Celebrated poet Lorna Crozier’s Through The Garden, A Love Story (with Cats) set for fall publication, is as close as you might come to portray the meaning of true love and the grief that follows loss of a life partner. In writing the story of nearly forty years together with her husband, acclaimed poet and author Patrick Lane, Lorna has crafted a stunning combination of prose and poetry; tender and insightful, raw in its disclosure and honesty. It is very much the story of their love, a story that includes the story of their cats.
Lorna is interviewed by Robin Dyke
Robin Dyke (RD): How are you approaching the launch of Through The Garden?
Lorna Crozier (LC): It’s certainly going to be a different kind of launch than I’ve ever gone through before. I’ve written 19 books so I’m used to going to literary festivals across the country and engaging with people who are my readers. I love giving public readings because as a writer you are in your room alone, writing for who knows whom and when you get to go to a festival and give a reading you meet those who want to buy your book and want to talk to you about it, and it’s a very warm and engaging experience so I’m very disappointed that’s not going to be happening in person this fall at the VFA. I won’t be able to meet people which I find quite sad.
RD: You’ll really miss that?
LC: Yes, very much. I really enjoy the shop talk that you get into with other writers who are there, some who you know from over the years and others who are new to you, but I especially enjoy meeting people who want to ask me questions about the book, who want to talk about their own reading experiences. When I write I don’t have an audience in mind, I write to the best part of myself, the part that’s smarter, more demanding, more amusing and more insightful, but I love the opportunity of meeting an audience when a book is done.
RD: I was wondering as well about the nature of your topic.
LC: I don’t know how I’m going to handle that no matter what vehicle is used for its launch. There will be parts of the book I’ll never be able to read out loud, I just wouldn’t be able to make it through, and other parts I’ll be able to, so we’ll see what happens.
RD: How did Through The Garden start out?
LC: I started the writing in 2017 when Patrick and I were both going through our own individual worries about his illness, what was causing it, whether there would be a treatment or cure, and my days felt so fraught with my concern about him that the only thing I could think to do was to go into my office and try to write because that’s how I’ve lived my life, I’ve written my way through pain and sorrow and joy into a space that holds some consolation, although I don’t know if I‘m there yet.
Writing for me has been my way of surviving. When I started writing in 2017 this book as it exists now was not in my mind, but when you risk loving someone so much, you know that there’s going to be a debt you have to pay at the end of it. I think the deeper the love the worse the payout. As Patrick was 9 years older than me, in all likelihood I was going to be the one left alone, so almost from the moment we got together, because I’m the kind of worrying person that I am, that likelihood always cast a small shadow in front of my path. I thought if we survive our relationship, if we survive the ups and downs of being together, I’ll probably be left alone. It’s as bad as I thought it would be.
RD: You had anticipated how difficult it would be?
LC: It’s painful to voice the possibility but you know unless you both died in a bus accident that one of you is going to be left floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean by yourself. We took it very lightly at times, for example over the years we collected humourous epitaphs for each other. It’s possible to have a sense of humour anywhere, anytime, that’s one of the things that keeps us going although we know that we’ve got one foot in the grave from the time we’re born and that foot sinks deeper every year. We see our partner’s foot also in a grave and we know we can’t pull him or her out. If we live with that thought without being able to see any amusement or tenderness there would be no reason to keep on going.
RD: How did Through The Garden take shape?
LC: It was very organic. I wrote the two hundred and thirty pages the way I would write a seven line poem. I would write a sentence or a few sentences and then I would go back and I would revise them until I felt the cadence was right, I’d try for the best adjective I could find, got rid of any clichés and then I would move on. The book went through many drafts, page by page by page by page, and then I would say in my mind oh, a poem would fit nicely here, I would find the poem and then add it, then I would think, okay I’ve written about Patrick’s stay in the hospital so I’m going to flip back now to when we met, or when I began writing. The process, including the order, was intuitive.
I am mainly a poet, have been for something like fifty years and when I start a poem I never know where it’s going, I never know what the ending will be until I get there. I felt the same thing about this book.
Halfway through, which would have been a year-and-a-half through it, I thought I’m going to end the book when our old cat Basho dies, that’ll be my ending. I knew I was writing toward that but I wasn’t writing toward Patrick’s death. When I was putting words on the page I still hoped, and I think he hoped as well, that he would get out of this illness and that we would have years more together.
RD: You write your chapters in the present tense of the period they cover —
LC: When I did the final editing I was quite concerned about the tenses and the switching but I decided it works to use the present when another crisis is happening. I don’t remember how many times he was in the hospital, how many times I had to call an ambulance. It all started to blend together so I thought that the present tense in those sections helped create that feeling. Here it is — this is the third or the fourth or the fifth time he has had a collapse and has had to be hauled away by stretcher. I hoped it produced the feeling that the edges of his hospital stays are blurring.
RD: You raise the paradox between your stance of independence and the demands of love, how much you surrender one to the other; you frequently ask ‘is it love that makes us who we are?’, ‘who am I if not my beloved’s?’, ‘where do I go from here?’
LC: I think they’re intriguing questions, how you can live an independent life where your lover is also your best friend and dearest companion. Not that Patrick fulfilled all of my needs or me his, we had other relationships in our lives, but he was the one I would go back to for almost everything.
Knowing that and having that kind of passionate closeness, but at the same time wanting to be sui generis and have my own life as a writer, meant we had to walk a fine line but it worked for us, and thank God we both wanted the same thing. We both wanted deep intimacy, but the kind that allowed us to say hey, I’m leaving for two weeks to go to a writers’ retreat or I’m flying off to China and you’re not! That was okay, we made it work.
RD: Making your relationship work being “We are saved only by love, love for each other and the love we pour into the art we feel compelled to share” – compelled?
LC: I don’t remember the word compelled but it’s probably a word I’d use again. We both knew when we got together that we were going to be living a precarious existence because poets don’t make much of an income. It’s very difficult to be published as a poet. We were lucky in that regard. I used to joke with my students who wanted to be poets; you should fall in love with an orthodontist, one who likes literature and will respect what you do, you don’t want to fall in love with another poet. The first fifteen years we were together we lived on our writing wits and we felt time was running out, there weren’t many residencies left in Canada either of us could work. Some years one of us would get a grant and some years neither of us would. There are no guarantees. That means it’s a real commitment to say you’re going to live the life of an artist.
I think that brings a lot of respect for each other, putting your life on the line in that way. At the same time it’s very exciting to live with someone who shares your passion for the word, you never have to explain I’m spending four hours writing one poem this afternoon. Some people would say, what are you an idiot? It’s something you might get paid twenty dollars for if it gets published and you’re still going to do this! I never had to justify myself to him or he to me.
Another plus was that the office of the best editor in the world was right beside mine and vice versa. We were able to get excited about a first or second draft and say, hey listen to this and know that there was a good ear who would dare to critique as well as praise. The truth sometimes I didn’t want to hear, I wanted ‘Lorna that is the most brilliant thing you’ve ever written, the most brilliant thing I’ve ever read’ but instead he’d say ‘ah you know babe, I don’t know about the ending here’ and I would do the same thing for him.
RD: On the meaning of love —
LC: In that chapter, I attempt to find answers to what I mean by the word love, and what it means to say I’ve been in a loving relationship. What does love do to us? One of the conclusions I came to is that we are lit up by love, we have a glow about us that, when we go out into the world, makes us kinder, more empathic, better at listening because we are loved. Maybe we first have that as kids when we have the love of our parents.
Being loved by Patrick I felt like I was a more worthy human being than I would have if I had not been loved by him. His adoration gave me a metaphoric glow that lit my way and a confidence.
I feel grateful and lucky we felt that about each other; I don’t think everybody does.
Without a doubt we both felt we were bigger and better people because we knew each other, called each other out when one of us was being bigoted, biased or stupid. Patrick or I might say, ‘wait a minute, think about what you just said, you don’t really mean that, let’s take that apart and see what’s really going on’. We were both ornery, we didn’t mind disagreeing, sometimes publicly, which drove our friends crazy but it was who we were.
RD: Your cats were very much part of your relationship —
LC: The cats symbolize in a way how we were together, we were both affectionate with each other, loved each other’s company, but there were times we each wanted to be alone, times we liked to be in the garden by ourselves. That’s very cat like. I love dogs but Patrick and I only had cats. The five we had in our close to 40 years became very important parts of our family.
When one of us would be on the road and the other at home, the first thing you asked on the phone was ‘how are the cats?’. And the person at home would have a cat story. They added a richness to our days. What I love about cats is they never lose their wildness. They decide to live with you but remain their own unique creatures.
I love the privilege of being able to get close to another species as we do with our domestic animals. There’s a connection that happens that is different than what happens between a human and another human. When it happens between a human and another animal I think your whole cells get rearranged. To see the world through a cat’s eyes is to see the world with more perception. Our feline companions meant a great deal to us and we both loved them equally. Wherever we moved across Canada the cat or cats would come with us.
RD: Basho’s passing was a struggle you handled alone —
LC: Patrick said I’m glad you had to do this by yourself, as he was in the hospital very ill when I had to have Basho euthanized. At first I didn’t understand why he said this but in my inner being I knew what he was saying that he didn’t explain. He was implying that darker things were ahead of me and saying goodbye to Basho by myself, having him buried in the garden was only a preview of what I was going to have to go through next. Basho died in November and Patrick the first week in March so there wasn’t much time in between.
RD: Had you read much of other writer’s work about loss, grief?
LC: I’ve read Joan Didion’s A Year Of Magical Thinking about three times. I read it many years ago when it came out and I read it when Patrick was ill and then I read it when I was writing Through The Garden. I read Joyce Carol Oates book Widow. Julian Barnes also has a book about loss.
You have to be careful as a writer when you’re reading books connected to what you are writing. You want to learn from these great writers and what they did but you can’t feel so impressed by what they did that you think ‘why should I bother?’. So except for Didion I didn’t read the others’ text really carefully, I just skimmed through them. I didn’t want to inadvertently imitate or copy what anyone else had done. I looked at them sideways out of the corner of my eye.
Didion has always been a cool writer, she’s always been able to remove herself emotionally from what she’s writing about. I admire that about her greatly. It’s never been my style of writing or my personality so I wouldn’t have been able to do that even if I had wanted to.
RD: Your last line in your poem “The Mask” is a stunning one; “She doesn’t know how to end what she’s begun.” Are you closer to knowing?
LC: I don’t believe in closure, I find it really annoying when people use that; she’s looking for closure, or this book will give her closure, or a year or two years later we’ll find closure. I don’t think that there is any closing of doors that were so widely and beautifully open. I think that you just learn how to keep moving, how to keep going in the world, alone. It isn’t easy.
RD: You write of how important it is at this time to have a garden —
LC: I’m very glad I have a garden, that I can walk out every day into my yard with the one cat who’s left, the wild half-feral cat called Po Chu. Cats love to garden, every cat we have lived with loved to be in the garden with us. Even Po walks with me between the flowers and the vegetables and when I’m weeding she’ll climb a tree and look down at me. I’ll follow her eyes and see that she spotted a wren in the next tree and then I will see the wren too. This is one of the joys of having a cat companion. I’m glad that I can walk through the garden that Patrick built, spent so many hours and put so much wisdom into. I’m a stupid gardener but I’m following in his footsteps in the yard, that’s all I know how to do right now.
Wherever we lived we always had a garden Patrick built and I have been his willing assistant. I’m everything a good gardener dreams of, I love to weed, I can spend hours on my knees pulling weeds and find it very meditative. I can appreciate the beauty of what someone else nurtures. I was in a great awe of Patrick’s garden projects.
Patrick said in one of the passages I quote in the book that even if he ended up demented and being put in a little room he still hoped that he would have a garden. In a thimble you can have a garden, he said. He also said he hoped I’d still be with him. This passage is particularly moving for me at this time.
RD: On the book’s last poem “A Small Ambition” — To be no more than mist/rising above the rushes/ . . .
LC: Sometimes it’s very wearying to be human. Especially when you’re embroiled in being sad, it can be comforting to imagine being another less substantial, less fleshy life form, instead of living in your body, worried about your loved one’s future.
RD: How did you become a poet, you did very early on? You mentioned that your mother always wondered.
LC: There’s no reason in the world I should have been a poet, if you look at my family background, the lack of books in the house, the lack of any kind of enriching artistic community, the fact that my mom and dad were barely even readers, my dad wasn’t, my mom read a bit, certainly not poetry. There’s no reason in the world I should have become a poet except something inside me wanted to find a way of expressing myself and I found it through the rhythmic language and images of poetry.
It was always a drive. It was always as Earle Birney said, like having an internal itch that you need to scratch. That’s probably the best description of the urge to write a poem that I’ve ever come across. I didn’t ever think about being published or fame and fortune, thank God or I would have been very disappointed.
Once I started writing with any seriousness and getting published I just knew that was who I was, and it was going to be who I would be until the words left me. I don’t know who I would be in the world without it.
RD: Do the words ever really leave?
LC: There are examples of poets that has happened to. When Margaret Atwood was asked why doesn’t she write poetry any more she said she didn’t give up on it, it gave up on her. I noticed though, that she has a new book of poems coming out this fall. I’m very pleased that poetry didn’t abandon her completely because I think she’s a wonderful poet. Phyllis Webb stopped writing poetry and there are others I could list. They just said, it’s not there anymore.
RD: Maybe it’s giving up on yourself at the moment, maybe that’s okay?
LC: If there is any advantages to poetry it’s that nobody is pressuring you to get your next book of poetry ready, you send it off to your publisher and hope three years after the last one they still might be interested in you, you don’t get people pounding on your door saying where is your next book of poetry, I’ve got people waiting to buy it. We are so far out of the marketplace that we never stop doing it for ourselves.
When you get older as an artist you don’t want to bore yourself and if you find yourself writing another Lorna Crozier poem, what’s the sense in continuing. if you don’t find a way to be curious and discover something new for you then I can see the inspiration drying up.
Writers though, need more than inspiration. They need courage and perseverance. Like Patrick having to write a new chapter for his last novel and finding that out when he was in the hospital and getting the note from his editor saying this is a beautiful book but it still needs work and I think you need to write a whole new chapter and we didn’t know he was so near death then but we both knew he was really ill and he got the motivation and the gumption to do it. I feared he wouldn’t, he’d send the novel back and say that’s it, I don’t have the acuity to do such a big, creative piece but he did it and I’m so glad he did or the novel wouldn’t exist. His editor said you can’t stop, I’ve spent too much time on it. My words would not have nudged him. You don’t always listen to your partner in these situations. He needed it to come from someone more objective, from someone outside — ‘this is brilliant, you have to finish it’.
RD: You mention giving your Mom first copies of your work, signing them Dear Mom. Did she ever ask you, like your students, what a poem meant?
LC: No, she would just tell me she had no idea what I was writing about; ‘I have no idea what these poems are about, no idea what they mean’ or she would say ‘why do you write about me?’, ‘why do you include me in some of these poems?’. I’d say ‘Mom, because your stories are so interesting, you are an interesting character besides being my mother’ and she would say ‘I understand your poems better when I hear you read them’ as she attended a number of my readings.
Many people say that and my response to them is to read the poems out loud, when you are by yourself when you have the book and if that gives you an inner gate into the poem then that’s the way to go. Don’t always try to figure out what they are about, just let them work whatever magic they can work on you.
Because I get so many notes from students who are presenting my poems in either University classes or high school and there will be desperate notes saying ‘please Ms. Crozier can you tell me what this poem means because I have to present it to my class’, usually tomorrow right, they wait till the last minute, I finally put in my website: what does a poem mean? What does a cat mean? What does a shoe mean? Do not ask me that question, ever!
It’s very annoying for a poet to be asked what does it mean because poets aren’t trying to obfuscate, we’re not trying to cloud the meaning of a poem. I try to say exactly what I mean but sometimes poems do it indirectly. Most poems that I like avoid proselytizing or being Messianic. It’s up to the reader to come away with a conclusion, it’s not up to the poet to give them the answer.
A poem sits in that delicate space between writer and reader and it becomes your poem as much as my poem when I let it go.
RD: And on being a poet —
LC: It indefinitely can be a curse. I’ve always loved the Chinese expression that poetry is like being alive twice. One of the possible meanings is that you are alive in the day-to-day activities of the world, alive in what your senses give you. When you’re a poet, you live through the experience again as you try to find words for what just occurred, for what you saw, and heard and smelled. You go through it at least one more time in your articulation of it.
I really am more and more aware of how short our time is on earth and if you can double it being an artist by looking, by writing, by singing, by dancing, by whatever, then maybe you extend that brevity into something a little longer and deeper.