Friday, April 30, 2010
DK: Pure Product is a very short book of poems, which suggests you were being very selective in your choice of poems. Is that so, and what prompted the book?
JG: I would like to be able to say I was “very selective” in my “choice of poems.” But, really, I just don’t write a lot of poems. So I have to work with what I come up with. Even now, a year after Pure Product, I’m still tinkering with leftover scraps that predate Pure Product, some of which were considered for the book and rejected. The one new poem I have forthcoming is a reject which stuck around and, because the cupboard is bare, got sent out to a magazine and, lucky for it, got accepted; got a shot at a second life. In other words, Pure Product had no choice but to be, as you say, “very short.” But a lack of productivity isn’t ultimately a bad thing. Most new books of poems are way too long.
What prompted Pure Product was Signal Editions’ offering to publish it. The book didn’t quite exist when the offer was made; it was just some poems lying around, unbeknownst to Signal. Signal liked what it’d seen of my work in magazines and was generous enough to reach out. I gathered together what I had on-hand and then wrote some more poems. When it came time to assemble the ms, I spread out the poems on the living room floor. Over the course of an hour or two, I figured out a sensible order – on the off-chance someone ever decides to read the book front to back.
DK: I know you’ve said you had no agenda for Pure Product as a whole, but poems like “Shopping Cart, Abandoned on Front Lawn” suggest a connection to Williams and the preoccupation with “getting things right” through sharp hard images. Does that link exist for you in the book?
JG: Well, the book takes its title from Williams’ lines “The pure products of America / go crazy,”which very nearly provided an epigraph for the book. There’s also a poem in Pure Product called “Thinginess.” So yes, Williams is definitely in there, lurking around the edges. But I had no planned design, and had the book been called Money Is Also a Kind of Music, which it very nearly was, you would probably be asking me about Wallace Stevens! Frost is another important, if less obvious, influence on Pure Product. He might even be more important to the book than Williams.
I want to add that I’m not rabidly anti-agenda – or arc, or concept – as some might think. But I have grown tired of books that are overly determined by some novel subject matter or structuring principle. My tiredness, of course, doesn’t preclude the possibility that worthwhile books of poetry, structured by predetermined arcs, are being written. I’m tired of a trend is all. But I do think that most poets would be better off focusing on getting individual poems right.
DK: A related notion is that poems can or should be self-contained, autonomous wholes, separate from biography, history or culture. Is that something you believe and work towards?
JG: When I’m composing a poem, I like to believe in the Romantic tableau of the authorial genius who transcends – placid and unchanging – the churning forces of history, biology, and economics; the authorial genius who brings off “self-contained, autonomous wholes.” But when I’m not writing a poem, I’m pretty sympathetic to Barthes’ thing about how “it is language which speaks, not the author.”
DK: I’m struck by how playful and fun your poems are, but outside of a brief reference to your father you don’t reveal much about yourself. Is that deliberate? Do you imagine yourself writing more personally in the future?
JG: Thanks. I do want the poems to be playful and fun. And it is deliberate, the not revealing much about myself. I don’t imagine writing more personally in the future. This would be fun for no one.
DK: What do you like and don’t like about Canadian poetry? Are there things Canadian poets might pay attention to in British or American poetry?
JG: Some small, surly part of me, slouching at the back of the seminar, wants to raise its hand and ask, “So, like, what is Canadian poetry?” But the other, more adult part of myself, which accepts the premise of your reasonable question, just doesn’t know how to answer it. I will say that it’s probably true that most Canadian poets used to pay too little attention to what was going on beyond the border. But fortunately this seems to have changed a bit. Canada’s best poets, like Eric Ormsby, appear to pay more than enough attention to a larger literary tradition.
DK: The formalist poet Tim Steele told me 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?
JG: Well, let me answer your question with a sports metaphor. The first duty of a professional baseball player is not to hit homerun balls – or even to hit balls at all. It’s to field his position, a task which is neither sexy nor easy but absolutely integral to the success of a team. I like to think that my first duty as a writer – one which is self-imposed, of course – is to do the unsexy work of addressing and entertaining the intelligent general reader. I’m not talking about being ‘accessible’ in the sneered-at meaning of the word; nor is it as easy as it might sound, piquing the interest of this mythic figure I have in mind. It certainly doesn’t matter that the mythic figure is mythic; I write in the futile hope that she will one day turn up and want to read a poem. And if I can capture the attention of this reader, then I can capture the attention of anyone. One doesn’t really need to address other poets who will all too easily know what one is up to and give one the benefit of the doubt and maybe even buy one’s book at a launch out of professional courtesy; I think one is better served pretending to address and entertain the intelligent general reader, as John Updike seemed to do. She’s a harder sell, harder than any poet. And she’s certainly no pushover. So to win her attention would really mean something, would really say something about one’s work.
DK: Who do you read? Who's influenced you the most in poetic style and use of language?
JG: In terms of daily reading, I’m a devotee of Slate. I especially admire Stephen Metcalf’s recent pieces on A Separate Peace and the band The Replacements. Troy Patterson, Slate’s television critic, is so brilliant one wants to dim one’s screen or, at least, turn away in despair of ever writing sentences as witty as his. Dana Stevens, Slate’s film critic, is always worth at least a skim and usually more.
I like Hendrik Hertzberg on politics and the tag team of Anthony Lane and David Denby on movies. The other critics, who round out the back pages of The New Yorker, comprise a pretty sturdy phalanx, too.
Lately, in terms of reviewers of books, I’ve enjoyed Michael Hofmann (His book Behind the Lines, Faber and Faber, 2001 is terrific), Clive James and William Logan. I’m learning to love William Bronk’s essays. Ange Mlinko is interesting, too. I have no all-time favourite, though. My desert island’s a crowded, raucous bit of turf. Randall Jarrell mans the conch shell – though lately I’ve been thinking of giving the job to the late great Tom Disch.
In terms of poets, I’m pumped to read Christian Wiman’s forthcoming book Every Riven Thing (FSG 2010). If his recent poems in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New Criterion are any indication, this book is going to be something. I’ve also been admiring the poems of Don Coles and John Updike. I rather like Robyn Sarah’s Pause for Breath (Biblioasis 2009), which seems to have been ignored. Zach Wells’ book, Track and Trace (Biblioasis 2009), was pretty good, too.
In terms of recent influences, Kay Ryan has meant a lot. I would say, in the awful parlance of our times, that her example has given me permission to try to be the sort of poet I’ve always wanted to be: a specialist in short, sharp poems that never absolve themselves of the hard, maybe even paradoxical work of being both challenging and clear; poems that kowtow to no arc. She would hate to hear this, I’m sure.
DK: Is there a single poem, either yours or someone else’s, that you would consider to be a complete poem?
JG: Sure. Here’s one by the lovely New York poet Samuel Menashe:
Forever and a Day
No more than that
Dead cat shall I
Escape the corpse
I kept in shape
For the day off
This poem strikes me as complete. Here’s great another one, same poet:
Dusk of the year
More than we knew
Abounded on trees
We now see through
DK: These days poets have many more opportunities to publish their work, apply for grants, submit their poems for awards etc than in the past. I think these things pose an enormous distraction from the writing of actual poetry. Is this unfair? How important are these things for you?
JG: Well, I’m not aggressively anti-grant; it’s good money if you can get it. But I’m lazy when it comes to the getting of it (which isn’t to say I couldn’t use it). And yet I do think my laziness is probably a blessing. That is, I do think a poet’s time is better served writing a poem or a review as opposed to filling out some pdf. (In fact, her time is probably best served reading – and not necessarily a poem.) So I think what you say is fair enough. In an age of excesses, it’s good to be a bit sluggish.
DK: You were criticized by Poetry Magazine readers for your stance on “negative” reviews. Are there limits to writing negatively about the work of other poets? Does it ever worry you that you’re opening yourself up for unwarranted negative reviews of your own poetry?
JG: Okay, the small, surly part of me, at the back of the seminar, wants to raise its hand and take gentle issue with the wording of your question. The piece to which I assume you’re referring, “Going Negative,” doesn’t ultimately champion something called a ‘negative review’ or some process of “writing negatively,” as so many seem to think. I’m not saying one should wear a brambly crown of scribbled lines, like a sour character in a comic strip. Rather, the piece defends the sort of necessarily sceptical review which should be the norm but which comes to find itself damned when some other person, however well-meaning, decides to describe it as ‘negative.’ Some readers of “Going Negative” appear to have gotten hung up on the title of the piece and the bit where I suggest that “negativity…needs to be the poetry reviewer’s natural posture.” But the piece – it’s just a preface to some reviews, really – actually goes on to question the usefulness of the adjective ‘negative’ and to elaborate a slightly more nuanced – and even optimistic! – position than the one which has been assigned to me in blogs and, of all places, the introduction to The Best American Poetry 2009.
So let me rephrase your otherwise fine question ever so slightly: what are the limits to writing with necessary scepticism about the work of other poets? Well, one might make an enemy of a person in a position of power – a judge of some prize, say. But one wasn’t likely going to win the prize, anyway. One will find, at the end of a life of cautious kowtowing, with little to show for, that one was better off being honest. Now, one doesn’t want to be destructive for its own sake; but burning bridges, if they’re the right bridges, can generate heat, even light. And they can build new connections, drawing by their very glow the sort of lovely, independent-minded reader who has been lost at sea, desperate for someone, anyone, to send a signal and confirm his or her gut-level suspicion about an overly-laurelled poet. When I was younger, it was a great relief to come across certain critics who were – and are! – frequently stuck with the label ‘negative’ reviewer. They made me feel a little less alone, these critics; and they made me feel a little less crazy for, say, not appreciating some awful Canadian poet whom I suspected others were overvaluing.
I’ll add that in rare cases one might be too hard on a deserving book and later come to regret one’s review of it. So that’s another limit to writing with a certain scepticism. But I’m pretty sure this is as mythic a phenomenon as the yeti. If I regret any of my reviews, they’re the ones in which I was too generous.
As for your other question, I’m not too worried about my work drawing “unwarranted negative reviews.” A person who’s moved to review my poetry because he’s misread a position of mine (or thinks I’ve gone out of my way to wound one of his friends) is a person who leapfrogs to troubling conclusions. He’s the sort of reviewer who wouldn’t have had much of worth to say about my poetry had he been presented with it blind. He’s loyal to poets, but not to poetry, and certainly not to readers. Anyway, as Kay Ryan has said, poems need to get used to surviving on their own. If mine are any good, they’ll eventually find a readership, no matter how hard I’ve made it for them. If they aren’t, they won’t.
DK: Are you working on a third book of poems? Any poems coming out in magazines that we should watch for?
JG: Not really. As I’ve said, I’ve mostly been tinkering with scraps. I’ve got the one poem forthcoming in Parnassus. I’ve also got a review-essay coming in Parnassus and another one coming in Poetry.
For my review of Jason Guriel's Pure Product see "Interviews and Reviews" in the right hand column.
Just a reminder, folks, that I have agreed to stand up in front of Victoria City Council on May 13 to read a poem. The object is not to read a poem about cities necessarily, but about life. So that’s where you come in. Suggest a poem that reminds us about life, in whatever form it takes, the ground of our being or of our landscape, and I’ll read it May 13.
Friday, April 23, 2010
All of which is not to say that D.C. Reid’s latest book of poems What It Means to be Human is unworthy of an audience. Far from it. His book is at least as deserving as other “difficult” books of poetry on store shelves these days. The degree of difficulty is another matter. Not only is Reid’s book obliquely associative and imagistic, eschewing direct metaphor in favour of symbols, it’s all wrapped within the loose frame of a novel. The reader is constrained both to pierce Reid’s fragmented poetic language and piece together the strands of plot and character: Mary, unhappy in her relationship with her husband has an affair with his brother, Avie, who in turn has an incestuous relationship with their daughter Chloe.
Eyes swim from eyelids to ask the question, what?, and o?, and,
yes, I am here, familiar
The ceiling then seen in double sight
for I am trapped by my head too full of your hair,
the small of your back. My hand so close and…pointless, for you
belong to yourself
and me, too, though I don’t want me
Landscape her shoulder, heave of mountain ranges of blanket
across the bent up knees, the valley, the flat beyond
Only the black iron keeping watch at the end of the bed, the
curlicue lion-head on the post around which night conspires
Do clothes lose their lives when thrown off? Do they gag on hooks?
For the reader willing to painstakingly assemble the clues from one poem to the next the story in What It Means to be Human does eventually emerge. The difficulty is that too often the effort to follow the story interferes with our appreciation of the poetry – good poetry, as it turns out, as in this poem voiced by Mary, the mother, “Think of the reason a person doesn’t blink”:
When we might for a second be fearful, standing in the dark,
waiting for the baby to breathe
and knowing it will,
yet in flight between the lighted door way,
gold pouring around
In the moment between thought and its intention, a paler form of
the breath and you
left still, hand on the knob.
These are the internal landscapes that make up the uneventful
existence that time, as has been observed, lies
and death. A great beast might lie upon its heart.Few devices are as under developed and over interpreted as enjambed and fragmented lines, here executed with more skill than usual (i.e. through indents and line breaks that replicate the act of breathing and recreate the suspense necessary to the poem’s intent). The images are also very strong, but Reid manages something equally important in this poem and the one before: he finds the human moment, imbues it with emotion, passion or compassion, and then completes the moment with a resonating thought (the great beast or darkness that lies at the heart of life) or a question (how can we reconcile guilt and desire when life is largely meaningless?).
Like Tim Lilburn’s work, the metabolic rate of Reid’s poems is pitched very high, the effort to meld the poetry’s imagery and the narrative prodigious. The challenge remains how to convince readers to meet the writer half way by putting in the work necessary to unravel the story and understand the poetry. The answer might have been to forgo the story altogether (the least original or interesting part of the book) and to settle instead for that synthesis and cohesion we normally look for when considering a book of poems as a whole. Reid is too good a poet for us to require more of him than this.
(What It Means to be Human, Ekstasis Editions, 2009, paper, 127 pp. $21.95)
Friday, April 16, 2010
“(W)orthy thought and ideas depend upon our experience and articulation of observable phenomena. Good ideas are grounded. (And, for poets, inhabited, fully experienced subjectively rather than merely “observed” objectively. That is, the subjective and objective are melded in a taut balance. See George Oppen’s The Materials, for example.)
I was only partly convinced by my subsequent reading of Oppen’s book of poems (Some very good ones captured the Imagist principles to a T, but others were rather flat and abstracted, I thought). I was more persuaded by the connection between Williams and the Romantics and by Pass’s take on the expansion of Coleridge’s ideas about the Imagination i.e. “If we `imagine’ badly,” he says, “if as a culture we allow the degradation of our imaginations, hive them off from the “things” of the world or the “ideas” generated in that adjacency, fail to talk the world we’re walking, we suffer big time.”
Pass’s emphasis upon “imagining well” by embracing the world of things seems right to me. I offered two citations from Coleridge to support his interpretation, and will add one more - that the genius of Wordsworth’s imagination, rested, in part, in the “human associations” that “had given both variety, and an additional interest to natural objects...” I understand by “human associations” Coleridge meant ideas or thought, as well as sense impressions, play a role in forming our understanding and our poetic translation of the “real” or “objective” world.
The importance of ideas is underscored by the sometimes inimical relationship between the imagination and our senses, resulting, Coleridge believed, in something less than wonderful poetry: “A debility and dimness of the imaginative power, and a consequent necessity of reliance on the immediate impressions of the senses, do, we well know, render the mind liable to superstition and fanaticism.” All of which has me wondering if contemporary poets aren’t possessed of a similar superstition surrounding ideas and a fanatical insistence upon sense experience as the only useful material in the construction of poems.
But over-reliance upon sense experience is only part of the problem. The under-representation of the intellect in poetry further inhibits and suppresses the pleasure that we might get from poetry. Williams believed this, just as Coleridge did before him:
“(W)here the ideas are vivid, and there exists an endless power of combining and modifying them, the feelings and affections blended more easily and intimately with these ideal creations, than with the objects of the senses; the mind is affected by thoughts, rather than by things…”
Plainly, here is where Williams and much of 20th and 21st century poetics departs from Coleridge. Still, the intellect and how we think about the making of poetry were as important to Williams and the best of the poets who followed as they were to the Romantics. In a letter to Henry Wells, Williams points out how the breadth of his intellect and critical faculties were oftem distorted or ignored.
“I think you fail sufficiently to take into consideration my role as a theorist...For I think that only by an understanding of my “theory of the poem” will you be able to reconcile my patent failures with whatever I have done that seems worthwhile.” (Poems of William Carlos Williams, Linda Wagner, Wesleyan University Press, 1963, p7)
An argument for poetic theory as part of poetic practice? Think about it.
Both John Pass and Chris Banks like Wendell Berry’s take on “the Real” and so I borrowed Berry’s Recollected Essays 1965-1980 from the library. Berry’s prose has an earthy, Thoreauvian feel to it, but I was particularly struck by an image from an essay called “The Rise”: “The cardinals were more brilliant than ever,” Berry writes, “kindling in the black-wet drift of the cold wind.” A line that would have done Pound or Williams proud. I was also struck by the number of times the “imagination” figured as a term in Berry’s essay. That magical faculty that galvanized Coleridge, Worsdworth and Williams has fallen on hard times in recent years. In greater favour are rule-based poems, poems fuelled less by the intricate vivacity of the imagination than powered by a will to dominate the language and the reader.
Something else Wendell Berry is known for is his conversational style and plain spokenness - nothing new there for prose stylists; an entire 20th century of prose has been devoted to the spare, unvarnished diction of the ordinary person, a bias elevated to a rule by Hemingway. The interesting thing is the ardour with which poets, especially Canadian poets, have embraced the plain style. We should, it seems to me, abominate plainness when used unconsciously to excuse the poet’s lack of imagination or willingness to work. But when used capably, plain diction works. Wordsworth thought so, arguing that “the essential passions of the heart…speak a plainer and more emphatic language…” Eliot viewed Wordsworth’s own approach as an “escape from a poetic idiom which had ceased to have a relation to contemporary speech”. Of Dryden, Eliot said “He restored English verse to the condition of speech.” (Missing Measures , Timothy Steele, University of Arkansas Press, 1990)
Timothy Steele tells us the desire for a plainer, more contemporary style of language goes back even further than Wordsworth. “It has ever been and ever will be permitted,” said Horace, “to issue words stamped with the mint-mark of the day.”
Friday, April 2, 2010
It’s a bit of a paradox: an idea that has influenced the writing of poetry for the better part of a century that shuns the idea of ideas. “No ideas but in things” invoked by William Carlos Williams held that poets should reject preconceived ideas and inherited “literariness” in the construction of their poems and use instead, as their exclusive, primary material, the objects they find locally. Three decades later Charles Olson would re-shape Williams’ line as “not in ideas, but in things”, a dictum which Bruce Elder tells us is actually pretty straightforward: “Language doesn’t constitute meanings on its own. Only the objects of the real world make up its meaning”. Still, “things” get a little tricky when you confer, as Olson does, the status of object upon the inner workings of the poem itself:
“(E)very element in an open poem (the syllable, the line, as well as the image, the sound, the sense) must be taken up as participants in the kinetic of the poem just as solidly as we are accustomed to take what we call the objects of reality...these elements are to be seen as creating the tensions of a poem just as totally as do those other objects create what we know as the world.”
What neither Olson nor Williams explains is how a new aesthetic should emerge around the notion of “objects” when what actually constitutes an object or thing remains in dispute after several millennia of some very smart people trying. A very old view and one to which many poets still subscribe is the commonsense view of physical objects, i.e. that they exist independent of our perception of them. Why is this important? Because whole generations of poets have largely turned away from ideas to locating just the “right word”, the “right image” to capture the “essence” of things or at the very least those essential characteristics of objects that become important to the poem.
The results have been mixed. Uninteresting or very bad poets behave as if there really is a strict demarcation between themselves and the objects that make up the world around them, at which point the job of the poem becomes simply to ensure that it mirrors the “real” world. Other poets recognize an interrelationship between themselves and objects. They understand implicitly that we have no way of knowing objects except by way of our several senses and that far from being an unreliable source of information, our experience, our senses are a primary and continual source for the variety and ambiguity and richness that makes up the real world of object and subject and the making of poems.
This “representational” view of the world is derived from a long line of philosophic enquiry that began with Plato and culminated in the speculative work of Rene Descartes. What intrigued Descartes, and later Immanuel Kant, is the place that ideas or concepts play in this representational construction of the universe. For his part, Kant gave ideas equal place in our understanding of the world: “Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind.”
But don’t take Kant’s word for it; simply observe a child charmed by the light of Christmas tree lights who later reaches out and touches what appears to be identical in shape and intent – a burning candle flame - only to recoil in pain when her idea of a thing fails to match her experience. It’s a way of understanding (or misunderstanding) the world that stays with us, adjudicated by how the ideas we have about the world and our experience of it converge or diverge. When what we believe is validated by our experience we have that wonderful sensation of “getting it right”. When our experience confounds what we’ve been led to believe though our education, our parents etc we’re momentarily deflated and must start back at the beginning - but not by dismissing ideas but by adjusting them or looking for better ones.
Ultimately, all our ideas coalesce into a large schema of the world that is continually being tested – not in university classrooms, but in our daily experience, ideas filtered and synthesized through experience and ultimately providing a coherent picture of the world.
So why have so many poets failed to appreciate this fact or worse still turned their back on the enormous richness and variety of ideas that are available to them and that might be useful in the one experience that matters most to them – the writing of poetry? Why have they focussed with such enormous strain upon the image of things at the expense of what they think and feel about those things and what all this might mean for their work and for their readers?
The answer is that we’ve been hoodwinked into believing ideas, however broadly you define them, are off limits to poets.
Even Williams and Olson understood that their aesthetic could not survive without ideas. As Olson said in the quote above, “every element” - and that includes sense - must be “taken up as participants in the kinetic of the poem just as solidly as we are accustomed to take what we call the objects of reality.” Speech and the words from which speech is derived are “prior to all you are, and more necessary to you...than your toes, or your opposable thumb.” The question remains then of what this speech and these words comprise. Answer to the first question, says Olson: the spoken unit of speech, the syllable. Answer to the second: the head, the intellect, ideas.
“I am dogmatic, that the head shows in the syllable. The dance of the intellect is there, among them, prose or verse. Consider the best minds you know in this here business: where does the head show, is it not, precise, here, in the swift currents of the syllable?”
To say that Olson suppresses the importance of the intellect and ideas is not to say that he rejects them outright. And why would you want to? After all, there’s a reason you’re bored to tears as someone drones on at so many poetry readings. It’s because an important part of you is not being engaged.
One reason David Zieroth won the Governor General’s Award for poetry last year is his courage in tackling ideas. A case in point: his poem “Man in the Ice Fog” where the speaker “tries to believe that somewhere sun/shines hard on beaches, hot dog buns/scrambling children, waves, a seaside town/laughing at its own leisure”. The effort here is not to assemble an inventory of objects as a way to conjure up feelings of longing or loss, but to test their reality, to question the substance of things and of existence itself:
…The man in the fog scuffs
his shoe against the cold unforgiving
stones; their grey blank layers don’t change,
he knows, for even in day-bright they’re strange
unremarkable chunks – like him today
earthbound, unable to walk beyond this mist
It’s clear that Zieroth’s poems emerge as a result of both ideas and images. Some ideas are very complex, like the nature of reality and existence explored here and elsewhere in his work. Other ideas are less so and as Zieroth explained in my recent interview with him (Speaking of Poems January 29) can result “from snatches of conversation. The people around me—at coffee shops, on buses, in conversation—are natural suppliers of ideas and lines and titles.” After a reading a few years ago Ken Babstock also talked about how “an idea would come to him” before he begins to write a poem.
What William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson really opposed was not so much ideas as unwarranted abstraction. Both pursued their objections to abstraction in their famous long poems about cities, Paterson and The Maximus Poems. It reminded me that I have agreed to stand up in front of Victoria City Council on May 13 and read a poem and also that nowhere do abstractions occur more frequently than in the political and administrative arms of large political bureaucracies. So what should a poem before city hall do but remind politicians and bureaucrats of the lives lived out beyond the confines of city hall and the policies on parkland, poverty and down town beautification.
I want to say to them that reading poems helps bring all that back to us and then read a poem to illustrate the fact, not to read a poem about cities necessarily, but about life. So that’s where you come in. Suggest a poem that reminds us about life, in whatever form it takes, the ground of our being or of our landscape, and I’ll read it May 13.
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