Monday, March 20, 2023

TtD supplement #235 : six questions for Hilary Clark

Originally from Vancouver, Hilary Clark now lives in Victoria, BC. Before retirement, she taught English for 25 years at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon. She has published three books of poetry, her first, More Light (1998), winning the Pat Lowther Award for 1999. The most recent is The Dwelling of Weather (Brick, 2003). Besides writing new poetry, she is singing in a choir and working on translations of poetry, mostly French Surrealist and Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle).

Selections of her work-in-progress “My Muted Year” appear in the thirty-sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.

This is now a completed manuscript she is readying for submission.

Q: Tell me about “My Muted Year.”

A: “My Muted Year” is a sequence of around 124 untitled prose poems composed at intervals over the year 2020, the year of the most stringent Covid lockdowns and restrictions. I started it in November 2019 and ended in November 2020. It began when, after a period of rejections and anxiety, I decided to restart in a non-threatening way, by handwriting nine prose lines in a notebook per session. There was no intended topic: the sentences were prompted by rhythm, by whatever came into my mind, by forays into the dictionary, and by repetition of earlier fragments in the sequence. As I usually do, I used chance procedures and associations to interrupt intention. The individual poems may contain traces of narrative, but they are connected not by narrative but by repetition and variation of seasonal and other motifs, some inspired by location (West Coast), some by the Covid context. Motifs from a life overturned.

Over the whole, there is an “I” voice that mostly monologues. There is also a second voice that addresses the “I” in a snarky but sometimes off-base way. The effect is a compromised dialogue in which each side talks past the other.

Q: How does this project compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: This sequence has been my only poetic project for the last few years. It has grown out of an earlier unpublished manuscript: both originate in constraint procedures and develop by surrealist disjunctions and imagery that is often dream-like. (The new sequence has further required that, in revision, I work out forms of repetition, in particular identifying themes and creating variations.) Another continuity with the earlier manuscript is that both include playful and conflicting voices. I think the voices have been a solution to my ongoing struggle with/against lyric beauty: they make a unified ‘I’ impossible. And as a bipolar person, I find they both reflect and give me some control over the endless noise in my head.

My other projects at present are translations of French surrealist and Oulipo poems by Marianne Van Hirtum (Belgium) and Jacques Roubaud (France). I have also translated a sequence by Normand de Bellefeuille (Québec) from La Marche de l'aveugle sans son chien (2000). I am still a newbie along with many other emerging literary translators. In its constraint procedures, imagery, and often-illogical transitions from one sentence to the next, “My Muted Year” has been influenced by the poetry that I translate (just as my translations are shaped by my poetic practice).

Q: What originally prompted you to work with constraint and repetition in such a way, and what do you feel those structures provide that might not be possible otherwise?

A: There was more than one prompt: In my graduate work especially, and in university teaching and research, I worked with Modernist and Surrealist authors. In a context of wars and revolutions, avant-garde writing undermined unified subjectivity and narrative logic, often composing paratactically, by association or dream logic. These are the main emphases that have shaped my approach to writing poetry. I am presently immersed in Surrealist works, translating them from the French.

As well, over time I have become interested in the French Oulipo group, whose authors work/play from constraints: sets of rules, as in games. (Think of older forms, like the sonnet. Think of Eunoia by Christian Bök.) Here content is not intended beforehand but emerges as the game is played. As Jacques Roubaud, eminent Oulipean, puts it: “I will say / That a constraint opens up a possible / World of language. With this, I / Hold a passkey.”*

So these influences, plus that of the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver—where I took workshops in the 1980s—have shaped my writing. Lyn Hejinian’s writing has been an inspiration, in particular her prose-poetic memoir My Life (1980) and her more recent book The Unfollowing (2016), in which, she claims, the non-sequitur is the main principle of development. In composing from sentence to sentence in 14-line units, “[n]othing was to follow—or nothing follow logically” (Preface).*

It’s in my nature to “mute” myself and avoid starting with a bald intention such as “I will write about my experience of the COVID lockdown in 2020.” And I like writing chained poems rather than writing a self-sufficient lyric or narrative poem. I don’t know how to write one of those. They are complete units, whereas my individual poems are not so much complete in themselves as taking on meaning from those that precede and follow, extending with indefinite or potentially no closure. (Of course, the sequence has been practiced by many Canadian poets.) Here, repetition serves as a kind of memory for the reader, a way of holding things lightly in mind.
1st * Jacques Roubaud, “Les contraintes,” Churchill 40 et autres sonnets de voyage 2000-2003 (Gallimard, 2004), p. 45. My translation.
2nd * Lyn Hejinian, Preface, The Unfollowing (Omnidawn, 2016), p. 9.
Q: With three poetry titles, as well as your current work-in-progress, since the late 1990s, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: When my last book of poetry was published, as a prof I had to focus for a while on publishing academic articles. These qualified me for a SSHRC grant to do research that interested me and satisfied the powers-that-be. By 2015, when I retired, I had poems and manuscripts but no luck at all in placing work until last year, 2022. In the meantime, something must have been happening: the writing I started doing around the time of retirement and since then has been a little different than my earlier, more lyrical books. When I am composing now, I am directed by voices in my head that go back and forth: my lyric I-voice arouses satirical retorts and abuse from another voice or voices. I still turn to admire-this-beauty! phrases about flowers, light, and weather, but my writing shows some humor now in the gap between lyric and satirical voices.

Thus for some years, while my poetry was backgrounded, it shifted somewhat in . . . style? preoccupations? This shift may be associated with the increasing pressure/fear of extreme weather, especially wildfires here in BC. It is also associated with aging: I’m 67 and some of my friends have died already. Working at a job is a distraction from one’s mortality; retirement and an aging body brings it clearly into view. These morbid concerns flick through the prose poems in “My Muted Year.”

As for where my writing is headed, who knows? I hope it gets closer to the quick of my experience. Every new project might be the last. Every new project is a new beginning.

Q: I’m always interested in multiple generations of writers within any family, and over the years, I’ve asked numerous writers about their experiences with being the offspring of writers, but rarely I’ve been able to ask from the other direction: your son, Winnipeg poet Julian Day, recently published his chapbook debut, and has been publishing poems in a whole slew of journals over the past few years. What is it like to have a child who has followed your example? Are the two of you able to discuss writing? And how different from or similar to your work do you see his?

A: My husband teases me (repeatedly) that my son Julian publishes more than I do. No, I tell him, it doesn’t bother me: it’s a special source of happiness. Julian is in his early 40s, which was my age when I published my first book More Light (1998). He has worked on his poetry and submitted it over many years now, and his patience is bearing fruit. He also edits + doc: a journal of longer poems; the 4th issue appeared this month. As for me, I’m at the other end of the journey—older, no wiser.

It is gratifying to have a child who is as mad about poetry as I am. He knows his Canadian poets, and I give him books by British poets, plus classics like Dickinson and Blake. We discover our reading favorites together: we both admire Robin Robertson, John Burnside, and Alice Oswald. We don’t discuss technique or poetics, or share poems, that much. My poetry and his are somewhat different, mine being more constraint-based and influenced by North American experimental poetry and poetics. I won’t try to characterize his!

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: These works and authors reenergize, inspire imagery and/or techniques in my work:
Buddhist texts, Tibetan Book of the Dead. Classical Chinese poetry. Japanese haiku and renga. Surrealists, Oulipians. Contemporary Canadian and Québecois poetry: Normand de Bellefeuille, Susan Andrews Grace, Louise Halfe, Sylvia Legris, Tim Lilburn, Daphne Marlatt, Don McKay, Mary-Lou Rowley, Steven Ross Smith, Anne Szumigalski, Fred Wah, Phyllis Webb, and more. Contemporary American poetry: Will Alexander, Forrest Gander, Peter Gizzi, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman, Fanny Howe, Nathaniel Mackey, Cedar Sigo, and more.

These works and authors must be deep in the folds of my brain: they have a permanent place in my imagination, from years of listening, reading and teaching:
The Odyssey; Greek tragedies; Sappho; Ovid; the Bible; Dante’s Inferno; Marlowe, Dr. Faustus; Shakespeare’s tragedies and The Tempest; Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; Grimms’ fairy tales; Carroll, Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass; Keats, Dickinson, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Pound, Joyce, Woolf, H.D. The Wizard of Oz (film).

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