Uncooperative with the Expected: An Interview with Dale Tracy

The following interview is part three of a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released between January and April 2023. All seven interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.caThis was the fourth year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read all my Read Local BC interviews in one place here).


Learning to Feel Full

I pluck petals with a dirty garden glove.
That daisy’s stained like newsprint—
who reads daisies anymore?
Still, the mouth, yellow, opens, and not to say
“I love you.”

Still, when I drink my teeth get wet.
My eyes gape, and light gets in.
Don’t they get emptier when the pupils grow?
I’m full of resources, and places to put them.
That doesn’t mean I know when I feel full.

Reprinted with permission from 
(Anvil Press, 2022)



Rob Taylor: There are a lot of mouths and teeth in Derelict Bicycles: human and animal; open, devouring, singing, speaking, silent. What draws you to images and metaphors around the mouth? 

Dale Tracy: Mouths get my attention because they are inside/outside things. Mouths are the inside of us, but they open: we can look right into them. These are points of inordinate access, right on our faces. The fact of a mouth can become fascinatingly unreal, even unsettling, if I keep perversely pushing the thought. I surprise myself in poems frequently because I write something that upsets me—not because it threatens harm but because it opens up some strangeness of existence that I maybe am not really comfortable with. These mischievous thoughts are probably at the heart of my poetry. Well, maybe they are the mouths of my poems.

What we say comes out of the mouth, which is relevant for poetry. But teeth also bring the world into us, as we keep making ourselves. Having multi-purpose body parts is such a strange efficiency. Bringing in the material to keep building our bodies has nothing to do with communication, but they cross each other in the hallway all day long.

RT: In channeling “the strangeness of existence,” your poems often lean towards the surreal. I was happy to see you'd worked with Stuart Ross, who's kept the flame of surreal poetry going in this country at times when it otherwise might have been snuffed out. What draws you to this type of writing? Have you always written with a surreal bent? 

DT: Yes, thank goodness for Stuart Ross! My poems often start with something I think or say in the course of my everyday life: the surreal bent is how I think in general, so it is also how I think in poetry. The ways that my thinking is strange matches some of what readers expect from poetry, so poetry lets me explore and communicate my reactions, feelings, ideas, and values most clearly.

RT: I believe poetry is the closest mirror we have to how human beings actually think (not how we like to believe we think, which is far more orderly). I love your awareness, and embrace, of poetry as a path to clarity!

You mention in your acknowledgments that your time in Northwestern Ontario and Kingston informed the poems in Derelict Bicycles. How do you think the book would be different if you'd written it elsewhere? Now that you're here in BC, teaching at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, can you sense your poems changing in any way?

DT: It’s me who would be different: wherever I write now, I’ll always have come from those places. Not so many people are from Northwestern Ontario (it’s not a populous region), so I have a perspective shaped by that—the experiences I had there are not the experiences of most people I meet. Kingston is lively with poetry and arts, and I might not be publishing poetry now if I hadn’t had the opportunity to be connected in poetry community. When I moved to B.C., the trees changed my poems—right away the whole atmosphere of my life (the air’s smell and the whole mood) was different.

RT: One part of the Kingston poetry scene that made a mark in Derelict Bicycles was the m society, "a mysterious group of writers in Kingston," who provided writing prompts that inspired some of your poems. How have prompts helped you in your writing? 

DT: What’s better than something making an opening into the world to follow? I already know the things I know, so it’s boring to think those thoughts. A prompt makes me know again what I know, or reflect on it, or learn something new, or think differently. Whether formally or informally, I’m using prompts all the time—that is, I’m looking for something to prompt me. 

RT: I imagine it must be tricky to move between teaching and academic writing, and your own creative work—do prompts help you make that transition? 

DT: My teaching, academic writing, and creative writing all send prompts to each other, so I would probably find it trickier to write in only one way.

RT: In addition to their embrace of the surreal, the poems in Derelict Bicycles cut against popular trends by rarely being explicitly autobiographical: if we see the poet's life in these poems, it's indirectly. In one you write "Of my ornaments, I can only tell, now show... I'm all style where no one sees," and in another, "I won't look for your life / in your poems, / but can I look for mine?" 

In your monograph, With the Witnesses: Poetry, Compassion and Claimed Experience, you write "I am concerned that an understanding of a poet's corpus does not take the place of hearing what a particular poem has to say." Is there a connection here, between your concern for biography obscuring the poem, and what of you you choose to put on (or withhold from) the page? 

DT: I think “indirectly” is the key. These poems are my most intimate thoughts, the clearest expression of how my mind works. But I’m choosing to explore my thinking through poetry. In a poem, whatever else I’m doing, I’m also exploring how a poem in particular allows me to understand myself and my connections to the world. Each poem is about what that poem that I am thinking in is like. 

So, my poems are autobiographical, in my own way. The “I” is always a version of me. They are also always self-referential, about who the poem is. 

How the life connects to the poem constitutes a main interest for me. I teach life writing at KPU. I teach poems in this course, and I teach them the same way as I do in other courses. I want to see the sets of relationships a poem works through, using what I know about a life or the world, but not in such a way that I can only see what I already know.

RT: Connected to this, in With the Witnesses you write "Meeting a poem halfway means reading it as a poem (responding to its imaginative strategies) rather than as something else (a straightforward historical document)." Similarly, you critique readers who "position a poem as direct evidence of a trauma it holds and passes on," and encourage them to read "poem as poem rather than indexical sign of suffering." This problem is particularly prevalent in some English classrooms, where a poem's secret information must be unlocked by solving the puzzle of a poem. As an English professor, I'm curious how you get around this problem in your own classroom. How can you get students to think of a poem as a poem and not a vacuum-sealed set of facts?

DT: I follow what the poem does and show students how to do the same. I teach a first-year writing course that teaches students about how to communicate, and I think this helps me teach poems in my literature courses: understanding conventions—knowable moves that carry expectations—is helpful with poems to remind us that someone wrote them to communicate something, and wrote them as poems out of an interest in that particular set of available conventions.

RT: In considering "affective and attentive reading methods" for the poetry of others, I assume you must also think about how you'd like readers to approach your own poetry. Do you have an ideal way in which you'd like someone to read your poems? 

DT: Outside of poetry, I worry a lot about misunderstandings and about misrepresenting myself. But communicating with poetry circumvents those worries. There’s always more meaning in art than any one person can arrive at, so I have no impulse for readers that would get in their minds exactly what I have in mine. 

In general, I hope that readers will think with poems instead of using them to achieve or prove a predetermined result for themselves, but that’s more a sentiment about curiosity, openness, and learning than it is about poetry specifically. 

RT: Before we close, I’d like to talk about a favourite poem of mine from Derelict Bicycles,  "A Weird Part of Whatever." There are so many poems out there written about COVID-19, but few I enjoy. This is one I keep thinking about, especially that closing line, "A curtain has been pulled, but I can’t see the curtain." And its mode of composition is as interesting as the content! 

Could you talk a little about how you wrote this poem? Are there ways in which your approach to this poem was different from others in the book? Ways in which it was the same?

DT: It makes me happy for this poem to be most noticed—it’s so in line with my delight in a kind of uncooperativeness with the expected. Since I noted down verbatim what my grandma said to me on the phone about her experience of the pandemic in her retirement home, all I did was choose and order sentences and call it a poem.

And this poem is meaningful to me since it shares my grandma’s thoughts and records some of our conversation. Since it is consistent with the whole collection—in tone, mood, ideas, diction—it makes me think that I’ve inherited ways of thinking from my grandma. I want this poem to keep prompting me when I write poetry, but especially as I do academic writing, through which the inheritances I have are more difficult for me to access.

So my approach to this poem was unlike my usual approach except in a more foundational way: I heard the poem in a spontaneous grappling with living out a situation, the same as I hear the poem in my own thoughts sometimes. 


Dale Tracy is the author of the chapbooks The Mystery of Ornament (above/ground press, 2020) and Celebration Machine (Proper Tales Press, 2018), the chappoem What It Satisfies (Puddles of Sky Press, 2016), and the monograph With the Witnesses: Poetry, Compassion, and Claimed Experience (McGill-Queen’s, 2017). Her poetry has appeared in filling Station, Touch the Donkey, and The Goose: A Journal of Arts, Environment, and Culture in Canada, among others. She is a faculty member in the English Department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and lives on unceded Coast Salish territory. Derelict Bicycles is her first full-length poetry collection.

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