Q&A with Jan Zwicky

September 5, 2016 | Victoria Festival of Authors | Q&A

Jan Zwicky has published nine collections of poetry, including Songs for Relinquishing the Earth and Forge. Her latest collection The Long Walk forthcoming from University of Regina Press will be pre-released specially for her reading Friday September 23. Yvonne Blomer interviewed her this August about her new collection.

YB: Can you speak to where or what drives or pushes or pulls you into a poem – does the poem begin in an image or question, in a musical note or musical phrase, and from that start, where does it go or how does it unfold?


JZ: For me, poems often begin as a lit presence in the world — a this, a physical thing or a melody, that stands out luminously in its surround; or sometimes it’s the whole surround, a wordless configuration, that lights up. Then I want to try to do justice to that thing or configuration. (Why I want to try to do this in words remains a mystery to me; for the most part, words seem entirely inadequate to what-is.) The poem, as a linguistic composition, then starts with a few words, a phrase, it might even be nonsense, that has the right tone and rhythmic shape. The task becomes one of trying to sense how the gravitational field of the thing or configuration bends language to its own non-verbal form.

Other times, less frequently, I’ll get a line or two out of nowhere — usually near what ends up being the end or the beginning of the poem. But after that the process is the same: trying to stay under long enough to sense accurately the larger shape that the lines belong to.

YB: Can you talk about how these poems engage with witnessing the environment and its destruction?

JZ: This book, more perhaps than any other I’ve written, contains passages of deep and explicit anger. Anger is a difficult emotion to deal with in a lyric context: it has to rush and leap like a forest fire, to flame with horror and grief. If you don’t let it have its head, you get something narrowly personal — sardonic. A sardonic tone is not appropriate to what’s happening. Humans, bent on their own overpopulated comfort (I include myself), are destroying the beauty and integrity of the existing biosphere. The blood is on our hands. How do we face the enormity of that fact?

YB: How do you manage that enormity and these facts? I attended the Kinder Morgan panel in Victoria on August 23 and so many people are afraid of the future and oil, and though trying to make changes, aware of the attachment of cars and other things we are hooked into. How can writers, poets, merely write or perhaps what can that writing do?

JZ: This is an old and deep question: what are the social and political responsibilities of artists? Let me start with what I don’t believe. I don’t believe that morally concerned artists ought to devote themselves exclusively to making overtly ‘political’ art. That would actually be a very bad idea. Politics, I believe, are necessary; but in the form of positive programs and agendas, they are an attempt to systematize relations among humans (and, occasionally, among humans and other-than-human beings). In that systematizing, the particularities of reality — individual beings and places — are obscured. It’s those individuals that we love, and our love for them is one of the reasons we want them to do well, to thrive. How then do we learn to see past the systematizing and the stereotypes? Many things can shake us up and point the way; but lyric art is one of the most important teachers. The attempt to lead an environmentally responsible life flows from, it is an unconstrained desire that arises from, deep attention to the natural world. That’s where the poetry that I write comes from, too: it is, as it were, a side-effect of paying attention to the world. The art of others has direct political consequences in my own life in that it teaches me to see and to listen more acutely. That art can also strengthen my resolve when it protests injustice without trying to roll out a positive program. But the great political power of lyric art lies in its ability to hone our capacity to attend. That capacity is the foundation of our desire to respond to the world with care and respect.

YB: In your poems I sense a great chasm open in me in lines that use parallelism, repetition and also seem to move to a great relentless opening in the end. This occurs especially in poems that insist that we’re on the brink of calamitous ecological and cultural change. Can you talk for a moment on poetry and music and the interstices between the two for you?

JZ: How does poetry integrate emotion with thought? It uses the rhythmic, tonal, and sonorous dimensions of language. I’m intrigued by the view that humans or prehumans sang before they talked; certainly music means in a profound way that logic and grammar don’t seem to be able to get at. And when a free verse poet wants to shift into emotional first gear, their language often becomes overtly musical — it deploys intense rhythm, the repetitions you mention, alliteration, and partial, sometimes even full, rhyme; it ghosts cadences we’re familiar with from great oratory. We don’t hear such language frequently these days because it’s deeply uncool. Ours is an ironic age, and when you’re being ironic, the last thing you want is to give people the impression you care. I do care, however; I care passionately about what is happening to the earth, to wilderness, to natural beauty. And I intend to go down singing.