Jan Zwicky is the author of over twenty books of poetry and prose, including Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, The Long Walk, and Wisdom & Metaphor. She grew up on the prairies in Treaty 6 territory, was educated at the Universities of Calgary and Toronto, and currently lives on the west coast of Canada. Her many honours include the Governor General’s Award, the Dorothy Livesay Prize, and the Order of Canada.
Robert Moody is not only a celebrated photographer but an acclaimed mathematician, noted in particular for his work on the complexities of symmetry. He is currently at work on a study of the mathematics of pattern. Born in England but raised in Canada, he now divides his time between Pasadena, California and Victoria. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Barbara Pelman who conducted the interviews, lives in Victoria BC and conducts poetry workshops as well as assists at Planet Earth Poetry, the weekly reading series. She is a retired high school English teacher, and poet, whose books include One Stone, Borrowed Rooms, and Narrow Bridge, and a chapbook, Aubade Amalfi. Her fourth book of poetry will be published in the spring of 2023.
Barbara Pelman (BP): I sat down near the Inner Harbour one morning and read through the entire book, Ontological Studies. It’s hard to describe my feelings (though I’ll try)—a kind of hushed sense of being in a holy place, despite the crashing city life around me. The words, the images, the beautiful brevity of the poems, and the photographs, which speak in such intriguing conversation with the words. Can you talk a bit about how the book came to be, how this collaboration of photo and poem happened?
Jan Zwicky (JZ): Robert Moody and I met in the early ’80s through the auspices of his first wife, Marian, a violist, with whom I was playing string quartets. Subsequently, I learned about his photographs, which I thought were stunning.
Robert Moody (RM): Around the time that we had become acquainted I had resumed an old interest in photography (notably black and white photography), bought a good camera, and set up a darkroom to print my own work. When Jan’s book of poetry, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, won the Governor-General’s Award for poetry, belatedly I became aware of her poetry. Over the years I have realized how deeply all three of these aspects of her life inform who she is and how she lives—something that she often describes as lyric philosophy. All of this is bound in with her love of nature and her deep sense of interconnectedness with the earthly reality of things. Over the years we have become good friends.
JZ: I’ve used Robert Moody’s photographs on three book covers, and on the cover of a CD. We first paired poems and photographs in a book featuring Robert’s photographs of Josep Maria Subirachs’ Passion Façade and my English free-verse versions of sonnets from Vittoria Colonna’s Rime spirituali. Our present collaboration began some four years ago with an invitation from the fine letterpress publisher Barbarian Press. We’re very lucky that Freehand was interested in a trade edition, which has allowed us to expand the number of photographs
BP: I looked up the word ontological and one of the definitions was: it attempts to take things that are abstract and establish that they are, in fact, real. And isn’t that part of what poetry does? I think of “Hope is the thing with feathers”. How do these new poems continue to explore this idea, and your understanding of what poetry does? The ‘ontology of poetry’, I guess.
JZ: I guess Robert and I were thinking of ‘ontology’ in the old, concrete Greek sense: the things that actually exist; reality, truth. In composing the poems, I was attempting to pay attention to reality; and it seems to me that this is very much what Robert achieves with his photographs: attention to reality.
BP: I know that Patrick Lane, at his retreats, was pushing us towards brevity, and you are gorgeously doing this in these poems. What is your process of creating a small poem that has everything in it? Is it first big and then gets smaller, or does the size determine itself? How do you know when it’s ‘done’?
JZ: It’s kind of you to say the brevity works; I’m delighted. I don’t know much about process, though; it’s not something I’m aware of. I can say that poems pretty much determine their own size. I do my best to act as an accurate recorder. They’re done when I can stick a toothpick in ‘em and it comes out clean. What about you? I know process intrigues you. Can you talk about your own? What, for you, is the mark or the test that lets you know a poem is done?
BP: Thanks for letting me into the conversation! I love to see how a work of art progresses: the various drafts of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantiumj” in the British Museum, the various Michelangelo studies, that sort of thing. It seems magical to me. I admire the poems that come to you when they’re called, that they’re obedient. Mine are a bit more obstreperous, and need some wrangling. As for ending a poem: it’s one of the reasons I’m attracted to form, since it does that work for me. You know when a sonnet has ended, even if you haven’t said enough yet (which means starting again), and the last line of a glosa is just that.
Can we talk a bit about the relationship between poem and photograph? Not so much ekphrastic but somehow a shared comment on something larger? Like the first one, between the poems New Year and Library: the one typewriter, the chair, the bed, and the mirror reflecting another world! So evocative. Did the poems come first then the photographs, or vice versa?
RM: We both had been working separately for years before the possibility of this book arose. We came to the project with our independent contributions fully formed. We started with a group of some fifty-plus poems from Jan and some twenty-five to thirty photographs from myself. There was never any intention that poems and photographs would be representations of each other. To our minds the poems and the photographs are separate entities. Each poem and each photograph is an ontological study in its own right, and speaks for itself. So the initial selection of photographs came out of our instinctive feelings for them relative to the overall contextual mood that the poems create. After that we began to look for pairings in which we felt some sort of resonance, some feeling that they actually belonged on the same page-spread. This was very much a back and forth process of gradual insight, and I found the process extremely enjoyable and creative. Personally I am very attracted to the idea of photographs alongside text. I like the way these pairings make you stop. It is really best when the text and image are evidently sympathetic but there is no obvious connection, for it is then that you have the freedom to be creative, to dream a little, and perhaps to find depths that are entirely personal. That is certainly my hope for the book.
BP: I love the way your titles often provide a whole new layer to the poem, as if the title is in conversation with the poem. Like “Old Books” for example, or the opening poem “Armchair”. What is your process in choosing titles?
JZ: Again, I’m not aware of process. Poems seem to me to declare their own titles. But maybe here we have part of the answer to your previous question about process: if a poem hasn’t introduced itself to me by name, that’s a sign it doesn’t yet know what it’s talking about. Can you say something about what’s involved in finding a title for one of your own poems?
BP: Oh, titles. How lovely that they introduce themselves to you. I like the simple titles that suggest rather than tell, or the oblique ones that offer another perspective on the poem—as you have done. Or ones that give a detail that seems necessary but doesn’t fit into the poem. Or the one word ones that are the core of the poem. I know there is a trend toward very very long titles, though these tend to be more light-hearted.
In your poem “Old Blues” you state, Language,/ why don’t I love you more? Can you expand on this? I recall, I think, in another interview, that you state it is music that is your first love. And I remember that wonderful evening when you read your poems to a flamenco guitar. I’d love to hear more about the way music and poetry thread your life.
JZ: It was Proust, I think, who said that we do — that is, take as our profession — what we do second-best. I’m not sure what he meant by that; but I’ve long had a suspicion that I’m actually a musician first, and a writer only second. I don’t think in language, and often struggle to find words that seem adequate to what I’m perceiving. It seems to me that much of what we mean — in ordinary conversation, in letters, in essays, in poems — is emotional. Yes, there’s ‘content’; but why, or more accurately, how should a listener care about that ‘content’? The answer is usually given by tone, which is a fundamentally musical phenomenon.
BP: Can you say something about the many patterns in this book: the organization of the poems by season, for example?
JZ: This is definitely a question for Robert, as he’s working on a big book about the mathematics of pattern! What I can say is that the organization by season came late in the evolution of the book, and on the advice of others. Both Robert and I were initially inclined to an alphabetical order, that is, an order that insisted on each photograph’s or poem’s self-sufficient integrity. The seasonal order appeals to the tradition that informs collections of haiku.
RM: Regarding the seasonal order, I have come to appreciate that it was a good idea. The seasonal order is natural and familiar. A reader can settle down to each study without any unnecessary question about its relative position to every other study. The final repetition of the chair as a subject, is perhaps the only added feature; it closes the circle, so that even beginning and end disappear.
Regarding pattern, if we take pattern as being the manifestation of process, much as a standing wave in a stream is the outcome of its flow, then whatever pattern there is is an outcome of the processes implicit within it. Beyond the seasonal pattern, I like to think that the patterns that may be perceived are those that reader will create in their own interaction with the book.
BP. Are there any questions you wish I had asked you? What have I missed that your readers would love to hear your response to?
JZ: I don’t know if readers will want to hear my response to this one, but it seems to me there’s an elephant in the room: we’re heading over the edge of climate cataclysm, governments worldwide continuing to pour billions into fossil fuel expansion projects — isn’t well-fed meditation on the ‘essences’ of things, in a Euro-colonial language, nothing more than crudely insensitive frivolity? Obviously we didn’t think so, or we wouldn’t have attempted to publish the book. How, though, can such a project be defended in our current circumstances? Where are the politics?
The politics are those of attention to the more-than-human. It is the failure of such attention that lies at the root of the West’s, and now the global corporate capitalist system’s, view that the more-than-human world is just a bunch of timber licences and drilling sites. In his recent book on attention, Warren Heiti says, “Anyone who has ever been arrested by [the radiant beauty of beings] knows that what humans are doing is unspeakable. The strain of trying to comprehend it shatters the imagination.” Robert Moody and I are attempting, in the shadow of that unspeakableness, to convey experiences of arrest before the radiant beauty of beings. We are trying to piece together a few fragments of that shattered imagination. Our attempts won’t, of course, fix anything: the catastrophe is upon us. But perhaps the exercise of such attention might give us a shot at dying with integrity, a shot at standing up in the brokenness with the astonishment and gratitude we have always owed the world.