by Mark Medley via National Post
Jan Zwicky is a philosopher, musician and award-winning poet who lives in British Columbia. Her nominated collection Forge is published by Gaspereau Press.
Q: When did you first consider yourself a poet?
A: It’s a privilege to be regarded as a poet, but it’s not a term I usually use to describe myself. I feel called to pay attention, and to contemplate what I perceive. Much of the time, I don’t think I’m particularly good at either of these activities, but they are the focus of my life. There doesn’t seem to be a vocational label for them.
Q: Which writer has influenced your work the most?
A: This is a bit like asking which major organ has sustained my life the most. It doesn’t really make sense for me to choose my lungs over my heart or my brain over my skin: I’d die if any one of them went missing. My awareness of influence — like my awareness of organic function — is very much bound up with particular circumstances. And it changes from year to year, project to project, conversation to conversation. In my poetry, I am just as influenced by musicians and composers — Haydn, Bach, Bill Evans, for instance — as I am by people who create with words. As for those who do create with words, philosophers are essential voices in my life, so, depending on the project, it could be as important to mention Herakleitos, for example, or Woolf, as to mention Plath, for example, or Donne. Then there are my teachers, that is, my editors; and those who might set an example by their courage or their sense of humour or their discipline — or their willingness to be undisciplined. It’s a long and fluctuating list.
Q: Is there a poet — or poem — that it seems everyone loves but you?
A: I can’t think of one.
Q: If you had to strip your library of all books but one, which poetry collection would remain?
A: If I had to let that much beauty go, I might well let it all go. This might be the only way to face such a catastrophe. What would I have the most difficulty parting with? The books of my spouse, his letters, and the books and letters of my friends, many of whom are poets; scores by Purcell, Haydn, Schubert and Mozart; the fragments of Herakleitos, Plato’s dialogues; Rumi in translation; Woolf’s essays; Donne; Ansel Adams’ photographs. If the house were burning down, probably the thing that I would grab on reflex would be my violin.
Q: Is there a poem you consider the best you’ve ever written?
Q: Do you write for the reader or for yourself?
A: When I write, I’m attempting to do justice to something I have glimpsed about the world. Who knows if my perception has been accurate; and I make no claims to success for the work. But in the moment, I’m aware neither of myself nor of others — writing, for me, is more like mathematics, an attempt to get something right.
Q: What’s the most common misconception people have about poetry?
A: I don’t know. “Poetry” is no single thing. Is it a misconception to say, “Anybody can write poetry! It’s easy!”? Depends on whether you mean it’s easy to set pen to paper and express yourself, easy to rhyme “telephone” with “home alone,” or easy to write something with the intensity and sophistication of Bishop’s “One Art.” Is it a misconception to say, “Poetry is difficult and obscure”? Ezra Pound’s Cantos surely are difficult and obscure. Is it a misconception to say, “Poetry these days is just prose laid out funny on the page”? Clearly some of what gets published as poetry is indeed that — Carson has claimed as much for some of her own work. Most of the candidates for “misconception” that I can think of turn out to have contexts in which they don’t seem like misconceptions. How to evaluate which of these gets most commonly asserted in contexts where they aren’t plausible, I don’t know.
Q: Who, among living poets, is most likely to still be read 100 years from now?
A: Here, we can speak only in the most general terms. Global warming, overpopulation, crumbling infrastructures in the West and the ramping up of resource extraction are going to result in cataclysmic change. Human societies of some sort will likely still exist 100 years from now, but it is far from clear that they will be literate. Of course they will have songs and stories — humans will always make art with words — but I don’t think we can predict what, if anything, of the West’s literary culture will survive.
Q: How will poetry have changed 100 years from now?
A: We have entered a period of major cultural and ecological collapse. But we are in the middle of it — well, actually, in the first stages of it. We really have no idea what the world, or human institutions, will look like in 2112.
Q: What are you working on these days?
A: Growing food; the first violin part of Brahms’ string quintet Op. 88; environmental politics; two collections of poems and some essays.
Jan Zwicky has led poetry workshops and taught in writing and philosophy programs across Canada. She has published six volumes of poetry, including Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, which won Canada’s Governor General’s Award, Robinson’s Crossing, Thirty-Seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences and, most recently, Griffin Prize nominee Forge.
Join Jan Zwicky for Poetry & Contemplation on October 8-13, 2017 on Cortes Island, BC.