Marilyn Bowering on the Writers’ Blog Tour

What am I working on? How does my work differ from other work in its genre? Why do I write what I do? How does my writing-process work?
These four questions were passed on to me by novelist and short story writer, Kathy Page, on the fascinating tour through writers’ minds called the Blog Tour. (You’d think a bunch of writers could have found a fancier name!) Kathy’s new work, Paradise and Elsewhere, is a book of dark fables that takes the reader through a beguiling, wickedly imagined looking-glass. Click on the links at the end of this post to get a sense of some of the other interconnections, fractal replications, blood-vessel colonisations and cranial crenelations going on in the Blog Tour sphere.

Xan's pic of Marilyn's hands Montreal
Photo by Xan Shian

All of the Answers at Once: A wander through the questions
One of the problems of being a writer is knowing when it is all right to talk about a work-in-progress. It may be superstition, but I’ve found the more I admit I am ‘doing’ something, the longer it takes to finish. Thoughts like these, along with various writing rituals, cluster thickly as mussels on a piling: every now and then it strikes me these are unnecessary and I scrape them away. Some people have trouble with this (try asking Sidney Crosby to stop his pre-game routine) but it is easily done. The most satisfying de-ritual of all is to incinerate letters, old manuscripts, treasure maps and spells– whatever you have: whoosh goes the past and opens up new space.  As a young poet I found and collected animal bones whenever I walked a trail or on a beach; but soon I decided that skulls and bones were best left where they lay. It wasn’t interdiction, like taking rocks from volcanos which is said to offend the goddess Pele, but that bringing bones indoors was, well, counter-intuitive.
And then, too, you find what you’re looking for.

I’d been brought up to ponder death: my small body and soul destined for the lake of fire. This now seems absurd, but as a child it was easy to imagine that a lie told to get a bigger slice of lemon pie led straight to the burning abyss; and if I couldn’t visualize this sufficiently on my own, there were religious authorities to help me.

I own an early 18th century primer, Emblems, meant for the edification of school-boys. Its illustrations seem like recollections of nightmares. What I was being taught, in part, was to develop a medieval mind-set. (Emblems was printed about 1710, but its spirit resides in the Middle-Ages.) Medieval mind-sets are commoner than ever these days; you can find them East or West; although why an age of brutal intolerance should be found attractive puzzles me.  It does promote an interest in dramatic imagery, though, which you can find in bloody display on YouTube. The rehabilitation of torture as a method of réal politic is among several reasons why the fate of children in war is a thread in the novel-in-progress I’m getting around to mentioning.

Emblem Death
Emblem VIII Book 5

Another influence on my childhood was the Apocalypse of the Book of Revelation, codified in the 19th century into a form popular with the religious right today. Paradoxically, the apocalyptic narrative’s headlong impetus towards Armageddon, which lies behind the religious right’s attitude towards the future– “Bring on the disasters, because we’ll be out of here” (via  the Rapture)– may be provoking its opposites of kindness and reverence towards all life, in harmony with the actual modeling’s of the world’s great teachers.

turkey 2 048
Mevlana’s Tomb

Likely I write what I do because I began consciousness concerned with survival of body and soul; and likely, too, I was influenced by the sound and pattern and imagery of Biblical story: they are great myths and I regret their fading from currency. Adam and Eve and the hunger for knowledge; the first jealous sibling murder; the Tower of Babel—what a badge of globalization; the beautiful stories of Joseph the Dreamer. These were riches added to the loving, story-telling extended family in which I grew: and if there are paradoxes in this account, it is because these threads– love and crippling beliefs– were woven in the same tapestry.

Raised in ambiguity, ambivalence, and with the ability to hold contrary beliefs at the same time, it was inevitable I would be a writer.

I use whatever genres I need to explore what comes up: not only fiction and poetry, but history, ‘fabulism’ and YA. I should point out that the most outrageous incidents are those that are true.

I’m working on a novel, The Swimmer’s Tale, that has changed its nature and length (getting shorter), as I’ve drafted it.  It combines elements of what I’ve spoken of here– marvels and horrors and a sweep of time–grounded in a present day journey of a young woman who wants a life of value in a world that crouches behind the protective rock of irony. The Swimmer’s tale begins in the sea and ends, for the protagonist Pearl, with her in a river.
I am lucky to live in British Columbia, home of great rivers: it is on ongoing fight to keep them that way.  No one would call me a political writer, but social and cultural and multi-cultural concerns are at the heart of my fiction. Nothing unique in that–but this novel-in-progress is also a fish-tale: and for my fish-love I am grateful to my father who introduced me to the thrill of trolling abundant waters.

Emblem Earth
Emblem VI Book 5

Even the book of Emblems isn’t all dark: threaded through the castigations and fear-mongering are strands of gold like this:

I love the Sea; she is my fellow-creature,
My careful purveyor; she provides me store:
She walls me round; she makes my diet greater;
She wafts my treasure from a foreign shore….

Some other stops on the Writers’ Blog Tour

Kathy Page
Matilda Magtree
Alice Zorn
Pearl Pirie
Julie Paul
Sarah Milan
Steve McOrmond
Susan Gillis
Anita Lahey
Barbara Lambert
Maria Meindl
Sarah Mian
Ryan Pratt


Recently, the filmmaker Anna Tchernakova asked me, for a project she’s working on, to think of three objects from my childhood bedroom that were so essential that if I had them again, I’d be able to re-create the room. We moved many times when I was a child, but the room I think of first is the one that has been in my mind when I’ve been writing the poems in Soul Mouth (Fall 2012).

The house was set in an orchard and we lived there with my grandparents. I shared the bedroom with my brother, and so my personal space was restricted. My three objects were a ukulele, a blackboard (and chalk) I carried everywhere so I could draw, and a white ‘comforter’ covered in tiny roses.  I heaped the comforter over my head whenever I wanted privacy—mostly to tell stories to an imaginary friend or to negotiate encounters with some of the peculiar people who turned up at my grandmother’s house. (One of these was a very old lady, dressed in voluminous black, who carried an ear trumpet: I’ve not seen anyone like her since!)  It hadn’t occurred to me, until I heard ME answer the same question with descriptions of his pets (a canary, a budgie and a white mouse) how clearly the objects represented fundamental traits.

Almost by definition, the books loved in childhood are slow books: we love to hear them over and over; and when we’re grownups may return to them not only to read to our own children, but for reassurance. Poems and stories kept in memory, fairy-tales, and bed time stories are part of this repertoire: I still love to be read to and I know I’m not alone in saying that being read to by my husband was part of how I fell in love.

Books about childhood, or rooted in childhood, can be powerful.  A Slow Book choice in this category would be the Swedish-Finnish author, Tove Jansson’s, The Summer Book. Focused on the relationship between six year old Sophia and her grandmother, the story unfolds over a number of summers spent on a Finnish island. The limits of the landscape and volatility of the weather add to the clarity of a portrayal of the girl and her family following the death of the child’s mother. Images of old age; childhood fears; life and death and the sea; and especially the passionate nature of Sophia make for a book that is both pure and unsentimental. I’ve read it three times. I know that child—I miss her.


It’s the celebration of my grandparents wedding anniversary in 1960. My mother sits across from me at the long table in the restaurant. Her face is half turned away and she is smiling. Her ears are bare but there’s a single rhinestone strand around her neck. The emerald engagement ring she always wears, matches her green eyes. Her dress has cap sleeves, a sweet-heart neck, a fitted bodice and the narrow skirt of the dress is darted to the waist seam. The material is jacquard: blue and black velvety leaves; and she’s sewn the dress herself. Her shoulders are straight, and the way she’s turned means I can see a slight gap between dress and skin where the back zipper starts from a low scoop. She wears high-heels; the stockings shine when she stands up and moves away. I don’t want her to come any closer to me—although she will, and I’ll have to pretend I don’t love her as much as I do. Her beauty and grace, her refinement, are anomalies in this family of goofs, jokers, story-tellers, Newfoundlanders—and  the happiness this vision brings me wakes me up in the middle of the night more than fifty years later. I look again: I was wrong about her ears: she’s wearing small pearl screw-ons—but she never gets them even and she never keeps them on for long.

Re-inventing Marilyn

Ever since I first wrote about Marilyn Monroe in a series of poems set to jazz for the BBC in the late 1980’s, the subject of  her life and work have kept connecting and re-connecting to mine. I’m at work, these days, on a libretto for an opera based on some of the Marilyn poems; while looking through materials in my files, I came across a review I’d written in the early 1990’s for a (then) newly revised biography of Marilyn Monroe by Maurice Zolotow.  It was published in the Globe & Mail. I’ll post it here.

One wonders if the Marilyn Monroe phenomenon will last, and if so what our descendents will make of her. Her talent was to project, on film, a spirit and beauty of heightened reality: many people have called it transcendent. Even the soggy revelations of recent years about her marriages, her relationships with the Kennedys and the sordid circumstances of her death, have not dimmed the public adulation. It seems, in fact, that her insecurities and weaknesses have only added to the image of a goddess at bay. It also makes no difference that her beauty was largely man-made, involving enormous expense and trusted attendants. In some curious way, Monroe’s working class origins, inflexible ambition and instinctive intelligence made her a touchstone of truth. This, I think, was part of the bond with her third husband, the playwright, Arthur Miller. She also invites compassion, which is, of course, one of the finer aspects of love.

Maurice Zolotow’s “Marilyn Monroe” originally issued in 1960, two years before her death, remains the best existing biography of the actress. We may now doubt some fo the claims of Monroe’s naivety, but Zolotow knew her, and the book has an authentic ring. His fascination with his subject is obvious, the inexplicable and mysterious nature of her appeal; but it doesn’t make him uncritical of her astonishing narcissism. Above all he makes her appear human.

Zolotow quotes the director Billy Wilder, to whom Monroe once gave a lift in her black Cadillac convertible, as follows: “I didn’t realize what a disorganized person this is until I see in the back of the car. It is like she throws everything in helter skelter because there’s a foreign invasion and the enemy armies are already in Pasadena. There’s blouses laying there and slacks, dresses, girdles, old shoes, old plane trickets, old lovers for all I knew, you never saw such a filthy mess in your life. On top of the mess is a whole bunch of traffic tickets. I ask her about this. Tickets for parking. Tickets for speeding. Tickets for passing lights, who knows what. Is she worried about this? Am I worried about the sun rising tomorrow?”

Zolotow foresaw for Monroe, because of her paradoxical and conflicting desires, a future alienated “from the common stream of humanity” and of “essential loneliness.” He compares her to Garbo who was able to accept a solitary life saying that it is this with which Monroe must come to terms. Here he foresees her tragedy. For there was no coming to terms with the need for human contact and for love that consumed her. Perhaps it is the scale of this need which continues to draw a world-wide outpouring of love, adultation and pity nearly thirty years after her death.

Calendar Poems

Marilyn Bowering on Poetry

Interview by Ajmer Rode, translator into Punjabi of Marilyn Bowering’s Calendar Poems.

Creative Process

Q: How does a poem happen? Is inspiration necessary or do you just start writing it without any inspiration – like American poet Ashbury?
Usually the poem begins with a feeling: I can tell one is ‘there’ but I may not have any idea what it’s about. Often, too, it will begin with a line or phrase. Sometimes I’ll carry the line around for days until I can get to it. For instance, recently the phrase “When I used to dream” came into my mind. I’ve written that poem, but I also know–logically–because of the scope of the phrase–that there may be a number of other poems hidden behind it. I do think it’s quite possible to write as Ashbury does, as well. The act of writing, itself, can uncover waiting poems. I suppose that’s how I think of them: waiting for the right time, place and connection to come into being.

Q: How do you know when a poem is complete? Is a poem ever fully complete?
Yes, a poem is complete for what it is, although it’s true that sometimes I keep fiddling. I suppose you know the poem is complete when the form tells you so. A lot can be going on: the resolution of an image, the shape made by a poetic plot. It’s the same kind of question as how do you know when a song is over? It’s over when it’s over!

Q: Can writing of good poetry be learnt? How important is the craft, the use of poetic devices? Is metaphor still the backbone of poetry?
You can certainly be taught the craft of poetry if you’re willing to learn. To learn it, though–which isn’t easy and takes time and effort–you have to be determined and believe the effort will be worthwhile. Even when nobody else does! I think that ‘real’ poets undertake this training–I can’t think of a single significant poet who hasn’t spent years on craft. Most poets use poetic devices, although they may be hidden or disguised. Poets frequently use rhetorical devices or types of rhyme but in an ‘organic’ way so that the structures used aren’t obvious. An occasional pleasure of mine is to take a poem to pieces, to see what it’s made of–rather like taking apart a watch to see how it works. Of course what you end up with isn’t the poem: but it’s the aspect of the poem that’s responsible for density: the ‘poem’–it’s meaning and spirit–coalesces around the artifacts of structure.

Q: When you write do you have a particular audience in mind? If you do, does it affect your writing process? And do you think the reader has to be in a special mood to enjoy poetry?
Much of my poetry has to do with asking questions, although the poems are rarely framed that way. A question might be–as in the phrase I mentioned above, “When I used to dream–what is the difference between the past and the present and what does the absence of dream mean? This poem turned out to describe the ‘geography’ of that absence–to describe a country which I hope to explore further. In fact, I think that much poetry, for me, is a means of exploration–a tool with which to explore and reveal things I can’t get to any other way. Some poems do other things, of course–I’m also interested in character and persona and in the different things that can be said through different voices. If I write for an audience at all, it’s simply those who are curious, too–who marvel at the world and its variety and are willing to approach it through sound and beauty. I feel that the poems speak person to person–it’s a very close relationship, and quite different form what I feel about writing fiction. Fiction invites companionship; poetry speaks heart to heart or not at all!

I do think that the reader has to be in a certain frame of mind to enjoy poetry. There are times and circumstances in which I can’t read poetry at all. Then I’ll come upon something that expresses exactly what I’m feeling; or that opens up something new–and I’ll be caught.

Q: What do you think poetry essentially aims at? evoking emotional response in the reader, bringing new awareness, renewal of the language, or…?
The kind of emotional response a poem evokes is important. It has to be balanced with the thought process in the poem. The ideal poem does all three: it makes a connection to the reader in some new way which includes fresh use of language. I’m aware, sometimes, in writing poems of deliberately toning down one or the other of these aspects: it can be too easy to make gestures in a poem–for the language to be overly clever, or the emotion to be grandiose. Holding back can make for a better, more human poem.

Q: What does poetry mean to you? How does writing of a poem affect you?
The classical answer to the question, Why do you write poetry? is Because I must. It’s a compulsion, a need and a service; fundamentally, it’s a way to articulate life. Writing a poem makes me feel ‘normal’ – as if I’m in the right place at the right time doing the right thing; although I’d like to qualify that by saying that some poems feel ‘wrong’ and I write them to get them out of the way. I also feel humbled by poetry–its capacity for depth, humour, insight is so great, and mostly it feels like it has very little to do with ‘me’.

Marilyn’s Poetry

Q: Your poetry is often described as a blend of intellect and affection. How do you achieve it? Is such a blend necessary for poetry?
I really don’t see how poetry can ‘not’ be such a blend–although as soon as I say this I can think of exceptions. St. John Perse, for instance, can hardly be called ‘affectionate’, although poets I love from John Donne to Mona Van Dyn are, and in such different ways. It’s completely understandable why most people who don’t write poetry nevertheless associate it with love.

The underlying song of poetry is a love song–to an individual, or the world or the stars and planets. To life and death.

Q: Narrative form seems to dominate your poetry. In Alchemy of Happiness even your Calender poems describing the 12 months are little narratives while other poets have normally describe up or down moods associated with the months ( as for example American poet Linda Pastan has done in The Months in a 1999 issue of the POETRY magazine. Two Sikh Guru-poets, Nanak and Arjan, have written the most celebrated Calander poems in Punjabi drenched in spiritual love). Do you find the narrative form more expressive or more suited to what you want to say?
I’ve been writing poetry for a very long time. My poetry ‘career’ divides into before and after narrative. I published a number of books, culminating in a New and Selected collection, “The Sunday Before Winter” and then felt I’d come to the end of my interest in the single lyric poem.

Since this is around the same period when I began seriously to work on fiction, there may well be a connection, although I think I felt that all poems point to narrative anyway and that it was time I incorporated that ‘ripple’ into the work on the page. The Calendar poems incorporate, as you say, little stories; but there are also some short lyrics: I was thinking not so much about the movement of the months as what is memorable–how memory makes its own calendar out of event and feeling, anniversaries, co-incidence etc.

Q: You have written long poems on many historical Characters like Marilyn Monroe in Any One Can See I Love You, Soviet dog Laika in Calling All The World , George Sand and Chopin in Love As It Is… What inspires you to write on such characters?
There are different reasons for writing about each of these characters. One way or the other, they have all had personal impact on me, and have also–obviously–been important to culture at large. Writing Marilyn was initially a challenge from a BBC producer; I found, when I thought about it, that I had a strong emotional response to her because of sharing a first name: that she had helped to shape how *I* had been treated as a young girl and woman. All poetry is an act of empathy, but the Monroe work was particularly so in that I wanted the poems to be in her voice.

The poignancy of the space dog Laika–that exhilaration of sending a living creature into space combined with the fact that Laika couldn’t be brought back–had stayed with me since I was a child. Advance combined with sacrifice: it’s heroic, and an animal tale, and thus involves the innocent. For some reason I ‘heard’ this piece with Prokofiev’s music for the film Alexander Nevsky – which was used when the work was recorded for radio.

As for George Sand and Chopin: I was intrigued by a long letter she wrote to a friend of Chopin in which she outlined all the reasons why she should not allow herself to fall in love with him; and during which she argued herself into the affair. It’s a wonderful piece of head vs heart in which the heart wins.–and you can tell that the result will be messy. I wanted to try and catch the ‘under-voices’ I heard in both Sand’s and Chopin’s letters–as if beneath the surface something much more elemental was going on.

Q: In Poetics, Aristotle comments on the difference between history and poetry: “The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philsophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular?” Do you think Aristotle’s statement is still true? How do you create poetry out of history?
Poetry’s highest aim is to express the universal, and of course, this is attained through expression of the particular–which I think answers the question! On thinking over Aristotle’s statement, I wonder if he was talking in any way about prescience–a quality that poetry often has? Might this be because poets often work from dreams or other aspects of their sub and un conscious? Poets, musicians, painters all pick up things from the air, at times–this is easy to see retrospectively, and I find, sometimes, that a poem will anticipate an important personal experience. Sometimes I think that all art is a preparation. I don’t pretend to know for what; but the elements of beauty, and of musicality are important to me.

Poetry is created out of history or character through an empathic connection: you enter into it and bring it alive.

Q: Dead people figure frequently in your poems. They seem very much alive, sublime, joyful and… Do you see life and death as a continuum? Or your dead characters simply represent eternity of life?
The Alchemy of Happiness was written during a particular period of grief and it is certainly full of the dead. They do feel, to me, to be present and have things to say. I don’t at all mean that I see ghosts or anything like that: but my experience of loving someone when they die has surprised me: there is so much joy and interest there. Again, I don’t at all pretend to offer an interpretation–that’s not something I would want to do in poetry: the poems are really quite simple: they attempt to offer in a concrete way and as accurately as they can, particular experience. At the least, I suppose, they’re a map of my mind. It sometimes amazes me that people don’t ask more questions about what I write!

Canadian Poetry

Q: How would you describe the dominant type of mainstream Canadian poetry? How does it fare in the context of world poetry?
Is there a dominant mainstream type of Canadian poetry? I see such variety I wouldn’t know what to suggest as ‘mainstream.’ A change, certainly, is from landscape based work to urban-based; although I think a more interesting change is from regional to global. Of course (!) poetry is global; but Canadian poets seem more integrated into a world view than they once were–I’m thinking of the nationalistic phase when poets had to push hard to be published in Canada at all.

Instead of ‘types’ of poetry I think there are more ‘voices’: Anne Carson is very different from Karen Solie who is different from Margaret Atwood who is nothing like PK Page (although I recently read an article that suggested she had been influenced by PK’s imagery in her early work.) We seem to have worked through a period of ‘competency’–probably the result of workshops–that nearly killed poetry. Readers always, eventually, find real poetry.

Q: While West coast environment figures prominently in many BC poets, your poetry seems to go beyond such environment. How does geography influence, if it does, poetic imagination? comment?
My earlier work dealt very much with west coast environment. I’m thinking of the book, “The Killing Room” in particular, and before that a pamphlet, “One Who Became Lost” which contained many west coast poems. A cousin of mine recently returned from a ceremony in Toronto conducted by the Dalai Lama and explained to me that for the first three days the monks were basically asking the spirits of the place whether they could conduct the ritual on their territory. Geography influences how you write: it’s where you stand, where you move out from. In some way you have to ask permission of the environment, make your alliances with it, in order to be ‘grounded’. This is difficult, I think, in a country like Canada that has a post-colonial culture plunked on top of an aboriginal one. Where are the poet’s roots? Even the metaphor insists on a lineage to the soil. I feel very much freed, in my work, from having done that ground work (forgive the pun!) In fiction this operates a little differently: it’s as if no matter where the stories are situated, there’s always a path–often circuitous–that connects them to home.

Q: What do you think of writing ghazals in English? As you know in Canadian English poetry ghazal started in seventies perhaps with John Thompson. Then PK Page, Phyllis Web and others stepped in. Most recently Lorna Crozier has published a book of ghazals Bones in Their Wings. English ghazal has assumed a very different form than that written in Farsi, Urdu and Punjabi where the rhyme makes the backbone of the ghazal. English ghazal like most other forms of English poetry has discarded the rhyme. Do you think ghazal will make a come back in English? Could you comment on the importance of rhyme in poetry?
I’m not sure why many of these are being called ghazals at all. I don’t really see the point. Many of these, to my eye and ear, are simply images. I take it principally as a gesture–although why a gesture in the direction of ghazal–maybe an admission of something missing in current English language poetry?–I don’t really know.

Q: Can poetry really be translated? what is the importance of poetry translation in our multicultural and global world? What kind of poetry have you read through translation? Any experience with Indian or Chinese poetry? Have you been translated into other languages? Would you like to be translated into Punjabi?
I think poetry can be translated. The right translator is in harmony with the poems and with both languages. I love comparing translations as the differences bring out different nuances in the poems. I read a great deal of poetry in translation–mostly Spanish (which I can also read in the original), Russian, contemporary Chinese, Persian etc. My poems have been translated into Spanish. I would love to be translated into Punjabi–and also have some feedback as to how the poems ‘sound’ in that language: what resonance they find; how they fit (or don’t!)

Q: What do you think of what is called the mother tongue poetry being written in Canada in many languages? Forexample, take Punjabi. More than 100 poets live in British Columbia alone and they have published more than 300 books. Punjabi Writers Forum, still going strong, was founded in 1973 in Vancouver the year TWUC was founded. Yet majority of the Punjabi writers feel alienated in the national context. Although they contribute significantly to Canadian literature they lack government funding and recognition for their work. How would you address this issue?
The only way to address this is through translation–in editions, ideally, that are bilingual.

Education would help: for instance, information pamphlets distributed to Literary Festival Organisers so that they might include Punjabi writers in their programs?


Q: You have been nominated for and won many prestigious prizes in poetry and fiction. What’s the importance of winning a prize for a writer? For you? How does it affect you?
We know that prizes are meaningless in the long run, but they have a practical effect: they make you more widely read and more visible–likely to be asked to give talks, readings, and even to write poems. We’re a little uncomfortable, in western society, with the public function of the poet–it tends to be ignored, or crushed into a little space–such as Canada’s new Poet Laureate experiment. We’re getting better at admitting poetry’s memorialising qualities into our culture–major tragedies, in particular, are likely to make the media turn to the poets for comprehension and a suitably meaningful response. But just as the rituals of most religions have lost meaning and function, so have the rituals of poetry. As long as poetry is just words and sounds and doesn’t act as an instrument to help open or keep open the heart and the world of intuitive intelligence–as long as its sense of purpose is lost–the acceptance of and readership for poetry will be small. Which is a circular way of saying that it’s more than a method of using language that’s endangered (in Western culture) it’s also a kind of intelligence that’s at risk. In my opinion.

Writing of poetry

Q: Any particular discipline needed for writing poetry? Is there a ‘best time’ for you to write poetry?
I used to set out on poetry projects–I even have one in mind–but mostly, now, I wait for the poem to come. If I weren’t writing fiction, as well, I’d be looking harder. The discipline is to not push the poem aside. Often, it seems, everything else takes priority over a poem (cooking, teaching, a hair-cut) but poetry is also an attitude: the wait isn’t passive; it’s an active listening for the shiver in the air that signals a poem. (‘Shiver’ isn’t quite right; but it does, to me, have a sensation.)

Q: Any suggestions for good poetry books? Suggestions for books on writing poetry? Anything new happening in poetics?
PK Pages and Philip Stratford’s “And Once More Saw The Stars”–a renga–introduced me to Stratford’s work which is amazing–technically fine and metaphysically playful (also dark). I’m currently reading Les Murray’s verse novel, Fredy Neptune.

Q: You are not in the category of old poets but from your experience with others tell us how do old poets live their lives? (eg Robin Skelton, Merriam Waddington) Do poets grow old at all? What makes a poet accept poverty rather than give up writing poetry?
Robin Skelton wrote, taught, published, translated until his death; Al Purdy finished a book shortly before he died; PK Page continues to write and publish wonderful poetry. Some poets seem to take on new life as they age–Elizabeth Brewster, for instance, who converted to Judaism when she was (roughly) eighty and then found she had many new things to say.. Poetry is a life; so poets simply continue with it–it’s not exactly something you retire from, although as all poets know, poetry can retire from you! I’m interested in this question as to why poets will do whatever they need to do to continue writing: the necessity of the poet is to write poems. Poets do not feel ‘whole’ unless they write; it’s a fundamental need. I’ve always felt this need as a drive to make shapes: there’s something almost geometrical–mathematical, anyway–about the perfection (this is an ideal) of the poem: it finds its shape, it has a shape, just as a crystal has a shape. Poetry is made of so many small things: syllables, words, sentences …images, sounds… and yet it achieves unity. Perhaps the desire to write poetry is a desire for completeness? Despite what much of the rest of the world appears to believe, the poet finds what he or she does useful. What is this utility? Sometimes, to celebrate beauty, but more often, I think, to suggest through the layers of the poem, that reality is similarly layered-maybe this is what we mean by saying poetry addresses universals

En Poemas y Dibujos

Exhibition in Spain

I’d met the artist, Mercedes Carbonell, when I was living in Sevilla in the early 1990’s. Subsequently, she designed the covers of several of my poetry books, and in 2004 gathered together and translated a collection of my poetry to accompany her drawings of women.  Her work is always full of surprises and I was delighted with the plantlike qualities of many of these figures. The drawings and poems were exhibited together in Spain and published by the Fundacion Aparejadores de Sevilla.  The book was dedicated to our children.

YouTube – retratos de niños de Mercedes Carbonell 

Creative Writing in What It Takes To Be Human

When I understood that my main character, Sandy Grey, the protagonist of What It Takes To Be Human (which takes place during World War II) was going to have to learn to write during his incarceration in an asylum for the criminally insane, I began thinking of how he would go about it. As far as I knew, there were no (to say the least!) writer-in-residencies, Creative Writing departments or degrees by correspondence associated with institutions in those days– but I wanted Sandy to take up writing as a means to advance the case for his innocence. How was he going to learn? His German roommate, Karl, composing romances to practice his English and avoid thinking about his circumstances, could introduce Sandy to the craft, but I knew that Karl’s fate would take him out of Sandy’s sphere before Sandy had done more than pick up a pen. More importantly, Sandy’s personality demanded that he approach learning to write step by step, and by attaching the principles of writing to his general observations of life. He needed direction, but of a philosophic as well as practical turn: he was living in an insane asylum. I’d taught writing, myself, in many institutions, but I’d never had a pupil quite like Sandy Grey.

I began with a look at the Famous Writers School, familiar from magazine advertisements during my childhood. Famous Writers was ‘fronted’ by the Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling. Although I’d never quite understood the connection between the spooky voice of speculative television and a correspondence writing school, I thought that the Famous Writers method of absorbing lessons, completing assignments, sending them in and having them assessed by a ‘professional writer’, might be right up Sandy’s alley. Unfortunately, the dates were wrong. Famous Writers began somewhere between 1949 and 1951; not only that, when I read over the material kindly sent to me by a Famous Writers secretary who seemed to like the idea that a novelist might use Famous Writers as a theme, I realized that the impressive lessons, quite similar to the kind of thing dished out in present-day creative writing classes, were too laborious, too time-consuming, too uninspiredly industrial for my Sandy.

Next, a library search for Correspondence Courses turned up a number of promising references, including one to a 1926 short-story-writing by mail course, but none of these panned out. Either the material couldn’t be found or once again the date was wrong (Sandy would have been six years old in 1926). I needed something that would capture the optimism still present during the 1930’s, the idealism that was the flip-face of the Depression, even as the curtains were about to open on the terrible flaws in all the major political and social movements. Sandy’s writing had to be of a certain temper and stage.

Every other time I’ve come to a halt in research, accident has led me to just the right book in just the right kind of out-of-the way bookshop. I found Personal Magnetism, so essential to my novel, Visible Worlds, in a second-hand shop in Tofino on the west-coast of Vancouver Island; the old Haunted Books in Market Square yielded up the treasure of the 10 volume 1950’s Arctic Bibliography also of great use in that novel. Somewhere or other I came upon the esoteric Fairy Dictionary I consulted when writing Cat’s Pilgrimage, and I found books on the astrology of cats in Powell’s in Portland. The old Seattle Shorey’s books supplied a large amount of the background material for my first novel; and, more latterly, I’ve found works I need on oddities of seafood and naval history in my local Penelope’s Books. I tend to go about this kind of ‘research’ on auto-pilot, a kind of drift in a general direction, a reach of the hand to the shelf, that works for me.

But, this time, no dice.

Although it’s an apparently different kind of operation altogether, finding the right kind of book through the internet has the same sort of ‘feel’. The work I finally discovered, that exactly fit the bill (who knew such a thing even existed?) I came upon through There were dozens to consider, books listed from all over the world, and nothing fully described enough (how could it be?) to make me sure it was what I needed. I couldn’t—literally– afford to be very often wrong. Nonetheless, I ordered a 1932 book, written by two New York high school educators, called Adventures in Thought and Expression. When I opened it and saw that the frontispiece was Rodin’s emblematic “Hand of God” I knew that my luck had held.

Much else, of course, went into Sandy’s entry into the world of letters when it came down to it, but the atmosphere of Thought and Expression is everywhere. The introduction gives the idea: “The course aims to give the pupils a sound and comprehensive background for understanding and directing their thought and their lives.”

How old-fashioned, how exactly right! As for the desired results? “Writing that is sincere and that represents a very great variety of style and of points of view; Tolerance, breadth of view, sympathy and understanding in the pupils; Recognition by the pupils that expression is of no importance unless one has something to say; Recognition by the pupils that distinctions between poets and artisans, business men and artists, philosophers and scientists, are mainly artificial and, in reality, represent nothing more than differences in points of view. The pupils learn to appreciate each other.”
This was exactly what Sandy Grey needed, and what my novel aimed to be.
Adventures in Thought and Expression, Blohm and Raubicheck, Prentice-Hall (New York), 1932.

Personal Magnetism

The story goes that an iron stone had sat on a hill at “Iron Creek” Alberta from time immemorial. As long as it was left there, the local Cree and Blackfoot nations prospered. Hunters placed offerings of beads and knifes at its foot before they set out, and shamans brought patients to it to benefit from its powerful healing properties. It was known that if the stone were to be disturbed, terrible misfortune would follow. In the latter part of the 19th century the stone was removed by missionaries to the farmyard of a mission house. This instigated the chain of war, disease, decimation of the buffalo, and the loss of their lands that so devastated the Native peoples.

In another story—this one appearing in the history books—Greenland Natives showed Robert Peary, ‘the first man to reach the North Pole’, a great iron stone that was called The Woman. She was mother and creator. One of her gifts was to provide spearheads of such efficacy that the hunter could not fail to kill his prey. Peary began at once to see how he might transport the stone to ‘civilisation’ for study.

Both these stories appear in Visible Worlds, and they are there because of magnetism—the secret of the iron stone: its power to generate belief and magic, its attraction for the rational and scientific mind too—its invitation to such a mind to debunk the mysticism and wonder that have always attached to such stones. Thus the missionaries, thus Admiral Peary.

In the 1920’s and 30’s one strand of the new science of psychology appeared in North America as Personal Magnetism—a program of self-development. Following its prescription, ‘millions’ of men and women improved their health, found increased confidence, and learned to distinguish between suitable and unsuitable mates. The magnetic man had an attractive resonant voice capable of holding the attention of audiences; he could enlarge the pupils of his eyes at will in order to mesmerize, and he could memorise, if need be, a page at a glance using the vitality and concentration that increased personal magnetism had given him. The magnetic woman was calm, able to convince the others of her point of view, and free of the nerves, poor digestion and ‘hysteria’ that plagued many of her contemporaries. She could take her place in the world at large—even the business world—without fear once she had personal magnetism as her buffer. She and he achieved these successes through certain mental and physical disciplines, and by consuming magnetic foods. The prescribed diet looks remarkably like those found in modern health programs, and distinguishes between natural and processed (often smoked or otherwise preserved) foods.

It is easy to laugh at such a system and at the human frailties and needs it betrays. But the fascination with magnetism that has punctuated history (we are in the midst of a revival now with magnetic bracelets, foot pads, and mattresses on the one hand, and renewed interest in magnetism as a source of power useful to industry on the other) surely has something to do with the fundamentals: our correspondence as beings of energy to the energy systems that surround us—the magnetic field of the earth, the sun, the other stars and planets. Sunspot activity, the aurora borealis, the arrival of meteors affect us measurably—and they certainly affect my characters.

Somewhere I read that most great cities, ancient and modern, and most other sites of significant human enterprise were situated at strongly magnetic points on the earth. This would make sense in terms of another strand of magnetism, the very practical researches of the late Frances Nixon, that originated in Cheminus on Vancouver Island near where I live. This society of magnetists continues to have numbers of adherents world-wide. The basic idea is that the magnetic orientation of each individual is fixed at birth and is specific to the place of birth. As long as that original orientation is maintained, the individual remains healthy, but once it is disturbed there is a great possibility of disease.

Electrical storms, volcanic eruptions, sunspot activity, x-rays, dental fillings can all be sources of interference. Mrs. Nixon suggested first channeling to one’s personal magnetic pole by suing a chain suspended from a bar as a pendulum, turning slowly clockwise and then counter clockwise through the four directions to discover the direction of maximum magnetic pull, and then working to strengthen this alignment and to overcome areas of imbalance within the physical system. The brain, thyroid, heart, pelvis, spine, legs, and feet are important magnetic receptors (and thus vulnerable to disturbance): these can be stimulated simply by tapping them with the end of a ball-point pen. When imbalances are so strong that the ‘channel’ cannot be determined, they are neutralized by placing ice between the feet and grounding the interfering static.

We are all part of magnetism’s great net, says one of the characters in my book. We are attracted to and repelled from each other according to our inborn polarities. When all is well our circuits intersect, support each other, information passes back and forth; our lines of origin are guy wires to the soul on its journey through possibilities. Infinite energy. Nuclear fission. Or, as the adherents of Personal Magnetism would put it, “It Takes a Brain that is Wrong and Makes it Right.”