So I've been getting emails via the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada's listserv for the past few years. It's hard to describe, but the writers and academics who make up the group are very much MY people. I feel at home among it's discussions, even if I don't actively participate.
I first heard about poet Brian Bartlett's Ringing Here & There from the ALECC listserv and promptly emailed him, asking if I could interview him.
Of course, I launched Stowaways and was rained on in Grasslands National Park for two weeks while we were corresponding, so I was more than a little hazy. (Ahem.)
But I'm pleased to present this interview with Brian about his eighth book. Enjoy!
What do you want people to know about Ringing Here & There: A Nature Calendar?
It belongs to the 'book of days' tradition, with 366 paragraphs, one for each day of a year, running from April 1st to the following March 31st. But it took exactly two years to draft; the book weaves together selections from 24 months. The settings range from forests, shores, and marshes to kitchens, classrooms, and backyards, but every entry in some way acknowledges non-human natural things. As the back cover says, it’s arguably my “first book of prose,” but it’s generically mixed, blending field notes, metaphor, memory, fact, dream, science, philosophy, social observation, quotation, and collage.
The conceit to this book—beyond that it’s a book of days—is that the entries were all posted as Facebook updates within the initial FB maximum of 420 characters. How did writing with a 420-character constraint compare to working with other forms?
My preface to the book talks about the entries being “shorter than sonnets & longer than haiku.” Any form defined in part by length involves playing within pre-set boundaries. Since the form I chose didn’t also dictate necessities like rhyme and lines of certain lengths, I didn’t feel the pressure of form as much as I would’ve, say, in writing sonnets. But the 420-character max, though crazily random (and abandoned by Facebook itself long before I finished my experiment), presented an appealing challenge, which I met in a playful, grateful spirit—grateful because the space limit constantly coaxed me to write with concentration, whittling down longer drafts.
Some poets would go into paroxysms at the very idea of sharing early drafts of your poems (Prose-poems? Micro-fictions? Diary entries?) but you did it frequently over two years. How did you do it? Also, were you at all worried that "giving the milk away for free" via social media would negatively affect sales for the book?
The initial drafts were written and revised by hand in a journal, then revised further within Facebook before posting—so the first versions with an on-line readership weren’t in fact “early drafts.” (And let’s face it, the readers would’ve been few; I have no illusions about how many Facebook members actually see or read any posted item.) Many entries were revised again before publication in book form, but I’d hazard a guess that with most days 80-90% of the work preceded the Fbk sharing. As for “negatively affect[ing] sales for the book,” my guess is that the postings have probably helped sell a few copies, more than discouraging sales. But as I know well from decades of publishing poetry, the readership for any kind of writing not seen as mainstream is tiny. As a poet, I don’t find that quantity of sales is much of a relevant consideration. Best to hope for an appreciative few.
In Ringing Here & There’s introduction, you note that most poems “ended up assigned a day other than the one on which they originated, but usually I kept them within a month of their original creation.” Given the fact that you’d at least partially eliminated chronology as an organizational principle, tell me about ordering 366 paragraphs selected from the 440 or so you drafted.
Chronology was still the primary “organizational principle.” Sometimes I kept entries very close to their original dates, if they involved natural things like the arrival of a particular species of bird, or the year’s first sighting of a flower. In many other cases, I juggled the entries to provide contrasts on a page—contrasts of setting, tone, style. Some entries weren’t “month specific” or even “season specific,” so I had more liberty to insert them weeks away from their original placement in the calendar year. As soon I as realized I was going to be creating a one-year cycle with entries written over two years, I knew that the sequence would be both faithful to the unfolding of the months, and somewhat reshaped in retrospect. That’s a fictional component in what I thought of as “non-fiction.”
As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?
Public readings are chances to escape briefly from the solitude so vital for writing. They also give what’s written an expanded existence, moving it into a space of the literally spoken and heard. I enjoy doing readings, for encounters with a visible audience and for a bodily projection of the chosen words from mouth, tongue, lungs, etc. Yet I don’t think a choice needs to be made between the poem on the page and the poem performed—a poem benefits from the various realms of being possible for it. It bugs me when someone insists “the true nature of poetry” is oral—or written. Why can’t poetry have several natures, or a complicated nature?
Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?
I’ve been to Winnipeg a couple of times, but not in over twenty years. The first time I was on a solo see-Canada train ride from Vancouver back to Montreal, where I was Iiving at the time. By the time I hit Winnipeg my money was running low, so I stayed in a cheap, very grotty hotel. That led to a three-part poem called “Hotel of Dust,” which appeared in a couple of my books. Winnipeg intrigues me, partly through the films of Guy Maddin and the music of The Weakerthans, Christine Fellows, and J.P. Hoe. I’ve love to spend more time there.
What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
Christopher Hibbert’s London: The Biography of a City, in preparation for a trip to London this summer (my kids’ first overseas trip). That’ll be my sixth visit to London, so I figure now’s the time to get deeper knowledge of its past.... Over a year ago I began another nature-writing project, this one all drafted “en plein air,” by some body of water—river, lake, marsh, brook, vernal pond, bay, ocean, etc. The prose entries in this “Waterside Journal” are sprawling, layered, each several pages long—very different from the concise entries of Ringing Here & There. I didn’t realize how much I’d revel in the act of writing outdoors. Sometimes strangers have stopped and asked, “What’re you doing?” or “Are you fishing?”