Tuesday, August 15, 2023

TtD supplement #243 : seven questions for Monty Reid

Monty Reid is an Ottawa poet and gardener. Author of a dozen poetry collections and many chapbooks (including 5 from above/ground), his latest book, The Lockdown Elegies, will appear this fall.  

A cluster of poems from “The Lockdown Elegies” appear in the thirty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “The Lockdown Elegies.”

A: The Lockdown Elegies is a sequence of poems that is either too early or too late, a farewell to something that hasn’t disappeared yet, a premature consolation or a belated recognition. Fragmentary, slightly aphoristic, sometimes funny and sometimes scared, the poems address the stresses, the isolation and the contradictory responses in evidence to the ongoing pandemic. They try, repeatedly, to pretend it’s over.

The entire ms is indeed an elegy, for my father-in-law Jack Hill who passed away during the second lockdown. He didn’t have Covid, but the virus certainly complicated his last days. Scattered throughout the ms are short poems dedicated to other friends who have died during this period. The overall tone is subdued, but not bleak. The opportunity for quiet humour is frequent, whether it be a quick celebration of toilet paper or sex on zoom. The poems are deliberately short, disarmingly straightforward, and tenacious in their hold on the world.

While contemporary events aren’t front and centre in the poems, they contribute to the background anxiety, whether it be climate-change-driven forest fires, horrific residential school discoveries, shortages real and imagined, mask anxiety, anti-vax campaigners, etc. The virus itself doesn’t make much of an appearance in the poems, altho it too is clearly airborne around the edges. What is at the heart of the work is the sense of loss, but also a search for the conditions that make grace possible

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: This gathering of poems, all very short, respond to a specific situation, a situation shared, at least in part, by most Canadians. The thematic linkage is not unusual for my work, but the focus on something so public and politicized is a bit different. Taken together, they don't constitute a long poem – they lack the necessary attention span, and one of the things I lost during the pandemic was the ability to pay attention to much of anything for very long. So these are the fragments that remain. You can see the poems looking around for some scaffolding to enable coherence, whether it be dreams or prayers or govt policy, but none of it’s convincing. All you’re left with is the people you love. I think this book is more desperate than my other recent work.

Q: While you’ve worked intermittently on book-length works across your writing life, it would seem your past decade-plus of work has been far more focused on these larger projects, from this forthcoming work to your lengthy poem on espionage to “Host,” a project I recall hearing you read during the mid-aughts at the Ottawa Art Gallery. Has you been aware of a shift, or is this simply the way you’ve always worked?

A: Now that I think about it, most of my books, going back to the 1970s, are groups of interconnected poems. Karst Means Stone grew out of my grandfather's rather spotty memoirs, The Life of Ryley was about life in a small Alberta town and The Alternate Guide grew out of a natural history project I was working on for the provincial museum In Edmonton. Most of the others (Dog Sleeps, Garden, Meditatio Placentae, etc) are gatherings of less-than-book-length sequences. Collections of short, unlinked poems are fairly rare in my published work. Maybe the best example would be These Lawns. So that compulsion has been pretty consistent for a long time now. But what I notice has changed is the scale of the projects. There are 365 espionage poems. The parasite project (Host) keeps expanding as new and fascinating parasite species are described. Recently, I’ve been trying to curtail this tendency by writing short poems (haiku-length) and shorter poems (haiku-like, but missing a syllable) but usually this results in the combination of the short pieces into much longer chains. I think I’m doomed.

Q: What is it about the linked sequence or book-length project that appeals? What is it that you feel the structure allows that might not be possible otherwise?

A: Here are some things that make it attractive:

1. carrying capacity – it can be a poem with history in it, a la Pound or Brand or many others, but it can also accommodate dreams and memories and music and documentation and whatever else you might need. It gives one room to develop a thought, or to let your mind wander. Sometimes that can result in a tiresome pastiche, but sometimes you get a brilliant new recipe.
2. coherence, but not too much of it – most of my favorite long poems – like Seed Catalogue (Kroetsch) or Naked Poems (Webb) or, more recently, Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems or Laura Walker’s Psalmbook – tend to be fairly focused, but I also like the sprawl of David Antin’s talking poems and the meander of The Martyrology. While there is probably a narrative impulse at play in most long poems, it’s frequently disrupted and detourned, and sometimes that’s where the most interesting poetry occurs. And in the pandemic, everybody;s narrative got a bit messed up

3. persistence over time – lyric poems traditionally step out of time, but long poems step right into it. Their duration is the point, the ending is deferred, and you have to stick with it to get to the best parts. So they require a certain amount of patience, which is an undervalued virtue in the twitterverse. And there’s Bob Kroestch’s famous ‘delay’, crucial in both love-making and in poetry.

Q: With over a dozen collections going back to the 1970s, including a selected with Anansi in the 1990s, how else do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: While I do appreciate whatever attention my work attracts, I do understand that it situates just a little off to the side of the main streams of Cdn poetry. I’m ok with that, and it leaves me with room to work on material that doesn’t always generate clicks but may have huge impact in other contexts – like espionage in Canada, or cell biology. But to tell the truth, I have no clue where my work is headed.

Q: I’ve long considered that Disappointment Island (2006) was a geographically-between collection, almost untethered, given how deeply everything prior to that was bound to Alberta. Your collections since have been linked to other considerations, whether geography or otherwise, from Luskville, Quebec to your Beacon Hill backyard garden, and into notions of, as you say, “espionage in Canada, or cell biology.” How do you see your work in terms of geography, or even those shifts through and beyond specific sites?

A: I think you’re right about Disappointment Island as a transitional book, but Karst Means Stone (1979) was definitely a Saskatchewan book (although Anne Szumigalski was soon to advise me, rather primly, I couldn’t be a Saskatchewan writer because I’d “reneged in my soul”) and all those Alberta books were also linked to other considerations, from birds (The Dream of Snowy Owls, 1983) to map-making (The Alternate Guide,1985) to Burgess Shale fossils (Flat Side, 1998).  So geography is certainly a factor, but never the exclusive factor. And while I’ve always been interested in geography at a macro level (as in continental drift, ice-free corridors, sea level changes, etc), I live at the local level, house and garden and playground, and that’s what I tend to write about. So the espionage poems came about because Canada’s spy agencies are housed two blocks away from me and I see them everyday, and the parasite interest grew out of my work with natural history collections. In my poems, I find that attention to the local is what makes the larger interests/issues possible, and there is often great danger and misadventure when the larger issues overwhelm the local, inescapable as that sometimes is.

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

A: For long-term sustenance – Phyllis Webb, Yehuda Amichai

For short-term recharge – Lisa Robertson, earlier Don McKay

Current - Jorie Graham

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