Carmine Starnino has published three critically-acclaimed books of poetry: The New World (1997), which was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, the QSPELL Prize for Poetry and was chosen as one of Quill & Quire’s Best Books of 1997; Credo (2000) which won the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry and the David McKeen Award; and With English Subtitles (2004) which won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. He is an associate editor at Maisonneuve magazine and Books in Canada, and serves as poetry editor for Vehicule Press. He has also published A Lover’s Quarrel, which collected his reviews and essays on Canadian poetry, and The New Canon, a new anthology of fifty Canadian poets.
Dani Couture interviewed Carmine Starnino in September 2006.
W. H. Auden said, “Every poet has his dream reader: mine keeps a look out for curious prosodic fauna like bacchics and choriambs.” What does your dream reader keep a look out for?
I don’t know – are there readers famished for poems about Old English words, wine presses, and Yukon wildflowers? I rather doubt it. If anything I’ve written has given pleasure I’d like to think it was a pleasure that took readers by surprise. I don’t mean they were expecting (heaven forbid) bad poems, but that only bad poems do what you expect. I always try, one way or another, to provide a fresh entry into things; to offer something readers don’t already have, or can’t find elsewhere. Providing this sort of delight (or trying to, at least) seems to me incontestably important, or why else would readers, with all the other things fighting for their attention, take the time to read a poem? I’m always reminded of ee cumming’s remark that his poetry was in competition with “roses and locomotives (not to mention acrobats Spring electricity Coney Island the 4th of July the eyes of mice and Niagara Falls).”
Auden is, of course, right to suggest that form in poetry can be enjoyed partly for the curiosity of the form itself (the sonnet as a sonnet can be an occasion of relish). But bacchics and choriambs are worthless unless they’re intrinsic to the perception that sought them out: unless they’re necessary for creating a specific kind of meaning, a meaning that those forms – and only those forms – can transform into something recognizable and strange. Somewhere in that realm of recognition and strangeness is, I’d argue, where our best poems exist. But these poems aren’t the sort that a reader can “look out” for because you never know what shape they’ll take (“Ecstasy affords the occasion,” quipped Marianne Moore, “and expediency determines the form.”) I believe in providing certain core satisfactions for the reader: a locus of linguistic energy, a life-line between subject matter and language. But I don’t really believe in “dream readers”. In fact, dream reading sounds like a poor second to the real thing: reading for pleasure, stimulation, and surprise.
So you’ve never fantasized an ideal reaction to your poems – someone reading who reads them and perfectly understands them?
I haven’t, and I don’t. I want those who come to my poetry to be both listeners and interrogators, participants in a sincere, half-skeptical conversation. It’s the same reason I’ve never understood this idea of readers needing to “give themselves over” to a poem. The near-erotic tug-of-war between art and audience – the withholding and relinquishment of affection, the hardening and melting of tolerances – is precisely what’s exciting. It’s a higher form of flirting, the constant fear that readers may not exactly buy what you’re selling is the delicious tension of writing a poem, the dare of it. And it’s that oscillating back-and-forthness that Auden’s premise of the “dream reader” kills. Poets don’t need dream readers, they need real readers – readers who sometimes criticize what they cherish and cherish what they criticize. But we’ve forgotten who these people are. Instead we make ourselves giddy whipping up new art-organisms and poem-shapes – stuff that doesn’t know who or what it’s for. Getting a poem under someone’s skin and lodging it there: does anyone give a fig about that anymore? The theory-speak idea of the “other” has, with its fetishizing of difference, killed any sense of obligation toward the collective experience, the shared sense of what it means to be human. As the late Stanley Kunitz once wrote, the true vocation of the poet is to be a generalist, “a person speaking to persons.” And for me this is the challenge, to burn through the specialism of our art and touch some rock-bottom sense of the reader’s lived experience. And it’s the boredom of that reader, his indifference to any special pleading on behalf of the “originality” of our poems, that keeps our art honest. I find it interesting, if not heartening, that no matter how aggressively certain poets merchandise themselves, the sham of their know-all, invulnerable pose – Wah, MourÈ – shatters the instant it comes in contact with the slightest sensible, layman qualm. I’ve always liked the old-school idea of poetry as simply another kind of reading material that intellectually curious folks can take an interest in. It’s an honorable notion worth preserving, and a welcome corrective to the avant-wankery of our era.
Is it enough for a poem to be a building of beautiful architecture? How much does meaning play a role and is that role completely separate from poetic conventions?
The short answer is no, it isn’t enough for a poem to be beautiful. Poets who prize form above feeling, sound above sense, are not the sorts of poets I find interesting. For me, each line in a poem must ultimately be tested for the information it brings.
The long answer is that the question of “meaning” is complex, because when ideas take poetic form – when they dress themselves in stanzas and line lengths and rhythm – they become indistinguishable from aesthetics. That is to say, what a poem “means” is indistinguishable from the designs and devices used to make that meaning. Good poets are stylists, and it’s the distinctive qualities of their style that generate memorable insights. I’ve just finished an essay on Margaret Avison for a special issue of Canadian Poetry, due out in 2007. Part of the challenge of writing it was pondering how Avison’s religious beliefs got into her poems. How is it that her language-spare, fluid, breath-sensitive, jammed-together, baroque – managed to transmit everything she felt most passionate about: the nature of redemption, the problem of suffering, the Passion and the Resurrection? These ideas seem above the head of most secular readers, but the moment such beliefs are translated into cadence they cease to become beliefs; they become another thing-art. Part of the taste for poetry therefore is the taste for this other thing, for its artificial and formal aspects.
It is very trivial to think that “amateurs” don’t have the taste for this. Those who defend the common reader from poetry often have an odd idea of who this reader is. The subject of accessibility is far more complex, and the reader far wiser, than our current theories are willing to accept. The audience-wisdom which helped establish the worth of certain key poets in our tradition – Shakespeare, Whitman, Frost, Dickinson – did so precisely because of the loveliness of their writing, and not just its meaning.
If you permit me to digress a bit, your question is particularly interesting in context of the pistol-whipping my anthology, The New Canon, has received. The accusation, as voiced by Alex Good and Robin Mathews, is that I’ve published an anthology of poets who’ve turned their backs on the world for the sake of a well-turned phrase. It’s true that with this new generation we find a vigorous reinvestment in verbal resources that were stifled in the seventies; poems that live inside their linguistic action, for whom language is so important it gets the whole of their attention. But if they’re read as works of disinterested artistic play – as Good and Mathews do, in their different ways – it’s because we still have trouble seeing emotion as syntax, as an arrangement of consonant and vowels. What moves me, for example, in Diana Brebner’s anti-cancer cry “Port” (though Patton’s “The Vine Maple” or Steven Heighton’s “Address Book” or Elise Partridge’s “Buying the Farm” might serve my argument just as well) is hardly its sentiment, but the astringent mode of its narrative, the varying tones and tensions of its grief-logic. Poems are driven by emotion, yes, but the poetryness of poetry, if you well, is about finding equivalences between sound and feeling.
Mathews especially seemed quite worked up about the lack of engagement with current issues. But there’s an argument to be made, a good one, that The New Canon represents not a shunning of politics, but a corrective to political rhetoric. The development of a fresh, mettlesome language is itself a rebuke to the dangerous crowd-control cliches our governments feed us. And what’s especially galling is that the book also has exactly what they were looking for. There’s Mark Abley’s eco-mindedness, which we also see in Christopher Patton and Eric Miller. Anne Simpson’s sonnets confront 9/11. Steve Heighton’s “Machine Gunner” is an unnerving depiction of the military mind, and Bruce Taylor’s “Social Studies” is an irreverent, comfort-jolting reassessment of Canadian identity. Walid Bitar is Lebanese-Canadian whose poems provide a deeply ambivalent, unsettling investigation into varieties of 21st political terror – a topic that George Murray’s eerie, surrealistic poems also keep in their sight. Then there’s the brandished subtleties of John Barton’s gay-inflected narratives and the agitated wordplay George Eliot Clarke’s racial anger.
If Good and Mathews are deaf to the moral outcry, political fight or emotional performance in these poems then it’s yet another sign of our continued confusion, as Canadians, at why poetry is written the way it is. To complain that The New Canon poems aren’t “about” anything while pointedly ignoring how the poets’ aesthetic decisions make possible the kind of meaning you seek is obscenely slack reading.
In your lengthy introduction to The New Canon, you wrote, “Poems cannot be radical or conservative; they can only be faithful to the experience they stalk and the formal means they invent to catch it.” That you use the word “stalk” seems to suggest that what is sought isn’t always pinned down. How integral is form to the capture of the moment the poet is attempting to document or recount?
Forgive me for saying this, but I’m tired of all the defeatist talk about poetry. It’s really trendy to mourn about the various ways in which experience defeats language (Lilburn has based his entire solipsistic, ur-shaman career on that notion). More interesting to me than what form can’t do is what it can – and has – done. Words work. That is, they make us cry, laugh. Words can alter ideas, stop them, or mint new ones. It’s true that as a poet you don’t know how a poem is going to turn out, that it rarely turns out how you were hoping it would, and that more often you produce something mindless and ornamental and unnecessary. But it’s amazing how many poems we have that represent life fairly and justly and memorably. Why does that happen? Why does poetry work? What I’ve figured out is good poetry, although grounded in experience, somehow draws a surplus from experience. The creative spree of the exertion, of words being handled, produces an effect over and above what the “message” actually requires. Language doesn’t get in the way of words approximating what we’re feeling – timidity does. Bad poetry, or at least one way of defining it, is poetry that let those gaps or shortfalls spook the language to the point where it fights to a standstill.
So what I meant by “stalk” is the feeling of exulting, of going with it – the skimming-along of discovery, a close-as-you-can-possibly-manage amplification through rhythms and sounds, through lines that are structured to move in ways that reflect what you’re trying to get across. And form alone is responsible for that. Form makes meaning, and makes it stay put. Expressed in drab language, ideas just melt into air. The form need not to be traditional. It can be homemade. Just as long as whatever you’ve jerry rigged is solid enough to apply some structure to the vagueness and carelessness of speech, to create what Yeats called “sweet sounds together.” So when you ask how important form is, it’s a little like asking whether snow melts because of the nature of snow or because of the temperature applied to the snow. We know that the melting snow requires both. Form and content works the same way.
Also in your introduction, you stated that you “urged yourself to love new things”. Is there a particular poem in the anthology that you had to push yourself to appreciate?
Well, I wouldn’t say I “push”, but there are poets I definitely needed to work at. Kevin Connolly is an example of someone I underestimated until Anansi published drift. After reading that book, all the vocal signatures of his poetry – the nimble syntax, the cunning opaqueness and dissonance – suddenly made sense. Same for Eric Miller. He wrote poems in which I could hear a lot going on, but was suspicious of much of it, and it wasn’t until I was putting together the anthology that I could give myself permission to feel its effects. And then of course, there’s the much talked-about inclusion of Christian Bök. Eunoia’s intellectual and emotional settings were all one-trick, but “Geodes” struck me as far more plausible musically. His dry-stone method of fitting words together – and often beautiful image-clusters it created – seemed to have more verity, more cunning, more life. That’s why I put him in the book. In this way, reading for the anthology became a complex relationship between what I knew and what I didn’t. My relationship to poetry has always been an entirely physical one – and like love, you can’t will certain feelings into existence. It’s a coup de foudre. But after a while you get sick of the reflection it gives you of yourself and get antsy. One of the knocks against me, for example, is the predictability of my tastes, which I’ve always found a bit harsh. My tastes have always been betwixt and between. Prynne as much as Pound, Basil Bunting and Stevie Smith, Ivor Gurney, Edward Thomas, Christina Rossetti, James Schuyler, Charles Bruce, A.G. Bailey and Anne Wilkinson. I’ve always been attracted to the rogue reputations, the on-the-margin careers, the odd ducks. And so I’m happy to answer that, yes, when it came to the anthology, there were poets – Lezoff, is another example – who not only refused the terms of my expectations, but slightly reconditioned them.
As an editor, do your tastes evolve? Do you think, if you set out to do the same collection in ten years, working with the same age constraint–poets born between 1955 and 1975–you would ultimately choose the same poems again?
As an editor, fixed positions are fatal. To use Don Paterson’s terms, you have to think of yourself as a verb, not a noun. Part of the problem is that it’s very easy to fall back on nounness, to live your life exercising the same intellectual skill set provided by your past enthusiasms. Having said that however, if I’ve done my job then, yes, I would hope that some of the poets would need to be selected again because the work has survived, the poems have stayed good despite my changing relationship to them. So if I could do that in ten years, I would hold my head up high. But there’s no doubt that my interests would shift, and indeed I’ve already fallen out with a few poets in the anthology, poets for whom my honest attempt at a sympathetic reading didn’t “stick”. No reason to name names, but I will say that Jason Camlot, Adam Levin, and Craig Poile are three poets I’d be tempted to include if I had to resurvey the field. I also think I’d take a closer look at Lisa Robertson.