This year's festival has no shortage of appearances by Guelph MFA community members. Claire Caldwell, Jeff Latosik, Matt Lennox, Andy McGuire, Jacob McArthur Mooney, Shane Neilson, and Russell Smith will all be reading—while Sheniz Janmohamed, Grace O'Connell, and Catherine Bush will be contributing their hosting and moderating skills.
We invited Jeff and Claire to kick off the conversation about poetry, the theme of the 2015 festival...
JL: It’s nice to sit down and have the opportunity to exchange a back and forth with you. Though I don’t consider myself a consummate poetry critic, I do often feel starved for conversation about poetry, curious as to other people’s experience with the art form, and I’m interested to hear what authors have to say about their books.
As I was reading your wonderful debut Invasive Species, I found myself returning to a thought I’d had once about the art form. It seemed to me, and still does seem to me, that—even now—the impetus of a contemporary lyrical poem is a kind of humanizing impulse. That is, the poem performs a “humanizing activity” in both its writing and reading. Many of the arts do this, mind —but it seems that poetry has a distinct way that it does it.
So I’m wondering how you interpret that claim, whether you agree, have had similar thoughts, find the whole generalizing thing a dead end, or how you might actualize that claim in your own work or the work of others.
CC: Yes, it’s such a pleasure to talk shop with another poet!
I hadn’t articulated it as a “humanizing effect” before, but I’m definitely interested in how poetry might help people connect with the world around them in ways other media don’t. So how is poetry distinct? Poems are nimble and they’re mysterious—at least the ones I like to read and hope to write. They leap through time and space, play with language, blaze with imagery, shudder with emotion and leave you asking more questions than they answered. As a reader, it’s both exhilarating and a relief to spend time in that slippery, strange and contradictory space. Poems move us through uncertainty in a world where the most powerful voices often speak in absolutes.
That brings me to your most recent collection, Safely Home Pacific Western. Scientists and inventors are featured prominently in the book, and I’m wondering about the relationship between science and poetry, when science seeks to define, prove and classify, and poetry (if you’re going by my definition) so often traffics in ambiguity.
JL: I don’t think there’s more of a relationship between poetry and science than poetry and anything else per say. Science is material, and it has a rich history, and so as material goes it’s hard to ask for more (spindly creatures are good, too).
I don’t really know what the relationship is between poetry and science myself. Like many things, it can be what you want it to. One senses that the crush poetry has on science isn’t quite reciprocated.
I like your description of poetry; my own view is that much poetry serves a normalizing function—now that’s not to say it normalizes (full stop) but that it turns the human gaze towards the ineffable, the difficult to explain, and tries to wrangle a language for it. There’s a great metaphor in Jim Johnstone’s book Dog Ear that, to me, does this work quite well: he calls a parachute “the big bang of a second skin.” Whatever the big bang is, or was, here it’s snapped into a material and lived expression. Poetry has been doing this for thousands of years. It seems rather that it’s a core human impulse than it is the raison d’etre of poetry.
I wonder: do you think of non-poetic texts when you write at all? Do things that aren’t poetry influence your poetry?
I’m wondering how you might describe the relationship between your research and your creative process in a poem like “Osteogenesis,” a work that feels at once intellectually exploratory and lived in.
CC: I totally agree with you about grounding strangeness in familiarity. I love the tension that comes from that!
To your first question: yes, absolutely, non-poetic things influence my writing all the time! In fact, (tying in to your second question), “Osteogenesis” was partially inspired/informed by a Radiolab episode about what happens to whale carcasses when they sink to the bottom of the sea, rather than washing up on shore or being eaten by scavengers closer to the surface etc. A lot of my work, including “Osteogenesis” (the medical as well as the whale sections), will be sparked by a snippet of something—an anecdote or strange fact or an article I’ve read—and then I’ll augment that with research. I often patch together the lived and researched bits to make the poem. Sometimes these bits aren’t obviously related, but for whatever reason they start to resonate and I need to find the thread that will cinch them tight to each other.
I would say poems almost always start, for me, with a curiosity (both in the “intellectual exploration” and the “strange novelty” senses), and the form follows from there, often after a lot of trial and error. I really admire how you deploy form in Safely Home Pacific Western—it’s both elegant and surprising, and I wonder how deliberate you are with formal elements when you begin a poem (I’m thinking here of poems like “Phosphorous” and “Aubade Photoshop”). Or does it depend on the poem itself, and the ideas you’re working with?
JL: I’m a failed formalist poet. Strict, true, formalist poetry of the kind you get with AE Stallings, Daniel Brown, Alexandra Oliver, or Don Paterson (among others) is exceedingly hard. It taxes your resources of intellect in a way that I wouldn’t argue is in a class by itself but I would say is distinct.
The poems you mention both have that thing where there’s a buried rhyme that that last word clarifies or—I believe with “Aubade”—a final rhyming couplet. My Frankenstein creature has dress shoes, I guess, but if that element of formalism isn’t pushed it’s mostly because it’s hard—something my formative years steeped in pop culture didn’t prepare me for.
Poetic form is a great way to explore something because it forces you to do things and act on the spot, which is where a lot of the feeling-level processing happens. I’ve mentioned this before somewhere but Neil Smith has this great short story called “Bang Crunch” where a woman’s age increases and contracts like the universe. There’s still a spot for this kind of work in contemporary writing: that is, of taking the sinking whale carcasses, the theory of the big bang, Photoshop, pythons in carry-on baggage, and bringing that into lived experience—humanistic activity, again. The world is not getting less full of this stuff. And if everything theory and science is telling us is that our notions of selfhood are confused and that there is no stable “I,” lived experience—where we get mad, take aspirin, love people, get blamed for stuff, have things we’re trying to do—can often suggest otherwise. It’s wrong, but it’s ours, and we can’t just snap out of it.
I’m still curious about your awesome title (and exceedingly well-designed cover). While much of the collection has really strange and beautiful images of animals being where they probably shouldn’t and people travelling into new physical and psychological terrain, growing up, going over itineraries, I really love that it sort of asks the reader to consider poetry as this ultimate invasive act. So—of the classic elements (metaphor, image, sound, form, possibly others I haven’t mentioned here) which is the one that, to you, is the spore of poetry, let’s say—the one that makes a poem contagious not just in terms of its remembering but in terms of falling into it and becoming part of its world?
CC: Ah, the spore of poetry! Love it. I was going to say it’s definitely image, but I think it’s actually the combination of image and sound...so maybe what I want to say is that the spore is the line or phrase. Which is kind of neat when you think about the poem as a whole puffing out these little units, hoping one will land in the right spot in the reader’s mind. Of course, poems are so much more than that, and without some kind of emotional drive, the work can end up with a beautiful or clever shell, but no meat inside it.
What you said about the world “not getting less full of this stuff” hit home with me because I often get overwhelmed thinking about how much stuff exists in the world. Sometimes I’ll imagine, say, all of the corporate drawstring backpacks that have been handed out at events in North America alone, piled up in one place...and that’s horrifying. In darker moments, I ask myself whether writing poetry just adds to this excess, or if it can offer a retreat from or alternative to it.
It seems to me that the poems in Safely Home Pacific Western also grapple with an uneasiness about human creativity, whether through literary allusions, imagining the lives of inventors, chronicling the downfall of a Northern Ontario town or considering the strange displays in a museum of science and technology. I’m wondering how you deal with this ambivalence when you write (if you experience it at all!), and if you think poetry can perform a social role that could work against the relentless production and accumulation that is such a symptom of our current place and time.
JL: I don’t believe that poetry can provide a clear social benefit. Tangential or co-relational, perhaps. Perhaps when all is said and done it will, through some element of keeping language itself alive and breathing (unless in 20 years we all just say “it is what it is” to every ambiguity we encounter), be possible to consider it as having a connection to a larger social good. It’s also interesting to think of the problem in a different way—not, do you think poetry can do something socially but: do you want to live in a culture with no poetry? This might be a way of getting at the very diffuse connection between poetry and social good, but it remains that to me: diffuse.
Let’s change the question slightly: what if the social value of poetry is to make sure that it is there for poets? What’s beautiful about poetry is that everything everyone says about it being so culturally irrelevant makes it an ideal workspace for a distinct niche of artistic work, and that niche is becoming wider as borders between disciplines begin to blur. This is a tried and true argument to be sure, but it is borne out in specific cases: exciting work, of which your book is a fine example, is being put out every publishing season in Canada. Something about the space is working; so there’s a benefit to poets to keeping it there.
I want to thank you for your great answers and questions. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you and to get some insight into Invasive Species. One last question: what keeps you writing poetry?
CC: I think most writers would say they keep writing because they have to, and I do feel that drive (compulsion?) at a kind of basic level. But I also do believe poetry can have a social function, or many, beyond the community it comes from. I think my work would suffer if I didn’t believe, or hope, that poetry can reach out beyond a group of specialized readers and touch people, or inspire them to action, or make them see something in a way they never have before. Actually, this is what I love most about poetry, and I suppose comes backs to my first response and the idea of a poem containing multitudes. Once a poem is out in the world, it can have so many different meanings, resonances, layers...regardless of our intent. So I guess it’s the optimism that my work could have an effect on someone, even if I don’t know what that effect will be, and even if that potential reader feels unreachable in the moment of writing, that keeps me coming back to the desk and sitting down to work.
This has been a great chat! Thank you for your thought-provoking questions and thoughtful responses. It was a great opportunity to take a closer look at Safely Home Pacific Western. See you at IFOA!
Jeff Latosik will be reading from Safely Home Pacific Western (Goose Lane, 2015) at IFOA 2015:
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 25, 4PM – PUB HUB, Harbourfront Centre
with: Brecken Hancock, Kate Hargreaves, Jeff Latosik, Andy McGuire, Talya Rubin, Zachariah Wells, Liz Worth
+ IFOA Owen Sound
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 9, 7:00 PM
Owen Sound and North Grey Union Public Library – Auditorium
with: Stevie Howell, Jeff Latosik
Claire Caldwell will be reading from Invasive Species (Wolsak & Wynn, 2014) at IFOA 2015:
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 27, 7:30PM – STUDIO THEATRE, Harbourfront Centre
with: Claire Caldwell, Ulrikka S. Gernes, Stevie Howell, Damian Rogers, Deanna Young
"More Than You Can Stanza"
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 29, 8:30PM – PUB HUB, Harbourfront Centre
with: Oana Avasilichioaei, John Burnside, Claire Caldwell, Milan Jesih, Andy McGuire