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Poetry is Dead Editor Daniel Zomparelli interviews Ken Norris, whose current book is Floating Up to Zero.
Daniel Zomparelli: Just recently Matrix Magazine launched an issue of Zen Poetry, and when reading your work the idea of Buddhism and Zen kept weaving its way through the narrative. Where do you find poetry intersects with these ideas in your work?
Ken Norris: I don’t know. I just know that it does. There’s a purity in poetry and a purity in Zen that are similar. But they are not the same.
DZ: “We create and destroy ourselves / with such a delicate care.” The book moves back and forth from desire, longing, depression, love. The book, in a sense, is attempting to balance itself and find its zero point (quite literally, as “Zero” is the poem in the very centre of the book). It had me thinking about poetry as finding balance. Is the act of producing poetry for you a way of finding balance, or is the reading of poetry the path to balance (or some mixture of both)?
KN: I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 29, so the principle of balance is interesting to me. So I am intrigued by your question.
I come from a family with a long history of depression. When you wake up in the morning at times feeling like you are starting out at minus twenty, zero can seem awfully friendly.
I think poetry itself needs to be balanced. Or that it is an act of balance. Layton’s notion of the poet as tightrope walker seemed right to me.
DZ: In “The Poet’s Lariat” you comment on how “I promised George that I would put a section of prose poems right in the middle of a collection of lyric poems and let the critics and readers make of it what they will.” This brought up two questions for me.
1. When producing poems, do you focus on a concept and create, or do you write poems and then compile them into a collection?
2. In creating poems for poets or responding to poets, I think of the question you posed to Garry Thomas Morse in a recent interview about dedications and whether this was a way in which to create community. I ask this because there is only one formal dedication within your book, and it reminds me of the reason I dedicate poems, which is in a way to represent admiration/love of some sort.
KN: Without sounding like a pseudo-mystic, I think my books write themselves. When the manuscript is finished and I read it over, I find myself thinking, “Oh, that’s what that was about.”
I don’t pre-plan my books. I figure out what they are about after I have written them. Then I rework them a bit.
In the book versus collection debate, I try to do both at the same time. That is, I want the book to be a BOOK of poetry, not a collection of poems. But then I want the poems to also have their individual merits and be able to stand on their own. Some books require some poems to be blocks of narrative, delineating story. But the poems that I love most (as a reader) are the poems of high lyric moment.
Once upon a time I was going to write a book entitled Dedicated. And every poem would have had a dedication. That was back when I was in my thirties. I think literary community has a different meaning at different stages in a poet’s life. So asking Garry Thomas Morse about it is different than asking Raymond Souster about it. As a younger poet I aspired to create a literary community. Now I just assume that it exists.
DZ: You have stated a clear preference for a book of poetry over a collection of poems. What is that preference based upon?
KN: I think it is based upon what I like to read. Also, it seems to me that the book of poetry is where poets have really been inventive over the past one hundred years.
There’s nothing wrong with a collection of poems, and I have certainly published a few of them myself, though they tended to happen earlier in my career. But, for me, there is more of a thrill in an integrated book of poetry or a serial poem than there is in a collection of poems. As a writer you don’t feel like you are doing piecework. You are working on a new book of poetry pretty much the same way that a novelist is working on a new novel. You have, or you are working towards, a larger vision. You’re not writing an ode to your socks one day and an elegy for your grandmother the next. You are trying to produce something cohesive. It gives the writer a place TO BE, inside the book. Inside the frame of reference of the book. In a constant contact with the poetical. As a writer I prefer it because it is a less fragmented experience. And when I think of the books of poetry from the past one hundred years I really love—Pound’s Cathay, Spicer’s After Lorca and Heads Of The Town Up To The Aether, O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, Webb’s Naked Poems and Wilson’s Bowl, Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies, Davey’s Arcana, Ondaatje’s Secular Love, Moure’s Sheep’s Vigil By A Fervent Person, Carson’s The Beauty Of The Husband, to name but a few—they are books of poetry, not collections of poems.
DZ: On the subject of balance, one of my favourite things about your book Floating Up to Zero, was the extremes the reader is taken on. The effects of season can cause intense depression, and it parallels through the narrative of the book, it becomes an entrenching depression that doesn’t automatically lift as the flowers bud for Spring. But there is love and the highs from that. The emphasis on balance is interesting because it’s about embracing it all, and not aiming for constant meditative state because there is almost an inability for that state from the narrator’s perspective.
KN: Phyllis Webb is one of my favourite Canadian poets. I think that reading her has affected me deeply, and, when I was younger, made me feel less alone. I found her way of dealing with darkness and depression quite compelling.
To me, the poet is never the person who has it all together. The poet is the person who is trying to get it together. And one of the ways that is done is by coming to the realization that things can and do exist on multiple levels, and that everything can change from moment to moment.
DZ: Could you talk more about the high lyric moment: Where is that reached for you as a reader and as a writer of poetry?
KN: “Tintern Abbey,” “Resolution and Independence,” “Frost at Midnight,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Mont Blanc,” and Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” are, for me, poems of the high lyric moment. Other people might call them “crisis lyrics.” I think those poems are about as good as English language poetry gets.
I reach in the direction of those poems as a writer—I don’t know if I get there. Probably not. But that’s what I’m reaching for. All of those poems are problematic and, at the same time, compellingly beautiful. In part because of their seemingly off-balanced awkwardness. None of those are neat or tidy poems. They are messy with the contradictions of life, and packed to the brim with details.
I remember reading the first couple of lines of “Mont Blanc” and thinking, “This poem can’t possibly work.” It violates so many of the rules of twentieth century poetry. But it is a nineteenth century poem, and it succeeds magnificently.
DZ: Is space, or more specifically place important to your work, or is it the lack of place that is important? Are we to be moved around the world seamlessly, or grounded by one place in each poem?
KN: What a complicated question, or questions. “Is … place important to your work?” Yes. “Or is it the lack of place that is important?” Yes, that also.
Different places need to be spoken of differently. It isn’t a homogenized world, at least not yet. So China isn’t Thailand, and Thailand isn’t Maine. Or Shanghai isn’t Bangkok, and Bangkok certainly isn’t Orono, Maine. So, for me, different places generate different contents.
Years ago, Don Precosky wrote a review of one of my South Seas books and entitled the review “The Tourist and the Pilgrim.” And he commended me for the poems in which I was the pilgrim, and berated me for the poems in which I was the tourist. I remember thinking at the time that he saw clearly what I was doing, but that he didn’t fully understand it. Perhaps it was my fault. Maybe in that book I was formulating a fuzzy picture.
I think the most persistent theme in my writing is the shallowness of modern life. The way we ALL are tourists, including the poet. Something is really being lost in human existence because of the ways we conduct our lives in these societies.
So even the poet can only be a visionary 50% of the time. The rest of the time he’s a participant in the shallowness of modern life, living his life.
On to “the lack of place.” If everything is drifting, or floating, then where are we? Everywhere and nowhere. And that is, for lack of a better term, the current human condition.
To the next part of your question. It’s such a good question it needs to be restated: “Are we to be moved around the world seamlessly, or grounded by one place in each poem?” Just replace the word “poem” with “life” and you have posed what seems to me to be one of the essential questions of the twenty-first century. And it’s a question that humanity needs to answer.
But you posed the question in relation to the book. As the person who wrote the book, and delved into the mechanics of the book, I guess my answer would be that it isn’t either/or, that it is both at the same time. As I travel around the world, as pilgrim or tourist or both at the same time, I move around the world quite seamlessly. But when you arrive in Xining, China … that’s where you are, and that place becomes your present moment reality. So if it’s page 122 of Floating Up To Zero, and it’s a poem composed in Macau, then that’s where the reader is, inside the poem that embraces Macau as its reality.
DZ: When I think of this idea of “shallowness of modern life” I think of your poem “Yes & No” from Floating Up to Zero. It goes back and forth, detailing life choices: “Yes to line in its multitudinous forms. No to this war. No to cottage cheese. Yes to the beauty of gymnasts. Yes to the grace of a true poem. No to horseradish.” The idea of humanity has become this extensive list of choices from such a variety of things. Can you comment on what this poem stemmed from, and what was the intention between the movement from yes to no and no to yes?
KN: When I read over this poem, I am glad to see that, back in 2003, I said no to reality TV.
This strikes me as a rather straightforward list of acceptances and rejections. Clearly, the poem is steeped in the atmosphere of the US-Iraq war in its early days.
I have to tell you: I usually can’t recall what prompted a poem. I have a terrible memory for what got a poem going. What I notice here are the design features, and the necessity for every response to be a yes or a no. I was living in the U.S. when I wrote this, and all of the media coverage of the war was very black and white. All of the propaganda of war was being reinforced by all the news networks. If you wanted to know what was REALLY going on, you watched the CBC or the BBC.
I think I still entirely agree with all of the yes and no judgements in the poem, so that’s good.
My creative writing students are usually appalled by the way I emotionally detach myself from the content of my poems. They’re young, and they feel so involved and invested in what they’ve written. If I have a poem about the death of my mother that I don’t think is working, I can toss it out as easily as yesterday’s newspapers. It doesn’t mean that I was unaffected by my mother’s death. It just means that I think that a bad poem about her death has no use to anyone, including me. I am pretty emotionally involved with the content of a poem while I am writing the poem. But after I’ve written it—it had better be a good poem, or else it is going out with the trash.
DZ: The book plays a lot with the idea of persistence, constant change and the inability to settle. These things all remind me of what being a poet is, and that is reflected in the path of the narrator. The poem for me that reaches a high lyric moment is “Speculation” where it’s the narrator giving in to the fact that change is the only static thing in life. Can you comment on what inspired this poem, or talk a bit about what the poem represents for the narrative of this book?
KN: I have no recollection whatsoever of WHY this poem was written. That being said, it seems to me to be a rather wise poem. All of its assertions seem to me to be inherently true. So I BELIEVE everything the poem is saying. And it is entirely possible that the poem was written as I was coming to these various realizations.
A holy man once told me that this is my first incarnation, that for this lifetime of mine I had just come down from the angelic realm. I have no reason to disbelieve him. I have no memories of past lives, so maybe there were no past lives.
But if that’s true, then this is my first opportunity to create and to destroy myself. Whereas there are other souls that have been doing this over and over again for countless incarnations.
What I notice most about this poem is how it asserts that we perform these acts of self-creation and self-destruction “with such a delicate care.” We pay a lot of attention to, a lot of time on, our creation and our destruction, and why shouldn’t we? It’s the major activity of our lives—not watching Survivor, True Blood, or How I Met Your Mother.
I think we can get very, very, very far away from the truths of our existence, very abstracted, until we are living mostly unreal lives.
So, if “poetry is news that stays news,” in this poem I’m just delivering the news. “Speculation” is a twenty-first century poem that reiterates what some religious traditions have been saying for thousands of years. But if you weren’t paying attention, maybe you’ve never heard about this before.
DZ: I’d like to know a bit more about your practice of writing. Do you have set routines or regimes that you use to write? I ask this because I imagine the meditative lines may not necessarily be produced in a meditative state.
KN: Over the past five months or so my way of writing has changed entirely. So I will tell you about how I used to write, when I was writing Floating Up To Zero.
At that time, when I was in North America I was writing on the fly. That is, I had no schedule for writing. I would steal some time in the course of a day, before teaching a class or preparing a meal for my daughter—I would find fifteen minutes in which to write a poem. If it were a Saturday or Sunday I might find an hour and write three poems. But it was a really busy life, filled to the brim with things that needed to be done. As we see in the Winter Carousel section, there was a time of year when there was a lot of snow-shoveling to be done.
When I was in Asia, not teaching, allowed to embrace my self-identity as a writer, I would write six days a week from one until four in the afternoon. There was time to think things through. There was time to write longer poems. There are 9 sections in the book, and three of them were written in Asia: the first (Resident), the eighth (Lost In Asia), and the ninth (The Poetics). Along with Winter Carousel, I find these to be the most interesting sections of the book. But you can never trust what the author finds interesting. John Newlove once told me what he liked most about his brilliant poem “Driving,” and it was a design feature that, as both a reader and a poet, wasn’t interesting to me at all.
So Floating Up To Zero is the intersection of three strands of my writing. I kind of think of it as my 3-in-1 book. There are the poems that are written in the stolen moments of a busy North American life. There are the more meditative and metaphysical poems written in Asia. And there is that section of wacky prose poems, which bears some similarity to the sequence of prose poems in an earlier book, Alphabet Of Desire.
What else needs to be said?
Sometimes poets get really crazy ideas. For instance, George Bowering once decided to write a book of poems over the top of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. What a crazy idea! And now we have Kerrisdale Elegies, which is probably George’s best book of poetry.
Maybe ten years ago I decided that I was going to rewrite, or write over the top of, Pablo Neruda’s Residence On Earth. Like Duino Elegies, it is one of the truly great books of poetry written in the twentieth century.
If there is a “problem” with Residence On Earth it is that it is incredibly bleak in its first two books, almost nihilistic. It is said that a Chilean college student read Residence On Earth and then went on to kill himself, because reading the book left him completely without hope. After this happened, Neruda disowned the book for a while. After some time had passed, he reclaimed it. I think it was left out of his Collected Works for one cycle, and then it was reinstated.
In any case, it is brilliant, but extremely bleak. So I decided that I would rewrite it to give it a more positive vision. And, really, what I was going to do was write my own poems on top of his and let certain parts or elements of his poetry bleed through.
I set to work and did about twenty poems. And, for whatever reasons—perhaps because it was TOO crazy an idea, or because I had chosen a really difficult text—I found it not to be working. So I completely dismissed thirteen of the poems, kept seven, and worked the seven into the manuscript of Floating Up To Zero. I won’t tell you which poems they are, but the curious reader will easily find them. Although I quite like them—for me they work as poems—I don’t think that ANY of them are the best poems in the book. But I DO find them interesting, and hope that readers agree with me.
So maybe Floating Up To Zero is really my 4-in-1 book, because the rewritten Neruda poems are in there along with the prose poems, the North American short lyrics and the Asian meditations.
That was the writing routine for this book, the strategies employed.
DZ: Do you find the difference between a good poem and a bad poem are hard to distinguish when working through your own manuscript?
KN: Not at all. Because I assume it’s a bad poem until the poem proves otherwise. I know some writers who work with the assumption that everything they write is golden, but I don’t.
I have no innate talent for writing; therefore, I really have to work at it. Everything I know about writing I have had to learn.
I don’t put together collections of poems—I write books of poetry. Integrated books of poetry sometimes have narrative requirements. So sometimes I NEED a poem in a certain spot to fulfill a narrative function. If the poem that is available is a bad or an ineffective poem, then I am probably going to have to rehabilitate it. Or write something else to replace it. I think of these poems somewhat differently than I do the other poems. Their primary function is to advance story, as opposed to presenting lyrical or poetical insight. So these poems can be a bit more bare bones and functional.
DZ: In a recent interview with Kevin Spenst you stated, “Working with bp [nichol] was a mind-blowing experience. I thought I knew how to write until we sat down and started working on the manuscript.” I wonder about that process being repeated with other editors. Could you talk a bit about working with Karl Siegler at Talonbooks?
KN: Literary editors are the unsung heroes of Can Lit. So let me sing their praises for a while, because it is always the author who gets the credit (or the blame) for a book. But books can be collective enterprises almost as much as movies are. For instance, when Endre Farkas and I were editing The Collected Books Of Artie Gold we had a rather involved working relationship with the editor-in-chief at Talon (Karl Siegler), the typesetter (Christy Siegler, the real heroine of this book), and our two proofreaders (Odette Dube and Greg Gibson). It took a small village to get that book done.
Literary editors help you and save you in a thousand different ways. There are a lot of different strategies for editing a book of poetry, but they are all useful. I have published a few books that did not have a literary or poetry editor working on them, but not many. I really like working with an editor, even if I feel, in certain instances, that they don’t understand 80% of what I’m doing or trying to do.
Over the course of a thirty-six year career I have worked with a lot of different editors who aided and assisted me in various ways. Jill Smith selected and sequenced the poems in my first book, Vegetables. Artie Gold edited my first collection of poems, The Perfect Accident. Judith Fitzgerald edited One Night. Bruce Whiteman edited Alphabet of Desire and The Music for ECW Press, and Full Sun_—a selected poems—for The Muses’ Company. Because we are both passionate Italians who passionately believe in art, Antonio D’Alfonso and I argued our way through three books for Guernica Editions. Maria Jacobs edited _The Way Life Should Be for Wolsak & Wynn. Bob Hilderley and I worked together on a couple of my books for Quarry Press. I was thrilled to work with Victor Coleman—original Coach House editor!—on Odes. rob mclennan has been the maestro of all of my most recent chapbooks. I am grateful to all of them for the energy and intelligence that they poured into my work. Their contributions to my work were and are significant.
However, the two most important editors that I have worked with up to this point in time are bpNichol and Karl Siegler.
In my interview with Kevin Spenst I talked a bit about what it was like to work with bpNichol on one of my books for Coach House. It was very much a mentor-apprentice kind of situation. Many people think that, because I was a student, and then a friend, of Louis Dudek’s for a total of twenty-six years, that he was my writing teacher. Louis was a great encourager (of us all), a great thesis advisor when I was writing my history of the little magazine in Canada, but we spent far more time working on the edit of his book Zembla’s Rocks (which I edited for Vehicule Press) than we ever spent talking about my poetry, or how I should write it. We had frequent, broad-ranging conversations about everything, but we rarely discussed my work. I think he read over one manuscript for me, Report 8-11, before I sent it off for publication. So if that book had a shadow editor, it was him.
But no, the poet who mentored me as a young writer and taught me how to write (in a week) was bpNichol. So I am indebted to him forever for putting me on the poetry path that I have been on since 1983. Before that I was struggling to do the best that I could. After that I’ve been doing the best that I am capable of, knowing what my true capabilities are.
Before I worked with Karl Siegler, my attitude about literary editors was, “The best literary editor is right 50% of the time.” Which also meant that the best literary editor was WRONG 50% of the time. So, as an author, I felt that I had to pick and choose among the advice/suggestions I was being given.
In my humble opinion, Karl Siegler is the best editor of poetry in Canada. He is also right about 90% of the time. His editorial approach is quite unusual when compared to other editors. He wants to see everything you’ve got for a book manuscript. Many literary editors in Canada want you to send them a finished product, or as close to a finished product as you can get. Karl wants to see an unfinished product, and then help you to realize the full potential of what it is you are working on. He understands that stray lines, fragments, individual words even, can be seeds.
The first book I did with Talon was Limbo Road (1998). The original manuscript was 500+ pages. Karl wanted to read all of it. Even bpNichol, when we were working on The Better Part of Heaven, asked me to take my 400 page manuscript and cut it in half myself before he was willing to read the 200 pages that remained.
So … an editor who wants to read everything you’ve got? I’ve worked with editors who got miffed because they thought I’d sent them six pages too many. Karl’s approach to a book is unique and most uncommon.
The 500+ pages of Limbo Road were read and reread by Karl. Then he told me what the book was, having boiled it down to something like 170 pages. I probably negotiated five poems back into the book. Then we worked for four months refining the manuscript.
My second book with Talon, Hotel Montreal (2001), was a selected poems. I had done a first selected poems, Full Sun, ten years earlier, and told Karl that, if he wanted, he could just use that selection as the basis for selecting the earlier work. No. He wanted to read every poem I had ever published. And he wanted to read my three new unpublished manuscripts as well, so that he could decide what to include in the “new poems” part of the book. So, in this instance, he must have read about 2,500 pages, to arrive at a selected poems of 192 pages, in the process constructing a poet I’d never seen before.
Could an author ask for their work to be taken any more seriously than this? I don’t think so.
A similar degree of attention was paid to the five books that followed, the most recent of them being Floating Up To Zero.
I have a new manuscript I’ve just completed, “South China Sea,” that at the present time has 1700 poems in it. Guess who gets to read it first?