Canadian poet & author Matt Rader sits down with Tarn Painter-MacArthur to discuss weaving temporalities, his childhood caretaker, and his forthcoming collection, Desecrations.
Tarn MacArthur: Hello and welcome to another Fogged Clarity interview, I’m Tarn MacArthur, and we’re lucky to have the poet and author Matt Rader with us today. Matt, good to see you today, even over Skype.
Matt Rader: Likewise.
TM: Matt is the author of three collections of poems, Miraculous Hours, Living Things, and A Doctor Pedaled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno, and more recently, he came out with the short story collection, What I Want to Tell Goes Like This. His soon to be released book of poems, Desecrations, will be out from Penguin’s McClelland and Stewart press this spring. Just to get things started, Matt, I want to talk a bit about the old books versus your new book, they feature similar traits but your new book ventures into a new landscape. Your previous work focused primarily on your home province and Vancouver Island, what was the impetus for your new book to focus primarily on Ireland?
MR: I don’t think it was any conscious decision, like I thought, fuck, Vancouver Island is done. Along the way, I’ve been reading Irish poets for a long time, and this new collection does have a lot of Ireland in it but it also has BC and Canada. One of the major influences on me as a writer is Michael Longley, and a critic once said of Michael Longley that “he was an Odysseus for who every landfall was a homecoming”, and I think in the context of Longley that had to do the way Longley writes about Japan or Greece, but he’s really always writing about Ireland, Northern Ireland in particular. And I think for me, going to Ireland was a kind of way for me to see my own Island. And whether or not readers are reading Vancouver Island when I write about Ireland is neither here nor there. For example, the first time I went to Ireland I thought a lot about the idea of being indigenous—what it meant to be indigenous to the island of Ireland, and what it meant to be indigenous in the context of the island I come from which is on the Salish Sea, and has had different names, and there are three cultural nations aside from the settler nations on Vancouver Island. I was born and raised there, it’s the island that I know, the one I feel most connected to. Ireland was an interesting case for me because the idea of indigeneity in that context is a fraught one. The short answer is, I got invited to Ireland. Then I got invited to Ireland again. Then I got invited to Ireland again. So I was just by happenstance going there. And so that’s why it’s Ireland [in the book] and not New Zealand.
TM: Right, that’s understandable. Still, in this manuscript, Desecrations, you’re focused on similar things in Ireland as you were to Vancouver Island—a particular eye for detail of the landscape, and discussing how the history of that landscape and place can still be viewed today. The sort of idea of collapsing temporalities, which plays a big role in this book and has played a big role in your past two books, especially A Doctor Pedaled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno. Could you talk a bit about how you look and deal with temporalities? You seem to want to avoid the general trend of viewing Time as a linear thing, and encompass more than our general programming to view history as past and today as present.
MR: I definitely think this has been a theme, it appears in these two books of poems, it also appears in the poems, so really in my life its been about ten years of thinking about this problem of history and it really has to do with my experience of being in places and in a particular location. First, encountering my own history: being in a place I’ve been in before and encountering my own presence in that place previously; and second, kind of like you say, the more you look at something the more the presence of Time seems to be present. I remember in my early 30s I went for a walk with the Canadian poet Don McKay, and he didn’t talk a lot but he kept looking at these rocks, this was in Banff, and it was at the beginning of a time where he started writing about rocks and deep geological time, or I guess what they call “deep time”, but for me on a personal level I have a hard time making sense out of what’s around me in the absence of that scope, of Time—I feel like the value of something for me rests in both what it’s been and what it might be. We were joking earlier, Tarn, about John Dewey, but John Dewey does have this thing about art reinforcing the past and being a quickening of what now is—the sense that the present is both the force of the past and potential of the future.
TM: Right. I’ve been reading The Snow Leopard, recently, so these entire concepts of form, presence, and past, have been weighing on my mind with Matthiessen’s Zen essence.
MR: Well, you work with a similar problem, right? You’ve become obsessed with a historical series of narratives that speak to you and your life now, and that you’re trying to drag some sense out of that, and it seems your whole life recently has been about figuring that out.
TM: Yes, it’s a complex problem.
MR: Yeah. So, I don’t know in terms of the making of the poems—I’m not entirely sure what the formal compositional process is that links that problem into the poems—but I do think it’s there and do think you’re right to see it evolving in the last book, and it has moments of greater development in this new collection.
TM: I was wondering if maybe, you would mind reading a poem that might give a good example of this.
MR: Sure. Do you have a poem in mind.
TM: Yes, I was thinking of “SN1987AZT”.
MR: Sure, just got to find it here. So that poem, is a bit of a strange poem, because it is only vaguely accurate for starters—I mean in a scientific sense. There are impossibilities of the point of view in the poem. But it comes out of a personal period in my life when I was about 8 years old. I had a man who lived in our house with us, who looked after me and my brothers when my mum went to work. My mum was a child protector worker. And, Rodney, was his name, before he was our nanny, he was a big game guide in the Yukon. And his cabin burned down, and he didn’t have a place to go and my mum needed someone to look after us so he came and lived with us. That was when I was about six or seven. He lived with us for a while, and two things happened: one, he came out as a gay man in the mid-80s in a small town on Vancouver Island—like a really small town, the road was about four more houses and then forest. I walked through a forest to get to school, very Canadian childhood. He had a spotting scope, so he would show us the moon and clouds and it was very poetic. A sort of idle afternoon where we’d sit in the backyard and look at clouds and drink tea and he’d make nettles or something, cause he was a bushman. This is the most Canadian story ever. Anyway, in 1987 there was this supernova, and I remember it being in the news, and my experience of looking at the stars and thinking about this thing merged. And also in 1987, Rodney tested positive for HIV. 1987 was the first year AZT was given to HIV and AIDS patients, so the first antiretroviral was available in that context, so all of those things are kind of coming together in this poem, which is a long preamble, but …
TM: Very nice, thank you very much. I just thought that poem was an interesting example of the compression and play with time, and the way that temporalities collapse onto one another throughout the piece. It has a very narrative feeling to it, but also has a very fractured feeling to it in terms of its temporality and linearity—it feels like time is slipping in places.
MR: Do you think that’s because the first person narrator is aging in this ridiculous way. Aging 30 years each time, and meanwhile the passage of 400 years and the supernova and that sense?
TM: Right, we’re looking at geologic and deep space time building against the lifetime of a human.
MR: Yeah, even though the instance is this one instance in 1987. And I guess the thing was I was 8 and just about 8 and Rodney was 38. And at the time [of writing the poem] I was thinking about my own daughter, and she and I have a similar distance in age.
TM: So I have also been thinking about how, in your previous books, and in Desecrations, more so in Desecrations and A Doctor, there tend to be two types of poems—the short lyrics, and longer narrative. That’s a simplification, obviously, but in A Doctor, the piece, History seems to set out a level of aesthetics that are then taken up by the shorter poems. And in the newer book, Desecrations, your poem “Indigenous Cities”–and you were talking about the concepts of indigeneity during your trips to Ireland–seems very much to act as an aesthetic statement to me, where you look at and probe different questions of philosophy and art and their meaning. And I’m curious, just in your general outlook during your writing, when you approach these subjects and sit down to write narrative poem vs. a sonnet, do you tend to approach these subjects differently, do you look at a longer narrative poem at being a way for you to look at and probe your questions of philosophy.
MR: I’m not sure. It’s a good question. I mean, I have this sense that it’s a prosaic thing, or prosodic thing, that in something like “Indigenous Cities”, the prosody starts to lengthen and gives this different space to things I wouldn’t say in a sonnet. I feel like in the shorter lyric poems the image or the form itself ends up being prismatic—it’s less discursive. I definitely agree that there are these two modes. And the distinction between them has seemed to grow over the years. That I have this one lyric mode, and then this longer mode. Although, I do think within this new book there are multiple versions of the longer poem, including one long pure piece that’s in prose. And I think that’s partially from my experience writing fiction. I was looking for a way to play with these different prosodies, the longer measure of the prose line. And “Indigenous Cities”, seems to sit somewhere in-between. [My poem] “History”, for example sits closer to the prosody of the sonnets than “Indigenous Cities” does—there is probably an extra beat or two in those lines, which is like a really geeky poet way of thinking about the difference between these things. And I just feel like somehow, when they lengthen out they settle into this space that is more welcoming to this philosophical or intellectual [interrogation]—yeah. Like the sonnet asks you one question, one problem you’re going to give your ingenious answer to. Whatever kind of reversal you’re going to do or address it or not address it, but whatever it is it’s held in this proposition of the sonnet, that is this one little moment. The rest of these bigger, longer poems, they fold in on themselves in different ways, and multiple times.
TM: Yes, absolutely. I’m thinking about a poet like Larry Levis, with his longer pieces, whether it’s in Elegy or a previous book, his longer and almost at time prosaic in their sentence structure, but very lyrical in the way they use image and figura within them. Has he been an influence on you, because talking about this I can make a connection between a poem like “Indigenous Cities” and his work.
MR: Yeah, when I wrote the poem “Latin for Hunger” that was in the last book, I was trying, basically to write a Larry Levis poem. That was my first attempt to write Larry Levis into my poems. He’s actually a poet who has influenced me in an interesting way, in that I, for a long time, loved him but didn’t understand how his poems worked. I could see the things you’re saying, like the development of images within it, the figura and I think of his poem, “A Letter”, when he has the caves, and the absence within the whole poem, but on a very line by line way I found him extremely baffling, for how he managed to go from line to line. Reading Rilke actually helped me a bit, and reading different translations, but reading and thinking about Rilke helped me understand the type of prosodic practice that Levis may have engaged in. And I have my own practice to imagine how other poets write—I don’t claim to know—but I come up with a theory or practice that I think is how this poem came to be, and I try and use that within my own practice.
TM: That’s really interesting, because in this newest book, you interact with other writers through virtually the entire thing, whether it’s poems being dedicated to them, or using lines from their work within your poems. Is that an important thing for you, to be in conversation with other poets, and with poets that have meant a lot to you throughout your development.
MR: The short answer is yes. A more prosaic answer is to say, when I was younger, and I hadn’t read a lot of poems and books, I wrote about trees, because that’s what was around me, and now almost twenty years into being a writer, I spend a lot of time with books. So it’s sort of that you write what you know, and write what’s around you. The book opens with this “version” of Dante, and I would never call it a translation, because it’s not even meant to be a translation, but it’s basically a rendition of the opening of the “Inferno”—it’s what I feel he’s saying. I know it’s not exactly what he’s saying, but like it’s if I was with Dante and we were having this conversation and I was giving the contemporary version of these thoughts. It’s a little bit of hubris.
TM: Would you mind reading that as well, actually. It’s Canto 1, right?
Matt: Yes, it’s the very beginning, and in the manuscript, it’s the first thing you get in the book.
*Poem below first published in Event, edition 42/3
“From Dante’s Inferno, Canto I, ll. 1-18”
In the milieu of middle age, life left-
Turned me to a wooded maze and the good
Old way forward went AWOL, 404, MIA.
Ah hell, it’s tough to say what was what
In those savage, chiaroscuro trees:
So bitter-cold a coffin sounded cosy.
Just speaking of it now gives me the willies!
But all that goes-with-grace, believe me,
Comes that way, so I say what I have to say.
Can’t point to the place where I near kipped
In those nasty sticks: I was bushed,
Blotto, ready to rack out when I strayed.
I hit bottom at the bottom of a steep hill
That lifted then skirted the valley
Where all my fear and doubt came to play—
Vested and invested with that celestial light
We know shows men the sure road,
The ridge was dressed in fiery clothes.
TM: That is a fun version—very contemporized. I like too that it utilizes different colloquialisms from around the world, like “blotto” is very North American, “ready to rack out” is very Oz.
MR: You know, I actually wrote that in Ireland. The first time I was in Ireland. And I has been thinking about that poem for a long time, because the very beginning of that poem is the reference to a song that marks his age at 35—so it’s not some arbitrary middle-point—it’s 35 years old, and that was roughly the age I was when writing that poem.
TM: That’s an instance where it can be fun to colloquilise some of those more ancient and serious pieces—but this is a fun version that I don’t think loses the depth of the original.
MR: Honestly, I was thinking about his language and what that language might’ve sounded like in a contemporary context—what it would’ve felt like. I guess, maybe this another instance of collapsed time. I’ve just been hearing his voice. I’ve read some of the Italian, I read a bit of Italian, so I have a sense of what the Italian was like. And Dante’s Italian is pretty much the same as contemporary Italian.
TM: He’s sort of like the godfather of contemporary Italian.
MR: Yeah, and I’ve been reading all this different translation over the years, and for whatever reason I started hearing my voice in these opening lines. At first I thought it was a translation I was misremembering or couldn’t find, so I kept looking for it, but anyway, I just decided to write it.
TM: It’s amazing the way, if you hear something in your head enough times, or if something just has the cadence of a poem you remember from the past, that can automatically make it feel inauthentic all of a sudden—like that must’ve been someone else’s work.
MR: Or even, there is this Larry Levis poem, “My Story in a Late Style of Fire”, you remember that poem? There is a moment in it where he is describing looking at someone you’ve always known, and there is a stranger back there. Anyway, I read that poem, and thought about that idea, and then forgot where it was from, and I kept looking for it for years, and I probably read that book several times during that search, but then something happened in my own life and I picked up the poem and read it, and realized this is that poem I’ve been looking for all this time, but it needed to catch me in a moment in my own life where it reappeared as what I had at first imagined it to be.
TM: Larry Levis seems to be such a major influence on so many of the younger generation of poets today, why do you think that is?
MR: I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I think maybe… he has a lot of the best traits of North American… it’s not just American who are influenced by Larry Levis, a lot of Canadian are too, and I don’t know about across in the UK, but certainly I know quite a few Canadians. Maybe he brings together several traits that have been popular. On the one hand there is a narrative element that you can see that comes from Phil Levine and his many acolytes who Levis was once, and Phil Levine in Canada has a lot of analogues—Al Purdy, or Patrick Linney and other like that—but Levis also has that light surrealist bent that you can see in contemporary guys like Dean Young. There is an element of strangeness in the way Levis puts things together.
TM: There is something baffling, that you don’t quite think makes sense for a period of time until you get it.
MR: And I think there is a learnedness, history and literature all there at the same time he’s talking about drinking beer in the beer parlour or shooting pool at seventeen, or his dad and tractors and vines in California. There is his drug use, which comes into it, that sense that he may have been a university prof, but he was guy living on the edge of his own life. But more than anything he’s just deeply human. In the end all of those things are stylistic things or content things, but he brings it together with a voice that feels very contemporary. I also think it’s the contemporary age, or has been, I think a lot of the first decade of this century was very elegiac. We aren’t going to have the type of society we had anymore, we aren’t going to have the environment we had anymore, there is a passing of mournfulness that is certainly the key melodic structure or pitch to Larry Levis’ work.
TM: It’s like post-industrialization 2.0. It’s interesting speaking of Levis, because I do think his work changed quite significantly too throughout his career, ending with Elegy, though I guess there is a new book coming out soon or has just come out. But recently I attended a lecture by Michael Hoffmann, and he was talking about how he believed the real genius poets are ones who are capable of completely revamping their style every few books. HE talked about Hughes and Lowell specifically being two of those types of people, who would almost come out with brand new styles for a new decade—not so much just changing subject matter, but there was something very different about the way the poems sounded or the way the poems looked. Is that something you think about in your work, about wanting to make changes—is that a challenge?
MR: I don’t know. It’s an interesting thing that Hoffmann would say that. My immediate thought is what about Elizabeth Bishop, or Larkin, certainly you see it in some poets and you see a range of it in poets like Auden or Yeats. But to me the collected of Elizabeth Bishop or Larkin are indispensible books. And in fact I go to them more often than I do Lowell or Hughes. Ken Babstock has a line in one of his books that is John Claire talking and he says he wants to “die or change or die changing”. I think there is a change that happens, but for me it’s just a progression. I’m not trying to be different. Honestly, am I going to be upset in 35 years if I write a beautiful sonnet? If I’m lucky enough to have written a beautiful sonnet? I don’t know. As much as things change in most of our lives the mountains are still the mountains, the trees are still the trees, our bodies are still the same, we still kiss the same way. So yeah, I want to change because I want to discover new aspects of my own life and practice, that’s interesting. But I’m not sure I want to change around some big scheme of showing my true genius to Michael Hoffman or somebody else.
TM: When it happens organically it seems to produce something better. You can tell when someone is trying to force something new upon you, as opposed to something being an organic change that has probably happened as much within them as it has on the page.
MR: I don’t listen to the same music I did ten years ago, and ten years ago I didn’t listen to the same music I did 20 years ago, and I don’t read the same books, though some books I read over and over again, and I don’t live in the same place. Of course some things are going to be different.
TM: Well, I was wondering if you would leave us with a poem to exit our interview. I was thinking “Hightown, Coralstown, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, Ireland”.
MR: Yeah, have you ever been there?
TM: No, I thought it was nine places at first.
MR: This is actually John’s address, so if you ever want to send John Ennis a card, you can just write John Ennis and then write Hightown, Coralstown, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, Ireland. It will get to him, on his family farm. It’s a very very specific place. And this is from a series of poems that all have these specific Irish locations. And this was the first one I wrote, and coincidentally I wrote this in a farmhouse on John’s farm the same week I wrote the poems after Dante.
TM: Brilliant, I really enjoyed that one. Thank you very much Matt, and thanks for joing us at Fogged Clarity today.
MR: Thanks so much for asking me to do this Tarn.
TM: And hopefully I’ll see you in person soon next time.