Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Talking Poetics #39 : Michael Lithgow

Michael Lithgow
On poetry



One of my limitations as a poet is that I have to write to the end of a poem in one sitting or it will probably never been be finished. I might work on the poem for years afterwards, but the beginning and end need to emerge in the same sitting. I didn’t understand this - altho’ I respected it - until a short while ago when I realized that almost all of my poems come from a place, a moment & structure of feeling. The poem for me is a methodology of sorts for making sense of this junction of sensibilities: place, moment, feeling, and a chance to revel in it with language, or perhaps through language, or perhaps a chance to use language to invent something with these three ingredients. A chance to invent myself through language grounded in affect of a time and place. I’m drawn to a tension in language between the logics of explanation and the aesthetics of sensation. Not that they’re necessarily exclusive categories. One helps give shape to the other (for example, my sense is that “truth” describes a condition of discursive legitimacy, one determined as much by aesthetic conditions - senses of belonging, anticipations and rhetorical cøntexts - as by rules of deductive reasoning), and it is in these liminal spaces between sensation and logic that I often find what I am looking for, the in/articulation of mystery, or what I called ‘magic’ as a six year-old and now, as often as not, call beauty, uncertainty, hesitation, awe. The dragons my six year-old self once chased, these days, hide among more mundane things. Dusk. Tree limbs. A small cross by the side of the highway. Jackrabbits in the alley. A crowded beach. There’s dragons everywhere, but I don’t always see them - rarely, in fact. Who’s got the time? Let’s face it, poetry takes time as much time as it records. Takes time away from family. Away from paid work. Time away from leisure. Among such titans of attention, where does poetry fit in? And for who? I am white, cis, male, hetero, middle class. A place of blindness. A place where many crimes have been committed. Reconciling brutality, blindness and beauty stops me in my tracks. Poetry after Auschwitz? Theodor Adorno asked. After slavery? After residential schools? After heternormativity? After Head Tax? After the Katagatamaru incident? After internment camps? After starlight tours? After missing and murdered indigenous women? Actually, Adorno didn’t ask: he declared that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. Of course, he’s right. My daughter’s extended family died in the camps, and I saw their family name written on a suitcase in the pile on display at Birkenau. What poetry after unfathomable inhumanity?

The poetry of defiance, perhaps. The poetry of love. The poetry of truths that upset power. The poetry of grief. The poetry of trying, even after the swim coach calls you a bum. The poetry of naming the voices that said you were stupid. The poetry of catching your daughter’s shadow under the monkey bars. The poetry of chanting on a picket line. The poetry of holding your father’s hand in the hospital as he dies of lung cancer. It may be barbaric, but some of us still need the way language can be used to re/create meaning from the largely inexplicable explosion of stimuli we call being human. And so I come here, too, looking for a world that feels and thinks closer what happens inside the sac of my skin. 

One of the great irritations and genius of poststructuralist philosophy is the idea that we make it up. That language is reality, that discourse creates society, that truth is a condition of discursive legitimacy rather than an eternal or universal say-so. It helps explain (to me) why I take the time to write a poem. ‘Making sense’ is something we start doing very young. First our parents tell us how it is. Then our friends. And at some point, hopefully, we start trying to figure it out for ourselves. Then we encounter the Big Other, the matrix of cultural information that in all its myriad of assemblages is telling us how it is – high school curricula, Facebook, court decisions, Encyclopedia Britannica, The Wall Street Journal, NASA, university syllabi, Disney, Democracy Now, #MeToo, Fox News, Apple, The Bible / Koran / Torah, Treaty No. 6, #Black Lives Matter, Act Up, Financial Times, World Health Organization, Idle No More, and so on and on. There’s a lot of ideas to choose from -- some of which of course I respect and admire more than the others -- and poetry it seems to me is a place I can try to bridge these inexplicably entangled realities: the Big Other and my own sensations. For example, I have anxiety about the material conditions of my home – of my life, in fact: unmade beds, dirty laundry in the hamper, and crayons under every single piece of furniture; so much dust it’s like a sea; groceries to put away, industrial food in the cupboard, dying plants; flooding in the basement, gas furnaces and climate change; mortgage payments and colonial legacies; recycling; books, piles of paper and files everywhere & ruined forests; electronics and their toxic remainders; old shingles; grass to mow; bills to pay  – and how I can place it somewhere that resonates with the Wider World Out There and how I feel at the center of my own little storm. A privileged storm. That’s the sense I’m striving for in A Falling of Things, a poem in my new collection, one my editor wasn’t sure about and one I’m not sure anyone will like. It’s certainly one of the least tethered poems in the collection. But why poetry is my methodology for the feeling I get sometimes -- of being afloat in a chaotic meaningful dangerous necessary nurturing arbitrary unavoidable sea of stuff, trying to reconcile the profound privilege of being here with the profound sense of uncertainty it breeds – is because with it I can sense my way into meaning, find a bridge or paths between this tsunami of private sensations and banal tasks and necessities of a life, and something more significant, or at the very least, more interesting. Poetry is like a path we can make for ourselves and with the people we love and care about, through a sometimes terrible imaginative wasteland. Terrible and unimaginative because the people and organizations largely responsible for what we experience as culture often want our futures. They want them for political purposes. For economic purposes. For military purposes. For sexual purposes. It’s hard to rail against this arrangement -- after all, this is how societies work, right? Big economies. Big politics. Big celebrities. Big geopolitical events. Big desires. But it’s not a rail I’m building, but a path I’m looking for – a path I’d like to forge out of a crippling sense of futility into meaningfulness. Meaningfulness places me and my allies into positions of agency, at least I think it does. I hope it does. The more meaningful I understand the events of my life, and by this I mean the more bridges and paths I can sense between the events of my life and the Wider World Out There, the less crazy I feel, the less alone I feel, the less hopeless I feel, the less out of control I feel.

So in defence of poetry, and in explanation of how I think about my own poetry, it’s a little like a Maker Space for me, a place where I can tinker to solve problems with bits and bobs of gear and a little bit of knowledge, where I can seek out mentors and leaders to teach me what I’m having trouble learning on my own, where I can experiment with ‘being’ and subjectivity, imagine myself not at all like Twitter, The New York Times & Readers Digest say I am, not at all like my boss or those shitty neighbours down the street say I should be. And I can bring as much of anything I want to the table to tinker with – a sense of the sacred, a rigorous philosophy and academic parade of desire, a roar of feeling that has no other safe place, a depth of solitude that hardly exists outside of it, the photo album of memorable moments in my life, my outrage my grief my whimsy etc. Where else can all of these things amount to something together in any order? And if I do it well, I can share that feeling in all its complexity with someone else. It can be where I feel the very least lonely.

That’s what goes into a poem, for me; at least, that’s what comes to mind this morning when I ask myself how I approach a poem. Like a compass. A poem for me is always like holding a compass shuffling towards home.



Michael Lithgow’s
poetry and essays have appeared in various journals including the Literary Review of Canada (LRC), The t/E/m/z Review, Cultural Trends, Canadian Literature, Existere, Topia, Event, The Antigonish Review, Poemeloeon, The High Window, ARC, Contemporary Verse 2, TNQ and Fiddlehead. His first collection of poetry, Waking in the Tree House (Cormorant Books, 2012), was shortlisted for the A.M. Klein Quebec Writers Federation First Book Award. Work from this collection was included in the 2012 Best of Canadian Poetry (Tightrope Books). Michael’s second collection, Who We Thought We Were As We Fell (Cormorant Books, 2021), will be published in the spring. He currently lives in Edmonton, AB and teaches at Athabasca University.

Monday, February 08, 2021

Talking Poetics #38 : Claudia Coutu Radmore


How do poems start for me?

Many moons ago I began writing poems about the joys and difficulties growing up in an area of Montreal called Park Extension. My father was French Canadian and Catholic while my mother was English Canadian and Protestant. Such a marriage was distinctly frowned upon.

My early years were filled with hospitals for I was not expected to live long. Children with asthma and weakened lungs had no medication to help them breathe. The years brought new siblings, new adventures like school, with an interesting God hovering over our young lives.

They were halcyon years for me, but not so for my parents so different who struggled with each other as they brought up a family with little money through the religious, political, educational and sexual revolutions in Quebec.

Enough lead up…In the1990s I wrote poems about my life in those times. I sent out a manuscript that got rejected several times, and in frustration decided to rewrite it, centering not on me but on the neighbourhood of Park Extension, and the gasometer that was integral to its growth.

That probably sounds like a ridiculous thing to do, but as I researched using Lovell’s Montreal Street directory that gave names, addresses and occupations for every year from 1842 to 1992 and found that both my mother and father were born there too, and had known Park Ex for a long time before I was born there too. I wish I’d started this last collection when they were still around to answer questions.

But I had lots of material for poems. I began to research gasometers, for my gasometer was monumental in my small life. It was planted across the street from the three storey brick building in which my family lived on the top floor. It reigned like a palace, seventeen stories tall and as wide, shining with paint that looked like gold, reapplied each year by what we called Indians, indigenous workers from Kahnawake, then known as Caugnawauga, and I worried that they could see through my bedroom window and shoot arrows at me. I and my sisters were the only children living that close to it, and so high up.

I’d never thought about what the ‘gas tank’ contained, or where that gas came from, but found that gas had been made from coal on the other side of the mountain and piped underground to our gasometer. Dr. Russell Thomas of Strathclyde University, Scotland, the world expert on gasometers, was critical to my understanding of the process, as was a publication, Park Extension Through The Decades, by the Park Ex Historical Society, and other contacts who knew about gasometers.

I had tonnes of material to work into poems. Of course, that can be as much of a block of having nothing to start from.

But I did have experience by then, of having had two collections published, and I’d done my homework reading other poets. I learned a lot from Japanese poetry forms.

Finally a collection emerged from what I had. Lovell’s street directories gave me occupations of early Park Ex inhabitants, when and where they lived, patterns of movement that still happen today:

…the year-long discussions of landlords which flat has three bedrooms and which a full kitchen which comes with an icebox and who owns that new brick with the slick green doors and is there room out back for a garden is the widow Brown still happy at number 3013a can she handle the outside stairs in the snow and does anyone know if Mr. Grace will stay where he is since he’s been there for thirty years; there’s a shipper and a new machinist from Atlantic Steel needing rooms let George Harris know he has two upstairs flats free and keeps them in good shape for that’s what carpenters do …


gasometer information led to poems on the importance of steam to so many early 20th
century advances:

steam for the operation of fire pumps

steam for the operation of water pumps
steam for the operation of liquid pumps

steam for the operation of tar pumps

steam for the operation of ammonia liquor pumps

steam driving engines of coal conveyor belts


Nostalgia for farmland becoming housing developments, dirt roads paved, the iceman, and horse and cart milk and bread deliveries.

at the sound of the road-making truck
children of all sizes run to catch up

hoping for pieces of tar

And so on, with another central core of becoming a teen, then young woman struggling with a mother’s depression, finding her place in a confusing world.

How do the poems start? With an idea, with a rhythm, with wonder, with passion.

It is the story of a Park Ex Girl, but the content applies to the growth of suburbs anywhere in North America, to a girl growing into a woman, and how her physical surroundings, and more amorphous things like religion and politics are building blocks in who she turns out to be.

It was a shock to me how deeply attached I was to those roots, to the gas tank. I wanted to know all I could about a place, my place, that is lost, a neighbourhood I barely recognize when I return. How much it hurts, especially that the gasometer and my family home have been torn down and built over.

The collection was published by Shoreline Press in Montreal a few months ago, the perfect place for Park Ex Girl: Life with Gasometer.

An aside: Dr. Thomas asked if I’d mind if he did a review for Historic Gas Times. Now it isn’t everyone who should have a review in Historic Gas Times, and I am honoured. But he also told me that the only other person he’d ever heard of to publish a poem about gas is Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate of Britain for ten years, who wrote a poem called ‘Meters’, which he sent to me.

I now consider myself to be part of a unique bubble, just Carol Ann Duffy and me. I hope she finds out one day.



Claudia Coutu Radmore’s Accidentals won the bpNichol Chapbook Award in 2011. On Fogo, short-listed for the 2017 Malahat Long Poem Contest, was published by The Alfred Gustav Press in 2018. A poem from Fiddlehead was included in The Best Canadian Poetry 2019. She has several chapbooks, and full collections including rabbit, published by Aeolus House Press, and Park Ex Girl: Life with Gasometer by Shoreline Press, Montreal, both in 2020.