Monday, June 19, 2006

John Newlove’s “Ottawa poems”

Whom the gods do not intend to destroy
they first make mad with poetry.
Irving Layton, "Birthday Poem for John Newlove"
It's been said that John Newlove's The Night the Dog Smiled (1986), is one of the best books of poetry, if not the best, in Canada during the 1980s. Our finest lyricist, he was long considered to have been the best poet in Canada from 1962 to 1972. From someone who published poetry collections in the late 1960s and early 1970s in relatively quick succession, he had been showing signs of slowing down for some time, with his previous book, The Green Plain, in 1981, and a selected poems, The Fat Man: Selected Poems 1962-1972, in 1977. Not that the previous came in quick succession, but quick enough, from Elephants, Mothers & Others (1963), to Moving in Alone (1965; 1977), Black Night Window (1968), The Cave (1970), and Lies (1972), which won the Governor Generals Award for Poetry that year.

With his stroke but days after his sixty-third birthday, and heart attack in spring 2003, just months before his death on the morning of December 23rd, 2003, to the dismay of readers such as myself, The Night the Dog Smiled remained his last trade collection of new poems to appear. But still, there have been a scattering of other poems, including the nine new poems at the end of his selected, Apology for Absence, as well as the eleven poems from the chapbook THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems, and single above/ground press poem broadsheet, “THE DEATH OF THE HIRED MAN,” with the last twelve collected in the anthology Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003. All in all, it makes twenty-one poems in roughly fifteen years; almost the entirety of his Ottawa stay. There are some other poems and versions that have cropped up there and here as well, including some in issues of Quarry and The Malahat Review1 from the time of The Night the Dog Smiled and beyond, as well as a piece written as part of his stint as Petro-Canada Poet Laureate at a Peter Gzowski Invitational Golf Tournament for Literacy in 1994 (the poem "Playing the Game," collected in the anthology Gorillas on the Dance Floor and Other Poems from the First 100 PGIs, published by ABC Canada in 1997), but for the sake of this piece, I will focus more on the poems he allowed a further life in print.

Predominantly, the poems that followed The Night the Dog Smiled – published the same year John and his wife Susan moved from Nelson, B.C. to Ottawa, so he could start his job as an editor at Official Languages – had him taking out more words than he was putting in. Even before he arrived, there did seem to be a break between his earlier work and what he had done in this collection. Although he was a strict lyricist, the poems that followed Lies were sparse, spare, and far between, reading more as occasional poems (with the exception, perhaps, of The Green Plain, which was later included in The Night the Dog Smiled) than any with a unified whole.

The poem "Progress," for example, the failed long poem he so desperately tried to write, appeared in multiple versions in various publications, including The Macmillan Anthology, before ending up in Apology for Absence. Working his lyric lines and phrases so tight (unlike the break he usually made for longer pieces, in a series of numbered sections), it was as though he couldn't leave the openings required for what he was writing, reading more like notes and phrases towards the long poem he longed to write than the poem itself.

As well, the collection The Night the Dog Smiled gave the reader a sense of another shift going on in John’s writing, as Douglas Barbour (who, along with his John Newlove and His Works from ECW Press, did more writing on Newlove than anyone else) wrote in his review of the collection in Essays on Canadian Writing:
But there is more here, which other reviewers have already pointed to: without
any diminishment of his sharp and accurate perception of human cruelty, frailty,
hypocrisy, and suffering, Newlove offers us a more positive vision in these new
poems than he has ever managed to before. Oh the savage, sardonic ironies will
abound, and in one piece at least he has achieved an inner vision of controlled
madness terrifying in its cool and analytical precision, but never before have
Newlove’s texts so obviously spoken of, and even proffered, love and compassion.
A further dimension is expressed, then, yet with its expression there is no loss
or dissipation of the unsentimental and utterly precise rendering of the things
that are.
In the same issue, Susan Glickman, in her “Driving Home with John Newlove,” writes of The Night the Dog Smiled seeking to:

redress the one-sidedness of Newlove’s earlier vision of the world by revealing
the bruised idealist one had always suspected of lurking under the nihilist’s
spiny armour. That this is the poet’s first full-length publication since Lies
(1972) suggests how difficult it has been for him to reorient himself; but the
relentlessness of Lies makes it doubtful that he could have proceeded any
further with his excoriation of man’s weakness and venality. At that point, it
seemed Newlove saw his task as a poet to be the generation of proofs for the
axiom of his favorite philosopher, Heraclitus, that “Whatever we see when awake
is death; when asleep, dreams.” But in The Green Plain Newlove allowed, for the
first time, that much of what we see is beautiful and to be cherished, and that
it is the vulnerability of this beauty – its very transience because of the fact
of death – that makes us cherish it the more.

I think it was very much a reorientation; that he didn't want the attention, and perhaps pulled away from it, spending years trying to figure out what he was doing, and what he was doing it for.

had always been a reader before anything else, picking lines out of history books and putting them into poems, but by that time, he spent his days doing more reading than writing. Whenever I would see him on the street, he would tell me some clever line he'd read in a history text, like that the British militia during the War of 1812 were there to “add colour to an otherwise ugly brawl,” or tell a story of when the police beat him up in Vancouver, and discovering years later that he had broken his collar-bone. Alternately, when I saw his wife Susan, the conversations were on the fire that had happened down the street, or of the new grocery store. A recent visit by her son Jeremy, and his family.

In an essay on Matt Cohen, Margaret Atwood wrote that his collection Columbus and the Fat Lady, published in 1972 by House of Anansi Press and made up of fifteen stories

seeded almost all of what Cohen was subsequently to write. It’s a sort of
sampler: here’s the range, here are the styles, here are the interests, here are
the prototypes: all arrived at through fabulation, through the “adventure,” the
“freedom and play,” of the short-story form, all popping out of the unconscious

I would say the poems in John Newlove’s chapbook, THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems, and subsequent broadside, “THE DEATH OF THE HIRED MAN,” were written entirely the opposite: as a summing up of his long career as a poet, boiling the range of his interests throughout his life of poetry down into a sonnet of twelve short poems. Whether this was deliberate or not, it was certainly the result.

For John Newlove, the brevity became him; his terseness punctuated only by his clarity. It's not even a pessimism, necessarily, but a matter-of-fact, and ever with his sense of humour, dry as Regina bone. With pieces such as “AN OLD MAN, WAITING” or “AN EXAMINATION,” writing about a medical examination (“Take these pills with every meal, / take these for pain as needed (I don't need / pain) and these before you sleep.”), you can see it, the notion of stark inevitability. The range of subjects in these short pieces is far-reaching, but nothing new or unusual from the Newlove lexicon, albiet shorter than what he was publishing, say, in the 1970s. In the poem “HOME TOWN” there seems to be a great deal of summing up, writing “This country is so old that no one can remember / its history.” from a man who wrote poems of the prairie histories of indians, Louis Riel and other prairie landscapes, well before anyone else.

As his stepson Jeremy would tell me, John lived in Ottawa for seventeen years; longer than he managed to live anywhere else. For whatever reason: the city he finally chose not to leave. Through all of this, still, he considered himself above all, a Saskatchewan poet. The biography included in the literacy anthology, Gorillas on the Dance Floor and Other Poems from the First 100 PGIs, gives a sense of what he might have thought of these disparate geographies, in his usual wry humour, writing "John Newlove was born and raised in Saskatchewan, but, for his sins, he now lives in Ottawa." Perhaps the least known of his works, here are the last twelve published poems by John Newlove, all of which were subsequently reprinted in Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003 (2003). Here are some notes on a few of them:



I’m not in love with anyone, not even myself.
It’s hard, living without hopelessness.
It’s the dark humour that comes out the most, even ahead of the pessimism. What does a hopeless man who’s lost his hopelessness do but feel the loss? After judging a poetry contest in the 1980s, this is what Newlove submitted as his "Judge's Comments," writing:

1. Poetry is the shortest distance between two points; prose, the longest.
2. Any form that functions fits.
3. Form and content are body and soul, and inseparable. When the first fails the second becomes a wisp; when the second fails the first is a husk.
4. Nothing to tell, nothing to sell.
5. This is the impossible self-set task of trying to tell the truth, of trying to be honest. It does not seem impossible. Better, sometimes, to lie. By our lies shall they know us. And you? You, who I think of as the truth: are you lying to me too? Surely not. If you are, lie to me, tell me you're telling the truth.


Hunting after myself in slightly used poems
is a heartbreaking chore. The past
is a foreign country and the quarry

is sly and elusive, a liar twisting
and twisting about the words like an eel
on a spear, dying, never to be known.
Probably the one line in the last poems that made the most effect, “The past / is a foreign country,” and the quote that Barry McKinnon used to open his selected / collected poems, The Centre, Poems 1970-2000 (2004). As the narrator in the poem wonders how you can know yourself through old poems, he could easily have been John reading from his Apology for Absence at the Fire Station on Elgin Street, hosted by John Metcalf. What year was that? 1997? During his reading, he spoke out loud of boiling his life down into a few, scant lines, editing and selecting as he went, down until there was almost nothing left. A few scant lies, and searching for himself through them, with an obvious reference to his award-winning collection from nearly three decades earlier. Is an author ever to be known? Does an author ever really know himself through his poems, let alone a past self, known for his lies? As he told Jon Pearce in an interview published in the collection Twelve Voices: Interviews with Canadian Poets (1980):

To tell the truth, another reason for calling it Lies was to deny this crud
about being as a poet an honest human being, because no human being is any more
honest than another. But I mouse-trapped myself for calling it Lies – people
would come up and say, “Look how honest he is; he admits that he lies.”
Sometimes I think what happens is that the first serious critic who says
something about your stuff that sounds reasonable gets followed by everybody
else. I could sit, I think, and write cheerful, optimistic things for the rest
of my life, and the one gloomy thing that I wrote would be emphasized in all the
reviews. What can you do? You become yourself, and you can’t get away from it. I
thought by having a slightly ridiculous cover on the book Lies, too, that it
would help but it didn’t do any good. Suddenly the rather funny raven became a
malevolent bird.

It seems far less dark a take than the one Frank Davey took, in his collection From There to Here: A Guide to English-Canadian Literature Since 1960 (1974):

By looking mercilessly within himself, Newlove has managed, through seven books
of poetry, to discover most of the sicknesses and stupidities of his contemporary man. His work displays a self-loathing only slightly less strong than his loathing of the human race and its wretched and treacherous planet. Particularly does he detest the inability of man to recognize or admit the truth about himself and his world. Newlove's poetry has been a relentless quest for truth, attacking in poem after poem the deceits of our politicians, mythmakers, historians, and theologians. The title of his collection Lies (1972) insists that even his own searchings for truth become, because of man's innate incompetence, merely fumbling examples of the human capacity for self-deceit.
Stephen Brockwell, in a review of The Night the Dog Smiled, argues for the pessimism of the language itself, as opposed specifically to the writing or the author, ending with:
A major theme of this book seems to me to be that language has played a part in
the corruption of the world. Language is a powerful device. Of what might we not
be convinced by carefully chosen words?



The streets are full of overweight corporals,
of sad grey computer captains, the impedimentia
of a capital city, struggling through the snow.

There is a cold gel on my
belly, an instrument
is stroking it incisively, the machine
in the half-lit room is scribbling my future.

It is not illegal to be unhappy.
A shadowy technician says alternately,
Breathe, and, You may stop now.
It is not illegal to be unhappy.
His poem, “IT’S WINTER IN OTTAWA” appeared earlier as “LEONARD, IT’S WINTER IN OTTAWA” in a fetschcrift for Leonard Cohen edited by Ken Norris and Michael Fournier, published by The Muses’ Company, and was, admittedly, the main reason I spent my last seventeen or eighteen dollars on the collection, for that, and his poem “THE CAT.” It was mainly for the first. The second poem was good, but not nearly as good as the other. And I thought, the least poem of the later chapbook.

Again, Newlove acts as apologist for the pessimism that too many have seen in his work, to the exclusion of so much else, including the dry humour of “the machine / in the half-lit room is scribbling my future.”



This country is so old that no one can remember
its history. The sky blooms and the rocks flower.

Pacific, Atlantic, Arctic, Prairie. The oceans
surround us, blue, grey, white, green, the land

goes on forever.

Canada is my home town. Trees fill the mind
and people look at me sideways and smile.
As Susan Glickman called him, the “perennial hitch-hiker.” This poem could almost read as one of what John wrote, starting in the 1960s, as a hitchhiking poem, or one of his letter poems. He’s taken out the external references of “Dear Al:” or "Letter Two" or walking down the highway west out of Regina, but the feel of the poem is much the same; removing the external buildup to leave only the core.
just a hurried note to try to reach you before you're off to cuba
spreading semen & treason
& red red wine
all over latin Americas ("Dear Al:," Black Night Window)
The need for exploration, to understand his country. In the end, he understood it well enough that he no longer had to leave the house. The hitch-hiking poem without the hitch-hiker.
On that black highway,
where are you going?--

it is in Alberta
among the trees

where the road sweeps
left and right

in great concrete arcs
at the famous resort ("The Hitchhiker," Black Night Window)

It's almost as though he's merged a number of the poems together from Black Night Window into a single piece, taking out all the extraneous; obviously Newlove had become far more optimistic in the years between the poems. Listen to what he has to say in the poem "Like a Canadian" from the same collection, or what he says at the end of the poem "Canada," writing:

CBC producers own creativity. All
they don't know is what to do with it. Did
you expect a conclusion? Signed off. I quit

honesty in favour of another drink.
I would like to point out that you
are bored.


It is Eternity now.
I am in the midst of it.
It is about me
in the sunshine.
John Newlove had always written poems as shorthand, over the years more often cribbing from books he was reading (see the poem "Quotations" from Lies, riffing off borrowed lines, or the poem "Speech about a Blackfoot Woman / with Travois, Photo by R.H. Trueman // ca. 1890" from The Night the Dog Smiled); John, the sort of reader who finished a book a day. A few years before he died, he spent a whole summer reading nothing but Greek history, as he told me, simply to get an overall sense of it in his head. His collection The Green Plain was said to be his reaction to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. He had a collection of file cards he had written single lines on for years, taken from books to include later on in poems.

But what about this piece? Taking the poem as a direct transcript, outright theft, did he really see nothing new to add? Was it simply perfect the way it was? Why write in anything else, when in the end, he would have only been removing. It was something that Newlove had referenced earlier, he who kept found lines on organized stacks of blue file cards, for him to later include in his own poems, writing on the theft between stolen lines in the poem “White Philharmonic Novels” from his collection The Night the Dog Smiled:
Look, nobody gets wise writing
Now I must be making
pretty manners
at you
It’s necessary to realize that all these phrases
are stolen. The arrangement is all.
In an email after John died, Saskatoon poet and Thistledown Press publisher Glen Sorestad told the story of a poem of Newlove’s left after a visit John and Susan made to the Sorestad house that afterward, John had no recollection of, and had to be sent a copy. As he writes:

Once John and Susan stayed with us for a few days in Saskatoon. At that time
we had a turtle aquarium (small) in our main bathroom. Some time much later
Newlove sent me a poem about the turtles in Sorestad’s bathroom, a brief cryptic
poem that I duly filed away somewhere. Years later, I happen to mention this
poem to John and he looked quite puzzled, then asked me to send him a copy of it
because he obviously had sent me the only copy he had. The poem shortly
appeared, somewhat revised in The Night the Dog Smiled. So god only knows
how many similar, original Newlove poems are out there floating around to be
gathered up like fallen maple leaves. (email, dated December 28, 2003)

A later version then appeared as “Dried-Out Insects” in The Night the Dog Smiled:

The turtles in the Sorestad’s bathroom
have beautiful markings
but look vicious.

I sit here shitting
and they sit there sitting
and acting mean.

I’m just trying to be clean,
but afraid to move. Can turtles fly?
I know they can’t.
But they might try.

Meanwhile, like wives,
they waver in the water,
beautiful and vicious. (The Night the Dog Smiled)

Does this allow for the hope of other work, hidden among his files in the house he shared with Susan? So far, unfortunately, Susan says not. Still, the hopes are that another poem or two might pop up as a new larger selected poems is built by prairie filmmaker Robert McTavish, for publication through Ottawa's own Chaudiere Books in fall 2007. McTavish just sold his documentary on Newlove, ten years in the making, to Bravo / Book Television, to be aired this fall, with the world premiere of the documentary to happen in a couple of weeks at this years' Saskatchewan Festival of Words in Moose Jaw.

Works Cited:

Atwood, Margaret. “The Wrong Box: Matt Cohen, Fabulism, and Critical Taxonomy,” Moving Targets, Writing with Intent, 1982-2004. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2004.
Barbour, Douglas. “Weather Report: ‘Stars, rain, forests,’” Essays on Canadian Writing 36. Toronto, spring 1988.
Brockwell, Stephen. Review of The Night the Dog Smiled, The Rideau Review 2. Ottawa ON: The Rideau Review Press, June 1987.
Davey, Frank. "John Newlove," From There to Here: A Guide to English-Canadian Literature Since 1960. Erin ON: Press Porcepic, 1974.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land.
Glickman, Susan. “Driving Home with John Newlove,” Essays on Canadian Writing 36. Toronto, spring 1988.
Layton, Irving. "Birthday Poem for John Newlove," The Third MacMillan Anthology. Eds. John Metcalf and Kent Thompson. Toronto ON: Macmillan of Canada, 1990.
McKinnon, Barry. The Centre, Poems 1970-2000. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2004.
mclennan, rob. Ed., Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003. Fredericton: cauldron books / Broken Jaw Press, 2003.
Morton, Colin. Ed., Capital Poets: An Ottawa Anthology. Ottawa: Oroboros Press, 1990.
Newlove, John. Apology for Absence, Selected Poems 1962-1992. Erin, ON: The Porcupines’ Quill, Inc. 1993.
________. Black Night Window. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1968.
________. Lies. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1972.

1 The poem "Progress" that appeared, finally, in Apology for Absence appeared (the first half) as "Bugdancing (a work-in-progress)" in The Mahalat Review, Volume 77, December 1986, and (the second half) as "In Progress" in The Malahat Review, Volume 82, March 1988. The collected version appears as "In Progress" in Colin Morton, ed., Capital Poets: An Ottawa Anthology (Oroboros, 1989).

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Mathematics and Poetry: Poor Bedfellows?

In May 2006, I taught a mini-course on creative writing at the University of Ottawa and had the good fortune to have some distinguished local poets deliver brief readings and talks. After Stephen Brockwell finished his talk/reading, he and I entered upon discussion of the proper ends of mathematical (and to a lesser extent, scientific) enquiry and poetry. Our differing viewpoints may be useful as points of departure for more involved discussion of this interesting and long-standing debate.

Stephen, being deeply interested in mathematics, partly because of his career and partly because of his general passion for learning, argued (in these approximate terms) that the goals of mathematics and poetry are far closer than is often supposed. In fact, says he, they are often one and the same. He claims that the goal of the theoretical mathematician is to learn about the universe and numbers in such a way as to increase humanity’s sense of wonder at the complexity of creation. He cites the work of theorists on the concept of “fuzzy logic” as a good example of such awe-engendering enquiry. In fact, Stephen is toying with the idea of a monograph on this topic, and, if the result evidences the passion he exudes in conversation, it bodes well for the book.

I, however, took a different stance. Far from asserting that math/science should not have intercourse with poetics, I have been criticized myself for incorporating too much nerdy science into my poems. I believe that poetry should encompass all areas of human interest, should “include them like a pool / water and reflection.” The “however” of my position resides in how I view the nature of mathematical and scientific enquiry; I see it as a process of dispelling, rather than courting, wonder. When a mathematician or scientist sets out to “solve” or “tackle” a crux, he or she attempts to master that problem, to peer into the secrets of the universe and push the bounds of what we know, which is just another way of increasing the power of the knower over non-knowers and what is known. Don’t get me wrong; many scientist and mathematicians take a spiritual approach to their work (Stephen is a good example), but the thrust of science and math is ultimately to nail things down, rather than to embrace unknowableness the way poetry does. Perhaps there is more to be made of the distinction between pure and applied science? Any takers?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Re:Generations Ottawa Style

In Re:Generations: Canadian Women Poets in Conversation (Black Moss Press, 2005), Canadian female poets discuss how or whether they’ve been influenced by their poetic foremothers. Ottawa poet Susan McMaster is in the book and a few former or dead Ottawans are mentioned also.

Re:Generations will be launched on Sunday, June 11 at Mother Tongue Books at 3:00 pm. Readers will include Carolyn Zonailo, Betty Page, Sharon H. Nelson, Susan McMaster, Penn Kemp, Cornelia Hoogland, and Barbara Godard.

I thought it might be interesting to cover similar territory by interviewing other Ottawa poets. Initially I planned to focus exclusively on women; however, I hope to post a series of interviews with both male and female Ottawa poets, emerging and established. My questions will center primarily on the legacy of our poetic ancestors and their influence on Ottawa poets today.

When I read Re:Generations, I mused on the source(s) of poetic voice. How does one go about establishing one’s own voice? Re:Generations showed the influence of others quite specifically by allowing contemporaries to pay homage to their foremothers. It includes poems that directly reference or include the work of modernist women’s writing in the post modernist poets’ work.

In a series of interviews, I would like to explore how poets today have found or are attempting to find their voice, see how they’re influenced and by whom. I’m hoping this understanding of poetic lineage and influence will inspire and (re)generate poetry and poetic discussion.

Ronnie R. Brown has been a published poet in Ottawa for over twenty years. Her first book Re Creation (Balmuir Book Publishing) was published in 1987 and she has a book coming out this autumn called Night Echoes by Black Moss Press.

Her poems are small stories, vignettes, complete with character, setting, plot, dialogue, wry humour. When you melt down each of Ronnie’s poems, you get a central image and themes that thread consistently through the entire body of her work. From the onset of her poetic career, Brown has never been afraid to talk about issues such as miscarriage, desire and death.

Here’s an excerpt from PROLOGUE (Re Creation, Balmuir Book Publishing, 1987)

That first time
before we knew
that what we had tried
to start had,
indeed, begun, telling my husband,
me, it was all
done; we could go.

I stand
a thin trickle of blood moves
down my thigh, past
my knee, down
into my brand new pair of shoes.
“Are you sure?” my husband asks,
“Maybe she should
stay for a day
or two?”

A few weeks later,
the check-up—
my own doctor says
the whole thing should be seen
as a good sign. “Shows you’re both
fertile, shows things work
down there; you know,
kick the Coke machine just once
and the cans keep rolling out!”

Earl: The poems in your first two books were mostly written in the first person. In Re Creation, the first section is a series of poems based on pregnancy, miscarriage and the birth of a child. I found these poems very poignant, and one of the reasons for this is because the use of the first person helped me to identify with the speaker. Then in Photographic Evidence and States of Matter, the first person is used sparingly.

Do you have any comments about why you use the first person less now?

Brown: In Re Creation, my first book, I consciously chose the first person voice to "tell" the story. I perceived this series as one person's story, a story with which I hoped others would feel some resonance, but still, just focused on one person. At the time I felt it would be pretentious to try and be "every woman." Each woman's pregnancy is different, in fact, even the same woman may have a different experience during subsequent pregnancies. As I wrote these sections it seemed natural to use the "I" voice, particularly so, since this series was more autobiographical in nature than much of the work that has followed.

With other pieces, however, it often "feels" awkward when I use a first person narrator. For one thing, I like to intimate past and future in some pieces--this requires an omniscient narrator--and once you've begun using this kind of distanced, third-person voice it's hard to switch back into the first person. Some of my pieces begin, as drafts, in the first person, and some even see are published in a magazine that way but, when compiling a book (or book section), I find it confusing when the poet goes back and forth from first to third person narrators. As well, some poems have less of a connection to me, they are based more on fictions than facts, and so the use of "I" doesn't seem to be as good a fit (for me, anyway.)

As well, I usually call on friends/fellow writers to serve as my initial editors and they have, almost universally, advised against mixing voices in this way, so I often end up using all third person pieces. I love giving the reader hints at a past and future about which the subject of the poem is clueless--details that are known only to the creator (who, in the case of creative writing, is the writer--and, no, I don't have a "God thing," but I do like showing glimpses of a larger picture.) When you are "inside" the skin of a person/persona and speaking through them using a first person voice you can know only what they know and see only what they. To me this is limiting.

Earl: There's been much debate over the years about the use of "I" in poetry. It was labeled "confessional poetry" for the writers of the 60s, later writers decided to reclaim “I” and now there's a kind of a mish mosh opinion about using it/not using it.

What do you feel about the use of "I" in poetry? What does "I" represent in your own poetry when you use it?

Brown: I don't think that the use of "I" should have been/should be made political. "Confessional" poetry is not really "true confessions" now, is it? Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" wasn't really the brute she described (or so the biographers tell us); so regardless of how the poet prefers to present the piece it is still, to a greater or lesser degree, a creative piece. When I was first starting to write seriously (I began as a teenager, but didn't really pursue writing and publication till my mid- twenties), Seymour Mayne's mother-in-law, the poet Gertie Katz, who mentored me, advised me to focus on the poem and not "the truth." She used to question me about my need to include specific details in pieces "just because that's what really happened." To quote Gertie, "It's much more important to include details that matter to the poem than those that matter to you!" And, of course, she was right.

To get back to the first question (too late to say "and make a long story short!"), I use whatever voice feels comfortable in the context of the poem I'm writing at the time. In my new book, NIGHT ECHOES (Black Moss), which will be launched this fall, I open with a first person poem as a prologue, then move into the minds and lives of various people's dreams. The first poem offers the reason why I/we should look into the dreams of others, but to have even a few of these pieces in the first person would make for confusing reading since I have already identified that first person voice with one character. On the other hand, in the series I'm working on now, I'm considering having a number of poems using the first person voice of a girl at various stages of her life, starting at around 4, and have only these (semi-connected) poems spoken in the first person. The reason for this is, not only that these poems are more closely autobiographical than most of the others in the series, but the voice of a child is both a challenge to write and "speaks" more innocently and directly. Also, I want the reader to see all of these "I" poems as coming from one child/persona. At least that's what I'm thinking now, these pieces, also expose the "me" behind the "I" and if that becomes too uncomfortable they just might get shifted to third person! That said, I guess the short answer is that often ascribing the "I" to a poem makes me feel a little un- comfortable, and limited, so I back away.

Earl: Your books have come out in 1987, 1988, 2000 and 2005. Can you talk about the various poets you were reading at these times? Do you think these writers influenced your writing? Are there poets you've been reading throughout and have changes in their work affected your own?

Brown: Until about 1977 my writing was kind of a sporadic and haphazard thing. We moved to Canada in the late sixties and, at first, there was little time for anything but finding and keeping a job. I started writing again after starting to take night courses at Concordia University to finish a degree I'd started in the US. I was further encouraged (as well as surprised and shocked) when I submitted a sample of my work for the Board of Governors's Award at Con. U. and won! While I was slogging through the requirements for an Honours BA in English (and studying Robert Browning, etc.), I began to take advantage of the reading series Con. U had to offer (a real treat back then, since food and drink were always in abundance!) I was able to hear and meet poets like Irving Layton, bill bissett, as well as talking to faculty poet/profs., like Henry Beissel and Richard Sommer. Till then poets, were for me, usually dead and always distant. But among those I heard and read, I think the first poets who really impacted my own style were Layton (I loved his fearlessness) and Atwood (her clever turns of phrase and sarcasm really struck a chord with me!)

Still, until I enroled in the MA Programme in Creative Writing at Concordia, I was pretty much trying to do my own thing. In the required creative writing workshops and especially, by working one-on-one with Gary Geddes (my thesis advisor) and by hearing what other students at the time were doing (and my "peers" included Michael Harris, Steve Luxton, Laurence Hutchman, Jim Smith, Ross Leckie, and many others), I tried to find/refine the voice that was mine and mine alone. I see finding your voice by sampling how others write as sort of like taking a recipe for a really great chili, and then adding a little more of this and a little less of that and, finally, coming up with something that you think is better, and you know is yours alone. Of course, just as you cook to suit your own taste, the way a poet writes is the way they like poetry to be. Every poet hopes that other folks will like their way too; that maybe their recipe might even win a poetry "cook off" some day, but, even if it doesn't it's your recipe by then and once you find one you love, that's pretty much the way you keep on making your chili from then on.

Earl: I've noticed that most of your poems are written from a women's point of view. I was interested to read some of your poems on where you were a featured poet. In one of the poems, "Riding" from the Little Red Riding Hood poems, you use the male point of view to talk about a man's confused sexual feelings about his daughter. The poem itself is a very effective piece and I think it is so because of this perspective. When you were drafting this poem, did you try to write it from a female point of view? Why did you decide to write from the male perspective? Is this something you would like to do more of?

Brown: As for assuming the male point of view (vs. always speaking from a female perspective), I'd like to use a male voice/persona more often but I have had it drilled into me so often that one should always "write what you know" that I often back down. In NIGHT ECHOES, there are a number of male personae. I even have a piece about a gay man. This is another place where using the third person omniscient comes in handy (or, if you prefer, puts me at ease), since, writing in the third person allows me to say what the man thinks, without having to totally assume his personality.

The poem you mention is from the series Free Associations on Fairy Tales, and it steps into the mind of a man who unconsciously dreams his adolescent, horse-back riding daughter as a sexual being (thus exposing his own inner thoughts/ fantasies) is one I was a bit leery of taking on. I was sure I would be ridden out of town (pun intended) over that one, but Sue McMaster, who is often the first person with whom I share my work and who also is both a rider and the mother of a girl who rode, gave me a green light on the piece. Like the poem I've done as part of the "dream" series using a gay man, this poem felt like risky territory. Would I like to do more of these? Well, yes, I do like the challenge, but I will only take it on if I have something I need to say which I feel can only be said by a male. That is, I don't want to explore the other gender just for the sake of doing it.

Earl: Your poems are very much mini stories with characters and dialogue. This isn't easy to pull off and you do it so well, which I admire. Have there been times when you've wanted to expand poems into something longer? Do you write fiction? How do you see fiction and poetry as different or the same?

Brown: For some reason most of the things I write start with a word or image. I just wrote a poem entitled "Lost," for example, after seeing a number of surveillance photos in the CITIZEN. But, until that image (or maybe I should call it an idea) fleshes out in my mind and becomes a story, well, it tends to stay unwritten. I think in stories, so making them the core of the poem is, for me, completely natural.

I have, indeed, written fiction (short stories) and would like to write more, but I find the necessity to pare down the story to a kind of micro-story more fun and challenging. Even the non-story poems I write come complete with an (unwritten) back story in my head. But sometimes the poems "just grow" (as did the title poem in RE CREATION) where the story, grew longer until it evolved into a long (story-like) narrative. That was also the case with the poem "DRIVING INSTINCTS" (in STATES OF MATTER, Black Moss, 2005), which originally grew into a long narrative and then, because of editorial demands (and Sue McMaster's genius), became smaller fragments again which woven into the second section with other poems coming between the elements of the narrative in the same way that other things interrupt us during even the most tense moments of our life.

Excerpt from Driving Instincts I: Opening Shots (STATES OF MATTER, Black Moss, 2005)

Her hands white-
knuckled on the steering wheel,
or perhaps her foot, sensible shoe
firm on the accelerator. If this
were a movie these would be
the opening shots. Following
the title, overlaid on a panoramic view,
cars speeding down a highway, zeroing
in to a compact,
grey paint even greyer
under layers
of dust and muck.
She imagines the camera moving
up her leg to focus
on her face. If she could just deliver
the feelings, convey the pain, if she
could only find the right expression,
the director might call it a take,
a wrap, send everyone home.

Eventually, I tell myself, I'd like to really go with a story and write a novel--don't know if that will happen, but I'd like to try. Nothing literary, mind you, I'd like to do something in the manner of Koontz or King--not for the cash (although that would be nice) but because I find reading horror fiction calming (honest). I like the way a good horror book makes even the most awful turn of (real) life events seem inconsequential and, if you get too freaked out, unlike life, you can always close the book--it's a great escape to read horror books. What I'd like to find out is what it's like to write something like that.

As for the differences between fiction and poetry, well poetry needs a tight turn of phrase, good images and a great deal of self control to keep things small so what's presented comes across as large. Fiction requires so much more detail--who's wearing what, eating what, sleeping with whom, etc.-- it's like the difference between painting a perfectly detailed miniature and a huge mural. You need talent and certain skills to do either one-but not everyone can be good at both. Some writers, like Margaret Atwood are, but I guess I'll just have to wait and see if I can pull it off.


He only notices her
when, retracing his steps,
he retrieves his hastily flung coat
from the couch where she sleeps.
Wrapped in an old quilt
she looks about the size of his youngest son.
Gingerly he lifts the coat, jumps back
as her eyes snap open
like a kewpie doll's. For a moment
he thinks of going back, adding a twenty
to the cash placed on the woman's
nightstand but, in the end,
he leaves, tries to forget, tries
to focus on his wife and kids six cities
and fourteen sales stops away.

For the rest of his trip
he will work hard
at forgetting those eyes, but
for years to come, they
will appear to him in dreams
just as his startled stare
will etch its way
into the nightmares
she will have
for the rest of her life.

by Ronnie R. Brown
from NIGHT ECHOES (Black Moss, 2006)