one orange would perfume the whole room

Eleanor Wachtel: The first story that you ever wrote, but didn't publish, was called "The Suicide of an American Girl," and then the second story, which you did publish, was called "To Hell with Dying." This was when you were just twenty and twenty-one. I don't want to put too much weight on the titles, but what happened to get you from "The Suicide of an American Girl" to "To Hell with Dying"?

Alice Walker: Well, just life itself. After a while, the thought of suicide as the remedy, which takes you out of the picture but leaves this wonderful earth that you would be missing, started to pall and my love of life won over. I realized I would miss the smallest things in life. I just had a friend visiting me in the country over the weekend - she put them in a bowl and every time I passed by I would smell these oranges and I finally stopped in my tracks and stuck my whole head in the bowl, smelling those oranges, and I said to her, "You know, when I'm dead, this is what I'll miss." They reminded me of the oranges of my childhood, when one orange would perfume the whole room and it was the most amazing thing. It was like having a very small sun that had a scent in the room with you. And it's as basic as that. The scent of an orange, the feel of the breeze, how water feels when you get in it when it's really cold in a creek. Whatever madness is going on in the world that seems impossible, there's also the orange and the stream and the breeze. 

- Alice Walker, in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel. As published in More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel. 


the English language is very poor in its vocabulary

Eleanor Wachtel: You mentioned the idea of numinous moments. Do you think of yourself as spiritual or religious?

Carol Shields: I'm not religious. I was brought up in the Methodist Church and for a while I went to the Quaker meeting. I do believe in these moments, though I don't know where that belief comes from. Not from any spiritual centre. I think it comes from the accidental collision of certain events. I think the English language is very poor in its vocabulary to describe mysticism, so a lot of this never gets talked about. Or only clumsily, or by people that we think are only marginally sane. Or it's something discoverable through poetry.

- Carol Shields, in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel. As published in More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel. 


playing their legacy

Music shapes my perception of my work. Learning a classical piano piece is, far as I’ve found, the most intimate experience of historical art. Classical music influences how I view my relationship with my subjects, namely Tang poetry. I often doubt my legitimacy to dialogue with one of the greatest generations of poets in history; who am I, an unknown poet living on a far continent and writing in a foreign language 1200 years later? I ground myself in the rationale that, as with the works of Mozart or Beethoven, it’s right for their brilliance to inspire further creativity. Their sufferings and triumphs are a universal inheritance. My intent is not to supplant their words, but “play” their legacy.

- A.R. Kung, in conversation with Chris Horne over at The Malahat Review. You can read the whole thing here


mucking around with this wound

For some time, like a lot of people, I've been wondering why people like writers do what they do, because it is a rather odd thing to do, to keep locking yourself up in a room and writing; it's a bit anti-social and a bit weird. Indeed, why do painters and musicians get so obsessed? And all these people, why do they do what they do? I know people who write novel after novel that will never get published. People who are otherwise quite busy somehow still find a couple hours at the end of the day to write a little bit, even though they have to do a job and look after their children. I suppose I have to admit that I must be one of those people too, because that's what I do. 

After a while you start to wonder, what is this all about? I came to a kind of conclusion that what all these people had in common was that they were slightly unbalanced. I don't mean in any crazy way. A lot of them are very able people and they get through life in a very good way. But at some fundamental level, their lives have been build on something that got broken way back - not necessarily a trauma, but something, some equilibrium got lost - in other words, some kind of wound that will never heal was received early on. And this business of locking yourself up in a room and trying to write novels for week after week has to do with mucking about with this wound, it seemed to be. You know at some level you can never heal these things, you can never fix these things, but a lot of this activity is nevertheless about caressing this wound. What you're trying to create is an imaginary world that you have some control over, that you can reorder, and maybe that's some way of trying to go back, if only in your imagination, to try to fiddle around with some area of experience that you know is broken. The most you can hope for - because you know that you can't go back and fix these things - is some kind of consolation, some way to caress the wound.

- Kazuo Ishiguro, in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel. As published in More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel.


the horse and rider have to be together

Sarah Fay: How do you know when you’ve finished [a poem]? 

Jack Gilbert: If I’m writing well it comes to an end with an almost-audible click. When I started out I wouldn’t write a poem until I knew the first line and the last line and what it was about and what would make it a success. I was a tyrant and I was good at it. But the most important day in my career as a writer was when Linda said, Did you ever think of listening to your poems? And my poetry changed. I didn’t give up making precreated poetry, but you have to write a poem the way you ride a horse—you have to know what to do with it. You have to be in charge of a horse or it will eat all day—you’ll never get back to the barn. But if you tell the horse how to be a horse, if you force it, the horse will probably break a leg. The horse and rider have to be together. 

Fay: Is that why your style is unadorned and not ornamental? 

Gilbert: Oh, I like ornament at the right time, but I don’t want a poem to be made out of decoration. If you like that kind of poetry, more power to you, but it doesn’t interest me. When I read the poems that matter to me, it stuns me how much the presence of the heart—in all its forms—is endlessly available there. To experience ourselves in an important way just knocks me out. It puzzles me why people have given that up for cleverness. Some of them are ingenious, more ingenious than I am, but so many of them aren’t any good at being alive.

Fay: You once likened it to a poet giving birth without ever getting pregnant. 

Gilbert: Yes. A lot of poets don’t have any poems to write. After their first book, what are they going to do? They can’t keep saying their hearts are broken. They start to write poems about childhood. Then what do they do? Some of it is just academic poetry—they learn how to write the poem perfectly. But I don’t think anybody should be criticized because their taste is different from mine. Such poems are extraordinarily deft. There’s a lot of art in them. But I don’t understand where the meat is. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with this kind of poetry. It won’t change my life, so why should I read it? Why should I write it? 
By the time some writers—particularly poets—are twenty-seven or twenty-eight they’ve often used up the germinal quality that is their writing, the thing that is their heart. Not for the great poets, but for many poets this is true. The inspiration starts to wane. Many have learned enough to cover that with devices or technique or they just go back and write the same stories about their childhood over and over. It’s why so much poetry feels artificial.

- Jack Gilbert in conversation with Sarah Fay, for Gilbert's Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here


adult dreams

A couple of decades ago, I finished going all the way around the world. And after that I suddenly realized I had lived all of my dreams. I had lots of them and I’ve fulfilled them all. Now it’s time to live the adult dreams, if I can find them. The others were dreams from childhood—first love and such, which is wonderful. It’s interesting to discover that we don’t have adult dreams—pleasure and pride, but not really adult dreams.

Let me try to explain. I have a poem, “Trying to Have Something Left Over,” in which I’ve been unfaithful to my wife and she knows it and she’s mad. It’s the last night and I’m going to say goodbye to Anna, the other woman. She’s had a baby—not by me—and her husband has left her because he couldn’t take all that muck of a baby being born. This is the last night I’ll ever see her and I feel incredibly tender and grateful and loving toward her. And we’re not in bed—previously we had a wild relationship. Anyway, here’s the last night to say goodbye. She’s cleaning house quietly and sadly, and I’m entertaining her boy, her baby, throwing him up in the air and catching him. It’s a poem about that. Sad and tender. A truly adult dream. Profound tenderness.

That’s what I like to write as poems. Not because it’s sad, but because it matters. So much poetry that’s written today doesn’t need to be written. I don’t understand the need for trickery or some new way of arranging words on a page. You’re allowed to do that. You’re allowed to write all kinds of poetry, but there’s a whole world out there.

- Jack Gilbert, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here


done and undone by his own writing

Ronald Christ: You have written many reviews and journal articles. 

Jorge Luis Borges: Well, I had to do it. 

Christ: Did you choose the books you wanted to review? 

Borges: Yes, I generally did. 

Christ: So the choice does express your own tastes? 

Borges: Oh yes, yes. For example, when somebody told me to write a review of a certain history of literature, I found there were so many howlers and blunders, and as I greatly admire the author as a poet, I said, No, I don't want to write about it, because if I write about it I shall write against it. I don't like to attack people, especially now - when I was a young man, yes, I was very fond of it, but as time goes on, one finds that it is no good. When people write in favor or against anybody, that hardly helps or hurts them. I think that a man can be helped, well, the man can be done or undone by his own writing, not by what other people say of him, so that even if you brag a lot and people say that you are a genius - well, you'll be found out.

- Jorge Luis Borges, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


a poet has maybe five or six poems to write


Ronald Christ: I have often wondered how you go about arranging works in those collections. Obviously the principle is not chronological. Is it similarity of theme? 

Jorge Luis Borges: No, not chronology; but sometimes I find out that I've written the same parable or story twice over, or that two different stories carry the same meaning, and so I try to put them alongside each other. That's the only principle. Because, for example, once it happened to me to write a poem, a not too good poem, and then to rewrite it many years afterwards. After the poem was written, some of my friends told me, Well, that's the same poem you published some five years ago. And I said, Well, so it is! But I hadn't the faintest notion that it was. After all, I think that a poet has maybe five or six poems to write and not more than that. He's trying his hand at rewriting them from different angles and perhaps with different plots and in different ages and different characters, but the poems are essentially and innerly the same.

- Jorge Luis Borges, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.