In May of this year, I suggested to Dennis Lee that the time might have come for a fresh, mid-stride summing-up of his work, considering that his new and selected poems, Nightwatch (McClelland & Stewart), had just come out. The result was two full mornings of conversation in June, taped on an inferior dictaphone at my kitchen table.
As Lee has said, what stays in his writing is what doesn't go away during revision. So it was with the sprawling transcript of our conversation, which was chopped up, shuffled, scrutinized, compacted, and rewritten. What follows is a harvesting of about five thousand words out of this conversation, which ran to over six times that length, although what remains is closer to my sense of what we said to each other than the transcript itself is. In a lifetime of writing (and, I think, two lifetimes of rewriting), it seems that Lee has made one of the difficult transitions a writer must make, from asking, "What do I want to say?" to "What does the work want to say?" The distinction may sound esoteric, but anyone who has struggled with getting themselves out of the way of what they're writing will know that it is an obstacle long in overcoming.
MR: What was it like to winnow down thirty years of work?
DL: It was a bit daunting, because it's so all over the map. There were five longer poems and sequences to select from. Maybe forty individual poems-which is all I've written, believe it or not. And then children's poems, light verse, song lyrics.
MR: Why not represent all of it?
DL: I tried, but it kept not working; the lighter poems and the more substantial ones kept getting in each other's way. It was the damnedest thing. I'd hoped the range would be exhilarating: you know, from Alligator Pie to Civil Elegies. But no matter how I arranged it the playful things didn't have room to play, and the weightier ones didn't have room to be weighty. Finally I realized I could have a shaggy baggy Collected, or I could have a really tight Selected. But I couldn't have both. Stan Dragland, my editor, was a big help with sorting this out.
MR: So you made Nightwatch a selection of the adult poetry.
DL: That's right, and it's very spare. There are four of the major pieces, and then a section of shorter poems, including a handful of children's things. Once I'd recovered from the shock, I liked the way that feels. It sets the stakes pretty high-everything here has earned its way in.
MR: One thing is I miss is that movement in the first section of The Gods, with all the erotic poetry. In one of your interviews you discussed it as a progress from idolatry in physical love to there being something larger that you put yourself in service to. Here you've kept the poem "The Gods", but we no longer have the lead-in.
DL: I miss that too, but you can't have everything. The goofy little love poems, like "Yip Yip" for instance-they're the sort of thing I ran with ten years later, in Riffs. And in a Collected you could show that development. But here it just got in the way of the overall flow. Once we'd decided to have a single section of shorter poems, it had to tell a new story, not try to preserve the old ones.
MR: Poets sometimes say their poetry writes them, meaning that it embodies some version of themselves that they scarcely recognize. When you were working on the story of Nightwatch, did you ever have a sense of being written that way? Or rewritten?
DL: For sure: editing does it as much as writing. Suppose you've got a poem that's pretty bleak, for instance. If you put it at the beginning of a series, that suggests one version of the poet's progress: he starts off in the pits, and then clambers out. If you put it at the end, you tell the opposite story-even though all the poems may be the same. You can't avoid it, the sequence is going to compose some version of you. But which one is true? Or is that kind of truth something you even worry about? All you can do is follow your best hunches.
MR: Let's clarify something. The Selected takes its title from a new sequence, "Nightwatch", which is a suite of a dozen poems. But two of the poems in it are long, late-night meditations, and each one is called "Nightwatch" as well.
DL: Right. It sounds confusing, but I think it's clear as you read.
MR: When you read the shorter poems in "Nightwatch", many of them have this sustained-almost breathlessness to them, as if they couldn't have been tinkered with after they first came out-it's as if they simply appeared the way they are.
DL: That's very gracious. It might be connected with the sense they give people, that they come directly out of the life of the poet; that you're crawling right inside a guy called "Dennis Lee". I know my stuff does that at times, gives the reader a feeling of emotional nakedness. People sometimes ask me, doesn't it make me feel exposed? And the odd thing is that if the poem works, I don't feel exposed at all.
My job-I think my job is to find the grain of what it's like to be human, and live that through in words. And if I can manage that, there's going to be this sense of utter intimacy. You know? The thing sort of sneaks under the fence of literature, it gets into your system, your body almost. But whether or not that expresses my private feelings-that's not what the exercise was about. I have my own feelings, but I wasn't writing a diary.
MR: The question of who's speaking to us in these poems is interesting. You say it may not be important whether it's Dennis Lee the writer, or "Dennis Lee", a quasi-fictional construct. But in "Nightwatch" there's a feeling of intimacy that we don't have in the earlier sequences. In Civil Elegies, for instance, where the speaker is an observer sitting in Nathan Phillips Square. He's a character you may associate with the author, but he has this sort of border to him, his concerns are limited to the project of the poem.
DL: Yes, very much.
MR: Same thing in The Death of Harold Ladoo. You have this man who-
DL: He has more of a private life, doesn't he?
MR: It creeps in, yes, but it's still marginal. Then you move to Riffs, and here is a poem that's ostensibly very personal, but as you've said somewhere, the narrative has gone through a fictionalizing process to give it shape. And this is what's so different about "Nightwatch". The "I" of these poems is very close to us.
DL: "Nightwatch" is different that way, and there's a particular reason. The guy has come to a point where taking stock of his life is his major homework-it's one of those scary seasons we enter, oh, maybe a handful of times. Where we have to test ourselves by saying the worst out loud. And that wrestle is the central action of the poem. He's made big changes, and now he's asking himself what it's all been about. How well has he lived?
I wanted the reader to wrestle along with the speaker, and feel the shock of recognition: yes, this is what it feels like to get down on the mat, ask the hard questions-I know that kind of zero hour myself. But that means the speaker has to wrestle with specific things. You know? He can't just say, "Why did I pour myself into my job so blindly for twenty-five years? I no longer believe in what I've been doing"-without saying a word about what his job consists of. If it's all generic, it doesn't ring true. In fact I tried to write it that way, and I didn't believe it myself.
MR: Would you actually have made him a stockbroker, or a bootlegger or something?
DL: Sure, if it helped the poem.. But the thing is, I'm not a fiction writer. The knack of getting exactly the tiny detail that clinches the thing-I could never have done that if I was trying to imagine how a man who drives a taxi would question his life, or a man who's never been married. All the little corner-of-the-eye specifics would have been wrong. So I took the plunge, and worked as directly from my own life as the poem demanded. Not to write my own autobiography; in those terms, the poem is inaccurate through and through. But to get to where biographical details can fall away. So yes, it's very personal. And no, I don't feel exposed-at least, no more than anybody else who reads it. The exposure is in the human truth it reaches, not the private details.
MR: Readers might have a similar reaction to Riffs, wondering who that voice is. Although they're separate poems, even separate phenomena, you can certainly see that Riffs and "Nightwatch" are both tracing a kind of mid-life crisis. I'm curious if the two poems cross-pollinated.
DL: Well, at one point I thought they were a single sequence-I mean a 150-page poem, something like that. I was working on them simultaneously for about eight years. But thank goodness I gave up the idea of trying to glue them together. The love affair in Riffs has such a fractured intensity in the voice, you couldn't just cut to the voice of
MR: We've ended up with eighty-eight riffs. How many were there originally?
DL: About 1500.
MR: You're kidding! Are you talking about 1500 complete, polished poems?
DL: No no, not at all. I wrote about a thousand of them in a three-month period, back in 1981. My marriage had broken up, I'd started into a love affair where the woman had gone away, and I was falling through space. And I began scribbling these weird little honks and blues, night after night, in voices I'd never heard. Dash one down, draw a line, start the next. Most of them were dreck, but next morning I would type up the ones that had this funny ping. Then it took me about twelve years to make a coherent sequence out of them.
MR: But the ones you finally used-did they stay in that first, spur-of-the-moment form?
DL: Only a few.
MR: Do you remember which ones? What about number 3? "How/ hooked I- / honey how/ hooked &/ horny."?
DL: That's maybe a fifth or sixth draft. And let's see: "Home-spooked/ hotline", number 6, that's very close to the original. I remember it astonished me; it came right at the beginning, but I didn't write this way!. Or number 10, "They/ mock at me, poor/ sensibles": that's an amalgam of three or four.
MR: So some of them got crunched together.
DL: Yeah. Plus some of them I think of as riffs, and others as poems, and the poems were always revised a lot.
MR: You make a distinction between a riff and a poem?
DL: I hardly know what it means, but yes. In the poems the speaker is more, you feel the consciousness has at least a bit of a distance on what's going on. In the riffs, the focal length is about a millionth of a centimetre.
MR: So the riffs tend to be rawer. And they give the reader the sense that they popped out exactly as they are, straight onto the page.
DL: That's how they have to feel. But did they, or didn't they? It doesn't matter a bit. This is a written love affair, remember. The sense of winging it, of improvising words as the story unfolds, is something I had to achieve. Even if it meant doing a hundred drafts of a five-line riff, till it felt completely spontaneous.
MR: There's this mini-sequence near the end of "Nightwatch", the group called "Night Songs". I know there were more than you have in the final version. What happened with them?
DL: Oh boy, "Night Songs"! That was close. I wrote them near the end, when I was going to have to take my hands off soon-off the sequence, and off the whole Selected. It was almost time for typesetting. And I still didn't know how the sequence was going to end. Well, I knew it would end with "Hunger" and "Heart Residence", which are those final, more resolved poems. But it had to get there somehow, and I thought it still needed another long meditative piece. Except I'd been working on this bloody sequence for ten years, and I'd only written two nightwatches that worked. Did I really think I could get a third in the blink of an eye? So doing this group of songs was a mixture of desperation and just walking blindly towards something you needed, and finding it was there.
I began sitting in the back yard, working on short pieces-I was still ducking that third nightwatch. And by the fourth or fifth, I realized, Hey, these could be a suite in themselves. Instead of feeding into another tormented five-page ramble, they could simply be a group of lyrics. We would see the guy at a later stage in this whole raw process he's going through, but he-in that shorter, more lyrical breath he's happy with now, there'd be a totally different sense of where he's arrived. So then they fell into place in a couple of months.
MR: How about the four "blue psalms", how did they arrive?
DL: That was another surprise. At first there were going to be three of the longer nightwatch pieces, where the guy sits up late at night, drinking and asking himself what it's all about. And I also wanted some shorter morning-after poems, where he has to stitch himself back together, get on with the next day. They were a sort of a buffer-zone between nightwatches.
But then part way through I found myself writing a couple of pieces in a different voice again. They seemed to come out of some larger space, as if you'd accidentally tuned the receiver to a frequency you didn't know was there. And a lot of the scabby, particular stuff came into a calmer perspective. The voice had a funny serenity; it reminded me of some of the psalms, and also that weathered, impersonal voice you hear in the greatest blues.
For a while, I figured this must be where the sequence was heading. We'd fight our way through all the pain and self-recrimination, and then emerge into calm at the end. I thought I might write twenty or thirty of them. But that was perfect plan #1017, and it went down the tube like all the rest. I discovered a much more potent way of positioning them. I think a friend suggested it: you could space them out through the whole sequence, starting right after the first nightwatch. So you got a sense of the guy's struggle going on at different levels simultaneously. He's down on the pigsty floor, with the midlife sweats. But in the midst of that, he has access-occasionally at least-to this kind of burnished, inexplicable hope and assurance. It doesn't forestall any of his emotional homework; but it's there, and it's just as real. That was a simple shift, but it opened the whole sequence up.
MR: What happened to that third nightwatch?
DL: Actually, I think there were going to be four or five. I had thousands of drafts, but they got stripped for parts. And a lot got thrown away. It's still a mystery to me, why a longer meditative poem will suddenly kick in during the writing and take off under its own steam. And another one, even with the same material, will just sit there inert. I don't know how many versions of "Nightwatch" I had where you'd get a couple of pages in and just start muttering, When is this bloody thing going to begin? There's no forward movement at all! So I chopped things out, I moved them around, I rewrote endlessly. Or I'd stick in new things I thought would jazz it up, and the sequence would still stay in neutral.
Putting the blue psalms earlier did a lot to help, but there were other, more mysterious.. The fact is, I don't understand what creates that forward momentum, when you finally tap into it. All I do is mess around till the energy kicks in. But the words on the page are not the energy. The words are the track of the energy, the spoor-I hardly even know what that means. I'm flailing here, trying to point at the inner life of the poem. But it's inscrutable. You can feel it when it's there, but you can't lay your hands on what makes it exist.
MR: In the essay "Cadence, Country, Silence", you discuss the source of your writing. And you speak of what you call cadence as a "luminous tumult", an ineffable rhythm you tune in to that maybe we should think of as Dennis Lee's muse, for lack of a better way of describing it. It feels as if it has a universal presence, like a sort of radio-wave full of voices. But it also has a local dimension; you say, "Cadence issues in part from civil space."
Is there such a thing as a Canadian cadence? Not at the level of speech patterns, but in this deeper rhythm that you experience.
DL: Well, let me stress that there's nothing theoretical about it. Cadence isn't something I think poets should write from. I'm trying to find a name for something in my daily writing experience, this kinaesthetic tumble that's prior to words. I called it "cadence", but I could have called it Fred. And it would never have occurred to me to talk about it, or even think it existed, if I hadn't experienced it over a number of years.
When I wrote the essay, in 1972, I was trying to make sense of that undermusic. I had lucked into a voice that worked: the big, tumbling public tone of the first version of the Elegies. But then I hit a dry spell; I stopped being able to write poetry at all for four years. How come? That's what the essay explored.
MR: You connected the dry spell with being a colonialized writer, didn't you?
DL: I connected it first with the more stilted, writing-from-the-outside approach I started with in my twenties, and that Kingdom of Absence, my first book, suffered from-boy, did it ever! And I connected that with having grown up in a cultural colony. Not being able to use words authentically, that felt as if it was because England and the States were more real to my imagination than my own time and place. So I started with a colonized imagination. I mean, I had no theory about colonialism, I didn't think I was colonial at all; I could talk about the latest literary fashion in New York as well as anybody else! And then I had to find my way to a deeper relation to words, more rooted in my own life.
MR: It sounds like your mental radio was overrun with other frequencies. Was it in fact a Canadian signal you eventually homed in on?
DL: Well, it felt like home, and I'm Canadian; so yes. Though if you're asking, "Is there a single Canadian way of writing from cadence?", no, I don't think there is. That would be too programmatic. In my essay on Al Purdy, at the end of his Collected, I suggested he was the first poet to catch our communal way of being here. Not just in his content, but in his music. He found an authentic Canadian voice. But when other poets do the same, they won't necessarily sound like Purdy. Listening to the deep music is what matters, not reproducing the externals of somebody else's voice. So other authentic Canadian inflections of cadence may sound very different.
MR: In a 1972 interview, you said, "To transcend regionalism and become a national writer, I sure as hell wouldn't want to waste any time trying." But in Civil Elegies, you do address the nation itself. Are you more of a regional writer, or are you a national one? Or does this even apply as a frame of discourse for you in 1996?
DL: Let me flap around a bit.. One way or another, you've got to write from your roots. And mine included the experience of the absence of roots. My parents were part of that huge shift in the forties and fifties, when people moved in droves from the farms and small towns into brand-new city suburbs. In their case it was Etobicoke, in western Toronto. So I had no sense of the earlier generations I'd come from. And of course in that vacuum, wham, we got hit with the movies and comic books and pop music of the Great Republic. So it was a double distancing from the past.
I started to realize in my twenties that this wasn't the way things had to be. People everywhere weren't this cut off from their roots. And I began to chafe, and feel that people where I came from had acquiesced too easily in this kind of modernization. They could have claimed their communal lives much more resonantly. Look at the amazing country we live in! They could have done more than just sell it off, or use it as an incidental backdrop to make money in, scuttle home, go to church.
MR: Are you saying this rootlessness is an essential part of being Canadian?
DL: For a start, I'm saying that Civil Elegies is a regional poem, an Upper Canadian one. Though I didn't realize it at the time. It's about "Canada", but it comes out of the deracination that prevailed in central Canada after World War II. Where the American takeover was progressing the fastest. But if the experience of somebody who grew up in Cape Breton or Saskatchewan was different from mine, I celebrate that. Or somebody whose family came here from Vietnam twenty years ago: their experience of Canada has its own shape, and it's just as valid.
But I'm afraid I'd say Toronto just got the bad news first. If anybody tells me we live in a country that has preserved its particularities, claimed its own right of self-determination, I have to ask what universe they're living in. Because local ways are going down like flies. The country has eroded much farther than twenty-five years ago.
MR: So we're still a colonized country, with a colonized imagination?
DL: Oh lord yes. We're vastly more so. The Mounties have been franchised to Disney. It makes me livid, the scale of the takeover.
MR: Wasn't it hard to get this kind of political material into poetry?
DL: Tell me about it. The only thing I knew was that in a poem, your first concern can't be with any of this stuff at the level of ideas. Your real subject is an experience-the experience of wrestling with what your heart desires.
DL: Meaning a country to belong to. And that you're writing a meditation, not an editorial. You've got to enact the wrestle itself, the movements of thought and feeling-enact them right in the texture of the writing. Not just itemize the steps in a polemical argument. That's why I have so much invested in scoring the poem: even back with the Elegies I did, when I was still learning the craft. So much of the feeling in meditative poetry lies in the circling around and coming back and brooding and spurting ahead, all those deep rhythmic things. That's where the bite of experience is, the tang of particularity. A line-break can be a stammer or a second thought, it can be a heartache. And as you read a meditative poem, you've got to let your body move with that flow of feeling, or you've never entered the poem at all. If you can't respond to the music, you might as well be reading a car manual.
MR: In several places, you address your poetry to "people". In The Death of Harold Ladoo, for instance, you say, "People, people I speak from/ private space.." And in "Heart Residence" you say, "People, I hear we are catastrophe." I don't think I've seen exactly that stance in another Canadian poem; there's almost the sense of a prophet speaking.
Who's speaking in these passages, and who are "people"?
DL: Gack. That takes me off-balance. I guess all I can tell you is that "people" is there because that's the word that came. And it didn't go away during revision, when I test things pretty hard.
But it's more than just the word, isn't it? "People" is a whole gesture; it invokes an audience, as you say, and it also situates the voice in the neighbourhood of something powerful, something with an authority of its own.. Sometimes when you're working on a poem-this doesn't happen to me often, but I've experienced it-sometimes you find the poem unexpectedly making some strong, clean move that comes through with a surge of rightness. You get a word, a phrase, a couple of lines-they arrive with a kind of subterranean certainty, as if you're connecting with a source that already validates them. Often it happens more quietly, more effortlessly, than with some piddly little passage that doesn't contribute a whole lot, but you have to keep revising it for years. Whereas one of these deep clean gestures.I don't think I've spent ten seconds thinking about this, because that is how "people" came through-with that sense of authority. So there wasn't anything to think about; I just felt, okay, that's where the poem goes next, let's go with it.
Which both answers the question and doesn't, right? A line like "People, I hear we are catastrophe" taps into something more profound than my day-to-day self. My good sense was to get out of the way, and let it come through. But my limitation is that I can't say anything cogent about what the power is. I just know it belongs in the poem.
MR: I wanted to ask you about another line in Ladoo: "Why should I tell it like a poem? Why not speak the truth?" That's kind of terrible, isn't it-in what it says about poetry?
DL: There's an even worse one in the Elegies, where he's looking at the sculpture by Moore. Let's see: ".I knew that stark heraldic form is not /great art. For it is real, great art is less than its necessity." And you're right, it's pretty terrible. You can feel the contemptuous quotation marks around "great art". But I stand by that, even though I'm often indicted by the contempt myself. Because if "poetry" is what skilful poets make up, then I don't want to write poetry. It can't be just about turning out well-made artifacts-even though they're not easy to make, somebody like Richard Wilbur is proof of that. I know I've committed my share, and part of me cringes when I re-read them.
Some of the wrestle in Nightwatch is a matter of trying to get straight about this. What's really happening in the blaspheming of poetry and art is that the vehemence and scorn are directed at myself, before anybody else. It's an attempt to wrench myself away from settling for too little. If I fail at something, I want to fail at the real thing.
MR: Over the years, do you feel people have come to understand what you're trying to do?
DL: Well, in terms of individual readers, I'm blessed. People write and tell me my poetry means a lot to them, and that touches me. But in terms of the overall critical climate, there isn't much of a match so far.
It's funny. I love the modern masters, and I've learned from them; but I'm not interested in imitating them. I had to make a fresh beginning on my own. So my stuff doesn't fit into the ways of reading that work for a lot of contemporary poetry.
MR: In your essay "Polyphony" you talk about the difference between the content of a poem and the sound of a poem. It seems most readers are trained to read what things mean, not how they sound.
DL: "Sound" here would have an extended sense for me. I'm not a whole lot of an eye poet, and I'm only partly an ear poet. But I'm entirely a body poet. The language our muscles speak, the way they explore things kinaesthetically, through movement and stress-the music of what I do comes out of that. Like in dance, or play.
MR: The music comes from the body.
DL: Exactly. It's body English. Even when the mind and the spirit are involved. And the way my poetry is scored on the page is pressing all the time to penetrate more and more fully into that kinaesthetic dance. Sure, the content matters. But the more readers could hear a poem on the page, hear it out loud with their bodies, the happier I'd be. That's where so much of the meaning lies.
MR: Is that where your notion of polyphony comes from?
DL: What my body hears is a rich, multi-layered kind of music. It's intoxicating, it makes me wild. And to keep up with it, I have to move from voice to voice in the poem, and orchestrate the changes. So you'll hear a deep throbbing, say, and then a squawk, and then a wistful soaring cadenza. They're all part of the energy of cadence.
MR: I think you help readers toward that by the scoring you do, but also by people hearing you read. I've listened to you read "Heart Residence" a number of times, and each time the poem seems to be more of an organic thing.
DL: Yeah, that feels to me like the way poetry should be, that body music. My stuff still just gestures at it, but that's a start.
Michael Redhill is a writer and editor. His new collection of poetry Asphodel will come out with McClelland & Stewart next spring.