Lorna Crozier is the author of more than twenty-five books and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada as one of Canada’s pre-eminent poets.
In, After That, a soul-stirring collection of poems—Lorna Crozier finds the words to engage with the grief that comes from the death of her partner.
Interview by Barbara Pelman
Barbara Pelman (BP): Lorna, your new book is so quietly perfect. The title, the cover, the poems, the arrangement—everything seems to reside exactly where it should. I’ve been carrying the book around with me since I bought it, return to the poems again and again, and find a power in the poems that is hard for me to explain. It’s like that swan on the cover, almost silent, carrying silence with her, but a silence full of words. My first question is about process: did these poems come all at once, one after the other, or in long pauses in between? What was the ‘timeline’ of the poems?
Lorna Crozier (LC): While Patrick was still alive but deathly ill, I began writing the memoir Through the Garden: A Love Story (with Cats). I concentrated on it for two years, probably writing the odd poem during the process though I honestly can’t remember if I did. After I finished polishing the memoir for the publisher, I worked on the small group of poems he’d given me to edit before he died. They came out as The Quiet in Me, his last collection. When it hit the bookstores, I returned to my own writing, coming upon poems I’d already written and letting them inspire me to write more. The time after his death is so hazy for me that I can’t pin when the poems started to come or when they stopped. I just know I had a manuscript to send to my publisher a year ago, in 2022.
BP:Second, also about process: once you had the poems in hand, how did you organize them? For instance, I loved the sequence of “Finding Ways to Go On”, and how they were interrupted by other poems—they created a lovely jazz rhythm, a kind of syncopation. How did you get the poems to fit into their right place?
LC: Not all the poems in the collection are about grief, at least not directly. Some of them come at grief sideways by focusing on the natural world and its poignancy, as well as the garden Patrick and I shared. It was a challenge to determine the order. I wanted the poems related to his death to be interrupted by pieces that were more general meditations on time passing or the silence that surrounds our utterances. I debated whether to scatter the eight “To Keep On Going” pieces or group them all together. I settled on a compromise—most of them are clustered but two appear later in the book, one at the end. The book’s editor, Canisia Lubrin, suggested the delay of one of the poems and the placement of “One Way to Keep on Going” as the exit poem. I’m glad I followed her advice.
BP: The table of contents is itself a poem, reading through. And the titles do so much work for the poems. Can you talk a bit about choosing the right titles for your poem?
LC: Sometimes the title comes easily, sometimes not. Sometimes it appears with the first draft of the poem. Other times I find it later within the poem or as a kind of key word that informs the body of the work. I like titles that shine a light on the words that follow but that sometimes make sense only when the last word appears. I like those that present an abstraction like “Forgiveness,” an abstraction which then gets particularized within the poem in an unpredictable way. I’m happy with a title that surprises a reader or one like “When I Stop Saying Your Name” or “What’s It Like?” which works as a metaphor for what follows. Titles for me are an essential part of the poem. In a six-line poem like “Small Lesson,” for instance, the title takes up a lot of room in a relative sense. It’s room I don’t want to waste.
BP: Now we are into craft: I think this book will be a kind of textbook in how to transform grief into art. Every poem is a testimony to that grief, and yet it’s so quiet, hushed like prayer. There is something about how everything, every object and every living thing around you, holds that grief and becomes symbolic of it. Was this a conscious process? How did the world around you enter the poem? How did you choose?
LC: It was my experience that my grief coloured everything. There was nothing around me that wasn’t tinted by it: the familiar objects in the house, the garden, the empty spaces in the closet, the hammer and saws in the shed, the cat whom Patrick half-tamed. Everything remained itself yet was testament to Patrick’s not being here, not planting, not using the rake and hoe, not hanging a shirt in the closet, not talking to the cat. His absence solidified in the things around me. Nouns are one of the building blocks of poetry, especially here, because they outlast the person for whom they had a special use and meaning. They sit on the table or in the yard with an added weight and meaning. They therefore appear differently within a poem that focuses on absence, on ephemerality. They can’t help but take on an extra significance, perhaps a gravitas.
BP: It’s the pauses that are doing the work, you say, and that is so true in these poems. They seem to be reaching toward silence, but a silence that words can make. I don’t know how to describe how I feel reading these poems, but somehow a ‘speaking silence’ comes close. What are your ways/methods/intentions about silence? (I actually have a poem of yours hanging in my room, titled: “Silence is the Fence You Build Around Wisdom”. Is that part of it?)
LC: Silence, not sound, is the mother of poetry. We start our lives and our work with a hush and we end them with a hush. Poetry more than any other literary form acknowledges this. There are more not-words than words in the confined space of the poem. Silence is present below the title, on either side of the lines on the page, especially the right, and it shoulders in between the stanzas. It reminds both the writer and the reader that there is a resistance and a plenitude of the unspoken that just can’t find a way into language. I like poems that remind me of that. Every poem in its brevity, exactitude, and hesitancy to speak is a prayer to silence.
BP: Can I ask, how do you feel about this book? I mean, as compared to others you have written?
LC: I’m sure that I’m not done with grief—feeling it and writing it—but it will probably be a lesser presence in books I might write some day. Right now I feel that this book holds a special place for me, among my twenty-five books, because it reifies the presence of my beloved. For me, it speaks to the continuance of love and to a faith in the ability of that old worn alphabet to express, whatever the limits of the writer, the deepest sorrow. I hope the poems are sending out a line, if not a lifeline, a hopeline, to others, spelling out that they are not alone. Someone else has felt this, even this, and is able to put it into words to be read and heard and held.