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George Ellenbogen : Writing Philosophy

Interview with Le Temps (Tunis) Wednesday April 24, 1996

1. Vous etes poete, vous avez la chance d'enseigner la poesie, pouver-vous parler de la place de la poesie dans l'universite americaine?

A change has taken place in the poetry scene since I started writing in the mid-fifties as an undergraduate at McGill in Montreal. For one thing, the poetry taught has changed. We weren't taught the avant garde poets, only the poets who were safely dead or who had made it into collections and anthologies-the aging Pound, Eliot, and Stevens, for example. Certainly not the Black Mountain poets like Creeley and Olson, who, as a matter of fact, were appearing in Montreal's avant garde magazine CIV/N nor the beat poets in San Francisco. As for those new voices in Montreal, Dudek and Layton, both major figures in the Modernist movement in Canadian literature, they were virtually ignored. The wagonloads of professors whose judgments were shaped by the early modernists felt uneasy around these newly arrived teacher/writers because their very presence suggested that the canon was not yet closed.

Perhaps more important, writers--poets--have become a living presence on university campuses. When I published my first poems in the mid-fifties, poets on university faculties were a rarity-try to imagine a peacock strutting down St. Catherine Street in Montreal or in front of the Hotel de Ville in Paris. still, some colleges had one--a kind of resident freak--adored by students, mistrusted by scholarly colleagues, who saw them as interlopers poaching on their cherished preserves. But much has changed. Universities have now become a magnet for poets and support them in much the same way as aristocrats once did. And this has happened in our lifetime. Whereas the major poets of the first half of this century--Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Yeats, Williams--had no formal association with a university, most major post-WWII poets do. Poets have clearly found a permanent place in their university communities--at first, I suspect, as a curiosity in English departments more given over to literary analysis and now as teachers in creative writing programs_ These programs attract larger and larger numbers of students in Canadian and American universities in response to the demands of students for courses in the writing of plays, poems, and novels. Despite one writer's observation that "you can't teach writing, only writers," (a secret I suspect that we keep to ourselves), the students keep coming, perhaps with the expectation of leaving with a manuscript of poems or stories hot for the press.

Although very few of these students make literature a career, they become part of a landscape in which literary activity takes place--they buy books of poetry for their courses, they attend readings given on their campus. They become part of an audience. How engaged, how permanent an audience is another matter. But some, I suspect, maintain an interest in current serious writing.

In any event, if you compared literary maps for 1955 and 1995, you'd find that poetry has moved from the coffee house to the university. But these shifts are cyclical. As I write this, I am aware that more and more poetry activity is returning to small book shops and coffee houses.

2. Vous etes Canadien Anglophone, pouriez vous parler de la situations de la poesie Canadien aujourd'hui, ses themes, ses preoccupations, ses characteristiques?

It's always difficult to define the scope of a national literature. When you look long enough, you inevitably find the range of interest that exists in all literatures: the reactions to falling in love or falling out of love, the feelings that surround maturing--its ecstasies and anxieties--the fears that accompany age. And yet when I recently taught a course in Canadian literature, one perspective emerged from the literature again and again. And the truth of it lies in any good map of Canada, which shows the vast majority of the population hugging a band of a hundred miles or so that stretches along its American border from one coast to another. People seem to huddle there as one would around a space heater in a cold flat. The rest of the country--described with some accuracy by Voltaire as "a few acres of snow"--is an uninhabited frozen waste for much of the year. Yet it is this absence of people in Canada's northern waste that has energized the imagination of its writers. It is a darkness they lean on, an isolation, a loneliness that surrounds them. The geography of the country is not only a poet's reality; it can become his metaphor, his way of moving between an audience he knows and a darkness he probes almost as a blind man, feeling his way. For many of them, this isolation defines the way they see their national state, their towns, themselves. It is as much a fact of life in their worlds as sociability is in Jane Austen's.

3. Ou vous situez vous dans cette literature?

First, you must remember that for the past thirty-five years, I've lived in Boston. Still, I do get up to Montreal several times a year. My roots are there, at least some of them. Roots do tend to spread.

Perhaps because I move between two countries and have spent some time abroad, I have not felt a need to fit into a national category either in terms of what I write or how I write. And, in retrospect, I really am unable to place myself in a specific school of poets.

My subject matter is not specifically Canadian, except in the broadest sense, of having my own space of darkness, a private northern waste that my poetry often broods over and gnaws at. And this darkness relates less to the grimness of the Canadian north than it does to the grimness of human behavior throughout the world. The issue of oppression that often surfaces in my poetry comes partly from the experiences of my ancestors, but also from what I learn about the world every day. In this respect, I see my literary roots in my Contact Press mentors in the early fifties, who were writing poems that responded to depression and war.

But I do not wholly recognize my roots in the poetics of the Contact Press group (Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, Raymond Souster) or the Black Mountain poets (Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jonathan Williams) whose aesthetic premises they shared. In some of my earliest poems in the fifties, I gladly used the open forms that these poets had sprung on a Canadian audience more accustomed to the conventional forms. In other poems, however, closed forms seemed right for the poems I was writing, and I did not resist them. A poetic for me has never been an ideological but rather a practical question. This may not be much of a poetic, but it has served me so far.

4. Pensez vous qu'il ya un vrai ou un faux probleme entre les deux literatures du Canada: en anglais et en francais?

There are really two questions here, one relating to the conflict between the two populations of Canada, Anglophone and Francophone, the other to the literatures these cultures produce. Any front page of a daily Canadian newspaper tells us there is a political problem and it is longstanding. Like the eruptions of so many nationalist movements in the nineteenth century, the one in Quebec is a response to oppression, but as the Francophones extend their power in the Province, they will exercise the same oppression that had been used against them. As Leonard Cohen suggests in one of his very fine early poems, when the oppressor is liberated, he does not become an egalitarian.

Despite this conflict, both cultures have produced thriving literatures. A generation ago, perhaps longer, they could have been described by the title of a Hugh McLennan novel, Twin Solitudes. Now I suspect there is more mutual awareness, more connection, more translation. As a youngster at college, I was, neither aware of nor interested in Francophone literature in Quebec. I believe young Anglophone writers now know more about their French counterparts, have read them either in translation or in the original. Festivals help. At the poetry festival in Paris, I got to meet Canadian writers I had not read before, Claude Beausoleil and Jacques Boulrice. And more translation is available in magazines like Poetry Canada that devotes at least some attention to poetry in translation and publishers like Vehicule in Montreal that present French-Canadian literature in translation..

For me, the existence of two separate literatures in the Province of Quebec is not a problem, but a solution, a success. What I do see as a problem is the tendency to establish monolingualism, mono-anything.

George Ellenbogen's works copyright © to the author.

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