On Fire, the Afterlife, and Breaking the Line: an Interview with Poet Carla Funk
By Leah Callen
I talked to Carla Funk, former Poet Laureate of Victoria, about her latest collection, Gloryland. When I finished reading these poems, I felt like I had been in church: humbled, weirdly emotional, and longing to do something more with my life.
LC: There is so much music in your poems. There’s the literal music in the lines (and I did feel compelled to read Gloryland aloud to enjoy it properly). But there was also this recurring motif of music, from the homeless dogs who are an “opera in tooth and fur” to your mother’s voice “like a low radio.” And just the general idea of the verb “tuning” – tuning our darkness “to brighter thought,” the soul or life being a song and tuning ourselves to be closer to God. Is music is a big part of your life or worship as a poet?
CF: Absolutely. I feel like before I found the language of poetry, the music was being taught to me, partially because our house was filled with music. My mum had her collection of folk records and Elvis Sings the Hymns and my dad had his Country Crooner collection, and there was a schmaltzy lounge room jazz album my mum had, and every once in a while the mood would strike her and she’d put that on. And of course, sitting in church from infancy, you’re always singing. And then at about five years old, my mum started us in piano lessons. So there’s just always been music and that felt more foundational to me even than literature. I can’t help but gravitate to music as its own entity but then the music inside language. I’m just a sucker for a turn of phrase that carries assonance or grooves along with the iambic pentameter mode. And for about the same reason, I still love the Shakespeare sonnets and Robert Frost and those poets who are unabashed in their musicality.
LC: There’s also a lot fire imagery.
CF: Yeah, my editor was like can you get rid of some of the flames?
LC: No, no. It’s great. Would you say fire is your element or The Element?
CF: I think for me… light and darkness, always that motif is coming up. Whether you’re looking at Greek mythology, whether you’re looking at Biblical narrative, whether you’re looking at the seasons. And to me somehow fire occupies both of those realms because it is light, but it is also a destructive force. It’s both illuminating and obscuring. And if I think about fire, you can be burned, but you can also be called to safety. There’s that element of danger and also of illumination. And then also, of course, the Book of Revelations and every mention of Hell that happened during my childhood, sitting in church service.
LC: Well, you read my mind because my next question was going to be: the interplay between dark and light and that chiaroscuro you mention in one of your poems seems to be the overarching theme or effect throughout, and I wondered what you are most trying to convey about the dark and light in life.
CF: I don’t feel like I have any sort of proclamation about dark and light except that I love this idea, it’s sort of the ancient Biblical narrative. For the Jewish culture, all their traditions have day starting in darkness. And I think in our Western minds we often think of it as beginning in light and heading toward darkness. Day begins in darkness and moves into light and it may sound like a simple, almost a semantic shift, but for me that’s the sort of trajectory that I was trying to explore. What if things begin in darkness and move toward light instead of we begin in light and move toward darkness? And I’m thinking of, on a personal narrative level like family and dysfunction and turmoil of home life as a child – but what if it moves toward redemption? And, you know, looking at the dying world around us and instead of just seeing it winding down, what if it’s actually moving toward redemption? That’s, I guess, what the big question is: what if everything is moving toward redemption?
There’s a giant question mark inhabiting light and dark and for me that question mark tugs me in to think about how do these two interact and could darkness come before the light. I feel like it’s probably the resurrection motif, I mean… my father had just died and I kept having all these dreams about him and in all these dreams there was so much light or fire that kept happening and they weren’t dark dreams, they were actually light dreams. And, ah, interesting. What if at the end, it’s just light. And what if at the end, there’s actually beauty. What if light is actually on the other side of the darkness?
LC: The afterlife is always present in here, the idea of the “two realms, the green and the gold” and what’s to come next. Listening to you talk about this, it can be a metaphor for redemption in life as well as a literal afterlife. Do you think that believing in a Heaven is, in a way, a sweet kind of death wish or homesickness? Not in a bad way, but a yearning almost?
CF: Yeah. Homesickness is a really interesting way of putting it. I hadn’t thought about that, but I think there is in humanity this desire for something beyond what we have and, you know, one person might name it aspiration. One person might name it drive. And I would probably name it eternal homesickness. I think back again to childhood and how formative all the hymns we’d sing about in the sweet by and by and Beulah Land and all of these strange names for the afterlife which I didn’t really understand what they meant, but there was so much longing, a sort of pilgrim mentality that was ingrained into everybody standing in the congregation singing about well, things are bad, but one day… and I think that’s just been in humanity regardless of the culture, regardless of the religion. It’s just eternal homesickness. And it can’t help but come out in my writing, I think.
LC: Reading your poems, I felt you have a mystical incarnate god who’s not afraid to get His hands dirty. Even though there is the afterlife and this beautiful return home, He also seems to be in the people and places around you. I have a bit of a heavy question, but do you think the Kingdom of God is more within us or without? Because there’s this far away land, but it’s also like you’ve cast the people in your life as Biblical characters in here as well.
CF: That’s a good question. I need to go to seminary for a couple of years and then come back. I would just love to study theology. I guess if I think about when I sit down and I’m writing a poem, and what I’m believing to be true, I’m seeing the Kingdom of God everywhere. I’m seeing it in that snail. I think that the universe is like a book open for us to read and everywhere there are signs and symbols and messages, whether it’s a fly traveling around the cabin of an airplane or a snail crawling up a fencepost, I think we can read all of that. And if the Kingdom of God is within a person, then a person has eyes to see the Kingdom of God that’s all around.
LC: Do you think that’s the true role of a poet: to be a mystic and basically “crack the code of Heaven” in life?
CF: I can’t speak for all poets and I think every person walks around in the world with something inscribed in the very depths of them that is their purpose in the world, and I’m guessing every poet has a little inscription too. I feel like one of the parts of my inscription is to listen and to pay attention. And I would hope writers would do that no matter what they believe or what kind of writing they are producing: listening, paying attention like a kid who is full of wonder at the universe and not jaded and not cynical. I feel like one of the things I want to do is point at the kind of wonder of what’s true and what is beautiful.
LC: This book is dedicated to your father and Elegy is a very powerful poem. I cried after that one specifically. Just beautiful. Is writing the way a poet works through mourning?
CF: One thing I’ve found to be true about writing poems is that they force emotion into objectivity – especially in the revision process. And just like the language goes through the furnace of revision, emotion and memory and family relationships go through a revision process. And time can be the great reviser and death can be a catalyst for that revision. And I found that through writing these poems after my dad died, that it was this redemptive act where I began to remember him differently, see him differently. You know, I wouldn’t have dedicated the book to my dad five years ago. But leading up to his death, that sort of slow drain of negative emotion or hurt, it happened. And what was left initially was sort of this vacant space of not feeling hurt, of not feeling anger, just feeling nothing. And then, gradually, it was flooded in with some love which shocked me. And these poems came out of a completely different emotional space where I could actually say that I loved my father. Though he might not have read these poems had he been alive, in writing them I felt like that darkness was moving toward light in the end in my response to him and memories of childhood, which was miraculous for me.
LC: In one poem, What Flowers Few and Bright, you talk about a bumblebee and its “methodology as exquisite a jeweller’s tooling at the gem,” and it made me remember you telling us in class that that’s what a poet does. It’s like a jeweller working on a tiny gem and getting it just right. How much do you obsess or do you obsess over perfecting the small things in a poem like enjambment or punctuation or diction? Do you feel that a poem can be perfect and how do you know when you’ve gotten it there?
CF: I can only speak to what my process is like. But, yes, I do obsess in the final stages of revising. That’s when the obsession with minutia takes over and I labour over the comma or the em dash, the line break here or a line break there. Not at the start, I don’t. I let it just go and sometimes it’s just messy, muddy writing at the start. But as the poem finds its shape, then the minutia comes into play.
I always picture this ideal, true, whole poem existing already. I just read a headline about some famous Vancouver magician’s house burning down. And I was like, oh, I have to write a poem about this. So, in my head the poem about the magician’s house burning down is already there. It’s already perfected somewhere. My job is just to get as close as possible to what that poem, that ideal, true poem is. And so I feel like I’m getting closer when I start to obsess over the minutia, over the punctuation and line breaks, the syllable shifts… that tells me I’m getting closer. And is it ever perfect? No. But I’ll get as close as I can.