Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Talking Poetics #31 : Stephen Collis

thresholds of the poem

Poems have so many points of genesis. Mine often arrive through study—through reading, through being in pursuit of something—some idea, some history, notes accumulating and suddenly something stands out—a found phrase, a concept, a problem, a voice—and the poem starts up. Sometimes they feel even more given—a donated line appearing out of nowhere, when you weren’t even looking for a poem. “Give me music” began like this—a voice suddenly stepping up to the inner mic and calling out, “Give me music because I never could understand it.” Now I have a job: follow where the given line might lead—sometimes a sprint down the page in hot pursuit, sometimes slower, involving long pauses while listening for what might come next—walking, thinking—brooding even.

I love not knowing where the poem came from, exactly, and where it might go. The poem’s strangeness—it’s being a stranger I must entertain, or prove myself a poor host. The value of the half-understood, the just-glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. The capacity to be surprised. What I’ve always valued in poetry.

And the permeability of selves. That voice with its demand—“Give me”—is not me—is a version of me—is a supposed person (as Emily Dickinson called her poetic “I”)—a “person of the poem” (Robert Duncan). Voice in poetry is a practice of the outside—a listening to what crosses the thresholds of the self. “Give me”—what? What do you need? I will try to find it, best I can. I will try to listen—good listening being the art of making poetry. And that listening, if it’s working, I find it cycles up and down in register—from “upper limit music,” as Louis Zukofsky had it, to “lower limit speech”—the poet with their finger on the fader, riding it up and down at the mixing board. So there’s speechy things—voices—what I have to hear as something said—and then there’s the turn away from what feels like a voice, into the densities of language, the unspoken spoken, the sound of language sounding itself, testing its depths—what are the “mechanisms / of consanguinity”? Why the ambiguities of “same as struck only dinosaurs”? Speech and what I’m choosing to call music—the making of meaning and the making and marking of silences and presenting absences—the void rendered on the page—the blank from which language rises—gazing back at the nothing from which it comes and to which it will very shortly return—is the struggle I turn to poetry to engage in.

Somewhere in the writing of this poem I began to realize what I was writing was a brief prelude to my forthcoming book A History of the Theories of Rain. I find how a book begins—where to mark what is outside the book—not the book—and what will be the beginning of some hundred pages of poetry—is always a tricky thing. So I like little preludes that are somehow before the book, outside its main structure and table of contents. Heralds. Beacons we might wander towards. And yet the book’s main themes are here—especially the sense of being already in the midst of the disaster of our times—which is in part the rupture of temporality itself. In terms of the climate emergency—the attempt to name the cusp we are on, the threshold we are sliding across—forecasting what is to come involves hindcasting of what has gone before. And science loves the fantasy of an imagined future science millions of years hence looking back on us now at the mark we leave in the geologic record. See! I told you you fucked it up! So—in the poem—dinosaurs, and those dinosaurs who “survived” the “last collapse”—the ones with wings, the ones which became birds—especially seabirds, which I read somewhere, all birds today have evolved from (true/not true—not necessarily poetry’s business). What music comes out of our crumbling? What speech matters now? I kept Teju Cole’s words in mind—the book’s epigraph—“The disaster is here, it is just not evenly distributed.”

Coming to the last lines of this poem—“the possibility of song remains / without words to smother it”—my editor at Talonbooks, poet Catriona Strang, commented: “and yet words are what’s to come.” Why start a book this way? Good question. It’s a cliché, I know—that poetry is saying the unsayable—but yeah, I kind of go in for that. It’s a marking of the threshold again too: the poem is perfect … until it is written—that music we can hear—that voice just stepping to the mic inside—all the possibilities of sound and texture—perfect while they remain nothing more than potential music—and music, I fucking love music, but I have no real capacity or facility to make music—so these words will have to do, will have to stand in the place of the music I can’t render. Here’s the song I can’t sing—every poem, every book—the song I can’t sing.

Oh yeah, and that other threshold—the one the scientists can graph for us again and again, which we keep humming our way across—all our sweet potentialities awaiting the potential smothering to come. Sorry. It’s kind of dark. But that’s—kind of—where things seem to be at.

Give me music because

I never could understand its

direct connection to

that feeling stream

squall and water clock

washing ideas right out of me

taking up the mechanisms

of consanguinity rushing

toward last light over Pacific

and some seabird there

gliding and catching moonlight

same as struck only dinosaurs

to have survived last

collapse of intricate order

winging now into night

as the cellos soar and

the possibility of song remains

without words to smother it



Stephen Collis is the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, including The Commons (Talonbooks 2008), the BC Book Prize winning On the Material (Talonbooks 2010), Once in Blockadia (Talonbooks 2016) and Almost Islands: Phyllis Webb and the Pursuit of the Unwritten (Talonbooks 2018). In 2019 he was awarded the Latner Writers’ Trust of Canada Poetry Prize in recognition of his body of work. In 2021 Talonbooks will publish A History of the Theories of Rain. He lives near Vancouver, on unceded Coast Salish Territory, and teaches poetry and poetics at Simon Fraser University.

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