The Love Poem as Caribou – Richard Kelly Kemick
It’s hard to imagine. As doves, yes,
or even vultures. But there’s nothing of a ballad
in the hard weight of antlers. You can’t cut
into an ode, stripping its skin to bones cabled
with muscle, or search its creased face for something
you can almost explain. And a sonnet has never
made me see myself inadequate beneath
the bright light of evolution’s long apprenticeship,
acutely aware of the many failings of my own form.
But maybe it’s in how a love poem will cross
a body of water without being able to see
the other side. Or maybe it’s in the deep prints
left in the drifts, that speak of how hard
it must have been to move on from here.
(Goose Lane, 2016).
Reprinted with permission.
Let’s start at the beginning: epigraphs. Caribou Run might set the record – six epigraphs before the start of the first poem! Seven, if you include the map of the Porcupine Caribou’s range. But then this is a collection whose jacket blurb praises the book’s “sheer depth of research” (how often do you read that on the back of a poetry book?), so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. The epigraphs – most of which come from scientific or historical sources – set up an expectation that this will be No Ordinary Poetry Book, especially No Ordinary First Poetry Book, which certainly proves to be the case. Caribou Run is not your standard lyric poetry collection, but one which butts up against science and nature – a book both researched and lived.
Could you speak to the function of epigraphs throughout the book, especially the blocks of four epigraphs which open each section, and the effect you hoped for them to have on the reader?
Well, I was originally of the understanding that Goose Lane was paying me by the word, so I thought “Why not have a whole bunch of words that aren’t mine?”
The idea with the epigraphs was that I was trying to give the book a similar feel to scientific writing, a style of writing that is characterized by its use of sources. I hoped the epigraphs would ground the reader within the geography of each section place but also within the ear for the writing I was attempting to emulate.
Yes, you certainly accomplished that.
Now, on to the subject of your research: Why caribou? You’re obviously hooked on them (and perhaps equally, or more so, on the wolves following behind them), and I was curious how this interest developed in you. Have you traveled to the area of the Porcupine Caribou range (as outlined in the map – a space straddling the northern half of the Alaska/Yukon border), and if so (or not) how did that influence and shape the book?
I’m a fraud; I haven’t actually visited the herd. I did receive an Alberta Arts grant that I considered putting towards a plane ticket, but then my wife and I bought a used car instead. Christ in heaven, isn’t that the most depressing sentence you’ve ever read? “I was going to fulfill a life-long dream of mine but I thought it best to get a 2005 Chevy Trailblazer.”
I was drawn to the caribou because of the poetry that is already within the migration: the grandeur of the habitat, the prehistoric size of the herd, the plodding discipline of parenthood. I was interested in writing about animals without anthropomorphizing them – to see if that was possible or if we would always revert back to seeing ourselves in their eyes.
Caribou Run is chock-full of form poems: sonnets, glosas, ghazals, tankas, list poems, and more. In many ways reading your book feels like taking part in two well-researched explorations at once: one of caribou and the other of poetic form. Could you speak about the interaction of form and content in Caribou Run?
Part of the idea of limiting myself to one subject was that a singular topic would force me into exploring poetic form. The practical function of a lot of forms seems to have an almost scientific exactness – the way they deal with repetition, metre, etc. – and I wanted to put myself in a situation where that exactness would empower the poem rather than hamper it.
I know form has fallen a bit out of fashion (unless you’re talking about the haiku which seems to be having a tremendous renaissance at the moment), but I think there’s a lot form can add to the momentum of a poem’s narrative. Form is limitation but it is also possibility. I wanted a collection which was able to select which form best enhanced the content: what parts of the migration are most like the severe limitations of a villanelle, which parts are like the open constraints of free verse?
Did Caribou Run achieve this perfect balance between form and content? Of course not. But I think I’m a bit closer to getting there than I was before writing the collection.
Oh, it does a pretty darn good job of balancing the two. I’d like to take a moment to talk about one poem that really nailed that balance.
“Postpartum from the Perspective of Grade Ten Biology” is a repudiation of a high school science teacher’s pronouncement that “The anthropomorphizing of animals is the lowest form of science…” While your poems, as you say, work to avoid anthropomorphizing the caribou, they do often aim to elevate or mythologize the caribou and their journey (I think here of your drawing in of Greek myths, the Laetoli footprints, etc.). Was mythologizing the caribou a goal of yours when you envisioned the book, or did it come along the way? Do you see the whole book, in a way, as a response to the science-only approach of your former teacher?
Christ alive, these are difficult questions. What ever happened to, “Do you write with a pen or pencil?”
The line between anthorpomorphizing and mythologizing is tricky. Perhaps the difference is that anthropomorphizing forces an animal into our notion of the self, while mythologizing frames the animal within a context with which we’re able to increase the understanding of ourselves. Does that make sense? I’m saying that in some ways the two are the exact opposite.
Sure, the book is a response to the science-only approach of my former teacher, but the more I think about it the more the collection seems not a contradiction but an affirmation of that teacher’s philosophy – which is an odd admittance for me to make since I loathed the man. The parts of the book that I most wish I could take another swing at are the parts where I feel I got too close to forcing a humanoid sentience that may not have been honest.
And, for the record, pen.
Oh, now you’ve gone and spoiled my next question…
I want to return to “Postpartum…”, anyway – and focus on the “form” side of the content/form balance. The poem shifts back and forth between long-lined prose-y sections and short-lined sections which feel more like “traditional” poems. This seems like a nod both to some poetic forms (the haibun, for instance), and to the alternating of “foreground” and “background” which is common in prose writing today (this comes up again in the next poem, “To What Is Left Behind”).
In addition to being a poet, you’re a fiction and non-fiction writer (and Christmas Village critic of some renown), so in many ways “Postpartum” felt to me like a hybrid or missing link – a literary Archaeopteryx, of sorts (though “Postpartum” isn’t the only poem in the book to dabble in prose: “Thumbing a ride on the 93” is essentially a postcard story, for instance). Can you speak a bit about your interests in poetry and prose? Did one come first, and if so which is the dinosaur and which is the bird?
You never forget your first, and poetry was my first. I wanted a grounding in poetic diction and form because I wanted (and still want) to be a better writer. Poetry forces such a microscopic attention to detail that there is very little to hide behind. Coleridge (or somebody else who is undoubtably as old, dead, and white as a full moon) said that prose is words in their best order but poetry is the best words in the best order.
Many of my favourite prose stylists have a background in poetry (Ondaatje and Atwood, sure, but also Mark Jarman, Carmine Starnino and Elizabeth Smart), and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. All of the above writers craft their prose with an awareness of metre and a narrative which, because of its prosody, emerges as deeply stylish. I don’t think my interest in prose informs my poetry; I think my interest in poetry informs my prose.
Suck on that, prose, you magnificent bird!
As I mentioned briefly in my last question, you made a bit of a media splash last winter with your very compelling and funny Walrus essay, “Playing God” – which describes your interest (obsession?) with miniature Christmas villages, and which led to you being interviewed by CBC, Global TV, and other legitimate news sources out there in the real, non-literary world.
The humour in “Playing God” – and in other fiction and non-fiction pieces of yours that I’ve read – is less immediately evident in most of Caribou Run (with the obvious exceptions of the Genesis poems). Would you say your poetry tends to be more serious that your prose? Or was that something more specific to this project? Did you think about how “funny” or “serious” you wanted the book to be as you were writing it?
I think Caribou Run veers more towards the tragic and less towards the comedic not because it is poetry instead of prose, but because of where I was as a writer when I wrote it (which was about three or four years ago now). One of the collection’s failings is that I think it is overly concerned with the authority of its voice.
I believe poetry suffers from taking itself too seriously. I’m not saying that everyone has to start writing dirty limericks but if for every sonnet about suicide we had one about whoopee cushions I think there’d be a lot more people interested in poetry.
I think it’s safe to say that tragedy is valued over comedy. But this isn’t just a poetry thing. I’m sure we can all agree that Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is the greatest work ever written in the history of the English language. But ask someone to quote some capital-L Literature and you’re going to get a mouthful of Hamlet reciting the infinitive form of verbs and scuffing the battlements with his foppish shoes.
I’ve been writing prose a lot more than poetry lately, and I’m finding out that you can still write comedically about Serious Themes such as desire, heartbreak, inadequacy. Comedy is just a different road (an admittedly less-traveled and pot-holed one) to reach those themes.
The good news is that I think contemporary poetry is accepting this. Poets such as David Seymour, David McGimpsey, and Katherine Leyton have all recently released collections that crackle with comedic timing. Michael Prior does this (among everything else) exceptionally well, writing about tamagotchis and Ophelias within the same collection.
Going back to the Bard, if we look at the trajectory of Shakespeare’s collected works, we can see that his worldview evolves as his career progresses, appreciating the artistic merits of both the chuckle and the sob. Just before his retirement, he is writing plays that are neither tragedies nor comedies (The Tempest, A Winter’s Tale, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead); and I think there’s something beautiful, something more artistically honest, about this non-binary portrayal of life – that most stuff that happens isn’t hilarious or devastating but often a confusing mixture of the two.
As writers, we want to write about issues of emotional depth, and I think we’re afraid that we must do so in a Serious Tone so people will think we’re Serious Writers. But who, I implore you, will be the Most Serious Writer who rhymes “suicide” with “blowdried”?
We’re pretty sure Richard just compared himself to Shakespeare. Even if he’s only half right in that assessment, you should check out his new book! You can do so at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the Goose Lane website. Or, if you want more suicide with your sonnets, from Amazon.
You can read more of Rob Taylor’s interviews here.