canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Geoffrey Cook

For the Love of Song

Geoffrey Cook is the author of Postscript (Signal 2004), a first book of poems that has recently been shortlisted for the 2005 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Cook was born in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and currently teaches in the English Department of John Abbott College in Montreal. He is a past poetry editor of The Danforth Review and a regular contributor to Books in Canada. Jennifer Varkonyi interviewed him via email in April 2005.


TDR: “Chopping Wood” was the first poem of yours I read and I still remember it’s satisfying, energetic start: “All summer listening for the crack / that sounds a breach along the grain / and splits logs clean.” Such precise music! Would you say that sound is the most important quality of your poems?

GC: Absolutely. Sound, along with rhythm and formal experimentation. It would be naïve to reduce the quality of “sound” to rhyme and traditional stanzaic models. Rather, sound subsumes the other two, and is the music of the poem, its song. The spoken-word fad notwithstanding, I think the oral qualities of poetry have been obscured in much modern poetry, sacrificed to page and print. So I try to capture some of the particularities of English where I grew up, some of the phrases. Not in any programmatic way, but in so far as I allow colloquialisms and oral speech a place in the diction of my poems, instead of editing them out for the sake of something more “poetic” or “standardized”.

TDR: Like the “locals” in your Rilke translations, for whom “every sentence” is “an epitaph for flotsam, the unknown / that somehow comes ashore and stays.”

GC: In a way, yes, though god knows no “local” is likely to refer to his or her speech as “an epitaph for flotsam”! Of course, the truth is I also explore other effects usually associated with a more deliberate approach to art. I like, for example, to exploit the drama of syntax, particularly as that energy is caught up in stanzaic and metrical structures. I like to work with the dynamic relation between the two—syntax and metre. The same goes for vocabulary and diction: I’ve been interested in exploring different registers of language. I also like complex metaphors, letting one grow out of another. Similarly, my use of allusions is balanced between so-called “high” and “low” cultural references: literary and cultural allusions (like myth), on the one hand, and folk references on the other (nursery rhymes and children’s songs). Such mix of allusion reflects my experience: growing up in rural Eastern Canada and then being educated in universities in Toronto and Ottawa and travel in Europe. Instead of abandoning one set of cultural references for another, I’ve tried to preserve both, to grant both legitimacy. But I also think that these tensions, or some of them, are inherent in any significant experience—in life and language, as well as art.

TDR: And where do the translations fit in?

GC: The translations and imitations in the book (haiku, tanka, ghazals, German and Russian poems) are another way of extending the range of the work, the voice. Again, I see this as being a result of the diversity of my experience and reading and another way of finding a meeting place between “home” and “the altogether elsewhere”: though “foreign”, forms like haiku, tanka and ghazals are set at “home”; they are particularly rich in the imagery of the Maritimes and were written there.

My translation of Rilke’s “Die Insel”, which you mentioned, is another example of this balancing act. While trying to re-create the original imagery and technique (the rhyme and rhythm), I’ve taken a couple of liberties, drawing at times on more local turns of phrase. I translated some of Rilke in the past, but often found his references and aspects of his sensibility too foreign, so I abandoned the translations. “The Island”, however, which describes islands offshore whose inhabitants feel isolated, looked very like the landscape I grew up in, and I could identify with much of the sensibility expressed in the poem. Making the connection with the poem was clinched when I translated a particularly cumbersome German word with “a come-from-away”, a Newfoundland phrase for mainlanders, which brought home Rilke’s rarified North Sea. And yet, I’ve also tried to maintain a certain distance from my model. Rilke describes a sheep at one point in the poem as “ganz groß, fast drohend.” The image and language is odd, and translators have had difficulty maintaining Rilke’s tone here: “grows huge, / almost menacing”; or “grows / large, almost ominous.” Personally, I find this image of a “menacing” or “ominous” sheep nearly farcical—an urbanite’s response to a rural scene—so I’ve tried to imply a certain critique while maintaining the poem’s integrity by translating this phrase as “ponderous, nearly fearsome”, where “ponderous” expresses the image of “large, big, huge” and “ponders” that image at the same time. “Ponderous” is a serious term that sounds, I think, slightly comical.

TDR: Moving away from translation, it’s surprising, radical even, to come across a book of Canadian poetry like Postscript, one that uses such elaborate formal structures.

GC: Postscript may seem dominated by formal structures, and I’m aware this may be seen as exceptional and no doubt as running face-first into certain biases about poetry. However, it should be recognized that so-called “traditional” poetic techniques and structures have clearly been making a comeback in English poetry everywhere (witness the recent anthology of Canadian poetry, In Fine Form.) But my book also contains free verse and other experiments. Besides satisfying my delight in sound, writing formal verse has taught me a great deal not only about the art of poetry, as craft, but also about how to extend voice and subject, even thinking. Formal verse isn’t a matter of filling in the blanks, of letting abstract structures dictate the terms, of hiding content behind form, or of letting formal patterns drag out dull matter. Rather, the sheer momentum and inspired re-directions provoked by metre and rhyme can surprise a writer as much as a reader. Prose writers often speak of how, during the drafting of a story, a character can take a surprising and unplanned course. The moment a character becomes independent of the author is when the author knows his character is “alive”, and the writing becomes an authentic struggle instead of merely constructed, plotted ideas. I think the same thing happens in poetry, it’s just through a different device (rhyme, for example, or the metaphoric suggestions of a word or phrase).

Yeats and Brodsky have both spoken of how the craft of art teaches you how to speak; what to speak comes after one has internalized the structures of poetry and has discovered a self, a voice distinct from one’s models. “Up to a certain point, verse plays the role of the soul’s tutor; afterward— and fairly soon—it’s the other way around,” as Brodsky has written. But ultimately, to me, traditional verse is just another form of verse. Currently, I’m interested in exploring looser, freer structures, though I do not anticipate foreswearing formal devices that have consistently proven to cheat time at its own game.

TDR: What, then, drives you to “speak” using poetry?

GC: I think the only honest answer is that I’ve fallen in love with poetry. My love is particularly a love of song, as I characterized it earlier.

TDR: Is that how a poem starts for you, as song?

GC: More often than not, a poem begins, for me, with a rhythm, a line that may not even have words yet. Making the poem is then a matter of hearkening to that line/rhythm, helping it manifest itself in words and sentences. Of course, visual images are another common starting point, though these poems feel somewhat more deliberately constructed to me, and I think that’s because the rhythms follow the discovery of an image and subject. It’s as if sound were associated with the spontaneity of the unconscious, while the visual image is part of shaping that sound, part of a more conscious making and articulating. The best work occurs when these two elements—the aural and the visual—function in tandem, simultaneously. Or at least that’s where one tries to end up: having manifested, on paper, an authentic experience, which inevitably has conscious and unconscious aspects.

TDR: I imagine location is a great influence on your writing.

GC: Definitely. I grew up in rural Nova Scotia, in the Annapolis Valley beside the Minas Basin, and though I moved to Central Canada more than half my life ago, I still return to Nova Scotia during the summers to write. The imagery, specifically the land- and sea-scape, of Nova Scotia and the Maritimes is certainly a deep and rich mine for me, and many of my poems are, partly, about this home ground.

For better and worse, I think a person’s richest symbolic and emotional images are inevitably comprised of aspects of the literal landscape where that person, artist or not, grew up. Take me, for example. I feel discomforted among mountains, however sublime, and though any water is good, rivers or lakes are not salt water, and not, therefore, as familiar or comforting. The social landscape has this effect as well. I think my geographical and social landscapes were, ultimately, fortuitous for my poetry: I grew up on the edge of a sprawling country, on the edge of an empire (the U.S.), on a hill overlooking the ocean, on a road that was the borderline between “city” (Wolfville and Acadia University) and “wilderness” (the rural Valley).

The various tensions inherent in such a landscape can be very productive, granted one is able to transcend such apparently contradictory visions or images. I also think that my background—and I’m thinking of childhood friends, many of whom never had a higher education but got trades at an early age—has influenced me to write accessibly, though without turning my back on the sophistications of the poetic tradition. Again, it’s an image of walking a borderline, maintaining balance between opposing camps. Even the image of the line recurs in Postscript.

I’ve spent the majority of my adulthood living elsewhere (presently in Montreal and previously Toronto, among several other cities and countries), which may partly account for the elegiac tone of some of these poems. I’m not alone in this experience: for the last few generations the typical fate of a Martimer has been to leave home for economic and career reasons. One result of this “internal immigration” is an attraction to the notion of exile, a theme evident in my book, particularly, of course, in the sequence “Sonnets from Czechoslovakia”. As a teenager I deliberately left Nova Scotia because I was curious to know the world. I also left home because I grew up around poets, who, from my point of view at the time, had laid poetic claim to the landscape. I felt I had to leave and learn to write away from Nova Scotia in order to assure myself of independence.

TDR: Did it work?

GC: Sure, the novelty of these locations generated poetry—the poems about Czechoslovakia, for example. And I’m grateful for the greater self-consciousness granted by the perspective of distance. And perhaps that distance helped me realize that much of my poetic material is precisely “down home”, and my anxiety as a teen was over-determined. The poem “Still Life” is a record of such an experience. Yet I can’t escape the feeling that I’ve become a “come-from-away”. I continue to divide my time between (some sort of) home and (some sort of) elsewhere, yet I know that the division breaks down, eventually, and there is a certain sense of permanent homelessness. Artists take refuge in the notion that “home” is the art.

TDR: How does that notion of “home” work in art?

GC: Well, my original, impulsive answer to your question of how my poems start was two phrases: a sense of debt as well a longing for song. Perhaps that sense of debt gives my poems their enthusiasm for the “conservative” elements of rhyme, rhythm, stanzaic forms; “conservative” in the sense of conserving something of a tradition, gathering into oneself something larger than oneself, which, as far as the content and imagery of some of my poems goes, would be the now nearly disappeared rural life I knew as a child. The longing for song suggests a different movement—outward, away, free from the burden of debt; the sheer pleasure of music. I don’t mean to polarize these two “drives”, nor identify them with one or another aspect of my poetry (debt as content, song as form, for example), because they work much more dynamically, organically it seems to me, and I don’t want to limit the evocativeness of the terms. Again, it’s by working through tensions like these that authentic poetry is generated. And after all, I feel that I have a debt to my home—I owe it the very poems I went away to write; and yet “home” also recalls sensual delight and that sense of freedom one paradoxically feels when “at home”, among family and the familiar. “A home’s not real unless it’s half / imagined”, as “Moving In” put it. Authentic poetry, I believe, is generated by working through these sorts of tensions. And what is poetry if not both debt and song?

Jennifer Varkonyi has written for Books in Canada and Maisonneuve. She lives in Montreal.







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