The following interview is part five of an eight-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2021. All eight interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca. This was the third year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here, and the 2020 interviews here).
The Uncertainty Principle - Terence Young
—with apologies to Werner Heisenberg
At the beach
you move a stone
the size of a football and
the world beneath it panics,
runs in all directions.
You want to apologize
for the intrusion,
consider returning the boulder to its place,
the damage that might do,
pause instead to watch
other creatures that bring to mind
a word from high school science,
annelids, you think, and more words,
then the briefest glimpse of a classroom,
some girl you sat across from,
who recorded observations
in her small neat hand,
like your intention
to become a marine biologist,
all those days of sandwiches in wax paper,
an apple or an orange,
the kinds of things that disappear
the very second you expose them
to the light.
Rob Taylor: Multi-page narrative poems, written in couplets, make up about 40% of the contents of Smithereens (Yes, I counted!). Could you talk a little about what draws you to that combination: the long line of the narrative running North-South through the poem, and the intermittent bursts of couplets running West-East?
Terence Young: I am not much of a formalist when it comes to poetry, by which term I mean someone who is drawn to certain forms as a way both to contain and to stimulate writing. Yes, I have dabbled in the pantoum, the palindrome, the sonnet, the villanelle, the glosa, but never for long – I guess I’m one of those people who does not mind “playing tennis with the net down.” More than that, though, I write the kind of poetry I like to read, poetry that is generous with space, that focuses the reader’s eye on just a few words or lines at a time. I’m thinking of writers like Tony Hoagland and Stephen Dunn, whose poems are often in short stanzas with three or four lines. No wonder, then, that I find the couplet appealing, either in lines that cross the page or in shorter bursts. Maybe it’s a kind of intellectual laziness, but I find poems that fill up the page, offering few or no stanza breaks, a little daunting to enter – sort of the way I feel in novels where I find myself in need of a couple of pages of dialogue, some airiness where I can breathe.
RT: Not intellectual laziness at all—I think part of the joy of turning to poetry (and away from the suffocation of a page of prose) is savouring that breathing/thinking space the blank page provides. Some poets don’t agree: your wife, poet Patricia Young, for instance.
Patricia has often put her narrative energies into prose poems, a form you avoid in Smithereens. A few years back, in an interview with me, she said: “My feeling is: if you’re writing sentences, acknowledge that, let your sentences have their day and be what they are.” Though I wouldn’t say you’re “writing sentences” per se, there does seem to be a bit of a family disagreement there.
TY: Actually, there were quite a few prose pieces – a couple of long-ish suites – that I did not include in this collection for the simple fact that the book would have been far too long with them. I tend to prefer poetry books that are shorter rather than longer, and now I have a fair amount of material for a subsequent book. But, to your point about writing sentences, it’s true that many of my poems are narratives, sometimes to the extent that they might as well take the form of the prose poem. And I will often re-shape them by removing the line breaks to see whether they might work better that way. Again, though, because I like the sense of space that comes with short lines or couplets, I often find myself putting them back into their original form. It seems that if I set out to write a prose poem, it will stay that way, and the reverse is also true. There is a common criticism that many poems are really just sentences cut up with arbitrary line breaks that lend the language an undeserved tone of gravity, and my writing may well merit such a reproof. I don’t know. But if the reader takes pleasure from the words on the page, whatever their form might be, the argument is moot.
I remember Patricia making the shift into prose poems, as well as her observation that one should acknowledge and even celebrate the sentence, if that is what one is writing.
RT: You spoke about Patricia’s role in your writing life in a “Falling in Love with Poetry” essay you wrote for The New Quarterly (“Before I fell in love with poetry, I fell in love with a poet”), and at the end of Smithereens you note that without her “inspiration, love and encouragement” the book wouldn’t have come into being. Could talk a bit about how that encouragement manifests day-to-day? To what extent have Patricia’s attitudes on poetry (or her poems themselves) shaped your own?
TY: Patricia is always growing as a writer, and she likes to challenge herself by embracing new forms, new approaches. I’m lucky to be able to observe how she alters her process, how she moved away, for example, from the autobiographical into more fantastical and imaginative realms, areas that allow her to play more. I can still see bits and pieces of our life in such poems, but they no longer take centre stage. They are useful only to the extent that they serve a larger purpose, to add detail and depth to the poem. I still write largely out of my life, but she inspires me to push boundaries a little, to experiment.
RT: Are you one another’s first editor?
TY: We will show each other our work when we’re happy with it, but she is far more content than I to sit on a poem for months or longer before she shares it, by which time it is pretty much perfect. I am a little more impulsive, and I probably benefit more from her editorial eye than she from mine.
RT: Speaking of The New Quarterly, I’ve gotten to know your poetry fairly well in recent years because you keep beating me in their Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse contest! You won it in 2019 (I placed third) and were runner-up in 2018 (I was an honourable mention). So here I am, humble bridesmaid to your bride.
TY: Ha! I don’t know if you have the same reaction to contests as I do, but whenever I’m fortunate enough to place or win, I read the poems that didn’t place and am certain the judges have made a mistake. I remember reading yours and thinking that. Doubt is essential to the success of any artist, I believe, and once we cease to doubt ourselves, we become less successful.
RT: I always think the judges have made a mistake, whether I win or lose. It simplifies the thought process considerably.
When I first entered the TNQ contest I was confused by that word “Occasional.” I’d always thought “occasional poetry” referred exclusively to poems that were written to be read aloud at weddings, funerals, etc. The contest, though, widens the definition to include “poems that make an occasion of something ordinary… by virtue of the poet’s attention.” In my case, that summarises nearly everything I write! Poems come to me, I don’t seek them out. Something happens that I find interesting and I write it down; if nothing of note happens, nothing gets written.
It seems that this looser definition of “occasional” speaks to your writing practice, too (as you’ve said, “I still write largely out of my life”). Many poems in the book feel pulled out of specific (often minor) events in your life, including the flipping over of a stone in “The Uncertainty Principle.”
TY: I agree that one could easily argue all poems are occasional: a thought, some precipitating incident, some emotion serves as the occasion for the author’s sitting down to explore the experience. More traditionally, though, the occasional poem, at least in my understanding, arises out of a specific event, something that, at the time or latterly, acquires significance in the writer’s mind and merits articulation. Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” is a good example of an experience “recollected in tranquillity.” Because there is often a narrative structure in such poems, the qualities of a good story apply. The reader likes to be engaged immediately, and the elements of the poem – the details, the tone, the imagery, the figurative language – should all contribute, as Poe suggests for the short story, to a single powerful effect.
Helen Vendler, in her wonderful book, Poems, Poets, Poetry, spends an entire chapter on Keats’ “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” and her analysis not only helps students develop the skills that can help them look deeper into a poem, but also demonstrates how coherent and unified the language and structure of the poem truly are. In addition to these elements of technique, the reader must also be drawn to the voice of the poem, which may or may not be the voice of the poet. In Keats’ poem, we can feel the speaker’s astonishment and joy upon discovering Homer’s “wide expanse,” and I believe every good occasional poem should convey as much as possible of the poem’s emotional weight.
RT: On a practical level, how do you start the process of turning your life events into poems? Do you wait for “occasions” to strike, or do you pursue poems a bit more methodically? Another way to ask it: are you more of a “pocket notebook” poet or a “tidy desk” poet?
TY: I don’t really have a writing process. Like you, I respond to events or experiences, and whether what I write becomes a poem or a story remains a bit of a mystery. Some things just feel like poems, their trajectory shorter, their focus tighter, and others feel like they want expansion, especially if characters are involved.
I tend to write in the morning, stopping in the early afternoon to garden or walk the neighbourhood. Many people think that COVID should be a writer’s ideal opportunity to get some words on paper, but I have not found that to be true. Alison Flood speaks about “writer’s blockdown” in the Guardian, and it is clearly a real thing. The idea of writing about anything but the plague seems silly, just as it does to try to write a story without including cell phones or computers. But writing about COVID also has its problems. We haven’t enough distance from it to reflect about its implications. Adam Gopnik wrote about that distance recently, the fact that we are living through history without any real perspective of its impact, just as my parents went through WWII living day by day, uncertain of the outcome. Covid is too recent. It’s a kind of limbo where what I write seems a little like historical fiction. I’m sure it will pass.
RT: Hmm… yes, I’m experiencing this too. I feel a need to write around COVID, but how can you? I’ve been writing a great deal about nature; visiting a local park and simply recording what I see. Your “occasional” writing strikes me as observational, too: in certain ways it reminds me of haiku or imagist traditions, in other ways like Frank O’Hara’s self-proclaimed “I do this I do that” poetry. Can you point to any influences in encouraging you to write “occasionally” and “observationally” in this way?
TY: I’m glad you mentioned Frank O’Hara, because one of my favourite poems is “The Day Lady Died.” The poem is really just an itemizing of the things he did, the places he visited – the numerous quotidian acts that make up most of our lives – and one of those acts is his picking up a copy of a newspaper with a picture of Billy Holiday. Then the poem shifts to a single memory of a night at a place called the 5 Spot, where “she whispered a song along the keyboard” and “everyone and I stopped breathing.” He was a friend of the writer John Ciardi, who wrote about the death of JFK in the same manner, exploring all the details of New York city surrounding the day of the president’s death without commentary, without interjecting his own thoughts and feelings.
I think it’s always wiser to approach a subject through things – at least it’s one way, and, if it’s done properly, the ultimate effect can be very powerful, as O’Hara shows us in his poem. Philip Levine’s poem “Late Moon” also is moving for the same reasons. Here is the opening:
December, and still no moon
rising from the river.
home from the beer garden
stands before the open closet
her hands still burning.
She smooths the fur collar,
the scarf, opens the gloves
crumpled like letters.
Nothing is lost
she says to the darkness, nothing.
A son observes his mother arrive home from a night out and relates what he sees and hears with only minor embellishments (“gloves/crumpled like letters,” “hands burning”). It is a devastatingly sad poem primarily because he doesn’t intrude, because he allows the details to say it all for him. Of course, not all of my poetry adheres to this style, but a lot of it does.
RT: Oh, that Levine poem. The first stanza’s a haiku, more or less, and it keeps its energy throughout. Thank you for introducing me to it. It’s obvious from our discussion how much you love introducing poems and ideas on poetry to others. Could you talk a little about the role of teaching in your life-long relationship with poetry? How have you found retirement? Are you delivering lectures to your garden?
TY: I didn’t set out to be a teacher. I don’t think I set out to be anything. In 1978, I applied to law school and was accepted, but our finances were non-existent, and we already had a great deal of student debt, not to mention a one-year-old (Clea), so I forgot about law and registered in a fast-track teaching diploma. By 1980, I was standing in front of a classroom, making it up as I went. Ten years later, I re-invented my teaching by introducing a section of creative writing, which transformed how I taught. By providing students with models of contemporary poetry and fiction – Karen Solie, Louise Glück, Denis Johnson, Ray Carver, Lorrie Moore – and by giving students the freedom to write what interested them, I found a way to help them become invested in what they wrote. They started to care about spelling, punctuation, diction and imagery, and they learned how to use language to express what mattered to them.
I also found myself sitting down with the class and writing the exercises I had assigned – simple prompts that I made up or borrowed from writers like Natalie Goldberg. I had already published several stories, but the draw of writing poems was irresistible, and I had a good teacher at home. I invited poets and short story writers into the school – Patricia, of course, and Bill Gaston, John Gould, Linda Rogers, Marian Farrant, Mark Jarman, and many others. Pretty soon other teachers wanted in, and before long they were writing and publishing their own poems and stories. I have always believed that writing teachers should also be teaching writers.
In 1992 we launched a magazine, The Claremont Review, which published poetry and stories from students across Canada and the U.S. It lasted twenty-five years, closing finally in 2017, when we could no longer find the perfect combination of teacher/writers in a school to take it on. During those years, many of those students became friends and went on to explore writing further, writers like Claire Battershill and her brother Andrew, Maleaa Acker, Elizabeth Ross, Emily Yoon, Lyn Li Che.
I miss the vitality of a writing class, the pleasure of introducing young minds to the works of great writers like Jane Kenyon, Claudia Rankine, Patricia Lockwood. I still dream of teaching, of finding myself nattering away about the power of imagery, even the joy of grammar. I left at the right time, when it was still fun. Now, the thought of standing in front of a bunch of teenagers and talking terrifies me. Once you step out of the river of relevance, you are quickly left behind.
RT: Sorry to be pulling you back in the river! And thank you for your work on The Claremont Review—I was so disappointed to hear that it was shutting down after all those years.
We’ve talked a great deal about the narrative elements of Smithereens. But it should be noted that the book features two distinct forms—palindromes and list poems—which in their nonlinearity feel like a bit of a response to the rest of the book, almost “anti-narratives.” Could you talk a little about your interest in these forms, and how they complement/resist the narrative poems in the book?
TY: There has to be a little fun in writing, and forms like the palindrome and list poems are a lot like playing. One of the first list poems I encountered was “Loves,” from Stephen Dunn’s book, Landscape at the End of the Century. I liked the poem so much that I copied it, except that my poem was called “Lies.” Since then, I have come back to lists on several occasions. I think I like the way they can jump around from one thing to another without any need for a connection, apart from the title, and how they create a kind of coherence on their own, as though simply by being a list, the elements add up to something larger. As you point out, I have more than a few of these list poems in the current book, specifically in the lighter section “Pranayama” and also in “Epilogue.” One that is not in those sections is the poem “Gary,” about a friend who passed away a few years ago. He was such a collection of contradictions, and I think by juxtaposing certain details of his character, the reader gets an accurate snapshot of the man himself. I’ve also written a non-fiction piece about him, which was shortlisted for the CBC. I think I can safely say that I’ve never met anyone like him before or since.
RT: “Gary” appears in the second section of Smithereens, entitled “Legacy,” which focuses on death: not only as an abstract concept, but also – and perhaps chiefly – as a bodily experience. You write about the physical process of dying in more than one poem, and in “Fern Island Candle ®” you write about being “happy / for now… to revive / those days when the metaphor of the candle, what it means / to snuff out, to be snuffed out, was still a metaphor.”
Could you talk about your current thinking on death as a metaphor and a bodily reality? Have your thoughts on “death,” in all its manifestations, changed in recent years? Has the concept of “death” become more clouded or clearer?
TY: Yes, well, not a happy subject, certainly, but one that has gripped all of our imaginations in the last year, and, by all, I mean the entire world. Both Patricia and I are truly orphans now, since our parents have all passed, my mother being the most recent in 2012 at 97 years. We are also grandparents, a demographic that has us taking over the role that our parents played for our own children. Everywhere, we encounter signposts that tell us where we are heading: the various grades we pass through at school; the hats we don as husbands, fathers, wives, mothers; our status as retirees, pensioners, grandparents. We somehow acclimatize to each change in our job description, possibly because the shifts happen so slowly that we almost fail to see them until we turn around and look at the distance we have travelled.
Initially, when we are young, the idea of death is appalling. It is “absurd,” as Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, and we read books like The Outsider and Heart of Darkness with alarm and indignation – “the horror, the horror!” Later, we lose ourselves in work and family, and forget about death for a while, only to be reminded when a friend or relative leaves the earth too soon. The ages cited in obituaries always seem far in the future, and we still hold in our minds our flexible understanding of what old people look like, which is anyone over twenty, then thirty, then forty, then fifty…
I remember sitting on the back porch of the family home when I was quite young. It was a summer day, the big apple tree in blossom and the neighbourhood alive with the sounds of spring. I leaned over the railing and looked down at the backyard lawn – I might have been eight or nine – and I tried to imagine what it might feel like not to exist. The effort overwhelmed me, as it does when I try to comprehend an infinite universe, and I think I changed a little that day. I have never followed any religion, never accepted any articles of faith, any of the promises of immortality, an afterlife. There have been no miracles to sway my conviction that there is more to this world than meets the eye, because – as one exceptionally bright student pointed out in a screed he wrote – this world, this solar system, this galaxy, should be miracle enough for anyone. What need have we of angels or heavens when we have this?
The strange thing about death is that we seem to fear it more when we are farthest from it, when we are young. Existential dread is a young person’s malady, and our fear subsides, moderates as we grow older. More and more, I feel the way I do when I board a plane. I look around at all the passengers and tell myself that wherever we are going, we are going together. The universality of death makes it easier to accept somehow.
RT: For all the sadness in Smithereens, there is also a great deal of levity. In my interview with Patricia, she spoke of the virtues of serious humour (she quotes Donald Hall, who describes it as humour which “carries discomfort with it”). I think here you might have some agreement! There are so many funny moments in these poems, including my personal favourite “The Party,” in which two people debate the value of going to a party:
They were told the party was on.
They were told everyone would be at the party.
They should come. They should really come.
But they were of two minds.
It’s a party, they said in one mind.
It’s a party, they said in the other mind.
The fun of Smithereens is most often “serious,” and “carries discomfort with it.” Could you talk about the role of humour in your poems? What does humour allow you to access that you’d otherwise have difficulty reaching?
TY: Poets have long been criticized as taking themselves too seriously. One has only to think of the oft-satirized “poetry voice” to feel a shudder of agreement. The thing is, though, many of the poets we revere, like Shakespeare and Donne, are actually quite humorous. How can we not laugh when Shakespeare laments being “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” and wishes to possess “this man’s art [talent] and that man’s scope [intelligence]”? Shakespeare? Really? You want to be more talented and smarter? Now, that’s funny. Donne, too, who borders on blasphemy when he attempts to seduce a woman by comparing both lovemaking and the Holy Trinity to a flea whose body contains his blood and that of his mistress. Never mind Marvell, who argues to his mistress that “The grave’s a fine and quiet place, / But none, I think do there embrace.” So, I always like to keep my own tendency to “lament” in perspective by recognizing how privileged I am to have the leisure to set words on paper, and how my problems stack up in comparison to the world at large.
One way, as you suggest, is to leaven the light with a little dark, as Burns does in “To a Mouse,” in which he apologizes for breaking up the small creature’s burrow with a plough. His apology seems overblown, too much, too ardent in relation to his subject, a small mouse, and thus humorous, but the second stanza’s faux erudition and departure from the broad Scottish accent make it clear that he’s targeting a larger issue, the displacement of the poor by Progress. In my own mouse poem – another list poem – I shift from the concrete details of the various items that have been damaged to the more abstract ideas of ethics and our belief that we sit at the top of the Great Chain of Being, the kind of belief that crumbles when one looks at how “speciesism” has damaged the planet and caused untold suffering to other animals.
Of course, having children deals a fairly heavy body blow to one’s self-importance, too, and in a poem like “Younger Than That Now” (thank you, Bob Dylan), I reduce the worldwide imperative for immediate changes in the ways we do business on this planet to the efforts of a single child in her quest to educate her father. In that context, the poem is humorous, but its overall message is serious. I may have learned this tactic from Patricia who mined the lives of our children for details almost from the moment they were born, but I think it’s also a universal experience to discover that certain aspects of our lives – the concerns over appearance, fame, money – take a comic backseat once we become parents. I think Patricia has been far subtler in her poems with regard to this change, and in many ways funnier. In her poem, “The Fire,” she describes our son’s obsession with keeping a campfire going, and her portrait is both loving and absurd: he sits “at the edge of a pit in a derelict lawn chair— / an old man chewing tobacco and staring at nothing.”
RT: I’m glad you brought up “Younger Than That Now,” where the daughter implores her father to leave behind certain bad habits (cigarettes, white sugar, leaf blowers): “What spell will wake you from / your sleep?”
While I can easily see my children growing up to think of me as “asleep,” I can’t imagine them becoming writers, as your daughter Clea Young has (her first collection of short stories, Teardown, was published in 2016). How did you feel about Clea taking up the family addiction (I mean writing, not cigarettes or leaf blowers)?
TY: Yes, Clea writes fiction, and she also writes amazing poetry. It is wonderful to see her incorporating the elements of her own life as a mother and wife and daughter into her own work. I now know how my mother felt when she would see parts of our shared family history pop up in my poems and stories. She called me a “magpie,” a term of endearment, but it also refers to the way I would steal little gems of moments to line my own nest.
Luckily, Clea’s childhood was not the series of character-crushing traumas that some children experience, and while I may wince to see some comical aspect of myself in her lines, I also know that both Clea and Liam, like the child in “Younger Than That Now,” have been very tolerant and have taught me a lot.
RT: Returning to “The Party,” now that we’re a year into COVID quarantines, have your attitudes about parties changed at all? Are you feeling a bit less ambivalent about getting out of the house?
TY: Ha! I don’t really know. This period of enforced isolation has had some fairly strange effects, some of them quite serious. For someone like me – retired, a homeowner with access to a summer cabin the woods – this hiatus in the busy calendar of socializing, of “getting and spending,” as Wordsworth puts it, has actually been reasonably tolerable, even pleasant at times. As you suggest, though, it may also have reinforced certain tendencies to avoid the world, to shut the door on humanity.
It’s hard to imagine how we will react to the return of parties, theatres, pubs, poetry readings and unexpected knocks on the front door, but I think it will take some getting used to. Getting older means a more limited life simply because many of the reasons for social interaction are no longer relevant – networking, sex, the urge to go a little crazy, let off steam – and perhaps this transformation has been a little more precipitous because of lockdowns and social distancing. But I have also noticed how eagerly people now chat with each other when they have a chance, at a distance or over media like Zoom, and this enthusiasm, almost desperate in its intensity, suggests to me that the transition back to a more convivial life may not take all that long. Nevertheless, I think the idea of blowing out birthday candles, then serving our guests with a piece of potentially infected cake, is a tradition that may be gone forever.
RT: What about leaf blowers?
TY: Lord! Is there anything more annoying? A local municipality has gone so far as to ban them. Has no one heard of a rake? Those and power washers, two of the most horrible machines ever invented. There has to be some kind of Freudian connection, the way you see their operators waving them about, but really…
Terence Young recently retired from teaching English and creative writing at St. Michaels University School. He is the author of several books: The Island in Winter, shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry and the Gerald Lampert Award; Rhymes With Useless, a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed award for short fiction; After Goodlake’s, a novel and winner of the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize; Moving Day, nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize; and The End of the Ice Age, a collection of short fiction. Young lives in Victoria, BC.