Sentinel Poetry (Online) #47, October 2006. ISSN 1479 425X

The Internationl Journal of Poetry & Graphics…since 2002

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Interview with Stephen Brockwell

By Amatoritsero Ede                             



Amatoritsero Ede:  Nice to have you on sentinel, Stephen. The Ottawa poetic scene seems to be so alive and yet I note a division in the sense there is not one central all-inclusive poetry festival, bringing together the several reading series here. What would you say is responsible for this?


Stephen Brockwell: Thanks for reaching out to the community, Ama. I would say that the Ottawa scene is definitely alive – and, in every healthy poetry community, poets dynamically grapple for their notion of what poetry is, how it can be written and who should be listening. I very much enjoy the diversity – and even that healthy competition. I’m not concerned about the absence of an umbrella festival. I think that the Ottawa Writers Festival, which launches its tenth anniversary program next week, puts a noble effort into outreach: they do a fantastic job of ‘Westfest’, near Westboro where I live, and curate excellent poetry and spoken word programs. Let’s hope these lively festivals continue to receive financial and audience support. I am somewhat concerned that poets of different cultures, nationalities and languages sometimes share insufficient space. The El Dorado and Sasquatch reading series have tried to mitigate that problem. There have been attempts to translate French poetry into English and English poetry into French. At last years Ottawa Writers Festival, I hosted a reading by Bing He, a poet from China who had published a book in English, Michel Thérien, an Ottawa poet whose work had been translated into English and Susan Musgrave. That really was a joy. Kudos to all the Wilsons at the Ottawa Writers Festival for programming that kind of diversity. We need more of it.


A.E.: You have several collections of poems to your credit now.  From The Wire in Fences, Cometology, Fruitfly Geographic, to Wild Clover Honey and the Beehive: 28 Sonnets on the Sonnet (with Peter Norman)…what has been your own ‘felt’ progression in terms of development of  craft from the first book to the present one; where are the differences from book to book as you experience it..


S.B.: That’s a difficult question to answer. The first book is young. I would say half of it qualifies as juvenilia. But there were formal considerations that I’ve pressed on with. I’m deeply curious about how we know things. That should be a philosophical enterprise, but, for me, it’s been one of exploring how poetry makes meaning and explores uncertainty. The poem “The Mower on Bones” in The Wire in Fences explores very similar mental territory to the title poem of Cometology and the anti-classical odes in Fruitfly Geographic. Another interesting aspect of my progression – if I can call it that: I feel that I’ve become socially, emotionally and intellectually more mature, but maturity, I feel, seems to have come at the cost of that nebulous term “inspiration.” I’m a slowpoke. I really take a long time to write. Once in a very rare while, I’ll have a poem come along in a form that I can capture in the voice and with the pen. Most of my work has always started in my notebook. I think that the poetic craft of Fruitfly Geographic improves significantly upon the other books. I discovered or stumbled upon a peculiar aspect of craft – and I think most decent poets know this – there are many levels of form in a poem. Lineation and stanza structure are the least interesting of these in my opinion. For more interesting for me is the structure of the voice expressed in the syntax that is stretched like a canvas over the wooden frame of the stanza and the line. I’m not sure who called this a meter making argument. Is it Emerson? I think it is. In any case, one could call it the train on the tracks, the cattle on the path – pick your favourite analogy. I have more fun now at the macro and micro levels of form.


A.E.:. I noted a lot of play with mathematical diagrams, figures, lines in, for example, the collection, Cometology. Is there a connection between the said diagrams, lines figures, circles etc and the text itself in terms of, say, a ‘heightened’ meaning?


S.B.: I wouldn’t say ‘heightened’. Really, the images are there to help the reader visualize the shape. Some of the shapes are strange and not at all easy to visualize. By mixing technical drawings with more creative pen drawings with human figures, I was simply trying to make the point that these shapes are not so remote. So it might be more appropriate to say ‘lowered’ meaning. Let me add to that. The more I think about poetry, mind, brain and body, the more I believe that poetry is in the body. It’s become important for me to connect people with their bodies with my poetry, as strange as that may sound.


A.E.: Your background is in the sciences. How has this impacted your poetry?


S.B.: Science has impacted my poetry by preventing me from writing too much. Well, at least I hope that’s the case. If you were to draw two intersecting circles, one for the space that science occupies in my brain and the other for the space poetry takes up, the area of the intersection might be about 15% of sum of the areas of the two circles. That’s a slightly facetious way of saying that my mind’s been structured to think occasionally in two different modes at the same time. With regard to your previous question about the “Geometric Odes” in Cometology, I think part of the pleasure in them is their deceptive accuracy. They are political, personal, sensual – not hard and crystalline as one might think of mathematics. But the language and visual imagery work in concert with the shapes – the reader is engaged to try to build the things as part of the process of feeling the form. Mathematics has a sensual and poetic aspect for those that enjoy it for its own sake. And we sometimes forget that mathematics was first performed and still is performed by the body (counting) and that the early Greek geometers drew their shapes with sticks and pebbles in sand. That’s the heart of the intersection between the two: poetry can embrace a kind thinking akin to mathematics; mathematics partakes of poetry by analogy and through language. The scientific mode of thought has been conceived to be falsifiable. That’s one of the more interesting things about it for me. In its purest form, it is a system of knowledge, not a system of belief. That may be infrequently true in practice, but at the heart of the best science, and in the work of the best scientists, there is a ruthless scrutiny over the smallest details. In my poetry, I am sometimes obsessed by minutia.


A.E.: You threw the reader a challenge in the 7th section of the long poem in Cometology, “Compulsive in the Public Library”.  It reminded me of the poststructrulalist’s idea of the importance of the reader, rather than the author, as the arbiter of meaning – the death of the author, inter-textuality…  Did you have all this in mind when you invite the reader to pen something and left him some lines within the text to write on?


S.B.: That poem originated in an intense experience at the Ottawa Public Library. The poem consists of facts. A psychiatric patient was defacing books in the Ottawa public library. It was difficult for everyone to watch. But his choice of texts astonished me! It was a gift. I wouldn’t say that any specifically poststructuralist theory motivated the exhortation to readers to write what they see. I was probably thinking more of Baudelaire’s “Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!” Throughout the book the reader is addressed directly to prevent passive reception or reading of the poetry. I adore Foucault’s statement that “the author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning” (if I have that right). And I believe it. And I want to break down the notion of the author as an authority. Mimesis comes into play here, if I may be so bold. In an essay in Thinking and Singing (Cormorant Books) edited by Tim Lilburn, Robert Bringhurst tells us that mimesis is a performative and participatory act of knowing. By engaging the reader physically with the work you are forcing them to come into contact with the poem, to literally touch it. It breaks down the idea of poem as fixed artefact and objet d’art and returns it to its roots as a field for performance. I also had in mind a number of aspects of the mind, media, technology and reproducibility in that poem. And the vain hope of somehow conveying the intensity of the experience.


A.E.: What has or who have been your influences?


S.B.: Peter van Toorn, the Montreal poet, has profoundly influenced how I think about poetry and what I know about poetry. Rob mclennan is always teasing that I only read the dead and he only reads the living. I adore the classics. Part of my poetic project is to explore unconventional ways of thinking. There is really no better way to do that than to engage with the ancients. To read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy was truly humbling for me. Karl Popper comments on pre-Socratic cosmologies in The World of Parmenides. We sometimes forget how original these thinkers were. If we could re-capture or re-experience some of their syncretic, penetrating insights!


Influences. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Jonson, Herrick, Blake, Keats, Mary Shelley, Baudelaire, Browning, Rimbaud, Whitman, Stevens, WC Williams, Eliot, Hardy, Larkin, Yeats, Plath, Strand, Walcott, Wendy Cope. Who isn’t in some way an influence? I listed some of my favourite Canadian poets above. Add to that list Lampman, Gaston Miron, Paul Marie Lapointe, David McGimpsey, Stuart Ross. I’m hoping to erase all trace of influence by imitating everything.


A.E.:  I wonder how well Canadian poetry fares outside of Canada. I am talking now of distribution. Do you think Canadian poetry gets well distributed, for example, in Europe?


S.B.: No and that doesn’t really concern me. Poetry isn’t particularly well distributed here, by the way. And – this is another topic, but I need to say it – it isn’t well taught. To be working with ideas of Canada and ideas of a local tongue isn’t going to win you too many fans across the sea – or south of the border. I’m not really concerned about an international audience. I’ve had the good fortune to read internationally (the Ottawa poet rob mclennan has helped make contacts for me). Meeting writers from other cultures expands the mind – I was so impressed by some of the young writers rob and I met in London at a Laurence Upton workshop that was once led by the concrete poet Bob Cobbing. These are sharp people. But, interestingly, the value in some of their work came from its peculiar obsession with local speech. One of the fellows was writing poems from the perspective of animals – poems spoken by pigs, for example. And he was really trying to make the poem out of oinks, squeals and grunts – and it worked. And the pig was from the North West of England – the English constructed out of the squeals and oinks was of the place – of the pen, if you don’t mind the pun.


Our poetry will be more widely read when – and if (big if) – poets outside Canada start to become aware that decolonizing language is a key note for most Canadian poetry and that we have done it well. Poets such as A. M. Klein, Margaret Avison, Irving Layton, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Mouré, Dennis Lee and George Elliot Clarke – to name a very few – have developed authentic voices that explore deeply human concerns.


A.E.: Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your poetry?


S.B.: Yes and no. I guess you could say there are two literary or cultural theories that I think about quite a bit: mimesis and politics. I know these seem terribly broad, but I’m not a strong advocate of one or another theory of this or that. I am a strong advocate of stealing what you can from whatever theories get you through life.


A.E.:  Are you working on any new projects, right now?


S.B.: I have a manuscript titled what was that you said nearly ready to go. The first part of it is a dicey experiment that risks issues of believability and vocal accuracy. The first section asks a question about poetry as a register for the voice, personal history and the poet (definitely not me) as voyeur. A poet/oral historian (I don't know if you've read any of Barry Broadfoot's oral histories) tries to get people to meditate on how they live in and through the world of things – their possessions mostly. There's a personality to this scribe: he has an inane desire for accuracy and completeness despite the discomfort of his interviewees. So you have to question his representation, although I'd bet that one is tempted not to because most of these people seem pretty real (and, of course, some of them are). A few of the pieces are actual transcriptions. It was important for me to verify what my ear was hearing as I listened to relatives and people in the neighbourhood. I have a handy digital recorder with software that allows me to slow the recording down without changing pitch. It's possible to pick out a lot of nuances in the voice. The challenge and the question for the poetry is this: is this kind of poetic transcription or voice portraiture possible and meaningful and, if so, what kind of meanings results? I confess that that part of this idea is somewhat stolen from the German novelist W. G. Sebald. But the concerns are localized - they are concerns of local naming, colony and representation. A kind of orthogonal or mirror image section consists of poems in various ways made up of things (stuff); I try to explore how, to a certain extent, things are made up: from the traditional lyric to method-driven pieces. The "Randomized Oxford Explorations" were written from a list of 100 words randomly sampled (using coin tosses - no computers, please) from the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary. I’ve provided a few examples of each. I’m curious to know your thoughts, particularly the last pieces which might be perceived by some as examples of cultural appropriation. They are not meant as such – they are in fact explorations of the very notion of appropriation – which is, in fact, the imitation of the Other by the imperialist.


A.E.: Stephen thank you for your time and good luck with the writing.


S.B.: Thanks very much Ama for the opportunity and for these excellent questions.



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