Johanna Skibsrud recently published a novel, The Sentimentalists, with Gaspereau Press. Her debut poetry collection, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys (Gaspereau) was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award. A second poetry collection is forthcoming in Spring 2010. Originally from Meadowville, Nova Scotia, Johanna currently lives in Montreal.
Alessandro Porco interviewed Johanna Skibsrud in December, 2009
So, I’d like to start with a comment made near the end of your Late Nights with Wild Cowboys, in the poem “Jawbone.” You express real fear and anxiety over the prospect of having your life and love be objectified, turned into summary, a bowdlerized rendering that “[leaves] nearly everything out.” More than that, though, you are worried about how we ourselves are complicit in this sort of exclusionary act. I guess what I’d like to ask first, then, is: do you imagine poetry as a means of letting things in rather than keeping everything out? And what are you aiming to let in, exactly?
I really do think of poetry in that way, in terms of providing a space — an opening — in which it might be possible to say the things that are hard, and perhaps impossible, to say otherwise; in which to express that inarticulate feeling that you get sometimes — that wanting-to-burst. It’s frustrating to live in a body, and to have to use words all the time, but sometimes, I really do believe it, that inarticulate, bursting feeling — whether it comes from joy, or sadness, or anger, or something else entirely — can happen through poetry. Can actually be articulated that way. But often this articulation happens, I think, not through the actual words of the poem, but through the spaces — and I mean this both literally and figuratively — between the words. I used to write these long, skinny poems with only one or two words on every line, and even though I have tried to temper this impulse because it makes for a really awkward read, I think that in a way I’ve always trusted in — have wanted to let into my poetry in whatever way I can — what is not poem, not words. “Jawbone,” as the epigraph of the poem indicates, was inspired by Edward Trelawney’s comments about a fragment of Shelley’s bone, which I saw in the Keats house museum in Rome one summer: “I look at the lip that covered what it contained and I can bear it no longer.” I was struck by that comment, and by looking at that bone myself under glass in the museum, because I have always been troubled by that split between the body and the mind, between what is visible, solid and observable (words, bodies, bones), and what is invisible. It’s this same split that occurs, I think, between the words of a poem and the poem, and certainly it also occurs between the present moment and the future, or the past. Poems are, or can be, I think — the best ones — themselves invisible in the sense that they provide a space for that which is not “solid and observable”; a space for the “I can bear it no longer,” which is an emotion that is at once instantly recognizable and yet cannot be expressed — except by negatives. I was just this morning trying to go back and re-write a poem that I had written some time ago called “Crossing a Bridge in St. Catharine’s, Ontario,” where I imagine language like the “low strainers” in the river and everything else — that I “mean to say,” that I would say, that is, if I could, as well as what I just simply cannot or will never think to say — as the water that keeps rushing past, that of course gets snagged on words sometimes, but is never held there, and is certainly never the words themselves. It’s why in my poems I am often wishing to be, in one way or another, that which is not solid, and certainly not human. As in “Hopper Painting,” for example, where I say I would be instead of a woman, or a house, or a train, the “light on the slanted grass.” Poetry does, I think, provide a space in which we can become — in brief moments anyway — that “light”; it provides a space for thinking and for being in a really different way than what we ordinarily allow ourselves. I’m currently teaching a first year composition course and I tell my students who are intimidated by poetry to think of entering a poem as entering a different time zone, and I do, I think of it almost literally like that. When I notice, for instance, that I am reading a poem and either not appreciating it, or understanding it, I shift into what feels like a different gear, I slow down — not my reading pace, but my mind somehow — and then the poem really does begin to speak. It’s impossible to read a good poem as if it were just words. The slowing down is so necessary — because the “space” that a poem provides if entered in this way is also necessary, I think. Not so much even for what it offers in terms of the poet’s intended content, but as a space that is, both for the poet, and the reader, continuously new, and at once deeply personal, and, at the same time, utterly, almost literally, im-personal. There’s a wonderful quote from George Oppen where he says in a letter to his sister that poetry “has to be protean; the meaning must begin there…A poem has got to be written into the future.” I like this quote because it affords poetry — and that generative space of thinking that poetry provides — the power that I think it both has and deserves.
I’m glad you brought up your poem, “I’d be a Hopper Painting,” which is the first poem in the book’s first section, a section that is especially interested in “liking things not to end” and, as you note above, liking things — especially our selves — to be unrestricted: as you write in “The summer before you were born…”, “When: this and that thing, they say, are the way that things / are in this world, let it not be / entirely the case.” But to build on your answer above, you seem to locate this peculiar power of poetry to challenge the end and the boundary — whatever they may be (e.g. of the self) — in the pastoral, and accordingly heaven (the ultimate site of pastoral promise) comes up often. So my question is one that doesn’t come up often, at least in the discourse of Canadian poetry, but one I am compelled to ask you: Do you believe in heaven and the unending it affords one? And what of poetry vis a vis that heaven?
I really like how you have put that, the “power of poetry to challenge the end and the boundary,” and I do suppose that “heaven” does serve for me in some cases as an image of that challenge. I don’t believe in heaven in any traditional religious sense, and I categorically object to the notion of the after-life as a sort of reward-system. It’s a notion, I think, which too easily supports the inequalities and injustices that exist here on this planet, rather than offering any method of disrupting them. But I do think that “heaven” offers us a way of thinking past our heavy reliance on the “visible,” which can be so dangerous in its disregard — and to the extreme detriment of both — for the past and the future. I don’t think that any system that incorporates injustice in the way that our current economic system and the major world religions do is, or should be, satisfactory; there needs instead to be a space for challenging the status quo, for thinking change. “Heaven” — if wrested from the static, if, instead, like Oppen’s poems, “written into the future” — can be this challenge in that it provides some way of thinking past the “visible,” and therefore talking about the “ideal” not in a fixed or limited sense, which endlessly defers change, but in a way that, instead, has the potential to imagine and elicit it. All this said, however, in the first section of Late Nights, “heaven” — specifically named as such, anyway — only shows up in “The Suburban Dream Poems,” where it is used ironically. The speaker imagines it as: “a cul de sac, with trees,” as a “full-length folding chair,” and the promise of a pot-luck dinner. In other words, heaven is just what she has, or at least could very possibly have. If — that is — she was able to be content with that. So, as much as a quest for challenge, for change, “heaven,” I think, is also about appreciation and acceptance. And as much as an abstract religious notion of heaven may have served, or strived to serve, in the past to placate us into the acceptance of all sorts of injustices, even more disturbing is the contemporary “placating” promise of consumerism, which, on an even more massive scale, has us turning a blind-eye to injustice. The flip-side of any call for change in broad terms, therefore — but something that necessarily goes hand-in-hand with it — is the realization that we may, in our own lives, already have everything that we need — and perhaps even desire. It’s good, anyway, I think, to keep this possibility in mind.
I’d to shift gears here and turn attention to the title poem of the book, “Late Nights with Wild Cowboys”– and one of my favourites. It’s a difficult poem to describe, despite its narrative simplicity. The poem, ostensibly, is about two young women who decide to go west (Montana, Wyoming, Idaho); it begins in media res, with no explanation for the life-changing journey. The women share some experiences; they open a store. Eventually, one of the young women settles with a cowboy “wilder than the rest;” and the poem’s speaker goes her own way. What’s remarkable is how the poem, in the absence of psychological qualification or exposition, has the aura of storytelling so admired by Benjamin. And more, the story transcends, becoming almost mythic. Could you talk a little bit about the composition of the poem; what effects you were after? Also, why choose it as the title poem of the collection (a title that’s so suggestive) — it seems an odd choice, in part because the poem’s style/mode is, I think, somewhat anomalous within the collection.
That poem more than any of the others is, to me, about the transforming — as well as the limiting — power of the imagination, and so I am happy to hear you say that the story becomes “mythic” because that fantastical, imaginary element was precisely what I was after. Actually, the poem got my good friend Dorothy — who is the poem’s true-life inspiration — in a bit of trouble when her husband first read it. He wanted to know, quite seriously, what “really happened” on her trip to Idaho. She told him the truth, which is that every narrative element of that poem is made up. That she has never been to Idaho. The farthest Dorothy and I have ever travelled together is between Fredericton and Pictou County, Nova Scotia. I have never been to Montana, or Idaho — let alone to this poem’s “ultimate site of pastoral promise”: Wyoming. A lot of the poems in the book have to do with place, and about being homesick for something. This poem, to me, is about being homesick for the places that you haven’t been and that you maybe will never visit. That homesickness — for the imaginary — is, I think, the root of all homesickness in a way. I have always been troubled by the feeling that I cannot — either through experience, or through words — ever fully grasp hold of things, or experience them as deeply as I would like. This feeling pervades a lot of my poems, and is what impels me (and this is the drive of this poem, certainly, but also, I believe, of poems more generally) to constantly move forward in search for that thing that is always in the process of being lost, and, at the same time turning back toward it. My favourite line of the poem — it always makes me laugh — is, “God was in Montana. This is Idaho, my friend.” One time when I was reading this poem at a gathering in my home town, so it was this extremely congenial crowd — all of my grandmother’s friends were there — the audience laughed at that line and I thanked them, saying that I was so happy they found it funny because not everyone laughs, and to me it really is a very funny poem. They took that as a cue and proceeded to laugh through the whole rest of the poem, even at the really sad bits, like when the speaker’s horse dies. That wasn’t quite right either, because it’s definitely a sad poem, too. That realization: “even in Idaho…when I came home empty-bridled,” and the speakers’ almost compulsive longing, because of that, to keep moving rather than accepting that fact — to continue on, toward Wyoming, even though it means leaving her friend behind. “You might have been / happy, she said, so I / left her.” There is no definitive answer in the poem, or — as far as I have been able to tell yet — in life, as to whether that “happiness” that Dorothy speaks of in the poem resides more fully in pursuit of itself or in an ability to accept and appreciate the place where you have actually arrived. I am sure that it must be, as always, a combination of the two, but a balance is very hard to strike, and “Late Nights” is about that difficulty. Though its style is perhaps, as you suggest, anomalous within the collection, it speaks, I think, in this way to the collection as a whole. And as far as it being “suggestive,” it’s true, I guess. The title is “suggestive” of something that doesn’t actually materialize within the poem or within the collection. But to me that is exactly what the poem is about: that “suggestion,” the “mythologies” that we create for our lives where they — and in order for them to be able to — intersect with our desires. Also, I think it’s funny. Just as the characters in the poem do, you have to ask yourself: “What could actually have ‘materialized’ — in the story, or in the poem? What did I expect?”
Your poem “Thinking of Olaf in the woods behind the house” is another stunning work, Johanna, and unlike anything I’ve read in recent years in Canadian poetry. It is, in part, a meditation on the opacity upon which all human relationships are predicated, and you hypothesize a potential objective correlative for this at the poem’s very start: “The trees are all standing more or less as I stand, so who’s to say / that they, however still, are not now roaming about, within themselves.” The line playfully hinges upon the ambivalence of “still,” which connotes both a movement (i.e. a continuation) and a stasis (i.e. standing still). The name “Olaf” is just that, a name, which, for the speaker, conceals as much as it reveals anything. I’d like for you to talk a little about the poem, but in particular consider the following: that the poem is one of many in the book that strikes a remarkably meditative / philosophical tone. The poem quite literally charts a thought process, with “expansive leaps,” interrogations, negations, abstractions, etc. What draws you to this mode of poetry?
I’m so glad that you like that poem. It’s one of my favourites in the collection. I did attempt in that poem to capture the process of the poem’s thinking, which is again so much about that tension between the visible — the static, known — and the invisible — what is constantly in progress — unknown, and perhaps unknowable. The poem wonders: how does thinking necessarily include at every step both that known and that unknown? How is the voice of the speaker of a poem included, at every step, in the speaker herself? In the poem? It’s just incredible to me, to think about the amount of energy there is in the world — all of the invisible worlds contained in each and every human being, as well as, as the poem suggests, or imagines, in each and every living thing. And it’s such a puzzle. To contain so much that is invisible — that is sometimes barely felt — and yet still be continually represented “objectively” by a body, the same one each day, and by the limited amount of things that you are able to actually say, or even imagine. The character of “Glad Olaf” in the poem is similarly both imaginary and real. He is on the one hand the E.E. Cummings’ creation from “i sing of Olaf glad and big” — a poem that, incidentally, shows up again as the epigram to my new novel — and he is my father, Olaf Skibsrud. In this way, “Olaf” in the poem serves as a figure for that ungraspable, imaginary element that is essential to all of our relationships and lives: “When Glad Olaf — where is he? / Halfway across the field. I didn’t know him.” It is, of course, both the literally imagined “Glad Olaf” (“whose warmest heart recoiled at war / a conscientious object-or”) that, in the poem, “I didn’t and can never know” and the man himself, my father — who was, while he was alive, very “real” to me indeed. The poem, yes, wants to speak to — and hopes to speak past — the limitations, the “opacity,” of human relationships. Not just the relationships we have with other human beings (that sadness that the speaker specifically expresses, of desiring — of feeling it possible and then ultimately not being unable — to: “pause . . . and pick them up, / my own self up, / and give — that thing I am — / to you”) but that we have to the world, and to thinking about the world. I am drawn, I suppose, to reading and writing meditative/philosophic poetry because for me, poetry — again, both the reading of it and the writing of it — is how I do my best thinking. It’s a thinking that does not necessarily need to, and often cannot, separate itself from a feeling — as well as the other way around. In the same way it’s often an intensely personal experience that does not need to, and often cannot, separate itself from the world. In a way, the poem itself is another “tree” — another object, that is, that contains more than its form (the literal words on the page) is able to suggest from the outside; one that may appear to be motionless but is endlessly, like the speaker, “roaming about, within [itself]”– so that if you are able to actually climb inside it, if a poem actually makes room for you that way, than poetry really does begin to offer, I think, a way to “leap up and run” away, outside yourself. A way to experience and explore the “invisible” alongside of, and as it intersects with, the “visible,” and in that way allow us to become, for a while at least, more than we are otherwise — or than we assume ourselves to be.
So, you did bring up that you have a new novel out, The Sentimentalists, published by Gaspereau. Does the novel pick up on some of the concerns and ideas in Late Night with Wild Cowboys? If so, how does the formal treatment of such concerns/ideas via the novel change or alter things?
Yes, certainly some of the main concerns of Late Nights come up again in The Sentimentalists. The novel is about family, about memory, about the difficulty of understanding the stories of our own lives and the lives of the people that we love — and these are all themes that continuously emerge through my poetry as well, particularly those poems included in the Late Nights collection. But whereas poetry allows me to explore and incorporate the process of thinking about and experiencing those memories, that difficulty, the novel allows me to explore the way in which different stories, both real and imagined, intersect. One of several stories that gets woven into The Sentimentalists is the story of a small Ontario town that was flooded by a hydro-electric dam in the 1950s. Fifty years later, the three main characters of the novel, who are brought together in the “government-built” lake-house that overlooks the “original” buried town below, can still see from their kitchen window the sticks that mark the foundations of the old houses along the edges of the lake, as well as “the disappearing road” and the steeple of an old church jutting out of the water, which could not be moved. In this way, the book concerns itself with those same intersections of the “visible” and “invisible” that I have been talking about so much here in terms of poetry — and this is an idea that connects the other stories of the book as well, and culminates in the story that lies at the centre of the book: the uncovering of repressed memory due to war trauma. The sections of the book that are set in Vietnam and told from the perspective of a young American soldier are based on the stories that father told me of his own experiences during that war and I’ve included, in the epilogue, an excerpt of the original transcript of my father’s testimony in a court martial proceeding that followed a controversial operation that sparked — based on reports made by my father — a three-year investigation. The intersection of fact and fiction is taken (often far too much, I think) for granted in poetry, but when it comes to fiction we seem to try to keep them as separate as we can — or we attempt, at least, to nail down the point at which the border of one ends and the other begins, imagining that this is possible. It isn’t possible in The Sentimentalists, and I don’t think it really ever is. I think instead it is important to remember, and to explore, the manner in which both fact and fiction are always indissociable in literature, and in our experience as human beings. It’s forgetting this, I think that has led in the past — and continues to lead — to a lot of very big misunderstandings.