an unwieldy confinement - Mark Lavorato's Wayworn Wooden Floors

A Crab on Vargas Island - Mark Lavorato

Sitting around the fire you asked me
   what I was thinking        I said nothing
       which wasn’t true
    On my walk before dark I noticed something
wriggling between two corrugations in the strand
     an orphan on the tarmac of wave-shattered shells 
          It was lying on its back, legs kicking in a slowing 
       battle to right its white belly
   globule eyes staring up into the sand
         Pinching one of its legs I hurled it 
out at the surf where it thumped onto the receding 
   waterline   upside-down again       and left it there, tiny
      treadmilling the air in the dull sheet-metal light
   another waylaid error for the tide to make right
sweep its sable-slate clean
        Yet it was just big enough 
    to be something else 
I wouldn’t mention
from Wayworn Wooden Floors
(Porcupine's Quill, 2012).
Reprinted with permission.

As regular silaron readers will know, for the last year or so I've been running an occasional interview series featuring poets who are about to launch their new books in Vancouver. You'll also know that I am not currently in Vancouver, and returning home would... well... take a while. In other words, I wouldn't qualify for my own interview series. This just won't do.

So with this interview, with Montreal poet and author Mark Lavorato, I'm shaking off my geographic requirements. A little. I'm still keeping things Canadian, lest the CanConPolice slap me with some CanConDemerits. Mark's even lived at times in British Columbia, as "A Crab on Vargas Island" demonstrates. The truth is he's lived just about everywhere, and doesn't seem to particularly like staying put, as a perusal of his biography quickly makes evident.

Mark, not staying put

One such trip, a pilgrimage along Spain's Camino de Santiago, inspired much of Mark's first poetry collection, Wayworn Wooden Floors (Porcupine's Quill, 2012). I say "first poetry collection" and not "first book" because Mark is already an accomplished novelist, with his third novel, Burning-In, forthcoming from House of Anansi.

Mark and I sat down for a much drawn-out, transcontinental e-chat on his travels, his inspirations, his editing process, and cattle-prodding. Sadly, we did not discuss that his book has its own cheese plate. What can I say, I'm clearly off my game...

The Cheese Plate: CanPo's Cristal

Despite this grave oversight, I hope you enjoy the interview:

Rob: Vargas Island is located off Vancouver Island, near Tofino. For a year during my childhood I lived on nearby Flores Island, and we'd pass Vargas on our frequent commutes to and from Tofino. I can't say I've read too many poems about Vargas, though. Can you speak about what took you there, and how your poem took shape?

Mark: To support my writing addiction, I used to house sit in Europe over the winter and run expeditions for Outward Bound Canada in the summer months, saving every penny I could. Mostly I ran mountaineering expeditions, but for two seasons, I ran courses that were half mountaineering and half sea kayaking, all of which was done on Vancouver Island. The sea kayaking portion ran out of Tofino, and over the summer I got to intimately know, and love, the islands just north of it. One year, there were staffing issues, which didn't make for a fantastic working environment, and I remember there being this constant weight on my shoulders. That weight turned me inward and frustrated, and I think it's that emotional state more than anything that inspired the poem.

But as an interesting aside connected to those islands, as I was leaving them, I knew I'd come to love them too much for just a single poem to come out of them, and so I incorporated the area and its beauty into my second novel, Believing Cedric (Brindle & Glass, 2011). In the novel, one of the main characters goes to Tofino for a summer job, and becomes similarly introspective, working at the campground on McKenzie Beach. A small excerpt: "Sometimes, falling asleep to the swelling rumble of the surf, she would think about the waves on McKenzie Beach, the campground’s own, about the way they rolled in so consistently, insistently, unyielding, undying. She would lie in her tiny room that smelled of particleboard and new paint (which was already losing the battle against the mildew) and consider how long these waves had been rolling in for, in exactly the way they were then. And exactly as they are now. Right now. Rolling onto the sand, turning over in the sun, in the dark. Like they have for millennia. Like they will for millennia. Whatever way you stood beside it, the sea had a way of reshaping, of eroding, your humility."

Rob: Keeping on the travel theme, the summary at the back of your book describes a "thousand-kilometre trek" that you undertook, during which you wrote much of this book. Can you speak a little about that trip? What inspired it? Where did you go? And what was your day-to-day writing process like?

Mark: I've heard it said that there are two kinds of writers: those who have enough money but no time, and those who have tons of time but no money. I have to say, I've always been securely in the latter camp, and I'd heard of the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, a Christian pilgrimage with almost no Christians on it, where you could walk through beautiful countryside and stay in refuges for incredibly cheap, or even for free. I wanted to travel, walk, and write, but had very little money, so it seemed a perfect match. I hiked the "Norte" and "Primitivo" sections of the trail to have as little traffic as possible, and walked for about two months. I brought only books of my favourite poetry, and a tiny PDA thing that I used as a word processor. I would walk during the day and think about the poems I was writing, or the poems I loved and why I loved them, and would often feel so inspired to write that I would stop and start typing at some point during the day. If not, I would write in cafes in the evening, or in my tent (which I brought along for when the writing took over and I couldn't make it to a refuge), or I would just sit out in the fresh air with a view of the mountains, or the ocean, or both. I'd highly recommend it!

Rob: In relation to your trek, and the poems that caused you to miss the refuges, I wonder about your series of "Abandoned" poems, in which different abandoned things (Graves, Resorts, Toys, etc.) are explored. That seems particularly like a series of "traveling poems" - in which you must abandon the subjects (by moving on to the next town) as much as they have been abandoned by their owners. How did the series come about? Was it written during your trek, or otherwise somehow inspired by it?

Mark: You're absolutely right. Many of the poems in the Abandoned series come out of my experiences on the hike. What I think strikes us about abandoned things is that they're so rare. We're a recycling species, and when there is something someone has left behind that we can find a use for, we take it, appropriate it, modify it for our own needs. So to find something abandoned is to find a story on both ends of the object. One for what brought about its being left behind; and another about why it was never picked up again. The more I thought of it, the more it fascinated me, until I knew I would have to explore it in a series of poems. And lucky for me, there were plenty of abandoned things in the Spanish countryside for fodder.

Rob: Moving beyond the "Abandoned" series, how do you think the greater shape of the book was altered by the trek? What kind of a book would you have produced if you hadn't made that journey?

Mark: I recently completed my second collection of poetry, Blowing Grass Empire, and in looking the pages over, I realize that it is quite a bit less florid, less ecstatic at the world and its contradictions. I wrote the entire collection from the same desk, looking out the same window. The differences between the collections in the voices used, and experiments delved into, is clear to me, though may not be clear to other readers. Either way, I think writing while on the move acts as both a fuel and a vehicle. I definitely have plans to write another poetry collection while trekking, though this time through the Pyrenees Mountains.

Rob: Your third book of poems, perhaps? I look forward to it. But enough talk about travelling outside Canada. I have a CanCon quota to meet!

You dedicate this book to Alden Nowlan. How did Nowlan influence your writing, and why did you choose to honour him in this way?

Mark: Out of all the Canadian poets I've read (which is only a fraction as there are so many worthy new voices out there) [Editor's note: That line earns you three bonus CanConPoints, Mark!], Alden Nowlan hits closest to the mark of what I think excellent poetry is. His poetry is quiet and powerful, minimal and clean, and there is an undeniably authentic emotional core and impetus to his writing. He has a few poems (like "Weakness") that are perfect in every way. I think I dedicated the collection, not so much to Alden Nowlan, but to the ideal he was capable of, which I hold up while trying to write a perfect poem as well. It may take years, and many collections, but I think it's an interesting goal to strive for.

Rob: On your website you note that your editor for Wayworn Wooden Floors, Wayne Clifford, "electric-prodded [you] in directions [you'd] never thought to wander". Can you map out one or two examples in the book where Clifford sent you off your assigned course?

Mark: It was wonderful to be edited by such a sharp, avid eye. Wayne Clifford is an excellent modern poet, but he's also an accomplished formalist. My collection was originally almost exclusively in free verse, but Wayne would push me to explore internal rhyme, slant rhyme, counting each foot and looking for music within that the human ear is so eager to pick up on. A perfect example would be the poem about my hometown, called "Ninth Street North". Wayne thought it was a very weak poem, though it had some potential in terms of imagery. He encouraged me to completely rewrite it, focusing on more formal conventions, and by that I mean any convention that the poem was pulling towards. To be honest, I had always seen structure as an unwieldy confinement, but I came to realize that it can at times be quite liberating. I treated his feedback as a crash course in dissecting poetry as form, which I'd never done before. And in the end, this particular poem (he was quite right) came out much stronger with this new (for me), more formal, approach.

You can pick up a copy of Wayworn Wooden Floors at your local bookstore, or on Amazon for all you crazy international kids.


it is a discipline

The Toronto Quarterly: In Little Empires many of the poems allude to a fragmenting society whereby social media tends to drown out the present tense. Do you feel that the human psyche is in need of a counterbalance in order to enrich itself or is this fragmentation permanent and growing?

Robert Colman: I was writing this collection during the most recent recession, when more was being demanded of everyone at their jobs, and fewer resources were on hand to deliver what was demanded. The nature of business communications today, however, means that it is difficult to escape that work cycle. I don’t think, as a society, we are all going to throw away our smartphones and liberate ourselves from this enslavement, but I do think everyone has to find a way to counterbalance the flood of information with which we are constantly inundated. It is hard to just step outside and go for a solitary walk, or turn off everything and concentrate solely on the page in front of you. But it’s part of the discipline of caring for oneself. And it is a discipline. When I am off the grid for a few hours, I end up in a very different headspace. For me, that is a very calming transition. Of course, I say that, and it’s 8 pm and I’m typing the answers to these questions on my computer. Epic fail today, I’m afraid.

- Robert Colman, in interview with The Toronto Quarterly. You can read the whole thing here.


god—just write something else

rob mclennan: When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Spencer Gordon: You just have to wait, to linger in the quotidian. You have to become bored. There is really no point in working at something that does not sustain your interest and excitement. If you are stalled in writing, walk away. Inspiration will find you another day, perhaps when you’ve eaten properly or you’re not so bogged down by the doldrums of rejection and menial labour. God—just write something else. Watch YouTube. Catch up on that soap opera you like. Make a living, for god’s sake. In the intervening time, and when you get a chance, think long and hard about what you are doing, and why. If the interest and excitement do not return, forget about it; any readers you might have will thank you (especially if you read before a live audience).

I like to forget about my writing completely from time to time. All claims that writing is about daily labour and constant suffering is weird protestant work-ethic stuff, and I’m not buying it! Sure—one must write and read a whole lot to get good at it. But people sometimes forget the most important thing: writing is pleasure. It’s about magical worlds and insane fantasies. It’s where you get to indulge the delusions of the heart and hold people enthralled in worlds of your own dastardly creation. Isn’t that beautiful? And given the fact that most writers must work at some other gig just to make rent and sew up their hideous shoes, that beautiful thing that you love to do gets knocked down your list of urgent, worldly priorities. So why are you making it so hard?

- Spencer Gordon, in interview with rob mclennan for his 12 or 20 questions series. You can read the whole thing here.


two yvr readings

Two readings coming up soon in Vancouver are so good (and so chocked full of silaron favourites) that I have to post about them from Africa. The least you can do then, Vancouverites, is to show up at them, right?

The first:

Lunch Poems @ SFU Harbour Centre
Wednesday, November 21st, 12 - 1 PM
SFU Harbour Centre, Teck Gallery
515 West Hastings Street, Vancouver
Featuring: Jamie Reid and Aislinn Hunter
RSVP via Facebook

The second:

Twisted Poets Literary Salon Christmas Extravaganza
Sunday, December 16th, 7 - 9 PM
The Cottage Bistro
4468 Main Street, Vancouver
Featuring: Fiona Lam and Raoul Fernandes (with special guests Evelyn Lau, Russell Thornton, Kevin Spenst, Jen Currin and Rodney DeCroo)
$5 suggested donation
Bring a stocking for a family in need and score a free copy of Fiona Lam's Enter the Chrysanthemum! More details here.


Reading Jack Gilbert

I never suspect the things that hit me hardest when I'm away from home. I talk to my mother on the phone and am happy to have spoken with her, then go on with my day. I follow friends' births and celebrations on Facebook, or the BC Lions playoff run, and am content to cheer from the distant sidelines. Then I read that Jack Gilbert has died - a man whose one great book of poems was published almost twenty years ago (The Great Fires: Poems, 1982-1992); a man whose life had been so ravaged by Alzheimer's in recent years that his partner, Linda Gregg, would often speak of him in the past tense, admitting that "there are ways in which Jack is not here"; a man I've never met outside his books - and immediately I feel so terribly far away from the world I know and love.

Earlier this year Marta and I drove to Seattle's poetry-only bookstore, Open Books, in large part to pick up a copy of Gilbert's recently released Collected Poems (yes, I could have ordered it on Amazon - call it a pilgrimage, if you wish). It is all five of Gilbert's books (four inferior books sandwiching The Great Fires) followed by some new poems and wrapped in hard cover. It is thick and heavy and intimidating. So that summer I took it hiking.

The trip went badly. Working off of some poor intel re: steepness and trail conditions, what we planned to be a two-hour bike ride (with camping panniers loaded with tents, sleeping bags, clothes, food, Collected Poems, etc.) into the campsite, instead turned out to be a bike-pushing-and-dragging thirteen hour marathon that spread over two days (with an improvised overnight stop). We had started the trip with a larger group, but had become separated, and so camped and hiked without the equipment to cook food or purify river water. When we made it to the campsite we were so exhausted that we abandoned most of our plans for day trips. For the rest of our stay in the South Chilcotin Mountains, Marta read novels and swam and basked in the sun. I read Jack Gilbert's Collected from cover to cover.

At times it was a difficult read. At times it felt like work. Like many poets, after a while many of his poems begin to appear as parodies of his earlier work. About three-quarters of my way through the book, I put it down, picked up my notebook, and wrote:

A Jack Gilbert Poem

Gianna is like Linda.
And also Michiko. They are dead
or will be, and what's the difference,
really? But there is pleasure in them,
and a pleasure inside that pleasure.
And a pleasure inside the memory
of those pleasures. It is like
the old Greek woman carrying
firewood up the hill outside
my window who knows, despite it all,
that Spring is coming.
It is also like Pittsburgh.

So sometimes the book would drag on. But then, suddenly, "Alone". But then "Relative Pitch". But then "Tear it Down". But then "The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart". That last one one of the foundational poems in my life. A little bit of bedrock for my writing, and world view, and mental and emotional well being. And that's enough for one book, isn't it? Even one as thick and heavy and intimidating as Gilbert's Collected.

The truth is that part of why I like to travel is to get away from the poetry world. To get away from poetry, almost. The poetry world often feels like a two hour bike ride that turns into a thirteen hour nightmare. The poetry world often feels like four hundred pages of bloat and repetition for thirty pages of wonder. The poetry world often feels like work. But then...

Thank you, Jack, for reminding me.


the narrowing of what defines good poetry

I have been lamenting for years it seems the narrowing of what defines good poetry in this country as a handful of angling critical voices keep making claims for a new cosmopolitan poetry which reads to me like shorthand for poems displaying decorous or ideosyncratic language, formal traditional elements, abstruse imagery, little real human emotion or strong narrative aspects, and a morbid disdain for the first person.

This is not to say some very fine or even great poems have not been written from such a perspective, for indeed they have, but why the nagging belief any poems written outside such a confined purview or “lens” are slight and without merit? Does this not say more about the critic’s own aesthetic, his or her own tastes, than it does about how well a different kind of poem functions as a poem?

- Chris Banks, returning to his too-often-neglegted poetry blog Table Music. You can read the whole thing here.


dead poets this sunday

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event is less than a week away. For obvious reasons I will be unable to attend. You really ought to get out there and make up for my absence.

The reading will take place on November 11th, 2012 from 3-5 PM at Project Space. It will feature:

Robin Blaser (1925 - 2009), read by Daniel Zomparelli
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834), read by Susan McCaslin
Robert Hayden (1913 - 1980), read by Renee Saklikar
Glyn Hughes (1935 - 2011), read by Pam Galloway
Roy Kiyooka (1926 - 1994), read by Wayde Compton

Ah the old Blaser-Coleridge one-two punch. Don't miss out!

Entry will be by donation. You can RSVP via Facebook here.


a form of subconscious, intimate noticing is offered up

rob mclennan: What do you see the current role of the writer being in the larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Nyla Matuk: I think the poet functions the way Freudian psychoanalysis once functioned. Freud has now been out of favour a long time, but his work filled something in the culture (whether you buy into, or not, the theory of Freud’s 3 drives) that we have now lost and that possibly poetry can or is, or always was, offering us. That is, a way out of capitalism’s endless myth of progress, of means-end rationality, of assumptions of “more,” or continued growth, or more nefariously, the recent ‘positive thinking’ movements that see those with cancer, for example, as either winners or losers of a battle. I am trying to say, I guess, that a form of subconscious, intimate noticing is offered up, with poetry. The larger culture, it seems to me, is concerned now with the image, the instant response, the sardonic tweet, the sound or news bite, the status update and its attendant narcissistic after-effects. Maybe poetry, by asking us to listen to language again, carefully, uncovers something buried? There is a generosity to both writing it and reading it—the time required. The attentiveness and the mindfulness. That is valuable too, always has been. There is something else that appeals to me, and I think it is also a role of poets—I believe Erin Mouré once called writing poetry “a way of being alone,” and it is very much that in a world of large conventions, movements, and communal thinking. Not that those things aren’t valuable too.

- Nyla Matuk, in interview with rob mclennan as part of his 12 or 20 interview series. You can read the whole thing, including a great bit about how poetry is "sophisticated baby talk", here.

Her first book, Sumptuary Laws, just came out from Signal Editions. Maybe you should buy it?

he's weird at times

He's weird at times. Once he remarked to Larry that he saw flowers as a branch of poetry, and Larry hadn't known what to say or where to look.

- from Larry's Party, by Carol Shields