Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
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.
Canadian Poets in Conversation
Edited by Rob Taylor
Nightwood Editions, 190 pages, $23
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.
By buying through links provided on this page, you are supporting local writers, reviewers and book sellers.
Your support has enabled us to provide free access to stories about COVID-19 because we believe everyone deserves trusted and critical information during the pandemic.
Our readership has contributed additional funding to give Free Press online subscriptions to those that can’t afford one in these extraordinary times — giving new readers the opportunity to see beyond the headlines and connect with other stories about their community.
To those who have made donations, thank you.
To those able to give and share our journalism with others, please Pay it Forward.
The Free Press has shared COVID-19 stories free of charge because we believe everyone deserves access to trusted and critical information during the pandemic.
While we stand by this decision, it has undoubtedly affected our bottom line.
After nearly 150 years of reporting on our city, we don’t want to stop any time soon. With your support, we’ll be able to forge ahead with our journalistic mission.
If you believe in an independent, transparent, and democratic press, please consider subscribing today.
We understand that some readers cannot afford a subscription during these difficult times and invite them to apply for a free digital subscription through our Pay it Forward program.