A big work presented to all: "Some End/West Broadway" by George Bowering and George Stanley

The following interview is parts five and six of a nine-part series of conversations with BC poets which I conducted in April 2019. All nine were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca.

The world speaks to me – George Bowering

in sentences. I can’t push words here and there
the way clay sculptor poets and furniture movers
do, the way Daphne and Fred can, this is not
literary criticism, this is an old poet
sitting naked in a chair almost remembering
what he has been doing all this time. A leopard
steps on very big quiet feet across the mind’s
pasture, and this brain fresh out of the icebox
tries to watch him till he disappears in the trees
also placed there by an inattentive imagination. This
is not literary theory but a cluttered desk his eyes
see bit by bit, a clutter he calls method, a mess
he will never catch up to. The world speaks to him
this way, piece by piece, and for whole minutes
he forgets his nakedness the way large cats forget

Reprinted with permission from 
Some End/West Broadway by George Bowering 
and George Stanley (New Star Books, 2018).

Rob Taylor (RT): When did you first meet one another? Was it in real life or in books? Was it literary love at first sight/read?

George Stanley (GS): I first met George Bowering in June of 1971 when I returned from Europe. I had no place to stay and Stan Persky arranged for me to stay upstairs at George and Angela’s place on York Avenue. I guess it was love at first sight because he had just written a couple of wonderful poems, one called “Summer Solstice” and one called “Desert Elm.”

We were very close starting in the summer of 1971, and our friendship gradually grew over the years. We had a pub night every Tuesday night and that continued along even after I moved to northern BC, I would come back and go to it. Then in the late 90s we had this group called “Dads and Tads.” We called it that because all of us were either in our sixties or our twenties. We met at Shenanigans bar on Robson Street. We’d meet in the early evening and by 9 pm it turned into a loud Korean nightclub.

Also, when I went up to Terrace to teach Canadian literature I began reading his novels. I really began to respect him as a great writer when I read his novels.

George Bowering (GB): My education and training in poetry in the early days was greatly involved with the San Francisco poets, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser and Michael McClure, and as things went, to the next batch, Stan Persky and Joanne Kyger and George Stanley. It was normal that I should be living in that rented bungalow in Kits with George—it had been what we all called an urban commune for years, but around that time, five of the seven members moved west a block to York Street West, while Angela and I continued to rent the place, living with the new baby Thea and our famous chihuahuas, Frank and Small. We let George take over the upstairs. I guess it was still a kind of poetry commune, but the members included a baby and two little dogs.

RT: Your new book, Some End/West Broadway (New Star Books), is itself a kind of poetry commune: two books, one by each of you, brought together back-to-back as one creature. The books don’t live in isolation, though, but “speak” directly to one another in a number of ways. Both feature a “Letter” to the other poet, for instance. Bowering, you kick it off, writing an epistolary poem to Stanley in response to a section from West Broadway, and Stanley then replies. Further on, in two different poems, one by each of you, Bowering appears and lies down in (or on) one of Stanley’s poems.

I mean, this is all totally normal stuff that happens in most poetry books, but it does open up a real chicken-and-egg question about this book’s origin: were those poems late additions, stitching the two manuscripts together, or did the idea of the collaboration come in part from this emerging, occasionally prostrate, back-and-forth?

GB: As well as I can remember, I remember that I had read George Stanley’s poem about the girl running across Broadway before I read it in the book. But had I? I am pretty sure that he did not write the reply to that poem before—oh, damn! Now I cannot reconstruct the sequence! And it is more complicated than that: one of my poems makes reference to a great poem of George’s that was published in his previous book, A Tall, Serious Girl. This situation reminds me of walking on pieces of floating wood. But I am not bothered at all. For one thing, the work of poetry is never individual; poets are engaged in a big work presented to all. Wouldn’t it be great if Thomas Wyatt could reply to something you added to one of his poems? In my fiction, I have on occasion borrowed people invented by other novelists, from Audrey Thomas, Daphne Marlatt, David Markson, and even Louis L’Amour.

GS: And also George has introduced fictional characters into his so-called “histories” like Bowering’s BC.

For the book, I told Rolf Maurer (our publisher at New Star Books) that I had a 40-page manuscript and Rolf said it wasn’t enough for a book. So then George said to me, “Well, I’ve got a 40-page manuscript too, so let’s put them together.” I think Rolf was really against the idea at the beginning but George Bowering convinced him. After we agreed to do the book together, we wrote the two letters and the other poems that refer to each other. I think… As George says, it’s kind of hard to put the sequence together.

RT: Speaking of your publisher, GS, all of your books from the last 20+ years (back to 1995’s Gentle Northern Summer) have been published with New Star. In fact, both of you were involved in the early years of the press, when it was the Georgia Straight Writing Supplement and then Vancouver Community Press. GS, can you talk about how your relationship with New Star influenced where you’ve gone with your writing? Do you think working with a Vancouver-based publisher had any role in your steadily-increasing focus on the city?

GS: I don’t think Rolf Maurer has any direct influence on my writing, but I’m certainly grateful to Rolf for publishing my books. The first book he published of mine was in 1995, as you say, but I’ve known Rolf since back to the 80s when he first took over New Star from Lanny Beckman. So he’s been a good friend for a long time. But I don’t think it’s mattered that New Star is in Vancouver. My publisher could be in Toronto.

RT: GB, you’ve had eight books published or reissued with New Star too (seven-and-a-half, I guess), though you’ve published with many other presses in between the New Star titles. Do you think the books you’ve published with New Star have a common thread, something which makes them “New Star books”?

GB: Eight? Are you counting Autobiology? That works. It was during those wonderful Kits years in the 70s that we took to working a home-made press that had a number of names before it became New Star. I like it because it has the same initials as the Nihilist Spasm Band, the great noise group in London, Ontario, that I hung around with. That is, believe it or not, significant. In a way, there is a common thread among several of my New Star Press books: Rolf likes to keep some of my older better titles in print after their Toronto publishers have decided not to for their Toronto reasons. A big part of my reason for publishing with New Star is our history, and another big part is that they have been the publisher of David Bromige, Lisa Robertson, Brian Fawcett, Stan Persky—and George Stanley.

RT: You are two of the great chroniclers of the city of Vancouver. What is it about this city in particular that makes you want to write about it? Or is it more about you than it is the city? Would you do the same in Moose Jaw? New York?

GB:  I had to think for a minute. I think that when I lived in Calgary, Montreal, and London, Ontario, I didn’t write poems about Vancouver. But it is certainly not that my poems were about me. It is true that when I was a tyro poet in the exciting days of youth, I often made remarks about the importance of place in my poems. Right now I am looking at a photo I took looking down at a fishing village in Jalisco that I have spent a lot of time in. I wrote poems there, and the photo makes me nostalgic, while the poems do not. I’m not sure what that tells me, but it tells me.

RT: How about you, GS?

GS: My focus on the city goes all the way back to my grade 11 teacher, Edward Dermot Doyle, who is the person to whom my long poem “San Francisco’s Gone” is dedicated. Part of his teaching in the American Literature class was to introduce the students to the history of San Francisco. Ever since then, I’ve written about the city I was in. I wrote a lot of poems in San Francisco about San Francisco; then when I moved to Vancouver in 1971, I wrote a couple poems about Vancouver; then I was in Terrace for 15 years and most of what I wrote was about the town and its history. I’ve been a “city poet.” Probably about 70% of everything I’ve written deals directly with the city I’ve been living in.

RT: GB, you open your half of the book, Some End, with a series of poems about coming “out of the icebox,” which I assume refers to surviving a heart attack in 2015, which involved your being placed in a “cooling machine” to lower your temperature and “save the brain” (and which later turned you into the poster boy for Vancouver General Hospital, grinning down on 10th Avenue cyclists). Did that event change in any way what you wanted to say in your writing? Your urgency to say it?     

GB: You mean did the angel of death make me want to get the important stuff said before it was too late? For those looking on, mainly my dear Jean, it could have been a question of the end by death or the end of writing by brain damage. Well, it is true that a lot of my poems since that time have been written while thinking of mortality, and at my age you think of dying a lot of the time. But as to the important effect—there hasn’t been a substantial change in the way I write poems. I was reading my 2018 poems yesterday, and I thought they were getting better and better, if that is not immodest. But if it is true, that is not because of what I have been writing about. I didn’t have a heart attack, despite what one of those posters said—I had a cardiac arrest, which means STOP. I was very aware of my rare luck. But I did not hurry to the desk with particular intent. Often I get asked questions that enquire about what I wanted to say. But I write what the muse tells me to write.

GS: I write what the muse tells me to write, too. One thing that I said after a reading at Berkeley was, “Creativity is the enemy of inspiration.” Creativity is thought of as something genetic: creativity, talent, genius, all that… No.

When George says “I write what the muse tells me to write” he’s following on the great poet Jack Spicer, who is my mentor. That’s another thing that brought George and me together: our love and honour of Spicer.

RT: Both your muses are in good shape!

GS, when your muse tells you what to write, they seem to want you to revisit old poems as much as to write new ones: the opening section of West Broadway was published under the same title as the closing poem in your 2013 collection After Desire (New Star, 2013). Similarly, parts one and two of Vancouver: A Poem (New Star, 2008) were published in At Andy’s (New Star, 2000). This seems to suggest you work on your long poems over a significant stretch of time, slowing collaging them together. Is that accurate? Do you think these poems are “over” when you publish them the first time, or do you have some inkling in the back (or front) of your mind that they are going to continue to grow?

GS: I do work on my long poems over a significant stretch of time, but I don’t collage them. They come chronologically. But they’re also part of a longer sequence of books located in the same city, so Vancouver: A Poem is followed by West Broadway and then what I’m writing right now, the first part of which is called “Balaclava Street.”

RT: So, say the poem “West Broadway” at the end of After Desire which shows up in this book: when you put that in After Desire were you thinking it was done and then you kept going or were you thinking it was going to keep expanding from there?

GS: At the point of publishing After Desire it was not done. Or no, maybe it was. I don’t know. I don’t remember whether it was done! But I feel alright publishing something, knowing that I’ll be able to follow it up in the next book.

GB:  Or if he doesn’t, maybe I will.

RT: Or you’ll follow one another up in the same book, like you did here. Soon you’ll be writing poems together, handing the pen back and forth one word at a time! Your friendship, on the page and in real life, is obviously a valuable and productive one.

GB, in the title poem in Some End, you write “where did lyric poems / ever get me? I always said poems weren’t / supposed to get you anywhere but the end of the poem.” And yet the rest of the book is filled with people who were brought to you, GB, in one way or another, by poetry: Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, George Stanley, Peter Culley, Al Purdy, bp Nichol, Margaret Avison, Jamie Reid (the book closes with a very moving tribute to Reid). What role does lyric poetry play for you in your life? And how is it tied to your literary friendships, with GS and the many others?

GB: Lyric poetry has been getting a bad name in the past decade or two, at least among the poets and critics I like to hang with. I take part in the putdown, I will admit, but I also have to admit that I like poetry that sings. This is a confusing issue, isn’t it? Listen to those erstwhile friends Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. They are both serial poets, two of the San Francisco poets who began using that term. Duncan was, to my ear, a lyric poet. He even tried singing with his honking voice, and you’d see him strongly tempted to dance on the stage. Spicer, though, was very plain-spoken. He wrote in sentences. You will hear his influence in the public transit poems of my friend George Stanley. Anyway, the poem you quote here is part of the unoriginal argument I have been making all this time, that poets serve—they don’t get served.

GS: Poets serve, they don’t get served?  I’m not sure what that means. I agree, though, that the lyric is the essential in poetry even if you find the lyric in some larger form, like among the Romantic Poets. George has always had a fascination with Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s poetry, so we read some Shelley poetry publicly. When I think of poetry I think of the lyricism of Shelley, of Anna Akhmatova, of W.B. Yeats.

RT: GB, care to clarify who’s serving who?

GB:  The Irish brothers, George and Gerald Stanley, became a poet and a priest, two professions in which one serves, in ways quite similar, I think. Even if the poet, like Shelley, is a renowned atheist.

RT: GS, in the 2014 Capilano Review issue devoted to GB, “Bowering’s Books,” you wrote about what was then GB’s most recent collection, Teeth (Mansfield Press, 2013). You talked about the poems where Bowering takes us on a trip: “Like a trip, [GB’s poem] goes somewhere. It goes more than one place, it seems to want to go places.”

This quote reminded me as much of your Vancouver poems/books as anything (we’re on the bus, going places, but we’re also going so many other places, too). In what ways do you think GB, through his friendship and/or his poems, has influenced your own writing, or the way you think about it?

GS: Some poems of George’s have an inherent desire to move on. In that review/essay I contrast his poetry with the kind of poetry that is constantly looking back at itself and justifying itself. His wants to move somewhere else.

I don’t think that George’s writing has had any particular influence on my writing, but what drew me to him in 1971 was his intelligence and his warmth. We had no difficulty understanding each other. It was really an instant kind of friendship. All through our years of friendship, he’s really instructed me in Canadian literature. It often turned out that the poets that I liked the best were the poets that he’d always seen were the best, for example, Margaret Avison or John Newlove.

RT: GB, how do you think GS’ writing and/or friendship have affected your writing life?

GB:  He is a real friend. It is what one would have asked of life—to have a friend who works at the art, who studies poetry, who has read Euripides and Anna Akhmatova and John Newlove. I may not steal his tropes (though he should not be unwary), but I will work better at the vocation knowing that he is in my life.

RT: GB, in your half of the book, Some End (New Star Books), there is a tribute to Peter Culley. In it, you write movingly about how older poets (and readers) need what younger poets bring them “out of the dark.” The poem is all the more moving knowing that Peter Culley died of his heart attack only 11 days before you had your cardiac arrest. You speak in many other places (and poems) about your peers and elders, but could you talk a bit about some younger writers who have influenced your writing? Or just some of your favourites (on the page or off)?

GB: It seems as if the longer I stay here, the more younger poets there are. And there are so many now. I have always paid attention to the young writers, and now I am talking about those, say, who are 20 to 50 years younger. I recently published an essay about Vancouver poets, the oldest being Earle Birney and the youngest Ryan Knighton, whom I first knew when he was around 19. When I read those words now, “We call it light,/we who need/ what these younger/ bring, at their cost/ back out of the dark,” I could have been writing about Ryan, who is blind, though really, I am struck now by how right those words and their placement are—but I could not lay out in prose their meaning. But you know, when I name some of my favourite younger poets you will say that they are your elders, eh? I mean come on—Erin Mouré teaches me and so does Oana Avasilichioaei.

RT: How about you, GS?

GS: My intuition is that I assume that I have learned something from younger writers but I can’t know what it is in the way that I would know what I’ve learned from older writers.

RT: Why do you think that is?

GS: I guess it’s something about the nature of time.

RT: As we consider younger writers, could you each speak a bit about the role of mentorship in your life? GB, you’ve written often about the importance of Al Purdy and the A-frame in your development as a writer (your wife, Jean Baird, chairs the Al Purdy A-frame Association). Who were the writers whose friendship or guidance shaped you the most, and how do you find yourself “passing it on” to other writers? What role does the A-frame play in that process?

GB: I keep hearing about mentoring, mainly from people at the universities. I have never got comfortable about the word, though people often accuse me of being a mentor to lots of younger writers. I don’t know. Is it mentoring if a poet writes about poetry and a tyro reads such writing and says that sounds right? Of even if an older poet’s method of composition persuades the younger to work from that stem? If so, I have been mentored by William Carlos Williams, whom I never met, and Robert Duncan, D.G. Jones, Gilbert Sorrentino, H.D., Ezra Pound, and Margaret Avison. When I was starting up I showed a short poem to Allen Ginsberg. He said to get rid of all the little function words, the ones the 18th-century poets used to fill out their iambic. I did, and he was right. One of the best tips I ever got. I like, if that is what you are talking about, pointing out something a poet has done nicely. I did that with Patrick Lane a couple of weeks before he left us. But I have never done that at the A-Frame. I went there to be with, not to learn.

GS: One thing I’ll add is that mentorship was what that “Dads and Tads” group I mentioned earlier was all about. It went on for two or maybe three summers in the late 90s. Young poets like Ryan Knighton and Reg Johanson were learning from me and George and Jamie Reid as the elder poets, the “dads” of the group. As for me, my own mentors were Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan.

RT: GB, in your answer you mentioned W.C. Williams as a mentor-in-writing. He seems like a significant poet in both of your lives – GB has written in the past about the important role The Desert Music played in his development as a writer (and then there’s the whole “icebox” thing in Some End), and it’s hard to read your series of books and poems about Vancouver, GS, and not think of Williams’ Paterson (in “Letter to George Bowering” you call it your “Paterson pastiche”). What do you think you learned from Williams?

GS: Williams, of course, is the progenitor of all of us modern poets, not just me and George but all the poets in The New American Poetry dating from about 1960. To me there are three essential factors of modern writing: one is ordinary language, one is free-form or vers libra, and one is precise states of emotion, and they’re all in Williams.

I was never influenced to write anything by a particular poem of Williams’ until I read Paterson, the first book of Paterson particularly, and that gave me the idea of writing a long poem about Vancouver.

RT: Was it just the idea of writing about a town, or something about how Williams wrote his poem?

GS: The way that Williams wrote that poem, in that there would be verse and then there would be long prose passages. That was a kind of “mixed style” that I adopted. But at the very beginning of that poem, I distance myself from Williams because Williams identified himself with the city of Paterson and I couldn’t identify myself with the city of Vancouver. I wrote, “this is not my city.” My city was San Francisco.

RT: Do you still feel, after so many years, that this could never be your city?

GS:Oh, it is now, just like I’m now a Canadian. Fairly recently I began to refer to myself as “an American poet and a BC poet,” but I think I might as well accept the fact that I’m a Canadian poet too. I read a review in The Malahat Review of After Desire and it was written by an academic who I’d never met from Queen’s University. I thought, “Somebody I’ve never met is reading me in Eastern Canada? I must be a Canadian!”

Back in 1980, I had the idea that I could become a Canadian poet by writing poems about Terrace, because I had read poets like Margaret Avison, who wrote about Toronto, and Margaret Laurence, who wrote about a small town in Manitoba. I thought, “If I write poetry about a small-town and BC, this will make me a Canadian poet,” but that didn’t really work. I lived 15 years in Terrace and one year in Prince Rupert, so I do think of myself as a British Columbian. I found out that a lot of native-born Vancouverites never think of going to the interior. They go to Toronto but not to Kelowna.

RT: GB, what are your thoughts on Williams’ impact on your writing?

GB: In high school I did what I thought all the kids did: read the poets we weren’t being fed in class. That’s how I got H.D., Hart Crane and William Blake, for examples. In first year at Victoria, we had that fat little anthology by Oscar Williams. There were two William Carlos Williams poems in it, one of them in the “humor” section. No professor showed me WCW. But when I found him I hung on tight—I was a kid on the road to Damascus.

RT: Speaking of influences: we’ve mentioned Anna Akhmatova a few times already in this discussion. GS, your Akhmatova translations and poems are appearing more steadily in your recent books. You note in “Letter to George Bowering” that you “can’t get [Akhmatova’s poem] to stay put in 1944” – instead your translations often bring her to modern-day Vancouver (so your “imitation” of her poem “Our Age,” about “decline of the West,” becomes about West Point Grey, for instance). What’s going on here? Why do Akhmatova’s words move so irresistibly into your 21st-century Vancouver?

GS: I spent a few weeks in Moscow—maybe it was only about 10 days—in 1991. I met some people there and I got interested in the Russian language. I began learning to read Russian poetry, and I was drawn to Akhmahtova. She was a very modern poet for her own time. She belonged to a group called the Acmeists, “acme” being the height of realism. She’s very much a realist poet.

I connect with her because I think of myself as a realist. I used to call it simply an “aboutist,” I wrote poems that were about something. That was in reaction against Language Poetry, which turned the arrow of reference back on the poem itself. Akhmatova broke with the reigning poetic movement of the time, which was symbolism, and began writing this very precise, realistic poetry (like Marianne Moore said, “plain [language] which dogs and cats can read”).

GB: I have been hearing about her most of my poetry life, but I am ashamed to say that I have never given her many hours. I did the usual thing for people my age—I let Vladimir Mayakovsky be my Russian.

RT: That idea of letting one person represent a country is a good lead-in to my next question. In the title poem in Some End, GB writes, on the idea of being young again: “but what about all these books? Would we / have to write them again?” Which books would be the first you’d write again (if any), and why? Which would you have represent your country?

GB: The way I read that poem is that I don’t know whether I would be able to start on such a big job. Give me another life and I will write whatever gives itself to my hard-working brain or soul. I can tell you which of my books I would not write again first. It would be How I Wrote Certain of my Books.

GS: I’m reminded of a joke that George told when we were in Seattle. Before he started reading he said, “This is my prayer, oh Lord. If I have only one life to live I hope this is not it.”

I would imagine if I had another life, I’d be another person, I’d write different poetry (if I wrote poetry. Maybe I wouldn’t write poems!).

If I had a chance to go back over all my work, I think right now I would cross out much more of my work than I would have even 10 years ago. I sometimes look back at a poem of mine and I think “this is really pretentious” or “this is stupid,” whereas back then I thought it was a good poem. At the same time, when I look back I know which are really good poems that I’d like to keep. I would keep a poem called “Flesh Eating Poem” and a poem called “Pompeii,” but I would probably drop a poem called “Achilles Poem,” which was an attempt to imitate Charles Olson.

RT: Moving from one form of flattery to another (imitation to tribute), two of the most moving poems in the book – one by each of you – are tributes to Jamie Reid (“Inside Ours” and “Love”). Reid was, as you mentioned earlier, your third Dad amidst the Tads, and died in 2015. Together your two poems about him talk about the intermingling of the personal and the political, attempting to pull in some of the many elements of Reid’s writing and life. What one thing would you like unfamiliar readers to know about Reid and/or his writing?

GS: I would say there are two things: first, that he was a poet in a radical, modernist sense. People used to criticize Jamie because of his membership in the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) as though he’d betrayed poetry or something like that. His identifying with communism goes back to Marx and the thinkers and poets of the 19th century. For Jamie, to be a communist was to be a modernist.

The second thing is that he had a big heart. He had so much love for people, and I remember the kind care he took for two poets in the last days of their lives: Billy Little and Goh Poh Seng.

GB: In the Tish days, I was the oldest of the five editors, and Jamie was the youngest. I knew everything there was to know about everything, of course, but I envied Jamie Reid. He was a beautiful skinny imp Rimbaud. If he were to kiss your cheek in the evening, you would wake up more intelligent in the morning. I was one of those people who regretted his years as an adherent to that goofy political outfit, but just a few years ago I saw him playing the gravedigger in a production of Hamlet. It was then I knew that I knew him.

Final Vocabulary – George Stanley

‘Life is about other people.’
Peter Weber

‘I is an other.’

Do what you’re here for.

Reprinted with permission from 
Some End/West Broadway by George Bowering 
and George Stanley (New Star Books, 2018).

George Bowering was born in Penticton, BC. He spent his freshman year at Victoria College, then joined the RCAF for three years, then got two degrees at UBC, then went to teach at Calgary, Sir George Williams, Simon Fraser, and three European universities. Then he retired so that he would have time to write books and so on. He is currently writing a little book in which he looks at the poetry of John Keats, Emily Brönte, Sir Philip Sidney and others. 

George Stanley is the author of seven previous books, the most recent being After Desire (2013), Vancouver: A Poem (2008), and North of California St. (2014), which collects poems from three earlier, out–of–print books. Born in San Francisco and living in Canada since 1970, Stanley was the 2006 recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award from the American Poetry Society.


Looking at the consciousness of people: "Clinging to Bone" by Garry Gottfriedson

The following interview is part four of a nine-part series of conversations with BC poets which I conducted in April 2019. All nine were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca.

Clear Memory – Garry Gottfriedson

the years whip
grey into the hair
so subtly

we have lived many storms
dreamed many nights away

time softened our hearts
brushed clear memory
out on the yellow canvas of sky

another day meant renewed life
another night meant bones rested

some things are meant
to be forgotten
but I remember all of you

Reprinted with permission from 
Clinging to Bone by Garry Gottfriedson 
(Ronsdale Press, 2019).

Rob Taylor: You include many Secwépemc (Shuswap) words in your new poetry collection, Clinging to Bone (Ronsdale Press). These include words for the Secwépemc people, language, and territory, but also more eclectic choices: sesi (sweetheart), sllwéltsin (autumn), teníye (moose), etc. These words are often defined in the poem itself, and then a second time in a glossary of terms at the end of the book. What motivates you to use these words, and to provide ample translations?

Garry Gottfriedson: Recently, I have started to incorporate more of Secwepemctsin into my writing. I decided to use some of these words because the image of them is poetic in itself. Sometimes, English doesn’t capture what I want to say, so I refer to my language. It is also a way to show my audience that we (First Nations) are still practitioners of our language and culture, even though we struggle to maintain it. It gives my audience glimpse into who I am, and my representation of my Secwepemc heritage.

I also think that languages are playful. Using words from both Secwepemctsin and English offers added dimensions to the body of the poem, the use of metaphor or even the poem’s rhythms. Using my language challenges my audience, too. Perhaps, my audience may be inspired to learn more about the issues and themes I present in my poetry.

Rob: I like that idea of playing and challenging at once. I think that’s very true to the effect it had on me. You were a teacher at Chief Atahm School, a Secwépemc-language immersion school, so you’ve obviously spent a great deal of time thinking about how to preserve and expand the use of the Secwépemc language. In “Bent-back Tongue,” for instance, you write, “truth or reconciliation is meaningless / words without bilingual reciprocity.” Would you say your goals in integrating Secwépemc words into your poems are the same as your goals were at Chief Atahm school, or does your intended audience for each shift your focus in some way?

Garry: I worked at the Chief Atahm School in Chase, BC as a teacher, and later became principal at the Sk’elep School of Excellence in Kamloops. In many of my poems, I make points regarding the “Truth and Reconciliation” attempts in Canada. One of the major issues I see with that process is that it uses the colonizer’s language to attempt to reconcile major historical and present issues in this country. Similar to the approach French Canadians have taken, Canada cannot truly expect a decent relationship with First Nations in Canada if the language that is used is only the colonizer’s. In a nutshell, only one frame of mind would be considered—the colonizers! Therefore by approaching truth and reconciliation from a bilingual perspective, we are on a level playing field. Two worldviews emerging into one view, so to speak.

Rob: I suppose this begs the question: why not use even more of the Secwépemc language in your poems? While you use twenty-two Secwépemc words in the book, you obviously could have gone further. What inspires you to use a particular Secwépemc word at a specific moment, and not in others? Does it change from poem to poem?

Garry: Yes, using Secwepemc words from poem to poem is often for a specific reason. Sometimes, it just sounds good to me or the image of what’s in my mind is clearer. Sometimes, using the English word is enough to express my poetic voice. I actually like using the English language because of the choice of words within the language. With my language, word choice usually is used for specific meaning and clarity, whereas in English, one word can have several meanings, and that is where the playfulness occurs in poetry.

Rob: That’s really fascinating. One element of learning and embracing other languages is what it teaches the learner about their first language. We all become richer in the process.

One country that seems to have embraced this idea is New Zealand, where you recently travelled. They are far ahead of Canada in integrating Indigenous languages into the daily life of the general population. Can you talk about your experience travelling there, and what it taught you about the way forward for Canada?

Garry: My trip to New Zealand has inspired me greatly. The Maori don’t take no for an answer when it comes to who they are, nor do they like to dance around politeness in politics or everyday life. They are extremely clear and straightforward about their desires to ensure that Maori and Pacifica cultures are stamped into the psyche of the politicians and average New Zealander. Their history is parallel to Canadian history in terms of colonization. They do not cower, being Maori, and have forced New Zealand to acknowledge the racism, injustices, colonial history, and genocide straight on. The Maori have redirected history in New Zealand for the sake of their survival as a unique and thriving people.

Canadians and First Nations can learn a lot from them. It is time now for Canadians to quit using a sophisticated and polite form of racism when it comes to First Nations in Canada, and it is time for First Nations to truly look forward to a positive future for our children’s sake. This can only happen by the true enactment of reconciliation. This is what New Zealand has taught me.

Rob: You spoke of how the Maori “forced New Zealand to acknowledge the racism, injustice, colonial history and genocide straight on.” I feel like much of your poetry is doing that same thing.

In “Confusion” you write “my poetry is / an arrow pointing at hearts / for those who are alive / remembering / the dead have yet to be heard,” and later in “Vienna” you write “no one will remember / me in history / I fought in no war / did not betray my people.” The question of who/what is remembered and who/what is forgotten looms large in your poems: to what extent do you see your own writing as an attempt at a corrective to the way Western cultures (or perhaps people in general) remember?

Garry: Let me begin by saying that anything is easy to forget. Sometimes it is because people don’t like to look at the dirty parts of history. And this could be because of many reasons. The ugly truth, however, is that if historical mistakes have been made, and they are not seen for what they are, it is then too easy to deny things really happened, and lies can easily be created. Or it becomes a one-sided version. I want my audience to understand what has happened to my people by Western cultures, so that action can be taken. I don’t want my poetry to necessarily put guilt on my audience. I do, however, want them to step into my world for a moment and see things from my perspective, educating them to some deep-rooted issues that are still not dealt with today. Let me put it in another perspective and ask this question: Can you imagine a world that didn’t remember Aristotle, or the Roman Empire, or the Renaissance, or the 900 years of Irish oppression by the British, or the impact of Hitler? Remembering is an essential part of history.

Rob: Absolutely! And I’m glad you made that comparison with European history which, while important, is disproportionately prioritized in our educational system. Your book does the reverse: prioritizing the Secwépemc people while still leaving space for others at the end.

The first two-thirds of Clinging to Bone focus largely on personal and political poems about the Secwépemc people and Secwépemc-settler relations (including the development of Sun Peaks, the health of the Thompson River, and the legacy of Residential Schools), but then the poems in the book’s latter sections travel around the world (New Orleans, Barcelona, Vienna…), widening the lens in a number of ways. Could you talk about why this was important to you in putting the book together? What light do you think these different poems/perspectives shed on one another?

Garry: I wanted to include some of these travelling poems simply because I was a foreigner in many of those regions. It was a way to satisfy my curiosity about other people and histories. I wanted to see if other people from other countries remembered, or wanted to forget, historical events. For example, in New Orleans, what is their sense of identity and how was it shaped by the development of the city? In Barcelona, how did they remember Columbus and do they acknowledge how the gold he took built that city and empire? In Vienna, I wanted to find traces of how the World Wars began and to see if the people actually remembered it. It was looking at the consciousness of people. I wanted to know if people were numb to their history and identity. It also was a way to understand my own essence of being a Secwepemc man. It is sometimes easier to clarify self-meaning when you are totally removed from your norm.

Rob: In “Múlc” (Poplar Tree), you write of the impacts of settler colonialism (including ecological destruction and Residential Schools) on the Secwépemc people: “why did we not see it? // in the beginning.” How do you see the current state of Indigenous-settler relations? Do you fear Indigenous writers in the future will look back on our current moment and say, “Why did we not see it?”

Garry: I see the current state of Indigenous-settler relations as being in the early stages of change. At the same time, I see this process as awkward, uncomfortable, ugly, and beautiful. Sometimes, I see this relationship in silly terms, like a love-hate relationship, but it is necessary if Canada is to radically define who we are. In the end, if we can come to terms of a clear and meaningful relationship, then what awaits is hope for a great future.

Rob: It seems like we’re in the middle of a time of real growth for Indigenous writing in Canada, across all genres but perhaps especially in poetry. How does it feel to see it (finally) happening? Where would you like to see Indigenous poetry go next? Are there key Indigenous poets, either from this current wave of new writers, or older writers who went under-recognized, who you’d particularly like people to read?

Garry: I have tremendous faith that Indigenous writers will not let our people down, while at the same time elevating the voices of Indigenous people much further than I could ever do. I believe the next generation of Indigenous writers will be the ones who will knock Canadians on their butts, yet they will also be the ones who will bridge a strong relationship with the settler population.

Take for example the works of Eden Robinson, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Jordan Abel, Joshua Whitehead, and Katherena Vermette. They are the future hope for change. I get so overjoyed thinking about their work, I actually get choked up. Many of them have won major awards for their writing this past year, but it is more than winning that excites me. It is that they are courageous, and unapologetic about their work. They may not have experienced some direct traumas that us older writers have experienced (like Residential Schools, etc.) but they experience the effects of it. Also, they aren’t afraid to write from a raw and new perspective reflecting what is real in Canada today.

In terms of older writers who are under-recognized, I think about Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Joanne Arnott, Chris Bose, and I so boldly include myself in that group.

Rob: As you should! You’ve toured widely, giving readings in North America, Europe, Asia and, as mentioned, New Zealand. When you were young, you also traveled across Canada performing Secwépemc songs and dances as a member of the Paul Creek Tribal dancers. Your poems have an obvious aural quality to them, and often seem built for performance. Do you write your poems, first and foremost, for performance or for the page? Do you think they have different “lives” when read on the page than when performed publicly?

Garry: My poetry is primarily written for the page, so the audience can digest them and re-read them. Having said that, some poems have to be read out loud (to hear my intention and voice) for them to move the audience into my experience. I am actually a very private man, so being in public is not a strength of mine, even though I’ve learned to work in that environment.

I absolutely think that poems have different lives when read out loud as opposed to on the page. I believe that poetry and the poetic voice is underrated. It is the true insight into the culture of the day. I come from an oratory culture, so active, live voice is critical. I think live poetry should be a major focus on the Canadian arts scene. I don’t think Canada does enough to promote this aspect of culture.

Rob: One aspect of how your poems live differently on the page than when spoken aloud is the physical shape of your poems. The poems in Clinging to Bone vary in stanza length, but they quite often stick with a certain stanza length throughout a single poem (i.e., a poem of all couplets or all quatrains, etc.).

At what point in writing a poem do you start to think about the shape on the page? How does a poem written in couplets read/”feel” differently to you than one with, say, five- or six-line stanzas?

Garry: The last part of my writing process is looking at the aesthetics of the poem, in the editing stage. I try to balance the appearance of the poem in terms of its stanzas and such. The first stanza in the poem dictates how the rest of the poem will appear. It is not intentional, it’s just how I write. It also all depends on how finished I feel the poem is. Sometimes they are long poems, others are haiku. But in reality, I don’t plan my poems out. I just let them drop onto the page, and then work them.

Skin Like Mine (Ronsdale, 2010)
Rob: Clinging to Bone is your fifth book published with Ronsdale Press, all in the last 13 years (and three books in the last seven). Can you talk about your relationship with Ronsdale, which has involved both a long time span and frequent publication? Has that consistency given you more confidence or freedom in your writing?

Garry: Ronsdale Press has treated me really well. They have strongly supported my writing over the years. More importantly to me, Ronsdale Press has given me the freedom to write what I want. They have taught me not to compromise my poetic voice and have offered sound advice to maintain my poetic voice. This is something that illustrates belief in my work and the expectation that I will represent them with integrity. Truly, they have stood by me all of these years and have been loyal to my work. I can’t thank them enough.

Garry Gottfriedson is from Kamloops, BC. He was born into a rodeo/ranching family. He is an avid horseman, and is strongly rooted in his Secwepemc (Shuswap) cultural teachings. He holds a Masters of Arts Education Degree from Simon Fraser University. In 1987, the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado awarded a Creative Writing Scholarship to Gottfriedson. There, he studied under Allen Ginsberg, Marianne Faithful, and others. Gottfriedson has nine published books. He has read from his work across Canada, United States, Europe, and Asia. His work has been anthologized and published nationally and internationally. Currently, he works at Thompson Rivers University.


The mystery of where you come from: "The Broken Face" by Russell Thornton

The following interview is part three of a nine-part series of conversations with BC poets which I conducted in April 2019. All nine were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca.

Driving – Russell Thornton

I keep my headlights on, as recommended, even in daylight,
today and every day. In the night, when high beams strike my eyes,
I experience blind hate. Now I am walking across a street—

someone runs me down; I lie there fetal in the ticking glare.
They award me money, but I can never again run more than a few strides—
a dead leg, no spring in it. When I once ran races

and set records that stood for years. The steel screw and hinge
that had to be inserted in my knee now act as a transmitter and receiver
which communicate with me like a low-level deity; it sends an ache

the length of my leg alerting me to falling barometric pressure;
it signals me with my own yearning in the hour before rain—
now eternity will touch my entire skin at once. Now I ride

on a stationary bike at a rec centre gym for exactly thirty minutes,
my legs going around and around; I note the digits
indicating my achieved speed and distance. Today and every day.

I worry incessantly about the future, and my worry haunts me
like the past. Now I drive over a nail. At a repair shop, a workman informs me
he is not permitted to fix bald tires. Without my knowing it,

all four tires have lost almost all their treads. At any moment then,
on any icy or rain-slicked asphalt I might spin directionless, all my chances
gathered right there. And so I purchase quality new tires

that will take good hold of the road. I am vehicle-proud,
I am imitating a life, I am trying to do things right. Today and every day.
I take the wheel, click on the lights, and shine them invisibly into the light.

Reprinted with permission from 
The Broken Face by Russell Thornton 
(Harbour Publishing, 2018).

Rob Taylor: In many ways, your new poetry collection The Broken Face feels like a continuation (thematically, stylistically) of the work you were doing in Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain (Harbour, 2013). One commonality is the focus on the elemental: seemingly simple concepts/images are considered and considered again, until the great complexity hidden in them is teased out. I felt, though, like the particular “elements” you were working with here had changed.

The four major elemental themes in Birds, Metal, StonesRain were summarized handily in the title, and in reading The Broken Face I cooked up the alternate title “Prisons, Dreams, Mist & Light.” Could you speak a little about the “elements” that comprise this book (whether the ones I suggested or others) and your interest in focusing deeply on a handful of touchstone images/ideas in a book?

Russell Thornton: I meant Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain and The Broken Face to be part I and part II of a single enterprise. The images and ideas I’d tried to explore in the earlier book led me in the direction of related material, and I followed. With The Broken Face, yes, I wanted to try to burn away everything extraneous in my attention and expression, everything that wasn’t essential—to try to be evocative of what I’d refer to as the elemental strata of a human being. So I didn’t surprise myself when I found myself gathering poems around simple—and for me quite big—ideas and images.

One of the concepts that I kept returning to was crime; I knew that this was result of certain poems I’d produced for Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain. I’d say that mist and rain are favoured images with me. Light is as well—and the combination of light and rain (or simply water). Yeats said, “What’s water but the generated soul?” He was an unabashed neo-platonist; he must have believed like the ancients that water is “the first matter.” I’m not a neo-anything—but I am attracted to images and ideas that seem fundamental to me; they fit whatever psychic necessity I play out in my poems. This is also to say that the groups of elements in the two books are quite personal for me. And, yes, in both of these books I was circling images—conducting my own sort of circumambulatio. The process prompted the poems in the first book that are the most important to me; those poems prompted the pieces in The Broken Face that I devoted the most energy to and ended up feeling were the most successful.

Rob: Can we talk a bit about the one “element” I suggested which you haven’t touched on yet: dreams? Some of the poems in The Broken Face involve dreams explicitly, while others depict moments in the speaker’s daily life where present time “slips” or merges with the past, so that fathers, mothers, grandparents, children blur into one being (as in “Dandelions” and “Tying Shoes”). What do you think is drawing you to these types of poems at this point in your life (and writing)?

Russell: I’ve seen dreams as potent poetic content ever since I began writing poems. The texture of deep dreams—the symbolic plasticity and canny ambiguity—makes me trust their imaginative authority. I’m extremely interested in the relationships between waking consciousness and the unconscious, and between time and timelessness; I wonder about the operations at these interfaces. But then I suppose time and consciousness (along with love!) are principal themes of poetry.

In connection with the poems you mention, I guess the “one being” that people merge into is simply myself—or the self in attendance when I’m lucky enough to access modest but hopefully genuine levels of imagination. As I think many people do, I often feel the presence of people who are no longer alive—family members, of course, but also people I’ve never had any familiarity with in my waking life. In “Dandelions,” my dead grandmother merges with my small daughter and “teaches her to tell time”—as if a spirit stepped out of the other world into time for an instant or two. In teaching her to tell time, she teaches me about imagination and about the transactions between time and timelessness, and between daytime consciousness and the unconscious. In the other poem you mention, “Tying Shoes,” yes, I’m trying to capture an experience of bending to tie my own shoes and in that moment feeling I’m tying someone else’s shoes in the other world. A person is a strange conglomeration of realities, it seems.

Rob: The first section of The Broken Face is arranged in a fascinating way: you alternate between poems about your young son and poems about prisons. Could you talk a little about why you structured the section in this way, and how you wanted those poems to “speak” to one another?

I had my ideas regarding interlacing poems about my small boy with poems about prisons; it’s reflected in the ordering you mention. Silas White, who edited this book, helped me in the ordering of the poems. He’s quite adept at seeing the “narrative” of a book. I liked the idea of beginning the book with this section.

One of the major ways I thought of The Broken Face as being a “part II” of Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain was in the building on poems about memory, perception, place, the linking of generations, and fathers and sons, while adding a recurring overriding figure: the condemned man. With that first section, I wanted to introduce this figure—condemned for no reason other than his existence. That’s why the infant boy in the book’s first poem is lying on a set of scales and I say the arguments for both his prosecution and his defence are the same—his pulse. His pulse—and his infant human consciousness—can be viewed as a “fall” into life and as a crime. The boy is innocent, of course, and I’m projecting on to him what I see as the human situation; he is immediately in line to be apprehended by time and experience and be sullied and judged. The bits of naughtiness, incarceration, etc. that are to do with the condemned man in certain poems are autobiographical; they’re recollections of who I was as a younger person.

Alongside the autobiography, I intend the figure as an extended metaphor. He’s actually the speaker in the book’s opening poem, pronouncing the fate of the infant boy—the new version of himself. The boy is an exemplar of the first boy—Cain, let’s say—and thus of the first murderer. The condemned man figure is the father and a version of Adam, the first male parent. Right at the beginning of The Broken Face, I wanted to present something of the bewildering paradox of innocence and experience—and the relation of these states to acts of imagination. I wanted this initial section to elaborate itself through the book and inform all the other sections.

Rob: Innocence and experience, yes, that comes through in a palpable way.

When it comes to your own life experience, in addition to your youthful incarcerations (which inform portions of the book), you’ve also traveled and lived in many different parts of the world. Your bios at the back of Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain and The Broken Face mention that you’ve lived in Montreal, Wales, and Greece.

While you’ve explored these times in your earlier collections (most notably, The Hundred Lives), Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain and The Broken Face feel much more focused on your hometown of North Vancouver. To what extent do you think your deep exploration of North Vancouver (which lives as a vibrant, if wet, character in your poems) was shaped by your travels abroad? Do you think coming to know Greece (its mythology, history, people, poets) influenced your seeing/making the same in North Vancouver?

Russell: There’s a saying: “Travels are the soul of the world.” I think in travelling you sometimes enter a state of timelessness—pure process, pure potential, pure relationship. You’re on the way to a promised land—a place created perpetually in the imagination. Your question makes me think of the very great Greek poem “Ithaka” by C.P. Cavafy. I love the ending where the Cavafy/Odysseus speaker talks about how the idea of Ithaka gave him his “odyssey,” his 20-year journey, and how if he finds her “poor,” Ithaka won’t have “fooled” him, as it gave him the journey.

I haven’t been disappointed by own particular Ithaka, and I’ve been fascinated to see how an Ithaka can be both the home you left and not the home you left. When I was a teenager, I was desperate, as many teenagers are, to leave my familiar surroundings; I ended up going away for decades, coming back for brief periods to drive a taxi. Of course, I was desperate to access parts of myself that eluded me and were necessary for my psychological survival. And of course, at a certain point in travelling, you’re not dealing anymore with anything individual or personal that you need to open up in yourself; rather, you’re experiencing the more remote and unfathomable recesses and energies of the psyche common to all people.

I remember when I came back to North Vancouver after having been in Greece for three or four years; for an instant, as I walked along a section of Lonsdale Avenue the lower-rise buildings with storefronts made me think of military barracks. I went into a cafe; everyone there seemed embarrassed to be alive. And at that re-initiation into my place of origin, I felt like heading right back to the airport. But then, that night, I smelled the sharp incense of fir trees through an open window. Cool late spring air was flowing down off Grouse Mountain. In just a minute or two, clouds appeared outside the same window and seemed to touch into the front room. Then the sound of rain beginning to fall into trees and onto shingles and into eavestroughs came into my ears; it hypnotized me. The next day, I was struck by the down-to-earth and outright kind manner of person after person in everyday situations. So I think after you’ve been away from your home and come back to it, yes, you see it differently, more clearly. You see the place more for what it is. You also get a renewed sense of the mystery of where you come from. I feel these days that a person might be equipped to appreciate the qualities of mystery and magic of the place he comes from better than any other place precisely because he comes from that place.

Rob: I love that idea of exploring (traveling into?) the mystery of the place where one comes from. Do you consider your poems about North Vancouver to be travel poems in their own way?

Russell: The source of the deepest dreams and of the end destinations of the most intense wanderlust is, for me, I’ve come to realize, the place beneath my feet. Two of my four immigrant grandparents were brought as young children to Vancouver and lived on the North Shore from early ages. When they grew up here, the area was far less populated, developed, and moneyed than it is now. Both of their families started out in shacks on what was then a wild shore and is now West Vancouver’s Ambleside Beach. I was born and grew up in North Vancouver, and although I’ve lived in a few other places, I’m still nothing if not a North Vancouver poet.

I’d say that a main permanent image within my brain folds is the prospect when you look west past the Lions Gate Bridge towards Georgia Strait: out there, the sun is shining brightly, and in North Vancouver it’s raining, so that the light is raying in through the rain. That prospect provokes what is for me the essence of travel: the dream of transformation and of creativity itself. That interchange of sunlight and rain is an elemental conjuration; it incites a certain attention. So, ironically, in my case, here as nowhere else I have a chance to enact the transformation that once seemed available only in faraway settings.

Rob: Do you see any parallels in your time away from North Vancouver and subsequent return, and your return to consideration of your childhood (and your father-son relationship) through having children of your own? Are they inevitably intertwined?

Russell: Images of my father figured dramatically in my memory and imagination before I had kids; the father-son relationship as a theme captured me from the beginnings of my attempts to write poems. Still, it seems inevitable that when you have kids you rediscover bits and pieces of your own childhood. My personal father-son images and narratives intensified for a while. Do you know that Sylvia Plath poem, “For a Fatherless Son”? She says in it, “You will be aware of an absence, presently, / Growing beside you, like a tree, / A death tree, colour gone…” It was certainly like that for me.

I think my small kids became something of a composite muse for me for a couple of years. I figure this might well have been a function of re-experiencing my place of origin through their eyes, and at the same time standing in that place not as a fatherless child but rather in the form of their father. In some ways, I’ve found that the parallels between my relationships past and present and the particular place where I grew up amount to an offer of transformation. The natural world of North Vancouver has been for me a kind of lesson in irrefutable creative realities. Life makes and remakes us, parent, child again, parent, as it continually forces us to re-align our personal woes in a scheme of things that is grave and joyous, and ultimately impersonal. Oddly enough, I feel, this scheme of things is inside every person: a person we all have in common, as close as the jugular vein, a kind of person of persons, a person in the heart no bigger than a thumb.

Rob: That absence beside me: yes I have grown in my writing and my life similarly to what Plath suggests, having lost my own father as a child. Carrying his name and wondering what it carries inside it.

One fascinating theme that runs through The Broken Face is the importance (or unimportance) of names, especially the European and Indigenous place names of North Vancouver. In the poem “North Vancouver” you write: “The more years that go by, the more names I have learned leave me, the more the number of names I would like to learn increases—and I learn Chay-chil-whoak Creek, Kwa-hul-cha Creek, and then these names too gather like mist, then move off and away like mist.”

And later, in “Aftermath”:

It is called Wagg Creek, but that name
is not the name given to it
long before anyone named Wagg
existed, or his ancestors
dreamt of this far place.

You also note in your conversation with Phoebe Wang in What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation that it’s been “exciting” to learn Squamish names.

I’m conscious of the fact that at the same time as you were learning anew to name the places around you, you were also raising your aforementioned young children: naming them and providing for them the names of everything in their world. Did these two processes fuel one another in any way, and did they bring you to think about names, or words, or poems, in a different way?

Russell: I’ve always been fascinated by names and naming, and by names and namelessness. Like a lot of people, I suppose I’m in a kind of thrall to words (“In the beginning was the word”!). Do you know the A.M. Klein masterpiece, “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape”? It has that extraordinary bit at the end: “Look, he is / the nth Adam taking a green inventory / in world but scarcely uttered, naming, praising, / the flowering fiats in the meadow, the / syllabled fur, stars aspirate, the pollen / whose sweet collision sounds eternally. / For to praise / the world – he, solitary man – is breath / to him.” I love this poem. There are also one or two pieces by Gwendolyn McEwen in which she sings about names and naming; I love them as well. Both of these poets are aware of mystical concepts associated with naming; it seems that they know deeply how the act of naming is infused with strange power.

I’m interested in concepts to do with names and naming (“the ineffable name” of God in Jewish mysticism would be the prime example), and how the “real” names of all things must necessarily be secret, unknown. My interest in the original language of the place where I was born and now live (and where I’ve chosen to raise young children) comes from wanting to know what the First Peoples here call the place, and how they relate themselves through that calling with specific natural locales and phenomena. The English-language names I learned as a child for the creeks and rivers I grew up around (usually the surnames of colonial men who came to “own” land alongside these waters) always seemed to me to be off; they didn’t fit my experience. Although my first language is English, and my kids’ language is English too, the language doesn’t necessarily work very well for any authentic appreciation of our surroundings.

I suppose I’d like my kids to be a positive part of their natural environment. The languages initiated in this particular area thousands of years ago: they seem essential. At the same time, as I say in the poem you mention (“North Vancouver”), I feel the names we use for things, English or Squamish or Halkomelem, ultimately “move off and away like mist”; all names vanish into the unknown name of names.

Rob: The Klein is new to me. Thank you for the introduction!

Continuing in our consideration of the local: you started your publishing career working with presses in other parts of the country, before finding a home at a BC press: Harbour Publishing (starting with House Built of Rain in 2003), who have published all your books since (with the exception of The Hundred Lives). You also publish chapbooks with the Alfred Gustav Press, based right near you in North Vancouver. Do you see a connection between your movement toward writing more and more “locally” with your working increasingly with BC-based presses?

Russell: With my first couple of collections, I was simply enormously happy to be published in book form. It didn’t matter to me who the publisher was or where the press was located. At the same time, I had the dream as a “poet” to have a relationship with a BC publisher and be able to send manuscripts to that publisher and realistically hope for a non-slush-pile response. Harbour Publishing was always my goal. I’d read all the Harbour poets and many of the press’s other writers. I bought Harbour books on hiking, local history, etc. I found I admired Howard White as a maverick publisher and writer. So when I got a book published by Harbour, it felt right to me; I stopped looking elsewhere. The Hundred Lives was different sort of book for me content-wise. I didn’t see it as a Harbour book; that was why I published it with Quattro Books in Toronto.

As I find myself writing more and more about my immediate locale (even, paradoxically, as I might be trying to widen my focus on certain levels), yes, it seems more and more appropriate to me to publish with a BC press. Regarding the Alfred Gustav Press: that was a pleasure for me because it’s a North Vancouver press and all of the poems I included in the little chapbooks I published with that press were quite specifically related to North Vancouver.

Rob: Your recent book publications have come in two flurries: first, four book in six years (2000–2006) and now three books in five years (2013–2018). Between them there was a seven year gap. I suspect at least part of that public “silence” had to do with the two children who play a prominent role in the poetry in your recent books. Could you speak about the gap? Did you stop or slow your writing output at that point, or did you continue on as always and simply not publish? How, if at all, did that time away from publishing change how you thought about your writing? Your views on book publishing?

Russell: I’ve filled notebooks since I was a teenager—even when I’ve been occupied with more than full-time work or, as in the past decade, with bringing up kids in addition to income-getting. But, yes, I’ve had a chequered publication history. I think it’s mostly because I’ve never been interested in a “career” in poetry, in which I proceeded from a “debut” to this or that as in a thought-out marketing campaign. In any case, I haven’t exerted myself to have books appear at regular intervals; I’ve tried to get published when it felt right to me to put a frame around a bulk of poems. I’ve been excited to see my poems between covers, that’s for sure!

There’s a W.B. Yeats poem where Yeats says, “I have gone about the house, gone up and down / As a man does when who has published a new book…” I’ve felt that! It’s also marvelous for me simply to blacken pages and tinker with whatever I see there a day or a week or a year or more later. And that’s the deeper pleasure as well as the necessity for me: the act of writing.

Rob: Through all your years of tinkering with blackened pages it feels like you’ve worked your writing more and more toward a particular sound and shape I can quickly identify as a “Russell Thornton” poem. I can’t say I fully understand the ingredients that go into a “Russell Thornton” poem, though some of them would be your word choices (conversational, shorter), your rhythm (steady, iamb-heavy, sometimes almost chant-like), your use of long sentences, and the overall length of your poems (usually more than one page, less than two).

Do you feel like, after decades of poem-making, you carry around a bit of a template for a “Russell Thornton” poem in the back of your mind? Or are you starting from scratch every time? Has it become easier for you to write a poem over the years, or more challenging, and why do you think that is?

Russell: I’m starting from scratch every time, no question. I do hear a certain set of sounds in my head—and I think these sounds may belong to a poem that I’d like to write—but I haven’t ever managed to log the sounds properly on the page. My idea is to keep trying. If poetry is “stored magic” as Robert Graves said, it’s definitely a magic that’s difficult to produce. Language for me is relentlessly alluring as it is intractable; it’s my friend the enemy.

Rob: In your recent books, I’ve noticed a move away from direct references (via epigraphs, allusions, etc.) to the work of other poets and writers. Only one poem in The Broken Face features an epigraph (down from six in Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain). And the epigraphs for both books, which in many collections are quotes from other writers, are small introductory poems you wrote yourself. By comparison, you quote Blake to open The Human Shore and Rilke in The Hundred Lives.

This contrasts with your writing-about-poetry, including this interview, where you’ve already quoted so many poets! Is this reduction of direct references within your poems a conscious choice of yours? If so, is it connected in any way to the ever-more-personal themes (your family, your city, your neighbours) you circle in The Broken Face? Clearing out the voices so you can focus in on what matters most deeply to you?

Russell: I think poets breathe the air of the poets alive around them as well as the poets that have come before. It’s inevitable that any given poet’s pieces are filled with allusions, direct and obvious or subtle and half-hidden. I’d say that in a way all poets are part and parcel of a single composite anonymous poet. I think the irony is that this “poet” is alone. And I think the natural state of individual mortal poets both is and isn’t one of aloneness. Most monumental artistic human expression is for me a cry or wail or howl of aloneness, an address to whatever is out there, or in there—and is other, totally other than ourselves. I think the creative cry announces our essential aloneness. But it’s an ecstatic aloneness. Love, imagination, can give us flashes of an experience of not being alone, and can create for us sites of recognition: of recognition of another person, of invisible realities, of the levels of love. But even in those flashes, what we’re aware of is aloneness infinitely wider than our own. That other aloneness is lonely for us, and we’re lonely for it.

And so, the way I see it, we’re searchers; we’re always searching for what is searching for us. The instant we’re not alone, however—the instant we find and are found—we’re not any longer what we were, we’re unfamiliar to ourselves, we’re someone or something else, other, we’re not there. I don’t think I’ve ever written poems that aren’t personal; the difference between The Broken Face and other books I’ve produced might be in the presence of children and the crux to do with “crime”: in the particular play of the paradox of being alone and not alone.

Rob: One poem in The Broken Face, “The Wound”, embraces your idea of the “single composite anonymous poet,” working 19 separate quotations into its lines (a third of the poem’s content). The quotes are a mix between lines from poets in the English literary canon and Haida storytellers. “The Wound” bucks the book’s quote-free trend in a big way. Its subject matter (The Great Pacific Garbage Patch) and its length (four pages) also serve to make the poem feel like a bit of an outlier.

What spurred you to write “The Wound”? How do you want it to function within a larger book that in many ways is pulling in different directions? Is having “outlier” poems (thematically, stylistically) which widen the range of a book important to you as a writer? As a reader?

Russell: I meant this poem as an elaboration of the “crime” theme in The Broken Face. The “wound” is the wound of humanity’s separation from the natural world brought about by consciousness. It’s also the wound humanity makes in the natural world. The “crime scene tape” that surrounds the Pacific Ocean is humanity guilty of self-consciousness and of creating a hell on Earth. At the same time, humanity is represented by the voices of the poets I quote in the poem: the voices of the creative as opposed to destructive qualities and repercussions of consciousness. Yes, I wanted to carry very personal themes to the wider theatre of human community, enlisting the help of some of my favourite poets; it seemed appropriate to me on an imaginative level.

Rob: Speaking of the wider theatre, your 2014 collection The Hundred Lives took us halfway across the planet and also back through your writing catalogue. Based around your time living in Greece and your writing inspired by Biblical sources (most notably The Song of Songs, which you’ve elsewhere called your favourite poem), many of the poems were drawn from each of your preceding five books, and a few were originally published (in magazines, etc.) as far back as 1997. It must have been fascinating to go back through your old poems and assemble them in this way.

What did you learn about your development as a writer in the process? Did that experience (including the post-publication experience of its being shortlisted for the Griffin Prize) influence your thinking on what you might do next, in ways we might detect in The Broken Face?

Russell: Yes, for almost a half of The Hundred Lives I put together poems from previous volumes (going all the way back to The Fifth Window, 2000) that were set specifically in Greece, or, in the case of the handful of approximate sonnets called “Lazarus’ Songs to Mary Magdalene,” set in a general Mediterranean/Middle Eastern world. In the larger part of the book, I brought together some selections from an unpublished manuscript that I wrote a few years ago based on The Song of Songs. I spent two years translating The Song of Songs, and as I did that, I found I was writing pieces in response to what I was discovering about the resonances of the text. It was exciting for me; I felt I was confirming intuitions I’d had about connections between the erotic and the divine, and between these and imagination. For the latter part of that book, I brought together some overtly personal poems that hadn’t fit in any of my previous manuscripts but seemed to fit in this one.

I was a bit hesitant to assemble a manuscript clearly concerned with “spiritual” and “erotic” themes, but once I had the book in my hands I was pleased; I figured I’d managed a certain fidelity to myself. After I put together The Hundred Lives, I became more aware than before that I had a couple of seemingly quite different chief poetic impulses. I see myself as a simple describer of nature, a writer of short narratives, a poet of memory and place—yet I’m also extremely interested in the metaphysical. I’d say that my experience with The Hundred Lives helped me to be more honest, and I see honesty as crucial in trying to allow whatever I write to touch upon—as much as possible—what concerns me as a reader and as a person.

As it happened, a couple of the poems that I included in The Hundred Lives gave me the license to try to come up with what are for me important strands of “part II” of Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain; the “condemned man” that I introduce in The Broken Face is an autobiographical move, but on a symbolic level I think the figure has an association with the Lazarus story. I’d like to explore how I might integrate and redeem this figure in a future book or group of poems in which I also manage the work of unifying varied poetic impulses. It’s an idea anyway!

Rob: And a good one! I look forward to reading those poems one day. Speaking of future writing plans, as a “big-time Canadian poet” have you ever felt the desire to do as “big-time Canadian poets” are supposed to do and write a novel (or short fiction, or…)? Or is your devotion to poetry unwavering?

Russell: I’ve written prose (short stories and memoir pieces that I’ve kept to myself) for brief periods when my poem writing flagged. When poems have started coming to me again, I’ve forgotten about prose. The heightened, incantatory language of poetry never ceases to work its magic on me and make me want to try my hand. I keep going back to wanting to participate in what I believe is poetry’s chant of the deepest desires. Having said this, I’ll admit that ideas for producing prose occur to me quite regularly. Maybe when I have more than 1.5-2.0 hours per weekday for writing (jobs! childcare!), I might set up scaffolding for a serious crack at that and see what I can come up with. It wouldn’t be out of any desire to “make it” as a Canadian writer; it would be because I felt like doing it. In any case, I’m still finding myself writing poems on a daily basis, and that’s fine with me!

Rob: Yes, it doesn’t get much luckier than that! I suppose that means we shouldn’t worry that another long publishing silence is on the horizon? If you have another book in the works, do you have a sense of how it might be different from the books that preceded it?

Russell: I tied a ribbon around a new manuscript towards the end of 2018. I’ll submit it to Harbour at some point, I guess. I’m calling it The Nothing Eye. I’m well into a subsequent manuscript, The Terrible Appearances (a title I’ve had hanging around in my head for a while now). In both of these books, I attend a lot more to what I’d call the metaphysical and mythological than I did in either of Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain or The Broken Face and maybe even more
than I did in The Hundred Lives.

Russell Thornton is the author of The Hundred Lives (Quattro Books, 2014), shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain (2013), shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, the Raymond Souster Award, and the Dorothy Livesay BC Book Prize. His other titles include The Fifth Window, A Tunisian Notebook, House Built of Rain, The Human Shore, and his newest collection, The Broken Face (Harbour Publishing, 2018). He lives in North Vancouver.  


What's not included is as essential as what is: "How She Read" by Chantal Gibson

The following interview is part two of a nine-part series of conversations with BC poets which I conducted in April 2019. All nine were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca.

bullet points – Chantal Gibson

All rights reserved—no part of the book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine or newspaper.  —We Grow Up, The MacMillan Company, 1939.

  • P. 19 Jupie is a good cat. He lives alone in a little red farm house.
  • P. 57 Dick is the mailman on the train. He has bags full of letters and packages.
  • P. 62 Jack is a pilot of a big airplane that flies at night. He has a radio.
  • P. 88 A brownie is about a foot high. He lives in a cellar. He has a brown face. He looks queer, lives in queer places and does queer things.
  • P. 160 Little Ugly Face lives in an old Indian village. She looks so queer that the children laugh and call her Little Ugly Face. She is sad. She has no friends. She really is not pretty at all.

Reprinted with permission from 
How She Read by Chantal Gibson 
(Caitlin Press, 2019).

Rob Taylor: Your debut collection How She Read (Caitlin Press) is filled with gaps and mysteries that seem designed to complicate a reader’s experience. Words are blacked out from quotations, letters are blanked from words and words from sentences, the letters in words are rearranged, and—most notably—many of the book’s poems (including the opening and closing poems) feature a shorthand derived from your own handwriting which is impossible to read (for me, at least!).

When in the process of writing How She Read did you strike upon these various techniques, and how did they shape your thinking of the book as a whole?

Chantal Gibson: Yes, How She Read is full of holes, holes in words, holes in sentences, holes in stories, holes in logic. I’m interested in language (how we learn to read and write words) and how knowledge is produced and re-produce across a culture (how we learn to read and interpret everyday objects, images and signs). In particular, my book is a decolonizing effort that challenges the mis/representation of Black women woven into the fabric of Canadian culture—the holes left by historical silences and hegemonic erasure.

The process of writing How She Read got me thinking about how I learned to read, so I started at the beginning. That’s why you see several ‘cloze poems’—those familiar fill-in-the-bl_nk exercises used to teach spelling in grade school. That process got me asking “Why left to right? Why up to down?” It got me thinking about the rules and conventions of proper English I had come to accept and embody without question—run on sentences, dangling modifiers, split infinitives, passive voice, the stuff of writing handbooks. Since English is the only language I read, write, and speak fluently, I figured I should brush-up on the rules before I set out to break them.

Rob: The holes these maneouvers leap vary in their difficulty to navigate – the jumbled words can be untangled easily, and many of the missing words can be guessed at, while others seem unknowable. Collectively it feels like the poems are making a statement on race, history, and cultural spheres (especially Black Canadian and White/”Mainstream” cultural spheres): what can be understood by one reader cannot be by another. Of the shorthand, you mention in your notes at the end of the book: “If you can’t read it, you’re not meant to.” When did the idea of your shorthand come about, and the decision to integrate it throughout the book?

Chantal: In addition to the holes, the book is also full of bad spelling and bad grammar. Moments from the language experiments introduced in the first section, “the grammar of loss,” are repeated and woven throughout the rest of the book. All of this is done to unsettle the tropes, myths, and stereotypes in the images of the Black women I write about. I asked myself how I might use these “errors” and “mistakes” as a form of backtalk, as a form of dissent, as a constraint for writing, as a way of fragmenting and subverting the colonial language I use every day as a good, literate citizen.

The “shorthand” or graphic mark-making is inspired by my mother’s warning during grade 11 course selection, “you gotta get your shorthand girl!” and it’s the outcome of an iterative process of deconstructing my handwriting down to its essential marks and strokes. For months I wrote and erased letters, words, lines and stanzas. The aubade (Sonnet Crown) at the end of the book concludes with a palimpsest of fourteen stanzas, thick layers of black marks stacked on top of each other (who said stanzas had to be side by side?). Ask any graphic designer, the length and weight of a single pen stroke can tell you a compelling story.

Rob: Or the leaving out of a pen stroke!

A powerful moment in the book comes in the poem “c words,” when you write “How do you c_nfr_nt the past / with a c_l_n_z_d tongue? // Truth is. // I c_n’t.” With this gesture you seem to draw yourself into the field of unknowing you are creating for others in the book. Do you see it that way? Are there ways the content of this book is elusive or unreachable even for you, the author?

Chantal: The answer is yes. In school I was taught to write in complete, coherent sentences to avoid confusing the reader, but there are some things that cannot be articulated in words, in English, in complete thoughts.  At home I was taught to communicate in winks, whispers, gestures, and suck teeth. Again, no words.

Some things can never be said, can never be known—like the memories and experiences of my ancestors, the gross weight of joy, the total circumference loss. There are holes in my history, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.  The incoherence and incompleteness in the work became the material and the message of the poems.

Rob: “There are holes in my history, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true”—yes, exactly! Connected to that, the last two sections of How She Read feature a number of poems written in the voices of historical (mostly Canadian) Black women, often women who were the subjects of photographs or paintings. Can you talk about taking on that daunting challenge of giving voice to the historically voiceless (its own form of “fill in the blank”) and how it speaks to the larger themes of the book?

Chantal: Yes, more holes. In this case, fill-in-the-Bla_k!

I curated several portraits, paintings and photographs of Black women and girls who appear (and re-appear) in Canadian art, historical, and literary discourses—subjected to the Colonial gaze. Their presence presented me with the opportunity to play with ekphrastic poetry. Instead of describing the portraits I was looking at, I imagined each of the women staring back, talking back, challenging the gaze, discussing and critiquing modes and methods of their representation. I created persona poems that provided them with a space to talk freely about the use and misuse of their images.

Sometimes they talk to the reader, sometimes they talk to authority, and sometimes they talk to each other. For example, in “Don’t Call Me Minty,” Harriet Tubman writes her own Canadian Heritage Minute, thank you very much! In the dialogue poem “Centrefolds: Marie-Therese and Delia on Opening Night,” two nude Black subjects eye viewers eyeing them at an art gallery opening while implicating Art and Science in the racist and sexist notions used to mystify and mythologize them. I swear, I could hear these women talking—so I let them speak.  There’s a lot of sass in those pages.

Rob: Goodness knows a lot of those Heritage Minutes need rewriting! That brings us nicely to the theme of the book’s “Canadian-ness.” It can be difficult to have conversations about Blackness in Canada (or just about anything in Canada) without being drowned out by American narratives (“Can’t a good woman / be Black here without being draped in American context?” you have Viola Desmond ask in “Cease n Desist: From the Desk of Viola Desmond”).

How She Read is filled with specifically Black Canadian stories and voices (including the four blurbers on the back of the book!). Can you speak of the importance, to you, of the book’s Canadian focus?

Viola Desmond
Chantal: In “Cease n Desist” I enjoyed helping Viola Desmond liberate herself from the ahistorical confines of her Canada postage stamp—the myths, the erasure, the nostalgia. In “Veronica?” I enjoyed hearing this unidentified portrait subject explain what it’s like to be a sign of the times, a Black woman hanging with the Group of Seven at the centre of the AGO, disrupting the whiteness of the landscape.

How She Read is unapologetically Black and Canadian. It’s the book I wish I had in university. The poems are about Black women in the Canadian cultural landscape. The poems are buttressed by Black women writers, Canadian and American, Audre Lorde, Dionne Brand, Toni Morrison, M. NourbeSe Philip, Afua Cooper.  For example, I met “the black wench” in a third year Canadian Literature class while reading Thomas McCulloch’s The Stepsure Letters, which was originally published in the Acadian Recorder in 1821–22. She was a stereotype, dehumanized, a buffoonish non-character wresting a pig on the kitchen floor, and I was the only person of colour in that class. Twenty years ago, it didn’t feel safe to put up my hand and ask about her. “The Black Wench Suite” afforded me, with the help of Toni Morrison, the opportunity to talk back to McCulloch, the first Dalhousie president, the father of Canadian satire, to ask why Mammoth (a giant boar) warranted a name and “the black wench” did not.

Only Black women speak inside the book.  On the cover you’ll find my generous reviewers, Lawrence Hill, George Elliott Clarke, Chelene Knight, and Wayde Compton holding the space for me and all those women to speak.

Rob: Speaking of important women in the book, though How She Read is about larger political and historical themes, it is also a personal book: it is dedicated to your mother, who died in 1986 (and whose photo, age 5 or 6, graces the cover). Many of the book’s poems explore your mother’s life and your relationship with her.

This adds whole new layers of exploration – of knowing and unknowing – to the book, at times blurring the collective and the personal (at one point you write “there are no honest poems / about dead women” and it seems to touch on everything). Can you speak about the importance, to you, of including that personal content in the book?

Chantal: My mother was my first book. She had me at 17. Everything I learned about being a Black woman in Canada started with her. She was always the only Black woman in our Ontario neighbourhoods, the only Black woman in our tiny BC town. Visible and invisible at the same time. I watched her navigate those spaces with dignity and distrust. She loved us fiercely. She smiled, she laughed, she was funny as hell, but those who knew her well witnessed the daily grind of microaggressions.

As an exercise for How She Read, I researched old Canadian spellers and vocabulary readers (1950–60s)—the books my mother might have read as a little girl growing up in Halifax, in Viola Desmond’s Nova Scotia. I was horrified by the ideological weaponry on the pages, the small daily doses of racism, sexism, homophobia delivered in the stories and the images. The poem featured to open this interview, “bullet points,” is based on one of those encounters.

“There are no honest poems / about dead women” is a line from an Audre Lorde’s poem “Our Dead Behind Us.” This gave me permission to include my mother and intimate moments from my childhood in the book with the understanding that memories have membranes.

Rob: Thank you for bringing us around to Audre Lorde. How She Read feels inspired by any number of great Black female artists, but three poets in particular stand out: Lorde, Dionne Brand and M. NourbeSe Philip, each of whom is quoted or referenced in the book. What do you think you learned from each of them, and how did those lessons manifest in the book?

Chantal: As you can see from my answers so far, my book is filled with the words and wisdom of famous Black writers. The scariest thing about writing How She Read was doing them justice.

I still have my copy of Audre Lorde’s Our Dead Behind Us, a book about blackness, womanhood, motherhood and cancer. It came out in 1986, the year my mother died, but I didn’t read it till grad school 1997, years after Lorde died. I was struggling in grad school, not with courses but with content. It was a lonely experience. I kept asking, “What am I doing here?” When I read the poem “There are no honest poems about dead women,” I dog eared the page and moved to Japan to teach English in 1998. I read that book over and over again. It became a familiar friend in a foreign land. Lorde’s work brought comfort to me at a time when I had to step away, to take a break, to work on myself. I’m so grateful she opens my book.

Dionne Brand is my hero. She’s the only writer I’ve ever gushed over in public. (It’s embarrassing.) No Language is Neutral (1990), Inventory (2006), and Ossuaries (2010) are particularly important to me. A signed copy of The Blue Clerk is on my nightstand waiting to be read. Her attention to detail, to nuance, is unparalleled for me. The world can turn on a word. Thus, in How She Read, I obsessed on words like “Hottentot” and “break”—like I said, every word has a job to do. Dionne Brand makes me think, makes me ask, “What do I mean by justice? Is there such thing as justice? If so, whose justice for whom?” These are questions I meditate on throughout the book.

As for NourbeSe Philip, the first time I read Looking for Livingston (1991), I was rocked by the line “silence is a sentence.” So many ways to read those four words. Such sass, such backtalk, the alliteration is deafening. My friend Diane Roberts gifted me Zong! (2011) a few years ago. That book got me thinking about fragments and utterances, the necessary tools for telling a story that can’t be told.  I am indebted to these Br_ll_ _nt writers!

Rob: Speaking of giving thanks, in the book’s acknowledgments you thank Caitlin Press publicist Michael Despotovic for his “business card… and for thinking your former writing teacher might have something interesting to say.” Could you tell us how the book came together and made its way to Caitlin?

Chantal: This is a good story.

A few years ago, I was invited by Chelene Knight to do a rooftop poetry reading at Room Magazine’s new office space.  After the reading, Michael came up to me and said, “Hello.” He introduced himself as a former student in one of my writing design classes, and Caitlin’s marketing rep.  I think he was surprised to see me reading poetry. After chatting about my book project, he handed me his card and asked that I consider Caitlin Press when I was ready for a publisher. I told him I would.

Two years later, I sent off my manuscript to Caitlin Press (and one other publisher) and made a note in the cover letter that I was honouring Michael’s request. After a gentle nudge from him, publisher Vici Johnstone contacted me. She said she was interested in “getting the scoop” on the book. She asked me why Caitlin, and I told her it mattered that I was a Black woman writer from BC. She asked about my vision for the book, and for one hour she listened: I told her I wasn’t interested in writing a book of poetry, I wanted to create a Canadian cultural artifact. I told her the book needed to beautiful, inside and out, treating image and text equally. I told her I was confronting colonialism head on. I told her my mom had to be on the cover. She was in. We decided to collaborate.

At my request, Vici hired Canisia Lubrin to edit the book. If you’ve read Voodoo Hypothesis (Wolsak & Wynn) or ever heard her read it (off book) Canisia is Br_ll_ _nt!  She understood what I was trying to achieve, and she was unwavering in her commitment to the work. She encouraged me to experiment but kept her eye on the poems. In our Skype meetings, she’d say “You know you’re writing poetry, right?” At one point she said, “try a few more iterations and see what happens,” and out of that came the poem “reciprocal pronouns.” The poem “amber alert” was originally a letter to Curious George—she said “get rid of everything but the headlines,” and it worked. For me, a first-time poet way to too close to my work, she was terrifyingly awesome. 

When the poems were done, the Caitlin team took over. Holly edited the text and Vici pulled everything—fonts, paper, poems, photos, shorthand—together. The nuance of the shorthand, the sharpness of the graphics, and the exquisite cover design are her doing. It’s a beautiful book… I’m so glad Michael said “Hello.”

Rob: Yes, the visuals in the book (in colour, no less!) are striking – such a rarity in a poetry book! But it felt in keeping with your work in general, much of which is visual art. In your visual art series Historical In(ter)ventions, you sewed black threaded braids into several old Canadian history books.

Of your altered book projects, you write “If you took away the white space, what would the black text do? What would it say?” I wonder if you think about How She Read in the same terms? And if so, do you think that factored into your choosing to write poetry to explore these questions – the written form in which the interplay of the white page and the black text is most pronounced?

Chantal: My threaded historical book sculptures, along with poster-size pages from The Canadian Vocabulary Speller Grade 4 (Macmillan, 1948) redacted with thick black paint, were featured in two recent art shows that book-ended the country. How She Read: Confronting the Romance of Empire (Open Space in Victoria, BC) and How She Read: (re)Visiting my Mother’s Nova Scotia (Ross Creek Arts Centre in Canning, NS).

Together, these black-on-white artworks challenge how we write and how we read history and nationhood. They question what’s included and what’s not. They scratch at ideology, scratch at hegemony. I think my poems are doing the same thing. In both cases, I’m asking viewers to consider the “holes”—the voices, stories, and bodies that have been erased, silenced, or excluded from dominant cultural narratives. For me, black text is just another material to manipulate, to explore positive and negative space. I gravitated to poetry because poems are forms made from gaps and spaces and exclusions. Like historical narratives, what’s not included is as essential to the poem as what is included.

Rob: In “Close Reading: The Black Wench Suite” you write “Most words are harmless if you / just let them be” and later in “Excerpts: Marie-Joseph Angelique, Montreal 1734” you spend the poem unpacking each of the dictionary definitions of the word “break” (you noted that this was partly inspired by Dionne Brand). Exploring the power and powerlessness of words (what they mean and what they could mean; what they carry inherently and what we put into them; what remains when the word itself is removed/blanked out/transformed) seems important to you. Did writing this book, or preparing the corresponding art exhibits, make you think differently about the power and function of words?

Chantal: Yes, absolutely! I just talked about reading space, but, of course, words have a job to do.  Words are powerful, especially in a poem. One word has so much work to do, semantically, semiotically, aesthetically. When writing “The Black Wench Suite” I did a deep dive into the word “Hottentot.” I asked myself, why did Thomas McCulloch use that word? And what are the effects of him putting that word in his narrator’s mouth? That word references a term given by Dutch colonizers to label the Khoikhoi people of South Africa. The word entered the English language and became associated with Khoikhoi women, in particular, Sarah Baartman (1770s–1815), whose body became the spectacle of New World freaks shows and science labs. That word is loaded with ideology: it represents the colonial project of subjugating the Other, the historical oppression and exploitation of Black people, and the systemic dehumanization of Black women. This is how stereotypes are formed. Fucked up ideas about Black women’s bodies continue to circulate in our culture. Thank God Roxane Gay is coming down hard on that. Look how long they last, these notions, how far they travel in time and space in consciousness. I know McCulloch’s book is satire, that Hottentot thing is meant to be funny—but I can’t take a joke.

As for unpacking the word “break” in “Excerpts: Marie-Joseph Angelique, Montreal 1734”, I was deeply impacted by Afua Cooper’s book, The Hanging of Angelique (2011). The scope of the research, the time she spent reading, writing, and humanizing that woman. Seriously, Afua Cooper, how she read! I was also touched and torched by Lorena Gale’s portrayal of the alleged arsonist in her play Angelique (1995) (in particular, her attention to a desirable and desiring woman). I wanted to do the same in my poem—to humanize Angelique—so I used various definitions of the word ‘break’ to move the reader from the object of the poem, a systematically, tortured body of broken bones, to the subject of the poem, the broken-hearted mother of three longing to hold just one of her dead children.

Rob: Your poem “Veronica?” is written from the perspective of a painting of a Black woman which was relocated to the centre of the Art Gallery of Ontario in order “to reconcile the past, to challenge / the climate of the centre.” You then have the woman say, “I’m a sign of the times, / still, no one knows my name.” What are your thoughts on our current “corrective” moment, where we put a Black woman’s portrait in the middle of the AGO without really knowing anything about her? Are we moving in the right direction? What do you think is needed to better confront the reality of past and present anti-Black racism in Canada?

Chantal: It’s the doubleness that troubles and fascinates me. Harriet Tubman is honored with a Canada History Minute and Viola Desmond gets a Canada postage stamp. We see them every February. And yet, their representations are simplified while Canada’s history of oppressing Blacks and Indigenous people is erased. That’s what my poems are trying to unpack.

On the one hand, I’m glad there is a portrait of a Black woman at the centre of the AGO (Untitled by Yvonne McKague Housser, c.1933) and that Norval Morrisseau is across from her on the opposite side of the room. On the other hand, the portrait is surrounded by the Group of Seven, and Emily Carr, glaciers, mountains, lakes and singled trees, imagery and iconography stitched and threaded across the Canadian cultural imagination, the giftshop images that visitors pay for. I considered writing a midnight version of “Veronica?”—a poem that imagined all the voices after hours. What might be said? What might happen to “Veronica?” in the gallery when the lights went off. The Thing in my head was terrifying.

For me the “corrective” moment is charged with complexity.  I’ve tried to capture that in my book. I’m not interested in blaming white people for being racists. I want to help dismantle colonial systems, systems that continue to oppress marginalized people, systems that poison everyone’s thinking.

I believe in books, good books. They can help us become more thoughtful, more reflective, more empathetic citizens. You asked what we need to do better? We can become better listeners. That means actively seeking out new voices that may be unsettling and unfamiliar. That means being open to different ways of learning and challenging ourselves to sit in the discomfort of not knowing, of not having all the answers.

I am in the on-going process of decolonizing my thinking—that makes me feel very uncomfortable at times. How She Read is the creative outcome of sitting in my discomfort, of listening to the voices, past and present, that inform my life and my work.

Chantal Gibson is an artist-educator interested in the cultural production of knowledge. Her work explores the overlap between literary and visual art, challenging imperialist notions quietly embedded in everyday things. Last year her work appeared at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Recently, she has exhibitions bookending the country—at Open Space in Victoria, BC and Ross Creek Arts Centre in Canning, Nova Scotia. Both exhibits were based on her first book of poetry How She Read, a CBC Books favourite for spring, published by Caitlin Press. Recently named one of CBC’s 6 Black writers to watch in 2019, Gibson is an award-winning teacher in the School of Interactive Arts & Technology at SFU.