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How to Give Poetic Prose a Good Name - Eva Tihanyi speaks with Anne Michaels
by Eva Tihanyi

Anne Michaels was born in 1958 in Toronto, where she still lives. She is the author of two poetry collections: The Weight of Oranges (1986), which won the Commonwealth Prize for the Americas, and Miner's Pond (1991), which won the Canadian Authors Association Award and was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award and the Trillium Award.
As well, she has composed music for theatre and has taught writing programs in a number of Toronto schools.
Fugitive Pieces (1996), her first novel, has been widely praised, to use the words of Rosemary Sullivan, for "its beauty, its integrity, its humanity."
This interview took place in a quiet corner of a downtown Toronto restaurant. Michaels answered each question thoughtfully, punctuating her answers with frequent pauses in an attempt to formulate the exact wording for which she was reaching.

ET: It's been reported that Fugitive Pieces took you anywhere between nine and fifteen years to write. Just for the sake of historical accuracy, when did you get the idea for the book and how long did you spend writing it?

AM: I got the idea for the book first in 1980 and did nothing about it other than circle around it till the end of 1986. At that point I started to seriously explore the research material and think very carefully about how I was going to approach the subject-matter. I spent off and on from 1986 to 1996 working on it, but I wrote Miner's Pond and part of another book of poems in the interim. I wanted to be able to dive as deeply into the historical material as I felt I needed to and then let myself truly absorb that material, because there's a huge difference between gathering facts and trying to distill meaning from facts. Especially facts that seem senseless, incomprehensible.

ET: Did you do a lot of rewriting?

AM: Endlessly. Whole drafts. Because a fair amount of what goes on in the book goes on in the in-between, and the information that's given in the scenes is so carefully chosen that the relation between scenes and what's not said should be as potent as what is there. That took a long time. One of the characters says, "Questions without answers should be asked very slowly," and definitely this was the case in researching this book.

ET: Speaking of the research-what kind did you do and how much? You seem to be well-versed in a lot of different areas: archaeology, geology, music.

AM: I read hundreds of books, Holocaust-related, World War II-related, military history, botany, biology, archaeology, Greek history. Often I would be searching for an answer to a specific question, but that question could be a very complicated one, [laughter] which would require going at it from various angles. So it was a combination of background information and very specific questions.

ET: How difficult was it to weave the scientific details into the novel?

AM: The characters, the obsessions of the characters, brought a lot of that material into the book. I would say that most-many-of the details operate on a metaphorical level. But I am conscious that metaphor comes from a very deep source and can't be imposed on a character, can't be imposed on a plot. It has to rise centrally from the events themselves. It comes from an absolutely intuitive place. It's very mysterious.

ET: What do you read when you're not researching?

AM: I read very eclectically. I read of a lot of non-fiction. I read a lot of science, a lot of history.

ET: You've published two acclaimed books of poetry. What brought you to the novel?

AM: I never set out deliberately to write a novel for the sake of writing a novel. I wasn't interested in doing that at all. I very much wanted to get at a story, a certain story, and it soon became obvious to me that the only way I was going to get to that story in the specific ways I was hoping to would be through fiction, not through poetry. I definitely felt agoraphobic [laughter] when I first started to realize that this story was going to be fiction rather than poetry. But very soon that became a wonderful challenge. And the balances of tension and momentum-often I thought of it as a piano, the book as a whole with a huge amount, hundreds of pounds, of tension being held in. The result is something which contains silences as well as sound. And that balance of tensions and momentums and metaphorical texture-it was, to me, a fascinating process.

ET: I understand that you are a composer as well as a writer. Do you see a relationship between your composing and your writing? Are they the same kind of process for you, or are they entirely different?

AM: They're very different. And at some point I realized that trying to do either well would mean attempting only one with any seriousness. I studied music since I was a child, have composed music for the theatre. The experience of composing for the theatre taught me a great deal about writing, because as a musician I looked very closely at the text. If you're composing for a play, whether the music is incidental or central, depending on what kind of play you're writing for, it's essential to enter into the writer's head as closely as you can, so that the music never works against what the writer is trying to do. Sometimes it's an achievement to write a score which seems to disappear in places, so integral that the audience isn't even aware of it.

ET: Your words in the novel are sort of like that. They become transparent and we see something on the other side of them. It's as if it's no longer so much the words we're looking at, though they're beautiful, but rather we're looking beyond them.

AM: That's wonderful! I aim so much when I write to make the reader stop reading in a way, to pause, to bring their experience to the experience of the book. Music connotes silence in very particular ways and that silence in a book, or the place where words take us in ourselves, that's a magical process. When I read, I'm looking for that myself. I had a letter from someone who said that when they read the book, they felt they were almost writing it as they read. There was an engagement of emotion and thought. That was such a wonderful thing to hear because reading is about transformation. And that's where music has a great power, because it enters your body, enters your nervous system, without mediation. It enters your brain, enters your memories-

ET: Is that what you want your words to do for the reader?

AM: Yes, that would be a fair analogy. The challenge of language and the challenge of making an intellectual idea, an image, carry emotional weight is something I find hard to resist.

ET: One journalist made the comment that your novel "threatens to give poetic prose a good name." How do you feel about the poetic prose label?

AM: I don't think "poetic prose" should be considered a nasty slur. [Laughter]

ET: Why does it have such a bad name?

AM: I think that people immediately think of poetry as being dense, unscalable, unplunderable, unplumbable [laughter] and forget that poetic prose can do many things, one of which is to bring the reader in very close to the emotional weight of the scene. There's a challenge in using language in a way that is exciting, intense, interesting. Why not try to do that?

ET: How difficult is it to sustain that kind of language, that kind of intensity, over three-hundred-odd pages?

AM: I think very much that it comes from the characters, the intensity of the characters. Their intensity becomes the intensity of language. I'm happy to hear that you feel the intensity is sustained, because that suggests that the intensity of the characters is sustained. Also, language itself is a redemption. It has power. Language had tremendous power in the Third Reich, so it seemed appropriate that the idea of language should have redemptive power here.

ET: Would you agree that Fugitive Pieces is more a language-driven novel than a plot-driven one?

AM: No, I would say absolutely not. The plot is highly focused. Characters act out of what they believe, what they think, and not only reactively to events, and not only emotionally. People can be driven to do things because of an idea, or want to do things because of an idea. This is something I wanted to explore in the book. War heightens that complex relationship-between large historical events and small human actions-large events of plot and the decisions of the characters. And then there can also be a great deal of plot buried in a small gesture, in walking across a room to open a door, huge plot implications in deciding to avert your eyes when you see an escaped prisoner across a field.

ET: What is the most interesting thing for you about being a writer?

AM: I think every book poses a different set of questions. And for me, both when I read and when I write, it's crucial that I feel something is at stake. That's very important to me. Otherwise, why bother, in a sense?

ET: So what was at stake when you wrote Fugitive Pieces?

AM: There were a number of things at stake for me. Part of the reason the book took as long as it did to write was because of what was at stake for me, personally as a human being and secondarily as a writer. The war material posed questions that I felt I wanted to address and come to some peace with-at least a temporary peace. There's also the issue of faith-faith used in the broadest sense-and for me the place that Jakob reaches in himself is the heart of the book. His recognition of autonomic faith, the body itself as a proof of faith. Athos teaches Jakob that the earth, the physical world, can help carry some of his grief and can be a kind of repository of memory, that the natural world can help him carry what is too much to carry. Much later Jakob takes this even further, when he imagines that faith can reside in the flesh, literally, autonomically, an autonomic function. And this is of course not reductive, but miraculous. Also at stake was wanting to do honour to the material.

ET: In what sense do you mean "honour"?

AM: Certain events are catastrophic and of global significance, but they're also intensely personal occurrences. The collision, the amplitude, the amplification of the personal into the historical, the bond between those two things, poses such pivotal questions that there isn't a lot of room for bulky intellectual constrictions. The truth, I think, is very small and very elusive. And these questions are too important to not attempt to try to get as close as you can. So I think I mean "honour" in that way. There are serious questions that I wanted to respect deeply.

ET: All your work seems in some way concerned with history, be it personal or larger. What is it about this subject that draws you?

AM: Part of it is the question of how one carries on after the worst thing. And if one is to find a faith, create a faith for one's self in life, how does one even begin to do that out of moral, personal, social catastrophe?

ET: Are you a religious person, in the large sense of the word?

AM: I am a great believer in the almost blunt pragmatism of life, and Jakob's autonomic faith is very close to how I see the world. The Third Reich made it illegal to refer to a Jew as a human being. The Jew became an object, less than an animal: a thing. In a sense the race laws were anti-matter. So in order to build from that place of total destruction, one almost has to look to matter in order to build faith from there.

ET: Would that be part of your bringing in of things like geology-

AM: Very much so.

ET: There's a line in one of your poems that stands out, at least for me, in connection with your novel: "The only experience not changed by recollection/ is horror." Why is horror exempt?

AM: I suppose in some sense horror is such a transformative experience in itself that it changes us utterly in that split second. All experience can be transformed by memory to a certain extent, but some experiences are more resistant to that than others. We choose to forget horror, I think, more often than we transform it in our memory.

ET: Jakob is a direct survivor of the Holocaust, has had the first-hand experience, whereas Ben is the son of survivors. Despite this difference, are there similarities between the two men?

AM: There are definitely similarities between them, definitely. Ben sees in Jakob a self that he is trying to achieve. In a sense, Jacob represents to Ben a place that he's trying to reach in himself.

ET: Do you believe in "heroism"? Is Jakob a hero?

AM: One of the interesting things about the Second World War particularly was that the victim, the subject of persecution, came from the heart of the society. Your next-door neighbour, your teacher, your butcher, your baker, your accountant, your child's best friend. These people were torn from the very centre of society. Any war reveals many degrees of heroism. The example I used before-about whether you're going to turn away when an escaped prisoner is running across a field, whether you choose to give water or bread at the risk of your own life... . At times of extremity, small actions carry enormous weight. And I think that's something we forget, that we, in fact, have an enormous amount of personal power to effect change, to do good, and that good doesn't have to be, necessarily, a grandiose gesture. The sense of powerlessness that people feel-I was hoping somehow to dispel that in some way in this book. Certainly the stakes are very high during war time, but in a sense they're always high.

ET: It is ironic that Jakob survives the Holocaust but dies when a car hits him while he's crossing a street. Do you believe in fate?

AM: I think that life is a combination of forces, and often how we feel about fate becomes part of our fate. There's a wonderful quote from the Ted Hughes translation of Oedipus. He says: "A man's fear of his fate is often his fate. Leaping to avoid it, he meets it." But, as for Jakob, perhaps one might see Jakob's death as proving that the shadow of history eventually overtakes us, that no-one slips through its net, that his life is not carried forward in the very tangible form of his child-but I think that would be to deny the rich life Jakob leads and which is carried forward into the next generation, in a sense, through Ben. And Jakob's death-perhaps it reflects more closely what Athos suggests in the book, that in the end we have more control over the largest human values than we have over the small random detail that "conspires into fate."

ET: The love between Jakob and Michaela is a powerful force in the last half of the book. Michaela "recognizes" Jakob and thereby seems to succeed in saving him in a way that Alex, his first wife, didn't. Is this "recognition of other" the key to redemption in a case like Jakob's?

AM: It's not that Michaela saves Jakob so much as that Jacob has gone through an arduous inner journey. The time that he spends on the island after the end of his first marriage, that dark time, that time of thought and formulation of ideas, brings him to the place where he can, in fact, bear to be recognized or bear to be seen. He has to live through this before he's ready to be recognized.

ET: Did you start with characters when the idea for the book came to you?

AM: Very much so. The characters were very insistent. In fact, I tried to ignore them for some time [laughter] because they seemed to me very daunting. But they chose me in a sense. I realize it's a cliché, but I didn't set about to choose male narrators, for instance. The characters just came to me.

ET: One reviewer said, and I quote: "Michaels serves her male characters better than her female ones. Women seem to serve only as goddesses of hope, redeemers of darkness." Would you comment?

AM: To say that Alex is a goddess of hope is, I think, a rather strange comment. Especially since it's Alex who helps push Jakob into the painful confrontation with his darkness. She's many things, but she's anything but purely good. She's human. I think the women are very alive, very complex, and match the male characters. I think there's a deep complexity in the women.

ET: How have your parents' views and experiences shaped your own view of the Holocaust?

AM: I think the best way I could put it is that the war was in the house, and, in fact, for someone of my generation, no matter what their cultural background, I think that that's true to varying degrees. Children soak up a lot of stories, whether in the home or outside it, and whether they choose to be buried or brought out later in life or remembered or forgotten or abandoned or confronted, these stories take root in us. For my generation, the war and its aftermath was evident in so many ways.

ET: You've referred to the Holocaust as your "entry point" into an examination of history in general. What have you discovered during the process of writing Fugitive Pieces?

AM: As I said before, I write when something is at stake, at stake artistically always, but also always something must be at stake personally as well. When I started the book, I had no idea whether I would, in fact, reach a place of faith, whether it was possible to come out the other side in a way that was real, that was earned, that was not fabricated. And that's a very scary proposition when you enter into a project not knowing whether in fact you are going to be able to come through the other side. So my own view of goodness, my own sense of what it means to have faith in this present day, was affected. It was a tremendous risk to go straight into the heart of something which seemed impenetrable and to try to pull faith from that place.

ET: Are you saying that by the end of the book you did reach that place of faith?

AM: That requires a complicated answer. But essentially, yes. Jakob's questions led me there. I followed him into those questions.

ET: Has your view of the nature of evil altered at all?

AM: One can only keep trying to penetrate the impenetrable. I can say that I've thought a great deal about it. Perhaps it's safest to say that I know a bit more than I did before. I think evil is very particular to the human moment-it doesn't take generalized forms and that's one reason it's so difficult to learn from past examples. It seems to be a complicated knot of elements particular to any given situation-but that's only part of the story. Evil also loves to copy itself, it loves to resurrect itself in shamelessly similar ways. And social evils always stalk before they strike. Shakespeare suggests in King Lear that evil eventually consumes itself, destroys itself-but whether good can endure until that happens-well, that's another question. Historically, good seems to survive by going to work underground, by seeming to disappear temporarily, resurfacing in the society wherever it can manage to. George Steiner has a wonderful quote about how anyone attempting to truly and humbly go into this kind of material, go into the Second World War and the question of evil in general, has to make a deposit in the bank of terror. I'd say that that's a pretty accurate statement. And whether you can bear to make a tiny deposit or a large one depends on your stamina or your imagination-or your obsession perhaps.
ET: As a person born in the late fifties, what would you say is the most significant historical event of your generation?
AM: For anyone who lived through the Second World War or was born after it, their lives have been shaped by it, whether consciously or not, and in countless ways. Think of what that event contained: it contained the bomb, it contained a whole new way of making war, it annihilated metaphor-or showed that metaphor could be annihilated. It was the first mass industrialization of death.

ET: Since the Second World War, what would you say is the most significant historic event?

AM: An extremely significant occurrence is the development of birth technology, the manipulation of genetics. This is a huge issue, which we have barely begun to look at, which will take a long time to probe, and which will be completely transformative.

ET: What are you working on now?

AM: I've started work on another book of fiction. I've also just about finished another book of poetry. It's called Skin Divers.

ET: One last question. You're quoted in one interview as saying that you had "tremendous doubts" about Fugitive Pieces. Could you elaborate?

AM: Actually, that remark was taken out of context. I very much hoped that the book was doing all I had worked so hard to try to make it do, but one can never know this, of course, until one has a reader. And I worked on the book on my own, in solitude for a long time, without having a reader's response. That's a risky venture in some respects. But I work that way because it's the only way I listen closely enough to what I'm trying to get at. When you put a tremendous amount of love into your work, as in any relationship, you can't know-you can only hope-that what you're offering will in some way be received. You shape your love to artistic demands, to the rigours of your genre. But still, it's a labour of love, and it's the nature of love that you must give it freely, out of great vulnerability, and hope what you offer will reach a reader, that what you want to say will reach a reader's heart.


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