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Don Coles, no safer place: an interview by Michael Carbert. Quarry, 43/1:1994 pp 117-129.

Don Coles has written seven volumes of poetry and is the most recent winner of the Governor - General's Award for his collection Forests of the Medieval World. His other books include The Prinzhorn Collection, Landslides: Selected Poems 1975 - 1985, K. in Love, and Little Bird. Coles resides in Toronto and teaches at York University. Michael Carbert spoke with him in July of 1993.


Don Coles, no safer place: an interview by Michael Carbert


MICHAEL CARBERT: How long have you been at York University?

DON COLES: Twenty - seven years.

MC: And what exactly do you do there?

DC: I began by teaching in what York calls its Humanities Division — not a straight literature department, not a straight anything department. Mostly literature courses in my case, but because it's not an English department you can study or prescribe writers who aren't necessarily writing in English. A great benefit, I thought and think: Musil, Mann, Rilke, Cavafy, Christa Wolff, so on.

MC: Do you teach creative writing?

DC: I did. The program didn't exist when I first arrived at York. I guess in the mid - seventies we got it going and I taught a workshop and then I became the program's director. . . for six years, I think. Since then I've taught a fourth year poetry workshop. But no longer.

MC: When did you first start writing?

DC: Not precociously. I finished a degree at the University Of Toronto and then went to Cambridge where I wrote plays of no interest to anyone and finished another degree. Then I got a British Council grant which gave me a year in Italy and it was at this point that I really began to write but I was not writing poetry I wrote a novel which never got published. Fortunately, I'm sure. It lacked a few elements that some people might feel to be crucial — no plot, no characterization, lousy dialogue. So one or two shortcomings. What I admire about it, aside from the things I've mentioned, is that there are some set pieces, some brief scenes, passages, that I still feel all right about, and If I'd been even a little perceptive then these might have given me the idea that I should be writing in a terser format. Closer to poetry.

In any case I began writing poetry around 1966 or `67. I had a few poems in Tamarack that year. Those poems have some verbal interest perhaps but they didn't investigate much of anything, and none of them made it into my first collection which was Sometimes All Over, published in 1975 by Macmillan. My first three books were with Macmillan; in those years Macmillan was a major publisher of poetry.

MC: Those days are gone.

DC: Those days are unhappily gone.

MC: When you were starting to write did you yourself ever take any creative writing courses?

DC: I come from a generation where they practically didn't exist.

MC: Looking back, do you ever wish they had?

DC: Oh I don't think so. Don't think I have, no. That doesn't mean I might not have learned something. I obviously believe that workshops or courses can achieve something; otherwise teaching them would be, well, a bit hard to feel really comfortable about, wouldn't it. Obviously though most writers we admire today didn't have the benefit of a workshop. Rilke, for instance, Yeats, so on, never got registered. But before I get even wittier here, I think I'll remind myself that when Robert Frost got to London in the 1 920's and asked Ezra Pound what Pound and a bunch of other poets were doing when they met to read their poems to each other, Pound said, "We squeeze the water out of 'em" —which sounds very much like a workshop to me. I believe a workshop can, although it will never inculcate or impart a gift, save almost any writer a lot of time. It can make error apparent and strengths evident which might save years of solitary waste and dozens of false starts.

MC: What were your early influences?

DC: Well, not really Canadian. With one exception: when I came back to Canada after spending some dozen years in Europe, I discovered someone named Margaret Atwood whose poetry I liked a great deal. I wrote to her to say so — she was off spending a year in Portugal - - and she wrote back and it turned out she wasn't at all sure what she would do the following year so she came to York and taught for a year. We became friends. She taught in a course I directed called "Man In Search:' the first course with that soon - overworked title in Canadian universities. It was good working with her.

Otherwise my affections were for, oh, Thomas Hardy, from whom I learned a great deal - - for instance, not to worry if you found yourself wanting to return to the same theme in your poems over and over again. And then it became Philip Larkin, who perversely enough I started reading because of a piece he'd written praising Hardy, and Seamus Heany and Donald Hall and John Berryman and, I suppose — although now I'm jumping ahead about ten years — the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, which is perhaps a curious name to mention since I don't read Russian so now I'm talking about the influence of a writer whose work I can read only in translation. There's a splendid biography of him, about his poetry and his life, by his widow Nadezhda; it's called Hope Against Hope. Stalin killed him in 1943. But his poetry has a compression and a power that is scarcely to be met with, I think, anywhere in 20th century poetry and this judgement comes from someone who can read his work only in English! And I must assume I'm missing something in the translation, a numbing thought. Mandelstam's poetry is classical in nature, very non - ego - related. His images and metaphors come from a deeper well than most of us have access to, a deeper well, of course, than Mandelstam himself in his daily transactions had access to. You don't learn much linguistically or stylistically from someone like that but you can learn something of a marvellous standard that you can aspire to. You can come to know the difference when that standard or level isn't being gotten even close to. Of course, you're not trying to be like anybody but you're unwilling, you refuse, to do less than your utter best to be at that level. I learned about this not just from Mandelstam, of course. I think your lifetime reading is what in a million subtle ways conspires to give it to you. This is a very simple matter but it's as important to a writer as anything I know.

MC: So, aside from Mandelstam, your time in England meant your primary interest became the British poets . . .

DC: Well, I was living there, so I was reading them. A number of those poets had begun reacting against the very Romantic, the inflated Dylan Thomas - ish sort of Fifties poetry. They were more stripped down, more laconic but none of them had really come out of the pack it seemed. And then one year Philip Larkin just was obviously far better than anybody else. I think now that for the last fifteen years of his life — he died about five years ago — I think he was the finest poet writing in English anywhere. I don't think anybody was close. I remember — this shows how his reputation suddenly put him in a class of his own, as a name I mean — there was an issue of The Listener which had nothing else to its cover except the words "A Splendid New Poem By Philip Larkin." I guess they felt that would be enough to sell out the issue.

MC: What was the poem?

DC: "The Old Fools."

MC: And what, specifically, was it about Larkin's work that made an impression on you?

DC: Well, one of the things that endeared Larkin to me was his reaction to — or repulsion from — what he called `the Modernists,' which as far as poetry's concerned meant mostly Pound and Eliot. I can feel the odd fondness for Pound but Eliot was someone I was over - exposed to in university and never have felt any warmth for. Anyhow, Larkin blamed those guys and a few others for the gulf he felt existed between poetry and the average reader. He'd noticed that most people just never even tried to read poetry, outside the classroom that is, and he looked back enviously to times when a new poem by, say, Tennyson, would be read by far more people, proportionally, than anything by today's poets. And since he felt poetry mattered very much, both its presence and its absence were matters of moment . . . Well, this gulf, it was intolerable, there was a lot to be bitter about. It seems obvious to me now that a poem that's accessible, that can reach readers who don't absolutely have to have triple - Phd.'s and an acquaintance with Middle English or Early Provencal, does not have to be shallow or superficial or simpleminded. It doesn't have to be doggerel. But I think I needed to be told that, God knows why. Or not so much told as shown. And Larkin's poetry was accessible but it also had obviously emerged out of enormous craft - pressure; its sophistication was second to nobody's; its skill - level was, well its gift was in my opinion so unmistakably richer than Eliot's. I'll just add that more than anybody else in the last couple of decades Larkin was able to do this, to start moving poetry back towards a few more people than the .001% who'd somehow survived the Modernists and were still willing to read journals like this one. Willing to read poetry. Hardy had done that too, of course, and Housman had done it, but nobody since. I don't think Larkin's as good as Hardy and he'll never be as important in private and solitary ways to private and solitary minds as Housman was and still is. But he's good and he will last.

MC: What are your working methods? I'm wondering what approach you bring to the writing, how you write and rewrite.

DC: I hardly ever get around to writing during an academic year so most of my poetry has been written on sabbatical or when I've taken a leave sans pay and gone off with my family for six months. So teaching, even though it's not as if a university job takes all your hours, just seems to interrupt the flow. So that's one thing. I seem to need a decent stretch of time ahead of me before I can settle into serious work, a serious number of poems.

As for rewriting, I rewrite and rewrite. I guess I enjoy that more than anything. Having a first draft, however rough, is a marvellous thing for me, because although it's not when the only serious work starts, there's a guarantee at least that today, this morning, serious work will happen . . . because that draft, with its so - obvious sloppiness and needs and patchwork among whatever good glimmerings may already be there, that draft just begs for it. It invites all the energies I've got, and there's lots of those around and there's hardly anything they'd rather be doing. Rewriting is when you can start telling yourself that just this line or this metaphor can and must come from a deeper, or maybe a more exact, but always a deeper place. So many things come in here. Load every rift with ore, as Flaubert, I think, said and why not, that's what poetry in particular lends itself to. Or rewriting can involve a shift in format. Maybe the reason things don't feel as they should has to do with that, with format. The poem wants to have longer lines than you've been allowing it. Maybe it wants regular stanzas, maybe it wants rhyme, maybe it doesn't want either of those. These things might strike you only on a sixth or seventh time through, and I don't mean a sixth or seventh reading; I mean working through it that often.

An example might be a poem of mine that was in the [1993] anniversary issue of Arc. They asked me if I would submit some poems and I remembered there was a poem that had appeared in the Macmillan Anthology six or seven years ago, a poem called "Our Photos of the Children." It's a longish poem, written in rhyming quatrains, imperfectly rhyming quatrains, and I knew that I had never been satisfied with it. I'd sent it off to Macmillan when indeed I should not have. I knew there were areas of it that were pretty flaccid and that I wasn't happy about. I wanted to have some excuse to get back to it so I told Arc that this was something I was interested in reworking and whether this would be acceptable to them. I went and spent about, oh, I guess I spent about a month on it. It's a three or four page poem. Some of it had been doing what it needed to do and I had manhandled it or forced it from its beginning to its end which was all right but there were some gymnastics or some acrobatic maneuvers here and there that just were not natural to the poem. So I went back and worked hard on it and I don't think it's perfect yet, though I don't know what poem one feels that way about. But what was latent there, I think to a very large degree, has now in fact come into being as a result of this real refusal to accept less.

I think normally when you're looking at your own work you can tell, or at least it's a good stage to reach when you can tell, that this doesn't represent the depth that you feel is still latent there and I guess at that point you make a decision. Ideally, you have a built - in, ready - made decision that doesn't allow you to stop unless you feel you're pretty close to that necessary standard. I guess we all can look back, I certainly can, and know that we didn't always behave that way. Sometimes we did include several poems in a manuscript or we did indeed send that one poem off to a journal that we knew didn't represent what it could be and it's not a happy thing to know about but you just try to know you'll never do it again.

MC: Do you write your first drafts in long - hand?

DC: Yeah, and then type them later, maybe by the third or fourth draft depending . . . At some point I need to know how the lines will look on the page.

MC: How do you evaluate your own work? Do you find it at all difficult to go back and read your older poems?

DC: I don't do that a lot but do you mean do I find it tolerable? Another way of talking about this might be to say that after my three Macmillan books the next book was from McClelland & Stewart, a "selected:' so that meant I went back through those three books and chose the ones that I wanted to see reprinted as well as adding some new poems and I think that the number of poems that survived from the first book was comparable to the proportion that came from the other books. So, there are some things from the early book that I still feel all right about. Although there's probably not a single poem there that I would not edit slightly if it were to appear now. In fact, there's another Selected Poems coming out in England in the fall which has got some poems from earlier books and I think just about every one of those poems has been edited to some degree.

There was a review that Chris Levenson wrote of that M&S "selected" of mine and while he had positive things to say about the book there were several poems that did appear in an altered form, altered from the earlier books, and some of these he felt were not improvements. He felt that I had made a move from a more personal to a less personal stance, from a more vulnerable to a less vulnerable voice, and he thought that this was a loss in several cases and I in fact agree with him in two or three of those instances.

So one changes and sometimes one notices that the change is valuable and strengthens the poem and sometimes it doesn't. I have a very strong feeling of preference for, if you like, the classical. I think art of any sort has to subject personal experience to certain transformations before it appears as art. I think there's a major difference between a poem and an extract from a person's private journal for instance. A lot of that idiosyncratic stuff that can function for oneself or one's friends because they all understand the same code obviously has to undergo some sort of change if it's going to reach out to a wider readership. I think this is one of the processes of art that any serious writer has to know something about, so that's a move sometimes from the more obviously ego - related to something one hopes undercuts some of that and that's pretty important to me. An example of that would be the title poem of the new book, "Forests of the Medieval World:' which is a love poem and indeed has some relationship to — in the way that everything does I suppose — one's own life, but the central power of the poem, in my view anyway, comes from the great number of lines which relate to those medieval forests. Now those are clearly matters that have little to do with the personal life experience of the poet. They are powerful images embedded in eons of time that pre - date not only anything known to the poet but to his whole culture. And I think the poem derives most of its power from those time - embedded images. That's an example of the sort of thing that I believe art must take note of and in my own writing I hope it will be present more and more.

MC: That's the direction you want to take.

DC: Yeah. It's a delicate operation though because what I'm not saying is that I want to masquerade as one who can speak in a voice that transcends time or anything, or any such folly. That's an ambition that probably isn't very helpful. One remains one's self and one does speak out of one's personal experience and what one learns from it will appear in one's art and to pretend otherwise would be pretty absurd. I think though there is a way in which those life experiences can be presented that in fact makes them more accessible and accessible on a deeper level to other people than this simple blathering away, telling one's life story as if, ipso facto, because one has experienced this it is therefore significant. That I do not think is true and I think there's a lot of poetry published where the poet seems to be labouring under that delusion: "this happened to me and therefore it will be interesting to you." This would be nice if true, and the writing of poetry would then be as easy as a lot of no - hope, no - talent people think it is, but of course it's total crap.

MC: I was wondering about an evaluative approach . . .

DC: . . . to my various books?

MC: Well, specifically, I was wondering how you feel about the new book and how you see it fitting in with your past work.

DC: Right. I feel good about it. The last three books have all been so different from each other. My last three books after the McClelland and Stewart Selected Poems, what there is, is two books from Vehicule, the new book we're talking about, and then the forthcoming `selected' volume in England. The two Vehicule books were so different from each other. One of them is K. in Love, a series of very, I think, accessible little lyrics. They're not haiku but they're almost haiku length. It's a book that I wanted to write for quite a while. I've admired for a long time George Meredith's sequence called Modern Love. It's a series of sonnets about a love affair, about a relationship between a man and a woman, charting its movement from its origins into its passions and into its problems and its fading. What I liked about it was the integrity of it, the direct close - focus look at this one theme, this one relationship investigated in poems of the same format. And I wanted not to do quite that because the sonnet form didn't interest me much but I did want to do something that I hoped would be limpid and uncomplicated but not shallow. So, I had these notes that I'd been making to myself over a number of years that would relate to a series of love poems, that was what I wanted this book to be. During a sabbatical I began working on it and wrote about half the book, then in the same period I began reading Kafka's letters and became more and more moved by the voice of Kafka's letters, very direct, very interesting in terms of what one normally thinks about Kafka, but undisguised, a vulnerable, naked voice. And that voice began to find its way back into the poems I was writing and what then happened was that I just decided to make the whole collection . . . to simplify the voice. So although the title became K. in Love and there's a clear note on the back of the book relating it to Kafka, the origin of the book had nothing to do with Kafka. What happened was I was reading the letters and the voice changed as a result of that. So, the title's a little misleading in some ways. Some people think that the origin of all poems are Kafka's letters which is not the case. Anyway, that was a book which excluded any intellectual, academic references. It's just as simple and transparent as I could make it.

Then came Little Bird, a long poem with an irregular rhyme scheme. What happened with that one was I knew I wanted to write the poem — my father died not too long before that year - - but I anticipated that it would be one of my typical one and a half to three page poems. The choice of the form though, the quatrain, the rhyme scheme, was one of the things that in retrospect I feel drove the poem onward. There are obligations that one sets up for oneself just from the point of view of format, in terms of the ongoing rhythms which meant in this case not, I hope, that the thing just became more wordy or that I found it impossible to stop. That didn't seem to me to be what was happening but I was being encouraged by the format to investigate things more fully than I might otherwise have done. I might have ceased the fifty or sixty investigations that the poem gets into, each of them, at some earlier point if the format had been laxer, had been less regular.

Also, what the form did there — getting back to what I was saying earlier about ego, and undercutting the ego and about undercutting personal experience so that it can mean something to persons other than one's cousins or one's aunts — I think theform was very valuable in that its very mechanical need to find a rhyme could lead me away from what might more readily — or self - indulgently or personally — have appeared on the page if I'd been following a less rigid track. That sort of thrust, I think, sort of took over or rendered less likely this business of anecdotage. So I think that was pretty valuable to the book. It was certainly one of the major explanations for the book's length, for the fact that a poem that I thought might be about three pages long became a book. And also there was one of two other results from it. One of which was that McClelland and Stewart, who had published an earlier book of mine, wanted Little Bird to be part of a longer book with other poems and I didn't want that to be the case. I wanted it to be on its own. Which relates to format too. This was, I'll irrelevantly add, one of a couple of reasons that took me from McClelland and Stewart to Véhicule.

MC: Tell me about the new book, Forests of the Medieval World.

DC: Well, one of the funny things that's been happening is a poet like myself who does not believe in, shall I say, over - production . . . clearly, I've been producing a hell of a lot more than seems reasonable or permissible, three books in, whatever it may be, five years. But the explanation, at least the one that I placate myself with, has to do with the nature of the three beasts. K in Love was one onrush, as it were, of lyrics and was written quite rapidly, relatively speaking. It took about seven months but that was seven months where I wasn't doing anything else. That was a case of beginning to write every morning at ten o'clock and probably working until three - thirty in the afternoon. If you do that for six or seven months you're putting a lot of time in. And that also means that any other poems that were beginning to gestate were not entering that book; they were just allowed to sit there somewhere off - screen. Same with Little Bird. That was another one poem year. So once again anything else that was being written was not going to make it into that book. So, Forests of the Medieval World, which comes along fairly rapidly after Little Bird, is less rapid than it seems. Those poems were being written at their own languid pace during those six or seven years. For example, a poem like "My Death as the Wren Library," the first poem in the new book, appeared in The London Review of Books about six years ago. So, those poems have been around for a while.

MC: I'm interested to know what led you to write the sequence of Edvard Munch poems which appear in Forests of the Medieval World.

DC: I lived in Scandinavia for about five years and that's when Munch became somebody I thought about. I learned to read and speak Swedish pretty well and that meant that you could then read Norwegian even if you couldn't necessarily speak it decently. So, I was able to follow that interest in Munch and spend time reading his journals, most of which haven't been translated. And I found them interesting and found them full of an intensity that I thought might lend itself to another genre. There are obvious perils here. That is, there's very little point in writing poems based on the life of a major artist unless. . . The attempt to compete with that artist is not a very good idea so one needs to do something different. Either you investigate some aspect of the artist that the artist wasn't interested in following or, as in this case, you're a writer and he was a painter but, well, I said it already: the perils are clear. Seems to me I've read a dozen books or manuscripts in the past five years which wade pretty casually into waters that flow far too fast for them. Sometimes all these things do is remind you of what a fine artist this person was who's now become the subject of some unbelievably less talented writer's work. I remember reading a poem of Edith Sitwell's long ago in which she quoted those lines of Christopher Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus": See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament. All I felt then was what a splendid poet Marlowe had been. Marvellous C. Marlowe, hapless E. Sitwell. So. . . you hope you don't fall into that category yourself, but who knows.

MC: Turning to other poems in Forests of the Medieval World, those that are not part of the Munch series, I was curious if the writing of some of these poems might possibly involve a larger artifice that the poems come out of. I'm thinking of the title poem and the untitled one.

DC: Well, if one of the things you're asking is does one come into contact with a whole image area or world sector that you otherwise wouldn't, then yes, one does and that's one of the joys of it, I guess. One of the reasons why a writer can feel a sense of liberation in doing this — again, it gets back to the personal ego, doesn't it? For a while at least you have the illusion — and if it's working well then perhaps it's more than an illusion — of looking at the world through a different pair of eyes or experiencing it through a newer apparatus and if that's happening for you then good on you, tremendous. I think there are writers for whom that's a major part of their work and when it goes well then the work is emerging out of a deeper place, an `impersonal' place in Flaubert's description, but this doesn't at all mean a safer place or more controlled or less mysterious or less suggestive place. It means a less ego - bound, less ego - limited place, a place that throbs with rhythms you know are not `yours' in any usual sense but deeper, richer, darker. Some people might even throw the word archetype in here but I wouldn't dream of doing that.

Don Coles's works copyright © to the author.


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