Friday, January 29, 2010

Breaking Through

The 2009 winner of the Governor General's award for English-language poetry is David Zieroth of North Vancouver, B.C. According to the national panel which selected the The Fly in Autumn as the best work of its kind for 2009 Zieroth “addresses our common and defining human fate—the loneliness that is a rehearsal for death—with a tenderness and buoyancy that shows the reader ‘how to walk in the dark with flowers.’ The intricacy and exuberance of rhyme and the breadth of vision are stunning.” Earlier this week I asked Zieroth about his poetry and the significance of the $25,000 award.

DK: Winning a Governor General’s award for poetry must be an important milestone for you, but are there practical benefits to winning the award?

DZ: I had already reached a point in my life that enabled me to enjoy the prize without being thrown off kilter by its impact. If I hadn’t been nominated or won it, I would have still kept writing, of course. I’d also arrived at some sense of self-completeness connected somehow with my age, my retirement from teaching, my younger daughter’s marriage, the birth of my grandson, and years of writing. Big cycles were wheeling through me, bringing me to this particular place, and the award was part of that development, an acknowledgment.

The benefits? I had moments of great fantasy in which I flew to the southern hemisphere following the sun and the warmth, far from the purple twilight of the coastal clime, but that hasn’t happened yet. I do intend to continue my connection with Vienna—my younger daughter and her husband live there—and I look forward to returning, to walk those streets, to sniff out the lives that live and have lived there, to savour the coffee, to feel the church bells ringing through my ribs, to imagine myself as Mitteleuropean.

All that aside, I am deeply honoured to have won the award. And, of course, there’s the money, the tax-free cheque, and when asked about it I soon found I was replying with this refrain: pay off my debts, fix my teeth and travel. Perhaps the best benefit of all is the great pleasure my winning brought to many people: happy for me, happy for themselves, to see someone who has worked and kept at it, to see the kind of poetry they like winning.

DK: Outside of winning the GG award has The Fly in Autumn been a breakthrough book for you artistically, and if so, how?

DZ: Sometimes I think breakthroughs occur all the time—isn’t that what every poem must be?—each poem a departure; at other times I think there’s no such thing, that all is a slow movement somewhere, not necessarily forward, though perhaps that, too.

I also tend to think breakthroughs are what other people see in work they themselves have some distance from, not likely their own. Although I do see that certain poems I have written since I started writing over 40 years ago have been, if not breakthroughs, then consolidation. I think poets are remembered more for their particular poems than for their books.

Yet I can see The Fly in Autumn as a breakthrough book because it includes something new, even daring: heroic sestets (though without their required tetrameter, which was beyond me). Heroic sestets use form and rhyme in a way that wouldn’t have been thought likely from me before the book’s publication; I’m considered mainly a lyric and narrative poet.

DK: Where does a poem begin for you? What stages must it go through before you consider it complete?

DZ: Some poems come unbidden, from somewhere that remains hidden but active, that odd combination that I once despaired of knowing more about but am now content to let be, grateful its “is-ness” has chosen me.

Ideas for poems arise frequently from snatches of conversation. The people around me—at coffee shops, on buses, in conversation—are natural suppliers of ideas and lines and titles. I am fond of saying after a particular phrase has been uttered by someone quite unaware of its literary clang and value, “That’s the title of my next poem,” though more often it appears somewhere inside a poem.

Often poems arise from my reading, curiously more often from novels and travel books than from poetry. Or my mind throws up phrases and images just before I fall asleep, and these get me out of my warm bed. I have also attempted to record those words that flash through in the middle of the night and seem so lucid, only to discover that next morning they are as indecipherable as a foreign language.

The stages of writing? I compose by hand or on the computer, following where the thread takes me until I feel I have arrived at the point where the poem needs no further movement. Then comes the rewriting, and the putting away, and the waiting.

I also walk as a way to remember what I’ve written, and those parts I can’t remember clearly are often the very bits I can trim away. I send the poem or read it to a handful of poets who are kind enough to comment. It is always amazing to me what I can’t hear and see what these initial readers can hear and see (my veering toward the prolix and baroque, for example), and I am always grateful for their honesty and clarity.

DK: “How to Walk in the Dark with Flowers” is so strong, has garnered so much attention, that I wonder you didn’t make it the title of your book. What was the genesis for this poem? Are there other poems that stand out for you?

DZ: I was thinking of using that poem as the title of the book, and then a friend suggested that I already had one How-entitled book ("How I Joined Humanity at Last"), and that perhaps I might find something less repetitious, and I agreed. Also, the present title is succinct and adds a note of drollness and humour, needed in a book with so many poems about death and dying.

The origin of “How to Walk in the Dark with Flowers”? A member of our community died. I belong to a group of poets and poetry lovers in North Van and we talked of this woman’s death. Some of the images in the poem arose from that conversation. The poem has since been read at two memorial services at least.

My other favourites include “How Brave,” “Am I Dreaming?” and “Sorrowful Friends” —but then I remember how I loved each poem as I wrote it, how it seemed to alter the whole of the work that had gone before. Also how grateful I was for such a change, to think that change was possible, inevitable even, even glorious and deeply desirable, evidence of some prime force.

DK: You say The Fly in Autumn owes much of its success to your editor. What does that mean precisely and what should poets generally look for in an editor?

DZ: I have been very fortunate to have worked with two of the country’s best editors—Dennis Lee and Gary Ross—and what they were able to do with my work is what every writer should hope for: someone who can find structure and narrative, who can cut the scaffolding and cajole and release a greater meaningfulness, someone who knows what your writing is better than you, because you are too deeply inside it.

What Silas White did with The Fly in Autumn was similar: he took the large manuscript I’d sent to Harbour and found within it the book. He was able to make that transformation, I think, by living with the poems, so that he was able to discover the voice that would begin the book, and thus give a voice-shape to the book.

Of course, Silas also made me look again at certain passages and words (as Lee and Ross also did). He helped me to see again what I had grown too familiar with. He added another layer, by looking at the poems through a different lens.

DK: Is your reading confined to reading poets?

DZ: I read poetry often, for all the reasons one does, often anthologies as a way to hear new voices and to estimate the anthologist’s gist of the geist, so to speak. I frequently have several novels on the go (I adopt a Darwinian approach: may the best book take me over), and travel writing, history and memoirs, and I went through a phase not long after retirement in which I read many mysteries, a phase that may be waning.

In fact the year after I stopped teaching, I read 130 books overall, and I kept track of their titles because I thought that I might begin to read something I had previously read and be that far along before realizing. I have no television. I can’t watch movies at home without twitching. Nothing calms like a book. And releases. My favourite book of last year was Claudio Magris’ Danube.

DK: You are not a philosophical poet per se, but your work suggests a strong pre-occupation with our ability to see and know the world. Is that the case? How large a desire do you have to say something of lasting meaning?

DZ: Your question makes me smile, as if you have discovered about me something that I have always felt no one would notice, that I have at times tried to hide under a bush, as it were. Because “to say something of lasting meaning” is of course the point, the drive and the great challenge, which I feel I am digging out of myself by trying to see who I am in this world and trying to see what the world is.

All I have to see with is who I am. And how incredibly difficult it can be for me just to describe something truly. I don’t mean some state of feeling or being, but just the everyday physicality of, say, a bird, as, for example, Elizabeth Bishop does so perfectly in “Sandpiper”.

DK: You write a great deal about death and dying, relying in part upon the great stoic Marcus Aurelius. How has he helped you come to terms with mortality, both personally and in your poems?

DZ: Margaret Laurence said to me once that we only get one subject and we work it over and over. I think perhaps my subject is death and dying. It’s a subject I’ve been addressing in all my books, and even more so as I age. I need to examine that phenomenon, which is one we all experience and yet can’t really know beforehand—and so we must imagine what the experience will be and what it will mean as one’s biography begins to reach a conclusion.

I carry The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius with me on the bus sometimes as I travel around the city on my various chores, and he’s a help when I’m waiting at the bus stops, a distraction from the mêlée around me, but an illumination of that fracas, too. And his no-nonsense approach to dying (“Death is a release from the impressions of the senses, and from desires that make us their puppets, and from the vagaries of the mind, and from the hard service of the flesh.”) is what I need, some consolation about how short life is and how inevitably one must leave behind all the human and natural riches of the earth.

DK: In my interview with Tim Steele (see Speaking of Poems, Dec. 18) he said when he writes a poem he has in mind his wife, his extended family, his friends, and “a community of fellow poets I particularly admire.” Who do you write for? For readers? For yourself? Other poets?

DZ: I write for myself. I write to find out what I know, how well I know it, how best to articulate that knowledge, what delights I might encounter along the way and which directions I couldn’t have imagined had I not begun—that eureka moment of chthonic connection, that golden thread. I write to keep in touch with the mystery of poetry, that power beyond reason.

I also write for the perfect inner ear of the perfect listener.

DK: Christian Bok said recently young people really have nothing to offer in their poems because they don’t know anything. Is there any truth to this?

DZ: I taught writing for 25 years, and I thought about these questions almost every day, but that time has passed now. However, I can say that I’ve been surprised many times by my students, by the effortlessness (and anger) of their poems. In my experience, nearly everyone has some song inside.

DK: You have created a micro press for publishing chapbooks of poetry. How rewarding is that for you?

DZ: Yes, I do all the work in my office: on my computer, printer and work-table, designing and printing and folding and stapling and trimming and mailing out the chapbooks, and the labour is very grounding and satisfying. I love working with poets in this way, getting to know them by living with their words for days on end, and working with the other editors at Alfred Gustav Press, named after my father, has helped me enormously to understand what poems are and what I think about them.

DK: What is next for you?

DZ: I’m working on a group of poems based on my experiences in Vienna, plus a lengthy group of eleven-line poems about the sloping city neighbourhood where I live. I’m working on a prose manuscript—part science fiction, part romance, part mystery, part quasi-reflection and monologue—about a flaneur and his city-street rambles and his observations about the local populace, a manuscript in which simultaneously a story unfolds about how all humankind suddenly vanishes except for one man left utterly alone.

I’m also working on a long poem called “Hay Day Canticle,” after Louis MacNeice’s "Autumn Sequel" (so the love of rhyme and form returns or rather continues).

Then, of course, there’s my sweet little grandson just upstairs. And travel. And writing. And reading books. And here I find I disagree with that venerable Roman who said “Give up your thirst for books, so that you do not die a grouch.” And always the daily moral work, from which there is no day off, of trying not to grow into someone I might regret.
To get a taste of David Zieroth's wonderful style, see "How to Walk in the Dark with Flowers" in our "Great Poems" section to the right.

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