January 29, 2014

A Bit of Speaking: Carolyn Forché's "Elegy"

 Carolyn Forché, in the end note to her 1994 book: "The Angel of History is not about experiences. It is for me the opening of a wound...."

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920)

For awhile in the late '90s I carried this book around and wrote passionate, deeply personal responses to the poems in it. Although at the time I was attending more to the racking anguish Forché was reporting than to the events at its source, the book gave weight and substance to the idea that the personal and the political are intertwined, an idea that had so far been, for me, largely theoretical.

In "Elegy," Forché places in conjunction two of the book's deeply resonant questions: "To what and to whom does one say yes?/If God were the uncertain, would you cling to him?" I said yes to the lyric back then, clung to it as a possibility, a redemption, just what in the end note Forché seems to say it is not.

Redemptive or not, they are poems I return to, and not just out of nostalgia, or a wish to revisit some youthful impassioned seeking.

Looking into The Angel of History now, as my own country seems to be slouching toward a social condition I do not associate with the civil, humane place I grew up, I am struck again, forcefully, by the devastations that underlie Forché's words.

And I do not know exactly what I want to say about it.

Praising The Angel of History on its publication twenty years ago, Derek Walcott averred that "her mutterings will continue to haunt the future...during whatever fresh horrors our century will report..."

In her 2011 essay for Poetry Magazine, Reading the Living Archives, Forché defines poetry of witness as "a mode of reading, a readerly encounter with the literature of that-which-happened."  And further: "evidentiary rather than representational."

So I look to the poems for evidence about what happened, in the hope that I will recognize its many future forms.

On the one hand, my concerns about what's happening now in Canada pale in comparison to those "fresh horrors." By "what's happening" I mean things like the closing of libraries, destruction of research records, dismantling of  information resources, silencing of voices of knowledge and experience in the sciences, promotion of economic development at the expense of the very environment it inhabits.... These are a far cry from the horrors of Forché's witnessing.

And yet. I can't help feeling it's in exactly these kinds of seemingly small increments that a society changes, so that ordinary people wake up one day to find themselves part of a previously unimagined, unrecognizable regime of repression, even atrocity, and wonder how and when it happened.

My country is becoming strange to me. I don't recognize my values in its politics.

"And so we revolt against silence with a bit of speaking."

Goya, Caprichos, #43 (The sleep of reason produces monsters), 1799
Read more about Carolyn Forché and the poetry of witness in her address to the 2009 Reykjavik International Literary Festival and in this 2011 essay from Poetry Magazine

Carolyn Forché: A Poem

Carolyn Forché

The page opens to snow on a field: boot-holed month, black hour
the bottle in your coat half vodka half winter light.
To what and to whom does one say yes?
If God were the uncertain, would you cling to him?

Beneath a tattoo of stars the gate opens, so silent so like a tomb.
This is the city you most loved, an empty stairwell
where the next rain lifts invisibly from the Seine.

With solitude, your coat open, you walk
steadily as if the railings were there and your hands weren't passing through

"When things were ready, they poured on fuel and touched off the fire.
They waited for a high wind. It was very fine, that powdered bone.
It was put into sacks, and when there were enough we went to a bridge
             on the Narew River."

And even less explicit phrases survived:
"To make charcoal.
For laundry irons."
And so we revolt against silence with a bit of speaking.
The page is a charred field where the dead would have written
We went on. And it was like living through something again one
             could not live through again.

The soul behind you no longer inhabits your life: the unlit house
with its breathless windows and a chimney of ruined wings
where wind becomes an aria, your name, voices from a field,
And you, smoke, dissonance, a psalm, a stairwell.

from The Angel of History (HarperCollins, 1994)

January 16, 2014

In Conversation with Steven Price

Last October Steven Price and I talked through the whole flight from Fredericton to Montreal, and I enjoyed it so much I forgot my fear of flying. That's how it is with his poems, too; things get sorted.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you come to poetry?

STEVEN PRICE: By accident; I didn't seek it out. I was a student at the University of Victoria and found myself unexpectedly drawn to it. I blame the excellent teachers there.

SG: Your poems, especially in
Omens in the Year of the Ox, resound with a sort of bell-clarity that comes from well-tuned language and a supple strength in the poems’ images and depths. Many of the poems begin with words like “so,” “because,” “as,” “if,” “in,” and other prepositions and conjunctions, almost as though in counterweight to the way the poems sound. Could you talk about lightness and weight in how you compose, and how you decide when the poem is done?

SP: Interesting. I don't know. I suppose any poem begins as an interruption. That must account for some of the prepositions in those openings. Just as often though they will be ways of introducing a certain kind of movement. I work very hard in the poems themselves to shift weight around, to keep it supple and elastic, and find myself relying on speed and movement to counterbalance the density in a line. A poem exists in time of course but it also has the ability to control its own tempo. This is done line by line. I recall Charles Wright telling me years ago about his own sense of line and how much attention was paid by contemporary poets to their line breaks. Often to the detriment of the lines themselves. That stayed with me. I do look for a kind of tensile strength in a line, I do look for something that can hold its own against various pressures and counter pressures - a line which refuses to be absorbed into another line, which resists being added to or detracted from. Every poem demands a different kind of weight, speed, colouring. How do I decide when a poem is done? I don't know. Patrick Lane once told me he knew a poem was finished when he had taken the same comma out of a line and replaced it several times. That seems a good answer.

SG: What’s inspiring your writing these days?

SP: Reading mostly. I've been working on a novel these past months and coming across some wonderful books in the process. James Salter's Light Years, Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, Kawabata's Snow Country, William Maxwell's fine short stories.

Steven Price's first collection of poems, Anatomy of Keys (Brick, 2006), won the Gerald Lampert Award, was named a Globe & Mail Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Prize. His first novel, Into that Darkness (Thomas Allen, 2011), was nominated for the Ethel Wilson Prize, and his second collection of poems, Omens in the Year of the Ox (Brick, 2012), won the ReLit Award. He lives in Victoria with his wife and daughter. Read his poem "The Excursion" here.

January 15, 2014

Steven Price: A Poem

Steven Price

Once on shore we shuddered to see it: like panic pouring over the dead
      shale, the shellfused
rockpools, it oozed
      its hooded head
under a barnacled block
      in a smooth crush
of coils, was flushed
      black-muscled back
through the cold flail
      of its beak, a soft vent
murking a current;
      then gulped a bell
of ink against the glassed
      surface and fell
still. Each slow gasp welled
      up strange to us
where we crouched. Smaller than
      we'd thought it, it
slewed, limbs knotted
      like knuckled hands
wrung white, a sight
      we saw and shrank from --
who had not come
      for this. The sea light
wimpled like banged steel
      in the beyond.
We rose. Reeled stunned
      in a reeking squall
of sandflies, saltburnt decay;
      then, like appalled
reflections of half-recalled
      lives, turned away.
"What was it?" asked
      one; "a fish?" "Not
a fish," we replied; "not
      that." And thought: ghost.
That soft horror pulsed
      on in its rockpool
like an ember
      of darkness; we left it
there. And, slow, trudged
      down the rock-ledge
our low craft lifted
      in the shadow of, lifted
and fell from. The light
      was failing. Our guide
hunched astern, hooded,
      knuckling white oars.
He lifted his face.
      It seemed we did
not know this place;
      and if we woke
we would remember
      none of this.

from Omens in the Year of the Ox, Brick Books 2012. Reprinted with permission.

Hear Steven Price read this and other poems at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1NoXkZfGwU
Read our conversation here.

January 6, 2014

In Conversation with Eleonore Schönmaier

Every now and then one of Eleonore Schönmaier's luminous images turns up in my computer's screen saver slideshow, and I recall the summer afternoon we shared a piece of cake and a cool drink and talk of poetry in a backyard in Halifax. The conversation continued after we both left town for our homes in other places.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you come to poetry?

ELEONORE SCHÖNMAIER: I grew up in a tiny northern wilderness settlement, and my sister says I was writing before I was doing anything else. In my early twenties I bought a literary magazine and on the back page there was a creative writing ad; I immediately signed up for the university poetry course. My teacher provided me with enormous inspiration and encouragement. I was a young northern nurse and my teacher helped me to discover that I was also a strong poet.

SG: You're a poet of great sensitivity, and also a skilled photographer. Could you talk about the visual sense and how it informs your work?

ES: I commented recently to my piano teacher that I'm grateful for the fact that when he explains music to me he always does so using visual imagery. He is a composer and he told me that he thinks first in terms of the visual and then the music follows. The same is true for me as a writer. I always carry a camera with me, but I don't always carry a notebook. Once visual images are clear in my thoughts the language of the poem follows. I often write poems in my mind during my daily walks in the forest. As part of the creation process I memorize the poem, and then I have to rush home to write the words down. It is the visual images I carry in my mind that keep both the individual poem and the writing alive in my mind.

SG: What are you finding inspiration in these days?

ES: I never know what I'm going to write until I have written it. I live my life with all my senses on full alert. I soak in my lived environment and when I have a heightened moment of awareness this often ends up in a poem (though I usually don't know this at the moment of actual lived experience). I am influenced by the world in motion all around me.

Eleonore Schönmaier is the author of Treading Fast Rivers (McGill-Queen's University Press) and Wavelengths of Your Song (McGill-Queen's University Press). Her work has won the Alfred G. Bailey Prize, the Earle Birney Prize, the Sheldon Currie Fiction Award, has been translated into Dutch and German, and has been included in The Best Canadian Poetry in English. Read her poem "What We Don't Think of Packing" here.

(Images courtesy of Eleonore Schönmaier)

Eleonore Schönmaier: A Poem

Eleonore Schönmaier

but take along anyway:  the shoes on our feet,
the fifty-four bones in our hands, the memory of
the colour of the sheets on our beds.  We prepare
for flight as if we and the customs officers are the only

ones who will ever open our baggage.  Nightshirts close
to the suitcase’s zipper so when we arrive we can quickly
begin to restore what we thought we’d lost.  Certain kinds
of loss we bargain for in transit:  eight hours of sleep,
the memory of where we parked the car—

In Canada a man stands at the end
of his driveway talking to a neighbour:  I received
the call—search and rescue.  There was no screaming, no
arms hanging loose.  The helicopter shone light on the water
and we picked up what there was—

When I walk the beach with the kids
I know what I’m looking for.
I found a piece of plane and slipped it into my pocket.
Didn’t tell the kids—a scrap
the size of a two dollar coin.

Loss jangling, except it’s in a currency
no one else understands even if they were on the boat
when he cupped the child’s sneaker in his palm, insisted
the police promise to return it to the family—We never

anticipate losing the memories of what we have already lost—

from Treading Fast Rivers (McGill-Queens University Press, 1999). Reproduced by permission. 
Read my conversation with Eleonore Schönmaier here.