Home > Interviews > Sincerity, Music, Risk: An Interview with Tim Bowling
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Former PRISM poetry editor (2014-15) Rob Taylor sat down with 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize judge Tim Bowling to discuss his twelfth poetry collection “The Duende of Tetherball“.


Coyote – Tim Bowling

Shoved its head heraldic
through the autumn foliage fifty
feet along the winding
trail, just around the corner
of my fiftieth year. Crashed
my leashed dog’s blood and
bones, crashed my half century
of what was and what’s to come –
didn’t even turn to look,
ghost face pushing through the plaster
of the ancestral manse
microbe under the microscoping sun
then – on a three count – stone
on the surface of a pool, slipped under, gone.

So the present erases also the real
not just the imagined or recalled.

What am I here, to the time that stops?
I pull my feral moment from the page
eyes red with the incendiary
subtraction
the sound of a half-starved running
at the far end of the telescope.

from The Duende of Tetherball
(Nightwood Editions, 2016).
Reprinted with permission.

Having grown up living and working on the BC coast, you now live in Edmonton. Your poem “British Columbia”, in The Duende of Tetherball, opens:

The smell of burnt toast
indicates a coming stroke.
The smell of charred salmon, then?
The death of childhood? (p. 58)

This drove home to me the idea that, though your poems in your early books, as today, are grounded in shared memories and places, your distance from them (in space and time) has grown significantly. You touch on the growing distance between yourself and your memories in the preface to your Selected, when you note that you hope to go on “seeing with the eyes of a child but writing with the experience of an aging man.”

Could you speak a bit about how you think living away from the coast (and in Edmonton, specifically) has influenced/reframed your memories and poems? Has it compounded, or transformed, the inevitable distance time forces on us? How has the smell of charred salmon changed for you across the years and provinces?

Well, the easy answer is that I’ve never entirely left my hometown. I’ve averaged four or five visits a year over the past twenty years (many of those trips involving three toddlers who are now three teenagers); most of my close relations still live in Ladner or Vancouver, including my 90 year old mother who continues to live in the family home, which is literally a stone’s throw from the Fraser River; I read a great deal about the coast (particularly history and the poems of North Vancouver’s Russell Thornton); and I lived for nearly two years on the Sunshine Coast a decade ago.

The slightly less easy answer is that my childhood was so physical, and I was so free to inhabit the rich landscape and cityscape of the 1970s greater Vancouver, that it would take several lifetimes and a few galxies of distance to wring the rain and salmon musk out of my sensibility. Even so, I do suspect that, because I am a poet of childhood and early manhood much of the time, the geographical distance has really only intensified a process that would have consumed me even if I’d never left the coast. But the life of a poet is a curious one – Edmonton has been a special city for me right from the start, as my paternal great-grandparents arrived here from the east in 1904, and my father was born and partly raised here. As your question suggests, that inevitable distance that time forces on us is really what haunts me. Coastal imagery, however, is often the way in to the poem.

 

Yes, coastal imagery, especially that of coastal animals. I find your poems about your past are consistently tied to images and stories of animals (salmon, coyote, deer, etc.). Obviously, this is connected to the particular realities of your childhood. Still, do you feel there exists a more general connection between the animal world and the world of childhood and youth? Between animals and memory? Animals and the past?

Oh yes, absolutely. Just consider the spirituality of the coastal First Nations people, the tightly-bound relationship between the human and animal worlds that you find there. As for childhood, it’s the time (or it used to be, before all the marketing of fear destroyed the possibility of a child freedom) when we’re most physical and most uninhibited in our relations with animals. Somewhere in a poem I say about childhood that our closest friends were blood and dogs. That was true for me. The blood was always coming out of some cut and there were always stray dogs roaming around. Of course, now, forty years later, that ancient intimate relationship with the natural world has been heavily eroded. So when I remember my lost coastal culture, I remember the animals. And I note their presence today as a kind of admonition not to forget the old bond. So yes, animals, childhood, memory: perhaps my personal trinity.

 

Ooh, memory as the Father, childhood as the Son, animals as the Holy Spirit? Or really, you could swap them around a few different ways. Yes, you could be on to something there.

The Duende of Tetherball is your second poetry collection following the 2013 publication of your Selected Poems, also with Nightwood (the first being Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief, with Gaspereau in 2014). Did going through the process of revisiting all your previous work influence the poems you’ve written since? Are the fingerprints of that process present in Duende?

It’s curious, but I didn’t actually re-visit my previous work very much. Most poets, I suspect, keep an ongoing mental record of the best poems they’ve published (and the weakest). And every poet must constantly be pushing against his own predictability by letting the world and its music modulate his voice. I’m 52 now. There’s a darker edge, a deeper historical awareness, and a more assured technical control to my recent poems. But perhaps I’ve lost some of the buoyancy and exuberance of youth. No doubt I have.

 

The first section of The Duende of Tetherball explores what you’ve just described, in a sense (the exuberance of youth, and its loss). It takes us through your “tetherball days” of childhood, and by the end of it you have become the father, looking back. The second section carries that momentum forward with a series of “advice poems” (yourself now a parent and a teacher) whose titles seem to be prompts for observations you’ve mined from the experiences of the first section (“Advice to a Young Male Poet”, “Why I Move on Quickly from Critical Response”, “Whatever You Do”).

How did you go about writing the poems in the second section? Did their original composition follow the writing of the childhood poems? Did the title comes first, as generative prompts, or did you add them later as this theme of “advice” emerged?

Man, these are tough questions! Process, process, what was my process? Almost always I begin a poem with a rhythm or an image; rarely with an idea. One thing’s for sure: the order of composition doesn’t reflect the sequence of the poems in the book. Come to think of it, I wasn’t even aware that I was giving so much advice! The perils of teaching, I suppose (I taught for the first time just a few years ago).

 

Ha! Yes, I’ll wring some process out of you eventually. Do it for the students, Tim!

Maybe we can zoom in on one poem in Duende? “Our Animal Solitude” (p. 47) is a narrative poem which alternates between lineated verse and prose poem sections. It sits at the end of the second section of the book, and in many ways leads into the third (in its focus on the animal world, and its intersection with the human). The poem stands out formally in relation to the rest in the book, and to your writing more broadly (the most recent prose poem in your Selected is from 2001!). Could you speak a bit about how that poem came together, in its content and its form, and why you positioned it in the book the way you did?

download (2)The Annotated Bee and Me (Gaspereau, 2010) is where I really let my hair down in terms of mixing poetry and prose; there are several prose poems in that collection, as well as a few found poems. But I’ve been increasingly experimenting with genres over the past six years, to the point, I guess, where I wrote “Our Animal Solitude” as a way to test the relationship between short fiction and narrative poetry specifically. I was compelled by the image of the dead buck pinning the woman behind the steering wheel, and that seemed to cry out for a poetic treatment. But I needed to provide some context for the woman’s life too, and that seemed to cry out for a fictive treatment.

Well, as you can see, the forms tend to bleed (no pun intended) into each other. It’s indeed a collision of forms, which is no doubt an appropriate reflection of theme and content. But I wouldn’t have been smart enough to plan that all out! Still, it’s true that I love playing with form. In the spring of 2017, for example, I’m publishing a novel called The Heavy Bear which is also non-fiction, memoir, cultural criticism – and there’s even poetry in it, not to mention the ghost of Delmore Schwartz. Rules and boundaries have their place, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try some variations.

 

Often in Duende, your poems, which are so grounded in “showing” the physical world (as a creative writing instructors would preach) often give way to moments of deep, and plain, “telling”, such as “I know only that the culture / lies about youth to get even for losing it” (p. 66), which seem to be less encouraged these days.

Generally speaking, do you plan poems around these kinds of direct observations, or do the observations come during the process? If a poem of yours is going to include a direct statement of some kind, do you have a preference for where in the poem the statement should appear (Up front, introducing the poem? At the end, “earned” by what preceded it? etc.). Do you have opinions about the predominance of the “show don’t tell” mantra these days, and the trend away from direct statement?

Honestly, Rob, there’s no plan. I mostly let the process take me where it takes me. You probably know Frost’s famous line, “The poem should ride the force of its own melting, like an ice cube on a hot stove.” That’s the way it is for me. Of course, Frost doesn’t mention here just how much preparation (in terms of listening, attention, patience) goes into that melting process. But he probably mentions it somewhere.

Showing not telling? In grade one, we had show AND tell, and that always seemed the logical combination. Besides, I love direct statement in poems. “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” It also helps to avoid mantras by not being aware of them! I take my guidance from what I read, and because I mostly read poets better than me, I figure that I can’t go wrong under those influences. For me, poetry’s always been a private activity and a place of free expression. Show don’t tell is like saying, pray but not on your knees, or breathe but with only one lung. Of course, there’s always a danger of sounding preachy with a direct statement, but there’s more danger in writing poems without any sincerity or music or risk.

 

088971259X

In “Wharf Rats” (Tenderman, Nightwood Editions, 2011), a poem about the unsavoury behaviour of fellow crewmen, you write “I stood only on the edge of your truancy, attracted and repelled… I stand there / still, rain on my lenses…” This tension (of insider/outsider, attraction/repulsion; of being a poet in “unpoetic ” spaces) runs throughout your work. Do you feel your upbringing in a deeply physical world, with a personality that kept you always at a slight remove from it, contributed to your current feeling of being an eternal observer? Do you think you would have ended up a poet no matter where, or how, you were raised?

Aren’t we all insiders and outsiders, attracted and repelled by the world? Aren’t all poets basically observers? But I see what you’re getting at in my case: you’re right; I’ve never felt like I belonged in any camp. Within and without, like Nick Carraway. Or like any decent man in a misogynistic culture. I played a lot of sports in my time, and though I liked the camaraderie and the feeling of pulling together to achieve a goal, I also hated the pressure to conform to a general sense of idiocy at times. What did Blake say, something about creating his own system so that he wouldn’t be enslaved by another man’s? That’s a pretty good definition of poetry. But nowadays I don’t even like being called a “poet,” because that seems to be a pigeonholing, a forced camaraderie that is the opposite of where my poetry lives and where it takes me. That advice I give in “Advice to a Young Male Poet”? That you have to learn to be alone. I’m really talking to myself there. As for ending up as a poet no matter where or how I was raised, I have my doubts. My early exposure to the salmon culture of the Fraser made me a poet, I’m convinced of that. Then again, my mother was the youngest of eighteen children, a dozen of whom died in infancy, so I’ve always had this curious sense of trying to speak for the dead. The calling, of course, always remains a mystery.

 

You do some very direct “speaking to the dead” in the final section of Duende, which includes poems in memory of Philip Levine and Alistair MacLeod. You seem to have had a close connection with Levine in particular. In “What Death Is”, you write:

I keep expecting another letter from you.
Dear Tim. I died on Valentine’s Day. It sucks.
But the mailman passes by
like a deer in the middle of the night
with shredded paper on its antlers (p. 68)

The title is an allusion to Levine’s famous poem “What Work Is”, the poem which most established him as the great American “working-class poet” of his generation. Could you speak a bit about your friendship with Levine, and his influence on your writing? Are you able to separate the influence of the man you knew from the influence of the poems he wrote, or do you receive them as one thing?

For twenty years, I exchanged letters with Phil. At first, these were mostly about poets and poems (he was very interested in Canadian poetry, and American poetry was always the biggest influence for me), but eventually the correspondence became more personal, about family, work, etc. By the time he died in February of 2015, I didn’t realize just how much I’d come to rely on his letters as a means of encouragement. Mentors are important, but most of mine had been famous and often dead. Phil belonged to a generation of American poets who knew and were sometimes taught by the poets who shaped my early writing (Lowell, Berryman, Roethke, Jarrell, Schwartz, etc), and so being in regular contact with him made me feel connected to my poetic origins.

I think, for both of us, there was also real freedom in escaping our own national poetry cultures in our letters. And we had a bond in our approach to poetry too, both of us writing out of working-class backgrounds for no other reason than the sheer joy and freedom we found in great poems. Then, we had both seen the disappearance of those working cultures (his auto industry in Detroit; my salmon fishery on the BC coast), and so we naturally developed a feeling for the outsider and the underdog. He was very much the same person in his letters as in his published work. He was the same in person too – funny, savvy, warm, genuine, engaged. I met him and his wife Fran only once, in Ottawa a few years before he died. A wonderful man, very generous and witty. I miss our correspondence immensely.

 

0889711844Speaking of letters and conversations with fellow poets, I’d be remiss to interview you and not mention Where the Words Come From, the anthology of inter-generational interviews between Canadian poets which you organized and edited for Nightwood back in 2002. I picked up a copy over a decade ago, when I was starting to consider a life in writing as a possibility, and it was vitally important to me (and bears partial responsibility for my current interest in interviews).

In the introduction to Where the Words Come From, you write that you were motivated to organize the book following Al Purdy’s death, as a way to honour his work (a great part of which was his mentorship/friendship/harassment of younger writers who visited the A-frame). Did you know Purdy yourself? Did you have any particular mentorship relationships in your early writing life that were valuable to you? Or any interviews, or discussions of “poetics”, which shaped how you thought about your writing?

I met Al Purdy once. I read with him and Patrick Lane at Duthies Books in Vancouver in 1997 or ’98. I borrowed my mother’s camera and got my wife to take a snap of me, Purdy, and Lane. Later, we discovered that there was no film in the camera! That seemed appropriate somehow. I also exchanged a couple of letters with Purdy, but he was near the end of his life and suffering badly from arthritis, so the letters were pretty short. A few years before that reading, I met Don McKay and Don Domanski, and both were extremely supportive of my work and helpful also in practical ways. Over the years, an American poet named William Heyen has been an important correspondent, and Don Coles, Adrienne Rich, and Phyllis Webb at times have given me encouragement.

russell-thorntonBut no one has been more important as a mentor (though he’s only a few years older than me, but perhaps a thousand years older in poetic knowledge) than Russell Thornton. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a poet in your life whose vision of the craft aligns in important ways with your own. Lord knows, poetry’s a solitary task, and I’ve mostly operated comfortably in that solitude, but I’ve been helped by many at critical times, for which I’m extremely grateful. Do you know The Poet’s Work, an anthology of poets writing about their poetic processes? It came out with Houghton Mifflin in 1979, and contains essays by Demore Schwartz, Wallace Stevens, Fernando Pessoa, Osip Mandelstam, William Carlos Williams, Louise Bogan, etc. A big influence on me since my late twenties. In general, though, it’s always been other poems that have shaped my own poems; theories are only theories, and mentors can’t write your poems for you.


No, that one’s new to me – I’ll be sure to check it out. And I’m glad you spoke of Russell Thornton, whose poetry and friendship have meant a great deal to me as well.

Back to Where the Words Come From: most often, when I ask another poet a question in an interview, I’m asking it just as much to myself (the asking, and listening to another’s answer, as a way of working things out internally). As such, I’d like to close by asking you the three questions you requested each interviewer ask their subject in the anthology. First question:

“In his poem “The Dead Poet,” Al Purdy, speculating on the origins of his poetry, asks “how else explain myself to myself / where does the song come from?” Do you have any explanation of where your voice came from, or why you became a poet?”

Many of the poets interviewed for the anthology hated that question. I don’t blame them. But I knew that readers would be interested in the answers (I certainly was). I became a poet because of my early exposure (through the salmon fishing industry) of the majesty and terror of nature. And because my high school dropout Depression-era raised parents (as old as my friends’ grandparents) loved and supported me, even though my desire to become a writer was a completely alien ambition to them. Beyond that, the call to poetry must be mysterious for every poet, I think.

One curious note about that Purdy poem. He suggests in it that he’s a poet because he’s talking for the stillborn child his parents lost before him. Well, my mother also lost a son at birth two years before I was born. I’ve always thought that was an interesting parallel between us, though not much else is. He was a world traveller and a beer drinker and I rarely leave Alberta and BC and prefer to drink coffee.

 

Well, I don’t even drink coffee, so you’re still closer than some of us. Second question:

“How important have reviews, awards and other honours been to your feeling about your work? Is competition healthy or unhealthy for a poet?” And my addition: Did judging the 2015 Griffin Prize in any way change your feelings on these issues?

Reviews, awards, and honours have been important sources of encouragement, without question. But they’ve never affected my feelings about my work (at least not in any way that I can pin down). No reaction from others, positive or negative, can make poems happen, but good kinds of response (especially involving cash, says the blue-collar fisher kid in me) can help create the space where poetry can move in. Oh, I’m very clear-eyed when it comes to worldly honours of any kind. So many politics involved. Win some, lose some; it’s inevitable. You just keep writing and trying your best. All kinds of undeserving books and writers win significant prizes. I mean, should Bob Dylan have been given the Nobel Prize for literature? Not in my opinion. But it’s not worth getting upset over. Who are these Swedes anyway? Why does their opinion matter so much? They’re just other human beings. When the stars align, and your work lands in the laps of sympathetic readers, terrific. But there’ll be many more times in a writer’s life when that doesn’t happen.

Judging the Griffin was a huge task that I took very seriously. There must have been six hundred books submitted, and I read, on average, five collections a day for four months. It was a privilege to be a part of the process, especially for someone considered an outsider. But the Griffin didn’t change my feelings about prizes. I’m too old not to understand the politics of human debate and achievement.

 

Five a day for four months – dear God! Ok, I won’t take up any more of your time, then – you must still be working off a backload of work from that time. The third (and final) question from Where the Words Come From:

“How have your feelings about poetry, the reading and writing of it, changed since you were in your twenties?”

They haven’t. I still hunger to find great poems and to try to write them. Oh, my standards for what constitutes greatness are more conscious now, but not any better. I trust that young guy who took off his gumboots and oilskins and took the bus into Vancouver to fill two backpacks of poetry at the public library (and maybe to buy a book or three at Macleod’s on West Pender). He had high expectations for the poetry of others and for his own – and even when those expectations weren’t met, he always kept them. Just as I still do. Why bother to read and write poems if they don’t at least try to be as memorable as those great silver fish being pulled from the moonlit fathoms of a powerful river?


If you want to pull some of Tim’s great silver fish from the river, you can do so by picking up a copy of The Duende of Tetherball at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the Nightwood website. Or, if you’ve got no film in your camera, from Amazon.

You can read more of Rob Taylor’s interviews here.