Fraser Sutherland was born and raised in Nova Scotia, and is now living in Toronto. He is a widely travelled freelance writer, critic, editor, and lexicographer. His work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, and his work has been translated into Albanian, Farsi, French, Italian and Serbo-Croat. His volumes of poetry include Jonestown, a book length poem, and most recently The Matuschka Case, Selected Poems, new from TSAR Publications.
Alex Boyd interviewed Fraser Sutherland in February 2007.
Selected from eight volumes of poetry, the poems in “The Matuschka Case” cover a remarkable number of subjects. How did you go about choosing them?
I didn’t. They chose me. In fact, I think that deliberately choosing a subject is probably a good way to go wrong: there tends to be something forced and overdetermined about the result.
However, I may be evading your question, which could be rephrased, “Why do so many subjects choose you?” The short inadequate answer is that I have an innate lust for variation and variety, which of course raises a further “Why?” People often seek the many in the One — God, a metaphysical principle, a primary law of nature, or a love-object. I like to think that I’m seeking the One in the many.
The ending to “Bethel Carol Service,” reminds me of Larkin. What are your strongest poetic influences?
I admire Larkin greatly, so his influence is plausible, though I wasn’t aware at the time that it was working on me. Then again, the most powerful influences are subliminal. With influence, it’s a case sometimes of a line or two rather than the whole work of a poet, for example, e.e. cummings’s “nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands”or Stevie Smith’s “I was much further out than you thought /And not waving but drowning.” The strongest ones? Too many names to record, and the naming would have to include the obscure as well as the famous. Among the latter in the past century, just confining myself to the Anglo-American-Canadian world, representative ones might be Auden, Hughes and Larkin (that Dionysus and Apollo of modern British poetry), later Yeats; Frost, Roethke, Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Weldon Kees, early Pound; Layton, Nowlan, Purdy.
You’ve worked as a freelance writer since 1970, as an editor, reporter, reviewer, staff writer for many publications. What’s your overall impression of changes in the literary landscape? Are people still reading? Is it easier or harder to be a writer?
I started out as a newspaper reporter, thinking that I would follow in the footsteps of Hemingway and many others, and that it would give me experience. That was a delusion because, for a writer, anything and everything is experience. Nor did my days as a working reporter do me much good even after I gave it up. For some time it left me open to the slur that I was not a writer, “only” a journalist, and that view was reinforced by the book reviewing I began to do for periodicals.
It’s true that, if one thinks of book reviewers and editors as predators, and writers as prey, I’ve been both hunter and hunted. But, as far as editing is concerned, I have often longed to be in the hands of a good editor — someone like me! For a while I worried that reviewing would sap my creative work, but in fact the activities are complementary. Reviewing had a further unfortunate political effect: it made me enemies, which did no good in advancing my career. The fear of being ostracized prevents many people from reviewing honestly, or reviewing at all. It’s as if they follow the moth-eaten piece of advice, “If you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Consequently, Canadian literature is starved of productive dialogue between readers and writers.
Working in various literary genres has had a peculiar effect on me. As soon as I’ve started working in one genre, I started to feel guilty about not doing something else.
One apparent oddity on my CV, by no means the only one, is my work on dictionaries. For some years I earned a minimum-wage living as a freelance, self-taught lexicographer, chiefly dealing with definitions. Apart from some cross-over with creative work, editing and writing definitions has had its obsessive-compulsive satisfactions.
As to your main questions.
General observations first. I think that, if anything, people, especially young people, are reading more, thanks to the personal computer and the Web. There’s so much to read, not just in print, but on-screen. Are people reading differently? Yes, I think they are. When we get what we read in small quick bites, or bytes, it’s likely to make attention deficit disorder near-universal.
There seem to me three stages in our coming to terms with facts, ideas, sounds, and images: information, knowledge, and wisdom. We may be halted at the first or second stage; we are fortunate indeed if we reach the third. Information floods us with data, and the Internet, including e-mail and the Web, is a source of it unparalleled in the history of human culture. Knowledge is more difficult: it must refine, organize, and synthesize all that data. Wisdom is the ultimate synthesis, not so much conscious as intuitive.
It’s just as hard as ever to be a writer: to make something fresh, something good. And it’s just as hard as ever to find wisdom.
Now, specifics, which I think apply not just to the Canadian literary landscape but to English-language literature generally, and not just in my lifetime but for at least the past hundred years. The rise to cultural prominence of nonfiction at the expense of imaginative forms like poetry and fiction. The rise of critical theory at the expense of practical criticism and creative practice. The rise of fiction at the expense of poetry. Just think of all the people who started out as poets, then switched most of their energies to fiction: Atwood, Ondaatje, Urquhart, Michaels — to name a few. Even as recently as the time I started to publish poems, people did “eagerly await” — to use that fond promotional cliché — a new Canadian collection by, let’s say, Earle Birney or John Newlove. That doesn’t happen anymore. Poets stopped being culture heroes.
Different poems give us “the tenderness of rain,” “the warm, consoling air,” even as a city is a “wound,” and technology only seems to allow for halfway connections at best, as in a poem like “Phoning.” Is it wrong to assume from your poems you simply find it too unnatural a world?
If so, I have lots of company, because the intrusion of the machine into the human and the natural world has been a theme of poetry ever since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The nightmare sense of being taken over by machines and, as its extension, by technology. Sometimes it even seems that technology, to go even further than McLuhan suggested, has substituted itself for our nervous systems.
Unnatural or not, it’s the world we live in. Like everyone else, I use its tools. Maybe its tools use me.
About traditionally defined “nature”, as in “nature poetry”, I don’t think I’m particularly complacent. A rural childhood ensured that I would regard nature as much as an adversary as a friend.
At times, your attention has been caught on specific things in a concentrated way, writing Jonestown (a book length poem) or a biography of Edward Lacey. Are there advantages and disadvantages to this? Is there a particular way a writer should live their life?
These obsessional binges are troubling, because they can take such a big chunk out of one’s life: Jonestown took the better or worse part of 15 years to complete; the Lacey biography eight, and counting. The fear that all that work would exclude doing something more productive or rewarding, or in the end come to naught. The worry that one would drown in details, and never see the big picture.
I can’t advise anyone. It’s all very well to think that artistic work is a process, not a product. But that can put it on par with an avocation or recreation, like jogging or coin-collecting. Or on par with some kind of psychotherapy. The idea of poetry-writing as therapy is especially seductive: if you’re writing a poem and it’s going well there’s no better feeling in the world.
Certainly, being a poet is a way of life. But without a product, is process enough? I sometimes take comfort from a line of Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking”: “I learn by going where I have to go.”
Some of your poems, such as “Old N.S.” strike me as distinctly Canadian. Are there consistent qualities in Canadian poetry that you see, or that you’d rather not see?
Yes, I think there are consistent qualities in Canadian poetry, though I’d be loath to list them in the way Atwood does in Survival, the most misleading thematic summary ever perpetrated against a gullible public. But I’d go along with her typology sufficiently to say that I’d like to see far fewer animal victims.
You’re a member of PEN Canada. What drives your special interest in immigrant and exiled writers?
Since I’ve long regarded myself as an internal exile, it was natural to interest myself in real exiles. It was also natural to find in immigrants the diverseness that has always held such appeal for me. It’s unfashionable, even politically incorrect, to find “the other” in foreigners or immigrants. To me, it’s lifeblood. Otherness to me doesn’t mean that the other is an exotic specimen to be dissected, exploited, or patronized. Connecting with the other is a way of connecting with the otherness within myself, a way of recognizing and validating difference. Ultimately, of course, we’re all human beings
Why do you consider yourself an internal exile?
Geographically, I’m a displaced, unreconstructed Nova Scotian farm boy. I kept returning home through adulthood, only to find I wasn’t at home. But I’m a Maritimer, and always will be. Given a Scottish Canadian background, one was expected to get an education and make good. Instead, I slowly, systematically set about making myself unemployable.
Socially, I started out as a writer as a card-carrying Canadian cultural nationalist, and started a literary magazine called Northern Journey. To some extent, I still am. But I have become increasingly disabused by the shape Canadian literature has taken since the 1970s and jaundiced by the group-think, beginning with naive boosterism, that has surrounded it and which has infected individual artistic works. An attitudinizing, knee-jerk liberalism. I’m an extreme free-speech libertarian: I don’t believe, for example, in legislation against “hate literature” — even though the term is often oxymoronic. I am, by most standards, a pretty liberal type, but I’m dismayed at how little independence and real dissent gets expressed. A reaction against it became a form of internal exile. I found that writers I met who came from other countries became a useful corrective.
Artistically, I’m also referring to the condition of internal exile that I think every good writer must have: a profound unease and discontent, a sense of rebellion and contrarianism that expresses itself not so much in political, as in psychological, terms. Somehow, a good writer has to work aslant to the existing order. For a writer to be popular, to win prizes, to be feted by the media — those to me are grounds for suspicion. If the trappings of public success, however welcome, began to descend on me I’d start to suspect myself.
Existentially, I think writers have to be moved by a certain dissatisfaction with the way things are. Even a poem in praise of life and the living implies that it’s necessary to add something to the sum of the world, that a step is being taken toward redemption or completion.
You have some deceptively simple titles, and yet in a poem like “Genocide,” you build to a powerful final line: “Like the beautiful, the kind, the talented, they too were butchered.” Should poetry always shape itself towards a climax?
Endings have always been difficult for me. It’s fatally easy for a poem to exhaust itself in a simplistic declaration, and I’ve too frequently been guilty of that offence. Yet I do think that a poem should shape itself in some subtle way toward a climax. In a fashion that a novel isn’t, a poem is, or should be, a self-contained world. It leads inward, not outward. In theory, a novel need never end. In War and Peace and Remembrance of Things Past one could, if one wanted to, just go on living with Tolstoy’s or Proust’s characters indefinitely. But a poem not only exists within a smaller frame, it brings itself to a definite close, even if the closing takes the form of an ellipsis. Something has to bring it to an end.
In your poem “Sofian Episode,” we find “our hero goes to wait for nothing in front of the hotel.” In “Bones,” we’re told to “kiss the lovely mask.” There is a sense of mortality, and struggle against futility and various forms of loss in some of your poems. Can poetry defeat anything?
I immediately think of Auden’s famous statement in his flawed but wonderful “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” that “… poetry makes nothing happen: it survives /In the valley of its making.”Actually, I think that poetry, like any other act or utterance, can make things happen. But I think that, at its lyrical core, poetry is ontological: it speaks of being.
Naturally, poetry can’t defeat ongoing ignorance, repetitive wrongdoing, physical deterioration, or personal extinction. But to say a few meaningful words about being in the world in the face of infinity and eternity — well, that’s something.