2014 Governor General’s Award Finalist Christopher Levenson talks with 2013 Finalist Russell Thornton about his two recent books, Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain (Harbour Publishing, 2013) and The Hundred Lives (Quattro Books, 2014). Two new poems by Russell Thornton will appear in the Winter 2015 issue of PRISM international.
Slight of build but with strong features that hint at containment and intensity, Russell Thornton has a face that any sculptor would love. And his poetry bears this out. Russell was already highly regarded by his peers in the Vancouver writing community and elsewhere, and this increased when his recent collection, Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain (Harbour Publishing, 2013), was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the BC Book Prize for Poetry, and the Raymond Souster Award. A few months ago I sat down with him to talk about his views on life, and poetry, and how his latest books relate to their predecessors.
– Christopher Levenson
From reading all your books, I see a continuing preoccupation with the natural world, often in elemental and archetypal forms. In fact, fellow poet and scholar Susan McCaslin has grouped you, along with Don McKay and Tim Lilburn, as an ecological poet. How do you react to that?
I’m not displeased by the grouping or the term but I wouldn’t say that it fully defines me. Well, I admit that, believe it or not, I spent two years once reading all fourteen volumes of the Collected Carl Jung. Around that time, I probably didn’t utter more than a sentence or two without using the word ‘archetype.’ Still, I’d say that any preoccupation I might have with the elemental and/or archetypal is simply due to my individual nature, plus the fact that I was born and grew up in North Vancouver, where mountains, forest, rivers, and creeks meet inlet ocean waters. It’s an elemental landscape, and I know it has informed whatever imagination I might possess.
I notice that you often take epigraphs from such archetypal sources as the Bible and certainly in your earlier work use religious terminology and concepts such as immersion, metamorphosis, reinvention of the self, in secular, even erotic contexts. So, how much of your response to this natural world derives from any religious background or upbringing?
I have no formal religious affiliations. I inherited different backgrounds from my two sets of grandparents — Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish — but all were pretty secular people. I’ve dipped into the Bible a fair bit, but as a work of literature. Again, aspects of the natural environment have no doubt registered in my deeper traces. For me the natural world here is like a host of forces, spirits. It’s an elemental, transformational world that invites certain categories of inner experience. But who knows what you get from even brief reading glimpses? It can only take a few words to receive things from great pieces of writing, especially sacred texts. I love any writing that touches at the depths of life.
A lot of the intensity and charge in your recent work seems to come from an increasing preference for longer, more syntactically flexible lines. Is this something you are conscious of and work towards? How concerned are you with cadence? And how much of your poetry is meant to be read aloud?
I’ve always been partial to longer lines: I’m attracted to the undulating, rhythmically snicking movements that long lines can produce. I think my recent longer and more complex sentence structures have to do with my trying in an ongoing way to be faithful to the natural complexity of experience, while trying to write precisely and keep a passionate flow in my poems.
And yes, I’m very concerned with cadence and sound values: I can’t imagine trying to produce a poem in which cadence isn’t crucial. Certainly the poets I most admire, starting with Yeats and including Hopkins and Dylan Thomas, are all sonically connected. With every poem I attempt, one of my chief motivations is to find the words that will give voice to the rhythms, sounds, and overall music that I hear in myself and that seem to embody a drama that I keep trying to get onto the page.
As to being read aloud, like most writers I was an enthralled reader as a child. I’ve been a print freak since I was quite young and I appreciate very much the experience of reading poems on the page. But it’s a complicated issue, printed versus spoken poetry: I’d say I compose poems both to be read aloud and in silence. I suppose all poetry is ‘spoken word,’ a voicing, and all great poets have been very aware of the oral dimension of the art, but poetry is also a set of signs on the page. For me, the experience of the lyric poem is that it moves from the eye to the ear, then to the deep inner ear, the deep inner eye. There’s the feeling of a magical openness, an alertness that is at once visceral and spiritual.
Speaking of openness, I gather that you have also travelled, and lived abroad, and speak a number of languages. What contribution have those journeys and residence abroad made to your poetry? And how important for you is the sense of place?
I lived in Greece for three and a half years (and have returned for varied lengths of time). I feel now that living in Greece was like having much of the dross of myself burned brightly away. People say this about Greece and it’s true: there you find yourself becoming more nakedly human. There’s a particular ruthlessness and beauty in the light and the people. Probably I would have based myself permanently in Thessaloniki or Athens if the Greek woman I met in Larissa and became engaged to hadn’t died a sad, very early death from cancer.
I’ve been to Tunisia where I was able to get by with French. I went to McGill and lived in Montreal for a few years in my early 20s, and speak passable French. For two years I studied Persian with a tutor and got to the point where I could stumble through Classical Persian. A few years back I translated into English forty or fifty poems by the Classical Persian poet, Hafez. I wandered around central northern Mexico for a few months when I was eighteen. I’ve been to Peru twice as an adult.
When you travel, it often seems blind wanderlust makes you leave your familiar surroundings. Then you discover that all along you were yearning for something that you’d had glimpses of in yourself but had never really encountered with open eyes. You wanted a fuller relationship with hidden elements of yourself. Actually, I’m nothing if not a North Van poet.
Most of your earlier poems are obviously based on experience, but with the exception of “The Summer Grass” about your grandfather (a poem I find very moving), they are not identifiably personal. Can you yourself trace a development, a change, in your books, The Fifth Window, A Tunisian Notebook, House Built of Rain, The Human Shore, Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain, and now your current volume, The Hundred Lives (Quattro Books, 2014)? Do you know, for instance, what made you write the first, at times brutally autobiographical, section of House Built of Rain?
I’ve always felt that poetry should arise out of one’s actual life. I’ve proceeded accordingly. Of course, the trick is to universalize the particulars of one’s life; the challenge is always to write through one’s life into the universal. Where previously I may have been speaking to, trying to come to terms with, a person in the past, and it was enough that I knew the background, nowadays I’m more aware of an audience, and I try to make autobiographical references more accessible to anyone who might happen to read this or that poem of mine. I try to speak to a hypothetical “everyone.”
Some of those things in Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain revolve around your domestic life and your children. Could you say something about that and your day job?
I have three kids. As for jobs, I‘ve had many, including academic hack work for a number of years. For several years I was head of a small, private two-year university and BCIT transfer college in Vancouver. I taught at a college and a university in Greece. For the past three years I‘ve taught evening classes at an ‘academy’ in North Van. This fall I’ve also begun teaching in the Creative Writing department at Douglas College. For many years I’ve also had my own small building maintenance business. So I work more than full time and do a lot of childcare.
So when do you ever find time to write?
I get an hour and a half per day Monday to Friday at the local Public library to read and blacken pages. Having kids actually helps me in my writing: kids take me into a daily meeting of obligations and fulfillment of meaning. In this, oddly enough, I feel I’m made more available for other tasks within myself. My kids lash me to a metaphorical mast. If they didn’t I wouldn’t be able to sail past the islands of the sirens without falling in to the sea. I’m not saying I’m some sort of Odysseus. But I think many people who write poetry hear in some part of themselves those alluring sirens. The sirens’ singing contains all that is beautiful, yet it is terrible, dangerous. Having kids has taken me closer to my own island of sirens; it has also provided me with the right ship to negotiate my way through the winding voices, and make it back home — home being my literal home as well as my symbolic home, poetry.
You spoke earlier of music and drama. Are you very much or at all involved or interested in other arts such as painting, music, drama? And if so, how does this manifest itself in your work?
I painted and drew a lot in high school. After high school, I only picked up a brush or pencil once in a while. I suppose my visual art impulse went into poem writing. I love music and drama — I listen and read and/or watch whenever I get the chance. Hopefully this has flowed a little into my poetry.
How do you feel that The Hundred Lives differs from your previous book(s). Is it perhaps more mystical? or more consistently focused on specific personal events and experiences e.g. in Greece, such as the death of your beloved?
A portion of The Hundred Lives is comprised of poems plucked out of previous books and reprinted to make up a book of pieces set largely in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Yes, the first section, “With a Greek Pen”, includes a poem or two about the person I knew in Greece who died. My poem “Larissa New Year’s” is an elegy of a kind. A section called “Lazarus’ Songs to Mary Magdalene” I actually wrote in my twenties and aren’t about the same person mentioned in “With a Greek Pen”. The third, overtly “mystical” section, I also wrote in my twenties. I studied Hebrew for a while. This section is the result of my trying to study The Song of Songs. The final section of the collection is the only fairly recent one. Poems there about a “beloved” are about someone other than the person mentioned in “With a Greek Pen”. I don’t mean to be confusing or puzzling. The book is meant to be a look at a particular kind of emotional experience from a couple of different angles.
Finally, what are your long term literary plans?
I’ve been working for a year or so on a new manuscript that I’m tentatively calling The Terrible Appearances.
Russell Thornton’s latest books are Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain (Harbour Publishing, 2013), which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the BC Book Prize and the Raymond Souster Award, and The Hundred Lives (Quattro Books, 2014). He lives in North Vancouver.
Christopher Levenson is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently Night Vision, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Poetry. He moved in 2007 to Vancouver from Ottawa, where he taught English and Creative Writing at Carleton University for 31 years. He was co-founder and first editor of Arc Poetry Magazine.
You can read PRISM poetry editor Rob Taylor’s interview with Christopher Levenson here.