Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review “Poets Talk"

Review “Poets Talk: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Mouré, Dionne Brand, Marie Annharte Baker, Jeff Derksen, and Fred Wah”
Editors Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy
University of Alberta Press, 2005

Poets Talk
is an accessible reference book of poet dialogues conducted throughout the 1990’s and showcases a variety of Canadian talent in interview cast, the communications focusing on specific segments of a poet’s work and concerning a brief history of both poetics and polis. Editors and interviewers Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy established the book to be guided by means of section titles—Historicizing Postmodernism; Struggle and Community, Possibility; Hybridity and Asianicity, for example—which also serve to support the smart, precise questions posed to the poets from the dual questioners.

This is an important, informative, and captivating book. The interviews characterize modest postmodern beginnings, salvaging, excessivity, sense, and cultural poetics, while still serving up the stuff of intimacy. The project, as noted in the preface, “developed out of a research project on innovative poetry in English Canada” that the editors began in 1991. Both editors were engrossed with contemporary writing, and, puzzling over new contemporary texts, they knew what they had to do: “Let us go talk to the poets.”

The editors begin with probing questions on the why’s of unconventional punctuation, repetition, and fragmentation. The interview with poet great Robert Kroetsch discusses form and place, and how, as Pauline suggests, “Canadians are almost embarrassed about place, or place of origin, because it isn’t valued.” Kroetsch considers happening upon a Roland Barthes book while in England in ’63, he begins the interview, and refers to reading a text closely. He notes when he first started teaching graduate school, no one was “talking about the poems (of Williams and Stevens) the way I was reading them. I mean this notion of “gap” and what we now would call deconstruction.” He speaks of teaching Olson, and Williams providing inspiration early on, discovering Jack Spicer and reading bpNichol. Pauline asks, “You’re always subverting the form… what your relation to the material… to what extent is it writing you?” Kroetsch responds, “Well, I’m very compulsive about secrecy and concealment… it’s almost a paradox that I publish, because my real ambition is to write and never be seen.”

Pauline and Susan take turns posing intelligent questions, working through past and present narratives in the poet’s work, “what do you pay attention to when you’re working with contradictions? You’re unraveling in some ways, but you’re also partially putting things together.” Robert decides, “Insofar as I’m a postcolonial writer, I have a dread of systems, because I’ve felt victimized by them, or erased.”

Influenced in part by Gertrude Stein, the first thing Kroetsch seeks to do is to revisit foundational elements of writing he renders insufficient, to “destroy grammar right off the bat. I just want the reader to know grammar won’t say what I have to say.” The poet speaks of the process of writing an incredibly painful poem, and how words would start to come apart; yet through his use of the couplet, of fricatives, of a sense of organized rhythm, a sense of comfort and reassurance is gained. “I found the couplet very generative. Using the verse form was a way to contain my grief.”

The second interview concerns author Daphne Marlatt who discusses technique; “I really want to let each poem begin to show me where it’s going. If I know what my intent is before I start writing, I’m bored; the piece just dies, so I’m the kind of writer that needs to let the writing slowly manifest itself.”

Pauline aptly notes, “I find your use of the prose poem forces more attention to the horizontal language axis and puts words into metonymic relation, in contrast to the lyric form which torques the line in interesting ways but mostly on a vertical (metaphoric) axis.” Daphne replies thoroughly, summing up that “an English sentence has a tremendous capacity for detour, and that’s what’s pulled me further and further into prose.”

Through an alternating discussion between language, feminist and personal aesthetics, Marlatt considers negotiating line lengths, posturing the Zukofsky, Creeley, and Corman short line, and filling out the arbitrary length of a conventional margin.

Pauline asks Marlatt about structure, “You said earlier that in the prose poem you work mainly with the sentence. Do you have a definition of a sentence?” She replies, “I have more of a sense of what a sentence isn’t. I’m more interested in undermining the conventional notions of sentences, so I use a lot of sentence fragments,” these fragments adding to a feeling of her work as “more organic, it’s always connected, no matter how loosely”.

The book continues to uncover where these authors derive their inspiration, how they formed and reformed structural elements, and their positions on canonical authors. Pauline asks Erin Mouré, “what about canonical writers, the overcoat of dead poets?” Erin discusses her time at university, that she studied philosophy during her short stint, “I figured I would read literature by myself, but philosophy—like formal logic, epistemology, and metaphysics—I figured I wouldn’t just bring it to the beach and read it so I’d better take courses.”

Susan comments on the sometime complexity of Mouré’s work, “So your work requires alternative ways of reading. But few of us have learned how to read carefully and attentively at all, much less in relation to such complex texts.” Erin suggests, “perception is about absorbing only what you’re attentive to. And most people are only attentive to the expected.”

Dionne Brand’s interview concerns community and how a certain center would host events and bring about readings; about how immediate those audiences were, and how she had to “not simply represent but also break, violate” in terms of resisting “only saying what was appealing” to the immigrant Canadian audience. Pauline asks about Brand's writing in long form, “Did you feel the longer form allowed more space for the political work that you were involved in? Or was it more of a craft issue?” Dionne responds, “I just don’t like short poems. I don’t think they’re sufficient. I mean they can be, when people who can do it well do it well. But I wanted much more speech.”

The book is an integrated meeting between poet and poem, providing examples of each author’s work to fuel discussion. Writer Marie Annharte Baker, after discussing a playful piece, is questioned by Pauline, “You obviously enjoy playing around with words.” Baker responds, “I think there are so many imprecise meanings in the English language and that’s why you have to play with the words.”

In terms of process, each writer is given the chance to detail a sort of linear ideology, and an opportunity to play within those boundaries, just as Jeff Derksen arranges, “maybe I fall into being a mystic Marxist in some sense, in that the revelation will have to be ideology revealed.”

Interviewing Fred Wah, the editors sought to question his position between writing prose and poetry, “I wasn’t a prose writer and I had always been suspicious of story because story is something that had been very much controlled by the “mainstream,” by the West, a British inheritance. I had been able to undermine that for myself in poetry because poetry is language-based, whereas story is much more context-based.” Wah goes on to speak of rhythm, ambivalence, options of the “I”, and ethics in a poem, “it’s the kind of ethics I’m talking about and why I found Olson so useful in the sense that belief and ethics were being brought into poetry. Before that, I thought poetry was just this neat thing, this beautiful little thing in our culture. But no. It was the first indication I had that poetry might be for the imagination, and the imagination might be used to bring about worlds.”

Thematically, "Poets Talk" seems to want to leave a particular stamp on these writers, following certain lines of questioning, which presupposes that the poets are limited in their abilities to only explore certain motifs or persuasions. Such categorizations placed on the writers did not always serve to enhance the interviews. This collection nevertheless largely sets out what it desires to do, providing a “forum on poetics, a dialogue on the what and why of poetry during a decade of seismic shifts in poetic thought and practice.”

As Pauline asks Daphne Marlatt, “Does the period mark an ending?” She responds, “It just indicates a momentary resting place, a point of growth.” So too are these interviews; a point of growth from which to further discover the talk of poets.


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