Erina Harris is a Canadian poet. She has devoted the past decade to the writing, study, and rewriting of her first collection, The Stag Head Spoke (Wolsak and Wynn, 2014), which was shortlisted for the CAA Award for Poetry. Her work has been published in North America, England, and Slovenia (also in translation). It has received multiple prizes (Norma Epstein Award placement [University of Toronto], This Magazine Great Literary Hunt Award winner, ARC Editor’s Choice Poem, Best Canadian Poetry short-listing); nominations (Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award short-listing, Ralph Gustafson Award short-listing, Air Canada Award nomination); and international writers’ residencies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Fellowship recipient, she is pursuing a PhD. in Creative Writing and Poetics at the University of Calgary.
The following interview was conducted over google docs over the summer and fall of 2015, and edited for clarity and flow.
E. Martin Nolan: I reviewed, with great relish, The Stag Head Spoke in Lemon Hound. We’ll get into that later, but first, what are you working on now?
Erina Harris: My new project is the most crazy, ambitious (often feels impossible!) thing I have undertaken in poetry.
Since I was a child and first encountered the Demeter-Persephone myth, I was enchanted. Only years later did I realize that the reason must have been because the tale is a mother-daughter narrative. I was raised by a single mother and found very few alternative narratives of family in which I felt represented. In that myth, I felt something potent and kindred.
EMN: Can you fill in the readers on that myth?
EH: It follows Persephone, who is kidnapped by her uncle Hades. Her mother, Demeter, attempts to get her back. Depending on your interpretation, Persephone either willingly or unwillingly eats forbidden fruits while captive in the Underworld. In the end, the gods reach a rare, democratic compromise in which Persephone goes to be with her mother every spring, then returns to Hades in the fall of each year. Persephone is thus thought of as a liminal daughter figure, but is also linked to the change of seasons, nature, and death.
EMN: Is there version of the myth that you prefer?
EH: In my adaptation of the myth, I let Persephone have mixed feelings—she both wishes and does not wish to be away from her mother. She also wants independence and transgression without the cost of loss. When she encounters loss, she encounters ethics and responsibility unto others. Hades is also a fascinating figure; he commits great acts of transgression due to becoming attached to a human. The myth also plays with wonderful transgressions within categories of gender.
EMN: And how does the myth touch on nature?
EH: At the tail end of my MFA, I started reading more on ecopoetics. I came across a highly technical and fascinating essay by Michael Christopher, who observes that people generally only shift from perfunctory ecological gestures to actual committed ecological-mindedness when they experience profound (and even traumatic) experiences that affirm their interconnectedness with other things, beings, and ecosystems. He goes on to make a call that we need new language for this human interconnected self. I realized that the Persephone myth tells just this kind of ecological parable, when looked at aslant.
I also read a very cool take on the myth by Carol Gilligan (in In a Different Voice) who claims that the myth models a story of female identity development, and “intersubjectivity” (or the radical interconnectedness of human selves—very much against individualism). The myth is amazing. It is about ethics and, I suggest, also about the sublime.
EMN: Is Gilligan’s conception similar to Christopher’s? Is the acknowledgement of an interconnected self both sublime (in that it’s so big and complex) and ethical (in that in connecting us beyond our individual selves, it stretches our responsibility beyond ourselves as well)? What’s her take on how the myth touches upon female identity development?
EH: I bring readings of the sublime (and what some contemporary scholars call “the feminine sublime”) to my adaptation of the myth because it grapples with irreducible subjects such as mortality, ethics, and an enlarged conception of selfhood. Michael Christopher is especially concerned with the need for understanding that human selves are in fact inter-constituted with our ecological others. Gilligan brings her studies of female identity development and the play habits of young girls to her discussion of the myth. She responds to past Freudian traditions that claimed that females are something like failed males, because female children often retain identification with the mother or caregiver; as opposed to the behaviour of some male children, who are said to individuate more fully.
Her point is not to reify essentialist conceptions of gender, but to emphasize that the behaviours she observed in young girls playing (lack of competition and hierarchy, a sense of connectedness and empathy) may model especially ethical relationality, reminding us that it is vital to include others within the conception of the self.
EMN: Finally, I understand that in addition to considering mother-daughter relationships, female identity development, and ecopoetics, the work will consider how language use plays into this.
EH: I started to wonder if by studying infants’ and children’s speech, one might be able to witness a consciousness entering “selfhood,” or the “I,” as performed in language. I wondered if the wild musical languages of childhood might furnish alternative models or language for the interconnected self (especially if it was possible to witness an infant shift from a symbiotic relationship with the mother/caregiver to a more autonomous self). After four years of research, I found this to be true. I compiled a lexicon of infants’ and childrens’ sounds and speech, and am now writing an idiosyncratic adaptation of the Persephone story as a tale of an infant coming into interconnected selfhood. The girl-to-come.
EMN: How do the wild musical languages of childhood provide that lexicon for the interconnected self? Is it because that represents a pre-individualized language, one that might be returned to in order to capture something essential about the post-individualized self, or interconnected self?
EH: The best researchers of early language acquisition remind me (and us as adults) that ultimately, ideas of what goes on in the minds of infants and children are speculative. After studying this language for five years now, I have observed some amazing things! Interestingly, infants widely learn the pronoun ‘I’ in tandem with ‘you’ and ‘we’ (anywhere between 17-21 months of age, as a ballpark). Also, uses of language associated with Modernist and experimental poetries (such as fragmentation, non-linearity, parataxis, polysemy) are characteristic of early speech and, along with rhyme, could be said to originate there. I am careful not to presume that I understand what the infants and children mean in their speech, but their modifications to normative language and grammar draw attention to the fact that fixed codes such as the concept of the self and gender could also be conceived of in other ways. An amazing Russian researcher, Stan Kuczaj, suggests that one of the few things that infants can control is language, and so they break the rules in their play for reasons of control, while also learning. So learning language is a form of resistance and play. While the children’s statements I have encountered could simply be errors, or deliberate resistance, some of their utterances remind me that our conceptions of gender and selfhood might not be natural. For example, I am very taken with child statements such as: “A girl—I can’t!”, or “My not want I”, or “I was everyone.”
EMN: That’s a lot to handle in one work. What’s it been like to work on this?
EH: This is the most difficult thing I have ever done. It is based in this lexicon of infant/child speech—I use quotations and adapt them slightly with the aim to animate observed stages of identity development children go through, as expressed in their language use. Originally, I tried not to edit their language at all, but my readers and I found that we could not sustain attention to the chaos and endless repetitions, so I began to add artistic shaping to the poems. The book begins, of course, with sound poems. When I realized that I would need to write sound poems, I certainly said “Oh fuck” a number of times. I did not want to write sound poems—this is deceptively difficult—to shed sense and write from the place of music, especially, I found, writing this as my doctoral thesis within a tradition that can be so wary of the whimsical, the nonsensical, the irreducible.
It has been five years and I am now just learning how to write this. I borrow from musical traditions like Stein, Lear, Carroll, and sound poetry masters such as Schwitters, but these poems are working to do something different—to show sense building within nonsense, as well as nonsense tearing sense down. I will need another year to edit this once it is written. And once this is done please do not ever let me attempt this again.
EMN: I’m interested in ecopoetics, an area you are currently studying at The University of Calgary. I wasn’t able to really get into that in my The Stag Head Spoke review. But there was a definite Earth-bound nature to the way people grieve in that book, and to the joy in the first section. It struck me as a non-Christian pastoral. How do you think of nature?
EH: Poets have always written about “nature” in various ways, frequently using some material trope as the correlative for human emotion (i.e., “No ideas but in things”—William Carlos Williams). I am invigorated by current discussions within “ecopoetics” wherein many poets charge themselves with reconceptualizing relationships with non-human “others” through altered uses of language; specifically, more ethical relationships. Brenda Iijima states this beautifully in her Introduction to the Eco-Language Reader, for example.
Since childhood, I have been sympathetic to the musical acrobatics of language as an organism and an ecology: a force of subversion and of possibility generated through the imagination. I am smitten with the work of a number of poetic feminist philosophers who insist that “shattering” (Julia Kristeva) language can generate new perceptions through altered language use and grammar. Poetry has always done this, or has been capable of doing so. On the subject of writing about “nature”, and in fact, in general right now, poetries possessing both urgency and a weirding, or as that chap Shklovsky would say, an “estranging” of language and thereby of thinking, excite me the most.
I continue to return to the work of Gertrude Stein, and also Eliot’s The Wasteland. To me, Eliot begs for a new way of conceptualizing human relationships within nature; this work is so beautifully full of the anxiety of striving to exceed the individual self. And Stein works to articulate this in different ways. Neither escape anthropomorphism (I am not sure this is a realistic aim—perhaps the paradox of ethical anthropocentrism is a more pragmatic goal).
EMN: As a scholar, what has been your focus in regard to ecopoetics? What major influences have you had in that regard?
EH: In both The Stag Head Spoke and my new work-in-progress, I engage images of nature but, as discussed, I try to get beyond traditional habits of situating humanity at the centre of being (or Being), as if that is its natural position. Current discussions about the significance and limitations of the traditional lyric self, the “I”, interest me. I try to find language for this dilemma: daily life is generally conceived of and experienced through the individual body and mind (the self answering to a single name and signing forms at the bank), yet this is within a wider condition of radical interconnectedness.
As a provisional or tactical model, I am working with a framework for thinking about nature poetry furnished by Terry Gifford. He discusses general shapes of thought: pastoral, anti-pastoral, and post-pastoral in terms of the ideologies and exclusive economic conditions enabling each of these visions. Ultimately, he posits the impossibility of any form of contemporary pastoral as it reifies an illusory separation between the human and the ecosystems with which humanity is interconnected. Lisa Robertson’s poetic study XEclogue is a very interesting model: it dramatizes the failure of the pastoral as an untenable worldview, destructive in its politics and its exclusivity. Adam Dickinson writes about Robertson’s work and presents an overview of various current strategies for writing about nature and ecopoetics, ranging from realism (or “representationalism”), scientific approaches, to experimental poetics.
I am currently thinking about works by Joan Retallack and Lynn Keller. Both share compelling conversations emphasizing the role that innovative uses of language can play in dissolving the destructive idea of a divide between nature and culture that reifies forces such as environmental destruction and imperialism. In discussing Juliana Spahr’s poetics, Tana Jean Welch has a beautiful term for such aims in contemporary poetry, calling this the pursuit of “inclusive” poetics.
EMN: What exactly is the danger of anthropocentrism in this case? One might argue that language is a human endeavour, and so to avoid anthropocentrism is impossible.
EH: Yes, I find that paradox mentioned above, what one might call the vector toward an ethical anthropocentrism, a more realistic aim. I try not to think of poetry in terms of finality or mastery; Andrew Zawacki has a wonderful meditation on the poetry of Paul Celan in which he celebrates the force of poetry as the “towards.” I come back to that a lot.
EMN: How did your conception of nature bear on Stag Head?
EH: In the first of its two Books (called “Bestiary”), the children (and the poetry) toy with traditional, fixed categories of the human and the animal, questioning, conflating and confounding these in a quest to comprehend the unstable world around them. The Stag Head is an imagined character, a kind of protector of childhood, of the condition of home, of temporality, and is, I think, my attempt at a figure who can express human gratitude for contributions to human survival and human self-definition made by animals, through their unwitting accompaniment (and sadly, their exploitation).
My research for my current writing project indicates that infants and children are not “naturally” anthropocentric, in contrast to Western metaphysics; they generally express keen interest in animals and objects (especially things that move!) without an innate sense of human hierarchy. I wanted to use language play to de-naturalize these “sensible” assumptions.
I wanted to extend empathy to the conditions of animality and childhood as states of profound vulnerability. So, looking at conceptions of nature was a way to, implicitly, also look at the question of power.
Book two (“For The Suicide of Vespertine”) comprises an experimental poem-play. It is an elegy, a work born out of grieving for a beloved friend who took her life and that of her daughter. In writing it, I found elegiac traditions insufficient, including traditional habits of exploiting “nature” as a metaphor for human grief. One of my past mentors, Robert Majzels, always called this the “defanging” of alterity and animality through domestication by language, something to be avoided. In this play, three “Mourners” grieve separately, and then collectively, for a spectral female figure, each within separate landscapes. I tried to animate landscape as a psyche. Here, landscapes felt inauthentic unless they included the diurnal: garbage, decay, shit, white noise, strangers, plastic wrappers, etc.
I wanted to be honest about what Gifford calls the “Derridean trace” of the Romantic wish to have “nature” reflect human emotion as a well-behaved correlative—I so wished for this!—but to also reflect the “natural world” remaining in utter indifference, as unmasterable accompaniment. So, I suppose this was my attempt at a post-pastoral within which I empathize with the desire to feel comforted by natural forms that we have linguistically placed outside of the human, and then to refuse to deliver that consolation.
EMN: Again, we arrive at the tension between emotional attachment to nature and a refusal to posit nature as an externalization of ourselves. “Musical acrobatics”—mentioned above—is an interesting phrase in this context. You question our use of nature-as-symbol as well as our use of language, and in particular language’s musical qualities. In both cases there’s an otherness, an uncontrollability.
At the same time, when I read The Stag Head Spoke, I hear a poet absolutely in love with the sounds language makes. Can assigning the musicality of poetry the task of subversion threaten to undermine the sheer joy of that music, add to it, or must the poet reach a compromise? Put another way, do poetry’s musical acrobatics have the responsibility to subvert, do they do it automatically, or can it simply be free of any such responsibility?
EH: Many poetic devices, or what the poet James Galvin calls poetic “motions of mind”, inherently complicate traditional sense-making: these are polysemous (e.g. metaphor, rhyme, parataxis). I will not speak for other poems or recommend a mandate for all poetry. Each poet is presented with a challenge with every poem: to involve its prosody in its meaning-making (and I do not use the term “meaning” in a traditional, reductive sense here, but in terms of the poem’s unique worldview and activity). I ask that musical components such as prosody and rhyme participate in whatever a particular poem is seeking: so its musicality must be part of the way it discovers, not a mere decoration or habit of style.
EMN: Can you define what you mean by “altered use of language,” “weirding” language, etc.?
EH: I am not sure if I can find a better way to define this. I adore all kinds of poetry from different eras; not all of these innovate language in the same ways. I am currently fascinated with poetries that present fully realized and unique linguistic worlds blurring categories of human and animal, and within visceral, musical languages. These range from Vasko Popa’s “Little Box” poems, to the unpublished (but not for long) work of my peers Lee Posna and Kate Thorpe, and published works by Sara Nicholson and Julie Joosten.
EMN: I’m curious to know what such subversive elements you identified as a child. Do those remain with you?
EH: I believe so: rhyme as a very strange extra-logical music that can step out of sense, and by extension nonsense verse; also the impossible, the possibly possible, the surreal, the absurd. Each of these critiques of sense are generated out of specific cultural anxieties and express very different tones.
EMN: Your use of rhyme is complex. Very unpredictable. So how do you define rhyme?
EH: For the past six years or so, I have been reading and thinking a lot about rhyme. I was finding myself using a lot of rhyme (when I started the poems for book one) and I hadn’t done so to this degree before—it felt right, but I wasn’t sure why. I began to seek out critical conversations on the subject. I remember a wonderful conversation with the poet Jane Gregory, who was (and hopefully still is) deeply considering the phenomenon of rhyme; the conversation helped legitimize my curiosity. Unlike poetic devices such as metaphor, rhyme remains widely uncharted, especially in terms of discussing the metaphysics of rhyme.
One of my favourite definitions of rhyme is “a memory and a hope” (E. Stedman). Rhyme is generally defined in terms of sonic resemblances that may or may not also communicate semantic similarity. Roland Barthes once commented that rhyme remains outside of the conventions of language use, sidestepping the function of stabilizing or “representing.” It is language as music first, which happens to be the way infants learn language (music first, then later comes “sense”).
Right now I am working on some kind of “metaphysics” of rhyme. To me, it is a beguiling form: it moves backwards and forwards in time, it is a paradoxical figure demanding (as did the earliest Old English riddles) that we contend with complexity, holding more than one thing in the mind at a time—in its case: both resemblance and difference. It might not make “sense” but can be a potent affective force.
EMN: Rhyme is not often thought about as subversive. It’s more often thought of as old-fashioned or even conservative. But then, not all rhyme is the same. Your use of rhyme in Stag Head is far different than, say, a strictly adhered to villanelle, or sonnet. There is an unpredictable element to it. In rap music you see a similar difference play out a lot: between predictable rhyme schemes and those that utilize slant or interior rhymes. Do you agree that rhyme can be both restrictive and subversive? If so, how do you work to ensure—or see other writers work to ensure—that rhyme remains a “critique of sense”?
EH: Yes! Rap music is a potent application of rhyme—maybe even a re-appropriation.
Throughout the history of poetry, rhyme has gone in and out of fashion and has always been contentious. Depending on how far we look back, either its existence or its omission were considered radical. In the Old English Exeter Riddles, “The Riming Poem” toys with rhyme and neologism, challenging the strict traditions of religious utterance at the time. Then, imported into European verse while Christianity was becoming institutionalized on a large scape, rhyme was seen as a dangerous and personal part of the text, capable of new, potentially threatening meanings. After the Renaissance (a time when rhyme was considered one of the highest vehicles for wit), Milton and some of the Romantics liberated themselves from mandatory uses of rhyme.
However, even during eras in which rhyme was generally expected and conventional, some really special poets still found ways to employ rhyme to introduce new ideas, if covertly. For example, Phyllis Wheatley, an African-born slave brought to America used rhyme (specifically, homonymy) to make covert critiques of racism. Also, Wilfred Owen, a Modernist poet (considered a war poet, although he was a pacifist), refined pararhyme through a kind of queering of rhyme in which he discretely articulated homosexual desire.
Like any poetic device, it is not necessarily subversive in and of itself (rhyme might never be “radical” again and I know a lot of contemporary poets who won’t touch it), but it will likely be inexhaustible as a vehicle that can be deployed for many purposes, including formidable critiques of sense and dominant orders.
EMN: Let’s get into poetics. Your work brings to mind improvisers like the late great Ornette Coleman. The poetics are often fragmented, but bright. Taken in small snippets—“the apron is thinking the lady is singing. / And singing in time. And thinking…”—the musical attunement is obvious. Yet, taken as a whole the poems resist an orderly structure. Instead, they roam somewhat unpredictably.
On the line level, what do you want your poems to achieve? I’ve found the poems to be highly stressed, which creates opportunities to echo or contrast rhythm patterns. You also use a lot of rhyme and repetition, again giving you a lot of musical material to play with.
EH: Thank you for this caring reading of The Stag Head Spoke, Ted. Since book one involves themes of memory and entry into identity through language, and tries to critique nostalgia, all of these concerns found their way into articulation through a music of repetition and variation. Similarly, book two is an elegy; I wanted to respect the way memory and trauma work, a kind of echoic accompaniment, so, again, repetition and variation were central musics.
As far as what I want to achieve, this varies. I ask that each poem be doing something. I aim not to impose an idea or something “known” on a poem: I ask the poems to inquire. When writing, initially an idea or musical phrase may be the point of entry for me, but I need to then work with what is actually kinetic on the page—this often differs from where a poem begins or from what I intended. In the end, I need to look back on a poem when it is as finished as I am able to make it and still find the language interesting for myself.
Yes, there is definitely a waywardness in some of the poems. I hoped to communicate something on the level of form in book two by framing it within the convention of a traditional play structure (one that promises plot, concise conflict and resolution), and then animating this expected narrative form with the chaotic, protean experience of grief, and the miracle of mortality: irreducible conditions.
EMN: How do you conceive of the relationship between the smaller musical units and the whole poem, or the single poem to the whole book? Given the line-level intricacy and the poem-level wildness, how do you guide the music in a book like Stag Head at the macro level?
EH: I worked on this book for many years, protecting it from any pressure to publish until we (the poems and I) had gone as far as we could. Book two was always a large, single project whereas, book one came out of nowhere as individual poems. Astute readers helped me to figure out that these poems had shared preoccupations and might belong together. I call both books serial poems, or long poems made up of individual inter-refractive poems. Once these were all provisionally in place, I edited backwards and forwards; this enabled me to emphasize echoes through each series of poems, and to make choices about when a poem required repetition or variation (variation as a deformation or degradation of echo, or as some species of transformation, hopefully earned across the trajectory of each book).
EMN: Can we get more specific here? For me, book one is bright, gleeful, and with a highly-stressed music to match. Then book two slows, gets darker, and is disjointed by absence—whereas book one is disjointed by abundance. Then book two culminates in “Ceremony,” where all the grief and sorrow is finally exorcised, or in some way completed (not that such grief can be finished, but the active grieving is). That final gesture is achieved significantly through prosody. Some of the life-lust of book one returns in the “pacing” animal (featured throughout book one) and in the more confident use of repetition:
Where, when the animal turned from the middle
None saw her pass through the wound in the circle,
The wound in the rhyme, the wound in the riddle
This is not a return to the glee of book one, but is a return to a form of life that is not possible through most of book two. So, my question: how did you know that book two had earned “Ceremony?” How did you determine that the grieving process—so dependent on expression through prosody—had been completed?
EH: Many potent “formal” poems express anxiety through the very compulsion embodied in the choice to use a symmetrical, controlled structure. To me, this final poem suggests the desire, as you mentioned, for exorcism—as if the grief could be contained or the grieving process could end. I think the rigid form suggests this yearning for control, for a new narrative through which to re-conceptualize the trauma and contain it. And then, within the poem, it speaks of “a wound in the rhyme” through which the deceased, and perhaps control, escape. It felt right to bring the Mourners into a shared linguistic and ritualistic space, but I did not want to pretend the grieving could ever be over. As a linguistic landscape, the grief had simply changed shape, integrating community. I believe we use language in transformative, creative ways as our identities become reshaped through loss and trauma.
EMN: “The wound in the rhyme” suggests a multifaceted character to rhyme. Rhyme is the location of the “wound,” the portal through which “the deceased… escape” and also the vehicle through which the community copes with loss. And you mentioned above that we recognize the music/rhyming nature of language before the sense part kicks in. So must the “metaphysics of rhyme” involve this elusiveness? Or is it multiplicity? Can we say rhyme is a metaphysical phenomenon because it produces an undeniable effect with an inherently uncertain meaning, and that reflects humanity?
EH: Wow—I love that. Yes—I (well, now you and I) would indeed suggest that rhyme sings out elusiveness or ineffability like music. And it resonates multiplicity. Rhyme as a form of intimacy that, paradoxically, retains difference.
Ted, I wonder if you would be receptive to me asking you a question or two?
You read widely, and with caring precision—could you articulate something of what you value in contemporary poetry as a writer and reviewer? Are there particular issues in contemporary poetics in which you are especially invested or concerned?
EMN: I value variety. This summer I reviewed three books. One was working out of a spoken word tradition (Ins Choi’s Subway Stations of the Cross), one out of what I’d call a modernist/historical tradition (Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent), and one examined how our language and lives have become entangled within our computer networks (Aaron Tucker’s Punchlines). They were all very different, and I love that I was able to find them all within the small, tight poetry community of a medium-sized nation. Of course, I’m also very interested in how poems sound. At a reading, I’ll often decide that I either could or could not “hear” the poet, by which I mean I could hear the poet consciously shaping the sounds of the poems.
But more and more I’m drawn to poetry with heart. Not every book has to pull on the heartstrings, but I find it distressing that it is rare to read a book of poems that really pulls at your emotions. Howard’s book has some devastatingly sad lines, and the other two are, in the end, serious looks at the human condition. I think sometimes we forget to consider that and instead just want to make something new. But if poetry as a whole is not a moving art form, then I fear it has little place in our society. Thankfully, a lot of poets still remember this. I think of one of the best poets of the heart: James Wright. He wanted his poems to be understandable to anyone with a decent education. Not sure if he achieved that, but I do think the content of his poetry was the kind of emotional stuff that any feeling person would relate to.
On that note, what role do you see poetry playing in contemporary society? Again, it might not come to fruition, but I can see a book like Stag Head teaching society something about mourning. Mourning will be essential to humanity so long as we remain mortal, and Stag Head provides a very deep, complicated, and honest representation of that process. Do you think poetry can serve as guide in that way? Did that cross your mind in regard to Stag Head?
EH: You are kind—thank you. I had no idea how people would respond to the book. I think poets can hope that our work offers something, means something to someone (anyone!), but we have no guarantee of this.
Poetry is a favoured, vital companion. Yes, I do think literature can assist us to try to come to better terms with mortality (a task taken on by most religions as well). And it can do lots of other things, too.
In a compelling essay called “The Emergency,” the poet Andrew Joron suggests that while poetry is no longer a central cultural vehicle for communication, it can still articulate and record social urgency and change from its position in the margins. It can critique dominant culture and explore alternate ways of seeing the world, alternate modes of being. I love that. Poetry can be very demanding, intimate, unorthodox, and it often complicates more than it simplifies (which I also love).
One of my earliest writing mentors told me, on the subject of teaching, that “the teaching goes where it is needed,” and that one rarely hears back and must release it. I think this is a good way for me to think of the poems. This can be difficult.
Poetries are wildly diverse. While lyric poetry is (justifiably, I think) under some scrutiny right now, I have a hunch that people will always crave the experience of intimacy we can be starved for, and that seems to bring a lot of readers to lyric poetry. However, lyric poetry is being called to accommodate shifting ideas about the human self and our place in the world.
I also celebrate the work that other poetries do in the world too—for example, celebrations of sound or of the visual (asemic) elements of language. And always: surprise.
EMN: Acknowledging poetry’s diversity, its dependence on reader response, its inability to (for the most part) transcend its cultural marginality, even its potential to cause more harm than good—I can’t help but come back to end on a question about poetry’s potential role as guide. I can’t shake a sense that the secular West has failed to replace the essential role (as opposed to the corrupt, or power-related, role) that religion plays for the individual in society. That is, it seems to me that a kind of “meaning vacuum” remains at the centre of our civilization’s understanding of human mystery—something religion attempts to address, but that secular society lacks a vocabulary for, or at least struggles to articulate in a shared way (for must it not be shared?). That’s one thing that draws me to Stag Head: its sincere use of ritual and serious consideration of mortality. I’ve written elsewhere that the recent work of Karen Solie betrays a sense of the sacred, of the metaphysically important. I think that’s rare; people are hesitant to go there. And it’s needed, given the global crises we face and the undiminishable mystery that led humans to seek the sacred in the first place.
So the question is: is poetry sacred?
EH: First off—could you elaborate on what you mean by poetry’s capacity to cause harm, rather than good? This intrigues.
EMN: I’m thinking of my interview with Donato Mancini. He was pushing back against the idea that poetry is always good, because it can also be used for propaganda or other nefarious purposes.
EH: Two of my most potent mentors spoke of lazy poetry or conformist poetry doing a sort of damage: that of consolation rather than challenge.
To return to your earlier question, I have thought about this for a few days now … The question of “sacredness” is vital, although I am never sure how to define this for myself, especially since I am not traditionally religious. I have experiences and attachments that I do in fact consider sacred to me, but these are apart from religious narratives. I think we are talking about “meaning-making” of the highest order, here, and a departure from rationalist definitions of meaning. The “elemental.” (I love that poem “Elemental” by D.H Lawrence). Poetry has furnished me with experiences of intimacy, challenge, revolution, sublimity, hope, and vision by way of being a very destabilizing force.
I think you are right that in an increasingly secular world, some poets continue to contend with difficulty and paradox and meaning and ethics (among many other things)—the aspirations and consolations of traditional religions and philosophies through which humans ask: what are we, and how are we to do this and respect ourselves at the end of the day, and what is ethical, and how do we be. I don’t know how poetry chooses us, but it found me and is elemental in my life. I grow in it and through it. What happens on the page translates into my personhood, even if what is going on in the poetry does not have anything to do, overtly, with the self.
E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He’s an associate editor at The Puritan where he also publishes interviews and reviews. This year he released a poetry chapbook called Poems from Still (Desert Pets Press). His essays and poems have appeared in The Barnstormer, The Toronto Review of Books, Lemonhound, CV2, and Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race (McFarland Books), among others. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.