Open Mic: Why did you begin writing poetry?
Madeline Bassnett: Because I could avoid writing dialogue! Really, though, it was a fairly organic process: when I started writing more seriously in my mid-20s I found myself naturally drifting towards poetry’s metaphorical and associative language. I was also attracted by the formal potential of poetry--the goal of crafting words into tiny perfect objects.
O.M: Which two or three poets remain prominent in your firmament, and why?
M.B: Anne Carson for her smart humour, her plain narrative style underpinned by classical learning and reference, her adventurous use of form. Jack Gilbert for his realism, honesty, and his quiet, startling images. Jorie Graham for her close attention to the minutiae of daily life and her piercing commentary on humanity’s effect on the world.
O.M: Physician, author, poet, and critic Dr. Shane Neilson edited Elegies. What do you want from an ideal editor, and what would an ideal editor want from you?
M.B: Shane was a great editor, and I think he helped my writing improve not just in the chapbook, but also in a long-lasting way. A good editor is a good close reader who has the ability to help a piece of writing become the best it can be. In other words, the editor’s own style and agenda should be put aside to serve the poem at hand. A good editor has a practiced poetic eye: Shane was able to draw my attention to some consistent weaknesses or habits (e.g. a tendency to lapse into abstraction), which helped me move beyond them. A good editor doesn’t micromanage, can recognize when to stop, and can accept when a writer decides that ultimately, she doesn’t wish to change something.
I think a good editing relationship is a type of contract. The writer enters the process in good faith, willing to accept criticism and suggestions and open to the idea that another reader brings a fresh eye to the work. The writer may not take up all the editor’s suggestions, but considers them carefully and is able to explain her choices. Ideally, the editing process is a time of dialogue, learning, and growth.
O.M: You mention your appreciation of Anne Carson’s ‘plain narrative style underpinned by classical learning and reference...’
With regard to the child, the third stanza of Life Cycle mentions Eos––”offer her up to covetous dawn, / show off our prize, first-born / worthy of Eos.”––and alludes to Homer’s classic image of the ‘rosy-fingered dawn’. The same poem references Emmanuel Levinas’s God, Death, and Time, and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Tithonus. Islands, the seventh poem in the collection, bears an epigraph from Homer’s The Odyssey.
As an academic as well as a poet, to what degree do you feel communion with or acknowledgement of classical mythology is necessary to poetry, and what do such allusions afford a poem which other devices cannot?
M.B: I don’t know that the classics are necessary to poetry, but there’s a long tradition of alluding to the classics in poetry, in part because of the Renaissance enthusiasm for classical texts and ideas, and more recently, due to Modernists such as Pound and Eliot. The classics are foundational texts for Western literature, whether we like it or not. Carson’s work goes far beyond allusion or acknowledgement; she is always translating the classics--or perhaps a better word is transfiguring--in a way that I think few of us can aspire to.
Intertextual reference of any kind can lend metaphorical and associative depth, but ideally won’t close off the poem to readers who can’t make the connections. I was reading The Odyssey around the time of writing the poems for Elegies, and found its language of loss useful for my own exploration of that language and feeling. And Life Cycle begins with a cicada, which with a little internet searching heads rather logically towards Tithonus and the classical story of the goddess of dawn and her love for a mortal. Those relationships never end well, but they also speak to our struggle with mortality, which is what all the poems in Elegies are about on some level.
O.M: In an interview with Will Aitken for The Paris Review, Anne Carson offers the following words about her poem Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions:
“There are different gradations of personhood in different poems. Some of them seem far away from me and some up close, and the up-close ones generally don’t say what I want them to say. And that’s true of the persona in the poem who’s lamenting this as a fact of a certain stage of life.”
Elegies also examines different gradations of personhood, namely that of the dead, the adult, and the child. Did you feel that one of the these three stages was easier or more difficult to write about? Why or why not?
M.B: I’d agree with Carson that the “up-close” poem/persona can be the hardest to write--i.e. the adult stage in this instance. The “up-close” for me is often too muddled with “the truth,” which doesn’t always make a good poem.
O.M: The cover of Elegies bears a photograph, taken by Csaba Molnar, of the dandelion’s downy tufts, perhaps representative of the generative quality of death. Similarly the final clause of the collection is ‘the dark sparking vigour of decay.’
Does this concept parallel your sense of the writing and publishing of poetry? And is poetry obliged, in your view, to mirror mortality, insofar as it is able?
M.B: Writing poetry certainly feels like an endlessly generative task--the question is always when to stop revising and when to let the poem go. I think I’m on the side of Shakespeare, who idealizes poetry as a gateway to immortality. But ‘the dark sparking vigour of decay’ also alludes to the way in which mortality is also immortality: death may be an end, but it is also a transformation and a beginning of many other processes of creation.
O.M: Perhaps buttressed by Shakespeare’s notion of the immortality of poetry, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus held that “When the soul... is born, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” Joyce’s Davin argued that the national responsibility took precedence over the artistic or spiritual one. Likewise W.H. Auden claimed, in his elegy for W.B. Yeats, that “...poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper,” while Denise Levertov took an actively political stance in her poetry regarding the war in Southeast Asia.
Do either of these positions resonate with you? Are there ideologically pungent properties exclusive to the poem, or would the poet do well to avoid the temporal, inflammatory domain of politics?
M.B: I think poetry does have a political role: its metaphorical, allusive language makes it ideal for such things as coded political criticism and calls to resistance, and poetry has often been used for these purposes. One might also define “political” much more personally. In the intensity of its language and imagery, poetry has the ability to open up the individual (reader or writer) to the new and the transformative. I don’t know if a poem should always be or aspire to be political, but I do think that the political, artistic, and spiritual are interconnected, not separate, concerns.
O.M: You’ve a collection of poems coming out with Baseline Press about a year from now. Would you mind saying a few words about the collection, and how, in the writing, these poems differ from those in Elegies?
M.B: The Baseline Press chapbook is part of a longer manuscript about breast cancer. In the chapbook, I use the language of walking and pilgrimage as a metaphor for the physical trials of chemotherapy. Like the poems of Elegies, these poems are interested in the body and mortality. But the Pilgrimage poems attempt an honesty and self-revelation/reflection that I don’t think the Elegies poems necessarily achieved. The writing process for Pilgrimage was much more intense, taking place over a shorter period of time and closer to the actual event. They are crafted, but I hope embody the rawness of the experience as well.
What is your favourite word?
I like words in general.
For what fault have you most toleration?
What is your favourite curse word?
Hells bells and buckets of blood. My mum used to use this phrase in extreme moments of frustration when I was a child. I always found the phrase amusing, but have never figured out how to use it myself except in a jokey way.
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
What profession would you not like to attempt?
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
From Elegies (Frog Hollow, 2011). “Mendocino Cottage Country” was also published in The New Quarterly.
The Art of Mourning
Disposal and renewal, the festooning of loss.
That once living body reduced to sentiment:
clouds and weeping willows, misty pathways
and the pink-gold glow that promises
there is no bitter end. Our hands unsullied,
he slides invisibly from metal to wood,
the clean soft grain of pine framing
the marbled mask of his face, his mother
emerging from within, victory of genetics
writing itself into his tight cheekbones.
What have we lost? His steady progress
to ash awaits, our last act of recognition
sunders the cotton draped body from itself,
now an icon of memory, ancestral figurine
prepared by patient strangers, their kind art
of disposal obscuring rupture.
To have washed him clean, embraced
his absence. There is nothing
to replace him, these photos we clutch,
flat reminders of what can’t be redeemed.
His new chill a foreign language,
its hard not of being in our bones.
Mendocino Cottage Country
Afterwards, we ambled through the fields.
It was the rainy season, and chanterelles
unfurled their orange trumpets as if to celebrate
our loping strides that claimed to own the earth,
its damp effusion, pungent rot. The emblems
of crazy old age hadn’t hit us yet: that blind-eyed
cabin on the hill, guarded by imagined shotguns
of silence, menace in the sealed emptiness
we couldn’t infiltrate. Those tumbled wood-frame
dwellings by the stream, open to the air like tree-
houses or nests, doors akimbo, walls sagging, torn
or vanished, rusted stove, termite-laden step,
invading colonies of mould. At first we felt like dolls
welcomed by the gaping walls, loss rephrased
as life, our filmed eyes pretending floral curtains,
cups of tea and cake. But silence watched here too,
winked in the tin mirror, wound through the grove
like smoke. We slipped on mildewed leaves,
the oak galls on the table crumbled at a touch.
Rusted beer cans, shotgun shells poked
their metal way through knots of grass,
the stream’s miasma slunk into chairs,
usurped our ownership. Fragile as pears,
our bodies on the splintered doorsteps.
The dog days’ electrical buzz rises
and shimmers around us, swan song
of the cicada, brief release from root
warren darkness a summons to mating
and death. That won’t happen to me,
the child insists, cupped in her burrow
of innocence. If we could, we would
help her cheat this waking world,
offer her up to covetous dawn,
show off our prize, first-born
worthy of Eos. Look: her cheeks
are streaked already with fingers of rose,
careless limbs shining with the sun.
Take her. Let her rise and rise again.
The cicada clicks out its code of desire,
vibrates through the sultry afternoon
and time spins on, inexorable dervish--
dawn paints another sky, tireless palate
celebrating our slow slide towards decay.
Our child knows none of this, her days
still replete, tomorrow stretching greedily
into the horizon, time’s flat-spoon face
resting unnoticed in her lengthening bones.
We gather ourselves, return to the house,
doors and walls muting the insect’s
ecstatic elegy, its praise of dirt and bark,
the body’s brief shudder and its tender curl
of extinction, empty carapace greeting the dawn.
WHERE: The Mykonos Restaurant at 572 Adelaide St. North, London, Ontario. The restaurant has a large, enclosed terrace just behind the main restaurant, which comfortably holds 60 poetry lovers. Mediterranean food and drinks are available. The terrace is open to the parking lot behind. Overflow parking is available across the side street and in the large lot one block north, in front of Trad’s Furniture.
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 7th, 2015. Doors: 6:00 to 6:30 (It's a restaurant.) Event begins at 7:00
THE FEATURED POET: Madeline Bassnett will open the poetry portion of the event at 7:00, followed by a Q&A.
OPEN MIC: Following the featured poet, and an intermission at 8:00 pm, open mic poets will read to as late as 10:30. Each poet has five minutes (which is about two good pages of poetry, but it should be timed at home). Sign up on the reader's list, which is on the book table at the back. It's first come, first served.
COVER: By donation (in donation jar on back table, or use Donate Button on website Donate Page). Donations are our only source of income to cover expenses.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Anyone who donates at the event receives a ticket for a raffle prize, three of which will be picked after the intermission. The prizes consist of poetry books donated by Brick Books and The Ontario Poetry Society.