My good friend and poet Rob Taylor, who was my first reader for Transmitter and Receiver, interviewed me for his blog. As someone who was very familiar with the poems, he didn’t hold back on asking me hard questions on subjects ranging from flowers to commodification to “thingness.”
Rob: With a book called Transmitter and Receiver I expected a lot of technology to have worked its way into your poems. And its certainly there in abundance – video games and YouTube videos, .jpgs and cell phone ring tones. But just as prevalent, perhaps more so, are flowers – in the foreground in poems like “The Tulip Vending Machine” and “Flower Arrangements” and also popping up in little cameos, like the night flowers which “open with ease // in the politician’s garden” or the “soft buzzing” of flowers on an otherwise silent morning. I was wondering if you could speak about these two themes in your book – modern technology and flowers – and how they compliment and contrast one another. What does it mean for you when you put flowers in a poem? Could you imagine writing this book with the tech in but not the flowers?
Raoul: It’s funny, I had absolutely no idea I had put that many flowers in the book until it was too late. It’s like some little imp came in when I was sleeping and pressed them all in. But yes – and let’s say that imp is a subconscious part of me – I have a few explanations. On a purely associative level, I like that sweet note that flowers can play and to use that to disrupt or enhance something in a poem. I have also felt distant or suspicious of something so purely beautiful when I was a moody and dark youth. That skateboarder in “Flower Arrangements” that holds the bouquet at a “precise distance” away from himself? That’s me, in a way. Just overwhelmed and unable to relate to that beauty. I remember a period later when I was reading a lot of Gerald Stern, who has flowers in his poems, and how startling it was to me, somehow. At the time a flower poem to me was the most radical thing. And then of course, I relate them a lot to my wife these days, she’s brought me into a quiet kind of appreciation of them and living green things in general.
In July I was lucky to sit down and talk with Sheryl MacKay on her great North By Northwestshow on CBC Radio. I was very nervous and rambly but Sheryl was very sweet and asked good questions. She also did a great job of editing our conversation so that I sound vaguely coherent. I read my poem “Transmitter and Receiver” at the end. Thanks Sheryl! You can listen to our conversation around the 27 minute mark , but I highly recommend the whole show which has stuff about wooly mammoths, stars, and crosswords.
I sat down a few days later in a slightly different context with the coolest kids Dina Del Bucchia and Daniel Zomparelli on their Can’t Lit podcast. To make it even better, my charming and talented friend Kayla Czaga was a guest as well. We talk about humour in poetry, age-ism, pizza, and play a fun family game. This one is much longer and giggly-er, partly due to Daniel’s awesome raspberry mint cocktails. Thanks Dina and Daniel for inviting me! Big smiles!
“I tend to like art that does more than what’s necessary, goes further, exceeds; but that keeps its contours sharp, holds its shape. I think of the way huge flocks of pigeons reverse and catch the light in a synchrony that doesn’t eradicate the oneness of each particular bird. This isn’t to say that I can’t turn it down for a slow jam when I feel it, or that I can’t build a poem around a single gesture rather than a whole array of them. I can and have. But I’m a relatively excitable person by nature, and when I try to write calm, tranquil poems, I usually feel more or less like an impostor, like I’m assuming someone else’s sensibility, or worse, like I’m trying to modify my work to make it behave more sensibly, or generically — to make it appeal to as many palettes as possible.”
“I’m associative by nature, so it’s inevitable that many of my poems will oscillate on both large and small scales, swing from one thing to another around a core that is often not articulated until later in the poem. Probably a lot of my poems are records of me discovering why a particular set of stimuli hold my attention. But the process itself, the process of making, really any process of making, because it leads to some kind of output, will convey a sense of order. What I like about poems is they can also carry a feeling of the disorder that leads to order, or leads to a desire for order.”
Reading tonight at the monthly Spoken Ink Series in Burnaby. They are allowing me a good chunk of time, which makes me more inclined to throw in at least one “cover” poem. I decided yesterday that I will read a Dean Young poem, one of my favorite poets of the playful “associative” (yet still emotionally generous) school of poetry. Looking him up online today, I came across a feature on NPR which was a great listen, and includes Young reading some of his poems. At that time he was still recovering from a successful heart transplant for his failing heart and talks about that too, and facing mortality in poems, in general.
“I think that’s one of the jobs of poets: They stare at their own death and through it they still see the world — the world of 10,000 things. Poetry is about time running out, to some extent. You can think of that purely formally — the line ends, the stanza ends and the poem itself ends. And I think one of the things that’s pleasurable about reading poetry rather than hearing it, is that you immediately know where the poem is going to end. You can see it, just glancing at it. And there’s something maybe reassuring about that.”
I only have one collection of poems by Young, “Elegy for a Toy Piano” and a fantastic essay/book “The Art of Recklessness” on writing poetry but I’m looking forward to his newer stuff. There’s one poem written post-surgery that’s featured at the NPR link and it’s clear from that that nothing has been lost of his sense of wonder and startling humour and emotion.
Ok, enough procrastination, back to warming up for the reading tonight. I’ll leave you with a bonus link: Dean Young’s letter to a young poet (his nephew), which as is profoundly moving and insightful as anything in that Rilke book.
“I think people have this misconception about poets that we sit down and figure out everything we’re going to say before we say it and then, because we have this “Great Command Of Words,” we can force language into saying whatever it is we want to say … but that’s not how most poets work. They have an instinct for language, they study language, they live with it, they feel it, they are attentive to it, so that when something comes up that seems resonant or has potentiality, poets will be able to activate those words, and make things more resonant. That’s what I think it’s all about. Not getting some message across. I mean, what’s the message? It’s scary to be alive? We’re mortal? We live in vulnerable bodies? Death is terrifying? Love is good? Don’t be cruel? Don’t take other people stuff? I mean, we’re not moralists, we’re trying to work with our materials.”