Peek-a-boo: An Interview with Phyllis Webb.
Originally published in Where the Words Come From (Nightwood Editions, 2002).
by Jay Ruzesky
PW: I don’t want to say anything. I have no message for the world!
JR: I loved your essay on “Poetry and Psychobiography” [Nothing But Brush Strokes 87]. The idea of it fascinates me. You talk about the invasion of Anne Sexton’s privacy in biographical approaches to her work and yet the only way you can do that is by providing some of the details of her life--brief sketches I admit--but details that are what that voyeuristic way of looking at a life involves. Was that a difficult piece to write?
PW: Yes it was. I’ve spent many hours with psychiatrists in my life. I remember hearing something on the radio about disclosure and I almost passed out. It’s that sense of the loss of control over your private space and your private mind that upset me about the Anne Sexton incident when the psychiatrist released the tapes. It seems amazing to me that a doctor would do that, and it’s all very fascinating and we’re all interested. It’s that ambivalence of being either the subject or the object. This causes me a lot of confusion. I recently turned down an invitation to a conference at which they’ll be discussing some of my work and I realize that is the problem again. Will I be a subject or an object? That dichotomy is existentially very frightening.
JR: Can you explain what you mean by that dichotomy? Why is it frightening?
PW: It’s a woman’s problem of being an object - a sex object and that frightening loss of personhood.
Being the thing discussed... the person and the work get confused–the impression that “my work is me”. If my work is being discussed perhaps I feel that I am being objectified and analyzed and dissected. I don’t want to be identified or confused with the work and I don’t want to be there while I’m being discussed. The body of work is not me. There is a kind of sexual anxiety there of being on display.
I’m such a private person and I’ve gone to extremes to remain private, apart from my public performances.
JR: Which isn’t necessarily you.
PW: No, that’s the mask. I’m curious about the subject of that essay which is psychobiography and the use of titillating private life details and the whole mystery of why that is almost more interesting to people than the work.
JR: Do you have a sense of why?
PW: I offer a theory in the essay which is that it’s a return to the source of creativity, of biological creation, of how we are made. It goes back to who screwed whom. It’s the secret of life that we’re all consumed with finding out about.
JR: Biography informs literature. Most people are interested in biography after they do some reading. You read about a writer because you know something about their work and that information informs your past and future reading of that work.
PW: In a way it probably shouldn’t. It’s unfortunate that we have lives. The work doesn’t need that dimension.
JR: There is the idea of the purity of the poem; it ought to be able to speak for itself and often does. And yet we’re interested in biography. Sylvia Plath is a good example. Many of her poems are marvelous and I read them before I knew much of anything about her, but I think “Lady Lazarus” is somehow more potent when you know something about her life. Maybe it’s a sense of the poem seeming more authentic. Is that what draws us to biography? The desire for authenticity?
PW: You mean that this is the true story?
JR: It’s not so much a factual truth. Readers want to know that they’re being told something real.
PW: We don’t want to be conned. But the work of the imagination can float free of that biographical data. It never really floats free of the self. I’m curious about that hunger for “this is based on a true story” as they say on television. It’s supposed to make writing more real but if it’s fiction or fantasy it’s not real. A made thing is not real life. Poems are creations. I don’t know what would be the true story except maybe a police report.
JR: Like reality TV. That must be what’s so compelling about it. Real drunks being arrested by real cops. Somehow that’s fascinating in a way that it wouldn’t be if I made it up.
PW: Do you think that’s because our experience is not satisfying for ourselves? That we have to have someone else’s experience because there’s a lack of depth in our experience? To fill “lives of quiet desperation.” People are living quiet lives of emptiness and this provides a thrill.
JR: Real TV would do that but I don’t know if that makes the world more thrilling.
PW: You can also watch them bungie jumping or being towed by a boat or other activities that adventure stories once fulfilled, and detective fiction would have also filled that need.
JR: My theory is connected with those lives of quiet desperation. Maybe many people don’t feel their lives are very real. I read a book a few years ago called Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder [by Lawrence Weschler] which was about strange things in the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. Some of the exhibits are true and some are not and what that does is it inspires a kind of wonder. There are things... ants with huge horns, that seem like they shouldn’t be true but they are, and other things that are believable but aren’t true and I think that we have a kind of engagement with the world that is like that. It’s about wanting to be impressed by the world. We want to be open to being in awe of the things that are around us.
PW: Ants with huge horns sound marvellous and suggest to me that we’re in the realm of magic realism. The magic and the real playing tag, a very serious game. Awe and wonder bring us close to the mystical, the hope of climbing out of the boxes we live in from day to day.
JR: I’m very interested in what happens when the magic and the real come together.
There’s a beautiful line somewhere between truth and lies that writers play with all the time. When I’m teaching I often talk about the idea of the well-made mask. Fiction (whether it’s poetry or prose) reflects some of the features of the real face beneath the mask and the mask reflects the face but it’s also shaped and crafted to take on a kind of expression of its own. The reason it has an effect though is that there’s an essence of the face that comes through. Normally you would see the eyes for example.
PW: True, even if it’s a wolf mask.
JR: Because perhaps there’s an essence of the wolf in the face beneath. The mask draws us in but it’s what’s behind the mask that has the impact. The authentic stuff coming through.
PW: So are we trying to tear the mask off? Perhaps. In which case there is not enough appreciation for the mask maker and maybe for the beauty or the ugliness of the mask.
On a confessional note, I do find it hard to read novels by friends. I know something about their lives and there is a terrible temptation all the time I’m reading to say,`Is this true?’ I feel it’s a sickness almost and I wonder why I am doing this. Is this an aspect of fiction that it sends off a message to say, come on and read me? Figure me out if you can?
JR: In another essay in Nothing But Brush Strokes [“The Muse Figure” 3] you say that “we do not have muses”. Can you explain? Is the naked truth something that anyone can strive for in the age of information?
PW: I guess I said we, but I don’t. It’s a matter of personality now. It was formerly a tradition, a kind of manner of behaving as a poet. It’s also a way of projecting another part of the self so that it’s over your shoulder or advising or communing with you. It’s more a male construct because usually the muse was female so I always felt I had to have a male muse if I had a muse. A lot of my mentors have been men but I wouldn’t have called them muses and I wouldn’t think of the beautiful male being a muse in the way that the female has been for male writers and artists.
The white goddess was represented, according to Robert Graves, as a naked woman. I don’t think she’s always naked. I have trouble with the whole thing. Do you have a muse?
JR: No, I don’t think so, but I like the idea as a representation of the naked truth. Back to authenticity again.
In your poem “Two Pears: A Still Life” [The Sea Is Also a Garden 8], in the last line pears become “secret, original, a dream of candor.” It’s the word “candor” I react to. It’s an act of faith and trust to tell the truth and to expose yourself even through the mask of poetry; to express something that is deeply one’s own.
PW: Sir. Philip Sidney said “look in thy heart, and write” and that has a kind of directness without too much embellishment and it seems to me a way of evading a lot of what I do which is to be intellectual and witty. I’m not sure how often I look in my heart and write. I did occasionally. I don’t think that’s the place to write from all the time and I don’t know that the naked truth is what it’s about all the time either.
I don’t think I have a heart any more so maybe that’s why I’ve stopped writing; it wore out.
JR: Do you mean that?
PW: I don’t know. I’m sort of heartless I think.
JR: Some of your poems that strike me most are your love poems. “Propositions” [The Sea Is Also a Garden” 2] is a beautiful poem.
PW: I must agree. That’s one of the miracles that happened. It was written very quickly in Paris. It’s mathematically balanced. Someone worked it out mathematically.
JR: I don’t know that I felt drawn to add things up.
PW: It’s very one, two, one, two.
JR: And very moving about what love is and wholeness. The last line about the half-moon.
PW: I still think of that when I look out the window and see the half moon. I think of my own line.
JR: “a half-moon, its hidden wholeness there.”
Naked Poems as well are wonderful love poems.
PW: Not all of them are love poems. The “Suite of Lies” is not love poems.
JR: There are several layers there. It’s also about the love of language.
PW: It’s about poetry too. Yes.
JR: Those poems have had a big influence on other writers.
Do you think romantic love will always be a driving force in literature? Is it an endless subject or are all poems love poems of a kind?
PW: The kind of love poems that are written now are not like the old lyrics. The way people write about love now seems to be much more bristly. It’s honest. It’s more about the difficulties of relationships than about falling in love. The romantic love poem tends toward the lyrical.
If you think of Anne Carson, for instance, always writing about love; but how acidic she is and how funny. This is a complicated approach to love. I think there’s no such thing as a straightforward simple.... I’m thinking about Leonard Cohen’s early poem about Annie but he’s a singer; he’s still in the lyric, the singing lyric.
JR: It’s probably harder to write that kind of love poem.
PW: I keep getting images of thorns and scratches. Maybe it all changed with Margaret Atwood’s Power Politics--“you fit into me / like a hook into an eye”. In Canadian literature that was probably the turning point in the love poem with the entry of this female voice: the sharpness, the vitriolic tone. There’s a real intelligence at work which cuts into the lyric outburst. Power Politics was a landmark in Canadian literature in the sixties.
There’s more about married love now, it seems to me. If you think of Sharon Olds; there’s more daddy love too. The poet is more willing to grapple with actual relationship and is less outside admiring the object. It’s much more relational and that’s why it’s more complicated and bitter and edgy.
JR: It’s a sign of the culture where relationships have changed so much in the last century. There’s a lot of questioning of societally conditioned love.
PW: But the basic formula hasn’t changed despite all the questioning for centuries. We’re still doing the same old thing, getting married, getting divorced. That’s what appals me about gay marriages, the desire to fall into a worn-out mode. But it won’t wear out, it still has a lot of life.
JR: You were politically active early on, running for the CCF, and you were later involved with Amnesty International.
PW: I started a group on the Island [Salt Spring] but I burned out after two or three years. That was in the 80s. We had a very good group going here but then I moved to Victoria.
JR: It seems that your poems became more political the more you wrote; more overtly political in poems like “Prison Report” and “Treblinka Gas Chamber” and much of Hanging Fire. Was that a conscious decision?
PW: No. I’m always preoccupied with these things. Some of it did come out of the Amnesty work. I met Jacobo Timmerman in Toronto at an Amnesty meeting and I was struck by his gentleness and his good humour after what he’d been through. I read part of his book that was reprinted in The New Yorker and then I wrote the poem. There was a direct Amnesty connection for “Prison Report,” but I wrote “Treblinka Gas Chamber” in the 70s. When I look back at earlier titles from the fifties and sixties they do seem more personal.
I probably wanted to become more overt. I wanted to expand. It was a movement away from the personal, private kind of poem. And also I was maturing.
JR: I wonder if it has anything to do simply with the world you found yourself in. You were brought up through the war. But my sense is that politics are even more desperate now.
PW: I’ve always felt desperate about social conditions.
JR: Why write poetry then? Did you have to wrestle with the idea that you were writing poems rather than being a social activist?
PW: I felt, and still do feel, that I ought to be doing something. But I wasn’t made for that kind of public life. I was too private and too easily damaged and the use of the language is so offensive in its rhetoric and cliches... how do you live from day to day speaking that way? All that fed into my nausea at the thought of entering public life. But I still feel guilty. I feel I should be doing more. But that’s puritanical and protestant. Social good has always been something I’ve cared about.
JR: Do the poems serve a social function?
PW: Yes. Poetry “makes nothing happen” as we know, but there’s a slight consciousness raising.
JR: And you were directly involved in politics. You can’t always be the one chained to the tree.
PW: My time with Ideas at CBC, my work generally at CBC, was very important and that was certainly political. We were a radical bunch and a lot of our programs dealt with very very important social issues. That’s probably when I was most effective in a public way.
Teaching too. That’s also socially useful.
JR: When did you stop writing? Hanging Fire was the last book of poetry.
PW: That was 1990. It came out in ‘91 but it’s dated ‘90. There’ll probably never be another book.
JR: You say probably.
PW: Well, you never know! I think it’s very unlikely.
I psychologically date it from my mother’s death, which was in ’92 I think. And in ’93 I started painting. Hanging Fire has a lot of anger in it. I wonder if it scared me that I had revealed my anger so openly. John Hulcoop did a review in which he emphasized the anger in the book. There’s a lot of feminist anger, social anger and other kinds.
JR: It’s more subversive.
PW: But there wasn’t much attention paid to it when it came out.
JR: I sent you a question about what Joseph Beuys said, rather famously, that the “Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated.” I think he was referring to the anti-art sentiment implied in Duchamp’s reported decision to turn away from art and just to play chess, and also to the ego involved in that decision. As though Duchamp wanted to see whether the world could do without his art. But I don’t think, when you’re not writing, that it has anything to do with ego.
PW: That sort of hit me. Silence and seeing if the world can go on without your art. It’s like, “Well, fuck you if you’re not going to read my book and give me a prize or something.” [Laughs] I realize I don’t want to be forgotten, and not just my work.
JR: That’s understandable but Duchamp was quite ego-driven I think.
PW: What artist isn’t? The Dada movement certainly tried to get an effect and be noticed.
JR: There’s a story about Satie and his piece called “Entr’acte” It was performed at an intermission for some other event and everyone stopped to listen, so he had to run around and tell everyone to `Quit listening, quit listening’. It was not at all about what happened inside the concert hall where everyone was supposed to listen politely.
I don’t know if Duchamp really intended just to stop and play chess.
PW: I realize what also fed my withdrawal. It was not so much about stopping writing as withdrawing from being a “poet”. I made a trip to author festivals in Australia and New Zealand and I wondered `Why am I doing this to myself?’ It was so difficult. I always had quite a bit of ham in me, I did like performing, but I thought `I’m too old for this, running around, getting up on stages and showing off’. When I came home I decided `No more public appearances’ and I’ve pretty much stuck to that except for memorial occasions or ecological ones. And that led to the examination of the problem of the ego and identity and the poetic identity. I wanted to see if I existed apart from my identity as a poet. That was an important part of who I thought I was. So, gone, gone, gone.
All those things combined, the non-reception of Hanging Fire, the death of my mother–which in some ways was a great relief because she was a hundred and one and our relationship was painful and there’s been a hangover from that–those things and this decision to cease being a performer more or less, hiding away here. That’s when the painting erupted.
Then I had to go through the ego problem again with the painting because you want to show your work. You want to show that you’ve done something. Here I am again. Sign it. Peek-a-boo.
JR: Well, it’s a process that involves reception at some point.
PW: Yes. At the moment I’m wondering if I’ll exhibit in the summer show this year with the Alliance of Salt Spring Artists. I think my painting is getting worse.
I got very excited about painting because I had to teach myself everything. There was a great excitement about learning. I seemed to be so hungry for knowledge about painting. I’d always been passionate about painting. I’d known a lot of painters and so on.
JR: Some of the prose pieces in Nothing But Brush Strokes were written since you started painting. But it’s interesting that one of the first problems you were dealing with when you started painting was the problem of the ego.
PW: Yes, and I’m still struggling with it although I feel much freer now. I do feel I worked through something. I’ve just been reading a short essay in Brick by Jim Harrison on Zen practice which throws some light on my perhaps misguided struggle to escape myself. He says, “In our practice the self is not pushed away, it drifts away.” Which shows I’m not much of a Buddhist.
JR: Maybe you had a sense that some of the work would become public and it would be easy to anticipate that someone would say `Here’s Phyllis the poet and she’s trying to paint’.
PW: There’s nothing false about that statement. She’s trying to paint. I’m aware that there’s a lot of bad painting in the world and I’m just adding to it.
JR: I don’t know about that. Can I ask you about collage? It seems to be a disorderly medium. It naturally, I think, moves toward abstraction. You begin with what may be a recognizable image or a bunch of them and by putting them together in unique ways and altering perspectives you make the familiar unrecognizable or at least you force people to see those images in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise. It sounds a little like what a good poem ought to do.
PW: I’m getting myself to see. Not necessarily with any sense of an audience.
I’m not sure that collage necessarily tends toward abstraction. It disrupts habits of perception, as you say. There’s an element of the puzzle about it–and in fact I’ve been working recently on some paintings with pieces of crossword puzzles, acrylic combined with collage on canvas.
JR: There’s a kind of breaking down involved in collage–cutting up photos you’ve taken. And then a reconstruction. Do you find the process ameliorative, maybe transformative?
PW: Yes. There’s a thrill in that double-take, knowing what the original images were and seeing them deconstructed, or reconstructed, into something new. I think I’m only beginning to understand Pound’s dictum: Make it new.
JR: The idea of deconstructing and reconstructing sums up the pleasure there is in making any kind of art.
PW: I had a conversation recently about literary theory which aesthetic appreciation has been torn from. Most theoretical dissertations are not concerned with beauty or an aesthetic sense of the work. They are much more subject-related or structure or technique related but not a lot to do with the pleasure that’s part of our pleasure of writing, of production, of making things. There’s all that pleasure. “The pleasure of the text” Roland Barthes’ phrase. For me, there’s a lot of pleasure in writing and painting and collage, and you want to give pleasure as well by producing something splendid.
I’ve been interested in the spatial problems I have to solve. I guess there is a sense of an audience because obviously in order to make a work coherent somehow, if I choose to show anybody, there’s a slight sense, like writing a poem, that you have to engage or interest or involve and reveal. But it’s not terribly deliberate. It is somehow just there at the back of the mind that someone might want to look at this or happen to look at it and then see something or just appreciate my aesthetic sensibility which is another aspect of the poetic production–that you are the maker of possibly beautiful things.
JR: In “Might Have Been: The Tedious Shores” [Nothing But Brush Strokes 84] you say that at first the creative activity of painting seemed meaningless, and yet it appears to have great meaning for you to the extent that it put off depression.
PW: I had a problem with the meaninglessness of it all. That was a feeling of being a novice and therefore insecure. And not being very good at it.
JR: You were excited to be learning.
PW: As you say in your essay [“Writing On The Wall”, Brick 53], “the meaning of life is being here.” The meaning of bad painting is it’s fun to do.
JR: At some point you were beginning to write. Do you remember having the same feeling about that?
PW: No. I don’t think so. That’s the difference between feeling like an amateur in painting and deeply knowing that writing poetry had a profound meaning for me that is inexplicable, really. You ask where does it come from; I don’t know but I’ve always had a great respect for my writing life and I don’t have that as an attempting painter. I just enjoy doing it and it keeps me out of depression. It’s my anti-depressant. I hate the idea of art as therapy but there is a therapeutic aspect to it.
JR: There always is.
PW: I don’t think we’d go on doing it if it didn’t cure us in some way, heal us, make us more whole. Then you smash up again, put it all together again.
JR: It’s the process of sorting through, the self-questioning and trying to find answers. If that wasn’t happening it wouldn’t be worth doing.
PW: The major impulse that led me to write was depression and it also led me to the silence. Depression was a profound part of my life for most of my life and writing was a way of surviving in a sense. Not that all my books are depressive.
JR: In fact the opposite.
PW: Yes, joyful and funny sometimes. But my constant struggle with breakdown and depression through the years was a way of making sense of what was going on, fighting suicide and all that.
JR: You were saying in the car that you weren’t sure that you wanted to talk about poetry.
PW: When you asked me about how I felt when I was writing in my twenties I thought `I’m seventy-four, I can’t remember that far back’. How did I feel? I don’t know. It was very inspirational. I just got hit and zapped by poems.
JR: You say in “Might-have-been: The Tedious Shores” that you had something like an ecstatic experience that drove you to write. Something happened in Montreal that made you know that you should write.
PW: I went there because I was writing. I was walking through the grounds at McGill. It’s in one of my early poems, “The Colour of the Light” [The Vision Tree 21]. These are the pigeons: “how clear were the colours of pigeons / and how mysterious the animation of children / playing in trees.” It was one of those moments. I worked as a secretary and I was also a student. I would walk through the grounds a lot. That was a very memorable experience but it’s hard to recall the process of writing. It was a cluster of images. It was a moment.
You said ecstatic?
JR: I’ll read it: “I moved to Montreal and had not a mystical experience but something like it which revealed to me that my destiny was to be a poet” .
PW: How interesting. I was already writing, I’d been writing before I went to Montreal. But that’s about “Earth Decending” [The Vision Tree 25]. That was the poem. Do you know it? It’s about the planet earth tumbling. This was a turning point poem for me because of its cosmic dimensions.
JR: Which has been a continuing obsession.
PW: I was very existentialist at that time and it was the existentialist time so it has that impulse in it.
I lived in a basement apartment and I remember writing “Earth Decending” in the bedroom. It was a turning point although I’d been serious about writing before.
I was encouraged to write by Frank Scott and being taken seriously means you take yourself seriously, you feel some responsibility. Louis Dudek also helped me a lot and I began to move with other writers and people who belonged to that group in Montreal. When you have like-minded people who are committed it becomes a way of life.
JR: I suspect that these days it might be easier to find that community of like-minded people. There simply weren’t that many people writing then.
PW: There are thousands now! I had a more organic literary life. It was attached to my life and it was immediate and was about getting together. You mentioned Toronto but I was too busy in Toronto.
JR: Was the atmosphere different in Toronto?
PW: Yes, and I didn’t really have time. I worked very hard at the CBC in public affairs for five years. I was thinking that the difference was immense. I didn’t produce a book in that time except Naked Poems. I resolved the technical problem of using the question form in the final section. That was published while I was there. I was frustrated as a poet.
JR: How do you mean you resolved the problem? What was the nature of it?
PW: The sentence structure was either/or, and/but; these diadic structures which are part of our thinking unfortunately. I remember where I was sitting in my apartment and I thought “Ah! Questions!” It just broke through and I was able to finish it.
Later I wrote an essay on the question as an instrument of torture.
JR: Which made me nervous about coming here to talk to you!
PW: I used to do a lot of interviews too so I know about that business of asking questions.
JR: Who was part of the community in Toronto?
PW: I occasionally saw Ray Souster, and Al Purdy, and Earle Birney. Victor Coleman, Michael Ondaatje, Eli Mandel–he was a dear friend. In my work I ran into a lot of writers.
JR: Gwendolyn McEwen?
PW: Yes, of course! There was a reading at the Bohemian Embassy, which was a coffee house. Al Purdy and I read each other’s poems. We hated it. I hated the way he read my poems and he hated the way I read his. I suppose I did have literary connections. Joe Rosenblatt too.
JR: Have you seen the NFB film about Gwendolyn McEwen? It was based on Rosemary Sullivan’s book [Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen]. There’s some good old footage from the Bohemian Embassy. A very young Margaret Atwood and so on.
PW: Gwendolyn was always there and her husband, Milton [Acorn]. I knew Margaret Atwood because I did a series of CBC television programs and I had up-and-coming poets on the final one. I must have been more connected than I thought but it felt very different from Montreal.
JR: When did you meet Leonard Cohen?
PW: That was in the fifties. I met him at Irving Layton’s when Louis Dudek brought him. He was Louis’ protegé. That’s where we became friends. We aren’t now. I didn’t hear from him after I moved out here until I went to his concert in Victoria.
JR: I saw you at that concert. Did you go back and see him?
PW: Yes. I don’t think he quite recognized me and I teased him about it but he said, “Of course I did darlin.”
JR: Did he become part of that circle?
PW: Yes. Then he went to New York, to Columbia. He came back and forth but I was moving around too. We were good friends and I saw a fair amount of him when we were both in town.
JR: The friendships you had with that group, did that involve a sharing of work?
PW: That’s what it was all about actually. Mainly we met at Irving’s house which was out in the suburbs and also at Frank’s [Scott’s] house. Occasionally I met Irving or Louis at a restaurant. They were quite large gatherings. Al, Irving, Frank, Louis, Eli, Leonard, Miriam Waddington, Betty Layton and kids.
But we didn’t workshop.
Irving was a very strong personality. Even when you consider the others who were in the room. He was so expansive and so ideologically focused. He knew what he was doing. Contact Press was in formation so that was also a subject of interest. And CIV/n which was a magazine that Louis and Aileen Collins published. There was a lot of small publishing. Louis believed in small presses and literary magazines and wrote his thesis on small presses. There was a lot of commitment to poetry.
We sometimes attempted to meet with French writers, Québècois writers, and we’d get together once and then nothing more would happen. I guess it was the language.
There were these efforts. Frank was translating. He translated Anne Hébert. I’ve lost touch with Québècois writing. I read Nicole Brossard in English now.
JR: Someone who is starting to write now probably reads contemporary Canadian writers. If they go to university there are classes in Canadian Literature and Creative Writing. It’s not very difficult to become part of a literary circle simply by showing up. It must have been very different for you.
PW: I was just lucky to land in this milieu.
JR: Another twenty years earlier it would have been even more difficult.
PW: Yes, but when you think about A.J.M. Smith, F.R. Scott and that McGill group, that was thirty years before.... I think people do find each other. It’s a kind of radar that writers and artists have.
That reminds me of Contemporary Verse which Dorothy Livesay was involved in. I published there and that was a kind of gathering place. Not physically, but once you’d published in that magazine or Northern Review you felt part of that community and you sort of knew people even though you didn’t know them. All across the country. I knew all the poets in the country at one time I think. It wasn’t very hard. You did meet them.
JR: Which is not possible now. There are thousands of people writing. Every now and then I come across a poet and realize that this person has seven books! I’ve never heard of them and I wonder why.
PW: I can’t keep up. I do try in some kind of way. I get the Malahat Review, Capilano Review, and West Coast Line. Visually things are getting very interesting with other languages coming in, Mandarin and so on, and I get excited about that. I never know where poetry is going. Where can it go?
JR: I notice in Hanging Fire and also in Water and Light that there are references to what I might call popular culture sneaking in: “the Home Hardware catalogue”, “Toad of Toad Hall”, “the aisles of Safeway” of “Pharmasave”. Were you conscious of those references to such contemporary mundane things? They don’t seem as present in the earlier poems.
PW: Maybe that’s brand-naming or something. Perhaps I was keeping up with the times. That kind of pop culture or mass culture reference is permissible. Maybe a bit trendy. The Pharmasave thing of course happened. The Safeway sign was just an emblem. They come out of my experience.
JR: But they root things in the present in a particular way.
PW: They will be passé very soon. That was probably a kind of loosening up, less high-seriousness. Letting those things in; I wonder if Sharon Thesen was of some influence there. It was around me. People write like that now and perhaps we didn’t before. It was not high art to refer to movies and television programs.
JR: I couldn’t imagine Rilke talking about the grocery store.
PW: He probably never went to one. I imagine he was always looked after.
JR: He talks about going to a farm to get a glass of whole milk every day and about going to a vegetarian restaurant in Paris which wouldn’t have been fashionable. Maybe it’s more a reflection on the culture than on your writing; television, film, and advertising are a bigger part of the experience of living now.
JR: I was supposed to talk to you about reviews and awards. You talked a little about the non-reception of Hanging Fire.
PW: Competition. Is it good, is it bad? I don’t know. But winning prizes does help financially, that’s the big thing, and it gives you a little stroke, several strokes. I like what Erin Mouré says about the artist’s life, how artists finance the production of art with their lives. I think that’s wonderful that we finance and subsidize with our lives.
JR: I love your idea that the correct response to a poem is another poem.
PW: The proper response to a poem is another poem. Actually, it was someone else who said that and I can’t remember who it was. Maybe Oscar Wilde. People seem to think I made it up.
JR: Do you still think it’s true?
PW: That is an ideal response and it would be lovely if it happened but I don’t think it happens often. Very rarely.
JR: There is a dialogue that goes on. Mark Strand talks about the “secret life of poetry” where a poem refers to another poem. You might not have to know that but it adds another layer.
PW: In a way that’s what I’m saying; that is the proper response to a poem.
JR: It’s a dialogue, these poems talking to each other through the ages.
PW: It’s true. Even with the anxiety of influence, or maybe out of the anxiety of influence, the influence of anxiety. The tradition in action in liveliness.
JR: Is it an anxiety? I get students to write an imitation. One doesn’t want a student to become someone else but there’s the response that some students have that they don’t want to read anything because they don’t want it to influence them.
PW: Yes I know. I laugh but you know I had to stop reading Dylan Thomas in the fifties because he had such an incredible influence on me. I loved him and I read him a lot, over and over again, and it kept coming into the poetry so I had to put him away, cast him out.
JR: Putting him away is different than...
PW: Not having read him at all.
JR: I was thinking about Rilke. I’m asking about him because you refer to him enough times that you must think he’s important.
PW: He was for me. I read him in the fifties. I was blown away and I didn’t understand very much either. Knowing it’s in translation you don’t know what you’re getting. That so much should come through in translation is amazing; they become English poems or at least they did for me. There’s a kind of romantic sense to those poems and still a lyrical impulse there, very strong. They were so different from anything I’d ever read. The way he talked about relationships was so extraordinary, archetypal, the angels and all that. They had a huge influence on me. Huge.
I did a radio program on his letters. This was for “CBC Wednesday Night.” I really got down to the nitty gritty of old Rainer. Karl Seigler has translated the Sonnets to Orpheus. It’s a lovely translation.
I love everything he did. I read The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge when I was in Paris. I should read him again now.
JR: Have you done that a lot, reread people?
PW: I reread something of Henry James every summer. It’s so odd that I keep going back to Henry James but I can reread him forever. My memory is so bad it’s like reading something fresh.
JR: In another essay you mention that you were reading Canadian literature when you were a student at UBC.
PW: There was Ira Dilworth’s anthology which we used. He was a Vancouver person, a local book. It had Birney, Pratt, Livesay, Page, Scott and all those people. It was my introduction, yes.
JR: Would you say they were as much of an influence on what you were writing early on as Thomas, say.
PW: Oh yes. I don’t know how much they influenced my style but they allowed me to write. That was a world I could perhaps enter. Those poems influenced me enormously: Earle Birney’s “Vancouver Lights”, and P.K. Page. Dorothy Livesay was also very important. I was very political then. It aimed me in my direction. There was a Canadian literature there.
JR: Were there creative writing classes at UBC when you were there?
PW: Earle Birney had started his classes then but I didn’t take them. I didn’t think I was a real poet. I was writing poetry but I didn’t take myself that seriously. So I never took a creative writing course.
JR: You’ve taught them.
PW: Yes. And you want to know if it can be taught.
JR: No. Of course it can be taught. It’s a ridiculous question isn’t it? If nothing else it teaches people to be better readers and there are tools and things you can learn about technique. I don’t know if you can be taught to have an eye for recognizing what to write about but you can certainly teach people a thing or two about expression.
I’m interested in what the process of teaching was like for you. Was it inspiring?
PW: It was inspiring and stimulating. It didn’t stop me from writing as I thought it would. One year I did teach full time and that was a bit tough, but the way I taught which was not every year, helped me because I liked to keep in touch with young people and with the university and see what’s going on so I enjoyed it for the most part except for the occasional horrific moment in teaching which we all have had. I just enjoyed teaching. Or maybe it’s not teaching, leading a class, letting a class happen, whatever you would call it.
JR: In “A Long Line of Baby Caterpillars” you say “Take away my wisdom and my categories!” which strikes me as a very Taoist or maybe Buddhist idea. What is real is inexpressible. I wonder if there is a connection there to silence.
PW: That is why I take a lot of pleasure in painting. It is a release from language and meaning. But also “take away my wisdom” points to my sense that there is no end to learning and understanding and experience. Wisdom sounds so final. “Categories” refers, of course, to that rationality and ordering with which we are imbued from a very early age. Our filing system minds–all very useful and efficiency-making but again tending towards finality, the false sense of security that goes out the window the moment our expectations and plans are upset, undone.
JR: In your essay “On the Line” [Nothing But Brush Strokes 20] you discuss the importance of sound in your poems. Have you always had a sense of language as music? Did you read aloud to yourself as you composed? Did you listen to music when you wrote? Do you do it now when you paint?
PW: I don’t suppose I would have written poetry if I hadn’t had a good ear. I’ve often said that when I write a poem “I play by ear”–which I did when I played the piano long ago. A way of composing poems, crooning along. I would work over a poem by reciting it over and over, if only in my head, until I thought I’d got it right, a sound-haunting for perhaps a week. And then it could go fly a kite and so could I. The poem was done.
I don’t think I listened to music while writing. I sometimes do when I paint. I love opera and chamber music, though I’m not very knowledgeable even after all these years. I always went to concerts wherever I lived–Montreal, London, Paris, Vancouver–before I got phobic about public spaces. Now it’s CDs and tapes and of course the radio, but I do live a lot in silence. I can’t take too much speech coming from me. Silence is my natural mode.
– Salt Spring Island, BC - June 6 and August 31, 2001