Patrick Friesen has published more than a dozen books of poetry, a book of essays, stage and radio plays, and has co-translated, with Per Brask, five books of Danish poetry, including Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments by Ulrikka Gernes. In January 2020, he released a CD, Buson’s Bell, consisting of composed and improvised music, with text. His new book of poems, Outlasting the Weather: Selected & New Poems, 1994-2020, was published by Anvil in August, 2020.
Patrick Friesen will be in an event celebrating new/ as-yet-unpublished writing by local authors, therefore no particular book is featured.
Interviewed by Terese Svoboda
Terese Svoboda (TS): Your latest poems echo with elegy, the poet “becoming wintry, that clarity/and mercy,” the line taken from the wonderful poem “lost shoe creek.” The poems take on a kind of expansiveness in their clarity, seeing “night with the white moon blossoming.” Have these been easy to write and recent, or are they the labor of years?
Patrick Friesen (PF): These are recent poems. The actual writing is of course not the labor of years, but both content and form come out of years of writing, of thinking, reading, and simply living.
TS: I loved “Stations” with its erasures, ending with the image of the young boy clapping the chalk dust away. The lively alliteration and assonance buoys it as a prose poem. Did it arrive in that form or had it collapsed from stanzas?
PF: This one did not collapse from stanzas. It was written this way from the beginning. I’m still playing with prose poems, what they are, the variety of them. Sometimes mine veer toward narrative more than other times. Other times they fuse disparate moments that have a thread connecting them. I first tried a prose poem some 30 years ago, then occasionally worked on one or two, almost as an exercise leading toward more openness in my poems. Just like I wrote haiku every once in a while just to remind me to get back to condensed language. Translation is another way of becoming more consciously aware of the poems.
TS: Being partially deaf, I very much appreciated the mis-hearings of the Italian train as “Treno Ritardo” in “Stations” and “the monk observing his vowels” in “Open as a Vowel.” Google tells me these mishearings are called “modegreens” after someone who misheard the lyric “layd him on the green” in the fourth line of the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl of Murray” as “Lady Mondegreen.” More of the “nonsense of the child” or “getting to the root of the psyche by any means necessary?”
PF: I misheard the word “vow/vowel”, but not “treno ritardo”. Standing on Italian train platforms waiting for the next train I often heard “treno ritardo” on the PA system. It meant the train was late. Remember the misheard Jimi Hendrix performance where he sang “excuse me while I kiss the sky”, but some thought he sang “excuse me while I kiss this guy”. Or, my friend misheard the Gordon Lightfoot song “Black Day in July” as “black little angel eyes”. I love those mishearings. Children do that a lot, not because they have hearing difficulties (I, too, have some hearing loss) but because they haven’t fully come into language, don’t have large vocabularies, so they work with what they hear and connect it with what they know. And that way come up with very interesting meanings, sometimes a truer meaning than was intended.
TS: You’ve recently published Outlasting the Weather, New and Selected. Assembling a New and Selected can be very difficult. It is far easier to put together a doorstop than to reshape the landscape of decades of work into a single book. Did you seek outside help or did you lay out pages of poems all over the room? Did you find links from book to book? Did you discover elements that made them cohere?
PF: It wasn’t too difficult. The process began with me going through the books that would be included and making choices. My choices are often based on what worked for me in a public reading. That aspect of poetry is very important to me. Then I asked Eve [Joseph], down the hall, to do the same thing. I then looked at what she chose, what she rejected, and compared to my list. Lots of overlap, so those were in. With the others I spent some time talking with her about why she chose, or rejected, looked at my reasons for the same decisions. Made some decisions. Then printed or copied the poems, spread them on the floor to look for an order. Worked with that quite a while. Sometimes I could suddenly see that certain poems didn’t belong, and sometimes I remembered rejected ones that did seem to fit. So, I suppose I was looking for threads running through poems, looking for what would read well, aloud, and so on. I also included some poems that weren’t necessarily first choices but which held something within them, some ideas, or even partially developed ideas, that helped the whole. I suppose a balancing act between individual poems that work, either on the page or to the ear, and a sense of the whole manuscript, how it holds together, how threads run from book to book, how certain images and ideas keep recurring, keep developing, from book to book. It’s fairly easy for me to find the threads, the building imagery as my work tends to vary in form more than in content. And that’s another element, making sure the shifts in form, in vocabulary, over the years are represented.
TS: You’ve written extensively about Mennonite life. Did they ever object?
PF: I’ve received some criticism, usually indirect, or through hearsay. Very seldom does anyone criticize my “Menno content” to my face. That said, I have received some direct criticism from a relative or two, primarily over the book, and then an adapted play, called The Shunning. Those criticisms had to do with whether I was being factually true or using fiction. If something is partially based on real people, real events, a lot of people expect the book to be 100% factual. But, I’m not writing memoir, not writing some factual essay. I don’t hesitate to play with the facts in order to discover something more than just some expository truth.
TS: Setting a poem to music or to moving images can cancel or at least smother the visual or aural – and vice versa. What kind of accommodations do you make in your collaborations?
PF: Hmmm. I write a little differently for different purposes. Even in the books some of the poems have been written pretty much for the page voice, others are written for the spoken voice. I frequently work with my son Niko, who is a musician and composer, and for that work I write for my physical voice and for instruments. So, on the CD Buson’s Bellwe had the cello and piano. For the composed tracks, of course, these instruments played what was written. In this instance it was Niko writing music for the text. As he would usually send me samples of the music he was writing I could shape the text, the arrangement of verses, according to this music. On other tracks we worked on improvised music. The musicians improvised as I read. Before starting I’d discuss the poem, or prose piece, with them. What was going on in the text? Where were the places for the instruments to just be background, and where could they solo? And so on. I can be a bit more abstract in my text with music because the music contains imagery. Where I’m using imagery I tend to have the instruments be more background. I don’t want to “show and tell”; the musicians interpret text/vocal to their instruments. With the work Niko and I are doing now we’re using the same cellist, Peggy Lee of Vancouver, and the clarinetist François Houle, also of Vancouver. We recently spent a day in studio doing improvisation. Dave Sikula, himself a wonderful guitarist, is the engineer/mixer and he sent me first mixes. I listen to these and make decisions. In a week or two I am going back into the studio to redo one track with the clarinetist, and redo two or three tracks where my vocal doesn’t please me. Niko gives me lots of great feedback on what he’s hearing in the studio. So it goes. I shape text for this collaboration. We created one video out of a piece in Buson’s Bell. I chose a piece based on what I perceived was room for the videographer, Ryan Flowers, to work. That piece, called Emissary, is available in various places online.
TS: Your previous book, songen, contained 87 poems, all of them one sentence long, separated by commas, and between eight and fourteen lines. What drew you to this almost Oulipian form?
PF: I wasn’t thinking of any particular, known form. It was about restriction though. As I mentioned earlier I will sometimes work with haiku, for example, just to get myself back to the tightness, the resonance, of language. I have never written a good haiku, but the exercise is important. In this case I came upon this “form” accidentally, which is how most changes in my writing happen. I was beginning a poem about haircuts, as what was allowed in terms of hair style was limited where I grew up, and a haircut was a kind of discipline; plus a lot of stories were told in barber shops. So, I wrote down “haircut” just to get something on the page. Then I realized I had written a piece on haircuts years ago; I placed a comma after “haircut” and then wrote “again” (haircut, again). I liked the look of that. So I wrote the rest of the poem by breaking it up with commas. For pauses, to set phrases off from each other. I liked it enough to write several hundred poems like that. I also began adding Middle English, High German and Low German words occasionally. My first language was the Low German dialect which is related to Middle English (both are Saxon-based languages), and I was returning to Chaucer at the time. I became intrigued by these connections and so some words and phrases entered these poems. That, I suppose, is not a restriction, but an expansion by allusion? Mainly, I was having fun with language, with commas. The older I get the less I believe there is primarily one way of writing, or speaking, “correct English”. Language is always in motion, shifting, adding, subtracting, changing its spellings and pronunciations, usually depending on where you’re living. I love that about English.
TS: In Outlasting the Weather, you very generously mention numerous other contemporary poets, including Patrick O’Connell, John Moriarity, and the poet turned gardener who left his hair for the birds. Do you see your practice as part of a communion with other poets?
PF: Good question. Yes, I think there is a continuity among poets. Anna Akhmatova recognized this, often using a specific word or phrase that readers would connect with Pushkin, for example. She believed she was in a line of continuity. That makes complete sense to me. Patrick O’Connell was a Winnipeg poet. We wrote differently, but we both tended to focus on imagery, being less abstract than some other poets. So I reference him occasionally for some particular image, but mainly it’s to suggest a continuity, someone I felt close to poetically. Moriarty was an Irishman, lecturer at the University of Manitoba when I was there. I attended a few of his classes and was quite taken by the way he lectured, very poetically, by the working of his mind. One can find him online readily, giving talks or interviews. Anyone interested in a vast mind that can go anywhere should Google John Moriarty (a good introduction to him would be the interview he did with Tom Tierney). Moriarty returned to Ireland. Both these men died about 15 years ago. And there are other poets, a lot of singers/musicians, or simply people, who influenced me one way or another, throughout my work. I like to allude to them.
TS: Having produced films, written plays, set poems to music, and co-translated from the Danish, you appear to have avoided being the lonely poet. Do you ever regret not focusing solely on poetry? Do you see poetry as an antidote to this creative togetherness? How does collaborative translating work? How did you happen to choose Danish to translate?
PF: With film I produced, directed often, wrote sometimes, did voice-overs. I sure learned a lot about restraint, about under-writing in order to let images on the screen work for themselves. I learned more about the voice’s relationship to screen images, about pacing, etc. So, film, also audio recording. And writing for stage productions, learning how other voices say my words, learning about time, the time between voices, between gestures. One of the actors who had the biggest influence was Maggie Nagle; she was in my first play and I watched her a lot, particularly her patience and timing. I’ve also written for dance with people like Stephanie Ballard and Margie Gillis. Perhaps dance taught me more than any other art form outside of music (and the two are often together). I’ve long thought that humans had dance, or pantomime, before anything we now call art forms. Dance, even more than theatre, taught me about pace, between movements, gestures; taught me, finally, that the body is a poem. So, how do you make the poem a body, how do you make words physical? That’s an on-going work. As far as I’m concerned, all those things are poetry, just not “word poetry”. So, I don’t remember the last time I felt I was a “lonely poet”. Yes, I write alone, but present in the room with me are composers, actors, dancers, camera people, and so on. They’ve all left something of their skills with me.
TS: Is the performative aspect of teaching useful to you?
PF: I haven’t taught at UVic since 2018. But, yes, the performative aspect of teaching was useful and incredibly important to me. I think I noticed teachers since grade school, how they held their bodies, how they moved about the room, their facial expressions, physical gestures. I really put this all together in my first year at the University of Manitoba. My English prof was Victor Cowie, an absolutely brilliant teacher. I saw how intensely he could get into the work he was doing. When he lectured on Sailing to Byzantium, I was there. You could see in his eyes he was “gone”, not with us. Or, it could have been acting. John Moriarty, whom I’ve already mentioned, was not one of my assigned teachers, but I sat in on a couple of his lectures. I was mesmerized. I’d say these teachers both performed, and I could see some of their techniques. I could see acting techniques, but they were natural to them, as if they’d found the techniques that matched their personalities. Nothing looked “put on” or “acted”. What use is performance? It catches attention on a physical level which draws you into the words they’re speaking. Movement, tone, pacing. It’s part of everyday life, but only some teachers bring that into their classroom.