March 26, 2014

In Conversation with Gjertrud Schnackenberg: Part One, Unstruck

Photo by Mike Minehan
Tuning fork. Detonation. Lute-string. When we talked via email this January, Trude Schnackenberg was packing for a month in Rome and going, as she put it, "full steam ahead until horse latitudes are hove in."  Here, in Part One of a conversation that will continue over the next few months in this space, she lays out several marvels. Kung-note. Big bang. Honeybees.


SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry--or, how did poetry come to you?

GJERTRUD SCHNACKENBERG: For poets, poetry is a call-and-response medium: poets write poems because they have first read or heard poetry. I first read a poem at the age of fourteen, and recognized at that moment that this would be my world; after reading poetry for five years, I began writing at the age of nineteen. Poetry comes from poetry, poetry begets poetry, poetry evinces, instills, brings about, generates poetry, in poets (and so too I think composers write music because they have first heard music).

Poetry’s sympathetic vibration is like a buzzing tuning fork that awakens a nearby tuning fork to its own buzzing, or like a detonation in the street outside that inspires a door inside to pop open, or like the kung-note struck by the lute-tuner in ancient China to provoke a nearby lute-string to sound its own kung-note -- or like the reverberations of the big bang still resounding and vibrating throughout all that exists: we live in a vast sound-universe, which is, mercifully, largely inaudible to us, but nonetheless oscillating everywhere, from superstrings to supernovae. Thousands of years ago, in the practice of meditation, the Vedic seers detected this perpetual vibration, and called it the “unstruck sound.” I think this pre-existent, anterior vibration is the force-field from which poets and composers strike their sound-worlds. Or perhaps it is the other way around: generative, reverberative, fugitive -- and billions of years deeper and older than any vocabulary -- the pitches, undertones, overtones, harmonies, dissonances, white noise, and rhythm-oceans from which we’re made, and in which we’re immersed, are an auditory, and sub-auditory, equivalent of the Poet’s description of poetry in Timon of Athens, when he says that whereas the “fire i’ the flint shows not till it be struck,” this unstruck thing -- poetry -- “provokes itself.”

é describes the sympathetic vibration of poetry as being characteristically always on the verge of vanishing, a vibration in whose vanishing trace the poem “begins itself.” Less subtly, more concertedly, Mandelstam repeatedly describes what amounts to the “autonomous force” of poetry, and unforgettably, in Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam describes the “hum” that Mandelstam heard (and suffered) as a prelude to the starting-up of a poem, a hum that engulfed him, sometimes stopping him in his tracks, sometimes driving him out of doors to pace the streets, and often “tormenting him with its resonance” until he was able to start and finish the poem and be rid of it -- a hum so audible and palpable to him that he told his wife that she should be able to hear it as well:

I witnessed his throes at such close quarters that M. always thought I must also be able to hear the “hum.” He even reproached me sometimes for not having caught part of it.

In ancient Greece, poetry and the art of writing were associated not only with gods and their divine concerns, but with honeybees. I love this ancient association, not only for its metaphor of honeyed speech, which is largely what the Greeks meant, but also for its dimension of resounding auditory energy. Personally, for me, the under-resonance I hear in a true poem is indistinguishable from the resonating buzz of a beehive; for me, poetry has to thrum. In the presence of poetry I love, when I read it silently, I often gradually (or sometimes abruptly) begin to overhear this seamless, thrumming continuum of bees preoccupied with their unaging, perpetual chant, their sonic evocation of the "unstruck sound":

Read more on Gjertrud Schnackenberg in my earlier post on an excerpt from The Throne of Labdacus and in this interview with Jonathan Galassi of FSG. Read "Archimedes' Lullaby" from Heavenly Questions here.

March 19, 2014

Anita Lahey: A Poem

Anita Lahey

Pause the player during the opening
credits, 1999, The Sopranos, season one:
The twin towers. “Look,”
and the width of a whole cushion
(the space between you on the couch)

dissolves. Katrina. It means more
than hurricane. Arenas and murder
and thirsting masses on an off-ramp,
waiting for a fucking bus…
There was this guy

my friend called Hector.
We were 19, first year. His real name
was Dave or Joe or Phil—
but Hector stuck, nobody had to ask,
it pinned us like a tail
to that galaxy, the perfect

fit. When we gather and try
the shorthand being passed around
on the tray with all the beautiful,
broken truffles—

a couple somewhere starts
holding hands. One more child
turns c-a-t into “cat.” The grownups in the room
lay down their shields. At the party
in Ottawa, we melt the sugar into the hot

whiskey. Raise a little How’d
we wind up here? It’s never why
we stayed. It’s all so obvious
and boring. Were we brave? Look,
just look what’s happened since.

from Spinning Side Kick (Véhicule Press, 2011). Used by permission.   

Anita Lahey writes poems, articles, essays, reviews and blog posts from her home in Toronto. She has also lived in Ottawa, Montreal and Fredericton, and spends time in Cape Breton every summer. Her latest collections are Spinning Side Kick (poems, 2011, Vehicule Press) and The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture (2013, Palimpsest Press). She attempts to read between the lines in her blog entries at "Henrietta & Me: People (and other wonders) found in books" ( Read my conversation with Anita here.

In Conversation with Anita Lahey

A meeting for coffee extends over lunch. Or an afternoon  swells into evening. However it happens, it takes only a few minutes in the company of Anita Lahey to recognize a deeply attentive writer at work fusing stories, situations, questions, and more. I caught up with Anita recently between stops as she toured with her new collection of essays, The Mystery Shopping Cart. 

SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry in the beginning—or, if you prefer, what brought poetry to you?

ANITA LAHEY: Adolescence, a bossy (and insightful) friend, poor eyesight, Dennis Lee and Lewis Carroll, the fantastic concept of onomatopoeia (which I can still never spell without the aid of a dictionary), maybe some innate & insatiable need for language with rhythm and beat. I don't exactly know. When I was a teenager my best friend and I used to write poetry together, I mean literally co-write poems. We'd also share poems we'd written on our own, and though at first they covered the usual ground (family woes, heartache, homework), mine began to veer into other territory: extreme alliteration, character study, family history, even politics. One day she declared I was a poet. She started sending mutual friends my way so I could translate their broken hearts into verse. For a brief heyday, I "worked" lunch hours as a scribe of star-crossed teen love, interviewing the bereft & taking notes for poems I would compose late at night, in the privacy of my bedroom. But: I think the delicious play in Lee & Carroll, perhaps even the Mother Goose rhymes I listened to on the record player over and over as a child, had already done their work. The first poem that I remember hitting me in the gut was about a person getting new glasses, and everything turning shockingly clear: the joy of this discovery, but also its unsettling side, the fact that you can get so used to blurred vision you stop noticing you aren't seeing what's before you. There's a metaphor to chew on! Someday I will really do a serious hunt for that mysterious poem and its author, and find out if its lasting impact on me is really deserved, according to my more experienced (and cynical) poetry-reading eyes. But whatever I think of it, if I do ever find it, I think I already know the answer. It's stayed with me this far. So even if it's hokey as all get out, I think it's earned some kind of stripe.

SG: Your poems are built on detail, colour, texture; they’re supple and muscular, showing the tenderness inside toughness, and vice versa. You’ve worked extensively as an editor and critic, too. I’m interested in how these various engagements with language and idea inform your choices as a poet: where do the journalist-you and the poet-you meet?

AL: The simple answer is that we meet in stories, and in questions: about people, issues, events, the nature of humanity, history, society. But where the journalist pieces together, as clearly (and as quickly) as possible, an outward truth or reality based on the facts, ideas and opinions she can glean, the poet takes those same ingredients, throws them in a pot, sets them on simmer for a good long while, and then takes a big sip. She waits to see how that spoonful settles. Then she starts to write. It’s not that the poem is going further, exactly. But it’s calling on an internal response—or responding to an internal reaction—that is different than that required for solid journalism. I find it interesting, and sometimes frustrating, that poetry in our culture is often casually presumed to be a sort of artsy, flighty pursuit, where something like journalism is considered more disciplined and serious (well, OK, the kind of weighty, well-researched journalism we used to hold in high esteem!). They’re different crafts, with different aims, but both (if done well) require rigor, and for me, anyway, stem from a related impulse, one you broached in a recent post on Concrete & River: the need to bear witness.

I was thinking about this after reading your interview with Sue Sinclair, and her elegant discussion of the lyric moment. I get that effort she’s making, to engage the lyric possibility that is always present—and I see it in her work—and I have tried to engage it too. But not as dutifully as she. I think what I’m more wed to, moreso than the integrity of the moment, is some combination of narrative, character and consequence. And beyond that, a combination of these elements that carries a visceral charge. I can’t tell you why, exactly, except that it’s what I need to delve into. It's also often what works for me most powerfully as a reader—and that notion, that something “works for me,” is why I’m always wary in the critic’s role, and of the assured and authoritative tone often adopted by critics, because my time as an editor especially has taught me how personal and widely varied responses to the same work can be. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in things like skill, sloppiness, middling efforts, brilliance. But it means that, beyond a certain level of quality, I can only but acknowledge that taste muscles in. And I believe it has a right to–we are all of us individuals, after all. Why shouldn’t there be different forms and styles of poetry to speak to and engage our different natures?

Back to me and the visceral. When I encounter a poem that engages the mind over the senses I really have to force myself to pay attention and work my way through it, even if it’s a brilliant piece of writing (and thinking). I need to feel a thing I’m reading to really become involved with it, and in that way I sometimes have the sense that others would consider me rather old-fashioned, or traditional, or, I don’t know, soft. That needing or wanting to “feel” is a kind of weakness in our post-post-modern era, or whatever this is. But it doesn’t feel soft to me. When I read, I’m braced to take in the full force of the mysteries of our existence. I want to be kicked in the gut, and when I write, that’s what I’m aiming to hit. Not the mind, not the heart: the gut. That doesn’t mean the mind and heart aren’t involved; they’re entwined, actually, rather than one or the other dominating. When I read something really powerful, the sensation is physical, like being bruised. It’s also—to slightly shift metaphors—as if I’m getting oxygen to starved cells, as when you stretch a painfully tight muscle. That oxygen literally feels like light.

 SG: What is inspiring your writing these days?

AL: I'm going to be a bit difficult! I don't know if "inspiring my writing" is the way I think about what happens when I sit down to write in a certain vein, or on a particular subject. I think it's more like I'm worrying a problem, or trying to understand why something is following me around, what is going on there that's so compelling or so insistent on having my attention. 

Right now, in part, that thing is a fire that happened in my father's village in Nova Scotia when I was a small girl. We were living in Ontario, and though no one there was hurt in the fire, my grandparents lost their home to it, as did many of their friends and neighbours. It haunted me from the start. I wrote one of the very first poems I ever recall writing about this fire and its impact on the village - sometime in later elementary school, when were given an assignment to write a poem that scanned. 

Obviously that stilted poem didn't purge the fire from my system! That such a faraway fire had such an impact on me leads to questions about its legacy for those who lived through it, the kinds of questions my writing mind can't resist asking. 

Right now, I'm collaborating with my friend, the visual artist Pauline Conley, on a graphic poetry project that draws, in a fictional as opposed to a purely factual way, on the lingering tales and memories people have of that fire, and the sense of legend (at least in my own mind!) that surrounds it. Given the fact that wildfires are becoming more common, and more devastating than ever, in various parts of North America, it feels like a relevant place to be. And as Pauline and I are discovering, fire is a powerful force, not just in real life, but in the imagination. Which I guess partly explains my lifelong fixation with this particular fire.

Anita Lahey writes poems, articles, essays, reviews and blog posts from her home in Toronto. She has also lived in Ottawa, Montreal and Fredericton, and spends time in Cape Breton every summer. Her latest collections are Spinning Side Kick (poems, 2011, Vehicule Press) and The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture (2013, Palimpsest Press). She attempts to read between the lines in her blog entries at "Henrietta & Me: People (and other wonders) found in books" ( 
Read her poem "Time and Place" here. Find her latest book, The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture, here.

March 10, 2014

In Conversation with Sue Goyette

That house you walk by with the kitchen in front in the big bay window, the chalkboard outside hanging above the hydrangea listing what you might first take to be the Daily Special, that's Sue Goyette's house. Pause, and you'll see that the Daily Special is a poem. And that's just one thing. Voltage! Sue's a force.

SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry in the first place?

SUE GOYETTE: I remember, in my early teens, encountering the voltage in a good poem. I can still recall how startled I was by how the words in a poem relayed a kind of intensity and vitality and I was curious about that. I’d read a lot of novels and short stories but began to read poems to figure out how they were pulling off what they were with the same words everything else used. This intensity, vitality was one of the things that convinced me that there was something going on besides the dailiness and challenges of my own life. That there was a conversation apart from but still somehow fiercely connected to my own experiences and, at first, I was shocked by being addressed in that manner, so directly, then, later, I wanted to respond and add my voice to the conversation. I wanted to be involved mostly as a way of escaping my home life at first. Poetry added a sense of value, of worth to my notebooks and journals and to my life that helped me navigate some pretty tricky times. When I began writing poetry, I realized I could turn those tricky times into something else. This into that. Writing and reading was a revolutionary and rebellious act for me. 

SUSAN GILLIS: You’ve written a lot about the environment of human experience, if I can call it that, or maybe I should say human experience as physical geography; I’m thinking here of the poems of outskirts and Ocean in particular. These days you’re at work on poems about fashion. Is this subject a whole new direction for you, or are there links and precursors in your work?

SUE GOYETTE: I’m curious about the times we find ourselves in. The paradox and the dilemmas; the state of the planet, local, global; our politics; our relationship with poverty and with wealth, our definitions of those things. Oil. Food. The change afoot. Our need for community, for connection, for eye contact and our inability to sometimes make those connections. Our social awkwardness, our anxieties and sadness and our medications. I’m interested in how we inhabit our place, how we adorn ourselves, our relationship with wild, with death, with dreams, with memory, with each other, with the people we lean in to and the people we lean away from. I think a poem is one of the places we can come close to poetry and that’s what we’re all after. The unspeakable, the 100 proof wild, the animal, the thing that touches noses with us and, for a moment, we feel we’ve encountered something immense and real, something elemental and righteous. I’m trying to keep company with our time in my poems while evoking or making room for poetry to graze. I think that curiosity mixed with a good dose of imagination, of humour, hospitality, lots of humility are good ways to maybe coax poetry into the mix. I was writing about fashion and then pharmaceuticals. I see my work as a trail, an attempt at something and the poems connect via their root systems.

SUSAN GILLIS: What are you reading these days?

SUE GOYETTE: I’m grazing right now, between books. I pick books up and then put them down. I’m circling around some essays by Susan Stewart and there’s a book by Sara Ahmed I’m eyeing. I’ve been thinking about Gwendolyn MacEwan and Anne Hebert.

Sue Goyette's most recent books are Ocean (Gaspereau, 2013), and outskirts (Brick, 2011), winner of the Atlantic Poetry Prize. She teaches creative writing at Dalhousie University and has mentored poets through the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia, Sage Hill, the Banff Centre, and the Blue Heron Workshop.

March 7, 2014

In Conversation with Shannon Webb-Campbell

Shannon Webb-Campbell makes things--great hats, terrific appetizers--and she makes things happen. A slow summer evening of poets in a starlit backyard; a bright winter night in The Company House. She talked to me about her practice of poetry and criticism and making a place at the table for them.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you come to poetry in the first place?

 SHANNON WEBB-CAMPBELL: I don’t think we find poetry, poetry finds us. It comes sniffing at our ankles, and tries to look up our skirts. Poems arrive, usually in the moment when you need them most. They blow in from some far off land, bump into you at the airport, and tap dance off the pages.

I was very apprehensive to call myself a poet. Like anything, giving name to something comes with series of internal questions. Am I poet enough? I have been writing poems in one form or another for several years, but never had the nerve to call myself a poet. It wasn’t until last fall, during the start of my MFA in creative writing at UBC’s Optional-Residency program, I found myself in Susan Musgrave’s class, and answered poetry’s wild call.

SG: How do you combine the practice of criticism with your poetry practice – the lyric and the language?

SWC: Truth is the fabric of poetry. You can't lie to your readers in a poem. They'll know. In some ways, poetry is the purest form of non-fiction. We all struggle enough as humans being alive, and we take comfort in what we read. Poems are place to be held.

In terms of the lyric and the language, much like criticism, poetry is conversation. In my experience, I've found poetry to be a little more forward thinking than criticism, certainly more renegade than academia. There is more room, no rules.

I am drawn to reviewing poetry because of its invitation for embodiment, an exchange between head and heart. Poetry is often overlooked in arts sections, and has a small seat even in national literary magazines. Part of my critical work is to pay witness, to make sure poetry still has a place at the table, a voice amongst the cacophony of fiction and non-fiction.

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?

SWC: I am inspired by the ocean. Sue Goyette. St. Germain Elderflower liqeuer. Long naps. Tulips. Anne Carson. Wool socks. Undergrowth. Sylvia Plath. Accordions. Newfoundland. Mary Oliver. Blackberries. The way a dress hangs. Brian Brett. Claw-foot bathtubs. Lemon zest. Eden Robinson. Wood stoves. Susan Musgrave. Teacups. Christmas lights. Red leather boots. Gramophones. Loss. Bird sanctuaries. Ancestry. Elizabeth Bishop. Water. Swimming. Music. Sue Sinclair. Bell Island. Champagne. Truth. Anne Michaels. Connection. Strangers. Moonlight. What lives exists below the surface of the Atlantic. Weather. Home.

Shannon Webb-Campbell is CWILA's current Critic-in-Residence. She lives in Halifax.

March 1, 2014

Witness, History and Rhapsodes: A Piling-Up

image by Girts Gailans

The Throne of Labdacus, Gjertrud Schnackenberg's long poem that retells the Oedipus story (FSG, 2000), is one of those books I've had several copies of because I keep lending it out and not getting it back--which is fine, so long as it stays available in some form. Recently I picked up copy number whatever while eating breakfast and opened it to this passage from Part Two.

     For some, the tragedy unfolds without a moral---
     No how or why; no spelling out of fate

     Or sacrifice or punishment; merely the god's
     Swift brushing-by, scented with laurel.

    And for others it is only an ancient folktale
    About a guiltless crime:

    Not a judgment, not a warning,
    Not an example, not a command---

    Merely a tale in which neither the gods
    Nor the human ones can claim that they meant

    To harm or to save, to kill or to stay their hands.
    Merely a piling-up of consequence,

    With a bleeding-through of episodes and accidents.
    And, all over Greece,

    The unjudging rhapsodes ready themselves,
    Tuning their lyres, needing no evidence.

Schnackenberg's "piling-up of consequence" and the haunting image of the rhapsodes turn me again to the idea of witness and the necessity of speaking.

There is a certain resonance here with parts of Carolyn Forché's The Angel of History, which opens with this famous passage from Walter Benjamin:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is tuned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet....

Schnackenberg's book is not directly political, not directly poetry of witness. Yet it is a speaking, a performance, of exactly the sort called for by the idea of witness.

The rhapsodes need no evidence because they are not judging; they're just speaking. Well, singing. Stitching the song together. Professional performers--poets, writers, artists in all genres; athletes, scientists, researchers (why not? this work is also performance); performers in all disciplines: our present-day rhapsodes. 
image by Girts Gailans
And how necessary the speaking is. Because eventually the speaking becomes the story, and it's a story we need. Especially when speaking itself is under threat, undermined by soporific and misleading language and posturing in government and industry. 

image by Sybille Sterk

Has it ever been any different? I ask myself sometimes, feeling helpless. But falling back on that is too easy. "Episodes and accidents." Yes, it has been different. It's been better and it's been worse. And the consequences pile up.

image by Scarlet James
All images courtesy of Red Edge Images