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.

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