Terence Young recently retired from teaching English and creative writing at St. Michaels University School. He is the author of several books: The Island in Winter, shortlisted for the Governor General’s literary Award for poetry and the Gerald Lampert Award; Rhymes With Useless, a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed award for short fiction; After Goodlake’s, a novel and winner of the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize; Moving Day, nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize; and The End of the Ice Age, a collection of short fiction. He lives in Victoria, BC.
The misdirected ferry of the first poem in Terence Young’s Smithereens is perhaps the narrator’s Ithica: “our ship arriving/at a harbour I don’t recognize/lit up by the setting sun”. The destination is unexpected and unrecognizable; the time is late. Was the long journey’s beauty illusory? Was it worthwhile? Young’s poems offer startling imagery, often of the commonplace, but seen afresh. They travel on a deftly shifting tone: by turns ironic, rueful and self-deprecating, witty, contemplative. Layered into many of them is an ever-deepening meditation on time, past and passing, with its attendant memories and nostalgia.
Interviewed by Wendy Donawa
Wendy Donawa (WD): Can I start close to home? Smithereens’ narrator seems to me a bard of contemporary domesticity; his memories and observations evoke family, lineage, friendships, and how time alters understanding and relationships. When your narrative “I” speaks, do you encounter responses of “did that really happen?”, “Is it true?” “Is it real?” Are there particular challenges, perils, or rewards to being a recorder of family dynamics and intimacies?
Terence Young (TY): One of the many interesting things about families is that each member remembers events differently and sometimes not at all. I am often surprised by what Patricia dredges up from our long past together – a bit of conversation, something our kids did, a moment from some vacation – and I will draw a complete blank, as though I was somewhere else when it occurred. Of course, in poetry these bits and pieces can change in the service of the poem so that they may appear as current when they actually happened ages ago, or the girl will change into a boy, the backyard into a forest, the dog into a cat. Luckily, our kids are sufficiently familiar with the creative process – our daughter Clea is a writer herself, and our son Liam has his doctorate in English lit – that they understand the motive behind such transformations, that they often lead to a place that is truer than the actual facts. Having said that, much of what I write arises out of a single occasion – both “Tender is the Night” and “The Bear” were winners in The New Quarterly’s occasional verse contest – and occasional poetry, perhaps more than other forms, relies on a certain promise by the author to the reader that what is being described actually took place. So, to answer your question finally, yes, I am occasionally asked about the circumstances of the poems, their proximity to the truth. I think James Woods said once that when he writes non-fiction, people ask him which parts he made up, and when he writes fiction, they ask him which parts are true. Unless there is some potential for libel, I don’t think it really matters. The only real question should be simple: is it a good poem?
WD: In a family of writers (can I ask this?), do you and Patricia discuss works in progress? Do you edit each other?
TY: Mostly, I simply marvel at what Patricia writes. She is prolific and fearless. Occasionally I can be helpful, especially on a recent draft, something that rarely happens since she has much more patience than I when it comes to letting things sit for a while, even months. She is, of course, immensely helpful when it comes to my own work. I have learned through her editorial process not to be precious or protective about writing, that such an attitude doesn’t serve the purpose of making the poem better. I am now reasonably good at fighting the urge to argue about every suggested change, a habit many writers seem to have, and to embrace the philosophy that cutting is good, less is more. Teaching creative writing helped me to be sympathetic to students who were reluctant to change a word, but I also developed strategies for overcoming their timidity, and thus my own.
WD: Despite the inevitable losses and longings of the human condition, many of your poems are laced with humour: in turn ironic, witty, droll, or downright funny. I’m thinking of poems like The Bear’s “vaudeville act, ursine/ slapstick Chaplin”, where the alarmed narrator finds himself nose to nose with the bear on the other side of his cottage window. Or Forgetting to Remember, his morose catalogue of increasing forgetfulness. Yet each poem rests on a seriously unfunny base (climate change, mortality). Can you talk about humour in “serious” poems? Where does it come from? How does it function?
TY: Many of my favourite canonical poems have elements of humour in them, despite their serious subjects. Okay, maybe not Milton. But Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Arnold, Eliot, Dickinson – they all seem to combine a bit of fun with topics like aging, death, love, faith. Who can fail to laugh at Donne’s trying to seduce a woman by comparing a flea to the trinity? Shakespeare’s insistence that his mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun leads into a litany of defects, only to end with the declaration that he believes his love “as rare as any she belied with false compare.” Dickinson’s confused narrator in “Because I could not stop for death” always makes me smile. She is like all mankind, convinced of her singular importance and the urgency of her work here on earth. There may be nothing funnier than that. My own humour is probably aligned with Dickinson’s, with the idea that our lofty ideals ultimately mean very little and that we need to laugh at ourselves a lot more. Someone, I forget who, said that men go to war to stop women laughing at them, and that makes a kind of sad sense to me. We are inherently funny creatures except when we are killing each other.
WD: You observe the natural world as astutely and tenderly as you do your human family. Indeed, your lakeside cottage is almost a character. Animals Lie Down to Die moves seamlessly from the forest-hidden skeleton of a deer “a curled calligraphy/of vertebrae” to hospice, where “the work/ of death is a serious business/that needs a person’s full/ attention”. Vultures “sulk… on branches” near a cougar’s kill in Gathering and beavers encroach on human domains (On First Viewing the Extent of the Beaver Invasion). All “invade” because of human encroachment on their natural habitat. Will you tell us about the importance of the natural environment in your life and in your poems?
TY: We encounter the world through our senses which are exceptionally keen when we are young. When we are young, summers are long and full of delicious scents, exquisite textures and sights. We rejoice without knowing we are rejoicing. If you were lucky, as I was, to grow up with the sea and woods close at hand and the chance to roam the Gulf Islands in a sweet old cabin cruiser, your memories of the world would be laced as mine are, with arbutus and sand and beach fires and great Douglas firs and breezes that are also part salt and bull kelp. On this beautiful coast I came to love nature unconsciously, simply because it was all around me. I am more aware of it now when much of it is disappearing. Wordsworth in his poem “Lines Composed . . . “ writes about the world being “green to the very door,” and I think of that poem often when I open the kitchen door at our cabin. Leaves and ferns and towering firs only feet away. It would have been strange had I not included nature in what I write. I tend to ground much of my writing in the natural world because it’s what seems most immediate and real to me. I do not have much experience with large cities or the urban landscape. I grew up beside the sea, on a small street by Ross Bay, and I spent a lot of time building rafts, throwing stones, or simply walking the beaches. Those days sneak into almost everything I put down on paper. In that sense, I guess I follow the old adage: I write what I know.
WD: In the elegy to your friend Mike, what you remember is a “stovetop espresso, cast-iron frying pan, a decent blade to chop the garlic”. And we see that stovetop! How to see beauty in the dailiness of the plain object? You taught English and creative writing for years, and brought many young people to develop a poetic voice of their own. What have you advised young and emerging poets to consider in avoiding cliché and developing an eye for imagery, and an authentic voice?
TY: I think the best piece of advice I gave to my students every year was to read and to read widely. A writer who doesn’t read will never be a very good writer. Why would anyone want to write poetry and yet not read it? Through reading, we come to understand what is cliché, what is hackneyed. We also come to understand what is original and powerful, how original imagery and concrete detail and figurative language can lend an idea substance and force. Through reading we strive to become like the writers we admire, at first by imitation and later by developing a voice of our own. The best teacher is the poem on the page, not the person at the chalkboard.