July 11, 2020

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Poets' dialogue insightful if somewhat stilted

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/2/2019 (525 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What the Poets Are Doing gathers 22 Canadian writers (including Winnipegger Katherena Vermette) together in pairs, each coupled with an author roughly a generation apart, to have a conversation about writing poetry.

Predictably, the poets who already know each other, and whose interviews take place in person rather than through email, are capable of more relaxed and interesting conversation. Other pairs struggle to move beyond the manufactured essay-speak that poets slip into when asked to write something other than poems.

The highlight of the collection, edited by B.C. poet Rob Taylor, is Elizabeth Bachinsky and Kayla Czaga’s conversation, which begins, "I’m sitting here in a little park just off Granville Street and there’s an ambulance helicopter going by and I’ve just spent the past hour and a half trying to find a spot in Vancouver on a sunny Sunday that isn’t super loud and teeming with people, but I’ve finally found it."

That breathless sentence displays all of the brilliance of Bachinsky’s poetry — it seems casual but is dense with information and play.

First, Bachinsky locates us in a specific place, then in a specific time by painting a helicopter into the scene (which even acts as a bit of foreshadowing for later discussion of her father, a helicopter pilot).

Bachinsky then recounts the struggle that brought her to this time and place of conversation, establishing a thematic tension between trying to be an artist in an explosively capitalistic world. She lastly offers hope despite the struggle — a small, almost sad, but beautiful assurance.

Bachinsky’s opening may seem tossed-off, but it has all the hallmarks of a professional construction. She even uses the radio announcer’s trick of addressing the audience directly as she brings Czaga into the scene: "What can I tell you about Kayla?"

Other conversations are interesting in their own right, but struggle to achieve that difficult balancing act between private discussion and public display. Paradoxically, this is because they are too obviously worried about finding that balance.

The opening conversation between Steven Heighton and Ben Ladouceur even addresses this problem: "For me, revision (of printed text) in a back and forth interview like this one serves the same purpose as gradual, careful revisions in fiction or poetry: trying to get my words and thoughts right and clear, rather than leaving the labour up to the reader."

Ironically, this mode of constructing an interview results, often, in pages of text and a stilted, fragmented, essayistic tone.

The poets working this way — and most of them do — effectively trade the momentum of back-and-forth conversation for a series of monologues with either thick or thin relation to the preceding poet’s own monologue.

At the same time, Heighton justifies his approach in a convincing manner: "the problem, for me, goes deeper than clarity. What I say off the cuff is not only unclear but sometimes not what I actually think because often I don’t yet know what I think and I won’t know until I start talking about it or writing about it."

There’s a lot here about the way poetry works, both in the craft sense of how poetic language operates to crystallize and refine thought, and in the broad sense of how an author’s own self sometimes pales compared to the complexity of a poem’s speaker.

Overall, the book displays the diversity of ideas hovering behind the writing of these authors, and of poets in general.

What the Poets Are Doing:

Click to Expand

Canadian Poets in Conversation

Edited by Rob Taylor

Nightwood Editions, 190 pages, $23

Buy on mcnallyrobinson.com

Although poems often seem so private, the poets here display a relentless obsession with the social world and how their work interacts with this world.

Ultimately, what the best poets are doing is still writing poetry. The truth of writing is that hard work is more important than talent. As Souvankham Thammavongsa states, "When I was starting out, I was around many talented poets, poets more talented than me, but I am still here."

Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) is the author of five books. Visit him online at writingthewrongway.com.


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