Thursday, March 17, 2011

An interview

A few days ago, I got an email from Steven Stewart, a student at Okanagan College in Vernon, BC, requesting an interview for a school assignment. It went very well, so with his permission, I'm posting it here for all and sundry. Enjoy.

Steven Stewart: When did you first decide that you wanted to write poetry? 

Zachariah Wells: I didn't really decide, I just started doing it when I was 21.  I was already doing a fair bit of writing and had had two short plays produced by the University of King's College Theatre Society, but it was a 4th year class in Canadian Literature that got me turned on to poetry by introducing me to Irving Layton, Al Purdy, Milton Acorn and Alden Nowlan. I just kept going from there. I'd written the occasional poem prior to that, but never thought of it as something I might dedicate myself to. 

SS: When was the first poem you wrote that you actually enjoyed writing? (I ask that because lots of people are forced to in elementary or high school and despise it so very much but than taking a liking to it afterwards.)

ZW: My mom loves telling a story about when I was a young kid. She was sitting on the couch in the living room when a piece of paper fluttered down beside her from the upstairs mezzanine. She looked up and saw me standing there. On the paper, I'd written: "I hate school. School is a drool." So yeah, first poem...

SS: I'm curious about your poem "Fool's Errand," published in In Fine Form. What caused you to write it? 

ZW: I was prompted to write "Fool's Errand" by a combination of memory, language and poetic form. It's around ten years now since I wrote the poem, so the precise details of what I was thinking at the time of composition are pretty hazy. But for that matter, even if I'd written it last week, the process of writing a poem takes place during such a period of intensely focused concentration that, once it's over, it's usually pretty hard to play back in my mind what was going on. Writing a poem brings all one's resources to bear at once: instincts, intellect, feeling, knowledge of the language, knowledge of poetic technique, knowledge of poetry past. 

I think at the time I wrote the poem I was reading quite a lot of Thomas Hardy's poetry, and if you read some Hardy poems alongside "Fool's Errand," you might be able to see some influence--though I hope not too much! The rural setting, the theme of memory and the mood are things one sees a lot of in Hardy and he often worked in rhyme schemes, like my ABABAB sestets, that involve repeating a rhyme more than once. He was also notable for not writing often in regular metre, which you can see in my poem too. The basic pattern is an 8 syllable, 4 beat line, but I diverge from it quite a lot. The fifth line of the second stanza is what's known as a "fourteener" because it has 14 syllables--and like many fourteeners (particularly in the poetry of William Blake), the line kind of breaks in two after 8 syllables. It's really 2 lines presented visually as one line; there's this natural pause after "teeth" which rhymes with "wreath" at the end of the line, which makes it sound even more like 2 lines. (I'd already used "breath" and "death" in the stanza and there's not much left--other than, say, "crystal meth," which obviously wouldn't fit in this poem--that rhymes perfectly, so I switched to the "slant rhyme," but I guess I wanted there still to be a full rhyme in there for "wreath.") An orthodox formalist would say I was cheating--actually an orthodox formalist would probably say the whole poem's a mess--but I think of it more as stretching. A lot of people thought Hardy had a bad ear because his metres were so irregular, but they really just hadn't learned to hear the more ragged music of his rhythms. Ironically, a lot of the more daring experimental poets of the early 20th century found him kind of old-fashioned. In a way he was, but his style was also very original. Anyway, I wasn't doing all of this in a very deliberate manner. I wasn't thinking, "Now, I will write a fourteener split into a tetrameter and a trimeter, with an internal rhyme at the caesura." But the training and study I'd done--like sports drills or musical scales--prepared me to swerve and improvise as I went.

That's a long answer, but I'm trying to convey just what a complicated mix of things goes into the making of any poem. 

SS: Is "Fool's Errand" based on real events? I ask because your "hip high snow" or "stirred-up curdled milk" seem like descriptions that are not easy to explain if you have not lived through harsh winters, possibly prairie, but I haven't been further east than Saskatchewan so I really don't know how the winter gets in the maritime region.

ZW: The poem is based on an actual incident, yes, but one that happened so long before I wrote the poem and when I was so young (maybe 8 or 9, so "hip-high" wasn't really saying much!), that your guess is as good as mine how much I made up and how much "really happened." I grew up in a shallow valley on PEI and it doesn't usually get as cold as the prairies, but some winters--this year, particularly--it gets a heck of a lot of snow. During the storm, my mother was worried about our two dogs. The bitch was in heat and the dogs, mindless of the blizzard, were doing what mammals do best...

SS: Speaking of fourteeners, do you ever sit down to write a poem knowing what style you're going to write in? Or do you prefer to just write down (possibly in free verse) and then take it into a form afterwards?

ZW: I'll often sit down with an idea of what form a poem will be in, but the poem doesn't always cooperate. Actually, I tend to do a lot of the "writing" well before I sit down. I don't keep a notebook. I used to, but got out of the habit some years ago. Now I have a more zen approach to things. If I have an idea, or if a line comes to me, I wait to see if it sticks around and/or builds into something bigger in my head before I sit down at my computer and start typing. I somehow doubt I've lost very much of value this way. I write a lot less than I used to, but I keep a lot more of what I do write. The content--by which I don't just mean the subject matter, but the tone and rhythm too--often seems to push the writing towards one structure or another, whether "free verse" or something stricter.

Prose, of which I write quite a bit, is another beast altogether. That involves a lot of note-taking and working out the structure in advance.

SS: Do any of your other poems stem from your reading of Thomas Hardy? For instance, "Mental Moonshine," which seems to follow a similar pattern as "Fool's Errand."

ZW: I can't think of any poems off the top of my head that are directly inspired by Hardy, though I imagine there are traces of him in a lot of my work. "Mental Moonshine" is actually a free translation of a poem by Emile Nelligan, a Quebecois poet who wrote furiously as a young man, then had a mental breakdown and spent the rest of his life institutionalized. A few years back I translated fifteen or sixteen of his poems. Most of them I translated pretty faithfully, but I wasn't happy with my first attempts at "Clair de Lune Intellectuel,"  in large measure because the rhyme-scheme and pattern of refrains in the rondel form make it really hard to translate both the sense of the poem and its musical structure, without having the poem come out stiff. So I took it in another direction and decided to translate the imagery as well as the words. The result was a poem that was half translation and half my own. 

Actually, the poem was first published in the magazine CV2, along with an introductory essay, part of which explains what I did with Nelligan's original:

The first poem in Nelligan’s complete works, “Clair de lune intellectuel” hooked me with its synaesthetic imagery, soundplay and demandingly intricate pattern or rhymes and refrains. The poem is thirteen lines long and uses only two end-rhymes (“eur” and “aine”). This was a challenge, un vrai défi!

The poem went through a number of very different drafts as I worked on it over a period of months, each one a little further from the letter of the original, but a bit closer to getting some of its music and magic. The final version, as you can see if you’re able to read the original, is substantially different from the poem on which it’s based. I had to do this if I wanted to avoid stretching syntax and diction too far in order to make the rhyme scheme work. In my experience, this is the biggest flaw of rhyming poetry translated into English, which is less rich in perfect rhyme than many other languages. (Nelligan’s oeuvre, as translated by Fred Cogswell and P.F. Widdows, has been particularly badly mishandled.) As I see it, there are two principal methods by which a translator can sidestep this fatal flaw: he can either ditch the rhyme scheme to one degree or another or he can take significant liberties with the text. Less drastic methods can also be applied, such as playing with enjambment and using slant rhymes (in which English, a highly consonantal tongue, is rich) where perfect rhymes won’t fit.

In “Clair de lune,” I saw the scheme of perfect rhymes as too intrinsic a part of the poem to dispense with it. But to keep it and stick too closely to the literal text of the poem would be to cripple it. A reader illiterate in French might get some idea of what the poem is about, but he won’t get a proper picture of how the poem goes about its business. I eventually strayed so far from Nelligan’s original (“My thought” became “My braincase”; “is the colour of far-away lights” became “prinked with pinpricks of stars”; the colour of a “crypt’s mysterious emptiness”—Widdows’s translation—became the smell of “fetid toes of the dead”; “green’s elusiveness”—again, Widdows—became a “brainflower blow[ing] its little green head”; a sun dipping antennas into a gulf or bay became a “Bloodied bull, dip[ping] horns to carve scars//In the dirt”; a garden became a ditch; the third stanza is completely changed, with “gold-plated lead bars” standing in for “matter and brute ugliness”—Widdows—and “Valhallas” for “Athens.”)—my version became so distinct that it is really as much my poem now as it is Nelligan’s. But it is a poem I couldn’t ever have written without Nelligan’s. My preservation of his phrase “les soirs doux” in my version is a nod to my debt and a sort of apology for killing those gentle nights by translation.

I think I was licensed to take these liberties by the nature of the poem, not only by the need to preserve its rhyme scheme without killing its vigour, but because the poem is, fundamentally, about the creative imagination. In a sense, it would be a betrayal of “Clair de lune’s” spirit to translate it literally, without using my own rhythms, images and metaphors. The translation of poetry, if it is to be at all successful, cannot be a mechanical act of matching sense and structure.

SS: You mention that you write more prose than poetry. Do you ever write crossovers of the two, possibly similar to Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, which to me at least reads like poetry due to the sporadic placement of paragraphs. 

ZW: The prose I referred to is a mix of things, mostly book reviews and literary essays, sometimes serious, sometimes satirical; a little bit of journalism. To-date, none of that work has been collected into a book, but that should change next year, when a collection of my reviews and essays will be published. I wrote an online column for Maisonneuve magazine back in 2004. I've continued to do that sort of thing, sporadically, on my blog and recently at the blog for the Best Canadian Poems anthology. 

I don't write fiction (which is to say, I've attempted to do this only a few times and nothing I've ever attempted has been much good) and have written very few prose poems. I'm not opposed to writing prose poems in principle; it just doesn't seem to be a form that I'm naturally drawn to. I do write the occasional narrative poem that is kind of like a short story in verse. My poem "Cormorant" is an example. As is "Fool's Errand" for that matter. I wrote a short essay the other day about luggage that is very language driven, in that I was writing it as much for the sound of the words as for their sense. Good prose writers are poets; they just work in a different medium. Conrad, Nabokov, Melville. They're poets as far as I'm concerned. Ondaatje too, when he's on his game. The English Patient gets called "poetic" a lot, but personally, I find much of it to be little better than purple prose. I haven't read Coming Through Slaughter, but his Billy the Kid book is terrific.

SS: The other poem that I am interested in is "Going Forward." Would you be able to tell me about any thought process you had while creating this poem?

ZW: I'm glad you asked me about "Going Forward"; there's a cool story behind it, actually. On January 16, 2009, my friend Shane Neilson wrote me an email with a poem about his daughter and this challenge in it:

"Okay, I challenge you. Write something ABAB, several stanzas, about your son. I know you can do it! (Maybe I'm cheating, since my daughter is older and does more, so there's more story possible.)"

This was actually a welcome assignment, as I have a very hard time writing poems about my boy, so having some set parameters gave me a starting point. I turned out the poem quite quickly and sent it back to Shane less than four hours later, almost as it finally appeared in the book later that year. So yeah, it's a pretty light, fun, self-satirising piece contrasting my then-six-month-old baby's ambition and drive--he was just learning to crawl and wanted nothing more than to move, move, move--with my own lack thereof. 

SS: Do you often get writing prompts or challenges from friends?

ZW: No, that sort of challenge or assignment is pretty rare, I have to say. I have written a few poems on commission, which is a whole other realm of challenge. The poems I wrote that way worked fine for their occasion, I think, but none of them is something I'd want to publish in a book.

SS: What are you thoughts on writing classes and workshops? Do you think they're necessary? Helpful? A hindrance? A crutch?

ZW: I try not to generalize about writing classes, because each class can only be as good as the teacher and the other students make it. So I wouldn't make any sweeping statements about them being useless or a hindrance. I've only ever taken one workshop myself, and I learned a few things. But nothing, really, that I couldn't have picked up on my own. I think a writer has to be an autodidact and has to find his or her own path into and through the world of writing, so you can't rely on a school curriculum, a mentor or your peer group to show the way. I don't think any writers who have the combination of inborn ability and ambition required to create original art are going to be ruined by studying writing. But I do think they'd be better off, if they're going to pursue a formal education, studying something else. Classics. Literature. History. Anthropology. Languages. The sciences. Talent is one thing, but you need to have something to say too. Our world is complex and the more you know about a wide range of things, the richer the writing you produce will be.

My ideal curriculum for a poetry training school would involve no workshops, but would require learning at least one dead language; at least one living language other than English; courses in epistemology, aesthetics and rhetoric; the multidisciplinary study of classic texts from antiquity to the present; a multi-year in-depth survey of poetry in English from Beowulf to the 20thC; a survey of poetry criticism and theory, from Aristotle and Longinus to Harold Bloom. As far as I know, there's no school out there that offers anything like this. The big objection I have to Creative Writing--other than it being a hideously trivial way of naming the enterprise to which I've dedicated my life at considerable personal expense--is the general lack of intellectual rigour with which it's taught in schools. It amounts, as an artist friend of mine said about visual art training, to polishing pebbles. Which is dandy, if all you want is to produce writing that is publishable and might win you the odd grant. But if your aim is higher, look elsewhere.

SS: Do you have a "formal education" in poetry or any other writing form?

ZW: I have a BA in English Lit. and am working on finishing my MA at the moment. The first year of my BA was the Foundation Year Programme at the University of King's College in Halifax, which is this incredible 24 credit survey of the Great Works of Western Civilization. Something like that, as I said, would be part of my dream curriculum, so I've been pretty fortunate. 

As I indicated, I took one poetry workshop, a Master's level course in 2000-01, at Concordia University in Montreal, led by Stephanie Bolster. She is great and my classmates included Susan Gillis, Oana Avasilichioaei and Angela Carr, all of whom have gone on to publish books and make a name for themselves. Another classmate was Jack Illingworth, who's now the executive director of the Literary Press Group of Canada, a big publishing/distribution organization. A pretty diverse group of smart, interesting people.

So yes, I've studied poetry and poetry composition in school, but most of the nuts and bolts work and the deep reading of individual poets' oeuvres I've done on my own time. And continue to do. One's education never ends.

SS: Also since you mentioned names like Aristotle and Harold Bloom, do you have any one artist whose work you admire more than any others? Or does your taste change depending on what your reading?

ZW: Different writers have meant a lot to me at different times of my life. Not necessarily verse-writing poets. Joseph Conrad is someone I come back to often, for example. At one point, if you quoted me a line from Heart of Darkness, I could tell you what page it was on in the Norton Critical Edition, I knew the book so well. Irving Layton was big for me in my early 20s; less so now, but his best poems are still astonishing. Ted Hughes a little later. Right now, touchstones for me are John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins and especially Elizabeth Bishop. I've just finished writing a (really long) essay on one poem of Bishop's, "The Bight." The amount of stuff she was able to convey in so few words and in such a clear, direct manner is absolutely astounding. Humbling, really.

But a writer can't really afford to be an unwavering devotee to any one mentor or small group of influences. Poetry is a magpie's art. You need to read as much as you can and steal what works for you from anyone.

SS:  Do you have any routine when you write? Specific places you like to write, and ways? What about props? Do you have any superstitions or rituals that you need to before or while you write? 

ZW: I have neither superstitions nor routines. Right now I'm making most of my income by freelance writing and editing, so I have a routine for that stuff, as you would for any other job. Otherwise, it just wouldn't get done, and if it doesn't get done, I don't get paid. But I write poems whenever I feel so inclined. I haven't found it productive to force myself to write. Being a writer involves a lot of not writing. I actually try to set up as many obstacles to writing poems as I can, so that if I'm writing a poem it's because I really have to and not just because I'm idle and bored.

SS: When you begin writing a poem, is there any place that it begins? I don't mean in the sense of, do you begin at the end and work your way back? I mean do you feel like you're writing because you saw something moving, like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon or something (I know that wasn't a great reference). Is there anything that can spark the desire to write for you, or is it just depending on your mood?

ZW: It varies, but usually a poem starts for me as a cluster of words that sound good together. Such clusters pass through my consciousness all the time, and can come from any number of sources, but not all of them crystallise and coalesce with other clusters to form a poem. I said earlier that I do a lot of my writing in my head; this is how it starts. Once that cluster grows to a certain point and once I can see that my mind's not going to let go of it, I start writing things out. Sometimes the poem is almost fully formed in my mind, but usually, I need to fill in some gaps. The process for me is profoundly associational, rather than logical/rational. One word or group of words will suggest another word or group because of some shared quality of sound and/or sense. A visual image or an idea might be a catalyst for a poem, but only if some glittery bit of language attaches itself to that picture or thought.

SS: How much do you edit and rewrite a poem before you finally decide that it is complete and is going to be handed to friends, or publishers? 

ZW: Editing and revision varies from poem to poem. "Cormorant," which I mentioned earlier, was first written in 1998, was published in a chapbook in 2004 and again in my book Track & Trace in 2009. Between first draft and final published form--which is quite different from its chapbook incarnation--I can't tell you how many revisions it underwent. Dozens. But I have to say that isn't typical for me, particularly since I started writing more in the way I just described. Because I've usually worked on a poem considerably before it ever gets written down or typed, I rarely do complete overhauls on poems. I do tweak and twiddle the details considerably. That said, a number of my poems are from-scratch rewrites of poems I'd abandoned years previously. Sometimes a poem isn't ready to be written until I've lived a bit longer. And occasionally it takes someone else, an editor, to point out just the right change to make an almost-finished poem click. But I'm not big on sharing work that I think is rough with others. I think it's the writer's job to sit with a poem as long as it takes to get it as good as he or she can.

SS: Speaking of sharing work with others, is there any one person, or group of people that you like to read your poem first?

ZW: Actually, these days what I do when I have a satisfactory working version of a poem done is post it on my blog. This is public, in a limited sort of way, but I still have control over it, so I can continue to make edits, or pull it down if I'm not happy with it.

SS: What do you think about public readings? Do you partake in them? Or do you prefer for your readings to simply be read by anyone that goes to your blog or picks up your writing?

ZW: I love public readings. I've done over a hundred of them and welcome any opportunity to share my work this way. I've also posted recordings of many poems, by myself and by other poets, at  When I read poetry to myself, I read it aloud because reading it silently is only a partial experience of the poet's work.

SS: Do you find any emotions difficult or easy to convey in your poetry?

ZW: I think anger is much easier to write than other emotions, but it's probably harder to make good poetry out of. Pure happiness is almost impossible. It writes white, as the saying goes. Poetry is a way of making sense of difficult things; ambiguity and ambivalence are the flesh and blood of poetry, so any uncomplicated emotion that doesn't trouble us is hard to write well about or out of. That's something I deal with in my poem "There Is Something Intractable in Me." It's a poem about feeling love for my then very young son. About how hard it is to write about that love without sliding into a slough of Hallmark cliche. One of the ways I took around the pitfalls was to make the poem very constrained. Not only is it written in ABABA stanzas in, for me, quite regular metre, but it's also an acrostic; each stanza is one of my son's three names: Kaleb Dovin Wells. While thinking about how I might write a poem about him that wasn't pure sap, I realized for the first time that each of his names had five letters. From there, the demands of the form became the prime concern, which took pressure off the loaded subject matter. I wound up writing a poem about not writing a poem about loving my son, so in a way I cheated, I guess, but I think I still managed to wring some emotional truth out of it.


Jonathan Ball said...

You should really read Coming Through Slaughter, which is perhaps Ondaatje's best book in some ways. The style works for him, rather than against him, and is relatively restrained.

Zachariah Wells said...

Yeah, you're not the first to tell me that. I also quite liked Running in the Family when I read it.

Jonathan Ball said...

Yes, Running is an excellent book. His interviews with Walter Murch are outstanding also.