Thursday, November 03, 2016

On making poems from Other Poems

I read Calgary-based writer Richard Harrison's latest book for a Prairie Books Now article while sitting at my dining room table during the first writing day I’ve had in ages.

And even though I came to it tired and ever so slightly resentful at giving away a part of my day, I recognized so many of the poems, the feelings, the images, the ideas. On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood made me feel sad and glad, its poems inspired me and made me think about craft. And I was grateful for writing days and books like his to read in the middle of them...

So it should come as no surprise that my interview with Richard later that day was equally as surprising and generous.

I particularly liked this call/response, but couldn't make it fit into the 500 word article I was writing. I thought I'd reproduce it here in its entirety. 

AG: Many of these poems discuss other poems, other artworks. Is this mode borrowed from your other life as an academic? Also, I would really like to know how you manage to make responses to poems into poems.

RH: Maybe so. I was hosting an event earlier this month for WordFest, and I noticed the same thing in the work of the novelists I was acting as host for—how important documents (books, letters, archives) were to the main characters in the novels. Peter Behrens' responded that this trope probably did come from the fact that writers and academic people are in some sense people who follow books into life, but that it wasn't always the case. I liked the idea of following a book into life -- sometimes as a map, sometimes as a hypothesis. I know I do it. Books are part of life, but they are about life, too; taken at their greatest distance from any notion of author, they are life reflecting on itself. Life is full of contradictions, so so will be any collection of books that a person finds significant to them.

I think I'd think that whether I was an academic or not, but certainly being an academic as well as a writer accentuates the tendency. On one level, "finding my voice" meant accepting those elements in it.

Thank you for seeing my responses to poems as poems in their own right. I'm glad about that. It's difficult to not get caught up in other poems when writing my own, particularly, in this book, with the poems my father treated as touchstones to his life, like "Fern Hill" and so on, playing key parts. In the end, though, now that I'm thinking about it, using poems within poems ought to be (or is when it works) like treating any other things right when they are in poems, too. A poem may never be as lovely as a tree, but a poem about a poem should treat the two the same: they are there to be responded to within the poem, they are there to be a way to get at something that the poet needs to write.

Does that answer it? I'm not sure. If I answered with this analogy, maybe that's as close as I can get right now. I once was asked to write and read four poems for four of the greats of hockey in my day, and one of them was Gordie Howe. So I met Gordie as part of the event that I had written the poems for. I actually met Gordie twice. The first time was in the lobby of the hotel where the event was to take place. And when I met him there, I became like every other fan he's ever met — thanking him for his great career, saying how much he meant to me, to the game, blah blah blah. And I watched him forget me even as I was in front of him. And he was a famously kind and attentive man.

Then I stepped back and let him take the elevator to the reception and I thought, "I'm going to make a mess of this if I do that all night. I need to be who and what I am. Gordie doesn't want me to meet the surface of him, he wants, like we all want, be encountered as a human being." So when I next met Gordie (about a half an hour later; he had forgotten so I got the do-over), I was able to introduce myself as the writer of the poems and so on. And we got along very well. We talked, and my poem meant something to him and the story had a happy ending.

The point I think I've found in that story is that I had to get over the fact that other poems were Other Poems in order to write about them as the poems they were — as something someone made that had meaning to me, a meaning I wanted to explore through the language and images that those poems brought to mind, whether they were words in those poems themselves or arose from them. I guess the shortest way to say this is "treat them like anything else." But it took me years to be able to truly feel that.

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