George Bowering lives in his old Point Grey haunt with Jean and Mickey. In late 2019 Talon Books published Taking Measures, a huge collection of serial poems. The Irish poem is part of a nice unpublished book.
His poem “Mandatory Sod” appears in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poem “Mandatory Sod.”
A: Usually, when Jean and I go to some distant country to eat and look around, we go to Mexico or Italy. This time we decided to go somewhere that they speak a language that’s hard to follow, so we went to Ireland. Jean wrote her PhD thesis on an Irish writer, but she had never been to Ireland. I had been in Dublin and Dunleary in 1970, my only trip there, and just for a weekend or so. Jean and I stayed in Dublin to look at the usual stuff, then rented a car and drove clockwise around the country. The poem? If you’ve read “Blonds on Bikes,” you know what I am doing. Call it “Eire Blues.”
Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: Like the Blonds one, it was assigned the job of noticing things during a trip. So it does mention Jack Kerouac as a kind of tip of the Tweed flat cap, and we remember that Kerouac wrote Dave McFadden a letter before either of them died, and we were on the island of poets, though they have had a lot of nice novelists and short story writers and playwrights, no? So Jean drove the Kia along the narrow twisty Wild Atlantic Way, dodging poets and unfortunately whacking a village cat. Most of the poems I have written over the past decade have been thick slabs like Ashbery’s. This Irish one is full of breeze, and it comes into my brain where the associations are, whereas my usual work these years follows thought that comes from experience and research. I often thought of McFadden and his little car in his Ireland book, but I didn’t read the book again, just remembered the chocolate bars.
Q: You’re famous (or infamous) for your play with “baffles,” otherwise known as a pre-determined structure, for longer poetic sequences, so I have to ask: how was the structure of this sequence determined? Was this something rhythmic you followed, or were your structural considerations more complex?
A: What I called baffles a lot of people call constraints. I knew I was going to do a section, or a page. or a stanza, whatever, an entry, that seems right, per day. Section 3 is an easy one––spot something in my immediate environment, let it lead to whatever association inside my head. This gets more interesting as we go along, despite my attempt to hold on, as the poem starts to take over. That is always important, the poem taking over. What I do is keep it from becoming profound. Skip stones on the surface, not drop depth charges.
Q: Given your enormous publishing output over decades, does that make it easier or harder for you to get a poem started? How do you keep from repeating yourself, or is this something you even worry about?
A: I don’t want to sound like a smart alec here, but really, it’s the poem that gets me started, not the other way around. It has always been that way. For example, when I was living in Montreal and writing short lyric poems sometimes, I would hear the rhythm of my feet as I walked to the Metro to go home, and then some words would fall into the footfalls, and then I would say them out loud, maybe, as I held onto the strap, and when I got home I would drop my stuff and go way back of the apartment, to my writing room, and write it down, the poem. Next day or five days later I might throw it away or change a few words, and type it and three-hole punch it and add it to my binder. I don’t know about repeating myself. I repeat other poets in peculiar ways. Is that different?
Q: Given the length and breadth of your published work-to-date, how do you see the trajectory of your writing, from those apartment beginnings to everything you’ve accomplished since? Where do you see your work heading?
A: I can say that at the beginning I wanted to write poetry, fiction, funny stuff, nonfiction. Actually, when I was a schoolboy my ambition was to be a sportswriter, journalist who sometimes did books, I guess. So you can see that I have published several books about baseball and one about hockey. I played some basketball, but never did a book about it. In other words, when it comes to the main news, I am still aiming toward writing whatever presents itself. Now, the things I have read have made some alterations in my interest and therefore my writing. When I was 21 years old, my favourite fictions were realistic, Steinbeck, James T. Farrell, Budd Schulberg. Then I read a realist named John Dos Passos, and was drawn closer to text because he used newspaper headlines on his pages. You see? That’s both to show authenticity and writerly activity. So it wasn’t long till I was reading Gertrude Stein and the French antinovelists, and then diving backward to read Tristram Shandy. It’s saying to the reader, “It’s you and me, not them and them others.” So with poetry. I never did care for mopes like Frost and his gang, but I liked poems that were clear. Well, I still operate on a sheet of clarity, but like to remember that those are words, and they constitute a surface, and that’s a nice place to be. As to the future? Or where is my work heading? Toward me, toward my pen.
Q: I’ve always been curious about your ongoing engagement with the long/serial poem. What do you feel you are able to do through longer works that might not be possible otherwise?
A: I feel as if I can’t really, properly, answer this question. It is true that my favourite poets are great long poem writers: Shelley, H.D., Williams, Kroetsch. But I also love a lot of short poems. Do you think that short poems as related to long poems are like short stories as related to novels? I don’t know. Look at H.D. She wrote, early in her life, exquisite short imagist poems, like “Oread,” "Sea Rose,” “Helen.” But she wrote longer as she grew older (and wiser?), leaving us the great Helen in Egypt, etc. If you’re going to throw a book into my grave, make it her Trilogy. The first editions of the three poems that make up that trilogy were. printed by the Bowering Press, I am proud to say, the same press that printed the first major attack on the Oxford Group, I am proud to say, too. I don’t know. Going back to an assertion I have made before, I will plead that the poem knows when to stop or when you have longer stuff in mind. But then what about poor old Doc Williams, who was writing at least notes for Paterson 6?
Q: Finally, and perhaps you’ve already answered a version of this, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I sorta know what you mean, and it is true that I read lots of poems, but rarely do I read them to get me going. I know, I make lots of allusions, and even heists. Sometime in the near (?) future, my book Soft Zipper will appear, and from the title you might know that it is a rewriting of Stein’s Tender Buttons. Actually, it is an attempt to translate that book into Canadian English, trying to make it a little more familiar, even easy to read. It’s not like my rewriting of Rilke, though, nor my rewriting of Homer, Wait! I am not answering your question! Actually, as I approach my long goodbye, I have a different system of reading. I read alternately from my pile of books that will eventually go to my library within the UBC library, and books that won’t do that. A couple of days ago I finished reading a book by Alphonse Daudet, and now I am reading Michael Boughn. I don’t think that either will reenergize my work. But I have two manuscripts open on my desk. One mentions Dom DiMaggio and Jane Austen. The other goes on about tacos and crocodiles.