Interview by Rob Taylor
Our Poetry Editor Rob Taylor speaks to PRISM contributor Kate Braid about her poem “I Seem to Have Come to the Start of Something But I Don’t Know What”, which appears in PRISM international‘s 52.4 issue.
Kate talks about grandchildren, personae and, of course, poetry…
Rob: The title of this poem is an altered version of the opening line of Charles Wright’s poem “Last Supper”. You nod to this with your epigraph for the poem (“with thanks to Charles Wright for “Last Supper”). Is the one borrowed line the only link you see between the two poems, or are there other things you think you borrowed from “Last Supper” (or from Wright) which went into this poem, and for which you are thankful?
Kate: Wright’s was one of those gift poems. When I read it I’d just learned my son Kevin and his wife had had a daughter and suddenly I was that mythological creature, a grandmother. But Kevin isn’t technically my son so his daughter wasn’t (technically) my granddaughter. Or was she? I’d lived with him and his dad since Kevin was seven and when he said, “We have a daughter,” every cell in my body realigned and I was a grandmother. Or was I? Really? What struck me about Wright’s poem, especially that first line, was the vulnerability of it though the whole poem has the feeling of groping and in the end, not being sure of any “right” answer, just as I was feeling at the time – rich and vulnerable and fragile.
Your borrowing (with credit) the title of your poem made me think about other forms and poems out there which borrow in one way or another (found poems, centos, glosas, erasures, etc.). These kinds of “remixes” are very popular right now, and I was wondering about your thoughts on them. Do you think all borrowing is good? Are there limits or conditions that should be met when borrowing? And if there are limits, where do you, personally, draw the line?
Isaac Newton said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” Anyone’s work that inspires us is a gift and it’s always been important to me to acknowledge when I can, exactly whose shoulders I’m on at any particular moment. This is deeply important in traditional societies. Buddhists begin conversations by stating their lineage – who their teachers were. First Nations and indigenous cultures are similar.
So I’m fine with “borrowing” as long as lineage is acknowledged – as glosas and many other forms do, as many poets like Jordan Abel did in Place of Scraps where he “erased” the words of Franz Boaz who’d previously helped “erase” Jordan’s traditional First peoples. In cases like that, borrowing can work like the best of forms, its power increasing the power of the whole, as a beautiful vase increases the beauty of a bouquet.
But erasure, or “borrowing,” or the thousand other clever words for it, makes me very nervous when it doesn’t acknowledge its source. Some poets don’t even acknowledge which phrases are borrowed. That feels arrogant and disrespectful to me – not clever at all.
Which isn’t even to approach the issue that we used to call the uncredited use of other people’s work, “plagiarism.” As writers, what right do we have to ask for copyright, to ask acknowledgement (and payment) from others who use our work, if we’re not willing to do the same?
“I seem to have come…” is such a lovely, intimate and (seemingly) personal poem. I hesitate always, though, to read a poem as being “true” – how the heck am I supposed to know, really? Still, it’s inevitable that readers will interpret a poem as referring to the real life of the author. In your writing you’ve produced both largely biographical books (Turning Left to the Ladies) and books which are clearly more imagined/fictional (A Well Mannered Storm, Inward to the Bones). Do you put much thought into how “true” a reader might find a given poem? Do you find value in people thinking your poems are “real” and about the “real you”? Is it at times a hindrance?
One of the things I love about poetry is that I’ve always assumed it didn’t have to be “true,” that I could make it up. On the other hand, granted the challenges of memory and individual experience, I’m rigorous about “truth” when writing non-fiction. There, if the “deeper truth” can’t be conveyed with the facts as accurately as I can get them, or can’t be suggested with other techniques, (“The conversation might have gone something like this….”) then I hold it should be billed as fiction. Even in poetry when I take on personas – Emily Carr, Georgia O’Keeffe, Glenn Gould – I do my homework: I spent two years researching O’Keeffe, four with Gould.
As you say, it’s fascinating how readers want to know what’s “real” and what’s not. I honour that. I think it’s part of staying balanced in this topsy-turvy world. It’s saying, what can I trust? What can I learn from someone else’s (real) experience?
To answer your question more directly: in poetry, I assume people know I’m playing with facts while aiming at a deeper truth. (Don’t all poets say that?) I actually prefer people not to think the poems are about me. I like being hidden.
Looking back over your last few poetry books, I realise just how themed they are (poem on construction work, or Glenn Gould, or Georgia O’Keefe/Emily Carr), and, by comparison, how unthemed “I seem to have come…” appears to be. Could you speak more about your next book, however embryonic it may be, and how you think this poem might (or might not) fit into it?
Ah, you are a careful reader! Looking over my recent poems, I’m a bit alarmed to find I’m writing more personally, neither behind the mask of another or out of my experience as a carpenter – which also became a sort of persona. I feel far more vulnerable about these poems than any I’ve written before. Funny, how as I write, I keep having to find new kinds of courage….
Pick up a copy of PRISM international 52.4 to read Kate’s poem “I Seem to Have Come to the Start of Something But I Don’t Know What”. For more of Kate’s work and writing, go to her website www.katebraid.com, or pick up some of her books at Caitlin Press.