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Sleeping with the author

by Susan Scott & Ron Grimes

first published in The New Quarterlyhttps://tnq.ca/sleeping-with-the-author/

 

“When it comes to fighting against white supremacy, it’s not just what you stand for, it’s who you sit with.” –Jamaya Khan, Maclean’s, August 16, 2017

“Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.” –Ralph Ellison, Paris Review Spring, 1957

 

Editing the work of friends and family is a common goodwill gesture, often done as a favour, or, as is the case with certain literary couples, by design. John Gregory Dunne once told the New York Times that he and Joan Didion serve as one another’s “first reader, absolutely.” Glen David Gold described his and Alice Sebold’s harmonious writing-and-editing rhythms as expressions of the couple’s “complementary neuroses.”

My spouse and I are three decades into editing one another’s work, a lively partnership we safeguard by confining ourselves to separate sandboxes—his, in academia; mine, in arts and culture. The rise of Trump disrupted this peaceable arrangement. Suddenly, my husband was exploring explosive family history in a personal essay I’d encouraged him to write.

 What I discovered in the process was unsettling. As an editor, I want the truth exposed. As a spouse, I sometimes dread it.

The following exchange with Ron Grimes took place in August and September, 2017, while he was submitting “The Backsides of White Souls” to literary magazines in the U.S. and Canada. If the essay is published, we will link to it, here.

                    –Susan Scott, TNQ nonfiction editor

 

Susan Scott: Canadian editor, American scholar. I wonder, have I done justice when it comes to your incendiary essay?

Ron Grimes: Sure you have. You’re doubting?

SS: The aftermath of Charlottesville, Virginia, got me thinking about the marriage of editing and culture. Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic about Trump’s addiction to flouting norms—even when he’s handed a statement that’s been vetted, he will not stay on script.

His behaviour reinforces this dismissal of the rational, cooling space that editing affords. Left and right, we’re seeing that cultural cooling space collapsing.

But cooling off can also mean constraint. Editing can just as easily undercut what the cultural moment calls for. “House of the Dead” exposes racism in an old American family. Looking back, I wonder, have I simply reined you in?

RG: Sometimes, but I knew you would do that, and I invited it. This essay is personal and dangerous. I kept losing perspective on it and needed your editorial eye. We both know the value of trying to imagine “the reader’s” eyes. We both believe that blindly accepting an editor’s suggestions is a mindless exercise. But we’ve done this before. The ultimate decision is the author’s, so I had to figure out when to let you rein me in and when not to.

SS: Fair enough. I wanted to think with you as you wrote, and I wanted you to think with me—not just resist, or capitulate to my suggestions. Not that you’d ever capitulate, really, but the creative tension between us colours how you write, and how I edit.

So, what about the spousal edit? When is it effective?

RG: Well, for instance, you helped me rethink the knife on the bedpost. I had that image in early drafts, and you wanted me to take it out.

SS: Right, the early draft you sent to friends confessed …

RG: Sorry, it wasn’t confession, it was fact. That knife had hung on the bedpost since my teens. You never complained about it until you read the essay, when you said …

SS: I said, “Okay, even if the knife does hang there, is that how you want to introduce yourself to readers? Unless you want to shock them, think about cutting the reference to the knife.” You still had ghosts and guns. Page one, no less. The knife’s important to the story; how it was handled was the question.

RG: Right, I don’t mind if people dismiss me in the last paragraph, I just don’t want them to dismiss me in the first paragraph.

SS: So, was it a loss, excising the knife?

RG: No, I didn’t excise it. The literary knife is back in now—reframed. I put the actual knife away one day when you were gone (and pulled it back out momentarily to stage this photo). I thought, “I don’t need this ritual object hanging here anymore.” Did you notice?

SS: Ah, so that’s what happened. Editorial prompt as ritual prompt; that’s novel. Anything else come to mind?

RG: You and I both love economy and compression in writing, so I asked you to steal some of my words. I also love hyperbole, sparkle, and spew, so I sometimes dump economy. You suggested cutting:

 

Having moved north of the border to Canada in 1974, one might wish the load of baggage had been left behind, stuffed in a carpet bag and stashed in some remote, deep-south alley. But, as kids used to say in New Mexico, you can’t pee in only one corner of a swimming pool. Canadians put it more discreetly: When America sneezes, Canada catches cold.

SS: Yep, that had to go. Shall we talk about why, or is it obvious?

RG: I still like the passage, but I followed your suggestion. The context was too serious for horseplay. Those lines are now composting in my fragments file, waiting to jump into the next essay.

SS: Right, you know that I’m uneasy, still, about “House of the Dead” going public.

RG: Sorry to hear that. You urged me to write the essay. Why dread it now?

SS: I asked what you wanted to accomplish, and you said you wanted to make a racket, dragging skeletons out of the closet.

RG:  I want white people to talk about being white. So, yes, open the closets and let the skeletons out, let them rattle their bones.

SS: Absolutely, but then what? Scott Gilmore called out Canadian racism in Maclean’s after the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015, and that was well before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report. As a country, we’re just now admitting we have skeletons, let alone rattling them. Editing your essay made me realize I need to own up to that reluctance.

RG: Meaning what?

SS: You were starting brush fires using religion and politics as kindling. My response was to tamp down the flames. I argued that the longer the thematic checklist, the greater the danger that your characters would be flattened to little more than props. And on the one hand, that’s true. The more themes piled on, the more the clutter, and the less oxygen for power and precision.

On the other hand, your instinct as a writer is to fan the flames. I edited in favour of a smoulder.

RG: Compared with what’s happening in Charlottesville, I’ve built a tiny Boy Scout campfire surrounded by rocks to keep it from spreading. “House of the Dead” is a complex essay, but I had a hard time figuring out what the argument was. In academic writing I’d start with the thesis and argument. But in this essay I had characters, dialogue and a plot. My problem was less with characters than with plot and setting. They were too elaborate You had to keep straightening out my chronology. Anyway, we agree that an essay needs both a story and an argument, and there’s only so much you can do in 5,000 words.

SS: True enough, but I suggested that you try creative nonfiction (CNF) because it would expose you to techniques for exploring disturbing insights. Of course, like any art form, CNF is demanding. “The essay must be artistically rendered,” as Phillip Lopate says.

Sure enough, there you were, struggling with the form.

Let’s just say, I’m culpable on two fronts. I suggested CNF as a kind of discipline, then pulled back once I saw exactly where it took you.

RG: I asked you to give me homework, and I’ve done it. Sure, “House of the Dead” needs to be artistically rendered, but it also needs to be ethical and critical. The essay takes up unfinished family, ethnic, and national business that implicates living members of my family. I can’t think only about characters. I also have to think about people. Across five generations mine has been a “good” family, respected in the community. Among us siblings one is an atheist, one “believes pretty much what he believed as a kid,” one is far to the religious and political right, and I am, what shall I say, ludically religious. All these categories are inaccurate, but they will do for now. Two of us voted for Trump, two didn’t. If you asked my siblings, probably we’d say we’re not racist; some of us have non-white friends. In the 1970s we had a shouting match, not typical in our family, followed by an agreement never to talk again about race, religion, or politics. We may love each other, but in the current political climate we’re dysfunctional. America is failing, and the family so far is unable to deal the rifts. We haven’t faced our heritage, so we are unable to negotiate America’s loss of moral credibility.

SS: I see that. I also see ethical tripwires in your writing: whether to use people’s names; how fair it is to expose the voting choices and religious beliefs of family members; how to depict polarizing figures like your grandma. Then there’s the question, do you want your readers to empathize with all these figures?

RG: I do fieldwork on ritual, so empathizing is a part of my academic research. I have to consider the ethics of privacy as a part of my profession. I’ve rewritten the voices and depictions of my brothers and sister dozens of times. I care about their feelings, but I also want to tell the truth—as I see it, of course.

SS: I like that you’ve explored the use of dialogue. Now we hear real voices.

RG: Well, my reconstruction of real voices. My sister’s voice was the most difficult to represent, since our conversations kept breaking down. Trump supporters and Christian fundamentalists will likely read her character as courageous, standing up for her beliefs. Liberal readers will read her religious and political views differently.

SS: Either way, what readers want, I think, are compelling characters who make us think and feel. I want to understand your family, and I want your essay to help me do that. Is that an undue burden for the author? Maybe it is.

Are you showing the essay to your siblings?

RG: Maybe it’s a fair expectation of novels or great short story writers, but for me it’s an undue burden. This is a brief essay, and I’ve presented selected bits—characters, not actual personalities—and that’s as true of me as narrator as it is of the other characters. Even though I don’t use my siblings’ names, I decided against springing the published essay on them, so I am showing it to them before publication. I’ll listen to them, but I may not always take their advice. The essay reveals a big family secret. Some relatives may not like that I’ve told it publicly, but the current political crisis in the U.S. makes hiding irresponsible. Anyway, I first sent the essay to readers whose opinions I respect, people who could help me improve it.

SS: That surprised me, your circulating such an early draft.

RG: That’s part of my writing process, to send an essay out early to colleagues, while I’m still open to criticism and suggestions. Later, I’ll dig in, becoming more resistant to changes.

SS: Another classic difference between us: we have a radically different sense of timing. I suggest that authors hone their work before they show it, on the assumption that, the greater their confidence in the piece, the greater their resilience, weathering critique.

But it’s your essay and your process. And, let’s be frank: no matter how well the work is crafted, it isn’t going to heal the family.

RG: You’re guessing. Sure, it could be a bombshell, but it could also lead to some good, difficult conversations. I read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington. Both tell about writing controversial family stories and getting surprisingly receptive reads by relatives. It’s a risk I’ve decided to take. Are you worried?

SS: I am. We seldom see your family. It’s hard enough, resolving minor conflicts at a distance, let alone your airing family secrets. You also take a stand on how the family functions. People will feel hurt. How that’s going to help, I wonder.

RG: People “may” feel hurt. You’re now playing therapist rather than editor, right?

SS: What can I say? It’s a hazard, sleeping with the author.

We both want good, hard conversations about equity and justice, but we both know that those are often easier to have with strangers.

Part of what I love about the small magazine world is that we’re exercising whatever modest power we have to open doors for writers. Releasing work that’s vital and authentic is what attracts me to publishing. Editing, for me, is deeply moral work. So here’s the irony: editing your essay made me aware of fears and inhibitions I wasn’t owning up to.

RG: Okay, I have a question for you. Is this the hardest editing you’ve ever done?

SS: In one way, yes. Academic-creative crossover pieces are hard to edit. Knotty. Resistant. But the truth is, it’s been a hard project because I am invested. We’re a small cross-border family that’s ill-equipped to deal with a lot of fallout.

Unintended consequences—I stew about those, too.

RG: Between us?

SS: No, we’re fine. We have a long history of bumper-car editing. You value hyperbole, I value understatement. We clash a lot.

RG: I’m from New Mexico, you’re from Ontario. Bang, bump!

SS: (laughs) Yes. You’re expansive, vocal. Your last book was over 400 pages. I’m a minimalist who works towards peaceful resolution.

Alice Quinn of the Poetry Society of America has spoken to the New York Times about the sense of urgency she’s seeing, what she calls the “reckoning and responsibility” that’s supplanting the introspective, personal tone of yesteryear’s poetry. We’re seeing the same shift in creative nonfiction. As an editor, I’m a fierce advocate for transgressive stories, but inhabiting “House of the Dead” with you has made me see that I’m also caught between private and public.

Now’s the time for reckoning on several fronts.

That’s where I’m at. And you?

RG: For sure, it’s a time of reckoning. As a Canadian, I too long for peaceful resolution, but as an American I’m not sure that’s always possible. Anyway, I’m still nosing around in literary journals where I hope to publish. I found “The Old Grey Mare,” an exquisite personal essay in the Yale Review by Colin Dayan, who also wrote The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. We write about some of the same things—ritual, racism, mothers, the South. Reading her essay, then the book, made me realize how similar and yet how different the South is from the Southwest. I sent her an appreciative note. Now we are trading essays.

SS: Say more.

RG: When I read her essay, I thought, wow, that is literary. I wish I could write like that. I vented to you in frustration, “Please, make me sound more like me.” And you retorted that you were trying to get rid of my academic formalisms, make me sound more literary.

SS: Right, storyteller and scholar—you veer between the two.

RG: I don’t care much whether I sound either academic or literary. I would like my writing voice to “sound” like me.

SS: Fair enough. I love your cowboy storytelling voice, but there’s a time and place for it. “House of the Dead” isn’t it.

Umpteen drafts later, did you find the right voice for the essay?

RG: I’d be the last to know.  I’m sure the editors and readers will let me know.

SS: Submitting to this world is new for you. After doing your research, you ended up with fifty-plus pages of notes on literary magazines in the States and Canada. Now you know more than I do. I’m curious, what’s the take-away?

RG: Having taken a grand tour on both sides of the border, I’d say that while magazines might be muses, they’re also Scylla and Charybdis—a rock shoal and whirlpool separated by a narrow pass through which your rowboat essay must pass. Several times I saw submissions rates in the thousands and acceptance rates of two percent. The literary rite of passage is just as daunting as the academic one. I’ve submitted to seven literary magazines and to the radio show, This American Life. I have ten more magazines lined up for September. I expect success, but many failures first.

SS: Okay, but you’re still reading, too. What’s the draw? Why burrow into lit mags?

RG: Same as you, I care about writing. I want to write better. I just read Terence Byrnes…

SS: Montreal writer-photographer, featured in TNQ 106 (Spring 2008).

Ron’s maternal grandparents

RG: “South of Buck Creek” in Geist is a fabulous photo essay, so I wrote him. I’m busy trading stories and essays with him too. I rarely communicate with authors, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. But you ask why. This essay could die on the vine, or, if published, the shit could hit the fan. Either way, I want company. I love being a student. I’m hungry to learn from writers who struggle with the same issues. I want to learn how to honour but also to question the ancestors—well, my ancestors. By dragging the skeletons out of the closet, then talking publicly, I want to learn how live more justly—on stolen land, and benefitting from slave labour.

SS: On that we are united. So, you’re not about to quit my sandbox, are you?

RG: Why quit? I’m just getting started.

 

Bios: Ron Grimes is co-editor of the Oxford Ritual Studies Series and the author of several books, including Fictive Ritual: Reading, Writing, & Ritualizing. Susan Scott is TNQ’s lead nonfiction editor and the editor of Body & Soul: Creative Nonfiction for Skeptics and Seekers.

How shall we say no?

Susan, Bryn, and I attended the Women’s March, 2016, in Toronto. Cailleah had to work.

There were 60,000 of us who said an across-the-border no to Donald Trump.

Is democracy lost? We hope not.

If so, Leonard Cohen says it’s coming soon.
Doesn’t he?
Is it coming?
or coming back?
or, having left, returning?

 

Where Is here?

A colleague in New York City used to teach a course called “Hinduism Here.” A brilliant idea! Students walk out the door of Barnard College, Columbia. They look up and down Broadway and ask, “Where are the Hindus.” They start where they are, not in India.

Northrop Frye, famous literary theorist from that “other” university down the highway, wrote, “It seems to me that Canadian sensibility has been profoundly disturbed, not so much by our famous problem of identity, important as that is, as by a series of paradoxes in what confronts that identity. It is less perplexed by the question ‘Who am I?’ than by some such riddle as ‘Where is here?'” Now that I am here, I too wonder. The trouble is I have been here over 40 years and I still don’t know. Is “here” Canada? Ontario? Waterloo, my home address? And here, where I live, is it the bedroom, where…. or the study, where I work? Or the dining room, where the family gathers when the nest refills? Or is my “true” home where I’ll live when I “go.” And where on earth is that?

NO-JUNK-MAIL-Recently, I’ve been trying inhabit this place, but how do you do that? Some do it by joining CORE, the local neighborhood activist group. Some join City Council. None of those is my way. I tend to be apolitical until Big Causes arise, but what’s a big cause? What isn’t? Always there are people knocking on your door announcing that theirs is the real big cause. I say no to all door-knocking and phone-ringing causes. Later, I may give or join, but I don’t want to reinforce the habit of disrupting suppertime, so I say NO in big print.

A big spiritual problem: how to say yes to here.

How shall we make music of that?

My kids are too old to give assignments, but I hired Bryn as an assistant to carry out two assignments. In the first I asked him to read Irving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and make a short film about everyday ritualization.

How he convinced his mom to be the star of O Mother, Where Art Thou I will never know. She still talks about the video and says how much she enjoyed the process of making it. Since she’s camera-shy (maybe even camera-hostile), that’s quite a feat. Even as I write this, she is ensconced in her writing ritual with a coffee to her left and scone crumbs to the right.

 

For the second assignment I hired Bryn as a research assistant to help me do video work on Prague’s Velvet Carnival. Since he’s a musician, I asked him to do something with the music of the festival. Instead of writing about it, he composed a song:

 

 

Bury me where?

I have retired five times. Now I’m blogging about the little things to which life and death appear to be tethered. Some call Big Questions “religious;” others, “spiritual.” Both terms are troublesome, so I try to avoid them. I don’t believe in blogs any more than I believe in what most people call religion. Too many blogs are off the top of the head. Here I hope to ruminate rather than spew. I have nothing to lose or gain, not tenure (I was once a professor of religious studies), not a salary, not entries on my CV. I am now a Professor of Nothing. Entries in your resume won’t get you to heaven (even if you believe in such a place). As a professor, I wrote lots of questions, often in green ink, in the margins of student papers. “Oh, you got the Grimes-green-ink treatment.” My kids used to say that I like the word “query.” I do. A query is a big question persistently circumambulated. You circle the question because it bird-dogs you, inspires you, or drives you around the bend. So you walk it down, into the ground.

skeleton on bike b&wAs a kid sitting in a sandbox on the high plains of New Mexico, I talked to a craggy, stunted Mr. Peartree, and it (or the sandbox) endowed me with thorny questions and a quirky imagination. Now, as an old guy riding a bike with a well oiled chain, I’m still rolling down the Iron Horse Trail in Kitchener-Waterloo. It connects with the Trans-Canada Trail, supposedly the longest in the world when it’s finished.

In 1974 I crossed the border from the Homeland, the God-blessed United States of America. I was not a draft dodger, although I would have been if my lottery number had been called. Now I carry two passports.

I became a religious studies professor because I’ve long enjoyed stalking the the big questions and the metaphors that make up the universe. I study ritual because I am attracted to it, repulsed by it, and don’t understand it. This is the home page of a blog about little things that link to big things. It’s about home, the place where I live, even though I’m not very good at living here.

Where is here? Ideally, home is always right here: this page, the place where you are sitting or standing right now. That’s straight Zen (which I practiced for 20 years). That’s how I’d like to live. But I don’t. Really, home is too often back there or over there. You left it, or you’re not quite there yet. Where is home? That is a big question, often one with no single or easy answer. I hesitate to label this my “home” page, because, as a matter of fact, I have another. But that is just a glorified CV, nothing more. I don’t live there. I hope that’s not all of me.

Many of us have other homes or homelands. Some of us have nothing we’d call home. Too many of us have no homes except streets and parks or bus stations–if you’re willing to call those places home. For 40 years I’ve lived here in Waterloo, Ontario, which is joined at the hip with Kitchener. But K-W still doesn’t feel like home even though the kids were born on the living room floor, and dead or handmade things inhabit the depths of the yard. Not feeling at home isn’t the fault of neighbors or city councils. It’s my own problem, although I’m not the only one who has it. Kitchener used to be called Berlin, but it changed its name since, during World War II, it couldn’t sell shoes stamped “Made in Berlin.” And Waterloo, well, Napoleon met his in Belgium. I seem to be meeting mine here.

In the basement there are still old cardboard boxes from previous moves, as if one day my wife and I are going to pack up and pedal toward the Rocky Mountains. Surely, you too are about to leave for somewhere. If not, what’s wrong with you?

Do I want to be buried here in K-W? I sometimes ask Susan, my wife, knows the question is rhetorical. We both know the answer: Not on your life! O bury me not in Mount Hope Cemetery (although we enjoy biking through it). First there’s the question of burial (death is not a question), then there’s the question of how the postmortem deed will be accomplished, by fire or dirt-and-worm. I don’t want my ashes scattered in the Region of Waterloo, where I’m most likely to die, any more than I want them scattered outside Clovis, New Mexico, where I grew up. So where is home? Where should they put me when it’s time?

Maybe scatter me at Grimes Corner, which is near Madrid, half a hour from Santa Fe on the back road to Albuquerque.

I have to ask myself, in the interests of economy if nothing else: Why not along the Iron Horse Trail, which is just a few blocks away. I ride or walk it almost daily. When someone inquires why I do it, I reply, “Why else, to stay alive.” At first, my quip was ironic. Now it’s not.

bakfiets-nijlandIf this community would wake up the Spirit of the Iron Horse Trail, fine, I’d be willing to exit from here. Assure me that my remains (and yours too, if you like) can be biked in procession down the Iron Horse Trail in a Dutch bakfeits, with big masks dancing around, and I’ll consent to cross over from this very place.

The trail begins and ends where?

In my imagination here’s where the trail ends (or, maybe, begins).

Don’t click “play” unless you have a full 2 minutes and 40 seconds (which isn’t a lot of time in view of eternity).

A sacred place hallowed by solemn ritual?

A place of doodling?

Artistic practice?

Ancestor veneration?

 

How paltry, our imaginations…

How to keep your dead family photographically alive?

Susan talks about downsizing. I’m not ready for such a move even though people our age are doing it. For one thing, it would cost us more, not less, to move into a condo. For another, I am still capable of maintaining the house, so enjoy it. In a condo I’d have fewer reasons to get up out of this fabulous writing chair. Even if you have only lived in a bachelor apartment, after a year or two you realize how much crap you accumulate. When I’m tired of moving it around or dusting it, it’s crap. When I’m enjoying it, or even when I think I might use it in the future, it’s a resource, a comfort, a prized possession. We’d have to dispense with several truckloads of stuff. Even if we’re still physically capable of packing, lifting, and dumping it all, why go to all that trouble until you have to? Susan says that means it’ll all fall to her.

This morning, with Susan out of town, I started going through slides. Most are pre-Susan, so she doesn’t have any interest in them. If I were sorting family photos, pictures you can hold in your hand, she would care mightily.

Old slide: Dad, winding up his 8mm. camera

It’s easy to feel sad, then get angry at Kodak (let “Kodak” stand for all electronics manufacturers that build obsolescence into their products).

Old slide: Mom, camera-in-hand

Kodak spawned the slide-tray technology that lured us into shooting slides instead of pictures. Since slides were shown on a screen and were bigger than 4″ x 6″, they were more dramatic than photos. The lights went down, and the family gathered. We dads bought into the notion that photos and slides were “memories.” But gone are the days of slide projectors.

Most of the time, in the cosmic scheme of things, it hardly matters that you are always falling behind the technological curve. Some categories of slides were easier to dispense with than others. Buildings, gone. Colorful flowers, gone. Sunsets, into the bucket. What a lot of landscapes, into the trash. How easy it is now to let go of them. Their beauty is of little consequence as you circle the edge. Even vacation slides were not all that difficult to toss. Vacations were just vacations unless something significant happened to the family during one of them.

But when technological change costs your family memories, that’s immoral. Having to toss slides (last year it was CDs), I began to realize that they were semblances of memories, not memories. They were memory-triggers, mnemonic devices, not actual memories. Still, as I put slide after slide to death, it felt like, “Ah, there goes my old life, my pre-Susan, pre-Cailleah, pre-Bryn life.” It felt good to trash some of those slides, but others hurt. So I projected a few of the slides onto a rusted only screen, then shot them into digital eternity. But what suffering my kids will have when the technicians trash jpgs, not eternal after all.

Old slide: Ron, age 17, running a TV camera

Listening with courtesy

An interview with Tim Lilburn by Darryl Whetter, Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne, [S.l.], Jan. 1997, accessed 02 Oct. 2017. ISSN 1718-7850.

DW: You write and speak about poetry as a “courteous” way of seeing. How does this notion of courtesy affect your work technically?

TL: First of all, I don’t think of myself as chiefly a writer. That strikes me as an empty category, it’s an unfilled room — “writer.” I think of myself as someone who looks, or someone who engages in various contemplative acts. That’s my work. The writing is the sort of wake thrown by that ocular and contemplative momentum. … How does seeing what I do that way affect my work? The work has no shape before the look. The work is shaped by the contemplative exercise.

DW: What about your attitude toward metaphor then? Let’s consider that through the issue of rewriting: what happens there? You’ve had the contemplative response, it’s announced a shape to you; in rewriting, are you perfecting that shape?

TL: Lately I’ve been thinking of writing as truth-telling. So what is this thing that I’m trying to talk about in truth, what is the truest thing I can say about it? I find myself trying to think of the inferiority of the thing. In January in Saskatchewan, for instance, in creek areas and swamp areas, the red of the red willow changes, takes on a kind of shyness or faintness. Well what is that like? I suggested to myself that the willow “goes in to the small room of its redness where there is no book.”

DW: You already started with a description of the redness as shyness and then moved to this image of the room. Is that movement part of the seeing gesture for you?

TL: Well, maybe. I was also thinking of this redness as dropping its eyes when you look at it. It is an anthropomorphizing of the tree, though it’s not an acquisition, or a wrenching, but a touching, or grasping, and a release. There’s also something comical to me in that metaphor, there’s a kind of hilarity. And somehow this hilarity feels like walking beside the thing.

DW: Is “seeing with courtesy” a way to truth?

TL: It is truth. The thing is more than your name for it and more than your ability to know it. It’s more magnificent to you than your imagination of your advantage. It’s just broader in so many ways so that approaching it — the river, the hills, the deer, anything — you are tempted to simply give up in front of it. But if you don’t give up, can’t do this, say, the thing has about it a kind of distance. Its sheer distance is a kind of violence; it thwarts what you pride most in yourself, your ability to comprehend, your ability to draw things toward you through language. All of these powers are humiliated as you approach the differentiated thing. And out of this humiliation comes courtesy. You are forced to give the thing back to itself and your ability to encase, hold, draw toward you, domesticate, is shaped; it is bent back on itself. So whether you put the thing down, letting go along with it a sense of yourself as central, or you have it torn out of your hand, you lose it. Eros is wooed by the thing and it hurtles forward; and wrapped around eros is language, comprehension, sense of order. Desire seems to be shaped by its own momentum and velocity, and as it moves along it just loses these very things, language and so on, by which you thought it was constituted. Language, order, are stripped and impoverished by the wonderful distance of a thing in the world, as I say in one of the poems in Moosewood Sandhills, ”Desire will be broken and will continue with a bright limp” [from “Restoration”]. I think that a sort of way-station for desire fairly well along into the erotic enterprise is humiliation, the sense of being impoverished. You may even welcome this sense, and this is the root of courtesy, a response to the oddness and distance of things.

DW: Is eros towards a thing an eros towards peace?

TL: What’s the telos? Paradise. Another way of thinking of eros is as a nostalgia for paradise. In The Symposium, Plato says that eros is simply a lack, it’s the awareness of a lack. It is the product, he has someone say, of this illicit relation between contrivance and poverty. Eros is always aware of not having all that it needs; it’s always hungry, and it’s cunning. There is a sense that he says everyone has (because everyone is erotic) that one is incomplete. This is terrible science — this story he has Aristophanes tell of our being ceaseless — but wonderful psychology because it explains this ache that accompanies everything that human beings do. Now what is this larger body that we lack? I suspect that it’s not simply another person but is the rest of the world. There’s been a severing and it hasn’t been a god that’s done it; it has been philosophers of the new science, people like Descartes, Bacon, and Kant, who have segmented human consciousness from the world. We have this nostalgia for a homecoming, a yearning for a sense of being in the world as if it were home.

DW: Yet you personally encounter this through isolation.

TL: I don’t think you ever encounter it. I don’t think the shining world of union is achievable. A couple of the features of desire are that it’s protean and never satisfied. This is the whole point — desire is never satisfied. To somehow note the shape of the desire is to come as close to the object of the desire as you will ever come. Gregory of Nyssa, a church-father writing in the fourth century, speaks of epektatis, which is the unsatisfiability of elemental desire. He says, and I quote this at the back of Moosewood Sandhills, ”the desire to see God is the vision of God.” Nyssa also says that even in eternity the desire to see God will not be satisfied. This desire that we’re talking about, whatever its term is (and it even seems presumptuous to name it, but let’s propose some names: Paradise, God, Wholeness, Living In The World As If It Were Home) the satisfaction of this desire, its shape, is somehow the failure to ever satisfy this desire. That is what the satisfaction of the desire is. One of the products of this desire’s inability to satisfy itself in the way it anticipates satisfaction is this business of humiliation, of being altered, brought to virtue. This thing that starts out as a desire to know and a desire to have transmogrifies in its development simply into courtesy or decorum. The project to know resolves itself into a stance that is always craning, always epektatic, reaching, reaching, reaching, but decorous and courteous because it is aware it has so little.

DW: Where does the poem enter that reach?

TL: It’s the wake. It’s also a way to be courteous. Often I see poems as the tip of delight. What we’re talking about here is ravishment. The excitement of delight sometimes goes immediately into language; it’s a cheering, or a praising, just happiness. Or else it’s a kind of touching of the thing.

DW: Is that touching facilitated better by the poem than, say, prose?

TL: No I don’t think so. There are sorts of prose that are fine vehicles for eros. There are other types of prose that are anti-erotic.

DW: Such as?

TL: Academic prose!

DW: You write contemplative essays as well as poetry. Do the poems feel closer to desire than the essays?

TL: The poems and the essays feel similar. The only difference would be that the essays feel a bit like taking time off from writing the poems, having some rest from doing that. Sometimes I use the essays to figure out things, to draw lines from one point to another, something the poem can’t do, or would do quite awkwardly. Some ideas need plenty of room to declare themselves in certain ways and an essay gives you that room.

DW: You refer to feeling shapes when you speak of metaphor. Do you have a stable metaphor or idea of the shape of a poem?

TL: I’ve made big changes in form over the different books. There was a big change in form from the book which preceded this one, Tourist To Ecstasy, and Moosewood Sandhills, and there’s been another formal change involved in the project I’m working on now. Twice it’s happened as a sort of formal premonition, just a trace. Before Moosewood Sandhills I had an idea, “Wouldn’t it be something to write more simply?” That wasn’t a plan, it was more like a dream. Then I discovered my work, against my will (because I wasn’t really interested in simplification), turning toward fulfilling the shape that this premonition suggested. I was fighting it all along because I thought writing this way was the failure of writing or was what writing no longer felt like for me. A couple of years ago I thought of writing a truly long-breath poem, a poem that would take days to recite, that had an endlessness to it, and then I’ve felt my work bending lately towards this. You might want to write one way but the work bends another and you think, “Well if I don’t go with it I won’t write at all.” With Moosewood Sandhills it first felt like, “This is what not being able to write feels like.” My original thought for this book was to make a box for the typescript and bury it in the land. I thought it was a failure, an embarrassing failure. It was only after showing it to some people and their really liking it that I thought of it as a book.

DW: In your essay “How To Be Here,” you use the idea of haecceity. Does haecceitas announce a specific form or image? In the “creation” of a metaphor, are you recovering or achieving or finding something of that haecceitas?

TL: John Duns Scotus, from whom this phrase and notion comes, says that the thisness of a thing is unknowable (given the mind as it is now), but there. It’s the highest expression of the thing, but it can’t be known with precision or named.

DW: I’d like to employ two crude poles: You and The Thing. When you have found a courteous metaphor, what do you feel that metaphor is closer to, You or The Thing?

TL: I once had the idea that haecceitas was the thing as it existed when it was loved. If that’s so then the answer to your question is neither, the polarity that question proposes is false, there is this third possibility and there is a kind of Thing/Us. I like that idea because it makes a third possibility for consciousness. There’s consciousness as thief, going in to this thing that’s not it and taking stuff out; there’s consciousness as stranger, never on the inside. But if this possibility is true there is consciousness as integral or necessary to the thing, participatory. Eros becomes part of cosmology: the tree in order to be this tree and no other tree needs me or you or somebody else to need it, love it, celebrate it. Then it becomes itself in the excitement of human consciousness. Somehow the term of the thing is in us, as delighted, ravished, etc., etc. But now, that idea strikes me as too attractive to be utterly true. But maybe the answer is roughly in that direction.

DW: Moosezuood Sandhills is full of imperatives and references to “necessity.” Is poetry necessary?

TL: There have been some awfully attractive people who wrote poetry, or people who became attractive as they wrote it. It would be terrible to think of living without poetry. I think of people like Osip Mandelstam, John Berryman, Louise Gluck, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, Wallace Stevens — one is so happy that they wrote. I feel bulked as a person when I read what they wrote, somehow they did this beautiful thing that was difficult. Now, is this necessary? When you read Akhmatova, and Mandelstam, you get a sense that poetry is a kind of bread. Without this type of attention going on in the culture then things do become harder. And one way that you can tell that things are becoming harder, or more violent, is that things become clearer. Without poetic attention the world could become too clear — it’s dangerous.

DW: Do you think we live with a sense of necessity?

TL: That’s eros or what it can feel like. Eros is multi-form, sexual, intellectual, emotional — this is our beauty, our undermining, our oomph. Eros allows itself, or finds itself, being bent into form, then it becomes benign and lovely, as are the people that are shaped by it. But I think a lot of the things that our culture regards as erotic are anti-erotic. I think our culture is interested in the denigration of eros.

DW: You make persistent references to the sorrow of desire. What is the sorrow in desire?

TL: It’s that you never get what you want! Desire is epek-tatic, it is perpetually reaching and there’s sorrow in that. The sorrow is, in part, being stripped of these images that desire fosters, these images of appropriation, “This is what satisfaction will be like.” Gradually having to give up those images of desire or satisfaction is an experience full of sorrow, but even as you give up these things the momentum of desire remains. This is just one other language that desire casts off as it cranes towards what it would have, which is unhaveable.

DW: Do you think then that naming can be a creation of artificial or provisional destinations in the journey of eros?

TL: Yes. Maybe integrity is just feeling the ache of desire, not subduing it, you feel pulled on and you feel the inadequacy of names. Desire undermines itself — because it is the power that sets up the names as well as the power that erases them— and you go further. It’s always possible though to step out of the flow of the dialectic and say this is too much, to become a statesman or a pornographer and to settle on term of desire and struggle like hell to make this feel like the term of desire. But truly erotic beings, the real fools, those who can’t be anything other than literal about desire, will go further, past the way-stations.

DW: In “From an Anchorage,” you use the phrase “the necessary apology,” and throughout the book there are frequent invocations of the concept of sacrifice. Is an apology necessary to the world? And if so how can it be made?

TL: Yes. If you listen to a piece of music several times, part of your hearing is a sense of what will come next; so the shape, you are sure, to fulfill itself, will move in this direction. I think a lot of people feel that the shape, or spirit of the age we’re living in, will next move to here: to compunction, to apology, tears, sorrow. This is what we’re bending towards.

DW: For what are we apologizing?

TL: All of these imperialisms that we’ve engaged in. This foolish sense that we were and are entitled in an unlimited way.

DW: Is the prolonged writing of poetry a naming and renaming of yourself for yourself? Is naming your desires a way to you?

TL: I sometimes think it’s as if there’s a singing in things that I am so far from being able to know that I’m only guessing that I can call it “singing.” What I would very much like to do (why? I have no idea) is to come alongside that and sing with it. In a sense that’s what I think I’m doing, singing alongside this un-singable, perhaps-not-even-song. One seems to know this in different ways at different points in one’s life. My singing doesn’t have to make any sense, or be beautiful, or publishable. When you think of writing as a business, going to stores and buying it, this image of singing alongside something seems ludicrous.The whole issue of audience is not as important to me as it is to other poets. The important relationship is between the singing you are able to do and this sub-terranean singing, or flux, that eros keeps wanting to know like a setter that keeps pointing. That’s where you have to be immaculate; that’s where integrity is demanded. If you screw around there, forget it, you’re disqualified. That’s what’s important, what ever happens after that, publication, awards, reviews, is completely incidental. Who cares what happens. This thing, that’s important. People who start writing by thinking about publication are, I think, grabbing the stick by the wrong end; the task, it seems to me, is just to move up close to whatever it is that you will speak. Everything else will solve itself, even if it solves itself in ways that don’t look like solutions.

DW: In “Contemplation is Mourning,” there is a suggestion that “You will be shaved and narrowed by the barren strangeness of the/ deer, the wastes of her oddness.” Is it important for us to be so shaved?

TL: No. That’s coming at it the wrong way; you just are shaved if you look long and deeply without presumption. That’s a large part of what looking is, the refusal of presumption or caricature. Otherwise what you’re seeing is simply yourself; you’re looking in the mirror everywhere. Being shaved is just the realization that all of your notions of power and centrality are stolen or made-up, it’s stolen fire. Hard looking can relieve you of this.

DW: That bespeaks a confidence that everyone will react that way. Is that confidence part of getting close to the singing of the thing?

TL: I think this is the way human beings are made and this is what looking is and does. It could be I’ll learn or have to admit later on that humans aren’t made this way but like Charles Wright says, “You have to sign your name to something.” And provisionally I’m saying this: humans have an emotional spine, this eros for the world that prompts us to try to live in it as if they were home.

DW: Do you feel connected to others through that?

TL: Yes, I think that’s what we all want.

DW: In Moosewood Sandhills there are references to the “bones of the land” and the boniness of things. Is there a distinction to you between the otherness of a thing and an animal?

TL: No there isn’t, all things strike me as distant and unlike. Augustine speaks of that world one enters when one prays as “the land or region of unlikeness.” I think everything is the region of unlikeness. Everything is distant, far, discrete, itself, non-representative, ultimately non-colonizable, wild. In its wildness it also feels like infinity, it has the unspeakability of infinity. When you encounter that you’re left with courtesy; you can’t name it so you bow to it, give it regard. Regard replaces language.

DW: Is to not treat the world with courtesy a moral wrong?

TL: Yes, it’s immoral, it’s unwise and it’s unattractive.

DW: Do you think of evil as a shunning of beauty?

TL: Yes, a lack of beauty, or grace, or simplicity.

DW: Is sorrow necessary for knowing?

TL: I think the project to know comes to sorrow. It has these different shapes that it takes as it moves toward what it senses will relieve it of its restlessness and a later shape it takes is sorrow. The desire to know and one’s moral life are not discrete understandings. They are shapes of the same thing, shapes that one thing — desire — takes.

DW: If sorrow is part of eros, part of living, is there an abatement or beauty in knowing?

TL: The beauty takes other forms; some of these, initially, are terrifying. Eros is epikatatic, it is unsatisfiable, it doesn’t come to term. The satisfaction of eros doesn’t feel like satisfaction and so there’s always momentum.

 

Tim Lilburn was born in Regina, Saskatchewan. He has published ten books of poetry, including Moosewood Sandhills (1994), To the River (1999), Kill-site (2003), and Orphic Politics (2008). His work has received Canada’s Governor General’s Award (for Kill-site), the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award (To the River), the Saskatchewan Non-fiction Book of the Year (Living in the World As If It Were Home) and the Canadian Authors Association Award (Moosewood Sandhills). His essay collection Going Home was nominated for the Hurbert Evans Award (British Columbia Book Prize). A selection of his poetry is collected in Desire Never Leaves: the Poetry of Tim Lilburn (Wilfird Laurier University Press, 2007). Lilburn has produced two books of essays, both concerned with poetics, eros, philosophy and politics, especially environmentalism: Living in the World as if It Were Home (1999, 2015) and Going Home (2008). A third collection, The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place, a book completing the trilogy, was published by the University of Alberta Press in 2017. His poetry has been translated into Chinese (where it appeared in the prestigious journal World Literature, among other places), Spanish, Polish, French, German and Serbian. Sections of his book-length poem Assiniboia (2012), an opera for chant in three parts, has been choreographed and performed by contemporary dance companies in Canada, notably Regina’s New Dance Horizons. He recently collaborated again with New Dance Horizons to produce the opera/dance “House of Charlemagne” on the life of the prairie radical Honoré Jaxon. A new poetry collection, The Names, appeared from McClelland and Stewart in spring, 2016. He teaches at the University of Victoria. He was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2014. In 2017, he was awarded The European Medal of Poetry and Art. His long poem The House of Charlemagne, will be published by The University of Regina Press in spring, 2018.

 

 

When is the right time?

Will you finish what you start?

Books you can finish, articles too. But blogs?

Either they die young or go on interminably.

My aspiration for this one is that it will die a timely death.

That’s my aspiration for me too: die on time.

When is that?

Not now, not now.

the endYour business has to be finished.

But what is your business?

You have to figure that out first.

What’s your business here?