A Longing for our Life on Earth: John Barton in Conversation with Lorna Crozier

Lorna Crozier

Malahat editor John Barton met Lorna Crozier in 1978, when they were both students at the University of Alberta. Their paths have since crossed many times, both face to face and through the page. The Malahat Review features six of Lorna’s most recent poems in its Spring 2013 issue, and John asks her about the themes, craft, and thought behind them.


[Photo credit: UVic photo services]

The new poems in the Malahat’s Spring 2013 issue are simultaneously different from one another and unified by recurring preoccupations. They also divide neatly between free verse and the prose poem. I realize that intuition often guides the formal choices we make as poets, but I’d be curious to know what led you to write “The Afterlife” as a prose poem and poems like “Book of Small Mistakes” in verse.

I follow my instincts, not knowing how a poem will end or what it’s going to be about. Most of the time, though, the form presents itself pretty close to the start. If the poem is going to have long lines like “Book of Small Mistakes,” it almost immediately lays itself down that way. In other poems like “Moose Nose” the lines break quickly into small fragments. And if the piece is going to end up being lyrical prose like “The Afterlife,” a sentence unfolds on the page rather than a line. Since I wrote a series of poetic paragraphs for Small Beneath the Sky [Greystone Books], my memoir of a few years ago, I’ve continued to be fascinated by the form of the sentence and what a building of them, one by one, can accomplish. Those pieces became a way of adding a musical pause or punctuation, a momentary density in the looser prose.

Now, when I choose that form over lineated poetry, I do so because it seems to be more elastic around the edges. There’s a greater capacity for reflection and for switches in tone, though the space you have to work in is still small. Russell Edson, who eschewed lines of any kind, said, “Some things and some kinds of thinking unfold more naturally in the prose poem form.” I remain, however, hesitant about giving up all the wonderful things that a line can accomplish—the double meanings, the opportunities for anthimeria, the emphasis on last words, the suspense and surprise. In a long-lined poem you get all of this, but the challenge is how to prevent the lines from falling slack. It’s as if a tight-rope walker, grown tired, has paused in the middle between the two posts and the rope begins to sag. You’ve got to keep the guy going, the line taut from start to finish for the line to have music and integrity.

You close “Quirks” with “You can observe a lot just by watching,” a bit of wisdom from baseball legend Yogi Berra that is also very applicable to writing. “Blackberry Pickers” bears evidence to this, for it is a highly visual poem, precise to a fine polish in its details and in the way those details are arranged. It strikes me that a particular kind of observation must be at work as you write poems like this one. Do you find yourself observing your poems as they take shape? Do you feel this kind of observation is essential to their success?

When the poems start happening, it’s as if there’s a movie going on inside my head and I have to keep on watching it to capture the images before they fade away. I recognize some of the details—I’ve seen them or thought about them before the poem starts to happen. The setting for “Blackberry Pickers” is an actual one, the border of the road across from our house. For years I’ve bemoaned the fact that someone always beats my husband and me to the bushes the night before we go out to pick the berries. Only the hard-to-get-at clusters remain.  Where have the pickers come from, I’ve wondered, and why do we rarely see them? These questions come from reality. But imagination is making the movie, too. It’s always there in the studio inside my head, but sometimes it needs to be prompted. Now what would such and such look like? I ask it. Then there is a kind of thinking-seeing that happens, a dousing for details, the concrete that grounds the idea but keeps the mystery alive and vibrant. To answer your question, I am observing the poem as it takes shape, following where it’s taking me, but also nudging it, trying to help it go into unfamiliar territory and discover something that surprises me. If you give a poem its head without challenging it in the act of its creation, it may always lead you to the barn. 

Let me worry the role of observation a little more. In “The Afterlife,” you say “All afterthoughts mutate in this changeless place into something you must look at and listen to all day long.” I am very struck by the need to look at something so relentlessly—and of having to listen to it, too.  Lifting this line out of context, I want to consider it in connection to the creative process. Do you find inspiration can be a kind of afterthought? Or are the ideas in your poems always front-most in your mind. Do your poems oblige you to look “all day long,” to see—and not look away from—what they present you with? Do they also make you see them through, so to speak, until they are done with you and you with them?

What a complex question! I don’t know, I don’t know. Inspiration is more of a before thought than an afterthought for me. There’s a stirring in the dark part of my brain, a bog-like place, where myth and forgetting and primal, unsaid things dwell. The ideas in my poems are rarely the sparks that start me writing. They often wind themselves around an image whose meaning I don’t yet know, or they speak in a rhythm I find pleasing, and then I try to track them. At the same time, “The Afterlife” originated in the realm of ideas. It started with my thinking/imagining what life-after-death might be. Someone said that the act of writing poetry is to make the possible probable. I’d add Wallace Steven’s phrase “almost successfully” to that definition. If I had to look at my poems all day long, I’d go mad, though in my editing and reconsidering, they do stay with me a long time. Sometimes they’re years in the making—that may feel relentless.  But I try to let them go before I’m bored with them or they with me.

In “The Afterlife,” ‘before’ and ‘after’ blur into each other in artful, beguiling ways. This five-part poem begins with your questioning whether it’s best to consider what happened before—as in before death?—prior to speculating about what will go on in the afterlife. You first describe a house seemingly situated in the past, then move on to line up outside the door of an afterhours club, which, along with regret, is the jazzy, smoky entry point to the afterlife.  The closing section catches women of the forties and fifties—incidentally, your and my parents’ generation—washing dishes, after a party perhaps, while men nearby sand the floor upon which an old couple dance in their slippers. Though the poem’s title suggests a kind of looking forward, as a reader, I find myself looking backwards. Is the afterlife therefore one of memory—a looking back as the only way to imagine what’s beyond death? Is the afterlife, as a consequence, a time and place where memories of a life slowly fade?

I’m not questioning the validity of your reading of the poem, but I had imagined the first part, “before,” as the state we exist in before we’re born. The unborn stay there forever. I’ve visited this place in several poems, most notably in “The Night of My Conception” [from What the Living Won’t Let Go, McClelland & Stewart, 1999]. That’s why everything in the first part of the house in “The Afterlife” is new and waiting. Maybe I need to rework that section to make this pre-life porch come closer to what I’d intended it to be. I’ll have to decide if I can live with your interpretation as well as with what I had going on in my head.

I like the way you’ve paired looking forward and looking backward. I’m very pleased that they’ve become one and the same in your mind, as they were in mine.  All that I really know about this poem, right now, is that a longing for our life on earth, our missing it,  will be a big part of the afterlife, and that the biggest regret I can imagine—not paying attention— will haunt us there.

It’s very compelling to contemplate that the first part of ”The Afterlife” is about what awaits us on Earth before we’re born, suggesting who we are depends so much on how what came before. Also, in a sense, you’re implying through the poem that what is experienced sequentially in our lives transforms in the afterlife into a set of events occurring simultaneously. Is this how you see memory and how does it influence what you write?

Writing my memoir made clear to me that events don’t occur sequentially. I mean on one level they do. Something happened yesterday, another thing happens today, and a different thing will happen tomorrow. But the present and the future are coloured by the past. And the past changes when we think about it or unlock things we didn’t see before. What we experience doesn’t stand alone under a glass bell in a pure moment in time. It’s tinged with what’s been done and it carries itself into the future, like a too-wet watercolour stroke running down a page and absorbing colour from the strokes on either side of it. Memory doubles back on itself, and what we remember about a person changes depending on the new discoveries we make.  Memory erases and then draws itself all over again, and maybe it’s “truer” than it was before.  In one of my favourite poems, John Newlove writing about Sis-i-utl says “remembrance/ is a foolish act, a double-headed snake/ striking in both directions…”

“Like a Body Falling” has a Yeatsian, even a Blakean feel to it. It describes an Old Testament storm of record proportions. Only Yahweh and no mere God could look down from such a sky.  Yet when the storm does clear, we are left with a girl running barefoot through the grass.  When I read the word “grass,” I immediately thought “prairie.” Am I right in thinking that this image touches on your own “before-time”?  A childhood world of fescue, thunder, and rain? Do you find yourself noticing that little bits of formative experience keep slipping into your poems, even when you are consciously writing about often very different subjects?

The first line, “Ravens pull the bell ropes of the rain” initiated the poem. It came to me out of the blue as a fragment of music and it felt “true.” I rolled with it to see where it might lead me. I’ve written a lot of poems inspired by the Old Testament and my argument with that God, a whole book in fact, and I never tire of the stories, the anger, the imperfection of that old deity. When I was a kid, I won the prize for never missing Sunday school. There weren’t that many books around my house, so to hear and see those illustrated stories filled me with delight. Every time I go to the Bible to retell the stories from an animist and feminist perspective, the setting I have in my head is the prairies. That’s my holy land where all these things happen, creation, drought, a plague of locusts, the expulsion from the garden, the angels falling from that huge sky and landing in a field of wheat. What I’ve experienced in the past, for better or worse, is always in the poems, in one way or another.

All six poems are pensive and inquiring of experience. They sometimes probe lost worlds of regret, to focus on a key word in “The Afterlife.”  Yet they are also wry, funny in a way that thinking people happily get. What do you feel the role of humour is in your work and in poetry in general?

Philip Larkin said in an interview in The Paris Review, “One uses humour to make people laugh. In my case, I don’t know whether in fact they do. The trouble is, it makes them think you aren’t being serious. That’s the risk you take.” I like it when there’s a playful what-if-ness, a wit, a whimsicality, in poetry. Not all poems, of course, have that, nor should they.  At the very least, I like to see the mind at play as it moves from one proposition to another, the imagination colliding with reality and the sparks flying. I believe what Howard Nemerov observed about the similarity between poetry and jokes: "...in seeking to identify, if possible, something of the quality of expressiveness called `poetic' you might start, not with the sublime, but down at the humble end of the scale, with ...jokes.”

Do you find that when humour or wit surfaces in a poem, this leads you in deeper into it or allows you to play with its elements differently?

Something tickles my fancy before or during the writing and I follow the delight I feel as the poem moves forward. In many of the humourous poems, a different kind of voice is speaking, often a sassy one that’s allowed a lot of leeway. You dare to say things that part of you fears to acknowledge. And you can rub away the lines between wonder and restraint, between whimsy and fact, between manners and rudeness. Wit certainly, but even silliness, strangely enough, can lead to seriousness but without pedantry or self-assurance, two things that don’t belong in poetry.

“Moose Nose” is a favourite of mine among these poems. It’s witty, visual, and moves unexpectedly, with lovely meta-fiction touches. It stands in my mind with other fine moose poems like Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” and Alden Nowlan’s “The Bull Moose.” What must a poet bring to the writing of a poem on a subject that other poets have already written about so well? As you have done here, how does a poet make such a subject her own? 

Nowlan and Bishop, yes! I’d like to add John Steffler here and one more writer, Robert Bly, who wrote only a couple of lines on the calming effect of a moose’s nose, but the idea was so evocative that it motivated me to riff on the topic. The problem is, and you learn this very soon as a young writer, there are so many brilliant poems that already exist about anything you can think of. If you allowed them to hold you back, you wouldn’t be able to compose a line. What you have to trust is that the subject or topic will be dipped in the waters of who you are and come out tasting of you. What or who that you is—it’s impossible to put into words but the words themselves, the obsessions, the wit, the way you find form and meaning, your body’s rhythm, they depend on it.  Remember Seamus Heaney’s description of “finding a voice”? The poem has to have the feel of you, whatever that might be.

The dilemma of saying something new was with me a few weeks ago when I tried to write about the colour blue. I had William Gass’s On Being Blue in the back of my mind telling me to give up, I couldn’t possibly come close to the brilliance of what he did in that small, glorious book. But, for better or worse, I went ahead anyway because I was in the middle of Saskatchewan in the middle of winter and I couldn’t leave the blue shadows in the snow alone. When the poem’s been around long enough, I’ll make a decision about whether there’s any value in it or whether I should just let it disappear.

Moving on from moose, I am going to ask you about the elephant in the room. You retired from the University of Victoria in December 2012, after having taught in the Department of Writing for over twenty years. It’s an understatement to say that the students will miss you—even those students who have not had the opportunity to work with you, for your legacy will inform the department for years to come. It’s a truism to say that young writers bear the mark of their mentors deep into the maturity of their own work. However, I’d like to turn this on its ear and ask you how your years of teaching have instructed you? What have they brought to your own writing?

When you teach anything, you have to approach your discipline in a different way. You must overcome your prejudices and be more open than you might be as a solitary writer alone in your room and responsible to no one but yourself and your vision. That may be both good and bad for your own poetry. One thing that’s troubling is that you end up acting more sure of yourself as a teacher than you are as a writer. Nietzsche said something like that and concluded that teaching was an impediment to his life work.

On a positive note, I’ve read more widely in the various worlds of poetry because of my years at the university.  And I’ve researched technical matters in a way I hadn’t before. I had to teach myself prosody, for example, when I came to the Department twenty years ago and was given a class that demanded that expertise. I’d been operating on instinct when I worked on the music of my poems, but I had to gain a working knowledge of metrics, its terminology, its relevance to free-verse, etc., so that I could convince my students that it was a subject worthy of study, though they might banish spondees from their minds the day after graduation.

Students over the years have introduced me to writers I might have missed. They’ve helped me keep my windows open to new voices. But the best thing they’d done is to keep me passionate about this craft and sullen art. They’ve come to the writing department because of their love of words. Everyone has told them, from their parents to their teachers, that only the rare author makes a living, yet they’re ready to spend four years immersed in poetry. Imagine that! They’re special people to begin with.  And there’s almost nothing better than seeing the various lights snap on behind their eyes when they “get” something. As a teacher and fellow poet you feel with them that small wasp-sting of recognition.

I’ve been blessed with students of immense talent, and I continue to learn from them by dipping in and out of their books as I would the books of Gwendolyn MacEwen or Jack Gilbert. Because of Steven Price, I’ve just written curses in response to his, which are as powerful as Irish wisps. Because of Brad Cran and Billeh Nickerson, I keep pushing myself to be fearless in what I include in a poem. Because of Carla Funk I’m slammed into the beauty and power of her family stories that become everyone’s stories. Then there’s Arleen Paré and her experiments with form, Melanie Siebert and her sad river rhapsodies, Anne-Marie Bennett and her many verities of silence, Garth Martens and his eloquent working-class tongue. And this list leaves so many out. Suzanne Buffam and Jenny Boychuck and Gillian Jerome and Matt Radar and Kyeren Regehr…. My life and my writing would be smaller if I hadn’t had the privilege of working with them. What a gift they have been.

John Barton

John Barton

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