Friday, December 07, 2007
Poetry Friday- Poet Spotlight: Zachariah Wells
Earlier this year I read a glowing review in the Nunatsiaq News of a book of poetry entitled Unsettled by Zachariah Wells. Calling it "refreshing," John Thompson went on to recommend it to those readers who are "interested in the North, the real north, rather than the imaginary place that's so often written about instead." At this point I'd like to say I rushed out and bought it but I still haven't (and at this point I have no excuses!)
Unsettled is not a new book. First published in 2004 it's just now getting my attention- but being out of the loop is one of the detriments (and sometimes pluses) of living in the North. But boy has it gotten my attention. Shortly after I read the review, Wells had picked up on my Canadian Book Challenge and little did I know that I'd soon be having correspondence with the guy. Asides from having a love of poetry in common, he also worked for the same airline right here in Iqaluit.
And while I still haven't bought his book yet, I have been able to read a lot of his work. At both his website and his blog, he's made a lot of his poems available either through links or direct posts. If the glowing review wasn't enough to convince me, the proof was in the proverbial pudding.
This week I asked Wells for an interview. Not only did he agree, he also committed to allowing me to showcase five of his unpublished poems right here! I hope you enjoy...
1. I'm a novice interviewer, so I'll get the predictable question out of the way first (don't worry, it's not "boxers or briefs"): What are your favourite poets or poems?
Boxer briefs, actually. I have a lot of favourite poets and a lot of favourite poems; I'm shamelessly promiscuous. Some poets I have a general interest in or affinity for (including, to name a few in no special order, John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, Irving Layton, Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes), others have written one or a handful of poems that I keep coming back to, but I have no special interest in their work as a whole. Some of my favourite poets didn't write poems as such: Friedrich Nietzsche (he wrote poems, but his best poetry was in aphoristic prose); Joseph Conrad; Fyodor Dostoevsky; Barry Lopez. Again, this only names a few. I'd be at it all day if I tried to be exhaustive. I'll just add that which poems/poets are more or less important to me varies from week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year.
PORTRAIT OF THE NIHILIST AS A YOUNG MAN
by Zachariah Wells
Like those astigmatic pupils,
Forster und his Frau,
he has read Nietzsche
obliquely, too early,
he has read Nietzsche
as his biography
and like Raskolnikov, miscasts
his smeared might
as the clear light
of a new dawn.
In the chthonic grey
of his iris
pardon each other
over and over.
2. At zachariahwells.com you list the many places you've lived in Canada as well as several jobs you've had in the transportation industry. Is it for irony that your blog is entitled "Career Limiting Moves" or just how do you justify the title?
Heh. Partly ironic, yeah, because I've done nothing but move since I first left Prince Edward Island seventeen-odd years ago. But just as I chose the title Unsettled for my book because it cuts in several directions at once, I chose CLM for a variety of implications. The backstory is that after I quit a job several years ago, I sent my bosses a frustrated letter enumerating in very plain language what I felt were their failures and shortcomings as managers. It got back to me that one of my bosses was telling people that my letter was a "real career-limiting move." This is common business jargon for doing something counter-productive to the advancement of one's career. I thought this was absolutely fucking hilarious, since what could be more "career-limiting" than quitting a job?! That she would say something like this only confirmed what I already believed: that most of my bosses were not very intelligent people.
Anyway, I've also been working for the last few years as a freelance book reviewer and poetry critic. As Carmine Starnino says in the introduction to his book of criticism A Lover's Quarrel , writing honest, blunt, opinionated criticism is not a good way to get ahead in the literary scene. Which brings up another level of irony, because a career in poetry is a contradiction of terms. So what it boils down to is that I have a borderline-autistic inability to observe social niceties and keep my mouth shut. I come by it honestly. My father lost his job working for the provincial government of PEI because he made himself a nuisance to the premier and her advisors. And my maternal grandfather, who was the public health officer for the city of Ottawa, made himself quite unpopular for closing Ottawa's beaches for health reasons. My mother, too, digs in her heels when defending a position or cause. Basically, I grew up steeped in an ethos of saying what you believe to be true and just, not what will help you get by. Some people appreciate that, others see it differently. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke, as the saying goes. You can't write criticism if you're worried about pissing people off.
3. Related to question #2, how have your experiences shaped both your poetry and your career as a poet?
Enormously. Some poets rely mainly on their imaginations to write. I'm not one of them. My book is based almost entirely on my experiences in Nunavut. That said, I write a lot of poems now that are not related to my own personal life experiences at all--and my job for Via Rail hasn't inspired me to write much of anything. Why this is, I'm not sure. Probably related to the transience of most of my interests and enthusiasms. Having written a lot about my life, maybe I'm now looking to other things for inspiration. One reason I remain engaged by poetry is that it's such a vast amorphous thing that it can change as I do and I can carry it with me wherever I go--in both literal and figurative senses. As for my career, well, I've always been struck by the fact that to career is "to go at top speed especially in a headlong manner" and it usually ends badly. If you want a career in the conventional sense as a poet, you get graduate degrees and try to get a tenured faculty position at a university, where you act as a mentor to other people who want to have a career in poetry. I realized pretty early on that this was not something I was constitutionally predisposed towards. Which is probably related to my inability to keep my mouth shut.
Are you distancing yourself by the so-called establishment then?
That's not my goal, per se, but is probably an inevitable consequence of my position. I tend share Grouch [sic] Marx's suspicion of clubs that would have someone like me as a member--not that Groucho knew me...
by Zachariah Wells
Through peace and plenty
Through squabbles and poverty too
I saw hundreds fall in my shade
To fire and storm and saw
And I stood
I’ll topple too
I’ll be nurselog to hundreds and moss
Tipping roots to the sky
And top to the sea
Lean on me, lady
4. Your poem "Fool's Errand" was featured in one of my favourite poetry anthologies In Fine Form, yet other poems I've read by you are written in free verse. How do decide when to go with form, and then, which form to use?
With a few exceptions, I don't really decide to "go with form" or not. Form happens, whether it's in free verse or a metrical stanzaic poem. When you spend as much time as I do immersed in poetry and poetics, these things become as natural as idiom and accent. Writing in set forms is very challenging for beginning writers or for writers who habitually use what they call free verse. But after much practice, it becomes natural. I'm a big baseball fan. One of the great joys of watching the Blue Jays play this summer was seeing John MacDonald, the Jays' shortstop, make these incredibly difficult plays look like routine business. In part this is because he's a talented athlete--but he would actually practice these techniques, over and over and over, with his mentor Omar Vizquel when the two both played for the Cleveland Indians. The things MacDonald does on the field look sometimes like inspired, genius-level intuition. But it's the product of a helluva lot of training. And they can look impossibly hard, but you can arrive at them by degrees. You can't just decide one day to switch from expository prose to writing in iambic pentameter and hope to have success. Anyway, I guess it's not for everyone to "write in form,"--I use the quotes because I'm uncomfortable with this terminology, but don't know how it might be briefly put more perspicuously--but if you've never practised it, you can never say, and practising it can only be good for your writing, I think. One thing that practise does is impart and impose a discipline to what you're doing, so that even when you write in free verse, there's recognizable structure to the thing and not just rhythmically flaccid chopped-up prose. My book is uneven in this regard. I was really still in the middle stages--even the early stages--of a long apprenticeship when the book was published and there's a baggy looseness to some pieces and to the book as a whole. If I were publishing it today, it'd probably look different. But I'm also glad that it was published shortly after I left the north; I think it more accurately reflects where I was at as a writer and a person than if I'd hung on to it a few more years.
Where does your training come from? Do you have formal training in poetics, or is it something you've taken upon yourself?
I took two semesters (one course) of Creative Writing at the graduate level at Concordia University. Very little of what I've learned about writing poems came directly from that course. I don't know of any CW poetry programs that put an emphasis on the nuts and bolts of verse composition technique, which is really unfortunate because it's fundamental. I've mostly picked it up from reading poems, poetry criticism and various books on prosody.
by Zachariah Wells
I am the lord, the thief and the vassal
Water, I shift to fit any vessel
Ice, I expand to explode a corpuscle
Wherever I go, I speak like a local
I sift like ash through grates and then settle
I mimic and ape; I’m brash and I’m subtle
I’m an alloy forged from infinite metals
I am the stove, the pot and the kettle
I patch over holes like plaster and spackle
I am the block and I am the tackle
I’m a toy pistol plated in nickel
I am the treacherous course through a tickle
I am a torrent and I am a trickle
I am most busy when I am most idle
I am the whip, the bit and the bridle
I am the bolt, the hinge and the knuckle
I am a belt in search of its buckle
I am the stamen, the pistil, the petal
I’m in forever the finest of fettle
I read very much and I know very little
I’m obliging, yes, but no one’s lickspittle
My eye has the shape of the head of an eagle
I’m a creature of habits, some of them legal
I have a nose to rival a beagle
I’m jackpine, catspruce, cedar and maple
I am the stake, the stitch and the staple
I can cram worlds in the cup of a thimble
I’m gauche and immodest; I’m horribly humble
I’m the uneasy peace preceding a battle
I am the fang and I am the rattle
I am flame shining the brown eyes of cattle
I am the Talmud and I am the Bible
I am all manner of slander and libel
I have been Cain and I have been Abel
I am the chair and I am the table
I wear many suits and shun every label
I am the song of the Tower of Babel
I’d speak the truth, but I doubt that I’m able
5. You've garnered a lot of praise for Unsettled, including from such luminaries as the Fiddlehead. Is such praise important to you, asides from a commercial standpoint?
First, I'd just like to say that The Fiddlehead didn't say anything about my book; a reviewer in The Fiddlehead, Sharon McCartney, did. As a reviewer myself, this is something that irks me, when a magazine or newspaper is cited instead of the writer; this is a business of informed opinions, not authoritative pronouncements. I've become friends with Sharon since that review was published and her good opinion means a lot to me. That aside, I'm more interested in insights than in praise, pleasant tho it be to receive it. I read reviews of my own work to see how it appears from the perspective of another person. I'm most disappointed in reviews that seem disengaged, not in reviews that have critical things to say. From a commercial standpoint, I don't think reviews of poetry collections make a precious bit of difference. If you want to sell books of poetry, you've got to travel and seek out audiences and sell the damn things one at a time. A review in The Fiddlehead and a dollar will get you the proverbial cup of coffee.
My apologies to Sharon McCartney. I did enjoy her review. However, I'm not quite sure I agree that good reviews of poetry make no difference commercially. Personally, if the review was well-written and/or by a reviewer that I've come to trust to have similar tastes, I'd be more apt to buy the book. I realize of course that we're speaking of poetry here and not the latest John Grisham novel, so my buying habits don't exactly reflect, nor influence, the actual market. Still, you have an entire page of links to predominantly favourable reviews of Unsettled- was the purpose not to enhance sales? Was it to give credibility? Another reason perhaps?
I have links to every single published review of my book--at least every one that I know of--no matter what they say. This not done as a sales pitch, but because, as a reviewer myself and the reviews editor for the magazine Canadian Notes & Queries, I believe that public conversation about books is important and, as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. A typical approach writers and publishers use to try to sell books is extracting a "pull quote" from a review, rather than using the whole thing. If those reviews on my site happened to shift a copy or two, I'd be pleased, but we're talking about a copy or two, not even one or two hundred, which in bookselling terms is still an insignificant figure. My book was published in a run of 900 copies or so back in 2004. I've handsold around 225-250 copies myself at readings and other places, and tho I don't know precisely how many unsold copies are in print, I know the run hasn't sold out. These are the realities of publishing poetry. The average title sells 200-300 copies. Ever. Believe me, if you buy a book of poems because of a review, then the good lord bless you my son, but your case ain't exactly normal.
As you can surely relate, it'd be mighty hard to pick up poetry books if I was to get them through poetry readings here in Iqaluit. I've got to go by something- even if occasional reviews have led me astray. When you lived in the North, how did you stay connected to poetry?
Good point. The longest consecutive stretch I was ever in the Arctic was 12 weeks. I had southern addresses in Halifax and Montreal. And to be honest, I've never purchased many books of contemporary poetry and until recently read a whole lot more older and/or foreign work. I only started reading a lot of contemporary Canadian-authored poetry in 2003 when I started reviewing books. I still only buy a scattered few contemporary titles a year. Poetry's really an easy thing to "stay connected to," far easier than visual art, for example, which you can only see at galleries.
6. The poems in Unsettled chronicle your time as a cargo handler in Iqaluit, and according to the reviews, sometimes reflect on the time less than favourably. Were you surprised then that the local press ( The Nunatsiaq News ) took favourably to the book?
Again, Nunatsiaq didn't take to the book one way or t'other. One of its editors, John Thompson, did--after a common acquaintance of ours told him about the book. I was very pleased that this happened and was heartened by Thompson's review. I don't think many Nunavummiut suffer under the delusion that the territory is some kind of Shangri-La. A lot of outsiders do, but they have to ignore the settlements to form such an opinion. I wrote the book as someone who was both insider and outsider--a commons status for residents of the territory, both native and qallunaat--and hoped I got things fairly close to right and didn't cover up any messy truths for the sake of propriety or fear of causing offense. I've always had a bit of anxiety about how the book might be received, if at all, in Nunavut; a Nunavummiuq reader is bound to see the thing much differently from a Southerner. So far, so good, I guess.
Again, my apologies to John Thompson.
7. Your website features many audio samples of you reading/performing your poetry, plus Sealift is a CD of 24 poems from Unsettled. Has the recording and performing of your poetry changed the way you write?
Performing came first. I've been doing public readings since 2001, but I only started recording recently. And yes, tho it's hard to pinpoint how precisely, reading my work and other poetry aloud has definitely had an influence on how I write. I read everything (my poems and other people's poems) aloud, even if it's only to myself. Poetry exists somewhere in the space between speech and song and prose and if your mouth and ears aren't playing a role in the composition process, you're much less likely to write compelling verse, I think. Poems tend to start for me, as a noise in my noggin. These days, I only start to write something on paper or on the computer after it's banged around inside my brainpan for a few days. I figure that most or all of what never makes it onto the page because I forgot about it probably wasn't much worth keeping anyway.
8. On your blog, I've noticed that you've been a little critical of some of the poetry that is being recognized in Canada today. What is the future of Canadian poetry- or poetry in general?
No idea. I expect it'll bear some resemblance to its past. The present is very intriguing, but most of what I think best receives little notice and most of what receives notice is considerably inferior to what I think best. Critics and satirists since the ancient Greeks and Romans have made similar complaints. Plus ça change...
9. Here's where the interviewer gets all annoying and makes it all about himself: One of the things I struggle with is simply finding the time to write. How do you make that commitment?
I can only speak for myself here, John. I've tailored my life around my needs to read and write and think. I work jobs that interfere minimally with that and give me lots of time. Either it's important enough to you to do this sort of thing or it isn't. There are lots of ways to write and lots of reasons to write. I think far too many people are encouraged to pursue it in a quasi-professional manner.
What is a professional manner, and is it that what you do? Could quasi-professional lead to professional?
I use "quasi-professional" to distinguish it from just doing it for your own private enjoyment and/or sharing it with your circle of acquaintance. By it I mean submitting work to magazines, contests and presses, going to writers' colonies, doing public readings, that sort of thing. A professional writer is usually a journalist or a successful novelist. It's very hard to make a living from writing alone.
If "quasi-professional" means writing poetry solely for one's own private enjoyment and/or sharing it with a few others, why do you say "too many people are encouraged to pursue it [this way]." Can poetry be a hobby?
No, I said that "quasi-professional" involves "submitting work to magazines, contests and presses, going to writers' colonies, doing public readings, that sort of thing." I was distinguishing it from being a private hobby. There's no reason at all that poetry can't be a hobby. For most people who write it, it basically is, but it's really quite easy for hobbyists to become "published poets" in Canada, because of all the public funding available for presses and magazines. I would discourage no one from adopting it as a hobby. But most people who do it as a hobby don't have anything new to say or their own essential way of saying it. There's a lot of poetry published that isn't too bad, but doesn't stand out at all from the mass of everything else. And there are a lot of poets whose sense of entitlement (to grant monies, to an audience, to continued publication, etc.) is far greater than their talent. But like I said, in some ways it's always been thus. It's far easier to be a bad poet than a bad plumber. Or than a bad novelist; it takes far more work to be a bad novelist.
by Zachariah Wells
Lug me out on a dead man’s walk
And bring my head down on the block.
Not like an axe that chips and hacks,
Just lift me, let weight wedge the cracks.
Drop me into wood’s formula plots:
Sap bleeds, sap suffers, sap clots.
Sic my steel on the stubbornest log—
I’m more loyal and dumb than a dog.
I rise and fall and rip through heart rot,
My blow barks out like a shot.
Wheel me round in an amoral waltz:
Cannots, shouldnots, wouldnots—
Chop! Not a second to spare for second thoughts
And no love lost for knots.
10. And since I'm milking you for advice, when do you decide that a poem is finished?
I don't. Paul Valéry, the French poet, said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. When I stop seeing things that I can do to make a poem better, I try to leave it alone. Sometimes this happens after a first draft, sometimes it never happens. I have one poem that I've been revising off and on for almost ten years and I don't think it's done with me yet. Ars dura, vita brevis...
RELIGIONFor Richard Dawkins
by Zachariah Wells
You’d swear she was designed for self-immolation
The way the moth circles in logarithmic gyres,
Spirals down toward ad hoc pyres
(Campfires, candlewicks, shivaree mobs)—but reformation
From science fixes the error: crossed wires
In moths’ brains make them offer themselves
As tithe to some lunatic church. Delve
Deeper: what misfires
Is an elegant compass to which stars
And moon, optically infinite, are lodestone
Of a luminate sort: their glow,
Shed on her eye’s arrayed guides, shows
The moth home. Rays shone
In spikes, like spokes from a hub, draw her to cars’
Headlights, lit windows, autos-da-fé, torches:
The moth’s led astray by our radiant porches.