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Posted: Thursday April 7, 2016
National Poetry Month: An Interview with Garry Thomas Morse

In Prairie Harbour, his contrapuntal follow-up to his earlier book of poetry – the Governor General’s Award finalist Discovery PassagesGarry Thomas Morse traces multiple lines of his mixed ancestry. These include the nomadic “pre-historic” movements of Wakashan speakers who were later to form various West Coast First Nations; the schismatic mindset of Jedidiah Morse, the “father of American geography”; and eternal struggles of European Jewish relations, artists, and close friends against perennial anti-Semitism. Set around the vigilantly maintained border/lines that mark the relatively “unsung” decline of natural prairie life, this unromantic “wrecklogue” radiates outward from a new real-estate development in Regina, Saskatchewan.

For National Poetry Month on Meta-Talon, Talon editor Shazia Hafiz Ramji talked with Garry Thomas Morse about writing as resistance, typography in poetry, and prairie poetry. Of course, Morse’s responses mention Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Charles Olson, Smaro Kamboureli, Annie Le Brun, and Lars von Trier!

SHR: Prairie Harbour is broken into three sections: the first part of the long poem, “Prairie Harbour: 1-12,” followed by the second section of the book, “Company Romance,” then the third section comprising the second half of the long poem, “Prairie Harbour: 13-24.”

In February, I caught part of a livestream of a lecture by Zadie Smith at the University of Calgary. @nathandueck tweeted: “Writing can serve as creative obstruction,” in the context of Zadie’s discussion about writing as an act of refusal, and resistance in a neoliberal culturescape where creativity is frequently co-opted.

I thought that breaking the long poem with the “heritage minutes” of the “Company Romance” section was an act of refusal to some extent, a refusal of grand narratives, as well as a refusal of the tradition of the epic long poem.

I felt the routes of reading on the pages in the second half of “Prairie Harbour” heavily shaped by the preceding section’s “heritage minutes” on colonialism, the North American fur trade, and “The Company.” For example, in the second half of the long poem, I noticed that words could sometimes be followed laterally, and sometimes vertically down the page, but in the first half of the long poem it was mostly lateral, left-to-right reading patterns.

How did the structure of Prairie Harbour arise?

GTM: This is mostly guesswork about my subconscious workings and recent influences, but here goes. When arriving at the structure of Prairie Harbour, I would have been thinking about Smaro Kamboureli’s writings about the history of the long poem in Canada in her wonderful book On the Edge of Genre, and the shift from egoic epic verse to postmodern fragments. The interruption to continuity is also fitting, I suppose, because that is what “contact” was for First Nations people.

You are right about that shaping, although there is another influence that resulted in the intermezzo and the second half of the poem. Maestro Victor Sawa led an RSO performance of Gustave Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in Regina, which really impressed on me the importance of the middle scherzo movement. Something about a big guy standing in front and blowing a French Horn of warning amid the tension between urban and rural dance forms. So I heard it not just as a prophecy of the horrors of World War II, as some do, and not just as a warning to the prairie provinces, but to all of us, for our daily atrocities.

There’s a quality I really admire in the music of Mahler, that I sometimes think of as “aesthetic expressionism,” and that led to an exploration of Dmitri Shostakovich’s banned operatic voice that he turned into subversive instrumentation, expression of muted voices under Stalin’s regime. These are historical echoes of resistance and subversion that can be found in centuries of opera. So this would add to Nathaniel G. Moore’s remark that “[a]n entire civilization of voices seems to be teeming from the pages.”

SHR: I’m curious about the twofold idea of “reception”: for the poet, and for the reader. How do you think of “the reader,” or the audience for the poem?

Robin Blaser

GTM: When Arthur Rimbaud was holed up in Georges Izambard’s library and read all his books in a weekend or so, he was especially struck by that description by Socrates (or Plato) of the poet sitting on the Muses’ tripod, and going out of his or her mind, becoming a fountain of confused and contradictory things. I suppose that I allow for an intelligence or awareness that is greater than my own that influences the shape and flow of the poem. Jack Spicer talked of “dictation,” and Robin Blaser of the “Outside.” It could just be a synthesis of inner and outer worlds, and that the poet is just a receptacle for a process of recyclage, although I admit to feeling there is something mystical about how things cohere to create a poem, especially in a long work where there is so much internal talk. Funny that I would never believe in a fate or so-called higher power that rules my life, but I might subscribe to something fatidic about this creative process. Maybe like those few remaining CFL players who believe that God cares about their Grey Cup game. Nope, more like Sam Harris’s allowance for mysticism amid his ongoing studies of a neurological problem called religion.

Some years back, a big surprise for me was not that Canadian filmmaker Eva Ziemsen proposed to appear naked (off camera) while interviewing Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier, but that she gasped (off camera) at his answer to a similar question about making movies for an audience. Von Trier expressed some of his own ideas about resistance to what he felt was generally the Hollywood method for planning films for the audience, which is already rather condescending to one’s intelligence. I am paraphrasing Von Trier, but essentially, he indicated that he could only put something together and hope that someone in the audience found something in it, or could identify with the film, etc. There are certain works of art that provoke the reader, and also encourage return and cultivation. I hope that is what is happening with my writing, but there is no gauge for that kind of intimate engagement, unless I count those decapitated bathtub selfies people keep sending me.

SHR: Throughout the book, you critique your own poetic influences: “these Zukofskyisms / have no bearing on / our oral tradition / our conquest by / ‘sensuous genius,’” and you also critique literary and publishing culture, too: “poems about / perishing / instead of / publishing / in cold / grey/ square.”

Do you think self-reflexivity and meta-poetics still hold potential for criticism?

GTM: Well, the voice of the lyric “I” is often interrupted by the voices of others. For example, it’s Charles Olson complaining about the editors of literary magazines publishing each other all the time, what he calls the “scratch-me-back.” In the penultimate poem, there are a lot of kvetches from Mallarmé about the state of publishing in his day. As for the passive aggressive defensiveness you are referring to in that quote, maybe that is what makes it a Canadian long poem. The kneejerk rejection of European or American influence collides with surrealistic assertions of conquest by my mother’s tribal group, and perhaps somewhere in all of those varied collisions, one may find a ravaged self. My own view is that art provides the best critique for art, and clearly, that goes for poetry.

SHR: Throughout Prairie Harbour you use different typefaces. What is the relationship between poetry, voice, and the visual, typographic aspect in Prairie Harbour?

GTM: The typographical aspect is indicative of the “medium” as much as “voice,” and also reinforces certain sculptural concepts in the long poem. One super-subtle conceit was to make use of Myriad, a humanist sans-serif typeface that was also used in Charles Olson’s Muthologos. Gregory Gibson and Leslie Thomas Smith manned the tiller for many sleepless nights to help navigate, and this epic voyage would be nowhere without their attention to detail.

Mainly, there’s the notion of nekuia (Greek long vowel) from Homer’s Odyssey that was the key idea in Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Blood (or energy) is given up so that spirits can be consulted for advice. The continual image of speaking through the flame is pretty much the same thing, out of Dante. So they cluster round, these hungry ghosts, and then they begin to get out of line. This clustering effect becomes a kind of cacophony in the latter part of the book, as if many voices are speaking at once. This has a lot to do with our technological “hivelife” and how we are continually inundated with fragments of information that often trigger kneejerk emotional responses. I am interested in not just the information we pick up but also the technological process by which we pick up that information.

The long poem reaches its crisis before sinking into deathly silence marked by references to expressions of Jewish/Native mourning and renewal, especially by Eugen Gomringer, Mark Rothko, and Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick. Only then can the aesthetic catharsis be realized in the last poem, which repurposes writing by Mallarmé and Saskatchewan-born abstract expressionist Agnes Martin. Just as the book engages the world, it also suggests the possibility (and necessity?) of a holistic retreat from it.

SHR: In the introduction to the 2005 anthology Post-Prairie: An Anthology of New Poetry, Jon Paul Fiorentino writes: “The championing of poetry as a rural domain needs to be troubled. Jason Wiens asserts that by troubling consensus, prairie critics and poets can move toward “fluidity” and therefore articulate and antagonize the received poetic tradition. It occurs to me that this is the cultural work that the post-prairie poem is engaged in.”

How has the “rural” and the “urban” shaped the experience of place in Prairie Harbour, and is this dichotomy meaningful?

GTM: Funny, when I first arrived in Winnipeg, I happened upon that invigorating anthology in the Millennium Library downtown and was happy to reread it. Though the tension between urban encroachment and bucolic fantasy can already be found in the work of Virgil and John Clare. I wonder, was there ever a rural poetry that was not in some way dominated by urban development?

I do not have that book in front of me but I seem to recall that Robert Kroetsch was puzzled by the term “post-prairie” in the introduction. I expect it was a postmodern positioning agreeable to writers in Calgary and Winnipeg, although the suggestion of the prairie as a tabula rasa that supposedly transcends its historical or natural roots troubles me. Right now, I find that poetry radiating from urban centres has plenty of voice, and as of yet do not feel besieged by the poetry of farmers, trappers, and miners.

The dichotomy of the “rural” and the “urban” is perhaps less meaningful because of global commercial forces that shape that experience. In addition to that, we seem to have inherited this British mania for excessively trying to control the cultivation of our natural environment, and that decreases the natural biodiversity that nourishes countless creatures. It’s kind of funny to picture these corporate cowboys who idle in big rigs, monster trucks, and on HOGs being terrified by a bit of purple thistle on their property but that’s more or less the prairie city for you. We need some ecological machismo awareness campaigns, maybe.

However, I think there is something in what surrealist Annie Le Brun is indicating in her marvellous book The Reality Overload, that the degradation of the environment is connected with the decline of our imaginative realm.

On a more personal note, I’ve experienced a so-called culture shock since moving to the prairie. The Wakashan speakers (some of whom became my First Nations ancestors) made their way to the West Coast after glaciation and found relatively comfortable conditions there. They were maybe what Baudelaire thought of as Native “dandies.” Also, while I was certainly struggling to make ends meet, I was still living in a much larger and wealthier city, one of the most expensive places in the world to live. I would never have imagined how much these economic forces or climate had to do with who I was as a person, or the views I held.

Settlers or not, I have a lot of respect for Canadians who come from generations of struggle. For example, part of my book footnotes the arrival of French or Scottish diaspora, folks who had been edged out of their own countries and who anticipated a land of opportunity in the New World. When considering the extraordinary First Nations and Métis and even Mennonite traditions, I find that a vast amount of history is palpable and immediate here, even as my sensibilities keep shifting. All of this energized the book and fuels other projects in the works.

SHR: What are you currently working on?

GTM: I’m wrapping up another collection of poetry that might qualify as a kind of prairie surrealism, and working on some other fiction projects.

Actually, the project that is taking up most of my time is a novel about a seductive totem/man who travels around Western Canada and retells a number of historical events. The centrepiece is a sailor’s rather gothic account of Captain Vancouver’s voyage of the HMS Discovery from Falmouth to the West Coast, which took place from 1791–92. This metaphoric devouring of history is something that I have explored in some of my other books, but this time I am explicitly trying to express characteristic traits that can be found in Kwakwaka’wakw tales and ceremonies while also challenging common narrative conventions. I feel that the result will be ribald, comic, and disturbing.