Northern Poetry Review: Archived

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Interview: Carmine Starnino (2006)

Carmine Starnino has published Carminethree 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.


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Interview: Robin McGrath (2010)

Born in Newfoundland in 1949, McGrathjust prior to Confederation, Robin McGrath has had a diverse and prolific career as a writer. She earned a PhD from the University of Western Ontario in 1983 and her first publications were scholarly works on Canadian Inuit literature. By the 1990s, she began publishing fiction and poetry, with Trouble and Desire, a collection of short fiction, in 1995, and Escaped Domestics, a collection of poetry, in 1998. But in the first decade of the 21st century the floodgates really opened for her creatively via Donovan’s Station (novel, 2002), Covenant of Salt (poetry, 2005), and Winterhouse (novel, 2009). As well, she published two collections of folklore from “the Rock”: Nursery Rhymes of Newfoundland and Labrador (2004) and All In Together: Rhymes, Ditties, and Jingles of Newfoundland and Labrador (2009). She has also written young adult novels, the most recent being Livyers World in 2007. On top of this, McGrath has published several works on the province’s history and culture, including Salt Fish and Schmattes: A History of the Jews of Newfoundland and Labrador from 1760 (2006). Coasting Trade, a poetic performance piece, was released as a CD in 2006. Currently, she lives with her husband in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador.

As a telling note to this brief bio., I feel I ought to relate the following: Recently, I was looking for her books at a second-hand bookstore in downtown St. John’s and I wasn’t having much luck, even though the store’s shelves were crammed tight. When I asked the shop-keeper if he happened to have any McGrath titles around, he answered, “No. People tend to hold onto her books.” It seems to me that’s one of the finest compliments a writer can receive.

Jacob Bachinger interviewed Robin McGrath via email in the autumn of 2010.


You’ve been publishing prolifically for the past ten years, with some years seeing two new McGrath titles.   Has “the Muse” been beating you with an inspiration stick?  

I always thought every writer had an inexhaustible flood of idea and the only thing stopping them was the lack of time to get it all down on paper, but recently I’ve felt the water diminishing.  The ideas are still there but I don’t seem as driven to realize them as I was.  It’s not writer’s block, exactly.  I think it’s related to my moving to Labrador four years ago.  I’ve finished all the things I started before I arrived here but I’m not really ready to start writing from this new place. Labrador is a different country, particularly Central Labrador where I live.  It’s a trapping culture, not a fishing culture.  It’s more like the Yukon than the Avalon. I’ve just finished reading Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, which is set in Central Labrador, and what she knows about trapping you could fit in your eye.  She doesn’t even know the difference between babitch and sinew.  I don’t care how many books she sells, I don’t want to write like that.

In the introduction to All In Together, you write about how so many people that you knew as a child “believed in decorating even the most common exchanges with ditties, fragments of verse, limericks, parodies, riddles, counting games, and catch phrases.”  Do you think that’s particular to Newfoundland and Labrador?  Did those decorations help to make you a poet?  

I don’t think of poetry as “decoration.”  I think I take it more seriously than that.  But perhaps it demystified the genre for me.  As a teacher, I found that a lot of students were intimidated by the idea of poetry–afraid they wouldn’t or couldn’t understand it.  I never worried about that.  If people are quoting Wordsworth or Shakespeare at you all the time, in a context, you eventually figure out what they mean by it.  I think what the rhymes did was show me how narrative and even fairly complex abstract ideas can be boiled down into a compact form.

I think that perhaps oral rhymes and word games are more popular in Newfoundland than elsewhere in North America.  When I was growing up, I met lots of intelligent people who couldn’t read or write, and even today we still have the highest rate of illiteracy in the country.  In a place like that, oral poetry can flourish. I read somewhere once that Newfoundlanders have a greater active vocabulary than people in other parts of the country–we know and use 30% more words than CFAs [Come-From-Aways], and of course many of those words were invented by us, which is why we need our own dictionary.  I’ve heard it said that Inuit “speak” poetry.  I think Newfoundlanders do too.  You just have to listen to a really lively conversation between two locals in a bar or down on the wharf and you will hear poetry, not all of it in rhyme.

You’ve collected a number of nursery rhymes in particular.  I can’t help but wonder if that’s something disappearing from the lives of children today.  Do you think children still receive rhymes and ditties? 

I’ve collected plenty of rhymes from children, so I can’t say they are disappearing from their lives, but I do think there was a fracturing of the tradition at around the time televisions became universal, in the late 1950s. It’s like alleys, what you might call marbles.  When I was a kid, everyone owned alleys, and played a variety of games with them.  They are still widely available in any dollar store you go into and I expect alleys can be found in just about every household in North America, but I don’t see kids playing with them.  They are used for flower arrangements or something.  I saw some the other day on someone’s dining room table, and they were for bazzing at moose in the vegetable garden.  Sooner or later, though, some kid is going to figure out a new game for them and we’ll see kids playing alleys again. Parents and teachers assure me that kids invent and quote plenty of rhymes, but they are ruder than they used to be.  I doubt that—we knew plenty of rude ones.  If there’s a gap, it’s in the dissemination of more classical rhymes and poems.  Nobody is learning the type of verse you used to find in the old Royal Readers.

In the early stage of your career, you focused on scholarly studies of Canadian Inuit literature.  Does Inuit literature have an influence on your poetry?

It certainly gave me an appreciation for orality, which most likely led to my rhyme collecting, and it definitely led me to see humour as an important element of poetry.  Inuit use humour to sharpen even the most serious subject.  Death, despair, impotence, starvation, are all subjects Inuit poets deal with, and there’s always a touch of wit or self-deprecation there.  I think I would have been afraid to bring the ridiculous to my observations of the sublime if it hadn’t been for my familiarity with so many brilliant Inuit poets.

A theme in Escaped Domestics, which is further developed in Covenant of Salt, is the connection between Jewish traditions and Newfoundland traditions. Could you tell me more about this? 

Most people see Newfoundland and Labrador society as homogenous, and I’ve read that in textbooks too, that we’re all white Irish.  That simply isn’t true.  We have aboriginal heritage, Jewish and Lebanese ancestors, Italian and Norwegian, some Chinese.  It’s true there aren’t a lot of black people in our family trees, but there’s plenty of French, Welsh, you name it.  In my own case, my connections are Jewish so that’s what emerges in my work.  Newfoundland and Labrador is an overwhelmingly Christian society, but of course the old Testament is incorporated into Christianity so you might say I focus on the older elements of the tradition.

We’ve talked of traditions that have had an influence on your work, but what about individual poets?  Whose work is important to you? 

I grew up with significant exposure to the 18th and 19th and early twentieth century poets–the usual stuff found in most anthologies or undergraduate courses–Pope, Wordsworth, Blake, Browning, Yeats and so on.  I was made to memorize reams of their stuff.  I liked it then and I still do.  But I think I’ve been more directly influenced by modern Canadian poets–A.M. Klein, Pat Lane, Alden Nolan, and Al Purdy.  Particularly Purdy.  We were good friends, and it was Al who made me write things down instead of talking out my stories and poems.  He used to clap his hand over my mouth when I got launched on something that obviously deserved more writerly attention and he’d say “send it to me in the mail.”  So I did, and that’s how I started to make the transition from academic to creative writing. The Newfoundland poets that I admire and go back to are the late Irving Fogwell, and more recently Mary Dalton, Don Austen, Agnes Walsh, and Tom Dawe.  I think Carmelita McGrath (who is not related to me, though we come from the same part of the island) is greatly underrated. Like me, she writes in a variety of genres, which may account for that.  Perhaps people see us as dabblers.  We aren’t.

You’ve said that you feel your poetry is your most successful work.  Do you still feel that way, especially now that you’ve had a few novels behind you? How do you define that success? 

I don’t remember having said that but perhaps I did.  I probably meant my most “satisfying” work rather than successful. I’ve won some awards and sold some books and reviewers have been kind, but I’m hardly a popular success.  However, I do feel that my poetry has legs.  I don’t go back and reread my own novels or histories unless I have to for some reason, but I still like some of the poetry I’ve written and I enjoy reading it to an audience.  I dislike reading from my fiction and non-fiction, but I actually look forward to poetry readings because I can feel the approval coming from the listeners.  They laugh, they nod. I often get spontaneous applause, so I know other people are getting what I’ve done.  I’m no intellectual, despite my academic success, so my poetry is accessible.  Ordinary people understand me.  It would be terrible if all poets were like that, but there’s room for a few of us mere mortals.  I’d love to be like Mary Dalton.  Some of her stuff is so hard you could break your teeth on it, but she can also write poems that your average fishplant worker can understand and appreciate.

I have some trouble believing that the water is diminishing for you. May I ask what you’re working on now?

I’ve spent much of the last six months working on Hammered by the Waves, my late father’s translation of Henri de la Chaume’s travel journals. It’s in the book stores now, though it hasn’t been formally launched, so I’ve only just got clear of that and I haven’t started on a new book yet. I have an idea for a novel set in St. John’s in 1959, but it needs more thought and a lot more research, so I don’t know if it will happen or not. In the meantime, I plan to spend much of the winter working on my press. I have a Vandercook SL15 letterset galley press, on which I can set type and print linocuts. I’ve just finished a series of 18 linocuts for an exhibition, so now I’d like to do more text printing. I find typesetting concentrates my mind. Some of the fonts I have are fairly limited, and I find myself thinking “does this line really need all those vowels?” or “why do I need to include the word zombie when I’ve just run out of the letter zed?” I have a theory that if poets had to typeset all their work by hand, they would write a lot less and the poems might be better. Ask me at the end of the winter if that’s true.

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Interview: Suzanne Buffam (2010)

Suzanne Buffam was buffamborn and raised in Canada. Her previous collection of poetry, Past Imperfect, was published by House of Anansi Press, and won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for the best first book of poetry published in Canada that year. She lives in Chicago, and teaches at the University of Chicago. Her new poetry title this year is The Irrationalist.

Alessandro Porco interviewed Suzanne Buffam in August, 2010.


Hi, Suzanne. I’d like to kick off the interview by asking about the book’s title. In the poem “Trying” you provide a gloss on one source for the book’s title: in his Poetics, Aristotle says that “it is exclusively the irrational upon which the wonderful depends for its chief effects.” But it seems there’s something else at work in your own take on the irrational: rather than a condition of exceptionalism, the irrational, as it plays out in your own poems, is kind of ordinary. Could you maybe talk about the title more, and that interplay between poetry, irrationalism, and the ordinary?

Well, I do think Aristotle’s onto something when he points out the uneasy relationship between the faculties of reason and wonder. I just happen to find ordinary things like streetlights and clouds no less wonderful than exceptional things like killing your father and sleeping with your mother. While everything may ultimately boil down to some single, elegant, mathematical equation, there still seems to be an excess of mystery in the universe that can’t be accounted for by reason alone. Poetry, as I see it, is a way of exploring this excess.

As for the title, I’ve been struck by how many reviews so far have pointed to that quote from Aristotle as providing a key to the book’s general stance. It’s understandable, I suppose, given the title, but at the same time I hope to write poems that don’t resolve into paraphrasable maxims. There are lots of quotes from various folks in the book, some quite contradictory with one another, and the book’s title, as I envision it, gives me license to hold conflicting views at once without worrying about whether or not they resolve into any coherent philosophy.

You’re totally right that the book cannot be contained by that single quote — in fact, that’s what motivated my question, as you’re poems continually resist pathologizing the irrational in a way that’s, well, inevitable in Aristotle’s structuralism. So what’s interesting is precisely your swerve away from Aristotle’s definition. Having said that, I do want to push the idea of the ordinary and everyday a little more, but talk about those ideas in terms of form and genre — in particular, the anecdote, which you seem to be the master of inserting at just the right moment and of making matter in unexpected ways. For example, there’s the little tale of Harriet Beecher “on the Tunisian front” in the poem “Placebo”; or, in “Trying”, talk of Schopenhauer’s walks. Can you talk a little about this aspect of your work?

Thank you for swerving away from Aristotle’s structuralism. I’m much more comfortable talking about “the ordinary.” As for anecdotes, I tend to read in a pretty erratic way — say, a book about heaven one week, a book about the concept of zero another—and often what catch my eye and stick in my memory are stories like the ones you mention above. There’s something about little snippets of individual lives –especially the lives of famous or eccentric individuals (lives that otherwise seem so remote) — that contain the texture of lived experience and embody a feeling in a way that no abstract formulation could ever achieve. When I come across something I’m drawn to, even if I don’t know why (and often I don’t), I’ll write it down and carry it around in my notebook until I find the right home for it. This sometimes takes years. The anecdote about Henry Beecher (a distant relative of Harriet’s, as a matter of fact) came from an exhibit I saw about pain at an art gallery in Berlin several years ago. I had no idea where or if or how I’d ever use it, but I found it extremely suggestive, and one day when I was reading William James’ The Will to Believe something clicked and the rest of the poem, “Placebo,” began to constellate. Recently at a reading I gave in Ontario, a woman in the audience pointed out that the poems in my first book are more rich in images than my new poems (and therefore, in her opinion, superior!), and I think she’s probably right — about the images, at any rate. To some extent, it seems that here anecdotes may have replaced images — but perhaps work in similar ways. It may simply boil down to that fundamental principal, “show don’t tell,” that writing teachers are always hammering down. Stories are a way of showing — even when you’re not exactly sure what it is you’re being shown.

Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say a more rich imagery in Past Imperfect automatically renders it superior to The Irrationalist (with all due respect to said audience member). I find the latter— image rich or not— far more compelling than the former, for what it’s worth. Maybe, as you say, anecdotes have replaced images, but I actually think it’s something else: a more cerebral wit (which isn’t to say passionless) takes hold in The Irrationalist, especially in a sequence like “Little Commentaries.” I think that’s the quality I most admire in the collection. Would you agree? And could you talk about “Little Commentaries” a little.

Thanks, Alex. That’s nice of you to say. I don’t feel able to judge the quality of wit in these poems myself, but I’m happy to talk a little about them in practical terms. I wrote them over the course of a few months, usually several a day, on a sort of sabbatical in Mexico, after a long dry spell of not writing much at all. The title had been on my mind for several years — copped from the title of Copernicus’ radical little pamphlet, Commentariolus, a model of intellectual compression in which he lays out an early version of his heliocentric theory of the universe in about forty hand-stitched pages, passed around among his friends. Basically, the aim of this sequence was to compose the most compact, and most surprising, poems possible on a range of topics so vast and various as to demonstrate that, as Copernicus’ theory makes plain, “there is no one center of the universe.”

I’d like to shift gears a little. The Irrationalist is published in American and Canadian editions: the former with Canarium books, the latter with Anansi. There are some textual variations — not in the poems themselves but in the overall presentation (e.g. blurbs, notes). Most notably, each edition has a unique cover. Could you talk about your decision to publish the two editions? I’m especially fascinated by the cover images, each framing one’s reading of the book in a different way.

The decision to publish two editions was based on the fact that I’ve been living in the U.S. for going on seven years now — and therefore feel myself increasingly engaged with the literary community here — and / but still feel very much invested in literary life in Canada as well (I grew up in Vancouver, studied in Victoria and Montreal, and lived for a while in Nova Scotia as well). Unfortunately, unless you are very famous, like, say, Anne Carson or Margaret Atwood, and in spite of considerable in-roads made possible by the internet, the border between the two cultures remains fairly impermeable. This may in part be due to a sort of provincialism that applies on both sides of the border — but I think as likely results from the sheer abundance of presses, large and small, that are publishing poetry these days, and thus the near impossibility of getting one’s bearings in a literary landscape outside of one’s own. My first book, for example — published exclusively by Anansi — received a wide readership and generous reviews in Canada, but was really only read down here by friends or friends of friends. This time around I’ve been lucky to retain my relationship with Anansi — a press I love and respect — while forging a new relationship with an exciting new press, Canarium Books, down here in the States. The two editions contain a number of minor variations — as you point out, there are notes in the Canadian version, and none in the American; the blurbs are different; internal layout is different; there is even one extra poem in the Canarium version; and, of course, the covers are so different they must necessarily inform somewhat different readings of the work inside. Having put the book together from the inside out, though, it’s very hard for me to gage just what these differences might amount to. As much as packaging is important, though, my long-range image of the book consists of torn scraps discovered in the belly of a moose.

Well, thank you, Suzanne, for answering questions about The Irrationalist. To end the interview, I was hoping you could talk a little more about your time living and learning in the United States, as a Canadian — you are, of course, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and currently you teach at the University of Chicago. A few years ago, on a conference panel, I suggested that much Canadian poetry is, in part, produced by way of American institutions, a fact that debunks (or at least upsets) nationalist arguments in favor of a distinctly Canadian aesthetic or phenomenology. (Naturally, the idea wasn’t warmly received — at least not by Canadians, anyway.) But I think your work is a good case-study for what I was describing. Any thoughts? And thanks again for your generous answers!

Well, Emily Dickinson was an American poet who read almost exclusively British writers: Keats, Shakespeare, The King James Bible . . . Did this make her any less American?

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Interview: Matthew Tierney (2010)

Matthew Tierney’s second Tierneybook, The Hayflick Limit, came out with Coach House Books in spring 2009. He is a recipient of the K.M. Hunter Award for Literature, and won 1st and 2nd place in This Magazine’s 2005 Great Canadian Literary Hunt. His poems have appeared in journals and magazines across Canada, including Maisonneuve, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead and Eye Weekly, among others. He lives in Toronto.

Alex Boyd interviewed Matthew Tierney in early 2010.

I love lines like “life forms engulfed in never enough.” Can you elaborate on your interest in science, and including elements of it in your poems?

Science is a way of knowing the world. Einstein said something like “What’s most incomprehensible about the universe is its comprehensibility.” It blows my mind that I can pick up a book and within hours get a rough-and-ready outline from the big bang on. If you actually read the book, you learn even more.

I could be a pedant and say that we all include elements of science in our poems. It’s the awareness of laws of nature that I’m after, awareness or awe-ness, and juggling that information while doing what we poets do –observe.

However, the intersection of science and poetry is fraught with laddered steps and potential hairline fractures. It’s tempting to slap some jargon onto the exterior and expect to get away with it because, let’s face it, the typical poetry reader looks back on science class with a fondness reserved for embarrassing sexual encounters.

Nobody wants to go back to high school, of course. But who has time to get a B.Sc.? At some point I have to make a call whether or not I’m confident in my comprehension of a concept. Niels Bohr once remarked that if you’re not dizzied by quantum mechanics, then you haven’t understood it. I take this as a point of reference for all my research. Once I’m sufficiently dizzy, I go with it.

You write about both chess and hockey, one a very mental and the other a very physical activity. What compels you to write these, and where are you exactly, on the scale between an interior mental life and a more outward physical one?

As I age, I’m discovering a rich interior life where I imagine in great detail all the physical things I was once capable of.

Chess and hockey are both big parts of my life. There’s an intuition to both that emerges with years of play: a gut feeling for the right move at time t based on similarly experienced scenarios buried in neural paths. So there’s that.

Another thing: it’s similar to what the writer brings to bear on the poem: this shortcut to brainpower, taking full advantage of an emotional IQ Vulcans seems to regard as superfluous. Coupled with higher cortical reasoning, it’s a full-court press on existence.

We consider our brains our defining feature, even endowing us with grace, or at least significance. But then in 1997, about 100,000 years into full-fledged modern specieshood and feeling pretty good about ourselves, along comes Deep Blue to hand Gary Kasparov his knickers on the battlefield. What is intelligence? It’s a question that intrigues me.

One thing I can say with certainty: A.I. may best us at chess and even write more poems, but it’ll never produce a better hockey player.

“Sedna with the Long Black Hair” is a poem about science class when you were a kid, combining lines about telescopes and microwaves with lines as organic-sounding as “Back then, new discoveries were apples in the orchard.” What’s your feeling about our relationship to technology these days?


Technology is understood by only a few, and that includes really old technology, like agriculture, and really old people, like Larry King. As for modern hi-tech, we’re most of us end-users of heavily marketed electronic devices, med-sci formulations, large-scale machinery, nuclear anything.

This makes it a very lopsided proposition. Technology helps us gain incredible insights into the universe, but because it mediates just about every facet of our lives, as individuals we relinquish some control. As a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer (I’m not really, just hypothesizing), I might be clueless about the big picture, but I’d have a firmer grasp on my day-to-day.

Technological change is exponential. Stone tools survived for hundreds of generations without much variation. Today nanotech bends light waves around invisibility cloaks and tomorrow it’ll turn us all into grey goo.

“A Flash of Merriment” is interesting for having no central image. Is it fair to say your poems want to capture activity that’s more peripheral than central?

I love the energy of language, how it bounces around your head like a superball. Love too the singular image that makes your backbone slide. If “Flash” seesaws one way more than the other, it’s an accident of birth not intelligent design.

It might be fair to say this poem mildly resists the imagist’s “economy of language,” which tends to go glove / hand with a sharp focus on things. It’s arguable whether in such a short poem that’s a good, er, thing; but it may manifest as “peripheral activity,” which is certainly a trend in my new work. I’m pushing away from “less is more” because it doesn’t approximate my interaction with a universe that delivers such varied, mind-shuddering kicks; to pretend otherwise is to idealize my experience in a way that I find specious.

Maybe I’m just in an impatient, cranky phase. But I’m coming to love a tense, maximalist line where accidents of process are made conspicuous.

There’s an impressive video for your poem “Parelasiphobia: Fear of Parades.” What do you think of this trend, does it enhance poetry or is it an absurd but necessary promotional device?

Somewhat absurd though I’m keen on absurdity, and surely not necessary. Poems exist unreliant on anything outside the poem, unlike a script or song lyric, and thus they take on other elements, like music or image, reluctantly. Which makes the good trailer’s existence alone rare and wonderful — the platypus of the poetry phylum. (Thanks to Evan Munday, Coach House publicist extraordinaire, for “Parades.”)

“Standard & Poor’s” is a remarkable prose poem. What do you think makes a poet choose that particular format?

Ha, you might have me there. I should probably say that the poem’s content demands its form, but I’m not sure how to articulate the thought process that goes into the choosing.

Certainly a prose poem triggers different expectations in the reader. There’s illusion involved with those unaltered margins, and (I’m spitballing here) maybe the challenge and compulsion of the prose poem is in part misdirection, a sleight-of-hand. Bunny meet hat. But then you have to get the poetry to come out on cue.

If someone accused me of writing extremely short stories, I wouldn’t be too bothered. I’ve always believed the extremely short story to operate as poetry.

Have I sufficiently dodged the question?

Your poem “Optic Nerve” ends “Topside, empty coffee cups / in fists, like white-lipped howls. / The lightless figures behind them.” Do you see people as a trifle helpless? Do you need a hug?

Free will is an illusion, so yes, we’re helpless. God, do I need a hug.

What’s next for you?

You mean I have to wait for that hug?

I’m writing poems for the next manuscript; they deal with time, specifically the physics of time and time travel.

Time travel (just mistyped a groaningly apposite “tome travel”) is a recognizable fault line in contemporary pop culture, sectioning off entire provinces of movies and literature, a prefab plot device that everyone indulges in, on a personal level, each Monday a.m. I hope to exploit this popularity in some as-yet unvisited future.

I wonder (out loud) if the flow of time impels the lyric poem, and if said poem attempts to apply friction against it. A friend of mine suggested there’s an innate mournfulness to the lyric; maybe it’s so because the poem is fighting an unwinnable battle. Only a pedant would say its failure is unqualified.

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Interview: Jim Johnstone (2009)

Jim Johnstone obtained jim johnstonehis MSc in Reproductive Physiology from the University of Toronto, where he is currently a doctoral candidate. He is a two-time winner of the E. J. Pratt Medal and Prize in Poetry, the recipient of a 2008 CBC Literary Award and his work has been broadcast on CBC Radio’s Between the Covers and published in Canadian periodicals such as The Fiddlehead, Grain and PRISM International. Guernica Editions published his first book of poetry, The Velocity of Escape, in 2008. Currently he edits Misunderstandings Magazine, a literary journal he co-founded with Ian Williams and Vicki Sloot. 

Alex Boyd interviewed Jim Johnstone in summer, 2009. 

Your poem “Lines of Communication” would seem to suggest a mistrust of technology (a “dialtone snakes out”), or am I reading that the right way?

Mistrust of technology is certainly an interpretation of “Lines of Communication.” More specifically I’m interested in how technology has altered communication, and by proxy social constructs. My trust issues are deeply routed; one of the unifying themes in The Velocity of Escape is the unreliability of language, regardless of how it’s relayed.

The poem “Conjoined Dreams,” is a strangely beautiful one, but also appears to be proof poetry doesn’t need to be based on personal experience. How do these kinds of poems come about for you?

“Conjoined Dreams” isn’t autobiographical, but it does contain elements of personal experience. The Siamese poems in The Velocity of Escape are an extended metaphor for my relationship with my brother, and how time and space pull family apart. Despite the fact that my brother and I were never physically attached, we were rarely separate as children.

There’s a great deal of physicality in your poems — references to skin, or lips, or white blood cells. Can you elaborate on what compels you to include these details?

I feel a strong sense of ownership over my own physicality. One of the reasons I chose to become a Physiologist was my inability to focus outside of my own corporeal environment. After a while I thought of my body as an advantage; I would use it as an aid during exams. Understanding what I could see directly came easily. From a creative standpoint my views are similar: the tangibility of the human body is universal.

Your line that a puncture “hemorrhages / rough ink,” suggests writing as a difficult, physical process. Am I right, or should I go back and take English class all over again?

Good writing should be challenging for both reader and writer alike. I struggle to reinvent myself from poem to poem, often taking a scientific approach to change; I don’t enjoy staying in a comfort zone for long.

You’ve edited Misunderstandings Magazine for at least a few years now — has it had an influence on your work?

I don’t know if MM has influenced my work as much as it’s influenced my sense of Toronto’s literary community. The primary goal of the magazine is to provide opportunities for young writers, and over 12 issues (and counting) I feel confidant that we’ve been able to do that. MM has led to my involvement with a group of contributors in a more hands-on sense, editing chapbooks for Cactus Press. This past year we published poetry by Mark Laliberte (It looks like rain), Edward Nixon (Free Translation) and Josh Stewart (Invention of the Curveball). A new chapbook by Matt Rader is forthcoming this fall.

Name three poets that have had a strong influence on you.

Earle Birney was a strong formative influence. I attended elementary school in Uxbridge, where Birney spent his final years, and his presence loomed large in the community. Since it’s difficult to limit my influences to three, I’ll choose one classic and one contemporary poet to round out my choices. Classic = John Milton. A better pure poet than Shakespeare. Contemporary = Ken Babstock. Every time I pick up Airstream Land Yacht it ruins me.

What’s next for you?

Other (and sometimes rather) than completing my PhD thesis, I’m working on two books: the follow up to The Velocity of Escape (which contains a suite of poems that won a 2008 CBC Literary Award) and a booklength poem titled Sunday, the locusts (which was recently shortlisted for the Matrix Lit-Pop Award). Sunday, the locusts has been especially challenging, and is a collaborative project with an artist/friend, Julienne Lottering, who has pushed me to expand my poetic voice. It’ll be a few years, however I’m excited for both projects to see the light of day.

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Interview: Johanna Skibsrud (2009)

Johanna Skibsrud recently skibsrudpublished 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.

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Interview: Colin Carberry (2008)

Colin Carberry is a poet and Colin Carberry.jpegliterary translator, who was born in Toronto and raised in Longford, Ireland. He is the author of Ceasefire in Purgatory (Luna Publications); a chapbook, The Crossing, (Bearing Press); and he has translated two volumes of poetry, Weekly Diary and Poems in Prose & Adam and Eve (Exile Editions), by Mexico’s Jaime Sabines. Colin has read from his work at literary festivals, colleges and universities in Canada, Europe, and the United States. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Exile, Poetry Ireland Review, Line by Line: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry and Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, and has been translated into Spanish and Serbo-Croat. Visit

Alex Boyd interviewed Colin Carberry in July 2008.

You were born in Toronto, but raised in Ireland. As a writer, do you feel conscious of having a foot in each world? Do you see yourself as having a unique perspective, and do you see strong distinctions between Canadian writing and Irish work?

I do have a foot in both Canada and Ireland, but in that I am hardly unique: millions of dual-citizen Canadians daily experience what James Joyce called “having two thinks at a time”, and are the better for it. I am well schooled in the literatures of both countries, so maybe I do enjoy something of a unique perspective on Canadian literature, but while some sharp distinctions exist between Canadian and Irish work, there are also many similarities. Firstly, there is a long history of Irish immigration to Canada, with the Canadian-Irish — just shy of 4.5 million Canadians claim full or partial Irish ancestry — forming the fourth largest ethnic group in Canada. There is a also a sizable Quebecois-Irish population, and in parts of Newfoundland and Cape Breton Irish (and Scots) Gaelic is still spoken as a living language and studied by scholars and linguists from Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere. This unique cultural fusion has produced numerous Canadian-Irish writers of note, among them, Isabella Valancy Crawford, Barry Callaghan, Nicholas Flood Davin, Kildare Dobbs, Oliver Goldsmith (nephew of the Oliver Goldsmith), Richard Greene, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Alden Nowlan and Rosemary Sullivan and. I contend Nowlan is the finest poet Canada has produced and believe Irish critics and poets familiar with his work would share my view. Secondly, with over 112 languages now spoken there — a far cry from the traditional two, Irish and English — Ireland is no longer the insular, pseudo-theocratic society of old, but, like Canada, a modern economic powerhouse experiencing a massive influx of immigration and foreign investment. This in turn has had a knock-on effect on the literature being produced there: if her writers remain steeped in Irish historical and literary themes, they no longer look automatically to Britain, America, and Europe for outside inspiration, but increasingly to places like Canada. The fact that Alistair McLeod and Rawi Hage have both received the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award indicates the Irish hold Canadian writing in high esteem.

You’ve lived in Mexico as well and translated Mexican work. Do you think it’s important for poets to have a nationality or to be free-floaters, so to speak? Is there an Irish Perspective on Canada?

No. I don’t think it matters whether poets have a strong sense of nationality, or nationalities, or whether they are magpie types like me, drawing inspiration from a diversity of cultures. I tend to be wary of poets whose work is too strongly imbued with nationalistic overtones. Tolstoy called patriotism ‘a gross fraud,’ Samuel Johnson thought of it as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel,’ while Bob Marley in one of his songs wryly observed that isms tend to produce schisms. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with feeling a healthy pride in one’s country — poets tend to write out of what they know in their bones — so long it doesn’t derive from some us-versus-them mentality: that would constitute bigotry, not poetry. I’m a dedicated cosmopolitan, interested in every culture and literature on earth, and the more I travel the more it registers: there is no ‘other’, and that to study ‘other’ cultures is really to study oneself.

I noticed a few colloquial expressions in your latest book, Ceasefire in Purgatory. An early poem has “Love many, but trust few, and paddle your own canoe,” and a later poem has “You’ll be a long time dead.” I think it’s quite effective to have these peppered throughout the poems as little anchors, or little real-world connections. Was it a conscious decision?

It was a conscious decision, yes; colloquial English constitutes the natural speech of hundreds of millions of people, and if poetry is to be honest — and Louis MacNeice has said that ‘poetry before it can be beautiful must be honest’ — then it follows that a poet should reap inspiration from the rich and earthy rhythms of this daily speech. In his dream encounters with dead friends, relatives, and historical personages in The Divine Comedy, Dante puts in their mouths the words and idiomatic phrasing they would have used in their day, much of which is quite colourful. Seamus Heaney similarly blends the high-brow and the quotidian throughout the body of his work, as did Shakespeare, Chaucer, Robert Frost, Rumi and practically any other writer worthy of mention. I have a deep respect for tradition and write mainly in the poetic forms of the sonnet and terza rima canto, but I am a regular ordinary person and the colloquial speech in my poetry reflects that.

Your poems describe “the natural harbour of your most sacred heart,” as well as water that “eases from the earth like children’s laughter.” You have a poem called “God,” followed immediately by “Man,” who is sometimes peering “into prayer’s inky stillness.” Do poets need to be spiritual, and do they have anything in common, do you think?

Poetry is an act of self-transcendence –‘In the beginning was the Word’, etc. — and can therefore be viewed as a form of prayer, but I certainly don’t believe poets need to be spiritual to write. Poets can write about anything that takes their fancy, but they do need to express themselves honestly as well as adequately, and that should take them all their time and effort. Seamus Heaney is an early essay observed that his impulse to write derived from his necessity ‘to get his feelings into words.’ I like the depth and simplicity of that statement — it sums up my reasons for writing poems. But getting back to the relationship between spirituality and poetry for a moment, I also find it intriguing that much of the world’s spiritual literature—the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad Gita, whole books of the Bible, as well as much of the work of Rumi, Bhauji, John of the Cross and other mystics—were written in poetry as opposed to any other literary medium. Islam’s holiest book opens with the magic word: ‘Recite.’

Your poem “In Lanesboro Graveyard” reads in full: “What can priest or soldier, dole-kept drinker say / when hemmed in on all sides by the cold wet clay.” I admire a poet who isn’t afraid to be so concise, but wonder what instinct or feeling tells you to stop there?

This couplet was an ambitious attempt to pack a big idea into the tightest of poetic forms, and is merely a brief sardonic comment on the fact that all verbal discourse occurs between the profound silences of before-birth and after-death. But whether or not the poem achieves its stated aim is another question. I have since written a poem based on and in the same graveyard, so I must have more to say! Death and love will always be of interest to poets.

Your poem “Clandestino,” appears inspired by a translation of a song by the same title earlier in the book. How is translation-work valuable, and is it inspirational?

Translation work is essential. It amounts to a literary genre in and of itself and it presents a unique challenge to a poet. Where would we be without translators? How else to access Borges, Cervantes, Dante, Rimbaud, Tolstoy, or such indispensible texts as the Bible, the Koran, or the works of the ancient Romans and Greeks? I doubt many of us would take the trouble to learn five or six or more languages in order to enjoy these works in their original tongues. The process of translation is equal parts mysterious, complex, inspirational, and (dare I use the word) fun. I have selectively translated work by Borges (Argentina), Mario Benedetti (Uruguay), Roque Dalton (El Salvador), and I am currently working on a Selected of my favorite Spanish-language writer, the great Mexican poet Jaime Sabines, in the process of which I have discovered that I devote about as much time to translation work as I do to my own poetry.