Interview: Garry Thomas Morse on His Poetry and Prose

This interview with Garry Thomas Morse was conducted by Lee Gulyas and her class at Western Washington University in October, 2014 while studying his book Discovery Passages.

1. In [your poem] “The Land Of The Headhunters” on page 66 there is a stanza about a “monster bird” that “must truly be a canoe of the spirit world, for men could not dream of one so great.” This depiction reminds me of a large ship, and the men crawling on the back of the beast of Westerners. Can you speak more about the question at the end of whether the men are flesh or spirits?

That is one of the stanzas derived from Edward S. Curtis’s book, In the Land of the Headhunters, a fable of his own that was indeed inspired by a true people, the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation. Though these folks were willing participants in the film that he made, even the title is indicative of ideas found in Western (European) mythology. Here is the original text cited from Curtis’ book:

“Look! Look !” cried the keen-eyed one. “The
crawling things are men. The monster bird must
truly be a canoe of the spirit world, for men could
not dream of one so great. It roars with thunder!
Its mouth is belching smoke! Its wings
are falling! Now it only drifts upon the water.”
“Are the men upon its back flesh or spirits?“
each asks the other.

It is important to keep in mind that Curtis was celebrated for taking beautiful photographs of Native peoples in North America based on his conviction that they were “vanishing,” although the photos were often “faked” (including, say, inaccurate regalia or maybe some awesome weapon Curtis thought looked real cool and fierce) based on his conception of aboriginal peoples. This was perhaps still better than what Victoria’s Secret shows do with headdresses, but I digress …

So in this case, my own treatment of these lines is mostly satirical. I am aware that George Bowering must have mulled this over because Burning Water begins with that comical dialogue between two Natives about this very matter. The point of all of this is that assumptions are automatically made that the given peoples on West Coast islands only had a “primitive” conception of a ship arriving. Roderick Haig Brown has noted that circumstances were quite different at the time of Vancouver’s voyage in 1792, going from island to island, as some Natives were quite familiar with seagoing vessels and others in smaller more obscure locations might have been more surprised.

I am reminded of the “cargo cult” theory. Arguably, that is based on a superior attitude that if you have the best swag, then you can pass yourself off as a god. In my book Rogue Cells, a character happens to wash ashore on an island while clinging to a suitcase full of cargo pants. A group of people find him and make him their godlike leader because of these excellent stain-resistant products.

I should also add that for the longest time, as John (Fire) Lame Deer notes, most Natives had a hard time understanding why settlers would go to war or kill each other of mere pieces of paper (dollar bills or, in our terminology, loons). The superior attitude came from traders who believed the Natives were simple because they sometimes preferred decorative objects to things that had value in a European or Western system that really did not have much meaning for them.

That’s a rather evasive answer, but as the concept is made up by Curtis, I am not sure what he is talking about, as he would have been dealing with fairly sophisticated Natives, including my relations, in the early Twentieth Century, and ordering them around on his film set. And yes, renting a whale from a whaling people for a non-whaling people. A true story. I guess the point is, that everything is relative.

2. Can you speak about the values of different cultures when you read [the poems] “BCP #45” and “In House #5” specifically?

There’s a lot in this book about items that might have been heirlooms or personal effects that have been systemized to the point of absurdity. This picture of my great-uncle’s fishing boat on the Canadian five dollar bill might seem like a keepsake but to the Bank of Canada, it might be considered “legal tender” so a special photographer had to put the word SPECIMEN on the photograph twice. On a related note, the museum photograph of the frog artifact that was originally confiscated from my great-uncle and sold to a collector by an Indian Agent is copyright and the press had to pay a fee to the museum so that I could use it. These two examples say a lot about the cultural shift and contemporary ideas of ownership, I believe.

“BCP #45” addresses this notion of currency and “House #5” adopts an image from Sappho’s poetic phrase that through continual translation renews the image itself of the stones, which to me are the pebbles on Quadra Island, thoughts turning in my great-uncle’s mind, history continually shifting, Sappho’s admonition not to stir things up, and also fragments of Ripple Rock, that marine hazard in Discovery Passage that was exploded in 1958, which perhaps suggests volatile countermeasures to keeping schtum, hmm?

3. Can you talk to us a little more about “Petrograph”? (My students love this one and are talking about it the way people discuss “The Red Wheelbarrow,” with regard to structure and image. They counted 9 combinations of 3 words, with 3 groupings. And that love and love and only paired together once. They don’t have a firm intellectual grasp on it, but they love the feeling, and that these words are written in stone.

William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” is perhaps more imagistic in flavour and mine more of a concrete poem. However, I do owe a great debt to Williams, as I still am working with a similar lyrical style derived from his. Yes, there sure are a lot of poets in my particular (s)melting pot! Also, the sculptural fixation of Ezra Pound. I see the page that way, almost like a canvas that one is shaping things within. I recall Bowering’s home of mud and wattles from Sticks & Stones (which we suppose is the poem itself) … well, for me it’s more like pushing heavy blocks around. It feels like an easy task but for some reason it takes a long time, and I’m also open to what the process itself can reveal. bpNichol encouraged us to focus on the image in a poem, and when you compose that way, you realize how much of language might be pared away but then the rhythms of certain words demand their own immanence in the world, so maybe that’s why the process can take a long time. I do appreciate it when people can appreciate something there, because sometimes I wonder if it is there at all. It is, right?

I do like this remark from one of your class members:
hard love and love hard are two very different things

4. In your poem “Dangerous Cargo” you mention marginalization of Finns in B.C. To what extent do you feel your poetry represents the marginalization of other cultures in and outside of North America? Do you hope for your work to tell the story of other oppressed groups or is it more important to differentiate Native groups from one another in your poetry and tell the story of your cultural struggle specifically?

My book of poetry, Prairie Harbour, which is forthcoming (Fall 2015), is really about the outsider (full stop) and the schismatic mindset that is part of colonization, and that includes some of my ancestors too. I do have a section in the book called “Company Romance,” a sequence of rather acerbic poems that are historical snapshots of the history of the fur trade in Canada, ranging from the story of Henry Hudson to Métis struggles to keep their land and certain rights that were implicit. This may be a story of culture but what is often overlooked is the influence of religion and/or trading life on aboriginal cultures. The parallel with how we live today should be ignored only at our own peril.

Even while leafing through historical tracts and uncanny oral tales, it is not lost on me that my life style, however meagre, is based on the expropriation of labour and resources on a global scale. The book is full of this tension between the inner and outer world and is perhaps little more than the anguished cry of a mind divided against itself. Oddly, I found comfort through learning about one of my relations, Samuel Morse’s father Jedidiah (the Jedi?) Morse, a celebrated American geographer who as a religious man felt ashamed of his book sales and success. He is also on record for freaking out and giving a speech from the pulpit against the dangers of the French Illuminati. Then in later life, he devoted himself to helping “liberate” the American Indian from the demoralizing impact of capitalism. Unfortunately, his only answer was asking them if they’d heard the good news. These inner conflicts are intriguing to me, and reflect something of my own mindset when trying to engage some of these cultural issues, historically and in the present.

The first part of the book begins as a mythopoeic surrender of my territory on the West Coast as I envision the origins of the Wakashan speakers who migrated to the West Coast once the ice had melted and formed a number of First Nations groups, including my mother’s own, which might have been originally more plains/prairie in flavour. My move to Saskatchewan over a year ago began a transformative search for home, and I carry my knowledge with me, while (re)inventing other myths as I go along.

As my family are also Anglo-Jews, the second part had more to do with the massive upsurge of anti-Semitism that a number of my friends are experiencing, obviously spurred on by the militaristic policy of the Israeli government, as there is a rapid leap from equating the government with all its citizens and then Jewish people worldwide. I explore these themes mostly through the lives of composers who struggled with oppression on all sides, including Gustave Mahler and Dmitri Shostakovich, whose compassion for Jewish sufferers after the Holocaust was caught between Hitler and Stalin, not to mention all kinds of politicized groups that called down his music for different reasons. His resistance seems to be codified into his aesthetic variations on classical form, and this fascinates me.

I should add that my current book, a time-travel romp called Minor Expectations, includes a character with my great-grandfather’s name who also originates from WWII German propaganda in a series of cartoons about a mythical Jewish-American arms dealer who was seducing the wives and girlfriends of Allied men at the front. In my work, I tend to go to outlandish surrealistic extremes when making my points, especially in the erotic realm, although these works are quite complex and not really PG13. This includes my three-book series The Chaos! Quincunx, which explores a near future and then distant future worlds and then “spots of time” on the timeline of Western civilization. In an appendum to this series, a First Nations guy is abandoned on a planet full of female aliens evolved from bush crickets who reproduce continually through parthenogenesis. These days, I feel that these ’ploitation parodies say a lot more about present issues than my more serious offerings.

Speaking of which, my move to a prairie locale has given me the chance to become more attuned to living creatures and their habitats, and I suppose that my newfound obsession with orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids) has caused me to be more aware of disappearing natural prairie space. I’ve been inspired by writers such as Trevor Herriot, Candace Savage, and Brenda Schmidt, and I’ve also received much help and information from Professor of Environmental Science Dan L. Johnson and passionate tree-cricket devotee Nancy Collins.

So, there is something of a neo-Romantic lament for one field of reasonable size in Regina, Saskatchewan, that was left wild but is already being destroyed to build an “urban village” at the Grasslands mall. It is strange that we spend so much time trying to figure out ways to poison or eliminate “pests” and yet are puzzled why songbird populations are declining. If we can’t keep a simple field with some thistle in it in the vicinity of a bunch of big box stores, I don’t know what hope there is for changing anything else in the world.

Anyway, I’m not certain if my concerns are anyone else’s right now. To be honest, I am not certain where the struggle would even begin. My book contains a great deal of the noise and static of the immediate world, and then attempts to provide a refuge, a harbour for the mind, if that can be appreciated by those more ethical than myself, as I am now roving about in the snow seeking imaginary conquest of the New World because I’m a traditional kinda guy. So my new alter ego during thirty-below winters is a saga poet called Helly H. Morse!

5. Leslie Marmon Silko, in her work Storyteller, points out the challenges of writing down an oral tradition, the ways in which it can no longer shift and change at each telling, the distance between the reader and writer as opposed to teller and participant, and so on. How (if at all) did these differences inform or change your work? Were the oral versus written traditions and the differences therein a part of your process?

That’s an interesting point of view. My current novel in progress is about a seductive totem/man, a sort of First Nations Scheherazade who is continually fragmenting and deconstructing the storytelling process. A key part of the book is his retelling of Captain Vancouver’s voyage to the West Coast from 1791 to 1792, although it takes the form of journal entries by an unknown sailor on the H.M.S. Discovery and has something of the gothic novel tradition about it.

While the totem/man is definitely fond of all things oral, he is often reminding the reader of those writing challenges that Leslie Marmon Silko speaks of, although that also owes a lot to my interest in avant-garde novels that have challenged the form. I feel that my approach is from the opposite end, as I’m taking advantage of the possibilities writing and the novel form allow, and I feel that I am often going for a dynamic in my work where my writing can be reread and interpreted differently.

In my case, whether the culture is First Nations, Jewish, Celtic, or Orthopteran, I think the key is to keep moving, moulting, sloughing, and changing, lest one be put under glass or pinned to a wall while still wriggling.