Glass Float is Jane Munro’s seventh poetry collection. For more than 20 years, she has studied and practised Iyengar Yoga in Canada and in India. Her experience of yoga illuminates this collection. Her sixth poetry book, Blue Sonoma, won the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize. Jane has been a professor of Creative Writing at several universities in British Columbia and has taught many informal writing workshops.
Jane is interviewed by Susan Braley, a Victoria poet.
Susan, on reading Glass Float: “It was enthralling. Jane’s new collection is an invitation to new forms of knowing: how to see the ‘past as present,’ the future as past; how to find mind in the body; how to ‘receive my face’ as a faraway shore welcomes an unexpected arrival.”
Susan Braley (SB): Glass Float is an elegant and intriguing title. A glass float is, on the one hand, fragile, flawed, boundaried. On the other hand, it is buoyant, holding up fishnets, traversing oceans. How does this title invite readers and writers into the collection?
Jane Munro (JM): The glass float I inherited from my family (and grew up with) is bigger and rounder than my head – basketball size. It is indeed flawed (like me) and full of breath (like me). It’s unique and mouth-made: blown from recycled sake bottles. Somehow, it survived storms and circuitous doldrums while carried by Pacific currents from Japan to Vancouver Island. It landed safely.
I wrote the poems in Glass Float during a time of big changes in my personal life: my husband’s dementia, illness, decline; downsizing everything from twenty years on twelve acres at Point No Point to fit into a two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver; grief, exhaustion, depression; his death; six weeks of yoga and three of Ayurvedic detox and rejuvenation in India; writing, yoga, walking, travel, art, friends, family.
The fierceness of constant change but breath and love supporting me through forge and tempering. Despite my fears of loss and destruction, life refills me. Much is hidden, uncertain, surprising – but fascinating.
Now we are all swept up in change. Who doesn’t feel fragile, flawed, and boundaried? It’s hard to see any distance ahead.
Our English word “horizon” derives from a Greek word for bounding circle. When I’m in a plane looking down on Earth, the horizon travels with me. It seems spherical, like my own glass float in motion.
Who doesn’t, at this point, feel surprise, dread, and curiosity? I think we also sense life’s bouyancy.
I hope the metaphor of its title invites readers and writers into the poems in Glass Float.
SB: Glass Float explores relationships between seeming dualities: mind/body, east/west, ancient/ contemporary, single/multiple. In your article “Inner Ear: Listening for Poems” (alllitup.ca), you observe that, if we listen “with the inner ear,” the borders of these dualities disappear and new insights emerge. In this collection, you use what could be called opposing forms: lyric poems and prose poems—the latter being much more frequent. What discoveries are you hoping your readers will make in the interstices of these two different kinds of poems?
JM: When Basho, 330 years ago set off on his narrow road to the deep north, his poetic record of that journey, Oku no Hosomichi, combined prose and haiku.
Poetry takes many forms. In that liminal state close to dream, when the conscious mind can more easily listen to our unconscious, dualities and paradoxes coexist.
I like what Robert Creeley wrote: “form is never more than an extension of content,” in a letter to Charles Olson, June 5, 1950. The prose poems in Glass Float and the lyric poems with line breaks differ in content as well as in form. But they’re all part of one book – the one poem that is Glass Float. It’s a composition of content – as is a play with different acts, characters, voices, settings, scenes, insights, conflicts, relationships – but it’s also a musical composition. Language when spoken – or heard in our imaginations – has cadence, pitch, rhythm and timbre. And poetry loves to dance: reels and jigs, pavanes and tangos.
Those seeming dualities we distinguish can be seen as part of our abundance, history, and complexity. In subtle ways, they intermingle and coexist, inform and enrich. Life, like poetry, takes many forms.
SB: You have commented on how our ancestors have “passed on codes . . . through mouths, minds, bodies.” These codes include imagery and craft, which can be tools for those who create, if they listen closely enough to grasp them. For instance, in “Mahabalipuram,” the speaker says: “Thump a temple column, and it sounds a note. The next column hums a note one tone higher – fa so la ti do – across the portico.” How do the poems in Glass Float, especially the prose poems focused on yoga practice, offer such codes to poets?
JM: That’s a complex question. I don’t think there’s one answer to it. I’d hope the poems in Glass Float provide an architecture for the imaginations of readers – one they can furnish with their own thoughts, memories, feelings.
Personally, a funny thing about practice is that, as a child, I felt it was a form of punishment – what I got sentenced to do because I’d done something wrong. Things I loved doing weren’t practices, no matter how much I screwed up or had to learn. Making art was play, dancing was fun. Sewing gave me clothes I liked.
Then yoga arrived. It takes practise. Yoga is – intrinsically – a practice. I rely on it to keep me sane, or as sane as possible. My home practice didn’t arrive overnight and it’s ever changing. So far, it keeps me interested.
I’ve also come to think of writing as a practice. In part, because it’s the day-to-day exercise of writing that I own and enjoy – that keeps me feeling like myself, living my own life – and also because, while the process of doing the work is mine, its outcome is not. Like yoga, as Patanjali tells us (sutra 2:1), writing requires burning zeal in practise, self-study and study of texts, and surrender of the fruits.
B. K. S. Iyengar talked about bringing intelligence to every cell of the body in a yoga practice. A writing practice invites attention to each part of a poem, or a book of poems. When Geeta Iyengar (in a poem in Glass Float) shouts at us to break the fear, she’s urging us to expand our ribs, fill our lungs, spread our diaphragm, stop shrinking our soul. The fear she challenges us to break is habitual, cultural, hard to see as my own. If I challenge myself in the same way when working on a poem, I have to ask what fear stops the poem from being true to itself, and how to break that fear.
SB: In Glass Float, there is a curious play between fullness and emptiness, convexities and concavities. In “Convexities,” the grandfather says “there’s no such thing as a concavity in nature: when you study the profile of a valley, it’s made of convexities.” In these poems, though, the hollows of tombs, caves, and bodies exist alongside fullness: the ribs breath-filled, a Milky Way meadow “loaded,” the self “a galaxy full of dark matter.” For you, what is the relationship between emptiness and fullness in art?
JM: Oh, my – a big question. Both words, emptiness and fullness, are so loaded it’s difficult to use them.
Art gives us specifics and images. At best, this makes them memorable. In a recent poem, “Today, When I Could Do Nothing,” Jane Hirshfield offers a paradoxical image of “silence enough to fill cisterns.” I find that image easy to imagine, but – at another level – astonishing: enough silence (the absence of sound, that kind of emptiness) flowing into and filling other emptinesses.
As for concavities and convexities, I tend to see them as a matter of scale. While at a macro level we perceive a valley as a concavity, at a micro level it’s packed with convexities: boulders and grass, trees – ants, grains of sand – atoms.
Art invites us to pay attention to our perceptions and explore – entertain – hold – paradoxes and contradictions.
SB: In a memorable poetry workshop you gave in Victoria a few years ago, you urged all us to work toward “plainness and spareness” in our poems; invoking Rumi, you said “a camel can be thinned to a thread through the shears of practice.” This tautness is exquisitely apparent in Glass Float and in previous books, such as Blue Sonoma. Could you comment on your approach to revision?
JM: Thank you for the compliments!
My husband used to say, writing is revision.
I don’t know who said a writer is someone who finds writing difficult, but that makes me smile.
What I do and how I do it changes, but, inevitably, my practice involves listening – with the inner ear you noted earlier – then drafting what comes to mind. Typically, I do this by hand in a journal. At times, I record dreams then sit with one to see what arises. I call these first drafts protopoems.
When I’m ready to begin work on a new book, I’ll go through my notebooks and tag bits that interest me. Eventually, I’ll assemble pieces and work on them as poems. Revise, explore, listen, transcribe. Read drafts aloud. Trust my gut. Play. Experiment.
Once there’s a pile of possible poems, I’ll think about the collection as a poem in itself. Read it aloud. Heed visceral clicks. Play with sequences. Walk. Listen. Trust my gut.
This is far from an efficient approach to revision!
So far, it’s what I do. Once in a blue moon, a poem falls bright – arrives as itself. My gut will tell me.
SB: In “Decentralize Mind,” you describe a beloved yoga instructor at an intensive you attended in India: “Watching her you realize – this is how Geeta teaches. As if you, the twelve hundred students in this gym, are parts of her multitudinous self.” In the poem “At Your Back,” the self appears to be plural; the speaker is hiking uphill alone, but senses someone behind her: “Don’t know whose feet grip granite, whose legs move yours, whose arms support you.” You are a longtime member of a collaborative poetry group called Yoko’s Dogs. How has sharing your creative process with others shaped your poetic practice?
JM: A lot!
Over the years, many others have informed my creative process. I’ve benefited from M.F.A. workshops at UBC, feedback from other writers, professors, editors, friends, students and audiences. Readings – in different places and circumstances – give me a sense of how other people experience my poems.
But since 2006, Yoko’s Dogs (Jan Conn, Mary di Michele, Susan Gillis, Jane Munro) have been writing collaboratively. We practise Japanese-style linked verse. Our practice has taught me much about image and haiku, and the link and shift structure of renga.
Basho says, “the bones of haikai are plainness and oddness.” I’ve come to love that plainness and oddness, and what I think of as the naked image – not metaphor, not narrative – and that essential haiku moment.
As much as anything else, Yoko’s Dogs has taught me that what’s clear to me is not necessarily clear to others. Yoko’s Dogs has also taught me much about those shears of practice Rumi invokes. We’ve published in online and print journals, have two print collections, a chapbook ready to go, and are fine-tuning another book. One of our interests is doing multi-vocal performances, which involves adapting our poems and creating scores.
With the pandemic, we haven’t been able to get together to work in person. In the past, though we’ve done most of our work online, we’ve spent days at a time laughing, eating – discussing, arguing, composing – working on poems. Although our collaboration is focused on making the poems and doing some shared studies and practices to support that, our friendship is sustaining. We don’t hesitate to say what we like and don’t like. Everything we finish is made by all four of us working together. So we keep at it until we’re all happy with the result. Our website is https://yokosdogs.blogspot.com/