Friday, March 5, 2010

Poetry of Witness

Author of more than twenty books of poetry, Governor General's award winner and one of Canada's most respected and revered poets, Patrick Lane is still going strong. During my interview with him earlier this week he talked about meaning and tone in poetry, his first novel, poetic theory and practice, and new projects.

DK: People are fascinated by your foray into prose with your award winning memoir There Is A Season and more recently Red Dog, Red Dog. The obvious question is Why tackle prose? but I’m also interested to know about the challenges along the way? Ever throw up your hands and cry Why am I doing this?

PL: The memoir arose out of the rather fragile wreckage of my life in the month following my release from a treatment centre for alcohol and drug addiction. I began writing about my garden because it was a safe place to explore. I worried that once sober and clean I wouldn’t be able to write anymore, so I avoided poetry and fiction, practices where I’d succeeded. There Is A Season was never intended to be a book, but was only an exercise, a way of re-entering my writing life. That it turned out to be a memoir, and a successful one, is fortuitous at best. The novel, Red Dog Red Dog, began a few weeks following the completion of the memoir. It was a natural segue and a desire on my part to actually finish a novel, three previous attempts in the 70’s and 80’s dying on the altar of alcohol and cocaine. And, no, I never ask why I’m writing. I sacrificed two families to poetry, my life to art. After fifty years of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, writing is as natural as breathing to me.

DK: Red Dog, Red Dog appears to be character driven, not plot driven. Do you see a relationship between the character traits or tone there and the speakers in your poems? Was it ever a concern for you that the style and tone of your prose distinguish itself from the tone or style of your poetry?

PL: Tone is a question that was never asked back in the days of our oral culture. Now we ask just to make sure a piece of writing is not sarcastic, ironic, glib, humorous, etc. We read now, we don’t listen. Tone is the attitude a writer takes to the subject at hand and is a delicate matter, indeed, given that it must be right for the characters, the living men and women who inhabit a place and a time, the ones who live in the story. The novel is its characters, though I had hoped the plot equally important, the question of, “Who killed father,” central to the book. I always felt the novel was a murder mystery. I don’t distinguish by genre, such distinctions made up by academics so that there should be some kind of order to the canon. Good writing is driven by rhythms and patterns set down by Homer and worked on by writers for these past 3,000 years. Did you ever find it odd that we’re called “writers” and not speakers or singers, tale-tellers, story-makers, poets?

DK: Will you continue to publish prose or shift back to publishing poetry?

PL: I’m bringing out a definitive “New and Selected Poems” this fall from Harbour Publishing. It will contain the most requested poems, the “old chestnuts” of the past fifty years. In the fall of 2011, I will bring out a “Collected Poems” from Harbour. This will be the complete works from all the chapbooks and books I’ve published, somewhere around 25 collections of various kinds. I’m looking forward to both these books. Of course, the ultimate “Collected” will be every miserable jotting I ever penned, but that will happen after my death. Thank God I won’t have to look at it all.

DK: Many of your poems seem underpinned by a tragic vision of life, with a strong elegiac tone mixed in with your emotions for the landscape. Does this stem solely from the tragedy that you’ve seen in your life or is there also a particular tradition that informs your vision?

PL: Who was it said that history is the study of tragedy? I lived through sixty years of the last century and no more brutal, bloody, vicious time ever existed for us humans, let alone the other forms of life that we co-habit with, the deaths of oceans and lands. I grew up in the days and nights of World War II and the latter days of the Depression, a period that did not end until after the Korean War in the early Fifties. My father took us on a holiday in Washington State when I was ten years old. He stopped the car on a highway in the Okanogan country south of the border and pointed out a bridge where three working men were lynched by Company killers. The struggles of ordinary men and women, their endurance and mere survival informed my life then, and continue to inform it now. Remember that poem by Milton Acorn, “I’ve Tasted My Blood?” Well, that comes close to how I feel. I have always believed that great literature arises from the “place” where you live. In my case it is western Canada, a huge piece of land and water and sky that is rich with story, alive with lyric intensity. My writing is from the tradition of “Witness.”

DK: Your last answer brings to mind the famous anthology 15 Canadian Poets where you were quoted as saying your “search for always balanced with my social commitment to the lower classes of which I am a member”. Did you intend this as political statement at the time and has it changed at all?

PL: I now include everyone. Like Whitman, I think I am of the world and not limited to a single class of people.

DK: Poetry has seen a lot of developments since you began (e.g. the Tish Movement, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry). What are the more significant changes, and is poetry better off because of them?

PL: Those old, so-called language movements and the poets who espoused their theories, dictums, and causes were never kind to my writing. They aren’t now. Literature and Art have always had their miseries for the practicing artist. I have tried to be a writer in this world. I am a “humanist,” something Louis Dudek, Warren Tallman, and their acolytes ridiculed in me and in my work. Like William Faulkner’s Dilsey, I have endured.

DK: In a 1997 interview you said the canon of contemporary Canadian literature should be re-appraised? Has that re-appraisal occurred and if so, has it made room for different kinds of poetic voices?

PL: I think I was being a bit pretentious when I said that. There is always room for the human voice. As to the re-appraising the canon, I’ll leave that remedy to the ones who feel they have a need to mend it.

DK: Here’s a question that will make some people’s eyes roll, but we’ve heard much about the importance of traditional form and technical virtuosity on the one hand and the more experimental avant garde on the other. Has the case been sufficiently made for the emotional component in the poem, that is, human sympathy or feeling as the wellspring from which a poem flows?

PL: The pyrotechnics and virtuosities, the experimental and the avant-garde will always be with us. I applaud their skills! The history of art is the history of our humanness, our sympathy, empathy, understanding, and knowledge. There is no poetry, no literature, no art that does not contain our humanity expressed with our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual gifts. I have always believed the poem arises from the need to speak, an outcry if you like. There are times the poem flows from out of that Yeatsian “rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

As to the younger generation, those who regularly tire of us older writers. Listen, I was once a young man, ambitious, intemperate, arrogant, and, yes, terribly impatient. I wished the older generation to get out of the way and make room for me. There were times when I judged my elders and found them wanting, the endless repetitions of their poetic preoccupations exhausting and of no significant value. And I sometimes judged my peers, those who lived in my country, the Canadians. I wanted the world to see me, not just Vancouver or Toronto, Salmon Arm or Saskatoon. We must remember that the avant-garde soon enough becomes the old guard. We endlessly invent replicas of ourselves and call it new. The real question is why do we poets do what we do and why do we spend our lives doing it? I have always believed that we poets wish to make something beautiful, but why we wish to do that no one knows. I wrote a poem once entitled, “The Beauty.” It is as close as I’ve come to understanding this dilemma:

This too, the beauty
of the antelope in snow.
Is it enough to say we will
imagine this and nothing more?

Who understands that, failing,
falters at the song.
But still we sing.
That is beauty.

But it is not an answer
anymore than the antelope,
most slender of beasts,
most beautiful,

will tell us why they go,
going nowhere,
and going there
perfectly in the snow.

DK: We hear about the influence older poets have on younger poets? Does it ever work the other way around, where an older poet is sufficiently moved or impressed by a younger poet that his or her own poetry is affected?

PL: O yes, I think so. Yeats was much influenced by Pound, to name just one historical example. There are many more.

DK: Is there anything about the poetry being written today that excites you? Any young talents we should watch out for?

PL: My wife and fellow-poet, Lorna Crozier, is presently compiling the best poems that appeared in magazines in Canada in 2009, an onerous task I assure you. I was reading through her tentative, early selections and was struck by the remarkable work being done by the younger generations and, as well, the work of so-called older writers who have only appeared recently. There is no healthier art form being practiced today than poetry. I’m not always on top of every thing being written. I don’t subscribe to the hundred or so print magazines, nor do I read much on the web (forgive me that!). I spend what time I have these days writing, given I’ve only another decade or so to practice this craft of mine. I’m presently writing another novel, the second of three l wish to do in this seventh decade of mine. And, of course, I’m writing poetry, my first love.

DK: You conduct regular poetry retreats and workshops and are referred to as a poetry teacher, but is it really possible to teach poetry?

PL: O yes, of course! I long ago rejected the “workshop” technique, that form of study we inherited from the Iowa School back in the 1930’s, the one that is ideally suited to schools and universities, those who need to measure excellence. Why do we ask students to critically respond to poems when they know very little about “how” they work? I believe we learn from the “practice” of writing. The old saw: we learn to do by doing, is as apt now as it was when it was newly coined. There is still “the craft so long to learn.” I offer written meditations and instructions, plus specific writing exercises with examples of writing from the masters to students at my retreats, but I do not ask participants to respond in round-table criticism of each other’s work. How hapless that can be! One must learn the “how” of poetry, not the “meaning” of it. Words will mean what they mean, it is the expression of them that matters to the writer. Just as a beginning singer practices her song, so must a beginning poet. Sometimes what we learn is part of what we must unlearn, schools and universities providing us with certain ways of looking at a text. They rarely teach us how to write a poem. I do.

DK: Finally, a certain mythology has arisen around the poet and person we know as Patrick Lane, centred principally on your fight with addiction. Are there other aspects of your life or personality that people are missing as a result?

PL: I wrote my memoir There Is A Season ten years ago and co-edited an anthology with Lorna Crozier entitled Notes From the Belly of the Beast thirteen years ago. Both books deal with addiction, the former with the story of my recovery from alcohol during my first year of sobriety and coincidentally anecdotes from my life that are offered not as metaphors but as personal discoveries of the past and my understanding of them free from the distortions caused by my addictions. The latter book contained the brief testaments of a variety of Canadian writers who suffered from substance addiction and later, in another North American edition, with a group of American and Canadian writers who also suffered. I no longer dwell on that past period of my life, but I work almost daily with addicts and alcoholics. I don’t subscribe to the “Black Romanticism” of the late 19th Century, nor am I interested in “People Magazine” journalism. I don’t embrace as truth any of the many mythologies that have been made about my life, nor do I think my readers and critics should. God knows, there have been enough myths promulgated about me. I am a good and caring man. It’s taken a long and varied life to be able to say that with sincerity.

My poetry, fiction, and non-fiction are not “confessional” by nature. As I said before, my poems come out of the poetry of witness. I have reinvented myself as a writer several times over the past fifty years. There have been significant moments when I realized I could write a “Patrick Lane” poem better than anyone. Each time that I recognized I was repeating myself in both form and content I changed my writing. Whether I was successful or not isn’t up to me. I just do it. As I sit here this week putting together my “New & Selected Poems” for this autumn, I can see the watershed years of 1962, 1969, 1978, 1986, 1997, and 2001.

What Language Can't Reach

And the only way I know
how to do that is to stand far off
as if you were on a low hill
under a thin moon
watching a passenger train
at a siding in the distance
of a prairie night in winter.
In the snow, and watching.
That far away, that sure.

Patrick Lane
Next week: What Poets Expect…What Publishers Want


Cynthia said...

Loved this interview. Thanks for it.

Alan said...

Here's an essay on a young poet's journey through craft and the lessons learned along the way. Please read it at


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