Canadian poets approach their craft with levity and candour in new collection

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Dionne Brand at Calgary's Wordfest in 2018

What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation is a delightful little collection of interviews between contemporary Canadian poets. Running the gamut from wonderfully intimate conversations amongst close friends to more demure exchanges between strangers, this anthology has something for everyone.

Conversation topics include, but are not limited to, the formal constraints of writing; friendship networks, bibliographies, genealogies; place, space, headspace, and home bases; scandals, community trauma, and lateral violence; obsessions and passing fancies; comments on the new, the old, and the obsolete in poetry; colonial oppression, institutional pressure, and other dangers; as well as the problem of reception and autobiography in one's work.

Before going too far I should probably preface this review with a confession: I am very tired of hearing scholars interview poets. As an academic, I often experience the Q&A period of an artist's talk as a hellscape where audience members ask poets to rescript their work into a lesson, a truth, a commodity, or a research finding, which they can take home with them. "Be legible!" The audience seems to scream.

Even in less public forums like the private interview, academics tend to ask poets questions that are too pointed, "research-oriented" and, frankly, a little stifling. Misrecognition between scholars and poets is more frequent than we would like to admit, and perhaps we should respect the discreteness of these two forms of writing. We tend to take for granted that scholars and poets can speak to one another. Sometimes they can't!

Refreshingly, this book takes a different tack by having poets interview other poets, allowing them to ask questions they really want to ask (and be asked) and the conversation is much more interesting for it. Each section also includes poetry from each writer. There is a levity and candour in What the Poets are Doing, and if you have ever suffered as I have during a public reading, then you might turn to this book as a palliative.

What the Poets Are Doing is in dialogue with an earlier book from the same press, Where the Words Come From (2002), with the same format. Editor and poet Rob Taylor repeats this earlier book's structure with much success, proving that sometimes we don't need to reinvent the wheel to produce meaningful collaborations. Many of these interviews were conducted over email. Some of them are more epistolary than others and some come across more like listicles than interviews. Admittedly, I find the unevenness in the conversations exciting. Each poet negotiates their own vulnerability and publicness differently and I enjoy watching them shuttle between personal concerns and questions of craft.

I especially enjoyed moments where I saw the poets express some frustration towards their audience. In her conversation with Souvankham Thammavongsa, Dionne Brand observes of her readers, "They never ask about the shape of the poems. So strange, because I am always working with a shape, a method. They say, ‘she works in the long poem’ -- well what the heck is that except length? But inside this ‘long poem,’ what else? Each step? The lines, the enjambment, et cetera." Brand's disappointment gives us a window into the writer's atelier. We can see them pulling at threads that worry them, struggling with incongruities, and refining their process.

There are two stand-out interviews in the collection. The first is between Armand Garnet Ruffo and Liz Howard. While Ruffo and Howard come from the same hometown, they meet (electronically) for the first time for this interview. Their conversation explores the poet's sacred and prophetic duties, to their ancestors, to themselves, and to their communities. Howard and Ruffo discuss how each of them negotiates difficult inheritances as they describe the process of listening to ancestral voices within poetry. These pages contain tenderness and care around issues that carry much weight in Indigenous communities. While reading them, it struck me how much we need to continue creating these intergenerational conversations to help heal our communities from experiences of lateral and colonial violence.

The second strong piece is an exchange between Karen Solie and Amanda Jernigan, who are also brought together for the first time in their conversation. Both poets use this occasion to delve into the other's work, suggesting that sometimes it is easier to have an intimate conversation with a stranger than with someone who has known you for a very long time. Solie and Jernigan discuss solipsism, community relations, and the conflict between our duties to our communities and ourselves.

Solie remarks on the ambivalence that accompanies the solitude of poetry: "I hope to address the complications of retreat. It can signify a period of concentration, work, solitude and self-denial. It can mean an abdication. It can mean self-protection, even cowardice. Sometimes we might not be sure into which we've retreated." Is the duty of the poet to the self or to the community? Which community and how and when? Solie and Jernigan model how to pursue these questions in a spirit of friendship.  

While each conversation in the anthology offers up a little triumph of some kind for the reader, there are interesting failures in this book too. Sometimes a question that a poet has obviously laboured over is tossed out by their interlocutor, discarded as uninteresting, and sometimes one poet's intensity can't be met by the other. There are also moments when some of the poets start navel gazing, slipping into clichés about poetic process and creativity. (Admittedly, writers are under a lot of pressure to commodify themselves. Let's be gentle with them when we see them erratically pirouetting.)

In other cases, small questions and errant observations explode into huge, unexpected lyric digressions. Sue Goyette and Linda Besner talk about an agave plant growing in a garden by Goyette's house that is about to bloom. The agave is an accidental conversation piece that becomes a totally ecstatic figure for the reader over the course of their talks. As Goyette and Besner pass this image back and forth like a ball, we see something unanticipated blooming in the margins of their piece. Is there something else growing in this garden, amongst the weeds and tulip bulbs? What will become of these flowering conversations and what seeds will they sow?

It is too early to tell, but it is oh so pleasant to sit by and wait.

Read an excerpt from What the Poets Are Doing here.

Image: David Kotsibie/Facebook.

Madeleine Reddon (Métis) is from Treaty 6 Territory, currently known as Edmonton, Alberta. She is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on the problematic of memory and inheritance within a colonial context.

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