The following interview is part two 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).
putrefaction - Patrick Friesen
putrefaction, yes, it’s often on my mind,
not oftener than it was, but with a smell
to it now, the harbour at low tide, the
scent of a rose bush in the backyard,
and I see it in the flamenco dancer’s
articulate articulated hands, raised
above her head, finding the spotlight,
that is perhaps the deeper beauty now,
not that things are becoming something
else, but that the hands are already appalling,
and exquisite, one holds one’s breath, as
they say, each time beholding for the first
time what has been beheld forever,
remembering how my young daughter,
watching a ballet, believed she was all
dancers, and she was.
Rob Taylor: In your essay in A Ragged Pen: Essays on Poetry and Memory (Gaspereau Press, 2006), you write, “So much of the writing, the poems, that occupied me as a young man in love with ideas lose their resonance, and I find myself entering simple songs of longing.”
You’ve had the rare opportunity to gather not just one 20+ year span of writing in a Selected Poems, but two (Blasphemer’s Wheel: Selected & New Poems was published by Turnstone in 1994 and outlasting the weather: selected and new poems 1994-2020 was published by Anvil Press in 2020). Looking back over that longer span, do you see that transformation – from poems of ideas to simple songs of longing – as having played out? If so, how do you think it’s presented itself in the poems?
Patrick Friesen: One thing you need to know is that whatever I have said at one point in time is true, for me, for that moment, and it may remain true for a long time, or not. That statement of mine was true at the moment and is still partially true. But it implies that I left behind the love of ideas. I didn’t. I think what I meant was that the world of ideas became less important with time. At that moment I was in a space of longing. It’s not something I’ve abandoned, but it doesn’t have that same importance now. One’s life keeps moving on relentlessly and the poetry with it, and ideas are always there.
Time means different angles of looking at things, different lenses one looks through. Yet, there is a constant which we call voice, and voice, I think, consists of personality, experience and craft. These things affect voice on the page and one’s physical voice. For me, that is. So, this Selected contains some of those changes, contains ideas and longing, but the development is not as neat as saying that once I was in love with ideas, now I have entered simple songs of longing. The longing was always there, the ideas too. It’s all interwoven.
RT: Yes, very true. It was reckless of me to present a fifteen year old quote to a poet! Have you noticed other large changes between the two books, or between where you started in outlasting the weather and where you’ve arrived?
PF: I think my changes in poetry are organic, like life. Changes happen. There are causes behind the changes but not always conscious causes. In fact, usually not. I don’t stop and think that it’s time for a change. Rather I find myself in the beginning of a change and then I pursue it, explore it, see where it takes me. I think it takes an outside eye to objectively see what big changes there are in this book. I know there have been changes that went in directions that were dead ends, which doesn’t mean everything that happened on that road was wrong. It’s just that it didn’t work finally.
RT: As an outside eye, I can say that one of the joys of reading outlasting the weather came in tracking the formal evolution of your poems from book to book. In one book, we watch you experiment with a form, only to find that form front-and-centre in the next. For example, your experiments with the Whitman-esque long line in 1998’s st. mary’s at main lead to the long-lined “clearing poems” of 2002’s the breath you take from the lord, and your experiments with short-lined couplets in 2012’s a dark boat lead to the book-length couplets of 2015’s a short history of crazy bone.Songen, as another example) and see what you can squeeze out of it over a number of years? Or is it less intentional than that? When you hitch yourself to a certain form, do you write in it exclusively for an extended period of time, or are you able to move back and forth between forms?
PF: My changes always happen at some given moment in the act of writing. I don’t think I ever think about a formal shift and then do it. It begins to happen, and I explore it, think about it. Often, by the time I’ve kind of figured out what I’m doing I shift to some other form. You know a person can get bored writing something over and over again. One day you just feel too bored with a poem to continue it so you do something different right there and then. The poem needs something different, it’s not doing what it’s supposed to be doing, there is no resonance, as if repetition has killed the form. Something else happens. And off you go with that.
RT: I can sense that creative restlessness in your books. There aren’t too many poets out there whose line lengths vary like yours do, from 2-3 words-per-line in a short history of crazy bone to 20+ in the breath you take from the lord to the new prose poems – one long line! Could you talk about that long line of yours a bit? What draws you to writing it? Have you found that it’s better suited to certain subjects (or, perhaps, certain ways of thinking)?
PF: My long run-on sentences, without punctuation, were influenced somewhat by Walt Whitman, and even more by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and certain books in the Bible. Phrasing, phrasing within the long line, phrases overlapping sometimes so the larger phrase could be seen two different ways. The long line opened things up for me, and this was essential. I understood that the conventional line at that time was actually not how my poetic thinking process worked. It truncated my thinking, so why not open up the line so it expressed the process? In fact, I realized this from doing readings. I wasn’t paying attention to the conventional line endings; they just didn’t work with my breath. There was a permanent learning in that. It felt wonderful. Later when I tried to write much more tightly I still had a freedom I had learned with the long line.
Somewhere in the development of the long line I found my voice, or rather I clarified it. I think the voice was there earlier, but I didn’t know exactly what it was. I freed myself with the long line. Readings changed because of it; there was more of a flow to my reading, a horizontal flow which allowed my physical head voice to sink into my body.
RT: What about the opposite, the very short line?
PF: The short line came out usually when the long line felt like a habit and maybe I was getting lazy and a bit too prosey. So, tighter lines, couplets, whatever, to get back to precision. I’ve always done a kind of balancing act, I think, between tight poetry and a more prosey line. Always, though, I believe my voice is woven into the line, whether tight or long and loosey-goosey.
RT: One of the great forms for honing precision is the haiku. Though you don’t have any haiku in outlasting the weather, the form still feels very important to you. The closing poem of outlasting the weather, and your new CD of music and spoken word (created in collaboration with your son, Niko), are both entitled “Buson’s Bell”, after Buson’s famous bell/butterfly haiku (“Clinging to the bell / he dozes so peacefully / this new butterfly”). Basho’s Kyoto/cuckoo haiku (“Even in Kyoto / hearing the cuckoo’s cry / I long for Kyoto”) also seems significant to you, as it takes up much of the focus of your essay in A Ragged Pen. Could you talk about the influence haiku has had on your poetry?
PF: Yes, haiku has had an influence though I’ve never managed to write a good one. First off, because of the differences between English and Japanese, I expect my version of a haiku would be a bit longer than three lines of seventeen syllables. But, most likely, I haven’t reached a point where the brevity of the form completely matches how I’m thinking. There are haiku-like lines within long poems fairly often, and I’ve written some brief pieces, played with couplets, and so on. In a chapbook not included in this Selected I wrote only in couplets, none of which had more than 3, maybe 4, words in it. I was compressing some feeling/thoughts that I couldn’t get at in longer lines, more syllables. I don’t think I managed it, but it was an excellent exercise in becoming a little more precise in my writing than I’d been at that point. It clarified my poems somewhat. This, too, has always been part of my poetic process. I’ve numerous times written briefly, even writing a bunch of haiku, not to publish them but to work my way back to some kind of precision and evocation. Buson’s poem is fundamentally important to me in form and in what it’s saying about that incredibly brief moment which is an eternity. The two come together perfectly in that poem, though I don’t know it in its original language. Yes, haiku, and related Japanese forms, have long had an influence on me. As have certain long-lined poets who play that balancing act between prose and poetry. The long line with heightened language of image and music.
RT: “That incredibly brief moment which is an eternity” – yes! I’ve always felt like there are two types of poets: those who want to write and write and write until the moment the universe stops them, and those whose writing is a means toward reaching an eventual silence (even if they never fully arrive). Funnily, considering you’ve published eighteen books of poetry (in addition to plays, essays, translations…), I’ve long thought of you as the second type. Your poems are filled with words, but your longing for “the clearing” (in the breath you take from the lord), for the impossible “pure concept” of home (in A Ragged Pen), for religious peace (“The Church of Critical Mass”), and for Buson’s butterfly, all speak to a reaching beyond words, towards a silent place.
Would you say the path you’re walking is one toward (voluntary) silence? If so, has it been a smooth one? (I note that you write elsewhere “rising to speechlessness, that ladder of desire… how many times you’ve fallen.”) What role does poetry play, for you, in walking that path?
PF: I don’t have a clear answer for you here. I’m just walking the path, no goal in sight. Not aiming for silence or for more noise. Just moving along. There are points where I become “speechless,” whether because of events in my life or because I’ve reached some kind of impasse, or point of boredom, in my writing. This just happens quite naturally. Then, after a pause, it continues. Perhaps one of these days that pause will become permanent, but it’s not something I’m aiming for. I have a friend who wrote every day, published a lot, much more than I have, but he reached a point where he said he suddenly couldn’t write anymore. That was it. He thought he might write again, but it’s been a couple of years. How to explain that? In my life I arrive at times where I am silent, need to be silent, and sometimes I think this is the way it should be from then on. I have great admiration for those mystics who achieved silence. But how does that happen? Would I run out of words? Get tired of putting them on the page? Would the words feel so empty finally that silence already existed, only I had to recognize it? I’ll be vague here and say it’s a process of spirit.
RT: Yes, yes, yes. Perhaps it was foolish of me to frame it as a singular process from speech to silence, and not a cyclical process of speaking and falling silent and speaking again. And a process of spirit, as you say.
On the matter of the spirit, you were born and raised, and spent much of your adult life, in Manitoba before moving to the West Coast, so it’s not surprising that outlasting the weather has one foot in each place (and its distinctly different weather that must be outlasted!).
In the poem “wind”, you write “on the prairies you walk through god’s breath most of your life.” Do you think you approach the subject of religion and spirituality differently when writing in each place? The distance from your Mennonite roots seems like an obvious difference, but I wonder if there’s more to it – something connected to the landscape?
PF: Whatever spiritual fabric I have is undoubtedly woven out of wherever I live and have lived. I do think physical environment is absorbed by a person. And the birth and early growth years are the most fundamental. Whatever that terrain was. When I spend time in Manitoba I am immediately at home no matter what changes have been wrought, particularly in Winnipeg. Walking outside my home town always feels deeply home to me. But, I’ve also always felt that wherever I live is a present home. Where I exist is home for me. Yet, that first home is the foundational one. It is about landscape, or terrain, which is the word I tend to prefer. Human-created environments change more swiftly than terrain, and what was is no longer. Still, something remains of the city I lived in. How much of it is just in my imagination I don’t know.
There is the Portuguese word “saudade”, a concept of nostalgia, of longing for what was the first home. That home no longer exists, everything has changed, but that original home is in the person, perhaps not as nostalgia but as part of the creative imagination. That’s how I feel about Winnipeg. And, now that I’ve lived on Vancouver Island for a dozen years I have a slight touch of that for Vancouver. Maybe a map-grid image is appropriate. In each place I live I form a grid in my mind. So, one grid goes over the previous, and so on. After a while the first grid becomes somewhat obscured beneath the others, but it’s always there. In each new grid one has that previous grid/grids deep in the imagination. And the first grid is the most important.
And, is it possible that the home of my people more than a thousand years ago, which as far as I know was Northern Europe and Scandinavia, is the first home and still exists within me somehow? I think so.
RT: Speaking of homelands (ancient and present), we’re in the middle of a transformation in how people think about “Canada,” and Canadian literature, when it comes to Indigenous-settler relations. For one, we use terms like “settler” now! For another, Indigenous writers and their perspectives (both long marginalized) are finally moving to the centre of our literary conversations. Lagging behind are settler perspectives on what this all means; what the flawed colonial project of “Canada” really is, and should be.
I say all this to highlight that you’ve spent decades working through these issues: in the broken bowl, for instance, you describe the law as “the paperwork of victors” and in “homeless” you describe Manitoba settlers as “orphans / wandering further from home… barefoot finally on the stage / with nothing to say”. Has your sense of “Canada” as a country, and the place of settlers within that country, shifted at all over the years covered in this book? If so, how? What do you think the balance ought to be, for settler writers, between listening and speaking?
PF: I think the biggest change in how I saw Canada probably happened once I left my home town to go to university. The small town I lived in was somewhat sheltered from the big world outside. It had been built to achieve this. No rail line through the town, for example. Staying separate from the world, trying not to let it influence the town.
The history books didn’t do a very good job of covering the beginnings of this country. We certainly didn’t see the notion that white European settlers had stolen land from the people who already lived here. It was somehow swallowed up in a more general idea of “exploration”, “development”, and so on. The exploitation of First Nations, the theft of land, the attempts to destroy their languages, their spiritual traditions, their culture in general, these things were not covered.
However, even then, I didn’t see Canada so much as a nation as I thought of it as a country. It seemed to me many different peoples lived here, not one nationality; I really distrust nationalism. But my education began in my late teens. I read books, heard news reports, talked to people, and I began to understand some of what had happened. John A. MacDonald, for example, was not some saintly figure who created this country. Yes, he was one of the white men who forged this country on European models of law and governance, but he quite obviously tried to have First Nations eliminated, perhaps even physically, using force, broken promises and deception. My home province had seen thugs from the east arrive to get rid of Metis Nation all under the approving eye of MacDonald. We were, at best, guests, at worst invaders.
As a fourth generation settler I believe I belong to my home terrain, but I also know much injustice has to be rectified. We’ve just begun the process. As to the “paperwork of the victors”, this happens all over the world, and it happened in Canada. History from an entitled position of power and privilege. It’s not a new concept.
I also believe it is incumbent on us to learn our history truthfully, all of it, and from different perspectives, and to make recompense and make changes in our legal system, educational system, and so on, to create actual equality. We need to listen and not get in the way. Meanwhile, as an individual, I keep writing, hopefully with an understanding of who I am, where I come from, and how I live now. Always I’ve felt I have one foot in, one foot out.
RT: Yes, it seems that way, in more ways than one! Speaking of education—learning and listening—you taught Creative Writing for many years before recently retiring. Around 18 years ago, when I was just starting out as a writer, I was lucky enough to attend a one-off workshop you ran for undergrad students at SFU (it was likely my first interaction with a “real” poet!). I remember you standing over my shoulder and reading my rather abstract poem, then suggesting I add something concrete (a lawn sprinkler, I recall) to it. I remember, too, rejecting the idea, only to later circle back to it and now (of course! of course!) I constantly encourage my own students to ground their abstract thoughts in things.
Could you talk a little about how teaching has influenced your writing? Are there ways in which it’s clarified elements of the writing process that had previously been clouded for you?
PF: I have mixed feelings about teaching creative writing. I never believed that, as a teacher, I could make poets (or any kind of writer) out of students. And I told them that at the beginning of each semester. I could teach them how to become better readers of poetry and, in the process, they might find what they needed to do for the betterment of their writing. But a creative writing course or workshop cannot give a person voice; in fact, it can prevent voice, short-circuit a potential development of voice.
I always tried to ground my teaching in things, as you suggest, in the world around us, on earth. There is a place for abstraction, but it usually needs some grounding in physical reality in order to have any resonance. Abstraction tends toward exposition and opinion. It doesn’t help with a poetic exploration. There you need connotation, ambiguity, resonance. It’s difficult to make music with abstract language. That’s always been my approach anyway. Things I learned in my own writing, though, entered my teaching. So, there was, I think, a fluidity to how I taught, discovering new approaches to teaching.
RT: You write in a very distinct style – no capitalization, and no periods (except, sometimes, to close the poem). Could you talk a little about how you came to those choices, and why you think they stuck? My sense is that they help communicate some of the themes we’ve discussed thus far. Would you say that’s true?
PF: Some of my punctuation changes are quite arbitrary, happened without a plan. In the writing of one poem or another, the given punctuation didn’t make much sense, so I tried other kinds of punctuation, or none at all. This is partly because I write my poems aloud. They are spoken as I write them. I listen for music, for sound. For a while I used the caesura a lot, until I realized I was using it out of habit, so I quit. It served its purpose in trying to show how to read the poem. Like musical notes, I guess.
After years of using almost no punctuation, writing poems according to phrases within the long line, the way I would read the poem aloud, I made a significant shift with the poems in Songen. There were small shifts and changes all along, but this was a big one. The way it began is that I was beginning a poem about a haircut. At different times I’ve been interested in what haircuts mean, how they’re used to depersonalize for example. In the military hair is shaved off right at the start, or at least used to be. In my own environment I had a brush cut, was not allowed to have longer hair. I don’t know if the purpose behind that was at all similar to the one in the military, but it felt like it. Anyway, I wrote the word “haircut”, then realized I had previously written a piece, several years previously, about haircuts, so I put a comma there, to indicate a hesitation, and then wrote “again”. I liked the look of that and decided to write the rest of the poem putting in commas wherever a phrase ended. I liked it. The poem disappeared, but I wrote a few hundred poems like that, exploring further how I could use the comma in different ways, both for the page and for reading aloud.
At the same time I was rereading Chaucer, noting similarities between Low German and Middle English. I was intrigued by the fact that English, one of the world’s major languages, and Low German, a language not a lot of people speak, came from the same Saxon roots. My first language existed, in a way, within this massive language called English, and I could see that in Middle English. So, why not weave some of those words into my poems? It wasn’t long before I began throwing in Middle English and Low German words. I went further and used High German words, and Danish. A lot of these poems didn’t make the cut, but Songen had quite a few Middle English and Low German words or phrasings. Even that title is a Middle English word, indicating more than one person singing.
Frayed Opus was the second book of Gernes’ that you and Brask translated (a Selected Poems was published by Brick Books in 2001). It feels noteworthy that one of those books was published near the beginning of the time period covered in outlasting the weather, while the other was published near the end. What effect has traveling the last 20 years alongside Gernes poems, the Danish language, and the act of translation, had on your own writing?
PF: Translating has always had a beneficial effect on my work. I return to my own poetry with a greater clarity, having had to try to balance adherence to content and to the music and imagery of the poet I’ve been translating.
Working with that problem blows a few cobwebs out of my mind. I co-translate with Per Brask, a friend in Winnipeg. We’ve translated other Danish poets, like Niels Hav, too. The collaboration is a great pleasure, and it contributes to me looking at my own poetry with a slightly different lens, or perhaps a cleaned lens.
RT: Oh, I like that idea. Don’t we all need a cleaning from time to time? What a challenge it must have been for you to look with clear/clean eyes upon your books and pick out “favourites” for your Selected Poems, especially when pulling poems out of your book-length sequences. Was it more or less difficult to pull them apart than the other books? Did figuring out how to represent those sequences via only a fraction of their composite parts teach you anything new about them?
PF: Yes, breaking up certain books can be difficult. I experienced that with my first Selected, Blasphemer’s Wheel. I chose certain bits of The Shunning, bits I thought might still hold a through-line. But I don’t think it worked. I wouldn’t do that again with that book. That question came up with a broken bowl and a short history of crazy bone. Whereas many bits of The Shunning were never meant to stand alone, in fact didn’t make sense on their own, it was easier to find individual poems within these other books, poems that could stand on their own. The same was true for the “clearing poems” in the breath you take from the lord. Each individual piece was a poem on its own. They were not interwoven in the same way as they were in The Shunning. I think the pieces from a broken bowl work as fragments, pointing toward the whole book, but still interesting as fragments.
One of the influences on me in working with fragments was Anna Akhmatova. Her fragments came about because of necessity, fear of Stalin. She wrote secretly, often in her head, sometimes dictating to a friend to remember as she didn’t dare put things on paper. As a result she often came out with fragments she hoped to come back to but usually didn’t. I also discovered that over decades some fragments, written years apart, resembled each other, were identical in some instances. So, over many years the broken poem continued. That intrigued me, and I began writing fragments, as it felt natural at the time. For me it came to be hummingbird writing. That is still with me. Even the poems in Songen are, in a way, fragments welded together with commas.
RT: You left two poetry books from this time period out from your Selected: 1999’s carrying the shadow and 2004’s bordello poems. Was this, in part, because like The Shunning, you couldn’t pull them apart?
PF: Both those books were experiments. With carrying the shadow I got into a rhythm of trying to combine simplification of language and form and telling a story. Well, it wasn’t really a story, but it was kind of a narrative of death, of some of the details of death, some of my tangential thinking around death. How could I do that? That was the question at the time. Looking back I don’t think it was a successful experiment for me. In particular I had to rethink what simplification meant for me. There were very few poems in that book that could stand on their own; they needed the rest of the book to support them. Choosing a few poems was like picking a weaving apart. I’ve had that problem with a few books, as we’ve discussed. In this case, I just couldn’t manage it.
The bordello poems were also an experiment with simplification, especially form. I gave myself permission to write in very short couplets, seeing how much I could carry in such a condensed way. Also, there was a specific theme, or subject in that chapbook. The book needed all the poems. Once again I couldn’t pick out threads.
RT: Obviously a poet is both, but I wonder if you think of yourself more as a writer of poems or as a writer of books? Is the distinction important to you? Was it drawn more into focus by the editing of outlasting the weather?
PF: I have at some points written books, knowing I was writing a book, not individual poems. a broken bowl is an obvious example: the image of the broken bowl, which I think I got from the Bible, was central to how I wrote those pieces. They are shards of broken crockery. When I was working on Songen I wasn’t thinking of a book, but I wasn’t just thinking of the individual poem either. Rather I got into a rhythm of exploring commas and Middle English and there was a flow to that, and I just kept going from poem to poem. At one point I decided I would stop for a bit, choose some of the poems and publish them as a book, a kind of winnowing. Perhaps one day the remaining poems will become part of another book. Winnowing is something I do all the time. I did it to some extent in creating the new Selected book. Throw them up in the air and see what lands, and what the wind blows away. Of course, what lands one day might be blown away another day. One changes one’s perspective a lot. That is, I do.
RT: Speaking of impermanence and winnowing, in your essay in A Ragged Pen you write “my own death is something more than a concept of some distant future event. It is in my body. I know I am nearing the mist ahead of me.” That was back in 2006, when you were only 60 and 2/3rds of outlasting the weather was still unwritten! In the intervening fourteen years, has death and always felt steadily closer, or does the mist part at times? Is death a spur for your writing, or your writing on particular subjects?
PF: “Mist” is the wrong word, a little precious. I don’t know what the right one is. But, yes, death is always present though I’m not sure it’s a conscious “spur” for my writing. I don’t sit down having decided I’ll write about death. It emerges in poems now and then like a fish rising to the surface. It has, mostly, that kind of lurking presence.
RT: Death as a lurking presence—oh, isn’t that something we feel fiercely during this time of pandemic? The title of your book comes from one of your new prose poems, “Who Can Outlast the Weather?”, which talks about the radio turning on “with news of a world-wide plague.” In other prose poems, like “Horizon,” you seem to be looking back over your writing life. All of this gave me the sense that you were writing new poems during the book’s editing process, perhaps right up to it going to press! Is that true, and if so, do you think the experience of looking over all your books in some way shaped what you wrote (or what you’ve written sense)?
PF: The title of the book came before that prose poem. I had written a piece for my son Niko to put to music; it was called Outlasting the Weather. In the end I didn’t like it, so it didn’t show up on Buson’s Bell, our CD. But, while trying to think of a title for the book I remembered that piece and used the title. Later, I wrote a new piece and gave it that title as well. Yes, that piece was written shortly after the pandemic began. I wrote several of the pieces in the New Work section while the manuscript was with Anvil Press. I made changes before it went to print, adding and subtracting pieces. There’s nothing new in that for me, I’ve done it before. My writing since the book came out has just been a continuation of what I was doing in New Work.
RT: Ah, so in keeping with your pattern of experimenting with a form in one book, and then diving deep into the form in the next, should we expect a book-length sequence of prose poems soon?
PF: I don’t know what the next book will be, or if there’ll be one. I have a lot of prose poems and other poems, enough easily for two books. I could end up with a book of just prose poems, or one with other poems, or a combination. Or, meanwhile, it’s possible I’ll begin writing another way, and those poems will stay in their folders. I just keep working as always. At some point I have a sense that I have a group of poems that would work as a book, and then I begin shaping toward that end. Thinking of an order, for example. Sometimes when I put together an order it becomes evident that certain poems don’t work in relation to the others, and they get eliminated. Meanwhile, still working, and maybe some of the new ones will find their way into the manuscript. So, in a way what began as simply writing poems becomes the shaping of a book. It’s all about rhythm.
Patrick Friesen has published more than a dozen books of poetry, a book of essays, has written stage and radio plays, and has co-translated, with Per Brask, five books of Danish poetry, including Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments by Ulrikka Gernes, which was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2016. In January 2020, he released a CD, Buson’s Bell, which consists of composed, as well as improvised music, and text. He lives in Victoria, BC.