canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Carmine Starnino

Carmine Starnino is a Montreal poet, critic, and editor. Forthcoming in 2004 are his book of criticism on Canadian poetry, A Lover's Quarrel, from Porcupine's Quill Press, and, from Gaspereau Press, his third book of poems, With English Subtitles. Carmine's first book, The New World (Vehicule Press, 1997), was nominated for the 1997 QSPELL A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry, the 1998 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for best first book, and was selected by Quill & Quire as one of the best Canadian books of 1997. His second book, Credo (McGill-University Press, 2000), won the 2001 Canadian Authors Association Prize for Poetry and the 2001 David McKeen Award for Poetry. His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in a large number of national and international publications. Since 2001 Carmine has also been the poetry editor for Vehicule Press's Signal Editions. This interview was conducted by e-mail in February, 2003.

Read TDR's reviews of The New World and Credo.

Susan Briscoe: When I first met you some sixteen years ago, we were both being introduced to the world of poetry and poets by Michael Harris. He was very supportive and has been, it seems, an important mentor for you since that time. Could you tell me what this relationship has meant to you, how it has helped shape you as a poet?

Carmine Starnino: The relationship has meant everything to me. I honestly don’t think I would be writing poetry today if it weren’t for Michael. When I first meet him in college, he was an enormously charismatic teacher: funny, irreverent, frank, and slightly confrontational. In our first class he read – Michael, by the by, is a terrific reader – Wallace Stevens’ "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Today, of course, this is a poem I know very well; I’ve even taught it many times myself. But then, that afternoon, it was the first I’d heard of it, and the poem’s method and message – the way Stevens argues for the provisionality of perception by using such indelible, enduring language – electrified me. I’d never read anything like it. But my true conversion to poetry (that is, the moment I realized I wanted to trust my life to it) occurred when a friend lent me a copy of In Transit which carried "Turning Out the Light", Michael’s exquisite elegy to his brother. By turns sorrowful, angry and tragic, "Turning Out the Light" was so fearless an expression of grief that it left me in tears. The poem became a kind of personal touchstone. I have many other touchstones now, but I recognized then that while poetry could do many things well, the poems that would matter most to me (both as a poet and reader) would be poems seized by an urgency I could believe in. Eloquence, cohesiveness, fidelity to detail – these are all good things. Yet first and foremost, I wanted to be led through a poem by a sense of the inescapable necessity of what is being said. This is still true, although I’m now interested in poems that, morally wise and emotionally significant, are also alert to their own artifice and artfulness. There’s a lot about Michael’s thinking I don’t agree with nowadays – we’re not always on hearing terms when it comes to the poetry we read and write (which makes our conversations much more interesting!). But I still think he’s an impossibly good poet, one of our most accomplished. Grace, in fact, I consider to be one of the very best books of poetry published in this country.

SB: This desire for both "artifice and artfulness" as well as moral wisdom and emotional significance is part of the perennial problem of style versus substance in poetry. Many argue that one serves the other (Richard Hugo claims that "all truth must conform to music") while others contend that they are not even always distinct. How do you balance these elements in your writing? Are you ever prepared to sacrifice one or the other or must both, in your view, be present in all poetry? And do you refer to the same standard on this issue in both your creative and critical work?

CS: Frankly Susan the argument of style versus content is, for me, a bit moot because in the relationship between style and content, it’s style that always guarantees a reader’s interest in content. That is to say, there is no content without style – it’s style (or whatever unique intuition a poet brings to his diction, rhythm and syntax) that vivifies raw data into poetry. Style is so powerful it can even turn substancelessness into a kind of rich substance – Stevens proved that. But the puzzle of "balance" and "sacrifice" is probably one of the most vexing challenges for a poet: does one use words as ends in themselves or as a means to an end? My feeling now is that every successful poem does both, every successful poem transcends itself so that the texture of the words puts us in mind of the texture of the thing. And what I try to do in my work is budget into every poem a surplus value, something beyond the direct needs of the poem, beyond the mere incidence of its message. As for the presence of this "standard" in my critical work, I find that I’m most attracted to poets who find new ways of generating that "surplus value" (most recently in the work of the neglected maritime poet Charles Bruce) and am bored by poets who don’t.

SB: Tell me more about your poetic development: what other factors have helped define your poetics and yourself as a poet?

CS: I find the word "development" a little strange because it suggests a fluid, accretional progression, when instead I think one "develops" by messy, evolutionary leaps of intuition (which are then hopefully groomed into good lines). Other poets, of course, have been the most important factors in my "development." Elisabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Eugenio Montale, and Yehuda Amichai, Amy Clampitt, Richard Wilbur, David Solway, Eric Ormsby, Simon Armitage – all have jolted my poetry (or, at the very least, individual poems) in new directions. Another big factor is the criticism I write. I’ve found the discipline of writing essays about other people’s poetry – their aims, accomplishments, innovations, and, of course, failures – to be enormously useful in training my ear as a poet. And the last factor, maybe the biggest, has been this very city. Montreal poetry and it’s long legacy of independent-mindedness – as practiced by A.J.M. Smith, A.M. Klein, Irving Layton, John Sutherland, Louis Dudek, etc – exists for me as an alternative, largely neglected world (a road not taken, so to speak) where real literary concerns are still being kept alive.

SB: You mentioned having "many other touchstones now" and that your criticism has helped train your ear as a poet. What are some of the other things you look for in the poetry of others and strive for in your own?

CS: I write criticism as someone who, first and foremost writes poetry. That is to say, writing criticism has forced me, as poet, to become a better student of my own prosody. It has forced me to interrogate my own terms, to pay closer attention to why I react to certain ideas (or forms or words) the way I do. Criticism therefore becomes, for me, its own special raid on the inarticulate. And as my instincts have become more discriminating, I’ve started to look – for direction, nourishment – to poets who trust the idea that what they say should be judged by how they say it; that expressive quality, rhetorical power, formal ability, metaphorical aptitude, and linguistic artfulness are essential in establishing a poem’s theme and subject. I know that, as a poet, I’m asking that my work be admired not only for the seriousness of its content, but for the achievements of its structure and diction.

SB: How do you see the tradition of Montreal poetry as different from other Canadian poetry?

CS: We’re the fox to the Canadian poetry’s hedgehog. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows only one.

SB: What is this one thing the hedgehog knows? And what about this foxy diversity?

CS: There’s a great moment in Donald Winkler’s film about Al Purdy where Purdy has just finished giving a reading in Montreal (from the looks of the room it was in Concordia’s Hall Building). Irving Layton walks up to Purdy and tells him that, after having listened to him recite his poetry, he can finally understand and appreciate all the fuss about Purdy being called a Canadian poet – putting the emphasis on the word "Canadian." Purdy, visibly taken aback, insists that Layton is Canadian as well. But Layton says no, not really, not like you. I love that moment – "no, not like you" – and in fact I consider it emblematic of the difference between Montreal and the rest of the country. Purdy is everything a Canadian poet should be, what with his patriotic earnestness, his populist feints, his whole vagabond "Voice of the Land" attitude. Layton, however, is cosmopolitan, widely-read, irreverent, formally inventive, and, unlike Purdy, the allure and the effect of his poetry does not depend on a self-conscious cultural pride. So, to my mind, Purdy – simple, straightforward and democratically accessible – represents the hedgehog of Canadian poetry. Whereas Layton – and you can say the same of A.J.M. Smith, John Sutherland, Louis Dudek, Peter van Toorn, David Solway, and Michael Harris – represents the foxy refusal to pretend, in your attitude and practice, that poetry is anything other than a deliberate and difficult bid for excellence. The fox agrees with the hedgehog that poetry must – as Wordsworth says – "reek of the human," but the fox delights in language’s sensuousness and acoustic verve, the fox embraces the artifice of the act, the fox recognizes that poetry is a contrived product, that all of poetry’s more "instinctive" properties – sincerity, spontaneity – are fabricated. The fox understands, in other words, that instead of parading a happy hedgehog-like predisposition to all things Canadian, a good Canadian poem must, in a sense, be cold to its Canadianness.

SB: You often take the opportunity to promote Montreal poetry and are sensitive to your place in this tradition; what are you specifically trying to accomplish in your role as a Montreal poet and critic both locally and within the larger context of Canadian literature?

CS: If I may adapt a sentence by British editor Peter Forbes, I think that the words "Montreal poetry" and "neglected" have had a special relationship since the seventies. And I believe that among the critic’s most important duties is to bring accountability to the arbitrariness of that sort of indifference, to ensure that deserving, less visible reputations are given a fighting chance, a convincing claim on the reader’s attention. As for the idea that I’m deliberately sponsoring a particular kind of poetry, or that I’m motivated by a kind of regional pride – well, I’d have to disagree. I don’t really think that way. I am, at heart, simply a reader of Canadian poetry who is unhappy with the chronic overestimation of certain poets and is trying to bring attention to a number of other poets who I believe deserve more notice. It’s true that it seems to make me, at times, a partisan promoter. But all I’m doing is trusting my instincts. With whatever poetry I read, I trust my delight and I trust my doubts and, in the end, hope that the essays and reviews I write are able to persuasively advocate their bias. The fact is, Susan, in a literary marketplace such as ours – dedicated to re-endorsing the pre-endorsed – the sort of criticism I try to practice is essential. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that I’m some kind of truth-teller who, in his career-risking courage, is facing down mass opinion. Nothing of the sort. I simply believe that poetry criticism is, principally and overridingly, an exercise in skepticism, and critics who behave accordingly – who trust their own doubts and strive to make those doubts, either by persuasion or assertion, plausible to those who don’t share them – are the most useful to the practice of poetry. True, good poetry always has an ingredient about it that can’t be fully accounted for, and the ambition of making that ingredient transparent can, at times, lead to foolishness. There’s that wonderful moment in Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet when Rilke complains about criticism’s hubris. Do you know it?

Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.

I love the notion that experiences "happen in a space that no word has ever entered" but to be honest, I don’t think a poem is quite as "mysterious" or "unsayable" as Rilke himself would have us think. I myself have found that those who argue for the mystery of poetry often do it on behalf of poets whose poetry won’t survive a more scrupulous frisking. (The unanalyzable aspect of art has served the apologists of bad poetry very well.) And although there is, in literary criticism, a potential for dogmatism, I regard the danger as an acceptable risk. In a time of confused and confusing literary values what good does respectful underexplication do? A passive critical act – an act undertaken with diffidence, that distrusts the very notion of decipherability – can provide only feeble guidance. And, yes, I guess it also depends on whether or not one thinks people need guidance. I happen to think they do. There are those, for example, who need to be reminded that, although they may draw pleasure from Lorna Crozier’s writing, what they are reading is not poetry. (Can criticism correct taste? I believe it can. I believe good criticism can go against the grain of certain fashionable ideas and change people’s minds about a writer. I’m not prepared to tell people that they’re wrong to like what they like, but they must not mistake what they like for something it’s not.) The sorts of questions I ask in my criticism – "What is real poetry?", "How does one recognize it?" – are ultimately unanswerable, but I believe that something is always to be gained by the attempt to answer them: a more accurate approximation rather than a deepening misapprehension.

SB: From my perspective as a no-longer-young, unpublished student of poetry, you have already accomplished a great deal with several well-reviewed collections of poetry, a collection of essays, editing and critical work, etc. Could you tell me about any changes of direction in your career (academic, creative, or critical), your current sources of inspiration, any concerns about the future?...

CS: I anticipate no changes of direction (I love what I’m doing) and I have no real concerns for the future – at least as it pertains to my career. Odd as it may sound, Susan, part of what provokes me into writing criticism and editing is the thrillingly punitive aspect of the act. In other words, I’m having a lot of healthy fun hurting my career, especially when the concern for one’s "career" is, as you well know, part of the sophisticated payback system of checks and balances put into place to better maintain our conspiracy of silence. The poetry is a different matter altogether and I would hope I can continue to protect the privacy of it – the secret energies that go into writing it – from all my literary politicking. The problem is that it’s very difficult to have a serious conversation about the shape and future of Canadian poetry when any skepticism is immediately interpreted as mean-spirited censoriousness. (And, to be frank, I’m especially tired of defending myself against writers who should know better, who seem to think that ambition and sophistication in a country’s poetry is something that just cheerfully "happens" rather than something one fights to protect and nurture.) But sometimes the grace of the calling – its chance and risk – and the public busyness of that calling can be the same thing. I simply have to believe that there’s a way to maintain an account of ourselves as a literary community – and of myself as a Canadian poet – that doesn’t depend on the whole Margaret Ondaatjie-Michael Atwood precept. I’m not sure what that alternate Canlit heredity would ultimately consist of yet, but, oh, I have a few ideas about where to start looking.

Susan Briscoe is currently completing her MA in creative writing at Concordia University.




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