Pete Smith, born & raised in Coventry, emigrated to Canada in 1974. After a long detour returned to poetry in the late 1990s. Has published poetry with Wild Honey Press, Poetical Histories, above/ground press, W, Great Works & Oystercatcher among others; reviews & essays in Agenda, The Gig, The Paper, The Capilano Review, Crayon & elsewhere. He has given readings at the Kootenay School of Writing & at the final CCCP in 2006. His first full-length collection, Bindings with Discords, was published by Shearsman in February 2015, and a brand-new chapbook, A NEW LOVE OVER AN ACHING STONE, “a double-cento out of Yehuda. Amichai & Mahmoud Darwish,” is out very soon with above/ground press.
His poems “ANTHROPOCENTRIC POETICS 101,” “RESTRINGING THE SIX-STRING,” “CHARLIE, PROPER” and “UNDER THE INFLUENCE” appear in the eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “ANTHROPOCENTRIC POETICS 101,” “RESTRINGING THE SIX-STRING,” “CHARLIE, PROPER” and “UNDER THE INFLUENCE.”
A: They are all what I might call Public Poems, in that they were written in public places & they are quite casual & approachable. The “public” space impacts them in different ways, but the common factor is the way that distractions help me focus my attention, as if I sometimes need something to pitch against, affirming by opposition. Anthrop is from far back, but seems now to connect to “public” by razzing two highly public figures who introduced Bad Wrongs, Cartesian duality & the unimaginative, mechanical applications of Behaviourism. Six & Charlie picked up energy & details from the times & places of writing: the first is cited in the poem; the second written in Far Out Coffee shop on Dundas in the Hastings-Sunrise part of Vancouver where Freya had plugged her Stones iPod into the sound system to avoid hearing stuff she didn’t like during the busy spell. Influence tagged along because of similarity of tone & the connections to varying-degrees-of-public figures in the poetry communities.
Q: You describe “Public Poems” as though they are but one thread of the poems you’ve been working on. Is this how you work, through a loose connection of groupings? And how many other groupings make up your arsenal?
A: I write longhand into a pocket-sized notebook & raid the drafts from time to time for family resemblances so, yes, groupings that way but for predetermined sequences I'll have a particular notebook just for that work. One practical reason for the number of erasure projects is that I can do a bit in the days’ margins, walk away & the “inspirationWinking face” is still there in the source text when I get back to it.
Another grouping I’ve done always Nate Dorward referred to as poems-as-lit-criticism, or words to that effect, but Phil Hall does that so well I can leave them scattered around the cutting-room floor for now.
Similar to “Public Poems” in some respects are what I might term “occasioned poems,” some of those even commissioned, eg, friends renewed wedding vows at their 40th anniversary, didn’t ask for a poem for the event but at the last minute I found myself being tickled by the question “how do you write an epithalamion for the long-married?” & took off from there. So, self-commissioned is more accurate I guess.
Coming at the practice from both Cage’s mesostics & Clare’s claim to have “found the poems in the fields & merely written them down” has been a long-term use of ‘erasure,’ or ‘writing through’: source texts include Clare’s ‘Journey Out of Essex,’ WS’s 154 sonnets (done before Jen Bervin’s versions & at one time up at Alterran Poetry Assemblage #6), Sharon Thesen’s selection ‘News & Smoke’ (creating ‘The World in Her Mouth’ by taking one line from each poem in sequence), George Gissing’s novel The Odd Women (as ‘Odden: I Sing’ from Oystercatcher Press) etc, most recently ‘Winterized: The Musical’ out of Peter Culley’s ‘Winterreise’ section of his book The Climax Forest.
I guess a combination of trusting language to know more than I do – well, it’s been around a lot longer than I have – and liking a variety of constraints feeds that practice. At times it’s probably vicarious self-expression but my objective is more for discovery of universal &/or personal “truths” through others' voices & mirror-echoes of shed selves along the route. I’ve also used translations & small read-throughs of “classic” English poems as parts of otherwise standard lyric poems.
Non-verbal texts are also sources, eg a John Adams’ music cycle, photographs of Fred Douglas & Ralph Eugene Meatyard, works in all the arts by Kiyooka etc etc
A longish work-in-progress is ‘A Shadow of his Former Shadow’ which attempts to discover who my extremely private father was works through straight & deliberately distorted memories, through erasures of works important to him, eg, Schubert’s “Winterreise” cycle, Marcus Aurelius (given to me as I left home at age 18 with a “here, son, it’s as good a guide to life as any”).
Trying all in all to be a good servant of the poem, as attentive as possible to word & world, knowing through the late John Riley:
that love/ is never fulfilled/ but the ways/ of approaching/ endlessQ: I’ve long been curious about how a British poet ends up in Kamloops, nestled in the interior of British Columbia, a city you emigrated to in 1974. What originally brought you to Canada?
A: Work & economics. BC Gov were recruiting Psych Nurses in the UK. I’d recently found a stash of copies of Beautiful BC magazine & had a west coast literature-induced fantasy lurking somewhere inside (sorry, Canada). The big institutions in Vancouver coupled with its weather pattern (I’d lived my last 5 years in England on the south-west coast & knew rain intimately) included that location out, but Mr Recruiter started talking about Kamloops’ four distinct seasons, & the villa system & small scale (by that era’s standards) of the institution were very appealing.
That I have remained is the greater mystery. In the place & the work.
I’ve avoided academia because of an allergy, so to speak, to over-directed learning. I’ve no doubt misrepresented to myself the way higher learning works, but here I am anyway – with a weird troup of chosen tutors working away in adhd shifts of attention & interest (“a broken-field runner” to steal Paul Metcalf’s tag on Douglas Woolf).
I didn’t step into full-time poethood, have great admiration for those who have, out of cowardice, no doubt, & a hard-to-explain sense that I had to earn the right to write (not by earning a living at any job, but by continuing with that most marginalized group of people – the intellectually disabled: believing that the work of entering into a poem, grasping to some extent its otherness & bringing that over into words touches & is touched by trying to understand the world & needs of non-verbal or barely verbal people in order to interpret an essence of the world to them & to help explain them to their immediate circle of people).
Damn! This was going to be the short answer!
Q: There’s an inference that dismisses the possibility of interacting with other writers, but you seem deeply connected to a variety of British poets, as well as poets currently and formerly around Vancouver and the Kootenay School of Writing. For someone who appears to be writing off the grid, you exist within a rather intricate array of writers. Were you engaged with British poets before you arrived in Canada? And how did you end up meeting so many Canadian poets from your home-base of Kamloops?
A: Shyness, at times pathological, has made interactions difficult from my side. Geography increases the difficulty no doubt.
In Britain, no direct engagement beyond being a consumer of mags which provided different sets of outlook: Stand – toward Europe largely; Agenda – Poundian modernisms; Grosseteste Review – openings toward USA, combo of projective & objective ‘schools’ filtered through a very English light.
Attended readings at the then Cariboo College where I heard but didn't ‘meet’ Birney, Newlove, Bowering et al. (A long parenthesis, 10 to 15 years, takes me into a North American cult/church community where I become an elder & preach regularly – until finally reading my way out of that wilderness – picking up while there some useful self-discipline for essay writing & a preachiness in my poems that I have to guard against).
Real connections began on three fronts in the 1990s: firstly, through the Internet & an email I sent to Nate Dorward I connected up with British & Irish poets I felt at home with & led to the publication of the first Wild Honey Press chapbook; through Nate again I learned of a reading at the ksw whose venue I failed to find then but, thanks to Rob Manery, found it for the next time; the Kamloops Poets Factory where Warren Fulton’s energies created a local scene & we brought in some good writers to read & conduct workshops (my contributions were all through the ksw connection: Mike Barnholden, Aaron Vidaver, Ted Byrne on one occasion; Lissa Wolsak & Lisa Robertson on Easter Sunday, 2000 – Lisa read from The Men). Not so many personal meetings really, lots of recruits I bring in from my reading, not in order to name-drop, but to share my experience in a particular text-world. Exploration & celebration.
Q: That’s actually how we first met as well, through Warren Fulton hosting a reading of mine in Kamloops. How have these engagements over the years influenced the ways (ie – the whats and hows) in which you write?
A: I remember that, with Anne Stone I recall. The reading (books) & the readings (of poets’ live readings) have been for the pleasures firstly & also for learning about content & techniques – what subjects have been tackled, how the poet approaches or recoils from world, self, language’s lines & nets. I guess hearing the poets read helped me unhitch my line & cadence from the deep-rooted plodding pentameter British poets claim as the rhythm of walking thinking & poeming. (Used well, ie with irregular variations & shifts in tempo, the iambic pentameter can still be a good experience and walking is still a great aid to writing, listening to highly jagged music is good too if the need is to shake everything up.)
I sometimes forget how many workshops I’ve attended & need to credit that as an ongoing aid to renewal. For their impacts my memory lands on workshops by Harold Rhenisch (in Kamloops) & Alice Notley & an anti-workshop by Denise Riley (both at ksw). I hope to find my notes from the Rhenisch event, but recall it being useful at the architectural level, Notley for the archaeology of self/ves, Riley for the singing/thinking/self-reflexive & societally-probing levels. The few years when I was attending readings & workshops at ksw were very stimulating: there was no pressure to align aesthetically, but it was really affirming to be “in class” with Lisa R, Sharon T, the Quartermains etc. – an open field still open. Recently I had the ‘honour’ (is I think the right word) of watching a local poet, Paul Liddy (whose work I had hoped to put out in a collection but my awful habit of procrastination, along with pension-income limitations, has stymied: hopefully it will find the publisher it deserves) take a whole swath of finished discrete lyrics & transform them into a more difficult read but a more profound experience. It seems he is muttering “I’m not aiming for ‘applause-gatherers’. I want the reader to experience something of what I went through” – reference is to surgery & subsequent treatment for brain cancer: even without that he’s the genuine “poet maudit” imho. He’s been to Banff a time of two & says he feels he was basically written off as a Bukowski disciple, at a time he’d never read Buk (though Dostoevsky is firmly in his canon).
Yes, watching that reconstruction project happen (“It’s fine”, he reassured me as I got agitated by the loss of these lyrics I’d really enjoyed, “I know what I’m doing” – and he did) was a liberating experience &, along with a recent chat with Donato Mancini, has got me working more boldly on the revision stage.
That was a privileged engagement.
End or it never will.
Q: After a variety of collections large and small over the past two decades or so, how do you feel your work has developed? What do you feel as though you might be working towards?
A: The thought of “development” suggests to me some kind of linear path which I don’t recognize. A series of loosely connected circles floating without apparent grounding might be more apt. Much of the writing has been an engagement with other artists in word, image &/or music. I expect to continue that practice as I come across works that touch the on-button. I also have tried to stay open to the daily gifts that come along if eyes, ears, mind, heart are in a state of readiness: I like to think of occasioned as opposed to occasional verse; epiphanies are considered off-the-map, but what are you supposed to do in the face of one, “Nah, can’t write about that it’s too exciting. Besides everyone has felt that.” Sure, but many of us have short memories, & to trigger good memories in our present world seems to me a pretty kind & literally vital endeavour. So, I have a bunch of things slotted under a title “Such as Any Day Might Bring.” Epics are for more grandiose &/or disciplined souls.
What I think I'm up to in poetry has often enough been interrupted by what I see I've actually been up to that I don't claim any overriding poetics other, perhaps, than "despite". The actual world is a good foundation (thinking here of Flaubert & de Maupassant's walks through Paris streets, with the older writer setting the assignment to write about a person they passed by so that he would recognize the person encountered); but an imaginable world cries out to be born.
I recently read a little bit about Douglas Blazek’s long-term project of rewriting a body of work over a number of years (35 years between publications if I grasped it properly) as a process of ripening the poems. That is interesting to me & may lead me to excavate something from a heap of early writing – that would qualify as more of a rescue mission than an organic ripening, but compost is compost.
There is a wealth of lived experience that I haven’t consciously worked with in poetry (preferring to let images, memories surface during the writing & carry a resonance, sort of like the ringing harmonics on the 5th, 7th & 12th frets of the guitar, that let me, at least, know something authentic is afoot). I think I’ll go into prose in a more focussed way – focus, well scattered will have to do & we are firmly in the Age of Fragments. So, stay tuned!
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Ha - that should be easy, but...
I’ll start with a quote I just found in a writing by Anna Mendelssohn (who also published as Grace Lake) who was a member of Britain’s Angry Brigade back in the tumultuous 1960s.
“I followed a few writers for a time in the local literary newsI was about to start a list of names, but the “re energize” & “return to” are your key words. That shrinks the list considerably. I find myself going to particular poems more than to whole oeuvres.
It’s like watching a kid take to the hills, or a colt stagger to its feet.”
David Rosenberg’s translations of Second Isaiah, Song of Songs & the great “justice” & righteousness verses in Joel & Amos. Wyatt, Marlowe, Will Shake. Hopkins - certain poems & the journals. Basil Bunting. David Jones - paintings, drawings, writings. (Hello I’m listing anyway! So be it.) Thom Gunn - the last few books & his essay/review collections. Kenneth Cox - his boringly titled Collected Studies in the Use of English & through that R.C. Hutchinson’s novels the unfinished Rising & Testament for its remarkable narrator Alexei Otraveskov. John Berger. Alan Garner’s Stone Book Quartet. R.F. Langley - poems & journals.
I’ve been rereading with constant pleasure my scattering of Guy Birchard’s books (published in England, Ireland & USA - the ones I have - does CanLit know him?); returning frequently to Phil Hall after hearing a reading on-line when it all came together (recent ‘discovery’ to me, so where have I been in relation to CanLit? – splashing around in the mid-Atlantic I guess). I arrived here in 1974 & took John Newlove & Phyllis Webb for my first guides & they remain such. Roy Kiyooka – who I coin as the Whole Soul Catalogue - paintings, letters, poems. The tapestry in Canada is too rich & I arrived too late. Not enough lifetimes.
Paul Metcalf & Guy Davenport must be mentioned. Metcalf from Genoa: A Telling of Wonders onwards was a writer of wonders & his use of primary sources along with his technique of juxtaposition – “To originate is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine” (Poe) is a motto he cites in interview - interests me in his way of presenting materials without the mediation, in several of his books, of a narrator to allow a reader to identify with and a pre-scribed set of emotional responses. Juxtaposition allows the described events to speak in a manner an Internet news item should call ‘raw’. Davenport & the recently deceased English ex-pat to Texas, Christopher Middleton, for their boundless curiosity.
There are several writers I’d add to the list of the return-to question: C.D. Wright, Lisa Robertson, Lissa Wolsak (for poetry that breathes the same air as prayer), Basil Bunting, John Thompson’s Stilt-Jack, 1001 Arabian Nights (my adventure & erotic fountainhead from adolescence onwards).
I find music (early polyphony to Baroque & contemporary, free jazz etc) & visual arts along with long walks to be the best battery chargers. Attempting translation is also a good surge.
Let's close it all off with a phrase from Middleton re a foundation for a way: “Apostrophe, the invocation of a spirit, though now archaic, is still fundamental to the lyric in one form or another.
Thanks, rob, for the chance to wander around here.