’s any rhyme (*haha*) or reason to the way I do this. It’s more of an organic, spontaneous thing. When I was first beginning to write, I was told that poems don’t rhyme anymore, so I fought the urge to employ rhyme. Now I see it as something integral to my work that I really do enjoy working with. I absolutely love Natalie Shapero’s collection Hard Child and it uses rhyme and sound beautifully to charge the poems with a gripping energy. Her poems are musical and conversational all at the same time.


Rob: Sticking with craft for a minute, another of my favourite elements of Little Wild is how physical it is. The poems are usually anchored in physical objects, often right off the bat in the title, and even abstract ideas are made tangible (I'm thinking of that wonderful line in "Milk Separator" in which a large sum of money is explained as "ten tanks of gas or one month's rent"). Most of the students I work with struggle with this mightily - much of what they say is watery and floats off as soon as it's said. Has this physicality always come naturally to you, or was it something you had to learn (and if so, how)? Given the subject matter you chose to explore in Little Wild, did you have extra desire for the poems to be felt in a visceral way?

Curtis: It’s funny, my grandpa was reading the book while I was back home this summer and he came up to me and said, “Curtis, how do write an entire page of words about one damn thing? Like porridge. You wrote a whole page about porridge.” Most of this comes from meditating on an object for a long time before writing. In the case of that milk separator, he’d shown it to me during one of our visits and I thought I’m going to write a poem about that. I had no idea what it would be about, but I find that if I’m stubborn and think about an object/subject for long enough, a poem will come spilling out eventually, usually all at once. I write a lot of poems this way. Editing always follows, of course.

I came of age reading the short fiction of Amy Hempel and she’s a writer who I think is exceptional at meditating on the physical world around her characters. I think of Hempel’s story “In a Tub” which opens her collected stories; three separate spaces, physical and chronological, are connected intimately through the image of a tub. In “San Francisco,” it’s a watch that is central to the story in this way, and it draws together a lifetime of familial complexities for the two sisters wanting to inherit it and their mother who left it behind.


Rob: Though all its poems are not autobiographical, Little Wild feels like a deeply personal book, centred around family and friends, and sitting at its centre is a long poem, "Bucky" - an erasure drawn from a conversation you recorded with your grandfather, Bill McPherson. It's interesting, then, that the conversation focused on the career of NHLer Kelly Buchberger, and not, say, your grandfather's own life, or that of your parents or yourself. Could you speak a bit about how that poem came to be, and how you think it speaks with the rest of the poems in the collection?

Curtis: I was worried that “Bucky” might be too much of a departure in the middle of the book but the feedback I’ve received so far about that section has been really positive. It’s still a family poem in the sense that he’s my mother’s cousin and Bill’s nephew. Being from Edmonton and having cheered for the Oilers for as long as I can remember, it was hugely significant for me to have that sort of family relation to the captain of the team (at the time). For me, as a kid, Kelly took on mythic proportions. He’s also a topic that my grandpa, who has always battled a thick stutter and will sit for long periods of time in rooms full of people without saying more than a few words, will actually talk at length about. So one day, with his permission, we sat down and I recorded him telling Kelly’s story much like he always tells it. I added line breaks and removed words or sentences here and there for efficiency, but I really wanted to preserve his voice.


Rob: Speaking of family, I interviewed your fiancée, Mallory Tater, back in March, and she mentioned that one of her upcoming writing projects was her vows for your fall wedding (Congrats!). In the months since then, you've toured much of the country with your debut collections (hers, This Will Be Good, also came out this Spring, with Book*hug), making yours the most revoltingly heartwarming love story in the Canadian poetry world. Both of your books explore your childhoods and the gendered expectations that you had to navigate, especially in your teenage years. Do you think of them as united in some way? In conversation with one another? Any plans to co-write book #2?

Curtis: The books coming out at the same time was a bit of a fluke, but getting to tour our first collections together and share that experience was something we’ll never forget. I think there are some overarching similarities like you pointed out, but on a poem level I think the two books are very different, stylistically, tonally, thematically—you name it. Overall, I’ve been given a tremendous amount of space to speak, both in the form of the physical book, at readings on tour and elsewhere and in interviews like this one, and I’m so grateful for this opportunity, and to have been able to share much of it with my best friend and closest kindred spirit.

Mallory has her novel, The Birth Yard, coming out in 2020 with Harper Collins and I’m currently working my way through a second poetry collection, so I’m not sure we’ll overlap like we did this year anytime in the near future. It’s been a blast.

---

Have a blast, yourself, by picking up a copy of Little Wild. You can pick one up at your local bookstore, or via the Nightwood Editions website or, I suppose, from Amazon.



9/13/2018

caught unawares at the centre: "Years, Months, and Days" by Amanda Jernigan


Three poems from Years, Months, and Days – Amanda Jernigan



I can see the place,
near to me as you are,
clearly as your face,
but I cannot go there.


*


A man
goes here
and there
to sow
the seed
falls here
and there
the birds
go here
and there
to eat
the seed
the man
goes forth
to sow.



*


Summer to autumn,
how do we travel,
autumn to winter,
one to another,
winter to springtime,
how do we travel,
springtime to summer,
one to another.



from Years, Months, and Days
(Biblioasis, 2018).

Reprinted with permission.


---

I've long admired Amanda Jernigan's poems for their compact precision (see her poem "Catch," for instance). Few writers can say as much, in as few words, as Jernigan does time and time again in her first two collections, Groundwork and All the Daylight Hours, books steeped in mythological and philosophical considerations. How lovely and fitting it was, then, to have Years, Months, and Days (Biblioasis, 2018) arrive in my mailbox.

Years, Months, and Days
The book, "a transfiguration of Mennonite hymns" (specifically the nearly 200-year-old Mennonite hymnal Die Gemeinschaftliche Liedersammlung), explores religious thought (its philosophy, its myth) in poems so tiny you might easily overlook them. At sixty pages, few of which contain more than thirty words, Years, Months, and Days is so small that this interview about it exceeds the book's word count many times over. And yet the poems contain whole worlds, whole schools of thought, which can be unpacked and unpacked, if you so desire, or simply enjoyed for the work they do on the tongue and ear. If some books can be read in one sitting, this one can be read ten times in that same span, and in each reading it will be a new book, making of itself a new offering. Needless to say, it's a rather singular reading experience in the world of contemporary Canadian poetry.

I sat down with Amanda to discuss Years, Months and Days, the recent deepening of religious themes in her work, the mentors who shaped her writing life, a new poetry-dirty-word to replace "accessible," and much more. I hope you enjoy!

Amanda Jernigan, dropping anchor in preparation
for a barrage of interview question.

---
Rob: In the afterword to Years, Months, and Days you note that the poems in the book “are not translations so much as they are meditations on the possibility of translation.” Can you unpack that a bit more? What were the anchoring points which kept the poems tethered in some way to the original text? Do you think there’s a limit, no matter how up-front the translator is, to what can reasonably be considered a “translation”?

Amanda: In order to consider these poems translations, we have to define the word “translation” very loosely indeed — though as I’ve written elsewhere, the word translation can mean both “carried across” (i.e. preserved) and “transformed” (i.e. changed utterly — as in Shakespeare: Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated!). So “meditations on the possibility of translation” is really more apt. And the kind of translation at issue here, as I say in the afterword, is not only, or even centrally, translation across languages, but translation “between religions, or between religion and secularity; between a world defined by the presence of God, and a world defined by His absence — or perhaps by other sorts of presences and Presences.” That is to say, I embarked on the work as a secular person, an atheist person, trying to see what I could understand (and not just intellectually, but with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind, as they say in the Book of Common Prayer) of these hymns that are expressions of religious faith: of the Old Order Mennonite faith specifically, and beyond that of Anabaptist faith more generally, of Protestant faith, of Christian faith.

What I could understand, initially, was very little: that is one reason the poems are so short. I worked not with whole hymns but with fragments of hymns, sometimes mere phrases — but fragments or phrases I felt I could understand. Often these were moments of doubt and darkness in the hymns. Sometimes they were moments of longing. Sometimes they were moments in which faith is expressed through or in the rhythms of the natural world.

What I did not understand, embarking on the work of translation, were, among other things, the words God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. And such occur very often in the hymnal, as you will not be surprised to hear. So in this sense, as a translator, I was profoundly limited.

But moments of doubt and darkness, of longing, of a deeply felt resonance between the rhythms of faith and the rhythms of the natural world — it turns out that all of these things figure, both in the hymnal and in the mythos that is its source, not at all peripherally. Centrally. So, by following my way along what I felt to be the margins of the text — like Chuchundra, the muskrat in The Jungle Book, who creeps around by the wall out of fear — I found myself caught unawares at the centre. The poems read very differently to me now than they did when I wrote them.


Rob: Can you compare your experience with Years, Months, and Days to that of writing your new chapbook, The Temple (Baseline Press, 2018)? The two books are united in that the chapbook is also a rendering of religious song (the text for a new cantata for the Feast of the Presentation). Do you see the two projects as linked?

The Temple
Amanda: My process in the writing of The Temple was quite different. It is quite a different book. The two projects were not directly related, though they both have had a life as words for music. The first was commissioned by Inter Arts Matrix as part of a choral work by Colin Labadie, the second by countertenor Daniel Cabena as part of a cantata by Zachary Wadsworth: as such, both projects brought me into meaningful contact with other artists, musicians and composers, whose worlds of art and faith and doubt informed what I ultimately wrote.

But the engagement of Years, Months, and Days is with the texts of specific, German-language Protestant hymns. The Temple engages with the Christian mythos much more generally — but specifically with the mythos, or mythoi, of the Gospels. And I entered this world not from the margins, like Chuchundra, but in the middle, through the experiences of conception and pregnancy and labour and birth and motherhood — in their literal manifestations, and in their imaginal manifestations, also — experiences that are of crucial importance in the Gospels. And I use that word “crucial” advisedly.

The Temple is a story of motherhood, specifically; it is also a story of a woman in love more generally. And it is a story that attempts to bring face to face two knowledges: that of Person in Love, in the largest sense; and that of Person Out of Love, or on Love’s margins — of Mary, the new mother, a woman on the verge of life; and of Simeon, the old prophet, a man on the verge of death.

In his introduction to the letters of John Keats, the critic Lionel Trilling writes:

[In this letter, Keats] has brought his two knowledges face to face, the knowledge of the world of circumstance, of death and cancer, and the knowledge of the world of self, of spirit and creation, and the delight in them. Each seems a whole knowledge considered alone; each is but a half-knowledge when taken with the other; both together constitute a truth.

The Temple is, I think, an effort to constitute — or at least to contemplate (the word is cognate with “temple”) — a truth, in this sense.


Rob: In the afterword of Years, Months, and Days you mention not being religious yourself, and yet here you are with both of these books (Years, Months, and Days and The Temple). What’s up?

Amanda: What’s up, I suppose, is that somehow in the writing of Years, Months, and Days and The Temple — not necessarily because of the writing, but through the time in which the writing took place, and beyond it — those words God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit have come to mean something to me.

In a 2001 interview with Michael Carbert, Richard Outram writes:

… when I say I am a theist, one of the things I certainly mean is that I use the word “God” and if I use the word I have to mean something by it. Or stated negatively, I am not an atheist and I am not an agnostic. But here one is plunged into the very dangerous areas of belief and the question of the nature of belief. I use the word God and I mean something by it. I wish to indicate something about myself and about the nature of reality as I understand it by using that term. But I suspect that what I mean when I use the word is not what most people mean when they use the word. I use it with caution, but in a number of different ways, including the ironical and occasionally the satirical, and I feel free to do that in all conscience. But if you are going to use the word in any meaningful terms then it seems to me that you have to do so on a basis of faith …

I think this puts it very well. In the course of the past year, those words — God, Christ, the Holy Spirit — have come to have some application for me, to indicate something about myself and about the nature of reality as I understand it.

“I believe in God” is not an empty phrase: certainly not as it is enshrined, for instance, in the Creed and elsewhere, in the speech acts of ritual. No more is “I do not believe in God.” But both of these phrases taken in isolation are in a language that is, for me, other than the language of faith and doubt. I suppose that poetry is, for me, among other things, the language — or a language — of faith and doubt. Life, too, is such a language.


Rob: “The language of faith and doubt.” Yes! On that theme: having studied both closely now, what do you see as the points of overlap in the Venn Diagram between poetry and hymn? Poetry and prayer? Do you think you’ve always worked in the space between these things?

Amanda: There are prayers that are, among other things, great poems — and poems that may have, among other things, application as prayer. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen poetry as prayer, in any simple sense. A prayer is a supplication. A poem is an offering.

The making of a poem — perhaps that can be a kind of prayer. (A prayer for a good poem, say.) Certainly, it can be a meditation, or a form of devotion. But the poem itself? Yes, an offering. Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight: that to me is the poet’s prayer. Or one of ’em.

But poetry does, for me, work in an intrinsically religious space. Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them: although poetry is (certainly for me) a solitary pursuit, there is something inherently communal about it. A poet works in language, that beautiful collaborative construction, the fruit of all the speakers and writers and singers who have come before. So when we work in language, we do not work alone. And we do not, I think, write solely for ourselves: certainly I do not. Even in my deepest solitude there is the sense of an interlocutor, inherent in the words I’m speaking. And because we do not move alone in language, there exists in language that which is beyond ourselves. Whatever we wish to call it.

A hymn can be a poem, or a prayer, but it does not have to work as words on a page, as a written-down poem does; and it does not have to be a supplication. It can be, for instance, a celebration. Or a lament. Certain hymns seem to me to work very well as poems on the page. Others do not. I think there is good (I mean, meaningful) work for poets in trying to make more and better words for music, for use in liturgical contexts. One of my favourite poets, Jay Macpherson — “a hopeless agnostic,” she called herself — did such work, producing new and revised translations for the revised hymnary of the United Church of Canada. But the poems in Years, Months, and Days are not hymns. They are poems. This is another way in which they have been translated.


Rob: Wow – I didn’t know that about Jay Macpherson! My father was a United Church minister, and I’m sure I’ve sung some of those revised hymns.

Earth and Heaven
Your anthology of myth poetry, Earth and Heaven (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2015, co-edited with Evan Jones), includes poems on Christian themes alongside poems drawn from Greek and Roman mythology. You’ve, similarly, written poems drawn from both Greek and Christian sources. Do you think differently about what you are doing in each? Does the fact that some are tied to peoples’ spiritual practices shape how you approach them (in writing your own poems and in reading others)? If so, how?

Amanda: This is certainly a question with which I’ve wrestled. I’ve taken to heart what Macpherson says about myth and religion:

I think that a mythology that is no longer capable of change and absorbing new layers of possibility is a dead one that can only be studied from books.

So, when a poet makes use of a myth — the myth of Persephone is Macpherson’s example — what we see is not the death of the myth but rather

its stability, its durability, [and] also its metamorphic power, the protean flexibility and, if one can say it, venerean openness that has belonged to the life of such elements since they were fully released from religion into art.

With the Christian mythos, we are working — in 21st century Canada — with elements that I would say have been partially released from religion into art. This makes such elements both peculiarly powerful and peculiarly dangerous, for a poet — and I think the fear and trembling with which I move among such elements has increased, as my sense of their religious freight has increased. But I still move among such elements: I think a poet must. I would even go so far as to say (with fear and trembling) that I consider it a sacred charge.


Groundwork
Rob: “Peculiarly powerful and peculiarly dangerous” – yes, I like that. And the necessity of working in that space.

On to another “sacred charge” in your work: it seems to me that running through all your books is a focus on exploring and reviving the past. Your first book, Groundwork, literally starts in an archaeological dig, and in addition to your book on myth poetry, you’ve also edited or authored books on elder poets Peter Sanger and Richard Outram. Have you always been preoccupied with the past? What do you think is the source of that instinct for you (if an instinct at all)? Is it a reach to say that that instinct is akin to a religious one, in a sense: that desire to preserve and to be preserved?

Amanda: I think I’d prefer to think about this as a preoccupation with reality: not so much with that which was but with that which is. The forms that the past takes in the present are many, and include: artifacts buried under the ground, and unearthed; our selves and skins; the texts of poems. That which has been appears to us in the form of that which is: this is fascinating to me.

What moves me as a scholar I think (you mention my work on Sanger and Outram) is not so much a drive to preserve as a drive to recollect: to bring back into being that which has fallen into abeyance. To revive, as you say. Which is I think on some level what we do whenever we read, whenever we remember: we call to mind something that isn’t (or wasn’t) directly before us, whether separate from us in time or space. It is a making-now, a making-present. It is amazing to me that we are able to do this.

Scholarship is also, for me, a form of devotion: in its careful attention there is an ethic. It is a kind of love. I love witty, intelligent literary criticism — reading it is one of my chief pleasures — but the kinds of scholarship that most move me are sometimes the least superficially interesting: bibliography, textual criticism. In attending to the minute particulars of human expression, they attest to the meaning of experience.


Rob: Could you speak a little about the role of Peter Sanger in your writing life? I was struck, in the introduction to Living in the Orchard: The Poetry of Peter Sanger (Frog Hollow, 2014), by how his long-time collaborations with photographer Thaddeus Holownia mirror your collaborations with your husband John Haney (whose woodcuts, as in so many of your books, play a prominent role in Living in the Orchard). You grew up in a literary household, so probably had plenty of role models, but still I wonder if Sanger showed you (both) a path you hadn’t quite seen before?

Amanda: I am glad that you have asked this, for it gives me a chance to express my debt of gratitude to Sanger, which is enormous. I hardly know where to begin.

I am writing to you from Wood Point, New Brunswick. I moved here in July, a month and a half ago. It is in some sense a return for me. I was an undergraduate student in nearby Sackville, and I have known this shore, to visit, for more than twenty years. And as an imaginative landscape, too, Wood Point is familiar — from the work of Holownia and Sanger, and also from the work of the poet John Thompson, who preceded both of them here. I hear the voices of these artists very strongly. I have to squint through and past their words and images to see, for instance, the view out my study window. Their voices both conceal it and reveal it.

For example: When I look at the eagle who scans the bay from the lone spruce on the eponymous Wood Point, I see him, or her, through and beyond the eagles that nest in the white pine of Cameron Creek’s intervale, in Sanger’s essay “A Knowledge of Evening.” (And I imagine Sanger squinting to see those eagles through and beyond Blake’s portion of genius — and Blake himself squinting to see an eagle through and beyond the Biblical exhortations to lift up thy face, lift up thy voice, lift up thy prayer…) When I look at the tumbledown blacksmith shop behind the farmhouse from which I write, I see it through and beyond the vanished smithies of Cameron Yard, from Sanger’s Ironworks. When I look at the tidal race of the Bay of Fundy I see it through and beyond the “wide reach of reddish-brown water” from Sanger’s essay “Na: The Carry.”

So, Sanger is everywhere for me, here. But the role he has played in my writing life goes beyond my relationship with this particular landscape, the environs of Fundy. There is his ongoing collaboration and conversation with Holownia, which as you note has modelled for both me and my husband a way of working that embraces solitude and company, meditation and conversation — a way of working grounded in an ethic of close observation and sustained attention. And for me, specifically, Sanger has modelled a kind of writing life that embraces both poetry and criticism, not — or not simply — as antagonists, but as symbionts. Sanger’s poetic sequence Abatos, in Aiken Drum, is a beautiful portrait — a show, as Sanger might say — of the relationship between poet and critic, not just as these two roles may be manifest in separate individuals, but as these two roles may be manifest as aspects of a single personality. From Sanger, too, I think I’ve learned to value what I guess I’d call a certain decorum, in letters. I don’t just mean that in the sense of mannerliness, or a respect for privacies — though it is those, too, in Sanger’s work — but in the sense of “fittingness,” of being able to find the right words for the right time and place. A sense of occasion.


Rob: The back cover of Years, Months, and Days features a quotation from Ange Mlinko, in which she says your poetry is “... Supremely intelligent, and full of love...” How true! And what a rare combination! Too often in our culture, I find intelligence is presented as cold intellect, and love as simple or foolish, detached from deep thought. We posit intelligence as being antithetical to religious thought, also, and our poetry culture regularly praises dense, often-indecipherable poetry as “intelligent” and therefore superior to more “accessible” work which prioritizes direct narrative or feeling (the “A” word having become as close to a curse word as you can get in some circles). I see in your writing both a movement toward religious thought and one away from density — you seem to be embracing a stripped-down language in which sound, shape, and breath take the lead. Combined, these developments feel like a common path away from intellectual “knowing” and toward uncertainty and wonder (“O wake / me from / the sleep / of being / sure.” you write in Years, Months, and Days). Do you see this trajectory in your writing? If so, why do you think this might be?

Amanda: Here again I think we are in the presence of two knowledges brought face to face. Love, unchecked, can cause terrible damage; but so too can intelligence, unilluminated. Simone Weil writes that faith is the experience that the intelligence is illuminated by love, and that resonates with me. (In the Christian mythos, God, incarnate as an infant, trusts himself not to intelligence, but to motherlove — or perhaps I should say, to the intelligence of motherlove. This is part of the burden of The Temple.)

I wouldn’t say I strive for accessibility, per se, but I do strive for usefulness. I know, Oscar, all art is quite useless: on one level, I believe that. Poets are not servants of the utile. But on another level I hold with Sanger’s dictum, from his “Some Notes on Poems of Occasion,” a small essay first published in The New Quarterly:

The defining crux of a poet: whether he or she can write a poem of occasion with conviction and inspiration. // Sever poetry from occasion and you sever it from most of life.

I think that it is very meet, to filch again the language of the Book of Common Prayer, that a poet should look to lay her skill at the feet of the human needs “to praise and lament” — these “occasional needs,” as Sanger calls them. Epithalamia, elegies, liturgical words, or words for music …. Not all of my poems fall into these categories, but I think it’s fair to say that many of them do attempt to answer to those occasional needs, in myself and others.

You talk about “uncertainty and wonder”: it seems to me that we have a need for these, too, which is in some sense just as basic as our human needs to praise and lament. Such a need is served sometimes by simplicity, sometimes by complexity. So a poem that is complex and difficult and allusive might be just as “useful,” in a certain time and place, as a poem that is simple and accessible. (Also, simplicity can sometimes be the form in which complexity appears.)


Rob: Usefulness — a new term (and thought) for writers to squirm over!

Ok, last question: you’ve put out as many books in celebration of other writers (a selected, an anthology, a monograph) as you have full-length poetry collections. Was it always a desire of yours to strike that less-than-common (though highly admirable) balance? I ask in part because I now, like you, have kids in the house, and I’ve found myself more drawn to editing and anthology work than I expected I would be, largely because I’m able to do that work in the fits and starts of (foggy-minded) time available to me. It’s a work-around that’s let me stay nestled up to the source. But then another part of me thinks you would have done all this work regardless of the kids — that it’s in your nature to balance creation and curation, work on the self with praise for the other. What are your thoughts on what’s brought you here? Are you surprised, looking back, at the sequence of books you’ve strung together? And do you think you’ll keep the balance going in the future?

Amanda: As you note, I grew up in a literary household — my mother a literary editor, my grandfather a newspaper man. What was modeled for me at home, then, was this kind of literary work — editorial, curatorial — in both its critical and nurturing aspects. And also teaching, which has been another part of my life of letters. (Both my parents are teachers.) Such practices, as you note, allow us to stay nestled up to the source (my mother says, just to touch the hem of what I love…). But they are also creative practices in their own right.

My mother is not someone who edits because she can’t write: she is someone for whom editing is a true vocation. The same was true for my grandfather. I think my own vocation is different than theirs. I am a writer. But I have some aptitude for teaching, editing, scholarship. These are things I’ve done sometimes out of a service ethic (something I’ve seen modelled not only by my mother, but by Holownia and Sanger and very many of the artists I’ve admired), and sometimes to earn my bread. But also, as I say above, there is a sense in which poetry and criticism (in its broadest sense, which includes for me scholarship, editing, and teaching) are deeply symbiotic. I have sometimes been graced to participate in this symbiosis. And sometimes — as a person who contains poet, scholar, editor, and teacher — I have felt it at work within myself.

Right now on my desk (figuratively, not literally: literally, there are beach stones and a notebook and several accumulated drinking vessels and many papers and the Book of Common Prayer) there is a book of my own poems, slowly taking shape, and a book of my essays. Posing dandyishly in the wings there is a libretto about Oscar Wilde’s time in Canada which I’m dying to write. There is an unfinished play. And then there is a box of unread manuscripts for me to consider, in my new capacity (or incapacity) as Poetry Editor at Biblioasis; and ongoing work on The Collected Poems of Richard Outram; and new work, in collaboration with the scholar Michael DiSanto, on an edition of George Whalley’s book Poetic Process; and the work of friends… I say “I’m a writer, not a critic,” but really the evidence of my desk is that both have an equal claim upon my heart.


---

Amanda's poetry will quickly have a claim on your heart, so pick up a copy of Years, Months, and Days at your local bookstore, or via the Biblioasis website or, I suppose, from Amazon.

8/09/2018

September Dead Poets

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch on September 16th, 2018, from 3-5 PM. It will feature:

Reinaldo Arenas (1943 - 1990), read by Aidan Chafe
Pablo Neruda (1904 - 1973), read by Danny Peart
Sei Shōnagon (966 - 1017), read by Yvonne Blomer
Derek Walcott (1930 - 2017), read by Alan Hill

Attendance is free. For more info visit the DPRS website.

I hope to see you on September 16th!

6/26/2018

What the Poets are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation


I'm excited to announce a new book I've been working on (with many co-conspirators): What the Poets are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation will be published this November from Nightwood Editions!

As devoted Roll of Nickels readers will know, I've long been a big fan of the Tim Bowling edited 2002 collection of interviews, Where the Words Come From. I've posted many quotes from the book over the years, and I interviewed Tim, in part about Where the Words Come From, last year.

It was in rereading that book, in preparation for the interview, that I realized it had been sixteen years since it was published, a time in which an entirely new generation of writers had emerged (and another had risen to prominence). I sent a query to Nightwood, and a year-and-a-bit later here we are!

This new book will feature two younger generations of Canadian poets talking craft, politics, community, and all sorts of tangents (poets, you know?).

It will include conversations between:

Elizabeth Bachinsky and Kayla Czaga
Tim Bowling and Raoul Fernandes
Dionne Brand and Souvankham Thammavongsa
Marilyn Dumont and Katherena Vermette
Sue Goyette and Linda Besner
Steven Heighton and Ben Ladouceur
Sina Queyras and Canisia Lubrin
Armand Garnet Ruffo and Liz Howard
Karen Solie and Amanda Jernigan
Russell Thornton and Phoebe Wang
+ an afterword co-written by Nick Thran and Sue Sinclair

The book will also include sample poems from the poets, connected to elements of the conversations.

It will be a fun literary party, but in book form!

My hope is it will inspire writers young and old (as the 2002 book did, and does, for me), while also proving the great generational divide of our moment is not as great and divided as has been previously reported.

I can't wait for you all to see it!

6/13/2018

July Dead Poets Lineup

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch on July 8th, 2018, from 3-5 PM. It will feature:

John Ashbery (1927 - 2017), read by Catherine Owen
Jim Carroll (1949 - 2009), read by Geoffrey Nilson
Louis MacNeice (1907 - 1963), read by Christopher Levenson
Theodore Roethke (1908 - 1963), read by Alan Girling

Attendance is free. For more info visit the DPRS website.

I hope to see you on July 8th!

6/04/2018

Guest Interview: Catherine Owen on "Dear Ghost,"

Dear Ghost,
Brandon Wnuk: I wanted to start with the title, Dear Ghost,. This title implies the beginning of a letter, as though the poems throughout the book are written for someone in particular. Is the ghost anyone specific to you? How did you come up with the title?

Catherine Owen: The title, Dear Ghost,, comes from the John Ashbery quote at the start of the book: "Dear ghost, what shelter in the noonday crowd?" I found the line compelling as obviously addressing a spectre about undead concerns is a bit odd, but something one does when grieving. I actually had multiple titles for this book and only settled on this one long after the poems in the collection were written.


Wnuk: On the subject of Ashbery, one of your poem states that he is what you “resisted as a younger poet but who now [you] embrace”. Do you think your view on poetry is constantly evolving today, and how would you say your outlook on poetry has changed since your younger years?

Owen: Absolutely my views on poetry are regularly evolving and shifting, growing deeper as I continue to expand my circle of texts and experiences. When I was a younger poet, I loved the simple lyric more than anything. It provided me with a sense of possibility I think, control and resolution. Then, likely through my work on the poet Robinson Jeffers throughout my second book, The Wrecks of Eden, and my Masters thesis, I became hungry for epics. But I still wasn't ready for Ashbery's surreal ironies or non-sequiturial leaps. Eventually, I had a breakthrough and not only began to relish his work but to see him as a poetic muse, one who I can absorb daily and who releases me to write in any wild way I choose.


Wnuk: In Dear Ghost,, you dedicate a section to “Poems that work in the TV World”. What are your experiences with film, and how would you say poetry and film relate, if at all?

Owen: I have worked in film for 5 years now. First as a PA and then in Props. For me the film life has enabled me to work part time and make sufficient money that I can live alone. That has been its primary influence as artists are always struggling to figure out how to create their art and survive at the same time as one cannot subsist on poetic income! As a poet I am more often "in my head" and working in film has also increased the tangibility in my life as well as my need to be physically fit and endure long crazy hours. Pros and cons to every choice but fusing writing poetry with making a living in film has come the closest to providing balance in my existence so far.


Wnuk: Some of your poems touch upon the artifice in film and the distance between art and life. Do you think the tensions in the film world (between artifice and reality) play out in the poetry world in the same way?

Owen: Certainly not in the same way. In the film world we are always trying to create illusion. In poetry one uses language and craft to attempt to arrive at a truth. I take poetry as an art form very seriously while in film there is more of a slap-dash feel often as one rushes to toss something together to make it "look like" a war scene or a fancy party. But then most of the film work I have done is with Warner Bros shows so that may have skewed my vision of that realm.


Wnuk: You write on many modern and current topics while using more traditional forms of poetry, such as the sonnet and glosa. What takes you back to these traditional forms as a way into addressing modern topics?

Owen: I firmly believe that to write you need to know ALL the tools and approaches to the art. And form is a HUGE part of this kit. I don't see them as traditional containers vs modern content but as means through which what I experience in the present can be conveyed most compellingly. The content usually "asks" for a particular form or structure. For instance, material that addresses grief loves to fill a villanelle form as it is both circular and advancing in its hauntings and eventual movements toward resolutions. And forms are music. Which is the core of poetry.


Catherine Owen
Wnuk: As a fellow Vancouverite, I see a lot of the city in your poems, though often it isn’t referenced directly. What role does Vancouver play in your writing? Do you intentionally avoid or embrace regional specificity, and how does that connect to your considerations of your audience?

Owen: Born and raised in Vancouver, the landscape inevitably enters my art, inflicts it, echoes it. I am particularly drawn to bodies of water like the Fraser River and such landmarks as the Pattullo Bridge. I think it's crucial to attend to your immediate environment but not to be limited or narrowed by regionality. I have toured this whole country 10 times now and so feel at home in many places. You bring your audience to you when you are performing, whether that's in forms or in geography. You consider them capable of traveling with you where your work is going.


Wnuk: How much do you take the reader into consideration when writing? Would you say that you write for yourself first and foremost?

Owen: I just write. I am also a performer. But again, as I said above, I draw the audience to me. I certainly don't write for anyone else. Though I compose within a social nexus threaded by multiple influences. I always say that I write for the page and then take it to the stage.


Wnuk: I appreciate how vocal and opinionated you have been when it comes to reviewing poetry on your Marrow Reviews website. Many times a reviewer might be afraid to give a negative opinion on a poetry book. What would you say to someone who says that “negative” reviews are harmful?

Owen: Negative is not a word that makes sense to me when it comes to giving a critical opinion. None of us are perfect and if an educated reader is able to say "your line breaks don't work here or there" or "here's where you got lazy and fell into clichés" then we are all better for it. I want all writers to compose reviews because that increases their own and others' critical vocabulary, depth of reading and respect for the art. I grow very tired of the gushy blurb-style overviews or poets refusing to review because they think it will harm their chances of getting prizes or jobs. We really need to be braver for the art!


Wnuk: Lastly, in Dear Ghost,, you use found text in many of your poems, whether it be from a letter found on the street or conversations overheard. What inspired you to take up this form?

Owen: The first poem was, yes, a letter recovered in the street and it struck me as so ideal in its unwitting evocations of the conflictual relationship we can all have with the bonds of "art". I like to walk and to take transit and thus to listen to the world flowing around me in all its idioms and tonalities. Often a bit of a conversation sparks a poem or allows an alternate rhythm to enter the piece. And again, such a technique was inspired by Ashbery's willing openness, looseness, swerves and detours and its attending entrees into magic.


---


Brandon Wnuk is a recent grad of the UFV English program.

Catherine Owen is the author of ten collections of poetry and three collections of prose, including her compilation of interviews on writing called The Other 23 & a Half Hours: Or Everything You Wanted to Know that Your MFA Didn’t Teach You (Wolsak & Wynn, 2015) and her short story collection, The Day of the Dead (Caitlin Press, 2016).

You can pick up a copy of Dear Ghost, from the Wolsak and Wynn website. or from your local bookstore.


6/01/2018

"Oh Not So Great" Coquitlam Launch - June 23rd, 3-5 PM, Chapters Pinetree Village


I'm excited to announce the Coquitlam launch of "Oh Not So Great": Poems from the Depression Project!

The Vancouver launch, back in January, mixed medical research, visual art, poetry and conversation together in one evening. You can see some photos from that event here.

We're hoping to keep the good energy going in Coquitlam on June 23rd, with Diane Tucker hosting and an introduction to the event delivered by Dr. Patricia Gabriel, the lead researcher on the project.

The details:

“Oh Not So Great”: Poems from the Depression Project
Coquitlam Book Launch

Saturday, June 23rd, 3-5 PM
Chapters Pinetree Village
2991 Lougheed Highway, Coquitlam, BC
Hosted by Diane Tucker, with introduction by Dr. Patricia Gabriel
Free! Books for sale!
Poster:


You can RSVP via the Facebook event page here.

I hope to see you there!

5/31/2018

transform, not translate

In the tension between [ongoingness and conclusion] lies the resonance without which a poem is flat, static, which is to say, is not a poem. This resonance can be frustrating for the reader who wants experience to be translated; but poems tend instead to transform, not translate - they are indeed translations of felt and thought experience into verbal presentation, but their business, as it were, is to transform experience so that our assumption about a given experience can be disturbed and, accordingly, made more complicated, deeper, richer. This doesn't mean that we as readers necessarily will feel better. But the purpose of reading poetry is not, to my mind, to be made to feel better, but rather to understand human experience more entirely; this kind of understanding leads to wisdom, not the good feeling that is finally a shallow version of the happiness that wisdom strangely brings in its wake.

- Carl Phillips, from his essay "Little Gods of Making" in The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (Graywolf, 2014).

5/29/2018

poetry's enduring worthlessness

Poems, despite being famously useless, do have a readership. As with academia, nearly all of that readership consists of insiders—other people who write poems. The difference is that comparatively few of them are doing that reading and writing for the sake of tenure, a promotion, or prestige in the grant hierarchy. I can also say, with certainty, that if tomorrow morning I get fired, or exiled to Siberia, I’ll continue to write and read (and probably write about) poetry. (The odds that I’ll continue reframing my dissertation as a monograph aren’t quite so good.) I’m certain that poetry’s enduring worthlessness will outlive the postwar model of academia that’s currently hobbling towards the post-work era.

-Carl Watts, from his essay "Poetry and Precarity" over on rob mclennan's my (small press) writing day blog. You can read the whole thing here.

5/24/2018

I keep coming back to what gives me courage: "Elemental" by Kate Braid


Redwing, I Say - Kate Braid
Sparrow, we say, redwing, magpie, crow
The field goes on.
-Maureen Scott Harris

Redwing, blackbird, able feeder,
what do you have to teach me?

Forgive my demand. It is based on urgency.
I do not say desperate but you will understand.

Redwing, bearing your own epaulettes,
unspeakable courage to always fly

forward. Are you not tempted sometimes to return
to the egg?

Redwing, why did the one who named you
omit the gold, the sun that shines from you to light the way?

Or is it your song that leads, gives me courage,
tricks me some days, into looking up. Just this.

from Elemental
(Caitlin Press, 2018).
Reprinted with permission.


---

Elemental
In the acknowledgments page of her sixth poetry collection, Elemental, Kate Braid thanks a number of people specifically before adding, at the end of her list of thank yous: "I am proud to be a member of the British Columbia poetry community - it's community that keeps me going." This gesture, of pushing her circle of attention and praise a little further out than most would typically venture, feels very in keeping with what I know of Kate Braid, and of her writing.

From her years of teaching creative writing to her work organizing community writing groups, editing anthologies, coordinating reading series', etc. (including the Dead Poets Reading Series, where we worked together for six years), Kate has always endeavoured to draw in and empower new writers. She's proven similarly devoted to exploring the work and life of great artists, be it Emily Carr (Rebel Artist, To This Cedar Fountain), Georgia O'Keeffe (Inward to the Bones) or Glenn Gould (A Well-Mannered Storm). There is a kindness, and a deep attention, that she brings to both the subjects of her poems and her real-life interactions - the two feel inextricably linked.

A few years back, I was invited to present Kate Braid with a Mentorship award. At that time, I asked some of her former students to weigh in on the impact she'd had on their lives. One response came from Amber Dawn, who herself has become one of the leading mentors in the BC writing world. She wrote:

"[Kate] taught not just to respond to poetry, but to show up for other writers. To let the collective knowledge of the classroom lift us all up as poets. To this day, being taught to value my sense of belonging within literary communities has been a lesson even more powerful than being taught about craft itself."

The poems/the writers. The writers/the poems. How can we be kind and generous to one and not the other? It's a question we are confronting over and over these days, and one for which Kate's life demonstrates many of the answers.

For this, and many other reasons, it was a joy to chat with Kate about her new book, Elemental, which widens her circle of attention and praise even further, to draw in the very elements of this world: the water, fire, wood, sky, and earth from which our world is derived. And the redwings, of course. I hope you enjoy.


Kate Braid, in the elements. (Sorry, couldn't help myself).

---
Rob: I spoke with you briefly for PRISM international back in 2014, and at that point you noted: "Looking over my recent poems, I’m a bit alarmed to find I’m writing more personally, neither behind the mask of another or out of my experience as a carpenter – which also became a sort of persona." True to that statement, Elemental, though certainly structured around "elemental" themes, feels in other ways like your first "general" collection (your past collections having channeled Glenn Gould and Emily Carr, among others). In that sense it feels almost like you're living the traditional poet's trajectory in reverse (the early, more personal/general collection, followed by themed "projects").

Do you think of this book in those terms ("general" and personal), and do you think it represents a larger shift in your preoccupations/energies as a writer? Did “removing the masks” allow you to access some more "elemental" part of yourself?

Kate: Ah, interesting question! I’d never thought of it in terms of “trajectories as a writer,” only that when I started writing, I was terrified of being vulnerable, revealing myself. I think this at least partly had to do with the fact that the first poems were drawn from construction where I felt I had to be very, very careful and hide my private self. Or maybe it’s because I’m just more chicken than most poets! Some of the poems in Elemental were actually first-drafted at that time but I didn’t (dare) publish them. I think now I’m braver. Or I care less about what people think of me. This is one of the great joys of getting older.


Rob: Elemental opens with a quote from D.H. Lawrence which speak of "the whole-life effort of man to get his life into direct contact with the elemental life of the cosmos..." In your version of the quote, you've inserted a "[wo]" in front of "man" and a "[her]" in front of his, as though you are pushing open space in Lawrence's description for women, and for yourself.

This feels very in keeping with your life as a construction worker (where you were the first woman to join the Vancouver local of the Carpenters’ Union and one of the first women to run her own construction company), and also for your writing on that subject, including Covering Rough Ground (and Rough Ground Revisited), Turning Left to the Ladies and the memoir Journeywoman.

Could you speak a little about the importance of the quote, and your adjustment to it, in the context of this book in particular? Do you think your background breaking gender barriers shaped or contextualized in some way the way you thought about and approached the "elemental life of the cosmos"?

Journeywoman
Kate: I found the Lawrence quote some years before Elemental came together, in a book of essays about Georgia O’Keeffe who was one of the women (along with Emily Carr) who greatly inspired me during and after the construction years. (O’Keeffe and Lawrence had been friends.) As Elemental was coming together, I felt at a loss as to how to define it; this book was/is unlike anything I’ve written before. As you say – it wasn’t a persona book, nor is it directly about construction. As I kept poking at the question, “What is this book about?” I ran across Lawrence’s quote again and it helped me articulate what I’d begun to see but hadn’t yet dared name – a coherence to the universe and how life-giving, life-enhancing it is, even if we don’t understand – or even acknowledge – it.

I don’t think my gender had much to do with how I approached this “elemental life” and I don’t want to fall into the clichés of women being “closer to the earth” because of menstrual cycles and childbirth. Knowing carpenters, I think men know it too. I’d say it was the job itself – mucking about in dirt and rain and holding hands with lumber all day under the open sky – that sensitized me.

And yes, references to “man”kind and “him” now seem very old-fashioned. They specifically exclude women. I’ll tell you a construction story; in the pre-technology days of the 1980s, union jobs were given out on a first-come-first-served basis. As you left one job, you reported in to the Dispatch Office and your name card was placed on the Dispatch Board. You’d then be called out to the next available job in that same order. But there were actually two Boards – one for Apprentices, one for people with their journey tickets. So when I earned my Red Seal Carpenter’s certificate, I was shifted from the Apprentice to the Journeymen’s board. I’ve always been sensitive to the language of construction (“ballcocks, studs, lesbian connections, erecting walls, depth of penetration” – the list goes on!) so one day I asked some of the guys standing around if we could change the name from “Journeymen” to “Carpenters.” Gender neutral – perfect, right? But the guys objected and said the word didn’t matter. “Journeyman” applies to everyone, they said, male or female. But there’d never been a female on that Board before. So I told them, “If it makes no difference, let’s call the Board, “Journeywomen.” Well, their very vocal response showed that the words clearly do make a difference. (Still, to the union’s credit, a few days later, the name over the Board was “Carpenters.”)


Rob: Elemental features a number of ekphrastic poems, especially in the first section, “Water”, where you respond to two paintings by Hiroshige and one by Jean Dominique Ingres. Responses to works of art have long played a central role in your writing, be it Emily Carr’s and Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings or Glenn Gould’s music. That said, one of the joys of ekphrastic poems is that what we ask of them is always changing with technology – pre-photography ekphrastic poems were in a sense necessary to convey a sense of the object, and with each subsequent recording technology the necessity of the form has waned, requiring the form to adapt in response. I see your books on Carr, O’Keeffe and Gould as a part of that process – moving into the art, but also the lives of the artists, and conversing with them in a way that expands the circle of what we know and imagine about their art.

In the time since those books were written, technology has changed greatly – the internet has brought with it an unprecedented volume of, and ease of access to, images and songs. Has your thinking about writing-on-art – its nature, its utility, its reception – changed in any way over the course of your writing life? Do you sense ways in which the ekphrastic poem you write now is different from one you may have written in the early 90s?

Inward to the Bones
Kate: To be honest, I’ve never had any conscious goal or technique in writing about Carr or O’Keeffe or Gould, nor in my approaches to them. In each case, I saw something in the art (or the person’s life, or both) that I deeply connected with and wanted – needed – more of. I spent years researching their lives, including a trip to Ottawa to visit the Glenn Gould archive, a trip to New Mexico that made O’Keeffe come brilliantly clear, and of course, I live in rain forest and always loved huge trees but I was still learning about the larger concept of “forest” and a few trips to Tofino were key. With each artist, I wasn’t thinking of anything when I first encountered them except maybe, “I want more of what they have”: in Carr’s case, her courage as a woman in the face of strong opposition; in O’Keeffe’s, likewise, plus her nasty personal character (it was fun to be crabby for a while!); and in Gould’s, his passion for music at a time when I’d just lost my hearing in one ear and was terrified of losing the other. I learned a lot from each of them: from Carr, to be persistent, regardless of what people thought; from O’Keeffe, that I didn’t always have to be a Nice Girl, and I got to celebrate female friendship; from Gould, that even with one ear, there was extraordinary beauty in sound and at least for now, I could drink that in and be grateful.

I’ve long been aware that in writing about artists – especially without the art in front of them – people who aren’t familiar with it will be less interested, but I wasn’t writing for those people. I was writing for me, and then for the people who did know those artists, their art, in some way. This is one reason I begged the publisher (then Michelle Benjamin at Polestar, and since reprinted by Caitlin) to include reproductions in To This Cedar Fountain, the book of responses to Emily’s individual paintings.

I’ve always been surprised at the public response, especially to the Carr books. A lot of women have written thanking me for Cedar Fountain and for Inward to the Bones: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Journey with Emily Carr, because it turns out those women inspired them, too.


Rob: Connected to the ekphrastic poems, a major theme I see running through all your books – from construction work, to Carr/O’Keeffe/Gould, to Elemental – is “making” (with ekphrasis serving as a "remodeling," in a sense, or perhaps the building an addition onto a house). In Elemental I think first and foremost of your poems for Jude, the cabinetmaker, and the attention you pay in describing his eye and his craftsmanship.

Kate: It feels like all your subjects, yourself or one of your “masks,” are makers of something. Do you think of the process of “making” – both honouring the art and the artist – as a central (dare I say “the” central) concern of your writing?

Interesting you use the word “maker.” It was George McWhirter at UBC who first told me the word in Scots for poet is makaris, meaning “maker,” and surely, as poets we’re all “makers.” But yes, I’m also fascinated by people who create – art, houses, music – as I’m fascinated by their creations, small miracles. I was in awe of my paternal grandfather, an ironworker, for how handy he was – fixing, making anything. And sitting around construction shacks, I heard such great stories that when I taught creative writing, introducing oral history and getting students to interview fishers and mill workers was a delight. It’s something I learned from my first mentor, Tom Wayman – the fascinating stories working class people can tell, and the importance of their work in literally building, “making,” this society, feeding us, etc.


Rob: Speaking of “making,” I’m interested in how you came upon the structural choice to divide the poems in Elemental into sections based on the five elements (Water, Fire, Wood, Sky and Earth). At what point in the process of writing these poems did that become an organizing principle for the book? Did the decision shift the course of the book in any way? When did the idea of an "Autobiography" of each element, opening its section, come to you?

Kate: The idea of the five elements has been roughly in my mind for years but I can’t remember why or when or where it came from. It wasn’t until I sat down in 2017 and started pulling together what seemed at the time very disparate poems, that I saw the pattern – or rather, the pattern hit me over the head, it seemed so obvious. The autobiography poem at the start of each section came from a writing exercise in a workshop at UBC with Dionne Brand in the 1990s. Isn’t it amazing, and wonderful, how things all pull together at some point! Poetry magic.


Rob: Oh goodness, don’t go getting everyone all jealous talking about Dionne Brand workshops now…

Sticking with the sections for a second, in the “Wood” section you make a return to carpentry, in a sense. But here your concerns feel more “elemental”, studying and admiring the wood itself (at times sounding like a repentant hunter-turned-vegan, but for trees!). Did that return to a core subject of yours result from, or in, a new perspective on your material (wood)?

Kate: Always, in the past, I’d focused on the relationships of construction – getting along on the job with the people I worked with. Now that I’m “off the tools,” this book was a change, a chance to look back and focus on something else I’d been fascinated by, and respected – the material itself, and its source.


Rob: In the first of two poems for Jude the cabinetmaker, you write “Is this what we call holy, this connection of the whole, / each to every other? // Which brings us to the silence of the island where we live—“

The back-cover blurb of Elemental suggests that your close engagement with construction materials led to your careful attention to the elemental materials of our daily lives, but I wonder to what extent also your return to living on the Gulf Islands (where your journey as a construction worker started in the 70s) precipitated this shift in your attention. Could you speak about the effect that move had on your writing, and on the shape of this book?

Kate: I’ve always yearned to get back to Pender Island, the people and the land, and have been going back for weekends and longer periods of time whenever I can. Pender is my spirit place, renewal place. So yes, buying a house there recently, where we’ll retire one day, was a wonderful sense of “rooting” for me. Amazing how much more physical living in a semi-rural place is – cutting grass, tending a garden, pruning trees and canning food can’t compare with the mostly-sitting and some walking that I do in the city. I think Pender gives me the courage, and the quiet, and the time – the physical grounding – to say a bit more clearly what I know, or feel. I think this is also partly a reflection of this stage of my life. I’m not on the tools, I’m semi-retired. I have time to think.


In Fine Form, 2nd edition
Rob: Speaking of being “on the tools,” you’ve written books both on construction and on form poetry (In Fine Form, co-edited with Sandy Shreve). To what extent do you see your interest in each as flowing from a common source?

Kate: If we follow the theme of “making,” then formal poems certainly fit. They’re “constructed,” following the rules of the material they’re made from – language. But when Sandy and I first came up with the idea of an anthology back in the early ‘90s, I wasn’t thinking of that, I was only aware that the best poems my students were writing were the ones in a given form. Somehow the structure of sonnet or pantoum or glosa forced them to let go of cliché, of ego, and let loose their unconscious, wiser selves. Somehow following the blueprint of a form allows us to be more creative – more poetry magic!


Rob: You include a number of prose poems near the end of the book, and also a number of narrative-driven poems with line breaks. What tips you toward turning a writing impulse into a prose poem v. a lineated poem (or perhaps a non-fiction piece, or something else)? Generally speaking, do you sense the poem’s needed form immediately, or does an “aha” moment come later in the process?

Kate: Another good question! This is something I’ve talked to other poets about without any clear answers. Partly for me it’s based on what feels organic. Very quickly a poem feels “right” one way or the other. I’ll start it as prose poem (or straight prose) and realize this isn’t working, that it wants line breaks, or…

Sometimes the idea of writing in a traditional form comes first. Example: after I read T.S. Lawrence’s memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I desperately wanted to write about it, but everything I tried (free verse by default) didn’t work. Then I realized, “Obsessive guy. Why not try an obsessive form?” So I sat down and within an hour had written two sestinas. They aren’t in this book – perhaps the next!

I’ve been working a lot on essays lately. Perhaps that’s also leading me to a more expansive, narrative form (i.e. prose poems) and I hadn’t noticed?


Rob: Speaking of influences, as I read this book, I kept returning to PK Page’s (elemental and formal) poem “Marble and Water”. It made me wonder if you were inspired, in writing this book, by any particular poems or books by others, which you could use as a guide in some way?

Kate: My breath caught when I read your reference to PK. She was a huge role model for me as a woman and as a poet and I love “Marble and Water”; as you know, Sandy and I used it in In Fine Form as a wonderful example of the stanza form.

But I didn’t consciously use any particular poem or poet as a guide in Elemental. In a general way, of course, I’m always inspired by others. It’s why I read so much poetry and go to poetry readings. I love the work of PK, of W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Lorna Crozier and lately David Wagoner, among many, many others.


Rob: Many of these poems are written in the first person, but some, like “Cueva Del Indio, Vinales, Cuba” and “The Door to Rock” are written in the second or third person. Could you speak to why you made those choices, and what different opportunities you think those various perspectives offer a poet?

Kate: For me, first person is up-close and personal. Second and third person, singular or plural, allow more distance, objectivity, and a sterner eye. And sometimes it’s just fun to do a “Mary Oliver” and use the imperative.


Rob: Ha! In addition to Mary Oliver, another poet who’s clearly influenced your writing is Rumi. You’ve read his poetry at the Dead Poets Reading Series, and you close Elemental with an epigraph of his:

We began
as a mineral. We emerged into plant life
and into animal state, and then into being human,
and always we have forgotten our former states,
except in early spring, when we slightly recall
being green again.

What role has Rumi played in your writing, and in your thinking about life?

Kate: I keep coming back to what gives me courage; when I wake in the middle of the night and need a book, I go first to either Rumi or Rilke, both men of spirit, but also of the earth. I’d printed out that Rumi poem years ago and stumbled across it again as Elemental was going to press. It seemed a perfect ending to this book.




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Keep coming back for Kate Braid's poetry, ok? You can pick one up a copy of Elemental at your local bookstore, or via the Caitlin Press website or, I suppose, from Amazon.