|M. Travis Lane|
I wanted to start by talking about home. In “King’s Landing” you write about “the wilderness of worlds,” that “seems like home.” In “Divinations” there’s a lot about wanting to get away from home, or feeling like you’re in someone else’s home. In the new book [Ash Steps, Cormorant, 2012] as well, I see it. In “House” there’s Dorothy “always” going home, and “Bromeliad”—
That’s an air plant, it’s like an orchid. They’ll grow on telephone lines.
Oh, so now I see this: “I, unrooted, transient, align myself along a road / a yard, or a city block.” Home in your poems is elusive!
Definitely elusive. You see, both my grandfathers were in the military; my father was in the military. We left the place I was born as soon as my mother got out of hospital. I was born in ’34, the world war coming up, so we moved about once a year. My mother’s family were vagabonds. And my father’s family were difficult people to feel at home with. I still have dreams where we have to leave a house and get into another one, and I’ll think, Oh dear. Or I’ll dream that I’ve moved and I’ve missed spring in that particular garden. I’m very homeless. I have no home town. I have no roots.
Do you get sentimental about any place, even though you’re “homeless”?
The places I get sentimental about are places in time as well as in geography—I can’t go back to them.
Can you find home in a poem?
It’s just a major theme I suppose. I don’t know whether it’s finding or not finding. It follows you around. It becomes your imagination.
I wonder whether you think it’s just part of the human condition, that we’re always looking for home.
I think so. This is a strong tradition, at least in Western European and Christian culture, the idea that life is a testing place or pilgrimage—home is elsewhere: “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home!” And people get very sentimental about places that are no longer home. It’s roots. And it’s mommy and poppy. But it’s also something, to some extent, that you make. It’s a very portable idea.
How long have you been here in Fredericton?
I came here in 1960. And in many ways it has become home.
What was that like when you felt that starting to happen?
Well we hadn’t been married very long. We had a little apartment at the edge of Cornell, but it wasn’t home—it was a temporary place. Here, with this lovely big backyard, I spread myself out. We put on a second floor, put out a little wing there, added the greenhouse, I rearranged the yard, so it’s very much a made home.
You came here straight from Cornell. What was it like, coming from that literary community to this one?
I don’t think I’ve ever been a member of a purely “literary community.” Fredericton is so full of creativity of all sorts. Most of my friends from long ago I knew through political and ecological concerns, and two of the oldest and dearest are painters and sculptors, not poets. I was meeting people partly through the church, and Voices of Women for Peace, and the Conservation Council. I met musicians and writers and potters and people who make rugs.
But you did also discover other writers here.
Living ones, yes. But when we decided we were going to take up this job I instantly started reading Canadian poetry like mad.
Do you remember who you started reading first?
At this point I hardly know, because I was reading so greedily. All these discoveries, just marvellous stuff! Miriam Waddington, I came into her work fairly soon and I thought, this is fine.
Did anything strike you when you started reading Canadian poetry compared to what you’d been reading before?
When I first started, there were great Americans like Bishop and Lowell, and while there was some very good Canadian poetry, an awful lot was the “wet mittens drying on the stove.” But Canadian poetry is getting better. I think right now we are producing just absolutely gorgeous stuff. I don’t know about American. Every once in awhile I’ll pick up a thing and it seems to me a lot of American poetry’s pretty boring.
Were there any poets here in Fredericton whose poems you encountered?
Yes. Larry [her husband, an English professor at UNB] made friends with his colleagues: Nowlan and Bailey and Gibbs and Cogswell. Those were the first poets in Fredericton whose poetry I knew. But I wasn’t a member of Nowlan’s Flat Earth Society (who were all men). Marjorie Chapman was the only woman in the English department: she was Virginia Woolf. A friend of Larry’s aunt and uncle, Gwladys Downes, lived on the west coast. She was an early dear friend. And I quickly became friends with Phyllis Gotlieb, in Montreal. I quite miss her. Then I started doing reviews with The Fiddlehead, and I’d find five or six good Canadian poets a year.
How did you meet Phyllis Gotlieb?
She came on a reading tour. We went to Mount Allison, we went to Prince Edward Island. (People found tours for me back at the beginning. Fred Cogswell was very helpful, and everyone was quite enthusiastic about poetry for awhile there, but then there got to be too many poets.) I enjoyed her, I enjoyed her poetry and I enjoyed her science fiction. She was witty and compassionate and tremendously imaginative.
Do you find when you make friendships with other poets that you talk a lot about the poetry and the work?
Once in awhile, I have met people who, because they’ve been acting as an editor, will make a useful remark. But mostly no, I don’t discuss. I never joined the Ice House gang. [An “historic” poetry critiquing group in Fredericton, meeting in a former ice house at UNB.]
You just never wanted that kind of—
I cannot respond intelligently to a poem that I have just heard recited to me. And I do not think other people can do that either. I have never taken any courses in how to write poetry and I never wish to give one.
Can you tell me anything about what Alden Nowlan was like?
I used to enjoy telling people I was the only poet in Canada who could look down at Alden Nowlan [downhill from Lane’s house to his]. Anyway, I was not one of his group but he was fond of us, sort of at a distance, the way an amiable dog might be fond of amiable cats. He and Claudine would always invite Larry and me down for their New Year’s party.
Has Fredericton been a good place to cultivate your poetry mind?
I think it’s not so much that it is a good place as much as Larry had a good job. I didn’t have to go earn my living. I had a patron.
For me (I’m quite new here myself), your poems that feature Fredericton give me a new way of knowing the place. I wondered if writing about it gives you that too.
I don’t think writing helps me know something outside the poem. It might help me know something about me. Something outside of the poem might instruct me, I don’t see the poem as an educational—
But if you set a poem in a moment in a place, the next time you walk through there does it feel different because now it lives in the poem too?
No. I don’t think so. It’s the incident that heated the poem. You bring your whole past and your desires to it, and it is this combination that produces the interesting effects—if you can do it.
Your poems are so populated with flora and fauna.
My mother and father were tremendously interested in that sort of thing and both sets of grandparents—I come from a long line of people who were fascinated by flora and fauna.
Would someone take you walking through the woods?
Constantly. It was a family thing: having picnics, climbing mountains, wandering along streams, learning the names of flowers. We’d try to explore the nature of the place that we were in. In Wichita Falls, Texas, I remember we were so enchanted by the blue bonnets.
Do you remember what you found enchanting when you first came here?
We walked in the university woods, until all those new shopping centres s cut them off. What Larry liked to do was follow the old roads. We’d get out-of-date maps and we’d go woods-whacking.
What else do you remember about that early time in Fredericton?
I have a couple of anecdotes that I’d like to tell you. One of the chaps in the English department was going to teach contemporary Canadian literature. So he made a little mimeographed anthology. I was not teaching that year, but my husband brought the anthology home. He quoted thirty Maritime poets. One was a woman. Most of them were men he knew in the English department some of whom had not published books. And I wrote a long list of all the published Maritime women poets and I pasted it over the department doors. (This is, you know, ancient feminist reminiscence.)
When the Pat Lowther prize was first being talked about, Alden Nowlan said something that was (a) very wrong and (b) very right. The Pat Lowther was intended to help bring into prominence women’s poetry. At that point several of the most influential, well-known Canadian poets were women, so you’d say, women are being mistreated, and they’d say, how about Margaret Atwood? How about P. K. Page? But a friend of mine, Sharon Nelson in Montreal, had done research and written a paper about women getting reviewed, women getting published, and there really were statistics to prove that women needed to be encouraged by the [League of Canadian Poet’s] Feminist Caucus. Anyway, Alden got up and said he couldn’t see that women were being neglected. But, he said, he thought the Maritimes were. And I think he was right. I think the Maritimes still are. It’s the west coast as much as anything else, and partly Toronto. We’ve always been very parochial. Somebody says “important Canadian poets,” you begin with your neighbours. Related to this, The New Quarterly was doing a magic-realism conference, and I had a poem published in there, and I went out to that. Someone giving a speech talked about how Canadian poetry had been born in the Maritimes, moved west to Ontario, and was now going out to the Pacific Coast, and I thought he supposed we were dead in the water.
Has any Maritime poetry in particular had an influence on you?
Nowlan’s poetry helped me quite a bit in seeing how important it was to touch the heart. Of Maritime poets I’d say he’s the most influential. I very much liked Bailey and Gibbs. Gibbs' has this wonderful magic in it, and then Bailey’s poetry because he was so witty and clever.
Why did you need to learn to touch the heart?
The major Poets we were taught to admire, and whom I still admire, of the 20th Century—Yeats, Pound, Frost, Eliot, Auden, Lowell, Stevens, Williams—went in for being passionate, witty, serious, philosophical, musical, etc., but tenderness was not what they did. What I found unusual and wonderful in Nowlan’s poetry I have found occasionally in other poets—tenderness. That is not the same thing as being sentimental or sad!
Was there a point in your life when you knew you were a poet or did it just creep up on you?
I always intended to be a poet. But I decided, after I’d done my PhD, was I going to go on and be a professor or was I going to be a poet? And I decided to take myself seriously as a poet. To some extent that’s why I didn’t go in for teaching creative writing because I think that’s more like being a professor than being a poet.
What leads you to a poet? Do you just follow your nose?
I go down to the Fiddlehead office and I open the books casually somewhere in the middle, and I read the lines out loud. And if they have music and aren’t just buh-buh, buh-buh, buh-buh—I can’t stand that. I try to keep eclectic. I think it’s a mistake to decide you like one kind of thing. Jan Conn, Barbara Klar, and Susan McCaslin, these are latest ones I’ve run into who are just glorious. I’ve never met Judith Fitzgerald but I enjoyed wading through her books, all the difficulties.
What about the difficulty is appealing?
This is the reviewer’s temptation: to find a poetry that somehow seems to work or impress, and then figure out why. Often it is because they are doing something that I would not have thought of doing!
But definitely it’s the music that draws you in first.
If it’s just broken sentences and lists I don’t care for it. The rhythms have to have something to do with the emotions.
Do you think all of us poets have our own natural, built-in rhythm?
The good ones do, yes. You take Tim Lilburn and it’s—[she bounces].
Yes. It’s not galloping, but—
It clips along. To some extent you can tell who’s writing a poem almost by the sound of it.
Can you alter your rhythm?
You have to, according to the emotion. You might have to break it up, or question, or suddenly stop, or you might get fast or you might get slow. My poem “Keeping Afloat” is an extreme example of the flowing, as opposed to your kickboxing poems. They’re two opposite kinds of music, but both music, that’s the thing.
Where does it come from?
We used to speak of writing elegant prose, pacing, you’d make sure you didn’t bore people. People would memorize lots of poetry and eloquent pieces of prose. Speeches by Lincoln, for example, or from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. And in a fit of “anti-elitism,” the Bible has been rewritten to remove the poetry. Now when Mary goes to Bethlehem, instead of being “great with child,” she’s “pregnant.” Well, you can be pregnant for nine months, but only at the end great with child.
The one that bothers me is instead of the babe being wrapped in “swaddling clothes,” it’s now “bands of cloth.”
And “the shadow of the valley of death.” Yes, the Twenty-Third Psalm. I don’t think it’s become “disagreeable places,” but something like that. [Laughter.] The thing is that so much of our eloquence was based in the past on reciting poetry, reading poetry, and people were very proud of speaking eloquently. People would say, this minister’s wonderful, the way he speaks. Now they go for content.
Is this loss of the sense of sound part of poetry’s problem?
Oh yes. I think there’s some suspicion that prettifying things is somehow false. It’s a distrust of poetry. We are becoming a very sophisticated visual culture, but anybody who’d be happy with Twitter has obviously lost any joy of the complicated and gorgeous sentence. In my childhood, people would read out loud to children and we would tell family stories. Now we just sit in front of television. I think people have lost the sense of the possibilities of rhetoric, so when they come into something that is eloquent, it may strike them as mysterious or strange.
You have written that poetry begins with noise.
The starting point I think happens more or less in the stomach, but if you can’t get it into the sound it won’t work. Most of the time I do need some kind of a visualization. [She gets up and takes a glass case off a shelf.] Here’s a case where just looking at something, the words came after awhile.
[Pointing to a small figurine under the glass.] That’s “Glass Orpheus.” [A poem from Ash Steps, her most recent book.]
Yes. Talk about important poetic subjects. [Laughs.]
There’s the bee, right?
The elephant was added after the poem, he isn’t in the poem, but I figured they had room for him.
So where did the glass Orpheus come from really?
As a child I had a small collection of glass things. He was part of a glass trio and he’s all that’s left. I got the Venetian bee from my mother and the whale was a present that was bought for Larry because he’s very fond of Moby Dick, and I bought myself the glass polar bear downtown and a friend of ours brought Christmas crackers to Christmas and there was a little tiger in it. What do you do with this motley collection?
You put it in a little glass box! I was going say today that that poem reminded me of the little collection of wonders on your shelf—lo and behold!—but it also seemed to me properly eclectic, the right crew of listeners for a poet like you.
[Laughs] Thank you. that’s a very nice thing to say.
Near the end of the poem you say, that’s all a poet wants, an “If only glassily alert, charmed audience.” I wondered if you’ve felt that you’ve actually been blessed with that audience.
Every once in awhile I run into someone who likes something and that feels so good. And then someone will make a list of important Canadian poets, and I’m not on the list and I’ll feel so bad. You know how that feels.
Where do you think that comes from, wanting an audience?
Oh yes. You can pin down your parents and make them listen. Cats have a slight tendency to ignore you when you recite poems to them.
But there’s also an impulse to share, right? I mean, why else would we write?
Yes I think so. And you know, if I can make somebody cry I feel, Oh great!
One of the things I like about reading your poems is it feels a little bit like following a trail of crumbs: this leads to this leads to this. It’s a little adventure.
Oh I like that.
Does it feel that way when you’re writing, like you’re following a trail to who knows where?
I think life feels like that sometimes.
In your poem “Solar Remission,” you write that nothing is too small to say. I felt like that was a key to your writing and your poetry.
It’s very much a key. And it’s very much related to a kind of feminism I have. For example I think it was Roethke who made fun of women poets stamping their tiny feet at God. I was writing and publishing in the ’50s and ’60s, and there was this awful feeling that, what could women write about? They had no experience. The men poets would list all the things they did: wranglers and loggers—go on whale ships—heroic stuff! and, you know: I’m only not a very good cook, somewhat of a gardener [laughs], I once hand-embroidered a pillow. I also took a great dislike to a lot of the things that many of our ancestors said about The Poet, with a capital P. I still run into capital P poets. Even people I sometimes like will have a moment of being capital P poets and I think, oh dear. So there’s all this trying to put things back in proportion.
What is a capital P poet?
Some idea of what a Poet is: a romantic figure, the poet as wise, as sexy, as little Laytons.
There was another line that struck me as a line about your poetry. In “Gold Fleece,” which is, “This is no wall or country that I weave but a plain language you can’t read unless you bruise your knuckles.” I think in one swoop it’s saying that what you’re offering is unpretentious but also demanding—
Straightforward, but difficult—
Welcoming, but potentially painful.
Yes, all that, yes!
It felt to me like you’re admitting that you’re luring us in so you can then let us have it.
The other thing is that I can feel my knuckles whacking against the letters—“you bruise your knuckles.” You have a knack for these really tactile images and metaphors. Another one is actually in “Keeping Afloat.” The idea of the swimmer being like the scuba diver in the fish tank, battery-operated.
I saw that scuba diver in an airport once. I didn’t know it would turn up in that poem until it did, but you know, you get a stockpile, this tremendous attic full of trivial stuff, and then something says, woo-hoo!
I see your eyes in your face light up when there’s something you take delight in. I feel like some people want poetry to be serious all the time, without it being delightful or playful—
And some people seem to want it to be cheerful and extraverted all the time. They can’t stand it serious. You know, it can’t be all on the same level. Life isn’t.
On that note, we should talk about Ash Steps. You warned me that, like some other recent work of yours, it contains much illness and death. One of the things we’re always told is that death is one of the chief subjects of poetry, but did it really feel that way when you were younger, compared to now?
Well, the thing is, I was born in 1934. I was an intelligent, reading person throughout the Second World War. I was in grade six or seven when the Hiroshima bomb fell, and people were bringing pictures back from Auschwitz. My father was away in the theatre getting shot at. One of my first published poems was “A Welcome to Peace” in 1945 (I can’t remember which of the Washington, D.C. papers it was in). But the thing is, I couldn’t have been unaware of death given the life that I was living.
Yet it must be different now.
The major difference is statistical. I have more friends popping off than I did.
The book felt like it alternated between the voice sometimes admitting that it would happily let go, and sometimes having a plucky resolve and affirmation—
You can attribute the order of the poems to Robyn Sarah [the editor of Cormorant’s poetry series]. She browsed over the book and decided what order she wanted.
Is that something you struggle with?
Well, it’s been quite different. Touch Earth, I organized alphabetically, and I was very pleased with that. In the others I’ve tried not to get poems that are too much alike too close together. I think having a whole batch of “by the seashore” poems would be a mistake. In The All-Nighter’s Radio, I did rearrange them myself with a great deal of thought. “Local” is all things about Fredericton, “Greeting Card” is all about friends, and “Shuffle Text” is mostly about writing. When I got to Ash Steps, I was just so happy to have Robyn do it.
Because of the way it went up and down like that, which is the way we go through life, sometimes feeling strong and sometimes not, I thought that though they’re all poems that stand alone, somehow together there’s a greater power. I wanted to ask about that, whether sometimes poems that stand alone can come together and make something more.
[Sighs.] There’s such an awful lot of them. Oh dear, I don’t know how to answer that.
I really like the poem “Wishing,” which was one of the plucky-resolve poems. That’s the one that ends with “a sort of lacy yearning,” and “I clutch at my twig.”
That’s me. A little old lady who can no longer skip. [Laughs.]
Has your process for working on a poem changed over the years?
Oh yes. I used to write them in long hand and then type, and retype, and retype, and cut with scissors and paste and retype. Now the computer’s made things different, and it’s much easier to read than my own handwriting! I often write things first in handwriting and then I have to rush up to the computer because the next day I won’t remember what I wrote.
One of the poems in Ash Steps is called “She Keeps Writing the Same Poem.” Is that a lament, or is it actually a sort of affirmation?
It’s just a nasty remark about myself. [Laughs.] “For heaven’s sake, haven’t I been here before?”
Do you sometimes feel no, that you actually are writing something new?
Sometimes, yes. And lately I’ve found the opera has helped. I’ve done quite a number of opera poems. Some of them got into The Book of Widows (Frog Hollow, 2010), and I have some, you know, upstairs, hunting for a home.
Why do you think opera?
It’s a place to go I haven’t been before, so that’s very nice. And the opera, no matter how silly the plots, the music always means.
The music always means?
Music turns up in references all the time in poetry, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into words. But opera, because it does have the plot, because it does have the words, it’s like fairy tales, except, you know—I was using fairy tales for quite a bit…
And you’ve also used visual art and sculpture. Why are those things useful? Sculptures, opera, fairy tales?
Well I suppose, you ask yourself, why do these things mean to me? Sometimes the words can come, and sometimes they can’t.
I was reviewing today your “Reader’s Deductions” at the back of Keeping Afloat, and I wondered what made you write it.
Because all these revered poets were writing these distinguished essays about what poetry is. And I couldn’t do it in prose like that. I thought maybe what I can do is write what I believe as succinctly as I can. You might call it a failed essay.
There’s one that says: “Imagery is not necessary to a poem. Musicality is not necessary to a poem.” Which is actually contrary to something we talked about today.
But: “A poem says how its words feel.” That is really important. I may like imagery and music. But if the poem really says how its words feels, and there’s a poet, Pasquale Verdicchio, he wrote little square poems and they had no music, no imagery, but they were good.
A poem says how its words feel. I’ve never heard a statement like that.
That’s the one I’ll stick by.
In other words, the poem has to know—
Its own emotion. I hate to use the word “emotion” because so many people seem to think it means only tears and screaming, but playing Scrabble, working out, those are emotions too. We’re never without emotion.
Is it another way of saying the words in the poem have to belong?
Yeah. You need the words to get the music right. For example, getting back to Ash Steps, in “Confluence,” in the beginning it says, “I found them dull.” That is a line that says it finds things dull. Call that musical, but in a sense that is, because it is saying how this person feels. The words say it.
They embody it.
Yep. You’d be showing off if you said, “I find it totally uninteresting.” That’s a different kind of emotion.
The other one [Reader’s Deduction] that struck me was, “The associations of poetry work through convention. Distrust the subconscious; it furnishes clichés.” When you say “through convention,” what do you mean?
Rose means sex, it means mother. These are the conventions you work with. You can make a rose sick obviously, but a rose isn’t going to easily turn into a daisy, it isn’t going to easily turn into a horse. You have to recognize the conventions and know that they’re going to be part of what you’re talking about, if you’re going to talk.
You mentioned once that you felt Divinations, which won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award in 1980, was your most ambitious book. Can you talk about what you were trying to do in that marvellous, three-part, title poem?
“Divinations” is a take on the Divine Comedy by Dante. I knew that hell, purgatory, and paradise were all in the mind, imagination, or soul. I could not imagine speaking for someone who was wicked, but I could do despair—the wish to be “nothing.” The scenery and characters and anecdotes from the hell section are from my own adolescence, but the suicide is patterned on the suicide of adolescent acquaintance.
Why is hell in the Catskills?
I wanted a real place for hell and I liked the Dutch name of Red Hook, on the Hudson. I wanted material that could be interpreted as good or as bad: the apple tree, the image of fruit, comfort, fertility, beauty. But the apple tree is also, deep in our poetry (and in our mistranslations), the serpent’s fruit, the fruit of death. And consider all those potential apple diseases, like tentworms. And I was adolescent in the Catskills—and I wanted despair not to be rooted in events or health but in an immature frame of mind.
For despair I took the blacker moments of adolescence and imagined them unadulterated with sensual or intellectual or social joy—a sort of odd censoring of one’s memories. I found it easier to find “hell” in adolescence than in an adult world, and I wanted despair not to be rooted in psychological madness, nor in despair over politics or health—but in a frame of mind.
I am haunted by the woman in the next section, whose husband is digging up the ancient Aboriginal cemetery. How did you decide to write on this place and these issues from her perspective?
The locale for purgatory is very much New Brunswick. Purgatory itself is a place out of which one should move: repent, grow wiser, escape. It is a sort of Middle Earth (in a Tolkienesque sense). I thought using the prevailing prejudices of the European re: Aboriginal communities would give her a kind of wrongness that she has to grow out of. The character begins by thinking that Red Earth is a nowhere place and that its inhabitants are ghostly and feeble (the earth is red because of the ochre with which the ancestors painted their bodies, but it does make one think of blood and I found that useful too). But she matures and discovers the vigorous reality of the people and sees the need to get out of her old self.
I enjoyed using references to Micmac and Maliseet myth. Soon after I came here I became pregnant with my second child and was deeply nauseous. Larry got, from a recommendation through the English department, a housekeeper from the Reserve, Amy Polches—who is still dear to me. Her husband, Lee Polches, founded the St. Mary’s Tree Service and one of her sons continues with it. Her sister is Rebeccca Bear, the mother of Ed Bear the mask maker. His family (except Rebecca) did not come to his first show in the UNB Art Centre, because they felt uncomfortable, and Rebecca told me that she had wished her son had made nice landscapes instead of those huge ugly masks! Any mother of any artist child! The alienation of the Aboriginal artist from his community, and his assertion and reinsertion, is something I am not capable of writing about—but immensely important. Those are very good reasons for using an outsider’s viewpoint in the “Red Earth” section. To write as a well-intentioned person finding herself confused, not quite understanding what is going on, as this character does, seems to me as very much where I am much of the time.
And paradise? You employed so many different techniques in the third section to reveal the voice and narrative—it’s marvellous. Is this your idea of paradise: all that variation?
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