Friday, March 26, 2010
Trouble is there are so many great poems, I can't choose. So if there's a poem from 2009 that you think the world should know about send it to us via the comment box below or to my e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. If we like it, too, I'll share it with the City of Victoria May 13.
Meantime, here's a poem from 2009 that I really like:
Autumn News from the Donkey Sanctuary
Cargo has let down
her hair a little and stopped pushing
Pliny the Elder on
the volunteer labour
During summer it was all Pliny the Elder,
Pliny the Elder, Pliny
the – she’d cease only
for scotch thistle, stale Cheerios, or to reflect
flitty cabbage moths
back at themselves
from the wet river-stone of her good eye. Odin,
as you already know,
was birthed under
the yew tree back in May, and has made
friends with a crow
who perches between
his trumpet-lily ears like bad language he’s not
meant to hear. His mother
Anu, the jennet with
soft hooves of Killaloe, is healthy and never
far from Loki or Odin.
The perimeter fence,
the ID chips like functional cysts slipped
under the skin, the trompe
l’oeil plough and furrowed
field, the UNHCR feed bag and visiting
hours. These things done
for stateless donkeys,
mules, and hinnies – done in love, in lieu of claims
to purpose or rights –
are done with your
generous help. In your names. Enjoy the photo.
Have a safe winter
outside the enclosure
- Ken Babstock (The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2009, Tightrope Books)
Friday, March 19, 2010
(l-r: Raymond Souster, Lena Souster, Avi Boxer, Bob Currie (on floor), Louis Dudek, Aileen Collins. Laurentian Hotel, Montreal, Autumn 1955.)
For 175 pages I try to find out. Early on they are the Duddy Kravitzes of mid-20th century Canadian poetry: Dudek, implausibly writing letters to Ezra Pound, then turning “legman” to the old loon following Dudek's visit to Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital. Souster, a member of the RCAF persuading Ralph Gustafson, Irving Layton and Miriam Waddington to publish their poems in his little magazine, Direction, mimeographing the lot on stolen RCAF paper and equipment along with portions of Henry Miller’s banned book Tropic of Cancer.
“They wanted,” Davey says of Souster and Dudek, “to become historically important both as emancipators of Canadian poetry and as the most original and talented writers of their time.”
Dudek and Souster first come together at a dinner hosted by John Sutherland whose new literary magazine First Statement preached in Davey’s words a “literary rebellion” that appealed to two young men anxious to make their mark. “Both perceived the relevance of Sutherland’s iconoclasm to their hopes for their own work and for Canadian poetry; more importantly, both recognized that Sutherland’s use of the “little magazine” form had deeply interwoven sociological and literary implications.”
Eventually Souster and Dudek would break from Sutherland, determined to cut their own path. Along the way they would establish, then kibosh through disagreement, youthful ineptitude or sheer exhaustion a half dozen magazine ventures: Direction; “Poetry Grapevine”; Enterprise; Contact; Combustion; Delta; CIV/n - virtually all of them mimeographed in Souster’s basement or carbon copied on Dudek’s typewriter and mailed without cover or wrapper “to anyone sufficiently interested to request it.”
Their most material accomplishment would be transforming the “little magazine” Contact into Contact Press, cornering the market on manuscripts by new poets by locating it “more precisely than could its commercial competitors” like Ryerson Press. But what's more striking than their need to feed their entrepreneurial instincts is their passion for poetry: Souster, intuitive, less cerebral than his friend resisted Dudek’s infatuation with Pound largely on grounds of feeling: “I know I get sloppy very often, too sentimental,” he exclaimed in 1965, “but I hope I never get Ezra Pound cold, Robert Creeley controlled.” That feeling is evident in Souster's “The Candy Floss of the Milkweed”:
Softer, more delicate
than the skin of any girl
who ever walked up Yonge Street,
the candy floss of the milkweed
carried by the wind
to the farthest corners
of the valley
and dying with autumn)
a first snow
already lightly falling,
but carrying life
wherever it touches
however carelessly the earth.
By contrast Dudek espoused a contradictory mix of abstract social and philosophical ideas and more audacious “action-inducing uses of language”. Ask Canadian poets, he writes in a letter to Souster in 1951, “to write again when they think they’ve said something straight from the shoulder, no monkey business. Goddamn decoration. All icing and no cake. All cake and no meat. We want something to chew into in a poem, not just words.’
Chew into this, says Dudek, from “A Street in April”:
There a pale head rising from an eyeless cavern
swivels twice above the street, and swiftly dips
back into the gloom of the skull, whose only lips
are the swinging tin plate and the canvas strips.
And here are infants too, in cribs, with wondrous eyes
at windows, the curtains raised upon a gasping room,
angelic in white diapers and bibs, to whom
the possibilities in wheels and weather – bloom.
But I have seen a dove gleaming and vocal with peace
fly over them, when his sudden wings stirred
and cast the trembling shadow of a metal bird;
so April’s without flower, and no song heard.
Dudek's poem is rather Yeatsian in manner, but powerful. Souster’s poem shows the influence of both Pound and Williams and is pretty good, too. These and other poems lend authenticity to their claims to be among the best Canadian poets of their generation. They also underpin the fascinating story of their collaboration.
Balance, equivocation or a fire in the belly?
I admire Raymond Souster enormously. It was he, more than Dudek, who drove the creation of the small magazines that the pair of them, together later with Irving Layton, would collaborate on. He also won the 1964 Governor General’s Award for The Colour of the Times and poems like the one cited above.
But for me the larger achievement belongs to Dudek whose role in bringing Canadian poetry out of a state of infancy Davey describes as “crucial”. It was, says Davey, a process whereby “Canadian poetry turned away from modernist austerity and existential despair and towards the expansions and affirmations which characterize post modernism.”
The statement makes my pulse quicken, not just for what it says, but for the fact it was said at all; that anyone should endeavor to summarize the thousands of particularities, the half or halting steps, the misgivings and hesitations, the halleluiah moments and moments of conscious failure that must comprise the work of a great many people over a long span of time – to attempt all this and to seem to get it right, is the thrill that comes all too infrequently from our reading.
So Davey says it and almost immediately you recognize how important it is not just for what it says about poetry a long time ago, but for what it says about poetry today, how the battle lines drawn in 1950 are virtually unchanged in the year 2010. Louis Dudek at the end was a morass of contradictions and competing impulses, Davey tells us – a latter day imagist committed to hard hitting clarity and economy of style, while at the same time writing in a vigorous, “fragmentary” fashion” culled from the organic processes of the “meditative” consciousness.
The more things change the more they stay the same. Economy of style, plainness and a preoccupation with “getting the image right” - to the point where contemporary poetry resembles nothing so much as a still life painting of Ken Dryden at the goal mouth – are today the distinguishing features of Canadian poetry. From the other end of the rink an effort to move the puck in ways we’re not used to, invoking greater playfulness, more adventurous deeks and turns, imprinting more vivacious, outraged pictures on the retinas of the opposing players and their fans – the Herculean efforts of a handful of poets who doubtless eschew hockey metaphors but for whom the intensity of the game is of equal importance. Guriel, Starnino, Wells, Outram, Lilburn, Babstock.
Would the arch rationalist Dudek have cut these poets any more slack than he did George Bowering in 1967 when he called Bowering’s work “light and flimsy”, or Victor Coleman whose poems he dubbed a “messy sort of doodling”? Likely not. Would Souster? Perhaps. Souster seemed less constrained by the iconoclasm that he and Dudek shared, less messianic in his intentions towards Canadian poetry – and perhaps for that reason more like us.
And what do we make of it, this desire to create, as Starnino calls it, a “meddlesome” poetry, poetry that risks seeming unpoetic, inclined to shake things up for no other reason than to shake us out of our doldrums? Where success and failure are not only not relative, but finally unimportant compared to the sheer will to make something on the page simply live.
Who are Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster finally? They are all of us.
Alas, Frank Davey’s eminently readable Louis Dudek & Raymond Souster (Douglas and McIntyre, 1981) is no longer in print, but should be available at most central libraries or through Open Library at http://openlibrary.org/b/OL3821755M/Louis_Dudek_Raymond_Souster.
Friday, March 12, 2010
What do I have to do to get my manuscript published? How long will I have to wait to hear? You published my previous manuscript; why not this one? These are just some of the questions poets ask when talking to publishers about their new manuscript. This week I spoke to five editors across the country about the challenges and opportunities facing beginning and mid-career poets.
Until he turned the operation over to Randal Macnair, Ron Smith had been running Oolichan Books based in Fernie, B.C. for 36 years. In that time, he’s seen the industry grow, then shrink as the number of poets writing in Canada soared. It’s meant fewer opportunities for poets to get their poems on to book store shelves and tougher choices for publishers over who gets the congratulatory note, who the rejection slip.
“When I started we expected to sell between 800 and 1,000 copies, with a few like Robert Kroetsch’s Stone Hammer Poems selling as many as 4,000,” says Smith. “But that’s steadily gone down. There are more people writing poetry and more poetry titles being published than in the past, but the audience is small. They’re still a dedicated audience, but their purchases are spread over more titles and so editors are more selective.”
Oolichan receives approximately 800 manuscripts each year. Thirty to forty of these, Smith says, will be interesting, but only three or four will make it into production and into book stores. The ratio is a little better at Brick Books, Canada’s largest poetry-only publisher based in London, Ontario, where acquisitions editor Barry Dempster and an editorial board will shepherd seven titles through production each year. Dempster says one of the poet’s biggest challenges is knowing when their manuscript is ready for prime time.
“Often people jump the gun; they put together a manuscript, they’re excited, they want to be able to make our reading period, so they send the work in and it’s not quite ready.”
Dear Ms. Atwood, we are pleased to inform you…
Assuming a publisher agrees your manuscript is as brilliant as you say it is, other hard realities loom large. Because the average title will sell 3-400 copies most poets understand they’re unlikely to get rich. Most also understand that the promotion wings of publishing houses are normally very small – often one-person shops - and hopelessly under-funded. That the Canada Council will backstop reading tours and a reading fee for some poets is undercut by the abysmal support for the arts in this country overall.
Poets get this. They also understand it’s a collaborative effort: the publisher doing what they can to get the word out, the poet buttonholing friends and family to come out to their readings. What poets don’t understand is why no-one outside of family and friends seems to take notice. Once upon a time it was reasonable to expect your book of poems would be reviewed, says Carmine Starnino, editor of Montreal’s Signal Editions. Not any more – and once again it’s a matter of numbers: too few freelance writers knowledgeable enough to write about poetry, too few poets willing to fill the breech. He thinks that should change.
“I just find it hypocritical for me to approach Poet X to review a book and Poet X will say no, I don’t want to do that, it’s too dangerous. But the very moment Poet X has a book out, he or she expects a review. There is a connection between the two and I think poets fail to see that. So we have reaped what we have sown.”
Some of the biggest misunderstandings, though, begin long before a book is ready to be reviewed. Under Ezra Pound’s pen editing assumed near mythic importance in the delivery of Eliot’s The Wasteland. Hence Starnino's surprise when he gets a call from a poet he’s just signed expressing alarm that their manuscript is deemed imperfect and in need of red ink.
“I think that many poets no longer expect to be edited and do not like it. I have accepted two manuscripts where the poets bolted after they learned there would be real editing happening on the books…Not enough is said about the ways in which alert structuring and sequencing can toughen and transform a group of poems.”
Ron Smith agrees:
“I’m somewhat reluctant to take on someone who has decided that their manuscript is finished and clean and pure. Because none of us is a particularly good editor of our own work. There is always something that can be changed or helped along the way.”
One rule of thumb nearly everyone agrees upon is the ban on multiple submissions. “When we discover that you’ve sent your manuscript to five different publishers,” says Barry Dempster, “and that now three of them want you, that’s really frustrating because of the amount of work we put into a manuscript.” Thistledown Press publisher Allan Forrie echoes that sentiment. “For us to read and write notes and sometimes pay readers to do this, to take a manuscript through that process, then have the poet say `Oh by the way this has been accepted by another press, that’s lost faith, lost work.”
It’s a stance embraced by most, but not everyone, in the industry. Alana Wilcox, editorial director for Coach House Press says outside of those moments when she or Acquisitions Editor Kevin Connolly actively solicits a manuscript multiple submissions are fair game:
“If it’s just over the transom then I don’t have any trouble with it at all, because I know that it takes us a long time (to make decisions) because we’re swamped with getting the spring books out and can’t possibly read any manuscripts.
“I do have a problem when people do that and don’t keep everyone informed about what’s happening. I like to know that it’s out at other places and that if something happens the poet will let me know.”
Poets want to know where their manuscripts stand, too. And while much depends upon the number of manuscripts publishers are considering and the point at which a poet submits their manuscript most editors agree poets should not have to wait longer than eight or nine months to hear if their work has been accepted. And no-one is offended if you send a query note asking where your manuscript is in the process.
The Mid-Career Poet…
One of the grimmest conversations a publisher will have is with a poet whose book the publisher has just published and who automatically expects a contract for another. That’s not always a legitimate expectation, says Ron Smith.
“I’m going to tell them if we continue to work together that my expectation is that the next book will build on the first; it’ll go in a new direction, it’ll do something different, it’ll surprise me in some different way.”
Carmine Starnino believes publishers and editors have as much responsibility for the poet’s career as for their last book. He expects a poet to stay with Signal Editions in return for the editor “making sure that second book is as strong as possible.”
“And if it means waiting an extra year or two until the poems are written, that is what we do. In rare cases, where the poet has just lost all ability and there is just no way I can edit this into shape, and no way this can appear in print, then I will turn the book down.”
Every poet looks forward to that day when they’re known as an “established” poet, one whose reputation has been secured through the continued delivery of vivid, adventurous, iconic poetry. But there are down sides, not the least of which is an attitude prevalent among younger poets coming up that you’ve essentially shot your bolt, that you are in a word done. It’s for this reason that many publishers, including Coach House Press, shy away from publishing Selected Works.
“I don’t like selecteds that much,” says Alana Wilcox. “We really haven’t done one recently in my tenure for a number of reasons: First, yeah it’s a sense that it’s over. But also I think it’s a little bit unfair to the other books that a poet has, and to the other publishers, because suddenly all those books become irrelevant or unsellable.”
Wilcox says she’d rather devote the six spots Coach House reserves for poetry books each year to new work. Carmine Starnino agrees Job One is finding “good young poets” but also thinks selecteds have a larger place in publishing. It means re-visiting “not just the dead guys”, he says, “but the mid-career poets”.
“Very few presses out there are interested in doing selecteds, but it’s something I take very seriously and so you’ll find many selecteds in my series since I’ve been editing.”
Anthologies are also considered to be essential to the mid-career poet, but even these have limited importance according to Allan Forrie. “If poems migrate to an anthology I suppose it is recognition of the poet in terms of audience and I think anthologies have a workable purpose in education…But for the intimate experience of the one reader and the one book, I’m not so sure.”
Quality still counts…
So what do editors want to see when a manuscript slides across their desks? A basic grasp of verse forms, an understanding that poetry appeals both to the eye and ear and that line, rhythm and image really matter. Most importantly, poets are expected to be aware of an audience, however that audience might be defined.
“We’re looking for craft and skill first,” says Barry Dempster, “for a certain originality of voice, and for some sense of vision that guides their effort to do something that perhaps hasn’t been done quite that way before.” He and other editors are also looking for a manuscript with a sustained quality from beginning to end.
The good news is that if you’re good enough you will get published. This is where Starnino differs with some of his colleagues: he believes the opportunities for publishing your poetry have never been greater. Where the larger poetry houses have died off, smaller presses have taken their place. And where small presses can’t handle the load, blogs and poetry websites can.
“I think collectively we’re oeuvring up everybody,” Starnino laughs. “Honestly you’d have to be a pretty bad poet in this country not to find a press, and in the end you’ll just publish yourself. That’s how a lot of presses have started actually.”
Friday, March 5, 2010
DK: People are fascinated by your foray into prose with your award winning memoir There Is A Season and more recently Red Dog, Red Dog. The obvious question is Why tackle prose? but I’m also interested to know about the challenges along the way? Ever throw up your hands and cry Why am I doing this?
PL: The memoir arose out of the rather fragile wreckage of my life in the month following my release from a treatment centre for alcohol and drug addiction. I began writing about my garden because it was a safe place to explore. I worried that once sober and clean I wouldn’t be able to write anymore, so I avoided poetry and fiction, practices where I’d succeeded. There Is A Season was never intended to be a book, but was only an exercise, a way of re-entering my writing life. That it turned out to be a memoir, and a successful one, is fortuitous at best. The novel, Red Dog Red Dog, began a few weeks following the completion of the memoir. It was a natural segue and a desire on my part to actually finish a novel, three previous attempts in the 70’s and 80’s dying on the altar of alcohol and cocaine. And, no, I never ask why I’m writing. I sacrificed two families to poetry, my life to art. After fifty years of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, writing is as natural as breathing to me.
DK: Red Dog, Red Dog appears to be character driven, not plot driven. Do you see a relationship between the character traits or tone there and the speakers in your poems? Was it ever a concern for you that the style and tone of your prose distinguish itself from the tone or style of your poetry?
PL: Tone is a question that was never asked back in the days of our oral culture. Now we ask just to make sure a piece of writing is not sarcastic, ironic, glib, humorous, etc. We read now, we don’t listen. Tone is the attitude a writer takes to the subject at hand and is a delicate matter, indeed, given that it must be right for the characters, the living men and women who inhabit a place and a time, the ones who live in the story. The novel is its characters, though I had hoped the plot equally important, the question of, “Who killed father,” central to the book. I always felt the novel was a murder mystery. I don’t distinguish by genre, such distinctions made up by academics so that there should be some kind of order to the canon. Good writing is driven by rhythms and patterns set down by Homer and worked on by writers for these past 3,000 years. Did you ever find it odd that we’re called “writers” and not speakers or singers, tale-tellers, story-makers, poets?
DK: Will you continue to publish prose or shift back to publishing poetry?
PL: I’m bringing out a definitive “New and Selected Poems” this fall from Harbour Publishing. It will contain the most requested poems, the “old chestnuts” of the past fifty years. In the fall of 2011, I will bring out a “Collected Poems” from Harbour. This will be the complete works from all the chapbooks and books I’ve published, somewhere around 25 collections of various kinds. I’m looking forward to both these books. Of course, the ultimate “Collected” will be every miserable jotting I ever penned, but that will happen after my death. Thank God I won’t have to look at it all.
DK: Many of your poems seem underpinned by a tragic vision of life, with a strong elegiac tone mixed in with your emotions for the landscape. Does this stem solely from the tragedy that you’ve seen in your life or is there also a particular tradition that informs your vision?
PL: Who was it said that history is the study of tragedy? I lived through sixty years of the last century and no more brutal, bloody, vicious time ever existed for us humans, let alone the other forms of life that we co-habit with, the deaths of oceans and lands. I grew up in the days and nights of World War II and the latter days of the Depression, a period that did not end until after the Korean War in the early Fifties. My father took us on a holiday in Washington State when I was ten years old. He stopped the car on a highway in the Okanogan country south of the border and pointed out a bridge where three working men were lynched by Company killers. The struggles of ordinary men and women, their endurance and mere survival informed my life then, and continue to inform it now. Remember that poem by Milton Acorn, “I’ve Tasted My Blood?” Well, that comes close to how I feel. I have always believed that great literature arises from the “place” where you live. In my case it is western Canada, a huge piece of land and water and sky that is rich with story, alive with lyric intensity. My writing is from the tradition of “Witness.”
DK: Your last answer brings to mind the famous anthology 15 Canadian Poets where you were quoted as saying your “search for enlightenment...is always balanced with my social commitment to the lower classes of which I am a member”. Did you intend this as political statement at the time and has it changed at all?
PL: I now include everyone. Like Whitman, I think I am of the world and not limited to a single class of people.
DK: Poetry has seen a lot of developments since you began (e.g. the Tish Movement, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry). What are the more significant changes, and is poetry better off because of them?
PL: Those old, so-called language movements and the poets who espoused their theories, dictums, and causes were never kind to my writing. They aren’t now. Literature and Art have always had their miseries for the practicing artist. I have tried to be a writer in this world. I am a “humanist,” something Louis Dudek, Warren Tallman, and their acolytes ridiculed in me and in my work. Like William Faulkner’s Dilsey, I have endured.
DK: In a 1997 interview you said the canon of contemporary Canadian literature should be re-appraised? Has that re-appraisal occurred and if so, has it made room for different kinds of poetic voices?
PL: I think I was being a bit pretentious when I said that. There is always room for the human voice. As to the re-appraising the canon, I’ll leave that remedy to the ones who feel they have a need to mend it.
DK: Here’s a question that will make some people’s eyes roll, but we’ve heard much about the importance of traditional form and technical virtuosity on the one hand and the more experimental avant garde on the other. Has the case been sufficiently made for the emotional component in the poem, that is, human sympathy or feeling as the wellspring from which a poem flows?
PL: The pyrotechnics and virtuosities, the experimental and the avant-garde will always be with us. I applaud their skills! The history of art is the history of our humanness, our sympathy, empathy, understanding, and knowledge. There is no poetry, no literature, no art that does not contain our humanity expressed with our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual gifts. I have always believed the poem arises from the need to speak, an outcry if you like. There are times the poem flows from out of that Yeatsian “rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”
As to the younger generation, those who regularly tire of us older writers. Listen, I was once a young man, ambitious, intemperate, arrogant, and, yes, terribly impatient. I wished the older generation to get out of the way and make room for me. There were times when I judged my elders and found them wanting, the endless repetitions of their poetic preoccupations exhausting and of no significant value. And I sometimes judged my peers, those who lived in my country, the Canadians. I wanted the world to see me, not just Vancouver or Toronto, Salmon Arm or Saskatoon. We must remember that the avant-garde soon enough becomes the old guard. We endlessly invent replicas of ourselves and call it new. The real question is why do we poets do what we do and why do we spend our lives doing it? I have always believed that we poets wish to make something beautiful, but why we wish to do that no one knows. I wrote a poem once entitled, “The Beauty.” It is as close as I’ve come to understanding this dilemma:
This too, the beauty
of the antelope in snow.
Is it enough to say we will
imagine this and nothing more?
Who understands that, failing,
falters at the song.
But still we sing.
That is beauty.
But it is not an answer
anymore than the antelope,
most slender of beasts,
will tell us why they go,
and going there
perfectly in the snow.
DK: We hear about the influence older poets have on younger poets? Does it ever work the other way around, where an older poet is sufficiently moved or impressed by a younger poet that his or her own poetry is affected?
PL: O yes, I think so. Yeats was much influenced by Pound, to name just one historical example. There are many more.
DK: Is there anything about the poetry being written today that excites you? Any young talents we should watch out for?
PL: My wife and fellow-poet, Lorna Crozier, is presently compiling the best poems that appeared in magazines in Canada in 2009, an onerous task I assure you. I was reading through her tentative, early selections and was struck by the remarkable work being done by the younger generations and, as well, the work of so-called older writers who have only appeared recently. There is no healthier art form being practiced today than poetry. I’m not always on top of every thing being written. I don’t subscribe to the hundred or so print magazines, nor do I read much on the web (forgive me that!). I spend what time I have these days writing, given I’ve only another decade or so to practice this craft of mine. I’m presently writing another novel, the second of three l wish to do in this seventh decade of mine. And, of course, I’m writing poetry, my first love.
DK: You conduct regular poetry retreats and workshops and are referred to as a poetry teacher, but is it really possible to teach poetry?
PL: O yes, of course! I long ago rejected the “workshop” technique, that form of study we inherited from the Iowa School back in the 1930’s, the one that is ideally suited to schools and universities, those who need to measure excellence. Why do we ask students to critically respond to poems when they know very little about “how” they work? I believe we learn from the “practice” of writing. The old saw: we learn to do by doing, is as apt now as it was when it was newly coined. There is still “the craft so long to learn.” I offer written meditations and instructions, plus specific writing exercises with examples of writing from the masters to students at my retreats, but I do not ask participants to respond in round-table criticism of each other’s work. How hapless that can be! One must learn the “how” of poetry, not the “meaning” of it. Words will mean what they mean, it is the expression of them that matters to the writer. Just as a beginning singer practices her song, so must a beginning poet. Sometimes what we learn is part of what we must unlearn, schools and universities providing us with certain ways of looking at a text. They rarely teach us how to write a poem. I do.
DK: Finally, a certain mythology has arisen around the poet and person we know as Patrick Lane, centred principally on your fight with addiction. Are there other aspects of your life or personality that people are missing as a result?
PL: I wrote my memoir There Is A Season ten years ago and co-edited an anthology with Lorna Crozier entitled Notes From the Belly of the Beast thirteen years ago. Both books deal with addiction, the former with the story of my recovery from alcohol during my first year of sobriety and coincidentally anecdotes from my life that are offered not as metaphors but as personal discoveries of the past and my understanding of them free from the distortions caused by my addictions. The latter book contained the brief testaments of a variety of Canadian writers who suffered from substance addiction and later, in another North American edition, with a group of American and Canadian writers who also suffered. I no longer dwell on that past period of my life, but I work almost daily with addicts and alcoholics. I don’t subscribe to the “Black Romanticism” of the late 19th Century, nor am I interested in “People Magazine” journalism. I don’t embrace as truth any of the many mythologies that have been made about my life, nor do I think my readers and critics should. God knows, there have been enough myths promulgated about me. I am a good and caring man. It’s taken a long and varied life to be able to say that with sincerity.
My poetry, fiction, and non-fiction are not “confessional” by nature. As I said before, my poems come out of the poetry of witness. I have reinvented myself as a writer several times over the past fifty years. There have been significant moments when I realized I could write a “Patrick Lane” poem better than anyone. Each time that I recognized I was repeating myself in both form and content I changed my writing. Whether I was successful or not isn’t up to me. I just do it. As I sit here this week putting together my “New & Selected Poems” for this autumn, I can see the watershed years of 1962, 1969, 1978, 1986, 1997, and 2001.
What Language Can't Reach
And the only way I know
how to do that is to stand far off
as if you were on a low hill
under a thin moon
watching a passenger train
at a siding in the distance
of a prairie night in winter.
In the snow, and watching.
That far away, that sure.
Next week: What Poets Expect…What Publishers Want
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