5/16/2022

statements of the high priests

I think that if an author believes in the value of what he has to say through his work, he must be very persistent and strong in that belief, and he must be 'willing to stand the rain.' There is a danger/temptation to be too much influenced by critical trends or the statements of those who worship at the altars of different religions - especially if they are considered the high priests of their time. It is good to remember that Henry James once dismissed the Dorset writer as 'poor little Thomas Hardy' and that Virginia Woolf said that the writings of Joyce reminded her of a young undergraduate scratching his pimples.

 

- Alistair MacLeod, from his "Note on Writing" essay for Event Magazine (Spring 1989), as collected in 50 Years of Event Magazine: Collected Notes on Writing.

5/09/2022

how far our sense of poetry has strayed

In a 1967 essay, poet Howard Nemerov anticipated that, if people grew to love poems written by computers, it wouldn’t be because “the machine had imitated the subtlety of the mind, but that the mind had simplified (and brutalized) itself in obeisance to its idol the machine.” That we struggle to recognize machine verse means our expectations for the human stuff are lower now. In his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier reminds us that the Turing test “cuts both ways.” For AI to pass, humans have to fail. We are judged as much as the machine. And what the test exposes is how far our sense of poetry has strayed, how ready we are to be persuaded, to credit anything as genius. As machine poetry spreads, it will create a tolerance for things bots can do. AI will heighten, and push us to honour, poetry as a “construct,” a system of vocabularies, a remote-controlled theatricality. We may end up cherishing the superficial and arbitrary effects most feasible for algorithms, becoming bored with interiority. Writing will appear less risky, less troublesome. We will be free of the expectation actually to understand it. We will also be free of its judgment on us—the demand that, as Rilke put it, “you must change your life.” Maybe we will come to prize poetry that doesn’t have any human reality in it. We will value deepfaked emotions, seeing them as better. Hand-woven stanzas will become vintage objets d’art: artisanal goods peddled on Etsy-like storefronts in the metaverse.

This isn’t a debate about whether AI can write poetry. It’s a debate about how much longer it will matter that humans can.

- Carmine Starnino, from his essay "Robots Are Writing Poetry, and Many People Can’t Tell the Difference" in The Walrus. You can read the whole thing here.

5/02/2022

that just means I'm not joking

Pearl Pirie: Does writing poetry remind you to keep perspective with humour or does humour remind you what you could share in a poem?

Rae Armantrout: The humor in the poems seems like an integral part of them–, or some of them anyway. I think you’re right to talk about perspective. Sometimes it’s a sudden change in perspective that seems comical—the way that, if you take the long view, the problems and issues of the day can seem ridiculous. Or the humor can be triggered by a change in who’s looking at something—what does it look like to another person or to a bird, for that matter. Surprise makes people laugh because it makes them a bit uncomfortable. My poems often have what gets called dark humor. I guess that just means I’m not joking. As every comedian knows, if you just come out and say what people know but don’t want to know, that’s “funny.”

 - Rae Armantrout, in "mini-Interview" with Pearl Pirie over on Pearl's blog. You can read the whole thing here.

4/28/2022

the very skills necessary for our everyday lives as citizens

I don't know why other people choose to work in literary writing and publishing, but my motivation for publishing literary works, and doing it with the uncommon care that I do, is aligned with my life-long interest in journalism. I think that publishing literature is an equally valuable tool, if more indirect and lyrical, than news reporting if your desire is to produce work that informs, equips, and supports the community. It is a tool that might ultimately penetrate more deeply and whose impact might be felt over a longer period, longer than a news cycle. It is a tool that fosters the discussion of more nuanced and complex ideas. I publish literary books because I think that they help the community to understand what is happening to it, and through it, and provide a means for articulating what it is like to be alive, here, in this place, in this time.

I also value the way that literature fosters robust thinking. Surely the reader who can wield metaphoric language, parse a complex phrase, or re-expand the compacted imagery of a work of fiction into a valid and complex universe in their mind is also likely to be someone who can wield robust arguments against injustice, parse environmental reviews or development regulations, or imagine a way forward for a community faced with difficult decisions. The skills that literature nurtures and exercises are the very skills necessary for our everyday lives as citizens. Without the robust kind of thinking and communication that a healthy literary culture enables, the coherence of the human world suffers, and with it, our ability to understand our relationship with the world at large.

-  Gaspereau Press publisher Andrew Steeves, from his essay "Notes on Publishing Literary Books" in Resonance: Essay on the Craft and Life of Writing (Anvil Press, 2022). 

4/25/2022

the spontaneous and unteachable nature of poetry

There's this idea that the only requirement for being a poet is having strong thoughts and feelings, that poetry flows perfectly from one's soul - it can't be improved or taught, and it is independent of history or the world. I on't know where this idea comes from. When I was in grad school, my father mailed me a poem he'd written in rhymed quatrains that spoke in vague, symbolic language about a child who broke the mould set for them by their parents and teachers. When I talked to him on the phone about it, he suggested I try to get it published, that people would relate because it was his thoughts and feelings on paper. This was a man who had just watched me take four years of undergraduate courses in the field of poetry. If a genie ever granted me three wishes, I would spend one of them on eradicating the belief in the spontaneous and unteachable nature of poetry from the earth.

 

- Kayla Czaga, from her essay "The Art of Rereading" in Resonance: Essay on the Craft and Life of Writing (Anvil Press, 2022). 

4/21/2022

true power

Gaspereau Press: You have long been an activist for peace and disarmament. What's the relationship between poetry and activism? Would you be a poet if you were not an activist, an activist if you were not a poet?

Sean Howard: I fear this may sound facetious, but would I breathe in, if I didn't breathe out? I experience poetry (as writer and reader) as an activation, at once, of language and self: a vivid liberation of the customarily dormant expressive energies of each! And I conceive of peace not primarily as an aspiration but rather the activation of its own transformative potential. As some pacifists like to say, while the bad news is "there is no way to peace," the good news is "peace is the way"! A peaceful society, I think, would be not just one secure from attack (from within or without) but one providing - and in turn sustained by - securely self-expressive, self-organized ways of being human: and this seem intimately related to the self-creative self-organization of language at work (and play) in poetry. The problem is that 'peace' has come to mean, in our world culture of violence, something admirable but weak that needs protection; just as - not coincidentally! - poetry is often written off as pretty, but pretty inconsequential, language. In reality, both are about reality, and thus true power: about real-izing the power of the real world again.


 - Sean Howard, from Gaspereau Press' wonderful 2021 catalogue, Another Plague Year Reader.

4/18/2022

points of connection

Gaspereau Press: The tensions between development and preservation come up quite a bit in this book, as they frequently do in our daily lives. What role do you think poetry has to play in helping communities reconcile these tensions? 

Bren Simmers: First off, I think poetry can help us to reconcile those tensions within ourselves. Poetry asks hard questions; it holds us accountable. As I write this, I sit on a wooden chair; it holds us accountable. As I write this, I sit on a wooden chair, reading these questions on a cell phone full of precious metals like gold, silver and copper. My shelves of books, all printed on paper pulped from coniferous forests. And while I recycle and reuse my bread bags, I still drive the car to go hiking every weekend. Poetry holds space for complexity...

At a community forum, with people shouting over one another, it can be hard to listen to each other, to see points of connection. But because reading is a solitary endeavour, ideas presented in poem form can be taken in slowly with space to digest them. Poetry allows us to see our commonalities, and for m, that is the starting place for moving forward together as a community.

- Bren Simmers, from Gaspereau Press' wonderful 2021 catalogue, Another Plague Year Reader.

4/14/2022

the pen vacillates and hesitates

I so much wish to speak with you in person. My pen has grown a bit cold and exhausted from using it apart from my actual work. It seems to me that this dual use, which is already so damaging to writing, makes it sometimes entirely uncertain. Because what one expresses immediately, just in order to communicate something, is so very different from the lasting expression of art that needs to be captured and accepted with full consciousness in order to make itself be understood much later. And the pen, between those two tasks, vacillates and hesitates. So many times I envied Rodin his docile and relaxed earthen clay, which cannot be used to say hello or to order a meal!


- Rainer Maria Rilke, from a letter to Catherine Pozzi (August 21, 1924), as translated by Ulrich Baer in his collection of Rilke's letters, The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief and Transformation.

4/11/2022

something can be marvelous and still need to be stopped

I've never had much problem having a sense of where a movement ended and where I wanted to break a stanza. Though what happens is, you learn to write a poem that breaks stanzas in a certain way, that takes certain kinds of linguistic, syntactic turns to stand for closure. You recognize that turn as closure, and as soon as that moment of recognition happens, then you've got to stop doing it. Because then what you're doing is simply making of everything the same poem. You look at a tree, and you turn that into a tree poem, and you look at a rock, and you turn that into a rock poem. They all have the same arc. As soon as you can recognize a consistent shaping principle, recognize that a certain kind of sentence is always a cue to you for an end, then you've got to resist the cue.

...

Something can be marvelous and still need to be stopped. Otherwise you don't change. It's as simple as that. And if you don't change, then you stop writing good poems. Really. I believe that. So when you can identify something as a maneuver, however successful, even if you never do it badly, you should stop doing it. 

...

I found writing [my new poems] that I had much greater difficulty knowing when something was good and something wasn't good. This is always true when style changes. Because your editorial judgment has been honed to a particular method. The tools you have for recognizing errors and intentions in that method are no longer of any use. So you have to develop a whole other critical sense. And the transition is difficult, because you usually have very little sense of whether or not you've written anything - I mean, you keep thinking, This is absolute trash; this is trash. But you've got to write it.

...

If I have any message to any of you who write, it's that you cannot sit calmly repeating yourself. And the hard thing about that is, oftentimes when you change, the new poems, the adventurous poems, may be less successful than the evolved poems of another mode. So you have to be willing to set aside that degree of finish, that degree of polish, for something that might seem primitive. 

Now, not all such transitions work that way. Occasionally you will discover a new kind of language that will seem to you an advance. Or will make the other poems look thin. Which is I guess how you experience advance - the rug pulled out from underneath you; it's never completely positive; if you like what you're doing, then it makes everything else that you did look crummy.

But oftentimes it won't happen that way. Oftentimes what will happen is that you will find yourself writing less accomplished poems, and you have to be willing. Because there's no other choice. You can't go on writing poems in those rehearsed ways... As soon as expectation begins to form around your work, either on your part or on the part of readers, you must do your best not to gratify it.


- Louise Glück, in conversation with Pearl London in 1978, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011). 

4/07/2022

rhyme has never been enough for me

I have been asked very often, "Don't you care about rhyme?" I do and I don’t. That is, I care about the recurrence of sound deeply, deeply, and rhyme has never been enough for me. Rhyme, the European way, is a return of sound once in a poem. I have, in my greed, wanted more than that, wanted modulation of sound changing, climbing as I think of it. On the page it’s going down the page, but somehow as one hears the poem, it’s climbing up and up and up until one reaches a kind of tonic sound, which is the last word in the poem for me. In rewriting, I have tried always to strengthen the sound structure and to make a dense fabric, of sound, of fact, of reality, and truth.

For instance, long ago I wrote a group of poems called "Ajanta." They're the cave paintings in India. The first line of those poems is "Came in my full youth to the midnight cave" and that, I hope, has the tensile strength of an arch. "Came" and "cave" are the feet of the arch. "In my" and "midnight" go together. "Full youth" and "to the" come together as the arch, and it is that sound structure that makes it stick, I believe. The other main sounds of the poem are picked up all the way through, and they come back and modulate. And those things do play not only on the memory but on the imagination.

We are in the midst of a huge reaction against the formalism of rhyme in poetry so that a lot of our contemporary poems are way off on the other side and are, I hesitate to say this, really kind of notebook jottings. Brilliant, full of perception, but without the sound structure in which a deep strength fuses with the literal meanings. 

- Muriel Rukeyser, in conversation with Pearl London in 1978, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).

4/04/2022

how we write something between order and chaos


The poet Andrew Weatherhead once tweeted, “The best way to read a poem is to pretend each line is the name of a horse; so the poem is just a list of horses.” This joke says something serious about poetry. It calls attention to the line as a fundamental unit, which in some sense always stands alone — the next line could always be anything.

When I’m writing a poem, and I get stuck, it’s often because I’ve forgotten this principle: The next line could always be anything. The poem has free will; the future in the poem is not beholden to its past. This is true for any piece of writing, but poetry seems to foreground those choices, those leaps outside logic or predictability, as if the possibilities of what comes next are more infinite in a poem.

I’ve started thinking of this moment, this chess move where the poet breaks a line and almost resets the game, as the lyric decision. How do poets decide what comes next? How do they make us want to read another line, and another? There has to be a system of coherence to the poem — even a list of random horses has coherence, via theme — but it can’t be unsurprising either. A series of lyric decisions is how we write something between order and chaos.

 

- Elisa Gabbert, from her essay "The Lyric Decision: How Poets Figure Out What Comes Next" in The New York Times. You can read the whole thing here.

3/31/2022

the law and the legislatures will say they thought it up when it comes to term

Art is a political force for Whitman, but....we are not speaking of politics in the conventional sense. Art does not organize parties, nor is it the servant or colleague of power. Rather, the work of art becomes a political force simply through the faithful representation of the spirit. It is a political act to create an image of the self or of the collective. It has no logos power, but the law and the legislatures will say they thought it up when it comes to term. In an early letter Whitman writes that "under and behind the bosh of the regular politicians, there burns....the divine fire which...during all ages, has only wanted a chance to leap forth and confound the calculations of tyrants, hunkers, and all their tribe." The work of the political artist creates a body for this fire. So long as the artists speaks the truth, he will, whenever the government is lying or has betrayed the people, become a political force whether he intends it or not, as witness American artists during the 1930s or during the Vietnam war, Spanish artists during their civil war, South Korean poets in recent years, all Russian artists since the Revolution, Bertolt Brecht as Hitler rose to power, and so forth. In times like these the spirit of the polis must be removed from the hands of the politicians and survive in the resistant imagination. Then the artist finds he is describing a world that does not appear in the newspapers and someone has tapped his phone who never thought to call in times of peace.

 

- Lewis Hyde, from The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.

3/28/2022

not linearly but radially

Eamon Grennan: I always have a shadow narrative. A phantom narrative or a shadow narrative, for me it’s a sort of grounding.Maybe the best deflection of a poem being abstractly about something is to locate a story, an action, which will carry the facts, and the facts will then offer you some abstractions. In more recent work I’m trying to get rid of narrative and just deal with what I would call lyric fragments. But there’s a fractured aspect to any narrative I have. 

Student: Why is it important to fracture?

Grennan: Because I don’t feel that the narrative itself is what I’m after. I’m not attempting to tell that story; I’m attempting to embody the procedures of that consciousness. I suspect what I’m trying to do is work not linearly as narrative but radially. To work out of a center. To radiate out along spokes of implication and spokes of connection rather than proceeding on a line of narrative. That gives it another kind of spatial shadow. 

 

- Eamon Grennan, in conversation with Pearl London and her students in 1995, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011). 

3/24/2022

expressing myself is not important to me

Pearl London: I think you’re never content unless the meditation elicits, finally, the merely personal connection for you—and then, at the same time and in the same breath, you also say, “It doesn’t seem necessary for one to equate the I with myself.” Is that a contradiction? 

Charles Simic: No. Because if I can write a poem that works, and if in the process of writing this poem, everything I started to say—you know, quote unquote—became its opposite, and I don’t sound like myself, I couldn’t care less. My views are like anybody else’s views. I think this about that, and I think this about something else. I’m not that smart or unusual. Expressing myself… it’s not important to me. What is important is to have a poem that seems to work. If it works, that’s what matters. Who made the famous comment about like a click of a box, a wooden box? 

Student: I think it was Auden.

Simic: It was Auden, right. One of those wonderful, well-made boxes, and when it closed it has that wonderful click. There’s a sense of something well made in the arts. Given what I had here and how it turned out, it came together in a certain way; it works. I don’t think, finally, if one has any sense, that most of one’s poems truly work. If I look at most of my poems years after having written them, I can see they could have been a little better. Shoddy goods, you know? Sometimes awkwardness is inevitable and important. But there it is.

- Charles Simic, in conversation with Pearl London and her students in 1995, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  

3/21/2022

a sound that is just pure telling

I would like to make a sound that is just pure telling. I was sitting on my back porch a few months ago, and I was listening to the wind for a long time until I realized: that’s the sound I want to make. I don’t want to write about that, I want to do that. Whatever that is—the wind in the trees. We’ve heard that sound before. It’s oceanic; it’s huge; it’s on the verge of meaning. If you listen long enough you feel there’s definitely meaning there. Then you realize it’s just wind in the trees. I want to make that kind of noise. That big. That elemental. That dark. That fresh. That raw. That mysterious. Right on the verge of human meaning. Entirely nonhuman. I would like to make a noise like that. Full of sound and fury—and maybe signifying nothing, I don’t know. It’s that sound I want to hear.

...

I would like to be right at that place where meaning itself is being made; to hear language at that level. I know many poems that have a lot of content but no meaning; and I know many poems that have a lot of form but no content. I would like to do away with all of that and go straight to meaning. Just meaning staring at you from the page.

- Li-Young Lee, in conversation with Pearl London in 1995, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  

3/17/2022

the kind of peril that gets enacted in poetry

Pearl London: In “This Hour and What Is Dead,” you write “Someone tell the Lord to leave me alone.” How did you reconcile that with your own ideas about God? 

Li-Young Lee: The God I was addressing in that poem was very much the God of my father, which is a God of the Old and New Testaments. A very Christian God. A very patriarchal figure. Already very embodied. Kind of entrapped and encrusted with anthropomorphic features. 

Right now I’m wondering about the possibility of writing a religious poetry. A genuinely religious poetry. Because I feel we live in an age of secular poetry. 

London: Can one write a really religious poetry today?

Lee: I’m wondering about that. Maybe not a religious poetry but a poetry whose spirituality isn’t ironic. Which is genuine, sincere, hungry. It would have to be the real thing. I’m just curious what that would look like, what that would sound like. Because for me secular poetry isn’t enough. 

Student: It’s really hard, because in Herbert and Donne’s day there were shared assumptions about what the furniture of religion was. But now there aren’t any. So if you write a poem that is open to a lot of different assumptions it might be rejected by some people because it says “Jesus” if you’re a Jew, or… 

Lee: So it would have to avoid using the signposts that we recognize when we say religion. And the poem would have to proceed by an intelligence that is entirely new, distinct from the intelligence that we use in a secular poem. That’s what I’m interested in: what is that new intelligence?

London: I have a very good friend—he’s a brilliant critic—and he maintains that there is only one important religious poet writing today. He says it is A. R. Ammons. Because, he says, Ammons sees the universe as an absolutely integrated, coordinated system of relationships between people, between atoms and stars, between all of the phenomena of nature. He’s seeing this as an utterly bound-together world in which man and atom and stars all have a relevance and a real meaning for each other. And that is, for him, godlike. 

Lee: I think Ammons is a very great poet. I have a real quarrel with him, though.

London: What?

Lee: He’s too rational for me. His poems proceed with a great, brilliant, rational mind. And for me… there’s no peril in there. The irrational and the rational together make the kind of peril that gets enacted in poetry.


- Li-Young Lee, in conversation with Pearl London and her students in 1995, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  

3/14/2022

I’ll always be late for my own life

Pearl London: I must say that The City in Which I Love You is a wonderful odyssey of interiority, a pilgrimage in search of the self. What’s extraordinary to me is that if one compares it with some of the great pilgrimages in literature—like Byron’s “Don Juan”—there’s so little solipsism in your pilgrimage. Don Juan’s world is completely centered around himself; and your world isn’t that centered. What do you think is the explanation? 

Li-Young Lee: Writing for me is an act of love, and poems are shapes or forms of love. It seems important for me that the poem graduate—from a lower form of love to a higher form of love; from a sense of personal love to a kind of indifference or impersonality. 

I found that as I was writing The City in Which I Love You I was interested in who was actually there, writing. I’m interested in the evolution of the personal pronoun “I” in literature. Not only in literature, but in our culture—what is the “I”? Who is it? 

London: That’s very important. Because one really wonders to what extent the “I” embraces a whole community of people, of ideas. 

Lee: What became interesting to me was the very inexactness with which we live every day with this self. At some point I thought, I’m going to have to be a little more naked. I thought an actual self with all the inexactness and all the confusion of memories, that was more interesting, that was somehow more true, more naked, than very neatly trying to assemble this Frankenstein monster and saying, “This is me.” That somehow felt dishonest to me.

London: Do you now feel—now, grown and father of two children and so forth—do you now feel a sense of identity which is utterly your own? 

Lee: No. No, I don’t. I feel more than ever that there is no “I.” That’s where I am today—I might feel differently five years from now. All the versions of personhood—that my parents have given me, the culture has given me, my brothers and sisters, wife, children, friends—one is greater than all of those versions. And that greater someone can’t be nailed down with a pronoun like “I.” 

London: “I” could be a universe.

Lee: Then that “I” is the “I” I’m interested in writing toward. That “I” which is the universe. I’m trying to move toward an ecstatic state in which the small “I” is extinguished and merged into a larger “I.”

Part of me does feel that if I keep writing and living according to afterimages, then I’ll always be late… for my own life, somehow. If I’m living dependent on who I thought I was, who my parents told me I was, all of those things seem to me cumbersome—they’re obstacles toward something more immediate, something more naked. For the longest time I’ve walked through the world thinking, Well, I’m this, I’m that, while there was always a voice inside of me that knew I was nobody. In the way that Emily Dickinson said, “I’m nobody; who are you—are you nobody, too?”


- Li-Young Lee, in conversation with Pearl London in 1995, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  

3/10/2022

what it feels like to cross the street

William Matthews: [My low boredom threshold]’s been a real advantage to me. Having a high boredom threshold would be a different advantage to a different kind of poet; you have to use what you’re given and make an asset of it. That’s what an artist is. You’re born with a limp and figure out a way to run fast with a limp. If you think, I don’t like the sound of my voice when I do this, that’s information … it’s exactly the information that you need. I mean, the thing that I feel more and more as a writer and as a teacher of writing is that you really have almost all the information that you need to solve your problems right in front of you. Within four feet of you. If you can teach yourself to look around and find it. Don’t let the clues go by. It’s really everything you need. 

Pearl London: For all the great splurging of language, there is distillation all the way through. We mustn’t typecast even William Matthews.

Matthews: That’s why I’ve never wanted to write a novel.

London: Why?

Matthews: The low boredom threshold. The distilling is the fun. To write a novel well—I have a couple friends who are good novelists and I love what they do and admire it enormously, it’s just very different from what I do. When their characters cross the street it’s a good street and they know what the stores are, they know what people wear on that street; and I don’t care. I want to write a description of what it feels like to cross the street and I don’t care about the stores and I don’t care what the people are wearing. I mean, in a sense, everything is distillation.

 

- William Matthews, in conversation with Pearl London in 1994, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  

3/07/2022

I’m not particularly interested in ideas

Pearl London: Coming back to the body of the poetry, wouldn’t you say that right from the beginning, all of the poems—somewhere, somewhere—are living in a moral universe. 

William Matthews: I think of the issue of equilibrium, both as a sense of personal poise or balance and also the notion that you can’t deal fairly with the world if you don’t have the ability to make yourself equal to people. These are notions that have seemed to me important. And it seems to me that in writers like Stevens and Nabokov and Bishop the real love is for the ability to experience the physical world. And to make connections by means of elaborate linguistic patterns that imitate in some way the profusion and inventiveness of the creation. In one sense it’s about order, but in another sense it’s about the unbelievable diversity of the world that we can apprehend with our senses. If you imagine what an expiring Nabokov or an expiring Stevens is most annoyed at, at three minutes before death, it’s “I’ll never make another metaphor.” They’re not thinking, “Oh, my idea of order turned out to be really interesting.” I’m not particularly interested in ideas—which have wrecked lots of poets. I think they ruined Ezra Pound. His fascination with ideas turned a great lyric poet into a kind of raving village idiot.

 - William Matthews, in conversation with Pearl London in 1994, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  

3/03/2022

the burden and the splendor

Pearl London: We live in a society that is deeply aware of its uprootedness, of loss, of alienation in all forms and shapes. You often use the word "praise: in your poetry, and you quote Auden's "affirming flame." The feeling we can we can find in your three books is of something deep-seated, something very shared and rare in this society. But I ask myself, What is there to praise that is so powerful? With all of the ineptness and all the wounding in society, does this praise come from your sense, as you put it, of “surviving the nightfall”?

Edward Hirsch: Well, you’ve raised the idea of alienation. And loss. I believe that that’s the beginning of poetry. Poetry begins with alienation, and poetry speaks against our vanishing. The lyric poem in particular seems to me to have the burden and the splendor of preserving the human image in words, as the most intense form of discourse. Poetry speaks about and against loss in its root function. I see the writing of a poem as a descent. The descent is psychological. That which is darkest in human experience. It can be in yourself, it can be in others, it can be in the death of someone you love. It’s a descent into the unconscious. You try to unearth something. You try to bring something to the light.

 

- Edward Hirsch, in conversation with Pearl London in 1993, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  

2/28/2022

a writer has to dare to be an idiot

To continue to grow, a writer has to dare to be an idiot, to be reckless, to be wrong. We forgive the foolishness of the young - we even find it charming - more than we do that of the old. Poets are supposed to die young, suicide is best, or if it's too late for that, they're expected to abandon the stage before they drool on the page in public, before they become an embarrassment to themselves and their readers. If they have the gall to continue, we insist that they act and speak with gravitas. Epithets like the following attach themselves to the should-be-admired, grey-haired purveyor of words: wise, sententious, gracious, dean-like, dignified in comport and speech. Fuck that, I say.

- Lorna Crozier, from her essay "Running/Writing For Your Life" in the Summer 2021 issue of The New Quarterly.

2/24/2022

a skeleton, not a cage

Pearl London: I've been reading your work sheets you sent us and was so delighted about "The Hunt," that beautiful sonnet, and as I was thinking of Seamus Heaney's "Glanmore Sonnets," and then the China sonnets that Auden wrote, I asked myself, "Why the sonnet today? What does the sonnet offer you?" When Bob Hass was here last time he said to us that the patterned form implies a patterned society. No matter how Elizabeth Bishop deviated from the thing - nonetheless, inherent in the sonnet is a kind of pattern. But we certainly don't live in a patterned society. Every day becomes less patterned.

Molly Peacock: Patterned form comes from the premise that the form is the outside of the experience. My premise is that form is the inside of the experience, as a skeleton, not a cage...

You might think of the sonnet as a wave. In the traditional Shakespeare sonnet, there's a part of the wave that goes out, then it crests and comes in. I don't think of the pattern as societal; I think of it as deeply internal both psychologically and physically. I have a physical sense of this form that is quite different from saying, "Oh, this form is not useful for us now because we do not live the way people lived in the fourteenth century." Indeed that's true, but we have the same physiology, and if not the exact psychology, we are certainly as human.

 - Molly Peacock, in conversation with Pearl London in 1992, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  

2/21/2022

the rhythm of the line and the rhythm of the sentence

Pearl London: I want to come back to the whole relevance of rhyme and form for the poet writing now. Because after all we are writing in a time of great tension and great dissonance, and that voice must also be heard. I thought about T.S. Eliot, who said, "Rhyme removed, much ethereal music leaps up from the word." Now, how are you going to answer to that? Take away the rhyme and then you get this ethereal music. And he also says, "The rejection of rhyme is not a leap at facility; on the contrary, it imposes a much severer strain upon language." How do you decide at what point rhyme is going to fulfill your meaning and your purpose?

Molly Peacock: I think he's right - for his own work. He combined rhyme and unrhyme. But the point that rhyme has for contemporary writers now is that very often free verse ignores music. The workshop aesthetic says that the notion of revision is excision. You have to take anything extra out. Get rid of it. [Imitates voice of workshop instructor] "Get rid of that syllable. Why have you got all those articles in there? Take out those "a's," "and's", and "the's."

London: You sound just like Pearl London.

Peacock: And that's wonderful advice to get the student to really see the underpinnings of the language. But if you constantly overapply it, what happens is that you lose those unstressed syllables. And when you lose unstressed syllables, you begin to lose music. I've done some investigation into the metrics of free verse. And looked at the percentage of stressed to unstressed syllables, say, in a free verse poem. It's fascinating. There are always more stressed syllables in a free verse poem - the ones I've looked at. Especially in poems that have a medium to short line. Say Louise Glück - 75 to 80 percent of her shorter lines are comprised of stresses without the relief of unstressed syllables. Getting from one line to the next feels like a very heavy experience. Part of that comes from the technique of excision. But for Glück this technique works so well because it's also an emotional formulation.

I began to be interested in shaping a line to retain my initial impulse in music. Because I found that when I revised, I lost the feeling. That part of the poem is very unconscious, the music coming out of you - that's your voice. I began to see these lines and the rhymes as a way to preserve my voice, the freshness of my own speech.

The system of the line in a poem is entirely different from the system of meaning. The line is strictly musical. The system of meaning in the poem is the system of the sentence. Prose only has one system - the system of the sentence. That's it. It can be very beautiful and lyrical and rhythmical, but just in terms of the sentence. The poem has the line, the rhythm of the line, and the rhythm of the sentence. So there are two types of music that are being dealt with. Very often in free verse, though, the poet goes only toward the rhythm of the sentence, and the rhythm of the line simply supports the rhythm of the sentence.

London: Of course, this is what Wallace Stevens meant when he said, "A poem means in two ways." It has content - it conveys its meaning through content - and its content conveys its meaning through language. That's what you are saying is very often shortchanged in the free verse form.

Peacock: Right.

 

- Molly Peacock, in conversation with Pearl London in 1992, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  

2/17/2022

there's something about the human mind that becomes exalted

Student: You're using a line that's not common. In a sense you're at the cutting edge. How much concern do you have for where modern poetry is and where you'd like to push it? Or is it just your own concern about what you want to do?

C.K. Williams: It's more and more just my own concern about what I want to do. One of the benefits of becoming a middle-aged poet is that you really can't worry about that very much. I still have to struggle with the other questions: What have I done? Who am I? What is my audience? Although the basic struggle is always with myself. When I started writing that long line, people said, "That's not poetry, that's prose." And it was futile to argue. First of all, I didn't have the technical means to argue - I probably still don't. I just knew it was poetry. It's very satisfying to me to have people now accept that it is.

...

Pearl London: Let me throw out something that Charles Simic said. I wonder if it disturbs you - as I have to confess it disturbs me. How would you reply to this: "For me , the feel for the line is the most mysterious aspect of the entire process. It took me years to realize that the line is what matters and not the sentence."

Williams: That's not a conflict, that's the history of poetry. That's just Charlie Simic's development. Everybody develops in a different way. The history of poetry is the tension between the line and the sentence, that's how it differs from conventional speech; it organizes language artificially. The line is an absolutely arbitrary unit, and that's what's fascinating about it. Just as in music it's absolutely arbitrary that we have a scale that has eight notes in an octave and some of them are divided into half notes - in India it's divided differently. Once you set up a convention, then there's something about the human mind that becomes exalted in the tension between the normal consciousness and the consciousness that is submitting to these arbitrary conventions. And in poetry the line is an arbitrary convention.


 - C.K. Williams, in conversation with Pearl London and her students in 1988, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  

2/14/2022

the whole language

A writer who is not a minority thinks about the audience as people very much like him- or herself. On the other hand I am very much aware of the fact that my audience is of a number of cultures, a number of economic classes, and a number of colors. Black poets are always aware that the audience is very colored. 

I feel strongly a responsibility to my art, to my sex, to my family and to my race. And I feel a very strong responsibility to humanness. I don't know why I should feel it. Everyone does, I suppose. I often get asked when I am going to break out of black things and write real poems. Am I always going to feel bound? And yet I feel that I am freed by my culture because I do think about the whole language.

 

 - Lucille Clifton, in conversation with Pearl London in 1983, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011). 

2/10/2022

when it is said, it is renamed

Pearl London: Yeats in A Vision had written about the moon as that "yellow curd of moon," and at that moment it seemed absolutely visual and right and even exact. And then he took it out and he put in "brilliant moon." Because, he said, "I cannot let it become so theatrical." 

...

Derek Walcott: There's a poem by Larkin that I quote very often, and he says, "If I were asked to construct a religion, it would be of water." And the poem ends, "Where the many-angled light would congregate endlessly," which is lovely. A glass of water, the element encased in something, is the clearest, truest kind of simplicity, elemental in its simplicity.

A writer like Rilke, at the end of the Duino Elegies, saying that what a poet lives for is ultimately to arrive at the point where when he says "house, bridge, fountain, gate" it is itself. It is like the thing Blake arrived at. Blake as an old man could write as an experienced child. The simplicity in Blake that Yeats went for, and every great poet arrives at, is finally when you can use nouns, and those nouns are reborn in the experience and life of the poet's work. That when it is said, it is renamed. To take out the "yellow curd of the moon," which is Pre-Raphaelite or mid-Yeats, and simply say "the brilliant moon" is so cliché that it is stunning. You don't think he would dare say something that any guy walking out on the beach would say. "Wow, what a brilliant moon."

 

- Derek Walcott, in conversation with Pearl London in 1982, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011). 

2/07/2022

a pornography of wishing

There is no formula, to the life or to the work [of writing], and all any writer finally knows are the little decisions he or she has been forced to make, given the particular choices. There’s no golden recipe. Most things literary are stubborn as colds; they resist all formulas—a chemist’s, a wet nurse’s, a magician’s. There is no formula outside the sick devotion to the work. Perhaps one would be wise when young even to avoid thinking of oneself as a writer—for there’s something a little stopped and satisfied, too healthy, in that. Better to think of writing, of what one does as an activity, rather than an identity—to write, I write, we write; to keep the calling a verb rather than a noun; to keep working at the thing, at all hours, in all places, so that your life does not become a pose, a pornography of wishing.


- Lorrie Moore, from her essay "On Writing" in See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary (Penguin Random House, 2018). You can read the whole thing here.

1/31/2022

To Show Up For Others: Writers On Kate Braid's Mentorship

In September 2016, I had the privilege of introducing Kate Braid at the Pandora's Collective Literary Awards, where Kate was recognized for her work mentoring her fellow writers. What follows is the full text of that introduction.

Kate Braid

I was recently hired for a job teaching creative writing, and within, oh, five minutes of hearing this, Kate Braid had sent me dozens of files: course syllabi, lecture notes, exercise ideas, etc. This was a sign of her generosity, no doubt, but even more so it taught me that Kate likes to meticulously write out every word she says in a lecture. In that spirit, and in her honour, I’ve decided to read my own meticulous notes meticulously off this piece of paper. So I apologise in advance if I rarely look up over the next few minutes.
 
I’ve spent the last four years working with Kate Braid as two of the co-coordinators (along with Christopher Levenson and Diane Tucker) of the Dead Poets Reading Series, and that experience has  helped me in preparing to present to Kate this year’s Mentorship Award. Not because I’ve learned a great deal from her in that time – though I have, of course – but because running a poetry reading series teaches you how to herd cats. To have five poets show up in the same place at the same time and stick to their time limits, is a formidable task. To round up the myriad ways in which Kate has mentored those around her feels equally formidable.
 
OK, let’s start the list: Kate has taught at SFU (Women’s and Labour Studies), UBC, BCIT, and, for ten years, at Malaspina in Nanaimo (now UVI). She’s been a key member or organiser of a wide array of community groups, as well, from the Vancouver Industrial Writers Union, to the Writers Support Group “Sex, Death and Madness,” the Prosody Group “Compossible” (yes, a writers group devoted to the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry. This woman is not messing around), the Non-Fiction Writers Group “the Memoiristas,” and a series of poetry salons she has run in recent years. Many of these groups, such as the Prosody group, were born – in part or in whole – out of questions or challenges Kate faced in her own writing. Most introverted writers would read a book or the internet in search for answers, or simply hide our ignorance and fears deep down inside us in hopes they might eventually turn into diamonds. But Kate builds communities around her questions, and generates answers not just for herself, but for whole groups of people beset by the same questions and same fears. 

In Fine Form,
2nd Edition
OK, back to the list. Really, we’re only getting started. On top of her teaching and her writing communities, there is the Dead Poets Reading Series, which Kate has helped run for the last four years, and the In Fine Form Anthology, which Kate edited with Sandy Shreve a decade ago, and which has been reissued in a second edition just this last month. That book has been an endless source of insight for writers, students and teachers throughout the country. 

And we haven’t even gotten to her work in the construction industry: from 1977 until 1992, Kate worked as a labourer, apprentice and journeywoman carpenter. She was one of the first qualified women carpenters in British Columbia, the first woman to join the Vancouver local of the Carpenters’ Union, the first to teach construction full-time at the BCIT, and one of the first women to run her own construction company. But damn it, Kate, this is a writing Mentorship award, so you can forget about me praising all that groundbreaking work! You see, the cats run off everywhere if you let them. But I have learned the discipline to reign them in.

Rough Ground
Revisited
Similarly, I could get bogged down in what a talented writer Kate is. I could list her five celebrated poetry titles, one of which (Covering Rough Ground) was recently reissued by Caitlin Press. Her memoir Journeywoman, her anthologies, and her many essays, academic and otherwise. But this isn’t an award for your writing, Kate! So you can forget that!

I’m just talking about mentorship. Which, of course, is as impossible as cat herding. Because the way Kate mentors is through her actions, her life. By being Kate Braid, in her totality, and in doing that showing a path for the rest of us, inspiring to be ourselves, in our totality, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

I reached out to a few people who were mentored by Kate, or worked alongside her in mentoring others, and asked for their favourite memories of Kate. It should be noted (and it’s no small note!) that every one of them replied quickly, with a precise and detailed memory. These are poets, remember. And they were organized and punctual. It says more about Kate, and her role in their lives, than it does about poets, I assure you.

Marilyn Bowering
Marilyn Bowering, who worked with Kate at Malaspina, noted that:

Kate’s care of the students who were in her classes, when we taught together at Malaspina, was outstanding. It was never a matter of doing a job; for Kate, teaching was a trust; and she took seriously the idea that helping students discover their creativity would open their worlds. Kate’s core value is compassion.
Susan McCaslin spoke of how she met Kate in 1997. She said:

Almost immediately after conversing with Kate, the word “integrity” sprang to my mind, and integrity it has been to this day: integrity in the sense of words matching action, words and acts moving from wholeness to wholeness. Kate has a gift for listening and responding honestly, the listening always preceding the response.

Elizabeth Bachinsky
Elizabeth Bachinsky
remembered a time very early in her own writing life when Kate, at a reading, dedicated a poem to Liz. She said: 
I was so beside myself in the audience. That small act sure left an impression on me. Kate has always been so generous with all of us young writers. She's taught me that even a small gesture like that can mean so much to an emerging poet; so  that when I have the opportunity to reach out and acknowledge people, I do. What a lovely person Kate is. What a fierce writer. A force and an inspiration. 
Amber Dawn’s very first writing class was with Kate, at UBC. She said this:
I was terrified of the creative writing classroom. Kate's warmth and rigor as a mentor taught me to be an engaged peer. She taught not just to respond to poetry, but to show up for other writers. To let the collective knowledge of the classroom lift us all up as poets. To this day, being taught to value my sense of belonging within literary communities has been a lesson even more powerful than being taught about craft itself.
And that is the point, isn’t it? To be taught, through writing, lessons that exceed the craft itself. Writing means a whole lot, but it's far from everything. It’s one room in the house (yes, that will be my one terrible construction analogy).

I was at a talk a couple years ago, where poet Kwame Dawes was speaking about Obsidian, a literary journal for African-American writers. He was asked why he worked tirelessly on it, all his years as editor, when few people read literary journals. His answer was that he was building a home for writers. And, he said, “If you build a home, you can live in that home.” 

It was so simple, yet it struck right through me. And that line comes back to me again and again when I think of Kate, who has for decades been showing us how to live a full life, with writing as a key component. She creates communities that sustain others, and that in the process sustain her as well. She gives out to gain. And what better lesson is there for all of us to learn?

For all these reasons and more, I’m incredibly honoured to present Kate Braid with the 2016 Pandora’s Collective BC Writer Mentorship Award. 

1/27/2022

in that way, we are exactly alike

It seems to me that the invitation of poetry is to bring your whole life to this moment, this moment is real, this moment is what we have, this moment in which we face each other, and if the poem is any damn good at all, it invites you to bring your whole life to that moment, and we are good poets inasmuch as we bring that invitation to you, and you are good readers inasmuch as you bring your whole life to the reading of the poem. And the process is the same for both of us. In that way, we are exactly alike. We are different in what we do—the writing of the poem is of course different. But it involves the same process; it’s just coming at it from the other side of the mirror.

- Muriel Rukeyser, in conversation with Pearl London in 1978, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).

1/24/2022

drawn into a life higher than that to which they have been born

The college of imagination which conducts the discourse of art is not confined by time. Just as material gifts establish and maintain the collective in social life, so the gifts of imagination, as long as they are treated as such, will contribute toward those collectives we call culture and tradition. This commerce is one of the few ways by which the dead may inform the living and the living preserve the spiritual treasures of the past. To have the works of the past come to life in the active imagination is what it means “to have gathered from the air a live tradition,” to use Ezra Pound’s wonderful phrase. Moreover, as a commerce of gifts allows us to give more than we have been given, so those who participate in a live tradition are drawn into a life higher than that to which they have been born. Bestowed from the dead to the living and from the living to the unborn, our gifts grow invisibly among us to sustain each man and woman above the imperfections of state and age.

 

- Lewis Hyde, from The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.


1/18/2022

Poetry Month starts early!

 


My National Poetry Month interview series with Read Local BC is back for a fourth year! In previous years, we've released two interviews a week throughout April. This year we're slowing things down a bit by starting early: releasing an interview a month in January, February and March, before releasing four in April. 

The first interview of this year's series went up today, and it's a real delight (and ended more entertainingly than any interview yet!). In it, I chat with Ellie Sawatzky about her debut poetry collection, None Of This Belongs To Me. You can read the interview here.

Huge thanks as always to Read Local BC for their ongoing support of this project, and of poetry in British Columbia. The next interview will be up in February, and they'll arrive steadily after that. Keep an eye on ReadLocalBC.ca, and the Read Local BC "#NPM2022" hashtag, until the end of April!

And if you need your interview fix right now, remember that I have 80+ interviews posted right here on this blog, which you can review on a snazzy web page here

1/17/2022

that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition

 [The artist's] appeal is made to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities - like the vulnerable body within a steel armor... the artist appeals... to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition - and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation - to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity... which binds together all humanity - the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.


- Joseph Conrad, as quoted in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde.

1/13/2022

you give yourself away

Some people are led to the writing of poetry - or to painting, dance or music - on the promise that it will allow them to "express themselves." Insofar as you are a part of the older, richer, larger and more knowledgeable whole we call the world, and insofar as you are a student or apprentice of that world, expressing yourself may be worth the time and trouble. But if it is really only your self that you are interested in, I venture to think that performing someone else's poem - reciting it or reading it aloud - is likely better medicine that writing. Poetry, like science, is a way of finding out - by trying to state perceptively and clearly - what exists and what is going on. That is too much for the self to handle. That is why, when you go to work for the poem, you give yourself away. Composing a poem is a way of leaving the self behind and getting involved in something larger.

 

- Robert Bringhurst, from his lecture "Poetry and Thinking," delivered to Luther College, University of Regina in 2001 and published in Thinking and Singing: Poetry & the Practice of Philosophy (ed. Tim Lilburn, Cormorant Books, 2002).

1/10/2022

all they mean by poetry is poems

Herakleitos - evidently the earliest prose poet whose work survives - says... "All things think and are linked together by thinking." Parmenides answers to him in verse: "To be and to have meaning are the same." These are concise definitions of poetry and brief explanations of how it has come to exist. Poetry is not manmade; it is not pretty words; it is not something hybridized by humans on the farm of human language. Poetry is a quality or aspect of existence. It is the thinking of things.

Language is one of the methods we use to mime and to mirror and admire it, and for that reason poetry, as mirrored in human language, has come to be taught in the English Department. They know at least as much about poetry in the Physics and Biology departments, and in the Mathematics and Music departments, but there they always call it by different names. If they are really old-fashioned, they might even call it Truth or Beauty. If they are really up to date, they will never use such words, and the silence they put in their place is the name they use for poetry. Those who are really up to date in the English Department now and then still mention poetry. But all they mean by poetry is poems. Poems are the tip of the iceberg afloat on the ocean of poetry.

...

When you think intensely and beautifully, something happens. That something is called poetry. If you think that way and speak at the same time, poetry gets in your mouth. If someone hears you, it gets in their ears. If you think that way and write at the same time, then poetry gets written. But poetry exists in any case. The question is only: are you going to take part, and if so, how?

Simone Weil wrote something once in her notebook about the purpose of works of art, and the purpose of words: "Their function is to testify, after the fashion of blossoming apple trees and stars." When words do what blossoming apple trees do, and what stars do, poetry is what you read and hear.

 

- Robert Bringhurst, from his lecture "Poetry and Thinking," delivered to Luther College, University of Regina in 2001 and published in Thinking and Singing: Poetry & the Practice of Philosophy (ed. Tim Lilburn, Cormorant Books, 2002).

1/06/2022

appropriation with the current reversed

Anthropocentrism, in Walt Disney films or plans for wildlife management, is clearly an evil we wish to avoid. But when we take stock of our situation as language users with brains and organs of perception which dictate that we see and describe the world in human ways, we can see that, at bottom, a human perspective is impossible to avoid. Though we may devote attention to the screech owl or the cat-tail moss, we are inevitably translators of their being, at least wen we come to representation. "Isn't art," [Emmanuel] Levinas asks rhetorically, "an activity that gives things a face?" Even an artist like Cézanne, whose work, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, renders a perspective "from below the imposed order of humanity" as if "viewed by a creature of another species," has not truly managed to escape the perspectival cage. He is still daubing pigment on stretched canvas, as no other species has been known to do.

So here's how I'm reading the Face: it's an address to the other with an acknowledgment of our human-centredness built in, a salutary and humbling reminder. But we can perform artistic acts in such a way that, in 'giving things a face,' the emphasis falls on the gift, the way, for example, a linguistic community might honour a stranger by conferring upon her a name in their language. Homage is, perhaps, simply appropriation with the current revered; 'here,' we say to the thing, 'is a tribute from our culture, in which having a face is a premier sign of status.' We can, in short, try to be like Cézanne rather than Mount Rushmore.

 

- Don McKay, from his essay "The Bushtits' Nest" in Thinking and Singing: Poetry & the Practice of Philosophy (ed. Tim Lilburn, Cormorant Books, 2002).