canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: John MacKenzie

Michael Bryson interviewed John MacKenzie by email in December 2003.

Poetry by John MacKenzie:
   - In Memory of John Wilson
   - Mute Point

This interview is a bit of an experiment. Here I am setting out to interview you, and I havenít read a word of your poetry. So, the first question has got to be general, to give an introduction and overview. What kind of writer are you? What have you published? Any topics, ideas, themes that obsess and drive you?

What kind of writer? Solitary. Best answer I can give, really. I write poetry. I try to make it accessible to people other than myself. If youíre asking if Iím an existentialist, or a postmodernist, or a formalist, or a neo-spiritualist, or an empiricist, I gotta tell you that I have no idea. Some of each, maybe ≠ Iíll leave that sort of thing to critics and reviewers to decide, if thatís something people feel is important. I do have some thoughts about what I think poetry is, or should be. But I try to keep those out of my line of sight while I write. Published? Iíve had two collections of poems published, both by Raincoast/Polestar. Sledgehammer was released in the spring of 2000; Shaken by Physics in the fall of 2002. Any topics, ideas, themes? Time. Whatís really in the spaces between thoughts and words. The differences between. Sex. Death. Love. Grief. The Details. Hands. Water. Sky. Earth.

Okay, maybe I was looking for something more concrete. Iím not sure. I went to Google and tried to see what kind of information is out there in the virtual world about you, and I found this:

"John Mackenzie was born on Prince Edward Island, and raised with eight siblings in a devoutly Christian family. He attributes his poetry-writing skills to his fundamentalist background, which filled him with the rhythms of the King James Bible. His first book of poetry, Sledgehammer and Other Poems, received rave reviews and was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award. His latest collection, Shaken by Physics, fuses science and mythmaking. He lives in Charlottetown."


And this:

"John MacKenzie was born on PEI in 1966. At 19, he began to write poetry and travel across Canada. He now lives in Charlottetown. His much-praised first book, Sledgehammer and Other Poems (Polestar), was shortlisted for the 2000 Atlantic Poetry Prize and for the League of Canadian Poetsí Gerald Lampert Award. His second collection, Shaken by Physics (Polestar), was published in 2002."


Each of those pages has a photograph of you. (So, are you bearded now or no?) Did the poetry and the travel really come as a package? And at age 19, eh? One wonders if the poetry was part of growing up, separating from that family of eight siblings, moving into the bigger world. But that was some time ago now. Is the motivation still the same? Or has it changed over time?

Bearded at the moment. Winterís coming. As a package? As much as anything does, I suppose. Although the poetry was really bad at that point. If you can imagine a mixture of Leonard Cohen, Robert Service and W. H. Auden with the conviction of none of them, you may have some idea of what I was scribbling. Fortunately Iíve never stopped reading, and eventually the time came when I was able to use what I was reading to gain some objectivity on what I was writing.

Was the poetry part of growing up, moving on? Well ... growing up, we had no tv. Iíve always read, of course. But in my family books and our own minds formed the bulk of the entertainment ... and wordplay, puns and reversals of meaning, sound and sense always being stretched. So, yes and no: reading was the more important thing then -- the force that drove me was curiosity -- though in my early teens I was already drawn to poetry. And the more I read (not just poetry, but anything I could get my hands on) the more I was able to apply critical perception to things -- not necessarily to the most important things some would say, but still.... Another thing, I began a rebellious phase early: quit school, and was in legal trouble, and so on, before I was fourteen.... So Iíve not really had any formal education, instead Iíve tried to fill that gap with reading, reading, reading.

I guess my part of motivation now is curiosity. I want to see what I can do with words. And itís stubbornness, too, I suppose. Poetryís audience seems to keep shrinking and shrinking towards the saran wrapped academic world. I want to stop that. I want people to feel what I feel when a poem hits me between the eyes, or between the legs. I want to tear people away from screens and keyboards and syringes, and show them that everything theyíre looking for can be found, or at least tasted, in a poem -- probably even in a poem composed by an anonymous poet two thousand years ago.

A quickie question. Name a poem that hits you "between the eyes, or between the legs." Whatís the first one that comes to mind?

Lorca's "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias" is the first one that came to mind, but Yeats' "The Second Coming", Heaney's "Mid-term Break" and Dickinson's "Low at my problem bending" are all poems that do that sort of thing to me.

From time to time, someone says to me, "The problem with Canadian writers is that they lack ambition." By citing the poets youíve just cited, itís clear that you donít lack for ambitious models. Do you have any complaints about Canlit-makers, or perhaps something youíd like celebrate about Canadian writers? Are there particular challenges/benefits about creating literature in Canada?

I suppose my only complaint about "Canlit-makers" would be Ė and this is a gross generalization Ė that the ongoing arguments between writers about regionalism, provincialism, etc., ignore the fact that an inward-looking literature Ė by which I mean something which can be described as "Canlit" and held up as a goal to be striven towards Ė is in itself a regional and provincial literature. Limiting oneself as a writer or as a reader to what is produced in oneís own country is, in my opinion, stupid, arrogant, cowardly, and, worst of all, counter-productive to writing as well as one possibly can Ė I guess "lack of ambition" could be a nice way, or a short way to say that. "Shooting ourselves in the feet" is another short way to say it.

I think that line of thought answers the question about particular challenges/benefits of writing in Canada.

You mentioned Heaney, so I thought Iíd try and find an online interview with the Nobel laureate and steal a question from that interview to ask you. In that task, I have failed. But I have come up with two quotes from/about Heaney:

(1) Poetry, Heaney states, is essentially an answer to the conditions of the world given in poetry's own terms rather than the language of uplift. "To effect the redress of poetry, it is not necessary for the poet to be aiming deliberately at social or political change." Which, of course, does not mean the poet dodges his civic responsibilities; only that poetry reconciles two orders, the practical and the poetic, the former teaching us how to live, the latter how to live more abundantly. (Link to source.)  

(2) "Each person is on Earth to make sense of themselves and for themselves and to bring the inchoateness of this self into an expressible state," he reflects. "These are the essential and redemptive steps of poetry." (Link to source.) 

My question has to do with "civic responsibilities" and "expressible state." First, how do you relate to the sentiments in these two quotes?

I relate to the idea of "civic responsibilities" in this way: assuming a priori that being part of society is unavoidable, I must choose how I will approach that membership in society. Do I want to be a useful and productive member of society? To answer that question, I must define society for myself Ė so I ask a couple more questions. Is society limited to what is currently around me, or, at most, to the world during the span of my own life? Or does society consist of every human being who ever lived, or will ever live? I prefer that last option. From there, I feel free to say I want to be a useful, productive member of society; and I feel free to define "useful" and "productive" for myself. This allows me to write, and to partially understand Percy Bysshe Shelleyís claim that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" (A Defence of Poetry).

All of that connects to "expressible state" for me in this way: we can only know with any kind of certainty our own thoughts, emotions, etc; the closest we can get to anotherís thoughts and emotions is through the use of words (or images Ė paintings, sculpture, and so on). As a poet, I am useful and productive to the extent that I can use words to place something more basic (i.e. thoughts, emotions) into a form accessible by others.

Second, what would be your own take on what Heaney seems to be expressing ("seems to be" because Iím not sure I "get it")?

Of course I canít speak for Heaney, but my take is something like this: Poetry seeks a balance between freedom and order. As Government is an imperfect medium to convey [ideas of] freedom and order in society, so Poetry is an imperfect medium to convey freedom and order in language. They are both at their best when they acknowledge their imperfection and manage to reach for perfection in spite of it. This is where they find or touch Beauty.

I refuse to define Beauty (on the grounds that an undefined basic term is a time-honoured method of avoiding a tautology).

John, I have one final question. Was it good for you? How do you like the interview? Any question you wish I had asked you? (and maybe the answer ...)

Michael, It was good for me. I enjoyed the process. I'm happy with the interview. The only question I might wish you had asked is: Am I full of crap? The answer to that is as close I come to the optimist's view: I'm about half full of it.

(You can tack that onto the end, if you like.)

*      *     *


*      *     *

In Memory of John Wilson
For Lilly 

You stand before the tide-pool, the barachois,
The lagoon, the flat water trinity
Beyond which are the dunes and the sea.

You stand before the dunes, before the sea,
A slight lean growing into you,
The way the jackpine begins to bow before the wind.

A gull moves over the face of the water,
Repeating its desolate cry.
You stand before the shifting dunes, listening
To the marram grass sandpaper the wind;

And more faintly, beneath this,
Behind you, beside you,
To the wildflowers pushing up every year,
Fading and returning, returning and fading,
As gulls wheel out and back, out and back.

You stand, learning the jackpine's bend,
Beside the flat water, the shifting dunes,
Listening to memory, hearing in it

The small delays at the centre, those spaces
In which blossoms might remain still
Folded, perfectly clenched in green.

A gull moves over the water,
Repeating, repeating its desolate cry.

*      *     *

Mute Point

Before I traded in my tongue for love and lists of things not done
I knew the alphabet by texture and by the green taste of vowels,
By the shattered bone of consonants spit out between meals,
By the mapless tracks my belly followed in hunger
To emptier wells where the nameless awaited naming.
I knew the alphabet before I traded in my tongue for love.

Before I traded in my tongue for love and lists of things not done
I did not scruple to dig with words in earth and among roots
In search of a draft of some undiluted distance,
Of some pure and tasteless darkness,
A draft like that which opens doors in stones
And blows beyond joy or scorn or indifference.

Before I traded in my tongue the alphabet had scarred it
With designs and agendas and schedules of mourning,
With the rime of opaque habit, with laughter,
With constellations of songs imagined in skies of belief.
Before I traded in my tongue it had become heavy
With a marble urgency that would not be sculpted.

I traded in my tongue because it would not linger in the present;
But bulled its heaviness through every day I noticed
And sank through litanies and psalms, laments and hallelujahs,
Sank like a stone through the surface tension of splendour.
I traded in my tongue because it was the damned hammer
That drove me into everything like a spike.

*      *     *

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.







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