canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

A TDR Conversation

Jonathan Bennett talks with George Murray about his new book, The Hunter, poetry versus fiction, the writing life in New York City and speculates on how fatherhood might influence his work.

George Murray is the author of Carousel (Exile, 2000), The Cottage Builder’s Letter (M&S, 2001) and The Hunter (M&S, 2003).

Jonathan Bennett’s first novel After Battersea Park (Raincoast Books) appeared in 2001 to critical acclaim. His next book, Verandah People, a collection of short stories set in Australia, was  published in fall 2003 by Raincoast.

This interview was conducted over seasonal beers in Port Hope, Ontario, and via email in January 2003.


George Murray and Jonathan Bennett in sensitive glasses and literary beards.

JB: Okay to begin, some people have, in the past, accused you of publishing way too much, too fast. Yet here you are with another book of poems! Murray, have you no shame? Don’t you think you should just quit writing and take up roofing?

GM: Well, firstly: roofing is a noble profession, "mate." Not that you would know (considering that, as your "helpers," Scott Gardiner and I did your entire house while you scurried about on the ground like a nervous hen – I’m not sure if this makes you a wimp or an evil genius… To err on the side of experience, I’ll go with wimp.)

My second book, The Cottage Builder’s Letter (CBL), was cobbled together from five years of publishing in journals and the like. It was a collection in the truest sense of the form. Most of the poems were written before, or immediately after, my first book, Carousel. Carousel, on the other hand, was a sequence of poems that was written over a concentrated period: three months. With Carousel I had an idea and it all came out quickly. Yet, the book itself doesn’t suffer from the speed with which it was written. In fact, in some ways, I actually feel much more confident about the quality of Carousel than I do about The Cottage Builder’s Letter: probably because of its cohesive nature. A sequence works in a way a collection never can. This isn’t to say that CBL is a lesser book, it was just created with a different aesthetic in mind.

I guess I just write constantly and (I hope) consistently. I think that anyone who writes well, constantly, and consistently, will likely end up putting out a book every few years. I suppress the vast majority of what I write. My self-editing process is intense. Furthermore, my wife (the writer and scholar Ailsa Craig) is a keen and learned editor of both poetry and fiction. She doesn’t let me get away with too much. I mean, I’m not rob mclennan here…. rob’s working from a different aesthetic. He has what I refer to as Irving Layton’s disease: publishing everything he writes. (Mind you, I heard Irving was once confronted by someone who said he had fifty books with only one good poem in each, to which he replied, "That’s fifty more good poems than you ever wrote…") Yet, in my opinion, rob’s strength doesn’t lie in the individual poem. His work is a lifelong poem. His strength is in the organization of the oeuvre he will leave behind. (I would love to edit a selected of rob’s…) I, however, don’t work that way. I don’t have the inclination, time, or confidence to publish everything I write. And that’s probably for the best.

JB: The Hunter, I think it is fair to say, is different from your previous work. Are these poems the result of new influences, or a change in your own thinking about your work?

GM: I started writing The Hunter in April of 2001, just as CBL was coming out. I hadn’t been able to write since the previous November when I handed in the manuscript. New York was breaking my concentration and disintegrating my thoughts. I was writing notes, but not composing poems. The Hunter began to develop out of this fragmented process. I realized that the notes were the poems themselves. A sort of mental script that, when arranged into collage-like narratives, were telling a story. They reminded me a bit of the American elliptical poets’ work (some of whom I have come to know down here), yet retained an element of the storytelling that some people seemed to like from my earlier work.

I think the main influence has been living in New York City. Aside from all the crap around 9/11, I find it very demanding to think amid all the noise and visual pollution. It forces me to examine my thoughts closely, as though I am an old man asking my brain to speak up. This leads to a more considered line, but also a less cohesive narrative through-line. As I think I say somewhere in the book: it’s not the individual distractions that derail your thoughts, it’s the through-line. You end up hearing and seeing these bits of … everything … and trying to make sense of them on a macro level. You struggle to create a narrative that you can’t possibly know because, as part of it, you have no perspective on it. So, what I came up with were these chunks that seemed nonsensical yet make perfect sense and create a sort of atmosphere that tells a story.

I guess there is also an element of deliberate change involved. Each of my books has been, at least from my point of view, radically different from the last.

JB: I found the book very demanding, I don’t mind saying so. It was full of lines that sounded like aphorisms yet held unclear truths, void declarations, and phrases that were funny, but also, as reader, I was not quite sure if I was in on the joke or the punchline. This created a disquieting tension for me. There was also much religious-sounding dogma and rhythms one might associate with a preacher. This excess of meaning was obviously the point. What’s my question? How about, how did you come upon this sardonic yet spectral narrative point of view? Have I fairly characterized you book?

GM: Too many poets in Canada (particularly) are writing books that are the equivalent of "Cup-a-Soups". Just add water to these tired, dry noodles (bits of easy lyric, lovely turns-of-phrase, a couple words from some pan-Asian language….) and voila! you have a book. Easy to digest, long shelf-life, disposable. I’m not interested in being easy anymore. Readable, yes. Easy, no. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone having to read a poem twice. Or even a book. This isn’t TV. It doesn’t have to give itself up entirely on the first read. There should still be a variety of levels and multiplicity of meaning. Reading book after book of slender, saccharine metaphors (I am a petal / on a leaf in a garden. / Why won’t someone pick / me?) is like keeping your set tuned only to Fox: "When Similes Attack 3."

JB: Who are you reading then?

GM: Lately, I find senior poets like Geoffrey Hill, Richard Outram, John Ashberry, etc., to be intensely interesting and inspiring. Their allusive, complex structures and thoughts… wow. I also like younger poets like Christian Bök, Ethan Paquin, Brian Henry, Rebecca Wolff, Matthew Zapruder, etc.

JB: I’m sure your fan is wondering when you are going to step up to the plate and become a real writer, you know, write some fiction like the rest of the novelists-formerly-known-as-poets. So, are you? If so, when?

GM: I’ve often entertained paranoid suspicions about my fridge and what it's been doing to my poetry when I’m not looking, but I never even considered that my fan was thinking about me…. Hmmm, I will have to investigate this tendency for my appliances to judge my career. Furthermore, rumour has it that there are some novelists out there, Mr. Bennett (if that IS your real name…), who are fiddling with their own poetic "bits"….

Seriously though, not any time soon. I no longer feel pressure to produce fiction. I started out as a fiction writer and felt very competitive and worried that I might "miss the boat" that all these young writers seem to be piling on to… Then I discovered I loved writing poetry more than fiction. I made the switch backwards, for love of an art rather than money. I still write the occasional short story, and poked at a novel once, but it’s just not what I want to do. And a cash bonanza really won’t change my mind. I find it funny and somewhat disgraceful that some poets clock-out like they do: as though they’ve just put in their time and headed on to the "big leagues." They publish books of poetry on the side as though to flesh out the resume, as though it’s a dirty secret.

I used to get quite edgy when watching my friends making oodles of cash for books of prose, but I always knew I would be betraying whatever creative impulse there is to force it. Even the people who have had success and made money writing these books of fiction seem to feel the need to pretend it’s no big deal, or part of a natural progression from poetry to fiction, but often it’s really just about the money, the perceived prestige. When you’re being offered 20 to 60G for a first book, who the hell can say no? I‘d like to think that if I didn’t have something decent to offer, I would… Well, maybe more people should say no. It’s a bit of a crapshoot out there with young writers right now anyway. Why add to the confusion. You write a mediocre book that people want to publish because the jacket photo won't have wrinkles. Then your book comes and goes quietly. You earn out (or not) your advance and plod on to the next, hoping for the movie deal. How depressing is that? I believe people actually live that way. Ow.

JB: Back to your new book for a second, what was it like working with Al Moritz as your editor? How did you find the editorial process with this one, compared to the previous books?

GM: In my opinion, Al Moritz may be the best poet of his generation in Canada. So, of course I was thrilled to work with him. He, Don McKay, Eric Ormsby, and a few others top my list. Al’s work is viable and interesting on an international scale. I think that’s admirable and desirable. I sought him out on this and begged for him at M&S. They were very gracious in allowing me to work with someone I admired so much. And the book is better for it. Much better. Al said he thought it was a strong manuscript, but it is a much stronger book now, I think.

I worked with Molly Peacock for CBL and she was very nurturing and encouraging. It was what I needed in making the switch from a small press to a large one. She’s a great cultural philanthropist and a very influential mentor for aspiring poets. She helped stifle some of my insecurities and encouraged me to take certain risks with my choices. Of course, she’s also one of the most important and successful poets in North America, and having her get behind my work was invaluable to me at the time.

When it came time to tell Al what I wanted, I said, "Gut it. Be brutal. But still love me!" He put the book through an incredibly intense and detailed edit. From the concept, to the poem, to the stanza, to the line, to the word. He did it all. It was amazing to see. And, to me, it was priceless. I am in his debt. Other than the order of the poems, it didn’t change radically, but it was fine-tuned—in a way I could never ever have done on my own.

JB: In your opinion, how have prizes and prize money affected poetry, and younger poets in particular, in Canada in the last few years? Does it make them more "careerist" from the outset? Do you see it as the Americanization of poetry here? Do you foresee small presses here running competitions (as they do in the US) to select new, young poets to publish (as if a slush pile wasn’t competition enough?) You know I think fiction writers are competitive, but poets are already far more vicious wouldn’t you say? Is it going to get worse? Does it matter?

GM: Prizes seem like a great resource for new poets and writers to judge themselves against their peers, but of course, they aren't judging themselves. They're being judged by "senior" writers. Another, less charitable way, of looking at it is to think of them as get-rich-quick schemes. Why not shoot straight for the "top?" Well, because it ain't the top. The whole competition thing disturbs me. Not that I wasn't a part of it when I first started. I refuse to compete with others now. When I started, I imagined this great cooperative system of people who all supported one another in their various artistic pursuits, not in their ambition to "get famous/published." Instead it's like a screwy system reminiscent of feudal Europe. You pledge allegiance to a certain dogma or senior writer and set your friends and enemies from there. I find the role of senior writers to be especially disturbing. They dole out patronage and collect a tithe of fealty and ego stroking in return.

It goes on in creative writing programs too. The grooming and stroking of favoured disciples. The blatant sycophancy and literary cock-sucking. Very distasteful. I wonder if that's where some of this needless competition arises. The vying for Daddy's affection that goes on. The idea of a "careerist" poet is absurd! As though it's a job… Please… It's more like volunteer work. Well, we all start thinking we're going to be Romantic rock stars, but then reality hits and you realize no one reads you but other poets. Then you have to decide whether to give up and get a real job selling insurance, or get a real job selling insurance while still writing because it's what you love to do and you have art to create, or fool yourself into thinking that fame in a particular Toronto crowd means something while continuing to live perpetuating the system of mutual back-patting and sycophancy that fostered your juvenile dream in the first place.

But I digress. The greatest thing about these contests, in my experience, is that they keep a lot of poor writing out of the overburdened journals' slush piles.

JB: I think my favourite poems in The Hunter are "Flag," "Hunter," and "Stage." These poems (there are many others too) occur within a sort of timelessness that I found appealing. You often collapsed, or bent, or played with, or confused a reader’s sense of time and place, sometimes within a single line. Talk about that for a bit.

GM: I was interested in writing something that confused genres (apocalyptic, biblical, scientific, lyrical, etc.) and time-periods. I wanted to rock back and forth between myth and distant futures, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It felt a bit like prophecy and a bit like storytelling. I hate to say something so cheesy, but once I set up what I was doing, I started to trust what was coming out. The fragments forming the whole were sometimes confusing even to me, but in sorting them out like puzzle pieces (finding the edges and working in), I was able to make sense of the tension between what I was trying to do and what the book was "trying to do."

Contracting and expanding time was part of a conscious decision to mirror cosmic life. It was an attempt to kill time, as much as it is a monument to it. It was hard to tell sometimes, even in the writing of it, whether a given moment was history or prophecy, a past moment of cataclysm or a future moment of apocalypse. Or vice versa. It was very interesting to watch it form and to be part of it. I think it was largely successful too.

JB: After 9/11 (which you have eloquently written and spoken about elsewhere so I won't get into it) you were involved in the anthology Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets. There were some big US poets in it. What was that like? And how has the writing community been in NYC for a young Canadian poet? 

GM: The poetry community here has been extraordinarily welcoming. Of course, when I first arrived nobody knew me, and only the informed poets knew M&S, so it was a little disconcerting to go from Toronto, where I knew a segment of the writing community, to New York, where I was forced to approach other poets as though a child asking to be let into the sandbox. I just hoped my toys were shiny enough to be interesting.

Things work differently down here. Whereas in Toronto the younger writing community seems to be largely centred on the public sphere of readings, books, and reviews, in New York the MFA programs (of which there are thousands!) seem to run things. Almost everyone I know in New York teaches as at least an adjunct in one of these programs. Hell, I now teach "Advanced Poetry" at New School University. I walked in to ask about taking their MFA (because it seemed to be a way to meet people) and I walked out with a course directorship!

I've also been lucky with the people I've met. The first person I was introduced to at a reading was Paul Muldoon. I could barely stop myself from giving him a limp fish handshake and fainting dead away. The title poem from The Cottage Builder's Letter had just been published in a journal at Princeton (where he teaches) and he had read it. More dizziness and fainting. It was like being a lifelong Star Wars fan and meeting Harrison Ford (who, it turns out, showed up at the KGB series one night to catch a reading… Damn.) A couple of months ago my wife Ailsa just walked up to Billy Collins to let him know she'd be getting in touch about her dissertation. He was very gracious and rambled on about how pretty her name was. Another night I was at a reading and chatted about childhood memories with Alice Quinn. It's very accessible here.

And, yes, I have now peed in this sandbox. Right near where John Ashberry was sitting.

JB: Who's going to clean up all these names you’ve dropped! Teasing darling. Okay, I’m not saying there are none, but my general opinion of Canadian poetry is that it’s still pretty solemn, that much of it lacks a certain big-heartedness that can be found in literatures from nations with more obvious class and talent, such as Australia, for example [laughs]. Now, your poems are funny on occasion. Do you worry about making Canadian readers smile and ostracizing yourself? I mean, I like a serious poem as much as the next roofer, I’m not advocating slapstick sonnets, but why is poetry so perpetually pinched up here? I think I admire Ken’s [Babstock] work because it is sad, thoughtful, inventive AND occasionally funny. Yours too, for very similar reasons. Although, in my opinion, you don’t write particularly alike, you both share a generosity of spirit (perhaps that’s even closer to what I mean than "funny") that is smart yet egalitarian, confident yet fallible. I, for one, think we could do with more of it; time to enjoy ourselves, take ourselves less seriously when the occasion is right too. Fair comments or am I an ignorant Aussie? If so, who should I read then? Heather never picks poetry.

GM: Well, you’re definitely an ignorant Aussie (are there other kinds?), but, as wisdom can come from the mouths of babes, so too can the occasional nugget work its way through your ungodly accent and into the poetic "discussion"….

I think there is some definite humour being written in Canada (some of it not intentional, though.) David McGimpsey comes to mind. He's funny. Paul Vermeersch too. Richard Outram is a fascinating, powerful poet who writes farce like no other. He deserves a wider readership. Humour is a fine line to walk in poetry, as in fiction. I just think it's harder to write. It's harder to keep the respect of the reader too.

I think, for me, humour needs to be used like a strong spice – sparingly.

As for generosity of spirit… Thanks. I do try to let what is obviously unintended yet naturally good stay in. I try not to allow all of my speaking voice to be edited out of a piece for the sake of a serious, "poetic" sound. Poet voice. You know – / the people / who read / at readings in poet / / voice? I think Ken does the same thing, to some degree. He is a craftsman who can sometimes see the benefit of a "weak spot" – the real voice of his world of family, friends, and loves entering the poem and honing it in different way than the contrived might. Does that make sense?

JB: I think so. Yes…. Right. You’re about to be a Dad? So…

GM: So, I'm about to get stinky? I'm free to tell bad jokes based on crappy puns (see fridge/fan reference above)? I'm responsible for the life of another being when I can barely manage my own? I'm heading towards writing poems like M.O.'s "Bearhug?"

There is definitely some expectant father interest in The Hunter. I am certainly suffering from a modicum of performance anxiety. I feel as though I've fooled the world into thinking I'm an adult and now they're letting me procreate. That's seriously fucked up. It's one thing to be egotistical enough to think others care to read your concentrated wisdom – I mean, it might take them like what, an hour or two to blow through your book? It's another thing entirely to force your version right and wrong, good and evil, order and chaos on another human over twenty years. Egads. Can't you see I don't know what I'm doing?

Please look in on me and make sure I've eaten.

JB: All right, to wrap it up, what is next for you? Both in poetry, and personally? Do you have a new project on the go, or are you going to rest for a bit? And when you coming back to Canada?

GM: I have no plans for poetry. I am just working on some ideas and experimenting with form, metre, and rhyme. I am still interested in the long or serial poem, but have written a few smaller things. I may start sending to journals again in a year or so… that's about it. I've given myself five years without expectations as a writer. If something comes, okay. If not, okay.

We're hoping to return to Canada by August of this year. I think we've just about had our fill of New York. It's been good and bad. Artistically interesting, but a little too collapse-y. We need a nice small town like Guelph to keep us company. Well, it will seem like a small town, anyway.







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