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Where the Words Come From:
Canadian Poets in Conversation


by Edited by Tim Bowling
255 pages,
ISBN: 0889711844


Post Your Opinion
Outside the Petri Dish of the Poetic Imagination
by Andrew Steinmetz

Where the Words Come From: owes its existence to Tim Bowling who modestly asserts in the introduction that his role in the entire production "was a minor one." This is far from the truth. Bowling set out to mark the loss of Al Purdy in 2000 by first soliciting "A collection of interviews pairing younger and/or less well-known poets with some of our countries most celebrated practitioners of the art." The pairings cover a wide range, from Avison to Zwicky. (For those interested, please see the footnote for a complete list of the interview pairings.)
Of particular value, these interviews were all completed within a specific time frame (beginning after Purdy's death in 2000, until sometime before publication, in 2002). Thus we're offered an historical record, a one-time snapshot and simultaneous translation (remember these bards come to us in conversation, not in their native verse) of what a cross-cut of Canadian poets think about their craft.
It's no surprise that these interviews resonate together, and going through them, there is a cumulative effect which mimics the creative process involved in reading a book of poems. Soon we can associate and compare so and so's idea of "the nostalgia for the present" (Stephanie Bolster) with someone else's personal belief that poetry "comes out of one's connection with the dead" (Eric Ormsby). Unlikely associations are made by the reade, insights are sparked. And it all makes sense for a little while, in a way that it seldom does outside the petri-dish of the poetic imagination.
Bowling extends his influence further by his reasonable insistence that the interviewers ask three 'required' questions. This lends the collection some coherence without over-burdening the whole process. The first of these questions is about the origins of the poetic voice. Another measures the individual's own feelings towards reviews, competitions, and awards. And a last question asks each poet to reflect on how their career and their ideas on writing and reading poetry have changed since their youth. As a core group of concerns, the questions provide useful landmarks and the answers give points of comparison as the reader flips from interview to interview.
While the subtitle "Canadian Poets in Conversation" might sound like a series of tea and biscuit moments, be warned, not all interviews were done face to face. It is apparent that some were completed through the mail. Others, for instance, like that of Don Coles and Stephanie Bolster, by e-mail. Coles's electronic blocks of solid text are crammed with variations and permutations of opinion. His commas, dashes, quotation marks, and brackets hound his clauses and parentheses, and appear on the page as the tiny lapping waves of punctuation, an artefact of his ratchet-like mind. This is data-entry of a kind, not conversing. And this, contrasts surprisingly with the clarity and measured lines of Coles's verse. I for one will never again read K. in Love without pausing to think of this discrepancy. Discoveries of this nature, one of the added delights of a book like this, will certainly vary from reader to reader.
The most successful interviews, to my mind, were ones conducted in the old-fashioned person-to-person manner. In these an actual dialogue takes place and the spontaneity creates its own point of view. Take note of Margaret Atwood interviewed by Norm Sacuta. Atwood is as ever a straight-shooter: confident, combative, honest, and dismissive. She makes clear statements with never a doubt or psychological hesitation. "There's no progress in art. There's change." About the avant-garde or cutting edge she reports: "Óusually it means they are using a razor that was in use 150 years ago and people have forgotten about it. 'Sound poetry' was very cutting edge when it began, this wave of it, but what was it really? Chanting. And chanting is very old." And in response to Bowling's required question on the origin of the poetic voice, Atwood is no handmaid of the sublime: "Zero. Zero explanation. I have no ideaÓI don't know where it comes from, I've never known where it comes from and I don't want to know where it comes from."
Interestingly, the successful novelists of the group¨ Ondaatje and Atwood¨betray a distinct above-the-fray self-assuredness. Neither can be drawn into microscopic analyses of their line-breaks. (Dennis Lee can be. And it's wonderful). Ondaatje contrives to describe one appeal of poetry as, "That sweet disorder in the dress." That's Ondaatje as we've come to know him. From both Atwood and Ondaatje we get more personality than poetics. Perhaps they know better. Think about it: while the preponderance of Canadian poets-turned-novelists has made success story material, the opposite venture seems wrongheaded, or un-newsworthy. When is the last time we celebrated a novelist-turned-poet? There must be something to this.
A much more relaxed Ken Babstock interviews Don McKay and we all benefit when a sit-down chat in the kitchen evolves into a Socratic dialogue. Here the interview format works in a give-and-take manner. It's successful because we learn as much about and from Babstock as we do about and from McKay. Here's a sample on music in poetry:

KB: It is about the ear, for me. I have to confess to concentrating more attention on what I'm hearing in a line than to what the line might actually be saying.

DM: You know, if you're going to have an imbalance I think that's the right one to have, isn't it? I find most beginning poets want to say something and they're worried about getting the statement out there and not really hearing that music.

Margaret Avison and P.K. Page are the elder stateswomen of the pack. Avison is the antidote for those who shudder at the thought of a class of subsidized poetry professionals. Avison comes off hardnosed, sincere, and dedicated. To answer Bowering's question as to how the writing of poetry has changed over the years, Avison is especially enlightening: she says she never applied for a CC grant and was (frankly) taken aback the first time she ever heard of a creative writing class ("such a class").
Bowling's decision to make pairings of poets, rather than give the job of interviewing to a critic or reviewer, inspires the good spirited, and often casual, discussions. There are some things a poet would only say to another poet, and we, as readers "listening in," gain from their exchanges. But as often as not, we must also overlook their vanity. Insularity does nothing to curb the self-congratulatory attitude of the "we are the initiate" kind.
Bowling remarks in his introduction that the content of the interviews is too varied to generalize (and that's true), but he can't escape from noticing "how often the idea of silence comes up." He reflects that "the act of writing poetry is so often informed by the idea of not writing poetry." What in the pleasure principle is going on here? Along the same lines, Jan Zwicky tells us that what is important in poetry is "the imprint of the unsayable on what is said." I found it interesting that we can't even describe poetry without stepping in it or falling into the obscure. I found it equally compelling that Zwicky's Zen-like paradox, evocative as it is, relies on pared down language to manage a metaphor that relates reading poetry with the finding of fossils.
Another observation, perhaps related to the above, is that a surprising number of European poets and prose writers are cited as inspiration and turn up again and again in these pages, most noticeable among them, Paul Celan. It makes one wonder. Could there be a connection between the historical forces that crushed Celan into near silence and the crush of Canada's immeasurable land and wilderness on the Canadian poetic imagination? More than a couple of poets mused about the challenge of dealing in verse with the immensity of our Land.
Finally, Carmine Starnino asks Eric Orsmby, "Are things that can't be expressed in poetry?" To which Orsmby replies:
Dante thought so¨he struggles with that problem in the Paradiso. Certain things seem to be inexpressible, but maybe that is because we are still incapable of expressing them. Like every one else I have intuitions and premonitions and what Henry James called 'glimmerings' every day, which I doubt that I could formulate into poetry. But I wonder is the drawback of poetry or of myself? I am sure that it is the latter; I have the strong presumption that anything which we can feel we can also express, if only because language and feeling are inextricably bound up with each other.

Oddly enough there is sanity and hope in assigning "the drawback" to ourselves, poets or not. This type of reasoning is humanism at its shinning best. It sent me back to the library, as Bowling, in his introduction, encourages the reader to do, in search of that something I can never quite put my finger on.

Andrew Steinmetz's first poetry collection, Histories, was nominated for the A.M. Klein poetry prize in 2001. He lives in Montreal.

The full line-up is: P.K Page interviewed by Christine Wiesenthal; Michael Ondaatje by David O'Meara; Don McKay by Ken Babstock; Patrick Lane by Russell Thornton; Sharon Thesen by Helen Humphreys; Don Coles by Stephanie Bolster; Roo Borson by Julie Bruck; Jan Zwicky by Anne Simpson; Dennis Lee by Brian Bartlett; Lorna Crozier by Elizabeth Phillips; Margaret Avison by Sally Ito; Tim Lilburn by Shawna Lemay; Miriam Waddington by Barbara Nickel; Eric Ormsby by Carmine Starnino; Margaret Atwood by Norm Sacuta; Phyllis Webb by Jay Ruzesky; and Don Domanski by S.D. Johnson.
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