Lola Lemire Tostevin has published eight collections of poetry. Her latest, Singed Wings, appeared in 2013 with Talonbooks. She has also published three novels and a collection of literary essays. She is presently putting the finishing touches to a second collection of essays, and working on short stories. Several of her books have been translated into French and Italian. She taught Creative Writing at York University for several years and served as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Western Ontario.
Her poem “The Poem” appears in the sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “The Poem.”
A: Since you are a poet, I assume you are not expecting an interpretation. I will, however, admit that the seed for this poem was sowed many years ago when I first read that Rilke had not attended his daughter’s wedding, preferring to stay home to write. I also read of another poet who stayed away from his wife’s funeral for the same reason, to write. This baffled me since I couldn’t imagine making that choice. I can, however, better understand now, in facing a loved one’s death or the indirect loss of a child through marriage, how language can step in and present itself as an alternative presence. Most writers nowadays see language as mere representation, a stand-in, for the thing written, but for Heidegger language was the very essence of being. It was only in language that truth and being could occur and neither could happen outside language. In either case, whether the poem is a mere representation or truth itself, it incarnates an active presence in the face of loss. Perhaps some poets need that presence to get them through certain events.
Q: What does this mean in terms of your own writing practice? Do you see poetry, or even writing generally, as a tool for helping process and articulate what otherwise could not? Is it simply about having writing as an alternate presence? And we all know that utilizing writing for such a process doesn’t necessarily facilitate great work (although it certainly can); how do you navigate between working to process something and working to articulate something that resonate with a potential reader?
A: I’m not aware of a particular “writing practice,” in my own writing, nor do I see the creative act as a tool for process which implies a series of systematic operations toward some definitive result. On the other hand, when I look back at almost forty years of writing I am aware how my work has developed. I certainly don’t mean to imply that creativity is “simply about having writing as an alternative presence” as you say. Creativity is never a “simple” thing. I’m not a Freud fan, but even he, who analyzed everything, admitted that creativity is a mysterious gift which exceeds the powers of analysis. What he touched upon, however, and resisted, was the passage of the “fundament” into form. The creative act inevitably gives form. Does poetry articulate what otherwise can’t be articulated, as you say? I think it’s a matter of different artists giving form differently and some forms are more creative, more pertinent, interesting and innovative than others. Each work creates a presence that wasn’t there before the creative act. Will it resonate with all potential readers or viewers? Of course not. That’s not what the creative act is about. As we know, it sometimes takes years, generations, for an artist’s work to resonate, if ever. But even if it never does, it doesn’t negate the creative act, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t valid. As to my own poetry, I think I try to maintain a relationship between language as representation and language as its own presence. Being aware of language’s presence, its beauty, history and wisdom, not only hones the reality of language, it forms and hones what it seeks to represent.
Q: Your poetry appears to be very much constructed in the book as unit of composition, constructed as a single suite or grouping of suites. What are you working on currently, and how does “The Poem” fit into such, if at all? Or is it too early to tell? I suppose the real question I’m dancing around: how do you put a poetry manuscript together?
A: Yes, a few critics have referred to my poetry as “long poems.” My writing seems to revolve around what is most dominant in my life at the time of writing. My early books were concerned with the language I was writing in, English, when I am, by birth, French-speaking. I was also rethinking then my roles as woman, wife and mother. With those first mss I wasn’t aware that the poems in each book were so interconnected, so focused on a particular theme, until I spread them on my dining room table to determine their sequence in book form and discovered that I had been treating, more or less the same subject throughout each book. Perhaps manuscripts put themselves together? With my latest poetry book, Singed Wings, the book took on a slant of its own from the beginning. It revolves around the creative act as the creator faces aging and other so-called “impediments” and challenges.
I’m not working on a poetry book at the moment. I’m trying to finish a book of essays which keeps getting interrupted by requests for poems. For which I am grateful mind you, but I do have to finish that damn book of essays. It also deals with the importance of creativity, original thinking in literature, visual art or films which are all extensions of our social structures. Or they should be.
Q: It sounds as though your process of putting a manuscript together is rather intuitive. Over the years, who have your models been when constructing a book? And, with eight collections of poetry, going back to Color of Her Speech (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1982), how do you feel your process has changed? Over the past thirty-odd years, how do you feel your work has developed?
A: Is it intuition or simply a sequential order, often the order in which the poems were written? Could be both I suppose. As for models, I never try to model my writing after anyone else’s although I might have done so by osmosis. When The New Long Poem Anthology edited by Sharon Thesen came out in 1991, I was very excited to see so many of my favourite poets gathered in one collection: Blaser, Bowering, Kiyooka, Marlatt, Nichol, Ondaatje, Kroetsch, Wah, Webb, etc... I had been reading these writers and their long poems in the seventies and throughout the eighties. Most of them didn’t use titles for their long poems which made perfect sense to me. I feel the same way about titles of poems as I do about titles of paintings. When I go to an exhibition I seldom look at titles on those little cards beside the works of art. Titles impose themselves as too representational or referential and prevent me from seeing with new eyes. The work of art’s full presence is then robbed by its own representation or is confined by its designation which is contrary to what a creative work should project. I prefer to discover the sense of a painting through the act of seeing, or apprehending the language of a poem before being told how to read it.
How do I feel my “process” has changed over the last thirty-plus years? There’s that “process” word again. In fact, in the poets’ statements at the end of The New Long Poem Anthology, I use the word “process” several times. I must have believed in this word then. Now, as the circumstances of my life change, I think of writing mainly as exploration with no end in sight—exploration of different genres, different forms and themes, but mostly to give my life, the “fundament,” form; all the while knowing too well the unrepresentable force buried deeply within it. We’re all a little unstable, we writers, aren’t we? But it’s an instability I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, give up for anything.
Q: You reference some of the poems you’ve composed around various works of visual art; how did you first begin writing pieces responding to artworks? Phyllis Webb once said that the best response to a poem is another poem, but what is it about works of art that compel you to respond in the form of poetry, as opposed to, say, an essay or a review, or even another artwork?
A: Well, I’ve also written essays and reviews on various artworks, not only poems. I gathered some of these in my first collection of essays, Subject to Criticism, and in my upcoming collection, At the Risk of Sounding. Regarding Webb’s comment, I would extend it to say that the best response to creativity is creativity, regardless of the genre or form. What I was responding to in my poetry book, Singed Wings, was the creativity of other women who continued to create against all odds, except perhaps for Camille Claudel. She couldn’t overcome the adversity she faced as a woman sculptor at a time when only men were recognized as authentic sculptors with authentic themes. But the other women in that collection were creating into their eighties and nineties or, as in the case of Frieda Kahlo, under incredible physical challenges. I respond to different forms as long as they are genuinely creative—writing, visual art and music—for example, Billy Holiday’s singing, or Pina Bausch’s choreography. I’ve just written an essay on several film makers, including Robert Lepage, who think outside the blockbuster or romantic comedy boxes. I am fascinated by Lepage’s ability to adopt and adapt various forms and transform them into spectacle, spectacular works of art. I have always admired people who could step out of conventional thinking and devote their lives to their art.
Q: Given the fact that you’ve composed both essays and poems as responses to artwork and other creative works, what decides on the particular form you take to respond? How do you know the response to any given work works best in the form of, say, the poem, over utilizing the form of the essay? What does the form of one allow, or even hinder, that the other might not?
A: The writing of an essay requires a completely different mindset from writing a poem. I don’t think they even originate from the same area of the brain. Perhaps it’s a left-brain, right-brain thing. Generally, the essay is analytical of someone else’s work and as original as it wants to be it is still organized according to certain rules and guidelines. It should be coherent and make sense in an academic way. Poetry, on the other hand, is sense itself. It is a “versing” that comes from “reversing” rules and even coherence. When I write an essay I focus on meaning and interpretation as it relates to someone else’s work. When I write a poem that draws access from someone else’s art, I am responding to how the particular work touches me through its many senses. The poem becomes more about how I relate to the work, than about the work itself. “Poetry” means “the first making,” an original act that draws access from something/someone else. The essay has to know what it wants to say, whereas the poem is always more than what it meant to say.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Interviewers always ask this and I never quite know how to respond. There are so many writers or art forms from which I feel energized. It could be a painting, a poem, a sentence in a novel or an essay which triggers a thought or a “feeling” and sets me writing. Mostly I feel energized by innovative writing; especially work that draws from the past and is recontextualized into new forms and ideas. I have sitting by my desk a pile of books from Bookthug and I love the way many of its writers build on works from the past. There’s a sense that almost every book from that press builds on memory, not only memories of one’s own past, but memory of earlier writing on which to build. Christine McNair’s book, Conflict, for example, remixes poems such as “Do not go gently into that good night...” or Coleridge, or bpNichol, or Kroetsch... I love that kind of remix, as suggested in her “Time Machine” poem, as if static was surrounding the writer, grasped and recontextualized in the present act of writing; a continuum of traces that extends into the future. This is what Robert Lepage does throughout his work be it stage or film. He borrows from Cocteau, Hamlet, da Vinci, Miles Davis, Japanese theatre, etc... remixes in order to extract his own vision. If I had to choose the work of one person to which I return—which I wouldn’t dream of doing since it leaves out too many—it would have to be Robert Lepage...