“Even Though We’re Still Entangled”: An Interview with Molly Peacock, Jason Guriel, and Robert McGill

by E Martin Nolan

E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He received his MA in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto in 2009. He’s a poetry and blog editor at The Puritan magazine, where he also publishes interviews and reviews. His essays and poems have appeared in The Barnstormer, The Toronto Review of Books, The Toronto Quarterly, and Contemporary Verse 2. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.

Molly Peacock, a poet and a creative non-fiction writer, is the author of The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2010) and six books of poetry, including The Second Blush (2008) and Cornucopia: New & Selected Poems (2002). Among other works is a memoir called Paradise, Piece By Piece (1998) and How To Read a Poem and Start a Poetry Circle (1999). She is the editor of a collection of creative non-fiction, The Private I: Privacy in a Public World (2001) and the co-editor of Poetry in Motion: One Hundred Poems from the Subways and Buses (1996). Former Poet-in-Residence at the American Poets’ Corner (Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York) and former President of the Poetry Society of America, Peacock is one of the creators of Poetry in Motion on subways and buses throughout North America. From 2001–2012 she served on the faculty of the Spalding University Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts program. She is Series Editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English, published each year by Tightrope Books.

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as PoetryReader’s Digest, The WalrusParnassusCanadian Notes & QueriesThe New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was the first Canadian to receive the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine. He won Poetry’s Editors Prize for Book Reviewing in 2009. His latest collection of poems is Satisfying Clicking Sound (Véhicule Press, 2014), and his essays and reviews were recently collected in The Pigheaded Soul, published by The Porcupine’s Quill in 2013. Guriel lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Robert McGill holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and a PhD from University of Toronto, where he occasionally teaches a course called “Canadian Literature at the Border.” He attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His first novel, The Mysteries, was named one of the top five Canadian fiction books of 2004 by Quill & Quire. His second novel, Once We Had a Country, is published by Knopf in Canada and by Jonathan Cape in the UK. His nonfiction book, The Treacherous Imagination: Intimacy, Ethics and Autobiographical Fiction, is published by the Ohio State University Press. McGill has also published short fiction in Hazlitt, The Journey Prize Anthology, Toronto Life, and literary journals including Descant, Fiddlehead, and Grain. His non-fiction has appeared in The Town Crier, The National Post, and The Toronto Star and on CBC Radio One. His scholarly work has appeared in journals such as Studies in Canadian Literature and Canadian Literature.

 

This interview was conducted as a Polar Vortex lifted off of central North America, on January 11, 2014 at Free Times Café, on College Street in Toronto. It was recorded, transcribed, and edited for clarity. For the reader’s information: E Martin Nolan provided the interviewees with a packet of poems, drawn from “Bridging the Literary Border, Part I,” and from previously published and more-or-less well known poets, to help ground the conversation.


E Martin Nolan: I want to begin by framing our discussion: we live in a civilization that values individual rights, which extends to the individual rights of artists. That can stand in tension to concepts of national identity. Yet we do live in sovereign nations, with borders, taxes, militaries—with politics. I want to know your initial, maybe gut, reaction: how does that tension play out in the national literature of the U.S. and Canada, and is there a difference between the two in that case? Or, what is the relation, in general, between an artist and their nation?

Molly Peacock: In the United States, poets do not feel that they constitute the national identity. There is a sense that art is extra and that the real core identity of the United States is economic and political. In Canada, there’s a perception that the arts help define the national identity—not exclusively, by any means, but there is a Canadian mythos that poetry defines Canadian identity.

“There is an outward-looking tendency in Canadian poetry, a view toward the rest of the world.

The myth of the Canadian settlement, for instance, is huge, like the myths of the Great North. The myth of independence in the United States sparks the poetry there as well. The psychology of the United States is the psychology of the rebellious child, and that is the birth of the government of the United States. The psychology of the loyal child is [foundational to] the birth of Canada. It’s fabulously simplistic to boil it down in that way, but there is a pulse from both of those ideas in the poetries of the two countries.

Jason Guriel: I would agree with that. I do think, in some ways, that the Canadian survival myth Atwood so famously articulated has diminished a little bit. I don’t think it’s as intense as it once was. I remember being in high school in the 1990s, and the Canadian Lit portion of any English class always felt imposed—it never felt natural. At that point, we were already moving away from the anxieties of the 60s and 70s. Personally, I didn’t recognize my experience in As for Me and My House, or in Survival, as a kid living in Toronto. I read science fiction novels, written mostly by American authors.

That said, I was a loyal kid. I was listening to my parents, but I do remember not feeling particularly connected to the stuff that was being presented to me. Now, I can look back on a lot of poetry that wasn’t pushed on me, that was not part of the nationalist project, that didn’t square so well with Atwood’s vision. Think of poets like George Johnston and Daryl Hine, who are much more like hybrid figures, much more cosmopolitan in where they published. They were left out of a lot of those courses and narratives. I think it’s an interesting time to be a Canadian, because you can also look back and see what the myth didn’t include.

MP: We should return to the word cosmopolitan at some time in this conversation. But [to Robert McGill] what do you think?

Robert McGill: Why do you think we should return to the word ‘cosmopolitan’?

EMN: Sure, let’s dig into that.

MP: What you’re saying, Jason, is that there is an outward-looking tendency in Canadian poetry, a view toward the rest of the world. This is an aspect of Canadian culture that is very fun, because they’re—we’re—positioned geographically on the top of the world, looking down, and we see lots of interesting stuff out there, and we partake of it, and bring back multiple points of view. And of course, a tremendous number of people immigrate to this country, and so that brings a lovely cosmopolitan aspect. As far as publishing goes, there are some Canadian poets (and you’re one of them) who look outward and publish in the U.S. and the U.K. But many Canadian poets do not; many Canadian literary magazines will not accept poems from non-Canadians. Their view is interior; they look inside, and this reinforces the thickness of the border, at least between Canada and the U.S.

I find it a less-than-permeable border, a thick membrane. I think that’s partly due to grant funding. Not that I want to disparage the grant system, but because it emphasizes “Canadian-ness” (and I’m happy about that), it can be insular, and can also maintain a—

JG: A bunker mentality.

MP: Yes. There is.

RM: Also, funding maintains the publishing houses and journals that allow for national publishing. But I think you’re right, Molly.

JG: It’s a problem.

MP: There’s an ambiguity to it. We absolutely need that funding to keep Canadian literature going. I think it’s utterly essential, but it does have that other aspect to it.

I see the difficulty of, say, young American poets trying to get published, and how terrible it is for them. They have to win a contest. I tell young American poets it’s going to be a three-year process of sending out, sending out, sending out, paying for those contests. Here, there’s a talented young Canadian poet, and I think, “terrific, you’ve got a wonderful manuscript, send it out. People are going to respond to it.” There’s an excitement and a response, and that only exists because of the grants climate, and the economic climate here. There’s no doubt in my mind.

EMN: There’s an essay in this supplement [Part 1], by Nate Jung, and he’s looking at different kinds of material differences, at price tags and how there’s a different price in each country, and how that leads to a whole world of institutional difference—of funding. He talks about how Alice Munro goes through Canadian publishers as well, and so is claimed as a Canadian writer.

MP: I try to publish in Canada first, too. I think it’s incredibly important.

JG: I know a poet; she’s a Creative Writing professor, with tenure in New York State, who has had poems all over, in every kind of American literary magazine, including Poetry. It took her years to get a publisher for a book. Years. In Canada, you can get a book pretty easily, relative to an American.

MP: It’s more like Europe in that way.

JG: I think it’s interesting, being someone who grew up not reading a ton of Canadian literature, but living in Canada, and publishing a lot of stuff outside of the country, but also within—it’s this weird elephant in the room that doesn’t always get talked about: the Canadian-American relationship for poets, it just doesn’t get talked about, or I don’t hear it a lot.

MP: I think you have to live it. If you live the bifurcation, it’s vital to you. But if you don’t …

EMN: And that’s part of where my idea for this came from. I become a permanent resident last summer. There was a point in time when I was going to be trapped in Canada for six months for immigration reasons, but that was reversed.

MP [to EMN]: So what brought you here?

EMN: I came here for the MA in Creative Writing at U of T. But I grew up in Detroit, a border city, where we watched Hockey Night in Canada, which came in from Windsor, a city we visited a lot. That was when the border was more porous. But I have to give credit to Bob [McGill] for the idea, too. He teaches a class on the subject.

RM: It’s called “Canadian Literature at the Border”—mostly fiction. We begin thinking about George Grant’s Lament for a Nation and the Centennial era, and get as far as Any Known Blood by Lawrence Hill.

EMN: Coming back to the institutional focus. [To RM:] you publish with Canadian publishers first, correct?

RM: That’s complicated, actually. For my first novel, I found an agent in Britain. I was doing my Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia when I wrote the novel, and I was introduced to an agent there. When I finished the book, it was sent first to British publishers and picked up by Jonathan Cape, then was sent to Canadian publishers, among whom there was a lot of interest. I can’t help but think that the interest of Jonathan Cape was not a disadvantage in that regard.

I was writing the book while completing the Master’s program, and I was writing, there for an audience mostly composed of British writers, and a few American writers, but no Canadian writers—even as, at the same time, I was writing about small town Ontario and imagining what my parents were going to say about the book. In that regard, perhaps my experience was paradigmatic of Canadian novelists’ experience writing their work now—writing with the confidence that their fiction will be taken seriously outside of Canada, but also speaking to a national audience, or even a local one.

MP: There’s a bit of an allure to being a Canadian writing in the U.K., didn’t you find?

RM: I think there’s an allure to being an expat writer at all.

MP: I think that’s true.

EMN: One thing Ken Babstock said to me in an earlier interview was that he felt that [in Britain] Canadian poets get lumped in with American poets. [To RM:] What was your experience with how people reacted to Canadian literature in Britain?

RM: One funny thing that happened was when Jonathan Cape showed me an idea for a cover image for The Mysteries, which was set in small town Southwestern Ontario on the shores of Georgian Bay. The cover image that they wanted was of a bleak winter road with Alaskan mountains in the background. I apprehended, then, that regardless of what was actually on the page, people were going in with certain preconceptions of what a Canadian novel would be. I suspect that, beyond an image of the Rockies, a lot of people in other countries operate without much of a visual idea of Canada.

EMN: Was that a problem?

JG: Did you keep the cover?

RM: No, we didn’t keep the cover. On the final cover, there was still the winter, though.

JG: Winter’s non-negotiable.

EMN: Hockey players?

RM: The novel is set in winter and there are hockey-playing characters in it, so that seems fair enough. As I was writing, I was playing with and against expectations.

“ … writing with the confidence that their fiction will be taken seriously outside of Canada, but also speaking to a national audience, or even a local one.”

I was aware that Canadian small town fiction has travelled. People have read Alice Munro. For me, this was part of my dual-dialogue with Canadians and with people abroad, to engage with writing like Munro’s and to have the expectation that not only Canadians would appreciate what I was doing in undertaking that engagement.

MP [to RM]: Why did you choose to go to a graduate program in the U.K.?

RM: Not for relevant reasons. It was money, basically. Maybe that’s relevant.

MP: Of course it is. So you had a fellowship.

RM: Well, money was maybe one-tenth of the reason. There was actually . . .

MP: There was romance. I know there was romance.

JG: There was a girl. You’re squirming too much for there not to have been a girl. This is radio, right?

EMN: Even worse. It will be written.

RM: It’s a long story. What I will say is I was living in England before I took up the Master’s. What I found living there, first of all, was that I had to think of myself as a Canadian in a way I hadn’t had to before. Because people did assume I was American, and it fell to me to explain the difference. A lot of the distinctions I might’ve thought were compelling were not compelling to the people to whom I sounded just like an American.

JG: I wonder, too, with the case of Alice Munro: when most non-Canadians read her, are they really thinking about her as Canadian literature? Most of those stories got published in the New Yorker, or some glossy American magazine. I wonder how many readers just read a Munro story and take for granted that it’s just some small town, Ontario—and there’s probably an Ontario in the States somewhere.

MP: It’s in Southern California. I’ve had mail misdirected there. There’s a lot of Munro where—[someone]’s waiting at some bus stop—where you have to really zero in—

JG: To feel the Canadian-ness.

MP: Yes. It took me quite a long time to sink into this culture. Every month I’ve lived here, over 20 years, I feel a new level of difference between “American-ness” and “Canadian-ness,” even though there are many aspects of the surface that are quite similar.

I’m curious to know about your [RM’s] experience [in this regard]. In my non-fiction life, a lot of my research was conducted in the U.K., where I’ve published as a poet. A British poet once said to me—we were talking about this U.S.–Canadian thing: “I prefer you to be Canadian.” There’s some kind of kinder, gentler perception of a choice he was making.

JG: That you’re not some crass invader, but a polite, loyal child.

RM: In the U.K., I don’t think I had a good answer about what made me Canadian. I think not having a good answer drove me to writing about the area in which I’d grown up. So I did what a lot of people do: focus on region, on locality, as Munro does. That didn’t necessarily give me any clear answers either. I think it was really as I was writing my second novel that I came around to a fuller sense of what seemed to me to be my and others’ Canadian-ness. I came around to recognizing the sea change that happened in the 60s and 70s with regard to political nationalism and people not seeing Canada as the “good child”—although I think the “good child” continued to operate in interesting ways as a metaphor in Canadian literature of the time—but as a more progressive, liberal-minded alternative to the United States.

MP: I couldn’t agree with you more. I think Jean Chrétien’s refusal to align himself with George W. Bush was a great cultural definer. That decision crystalized for many people around the world that Canada had its own way and defined itself differently.

EMN: I want to ask Bob about that. Is that Lament for a Nation happening all over again? Is it similar to “we’re not involved in Vietnam, but we’re selling munitions [to the U.S.]”? That “we’re still a part of that empire, but we’re not sending troops.”

JG: That we get to feel good about it even though we’re still entangled.

RM: Well, Grant’s Lament was all about Canada being a failed conservative alternative to the United States. In a sense, we’re not reliving Lament for a Nation because Grant was right: we did not develop as the conservative ideal he was imagining. Indeed, Canada seemed to become more American than America, as far as embracing individualism and individual rights were concerned, which you [EMN] were earlier placing in tension with the “nation.” That Canada—through Trudeau, through the constitution, through the Charter—became a guarantor of individual freedoms in a way many American leftists would admire if they were to pay attention to Canadian governance and society. And, indeed, many have paid attention to Canada, in the post-Trudeau years. You see Michael Moore, time and again, using Canada as a kind of stick with which to beat America for not living up to its ideals.

EMN: Another Michigander.

MP: That’s someone with a real border sensibility!

EMN: Okay, I’m actually thinking more about [Grant’s essay] “Canadian Fate and Imperialism,” wherein he discusses Vietnam specifically 1, and the break from Johnson. Molly mentions that not going to Iraq is a difference maker. But how big of a difference?

Let me put it this way: when I talk to American friends who don’t know much about Canada, I talk about five things that are giant issues in the States, but aren’t here. There might be more: healthcare, gun control, abortion, gay marriage, financial regulation, relation to the military. Stuff like that. It seems to me you can add all those up, and say, “Wow, this must be such a different nation.” But then I wonder how much actual push that has. Is that a different culture, or is it: “You can do that because the United States is right there.” You don’t need a giant military if you’re above the most “giant” military that will ever exist in the world.

MP: All those things are sunk deep into the culture. The tax system, the financial system here, and how people regard the economy as opposed to how people regard the economy in the United States. It’s profoundly different. It was hugely shocking to me when I came here and found all these differences. The way credit is extended, the tax structure—as somebody who still has a financial life in both places, it’s profoundly different.

JG: I also suspect that we—and this is totally half-baked—but I suspect that we in Canadian literary culture have the luxury to have a lot more petty arguments … being embroiled in these little scandals, then hearing about a prominent American critic-poet back-channel emailing, saying “Oh, this is what you’re arguing about?” These are [American] writers who maybe don’t have healthcare. There’s a luxury. There are great things about our literary culture—the funding, all that—but with that comes the luxury to dwell on things that other writers in other countries don’t necessarily have the luxury to dwell on.

MP: It is the psychology of the small pond. That happens in countries that have vibrant but small literary cultures, like Ireland, for instance, or the U.K.

EMN: And Irish writers would certainly have some historical bones to pick with an empire nearby …  

MP: I can’t speak for these cultures, but when there’s a smaller group of writers, and it’s inward looking, you get a tempest in the cultural teapot. But, Bob’s thinking that’s not the case. I don’t think fiction writers battle in the same way.

JG: The stakes are so low in the poetry world that sometimes all we seem to have is the battle. I think there’s also a commercial aspect to it. A novelist, theoretically, can make a living that a poet can’t—although Bob frowned instantly when I said that. There’s a possibility that’s not there for poets, unless you’re maybe John Ashbery, Billy Collins, or Mary Oliver, maybe. But I don’t think even they sell enough books to make a living.

MP: I don’t think so. Billy Collins hasn’t given up his teaching job.

JG: I’m just naming poets I think have agents.

MP: Even Allen Ginsberg had a job.

RM: I frowned because we’re in a period of enormous change with regard to publishing, such that advances for mid-list novelists are half what they were a few years ago, even. While I’m very much intrigued by the idea that the perks of the welfare state, such as socialized medicine, allow us to meditate on other things, I wonder whether that’s a luxury that we will continue to have.

EMN: Something that’s popped up on my Facebook feed lately: this Gary Shteyngart thing. People were saying, “See, poets aren’t the only ones who do it.” He judged an award and said Canadian novelists aren’t taking enough risks. There’s some question of whether he’s being off-handed or not. His publisher insists that he was just kidding and trying to rile people up. But even if he were kidding, I think the reaction is informative. There was a pushback in the Star. Bob, in ten years, are fiction writers going to be as desperate and bitter as poets?

RM: Where are we now? 2014. The last 20 years have been a kind of golden age in terms of material security for Canadian writers, relatively speaking. Not only was there a cultural confidence that came in the wake of cultural nationalism in the 60s and 70s, but there was also the opening of international markets for writers in the wake of big successes like The English Patient and Fugitive Pieces. One could write a first novel as a Canadian in the late 90s and realistically aspire to having international success right off the bat, as well as significant institutional support at home. A lot of those publishers have disappeared. We still have the grant funding and the prizes but I think Shteyngart’s comment—as well as awakening the usual anxieties about Canada’s superiority or inferiority, culturally speaking, with regard to the U.S.—also raised interesting questions about why we have that funding. He was suggesting, if only in jest, that such grants were producing safe, comfortable, government-friendly writing that wasn’t taking risks or departing from some state-mandated line. One of the reasons, interestingly, that those grants came about was because of an idea that there needed to be stronger cohesive national identity. It wasn’t simply a matter of economically supporting a creative class. I’m not sure that nowadays there’s the same kind of consensus about what kind of purpose those grants are serving, beyond the economic argument.

EMN: Of supporting the industry?

RM: Of substantively and substantially helping to foster a coherent national identity. People, for good reasons, as well as for more problematic reasons, are skeptical about the idea of national identity per se in a way that they weren’t in Canada 50 years ago.

EMN: My follow up question to the Shteyngart thing is: what if it’s both a product of the institution and him identifying a national personality trait? Is it possible that if Canada is low risk in its approach to financial regulation, and other things—maybe not environmentalism. Is that part and parcel of an un-riskiness, potentially, in the literature?

JG: He’s saying that he read all these submissions from Canada and only found a few excellent submissions. But aren’t we just a smaller pool from which to draw anyway? How many excellent submissions are you going to get? Maybe this is just part of my perennial cynicism, but I just don’t think there’s all that much excellent writing or music or film to consume at any given time anyway. There’s a lot of great stuff to learn about. I’m always trying to look back at what I’ve missed. Maybe it’s not that we’re an un-risky culture; maybe we’re just a smaller sample size from which to draw excellent writing. So we’re not going to produce as many excellent writers. If that’s what he’s saying.

MP: It also points to deep aesthetic differences between American writers and Canadian writers. In terms of poetry: the contract between a Canadian writer and a Canadian reader is quite different than the contract between an American writer and American reader. Americans know they have about 30 seconds to grab the attention of that reader. You’ve got to go out with … the fireworks have to happen right in the first line—that sense of “I’ve got to get their attention.” It’s like the ice cream aisle in the supermarket. In a high-end New York supermarket there are a zillion different kinds of ice cream. But in a fancy ice cream section in Toronto … you go “What? There’s only 25 …” It’s the marketplace competition that urges American poets toward those fireworks.

EMN: You could trace that back to the start with Emerson and Whitman.

MP: Ab-so-lutely.

JG: I feel like sometimes Canadian culture is a little too insulated from a market concern. I’m not saying we should have what the States have, where good poets can’t even find a publisher, but up here, we don’t necessarily have to appeal to a reader to get a book or a poem published.

“When I use terms like entertainment and showmanship, I don’t think of them as particularly crass or even as necessarily all that tied to a capitalistic ethos.”

There’s a way in which that’s just not indoctrinated into Canadians. You don’t have to seize someone by the lapels to grab them, to have a career.

EMN: You’ll be talking to people and say, “Whatever happened to what she published? It never got reviewed”—but it doesn’t have to be reviewed. She’ll get another book and it doesn’t get reviewed again. You don’t think that would work in the States?

JG: Well—I’m always trying to think about the reader, even if the reader is an ever more … we live in an age when we’ve deconstructed that ideal of a mid-century general reader, who read the New Yorker, and read midlist authors. There are people who say that’s a myth.

EMN: The “common reader” of Donato Mancini’s nightmares.

JG: Exactly, we’ve deconstructed that. I get that we live in an age of very diverse audiences, but I don’t entirely think that’s true. It’s easier to simply say, “We’re never going to get that reader again, anyway, so it’s fine if my poem isn’t calibrated to get someone’s attention.” There’s a way in which Canadian poets are not always orienting themselves toward a reader. I remember reviewing an anthology that Shane Neilson edited called Approaches to Poetry: The Pre-Poem Moment. The anthology featured a number of poets, and printed a poem by each and an essay about how they came to write that poem. I was struck by the poets who were like, “I don’t have any designs on the reader. I don’t have any calculations and I’m not trying to impress anybody.” I remember thinking that a little bit more calculation, a little bit more showmanship, wouldn’t necessarily have been a horrible thing.

MP: Showmanship energizes a piece of writing. The sense that you have to seduce a reader energizes a piece of writing. On the other hand I think there is a contract with the reader: that those Canadian poets are trusting. It’s the trust that the reader is going to move into the work with them. That they’re not showing off. There’s the sense that the writer and the reader are going to go through this, in some way, together; that the reader’s going to have patience and have curiosity and wonder. It’s right here in these examples [EMN gave the interviewees sample poems for discussion, many of which appeared in The Puritan, Issue 24, Borders Supplement Part I].

With Lisa Pasold’s long lines, the poem takes a long time to build. There’s a sense that people are going to get into it, are going to have to be with her as the poem unfolds. And that’s entirely different from Denise [Duhamel]. Even though Denise is writing directly about this subject [the border]—[MP reads form Duhamel’s poem]: “Last March as Megan Draper sang ‘Zou Bisou Bisou’ to Don.” We’re in it immediately from line one.

EMN: She dunks your head right in.

MP: Deeply. But I’ve come to appreciate that other contract where there is writer-reader trust. There is still a sense of certain Canadian poets writing in quite a bit of isolation. This allows a kind of eccentricity to develop. Not in Toronto but in the rest of the country. The poets who are not writing in urban areas seem to have a sense that the artwork can unfold in a slower way. The conclusions that are drawn (or the lack of those conclusions) are associative and evolving. The growth in the poem can almost be in real time as opposed to the intensity of time lapse.

JG: Do you really think Canadian readers are that understanding and noble and patient? I’m not. Maybe I have a short attention span.

MP: But your frame of reference is very American.

JG: I’ve always felt that you’ve got to make them laugh and get down to business. Even when I look at “The Rocking Chair” by A.M. Klein versus the Phil Hall [excerpts from his poem “Killdeer” were included in the sample poems]. It’s more poem-y. The Klein is—right away you’re into rhyme and alliteration and sharp images. It’s tight. Klein was someone who published internationally and in Poetry magazine.

EMN: He’s a Montreal poet.

MP: It’s about something other than his own perception. Phil Hall’s perception comes right in at the second stanza … He’s saying, “I don’t know what the national bird is now.” He’s thinking. There’s a thought process. There’s a relationship between this kind of poem (that I see a lot of in Canada) and the personal essay. The voice of a personal essay forms a persona. It speaks from the point of view of an “I.” The reader’s contract is: I’ll follow your mind, writer. I’ll gamble that your mind is interesting enough, and I’ll go through with this attempt to read you. That’s what draws me into an essay.

EMN: This is from a book of poem essays. He was trying to break down those barriers.

JG: I hadn’t read it before, and I wrote down: “It was so prosy it could be an essay.”

EMN: It won the GG. I like this poem, but my review of his book was the most negative review I’d ever written. He tried to do both of those things, but it didn’t come together. A lot of it was boring. This one is interesting—it’s sad.

I was thinking about this almost in terms of your [RM’s] theory of adaptability, again going back [between] the personal to the national. In your “No Nation but Adaptation,” Bob suggests that Atwood’s idea of survival could be changed to adaptability. He uses “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” as well as its adaptation Away from Her, as a paratextual example of how that might extend toward a national identity. Could you explain that?

RM: I’ll add to that essay by making a claim that I don’t make explicitly in it, which is that one of the fundamental facts of Canadian existence to which national identity has had to adapt is the fact of the United States. You can see people of Atwood’s generation, in particular, looking to adapt earlier Canadian works, as we see Phil Hall doing by looking back to Klein 2: by looking back to local materials and trying to remake them for the needs of the present and for the needs of the nation.

EMN: This is a new book, but Phil has been around for a while.

RM: He’s rather unusual in looking back to someone of Klein’s generation to find his materials. And I think this is true with regard to novelists and short story writers as well. There isn’t the same kind of impetus to establish oneself within a national genealogy that there was in 1972. Coming back to Alice Munro: one of the brilliant things Munro established for Canadian fiction writers was a way of writing about Canada that was explicitly Canadian but at the same time, as we said earlier, comprehensible to audiences outside Canada, to the extent that they might not even recognize the Canadian locale as such. I think that dual prerogative that Canadian fiction writers feel to write for audiences in and outside Canada at the same time precludes them from doing that close intertextual work with Canadian forebears that you see in Hall here or in Atwood writing about Susanna Moodie. That’s the kind of material that wouldn’t have sufficient resonance outside of Canada to make fiction writers go down that path.

EMN: [Sarah] Polley tried to pull it off. That movie was fairly successful.

RM: Polley followed Munro’s covertly nationalist aesthetic procedure, I think, which is to drop in place names and allusions to national history and mythology, and, at the same time, to avoid doing it in so intrusive way as to alienate international audiences. So, for instance, there’s a scene where the main characters are watching TV and there’s something on about the Iraq war. One of them says, “Oh, it’s just like Vietnam.” Of course, an American audience would understand that reference but it would have a very different resonance for a Canadian audience. It’s that kind of double speaking that I think fiction writers have become quite adept at.

JG: I remember when Fargo came out; a professor of mine said, “Why didn’t Canada make that movie?” [Like] they could’ve made a Canadian version of that movie and it would’ve been an international hit.

EMN: Steve Buscemi would have to be the American in that case.

MP: I don’t know your [RM’s] essay, but did you also talk about tempo and timing? One of the things I see in Canadian–Canadian films—as opposed to Canadian films like the Polley film that looks outward—is, again, a very slow unfolding. The Polley film has a kind of quickness to it. It doesn’t have fireworks because of the subject, but in film there are continual decisions about timing. How much time can a scene can take to unfold? I’ve certainly seen how long a Canadian director will allow an actor a certain kind of movement of expression, when an American actor would have definitely sped that up.

RM: To come back to Gary Shteyngart for a second. His basic accusation with regard to Canadian writing is that it’s boring. We should recognize that he’s taking part in an American tradition of identifying Canada as boring. You can see you how Canada becomes a kind of foil.

“[Canadian] grants were producing safe, comfortable, government-friendly writing that wasn’t taking risks or departing from some state-mandated line.”

It becomes useful to someone who wants to identify American writing as risk-taking, as edgy, as showy. You can hear even in our discussion today— an embrace of those terms to describe good writing, an acceptance that it’s risk-taking, that it’s showy, that it has an idea of a market. Interestingly, though, that leaves Canadians in an ambivalent place, because those terms get identified with a distinctively American ethos—a capitalist, or Emersonian, ethos.

EMN: This is why I think Rob Ford has confused a lot of Americans in the last few months.

JG: He’s a showman.

MP: He’s as vulgar as any American.

EMN: The Tea Party might be embarrassed of him.

JG: I do wonder though … when I use terms like entertainment and showmanship, I don’t think of them as particularly crass or even as necessarily all that tied to a capitalistic ethos. When I look at the Hall versus the Klein, Klein doesn’t unfold at a slower pace. Klein is rhyming, and he has shorter lines and it’s tighter. It’s easy to be too apologetic on behalf of slow Canadian writing, but sometimes it might just be bad writing. When I look at his [Hall’s] use of “odd mannerism, odd habits, awful names,” it’s as if at the end of the poem Hall’s saying, “Klein, you were wrong to try and raise that rocking chair to the status of a myth and icon. ‘I don’t know what the national bird is.’” And then at the very end he says, “maybe I’ll tell you what the new bird is called when I know.” You can view that as a modest and very intellectual engagement with the world, and a desire not to create the grand myths that we’ve been trained to question even as we’ve been trained to accept postmodernism as a kind of myth, even if we don’t think of it as a kind of myth.

“Canadian literary culture [has] the luxury to have a lot more petty arguments … ”

On the other hand, we can look at Hall’s poem almost as a little bit self-righteous. I point to that phrase “odd mannerisms, odd habits and awful names” as a moment of good old fashioned telling and not showing. There’s one moment in the poem that has a real verbal energy and beauty, where he says: “A thing plea my pain my pain lies dying out in the dry grass dying out in starlessness.” There’s a wonderful music to that line, but so much of it—this might have made for a wonderful, personal essay. But I find it banal as poetry. There’s nothing in the language to keep me reading. At the same time I’m very sympathetic to his ideas, to the content, to the notion that he’s celebrating local experience and he’s not creating that myth in the same way that Klein is. The Klein to me is full of so much music and wonderful imagery. I wrestle with the fact that I’ve been trained to be sympathetic to Hall’s seemingly more progressive and thoughtful approach to ideas of myths. But I think we can go too far in the other direction and disparage notions that you have to be responsible to a reader.

MP: There’s a different kind of responsibility to the reader. This is right out of a personal essay: “I grew up on farms between Bobcaygeon and Fenelon Falls … Between Reaney’s townships to the southwest and Purdy’s country slightly north to the east.” This is a Canadian poem written to Canadians because these are people who are going to recognize James Reaney and they’re going to recognize Al Purdy. It’s very directed in that way as well as being intentionally prosy. There’s no attempt at lyricism.

JG: I understand that they may not be—that it’s probably not—his project. That there’s a distrust of Klein’s aesthetic. But I can only respond to this as a reader. Let me put it to you this way: the Phil Hall would be very teachable. I almost wouldn’t want to give Klein to students because they would hate it, and that would break my heart. I could give them the Hall and they would pull out points and I suspect they would never want to read Hall again.

EMN: Or poetry.

JG: Or poetry.

EMN: I say that despite the fact that this is one my favorite poems in the book. But I did pick it [to discuss here] because of the concept. It’s not settled that he’s positing the Killdeer as the national bird. He says it’s his totem bird. There’s some slippage between the individual and the national.

RM: There’s more than that in terms of slippage. He’s misreading Klein, perhaps intentionally, right from the start, by claiming that Klein is saying the national bird is the rocking chair. Klein is talking about the Québécois national bird. He’s thinking of French Quebec as a nation. He’s not talking about Canada. He certainly wasn’t saying “our” when speaking of Quebec, either. He’s thinking about French Quebec as a nation separate from himself, even though he lived in Quebec. So in Hall’s poem, there’s this strange, perhaps pointed, elision of some freighted questions about Canada’s national identity and its constituent parts right from the start. You’re right that there’s this ambiguity about whether the bird by the end is supposed to be a national bird. There’s a backing away from some big, “two solitudes” type questions about national identity and a route back to the nation through these personal touchstones of Reaney and Purdy and through that declaration, “Here I am, here I am,” which seems like a stereotypically American way of looking at the self and articulating the self.

MP: It’s not a poem, I think, that would be easily taken by an American editor.

RM: They’d say, “Who are Purdy and Reaney?”

MP: Second of all, they’d say, “Nobody cares whether you know what the national bird is. Make me care. Make me care!”

EMN: There’s an assumption that you already care. Let’s turn our focus for a moment to some more poems that might help us flesh out this topic.

Both Dionne Brand’s second section from Inventory, and Michael Lauchlan’s “Brief Chronology” draw our focus to America’s imperial presence in the world. Both are critical of that presence, but I sense a key difference in their approach. For me, Brand offers the criticism of an outsider, of someone who has confronted the American Empire from that position, while Lauchlan confronts the issue as one who is to some degree implicated in the work of that Empire (or perhaps the rich West as a whole), even as it turns on its own citizens. I wonder if you agree, and why, and whatever other thoughts that come to your mind when reading the two poems side-by-side.

MP: The Brand poem is rhythmically compelling. I’m swept into the rhythm of conspicuous consumption she creates with such phrases as “the perfume of grilled offal.” Because of its gripping music, personal and determined, the poem doesn’t feel written from an outside point of view. The murderous feeling comes from a “she.” In fact, because I know it’s Brand writing, I wonder about a shadow of race in the poem: a Canadian woman poet of colour watches those boys. Because I’m a biographer as well as a poet, I do feel the life of the poet entering here—and isn’t this what our cross-border cultural conversation is about? The Lives of the Poets, so to speak, Canadian and American?

“I think you have to live it. If you live the bifurcation, it’s vital to you.”

The Lauchlan poem, on the other hand, seems more Canadian to me, even though I could imagine reading something like this in either country. Where is the point of view? Is it from inside the U.S.? Only the reference to Brooklyn briefly suggests so. As it is, the speaker is all knowing, but largely shares what most of his readers know, Polish Jews in the thirties, Dhaka, factory towns, etc. It’s the marvelous tree metaphor that I find compelling. It is multilayered and truly imaginative. That tree metaphor does seem absolutely Canadian to me. From reading thousands of Canadian poems over the past seven years I’ve learned that Canadian poets as a group are some of the best nature poets in the English-speaking world. The contact with landscape that Canadian poets insist on has long been part of the definition of a Canadian aesthetic. However, because of the degradation of the world environment, this attachment isn’t old hat. It’s vital.

RM: Lauchlan’s poem strikes me as participating in we might call literature’s “humanitarian turn” over the last few years—a turn happening across English-speaking countries in the West. That turn has come out of climate-change activism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Occupy movement, among other things. I don’t sense that the anger in Lauchlan’s poem is directed at American imperialism per se. As you suggest, Ted, it seems targeted at the West as a whole: at bourgeois complacency and complicity with regard to suffering and harm.

Brand’s poem is much more identifiable with Centennial-era Canadian nationalist literature—especially in terms of its aligning America with pollution, overconsumption, degradation, disease, and in terms of the poem’s concern about that disease spreading north—even while it gives that characterization a post­–9/11 update.

JG: I thought I heard a self-righteous note in the Hall poem. I find it blaring in the Brand. There’s no precision in her description of Miami. How is Miami an “orange slick blister?” How are houses “stiff haired organisms clamped to the earth, engorged with oil and wheat / rubber and metals?” She’s not really attempting to reckon with what houses are really like; she’s editorializing. It’s as if the speaker is some journalist from another century, reacting to the Industrial Revolution. I mean, look at those locust-like urban dwellers: the “six boys, fast food on their breaths,” the “guards, blue and leathered, [who] multiply”—these are cartoons. You don’t, reading the Brand, experience a carefully articulated and open-minded experience of Miami; you experience a very bleak and, frankly, immature idea about a complex place. This is how my creating writing students used to write about cityscapes.

EMN: I’ve included “Garbage” in the supplement because I heard the poet read it once and said, “Now that is Americana.” Do you agree with that assessment? If so what makes it distinctively American? If not, am I falsely labeling what is simply a personal poem, that could just as easily take place in Manitoba as it could in South Dakota?

MP: I have read this statement of powerful violence, the terrible one-upsmanship of father-figure (here, it seems, step-father) and son, in poems on both sides of the border. Americans don’t have a corner on ruthlessness, just a reputation for it. It’s a deeply affecting poem. I’ll remember that final thwack of the garbage fish.

RM: Funny—going by the poem alone, no other information, I would have guessed the poet to be Canadian, if only because the poem rehearses a couple of stereotypically “CanLit” moments. The close attention to putting hooks through living bait, for instance, is there in Atwood’s novel Surfacing, and it’s hard to find a more self-consciously “Canadian” novel than that one. The smashing of an animal on rock: it’s difficult not to think of the end of Layton’s poem “Butterfly on Rock.” In Johnson’s poem, there’s also that line, “through maples.” Who but a Canadian poet would devote an entire line to noticing the fact that the trees are maples?

JG: Yeah, I’m with Robert. I would’ve thought this Canadian. Like, Survival-era Canadian.

I’m not sure why that final image is memorable; the poem as a whole reads like prose with line breaks. Also, when the stepdad smashes the fish, it’s hard not to hear the sound of a poet hammering a point and killing a poem. I can imagine punishing undergraduates with this thing. What does the fish represent? What does the father stand for? The students would sigh their way through the symbolism.

EMN: Molly has claimed that “The Line at the Ambassador Bridge” is a distinctively Canadian poem—drawn out, meditative, grand—while Denise Duhamel’s “Zou Bisou Bisou”—bursting out the gate, turning quickly from subject to subject, playfully—is distinctively American. Of course, no broad generalization can ever be totally watertight, but is that a fair assessment? Aside from the differences of approach identified above, does anything else stand out about these poems? (I notice, in particular, that Pasold’s speaker ends the second section standing on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, which is reminiscent of a George Grant quotation—although he was quoting Virgil—that serves as epigraph to Bob’s latest novel: “They stood reaching out their arms in love for that far shore.” If that is the case with Pasold, it is a complicated love she feels, I think).

MP: Duhamel has a high-stepping, high-heeled strut that I think of as uniquely American—but perhaps it’s uniquely Duhamel? Pasold’s poem comes from the irresistible urge to define two disparate cultures at the border. She resorts to a “we”—does that mean “us Canadians”?—and a “you” which seems to refer to the fascinating, but empty America. Duhamel just uses that ebullient “I.” Pasold makes me wonder if we all have our own Canada, our own America. “Oh my America,” John Donne says to his lover in the seventeenth century poem, “To His Mistress, Going to Bed.” Pasold, too, is looking across the border at some kind of phantom lover. It’s fun to remember that after Donne calls his mistress “America,” he calls her “my Newfoundland.” Even though Donne refers to the continent of North America, not making a distinction between two countries, his language presages the very border crossing that occupies us now.

RM: Like Molly, I’m intrigued by the apostrophe to America in Pasold’s poem. It seems like a very Ginsberg thing to do, and yet it’s become a fairly common move in Canadian poetry ever since Ginsberg—a curious way in which you can see Canadian poetry gaining an identity, in part, by picking up on certain aspects of American writing and claiming them for itself.

I’m interested by what Molly identifies as the American qualities in Duhamel’s poem. Because, of course, there’s nothing more Canadian than to sift through American pop culture, as Duhamel does, and point out all the Canadians who are figures in that culture. And there’s nothing more surprising for a Canadian than when an American actually shows an awareness of those Canadians as such.

JG: When it comes to the Pasold poem, again, I feel like I’m experiencing a writer’s cartoonish idea about some generic cityscape. In the first section, if you cut the reference to cars, you’re basically in something like early Eliot, something like Prufrock’s world, with the blowing “eviction papers,” the “fractured grey pavement.” I don’t believe in the “fat man … laughing sadly” in a speakeasy—a modernist type. Nor do I believe in “the fat man dressed as the Devil [who] leans forward to offer us a light,” which comes a bit later. The poem strikes me as neither especially Canadian nor American. It’s just dated noir caricature, isn’t it? 

Also, as with the Brand, there’s a lot of overwriting and very little precision. How are cars like dreams? How are countries both “chess-playing brothers” and “combative girl back-up-singers in matching yellow go-go boots of patent leather”? I can imagine someone teaching a workshop and applauding the imagination that came up with the specificity of “yellow go-go boots” and urging her students to strive for that kind of colourful specificity—but the specificity is really a feint.

As for the Duhamel, the speaker says she wants to “sing it all”—and there’s good music in the lines “a Fay Wray / in the grips of a giant ‘French go-go’ fist.” But, to argue with Molly, I’m not sure there’s enough strut. There are too many references to hear any kind of rhythm. It’s pretty prosy.

Except for the Klein, I’m not sure any of these poems are accomplished or precise enough to tell us much about Canada, the U.S., or national identity. What they tell about—what they betray—are the bad habits of poets: the tendency to overwrite or underwrite. The tendency to be self-righteous and romantic, to forgo the precision required to engage with readers.

 

  1. Grant argues that Canada’s hands are not clean of Vietnam because of munitions sales contributing to the war effort.
  2. Hall refers to Klein’s poem in his opening lines.

E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He received his MA in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto in 2009. He’s a poetry and blog editor at The Puritan magazine, where he also publishes interviews and reviews. His essays and poems have appeared in The Barnstormer, The Toronto Review of Books, The Toronto Quarterly, and Contemporary Verse 2. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.

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